PART TWO: Continued From —
The Ward family left Norton at the beginning of 1970. Father Don, a veteran of the small town daily paper, took a post with a larger and more prestigious company as advertising manager for the Stock Yards Journal in St. Joseph, MO.
St. Joe — POP about 75,000 — is a border town, up in the Northeast corner of Kansas, where the Missouri River cuts the corner off the map, and on the Kansas side is Elwood — POP about 1,000. Being right at the foot of the bridge makes it a handy bedroom community for the bigger city. But even more important, there are vastly different laws in each state. In 1970, the legal age for Kansans to drink alcohol (if it wasn’t a dry county) was 21 for hard liquor and “strong” beer, and 18 for beer with up to 3.2% alcohol. Missouri had no distinction, so everyone there had to be 21 to drink any kind of booze. Of course, St. Joe was also a college town. So on weekends and Wednesdays (for hump day relief) Elwood and some of the other border towns were flooded with under-aged Missouri people who wanted to drink.
Add to this the fact that the Nebraska border was only a dozen miles north of Elwood, and the Nebraska laws were much more lenient about drinking — Anybody 19 years old could drink any kind of liquor or beer. This made for a merry-go-round of drink-seekers. Missouri people — especially college kids — flooded into Elwood and surrounding towns if they were 18 so they could drink beer. Kansas people who wanted hard liquor and were only 19 would head up across the Nebraska border. And often there were plenty of Nebraskans who came down to Kansas to try to hook up with the 18-year old Missouri coeds who were on a drinking binge.
Our family moved from Norton to Elwood and lived there for the first year, but our parents enrolled us in the Wathena School System (which was one building holding all 300 students from K-12). Wathena was about the same size as Elwood, about 1,000 population, but to be utterly frank, it was considered to be higher-class (this is obviously a relative comparison). In my cynical view, that is like saying a Duroc pig is higher class than a Hampshire. I think the locals considered it more like a Duroc to a Guinea Pig — for whatever reason. But the cold hard fact was that Elwood was considered to be “where the black people live.”
This was really my first experience with racism. We had very, very few minorities in Norton, and I grew up with a few Hispanic classmates and — to my perhaps fading memory — only one black classmate. I had no idea what Jews were, and there may have been some around who kept a low profile, but there was no synagogue in Norton. In fact, I read MAD magazine religiously from about the 4th grade on, and learned a lot of Yiddish phrases and some schtick, not realizing the Jewishness of it all. Little by little, it dawned on me that most of the show business people — and especially the humorists — that I loved were this thing called “Jewish.” Jerry Lewis, Woody Allen, all of the giants.
Of course I was young, and as I grew older and learned more about the world, I learned about races — and racism. But my family was never overtly racist. I don’t remember any conversations with my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles where they sat around discussing the various races in a derogatory manner — and this was the 60s, when we saw the Watts riots, the civil rights marches and the laws were changing to allow minorities an easier time to vote and to have access to general public areas throughout the country.
So I’m not trying to brag that I’m not racist. I’m just saying I wasn’t exposed to racism, and never developed it.
So being a teenager in an area that was semi-segregated (the Elwood-Wathena axis) was a new experience. Of course, you have to add on the century of division from the Civil War era, because Missouri was a slave state and Kansasa free state. And here they were bumped up side-by-side. So there was some racial sensitivity here, even in 1970 — a hundred years after the War Between The States and the Emancipation.
Not to say that all the races went to separate schools. The Wathena school had several African-American families represented. As far as I could see, nobody treated them differently, but I suppose there were bullies and other racist types who gave them a hard time occasionally. But I remember one young lady in my class who was accepted by the white majority of students, ate lunch with them, and were involved in school activities together. They may not have socialized outside of class, but I don’t recall any hate crimes, assaults or other racially-motivated mischief.
That said, the total number of black students in Wathena school in 1970 was probably around half a dozen.
The reason I’m going into this topic in depth is not to show that I’m oh-so-enlightened and politically-correct, but because MUSIC has always been the great integrator.
The pioneers of Jazz music — W.C. Handy, Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton and many more less-famous founders were not only “of-color” themselves, but were the heirs of the Negro Spirituals, gospel music, and other creations of the black slaves. The Big Band era saw mixed membership — although the black performers were often denied food or lodging at the same places the white musicians stayed. But when a group of musicians gets together to play, they don’t care if the guy keeping the beat or singing harmony is a Conservative or Liberal, Caucasian or East Asian or which sex he likes to sleep with. Its all about the MUSIC.
At least — most of the time.
Relax — I’m not going to give you a musical history lesson, but I think this background is necessary to continue my personal narrative.
Craig and I had been music lovers for as long as we could remember. We would listen to the far-off signal of KOMA in Oklahoma City as it faded in and out late into the night. When Craig started his paper route, he carried his neolithic transistor radio in his shirt pocket and listened on an earphone. My grandmother once told him that one of her friends said it was a pity that a boy so young had to wear a hearing aid.
Craig was older, and he was the leader. He introduced the music and I grooved along with him. And those who knew Craig will not be surprised to learn that he wasn’t content to just go along with the mainstream popular hits.
Sure, we had a solid love for Elvis and The Beatles and a lot of the top 40 hits. But sometime while he was in Jr. High, Craig got hold of a new magazine — Rolling Stone.
I suspect the person who turned him on to this influential rag was his buddy Lee Ankenman. Lee was the one who led Craig’s way into the counter-culture.
Although my parents may not have been racist, they were pure red-necks when it came to hippies — You know, long hair, bare feet, free love.
This was a confluence of timing — teen-age rebellion, rock music, riots in the streets, assassinations. Wild times.
Lee introduced Craig to The Grateful Dead. That led to harder music. There were those in our Bible-Belt milieu that thought this led straight to HELL.
(For those keeping score, we did have a younger brother, Bart who would have been ten-going-on-eleven in 1970 when we moved. He will play a part in this story later.)
So by the time we got to Elwood, we were in manic acquisition mode — learning new songs, listening to new artists, and trying to sneak past my father with longer and longer hair. The last task was hardest and least successful.
The Wathena school had a strict dress and hair code. I don’t remember the exact specifics, but a boy’s hair had to be above the shirt collar in back and above the eyebrows in front. You could get by with combing your hair back for a while, but the pricipal and a couple of the more zealous teachers were always prowling the hallways and quick to note when somebody needed a haircut.
My dad kept his military mind-set and would take us to a special barber in St. Joe that was a veteran and could give a good-old-fashioned military cut.
Not long before we moved to Elwood (quickly after we got our first electric guitars) we started upgrading our equipment. Our first big amplifier was a Sears Silvertone 100 watt with 2-12″ speakers (if I remember correctly).
Our family would return to Norton frequently, driving the length of the state on 2-lane Highway 36 (300 miles). We had lots of family back there and would still spend holidays with them, but mainly my dad either neglected to change his National Guard affiliation or the bureacracy was slow. He had to go back for a weekend drill every month.
I believe it was after we moved from Norton that Craig bought an even more awesome amplifier from Mike Miller — a Vox Beatle. Man, when I plugged into that, I thought I was harnessing raw power! We ran the Silvertone speaker cabinet out of the Vox and were really able to crank it!
We also started upgrading our guitars. I found a cheap Gibson SG clone, blonde wood with a whammy bar and Craig had a red Ampeg bass. We were still running both guitars and our microphones through the same system.
I thought living so close to the metropolis of St. Joe would put us in touch with lots of musicians. But the problem was — we were still minors. And we lived with our parents. We were NOT wild kids … but we did play loud music.
As the 60s moved into the 70s, music was evolving. I had little choice in guiding the direction, but I was a willing traveler. The guys we hung out with were fans of heavy rock & roll, wild guitar solos and drum solos and even bass solos. Popular music at that time was branching out with the rise of FM radio.
St. Joe had the popular Top 40 radio play list, and there were a few good things there (although we scoffed at most of the bubble gum pop they played), but at night, we turned to the Kansas City FM stations — underground music. They played artists you would never even hear of if all you listened to was Top 40 radio or watched the popular TV shows (like “Midnight Special” and “Solid Gold” and of course, “The Partridge Family”).
We got into Black Sabbath, Humble Pie, and were really wild about Alice Cooper.
Where most of the musical groups took themselves VERY seriously, Alice Cooper was a wink and a nod, with outrageous songs that were purposely over the line (Remember “Dead Babies?” or “Under My Wheels?”)
Craig and I played guitar a lot — although we were in the living room of our house, we called it “The Wood Shed” (the term that the old Jazz and Blues players used for practicing).
My parents rented a house in Wathena that was next door to the Methodist parsonage, and a block away from the Methodist church. Of course, they were Methodists.
When we played in our living room, the sound could be heard all over the neighborhood — and especially next door at the Methodist parsonage.
One day we were out in our yard and the preacher’s wife stopped us to talk. My mom socialized with her regularly (what we small-town people always called “neighboring” — I never developed a taste for “neighboring”). She said she really liked that song we had … the only words she could make out were “It’s a long, long way to paradise …”
It was an Alice Cooper song called “Be My Lover.” If she knew all the lyrics, she probably wouldn’t have complimented us — she may have phoned in a complaint to the police.
This led to being invited to play for various church events.
Neither Craig nor I were really interested in church or Sunday school. Yet our parents were next to the preacher and his wife so often — just in passing — that it would be embarassing to them if they DIDN’T go to church. This fed into our teen-rebellion — hypocrisy. We resented being forced to go to church, and occasionally our parents relented. I’m sure they had a good excuse — “Oh, you know these teenagers — they are so hard to control.”
To our dismay, not only did the Methodists have a youth group (don’t all churches) but my parents decided to be the sponsors. Now we had to go to the Methodist Youth Fellowship gathings on a (Saturday? Sunday?) night, but — horrors — we were volunteered to perform for them!
Hey, it was a gig! We put our ears to the ground (actually, I think we actually ran a classified ad) and found a drummer. Except he had no drums.
I remember him coming to The Woodshed while Craig and I ran through our songlist. Remember, we didn’t stoop to performing mainstream songs (well, with some exceptions like Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Beatles). So he just sat there and listened. I would give him the cues and say “OK, we start out and play for a while and you watch for my signal to come in.”
Believe it or not — that was “Stairway To Heaven.”
By the age of 15, I was shaving — sort of — and had cultivated the longest sideburns our school would allow. They were wide and about the bottom of my earlobes in length. I also switched from horn-rimmed glasses to wire-rims and started parting my hair in the middle.
Needless to say, not many kids in that part of the world looked the way I looked.
On the night of our big gig in the church basement, our drummer had actually rented a drum set for $35.00 (this was a free gig, of course). Our audience probably averaged about 13 years old.
We played our first set and it went pretty well. Actually, it probably sucked, but we were on an adrenaline high. The kids clapped for us! They danced! We were a real band — although I doubt that Led Zepplin felt threatened.
My biggest shock was that when started our second set, I noticed that all of the boys had gone into the bathroom during the break, wet their hair, and parted it in the middle. Every boy there was trying to look like me! I was their idol!
Another brush with religion — there was a “Youth Sunday” every year. The Norton Methodist church had done it too, so I know it was a vast, nationwide Methodist conspiracy. This was when a special youth choir would sing, and kids would be the ushers, and one special kid would be chosen to give a sermon — or at least a speech. Oh, and there were special musical numbers too.
Craig and I weren’t the only performers that day. I remember a young lady who played the piano, and there were other guitarists there. They were all soloists, strumming and singing wholesome songs like “I believe for every drop of rain that falls, a flower grows …”
Fortunately, nobody sang Kum-Bah-Yah. Or if they did, Mother Nature has graciously blanked it out of my memory.
Then, the preacher introduced Craig and me (we didn’t really have a group name — I think we were just The Ward Boys. Our introduction was as the sons of our parents, so they got some glory, too).
We had our amplifier already set up, I slipped my guitar strap over my shoulder and Craig picked up his bass. I leaned in to the microphone and counted down — hitting the first chord to “Summertime Blues” by The Who.
That woke them up.
The old folks sat up straight in their pews and looked around — probably wondering if they were really in a church.
“I’m-a gonna raise a fuss, I’m-a gonna raise a holler.” I wailed.
I’m not sure if the preacher fainted or not. My parents were definitely not smiling at us.
As we wound down — “There ain’t no cure for the Summertime Blues!” — the power chords rang out and it was finally over.
Dead silence. Of course you can’t expect applause in a Methodist church. Methodists are quiet, gentle people. They don’t clap their hands to the music or shout “Amen.” If anyone so much as hiccups, they get “shushhh-ed.”
After a stunned silence, the preacher thanked us and we resumed our seats for the rest of the service.
It was all an anti-climax from there.
On our way out, the preacher stood at the door, greeting people, shaking hands and thanking them for coming. We filed out with our parents.
The preacher said, “Thank you for coming to play today. But next time, could you play something … ummm … a little slower?”