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.

Carp Joins the Knight Riders

John Hayes was one of the tallest kids in my class. In fact, I think he and Harvey Treat were the tallest dudes their age for a brief time, having gotten their growth spurts early, although Harvey was built like a rock and John had chicken legs like me. It was debatable who was more handsome, Harvey’s young John Wayne or Hayes’ young Kirk Douglas.

Hayes was blonde and had this amazing chin dimple. He lived on Delaware Street, right down the block from me, so I guess it was inevitable we’d hang out at some point. But after he formed the Knight Riders and I saw their debut at the Urbana Junior High sock hop, I made it a point to start dropping by. They had opened their three-song performance with “Get Off My Cloud,” and since Knight played organ, and was dominating the sound, I didn’t even recognize the song. I just knew these 15-year-old kids were blasting real rock energy as pure as anything I’d ever heard. In fact, I think if the Stones had been there, they would have put an organ in their version as well, because it really fit the dynamics of the song.

Hayes was highly entertaining and always had brand new records to listen to. (He appears as a composite character in my book from the front-lines of the Generation War, 1966, written when the battles were still fresh.)

One day Hayes played “Talk, Talk” by the Music Machine. We both loved the song and the black leather look of the band. Almost from day one, Hayes was encouraging me to get a bass guitar and amp, indicating I might be able to slide into the Knight Riders, as he liked my style better than his founding bass player, Donnie Perrino.

I was so eager to get into a band I did exactly that, thanks to mom, who attended the auction at C.V. Loyd’s (one of the oldest music stores in the state), where we purchased a brand-new 1966 Gibson SG bass and amplifier for the staggering sum of $500. (Today that bass would be worth a hell of lot more, but I insanely sold it off for $100 while in Sweden, desperate for money.)  I removed the black-finger grip they put on all the SG bases back then, as I intended to play with a pick, and not a thumb and fingers like a lot of players were doing. The SG had come out recently, and it was a big departure from those huge Fender bases that had dominated the live-music scene for years. Light and super easy to play, anyone with moderate skills could sound like Jack Bruce!

Now why John had it in for Donnie Perrino, I had no idea, as Donnie was clearly the best musician in the Knight Riders and could probably play any of the instruments better than anyone else in the band. But John had some deep insecurities because, while he was fun, he could also be cruel and vicious, and he often made fun of Donnie behind his back, which is a big no-no if you want to have any decent chemistry in your band. At the time, the Knight Riders were even rehearsing at Donnie’s house and Donnie’s dad was a super-cool dude and a big force in Summer Youth Music, a highly-respected program a lot of us attended. In fact, Donnie’s dad Dan eventually created a hot jazz band called the Medicare 7,8 or 9, and they became a local legend.

Here’s Donnie in 1968, after he started his own group, Blues Weed. Tom Thady was the lead guitar and Donnie played a Hammond organ. Those two were awesome musicians.

But the last time we left this particular thread, Carp was on his way to give Frank Sowers a beating, and a bunch of us were following right behind. Carp knocked on the Sower’s front door and Frank answered. Carp asked him to come out on the sidewalk as they had something to discuss.

Recalls Jim Cole: “Frank reluctantly came out of the house. Carp and I were facing him on his front lawn. The others that had come along were more of an audience than they were participants. There was a lot of tough guy woofing going on mainly between Sowers and myself. Suddenly Carp, who’d hardly said a word, sucker punched him with a right hook to the jaw. Frank flew back, knocked out, but still on his feet, barely. He ran/stumbled back to the front door and got back inside his house. Carp, myself and the rest on the entourage that were standing on the sidewalk got back into Carp’s car and one other car that was there and left the scene. Carp was a powder keg looking for a place to go off. We all knew that. Everyone in the car was grateful they were not on the receiving end of that punch.”

Carp sent a message to every jock in school: if they were going to pick on longhairs, like Smitty was obviously encouraging them to, then they’d have to deal with him. And not even Frank wanted to deal with Carp. Carp wasn’t like a normal person. When Carp got into a fight, it was like a click went off in his head, and he transformed into a creature from another dimension capable of monstrous violence. Once you saw that side of Carp in action, nobody, but nobody wanted to fuck with Carp.

John Knight.

Here’s the rest of the original Knight Riders, John Knight in 1964, before he grew long hair, and John Wilson in 1967, after he grew long hair.

To give you an idea of what “long hair” looked like in the fall of 1967, when we got back from summer vacation, (because that’s when all the longhairs really sprouted), Wilson’s blonde locks (left) were like really long at that time. Anything that went over the top of your ears was considered radical.

John Wilson.

Hayes had a real strict father, a lawyer, and devoted member of the John Birch Society (a real power in town since their leading propagandist was a professor at the University of Illinois), and Hayes had to grease his hair every morning and comb it straight back for breakfast with his dad. After he arrived at school, however, he’d wash the grease out in the boy’s room and put on his regular hair-do. Since three of the Knight Riders were named “John,” we usually addressed them by their last names. At some point, Hayes decided to get a lead singer, and he offered that position to Carp, and Carp gratefully accepted. But it wouldn’t take long for Hayes to realize he’d just lost control over his own band.

King of the Greasers

Frank Sowers.

Across the street from Urbana Junior High was the perfectly-named Hood’s Pharmacy, a one-story mini-mall with picture windows fronting an old-time soda fountain. Swivel stools, lots of chrome details, cherry cokes, and a rock’n’roll jukebox. It was your basic greaser heaven. I went in one afternoon after school, probably to pick up a candy bar, when I saw a greaser dude throw a dart right into another kid’s back, causing a greaser girl to scream, “what’s wrong with you?!” By the way, I don’t mean “greaser” as negative in any way. In England, that style is called “rockers,” and it’s your basic ’50s rock vibe and still exists today all around the world, centered on Elvis as the true Messiah. I stayed away from Hood’s after that. It was a hang-out for real hoods.

Urbana Lincoln Hotel (before the mall).

I was in the special class for trouble-makers and the most dangerous characters were in there with me, so I knew who not to fuck around with, starting with King of the Greasers, Frank Sowers. I had one encounter with Frank when Stuart Vyse and I were in Lincoln Square shopping center (which had destroyed the entire downtown vibe, replacing it with the first indoor mall in central Illinois). We went to the men’s room at the hotel, and while we were washing our hands Frank and another shorter kid came into the room and wanted to know if either of us would fight the short kid, who was smaller than either of us—and we were shrimps. Stuart and I both said “no, thanks,” and eventually, Frank and his friend turned and left. Under his breath, Stuart stupidly says: “Son of a bitch!” and Frank immediately says “I heard that!” and re-enters the room. Stuart runs into a stall, takes his pants down and puts new meaning to the word, “stall.” We looked for an alternative route out of the building, and swiftly left the area.

Speaking of tough dudes, I was having fun blowing spit-wads with Kenny Shackleford the day I met him. Eventually, I turned my aim on him and got him right on the nose. I was laughing so hard, I had to bury my head in my arms on my desk and try to compose myself. Suddenly, I feel this searing pain, and my chest collapses and I can’t breath. Kenny had punched me in the back, and he had one hard-ass punch! Finally, after I could breath again, I look back at Kenny, my eyes teared up, and I see him staring me down with this incredibly angry, hostile face. Then I knew Kenny was one of those guys….the guys you just didn’t fuck around with. Kenny went out for the basketball team, and Frank choose football. Kenny got killed in a North End shoot-out while still a teenager, and Frank became fixture at Rose Bowl bar and all-around local legend.

Kenny Shackleford.

But It was Frank who decided to defend Smitty’s honor. He followed Doug Blair home from school and cracked him over the head with a baseball bat. And so went the opening shots of the Generation War now being waged in public. Up until now, this war had been fought inside our homes, not in the streets and schools. But the peace in the streets was lost. Doug had the longest hair in Urbana High, and all the longhairs were plenty pissed Doug had a concussion and had to go to the emergency room. And there was really only one guy amongst us that you just didn’t fuck around with, and his name was Bob Carpenter (although we just called him Carp). And as soon as Carp heard what happened to Doug, he started looking for Frank, and when word got out Carp was looking for Frank, a bunch of us started following Carp around on his mission to see what was going to happen when these two titans actually collided.