Saturday, May 10, 2008

From The Beatles to The Blues, Chapter 5: Erebus II (1969-70)

5. Erebus II (1969-70)

In 1969, Steve Schmitt graduated from high school and went off with Bill Williams on some hippy adventures in Nashville or somewhere, and Bob Holland sort of fell out of the picture. 1969-70 was my senior year in high school and Hisey’s junior year. (It was hard to say what year it was for our drummer Jimbo; his academic status was always somewhat hazy.)

At this time, Hisey and I finally decided to adopt a four-man lineup—guitar, bass, drums, and a frontman. This was the personnel that comprised both Led Zeppelin and the new Jeff Beck Group. Beck, one of my favorite all-time guitar players, had left the Yardbirds and released the first Jeff Beck Group album with Rod Stewart on vocals, Ron Wood on bass, and Mick Waller on drums. Also that summer, before school started, we had seen at the Lake a local four-man band called Methusaleh, from a nearby town, and they were extremely cool.

Later in the year, the Ludlow Garage was opened by a guy named Jim Tarbell, who today is a Cincinnati city councilman. The Garage had been exactly that: a huge auto repair service located on Ludlow Avenue in Clifton. Tarbell had taken it over, opened it up into one huge room with steel beams and girders exposed, put a big stage at one end and the requisite Persian rugs on the floor, and started booking local and national acts. The Garage, like the Dome, had no liquor license, so teenagers and adults alike could go there. The sparse d├ęcor did feature a couple of specially made, oversized wooden rocking chairs that were probably six feet high and could hold three or four skinny hippies each. From one of these giant chairs, I watched B.B. King there at the Garage. We also saw the MC5, the Allman Brothers Band (touring on their first album), a Detroit band called Frost, Grand Funk, the James Gang, and many others.

We determined that the bands with the four-man lineup were the coolest, and that this was the direction in which we should go. Hisey, however, had always played rhythm guitar behind a lead player and did not consider himself much of a soloist. His hero was The Who’s Pete Townshend, who played few solos, but made his chords say so much. We figured out that we could tailor our song list toward material with minimal or simple guitar solos.

The first step toward our new identity was to trade in Hisey’s Kustom amp. It looked beautiful, but it was a solid-state (transistor) amp and just did not have the warm, tube sound necessary for lead guitar. We went down to Buddy Rogers Music in North College Hill, where Bob Monday of the Daybreakers worked selling and repairing instruments. He took Hisey’s Kustom in trade and sold us a used black-face Fender Vibrolux (probably made around ’65 or ‘66) and a Univox speaker cabinet with two 12-inch speakers to go with it. Hisey set the the Vibrolux on top of the Univox to make a little “stack.” I think he covered it with a big American flag, as we had seen the MC5 do at the Black Dome. The Vibrolux was a very heavy and powerful amp with two 10s. This gave Hisey plenty of volume and good tone for his new role as our only guitarist.

Jimbo remained on drums, and our fourth member was a guy from the West Side named Gary Sims, a very pleasant guy and a good bass player a year older than I. He had a Fender bass of some kind and a big Guild amp. We went to work rehearsing our four-piece act in Ruth’s basement. We were all old enough to drive now, but Linda was still with us at many of our jobs, running lights, collecting admission fees, or doing whatever we needed her to do. With Sims on bass, we played again at Open House, where Linda could not go. The band members were the only non-junior high people allowed in. My girlfriend Bonnie borrowed an Open House card from someone’s little sister so that she could sneak in and see us. (In a fetching, tight black knit skirt and sweater, she did not look like a junior-high-school girl to me, but she was able to get in and then positioned herself inconspicuously near the side of the stage.)

I had cut my hair, formerly all one length and almost to my shoulders, into a short shag style reminiscent of the the early Who. I had a tight, white ribbed shirt and bright purple corduroy bell-bottoms. With the rest of the band flamboyantly dressed, we took the stage upon which, with only four members, we had more room to move than we had had with our five-piece lineup. Because of the strictness of the director (the same one who had caught Marilyn and me kissing behind the building when we were Open House members), though, we knew we could not do our normally scandalous stage show here. She would have tossed us out on our ears—without our $20 payment. So we made it as flamboyant as we could without being too sexually suggestive. I strutted the lip of the stage like a caged lion and swung the mike as I always had, staring boldly at the crowd, but I did not grind my pelvis against the amps or stick my tongue out at the girls.

We went back up to the Eaton Armory with Sims, as well, and played wherever we could, but the most significant thing we did with this lineup was to record in a studio for the first time. In the winter or spring of 1970, Hisey wrote the music for two songs. He then showed them to me and asked if I could write lyrics to them. I did, and we added the two resulting original tunes to our repertoire. The first was an uptempo power rock song called “You Can’t Hide.” Its style was a combination of early Who and early Small Faces. The second was a slower song, maybe not exactly a ballad, but something like one, that we called “She Smiles.” Looking back at these two early songs, I find my lyrics sound like exactly what they were, something written by a juvenile (no kidding; I was 17), but I think Hisey’s music holds up pretty well. Both songs were musically well-structured, and “She Smiles” would actually turn out to be an “award-winning” song (in the most modest sense of the term) almost 15 years later.

That summer, shortly after I had graduated from high school, Buddy Rogers Music, which had many stores around Cincinnati, put on a big, city-wide “battle of the bands.” Established Cincinnati groups did not participate, but the minor, up-and-coming bands did. Somehow, through our acquaintance with Bob Monday of the Daybreakers, we became one of the contestant bands. We went first to a preliminary competition, which was held at the Westwood Town Hall in the Western Hills area of Cincinnati. There were several such preliminary shows in different parts of town. Each band was to play three songs, but only two of its own choosing. The third song had to be a combination of original music and pre-written lyrics promoting Buddy Rogers. We were given these lyrics and had to write our own music to go with them. The song we composed turned out to be one with a very simple jazz-like structure, primarily two chords, A and G, if I remember correctly. We had chosen this pattern because Hisey had found he could play a simple, jazzy kind of minor solo over this chord pattern better than he could play a rock lead superimposed on a blues-based pattern, as most rock players of the day did. He could not have competed well with the other guitarists there when it came to bending notes and screaming leads a la Clapton and Hendrix, but he was the only guitar player there playing in a jazz style. (To this point we had never played anything remotely like jazz and knew nothing more about it than that Hisey’s solo in the song sounded pretty good.) We placed that song in the middle, opened with our original “You Can’t Hide,” and closed with “Inside Lookin’ Out,” as always. We put on our best possible show, exploiting our four-man lineup to the maximum while Linda showed her movies on us in true psychedelic fashion. I think there were six or seven bands there, and we were one of two (the other was a band called the Odyssey) chosen to go to the final competition at the Cincinnati Zoo amphitheater, where local personalities like jazz drummer Dee Felice would be the judges.

We were shocked and overjoyed at our success and began to practice extra hard for the finals. That was the summer, however, when the cicadas made one of their every-17-year visits to Cincinnati. Of course the amphitheatre was outdoors, designed like a mini-Hollywood Bowl, with a little moat around the semicircular concrete stage to separate the audience from the entertainment. At the Zoo, there were many trees and much foliage, and the air was thick with these huge and disgusting red-eyed flying insects. I am extremely insect-phobic, anyway, and this was the first time in my life that I had seen cicadas. I was freaked out. I found it almost impossible to perform while dodging these dive-bombers attacking us onstage, and I was not the only one. They went up Hisey’s shirt sleeve while he was trying to play and down the neck of Jimbo’s shirt, so that he had to flail at his drums with one stick and try to dislodge the demon bug with the other. Obviously the insects were hugely distracting and interfered drastically with our performance. How could we possible put on a cool show under such circumstances? Of course, the other bands had to contend with the same problem. Who knows whether we would have fared better without the cicadas? As it turned out, we did not do so well with the judges at the zoo and were not chosen winners or even runners up. (I think the winners were the Odyssey, our co-finalists from Westwood, who played the Three Dog Night song “Eli’s Coming” as one of their selections.)

As a result of winning the Westwood preliminaries, though, we received two hours of recording time at the Lunar Studio, a modest recording facility in North College Hill, near the Buddy Rogers store where Bob Monday worked. Bob went with us to produce the recording. The studio (the first I had ever seen) was small and basic, probably used mostly for recording country acts or possibly radio commercials. Working with only two tracks—guitar and vocals on one, bass and drums on the other—Gary Hisey, Gary Sims, Jim Powell, and I made our first permanent musical record that day. We recorded our two original songs, “You Can’t Hide” and “She Smiles.” Since we had played them many times, we did them in just one or two takes. Then we dubbed in harmony vocals and some subtle guitar lead on “She Smiles.” I was not then and am not now a good harmony singer, but I was able to find harmony parts for the choruses of both songs and teach to Hisey. Bob Monday mixed the songs for us, and we were out in two hours with our little reel of tape in our hands.

We drove back to Hamilton, to Hisey’s girlfriend Judy Dowell’s house, where she, her sister Darlene, and my girlfriend Bonnie were waiting to hear the results of our efforts. They had a small reel-to-reel tape recorder, and we listened to the two songs, as loudly as the machine would allow, over and over again. I wasn’t completely happy with the sound of my voice. It sounded a little nasal and low and not as cool as I would have liked it to be, but it was better than my first effort-- “Satisfaction” on the Kogers’ home stereo—had been. And the music sounded pretty good, considering the time used and the simplicity of the studio. Looking back from a more experienced perspective today, I think our first studio session was a successful one resulting in two decent songs that were pretty well recorded. I don’t think we even talked about pressing the songs into a 45 rpm single, which seems like it would have been the next logical step. We didn’t even know how or where to do such a thing, and we figured a record company was necessary to the making of a record. Only a few of the good Cincinnati bands had made singles that received local airplay: the Lemon Pipers, the Us Too Group, the Heywoods, the Casinos, and maybe a couple of others. If Bob Monday’s band, the Daybreakers, didn’t even have a record, how could we hope to have one? (It didn’t cross my mind that they might have no original material to record.)

The Buddy Rogers contest and our recording took place late in mid-late summer 1970. I had been accepted by Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio (near Lima, a few hours north on I-75), where my classes would begin in the fall. So this meant the end of Erebus. We had achieved some modest success with our four-man lineup, and that was that. I was now thinking more about college than about music. In September, leaving my hometown, band, and girlfriend behind, I moved up to the ONU dormitory in Ada.


Hank said...

Very much enjoyed the trip down memory lane. Thank you for your kind comments about The Daybreakers. Davy passed away in 2006, but the three surviving members of The Daybreaker'68 band probably will be playing at The Summer of Love III concert in Cincinnati August 15,2009.
Hope you are well and happy
Hank Mayberry
Peace Please 2009

Judy Dowell said...

Bill, I remember that day as if it were yesterday. We were all so excited to play that tape on Dad's 4-track reel to reel recorder, making sure not to accidentally erase the tape! It was intense to say the least. Great memories!