Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Dream

I’m 52 and I still want to be a pop star when I grow up. Sometimes I feel sorry for people that don’t have a dream to chase. Often the dream is a drug you can never get that first high from, an addiction that can never be satisfied.

When I was a child The Beatles set the bar. This was the almost unattainable height that could be achieved. I’ve never had a self-image problem and was undaunted by all obstacles.

Like most kids I decided a band was necessary before I even learned to play. Fortunately I was surrounded by talented people.

I think I was in 8th grade when my buddy Dominic picked up a beautiful vintage Gibson electric guitar, began to play and was joined on drums by his little brother Benet. Benet was 12.

They were great. Benet had just gotten a real trap kit. Before that he played on trash cans. He still used one for his drum stool.

Dominic had learned a bunch of songs from his older brother Daniel. In fact a couple of years later when Dom picked up flute I think it was because his sister had one he could use.

I don’t think Dominic owned anything he played for years. I’m still pretty sure I got into the band because Dominic could use my amp.

The years went by and our egos wouldn’t allow us to be a cover band so the material improved. We were convinced we could outplay The Mahavishnu Orchestra, King Crimson and Jethro Tull.

The one thing we never got past was our vocals. Dominic did most of the leads because he was the least shy.

We even brought in vocalists. The most notable was our buddy Theo Johnson. Poor Theo! He had absolutely nothing to work with but man; he gave it the old college try. I spent a year with him just getting him into the psychology of the band.

After Theo left, Dominic and I started singing. We got more comfortable and the band started to gel. Punk Rock happened and it made us reevaluate our music. We became less pretentious and even started paying more attention to melody. We started writing songs instead of compositions. It was in no way selling out, we were growing.

We developed a following. At first it was friends and then friends of friends. We got roadies and a large truck we named Zsa Zsa.

We released a few singles and a couple of LPs. We got a lot of college airplay and everything was looking good.

No one could quite figure us out. The punk bands were our friends but couldn’t figure out our music. We were a little older than them.

The KSHE crowd thought we were a punk band. KSHE was the classic rock station but that phrase hadn’t been coined yet. They just weren’t open to anything different.

One of their DJs threw a battle of the bands at a rock club near Hanley and Highway 40 called The Animal House. The bands all sounded like Sammy Hagar. When we went on we brought down the house. It seemed the judges had predetermined the winners but the response to us was so enthusiastic they called it a tie and scheduled us to come back in a week for a showdown.

Our crowd scared the Hell out of them. Punk rockers The Ooze-kicks were fans and they showed up in full mohawk-skin pierced regalia. There were also members of a band that would become The Urge.

All the bands were plastering St. Louis with flyers in those days. Some were pretty good. The art was getting written up in the papers because it could be even better than the bands. We had a friend who worked for an offset printer and got free posters. I remember the flyer for the rematch was designed by him. It boldly proclaimed Wax Theatricks (formally Earwacks) will play…… It should have said formerly and it bugs me to this day. We covered the whole city with them too.

Our friends made sure the house was packed the following week and we were even better than before. There was no denying we’d won. The band we were playing against was managed by the KSHE DJ. He announced over the din of the angry crowd that the other band had won because someone had sabotaged their equipment and they won by default.

We weren’t part of the club and it was obvious we were going to have to make it on our own. Now everyone has to. That was the beautiful thing about the Punk movement. The bands took back their industry.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Sparta Leaper Colony

Last night Valerie and I went to an event I’ve been looking forward to for months. It was the Sparta Leaper Colony reunion. It was at an Elks Lodge in Ladue. I didn’t know Elks Lodges had swimming pools. Maybe it did because it was in Ladue.

Sparta, Illinois was the home of Archway Skydiving Centre, a drop zone with a history going back to the 50s.

In the nineties we lost Sparta and moved to Vandalia. Not everyone made the move. A lot of my friends fanned out across the country. I did a lot of traveling back then and made a lot of new friends. Many Sparta jumpers went on to become world champions.

My buddies Jim and Scott Cowan had the team Quantum Leap. They won the national title for CReW (canopy relative work) and went on to become world champs. CReW is where they make all their formations under parachutes instead of freefalling.

They held the title for years and were able to get the country’s first SBA loan for and operation in Sullivan, Missouri. They called it Quantum Leap, of course. I worked there for years.

My heart was always in Sparta though. When I started there I’d just broken up with my girlfriend Joanie and felt like I had nothing keeping me in St. Louis. I was at a low point and I even temporally forgot about my musical ambitions.

Dave Verner ran the operation. Dave’s one of my two favorite bosses. Not surprisingly both were like fathers to me. Dave’s son Kirk moved on to join the Arizona Airspeed 4-way and 8-way freefall team. They became world champions and the only non-military team to beat the Army’s Golden Knights.

I bought my first rig from Don Thomas. Don was Wesley Snipes stunt double in the film Drop Zone. That led to other jobs. At the time Don was the only black skydiver allowed to do stunt work because no one else had enough jumps. In the movie Congo Don had a friend of his get a special waver because he only had 800 jumps. Two white guys had to wear black face.

While I was in Sparta I lived in a tent and sometimes slept in a small Cessna airplane. I didn’t have money then either. Everyone else stayed at the motel in town. It might sound romantic but in the summer if I closed the door the airplane became an oven. If I opened the door I was devoured by mosquitoes.

Anyway, the reunion was organized by Calvin “Calmodee” Britt and Gary “Titz” Barnyardie. Calvin sent us this……. with the one and only Dave "Bossman" Verner. Mr Archway Skydiving himself, the King of Kalamity, the Prince of Platitudes, the original "Do it All" Skygod of yore...., an evening of embellishment and laughter of the highest degree....

When we arrived the place was crowded. I thought they were Elks out on a Friday night. When I looked a little closer they were all dear friends. We’d all gotten so much older I didn’t recognize anyone at first. It was a testament to the love everyone felt for Dave that the place was packed. Skydivers came out of the woodwork.

Calvin’s always been a great organizer. He got us all together to do the Missouri POPS record in 2005. POPS stands for Parachutists Over Phorty. We did it at Quantum Leap in Sullivan out of the very airplane all of our friends died in. Four of the six fatalities were in our group.

Valerie had to get up early for work so we had to leave a little early. It almost broke my heart when I told Dave we were leaving. He looked at me and said, “No you’re not!”

Pics in order..... Dave Verner(The Prince of Darkness), Calmodee, Mo POPS record group 2005 (I'm last row-far left), old time skydive instruction at Sparta, memorial to our dear departed.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Jeff Jones

I spent all morning going through the Laclede Town FaceBook pics looking for Jeff Jones. Jeff was one of my buddies there. Laclede has been called America’s only successful housing project. More than a few of the kids that grew up there thought it was a lot like The Village in the 60s TV series The Prisoner.

Jeff was one of the really great American/St. Louis characters. I’ve never known anyone like him. I’ve already posted a lot of my recollections of him in Laclede Town FB comments but I’d like to bring them together here.

For anyone one reading my posts I urge you to read the comments section. They’re my favorite part and I’m hoping to get a few about Jeff.

When we moved into Laclede Town there wasn’t a school yet. Waring School was boarded up and had been closed for years. Plans were under way to rehab and staff the building and there weren’t enough of us for a whole building anyway. That first year they put kindergarten thru 4th grade and 5th thru 8th in two rooms at Harris Teacher’s College. We only had two teachers. I remember they kept us busy copying the entire dictionary.

I sat at the end of the 1st grade row of desks and Jeff sat at the end of the 2nd grade row so we were next to each other. I was supposed to print my dictionary entries but Jeff taught me cursive writing. I remember the teacher giving me a bag of mini candy bars for my impressive effort.

I used to run through the neighborhood with a single ear bud plugged into my dad’s transistor radio. KXOK was in its heyday. I lent the radio to Jeff and he got the impression I’d given it to him. I was too embarrassed to ask for it back. My dad never asked me what happened to it.

I convinced Jeff I was taking Judo lessons. I remember digging myself in deeper and deeper describing my made up lessons to Jeff’s skeptical dad.

When we all became teenagers it was the golden age of hippies and Jeff, in spite of the fact he was black, was the coolest hippie of all of us. He lived in an apartment with another friend of ours named Tom Quain. Tom had ass length wavy red hair and Jeff had a huge afro. Their hippie pad was a total wreck and it stunk of a neglected cat box. It was a real life realization of Robert Crumb’s Fabulous Furry Freak brothers complete with Fat Freddie’s cat!

I’ll never forget showing the first movie I made in my bedroom at my West End apartment. I must have had 20 kids in there. It was a bunch of shorts with a soundtrack that opened with a fast motion sequence of driving from my apartment to a Steak and Shake on Hampton right up to the grill where a fry cook was flipping burgers.The music was Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sister’s Accentuate The Positive. I thought Jeff was going to fall off the bed in a fit of laughter. He was the most captive audience I ever had.

Drugs were everywhere and we were always on something as we roamed the streets of the Central West End. Streaking was popular at the time. I remember walking down Euclid Avenue and Jeff was totally naked. He didn’t even try to run through anything. He was totally casual and spent the whole evening naked and cops just laughed and shrugged it off. The West End was a different place in those days.

The last time I saw him was the mid to late 70s. He came into Wuxtry, a used record store I was working at. He was very happy. He’d been living off and on in Jamaica. He couldn’t believe there was a place where a person could live without having to be at all conscious they were black. He said it was like a great weight had been lifted.

Jeff seems to have completely fallen from the face of the earth. The last thing he told me was he’d received a call from a wrong number. He kept the caller on the phone long enough to strike up a conversation. They got together and fell in love. He said he was going to marry her and move to Jamaica. Jeff had no fear and incredible social skills. Everyone loved him. He’s probably the only person I’ve ever know that no one had any bad feelings about.

FaceBook has led me to a lot of people I thought were dead or at least out of my life completely. There have been enquiries about him on FB and I hope he responds.

Pic is from a magazine article about Laclede Town in the late 60s. This is the Coach and Four Pub. Both my parents tended bar there. I bet one of those kids is me!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Paperboy

The hard copy newspaper model of delivering news is coming to an end. I wonder what kind of jobs kids can get these days.

I come from the golden age of paper boys walking up and down the streets of St. Louis dragging a large wooden box, with two steel wheels and a handle, filled with newspapers.

I don’t remember girls out there. It probably wasn’t such a golden age for them. In fact, I remember my mom complaining about woman making 1/3 what men made even though they did the same work. There’s still a disparity but things are a lot better. I bet single moms raising kids forced the issue.

I used to walk right down the center of the street with total immunity to cars. It didn’t matter how early in the morning or late at night. I’d lift my hand to my face and yodel into the sky as loud as I could, “Morrrnin’ Galobe Papurahhh.”

It reminds me of a time when I was a young adult. A bunch of friends and I were leaving an evening movie. Instead of going home we drove west. We had a bottle of whiskey. We stood under lamp posts in subdivisions and sang Christmas carols at the top of our lungs. Christmas gave us immunity from public disturbance charges.

I had to collect money from my customers at the end of the week. I was quickly educated about deadbeat adults. Customers I'd seen all week were suddenly not home. It’s amazing how many people will take advantage of kids. I guess anyone in a weaker position really. Maybe this was the beginning of my loss of faith in people.

The weekends were supposed to be more lucrative. Instead of the one or two pennies per copy I got a nickel. I also had a stand across the street from the Shenandoah Theater on Grand. I didn’t have to drag that box up and down the hilly streets.

There was a problem though. My boss always short changed us at pay time. He was also a bad drunk. This got to be really down heartening after throwing away your weekend.

One night we were supposed to go to a movie with my dad. We saw my boss’s station wagon parked at a paper stand. He was yelling at the paperboy there. “Is that the guy?” my dad asked. After we said yes my dad jumped out of the car and threatened the guy to within an inch of his life. My dad was a heavy drinker but even he was shocked at the how drunk the man was. The paper boy confirmed our boss was stealing from us.

I remember my mom getting pissed that my dad didn’t take us to the show. We were supposed to see True Grit. My dad gave us a much better show.

One afternoon I was walking home from my weekend paper stand through the alleys of South St. Louis. A huge, white German shepherd leapt from out of nowhere. My body went into automatic survival mode. I scaled a brick fence that was way over my head. I made it over but not before the dog locked his jaws around my ankle. I sweated out a few days thinking about a long needle penetrating my belly button. I don’t think they treat rabies that way anymore, anyway they found the dog and he had had his shots.

A word of advice here… I was attacked by a rottweiler the other day when I was rollerblading. Stand your ground and yell NO! This has saved me twice. My girlfriend Valerie delivers mail. She was bit last week. There wasn’t enough time to whip out her mace. Unless they’re rabid, dogs respect authority. Showing fear gets you bit!

After that, I discovered selling subscriptions paid a lot more. Man did I have adventures traveling the back roads of Missouri in a panel van with a bunch of other young boys!

Speaking of my dad, my grandfather owned paper routes for a large portion of South St. Louis. He and my grandmother spent a lot of their lives working while everyone else slept. My grandfather’s dream was to pass the business on to my dad. My dad had absolutely no interest in that line of work.

These routes were lucrative enough that when my grandfather did retire, he sold them and bought a motel.

My grandfather was blessed with the same bad judgment all Udells seem to share. He could have bought a motel at the new Lake of the Ozarks but he didn’t think the place would catch on. Instead he bought a motel at a new development near Hardy, Arkansas called Cherokee Village. That’s were my dad met my mom.

These memories were brought back to me because I was training a driver at my work the other day. He had two Post Dispatch routes but had to sell one because business was drying up.

I hope they figure out an internet news model that can pay for good investigative journalism. CNN is going down because their attempt to be non-partisan doesn’t generate viewers. Fox News is going gang busters though.

I’m worried about the ignorance and misinformation that’s becoming so prevalent.

Pics are: my grandparents at their newspaper truck; my grandma, brother Patrick and me in front of a Udell’s Motel unit; and a postcard from there. There’s a great photo of my mom posing in front of a Udell’s Motel billboard before she met my dad but I can’t find it.