The very first band I joined was formed my freshman year of high school when I met Dick the Drummer in “Gay Perry’s” theology class at Milwaukee’s Marquette High School in 1976. (A side note since I know you’re wondering who the hell “Gay Perry” was… “Gay Perry” was the well-established nickname for our Jesuit freshman theology teacher with a vibe that definitely set off your “gaydar” when you met him—Hahahaha! I always found him to be a pretty chill dude and figured he kept his sexuality in the closet back in the day. But in the recent spate of the Catholic church outing its priests, our man “Gay Perry” was indeed included on the list! And to be clear—Neither I nor anybody I knew was his “sex student.” Apparently we did not set off HIS “gaydar!”) Anyway, back to the band and its rather auspicious origins…
Drummer Dick and I started discussing our musical tastes of course and found that we actually had a lot in common, most notably a passionate love for the Rolling Stones. I had only been playing guitar for a couple of years, and my guitar teacher had taught me a few Stones’ tunes at that point. If my memory serves (and it may not—Hahaha!), these included “Jumping Jack Flash,” “Honky Tonk Women,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Dead Flowers,” and probably a couple of others I can’t recall at the moment. He also taught me some Hendrix, Lynyrd Skynryd, Cream, and a bunch of other classic rock of the day. I probably had a repertoire of about 20 tunes I could hack my way through, and thanks again to my Mom for not letting me quit music and insisting that I take actual music lessons when I switched from viola to guitar!
Well, Dick already had a basement band going with two guitar players (and I use the term loosely, including applying it to myself—LOL!) One guy Kevin (not my bro Kevin) actually knew about 10 songs, and I remember his best one was Jethro Tull’s “Teacher.” The other guy Don only knew part of one song that I ever heard him play, and that was Styx’ “Castle Walls.” Needless to say the band had pretty humble beginnings! Oh and before I forget, it was really Dick’s band, so he of course named it “Watts” after his favorite drummer Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones. Sorry Rico (one of Dick’s many nicknames), you get zero points for creativity on that one—Hahaha!!
Thanks to my guitar teacher showing me a bunch of songs and continuing to teach me new ones every week, I was in as the guitar player and the other two guys were out. Fortunately, I had also recently met another Eric on the debate team (a whole set of stories on its own!), and he was about the same level as me and actually knew some songs. He had an older brother teaching him, and Eric’s older brother also had a bass and amp he let us use so—Voila!—The band was off and running! The other Eric (let’s call him Eric B.) basically taught ourselves bass and took turns depending on who knew the guitar part best. Our shy singer Bill and keyboard player John rounded out the band, and “Watts” was born.
Of course we didn’t have a real PA system, and we basically jammed a microphone or two into a guitar amp and tried to get it done that way. When we did the occasional gig (our first one was playing a dance for 7th and 8th graders at St. Mary’s of Elm Grove, WI—A ridiculous story in itself!), we of course rented PA sound systems for those, but we went without a rehearsal PA in the basement for the next two years. Back in those days, a basic rehearsal PA cost more than a used car, and I was making the princely sum of $2.35/hour slinging burgers and root beer at the local A & W! And Dick was a slacker who didn’t even have a regular part-time job—Hahaha!
Fast forward about two years when we were now all driving and I was in a carpool that met at my neighborhood Presbyterian church every morning. The pastor and his family lived right next door to the church, and they were literally only three houses down from our house. They had 5 kids and we all played together, knew each other well, etc. Our neighborhood was only 11 families and the church, so needless to say, everyone knew each other! Of course, the doors to the church were always unlocked (it was the 1970s), and we would regularly wait for the carpool to gather inside the lobby with the blessing of the pastor when it was cold outside (and that was most of the school year in Wisconsin!)
Next to the lobby was a large event room with a stage, and at some point a complete setup for a rock band magically appeared on the stage! It belonged to some of the parishioners (who were in their 20s, I believe), and they were using the room as a rehearsal space. I didn’t think much of it initially but I casually mentioned it to Dick one day in class (crazy Fr. Egan’s theology class ironically), and his eyes lit up in a way I still remember to this day—Hahaha! We had a brief discussion about the logistics of things in terms of the door being always unlocked, no people being around 95% of the time, etc., and although I knew it would be quite easy to abscond with the other band’s PA system, I really didn’t think it would ever happen. It was nothing but a couple of high school stoners talking, dreaming and wishing we had our own PA.
My recollection is that Dick was the most motivated in this escapade, probably because he sang more than I did and he also took the band more seriously than the rest of us did at the time. I’m guessing a few months went by as Dick kept asking me if the PA system was still “available.” I told him it was still there and at some point he became motivated enough to enlist our singer Bill in this skullduggery because his parents had a station wagon which we needed to fit the gigantic PA speakers! I really don’t know what I was thinking when I agreed to be a part of this bad musical mojo (or serious sinning to be Catholic/Presbyterian about it!), but Dick had a strong personality and was used to having his way. I foolishly acquiesed, and we scheduled our crime during a final exam weekday so we could be at the church around noon on a weekday in December when nobody would be around.
As we pulled up to the church in Bill’s parents’ station wagon, I started to get a really bad feeling as I looked around nervously and realized (DUH!) that I was in my own neighborhood and that every single person who lived here would instantly recognize me! I looked around to make sure no neighbors were driving down the road but I had no idea who might have been looking out their windows. We pulled right up to the door and I snuck in as quickly as I could with Dick and Bill. We walked into the event room, and there it was—A beautiful Kustom PA system with the famous “tuck and roll” padding elegantly encasing the speakers and the amplifier/mixer.
If I didn’t know better, I’d say that Dick was drooling with delight as he envisioned his and Bill’s voices screaming out of the PA, and of course the irony was that we were all pretty crappy singers at age 16 and even a nice PA wouldn’t help us all that much! We got up on the stage and moved our booty down the 4 or 5 stairs and started rolling it towards the door. When we got about halfway across the main floor, I panicked and told Dick that we couldn’t do this, started to turn my stolen speaker around, and said that we should put it back and call the whole thing off while we still had the chance. He gave me a look that could kill, and I think he said something to the effect of “too late now”—The PA was going in Bill’s parents’ station wagon whether I helped anymore or not. I realized that he was essentially right in terms of me no longer having any control over what happened next short of starting a fight or immediately ratting out my bandmates when I was as deep in the shit as they were. And I would undoubtedly be viewed as the instigator anyway because I found the “opportunity” in the first place.
I did refuse to load it in the car in case one of my neighbors drove by and saw me, so I quickly skulked into the getaway car instead. We did manage to get away with nobody being the wiser and we drove back to Bill’s house and unloaded the PA into his basement. Now of course you might wonder how we would explain our sudden good fortune to Bill’s parents in acquiring a $1,500 sound system out of the blue, but Dick and Bill had that covered. They made up a story about some other kid at school whose family had money and their kid was simply loaning us his PA for a little while. Bill’s parents didn’t bat an eye, and I calmed down a bit when it seemed like we had gotten away with it for now.
Well, my calm quickly became anxiety in a few weeks when the phone rang and it was our neighbor the pastor calling about the PA that had mysteriously “gone missing” from his church! My Mom took the call and I was actually in the kitchen when the call came in so my Mom asked me to get on the phone with Reverend D. because he wanted to know if I knew anything about it. Of course I acted as surprised and shocked as I could and said I knew nothing, and that was the end of it for the moment. But the pastor knew I was in a band, and he also knew that our Catholic school carpool met in his lobby next to the event room so I would have been well aware of the band gear in the room. Reverend D. was no dummy, and I think he was trying to give me a chance to do the right thing, confess to the crime, and return the stuff without involving the police. But I was too young and dumb to see it that way, and of course I would have had to rat out my bandmates, so I stuck to my story.
I told Dick and Bill about the call the next day at school, and we kind of agreed to just let things ride and see what happened. Obviously nobody had seen us steal the PA, and in our minds it was safely tucked away at Bill’s house 20 miles away. As the next thee months or so went by and we never heard anything else about it, we began to think we were home free. Dick actually felt comfortable enough at that point to move “his PA” (in his mind—Hahaha!) into his parents’ basement with the same story and we started to rehearse over there.
But there was one member of the band who made the moral choice and refused to sing through our stolen booty of bad musical mojo. Our other guitar player Eric B. was much less of a rogue than the rest of us, and he was quite vocal about his vehement disapproval of our theft. His microphone remained plugged into the old guitar amp, and even though we gave him plenty of shit, he stayed on his moral high ground. I sometimes wonder if he didn’t say something to someone that ultimately got us busted, but the fact was that Dick got overly complacent and told a few of his friends, and all it would take was someone’s parents getting wind of our scam and dropping the dime on us. And good for the other Eric for making the choice this Eric should have made. It was one of the few times my WTF attitude led me down the completely wrong path in life.
I may have escaped phone call number one from Reverend D., but about 3 months later I answered the phone one Saturday afternoon when my parents weren’t home. It was a sergeant from the Mequon police (our little burg), asking to speak to one of my parents. I truthfully told him they were out, and he asked if he were speaking to Eric by any chance. I replied that he was, and at that moment I knew we were busted. He was actually pretty chill and told me not to talk but to just listen. I shut the fuck up as he told me that he had heard that I might have had something to do with the church PA theft and that all they really wanted was their PA back ASAP.
I started to stammer some lame protestation of innocence, but Sergeant Stadenko (OK—I can’t remember his real name and you old geezers get the joke!) told me to just shut up and listen to how things were going to go. He told me that they wanted the PA delivered to the police station that day, and that the faster it happened the easier things would be on us. If I told him I really had nothing to do with it, that was OK too, but he was going to talk to my parents as soon as possible, get the names and numbers for my bandmates’ parents, and call them directly to see if any of them had noticed a pair of 5-foot-tall speakers in their house recently and whether their kids’ voices sounded any louder through the purloined PA system! And if I made him do all that extra work, it was going to cost all of us.
My initial reaction that we were indeed screwed was of course confirmed since the PA system had by now been in not one, not two, but three of our band members houses and had of course been seen by three sets of parents. And get this—our singer Bill’s dad was an FBI agent so it wasn’t like he wouldn’t have noticed “our” new PA in his basement—Hahahaha! (OK—I can laugh at the bitter irony now and the fact that his station wagon was the proverbial “getaway car.”) My response to the sergeant was to ask if I could call him back in 10 minutes, and he told me that would be an excellent idea.
I immediately called our fearless leader Dick to tell him the bad news. It didn’t take much convincing for him to understand that we were screwed, and he immediately called our friend P. J. who pretty much had 24/7 access to his parents’ Chevy Suburban. Thankfully P. J. and his Suburban were available, and I was able to call Sgt. Stadenko back in just about 10 minutes to let him know that we would be delivering the PA within the next 2-3 hours tops. He said that was great and that he would be there waiting for us, and I assumed that everything was cool except for one minor point. I of course asked (with bated breath) if my speedy cooperation meant that us returning the PA this afternoon would be the end of things, and he said that it would be from a criminal standpoint. It appeared the reverend and the rather gracious parishioners who owned the PA did not want to mess up some dumbass teenage boys’ lives (we were 16 or 17 at the time) by pressing charges against them. I breathed a huge sigh of relief and for a nanosecond I thought—”Thank you, Jesus—We escaped that debacle by the skin of our teeth!” But my relief was quickly dashed when the sergeant said that “of course we will have to tell everyone’s parents since you guys are still minors.” I tried pleading with him for a minute to no avail of course, and he kind of snickered as he said “we’ll see you soon” and pretty much hung up on me.
I knew my Mom would be home before the PA was delivered and we had to all meet the cops, so I decided to bite the bullet and admit my guilt the moment she walked in the door about a half hour later. As expected, she was both ashamed and angry and insisted on taking me to the cop shop to meet my fellow thieves and the sergeant. I was actually glad I did it that way—I had never really felt right about the whole thing, and I was willing to accept whatever punishment meted out because I sure as hell deserved it in this case! I can still remember Mom and I sitting down with the sergeant and him doing me a solid by saying that I was extremely cooperative and gotten the PA returned in record time, etc., but my parents were still not very impressed to say the least!
I think I was grounded for a month; the band dissolved for a 2-3 months because that was part of Dick’s punishment, Bill was permanently removed from the band by his FBI agent father, but the worst thing was that I had to walk over to Reverend D’s house IN PERSON to confess and apologize for my sins. I don’t think Presbyterians have confession like Catholics, but he sure got to hear one from this Catholic boy—Hahaha! (Sure, I can laugh about it now!) But you know what the worst part was for me? Having our whole neighborhood know that I was the thieving asshole who stole a PA system FROM A CHURCH. And from our neighborhood church no less…
Was there any upside to this story, you may be asking? I can honestly say that the embarrassment and humiliation of having our entire neighborhood know I was a thieving, lying bastard made me never steal anything again in my entire life. I am very grateful that I learned this lesson hard enough to get my attention but not that hard since we weren’t prosecuted criminally. Reverend D., the PA owners, and the police were all very kind to us in hindsight and I thank them for that. I had never felt good about it in the first place, and I learned to trust my instincts (and what I was taught by my parents of course!) for right and wrong, good karma versus bad, etc. for the next 40 years. And I can also say that we didn’t have enough vocal talent that it made that much difference anyway. Compromising my integrity for a little bit of extra volume, EQ, and reverb? With mostly Bill and Dick singing?!! Seriously?!!!