June 29, 2024

FTV: Walrus Connections


     There has been a suggestion that I spend too much of my time ‘living in the past’.  If one considers last week’s article about the Marquette band Walrus, then the verdict would have to be ‘guilty as charged’.  My wife lets me know when I stray too deep into my musical history growing up in Marquette.  She reminds me that when I talk about people and places from back in my day, I just assume she knows who, what, and where I am talking about.  As I said in the introduction to the wonderful history Walrus guitarist Mike McKelvy let us reprint last week, “ Even if you are not familiar with the band, it [the history] is a fascinating journey from Mike’s life as a high school rock and roller up to now.”  The purpose of this week’s FTV is to simply tie up some of the loose ends of which there are many.  I must remind myself, “These are my memories.  A lot of people have no idea who I am talking about.”  I will try to not jump all over the place, but the spider web of connections here will definitely NOT be made up of linear threads!  Memory being what it is, those mentioned may have slightly different recall of the events than yours truly – but isn’t that always the way it is when ‘living in the past’?

     This round of Walrus-mania started when Al Jacquez sent me a picture from the Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Museum.  Al and his wife had been invited to attend his induction into this hallowed hall in Bay City, Michigan.  In his email, he mentioned that a news feature about the Geezer’s Happy Hour had won a Murrow award.  Until he sent me a link to the item he mentioned, I had no idea that he was involved in weekly shows at the LIVE bar in Ann Arbor.  As the name suggests, it is an event with an age limit – only those 65 years of age or older may attend!  Watching the clip (which is easily found with a simple search), another name caught my eye.  The organizer and bass player at these sessions was none other than the former Walrus guitarist / vocalist / bass player, Randy Tessier.

     Beyond seeing Walrus numerous times in Marquette, I had talked to Randy exactly once.  Back in 1970, he called our house where The Twig rehearsed.  When we ended a run through of Christie’s Yellow River, my mother called down and said there was a phone call.  I picked up the downstairs extension and Randy said, “Hey, this is Randy.  That was cool.  Can I talk to Mike?”  Mike, as in our bass player Mike Kesti, got on the horn and Randy asked if they could borrow his bass speaker cabinet for a gig.  The bass player in Walrus, Kim French, had a tendency to blow up speaker bottoms and when a gig was on the line, no stone would be left unturned to find a unit to borrow.  It was kind of a badge of honor for a band in the making to be included in the ‘borrowing chain’ for a more established band.

     In spite of my lack of interaction with Randy back in the day, I sent him an email congratulating him on the Geezer Happy Hour piece.  Randy had recounted the passing of his  son during the interview so it seemed appropriate to send him my condolences.  When he thanked me for the contact, I sent him a previous FTV about the old Marquette music scene and left it at that.  I knew Randy was teaching at U of M because our good friend Lindsay Tomasic had both Tessier and Walrus drummer Don Kuhli in her band (Trees) when they were based in Ann Arbor.  In fact, an internet search for Don Kuhli mentioned Datolite Records and Lindsay by name.  Datolite is often found by those searching for copper specimens in the Copper Country so on a hunch, I contacted Lindsay who was now in Los Angeles.  One thing led to another and we were able to get Trees booked at the Ontonagon Theater for a couple of shows and a matinee for the Ontonagon Area Schools student body.

     A couple of weeks after emailing Tessier, I got another email blast from the past.  I assume Randy had posted my article when Mike McKelvy sent me the Walrus History we printed last week.  When I was in eighth grade, I got drafted into playing the drums with some of my older sister’s classmates at a Christmas party she hosted in our basement.  The next summer, Rick Leppanen, the bass player from the group, called and asked if I would be available to play the drums at their rehearsals.  Apparently their drummer was not always available so I got tabbed as their practice drummer.  Any time Rick would call, I would drop everything, hop on my bike and hustle the four blocks to his house on Fair Avenue.  It was going great and I had a feeling I might be in line to become their regular drummer until he showed up in mid-rehearsal one day.  There he found me playing his drums.  I think he got the hint and the phone calls about rehearsing with the Self Winding Grapefruit stopped as quickly as they had started.

     In one of his recent emails, Mike asked if I remembered the red sparkle drum set from those rehearsals.  It turned out he brought them with him from California in 1965.  He said he had first joined a band as the drummer with Ron Phillips and he was nervous at the first gig they did.  Drummer Les Ross was in attendance (more on him will be covered in a bit).   Phillips had to play the bass lines on his guitar as they did not have a bass player at that point.  Eventually, McKelvy sold this Crest kit to the drummer I was filling in for with TSWG.. 

    McKelvy also said that in the summer of 1967, he went to California and saw Cream perform in their first American show at the Fillmore in San Francisco.  He returned to Marquette with new albums by The Doors, Paul Butterfield, Country Joe and the Fish, Janis Joplin, Electric Flag, and The Jimi Hendrix Experience.  The last one was noteworthy because Mike stopped by at a Grapefruit rehearsal one day and said, “You have got to hear this.”  When he set the needle down on Purple Haze, our collective mouths dropped open.  As soon as the album became available, I had it in heavy rotation for my practice sessions.  With Experience drummer Mitch Mitchel added to my roster of great teachers, my learning curve turned upwards in a big way.

     When I was still in eighth grade, my sister used to sneak me into the high school gym so I could watch the drummers for the various dance bands.  I can not recall if Mike McKelvy was in one of those bands, but after being introduced to Hendrix by him, I do vividly recall the first time I heard his band, The Public Nuisance, play Purple Haze at my first legal high school dance in the fall of 1967.  As soon as the familiar (to me, anyway) opening guitar riff started, I told my buddies, “Oh man, wait until you hear this!”  Mike’s recent email filled in some of the holes I had in my memories about The Public Nuisance (like the name which I could not recall).  The band included John Metz on guitar, Rob Neuman on bass, McKelvy on guitar, and drummer Randy Seppala on drums.  I knew Rob Neuman from church and Randy’s sister had joined my class when they moved to Marquette when we were in sixth grade.  Rob would go on to play bass in radio personality Lane Dawson’s Buck Owens tribute band.  Owens had franchise bands all over the country (right down to the iconic red-white & blue acoustic guitar he played).  Rob would spread the Buck Owens gospel for many years playing bass and providing background vocals with Dawson’s band.

     I was particularly focused on Seppala for a couple of reasons.  First, his drum kit was identical to the silver sparkle Ludwig Classic kit (aka:  The Ringo Kit) I had been playing since April of 1966.  Secondly, I had been playing the Are You Experienced? album a lot since learning about Hendrix and I was very interested how Randy would handle the drum parts.  I never had a chance to talk to Randy but his sister Janice and Mike’s younger brother Alan were both in my class in  high school.  I was saddened when I found out Al had passed away in 2022.  Al had talked to me about drumming in a band he was working on before The Twig was formed, but it never got off the ground.  Mike said his brother was a gifted songwriter and musician and they briefly had a band together in 1975-76 that included Les Ross on drums and Kim French on bass.  Mike said, “It was a good band with great potential but Alan didn’t want to make a career out of music.”

     Less Ross was the drummer in the backing band Mike (Cub) Koda formed during his one year attending NMU.  Les had a family and didn’t want to be on the road too much so he left that line up.  Eventually, he would become the drummer of the popular Marquette band East of Orange and the founding drummer of the Finnish Reggae band Conga Se Mena.  Les was also my supervisor during an internship I had at the Marquette County Planning Office when I returned to NMU for the 1979-80 school year.  During coffee breaks he filled me in on how Conga was born out of a need to play something other than the same wedding reception songs over and over.  Conga Se Mena is still around but sadly, Les Ross passed away much too soon.  I did talk to Randy Seppala at the Porcupine Mountain Music Festival a few years back.  As a resident of Covington, I recognized his bearded figure from a newspaper article about him playing ‘the bones’ at a music workshop.  I introduced myself and told him I am still playing the identical Ludwig set he had in high school.  Randy said, “Geez, I wish I still had mine!”

     Mike also mentioned The Public Nuisance doing a show featuring Jefferson Airplane tunes at the high school with Tret Fure.  Tret Fure was to the Marquette music scene what Joan Baez was to the rest of the country.  She was an excellent singer / songwriter and went on to bigger things in later years.  I had not known until now that she and Mike had been an item and he had followed her to Berkeley.  McKelvy also mentioned that when he was in California, circa 1977-78, he had traveled to Santa Barbara and jammed with my old Twig bandmate Gene Betts.  Mike recalled, “I knew Geno.  He was a good guitarist and singer and we used to jam on acoustic guitars.”  I was glad to hear Geno started singing.  He was never afraid to join in gang vocals (like the chorus of a song), but try as we might, he would never take a lead vocal in The Twig.  He would always defer, saying, “I am too shy!” but anybody who knew him would have disputed this notion.  Too shy to sing in public, maybe, but not too shy in the social sense!

     As far as the Mike (Cub) Koda connection, McKelvy covered this whole part of the Walrus story in his history.  My connections were a little more scattered at this time.  I have often lamented that I never took a picture of Koda leaning on the fender of a black Olds 88 in front of our house.  On an earlier ‘can I borrow a bass bottom’ adventure, Kim and our Mike (Kesti) were wrestling a speaker cabinet made out of an ancient wooden TV enclosure out our front door while ‘the other Mike’ (Koda) waited outside.   Had we had any idea how far Cub would go once he left Marquette, we probably would have taken a picture of the occasion..  

     When I was first managing WOAS in the late 1990s, I had written to Koda’s then label, Blue Wave Records, weeking some complimentary copies from their catalog.  When requesting Cub’s Welcome to My Job compilation, I mentioned the ‘borrowing equipment’ story.  A short while later, I got a copy of the CD and a very nice note from Cub thanking me for the support and for remembering his time in college (and a nicely inscribed photo).  The owner of the label sent me another note with a shipment of CDs in which he said he was touched by the lasting effect Mike Koda had on others.  He said he shared my note about Cub with his own kids as evidence that how things they are experiencing now will still be with them twenty years later.

     In my e-mail conversations with Randy Tessier, I sent him an article about the old Marquette scene and apologized for not catching my mishandling of his last name when it was published.  He went on to post it on his Facebook page which brought another voice from the past into the mix.  Cinda Pettys (nee:  Cindy Weeson) was an acquaintance of ours (‘ours’ including another of my old pre-driving age friends, Nick Gorski).  I vividly remember hearing Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow at her house when we wandered there on the way to the beach one summer day.  I often kid that I always felt my destiny lay somewhere to the west.  Ending up in Ontonagon more or less made that idea come true even though it is only 120 miles west of Marquette.  Cinda sent me a fact filled catch up note in which she detailed how she and her husband had moved to California in 1979.  From there, they migrated to Florida, North Caroline and the finally landed back in Marquette around 2011.  She has definitely out moved me!

     During their stay in Santa Barbara, CA, the Pettys opened their home to an old friend and her daughter for a time.  One day, she brought home her new boyfriend who happened to be my old Twig bandmate Geno Betts.  Geno and his girlfriend lived in an apartment in the same building for a while but Gene would end up marrying another woman.  Cinda mentioned Geno had been back to Marquette with his son and played guitar at his family reunion at the Villa Capri the year before his untimely passing in 2019.  She said he played in numerous garage bands in California and at Cinda’s 1982 wedding.  From 1982 to 1995, Cinda and her husband, “Were part of the Grateful Dead scene and spent those years going to concerts wherever we could.”

     Cinda’s passion for all things Walrus also came through when she informed me that Randy Tessier, Don Kuhli and friends would be doing two nights at Big Bay’s historic Lumberjack Tavern this summer.  It will be a joyful, crowded affair.  In my three summers working at the Huron Mountain Club, we spent a little time (ahem) at the LT so I know the layout well.  It is the bar where the real Anatomy of a Murder shooting took place, not the version that was built onto the motel in Big Bay for the movie.  In the same note, she said Tret Fury would also be in Marquette this summer performing as part of the Music on Third Street concerts that are held on the third Thursday of each month.  If Cinda was a Dead Head, then she is also more than qualified to refer to herself as a ‘Walrus Groupie’.

     Have I now exhausted you with this ‘who’s who’ from my early Marquette music scene years?  Unfortunately, I have only scratched the surface but if one has the patience to wade through some of the past FTV archives (see, you will find isolated tales about many of the people and places mentioned here.  Rest assured, every time I take a little trip to the past like this, it shakes the cobwebs in my brain enough to dislodge even more memories.  I promise to try and be a little more clear about the who, what, when, where, and why of these thoughts in the future!

Top Piece Video:  Michael ‘Cub’ Koda – a common thread in the Marquette / Walrus story.  R.I.P. Cub!