Turk’s Head

For over a decade I searched for a photo of the Turk’s Head building every time I went back to Urbana to no avail, but finally, some have arrived, thanks to the founder, Steven Simon and Bugsy. Turk’s Head was the center of gravity for the counterculture in central Illinois— until they demolished it around 1968. We assumed it was torn down just to destroy what had become central station for the emerging hippie culture. And the day after it was bulldozed, I went through the rubble in great sadness and found a silver ring with some Native-American-like etchings on it. That ring became my most powerful and longest-lasting magical possession. When I finally proposed at age 50, I passed it over as my engagement ring. That’s how much it meant to me.

It was an ancient 3-story hotel built far from the railroad tracks and downtown areas so certain people could keep a low-profile. Al Capone’s gang supposedly stayed there, for example, when they came down-state to hunt pheasant. There were two major gangs in Chicago back then, and once they crossed paths on Henry Sansone’s property and turned the shotguns on each other. My family was well-versed with the mob since my mom’s uncle ran the numbers racket in Gary, Indiana, and paid skim to Capone. Uncle Freddy wisely paid his way out of the game and went straight after the Untouchables came to town.

The Turk’s Head had a wide set of stairs leading up to a deck. The staircase and deck became the hangout (along with the balconies above it), and since the building fronted Green Street, which was the main drag through campus, just sitting on the steps was like being on display for all the passing traffic, and when you had a big group of hippies, there was a lot of rubber-necking going on. There was an advertising placard on the deck like the type used to update daily menus, only it said: “If I owned Champaign and hell, I’d rent out Champaign and live in hell.”

On the left side was Turk’s Head, a bohemian-style, beatnik coffee-shop that served food at people’s prices and often had free movies, like “The Wild Ones” with Marlon Brando, or a similar counterculture classic—with free popcorn. They also had a wide selection of exotic beers available. On the right was Mary Shirley’s business venture, In Stitches, and also Bob Nutt’s business venture, Blytham Ltd. (a name suggested by Jim Cole, for it’s British flavor). Downstairs was The Leather Shop, created by a jazz drummer who would briefly join the Finchleys. His name was Glenn Cronkhite.

Bob Nutt (wearing hat) and Irv Azov with long hair.

Bob Nutt had a business partner named Irv Azoff. Originally from Danville, IL, Azof was a fraternity brother of Nutt, and they decided to hook their wagons to the garage-rock movement to see if it would take them to the stars. Only one would make it. Blytham had the bands completely under their thumb because they invested thousands in equipment and paid the band members nominal allowances until the cost of the equipment was paid off. In Stitches was probably the most fashionable rock’n’roll boutique in the world at the time. Mary’s designs were always daring and spectacular. She was so far ahead of her time. The bands were all outfitted in her clothes (if they could afford it, that is).

Nutt would be yelling to someone on the phone, threatening to never let some venue book the Finchley’s again unless they took all of Nutt’s other bands, like the Seeds of Doubt, or the Knight Riders (the band I briefly played bass in), and they also had to promise not to book any band not affiliated with Blytham—since they had cleverly signed every competent high school and college band around. Blytham was establishing a virtual monopoly on live rock music in the area. Irv seemed like a nice guy. I bought some buttons from him and he was fun to talk to. Blytham had a huge collection of anti-establishment buttons for sale. Buttons were really big back then, as this was before t-shirts carried any messages.

Guy Maynard of the Seeds of Doubt was blossoming into a real revolutionary and had a big confrontation with Azof at the House of Chin. Guy evolved into a world-class novelist and will probably release the story himself some day, but the upshot was that the money from the rock entertainment business belonged to the people, not the rock stars and their managers. Irv really exploded when he heard that line. (I guess you know Azoff turned into the most powerful person in the music industry?)

True Origins: Stairway to Heaven

Early in the ’60s, Lenny Bruce appeared on Ed Sullivan and performed a skit about some kids on the West Coast who were caught sniffing glue to get high, which Lenny found hilarious. Little did Lenny know, by broadcasting that story, he created a sudden interest in the effects of glue across America.

When the Finchley Boys decided to hold their first infamous glue party (and there were really only two far as I know), they naturally selected the barn at Mary Shirley’s as the appropriate location. Mary was a gorgeous rockn’n’roll blonde who designed and sewed her own outfits—hooded purple velvet cape and Carnaby-street miniskirt was a typical look. Plus Mary had two gorgeous sisters close to her in age.

I never really penetrated their scene but once, for a ceremony in 1969, but the Shirley’s undoubtedly captured the center of gravity on the Finchley’s social life for a while.  The two lead singers of the Finchleys, Jim Cole and George Faber, were dating the sisters early on. Mary was an accomplished musician on many instruments, violin probably being her best. She was also an asset selecting songs and helping transpose them, as well as letting them know which worked and which didn’t. Mary’s opinion was pretty much final.

Mary was a huge fan of the Yardbirds, who weren’t really all that super famous at the time, playing gigs in small clubs, and Mary would get her dad to drive her and her sisters hundreds of miles just to attend a show. The first time she saw them, Jimmy Page pulled her out of the audience to be brought backstage. They treated Mary as an equal and for years, Page would call Mary whenever he was in the Midwest. It wasn’t a gushy teen fan thing either. They weren’t looking for sex and Mary wasn’t offering (until later, that is). At 16, Mary could go toe-to-toe with the biggest rock stars and command their respect. After Mary was done hanging out at these after-parties, she and her sisters would head down to where her dad was sleeping in the car, waiting to drive them a hundred miles back home. It was at one of these late-night hang-outs that Page asked Mary to transpose a sheet of classical music (Chopin). He wanted to work the melody into a song he was writing. (It eventually became the opening to “Stairway to Heaven,” by Led Zeppelin.)

But in 1967, that hadn’t happened yet, and everyone was going to the Shirley’s to get high on sniffing glue for the first time. Glue wasn’t like the ditch weed we’d been smoking, it actually got you high—way high. It was probably the first psychedelic experience for most of us. The second glue party was a relatively small affair arranged by Phil Mayall and attended by the band and their entourage. Mayall was occupying an empty apartment that was probably rented out by his father. It was a second-floor apartment on Green Street that ended up getting trashed. This could have been the earliest signs of the destructo-mania movement that would capture Cole’s imagination for the next year or so. Mayall was becoming known as Dr. Pheeoo and already seemed close to a junkie on the stuff, sniffing morning, noon and night, and keeping a journal of his experiences. His dad got suspicious, found the journal left behind in the trashed apartment, and called the police.

Next thing the Finchleys know, they get a message that the cops know everything, and it’ll “be a lot better for you if you turn yourself in.” So the next day, George and a few others go down to the Urbana Police Station and turn themselves in for sniffing glue. George’s mom was horrified. “Glue!” she said, “you won’t even drink a coca-cola because you think it’s bad for you!”

It would take another year or two before Phil completely gave up his obsession. For a while, he even holed up at my place, the Den of Iniquity, and did his sniffing there. But the most lasting influence was on the Finchley’s lead guitar player, Mark Warwick. The experience caused him to write the first psychedelic anthem I ever heard, a song titled, “Only Me.” This is what raised the Finchley Boys to an epic level, and it sure looked like they might become national rock stars.