Out of College and Up the Creek

THE FOLLOWING IS AN EXCERPT FROM MY MEMOIR “RAISED ON THE RADIO” WHICH I LOOK TO RELEASE in 2018

In May of 1984, after five years of classes at three schools, hours and hours of radio fun and some hard work, I got my college degree; a Bachelor of Arts diploma in Interdepartmental Communications/ Advertising from Elmhurst College. I wasn’t ready for a real job so I landed summer duty as a day maintenance worker at Poplar Creek Music Theater in far west suburban Hoffman Estates.

Poplar Creek was a music venue known in the concert industry as a “Shed.” These places had an open air yet covered pavilion with reserved seats and a large hill or lawn area behind the pavilion for general admission seating. There were 7,000 seats in the pavilion with room for about fifteen thousand more fans on the expansive lawn which was a large grass hill.

Aerial view of Poplar Creek Music Theater

My work began in June, doing a shift that started at eight a.m. til late in the afternoon. A couple weeks later I was promoted to a squad leader, which brought the pay to five something an hour. Each squad boss would lead a group of workers to do things like pick up the parking lot’s trash and clean bathrooms both in the public plaza and backstage. We’d also clean the pavilion which meant using a hot water pressure sprayer that helped blow all the sticky crud off the plastic seats and concrete floor.

One odd trend was cleaning the Poplar Creek restrooms the morning after shows. The men’s johns would have a little trash on the floor and small puddles of spilled suds but that was about it. However, the women’s rooms? Whoa! They looked like those retail stores that get looted during race riots. Often times we found ourselves knee deep in paper towels and toilet paper with lakes of sticky wine coolers and beer on the floor. The toilets were such a scary sight they made me pine for the urine covered men’s room walls from my days at White Castle. Even after mellow shows by Air Supply or Herb Alpert we’d clean awful messes and find bras and underwear stuffed in the stalls’ metal containers meant to store used feminine hygiene products. Apparently some liquored up ladies decided “I’m sick of wearing this bra and rather than stash it in my purse, I’ll just leave it here.” I found the whole thing to be pretty funny.

The “women can be slobs” phenomenon wasn’t limited to fans. Co-workers said cleaning up the Go-Go’s dressing room the morning after their show that summer was a major job. Chairs knocked over, food and drinks splattered everywhere. Someone else said when Billy Idol opened the summer of ’84 concert calendar his people turned the whole backstage into a reenactment of the riot scene at the end of “Animal House.” Still, legend has it the ultimate backstage pigs at Poplar Creek were the Blues Brothers back in 1980.

Poplar Creek’s pavilion. I power sprayed plenty of crud off those seats.

Not everything going on backstage was gross. The Pointer Sisters left behind two vases stuffed with fresh roses that I pilfered for my mom and a girl I was seeing. There was also the trove of left behind set-lists, drumsticks, guitar picks, backstage pass laminates and other rock memorabilia. I scooped up lots of this stuff and gave it to fellow Lee Swanson protégé’ Dave Ross. Dave was now working in radio consulting and research in Chicago but had a side business of selling music collectibles at local record conventions.

The summer of 1984 was when Bruce Springsteen launched his mammoth selling “Born in the USA” album and tour, Prince was showering us with his Purple Rain movie soundtrack while Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” release was launching her into the pop stratosphere. None of these acts played Poplar Creek that summer but we still had plenty of other shows to prepare for. I witnessed sound-checks by stars like Linda Ronstadt & the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe and Paul Simon. The Thompson Twins’ curry cook left a stink of that food backstage that lingered for days. Luciano Pavarotti came out to rehearse in cargo shorts, flannel shirt and a Chicago Blackhawks baseball cap. Here I am, all sweaty and dirty in jeans, steam spraying down the pavilion walkways and thirty feet away onstage is the world’s most famous tenor rehearsing beautiful opera songs.

One very hot show day I was driving the maintenance truck to check up on a crew and spotted a tall thin guy jogging on the access road. So who was the unauthorized jogger? I get a closer look and it was the star of that night’s concert, Rick Springfield. Sorry there Dr. Noah Drake from “General Hospital”, that was my bad. Sometimes we chased groupies from the grounds. When Ratt, hot on the heels of their breakthrough hit “Round and Round” came to open for Billy Squier, there were about twenty young women lined up outside their tour bus in the middle of the day. To quote Grand Funk “These fine ladies, they had a plan, they was out to meet the boys in the band.”

.38 Special’s crowd left behind more beer bottles and cans in the parking lots than any other concert that summer. The morning after their show, I found a guy’s wallet full of IDs, credit cards and close to a hundred dollars in the parking lot. I tracked down the wallet’s owner on the phone and he came to pick it up. The guy was a hung over burn-out who barely grunted “Thanks” when I turned everything over to him. He starts to walk away and I commented how I could’ve robbed him blind, still no reaction. Finally I ask, “Any appreciation for me taking care of this?” Finally, the guy says, “Oh yeah, what do you want?” I suggested the six or seven loose singles he had in it. It bought me dinner on the way home. Jesus, if I lost my wallet and everything including the cash came back to me intact; the finder would’ve gotten at least twenty bucks. So to the mopey .38 Special fan who had all his wallet contents returned to him in tact, I hope you’re not still a socially clueless asshole.

 

 

Wacky Wedding

 With Halloween coming next week, I would be remiss if I didn’t add in one more story on my longtime friend Jim Turano. A few sentences in you’ll see how this tale ties in with the masquerading fun of Halloween.

This story will be in my memoir “Raised on the Radio” which I look to release in 2018.

One more tale on Turano: He married his girlfriend Jamie in October of 1990. I was asked to D.J. the wedding reception. Halfway through the party, Jim hands me a cassette and tells me to get everyone off the dance floor because it was garter belt removal time. Jamie was sitting on a chair in the middle of the dance floor in her beautiful gown awaiting her new husband who had slipped out of the reception hall.

I put the tape on and the music was from “The Phantom of the Opera” and Jim comes sweeping into the room in his tuxedo but now he’s wearing a black fedora, black cape and his face is covered by the Phantom’s mask.

The groom keeps creepily circling Jamie until he’s right on top of her.   As the music hits its crescendo, Jim dramatically rips the mask from his face and the hat from his head! Ta Dah!…. I said Ta Dah!…. Dead silence… Nothing.

The wedding guests, the servers, bartenders, clean-up crew and I the music master had no idea how to react. My only thought was, “What the shit was that?” You know the phrase “All we heard was crickets?” Even the crickets shut the hell up. The silence went on for about thirty seconds but it felt like thirty days. It was like in “Coming to America” when Eddie Murphy as Randy Watson sings Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” for the Black Awareness Rally and when he finishes, nobody claps and then he yells the name of his band, “Sexual Chocolate!” With no reaction he yells it out again “Sexual Chocolate!”

Finally I got on the microphone and told the crowd to keep quiet on what we just saw, because it may have been illegal. They laughed and the reception went on. Years later Jim told me he almost went with a different bit where he’d lip synch Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” into a mechanic’s light like Dean Stockwell did in the movie “Blue Velvet.” To be honest, I would’ve preferred that shtick instead.

When I tell people Jim Turano’s “Phantom of the Opera” reception story, they look at me like a dog staring into a fan. It was the craziest thing I ever saw at a wedding and that includes the time when one groom got on a microphone and said in another life he would’ve married one of the guests at the reception and not his new bride.

To this day Jim defends this Phantom of the Opera bit as a cool happening. I guess that mask and fedora blocked his view of the looks on the guests’ faces. Just stunned silent and bewildered. I’m telling you, I’m pretty unflappable but after that bit of drama, I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry or run out of the reception hall and drive home.

My pal Jim Turano is a born mimic. He spends parts of each day mimicking a normal human being. The rest of the time he’s the Phantom or Elton John or Bruce Springsteen or any TV or movie character you can think of. And of all those characters in the guy are very entertaining and a lot of fun!

(Me and my longtime pal Jim “The Phantom” Turano)

Twin Sons From Different Mums

THE FOLLOWING IS AN EXCERPT FROM MY MEMOIR “RAISED ON THE RADIO” WHICH I LOOK TO RELEASE IN 2018

In the spring of 1983 I met Jim Turano who was wrapping up his freshman year at Elmhurst College and had a Sunday night show host on WRSE. Jim, like me, was a media nut who set his sights on a radio career. One night I heard him play an old dance song called “The Hucklebuck.” Being a ‘Honeymooners’ freak, I knew that song was featured on the old show so I called Jim to talk about that moldy oldie. Soon we discovered we had matching tastes in lots of things. We were both fervent fans of Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, “The Honeymooners” and had other similarities from TV show preferences to the fact that we each owned Beta VCRs, same brand and type.  Jim and I often joked we were twin sons from different mums.

(L-R- Me and Jim Turano in the WRSE studios circa 1983)

I wanted to start a music newsletter that we could send to WRSE listeners. A once a month, double sided 4 page collection of music news, information on the radio station and other comments and articles that we would do ourselves. I invited Jim to be a part of this and soon enough the first edition of “Mick and Jim’s Hucklebuck Update” was published. Since it was the “Hucklebuck” song that linked us in the first place, it made sense to call the newsletter by the same name. To start the subscription list we would solicit on the air for listeners to call in their names and addresses and set them up for the freebie news.

The “Hucklebuck Update” cost us nothing to print. We typed each issue in the college union workroom and learned how to lay-out pictures, cartoons and other parts of the newsletter from, you guessed it, my mentor Lee Swanson who also took Turano under his wing. Elmhurst College had a printing center for us and a bulk rate exemption so we didn’t pay for postage. Copies of the newsletter were also sent to big time Chicago radio stars Larry Lujack, Steve Dahl & Garry Meier and WLUP’s rising morning star Jonathan Brandmeier. I figured why not let the big dogs know what the young Turks are up to?

The newsletter was an instant hit. Our listeners liked getting mail from their favorite radio station and they got into the music updates, our little comments, pithy prose and everything else we put into each issue. I felt something big was bubbling with the Hucklebuck. Just what ‘big’ meant remained a mystery.

The button we mailed out to Hucklebuck subscribers, free of charge. This one is old and a little rusted.  (Like us)

When Elmhurst’s 1983 Fourth of July parade was happening, my mentor Lee said he could get us in it. We painted some WRSE FM and Mick & Jim’s Hucklebuck signs on butcher paper that were taped to my ‘73 Plymouth Duster. Jim and I sat on the closed trunk of the old heap as Lee drove. He maneuvered the car into the pre-parade line-up and told officials we were on the list just like the marching bands and Brownie troops and they absentmindedly waved us through. I realized Lee snuck us in when at the end of the parade the announcers at the reviewing stand had no idea who we were or why we were there. They announced all the other floats and parade participants but didn’t know what to make of me and Jim! It reminded me of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” when Spicoli stows away on the Biology class field trip to the local hospital. As the students are about to enter the hospital morgue, the teacher, Mr. Vargas stops Spicoli and asks him, “Are you in my class?” Spicoli answers, “I am today.”

1983- Stowaways in Elmhurst’s 4th of July Parade with Lee at the wheel. 

In late August of that year, my alma mater York High School, called WRSE to look for someone to DJ their first sock hop of the new school year called “Morp” which was Prom spelled backwards. I said I’d do it and pulled Jim into the deal. Asked how much we’d charge, I said we needed to rent the turntables, mixer and sound system from Elmhurst College and that would cost ten dollars. I didn’t ask for a dime more because I was glad to get exposure in front of a couple hundred high school kids. In the two years before this MORP I DJ’d several Elmhurst College fraternity dances for a little pay and a lot of fun.

Long story short, the MORP dance at York drew over five hundred students who paid three bucks each to get in. Jim and I blew the roof off the room with three hours of oldies and current pop hits. It was a rowdy fun success because we got everybody up and dancing, singing and going nuts. At the end of the night we were paid what I asked for, ten dollars. The rest of the profits went to the York student council and we quickly learned a lesson on better pricing for live dances. Rave reviews of our D.J. dance debut at York got out and calls started coming from area schools who wanted us to play their hops. From 1983 through 1987 we played and got paid for D-J-ing everything from grade school sock hops to colleges, reunion dances, homecomings, proms, company events, birthday parties and weddings.   Jim and I were a big hit doing these dances because we turned every event into a Springsteen-like go nuts happening.  We’ve been friends ever since “The Hucklebuck” song got us together.

JIM TURANO POSTSCRIPT: Jim graduated from Elmhurst College in 1986 and worked for entertainment trade publications and PR agencies while dabbling in Chicago radio before eventually linking up with Chicago radio personality Garry Meier. This was after Garry split off from a long partnership with Steve Dahl followed by years with Roe Conn. Meier and Turano were together for on air partnerships at WCKG FM and lastly at WGN AM where Garry coined Jim’s nickname as Elton Jim in honor of his dedication to the piano pounding pop star.

Jim’s Elton John fandom (he’s been to over 160 Elton concerts) in 2001 was  featured on a VH-1 show about super dedicated music fans. They taped interviews with people who knew him, including me. I gave statements like: “Jim will never leave his wife for another woman, But he MIGHT leave her for Elton John.” I also noted “If Elton ever turns up missing, check Jim Turano’s basement.” The VH-1 producer ate these lines up. Jim was crushed. He said wanted to look like the “normal” Elton John fanatic, I told him, “That ship has sailed.”

Next Week- One more tale on Jim Turano that involves the craziest thing I ever saw at a wedding.

 

 

 

 

Luke Meets Yoda

THE FOLLOWING IS AN EXCERPT FROM MY MEMOIR “RAISED ON THE RADIO” WHICH I LOOK TO RELEASE IN 2018.

Besides thriving on the WRSE FM airwaves, meeting rock music business entrepreneur Lee Swanson in the spring of 1982 was a pivotal moment for me. Lee came to a local concert I was emceeing and we were introduced. He was thirty-one at the time and Elmhurst born & bred. Lee owned The Record Gallery record store in town as well as a local bar called The Rock Garden plus he managed a popular bar band called Risk. Often being a mentor to teens and college kids who had interests in music and media, it would take a math genius to total up his far reaches and contacts but Lee was the Chicago suburbs’ answer to legendary concert promoter Bill Graham.

At the time when I met Lee he was mentoring Dave Ross, a former WRSE D.J. who was now interning at rock station WMET FM.  Dave and I would be linked up through Lee and became long term friends as well.

Lee Swanson was Yoda to my Luke Skywalker and a pre-Google era search engine. Got a question on how to make a local show happen or how to promote a radio station event the right way? Lee was the guy to call. Need to rent P.A. equipment for a concert or dance? Talk to Lee. He was a booster rocket who helped get others moving in the right direction much like Hamburg Germany was a catalyst for the Beatles and other British acts who were honing their skills. Those bands played long late hours six nights a week and either got better or went home. Lee helped all his protégés help themselves and he was also a great friend. When I first met Lee, he just completed treatments for thyroid cancer. It was a rough battle that included surgery and radiation. His physical strength was coming back and the good news was the cancer was in remission.

With the exception of his long red hair, Lee was always the guy in a crowd who would stand out in more subtle ways. When most Chicago rock music fans were sporting black WLUP FM “The Loop” T-shirts, Lee wore a white long sleeved T titled “The Poop” which mocked the iconic radio station. He would say while it’s nice to be into what others liked, it’s better to have something going on that’s just a little different. He was generous and considerate. When a mutual friend won a really cool M TV baseball cap in a drawing, he offered it to Lee who told the guy, “Give it to Mick instead, because he’s the one who wears hats and it’ll mean more to him.”

The best thing Lee taught me was to gather as much information and details about any situation you’re involved in and to not go off half cocked until you knew what was what. That may sound like common sense but to a twenty one year old college kid like me this was vital insight and guidance. Lee Swanson showed me it was best to aim to be the smartest person in the room but you didn’t always have to show that off. When explaining his view or ideas on something Lee would often say, “What you have to understand is…” And he would give some background and detail that helped frame the reasoning behind his thoughts. The guy was very smart and we were great loyal friends from the get go. Lee was someone I talked to on the phone or in person just about every day, he was my touchstone.

(L-R, Me, Dave Ross & Lee at Rolling Stones Records Store)

My media reach expanded in the fall of 1982. Rob Dicker, a high school friend and former yearbook photographer was working for the Elmhurst Press newspaper. He thought the paper needed a music column and pitched the idea to an editor. I was asked to submit a sample article and gave a review of The Who’s new album “It’s Hard” which ran in the next issue. The paper called to have me come down for photos that were taken for my byline on the column titled “Rock Scene” by Mick Kayler. I spelled my last name with a ‘Y’ so people wouldn’t pronounce it Collar or Kohler. That drove my Grandpa Kahler nuts but he also understood my reasoning on the importance of name pronunciation. The column was to have an emphasis on local bands. “Rock Scene” ran in the Elmhurst, Villa Park and Lombard editions of the Press publications newspapers. It was a win-win-win all over the place. My pal Lee was a huge help when I needed to make local music contacts. The Rock Scene column was another stop on my media road.

I cannot emphasize enough what Lee Swanson’s friendship and guidance meant to me. His mentorship was this inspiring and never failing catalyst for me. I knew no matter where my career and life took me, we would be very close friends forever.