Another new year begins. Does anybody really want another reminder that time marches on? The Friday before last Thanksgiving, my phone rang early in the morning with the kind of news that reminds us all that we aren’t getting any younger. My old guitar playing buddy from Sledgehammer, Barry Seymour, called from L.A. to let me know that Gene Betts had passed away in San Francisco. He didn’t have any of the particulars when he called, but he knew Gene had been the guitar player in my first gigging band, The Twig. Barry likes to remind me that we were the first live rock band he heard as a teen. Although Gene and I hadn’t kept in touch over the years, Barry heard the news from an acquaintance who had known Gene back in the day. When someone that played a pivotal part in your past leaves this mortal coil, for me at least, it opens a floodgate of memories about those days. Like a snowball that collects more and more mass on the way to becoming an avalanche, one memory of the good old days seems to trigger many more.
One of my first musical memories of Gene was sitting in his bedroom with just a snare drum and one cymbal on a stand, providing rhythm for the songs that Gene could play on guitar. We were both in eighth grade at the time so there were limitations on how often we could get together. The first was the lack of a driver’s license. Second was Gene’s lack of a guitar. His brother would let him play his when he wasn’t using it, but he couldn’t take it out of the house (yet). This meant I would get someone to drop me off with my one drum and cymbal ‘kit’ at his house where we would run through everything we knew. We would take a break and walk downtown (Gene lived on Washington Street a handful of blocks from downtown Marquette). Before Marquette began its westward expansion, downtown was the place to be. After a brief break, we would play some more before my ride home arrived at the appointed time.
It took a little digging in my mental file cabinet to recall how we met in the first place. We were in the same grade at Graveraet JH, but we didn’t have any classes together in seventh or eighth grade, nor did we live in the same neighborhood. It finally dawned on me that it was my father who is responsible for setting in motion the events that led Gene and I to meet in the fall of 1966.
There weren’t any kids from my class in my immediate neighborhood so I didn’t really have a social circle to chum around with once the school year started. One Friday night, my dad got tired of me sitting in front of the TV and said, ‘Get your coat, hat, and gloves. You are going to a football game.” We had never gone to a high school football game together, so I said, “Ah, sure,” and off we went. I didn’t notice that he had specifically said ‘you are going to a football game’ and I thought he meant ‘we’. When we pulled up to the back of Memorial Field, dad said, “The gate is that way if you want to buy a ticket, or you could probably sneak in under the fence over there by the hedge. Now go and find somebody to watch the game with.” Maybe he thought if I got caught sneaking in I would find a new circle of friends at Juvenile Hall. I was too stunned to ask him why sneaking in was a better option than paying, so I found spot along the fence that dipped low enough to skinny under. Soon after, I found myself eyeing the concrete bleachers on the west side of the field. I was searching the packed stands for any familiar faces.
A girl named Cindy waved me over so I plunked myself down among her group of friends. One of the girls behind me started dusting off my back and asked how I got so dusty. “I crawled under the fence behind the bleachers to get in,” was my answer. She elbowed the boy sitting next to her and said, “Hey Gene, better tell your dad we have a criminal here. You know Gene’s dad is a city policeman.” Not sure where this was leading, I responded, “Mine is a State Police Detective, so I guess we are even.” She went on talking while Gene shifted in his seat a little as one tends to do when someone else is talking about you in your presence: “Gene plays guitar and is in a band.” Okay, now I had a reason to talk to Gene. “What kind of songs are you playing?” I asked. “Radio stuff,” Gene replied, “like Along Comes Mary by the Association.” When Cindy pointed out that I was a drummer, Gene said, “Maybe we can play some tunes sometime.” A month or so later, my phone rang and true to his word, Gene suggested that I bring over part of my kit so we could play some tunes. It would be another four years before we were getting paid to play music, but that fateful meeting began a long period of jamming together that improved both of our chops.
The first time Gene, Mike Kesti, and I played music together was during one of the informal jams we used to have in the pit orchestra in Kaufman Auditorium. These took place before rehearsals for the musical Bye Bye Birdie that was staged there during our sophomore year in high school. It was usually bass player Ron Caviani and me in the orchestra pit playing snippets of whatever popped into our head. Mike had an acoustic guitar that he played on stage during some of Conrad Birdie’s numbers and I think Gene was part of the onstage chorus. Mike or Gene would join in on guitar, but never the same time as there was only one guitar on hand. We hatched a plan to meet early before one of our Saturday rehearsals and set up the our equipment on stage to have a real jam. We hadn’t thought that the auditorium would be locked up tight on a Saturday, so that plan never progressed when we found ourselves locked outside. We froze waiting for someone to come and open the door and by then, it was too close to rehearsal time. We did, however, get to play some actual songs together at the cast party with us serving as a backup band for a couple of older guys who had been in the play. One of them was Mike Cleary who also sang with the band The French Church. When the party at The Chalet supper club wrapped up that night, Gene, Mike, and I made plans to gather in my basement when school got out and start putting a proper band together. By the end of the summer before our junior year, we had a plan: rehearse once per week, play some free parties, join the musician’s union, and start playing paying gigs in the fall of our senior year.
When we first started practicing regularly, Gene’s brother let him borrow his Gibson SG and amp. He soon found an Ovation semi-hollow body that he liked. When Mike decided he needed a better amp for his Fender Precision bass, both he and Gene invested in Fender amps. Being a three piece band, they went the extra distance and purchased extension speakers to put on each side of the drum kit so they could hear each other better. Once we had the basic setup, we rehearsed with Mike on my left and Gene on my right. For a vocal PA, we had one extra amp and speaker cabinet we used for rehearsals and practice gigs. Eventually Mike found a set of inexpensive PA speakers and ordered them from an electronics catalog. Here ‘inexpensive’ also meant ‘cheap’. They sounded fuzzy when we pushed them to the level needed to play a big room. We trekked down to Marquette Music and picked up two matching speakers to use for our PA system. With the two treble horns Mike had scrounged up sitting on top (picture the things you see hanging on poles at most high school football fields), we had all we needed to start playing in public. The only thing we didn’t have enough of was songs, so we set about learning one or two new ones at every rehearsal. Gene and Mike worked up most of the arrangements but we all suggested tunes we might learn. When we played our first actual paying gig (an outdoor band camp function where we set up on the front porch of the Forest Roberts Theater at NMU), we played the fifteen songs we knew. The band campers insisted we play them all again when we informed them they had heard our whole set list. That made us double down on learning more new songs before we played our first high school dance.
Practice sessions with Mike and Gene were never dull because they had contrasting personalities that would clash at times. Where Mike was more of a perfectionist and wanted things to sound a certain way, Gene was more laid back. If we screwed something up on a run through, Mike would want to stop and start over again. Gene, on the other hand, figured that we would get it right the next time. About once a month, one or the other would start an argument about a song and threaten to quit. If they locked horns long enough that all productive work ceased, I would put my sticks down and go upstairs until one of them called up, “Okay, we are done. Let’s practice.” They knew how to push each other’s buttons, but sometimes it backfired on them.
Gene showed up at practice with a new toy. He bought a Cry Baby wah-wah pedal and was trying it out when Mike arrived. Mike scowled and snapped, “Don’t even think that every solo in every song is going to have wah-wah on it!” We happened to be learning a poppy (as in ‘not psychedelic’) party song by Crazy Elephant called Gimme Gimme Good Lovin’ that day. When we got to the guitar solo, Gene put on a little grin and launched into a long, wah-wah ladden solo that he figured would drive Mike up the wall. At first, it appeared to be working as Mike’s glare grew to thundercloud proportions. The longer Gene wailed, the more Mike’s glare began to soften. About the time I figured he would wave the song to a stop, he was smiling. When we finished, Gene had a look of triumph on his face (‘Gotcha!’) only to hear Mike exclaim, “I LOVE it – you HAVE to play that on this song every time!” We were three different personalities but at that point, we had begun to understand how to be a band. There were things to fight over and things that we would let slide. No matter how big the disagreement, playing the next song made the bad vibes disappear.
Gene started calling himself ‘Geno’ at times so we did, too. On one occasion when his folks were away, he hosted a party at his home. We couldn’t set up the band and play as his neighbors would have been unhappy, but there was plenty of music on the stereo. This was the first time I heard Deja Vu by CSN&Y. Cream’s Wheels of Fire was also big. Gene had recently discovered a young blues guitarist named Shuggy Otis and we listened to his album many times that night. Every time one record ended, Geno would yell, ‘SHUGGY’ and put the album back on. When he played a particularly bluesy solo at a gig, we would of course introduce him as ‘Shuggy’ Betts, but Gene or Geno was the norm.
Gene worked part time pushing gas at the Erickson station a couple of doors down from his house. When we were cruising the town, we would make it a point to gas up there when Gene was pumping gas. If things were slow, we would sit on the curb out front and keep him company when he was taking his break. One of his go to libations was a carton of buttermilk to wash down whatever else they had on hand to go with it. This is one of those ‘why in the world do I remember this?’ kind of things that get dredged up from the old dusty memory files.
One of the last times we played music together for a school event was at the old Northwoods Supper Club. Our graduation night party (the official one, not to be confused with the big ‘blast’ that was traditionally held somewhere on the Sands Plains toward Gwinn) was held there with a hired band from outside of the area. During one of their breaks, someone talked the band into letting us play a couple of songs. They were reluctant (I always hated having people who wanted to play my drums) but they still let us play three or four songs. We got a nice reaction from ‘our people’ and thanked the band for indulging us. The official end of The Twig came a couple of weeks later when we played a teen dance at the newly opened community center in Munising. With Mike heading to MTU the next fall, we knew we were done, but it wasn’t a sad affair. Perhaps that is why we put a little more into the last dance and played perhaps one of the best shows I can remember.
I can not recall seeing Gene after that summer. He did not attend the 10, 20 or 30 year class reunions I went to. Someone mentioned that he had always wanted to live in San Francisco and they thought that is where he ended up. In the more recent past, Barry had emailed me a picture of Gene playing guitar on an outdoor stage at some event. I did a little Google search and found a newspaper article about ‘Gene the guitar repairman’ who worked at a music store in San Fran. I sent an email to that address inquiring if he was Gene as in ‘Gene Betts’. I never got an answer but sometime after, someone from the music store address had checked out my Linkedin site without leaving a message. If it had been Gene, that is as close to a reconnect as we got.
With Gene’s passing, I wish that perhaps I had been a little more diligent in trying to get a hold of him. With that said, how does one catch up on fifty years of life in a couple of emails? RIP Gene Betts – we may not have been in touch over the years, but I have fond memories of the time we spent together learning how to be musicians and playing in The Twig. I wonder if my father ever had any inkling that his suggestion that I sneak into a high school football game planted the seed that became The Twig?
Top Piece Video: Crazy Elephant – without a much needed Wah-Wah solo! RIP Geno Betts!!