It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part LIV

It was Friday, August 7, 1987.  The big day: I’d been working at my freelance writing job for two weeks, and was getting paid in another week. 

And I’d gotten my final unemployment check!

And the party I’d started planning when I got the job was finally happening. 

I’d invited most of my friends in the Twin Cities; my roommates had added quite a few of their own – because, let’s face it, what’s  a party without people?

Then as now, I loved going to parties; but I’d never thrown one before.  Indeed, other than MOB parties, I’ve never thrown another (not to say I won’t – but that’s a subject for another thread).  So I went through some internal calculus, and tried to figure out what made for a great late-summer party.  I came up with:

  1. Alcohol
  2. A grill

It was a scorcher – probably in the mid-nineties, humid as hell.  I ran to Big Top Liquors – then as now, the booze lynchpin of the neighborhood – and figured, what the heck, I’d grab two 30-packs of Strohs.  Oh, make it three. 

Then, to Rainbow, for a couple of pounds of beef, cheese, charcoal, brats, onions, buns…

…and then, home.

People started showing up around sixish.  First came Liz’ boyfriend, and some of my late-KSTP friends.  Then my pal Rich.  Then some of Liz’ co-workers from a group home in Minnepolis.  Then the guys from my band.  Then more of Liz’ co-workers.  Then still more of them. 

The party started out so well. 

For the first four or five hours, it was wonderful; good company, good conversation given a great shove down a beer-soaked slip-n-slide, good food (I was, and remain, a great grillmeister) – just a memorably good time. 

By about tennish, people were gathered on both porches, cooling off, enjoying things.  People had nice buzzes going on; roommates’ co-workers, and I think one of my band-mates, started slipping away to the upstairs bedrooms in various combinations.  Everyone was enjoying themselves.  Even me – although I had long lost track of how many Strohs I’d sucked down in the August heat.  Still – it was a great party.

Twenty years later, I’m still not sure exactly where it went wrong. 

I think it was around ten that a couple of Liz’ co-workers’ friends showed up.  One of them, a fellow who resembled a genetic melding of Jeffrey Dahmer and Zeljko Ivanek, walked in, grabbed a beer, and came out to the porch, scowling.  Then heckling people – my friends, my band-mades, and eventually me.  And then getting really abusive; “You really shuck.  Thish izh a sh**y party.  You’re shtupid”.

I took one of Liz’ co-workers – the one who’d brought the guy – aside.  “Who izh thish moron?” I asked.  He apparently was an off-duty corrections officer from the Stillwater Penitentiary.  “Could you tell him to mellow out a little?”

Well, he tried.  It didn’t stick.

I don’t honestly remember, twenty years later, what came first – me standing in his face and saying – not yelling, I am fairly sure – “You’re standing on my porch, at my party, drinking my beer, and insulting my friends?  What am I missing here?”, him saying “I think you’re a faggot”, or me promising to strangle him with his own intestines.  His pal intervened about the time I was picking up a piece of scrap wood off the porch.  They left.

Which isn’t to say the party ended.  Just that it got kinda weird.  Almost like the evening’s gestalt got turned 90 degrees.  Which, by the way, also felt like the temperature around midnight.  Conversations that had been friendly turned…well, not “confrontational”.  Everyone was still having fun.  But the near-brawl had lent the evening an edge that it hadn’t had, and didn’t need.  And there were some other little scuffles; one of Liz’s co-workers girlfriends hooked up with a differnet co-worker; animosity ensued.  And one of my other roommate Brenda’s boyfriends ran into another of them.  (It could have been worse; she was stringing three along at the time).  An undercurrent of ugly started creeping into the evening. 

And of course, everyone kept right on drinking. Some of the co-workers had brought plenty more beer and booze.  Now, I’ve never really been a heavy drinker – except for a stretch after my college graduation, I have rarely had more than 2-3 drinks in a sitting in my life.  I’m sure I was well past a dozen beers by midnight.   Well past. 

Damn.  It felt good to be working again!

I think it was like 4:30AM when Liz’ boyfriend decided to make one last hamburger. He grabbed a chunk of the beef…

…that had been sitting on the counter since 6PM, in the sweltering evening, in the even-more-sweltering kitchen, molded a patty, and tossed it on the grill. 

I think it was about 5:30AM when he chundered phosphorescent green spew all over the kitchen.  And dining room.  And stairway to the bathroom.  And he wasn’t done.  Oh, nosireee. 

It was about then that I passed out. 

———-

Casey, my other guitar player, woke me up at about 8AM.  His car, a mid-seventies Toyota, had no starter, and needed a push-start to get him and Bill, my drummer, home.  We staggered outside – it was already scorching hot – and gave the car a shove down Fry Street (the irony wasn’t lost on me even then), a block or so, until it caught. 

I staggered back to the house, sweating toxic goo, feeling queasier by the step. 

I got in the back door.  My foot skidded on some leftover phosphorescent green chunder.  I felt my stomach jumping up, like one of those videos of a mid-fifties ejector seat firing off; I ran upstairs to the bathroom, and…

…well, you know.

My head felt like it’d been bored out with a grain auger.  Every muscle in my simultaneously ached and rioted to eject more stuff from me, from whatever end was available.  I lived in a universe of sour and ugly.

Liz staggered into the bathroom.  “Telephone!”, she yelled, before clomping back to bed. 

I crawled to the phone.  “Hullo?” I groaned, sounding very, very sick even to myself.

“Hi, Mitch!  It’s your mom!  Have a rough night?”

I stayed on the couch, sweating and praying for either rain or death, all day.  And then most of Sunday cleaning. 

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part LIII

It was Tuesday, July 28, 1987. 

I’d arranged with my new free-lance job – a month’s worth of technical writing – to come in late, around 11-ish, so I could catch up on my phone calling.  I was hoping to pour on the gas, and have a talk radio job lined up by the time the freelance contracting gig ended. 

As I made calls, I’d make notes on my calendar telling me to follow-up with one talk-radio program director or another, somewhere around the country.  I was getting a few nibbles, out there.  A station in New Bedford, Massachusetts liked my tape and was interested in bringing me out for an interview…sometime.  Another, in Fall River Massachusetts, thought they might need an afternoon guy…eventually.  Another in Hammond, Indiana thought they might need a news guy…someday soon.  And there was that headhunter with that gig in Raleigh that was still floating out there…more or less.

And then, at about 10:30AM, the phone rang. 

It was a program director at a big blowtorch of a station in Cleveland, Ohio.  They liked my resume and the tape of my “producer” stuff with and recommendations from Don Vogel and Geoff Charles.  I might be the perfect guy…

…to produce for a very temperamental  prima-donna who’d been hired for afternoon drive. 

Cleveland, I thought.   All the little chicks with their crimson lips know Cleveland Rocks, Cleveland Rocks.  My Town.  A job, back in my beloved talk radio.

“I’m interested”.

He described the job; not-spectacular pay (although way, way better than I’d gotten at KSTP), and a weekend show of my own to sweeten the deal. 

I fought to control my breathing.  It was sounding too good to be true.  I started sizing up whether everything I owned would still fit into my Jeep.

“Oh”, the program director added, almost as if it were an afterthought, “you would need to be here to start the job by Friday”.

I fumbled for a second as I turned it over in my head; could I duck out on my freelance job, stick my roommates with the lease, abandon the band with a few gigs lined up, and walk away from a couple of articles I’d sold? 

Hell, yeah.

Could I do it and be in Cleveland by the end of the week?

My heart bounced off my liver and kept falling.

“I don’t think I can do that.”

“Ah, that’s OK.  Sorry to hear that.  We’ll find someone local…”

And that was that. 

———-

Hard as that was, I found out I probably got the better end of the deal.  I heard through the grapevine that the prima-donna host went through three producers in nine months, when the whole show got gassed.

Still.  So close.

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part LII

It was Friday, July 31, 1987. 

I’d called the unemployment office to tell ’em I had a job.  My last check would be coming a week from today – the same time I’d be getting my first check from the freelance writing gig. 

I hatched a plan, one that I’d never hatched before, and until the advent of the MOB, have never hatched since; I was going to throw a party.

I started calling all my friends, inviting them to the Mitch’s Final Unemployment Check Party.  The intention:  spend (at least a big part of) my final unemployment check (all $200-odd dollars of it) on a big summer blow-out. 

People started accepting. 

It was going to be fun.

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part LI

It was Monday, July 27, 1987. 

The storm had overshadowed one big bit of news; I’d landed some freelance work, writing a manual for some software for a company in Edina.  It was going to be a month or so worth of work.  The best part?  It was going to be a princely $12.50 an hour!.  Other than the odd voiceover job, I’d never gotten more than $8/hour in my life, for anything.

It was a long commute, made doubly galling by the fact that I’d moved to Saint Paul just in time to get whacked at KSTP, from a place that was probably a 20-25 minute drive from this gig. 

The work was interesting – and utterly unlike anything I’d done before.  For starters, I was writing on a computer.  Not one of the DEC PDP 11/44s I’d used in college, for everything from programming (I’d completed most of a Computer Science minor, before I decided that I hated it) to writing term papers (we used the roff and nroff text-formatting programs to print “pretty” documents on an NEC Spinwriter teletype terminal, at a stately one page per minute) – but the company sat me down behind a Mac.  It was the first computer I’d touched in a long time, and the first time I’d seen a Graphical User Interface other than, say, in the movies.

The commute was gruelling.  It was blazingly hot, and with all the water soaking the region, it was one of the two most humid periods of time I can remember in my life.

But I looked forward to a paycheck that’d cover more than bare subsistence for the first time in quite a while. 

And that felt good.

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part L

It was Friday, July 24th, 1987, and I was stuck in traffic.

Everywhere.  Every road I drove on, whether a freeway or a side street.  And it’d been like that for about the previous 18 hours.

The previous night was supposed to have been a busy one.  I’d signed up for a video production class at Saint Paul Cable Access, and we were having our final shooting session at the Longfellow Community Center, before going downtown for next week’s session to learn how to edit tape. 

Before that, I’d gone over to the band’s practice house and filled up the Jeep with the guys’ gear.  We drove to Fernando’s – a crappy little dive bar at 15th and East Lake Street – and loaded in for a gig that was planned for the evening.  My plan; load in, go to class, leave class at the crack of 9PM and race over to ‘nando’s for the gig. 

As we stood outside the community center, black clouds roiled in the west.  Someone flipped on The Good Neighbor, and heard reports of tornados in Maple Grove – an impossibly distant ‘burb to me, at that time – and warnings being tossed about for the rest of the metro. 

Class let out early due to the weather.  As the first drops started dribbling down from the darkening sky, I rolled over to Cretin Avenue, intending to jump onto 94 and whip over to Minneapolis, getting to the gig a little early.

The weather had a legendary change of plan for an awful lot of us who were in the Cities that night, of course.  “The Storm”, along with the “Halloween Blizzard”, is one of those two-word icons that everyone who’s lived in the Twin Cities in the past couple of decades remembers and has in common.

Me?  Well…

As I rolled past the Highway 280 exit, the sky closed in.  Roiling cumulus clouds resembling gray grapes advanced overhead, until they were blotted out by the most intense cloudburst I’ve ever experienced, whipped by a fearsome wind.  In moments, I could barely see the car in front of me; just their tail lights.  Stopped.  Cold. 

It was then that I discovered that the rag top on my jeep had a leak.  A couple of them, in fact.  A steady stream of water poured down on my head, as I scannned for a break in the traffic that never came.  Another leak coursed water into the back seat, and I silently thanked God that I’d left my guitar with the guys. 

It’s hard to remember, 20 years later, exactly what happened.  I know that I sat, soaking, in the jeep from about 8-ish until maybe 10, wondering (in those pre-cell-phone days) if the gig was going to go ahead or not, gradually giving up on being anything like dry.  I kept the radio on WCCO, which spoke of torrential downpours (duh) and flooded roads (ibid) and calls from people talking about wind and water damage all over the metro – but no word about I-94 Westbound through Saint Paul.

Eventually – it had to be close to 10PM – I saw people walking in the downpour around up ahead.  Hours after the storm started, the rain was still a cold, drenching cataract, and the wind, while it’d died off a bit, whipped it into my face as I climbed out of the Jeep’s meager shelter – but by this point, I was more interested in information, even rumors, than the dubious comfort of my ragtop.

I walked a couple of cars ahead to a group of guys, a couple of whom had come back from farther west along the freeway.  “I heard that the road is flooded four or six feet deep at the U of M Exit” said one of the guys, soaked to the bone like all the rest of us.  “There’s cars stuck in there.  We aren’t going anywhere”. 

I walked back along the line to pass the word to the people climbing out of cars – or gingerly opening windows – farther back along the freeway.  I kept checking west along the road to see if the endless stream of red taillights were moving even the slightest.  Not a bit. 

So I kept walking.  I probably went a quarter-mile east, from car to car, spreading the “news”, watching for changes, seeing nothing.  My clothes – an army-surplus olive-drab shirt over a “Clash” T-shirt, black jeans, cheap sneakers – were soaked and soaked again. 

And still, nothing moved.

It was probably around 11, and probably 5-600 yards from my car, when I ran into a familiar face; a medium-height, husky guy with curly red hair who looked like a young Gordon Lightfoot.  I recognized him as a floor director at KSTP-TV; we’d run into each other at a few Hubbard Broadcasting events and one time when I’d gone to a taping of the loathsome Twin Cities Live With Bob Bruce.  We could see Highway 280 from the small rise where we stood, exchanging weary, sopping pleasantries. 

“Hey”, he said, a sopping light flashing above his head, “nothing’s moving on 280.  We can start people going back that way…”

We – “Gordon” and two other guys and I – jogged through the slop, back to the 280 ramp to 94, to start talking to drivers, getting them to turn around and head back, the wrong way, up the freeway to the exit to (actually the on-ramp from) University Avenue.  A cop was at the top of the onramp, keeping people from going onto the freeway, so the “plan” was falling into place.

Car by car, the four of us knocked on peoples’ windows, and got them to start turning around and, counterintuitively, driving the wrong way up the freeway.  It’s been twenty years, so I don’t know if it took me half an hour or two hours to get back to my jeep – but when I did, I climbed in, sat with an irrelevant “splorch” on the sopping seat, and got turned around. 

It was somewhere between 11 and midnight when I got off the freeway.  The rain was only letting up a bit.  University Avenue was dotted with small floods, where overtaxes storm drains gave up the ghost.  I pulled over at a gas station and ran to a pay phone to call Fernando’s; the first good news of the night was that the gig had been cancelled when the roof started leaking all over the stage and the audience. 

My guitar was the only dry thing in my life by this point.

It was after midnight when I finally picked my way home, changed into dry clothes, and flopped into bed.

The next day – Friday the 24th – I had an appointment for some freelance work in Eden Prairie at 9AM.  I got on the road at 7. 

By 9, I’d made it to the Minneapolis border, and had called and rescheduled the appointment; they told me that I494 was still flooded and impassible, and if I made it at all it’d be a miracle.

By the grace of God and Jeep and a decent memory of South Minneapolis’ back streets, I made it.  At noon.  It took me until after 5PM to get home. 

But if you were there, you probably had about the same kind of time.

———-

Apropos not much, the KSTP-TV floor director who led the evening’s amateur traffic-coppery eventually became known to the Cities as Rusty Gatenby, who got promoted off the floor and started his long career as Channel Five’s Traffic and Entertainment reporter not long after that, as I recall. 

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part XLIX

It was a scorching hot day; the kind of humid, stinking miasma that I’ve always hated. 

It was Friday, July 10, 1987.  I’d been out of work for four months.

And by “out of work”, I mean “working, here and there.  My fixed bills – rent, phone, car insurance, groceries – came to right around $300 a month.  I’d usually tack on $50 or so more in job-hunting expenses, most of it in long-distance phone calls and postage for sending out audition tapes to radio stations.  I’d worked through the list of every talk station in the country in markets larger than about 100,000 people, called almost all of them, and by this point sent out probably 100 audition tapes. 

I supported myself – in no “style” whatsoever – by writing free-lance articles for various Saint Paul neighborhood newspapers which, while they didn’t have the stature of the Pioneer Press or the Strib, had a couple of crucial benefits:

  • They paid as well as or better for freelance piece work than the daillies or either of the marquee weeklies, the City Pages and the Twin Cities Reader
  • They were non-union.  I remember my first and last meeting with an editor at the Pioneer Press; “This is very good stuff.  But the Guild would put my n*ts in a vise if I bought non-union work”. 

And along the way, I pitched myself to the various “talent agents” around the cities, looking for voiceover work.  As the saying went, I’m not a model, but I played one on the radio.

Today, I got a call.  A woman at an agency in Golden Valley had an odd need.

“I see on your resume you do Commonwealth accent work.  Can you do Canadian?”

Now, growing up in North Dakota you heard the odd Canadian voice.  Indeed, I’d grown up around a lot of ’em – since we didn’t get Public Radio in Jamestown until I was into college, my mom kept the family radio pretty much welded to CBW in Winnipeg, the region’s CBC affiliate, and a station that sounded, then as now, like NPR with funny vowels. 

For a split second I thought – “In the whole Twin Cities voiceover market, you can’t find an actual Canadian?” 

But I silenced that thought.  “Sure”, I said, switching slyly into my most exaggerated Mountie brogue, “I’ll see aboot fitting the job into my shshedule”.

“OK, we need you at the studio now.  Now now now”.

So I raced out to the jeep, drove across town to a studio in Edina, and spent the next four hours doing an industrial training video for a Canadian branch of a Minnesota company.  The four hours’ work, at the non-union $75 an hour scale, paid just about a month’s worth of bills, even after my agent took her 10%.   

I think I might have worn a red flannel lumberjack shirt to get into character, but I can’t confirm that.

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part XLVIII

It was Sunday, June 14, 1987.  It was a hot, bright day, not at all unlike today. 

I’d been “on the beach”, at least as far as full-time work went, for two months.  I’d picked up a few voiceover gigs here and there – one or two a month – and written some articles for some of the Saint Paul neighborhood papers.  All in all, it was enough to pay the bills.  More or less.  My bills, fortunately, were pretty tiny; $166 a month for rent, car and car insurance together maybe about the same, and I didn’t eat much.  I figured if I brought home $350 a month, I was pretty much in the clear.  Voice-over jobs netted me $150 for two hours’ work, and every news article I sold was another $50 or $60, so if I stayed moderately busy, I could do OK. 

But doing OK wasn’t what I wanted.  I spent part of the day listening to radio and TV news shows replaying Reagan’s Brandenburg Gate speech from the Friday before

And I thought “Damn.  I gotta get back into talk radio NOW”.

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part XLVII

It was Friday, April 17, 1987.

I’d been out of work for two solid weeks.  I’d finally meandered my way down to the unemployment office. 

I’ve been on unemployment twice in the past twenty years.  Most recently, in 2003 when the Clinton Recession in the software market left me with no work for five months and skimpy work for six more, it was a streamlined, online snap; you applied online, called in your hours by phone, and got your checks by direct deposit.  Miserable as unemployment was, it was one state program that’s actually gotten easier.  And the legislators and bureaucrats had even gotten together to help things make some sense; if you made a few bucks on a freelance job, they’d just deduct it from  your unemployment check rather than threaten to kick you off. 

In 1987?  You went downtown with a folder full of paperwork.  And you got in line.  And waited.  And waited. 

And talked with a frumpy, grumpy person who really seemed to hate dealing with you.

And got a stern warning that if you picked up any income on the side, tried to stretch your check in any way, you could lose your unemployment coverage. 

And went forth with a time to come back and fill out more paperwork.  And wait.  And wait.  And wait some more.

It took a month, as I recall, to actually get an unemployment check.  I think it was $275 for two week’s non-work. 

Better than nothing. 

———-

But I did finally find out why my roommates and I were getting the stink-eye from the neighbors.

I walked over to Henri’s one warm afternoon after a day of job-hunting – a little neighborhood corner bar with a pool table, great burgers and $1.50 pints of beer – for a drink one afternoon.  I got to talking with the waitress – something I spent a lot of time doing in the next few months.

I told her I lived in the duplex at the corner of Minnehaha and Fry. 

“Ah”, she said.  “You heard about what happened, didn’t you?”

She started explaining…and it came back to me, a news story that Karen Booth had covered at KSTP a few months earlier.  An unemployed social worker had hatched a project; build a group home in a duplex.  On one side of the duplex would be juvenile victims of sexual abuse. 

On the other side of the duplex – adult perpetrators of sexual abuse.

I’ll let that sink in for a moment.  Goodness knows I had to.

The neighbors in the Midway, Karen duly reported, had risen up in arms, veritably storming City Hall to get the Council to nix the idea.  Which, after the usual bureaucratic legerdemain, they had done. 

News cycles passed.  I forgot about the story.

Until, sitting on a bar stool at Henri’s talking to Lori the waitress, it dawned on me. 

I’d moved into that duplex.  My landlord was that social worker. 

Some of my neighbors were wondering if I was one of those guys.

But the duplex was a nice place.  And I figured – if the landlord had hatched the group home idea, he must have worked out a lifetime of dumb.

It couldn’t get any worse.  Could it?

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part XLVI

Monday.  April 6, 1987.

I woke up.  A restless, miserable weekend was over.  It was time to get back to business – finding myself both a living for the short term, and my next talk radio job. 

Preferably at the same time.

On the plus side:  I’d been through this before.  I’d gotten whacked at radio jobs, starting when I was 17, at KQDJ in Jamestown.  A couple of slickeeboys had bought KEYJ, changed the call letters, and tried to make it sound like a big-market middle-of-the-road station.  Along the way, they fired a bunch of the locals, me included.  I’d gotten diced four years later – at the same station, different reasons, same basic deal.

And now, KSTP.  I was getting used to one one of radio’s great truths; you never quit a job on your own.

Other pluses:  when I heard that the firings were coming, I’d snagged an old copy of the “Standard Rate and Data Service” directory – the SRDS, or “Serds”, a telephone-book-thick listing of every radio station in the country by market, format, power, coverage and rough ad rate.  The book was about 700 pages thick, I think, and covered literally every radio station in the US and its territories (as of November, 1986, anyway). 

I took a highlighter and started going through the book, starting with the markets I wanted to take a shot at.  I focused on finding talk stations in mid-sized markets – Madison, Columbus and the like – as well as suburbs of bigger markets (places like New Bedford MA, Santa Rosa CA and Aurora IL), the kind of place that used to hire 24-year-old kids for peanuts, put them on mid-days or evenings or wherever they felt a need for a solid, reliable local show – and let ’em get some experience.

And of course, I marked down all the talk stations in big markets.  While I figured I had a very long shot of getting an actual on-air job there, I’d certainly take another producer gig. 

Any port in a storm.

I took a legal pad and started my list; stations, markets, and program directors (where they were listed in the SRDS), all in pencil, since I knew the list would change.

And at 9AM, I started cold-calling.  And I stayed on it until lunchtime.

After lunch, I spent a couple of hours cold-calling some of the Saint Paul and Minneapolis neighborhood newspapers.  I’d done some writing for a few of them the previous year, trying to stretch my Hubbard paycheck.  I’d be stretching even further, now.  But I landed a little assignment – worth about $60 – that afternoon from one of the neighborhood papers, which was worth a little celebrating.

And then, back to cold-calling radio stations.  And, briefly, a shot of pay-dirt.  The program director at WSME in New Bedford, Massachussetts was looking for someone – cheap – to do a mid-day show.  He wanted my tape.

I had a cassette and an envelope ready to go.  I typed out a cover letter, ready to go out the next morning.

I crossed my fingers.  For tomorrow, I was going to call the headhunter for the job in Orlando. 

One day of looking.  Two solid leads. 

My panic was starting to wane, just a little bit.

Continue reading

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part XLV

It was Friday, April 3, 1987.  

As people got done with their various shifts, Pervy LeDouchebag [1] gave them the news; they were getting let go. 

A rumor spread around that Pervy had a gun stashed away in case someone got out of hand.  I silently hoped he’d fly off the handle; I had my own gun in the car, after the weekend’s anti-semitic fun. 

But it wasn’t all that terribly dramatic.

Hubbard in its infinite wisdom got rid of a lot of us – the most successful staff it’d have in a decade, and certainly the only one it had in the pre-Limbaugh era that day.

Morning Producer Allison Brown – who’d worked with Mike Edwards and Lee Valsvik – is still in the market, producing Gopher Hockey if memory serves. 

Tom Myhre – the morning news guy and the station’s assignment editor, and the guy who I’d met in October of 1985 who had gotten me in the door at the station – opened a metal detector shop in South Minneapolis right around the time KSTP fell apart.  I think he still runs it – I haven’t seen him in a few years. 

I last talked with mid-morning producer John Barnier – who’d been producing Pat Milan, who’d replaced Geoff Charles from 9-11 – about fifteen years ago.  He was a photographer – both a working one and an academic with a yen for work in the Holy Land – and was running a photography studio in downtown Saint Paul. 

Executive Producer Rob Pendelton, the guy who hired me after Myrhe got me in the door, went on to be a producer at WCCO (he beat me out for a job there in a few months, actually), then returned to KSTP to work with Barbara Carlson.  I lost track of him for the better part of a decade after that, until, oddly, he spent a few months at The Patriot producing “The Stitch”, a weekly hockey broadcast on Saturdays.  He jumped from there to produce “Janecek and Lambert” at KTLK, which didn’t last all that long.  I need to drop him a line; he always lands on his feet.

Reporter Tom Rivers – who’d come to KSTP from a “pirate” radio station in the English Channel – returned to the UK, where he took over as London Bureau correspondent for UPI Radio News.  I think he’s with CBS, now.  You can still hear “Tom Rivers in London” reporting on one story or another, occasionally – I’ve heard him in the past year.

Reporter Karen Booth went on to MPR, then spent some time as the DFL’s communications director, then some PR work.  The last I heard she was with the State Department, somewhere in Eastern Europe.

(For those who might ask – Kathy Wurzer had gotten caught in an earlier budget cut.  She went to Channel 9, then (allowing for a diversion to Channel 4 a few years back) to a long career as Morning Edition host at MPR.

Reporter Peg Sneden?  She went back to Grand Rapids.  I think she got married.

Sports Director Mark Boyle?  He went to KMOX in St. Louis, then to work for Scott Meier to help launch WFAN in New York for a while, and has been the voice of the Indiana Pacers since the early nineties.

Sports producer Doug Westerman didn’t get whacked – they kept him around to finish out North Stars season.  In the end, he wound up hanging around, producing Bob Yates and some other shows for several more years, until he went over to KFAN in the late eighties/early nineties.  Today, he’s program director at KTLK, where the Northern Alliance is kicking his station’s ass in the all-important Saturday Mid-Day ratings war.

Dave Elvin got out of radio, pretty much.  One of the best jazz bass players in the Twin Cities, he did some knocking around (including, he once mentioned, a tour or two around the US and Australia backing Gene Pitney).  He got his MA in Journalism at the U of M and moved to Boston, where the last I heard he spent years working as a PR guy for the Big Dig, and even wrote a book on the subject.  We traded emails a couple of years (and two or three hard drives) ago; he’s a freelance PR guy in the greater Boston area.  It sounded like he was doing well.

There were other people, of course; a couple of sales guys, some back-office people, two weekend producers,  an engineer, none of them that I remember by name.  I remember it coming to a total of around fifteen, from a staff of around thirty.

Me?

I took my shot at Pervy LeDouchebag as I got my check and left the building.  “Give me a call when you need  a morning show that doesn’t suck ass”, I said.  He wasn’t impressed.  Not that it mattered in the long run; he lasted a little less than a year at KSTP, before a series of sexual-harassment suits (he hadn’t fired all of his litigants!) and the station’s free-falling ratings (from a 4.4 at one point – the station’s best pre-Limbaugh performance ever – down to the low “2” range) sent his alcoholic butt packing.  I have no idea what became of him, but I wouldn’t bet against jail time and cirrhosis.

———-

I left the building that day feeling completely hollowed out.  I’ve only felt that way a few times in my life – all of them involving divorces or breakups. 

I drove back to St. Paul, had a couple of beers, and started figuring out what I was going to do next. 

Continue reading

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part XLVIV

It was Thursday, April 2, 1987.  And I hadn’t slept at all.

I tossed and rolled about most of the night, pondering the imponderable.

Why did this keep happening to me?

Hadn’t I done my best?

 Why wasn’t I good enough?

Why was this happening?

Maybe if I tried really hard to make things right…?

Screw it.  I’m better than that.  I’ll bounce back, and fast.

God.  God god god god god god.  Why?  Didn’t I work hard enough at it?

Shit.  Shit shit shit shit shit.  How was I going to get by?

I was so close.  I had – well, not everything I wanted in the world, but bits and pieces of it, and the potential for so much more.  Why?

Screw it.  I’m going to show them.

What am I going to do?

You know.  Sort of the same tossing and turning and cold-sweating and wandering wondering you do when you go through a big breakup.  Which was kind of what it was like for me. 

Although I didn’t really know that for a few years. 

———-

Word finally leaked down from Corporate.  They were basically going to whack all but one of the producers, all but one of the news people, all but one of the sports people, and consolidate a bunch of the station’s support staff (scheduling, etc) in the corporate office. 

They were going to replace the producers with a bunch of newbies just out of Brown Institute (the local DJ factory, which still exists, and is still in the business of convincing kids that they can be the next Dave Ryan) – kids who’d be happy to work for their first “big break” at $4.25 an hour, as opposed to the $6-8 an hour that most of us were getting at the time.

Of course, nobody was saying anything official. 

———-

On the Charles show that afternoon, depression reigned supreme.  I sat in the studio during a commercial break with mid-morning producer John Barnier and Dave Elvin – my senior in terms of time at KSTP, but only on his first radio job (KSTP was #4 for me) grumped about what a crappy deal it was, getting whacked – especially by someone as stupid as Pervy LeDouchebag [*].

I smiled.  “Hell, Dave – until you’ve gotten gassed at least once, you’re not even a member of the fraternity!”.

John had been diced a couple of times; this was my third go-around.  We grinned a grim grin.

Which was one grin more than I had in me at the moment, but you gotta hang on to something. 

Continue reading

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part XLVIII

Jazzed from the weekend – great first date, moved into a cool new place, word that my band would be opening for “Hanover Fist” at the Entry, my interview with Ernst Zündel was the best (and infuriating and controversial) I’d ever done – I drove to work on Monday morning, March 30, 1987.  I was too “up” to even feel tired from having been on the air until 4AM.

I was on top of the world.

I walked into the station, and back to the little mail alley behind the generators to check my mail bin.  I saw Doug Westerman, the station’s sports producer.

“How’s it going, Doug”.

“Time to start saving pennies”.

I remember wrinkling up my face – Doug was usually pretty upbeat about things.  “Howzat?”

“Rumor has it they’re going to fire everyone”.

I stood for a moment, felt my jaw tighten, and noticed my stomach curdling into a sour, painful ball.

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part XLVII

It was Sunday, March 29, 1987.

It had been the best month of my life.

The month had started with our production of the Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament.  KSTP-AM was the flagship station for a statewide network; Mark Boyle called the games; Bruce Gordon was down on the benches and in the locker rooms with a mobile mike; I was either up in the booth, rotating board-op duty with Rob Pendelton and Dave Elvin, or roaming the St. Paul Civic Center looking for interviews for Bruce.  Highlights of the night: 

  1. Grabbing the MVP for the winning team (Bloomington Jefferson, I think) out of a setup for Channel 4 and getting him on the air (making me very much persona non grata with the Channel 4 sports people, but who cared?  Even the terminally-crusty Boyle, with whom I had a relationship based mostly on ribbing and needling, said I did a great job.
  2. For the championship game, we’d been told the puck would drop at 7:30.  At 7:18, the referee skated out onto the ice, puck in hand, and someone annnounced in the press booth that the game was going to start at  7:20.  Rob Pendelton and I looked at the schedule sheet from the tournament staff – seven friggin’ thirty!  No time to file an appeal, though – as Rob got things set up at the studio and Dave raced out to get Boyle onto the mike, I got on the line and called to the affiliates that we were starting ten minutes early – in, like, one minute.  And via the grace of God and adrenaline, we pulled it off; Boyle called the drop, and as far as we knew, most of the stations down the line had gotten my loud, fast call, dispensed with their pre-game shows, and gotten online.  Success, sometimes, is not letting them see how close you came to really screwing the pooch…
  3. Going out to Doyle’s in South Minneapolis after the game with Rob, Mark, Bruce and Dave. 

It was one of those nights when everything just felt right.  Like…I’d arrived, sort of.

A Few Weeks Later, it was Tuesday, March 17.  It was an arrival of a different kind.

My band had landed a coveted “New Band Night” slot at the Seventh Street Entry.  Of course, they were “coveted” only because the Entry was the place to see and be seen.  It certainly wasn’t the money; “New Band Night” bands got 45 minutes, $20, and a couple of free drink tickets (and 10 slots on the guest list).

But this was no ordinary New Band Night.  The day had started auspiciously – on the way to work, I’d gotten one of the first copies of U2’s new album The Joshua Tree out of the box at Garage D’Or Records, at 26th and Nicollet, and had been marinading my brain to “In God’s Country” – still one of my favorite songs of all time – all day long.

The key at New Band Night was timing.  We got a key part of the timing right – we were the first band to show up, so we were the last band of the evening.  Everything built up to us! (Those of you who’ve played New Band Night know that there’s an implied snicker there…).

But that bit of timing was bolstered by the part we had no control over; it was, indeed, Saint Patrick’s Day.  Partly, it got my bass player and drummer good ‘n jazzed – they were both 100% Irish.  The big break, though, was that Boiled In Lead always played the First Avenue main stage on Saint Pat’s day.  Which meant a huge crowd in the Main Room.  Which meant…

…pandemonium.

The first three acts that night were…acceptable.  But the crowd was huge; most people can only handle so much purely-Irish folk music before they need a breather, so the Entry – a converted bus station luggage handling room – was jammed to the rafters with curious, Gaelic-fatigued people. 

And then we took the stage. 

And it was the best night I’ve ever had playing to a crowd in my life. 

For the first time in our three gigs, we were clicking on all eight cylinders.  We played ten songs.  To this day, I remember the set list:

  1. Tiger Tiger (Bill the drummer’s song – yes, it was a William Blake reference.  I told you he was Irish).
  2. Five Bucks and a Transfer (My song about having…well, the title says it. It shamelessly stole the beat from The Pretenders’ “Message of Love”, but it was a way better song, if I say so myself.  And I do say so myself).
  3. Switchyard Blues (think The Who covering Mose Allison.  I played a VERY mean harmonica that night)
  4. Espresso Casey (Casey the other guitar player’s ode to working in a crappy coffee shop back before everyone was doing it)
  5. Ride Shotgun (wherein I pilfed the riff to “Jackson Cage” and the harmony guitar part from Big Country’s “Tall Ships Go” to grand effect)
  6. Blood On The Bricks (the Iron City Houserockers’ classic)
  7. Oh Suzanne (a bald-faced mash note)
  8. Fourth Of July (a song I still play at the occasional open stage night)
  9. Long Gray Wire (a song I’d written in about five minutes in the car on the way to practice one night.  Still one of the coolest experiences of my life.  Great tune, too)
  10. Great Northern Avenue (a song I’ve quoted on this blog before, and still by a long shot the favorite song I’ve ever written)

The crowd – well, they didn’t know what to do.  Our nerves still had us playing a little fast, and we were very loud and raw-sounding.  But we were tight – finally playing like a band, instead of four guys.  We were tight and sharp enough that of the people in the crowd started slam-dancing; we probably were bordering on speed-punk noise and tempo.  I windmilled and jumped about the place and cut my finger open on my pickup switch and bled all over the damn place (just like Pete Townsend! I was so jazzed about that injury!).  I left it all out there on the stage that night.

I don’t think I’ve had a night like that, ever, in my life before, and very, very few since. 

Whatever.  The response was immense, the crowd dug us, and, best of all, a guy with a band that had just had a regional hit in Chicago talked with us after the gig, wondering if we’d be interested in opening for them in June.

I started allowing myself to think “maybe this rock and roll thing could work”.

Things Were Happening On The Side.  I’d put together a tape of some of my voice-over work, at KSTP as well as at the stations I’d worked in high school.  An agent had called me back – blazingly fast – and asked if I wanted to go do a spot.  The strange part – they needed someone who could do in industrial training video – in a Canadian accent. Having grown up listening to CBW Radio in Winnipeg (the closest my mom could find to NPR in North Dakota in those days), I refrained from asking “why not hire a Canadian” – in fact, I didn’t to think aboot it loang to fit it into my sssshedule, eh?  I earned a wondrous $200 for about four hours’ work.  I figured I could learn to like this.

When I’d Moved To The Twin Cities, I’d wanted three things; a fun job, a good band, and a cool girlfriend.  The job was going great.  The band – well, you know.

And Saturday night – the night before –  I had my first date in probably nine months.  Someone funny, cute, interesting, smart…someone who seemed to get me…

Oh, there was plenty of potential. 

The lease on the house in South Minneapolis was up on April 1, and the five roommates and I were ready to call it quits. Friction had been building, and I think we’d all had enough of each other. 

As luck’d have it, another college friend of mine (let’s call her “Liz”) and her pal from high school (how about we call her “Brenda”) were tired of living in their crummy apartment down by Saint Kate’s, so we found our dream joint together; a duplex in Saint Paul.  Perfect for all of us – it was 1/3 the commute to KSTP for me, it was close to where High School Friend was going to college, and it would allow everyone a bit more of a personal life. 

It was Sunday, and after a strenuous weekend of moving (for them; everything I owned in the world fit into two trips in my Jeep), we were moved in.  It was a side-by-side duplex on Minnehaha Avenue near Snelling in Saint Paul. 

It was a beautiful old place; neat woodwork, fun neighborhood, plenty of room for everyone.   And best of all – the rent was $500 a month, which, split three ways, allowed my monthly paycheck to stretch a loooong way.

Although I noticed some of the neighbors giving us the stinky eye as we wandered around the block.  I filed that question in the back of my mind.

My Producer Mojo was boiling red hot.  I pitched an idea to Geoff Charles and Dave Elvin – the “Talk Radio Beach Party”.  The idea – set us up on a beach somewhere in the Twin Cities from 3 to 6PM.  Do the show in swim suits and sandals.  Invite our guests to appear dressed appropriately.  Book a band to play.  Get some food out there. 

They loved it.  In short order, we found a beach (Phalen, not far from the station), the food (Church’s Fried Chicken!), a date (end of May), and a band (I called and booked The Clams, on whose drummer I had a monstrous crush).

We were gonna be so friggin hot.

Finally – the Mitch Berg Show was kicking ass.  Sunday night (or Monday morning, really) March 29, I interviewed Ernst Zündel, a German native who was among the world’s foremost Holocaust deniers. 

We had a slam-bang 60 minute interview that was among the most fun times of my life; we had people claiming to be JDL calling to threaten Zündel, people claiming to be Aryan Nations calling to threaten to kill me (although my last name is Berg, I’m as Jewish as a bacon cheeseburger.  However, Alan Berg’s murderers were pretty new in jail at this point, so I didn’t totally laugh it off.  But I did play it for all it was worth), and a call board so busy that it seemed to hop and skitter from the static electricity.

Needless to say, it went on my audition reel…that I was planning to send to a radio head-hunter that had called me at the office a week ago, wondering if I’d be open to a full-time talk-host gig at a station in Orlando, Florida. 

“Yes”, I said, looking at my paltry Hubbard paycheck, “I believe I’d be interested”. 

This, I was keeping under my hat.

So to sum up:  My daily commute cut from 17 to seven miles, my bills lowered, me living out of the basement for the first time in a year and a half, my band taking off, the show clicking, the radio career starting to click…

…life was damned fine.

As Tom Petty might say, “the sky was the limit”.

And we all know how that song turned out.

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part XLVI

It was Wednesday, March 4, 1987. I was driving to work at KSTP. I stopped at a store to pick up a few things, and picked up a City Pages on may way back to the jeep.

Backstory: A few weeks earlier, a writer for the CP had come out to the station to interview, mainly, Geoff Charles – most of us called him “Chaz” – the booming-voiced, leather-skinned, comically-narcissistic former mid-morning host who’d fleeted up to afternoon drive with Don Vogel’s departure in January. Geoff was an interesting guy – claimed to be a former state swimming champion, a former Marine who taught SEALS to swim, and a former, successfully recovering heroin addict. Many of our longtime callers reveled in trying to disprove any or all of those claims; one, “Steve from Roseville”, constantly demanded that Chaz produce a copy of his “DD214” discharge papers to prove he’d been a Marine at all.

Chaz got an endless laugh out of that.

I do know Chaz was a bodybuilder, a guy who effected a boundlessly self-adoring, arrogant-with-tongue-firmly-in-cheek on-air personality that irritated people so badly they tuned in in droves – including me. He was also, once you got to know him, a warm, personable guy who stopped by Lunds to pick up a baked chicken and veggies to share with Dave and I, his grossly underpaid producers, nearly every day. He was a change in pace from working with the zany Vogel, but it was a lot of fun. I learned a lot about talk radio from Geoff; perception, in radio, is reality; relentless earnestness is boring; above all, have a lot of fun with it.

Anyway.

The reporter had hung around the station for the better part of a day. He talked with just about everyone in the place – myself, the lowliest peon of the bunch, included – but spent a lot of time, including an on-air interview (if memory serves, and it very well may not) with Chaz.

Skip ahead a few weeks.

I walked out of the store, leaned up against the grill of the jeep, and started reading.

I flipped back a few pages, and found the article – complete with interior shot of the old KSTP talk studio. And I read the article.

Skimmed, really. It focused heavily on Charles, who was indeed the station’s most interesting host.

Skim ahead.

It touched briefly on the morning show, with the interminable Mike Edwards and his newly-acquired co-host Lee Valsvik, in her first full-time radio gig.

Didn’t care. Skim ahead.

He ripped, hard, on the station’s array of tedious network hosts – Michael Jackson, Owen Span, Bruce Williams, Harvey Ruben, Sally Jesse Raphael…

Zzzzzz. Skim ahead…

Paydirt!

He wrote; “Mitch Berg, a painfully polite man and unreconstructed rock and roller who thinks anyone to the left of Genghis Khan is a Trotskyite, does a conservative show from 2 to 4 Monday mornings…”

Booyah! My first press coverage!

I pasted the clip to the wall of my “office” – my coffee-table-book-sized surface jammed against a stack of satellite demodulators – as soon as I got to work.

Next stop, the big time!

—————-

The writer, of course, was James Lileks. It was his first encounter, if I recall correctly, with Chaz – which led to a series of regular guest shots (including one that will be subject for a future installment of this series), which led to a series of substitute hosting gigs, which led to a full-time show, which led back to “The Diner” in its various incarnations, which led to his weekly appearances on the Hugh Hewitt show.

And a bunch of writing, too.

I think I still have that copy of the March 4, 1987 City Pages stashed away.

Somewhere. I’m sure I do.

Continue reading

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part XLV

It was Sunday night (really Monday Morning, February 15-16, 1987. I was in the studio at KSTP, getting ready to do the “Mitch Berg Show”.

I was talking with one of our engineers. Most of the station’s engineering staff was in their sixties, and had been with Hubbard Broadcasting since the late forties. Between them, they had eighty-odd years of engineering experience.

I was sitting up, killing time with one of them. My confidence level was up to the point where I could actually sit and talk before a show, rather than frantically planning and making sure I had every conceivable base covered.

The thing about engineers (back in the days when stations still had to have them) was that there was no keeping secrets from them. In an industry where air talent and salespeople had about a 100% annual turnover, engineers – who tended to survive cutbacks in those days – provided the institutional memory for most radio stations.

We got to talking about the boss, Pervy LeDouchebag [1].

The engineer told us a story from Pervy’s past.

“Back when he was working at (a Hubbard station) in about ’74 – no, ’75…no, I think it was ’74. I should ask [another engineer], he’d know if it was ’74 or ’75…”

The engineer tended to fly easily off onto his own tangents. But he came back on point eventually.

“Anyway, Pervy was working news back then. He left the studio after his 3PM newscast to go get lunch.”

“And he didn’t come back at 4. Or 5. Or 6…”

“He didn’t come back the next day, or the next day, or all weekend, or the first two days of the next week. Finally, the following Wednesday, he comes back to the studio in time for his 4PM newscast – reeking of booze, wearing the same clothes he’d been wearing when he left. He grabs some copy , and tries to walk into the studio to do his next newscast, like he’d never left. He got really pissed when they wouldn’t let him on the air”

“The checked him into detox. He had no idea where he’d been!”

“Finally, they went over his credit card receipts. He’d been in Detroit, then New Orleans, and then Memphis, and finally back to the Cities.”

I’d started in radio when I was 16. It’s not like I’d not run into egregious alcoholics in the business.

But this was the guy running the station.

I shook the story off and did my show. And had a ball with it.

Continue reading

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part XLIV

It was Valentines’ Evening, 1987.

Another gig!

My band had had the worst gig ever – no, the worst. gig. ever. – about a month earlier, at the old “McReedy’s Pub”, in downtown Minneapolis.  We’d schlepped our gear in, set up, and played three sets of music.

Actually, the story of the three sets of music was better (much better) than the gig itself.  We’d absorbed our new guitar player, “Casey”, the hard way; we practiced four hours a night, four nights a week, every week from New Years on. 

And it wasn’t just covers, either.  We learned three hours of originals – mostly my stuff, but Casey had five or six tunes that people kinda liked, and Bill and Mark (the drummer and bass player) each contributed a song.  Out of thirty songs, we played maybe five covers – “Gimme Some Lovin'” (I could fake the keyboard parts really well back then), a badly-misbegotten rap version of “You Shook Me All Night Long” (which was a funny idea that we could never pull off), a country-western version of Prince’s “Erotic City”, a bad-jazz reading of “Bastards of  Young”, and – what doesn’t fit into this picture? – a very straight version of Badfinger’s “Baby Blue”.  The rest – 18-20 songs – were all mine. 

So we played.  To a house with maybe three people in it.  We didn’t bother charging at the door, naturally – why?  And the sound system – a creaking antique with a reverb tank possessed by demons – gave us hell.  In one song, I sang “you can be a very big fish…”.  As I finished the next line of the song, I could still hear the system echoing “fish fish fish fish fish” from the speakers.  We gradually got things squared away, though – so by the end of the night, near the end of the third set, as we were playing to one guy and his girlfriend, things came across well enough when we did “Baby Blue” that he stood up after the song, walked up to the stage, and handed us $10.  “That was my favorite song of all time”.

That was our take for the whole night.

But it was a month later.  We were a lot tighter.  A lot better.  We knew more stuff (the rap cover was gone, although “Erotic County” survived in our repertoire for a few more years). 

Tonight’s gig – “Fernando’s”, on 15th and East Lake Street. 

Things got off to a rocky start; the bar was supposed to advertise the gig in City Pages.  We’d opened it up the previous Wednesday, to see us plugged as…”TBA”.  (To be fair, Fernando’s screwed up the ad every time we played there, ever.  We thought about changing the band’s name to “TBA”, eventually).

We took the stage at 9:30, ready to go…

…and played to almost as bad a crowd we’d had the previous month.  Casey’s girlfriend Rachel.  Bill and Mark’s sister.  A couple of friends from college, who had agreed to help “work the door”, but quickly wound up as audience, since there was no “door” to “work”.  They left after a set.

And, by the end of the evening, one lonely, broke bartender who cheered gamely along (I ended up leaving a couple of 100% tips out of thanks and sympathy), and a couple of very drunk guys who yelled “Play Comfortably Numb” so many times…

…that we finally gave up and did it.

Who’da thunk – people not wanting to go to a ratty bar in a crime-infested toilet of a neighborhood?  On Valentine’s Day?

We loaded out at the end of the evening and wondered what we were doing wrong.  I resolved to try to get us into a better grade of crappy bar.

As a side note:  One of those college friends who gutted out the first set is not only an occasional reader of this blog, but in fact one of the purchasers of my classic old “What Would Reagan Do” bumperstickers. 

Hiya, Mike!

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part XLIII

A little background.

Over the previous summer, my first General Manager at KSTP, Scott Meier, had left. He eventually wound in New York, where he started WFAN, the first station in the wave of all-sportstalk stations that have swept the nation. For this, he may still be held accountable.

But I digress.

We went without a GM for the better part of four months. Stuck out in Maplewood on Highway 61, far from corporate, we might as well have not existed. The checks showed up every two weeks, and we pretty much did what we did best; produce and host talk shows.

We got the best ratings the station had had as a talk station, from a 2.2 share when I’d started 13 months earlier to a 4.0 in our latest book. We were like a radio Lord of the Flies, stuck in our claustrophobic little bunker in the ‘burbs, like we were putting something over on The Man.

It couldn’t last, naturally.

In mid-October, Hubbard Broadasting sent us a new GM and Program Director, Pervy LeDouchebag [*]. Mr. LeDouchebag had a long pedigree in radio – as an alcoholic with a long history of legendary blackouts.

To make a long ordeal short, Pervy made his presence felt.  On the first day on the job, while talking with the sales manager, he saw one of our news reporters – a very attractive strawberry blonde who was also a very orthodox ultrafeminist, and fairly yelled “Jeezus Christ, look at the t__s on that one!”.  A few moments later, while giving dictation to our receptionist, he apparently made rather forward proposal.  In his first day, he started on his way toward two of the (it was later related) seven sexual harassment suits that eventually helped get him shown to the door.

But that was the future.

Pervy was also a very “hands-on” program director.  One day in late November, we used “Play That Funky Music” by Wild Cherry for a bumper.  Mr. LeDouchebag ran into the control room, face purple with rage.  “Get that *****mn song off the air! It says “Play that Fu****g Music…”

The problem was not that he was a crappy manager.  Most general managers in radio are awful (and no, my current GM John Hunt at the Patriot isn’t one of them).

So it was Monday, January 12, 1987.  The “Mitch Berg Show” had been going great.  I felt it was time for things to move to the next level.  I walked into Mr. LeDouchebag’s office.

“Mr. LeDouchebag”, I started, “my show’s been going well.  I’m wondering – since there’s nothing going on on Sunday mornings, I was wondering if I could take that 2 to 4 AM slot, too…?”

LeDouchebag looked at me, his dead, soulless eyes peering through the leathery mask of his face.  “It all depends on what Don wants.  Your job is to make Don sound good.  Clear it with him!”.

No problem, I thought as I walked into the talk studio for the production meeting.

“Don?”, I asked, “Remember how we’ve been talking about me taking Sunday mornings?  Pervy says it’s up to you.  What to you say”.

Dave, my co-producer, shook his head and chuckled.  Don laughed too – one of the laughs you heard less often from him back then, his sarcastic titter.  “I don’t think that’s going to be an issue”.

“Huh?”

Dave smiled awkwardly at Don.  “Ummmmm…”, he started, “Don’s leaving.

I think I did a spit-take.

“Huh?”

“I’m going to WMAQ.  I gave my notice today.”  Dave shook his head, resignedly.

“I just can’t stand working with LeDouchebag”, he said, laughing.  “It’s too good a deal to pass up”.

The production meeting was strained.  I’d never worked with a lame duck before; it was strange.

The show started at three, and Don made the announcement.  The control room, usually buzzing with energy, seemed drained.

We all had a bad feeling about things.
Continue reading

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part XLII

I had a band.

We’d had one gig – and now, another.

It was Saturday, January 3, 1987, and what we didn’t have was a guitar player.

After our gig at Williams Uptown, two of the three brothers I was playing with seemed interested in progressing with things. The other – the eldest of the three, the other guitar player – on the other hand, was not interested. My Houserockers-Via-Clash vibe rankled his Prince-like sensibilities; he wanted to play dance music that’d reel in the babes; I wanted to create a loud, angry wall of sound.

It wasn’t going to work out.

The other two brothers, the bass and drum players, huddled in the basement the previous night, Friday, and tried to figure out what we were going to do. We had a gig in about two weeks. Our options were:

  1. Go as a “power trio”; guitar, bass and drums. I didn’t want to do that; I wanted a bigger sound, plus I was really enjoying doubling on keys.
  2. Bag the gig. Not a chance; I wanted to play.
  3. Find another guitar player, fast – someone who could learn three sets of material in like two weeks.

If you have known me for any time at all, you know that there was only one option for me; #3 it was.

I dug back through the lists of guys who’d contacted me when I took out my ad in the City Pages. There was one – a guy from Jamestown we’ll just call “Casey” (I’m changing the names, since the story gets a little dicey in the next year or so).  He’d contacted me just after I’d settled on the other guys, a little over a month earlier.

And yes, he was still available.

So it was tonight, January 3, that we all got together and started learning our stuff.  We had three sets to fill at McCready’s – three hours of playing.  And the other three of us – the bass and drummer and I – were closing in on having enough stuff, most of it originals.

We got together at five o’clock Saturday afternoon and played for about five hours, until the noise ordinance said we had to shut down.     then, we sat in the filthy living room of the ratty house and drank Carlings Black Label until about 2AM talking music and musicians.

We were going to do it again, five days a week until we had all four of us ready to go.

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part XLI

It was Thursday, January 1, 1987.  I’d worked probably twenty hours in the past two days, plus probably at least as much over the Christmas break.  It was going to be a great paycheck.

And I’d gotten a call back from a bar, McCready’s Pub in downtown Minneapolis.  They wanted to book us for January 16.  I’d accepted the gig.

The year was getting off to a grand start.

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part XL

Tonight was the big night. Sunday, December 28, 1986. It was going to be a huge night on two fronts.

The evening would kick off with my band’s first gig at Williams’ Uptown Bar on Hennepin in Minneapolis.

Then, after load-out, I’d race out to KSTP to do my show. I was going to interview a childhood idol of mine.

———-

When you play in a dinky garage band, it’s easy to dream big. Sitting in your home studio writing music, or standing around in the basement listening to your band’s progress, and especially standing on stage in front of an appreciative crowd (or “crowd”), it was easy to think “next stop, the big time”. The optimism that accompanies the sort of muted arrogance that makes one think that anyone actually cares to hear what you write makes it easy to think, on reading one’s lyrics, hearing one’s practices, and seeing people watching you play, that you’ve got it going on.

But loading-in usually levels that out nicely.

Turns out I was the only driver in my band. The other three guys bused everywhere. And while we didn’t have a lot of equipment by the standards of the bands I’d played in high school (where we had to haul a PA system along with our instruments), there was enough – two guitars and a bass, their amps, a drum kit, and a Crumar T1 organ – and it didn’t haul itself, and it wasn’t going to fit into the back of my Jeep. I’d managed to borrow a van from one of my roommate’s parents, though. I got to the band’s house, and we started hauling our gear out of the stinky basement into the frigid late afternoon.

The good part – it was only about five blocks to the bar. The bad part – we were early.

The headliner that night was a group called “Bathyscope”. The name meant nothing to us – yet. What we did know was that they had a ton of gear – guitars, bass, two keyboard players (whose equipment is always heavy and bulky) and a drummer with a huge kit, and a box packed solid with other percussion instruments and stage props – and bigger pretensions, it seemed, in getting it set up and soundchecked. It took them a solid ninety minutes to get their gear up on stage, soundchecked, and ready to go.

Then it was our turn. As the opener, we were supposed to put our gear in front of the headliners, plug in, and grab a sound-check – if we had the time. By the time Bathyscope got off stage, it was 8:25. We were supposed to go on at nine.

We pulled, hauled and plugged, and got our stuff set up and more or less ready by about ten ’til, and started our soundcheck – a few bars of one of our songs. People were filing into the joint. The Bathyscope people – who looked, except for the drummer, to be distinctly “uptown” by the standards of Minneapolis in the day – were not visibly impressed with our Iron City Houserockers-Via-Lou Reed vibe.

But it didn’t last long. Will, our drummer, stopped in mid-song. I turned – he was frantically fiddling with something under his snare drum. I walked over.

“My hi-hat’s broken”.

Five minutes until we’re supposed to start. Crap.

Our options were two: Borrow a couple of pan lids from the kitchen, or hope someone would come through for us.

Bathyscope’s drummer – a big guy who looked to be in his late teens or early twenties, the only black guy in the room – came up on stage. He and Will conferred back behind the drum kit – and then he reached back to his own rig and grabbed his hi-hat. They turned to moving Will’s broken ‘hat out of the way, and putting his in place.

And we were on. Larry Sahagian, sitting at the sound board, went on the crackly, on-its-last-legs PA system and announced “Ladies and Gentlemen – Tenant’s Union”.

————

The gig itself – well, it was rough.

Turns out that excitement does make people go a lot faster than they think they are. The tapes we heard after the gig were shocking; it sounded like we were playing 50% faster than we were supposed to. The sound was garbled, my voice sounded like a fractured, out of breath yelp, and we sounded more like four guys playing at the same time than a band of four guys playing together.

The crowd was worse. There was a decent house, about 3/4 full…

…that seemed pretty uninterested in us. The clapping between songs was muted and wan. We weren’t dying – just gravely injured.

Still, I had fun; to me, there’s never been a feeling quite like working a room, even if it’s not perfect. We played ten songs, eight of them mine. And, rough as we were, by about the sixth or seventh song we started finding whatever groove we had; we were loud, (too) fast, and even though things were rough, we had a certain power to our delivery that felt like climbing on a big motorcycle, one that may need a tuneup but still makes the air crackle with power just a little bit.

During the third to the last song – “Five Short Words” – one guy back at the bar stood up with a look of recognition and a broad smile on his face, and started clapping along. I played the whole song directly to him – might as well reinforce success – and filed the guy’s face away for later.

After the tenth song, we were done. There was scatted clapping as we unplugged and started hauling our gear out of the way and Bathyscope started moving theirsinto place.

We hauled our gear out to the van, and sat down to watch.

And figured out quickly why the crowd hadn’t really dug us. “Bathyscope” was a jazz-pop band with very arty aspirations. The lead singer, a (how do we say this in our politically-correct age) aggressively gay guy dressed in an untucked tunic with laurel wreath (!) on his head, danced about the stage like an oversized dwarf from Spinal Tap’s “Stonehenge” scene. They set their amps and keyboards (and their stage props) on – I’m not kidding – doric half-columns. The band was modestly tight – the drummer was amazing, and the rest of the band was not great, not bad – and extremely ornate in that music-major-y kind of way. It was very unlike our thrashy din.

Um.

As they finished their set, the singer announced “Come see our art next Saturday at the Riflesport Gallery!”

Double Um.

Before we left, I walked back to the bar. The guy who’d been clapping walked up to me.

“That song you did – that was a reference to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, wasn’t it?”

It was.

Six weeks work, and our fan base is a fellow English major and Russian Lit geek.

I also saw Larry Sahagian, who paid us our twenty bucks. “You guys did all right, but you were totally the wrong band to open for these guys”.

Anyway. At least none of our friends had seen us.

——————

We went back to the basement and loaded our gear downstairs. By the time we were done, it was 12:30AM. I had to race out to the station to get on the air. I got there at 1AM – a little late, given the obsessiveness I put into show prep at that point in my “career” – but I got down to it.

Among my various geekinesses as a child and teenager was a fascination with fighter planes and aerial combat. I knew a little bit about many of the world’s classic dogfights. The protagonist of one of my favorite dogfights – a Navy F-4 ace from the Vietnam War that I’d been reading about for years – had just written a book. I had booked him for a phone interview from his home in LA.

After five months of doing the show, I was starting to settle into a bit of a groove. The awkard halting of my first couple attempts at guest interviews had been replaced by a little confidence and a tad of polish – which is damning by faint praise, but whatever – and at least I knew the subject matter for this interview pretty intimately.

The interview went…very well. It clicked as well as the gig had not. I knew the material in the book, and the guest appreciated it. I knew things about his story that, clearly, he wasn’t used to radio interviewers knowing. And the callers surprised me; one of the callers had even served on the carrier, the Constellation, with the guest during the Vietnam war, and added a lot to the commentary.

I wasn’t the only one who thought it went well – I heard the following week from the PR agent that the guest had had more fun on my little show than with any other interview he’d given.

I could have told her that.

I drove home that night – exhausted, cold, and giddy. The music career needed some work, but was off and running. And for the first time since July, I was starting to feel genuinely confident as a talk show host. I felt, for the first time, like I could fill in for any of the daytime hosts, and not embarass anyone in the process.

I could see the top of the world from where I sat in my Jeep.

————————

Postlude: It’s interesting to me, twenty years later, to note that I had one degree of separation with both fame and infamy that night (three, if you count Larry Sahagian, whose band the Urban Guerillas was about to release their proto-grunge classic Attack of the Pink, Heat-Seeking Moisture Missiles.  But for the benefit of those who weren’t marinating in Twin Cities underground music twenty years ago, I won’t count that).

The personable, friendly, good-samaritan drummer for Bathyscope went on to much bigger and much better things. He turned out to be Mike Bland – at the time an Augsburg student, who was gigging for a few bucks on his way to a career as one of the most sought-after session drummers in the business, as well as stints with Prince and the New Power Generation and Soul Asylum.

The author and fighter pilot? Well, he was Duke Cunningham – still a hero, in those days, known for shooting down five North Vietnamese jets, including three on one climactic day, long before his political career and eventual status as poster-boy for Congressional corruption.

I knew ’em both when.

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part XXXIX

It was Christmas Eve, 1986. Life was pretty dang good, I reflected as I drove north on Cedar Avenue, the lights of downtown shimmering in the distance.

It had been a long day. I had been feasting like a vulture on all the board shifts nobody else wanted to work that day; I screened calls for the Mike Edward morning show, ran the board for Geoff Charles, the mid-day syndies (Owen Span and Michael Jackson), the Vogel Show (Don did a special Christmas show), and was planning on running again from 10AM to 6PM the next day, for a bit of extra money. I was learning to love holidays largely as a revenue booster – I had worked pretty much every holiday in the past year.

After the Vogel show got off the air, I started on my evening’s plans. I’d gotten a few invitations – to a couple of my roommates’ families places, and to one of my coworkers’ families house. I stopped by an evening church service, and then off to Edina (hors d’oeuvre and eggnog), Bloomington (a vodka sour and swedish meatballs) and South Minneapolis (dinner, cheesecake). By the end of the night, I was full, comfy, and pretty darn happy.
Things had changed a lot since Christmas of ’85, my first in the cities:

I pulled out and baked a Tombstone pizza – at $3, a bit of a splurge – and a couple of beers (Stroh’s, as I recall), opened a couple of presents I’d gotten from my parents, and turned on the TV. I had two beers left, and ran through one of ’em as I called my family (my brother and sister were still living with my parents, whose divorce was still five years in the future).

By 9-ish, that was pretty much it. I kicked back on the couch, ate the pizza, drank the last beer, watched the Pope’s mass on TV, read the book Dad gave me…

By 11ish I was bored. The TV ran an ad for “Gab Line”, a phone chat line back in the era before Chat Lines got their seedy reputation (or at least when I was just off the turnip truck and didnt’ know about their seedy reputation). “Only 10 cents a minute”. I dialled in.

I did what I usually did on night like this; took a drive. I did a turn around Lake Harriett, then Calhoun, and finally Lake of the Isles. It was crisp and cold, but not brutal that night.

I pulled over at Thomas Beach. The lake was frozen, and I had the whole place to myself.  I walked across the street, to the frozen sand, and perched on a bench to look over the city skyline gleaming in the distance.   It had been a pretty busy year, and I had a ton to be thankful for. I’d made some good progress on at least some of my life’s big goals. My “career” in talk radio – a business I’d barely known existed a year earlier – was going well beyond anything I’d dreamed. My band was going to be debuting in four days – we were so ready for that! And the girlfriend thing…well, we’d work on that soon enough.
It’d been a great year. The next year, I thought, could be a whole lot better.

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part XXXVIII

It was Thursday, December 18, 1986.

It had been almost a month since I met the rest of my band. Things had clicked famously. The three brothers had been playing in bands together for years, so they were pretty tight. So when we got together and actually started playing – in the basement of a duplex on 24th at Hennepin in the Wedge – things really took off.

After the radio interview, I’d worn a groove in the carpet at William’s Uptown Bar, where Larry Sahagian – who’d made the mistake of being my guest on the Mitch Berg Show that late night a few weeks ago – was the booker.  Finally, perhaps as much to be rid of me as anything, he booked us to play.  We’d debut on Sunday, December 28.

Right before my show.

No matter.  I could do it all.  Besides – we had bigger things to worry about.

Like picking a name.

And getting some posters out.

And learning an hour’s worth of music, while we were at it.

We started practicing in late November; three nights a week, Tuesday through Thursday (the bass player worked Mondays, and who really wanted to practice on the weekends?).  The first few weeks of practice with any band you enjoy playing with are like the first few weeks of a really fun relatiionship; you just can’t stop, you want to spend all your free time at it.  So we did; I’d head over to practice after I got done with the Vogel Show in the evening (I’d haul my guitar to work), we’d start at seven, and play until ten or so (and usually later, since the neighbors on the top floor of the squalid duplex usually were too high to care).

Coming up with music was easy; I had demo tapes for about four dozen songs I’d written; I managed to sell the guys on a solid couple dozen of them.  The other guitar player, Nick, the oldest of the brothers, had four or five of his own.  It only took 10 or 12 songs to play a set (you only got about an hour if you were an opener anyway), so we were fixed.

But getting people to show up?  On a Sunday?  Another entire story.

As to the name…

I’d never been in a band where selecting a name was anyting other than a complete donnybrook.  Egos were involved; creative people were getting doused in each others’ creative juices.

The four of us spent an hour or so after several practices tossing out names.

“The Joseph Stalin Band!”

“The Head of Alfredo Garcia!”

“Couch Beautiful Shriek…”

“The Turning Cookies!”

And on and on and on.

We were getting to the point where we had to do something to start publicizing the gig.  It was Thursday night.  I walked into the basement – which always smelled very faintly of natural gas, probably from some not-entirely-sealed pipe somewhere – and set my guitar case on an unused clothes dryer…

…and saw a notepad covered with scribbled notes in the various brothers’ hands.  At least one of the brothers had been putting band names in the notebook; I noticed a few names that had come and gone over the past few days.  One note read, tersely…

Tenant’s Union”

I broke up laughing.  “Perfect!”

“Huh?” asked Will, the drummer.

I expounded briefly on how I loved the name “Tenant’s Union”.  They all cocked their eyes…

…and agreed, although with a few rolled eyes.

Thenceforth, we were “Tenant’s Union”.

It took me the better part of a year to learn why they seemed so quizzical;  the note had nothing to do with naming the band.  The guys were literally going to call the Tenant’s Union on their slumlord landlord.

But no matter.  We had a gig to get ready for.

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part XVI

There was genuinely not much to report in the three weeks since the last “Twenty Years Ago…” piece.

Life had basically fallen into a very predictable routine:

  • Mondays and Thursdays were for job-hunting. The Sunday and Wednesday Stribs had all the new job listings. I diligently trekked up to the library at Lake and Minnehaha both mornings, read the paper, copied down the information, then walked home to my apartment on 37th and cranked out cover letters.
  • Most mornings I’d go to the Rainbow on Lake and Minnehaha. I’d wear a couple layers of clothes – jacket, sunglasses, etc; I’d walk around the store and graze on all the samples once, then shuck the jacket and shades and go back around again. I’d get a fair-to-middlling meal out of the circuit. I doubt I fooled anyone.
  • Saturdays, I’d take the 38 bus over to Little Tin Soldier for a day’s worth of wargaming; Saturdays usually had some sort of “modern micro-armor” (little lead models of World War II or Cold War tanks and other equipment) battle; it was always open-play, and someone’d always lend me a company or two of vehicles. It was the cheapest eight hours of entertainment going.
  • In the evening, I’d play guitar and try to write music around my roommate’s kitchen table; he worked swing shift, so it was easy; my upstairs neighbors were (apparently) Ukranian squat-dancers who jumped around on their linoleum floor all day in wooden clogs, and then either fought or had loud sex on mattresses made out of old transmission parts all night, so I figured I could get away with a little acoustic guitar and quiet warbling. I figured since I’d moved here in part to be a rock star, I’d better write some music.
  • Sundays, I’d take a hike. On days like this – chilly, foggy, a stiff wind – I’d hike down Hiawatha to Minnehaha Park, walk down the endless wooden stairways to the creek, and walk down the stream course through the woods to where Minnehaha joined the Mississippi River, by the Vets hospital. It was cold, and fairly quiet (only the cars on the Ford Bridge and, occasionally, the horns of passing tugs; I’d sit against a tree for an hour or two and watch the river go by and just think, the chill settling into my bones in a way that felt almost satisfying after a week’s worth of the burning anxiety of being in my sixth week of looking for a job.
  • I’d call KSTP every Wednesday, more to keep a routine going than out of any expectation for a job.

After my encounter with Tom Myhre at the demonstration a month earlier and the unsuccessful interview with Jean the Producerthree weeks earlier, my contact – executive producer Bruce Huff – told me to call back periodically. I did – weekly, on Wednesdays. I never actually reached him again. It was on November 27 that I finally got through to someone.

“Bruce Huff is no longer at the station”.

My heart didn’t especially slump; this was typical of radio, people disappearing from stations on no notice. I’d pretty much given up radio as a career – in fact, part of me didn’t want to work in the racket again.

“But I’ll put you through to Rob Pendelton”.

I waited a few minutes on hold, and Pendelton came on the line, in a voice that didn’t sound especially made for radio in the classical sense. He was the new “Executive Producer” – Huff had left…

…and there was a chance that another position was going to open up.

“Call back next week”, he told me. I made a note.

Next Wednesday.

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part XXXVII

It was Sunday, November 16, 1986. I had gotten a ton of responses from my City Pages ad.

Oh, some of them were doozies. High school kids, guys just out of rehab, a stripper who figured she was Leta Ford…

…in short, people who answered every ad in the City Pages. Because not a one of them knew who Southside Johnny or Joe Grushecky were – and the one person who’d heard of Richard Thompson, thought he was heavily influenced by the Cure.

But after a week or so, I got a call from a guy, a drummer, who not only knew each of them – he and his brother, a bass player (!) owned a copy of Love’s So Tough, the Iron City Houserockers’ debut album.

I then spent a week and a half trying to find the drummer – his phone got cut off for a week or so, which was pretty typical for drummers, but still.

Finally – the week after Halloween – we got together. He came over to my basement hovel/studio on 46th and Wentworth, I popped a couple of beers, we talked music (he was into Springsteen, the Jukes, the Heartbreakers, the Clash, the Pistols, Stiff Little Fingers, Thompson (good), as well as Lou Reed and the Screaming Blue Messiahs (not quite as good)). Then, finally, the moment of truth. I popped the demo cassette with the five best songs I’d written and recorded into the stereo.

He dug it.

I was getting pretty jazzed by this point. An instant rhythm section? Almost too good to be true.

We arranged to meet the following week – Saturday night, the 15th of November – at their older brother’s place, which doubled as a rehearsal space, which tripled as part of the basement of a warehouse in downtown Minneapolis. Better still? Older brother played guitar.

We wound up jamming, the four of us, until about 2AM, when my voice and fingers gave out. We agreed we had to give this a shot.

——

It was Sunday. A pretty typical winter Sunday, all in all; I drove out to the station that night for an anything-but-typical Mitch Berg Show.

My relationship with my “producer”/”engineer” Griff was, as noted before, dicey at best. One needed to keep him entertained, or he’d wander off to the transmitter shack and forget about screening calls. The sportscasts helped a lot. But he wanted more. He wanted to book guests.

Not just any guests. Guests that’d help out with his real career as a band agent.

So that night, we were going to be talking about Twin Cities Rock and Roll with an all-star panel; Skip Waslaski from Southern Thunder Sound, Larry Sahagian of the band “Urban Guerrillas”, and a couple of guys whose names I don’t remember…no, whose names I doubt I retained even then, but were members of one of Griff’s bands.

At least Griff was excited.

I don’t remember much of the interview, except that Skip knew everyone that had ever played in a band in the Twin Cities, and that Larry…well, in addition to playing in a band that made The Doors look like “Up With People”, Larry was the booker for a bar.

“So, Larry – I have this band…”

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part XXXVI

It was Wednesday, October 29, 1986.  It was time to become a rock star.

After a manic blast of auditioning for bands when I’d first moved to the Cities – in the winter and spring of ’85-’86 – I figured I’d take some time off, concentrate on work (which needed quite a bit of concentration, at the time), and work on music in my spare time.

Given my intermittently obsessive nature, that involved getting home from work much of the summer and curling up in front of my Fostex X-15 four-track cassette player (it looked a lot like this), a drum machine, an electronic organ (which when miked properly did a passable Farfisa impression, and after a couple of beers sounded more and more like a Hammond B3), and my guitars and bass, and cutting demo tapes).

And cutting.  And cutting.

Over the summer – starting in May, running through September – I must have recorded 60 or 70 songs; a few were covers (I was unaccountably proud of my version of “Skateaway”), most were things I’d written.  Of the stuff I wrote, most was crap, and I knew it even then.  I’d exhumed a few things I’d jotted down in college (bathetic crap mixed with derivative crap), and wrote tons more crap (a combination of contrived crap and slapdash crap) after I moved to the Cities.

But in and among the crap were a few bits and pieces, maybe five songs, that I was fairly proud of, and that I’d done some decent demos for.

So I took out an ad in the City Pages’ “Musicians Wanted” section.

“Musicians Wanted” was pretty much where the whole lower range of the Twin Cities’ music scene vented its hopes, desires and fears in those days.  Ads from brash bands of teenagers pulsed with desire to rock the entire world; fatigue and smoke wafted from bar-band guitarists looking for a paying gig; synth-pop artistes oozed bemused contempt for whatever mainstream they recognized;  punks’ ads read like old Replacements records sounded.  There was one ad that must have run for two years; I still remember it well enough to paraphrase closely:

NuDu Seeks Keyboardist

NuDu; pure wave, pure noise, pure attitude.  Do you DARE?  Call 612-555-5555

I don’t know if NuDu ever found their keyboard player.  I’m loathe to say they passed into unknown band history, keyboardless, and are all working as mortgage underwriters and school principals; I remember reading a listing in New Yorker when I was in high school, in about 1980, for a group playing at CBGB.  The name struck me as so relentlessly dumb, I figured they could never make it big.

My prediction was, unfortunately, wrong.

Where was I?  Oh, yeah.  City Pages.

Me?  I’d wanted something different.  The previous week, I wrote an ad and carried it down to the City Pages’ office.

The actual ad is long lost to  history, but I remember trying to write it.  The key point to writing a “Musicians Wanted” ad was not so much to say what you were about, it seemed (at least, if you wanted to do your own music); rather, you were about your “influences”.  Since nobody knew you (or your music, if you were trying to write your own), then “Influences” were sort of a lingua franca; if you listed Brian Ferry as an influence, you were likely not going to joining a bunch of New York Dolls fans in a band.  T

Of course, interpretations of influences varied widely.  Listing “Bono”, for example, might mean you were into raw, passionate delivery, or it could imply artiness (especially if you listed Echo and the Bunnymen or The Cure along with Bono), or perhaps an interest in gleefully bombastic music.  And of course, listing any big name – Prince, Springsteen, Paul Westerberg, Bob Mould – was a kid’s desperately-uncool mistake, unless you were starting a straight-up cover band (playing nothing but stuff off the radio to, y’know, make real money or something).

Me?  I had to be crafty.  I took the oblique route.  I listed “Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, the Iron City Houserockers, Richard Thompson and Hemingway”.  My strategy was ingeniously clever; the Jukes and Houserockers would show that I was a Springsteen buff, but knew the genre better than most (or was merely cooler than the average fan); the Thompson reference was a back-door reference to the bombastic Celtic/Gaelic revisionism of U2, the Alarm and Big Country; Hemingway just showed how dang cool I was.  And above all – if I found someone out there who’d heard of the Houserockers or the Jukes, I’d be most likely among friends.

That was the theory.

And today – Wednesday – the ad came out.

I stopped at the record store on the way home to see if the ad made it in; it had.  I read it dozens of times as I walked back to the jeep and sped home.

I got into the house, and rolled tape on the answering machine.