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:
- 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.
- 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…
- 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…
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:
- Tiger Tiger (Bill the drummer’s song – yes, it was a William Blake reference. I told you he was Irish).
- 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).
- Switchyard Blues (think The Who covering Mose Allison. I played a VERY mean harmonica that night)
- Espresso Casey (Casey the other guitar player’s ode to working in a crappy coffee shop back before everyone was doing it)
- 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)
- Blood On The Bricks (the Iron City Houserockers’ classic)
- Oh Suzanne (a bald-faced mash note)
- Fourth Of July (a song I still play at the occasional open stage night)
- 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)
- 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.