Johnny B. Goode

So, life at 249 Norton was underway that October of 1973. By the middle of the month, Howie had moved in with me, taking a rather eventful route by way of Belmond, Iowa, allegedly abandoning his car behind the huge grain elevator there after having a bit of a mishap. Hmm...concrete curbs and oil pans don't mix, apparently. Well it was just as well. No car, even a gigantic Mercury, should be painted the color of mucous.

It was a beautiful, crisp autumn, with the two of us promptly initiating an indolent lifestyle to make the most of it. I was a sophomore in college, still studying Spanish in those days, but other than school I lounged about at home, reading my fool head off. Besides all of the usual esoterica, that was the start of my ambitious agenda to tackle great books of the Western world. I read Dickens, Thackeray, Dante, Milton, Blake, Collins, Doyle, Aristotle, Plato, Boswell, Dostoyevsky...it went on and on. The future seemed so endless in those days, so much to discover, so much to read. I will never understand how someone can utter: "I'm bored." I've heard that catchphrase from my students before and was always bewildered. Quite the contrary, my plaint has always been: "When will I find time?"

Come October 26, Howie and I walked to campus, for we had heard that a rock and roll band was to perform on the open mall. When we got there, an enormous crowd had congregated. The band was set up by the side of the Student Union, fairly close to the water fountain, encircled by the hideous Gruter monstrosities. Hundreds of students surrounded the group all the way back to the other buildings.


It was Spiff Cool and the Keen-o-Jets.


This was a fifties revival type band destined to have a major impact on my life because of the one important person it introduced me to. That day it was configured as a four piece, featuring Spiff on guitar, Riff on bass, Peggy Sue on keyboards and Sticks on drums. To avoid confusion, this was the original Sticks, not the one who later became famous in the East Side Pharaohs.


Howie and I got a great kick out of the orchestra. They were very rough around the edges musically, but looked great in their hilarious costuming. More importantly, the jokes and humorous bits were outlandish, foul and in poor taste. I recollect turning to Howie as we stood amidst the mob on the steps of Armstrong Hall, vowing, "Now
that's the sort of band I'd like to be in!" Howie concurred. The rest of the crowd varied in their approval, since the double entendres concerning aroused male body parts upset sundry genteel patrons.

The band got a decent enough write-up in
The Reporter. It's worth your time to peruse it just for giggles. Here's a link which will take you to a scan of the rag. Start with the front page picture, then head to page 4 for the review. The critic did a pretty good job of describing the performance, much as I remember it.


After the show, Howie and I walked back home to 249 Norton Street, talking of rock and roll the whole way, wondering what it would take to get in a band like that.


Come January 1, we decided to welcome the New Year with a night on the town. Specifically, Howie and I spent the evening at the Ratskeller, a sleazy nightclub with a reputation as a babe magnet. Lo and behold! The entertainment that night was Spiff Cool and the Keen-o-Jets. I noted that the drummer was different. As it turns out, that would be a perpetual pattern, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Musically, things hadn't improved much, although I could usually discern what the tunes were supposed to be. But with regard to the bits, well, the gang really cut loose that night. Working indoors within a more intimate setting, the band was able to incorporate all sorts of props: mannequins, bananas, Applause-o-Meters, and more. The jokes were not far removed from the caliber you would expect of The Fugs, Rusty Warren, or Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts. Of particular note were the references to oral sex during Teen Angel that night. You might remember that maudlin song by Mark Dinning.

Once more, I was so envious I could burst.


Howie and I finished off the night by hustling a couple nice girls, one of whom, Sharon, I became quite fond of and met for walks a number of times. She, Winnie and I had an amazing experience together at Trafton Hall I'll just have to write up some day. I really liked Sharon; she was straight as an arrow, not at all into my hippie existence, but absolutely non-judgemental. Her roommate at the Crawford girls dormitory, on the other hand, could only see sin in the world and was very vocal about it. That girl definitely put a crimp in our style and made me think of the quote from H. L. Mencken:

Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.
But back to Howie and me: we spent the next several months doing our usual things: playing board games in the morning while watching kiddie breakfast programs on the tube, me attending classes and studying, Howie not accomplishing much of anything otherwise as far as I could tell. But then again, as roommates go, I still knew very little about him. He was skilled at baking pastries every now and then, however, when the spirit moved him.

Given his lack of application, the cash started to dry up for Howie. By February or so, things were dire, and so he enlisted in the Army, training down in Georgia, I believe. Time for some new roommates, and it would have been around then that Rog-Baby and I were reunited after the previous six month hiatus. Joining us was Ron the Swinger, an interesting chap who worked the night shift at the foundry, coming home each morning blackened by soot and dead tired. Man, those Polaroid stills he made us take of him, just to snag some group sex at the Brainerd Speedway were something!

Some time in April, I noticed an advertisement in The Reporter:
Band looking for guitarist, bassist, organist, saxophonist and drummer. I am a singer.
Strange wording, but I gave it a call to see what was what. Can you believe it? On the other end of the horn was Spiff Cool! Now about that phraseology: I didn't find out until much later, but it turns out his bandmates couldn't stand the guy, and all bailed out en masse. Moreover, again not discovered for some months, drummers had the nasty predilection of wanting to kill Spiff.

We arranged for an audition. When I arrived with my 1957 Les Paul Junior at a house in the western part of town, awaiting me was Spiff on guitar, Guts on bass and Angelo on drums. I was vaguely familiar with Guts from a half year earlier when he fixed my old Heathkit amplifier, but had never met Spiff or Angelo. It's been so long ago now, but I think the house we assembled at belonged to the latter's grandmother.

We ran through some typical Elvis songs, a little Chuck Berry, a bit of Danny and the Juniors, even a tune by Hank Williams. After a few hours Spiff hired us all at once. It seemed like magic at the time, but soon it became clear that desperation might be a more appropriate word.


Now Spiff had a really neat little Gibson Melody Maker, but his accomplishment on the instrument left a bit to be desired. In my typical courteous and diplomatic fashion for which I've always been well known, I suggested, "You know Spiff, you're too good of a showman to hide behind the guitar. Why don't you put it away and become the front man, and I'll get us another guitarist to take up the slack."


With his ever grandiose ego, he fell for it, hook, line and sinker. Prevarication in a good cause has never troubled me.


So that night, I got on the phone and somehow managed to locate Howie at his Army base during an off moment. "Howie, guess what! I got both of us into Spiff Cool and the Keen-o-Jets. Is there any way you can bring your military career to an end and get back here pronto? Our first gig is in ten days."


Rather remarkably, he was able to accomplish that aim and get discharged with alacrity; delicacy prevents me from indicating how he swung it; damn, I so hate being gentlemanly on this blog. I had the luxury of those ten days in which to learn the sixty new songs (new to me, at any rate), but it took Howie a while to get back up north from his soldiering. He wound up with a measly three days to master the material after returning to all the comforts of 249 Norton Street.


But we were on the road! Our first gig, procured by means of a nefarious agent from Minneapolis, was in Coleraine, right in the heart of the iron mining district. It was an alarming experience which perhaps I'll describe more fully later on, and no, we didn't perform Stand by Your Man, but weren't very far off from doing so. In the meanwhile, let's just leave it at: the drummer and now the tavern manager both wanted to commit homicide, the rest of us not far behind. Ah, Spiff... 


We drank our entire earnings that weekend, leaving behind a pile of green bottles (all thanks to Gallo)  at the motel in nearby Grand Rapids that you simply wouldn't have believed. No kidding. The trash bin in the room was easily heaped four feet high when we left. One gig down, now on to superstardom.

By this time, I had met the infamous Kay, whom I've depicted in an earlier entry--she was a wildcat. It was only natural Kay would travel with us. In fact, by the time we were using a larger panel truck, she took over the driving duties, being quite familiar with big vehicles.


Somehow we survived the Iron Range, and coming up was a week-long gig in Hull, Iowa, at a terraced night club of some sort. We were sponsored by Olympia beer that week, and so got all sort of jackets, towels, coolers and other items sporting that company's logo. Well, sort of...Spiff hoarded most of the stuff for himself, leaving but a few trinkets for the rest of us. He always made us feel like equals, don't you know. I don't remember much about the actual performances (apart from a local bumpkin in the crowd drunker than us whom we dubbed "Hamburger Lips")  but do recall our time off during the days. We had rented some farmer's cabin outside of town for the duration. It sported a couple bedrooms, a kitchenette and a living room, but the areas were only separated by three-quarters-high walls with open transoms. In other words, one could hear everything throughout the cabin, indeed could even toss things across to the adjoining room. Toss is probably not the best verb, should you be a Brit...


During those warm summer days, Kay and I read, in between numerous religious experiences (with surcease only brought on finally by multiple abrasions to the elbows) while Angelo and Spiff brought mitts and played catch out front. I should mention that Angelo was very muscular and a superb pitcher. He deliberately burned the hardball into Spiff's mitt, I feel certain, with the intent of injuring him. It had already started...remember what I said about Spiff and drummers? The rest of us had to endure listening to repeated shrieks of "Ow!" And yet, he always laughed after the sting went away, not figuring out what was dead obvious to rest of the Jets.

Kay and I got one of the bedrooms, naturally, and proceeded to make...well...noise. I would love to tell you what got hurled over the transom into Guts' area, but I've promised to keep this account wholesome and clean, clean, clean for the entire family, as Ed Sanders might put it.


Guts quit the band immediately at the end of the engagement. His wife had something (well, okay, everything) to do with that decision.


That's great...we had another decent paying gig staring us in the face, this time at the Caledonia, and now we were lacking a bassist. What to do?


At the somber council we held, I asked Spiff, "What about Riff? Would he be willing to come back?" Spiff replied without providing much detail that he didn't think so. There apparently was some sort of bad blood there. But I persisted and said, "What if I were to talk to him first?" Spiff seemed doubtful, but gave the go-ahead.

back: Riff, Spiff, Howie; front: Studs, Angelo
Somehow I arranged to get together with Riff, and explained the situation to him. He also watched us rehearse a little bit. He eventually arrived at the conclusion the band was at least attempting to become a little more musical, and of course both Howie and I could sing, too, which meant we could take on more complex pieces. So, Riff, the original bass player and one of the founders of Spiff Cool and Keen-o-Jets came back.

And that's how I met Riff Andrews, one of the best friends I've ever had in this crazy life. He and I have been through so much together over these forty years that it would fill a hundred blogs.

Next installment: A Minnesota Calling Card

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