Monday, November 29, 2010

Bob Kuban and the In-Men, Our Local Band

Wherever you grew up there was probably a local musician or band that made it big. The St. Louis area spawned many famous musicians, most notably Chuck Berry, Ike & Tina Turner and more recently Michael McDonald, who graduated from my high school, McClure High, in Florissant, Mo. I had already graduated before he began high school so I'm sorry to say I didn't know him. In North St. Louis in the mid '60s the local band that made the big-time was Bob Kuban and the In-Men. If you've heard of them, you are either familiar with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame's one hit wonder list or you’re from the St. Louis area or you have an incredible amount of rock & roll trivia rambling around in your brain. I'm guilty of all three.

Bob Kuban was the drummer and band leader of the In-Men. On Friday nights during the summer, his band would play at Jackson Park, a relatively small park in Berkeley, a north St. Louis suburb. Jackson Park hosted a variety of local bands during the hot St. Louis summer nights. In the summers of 1964 and 1965, my friends and I would go back and forth between Jackson Park and the local YMCA where there was usually a band playing as well. But when Bob Kuban was playing at Jackson Park, we tried not to miss it. He had a first rate band.

The Beatles and the British bands were taking over America at that time and they were the major influence on popular music. Bob Kuban's band was not your typical band of the era. It had more more in common with the earlier rhythm and blues bands of Ike Turner, Wilson Picket and James Brown. In an interview Bob Kuban states that Ike Turner was a big influence on him and his formation of the band. As a footnote to my story, in 1951 before Tina joined him, Ike Turner's band was called The Kings of Rhythm. They recorded a song called Rocket 88 which some believe was the very first rock & roll song. How's that for local boy making history?

Bob Kuban had an eight piece band with horns, drums and keyboard, which was played by a guy from my neighborhood, Greg Hoeltzel. The lead singer was Walter Scott, who had a great voice for this style of music. During those two summers we listened to our local band, knowing they were a cut above the other local groups, playing in their unique St. Louis style. This was several years before The Chicago Transit Authority(Chicago) and Blood Sweat and Tears would bring the big band sound back to popular music. In 1966 Bob Kuban and the In-Men hit it big with The Cheater. The song was all over the radio for months. That year we watched our local guys on national TV, but their run was short lived. They had only a few other songs that got national play, Teaser and a cover of a Beatles song Drive My Car. I also remember hearing a song called Jerkin' Time and the Bat Man Theme on the radio as well, but they may have just been popular locally.

Walter Scott left the band shortly after The Cheater's popularity to pursue a solo career. He never had another hit song, but in his repetoire sang (Look out for) The Cheater over and over again in a variety of performance venues. In 1983 when Bob Kuban was trying to get the original band back together for a reunion concert, he discovered that Walter Scott was missing. Scott was found 4 years later floating face down in a cistern with his ankles, knees and wrists bound. He had been shot through the heart from the back. In one of life's ironic turns, it was discovered that his murderer were his “cheater” wife and her "cheater" boyfriend. There was a Forensic Files TV show about it as well as a book written titled The Cheaters: The Walter Scott Murder by Scottie Piesmeyer.

Bob Kuban still has a band that plays in the St. Louis area. I read that recently they played a summer evening gig at Jackson Park and invited all the fans to come out for old time's sake. I would have liked to have been there. That's the problem with being a nomadic type and having moved away years ago. Not only have I lost touch with most of my old friends, I haven't been back to St. Louis since my friend Paul and I visited eight years ago. But I still have memories of those hot summer evenings in the '60s at Jackson Park listening to our local band that finally made the big-time.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Wes Montgomery and a Giant Doobie

Recently Arizona passed a medical marijuana law. It's still a very contentious topic, each side vehemently arguing against the other. Back in the ’60s and ‘70s I would have predicted the complete legalization by now. At this stage of my life I have mixed emotions about it though. I have some very fond memories from when I was in college at the University of Oregon in the early ’70s that include pot smoking. It seemed so innocent back then. Friends would gather. We'd be having a few beers, listening to music and someone would roll a joint and pass it around. Then we'd all become quiet, listening intently to the music until at some point something would strike one of us as funny and we'd begin to laugh hysterically. The laughing and giggling wouldn't stop until we realized we had a terrible case of the munchies and then we'd raid the frig.
One of the arguments used against legalization is that it is a gateway to other drugs. I think there is some validity to this argument, but for me it was a gateway to mystical experiences. I was influenced by authors like Aldous Huxley, John Lilly, Carlos Castenada, Joseph Chilton Pierce and Ram Dass. I was never tempted to drop acid even though it was the holy grail of psychedelic drugs. As a war veteran I was extremely afraid of getting stuck in a bad trip. I felt I could control marijuana. I knew just how much to smoke to get into a comfortable heightened state of perception. It helped me to understand that peace is in the present moment. It also taught me to let go of past and future, which is the only true freedom. But of course when the drug effect wore off, I was flung back into my neurotic self, feeling lethargic and sometimes with a bad cough and a headache.
I never heard of marijuana until 1967. I was on leave from Army training and getting ready to ship out to Vietnam. I went to a friend’s house to visit him and his girlfriend. They put on some strange music (Vanilla Fudge) and said it sounded even better when you're high. I thought they meant high on alcohol and I said “Well then let’s have a few beers.” His girlfriend looked at me like I was nuts and said, “Don't you know that stuff will kill you.” They told me marijuana was a much safer drug than alcohol and it made you peaceful instead of violent. They asked me if I'd like to try some, but I declined. They weren't too interested in hanging with me anymore after that, so I left.
The first time I smoked a joint was in Vietnam. The doobies over there were almost cigar- sized. You could purchase a bunch of them already rolled and neatly placed in a baggy for about five bucks. One evening in base camp, my black friend Mitch invited me over to his hooch to listen to music. Mitch was from Chicago. He wasn't trained in intelligence like the rest of us, but he was a grunt, an infantryman, assigned to our detachment as an aid to the First Sergeant. Our First Sergeant was an old man, probably in his 40s. He fought in World War II in the German Army. We used to refer to him as the First Nazi, behind his back of course. He could barely conceal his prejudicial thinking. How Mitch got assigned to him I'll never know, Karma I guess. Mitch had an attitude. He was a draftee and didn't care for Army life. He wore his helmet at a rebellious angle and when he wasn't wearing a helmet, he would stick his large comb in his barely perceptible afro hair-do. The First Sergeant could get pissed off just looking at him.
Mitch called me “Little Bro”. He said I was the only white guy he ever called that. I don't know if I believed him, but I liked it. We both loved Motown music. On the top of our favorite musicians list were Marvin Gaye and The Temptations. Smokey Robinson was like a God and then there was Mitch's local Chicago band The Impressions led by “my man” Curtis Mayfield. That night in his hooch,  Mitch said he had some music he wanted to turn me on to. It was the smooth jazz electric guitar of “his man”, Wes Montgomery. While we were listening to Wes, he lit up one of those honking doobies, took a hit and passed it to me. I had already adopted the Vietnam “what the fuck” attitude and took a big hit. He told me to hold it in, which I tried to do until it exploded from me in a fit of uncontrollable coughing. After he and the rest of the guys in the hooch stopped laughing, Mitch coached me in how to inhale and avoid this happening again.
I'd like to say we then kicked back and enjoyed the smooth jazz together, but I became hyper aware of the explosions and small arms fire in the background. I thought I had become used to it. But it seemed louder and closer. I couldn't sit still anymore and got up to leave. I felt I needed to get my rifle, flak jacket and helmet from my hooch and then dive into a bunker. I was aware that my heart was beating hard and fast. Mitch stopped me and said I was just feeling the effects of the pot, but I wasn't convinced. He finally sent someone over to get my friend Rob. Rob was college educated and older than the rest of us. He was 22. Rob took me outside and talked to me until I finally calmed down.
Mitch and I had plenty of opportunities to practice the art of smoking Ganga and I became quite efficient at it. One day Mitch was gone. No one could tell me where he went. I assume he really pissed off the First Nazi and got sent out to an infantry platoon. I don't know whether he survived the war or not, but I hope he did. No one else ever called me “Little Bro”.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Buying a New Car

Katie and I just went through the new car buying experience and came out the other side with a nice car, but we’re hoping not to have to go through that agonizing process again for a long time. We’d been talking about buying a car for a while now. Our Ford Focus was still running strong, but had almost 140,000 miles on it. We researched various cars and decided we wanted a small hatchback that was dependable, safe and got good gas mileage.
Last Saturday I went up to Tucson on my motorcycle to pick up a part I’d ordered. On the way home I passed by a Toyota dealer and decided to stop and see if they had any cars we’d be interested in. I was hoping to just look around a bit without being bothered, yeah right. A salesman swooped in on me before I took two steps on the lot. He was a friendly guy, of course. He asked me what I was looking for and I told him. He showed me a variety of used cars, but they were either too expensive, too old, too big or too something.
This went on for some time. We drove around a very large block in heavy traffic in several different cars, but nothing caught my fancy. Then he remembered a car they had just gotten in. He left me for a while and came back in an almost new Toyota Yaris. It was a strange color, appearing to be an off shade of purple. I got in and the salesman drove it out into the traffic, down the street until reaching a big deserted parking lot where he pulled in. He stopped the car and told me to try it out on some tight turns. I whipped the little car around the lot, swerving one way, then the other. I was having fun. It was like driving a large go-cart. It handled well, had good power and was comfortable.
I repeatedly told the salesman that I couldn’t commit to buying a car unless my wife liked it too. He said, “Not a problem, take the car home, keep it for the rest of the weekend and bring it back on Monday. If your wife doesn’t like it, just turn it in and walk away.” I was getting tired and had the thought’ this will be fun to drive around for a couple days, so I agreed. Then another fleeting thought, she’s never going to gofor this color.
But it wasn’t as simple as just driving the car home. My buddy the salesman added, “First I need you to fill out some papers before you go.” OK, I understand that they can’t just let me drive away in this almost new car. But I didn’t realize I had to go through the entire paperwork process as if I were actually buying it. What had I gotten myself into? First I waited for the financial guy to be able to see me, then they ran a credit check and I waited for the results, then I signed papers until my hand started to cramp. I kept asking the financial guy, “Are you sure I’m not actually buying this car?” and he kept reassuring me, “No, don’t worry, this is just a formality.” I made sure there was a paper saying that if my wife doesn’t approve of the car, the deal is off. The process took several hours and the whole time I was thinking, what in the hell am I doing? She’s not going to like the color.

During a break in the paperwork action and on my way to the bathroom for the umpteenth time, because the salesman kept showing up with another free bottle of water and I kept drinking them, I stopped off to take quick look at the car. The sun was now setting and when I stepped out the front door of the dealership, there was the little Toyota, a deep brown color, the shade of root beer. Silly me, my mind must have tricked me into thinking it was a putrid purple color. I think she’ll like it after all.


I went back in for the last round of paperwork signing and then finally was free to leave. We stashed my motorcycle in the back of the dealership and I took off for Green Valley in the root beer colored Toyota. Even though it was slightly “pre-owned”, it still had that new car smell. When I got home it was pitch dark. After my long winded answer to the question “You did what?” Katie decided to wait and look at the car in the morning. In the morning light we walked out to the parking lot and there it stood. But it wasn’t root beer colored anymore and wasn’t purple either, but of sort of a sickening shade of mauve. Katie’s first comment was “It looks like the color of a corpse.” We walked around it until I found an angle where it looked root beer colored again, but any slight movement to the right or left turned it into a rolling cadaver. “And besides”, she pointed out, “ it’s a two door and we decided we need a four door.”
How had I gotten sucked into bringing home this ugly colored little car? Why did I allow myself to go through all the waiting and paperwork hassle? If I had thought about it, I clearly would have realized this was not the car we wanted. These questions may never be answered. My conclusion is, I cannot be trusted to go into a car dealership on my own. Katie refused to go back with me to return the car. The unspoken words were you got yourself into this mess and you can get yourself out of it. I thought I’d learned my lesson.
When I took the car back on Monday, the salesman was surprised that it had been rejected. I told him we liked the car, but it was the wrong color and we needed 4 doors. He didn’t miss a beat, “Wait here just a minute, I think I have something you’ll really like.” and he took off before you could say, “Oh shit here we go again.” He showed up minutes later in a white Toyota Corolla. It was a lot more money than we wanted to spend and neither of us wanted a white car. But I drove it and liked the feel of it, it had good power, handled really well and had a huge trunk with fold down back seats. Again, I was ready to consider another car that wasn’t the right one. I told the salesman I was not going through all the rigmarole I went through the other day and that I needed to get my motorcycle out of the back and go home. He said, “No problem, I’ll follow you down to Green Valley and we can show the car to your wife.” In a brief moment of sanity I said, “I’d better call her first.” which I did. I told her all about the car and she listened very patiently and then said in a calm and authoritative voice, “Get on you motorcycle and come home now, without the salesman.” So I did.

Even though I told the salesman we’d be back the next day, we didn’t go back, Instead we went to a different dealership and found a car that fits all our criteria. It’s an arctic blue Nissan Versa and it continues to look Arctic Blue no matter what angle you happen to be examining it from. Katie mercifully went through the paperwork process while I zoned out. I couldn’t face doing it again. We are very happy with our new car.

I had spent a lot of time with that Toyota guy. I knew where he was from and why he and his wife moved to Arizona. I knew that he had a problem with his lower back and that he’s going to have it operated on soon. He hopes to buy another motorcycle, a Honda 1300. He was in the Navy, and just missed going to Vietnam. Well he called me the other night “How are you doing? How’s your wife? Did you get home alright the other night on your bike?” Have you been car shopping again?” “Yes,” I told him, “We bought a Nissan and I started to tell him why and that I appreciated all of his efforts to find me a car, but right in the middle of my sentence he said, “OK then.” and hung up. So much for our bonding experience the other day.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The World Needs Bucky More Than Ever

I’m a supporter of the voluntary simplicity movement. I’m most enthusiastic about it between the times when I’m hungering to buy something new. Right now I’m a strong supporter. I rode my new motorcycle over to my favorite coffee shop and I’m sitting here writing this blog on my new nifty netbook. ‭ ‬I am pleased to see the voluntary simplicity concept is catching on with many young people. Only in a wealthy country like ours can there be a movement like this. It’s probably not real popular across the border in Mexico or in other third world countries. You can’t give up what you never had or have no hope of getting.
‭ Katie and I have been mindful of living lighter on the earth since the 70s. Since that time we have avidly recycled, mostly driven small fuel efficient cars, flushed our toilet sparingly and gave away or sold possessions we no longer used. The attitude of living more simply allowed us to retire earlier than most people and to retire without a fear of being poor. We now live in a 600 square foot condo, have just one small storage area on our back porch and 3 small closets. It seems we still have plenty of stuff. I can barely remember the many things we got rid of. Realistically looking at our attempts to conserve energy, we still consume way more than most people on the earth. And even if we became super good at conserving and recycling, would it make a difference in the grand scheme of things? ‬Looking to the future,‭ ‬it seems obvious that the entire world can’t participate in the making, buying and throwing away of things at the rate we've been doing it in America over the past sixty or so years.‭ The earth cannot sustain such wasteful activity on that grand of scale. Yet our consumer way of life is spreading around the globe like wildfire. In China, India, South America, and everywhere, people are becoming aware of all the goodies and want them, and you can’t blame them, some of these goodies are pretty cool. The third world is not going to choose voluntary simplicity.
‭ Sometime in the 1970s when I was in college at the University of Oregon, I went to a lecture by Buckminster Fuller. He was an architect, inventor, environmentalist and all around genius type of guy. He invented many things, but is most known for his invention of the geodesic dome. He also coined many terms, one being ephemeralization, which basically means doing more with less. At the time of the lecture, he was in his 80s. Sitting there in the audience listening to him speak, I noticed the large hearing aides behind each ear attached to thick black glasses with coke bottle lenses. I had to really concentrate to follow what he was saying. He talked in giant circles. I thought this old guy was just rambling on, but what I initially judged as a meandering, disjointed monologue, all of a sudden came together in brilliant clarity.
‭ He emphasized that we cannot continue our current way of living on the earth and hope to survive.
‭“‬If humanity does not opt for integrity we are through completely. It is absolutely touch and go. Each one of us could make the difference.” “Pollution is nothing but the resources we are not harvesting. We allow them to disperse because we've been ignorant of their value.” “We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims.” “We are not going to be able to operate our Spaceship Earth successfully nor for much longer unless we see it as a whole spaceship and our fate as common. It has to be everybody or nobody.”
Bucky was a renaissance man. I remember him saying that the fall of western civilization will be because of over-specialization. I’ve been thinking about that statement off and on all these years and see examples of it everywhere. In the medical field you have to go to a special doctor for your feet, your heart, your eyes, your nose and throat, your allergies, your diabetes etc. And if you’ve ever had a house built, the list of people that need to be involved is almost endless. We are losing the big picture by each one of us focusing only on our narrow interests or specialties. He believed that by using our intelligence we could design systems that work for everyone and are in harmony with the environment. Not only could we feed the entire world, but he confidently said we could raise everyone’s standard of living higher than what we currently have in the US.
Bucky’s ideas were popular in the sixties and for a while a whole generation of young people cultivated a more holistic view of the earth and its inhabitants. We need Bucky’s ideas again today. He encouraged each one of us to do our part no matter how small. At his grave site there is a small concrete stone above his headstone that is inscribed with the words: “Call me Trim Tab”. The following quote explains this.
“Something hit me very hard once, thinking about what one little man could do. Think of the Queen Mary, the whole ship goes by and then comes the rudder. And there's a tiny thing at the edge of the rudder called a trim tab. It's a miniature rudder. Just moving the little trim tab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. Takes almost no effort at all. So I said that the little individual can be a trim tab. Society thinks it's going right by you, that it's left you altogether. But if you're doing dynamic things mentally, the fact is that you can just put your foot out like that and the whole big ship of state is going to go. So I said, call me Trim Tab”.
—Buckminster Fuller
Each one of us can make a difference and getting serious about voluntary simplicity is a good place to start. Bucky said we can save the world with intelligent design and the help of modern technology. I’m hoping that means I can keep my new laptop. Oh yeah and our TV is getting really old.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Similarities Between Ricky and Frank

I’ve written quite a few blogs about music. Music was and continues to be an important part of my life. It speaks a language that goes into the senses, passes through the thinking, controlling brain and stirs up the deepest recesses of my psyche. It hits parts of me that I am not aware of, loving parts, hopeful parts, angry parts, sad and grieving parts and the list can go on. At times it even liberates me from all parts and there is no separation between the music and my self.
I grew up with music in the house. My mom loved classical music and played it loud when she did housework. In my head are many classical pieces. I couldn’t tell you who the composers are or the names of the pieces, but I can hum along with the music. My dad loved music as well and whistled a lot when he puttered around the house. He liked popular music and that’s the gene I got. I loved popular music even before rock & roll, but it’s when I first heard Elvis that I discovered my music.
The first musician I identified with was Ricky Nelson. I watched him grow up on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Rock & roll began in our culture with Elvis. His way of interpreting songs became the standard. The problem was no one did Elvis better than Elvis, but everybody tried. His movements, his look and his inflections were all copied by other rock and rollers. Every one agreed he was the “King of Rock & Roll”. Even though Ricky idolized Elvis, he didn’t try to imitate him. Ozzie set him up with a top notch band (his lead guitar player, James Burton, would later become Elvis’) and Ricky sang the songs without theatrics.  Like the old crooner, Frank Sinatra, Ricky showed restraint in his delivery and total appreciation of the music. I’ve always liked musicians who didn’t allow their egos to become greater than the music.
Frank was a musical force like Elvis, and a teen idol like Ricky, maybe the first teen idol. He chose his songs well and demonstrated an impeccable understanding and respect for the music and the musicians. He used his voice as one of the instruments of the band, even though it was the main instrument. Ricky had the same style. He didn’t put on airs, but sang the songs straight with feeling and as an integral part of the band. If you want to hear pure unadulterated ‘50s rockabilly rock & roll, listen to Ricky’s many hit songs.
My favorite music, evolving from that era, was Folk Rock, a genre that doesn’t seem to be a category anymore in the music stores. Folk Rock was born when Dylan went electric and Roger McGuinn fused the Beatles’ sound with Dylan lyrics. The Byrds, the Turtles, the Mamas and the Papas, and the Lovin’ Spoonful were some early Folk Rock groups. Folk Rock dominated popular music in the ‘60s and ‘70s.. Folk music was forever fused with Rock and individual artists like James Taylor, Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Jackson Brown were at the apex. The group that ruled the genre was Crosby, Stills and Nash and sometimes Young. In the mid ‘70s the baton was passed to the Eagles who, like the Byrds before them, fused in country music as well. In the late‘60s Ricky formed the Stone Canyon Band with Randy Meisner, who later joined the Eagles, and they helped pioneer the Country Rock sound.  
Every generation has its own music and the generation to follow usually hates it. I remember my mom telling me about seeing Frank Sinatra with my dad when they were young. She talked about it as if it were something really special. I was heavily into the Stones at the time and thought, “Who’d want to listen to that corny old fashioned music?” After mom died, I discovered a live Sinatra record in her collection. It was recorded in Las Vegas with Count Basie’s Orchestra and arranged by Quincy Jones. I put it away in my useless record collection. Sometime in the ‘90s my sister gave me a Frank Sinatra cassette tape for my birthday. It contained songs recorded with the Nelson Riddle orchestra during his comeback in the ‘50s. I must have been ready at that time, because I discovered great songs with impeccable musicianship. I bought CDs of the live Vegas  performance and the Nelson Riddle years and I now cherish these two recordings along with a Ricky Nelson greatest hits compilation. I love those two guys, they stood up there and sang ‘em straight.