By R.L. Kehoe
Culturally speaking, history will not remember the 1970’s fondly. America was going through a painful transition from the greatest era in music history to what would become the greatest abomination of the art form ever in disco. My brothers and I were enjoying every opportunity available to soak in our favorite rock and blues bands even as most of them were steadily being pushed off the radio for the likes of Donna Summers and the beast incarnate “Saturday Night Fever” by the Bee Gees.
Our high school years were most accurately portrayed on TV in That ‘70s Show and the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
Drugs were everywhere. Clothing trends set fashion reeling. And we were clinging to the late 1960’s with every fiber of our beings.
Nowhere was this truer than in our tastes in music, particularly live music. My brothers John and Jerry made sure my indoctrination to live music was deep, powerful and lasting. They took me along to see some of the greatest bands ever.
I’d trade the rest of my life if I could be assured of having one more of those nights with them again.
Even though we never got to be around him as much as we wanted, Jerry was always into bands and music genres far earlier than the rest of society. His room, which was a modified hippie den, always had a strange mix of aroma — a potpourri of cigarettes, weed and incense, all of which were never allowed in the house, of course. But as with most laws of the day, we snickered as we broke them.
I remember in the early 1970’s sneaking into Jerry’s room with John (on one of the many occasions our older brother was gone) and leafing through his record collection splayed across the floor. Albums that had yet to hit the radio were everywhere in the room. Deep Purple’s Machine Head. George Harrison’s live recording of The Concert for Bangladesh — to my mind, still the greatest artists ever assembled for a show and the best live recording ever. As we leafed through the inside pages of the leather-bound cover of Jethro Tull’s Living in The Past and looking at pictures of the disheveled band members, John and I burst out laughing and began mocking the album. It was only a matter of months before we were wearing out the album with repetitious play.
Jerry’s dual love of music and all-night carousing led him to a job as a lighting technician at a nightclub in a suburban strip mall called Beginnings. (One of the owners of the club was in the group Chicago, which had released a breakthrough song by the same name.) The club was tucked into a dark corner of the strip mall and I’m quite sure few who shopped at the adjacent stores had any idea of the explosive music that was going on inside Beginnings deep into the early morning hours seven days a week.
Jerry would occasionally tell John and I about some of the many bands who were just getting their starts at Beginnings or musicians from very famous bands who played solo shows at the club or with their side bands. Trouble was, I wasn’t of driving age, let alone old enough to get into a bar to partake in any of the fun.
Like all good big brothers, Jerry saw to it that neither my age nor the laws of the State of Illinois would keep me out of the club. One night, when I was just 15, Jerry let me know he had conceived a way to get me in to see Dickie Betts, the legendary Allman Brothers lead guitarist who had just released the song “Ramblin’ Man,” which would be a staple of AM and FM radio airplay for decades to come.
My girlfriend at the time (now my wife) went with me and we had to rely on her older sister to accompany us into the bar. I distinctly remember the bouncer at the door looking at Jerry’s license, which he had given me, and letting us sail through into the club.
After we found some stools in front of a long rectangular table top, Jerry sauntered by and made sure the waitress brought us whatever we wanted to drink. I was still six years from being of legal age but it was a good introduction to drinking and, more importantly, to the power of great live music in a small club.
Jerry returned to sit with us toward the end of Dickie Betts’ set, which was filled with some of the Allman Brothers’ greatest songs, including “Blue Sky,” “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” and “Melissa.” I’ve been to hundreds of live performances by everyone from the Rolling Stones to Led Zeppelin to Eric Clapton and Muddy Waters but I can’t ever remember a rowdier audience or performance than Dickie gave that night.
The last memory I have of that evening — and my greatest memory of my long since departed brother Jerry — is us dancing and stomping on top of the table top with his arm around my shoulder as Dickie blasted through a long, searing solo.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rolling Stones”
John too loved music, but initially he was more into dark metal bands like Hawkwind and Lucifer’s Friend and groups like Blue Oyster Cult (long before they ever were heard on radio). Yet John also had a good appreciation of the bands I loved, nearly all of which were the white British bands who had transformed Mississippi Delta and Chicago blues into roaring rearrangements.
Shortly after John got his license, he and some of his friends took me to my first show downtown at the Auditorium Theater in Chicago to see the Doobie Brothers. Seems tame now, but they had just come out with their first big album and they had a great loud sound in what was once a gleaming movie palace that seated about 4,000. I was hooked and was always up for attending any other live shows he was willing to drag me along.
I recall one summer night he took me to Park Ridge, which was about 25 minutes from our house, to a hot dog stand that had room for only about 50 people tops. A local band called Styx was playing that night. We had heard about the band and their song “Lady” had just hit the radio. It was a fun night but John eventually had something bigger planned for us not long after that show.
John knew I loved the Rolling Stones and he and his friends got tickets to go see the band outdoors in Milwaukee at County Stadium, where the Brewers used to play. I was really embarrassed to ask him, but I was aching to go to that show and there was no other way I could go unless he would let me tag along. As usual, I didn’t have to ask. He had bought me a ticket and had planned all along for me to go with them. I remember staring at that ticket with the band’s name on it. The price: $8.50. Opening acts: The Eagles, Chaka Kahn and Joe Walsh.
We camped out somewhere near the stadium because the doors were to open at noon on the day of the general admission show. We got to the parking lot around 9:30 that morning and sat outside these metal doors with several hundred other people on a hot sunny day. There were four of us and quickly thousands of others began arriving. Pretty soon, the once vacant asphalt lot was packed with those lined up waiting to enter.
Around 10 am everyone suddenly began to stand up and started getting anxious. Then there was pushing and we were having trouble staying next to each other. Suddenly, the stadium’s metal corrugated doors started to rumble and the sea of people behind us started to push forward toward the gates. Just then the gates flew open like the starting gate at a horse race. Within a few minutes we were all separated and lurched forward into the stadium by the throng.
I couldn’t see my brother or our friends. For a moment I thought what was going to be my favorite musical event was going to be a disaster. I knew no one. I had no way of getting anywhere or communicating with my brother. I pondered this as I stood on the concourse under the stadium looking up the stairs at the sun-drenched field. Just then I spotted my brother looking for me. The great day was back on.
We sat on the field 100 feet or so from the stage. The bands were all great and the drugs in the crowd were flowing freely. Security back then, if there was any, didn’t even try to stop what was going down. Joints were freely passed. An older hippie dude pulled out a vial and began snorting coke with his girlfriend in broad daylight as the Eagles ripped through their set. If this is the pre-show, what’s going to happen when the Stones come on, I wondered.
As the road crew cleared the stage and began tuning the Stone’s instruments, some roadies began planting large cardboard boxes all over the stage. I couldn’t figure out why they were doing that until just before the band came on and the roadies reappeared and opened all the boxes. Inside were full bottles of Jack Daniels that were strategically placed all over the huge stage. After each number, the band members would crack open a bottle and take huge swigs before the next song.
I’ve seen the Rolling Stones around a dozen times in my life, and while this was far from their best live performance, it was the most fun I ever had seeing them.
Our concert-going days continued throughout our teen years, with plenty of escapades and including at least one arrest along the way. Early one summer evening, as we were getting ready to head to Chicago to see a band, John was getting increasingly worried as he had not heard from one of his friends who was going to sell him some pot for the show. Pretty soon we knew we were going to be late for the show and were just about to leave when John’s friend called. John drove over to his house and came back and picked me up in his Javelin AMX, a powerful car that was a magnet for cops.
As we sped away from our house, which was about 25 miles from Chicago, John was making a beeline down Tonne Road, a four-lane residential street separated by a wide grass median. The speed limit was 30 mph. We were easily going over 60 mph when we spotted an Elk Grove cop car coming the other way on Tonne. We had various run-ins with the police over the years so this should have been an omen to John to slow down. He never let off the gas.
As we passed each other, we looked across the grass median to see if the cop was paying any attention to us. That’s about when I remembered the undulations to Tonne Road. As we hit this rise in the road, all four wheels came off the ground just as our gaze met the cop’s. He was staring right at us.
Sure enough, the cop began speeding up to find the first side street that would allow him to turn around and run us down. John knew this too and only leaned harder on the gas. It was quite a run and we made it a few miles away en route to the expressway before the law caught up to us. He was fuming that it took him so long to catch us. After he ran John’s license he wanted to search the car. Didn’t take him long to find the baggie of weed in the console. No show tonight, unfortunately.
Despite this 1-night setback, it wasn’t long before we were back at it. After another concert and long night of partying, John and I were heading back home. We were only a block from our house and we were still laughing about a night well spent. As we were getting ready to turn toward our street, John looked over at the house on the corner owned by a man that I’m still not sure why, but we just didn’t like him. Suddenly, John cut the wheel and drove right up to the center of his front lawn and stopped. He began a break torque maneuver to get the back wheels spinning and we were cutting huge circles in the one well-cared-for lawn. We must have done about eight circles before we left the muddy mess.
I was laughing so hard about my brother’s sudden burst of creative energy that I didn’t think much about the fact that he headed immediately home instead of driving around a while to get all the mud off and grass off the tires and the car.
About 10 minutes after we got inside and went to our room to go to sleep there was some stern knocking at the front door. Hello, Elk Grove Police. Back to the pokey. We were quickly bailed out and used better discretion on our way home after shows.
As our teen years waned and we got ready for college, my brothers and I went our separate ways in our tastes in live shows. But damn near every time we got together in the ensuing years we relived a lot of those memories.