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Ladies and Gentlemen, the Joe Shlabotniks!
The Last Chapter
Editor's Note: This is the fourth and, thankfully, last in a continuing series about a band named the Joe Shlabotniks. Whether a band named after the mythical ball-player even deserves a four-part story, or longer, is a question that doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone to ask. In any case, they got one. They did, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Blame Stikowski, it’s his story.
Bottom of the ninth and two strikes. The Garage had one last concert to do but the band had for all intents and purposes ceased to exist. Jimmy Westfelter, founder, lead guitar player and main songwriter was living in his palace on Cloud Cuckooland. Ian Snodgrass, bass player and generally easy-going party boy, had disappeared for parts unknown. Paul Ferguson, lead singer and rhythm guitarist, and Terry Richards, drummer and guy who wrote the bands first and only hit, looked at each other and had the same reaction.
“We are up (expletive deleted) creek,” Terry said.
But they did have a hit and they were contractually obligated to play at least one more show. So what were they going to do?
Crap if they know.
“Sure, we thought as long as we had Paul we could probably get away with one show with two ringers,” Terry relayed in one of his interviews. “But when we tried it, it just didn’t feel right. And the harder we tried to just get through it, hoping it would start feeling better, the worse it got. We rehearsed for a week with these two guys who were real pros, they been playing for years, but at the end of the week, Paul would pick up his guitar and I would sit behind the drums and nothing happened.”
You mean it didn’t sound good?
“I mean nothing happened. Ferguson would just sit his hand on the guitar and leave it there. I couldn’t do a decent beat. It was horrible.”
Panic set in. Tim Voorhees, the bands manager, started pulling his hair out, literally. Paul fell into a funk and Terry hit the bottle.
“It was awful, man. We couldn’t do nothin’.”
Then one day Jimmy walked in. And the sun came out.
“He was dressed in one of his trademark Garage suits,” Terry remembers. “He had bathed. He didn’t smell weird. His eyes were clear. No Lablonsky. We didn’t know what to think.”
So what happened next?
“Well, he said that he was ready to play and we could do this.”
“Yeah. He picked up his guitar, and the three of us managed to do an entire rehearsal. It was like the old Jimmy was back, he played and sang like his life depended on it and he drove us like we were an army standing between Rome and the Huns.”
Misremembered histories notwithstanding, it sure seemed like things were finally looking up for the band again. But where was Ian?
“Jimmy said he’d talked to Ian and everything was fine, he’d be there and he’d be ready.”
Terry remembers that he and Tim Voorhees were ready to believe but Paul seemed a little uneasy about it. “I asked him what was going on and he just said he had a gut feeling. I didn’t pay too much attention to it because I was just so glad to see Jimmy seemed to be back to normal.”
So the band rehearsed three more times, but Paul is not happy and even Terry is getting uneasy. “Ian never showed up,” he said. “Me and Paul and Jimmy, man we was tight but without Ian it still really wasn’t the Garage, it was strange. No bass. And even though Jimmy was playing and singing as good as ever, the more time we spent with him the harder it was to not notice that he was still off. Almost kind of like a robot sometimes, like his personality had been taken out and he was doing pre-programmed crap.” Tim tried to locate Ian but had no luck, even though the band hired a private investigator. Then comes the night of the show.
At this point I don’t need Terry’s remembrance. I, Robert Leventhall Stikowski, actually sat in the audience as a budding music reporter. I had seen the band in concert a few times, including that performance on SNL and had just graduated college and gotten a job at the Village Voice as a reporter and there I was, right next to the stage at the Carnivore Club in lower Manhattan, waiting for this band to take the stage. They have a following, the place is packed, but stories fly all over the place. Everyone knows that Ian hasn’t shown his face at any of the rehearsals. Everyone knows that Jimmy and Lablonsky are doing weird things (including things that I won’t even try to sneak past Mrs. Horowitz.) Everyone knows that Paul is itching to go off on his own and start making hits. No one is real sure what to expect, but nobody expects what comes next.
The lights go down, the club actually gets quiet, and we see Jimmy, Paul and Terry take the stage. No Ian. The three of them are dressed in their natty, colorful suits but the old energy isn’t there. In fact, they don’t even start playing. Paul and Terry just look at each other, obviously having no idea what’s going on. Jimmy just stands at his mic, not playing, looking smugly out at the audience. And he stands there. For ten minutes he stands there, although it seems like an hour. And just as Paul looks like he’s going to ask the audience if anyone plays bass, three guys walk out on stage.
You gotta understand, nobody is expecting this. These three guys, they’re dressed in matching outfits, but they aren’t like the suits the Garage are wearing. If you ever find pictures of the Beach Boys back in ’63 or ’64, with their matching wide-striped shirts and chinos, that’s what they looked like. And their hair was just like Brian Wilson’s almost-looks-like-a-wig cut from that time, too. All of them. It takes a minute before I realize that one of them is Ian Snodgrass, and that another one is Sol Lablonsky. To this day I have no idea who the third guy was. Ian marches up, grabs Paul’s mic (Paul is so confused he doesn’t even say anything) and then goes with the other two to the other side of Jimmy.
And Jimmy starts singing.
Now, exactly what he was singing is anyone’s guess. I don’t think even Jimmy knew what he was singing. The syllables might have been Spanish, or Sanskrit, or Swahili. But he sings. And the other three guys, well, it’s painful to think about, but, well…
They yodel. In unison. And after they do that for fifteen minutes, one of them pulls out a pocket comb, puts cellophane over it, and starts humming into it. And then they start on the weirdest rendition of “Grandma’s Feather Bed” anyone has ever heard. Yodeling, humming, operatic solos. Twenty-five minutes of yodeling, humming and operatic solos. And the audience, mostly hip Manhattan kids and music industry types, just stand there with their mouths open. I should know, I was both of those things and I was standing there, drool just dribbling out of my mouth. I was so, and I looked up this word, nonplussed by the whole thing I forgot to swallow my own spit. Finally, after half and hour, somebody remembered that we were in Manhattan, NYC and shouts out “What the (expletive deleted) is this?” Then drinks start flying. Poor Terry and Paul had already slipped off the stage and out the back door along with Tim. Ian, Lablonsky and the unknown third guy panic and run away. Jimmy just stands there, dripping beer and vodka from the drinks being thrown at the stage, but his face has this look of, well, bliss.
Suddenly Tim Voorhees, who apparently came back, runs on stage and drags a screaming Jimmy off. And no one hears from Jim again for five years. Terry gives a couple of interviews, Tim gives one, Paul won’t talk and Ian disappears. But then five years later, a poster appears outside a club in the Village. One night only, Jimmy Westfelter. That’s all it says. Needless to say, we’re all so surprised we nearly unload in our pants, and (only in Manhattan) the tickets are so hot that scalpers are paying other scalpers to get them. I got one. I practically had to promise my left kidney for it, but I got it. And I sat in the front row, had a nice dinner, and watched as Jimmy came out on stage, dressed in straw boater hat, striped jacket, white slacks and shoes so polished I almost went blind. He ripped through every Garage song ever recorded (including three songs rescued from the Great Tape Massacre) except for the one song everyone expected he would never do.
Paul Ferguson walks out on stage. Jimmy’s band walks off, the two men pull out acoustic guitars, and lazily play through the most beautiful rendition of She anyone has ever heard. I’m serious, the bouncers were crying. The song ends, the two men shake hands, then walk off stage.
And that’s the last anyone ever heard of Jimmy Westfelter. I hope he’s doing good. I hope Tim Voorhees is getting his royalty checks to him. And maybe he’s busking in Fargo, or London, or Sheboygan. I know one thing, if he ever comes back, I’ll be there. And I sure won’t be alone.
© 2014 Chris Neal