Shoot-out at the C-U corral

According to the book The Countess and the Mob by Maureen Hughes, some of Champaign’s noted families (Robeson and Davis) helped keep Champaign wet during Prohibition. Another name connected with gangsters were the Sansones, an 11-member family born in Sicily that had immigrated through Ellis Island before settling in Champaign.

Michael Sansone’s profitable taffy concession stand was kept at Crystal Lake when it wasn’t touring the summer county fairs, while his brother Henry’s popcorn wagon was parked near the Virginia Theater. That popcorn had the most amazing taste and I’m sure many others tried to coax out the secret ingredient to no avail.

Local lawyer Julius Hirshfeld was one of Henry’s regular customers and Henry’s stories of pheasant hunting on his property somehow spread through Hirshfeld all the way to Al Capone, and thus began the annual pheasant hunting pilgrimages to the Sansone property just outside Champaign.

According to local legend, sometimes Capone and his boys would rent out the entire Turk’s Head rather than drive back to Chicago. The other option was booking the top three floors at the fanciest hotel in Champaign, located across the street from the train station. Turk’s Head may have used by his crew when they wanted to keep a low profile while in town, as the police station and newspaper office were all clustered within a block of that train station, while Turk’s Head was buried in campus-town.

Henry realized that setting up hunting trips could be quite lucrative and decided to expand his hunting schedule to include George Bugs Moran, an enemy of Capone. This shouldn’t have been a problem, writes Hughes, Sansone scheduled Moran and his boys on opposite weekends from when Capone was down.

This would have worked well, except the scheduling was done by word of mouth, and one weekend the dates got mixed up. One particular Saturday when Moran was hunting, three black cars pulled up two hours later, and five men got out, including Al Capone. Everyone was dressed in hunting gear, so it was hard to positively identify anyone. By mid-morning, the men from both gangs were just two or three hundred feet apart when one of Capone’s men asked why Moran was there.

That’s all it took for the shooting to start.

Both gangs retreated to their cars, and several had to lie in the back seats all the way to Chicago because they had lead shot in their rear ends. So ended the hunting trips to Champaign.

MacBird!: little-known masterpiece of counterculture literature

After JFK was assassinated, the country went into deep shock. Very few people wanted to dwell on the event, or even consider evidence of CIA involvement. In fact, the mood of the country was similar to the post 9/11 environment, which left many people unable and unwilling to consider alternative conspiracy theories other than Osama bin Laden did it.

In any major crime, however, the key is to examine who benefited, and nobody benefited more from the JFK assassination than Lyndon Baines Johnson, an intensely corrupt politician who knew about the event in advance, although he certainly lacked sufficient power to pull it off on his own. In fact, had JFK not been assassinated, Johnson would likely have been jailed due to an ongoing investigation into bribes he’d accepted, a story that wouldn’t fully surface until after his death.

Barbara Garson was a leader in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. In August of 1965, she was speaking at an anti-war rally in Berkeley, when she called the new First Lady: “Lady MacBird Johnson.” This slip-of-the-tongue inspired Garson to write a Shakespearean parody based around the Kennedy assassination and the first staged reading of this masterpiece of counterculture literature actually occurred at the Channing-Murray Foundation run by the Unitarian Church in Urbana, Illinois, an event that cemented that church as the beachhead for the blossoming anti-war movement in central Illinois.

The lead character of MacBird was played by none other than my cohort at the time, Brian Ravlin, who I’d first met when he appeared in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Urbana Junior High with my brother, Paul.  Brian had dropped out of high school and gone to San Francisco in search of Bugsy’s brother Don. When he reappeared in Urbana a year later, he seemed an entirely new person.

A few days before the show opened, Brian dropped by the high school to visit me and a cheerleader girl squirted him in the face with a squirt gun as a joke. Brian had a huge Afro-like haircut and immense, shaggy sideburns at the time (see picture above). In fact, he was probably the most wildly-flamboyant counterculture character in Champaign-Urbana at the time, although Carl Ellis (Old Carlo) would soon surpass Brian in that regard.

Anyway, Brian laughed and gave that girl a little spank on her rear with a spiral notebook he was holding, either his latest poetry or notes for his script. Smitty’s son might have been the girl’s boyfriend, they certainly ran with the same crowd, for when he saw Brian slap her butt, he just reared back and blindsided Brian with a sucker punch to the face that knocked Brian off his feet and landed him flat on his back. The teacher quickly rushed Smitty’s son into the classroom and started class as if nothing had happened. I don’t remember much of what followed, other than I went into a slow-boiling rage because nothing was being done since Smitty (the football coach) was the most powerful figure in school. Brian went home and his mom took him to the hospital to get him checked out.

Like most people at the time, I was also having trouble thinking about CIA involvement in the Kennedy assassination. A few others around me were already deep into the citizen research movement (which is the real reason we know the truth today; the government has done nothing but cover-up the trails). But I was stunned by this staged reading, and immediately accepted the transparent truth that life is a giant wheel and the same stories go round and round. Suddenly it was clear the Macbeth tragedy was obviously being played out with new characters in our own time. After watching the show, it became difficult not to become a citizen researcher and I started reading everything I could find on the assassination.

And who do you think played the character of Ken O’Dunc? Why, none other than Eric Swenson, founder of the Finchley Boys, who helped spark the local garage rock movement and then had drifted into acting. In fact, Eric was probably the best actor in the production and was playing the Kennedy role because he could do a perfect JFK imitation, Boston accent and all. Eric had always worshiped Kennedy and no one was more depressed about the assassination than he. Eric even had a portrait of JFK on the wall in his house. I’d already started my own underground newspaper after getting kicked out of the Knight Riders for taking LSD (only a few months later, my former band members turned into huge pot-heads and acid freaks…they even offered to let me back into the band, but I’d already moved on).

“The performance was directed by Iva Martirano,” recalls Judith Lewis, who played one of the witches. “She founded the Roundhouse Players and staged a number of other avant-gardish productions using Urbana High and U of I students. She was the wife of Salvatore Martirano who was a composer of electronic music on the faculty with John Cage.”

I recently went back to take a look at MacBird and rediscovered its brilliance. I think it’d be a popular play today if not for the ending: Bobby Kennedy avenges his brother’s death. In the script, Ted Kennedy appears with a cast on his arm and Garson makes it clear the Kennedy’s believe Johnson is trying to have them killed as well. Little did we know Bobby would go down within a few years.

For the most part, the script is written in Shakespearean couplets and many of the longer speeches are modern adaptations of Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquies. The characters dress in modern suits, except for a colorful plume in their fedoras and tiny toy swords affixed to their waists. Eventually, MacBird became a huge hit on Broadway, launching the career of Stacy Keach.

I kinda wish Garson would revisit this project and update the script with the latest revelations. Certainly the trio of James Angleton, Bill Harvey and Johnny Roselli would make a wonderful addition as primary instigators and eventual assassins. The trio should be forced to keep killing more and more people, and eventually even Roselli, to keep a lid on the conspiracy.

Allen Dulles and J Edgar Hoover would be the masters of the coverup. Kennedy’s conflict with the Texas oil cowboys as well as the Eastern Federal Reserve need to be spelled out. And, of course, Johnson must voluntarily give up the throne (and then watch Bobby Kennedy get killed by a Dulles-Angleton goon anyway). In the end, MacBird goes back to the ranch in a deep depression and dies relatively young while tremendously unhappy.

Our local production of MacBird was a transforming event in central Illinois and one I still think about. We already had John Cage producing his greatest happenings in our town, I was running the biggest counterculture publication in downstate Illinois at the age of 17, and the Finchley Boys were rapidly becoming one of the most famous garage bands in the State.

But we also had some leaders on the other side of the fence, including the mysterious Professor Revilo P. Oliver, whose name spells the same both ways, and who was the leading pundit of the John Birch Society at the time, the first person to announce a conspiracy coverup in the JFK assassination within days of the event, and a person who probably should have been fired from the University for anti-Jewish rantings, but never was. In Revilo’s world view, the Jews were behind the Communists, who were behind everything else, including the shadow government. Today, I view the John Birch Society as an intelligence operation, not a legitimate citizen’s group, just based on their controversial history and heavy involvement in obvious disinfo. Revilo would eventually split from the Birch Society and join the violent White Power movement, undoubtedly another intelligence op.

In another weird twist, Johnny Roselli, one of JFK’s assassins, was passing through town frequently at the time to visit his lover, owner of the Champaign-Urbana News Gazette, a newspaper I worked for on week-ends to make pocket money.

I just wish Garson (or someone else) would come up with a play like MacBird only about 9/11 because we sure need something to break down the walls of resistance to truth that have been erected to protect the guilty.

(Excerpted from Magic, Religion and Cannabis.)

Two Books Worth Checking Out

The Risk of Being Ridiculous by Guy Maynard got me interested in blogging about the 1960s. Maynard grew up in Urbana, Illinois, a year ahead of me, and was one of the leading figures in the garage-band movement that started around 1966. His book takes place in 1969 and really captures the intensity of the times. I gave it a rave review in High Times and it inspired me to dig up my own archives from the 1960s, especially a short story I wrote called “The Steam Tunnels.” I was surprised at how well my story had held up over the years. I’d forgotten most of the trauma I went through in the mid-’60s. People called it a “Generation Gap” but it was really a “Generation War.”

Well, there’s another novelist from my home town who wrote extensively about Carpenter and Cole, who (along with Guy and George Faber) had led the garage-rock movement in Central Illinois. Mandy Moores was actually one of my sister’s best friends in high school, and she ended up briefly married to Carp, and lived with him down in New Orleans when he and Cole were both deep-sea diving off oil platforms around the world. It was incredibly dangerous work, although the pay was pretty good.

Mandy’s book, Dream Palace, came out many years ago, but I just got around to reading it recently. Mandy’s brother, Brian, was the original drummer for my band, the Soul Assassins, as well as one of the drummers for a later incarnation of The Finchley Boys, the greatest garage band to emerge from Central Illinois. I’ve lost touch with both Brian and Mandy, so maybe this blog will bring them back into my orbits.

You can pick up a copy of Dream Palace for around a buck on Amazon. I kinda wish I could have helped Mandy edit this project, because she’s clearly a very talented writer. This first novel could have been something spectacular, on a similar level as Maynard’s book, but it has some flaws. For one, Mandy was a little too close to the subject when she wrote this, and had a lot of issues she was working out. Carp had a well-known anger-management problem, and we all knew you didn’t push his buttons unless you were looking for serious trouble. But Carp could also be a heroic figure, and this side of him is mostly missing. I also would have loved to have gotten more details on his garage band origins in Urbana, as well as more details on the dangers of deep-sea diving. For example, When Doug Blair got beat-up for making fun of the football coach (Smitty),  it was Carp who went after Frank Sowers to take revenge. Reading the book, I couldn’t believe how tough Mandy was, pushing Carp’s buttons big-time, forcing confrontations with him, and basically not taking any shit at all. Unfortunately, their marriage was doomed because they were headed in completely different directions. Mandy had a fairy-tale view on life when in high school. I remember her many paintings that evoked this magical dream life. The book does a good job of capturing this side of her personality, but her fairy tale turned bad when Carp started getting violent.

Bugsy’s not in the book far as I could tell, although he was also part of that New Orleans crew, working as a deep sea diver. Carp always had some major schemes going on. Mandy goes into great detail on his 50-foot sailboat that he overhauled and eventually took to Jamaica for a load of pot. Unfortunately, this trip coincided with an anti-smuggling campaign supervised by then-Vice President George Bush. On their way back to the Florida Keys with a boatload of ganja, Carp and Bugsy were unexpectedly intercepted by a fleet of warships that had been deployed to root out drug smugglers. With the Coast Guard bearing down on him, Carp went into action-mode, and tried to dump all the bales before they were intercepted. Unfortunately, he wasn’t fast enough and the Coast Guard was able to pull a bunch of the bales out of the water.

In a most amazing coincidence, the head prosecutor in Florida handling their case was none other than Ralph Hersey, who’d been a columnist for my underground paper, The Tin Whistle. I tried to recruit all the best writers in my high school and Ralph had been suggested by one of the English teachers. Ralph was a good counterpoint to Charlie Gerron. They were both black, but Charlie was angry and confrontational, while Ralph was the model of common sense and morality. We also had a great poet in our class, Jim Guthrie, and I remember going to Jim’s house and trying to recruit him. Jim took one look at the first issue of The Tin Whistle, however, and decided it wasn’t for him. His work was considerably more mature than what most of us were doing at the time and Jim would go on to win many poetry awards in the 1970s.

The Monks of Mayhem

I already told you about how Iving Azoff—the most powerful person in the music industry—got his start as Bob Nutt’s associate at Blytham, Ltd., in Urbana, Illinois, in 1967.  (And thanks to an original Blytham business card sent-in by Guy Maynard, we now know Irv had a short-lived predecessor in that role named Dan Dailey.)

Gary Pini is another important character in this story, and he too would eventually rise to great heights in the record industry, producing dance music singles and early rap records. The photo shows Gary on the Quad at the University of Illinois. In the background you can see the round building we used to sneak into via the Steam Tunnels that ran underneath the entire University campus (see my book, 1966). Gary is the one who took me to see the John Cage installation at the Stock Pavilion.

Gary was going out with Caroline, who lived in a house at 1003 South Third Street with three other girls (Paula, Elke and Claudia), one of whom was an occasional lover of Jim Cole’s, which is why Cole spent a lot of time at that house.

John McNaughton

Cole’s brother had an immaculate used Cadillac with minor issues parked in the driveway. After a few beers, Cole’d go into Destructo-Mania and jump out the second floor window onto the hood or roof or trunk, inflicting as much damage as possible with his booted feet. A sledge hammer often played a role in this game and the car was soon transformed into a worthless pile of junk. Bob Brandel removed the dashboard for use in an art class but flunked that project. “Why are you in school?” asked his professor. John McNaughton had a similar art class and the moldy mattress he pulled out of the Boneyard Creek so disgusted his professor that McNaughton flunked his assignment. But those two practically unknown masterpieces now constitute perhaps the finest examples of the short-lived Destructo-Mania Art Movement and would probably sells for millions at Sotheby’s if anyone could find them.

Bob Brandel

Destructo-Mania had to end, however, since that particular lifestyle is not really sustainable. But it sure went out in a blaze of glory. A bunch of people were tripping and drinking beer late one night when Tony Byrnes sat in a chair and it broke accidentally, spilling him onto the floor. Everyone froze for a second and then broke into laughter and couldn’t stop. This accident had a somewhat inspirational impact on Cole, who pretty soon smashed the nearest object with his foot. Of course, this produced gales more laughter and it sort of escalated out-of-control from there. In order to keep the laughter going, objects were ceremoniously brought into the center of the room and ritualistically sacrificed. This was Destructo-Mania of the highest and most spiritual power. No object was spared by these Destructo Monks. The girls ran around in a frenzy, moving their sacred pieces into rooms under their control, trying to save whatever they could. Small things like cups and dishes went quickly, obviously, but then even the largest pieces of furniture were eventually stomped into submission by the Monks of Mayhem. And before you knew it, virtually everything in the house was turned into a broken pile of junk on the living room carpet! At this point the Grandmaster of Mayhem himself, Jim Cole stood atop this glorious pile of destruction, armed with a jack-knife and matches delivering the final coup-de-grace, some by sword, others by fire. By this time, however, dawn was breaking and the girls were teary-eyed, so weary were they from trying to hold back the Monks. No longer could they feed this sacred fire of destruction, as there was nothing left to destroy. So they decided to help clean-up the mess they’d created and dragged the carpet with all the junk out the kitchen door and into the backyard.

Jim Cole and his chopper.

This house was surrounded on all sides by the most clean-cut fraternities and sororities. In fact, the backyard was really a huge park used by fraternities for touch football games and frisbee throwing. The carpet was dragged to the center of this immaculate field where Cole set the mess on fire. I don’t know if the Fire Department ever arrived, but I’m sure the neighbors must have wondered where that huge smouldering pile of junk came from when they woke up hours later. The next weekend, I’d kick an empty beer bottle, trying to set off another round of Destructo-Mania, but the girls threw me up against the wall, threatened to punch me out, and announced the next person who tried to break anything was getting tossed out permanently. It was the end of Destructo-Mania.

Another detail completely missing in all ’60s films and docs: many of us were riding the new super-cheap Jap bikes. You could get a used 50cc model for $50. Here’s Cole (above) with his chopper. Larry and I had similar bikes, as did a few others in our scene.

(Excerpted from Magic, Religion and Cannabis.)

 

Birth of Destructo-Mania

Bob Nutt (wearing hat).

Bob Nutt threw a famous New Year’s eve party in 1967, sort of a celebration of the fantastic success Blytham Ltd. was experiencing with their two main acts, The Finchley Boys and the Seeds of Doubt. There were cases and cases of champagne available, a real rock’n’roll blow-out. Nutt had basically cornered the market on garage bands in central Illinois and was forcing most of the venues to book only his bands exclusively.

Guy Maynard got into a discussion about “hangups” and decided to take off his clothes as a political statement. He walked around the party naked encouraging others to cast off their mental slavery and join his nudity.

Everyone assumed he was drunk out-of-mind, but within a few months some of those same dudes would be streaking through campus while high on LSD as a political statement. Like I said, Guy was always ahead of the rest of us.

Meanwhile, down in the basement, Cole discovered a hammer and spots a bunch of empty glass bottles. He turns into a robot machine and starts saying the words “destructo-mania.” But everytime he says the words, he robotically smashes a glass bottle with his hammer. Eventually, the host, Bob Nutt comes downstairs, sees what’s going on, starts laughing and is soon joining Cole in this new game called Destructo-Mania.

Jim Cole, leader of The Finchley Boys.

It was the birth of the Destructo-Mania craze that overtook the twin cities for a few months, at least in our scene, but the apex of Destructo-Mania would not take place for over a year, and then it would be at the infamous house on Third Street where almost all the greatest parties of the decade took place.

Battle of the Bands

Even better than seeing a Finchley Boys’ concert was seeing the Finchley’s battle the one other famous garage band in town, the Seeds of Doubt, fronted by Urbana High senior Guy Maynard, a very influential figure in the twin cities in the late ’60s. I really need a higher resolution jpeg of this flyer for their first public encounter. Even at this resolution, however, I can tell this picture is priceless, revealing a very young Jim Cole, and somewhat more mature-looking Guy Maynard facing off, with their bands behind them. Within a few months Cole would have his growth spurt and morph into the local version of Bob Dylan/Mick Jagger rolled into one.

Guy was way ahead of most of us on a lot of fronts. He deplored the whole jock/longhair terminology, for example, as he knew the words contributed to the polarization taking place, a polarization that would erupt in violence in the fall of 1967, and grow worse the next semester following the Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination.

Funny, though, Guy had been a known conservative,and stanch supporter of Barry Goldwater his last year in junior high, but when he moved to high school, he suddenly started looking and acting a lot like Brian Jones! Guy was following the first garage band in the twin cities, most, if not all of whom, were from Champaign Central High School. They were doing a version of “Gloria” before the Shadows of Knight, and Guy was their biggest fan. Eventually the band decided they wanted Guy to be their lead singer, and that’s when they came up with the name “Seeds of Doubt.”

Goddess with the Dark Hair

Chris Swing.

Despite her many accomplishments, Mary Shirley did have competition for greatest garage-rock goddess of Urbana, 1967, and that competition was a dark-haired beauty named Chris Swing.

I was walking down the hall one day when Chris and George Faber bumped into each other unexpectedly and began having an animated conversation with their immense sexual auras in full power.

Man, everybody in that hall just stopped what they were doing and froze in place so we could concentrate on what those two were saying. That was the main difference between junior high and high school, the sexual hormones were bouncing off the walls once you got to high school.

And having the Finchley Boys, the greatest garage band in the state, in my high school was a lot of like having the Rolling Stones hanging around all the time. Their charisma was that strong.

But the charisma coming off Mary Shirley and Chris Swing was just as powerful! I didn’t dare to speak to either one, as they were both way out of my league, although Chris was going steady with my bass teacher at the time, Jim Brewer.

I got completely plastered drinking beers in the parking lot at the Tiger’s Den one night. I’d just heard that Carole had driven off in some sports car with some rock’n’roll upper-class-man, and tried to drink myself into oblivion.

Jim found me passed out in the alley. Chris got down on the ground and put my head in her lap to comfort me. That’s how I woke up…with Chris stroking my hair, telling me how cute I looked.

At first, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. But then I woke up and got really embarrassed. Chris wanted Jim to drive me home, but I waved them off and started hoofing it back to Delaware Street. When the sun came up hours later, I woke up again, passed out in somebody’s lawn half-way home.

Funny how Chris Swing lived out in the country, just a few blocks from me and the Shirley’s. Her mom Pat, remains a stunning beauty to this day, defying any effects of age whatsoever. Pat makes 80 look like the new 30. She had two daughters, but the little one wasn’t on my radar in 1967, although that would eventually change.

Not Like Everybody Else

Jim Cole stopped by Eric Swenson’s house and discovered this clean-cut kid (Mark Warwick) with a red guitar playing Beatles, Stones and Animals songs with Eric accompanying on drums. Since Cole already had experience singing along to some of these records in his bedroom, using a hairbrush for a mic, he convinced the two to start a band with him as the lead singer. Mark soon enlisted another guitar player (Steve Dyson) and a bass player (Tim Anderson) both of whom went to high school in Champaign.

According to legend as I know it, Tim was singing “Hey, Joe,” during a very early rehearsal when he started channeling some deep force inside. It’s a song about a murder, and Tim lost himself completely while rampaging through the house, standing on furniture and jumping around. It may have been the first inclination that these young kids actually had the power to become a real rock’n’roll force. Once Tim stepped up to the plate, others would quickly follow. Eric was at the end of a tortured love affair, having just been dumped, and he wrote a weepy ballad begging this girl to come back. Cole played drums on that one.

Right away, people who were dropping by began to take notice. Among the first were George Faber and Larry Tabling, who offered to build speakers for a PA system. They volunteered to be roadies on the spot. George had already tried to start a band with his friend Bob Carpenter, but Eric’s outfit was clearly on another level. Eventually, a student at the University named Bob Nutt came by to hear the band, and volunteered to be their manager after hearing one song. He booked their first gig in front of the Co-Ed movie theater on Green Street. I don’t know if they got paid, they were set-up on the sidewalk, and everyone was really nervous, but it was a huge success. Cole had tremendous sexual charisma, even at the age of 16 and clearly had the makings of a rock star. Eric, however, did not like the gig, and was not up for the rigors and realities of being in a band. He just didn’t have the personality, and his moods could be a big stumbling block, so Nutt quickly located the best high school drummer in town to replace him, Michael Powers.

Unfortunately, Tim was the next to go. I guess his grades weren’t that good so his dad made him quit as soon as it became obvious the Finchley Boys were going to take off. I’m sure that must have crushed Tim. But that opened the door for Larry Tabling to step in on bass.

The name of the band was lifted off the back of a Kinks album. (The original Finchley Boys were a street-gang in England who got into fights with the early Kinks.) That’s Jim Cole (above) in 1967, at one of the early gigs. His version of the Kinks’ “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” became the signature song of the group, and Cole sang it with a lot of passion. The lyrics spoke directly to all of us on the front lines of a Generation War that was already in full effect.

True Origins of the Finchley Boys

I might never have met Eric Swenson if my big brother Paul hadn’t decided to learn to play the cello. My mom wanted Paul to have the best teacher possible, so pretty soon he was going over to the Swenson’s house for lessons, where he discovered his teacher (a member of the famous Walden Quartet) had a son his age also attending Urbana Junior High.

Eric and Paul joined the Dramatics Club that year and got speaking roles in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The star of that production, however, was Brian Ravlin, who at age 13 was already an elfin creature from another dimension perfectly cast as Puck.

But talent-wise Eric towered over everyone; he matured faster and developed his immense artistic energies in multiple directions at once. Unfortunately, Eric’s mom was bipolar (long before any of us knew what that word meant—we just called ’em “crazy” back then.) She also had a serious drinking problem. She’d stay up all night several nights in a row, then go bonkers eventually and start banging pots and pans at 3 AM just to annoy Eric’s dad.

Eric told me he and his dad got so pissed they urinated on her while she was passed out on the couch after one of these all-night sessions. Eric laughed when he told the story.

She disappeared one day, and you thought things would get better, but Eric quickly inherited the illness from his mom, going into rages, smashing everything in sight.

He wasn’t like this often, just an hour or two every three months or so. His father padlocked his bedroom and let the rest of the house turn to total shit. The sink was filled with the same dirty dishes for months on end. Most of the other interior doors were broken off their hinges. You understood the depth of Eric’s demons when you realized he could tear a door out of its frame. Eric stopped going to school and started eating all his meals at the local diner, Mel Roots, where his father covered the tab.

Eric had a life we all envied, following his every fantasy wherever it led, staying up as late as he wanted, doing whatever he pleased all the time. The nearby University of Illinois provided a lot of stimulus for him to explore. He was a rising star in the local community theater at 15, playing roles twice his age with ease.

He developed a comic alter-ego named Swafford, named after a detested math teacher at Urbana Junior High. (Many years later, I’d stumble onto Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry, the pioneering work of absurdist theater and realize Ubu Roi was an exact replica of Swafford–right down to being based on a middle-school teacher of Jarry’s).

Eric invented incredibly complex Swafford routines and acted them out in Swafford’s inimitable voice, elements of which were influenced by The Three Stooges. Some of these were so popular we made Eric perform them over and over, and they got more complex and more hilarious the more he worked on them. One of the grand episodes concerned a foreign-exchange student coming over to Swafford’s house for Thanksgiving, but when the turkey came out of the oven, Swafford’s immense greed was instantly activated and he quickly turns on the student in a rage rather than share his food. I remember snot flying out Swafford’s nose after he removed the imaginary turkey from the imaginary oven, smelled the aroma, and then flipped into a paranoid frenzy.

Swafford was the sort of character who’d stare you in the eye and say “the sun is shining” when it was pouring outside. You couldn’t trust a word he spoke and Swafford was always hustling some con-job.

When the Beatles arrived, Eric had become an instant fan. He liked Ringo the best, so he got a set of drums long before any of the rest of us had real rock instruments. One night in 1966 at the Tiger’s Den, Eric was watching a local band with Mark Warwick, when they both discovered they were practicing to Beatles’ records at home on their own. They decided to get together the next day at Eric’s. They were both 15. It was the beginning of the Finchley Boys, who would eventually become the most famous garage band of central Illinois, although Eric’s participation would end after just one gig.