Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Going New Wave

When the 1970s gave way to the 1980s, there was a noticeable change in the culture, the way people talked and the way they acted. There was a new phony optimism and shallowness that I didn't have much use for. I might have been living in the eighties but I didn't have to participate in it. Everyone else might have been going new wave, but I was sticking to my good ol’ rock 'n' roll. Or so I thought.

I had some friends who were in a local bar band, originally called the Druggists. They had formed in 1979 doing straightforward rock 'n' roll covers of songs by groups such as Led Zeppelin, Bad Company, Grand Funk Railroad, Bachman-Turner Overdrive and the Knack. They were loud and somewhat good, and they mostly played in the small dives and private parties around the city. The drunker the audience, the better they sounded.

My good friend Dave Wiedemann was the lead vocalist and bassist for the Druggists, with Mike Rupert on lead guitar and vocals, Bob Martin on rhythm guitar and Ed Williston on drums and percussion.

Dave joined in 1980, replacing a couple other guys, and immediately took the band over with some bold new ideas. He wanted to get the band into better venues, get more publicity, and do some original material, so they wouldn't be strictly a "cover" band. I had some artistic ability, a few media connections and was a budding writer with a whole notebook of potential ideas for original rock songs, so Dave asked me to be the "official" publicist and lyricist for the band. If nothing else I was at least affordable, and Dave knew how to stroke my ego.

"We're gonna be big, and you're gonna help us get there, dude," he told me.

My role as "publicist" consisted mostly of hand-drawing posters and leaflets for the band's upcoming appearances (this was before the era of home computers), mass-photocopying them and riding around town on my bike, stapling them to telephone poles and community bulletin boards. I would get the band's appearances listed in the weekly "alternative" newspapers, and I would write up press releases and send them out with press packets that included the band's bio, upcoming appearances and a photo of the guys in the band, with their scraggly hair and beards, standing, arms folded, with pissed-off looks on their faces. The posters and publicity materials included the slogan, "WE ARE THE DRUGGISTS, AND WE ROCK!" Occasionally someone would cross out "rock" and write in "suck" on the posters, but I'd just tear that one down and put up a new one when it happened.

Having the opportunity to write songs for the band was especially thrilling. I didn't write music, but I'd jot down lyrics that I thought would make good, hard rock songs with a particular tune in mind. I'd submit the ideas to Dave, he'd work out something with the other guys and come up with something that was dynamite. Dave would belt out my lyrics with gusto, and I took pride in the fact that I did not write love lyrics or anything conventional, and that’s what Dave and the other guys wanted.

One of the band's favorite songs that I wrote was called "I Just Don't Care No More." They played this at just about every show they did, and Dave cranked it out with aggressive vocals.

Well I'm tired of listening to
Anything that comes from you
From this day there is no way
I'll listen to anything you say

So you say that your life's so bad
I just don't care no more
You tell me that you feel so sad
I just don't care no more
You want someone to tell your troubles to
I just don't care no more
You come to me when you feel blue

I won't be there for you when you cry
I just don't care no more
I'm sure you know the reason why
I just don't care no more
You always depress the shit out of me
I just don't care no more
And from your troubles I want to break free

Or there was this classic. Heavy metal lyrics from a parental perspective:

You're not a child, you're a demon from hell
There's not a doctor or cure that could make you well
We've put up with you, now we're drawing the line
You piece of shit, you're no son of mine!

You're a disgrace to our family name
To your mother and I, you've brought only shame
In our society you'll never advance
We should have aborted you when we had the chance!

And then there was Dave's personal favorite, and a popular one with the club audiences, the unforgettable, hard rockin' party song, "Beast Man":

There's a creature out there you can't escape
Sometimes he's a man, sometimes he's an ape

Not too many things give him a thrill
But he loves to hunt and he loves to kill

Killing everything is his desire
Looks like evolution has gone haywire

In the first couple of years of the 1980s, hanging out with that band was a blast. The Druggists were getting better gigs, performing as an opening act at the better nightclubs or as a fill-in when a main act couldn't show up, while continuing to perform in bars and at private parties. The audiences were generally receptive. Occasionally there would be some obnoxious drunk causing problems, but there were never any hostile audiences that I saw.

The band was still performing classic rock covers, with my songs thrown in, and it was especially gratifying for me to see people really jamming out to something I had written. Dave was good about crediting me and introducing me to people, but I was quite fine with staying in the background and watching it all from my own comfort zone.


In the spring of 1982, Dave informed me he and the guys were working in a studio and were putting the finishing touches on an album that would have twelve cuts, including six of my songs. He told me I’d be given writer’s credit and would receive a share of the royalties. Finally, my work for these guys would actually pay off.

He asked me for suggestions on what to call the new LP. I thought for a moment and suggested the title “Fuck ‘em.” It was a phrase Dave used a lot, as well as me, and it expressed the attitude of the band.

Dave’s immediate response was “Yeah! Cool!” But then after thinking about it he said, “I don’t know, man. Stores aren’t going to stock anything with ‘fuck’ in the title.” I guess he had a point.

So then I suggested, “Why don’t you call the LP “Nuke ‘em.” On the front cover, show a picture of the band, with a big ass fuckin’ nuclear explosion mushroom cloud in the background!” This was, after all, at the height of the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union.

Dave loved that idea, had a professional graphic artist work with my sketches to create the album cover, and in June 1982, “THE DRUGGISTS—NUKE ‘EM” came out on vinyl and cassette tape, with “I Just Don’t Care No More” as the opening track. A couple of FM rock stations even played that track and another one I wrote. It was at least a year before I actually saw a royalty check, and it wasn’t much, but I was happy to get it.

The album also included a couple of new tracks I wrote. One was called “Adolescent Therapy Session.” It started out with a distorted guitar riff, followed by slamming drums. Then Dave’s searing vocals came in.

Well you are only seventeen
But you’re the WORST CASE we’ve ever seen!
You’re going out and stealing cars
You’re drinking in cross town bars, good god!
You pick up a police woman decoy
You’re parents say, “You are such a naughty boy!
“We tried to raise you right from the start
“Now you’re breaking our heart!”

The other one took a different turn, and to everyone’s surprise it became something of a local hit. It was a ballad called “Terrance,” sung by Dave from the perspective of a high school cad.

My name is Terrance
And I’m really chic
I’m so cute you could pinch my cheek
I’m on the honor roll and the football team
When the girls see me, they all scream (backing vocals: Oh, TERRANCE!)

My name is Terrance
And I’m the high school jock
My big, hunk body is solid rock
I’ve got a tall blond cheerleader by my side
I’m gonna take her home and take her for a ride
Oh, I’m the all-American boy
To all the girls I provide such joy
Cause I’m a gorgeous son of a bitch
I’ll never have to work ‘cause I’m good looking and rich…

I was stunned to find out "Terrance" became a favorite at the local clubs, and couples were actually dancing close together to it when it was played. And it did get some radio play as well, but with a couple of words bleeped out. Those came up in the last verse of the song.

And last night I got such a thrill
When I [bleep]-ed some [bleep] by the name of Jill…

You can't accuse me of being incapable of writing about romance!


As the decade progressed, things were changing. Bar audiences and bar owners were looking for something different than simple loud rock 'n' roll performed by four or five guys in long hair, beards, mustaches and shabby clothes. It was now the era of the music video, where looks mattered more. So-called new wave rock and urban contemporary dance music performed by guys and girls in wildly fashionable hairdos and slick, colorful outfits was becoming the big thing that people were looking for. New bands were popping up and snatching up gigs that could have been had by the Druggists. And what kind of a name was the Druggists anyway? It sounded too much like a throwback to hippie-era drug culture. We were now in the era of Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign. People still did drugs, but it was now considered wrong to promote it openly.

In March 1983, Dave threw us all for a loop. He called a meeting at the old warehouse where the band practiced, and told me to be there too. He had some big news, and publicity is going to be more important than ever, he said.

With me, Mike, Bob, Ed and a few others there, Dave made his big announcement. "I hired a keyboardist. His name is Howie Horkelson (that actually wasn’t his real name) and he's great. We're going New Wave, man. We got to get with the Eighties. We got to think about making music videos and getting on MTV. We can't go on being some fucking sixties throwbacks."

The guys were all looking at each other, saying, "What the fuck?"

He turned to me and said, "Dude, I want you to make posters and put them up all over town saying we've gone new wave. I want you to write up press releases and send them everywhere. Newspapers, TV stations, radio stations, everywhere. Oh, and the band's not going to be called the Druggists anymore. From now on we're Illegal Smiles. Not the Illegal Smiles, just Illegal Smiles."

The other guys in the band were not so gung-ho on that idea, least of all me. I said, "What the fuck do you want to do that for? The eighties suck!" The other guys were saying, "Yeah, no shit."

Dave said, "Look, guys, I'm not saying we can't play rock anymore. But we're living in the eighties, and if we're going to get out of playing the dives and get booked at some of the hotter clubs, we've got to get with what's current, what's trendy. People don't want to hear covers of Led Zeppelin and BTO songs all the time anymore."

"So what about the stuff I'm writing for the band," I asked.

"Keep doing what you're doing," he said. "What you write can easily be adapted to new wave."

Dave had a talent for being persuasive as much as any good salesman and the guys all came around to his side of the issue, however reluctantly. And so the Druggists became Illegal Smiles and I drew up some new posters with the group's new name in an eighties pop art style and emphasis on "New Wave." Meanwhile, getting into the spirit, I wrote my first "new wave" song for the band. Dave loved it, and had new keyboardist Howie sing lead on it.

God bless this beautiful day!
God bless the American way!
Well there's a great big smile
On every face I see
Everyone's a-living in harmony
Walkin' down the street you'll havta agree
America is the place to be!

Yes you can tell that America is the place to be
The way the surgeon performs his surgery
The way the drunkard drinks his burgundy
The way the radical speaks subversively…

Howie was actually good at what he did, the band played well with the new sound, and Illegal Smiles did start to draw bigger and more enthusiastic crowds than they did when they were the Druggists. In addition to what I was writing for them, the band was covering tracks from groups such as DEVO, the Clash and the Sex Pistols.

Then in the fall of 1984, Dave decided to make another big change. He brought in an aspiring singer named Tracy Gerwitz. Tracy was an aerobics instructor who wanted to be the next Madonna, and she tried hard to look just like her idol, with big permed hair, big earrings, heavy makeup, and a crucifix around her neck, even though she was Jewish. "It's just a fashion accessory to me," she'd say.

She had the Eighties Attitude big time. She was there because Dave was dating her, and I'm sure the other guys in the band were banging her as well. Not me, though. We tolerated each other, but that was about it.

She was nice to me in a phony sort of way. She'd say, "I want you to write songs for me but it's got to be my style." Or, "If you're going to make posters for the band be sure to mention me. Please? You know how to spell my name, right?"

She wasn't too crazy about the songs I wrote for the band either. She went through my notebooks with the lyrics I had jotted down and said, "Uh, I can't believe some of this stuff you write! Your words are so cynical, so angry at everything. Can't you write a love song?"

"Fuck that," I said. "I don't write puss songs."

"Love songs are not puss songs," she insisted. "Have you never been in love before? Don't you know what it's like?"

I said, "Fuck no."

She rolled her eyes and sighed exaggeratingly. "What-EVER!" Then she complained to Dave about me. "Why do you hang around with negative people? Do you know how it affects your psyche?"

Dave was hot and cold with Tracy. One day he'd be gushing about what a great lady she was, the next day he'd be calling her a "psycho bitch." But she had her clutches in him and in the entire band, and that was that.

Before long a new group photo was taken with Tracy up front and center, with the guys in the background. Soon Ed left the group (ostensibly to get married), and then Bob left. A couple of new guys came in to replace them, and I actually stuck around out of loyalty to Dave. Finally, in the spring of 1985, when the band started being billed as "Illegal Smiles Featuring Tracy Gerwitz," I knew it was pretty much over, and I too split the scene, moving on to other things. And pretty soon there was no more Illegal Smiles, just "singing sensation Tracy Gerwitz" getting booked at all the hot clubs. Dave finally realized he was just a stepping stone for her.

All these years later, Dave is still a friend of mine. He stops by occasionally for a beer and a chat. We talk about the good old days and he still gripes about how Tracy screwed him over. Then he gets to the point of his visit.

"Dude, you got $100 you can borrow me? I'll pay you back tomorrow, I promise."

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