Saturday, April 18, 2009

It's, It's a Ballroom Blitz: Part Seven: It was 20 Years Ago Today

All right. By this point, in 1989, I was emotionally wrecked and exhausted. And by this point, in 2009, I'm more than a little bit tired and crabby. But, in the words of Samuel Beckett, "I can't go on, I'll go on."

As I said earlier, I'm telling this story from my point of view. And from my point of view, this story was over and finished when Pastor Dave canceled the Wesley Foundation benefit concert for The Public Address System.

It was the end of my direct involvement, at any rate. I was there, but I wasn't there ... if you get what I mean. My cash cow was dead from brucellosis, or bovine spongiform loose cannonitis. My crazy dreams of a big push over the top into publishing viability were dead. I had thought I had, within my imminent grasp, the capital infusion, and the big-time cultural happening, for Fame and Fortune ... and then that was yanked away from under my feet like a strip of wet terry cloth on a flooded bathroom floor.

My head hurt, and everything was foggy. So I don't have as lucid a recall from those post-cancellation days as pre. The next few days after the Obscene Rock Show Posters scandal aren't so clear. Luckily, JC Bureau Chief O.Ball has stepped up again to help out. But, first, here are my few recollections, as assisted by some things I affixed to paper and audio cassette tape at or near the time.

I was DJing a radio show at WKDI from 6 to 9 a.m. on Sunday mornings that semester. Probably the graveyardiest of graveyard shifts. The drunks were all asleep by then, and nobody with any sense was awake yet. I think I had approximately zero listeners.

Naturally, I let that allow me to do whatever the hell I wanted, from mixing Charles Manson folk songs with field recordings of the Jim Jones massacre to G.G. Allin played at 45 rpm mixed with John F. Kennedy speeches to rambling at length about whatever I felt that morning. More people, I am certain, have listened to my own cassette recordings, as captive audiences in my own apartments, of those shows than anyone ever did on their radios.

During my WKDI show for Sunday April 16, a certain No Eraser Head dropped by the Kishwaukee Hall studio for a visit. He later admitted to me that he was under the influence of LSD, but I didn't notice any difference from his usual self.

NEH took a seat in the news studio and strapped on a set of cans. (Headphones, to you non-radio-nerd types.) And we spent a good several minutes talking about what had just happened. Which I managed to preserve on tape, and which you can download and, if you so choose, listen to, thanks to the Internet (as part of the audio package offered in the footnote below).

The thing that stands out most to me now -- because I do hold a grudge -- is how unconcerned NEH was about the impact his and Squeaky's fun-fest had had on the newspaper. He was remorseful about fucking up Otis Ball's tour ... but I suspect strongly that that was because he had big designs on coattailery, and he didn't want to jeopardize that.

At any rate, I'm a passive-aggressive guy, not an active-aggressive one, so I sucked up the dismissal, the "Bah! The newspaper! That's secondary!" stuff. But I didn't really swallow it. That has stuck in my craw for two decades now. And it's kind of cathartic, frankly, to say so now.

Not that his feeling bad would have served any purpose. Other than for my fucked up ego. But if I'd felt better about things then, maybe ... well, speculation is worth little. Better to get back into what happened.

And what happened was that NEH decided to try to make good for Otis. And I thought that was fine, in general principle, but I still wasn't involved at all. It was very much an "OK, you take it" situation. And the last chapter of this story is what happened when NEH took it.

Time was short to accomplish any fixing, because Otis was heading back to Jersey very soon. So NEH, I don't know the details, set up a make-up show. He contracted with a local restaurant with a banquet ballroom in downtown DeKalb, Matthew Boone's, it was called, to serve as a venue. He called on the estimable Dr. Tulk (cannot praise Tulk enough, in any forum) to do sound. And he secured the bands from the original ill-fated Wesley show to play.

But, as I can recall, even after a lot of archive-digging and memory-mining, little or no promotion was done. I guess he was counting on word of mouth. The make-up show at Matthew Boone's was just a couple days away, on April 19th, and it was sickeningly obvious that that was not going to be enough time to get the word across, especially if promotional efforts consisted of nothing.

I still can't fathom the motivations. Was it to salvage some cash for Otis? Was it to save face somehow? I still can't see, hard as I try, how either of those things were going to happen, or how anyone could believe they would.

But, in spite of everything, the show went on. Hardly anyone showed up, and the bands, venue, and sound man all went unpaid, but there was a show.

That show has become known, among the cognoscenti, as The Ballroom Blitz.

I was there, but just as a spectator. I didn't have anything to do with anything. Didn't work the door, didn't work anything. Even paid to get in. One of the few. So, at this point, let's let Otis Ball tell the story of The Ballroom Blitz, itself.

Ready, Steve? Killer? Bouj? Alright, fellas. LET'S GO!

Twenty years on, it still took half a bottle of vodka to write this post. There we were. It was supposed to be the big homecoming show. But due to oppression beyond my control, it had been canceled. I was going back to Jersey on the 20th. The knuckleheads had less than a week to correct their mistake and book a make up show. To their credit, they did manage to get that together. Even suckered in Dale Tulk, soundman to the Dekalb/Sycamore stars. In hindsight, I wish they hadn't. He deserved better. But you play the Ball where it lies, so to speak. Or the Blitz, if you weel.

The big show was off. Apparently the Northern Illinois University campus was too delicate to withstand a promotion consisting of naked stick figures. They weren't even anatomically correct! But that post has been posted. Whether you're just joining us or you have been impatiently waiting for each new episode, I recommend you download the audio version of the backstory*

I suspect Stronger Than Newspaper Tom Lung may have some additional comments on this zip. I prefer to comment videologically.

Anyways, where was I? Oh yeah. April 19, 1989. A Wednesday night. Somehow, one Matthew Boone's event hall had been procured. I was tempted to say "rented," but that would have involved a deposit. Too bad about their lax business practices. It was an interesting venue for a rock show. To the best of my knowledge, it had never been used for a rock show before and CERTAINLY not since. (At least some of those involved learned valuable lessons on this day, though not all.) In hindsight, I'm sure it was nothing more than a dining hall for rent. But to those of us used to church basements, university commons and old man drinking clubs, it looked like a venue better suited to proms or weddings. My god, it was practically a ballroom! Disco ball included! (Which is not to be confused with a disco Ball. That would take us back to the late 70's and remove us from the story at hand.)

Kissyfish was driving down from Madison, the Chains were in their various Chicago area locales and I woke up in Dekalb. With a grapefruit lump in my gut. I had a bad feeling about the evening show. Not only was it booked on a weeks notice, but given the circumstances, let's just say that there was not a whole lot of promotion. And it was a Wednesday night to boot. And I sensed another boot could well be imminent, if we didn't watch all our P's and Q's. And stick figures.

Enough beating around the bush. We knew it wasn't gonna be the best Otis Ball & The Chains show. Christ, we had a pretty good idea it wouldn't even be the best of the tour. And it wasn't. That would be the IMSA show, discussed in the previous post. But goddamn it! There was a job to be done! I spent the afternoon with the Public Address System crew, which is documented in the PAS 23 mp3s [linked in the footnote below]. We were all understandably nervous for our own reasons. They needed a successful make up show to print the next edition. I coulda used some cash to get home and make up for taking two weeks off of work for a no budget homecoming tour. Thankfully the Cover Me With Roses cassette and T-shirt sales were doing fine. I was far more concerned about leaving my Dekalb reputation in tact. God knows why.

So we loaded in that afternoon. Kissyfish showed up, loaded in and we spent the afternoon pacing. Which changed not one thing of the impending show. Doors opened. $4 admission. Seemed overpriced to me, but I wasn't promoting the show. My concern was what happened on stage.

Good thing. Attendance was light early on. Not only did I know everybody, but between Kissyfish, OB&C and the PAS crew, we coulda handily defeated em in a fist fight. And that is not bragging about our collective pugilistic skills.

Kissyfish opened the show. I thought they were fine. But Ryan was not happy. More than once he apologized from the stage. I dunno why. They sounded just fine then and now. They opened with an excellent Hava Nagila. An arrangement I would blatantly steal over a decade later when asked to play at my cousin's wedding. They did a decent amount of their hits and a couple new songs, but ended after about a half hour. They were clearly feeling as nervous and unsure as I was feeling. The smell of curse was in the air.

Up next was No Eraser Head. One of the PAS crew. An old Dekalb pal. Soon to join me in Jersey and roadie for the OB&C midwest tour a year later. (I'm sick of saying "that's another story." Figure it out.)

NE was a unique performer. Like BB King, he couldn't play guitar and vocalize at the same time. Unlike BB King, he couldn't even play guitar. But that didn't stop him. Nor should it have. He did what he did and there was no one else doing anything similar. Before or since. He choose to use the first half of his set to both encapsulate the story of the show and do a greatest hits of his stand-up routine. All in about 5 minutes. For his second song, he performed a Stooges song backed by an old vaudeville routine. Rather than go into detail, I implore you to watch his entire set that night.

Under any other circumstances, I would have thought this No Eraser Head set was the greatest performance I had ever witnessed. But for the fact that the owner and/or manager of the venue had appeared with her two young children. She was looking for her money. Ironically from this anniversary vantage point, there could not have been more than 20 people in attendance. I knew she wasn't getting paid. The PAS crew knew she wasn't getting paid. Fuck, she probly knew she wasn't getting paid. Meanwhile, NE was playing a solo guitar version of I Wanna Be Yer Dog while two other gentlemen explained the definition of "To come" and smashed 78 rpm lacquer records over their heads. Me? I was curled up in a ball in a shadowed door jamb.

But now it was time. Might as well get this over with. I guess if ya gotta play a show, might as well throw in for the handful of friends who showed up. So Otis Ball & The Chains took to the stage one last time.

I guess we all knew this could be it. And it was. While Otis Ball & A Chains would play with A Kissyfish one year later, this collection of musicians and old friends would never gather again. Not all at once. Some attendees would disappear, never to be heard from again. (Steve Laux! Phone home!)

If this was a movie, (and someday it may be! All copyrights held by One O Ball and Stronger Than Dirt Pete Moss!) the show would have been amazing, properly documented and hundreds would have been streaming in after the big football game let out. But that is not what happened. The attendees who were attending were already attending. We knew this was "a major loss for the band." (You are watching the accompanying videos, aren't you? I didn't upload em for my health!) And the video is very poor quality. But a rock show is a rock show. There are a lot of things I am lazy about. But when it comes to show time, well, it is show time.

And that is where our story does take a turn for the better. You see, while the audience was sparse, they were all hardcore. So they all acme prepared for The Request Bucket. TRB. An OB&C mainstay. (Along with acronyms.) At most shows, I would put out the bucket. Fans were invited to drop requests in the bucket. Not Otis Ball song requests. ANY song requests. And we aimed to please. The very first time The Request Bucket was employed, we got a request for a Metallica song. Leper Messiah. Well, we did not know Leper Messiah. So we made up a song on the spot. Called Leper Messiah. THAT is how The Request Bucket works.

This fucked up show was a financial disaster. It was not to be anything resembling an ego gratifying homecoming show. But thanks to the fifth member of the band, TRB, it was a success. My buddy Jody had been making notes for months. She came to the show armed with at least two dozen requests. The Associations' Windy! New York, New York! You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman! Green Acres! And someone requested Ballroom Blitz.

So the show happened. Which is more than we expected at the time, under the circumstances. And I do have to say, despite the doom hanging about two feet above the dance floor, despite the fact that NO ONE was making any money that night, despite the fact that we might never see each other again, we managed to end the night with the most triumphant rock moment Dekalb has ever seen. Or not seen in this case.

For the big finale, we called up Kissyfish to join us. We chose two very special covers and an anthem to end the night, the tour and the very special friendship all those in attendance were bonded by forever and always. As I did that night, I would like to dedicate these three songs, this rock and roll encore of all encores to all those on stage that night, all those in the audience and all of you who have joined us in this 20 year anniversary remembrance.

From Otis Ball and Stronger Than Dirt Pete Moss, thank you, friends.

And now, finally, it has been told.

To follow, perhaps, an epilogue or two. We'll see.

Thanks for reading. Thank you very much.

-- Mr. Newspaper aka STDPM


* The backstory Otis refers to here is a combination xerox and cassette zine I made in April 1990 called "The Pub ic Address System 23." The audio consists of WKDI broadcasts, various musical interludes, and acoustic solo Otis Ball songs in reference to the event in question. It is available at

It's appropriate, I think, to relegate what I call "PAS 23" to a footnote. It was my first post-mortem on the fiasco, put together about one year afterward. It was also my first xerox zine. Here's the cover:

And here, from that zine, is my ... er, Mr. Newspaper's ghost writer's ... first one-page attempt at telling this story.

Plus, just for you, here is a little bonus. With each of the 23 copies I made of PAS 23 (about 16 of which were distributed to various very important people), I got Squeaky himself to draw a different unique obscene drawing in his own unique obscene style, and to number and autograph them on the back side. So, to finish this horrible epic, why not close with that? Here's one example of what made this all so possible, complete with autographed backside.


heyrocker said...

I am unsure how it is that I missed all this drama. It is quite the story. Obviously I know all the players, but I admit blissful ignorance to the whole thing. In point of fact, I do not even remember attending the triumphant conclusion. I do not remember smashing 78s on my or anyone else's head. I do not remember badly imitating James Ostenburg barefoot in the remains of said 78s. I do not even remember that a place called Matthew Boone's existed. Yet here in front of me is all of the documentary evidence, and it cannot be denied.

Thank you for the story. It brought back many memories, all good (even the bad ones.)

Hope everything is well.

Greg Dunlap

Katherine N. said...

I lived in DeKalb then too, and knew you, Mr. Newspaper and some of the other folks. I remember the PAS. But I don't remember any of the shows you mentioned. I think I remember you talking some about the fiasco, so maybe it wasn't til a year or so later that John & I started hanging w/you & Lynn.I do remember Matthew Boones, but only because they were an advertiser at the newspaper where Lynn & I both worked and where our employee Xmas party was held. It certainly was not the type of venue you'd expect a rock show to be held in.

Anyway, I enjoyed the nostalgia trip.

Feral Mom said...

Bravo, STDPM. An excellent story, if a bitter one. You know how to rock out a series, and this one did not disappoint. Write it, and I will read.

maryannix said...

Has it really been 20 years??! You have an amazing memory. I think I somehow blocked out that part of my life. There were just too many strange memories.