January 8, 2021

FTV: Walrus


     When searching for ideas for these written ramblings called ‘FTV’, I periodically feel the cosmic wheels spinning when inspiration pops an idea into my brain.  The way my mind works, a tune, a fragment of a memory, a photograph, or a bit of stray conversation can plant the seed of a topic for consideration.  At times, the ideas arrive fully formed while others need to grow roots and branches before there is enough information to write about.  If I don’t jot some of these inspirational snippets down, they can be set aside and forgotten until something blows the dust off them for further consideration.  It is amazing to me that one thread of an idea will often attach itself to or combine itself with other people, places, and things thus pivoting the idea in a  different direction.  The theme song that runs through my brain for this last scenario is “It’s a Small World, After All,” especially when an idea connects me with people I haven’t seen or thought of in ages.

     When I finished writing about my old Twig guitarist Gene Betts in late 2019 (FTV:  Geno 1-1-2020), the article dusted off a bunch of music topics from the olden days.  Writing about Gene got me thinking about a lot of the bands and people we knew in the late 1960s – early 1970s Marquette music scene.  One of those bands I had not thought of in quite a while was Walrus.  I remember thinking, “With all of the stuff people have posted on the internet in the last couple of decades, there must be some reference to Walrus floating around out there by now.”  Right up to the end of 2019 I had searched for information about them off and on with little luck.  The only band by that name I remember finding was from Canada.  I even wrote the name Walrus down on my scratch pad so I could take a later stab at finding some new information about them.

     As I was writing the Geno article, I got a Christmas card from an old classmate named June(Derocher) Swanson.  When my mother first moved into Brookridge Heights in Marquette, June worked there.  June had been a good friend of Twig bass player Mike Kesti and was at more of our gigs than I can remember.  She had been at my house for rehearsals from time to time so she and my mother bonded at Brookridge over the common thread of The Twig.  Both were bummed when life intervened and June left her job at BH a couple of years after mom moved there.  The first time my wife and I ran into June at Brookridge in 2013, we had not talked face to face since one of our class reunions (either the 20th or 30th in 1991 or 2001, I can’t remember exactly which one).  June said she wasn’t sure that I would remember her, but she had been part of a small circle of Twig fans that would be hard to forget (I would call them ‘friends of the band’ and not ‘groupies’).  Band gigs are always a lot less nerve racking when one looks out and sees some familiar friendly faces and for The Twig, June was one of our ‘3Fs’ many times over.  In her Christmas 2019 card, she said she found our address while sorting stuff and decided to send us a ‘catch up’ note.  In it she mentioned how shocked she was to hear of Gene’s passing.  When we sent a card in return, I asked June to get me her email address so I could fire her a draft of the ‘Geno’ article.  

     The back and forth exchanges we have had since that Christmas were fun and informative.  June told me that not only were she and Mike close friends, but also Gene had been her first boyfriend back in the fifth grade.  She went on to say she always thought that I only ‘tolerated her’ hanging around The Twig so much, not that I was ever unfriendly.  I can see where she may have gotten that impression of me.  As I explained it to her, my high school dating life can be summed up in a nutshell:   after a short time of ‘going together,’ I got dumped by the same girl – twice (my sophomore and junior years).  It was my intention, therefore, to take The Twig seriously and not worry about other distractions (in other words, dating) my senior year.  The band, I resolved, would be the one thing I would occupy the majority of my non-school time.  One may have a hard time believing it, but I was shy around new people.  Once I got to know someone, I could talk their ear off and it always took me longer to get better acquainted with females.  In one band story mom had shared with June, she mentioned worrying about the knicknacks vibrating off her dresser during our band rehearsals in the basement. 

     Early in the new year, I sent June a copy of a ZITS cartoon from the Sunday newspaper.  There were several panels showing an upstairs landing leading to a door.  There were large ‘THUMPS’ and ‘BOOMS’ coming out of the door to the room where the teenage son’s band was practicing.  The last panel showed the strip’s mother holding on to a bunch of figurines as her son Jeremy asks, “Well, what do you think of Pierce’s new drum set?”  Now if you are wondering how any of this relates to Walrus, let me connect a few of the dots.  The next snail mail correspondence I received from June was an article from the Marquette Mining Journal Arts and Entertainment page from January 27, 2020.  The subject of the article?  The band Walrus.  Thanks to June, I can now put a check mark next to the ‘Walrus’ entry on my 2021 scratch pad under ‘articles to research.’

     Marquette was no different than hundreds of other college towns in the late 1960s.  There were always bands forming and disbanding in college towns.  It was not at all uncommon for the members of defunct bands to rearrange and regroup into new bands on a regular basis.  The best description I can provide about Walrus is this:  they were the ‘supergroup’ of the Marquette music scene.  Walrus was a collection of some of the best musicians who had played in various bands over the years.  Some of the members had backed up future legend Cub Koda (back when he was just plain old Mike Koda) who attended NMU for a year.  After a year spent in college, Koda headed west to earn his rock and roll degree playing in Las Vegas.  Eventually, he hit the big time with his band Brownsville Station, a band most identified by the original version of the Top Forty hit Smokin’ in the Boy’s Room (later covered by Motley Crue).  I can not say for sure what prompted this particular grouping to remain together, but the sound they created was loud, racious, and undeniably tight.  The tightness  came from playing together a long time before they met Koda and continued long after he departed NMU.

     The nucleus of the band consisted of Mike McKelvey on guitar and piano, Kim French on bass and vocalist Bill Etten.  When I was attending high school dances, they were a band in demand (they weren’t Walrus yet, but I can not remember what they called themselves then).  One of their original drummers was Randy Seppala.  Randy owned the exact silver sparkle Ludwig Classic drum set I play and it was this version of the band that introduced Marquette to Jimi Hendrix.  A later version of the band featured Les Ross, Jr. on drums.  Les had just returned to the area after a stint in the Army and he would later occupy the drum throne for two other fabled Marquette bands, East of Orange and Conga se Mena.  I can’t conjure up the name they played under in those days, either,  but by the time my buddies Mike and Gene were putting together The Twig, they had become the back up band for a new NMU student by the name of Michael Koda.  Fronting bands like the Mike Koda Blues Band and later Mike Koda and the Blue Flames, Koda introduced a brand of rocking blues unlike anything else that was being played at teen dances, frat parties, and in the local bars.  Koda would leave NMU after a year to pursue his rock and roll dreams.  We have chronicled his return to Marquette with his best known band Brownsville Station in previous FTV articles ( What ever happened to . . . 3-25-15).  When Cub Koda left town, his last band became Walrus.

     The drummer in the band during the Mike Koda years was Don Kuhlie whose name has also been bandied about in past FTVs (Don Kuhlie 8-31-16).  Watching Kuhlie perform with both the NMU Jazz Band and the Blue Flames was instructive for me as I absorbed lessons that helped me become a better drummer.  Kuhlie had unbelievably fast hands and his bass drum workouts sounded like he was playing with both feet, but this was years before they began marketing double beater drum pedals.  My description of Kuhlie’s drumming (to other drummers) always got nods of agreement:  “Don Kuhlie can play more with one hand than I can with two arms and two legs.”  It is my biased assessment that a band is only as good as their drummer, and with Kuhlie behind the kit, Walrus was a very good band indeed.

     Bass player Kim French was one of those musicians who always seemed to have been part of the Marquette scene.  His father was the treasurer of the local music union.  We sent our band gig contract dues to him but I don’t remember exactly whom he played with.  Kim was a solid bass player in more ways than one.  Not only did he keep a rock solid bass line going, he also tended to stand in one place like he himself was made of rock.  I recall one gig when the rhythm guitar player leaned over to tell him his speaker cabinet was making the ungodly noise one hears when the speaker is blown out.  The only reaction Kim gave (that anything was wrong) was a slight persing of his lips and a quick glance toward the offending cabinet.  Kim was forever borrowing speaker cabinets for gigs.  Even with the danger his volume posed to equipment in general, no one ever said no!  I still have a vivid mental picture of Mike Koda leaning on the fender of a black Olds 88 while Kim and Mike Kesti carried a loner bass cabinet down our sidewalk.

     Singer Bill Etten I do not know that much about.  If memory serves me correctly, his wife worked in the office at the high school.  When we were first married, my wife would often stop at the recreation building of the Tourville Apartments (where we lived) for a swim and a sauna after her midnight shift at the hospital.  Some mornings we would see a couple of guards from the Marquette Branch Prison doing the same routine after their midnight shift.  If one of them wasn’t Bill Etten, then it was Bill Etten’s doppelganger.  

     Guitarist Mike McKelvey I knew a little more about for a couple of reasons.  His brother Alan was in my class in high school,  He had shown me where his brother’s band (one of the pre-Walrus versions) practiced the day I thought our meeting up was supposed to be an audition.  Al and a couple of buddies had approached me about drumming in a band they were forming.  They never got around to calling me to actually play any music, so that was that.  The summer between eighth and ninth grade, I got to be a rehearsal drummer with a group of my sister’s recently graduated classmates (they would later gig as The Self Winding Grapefruit).  It was at one of these rehearsals that Mike McKelvy stopped by with a new copy of The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s album Are You Experienced he had brought back on a trip to California.  It was no surprise to me that McKevy’s band was playing Purple Haze at teen dances that fall.  Beyond his wire rimmed glasses and bushy beard, McKevey wasn’t overly expressive on stage and in my mind, I just assumed he was a quiet, studious musician and the leader of his bands.

     Walrus was good enough to be hired as an opening act for a few of the bigger artists that came though Marquette.  I watched them do a sound check at an empty Hedgecock Fieldhouse prior to a Richie Havens concert.  I had my own gig that night so I missed the show, but it was still a thrill to

see Walrus on a big stage.  Once they departed for Ann Arbor, I heard snippets about the album they were recording, but I never heard them play after they left town.  I know that guitarist/bassist Randy Tessmer and Kuhlie played in the band Trees after our friend Lindsay Tomasic had transplanted from Houghton to Ann Arbor.  Occasional Walrus reunions happened in Marquette over the years, but it seems like I always heard about them after the fact.

     The article June sent me about Walrus was a nice round up about the band.  It was also exciting because 45 years after they ceased to exist, their music is now being put out by Fervor Records out of Phoenix, Arizona.  I encourage anyone looking for more information to look up Jackie Jahfetson’s article at  The band Walrus doesn’t exist as a performing unit any more, but according to McKelvy, “I just hope [people] enjoy the music and realize that the band was more than a rock band.  We’re known locally as a hard rock band, (but) the album shows our variety of our interests.”  WOAS-FM listeners can be sure that we will be spinning the long overdue Walrus album just as soon as we can lay hands on it!

Top Piece Video – here is one of the Walrus reunion gigs at Marquette’s Harbor Fest in 2013 – the tune is Savoy Brown’s ‘I’m Tired’ – I recognize drummer Don Kuhli’s blond hair but the rest, not so much…