April 7, 2016

FTV: Greek Week Part 1

 In my Junior High / Senior High years, the frats and sororities at Northern Michigan University would have an annual spring bash called Greek Week.  I can’t say how long this went on or if it continues to this day, but I remember it mostly for the festival like finale that was held at Hedgecock Fieldhouse that always featured some great bands along with food, game booths and other festive activities.  

    I guess I also remember the Mud Bowl that I witnessed a couple of times before it was cancelled due to injuries and the general mayhem it created.  The Mud Bowl involved plowing up a big circle of lawn in front of the Quad One dining hall, putting up a snow fence around it, and then flooding it for a couple of days to make the ‘playing field’.  The Mud Bowl featured teams trying to navigate this mud wallow while pushing an eight foot diameter ‘earthball’ across the other team’s goal line.  There wasn’t a time I remember that at least one ambulance trip was made from the Mud Bowl.   The MB always ended in a free-for-all of bystanders being heaved into the muddy pit.  One could avoid this fate if you kept your head on a swivel and could run faster than whoever got it into their head that you should be next victim.  I always avoided the mud bath, but enough innocent spectators and passersby got hauled into the action that this portion of Greek Week was eventually banned.  I think the final straw was the poor young lady in the white spring dress who was dragged from the sidewalk on Lincoln Street (a good 500 yards away from the mud pit) and tossed in without any indication that she was a willing participant.  Fortunately, the music part at Hedgecock did not get cancelled along with the Mud Bowl part of the Greek Week celebration.

    Two of the more memorable concerts took place during my sophomore and senior years in high school.  The first was opened by local band The French Church and included the MacDonald brothers (Warren and Gordon) on drums and bass, Mike Spratto on guitar and Mike Cleary of vocals.  I always made it a point to hang around stage side because that usually gave me the best view of what the band was doing on stage.  Naturally, I was interested in what the drummer was doing, but also how the band communicated with each other on stage.  When TFC went up to do their set,  Gordon grabbed my arm and said “hang around, when we are done we have to get our stuff off the stage quick so the McCoy’s can go on.”  Hang around I did, literally, as there were several people sitting on the first level of the three tiered PA tower next to the stage, so that is where I spent most of their set.  I managed to get to the ground and back to my station at the back corner of the stage before the security folks shooed everyone else off the PA risers and back to the stage front.

    Trying to keep a low profile, I turned around and found myself face to face with McCoy’s guitarist (and singer, songwriter, leader) Rick Derringer.  I wasn’t quite fully grown at that point, but I was still a good head taller than Derringer.  In my army shirt and jeans uniform (the standard 1960s cool look for musicians in training), I was extremely underdressed compared to him with his shag hair and stage clothes.  “What are you doing back here?” he demanded.  “I humping equipment for The French Church,” I replied above the din, nodding toward the stage.  “Oh, okay,” he said, “see if you can clear some of these other people out of here (back stage) so nothing gets broken or stolen.”  Playing roady I could handle but no one was going to take me very seriously playing security guy, so I kind of let that slide and went back to listening to The French Church finish their set.  I never even got to set foot on stage because as soon as they started slinging amps and drums off the stage, I ended up doing all the hoisting and hauling from there.  Mercifully, the McCoy’s backline and drums were already on the stage so after a flurry of activity, I got to settle in and watch the McCoys from the same spot.

    With all of TFC’s stuff tucked up against the wall, The McCoy’s got their drums moved forward and made sure everything was in working order.  The Zerringer brothers (re-christened ‘Derringer’ in the McCoys) played drums and guitar in the band but I don’t have names for the bass and keyboard players.  They saved their biggest hit (Hang on Sloopy) for the encore.  They weren’t exactly playing dance music (this was billed as the Greek Week Festival Dance) but they did play a mix of heavy and experimental rock for the rest of their set.  My knowledge base about the band began and ended with Sloopy so it was kind of interesting to hear them do stuff by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, for instance.   Derringer had a little box on the stage rigged with draw bars like one would see on a Hammond organ and he was using them to make all kinds of strange sounds.  At one point, he took off his guitar and was kneeling on the stage, essentially playing some form of out there electronic music with his little box being the instrument he was manipulating while the rest of the band thundered on behind him.

    During that period of history, there was a lot of misinformation about young people with long hair, hippies, musicians and such.  The cliches tended toward categorizing guys with long hair as some form of ‘the great unwashed’ generation.  The keyboard player from the McCoys was my first encounter with someone who actually fit this description.  I gave him some benefit of the doubt figuring they were on tour and living out of a van, so perhaps it was the stage clothing that needed some care.  I also noticed that he was extremely ‘agitated’ with his eyes darting all over when engaged in conversation.  He could not stand still and seemed to be in a constant state of ‘fidgeting’.  Being somewhat in awe of the whole ‘this is a famous touring band’ thing, I certainly wasn’t going to ask any dumb questions, but someone else wandered backstage to talk to Derringer and came right out and asked, “What’s up with your keyboard player?”  Derringer was brutally honest and replied, “Some of us are having a hard time regulating our intake and taking care of our personal needs.  Some of us are going to be replaced as soon as we get home.  He is a good keyboard player but this is getting old.”  In three sentences I got a whole lesson in ‘how not to be when touring with a band’.  This was also my first lesson  that touring isn’t just about playing music – it is also about business and like any business, touring musicians are also employees with rules of conduct they need to follow.

    Since this encounter with Rick Derringer, I have enjoyed following his career as a sideman (with the late Johnny Winter’s band (Johnny Winter And) and Johnny’s brother Edgar Winter) as well as a songwriter, producer, solo artist and writer.  We will be sure to play a variety of music from his extended catalog over the next few weeks.  In part two, we will discuss the opener and headliner for another GWF held two years after the one recounted here.  Stay tuned to YOUR SOUND CHOICE, WOAS-FM or catch our web stream at www.woas-fm.org .

Top Piece Video – Rick Derringer performing Rollin’ and a Tumblin’ with the late Johnny Winter during his time with the band Johnny Winter And.  I started listening to Johnny Winter in the summer of 1971 when one of my co-workers at the Huron Mountain Club played the Johnny Winter And Live album over and over and over again . . . but I couldn’t get enough – it was that good!