For sure the best way to read Rick Shefchik’s essential and invaluable new history book, “Everybody’s Heard About The Bird: The True Story of 1960s Rock-N-Roll in Minnesota” is to accompany all those great stories, photos, and records with the Internet’s rich reservoir of music videos that captured Midwestern teenage pioneers being swept up in that once-in-lifetime and oh-so-American moment, the birth of rock ‘n’ roll.
It’s a deep, exhilarating, educational and inspiring rabbit hole that leads to aural artifacts from a time when ballroom dance floors looked like sizzling pans of human flesh, so wild and freely were they filled with dancing kids.
Dig it, straight from said rabbit hole:
Here’s the late Steve Wahrer of the Trashmen on “American Bandstand” doing “Surfin’ Bird” (which Dick Clark both dismissed as a novelty song and said, “I fell in love with it”), the overnight success of which is at the center of Shefchik’s book: “The morning after their triumphant performance at the WDGY Winter Carnival Spectular,” he writes, “the Trashmen received a jolt: the Beatles had leap-frogged them to the Number 1 spot on the Billboard singles chart with ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand.’ No one could know it at the time, but the Beatles would go on to place nineteen records on the Billboard singles chart in 1964. Eleven would make the Top 10, six would go to Number 1. The new kings of rock ‘n’ roll had arrived, and they were not the Trashmen.”
Here’s the gorgeous “Sweetest Girl,” by the Underbeats.
Here’s “Surfin’ Bird,” hilariously, on “Family Guy.”
Here’s “Surfin’ Bird” opening the Replacements’ Midway Stadium show last year.
Here’s a trippy video to “Bird Dance Beat,” the Trashmen’s follow-up to “Surfin’ Bird.”
Here’s Jim Johnson and James Walsh of Gypsy and Underbeats fame:
Straight out of Edina, here’s the Novas’ paean to pro wrestling, “The Crusher.”
Straight out of Mankato, here’s the Gestures’ hit “Run Run Run.”
A former reporter and columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Shefchik, 63, knows all this and much more about the beginnings of what has proven to be a volcanic eruption of rock ‘n’ roll in Minnesota, considering the lava that continues to be spit out from the myriad bands traversing the tundra today, many of whom might see something of themselves in “Everybody’s Heard.” From its beautiful first sentence (“In the beginning was Augie Garcia”) to the gorgeous up-from-the-archives posters and photos and meticulous reporting that fills its 350 pages, this is a book made and meant to be savored and saved.
“There were 500 bands playing back in 1965 in Minnesota, all capable of doing a four-hour gig,” marveled Shefchik last week at a Minneapolis coffee shop, with a copy of “Everybody’s Heard” at his elbow. “There was competition back then, too, and the best bands rose to the top.”
Wednesday night (7-8:30 p.m.) at the Electric Fetus in Minneapolis, Shefchik will host a publication party/discussion/jam for “Everybody’s Heard” along with Tony Andreason of the Trashmen, Dale Menten and Tom Klugherz of the Gestures, Johnson and Doni Larson of the Underbeats and Gypsy, Jim Donna of the Castaways, Larry Wiegand of the Rave-Ons, South 40, and Crow, Phil Berdahl of the Stillroven, Ron Butwin of the Escapades, and Mike Waggoner of the Bops.
On the eve of the birth of this true labor of love, MinnPost was happy to catch up with Shefchik, who was excited to report on the early interest the book is generating from friends, fans of the bands, media, and book clubs and other literary event groups that have scheduled him to read and speak well into 2016.
MinnPost: What’s your story with all of this? When did you first start listening to all these Minnesota rock bands? Knowing what I know about your writing over the years, from Buddy Holly to the Beatles and Beach Boys to your love of local music, it seems like you were born to write this book.
Rick Shefchik: I sort of feel I was. The only thing I wish I could’ve added to my own back-story to contribute to this is that I wish I had grown up in the Twin Cities, and maybe been a couple years older. I was born in 1952 in Duluth, and I got hooked on pop radio in 1956-57 with Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers and the whole thing. Just as a little kid, I was completely taken in. And of course that immediately led to listening to a lot of different styles of music, because when you listened to Top 40 radio in the ’50s, you could have a country-western song followed by a cheesy pop song; Andy Williams was getting played next to Buddy Holly next to Marty Robbins. It was just a complete mish-mash, and I liked it all.
Rock ’n’ roll was really designed for people like me, and people of my baby-boom ilk, so that’s really the kind of music I love most. My brother Mark was three years older, and became a drummer in the early ‘60s and started playing in a succession of rock bands. They’d practice in our basement, so not only would I listen to the songs on the radio and the records Mark was bringing home, but I was actually getting to see rock bands form in front of me. So it was maybe easier for me to make the mental leap that this stuff you’re hearing on the radio is made by real people. I didn’t really differentiate between Minnesota groups and groups that were from the coasts or England or whatever. In 1963, you’d turn on the radio and you’d have Roy Orbison and the Trashmen and Ricky Nelson, and the Trashmen were as big as any of those bands when “Surfin’ Bird” hit. And then there was this wonderful succession of local hits that got rolling, with “Run Run Run” by the Gestures in ’64 and “Liar Liar” by the Castaways in ’65, and these songs were top of the charts all around the country.
MP: Amazing time.
RS: It really was, and then there was Motown and Stax and the key thing was the open playlists; the fact that radio stations could take a record from a kid who walked into their lobby and said, “We just cut this at Kay Bank [studios],” and if they liked it, they played it. That changed so much later in the ‘60s, but when I was growing up anything that anybody recorded and wanted to get on the air had a chance.
MP: And it was all pre-Beatles. The book really hangs on this moment of when the Trashmen were about to ascend to the top of the charts, but then came the British Invasion and everything changed. The music industry changed, and in that sense your book is sort of a lost history of Minnesota’s first independent bands and labels. That kid walking into a radio station is such a quaint thought, but capitalism took over.
RS: That kid didn’t get frozen out until ’66 or ’67, so there was still a couple of good years there. But I went into this thinking that a lot of these bands were inspired to pick up their guitars because of the Beatles, and that’s not the case. Most of the bands I wrote about were playing well before the Beatles had ever been heard of here; they were all getting started in the early ’60s and they were all being inspired by all the bands the Beatles were being inspired by. They were listening to Buddy Holly, they were listening to Jerry Lee Lewis, they were listening to Little Richard. And also there was the impact of the Ventures. A lot of kids picked up the guitar after they heard “Walk Don’t Run,” because it had never really occurred to them how cool the guitar could be.
The Castaways, the Gestures, the Trashmen, the Underbeats, the Accents, Gregory Dee and the Avanties – all of these bands formed before any of ’em had heard the Beatles. But their styles changed a lot after the Beatles. All of these bands had to adapt to the style the Beatles brought to the United States.
MP: When did you start writing about music, chronicling all this?
RS: I think it was probably in college. I was starting to read CREEM and Rolling Stone and I’d been buying records all through the ’60s. FM radio didn’t even exist then. When you walked into a record store in the ’60s, you were kind of operating blind. You were hoping someone would say, “Hey, you oughta try this Lovin’ Spoonful [or Moby Grape] album.” The more curious I got about it all, the more publications I started seeking out.
I went to Dartmouth for four years, so it was on the East Coast that I was exposed to a wider variety of music and publications, like the Village Voice. Lester Bangs and Greil Marcus and Robert Christgau all inspired me; there was this loose style of writing where it didn’t feel like they were bound by traditional editing restrictions. You could really express yourself, and make up a word or two, and the idea really was that these guys were like rock ‘n’ roll musicians, in the way they approached their art. I’d been in a high school band, I played guitar, but by the early ’70s writing about music really excited me.
When I started working for the daily newspaper up in Duluth, they didn’t have a media critic or a movie critic or anything like that. My first job was as a copy editor, and I said, “Look, if you ever want a concert or movie reviewed, I really want to write.” I created a weekly record-review column, and that’s when I really started getting records and getting into the regular rhythm of writing about music, and I did that at the Pioneer Press for another seven, eight years before sort of handing that off to other people.
MP: This book is a hard-cover document of a time that has not been taken up before, correct? Meaning, this is the first book to put down all this history in black and white, right?
RS: You’re not wrong. This project has been in the back of my head for a long time. I thought I knew what was out there in terms of journalism about Minnesota bands, and I have to give a nod to Jim Oldsberg who wrote some fanzines called “Lost and Found,” and I tried getting a hold of him but I couldn’t. Tom Tourville is another guy who’s done some writing on local music, but nobody had ever really made all the connections start to finish. I thought I knew a lot about this, and I’d read a lot about it, but it was the connective tissues that really had not been done before.
I wanted to know all of the stories, and asking questions is every bit as interesting with, say, Dion, as it is with our local guys. Some of the things I learned about their backgrounds were so rich. Some of them were farmers, some played in marching bands, and it’s cool to see how they became rock bands.
MP: What surprised you during your research?
RS: The one story that pushed me through this whole book once I started putting the pieces together was the story of the Underbeats. Unbelievable. A great band, way better than I thought they were because I never got to see them live, but all the musicians said the Underbeats were it, clearly. Everybody wanted to play like them; if they had a night off they’d go see them, and to think that [Underbeats founder] Jim Johnson essentially blew the band up at their peak.
MP: Have you surmised at all how this area has managed to birth so much rock ‘n’ roll, starting with this foundation being laid in the early ’60s? Is there anything about this part of the country that rings true about, say, Prince, the Time, Soul Asylum, Howler, Hippo Campus …?
RS: One thing you can say for sure is that Minnesota, and especially Minneapolis, being sort of the cultural hub of Minnesota, has always been really supportive of artists of all kinds. Hell, the Guess Who was coming down from Canada to record at Kay Bank in the mid-’60s. This area has been a magnet for people who have wanted to be surrounded by like-minded people. I don’t know really how music as such fits into that, other than there have been lots of ethnic groups who have settled here, all bringing their own touches to it.
When you compare scenes like today to back then, so many things have changed. You can’t get a record on the radio anymore, obviously; they didn’t have home recording facilities. Bands right now can turn out something in a few hours in their own den that’ll sound better than all the best records that came out of Kay Bank in 1964 and 1965. But then again, how do you get someone to hear you? Well, you’ve got the Internet, but that’s a pretty busy place.
MP: [Legendary St. Paul radio host and newspaperman] Bill Diehl was a valuable source for you. How was it tapping his memories?
RS: Twenty minutes after I signed the contract to do this book, I tried to get ahold of Bill, who is now 88 if not 89. When I did the research, he was 87. I had not talked to Bill for a while. We worked together for 20 years; I loved his stories, and he’s a real raconteur. He’s never forgotten a name or face. There would be a gaping hole in this book if Bill wasn’t involved, and when I called him he was warm and friendly, but he said, “You know, Rick, that was a long time ago, and I’ve kind of moved on from that and I’d just as soon let the past be the past. Thanks for asking, but I’m going to have to say ‘No.’ ”
I was crushed. I thought, “How the hell am I going to do this book without Bill?” And two days later he called me up and said, “You know, I’ve been thinking about it. I’m sorry I turned you down, I would like to do it . We’ll do it one day, you can ask any question you want, I’ll give you as much time as you want, but that’s it. Once we do the interview, we’re done.” So I spent six hours at his apartment in Highland Park, just off 35E, and the interview was great. I was stunned at the level of detail he could do.
I also have to give a compliment to Denny Johnson, who along with his partner, Tom Campbell, have been running that Minniepaul music site since 2008, compiling really valuable interviews and photos, and I wasn’t aware of it until I started researching the book. It’s a real treasure trove.
MP: With the Trashmen, is it fair to say they were embittered by what happened with the Beatles? Is “bitter” the right word?
RS: That’s a fair word to bring up. I was thinking about that very issue today. I interviewed them all separately, and every one of them admires what the Beatles did, but at the time they sort of thought, “What the hell?” [Bassist] Bob Reed really thought their guitars sounded cheap on the radio; [singer/guitarist] Dal Winslow still remembers when somebody asked Ringo what he thought of the Trashmen and Ringo said, “We don’t like the Trashmen.”
Of course, Ringo doesn’t know them, it’s just that “Surfin’ Bird” was the highest-charting rock record on the U.S. charts at the time, and the Beatles had just jumped over them, so they were competition to them. That’s all they ever knew about them, and so Dal says, “Well, I never cared much for Ringo, either.”
I don’t know that it’s a lingering bitterness. If anything, it was the competitive spirit of the times. They wanted to be the best, they wanted to be number one. They did all tell me that it was a disappointment for them when they thought “Surfin’ Bird” was going to go to number one, and it stalled that last week of January . But to lose out to the Beatles, there’s no shame.
MP: You must be looking forward to Wednesday’s release party.
RS: I am. These guys are heroes, they really are. The longer we get away from that era, the more mythical they become, and to get them all in a room together like this to discuss some of the things in the book will be wonderful. It’s not only a tremendous feeling of accomplishment, but of contribution. I feel good about giving this book back to the musicians.