Born To Be Wild
It’s a dark and stormy June night in Roscommon, MI. It was 1976…the year of the Bicentennial. My fellow band mates and I were seeking sanctuary in the basement of a church, that was at the time the “summer” clubhouse for a Detroit-area motorcycle club (GANG). “Sanctuary” you may ask, from what or from whom? How did four naïve (if we could say that) young men from the Detroit find themselves in this place…this situation? Of course, the story starts a few weeks prior. Brace yourself, you are in for a bumpy ride.
Like most rock and roll bands or entertainers, we (Merlin) were looking for the one gig…performance…that was going to make us into superstars overnight. We were playing all of the local bars, My Place Lounge, Cleme’s Pour House, The Viking Lounge (Mt. Clemens), the Squeeze Inn, just to name a few. Steady work but not the high profile rooms where you would expect to be discovered. One place we played on a pretty regular basis was a club called “Witches Brew” (it was renamed the “Velvet Hammer”) and right across the street from the bar was the clubhouse for the motorcycle club (GANG). Many a night we played at the “Brew/Hammer” and the members of the club (GANG) were always in attendance. One of their favorite songs was “Can’t You See?” by Marshall Tucker (I sang lead…and mama sang bass). The most requested song by them was John Denver’s “Country Roads”. We never did it for them though and I always wondered why they didn’t find it curious if a black man during the “radical” seventies ever would sing that song.
After one stirring performance we were approached by a representative of the gang who asked if we would be interested in playing for their annual party/picnic. They made it sound like it was a great honor for us to be asked and to honest that’s what we thought too. After all, how many of the great rock and roll bands of the day had stories about playing for the “MC’s” (motorcycle clubs) on their resume…almost all of them. We were told that in addition to our performance some of the most recognized bands/artists from the area were going to be there too. Suzi Quattro, her sisters band “the Pleasure Seekers”, Ted Nugent, Stonebridge and quite a few others were scheduled to perform. It was supposed to be like “Woodstock”, with music being played continuously over three days. With a line-up like that we were convinced that after this event we would be recognized and placed on the same level as these better known artists. According to the bikers, people were coming to their party from as far away as California and if we played well enough we could find ourselves working at several more biker events during the year. And if they really liked us we just might make “lifetime” relationships and be able to work these parties forever. Though it dawned upon us that most public accounts of civilians mixing with bikers resulted in bad events (think Rolling Stones and Altamont), we drank the Kool-Aid. For some reason we must have all been thinking about the movie “Easy Rider” and felt that bikers are nice young men that just so happened to be misunderstood most of the time. Yeah…Right!
For our efforts, over the three days, we were to be paid $1000.00, all the food and beverages we could consume and they were going to transport our equipment for us. Wow! They really liked us! We were the only band that they were doing that for. Next stop was the sidewalk in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre…we were stars! Unfortunately, that was about as good as it was going to get. The weekend that was filled with so much hope and loaded with such high expectations, unknown to us, was about to turn into one of the weirdest, darkest, and scariest weekends we had experienced as individuals or as a group in our lifetime.
The first clue that this was not going to be a great weekend was the way the bikers treated our drummer. “Oval”, as we called him, was greeted warmly by the cyclist and that was something that almost never happened. He looked like one of their own, something he was quite proud of, and he found it very easy to become acclimated to the group and the surroundings. I, on the other hand, was having a rough introduction to the world of bikers. In the truck riding up to the party site, we passed a squadron of bikers; I mistakenly thought that for 3 short days we were all “brothers” so I waved at them like a little kid, amazed, awestruck and proud that I was a going to “hang with the gang” so to speak. I waved exuberantly using all of the fingers on my hand and in response the group of bikers gave me their famous “one-finger” salute. “That’s not nice”, thought I and with feelings that were more than slightly hurt, I sat back in my seat with an ominous feeling growing in the pit of my stomach.
We got to the site of the party and began to unload the truck when I was approached by one of the bikers that we had passed on the highway. I had the nerve to think that this guy, who must now know that we were the paid entertainment and friends of the host club (GANG), was coming over to apologize for his and his friends’ rude behavior. Instead, he told me how lucky I was to be alive. He and his friends, which was basically everybody there, didn’t like N******, and I needed to be careful because not all of his friends were as calm and as polite as he was. Most of the people there wouldn’t mind seeing me and the bass player, who was black also, dead. It would be in my best interests to keep a low profile and not try to integrate myself with the proceedings no more than absolutely necessary.
I shouldn’t have been too surprised by the message given to me by the biker since the our (GANG) hosts had attempted to prepare us for the attitudes and behavior of some of their members and friends, unfortunately it was on the way up to their summer campgrounds. “We’re not bad people or sociopaths as we are often portrayed in the media”, we were being told. “We are lawyers, doctors and school teachers, people from all walks of life just like you, but on weekends like this we get a chance to let our hair down and get a little wild”. Just be mindful of a few rules and you will be okay. Some of their rules were:
- Stay away from our women. They are the property of a) their man and b) the club! Do not engage in any unauthorized conversations with them.
- See rule number one.
- See rule number two
- You are here to play so play you must. We promised our friends that there would be continuous music throughout the weekend. No one will bother you as long as you are playing and entertaining the group.
- See rule number three
With that the festivities began. We were the first band there, having come up with the club members, so we were expected to play right away. We started playing around 8:00p.m. and with the exception of a short dinner break we played to about 2 am. We asked when the other performers were going to show up and were told that they would all be arriving sometime on Saturday. Satisfied with that answer and with our performance we crawled into our drummers van and were quickly off to sleep, only to be awakened about 45 minutes later by a drunken biker. His name was “Cartoon” and you could easily see why…every inch of his body (that could be seen) was covered with tattoos of his favorite comic strip/book heroes. Always polite, we informed “Mr. Cartoon” that we had just stopped playing, expressed our regret that he missed us and that we, along with several other bands, would perform for him later on Saturday. Well, he didn’t like our answer. He said that he had traveled across the country for this party and that he had been told that music would be playing when he got here and now that he was here he wanted to hear some “M*****F****** music. Since our drummer had been accepted so graciously by the bikers we thought that he would be the best person to relay our feelings. Using biker language and their unique dialect, Oval told the newly arrived biker that we were not going to play and he would have to wait until a more appropriate time for us to play again. Not pleased with our response, “Mr. Cartoon” immediately starting rocking our van and was on the verge of tipping it over when he was stopped by a host gang member. After a brief conversation, the biker came to us and advised us that we should play for Cartoon. Sure this was inconvenient, but they were going to pay us a good amount of money. Sure this was unfair, because we had played for nearly four hours earlier. And sure this was uncalled for, but since he was a friend and they wanted to keep him happy, it was necessary for us to get up and start playing again. After all, there was already nearly 200 people there…a non-stop party…and there were only about 14 members of the host gang in attendance at that time.. You couldn’t expect their small group to deal effectively with an angry/drunken/drugged mob of bikers. They were not going to risk injuring themselves for an “integrated band” from Detroit. So if you know what is good for you…!
So we got up and we played for another 3 hours before we were allowed to stop and get some much-needed rest.
After getting a couple more hours of sleep, I got up thirsty and hungry. It was a beautiful morning and with the sun shining brightly it was very easy to forget about the previous night’s experience. I made my way over to the bar to get myself some water, juice or pop to wash away my case of “morning mouth”. I asked the barkeep, very politely, for something to drink. Expecting a pop, I was told that I wanted a beer instead. Now I was a young hard rocking musician and perhaps under a different set of circumstances, I might have opted for that beer, but this morning I wanted something without alcohol to start my day with. “May I have a pop please?” I asked again very politely. Once again I was told I wanted a beer. Getting a little peeved (did I dare), I leaned over the bar and said to the barkeeper “Read my lips…I would like a pop, please”! The response I was given set the tone for the rest of the day and perhaps for the rest of the time we spent “entertaining” the masses. “Listen M*****F*****, you want a BEER”! And with that being said, the bartender pulled a gun out of the waist of his pants and laid it on top of the counter. My mouth fell open and I took the beer. I was suddenly aware that everybody had guns except us. I walked back to our van to wake up my fellow band members. I wanted out right then and there but unfortunately we were stuck because we had allowed the bikers to transport all of our equipment in their truck. We only had a small van and there was absolutely no way the equipment would fit in the van along with us on a return to civilization.
About 45 minutes later we were given the agenda for the day (they were actually nice enough to write it down). We were expected to play throughout the day and for some of the activities they had scheduled (like knock the balloon off of the back of a biker). We couldn’t believe that we were being asked to play all day and all night…“what happened to the other bands, when are they going to play”, we asked. It was then we were told that none of the other bands were going to show up and since they were not leaving until Sunday night we were stuck up there until they got good and ready to go. We had been tricked and tricked bad. We were also reminded that the only way to ensure our safety was to keep playing. They actually used the phrase “music soothes the savage beasts” to get their point across. It was sad but as proven later, very true.
At 10:00a.m. we started to play. We played another set that was 4 hours long and not only were our fingers cramping, they were starting to blister. At one point, I needed to take a break so I put my guitar down. All of a sudden a full can of beer went whizzing past my head and crashed into the front of my amplifier. I picked my guitar up and put it back on to hear a chorus of “HAW HAW HAW!” as we started to play another song.
One of the things that was a big surprise to me were the women we were told not to touch, talk to or to look at. Stealing the occasional glance, I was amazed at how normal the wives, girlfriends and children of the bikers looked and acted. There was absolutely nothing about these entities that you would associate with the biker lifestyle. These people were too soft, too innocent looking, too genteel to be part of these social rebels. Was their behavior the result of being held captive for so long, that like Patty Hearst they fell in league with their captors and abusers? I’m just asking! To this day I still find it hard to understand.
We had been playing all day and after a short dinner break we were back at it. True to their word, the host club (GANG) promised their guests music throughout the weekend and like the musicians on the Titanic we kept playing no matter what was going on around us. We did get one break and that was during one of their most important games of the evening. This game entailed shaking up a can of beer (most likely 16 or 24 oz.) turning it upside down and when you popped the top someone simultaneously put a hole in the bottom of the can so that the beer jettisoned into the mouth of the waiting biker. You got points for how much beer you were able to swallow before choking. This was a very popular game and they must have spent 30 minutes taking turns choking and sputtering down cans of beer. It was during this event that our first and best chance to escape from our captors presented itself.
While the bikers were digesting massive quantities of alcohol, a state police car came trolling through the campsite. The look on our faces was a collective display of relief and joy. Finally, our tortured existence was coming to an end. We wanted to run to the car and plead for them to take us away. We thought for sure that the party was now over and the police officers were there to save us from any more abuse. Sadly, the officers never got out of their car. They drove through the crowd slowly but did absolutely nothing. At one point a biker that was high on something other than life stood in front of the police car and promptly peed in front of the approaching car. Surely that was an offense that called for an arrest or some sort of police action. Not on your life! The officers stayed in their car and waited for the biker to finish “watering” the grass before driving away like a chastised puppy with its tail between its legs. We were doomed! If they couldn’t save us nobody could. The crowd got more raucous after the cops drove away. They were “Haw Haw Hawing”, stomping around and slapping each other on the back like they had just won the war. A bad situation that for us had just gotten worse. What were we going to do?????
The answer came in a very unlikely way. It started to rain and I do mean rain very hard. The storm moved in very quickly with a lot of thunder and lightning. We started to break down our equipment thinking we were through for the night. Our hosts though had other ideas. We were told that we must continue playing or our safety could not be guaranteed. They wanted us to move our gear back inside the church. Thinking quickly, we directed our equipment into the church basement where we were then able to barricade the door and prevent any more aggressive acts toward us. The bikers were not amused by this and started pounding and threatening us through the doors. They made it perfectly clear that they were not pleased by our actions and sooner or later we were going to have to come out and pay the price for our “rude and improper” but desperate behavior. It rained all night long and we stayed in the basement all night too. We did not rest easy as we could hear them drinking and ultimately fighting amongst themselves throughout the night.
We were awakened early Sunday morning by the sweet sound of birds chirping outside. Other than that it was unusually quiet. We stole our way outside to find the campsite was nearly empty with the exception being a few women who were there cooking. Breaking rules number 1, 2, 3 and 5 we asked where the “men” were. We were told that they were off at the river having canoe races. A planned activity for the women and kids. HUH! There they go again changing things up…contradicting their image! Not to be distracted, we realized that now was our chance. We drove into town, got breakfast and rented a trailer to haul our gear with. During our breakfast we were asked by a couple of “old” townies what brought us up to Roscommon. We told them about the party and our experiences, which gave them a nice laugh. After enduring their hilarity, we asked them about their relationship with the bikers and their little soirees…how do they deal with it. Expecting to hear their “Wild Ones”-like story we were told that those good ol’ boys would not dare to come in to their town and start any trouble. They would turn them out, even go so far as to burn their clubhouse down. They were not the least bit concerned or afraid of those “boys”. I had a vision of standing on top of the counter…rallying the troops…and marching back to the campsite and taking on the entire motley group of about 350 bikers (not including the women and children). Thankfully, I awoke from my dream before I did something stupid.
The Wild One
We got back to the campground and made haste as we gathered our belongings and equipment into the van and the trailer. The van was so crowded that two of us had to lie on top of the gear for the entire ride home. Like thieves in the night we sneaked out of the campsite and made our getaway. On our way out we actually had to drive by the lake where they were conducting the canoe races. They were having a lot of fun…so much fun that they didn’t notice us driving past them. We let out a collective “HAW HAW HAW” as we made our escape.
A Few Days Later
I was at work when I picked up a newspaper that included an article about a church in Roscommon that had burned to the ground. It turned out, that this old church had, in recent years, been used by a Detroit-area motorcycle club (GANG) and arson was suspected. My first and only thought was of the old men in the breakfast diner and what they had said. “We will burn that old church down!” It reverberated in my head for the rest of the day.
Ten Days Later
We got a little satisfaction from hearing about the burning of the church, but for it to feel complete we needed to get paid for our work that weekend. The fact that physically, I was the biggest person in the band meant that it was up to me to call and address our compensation with the bikers. Does “size” matter? Well, we were about to find out.
I made the call and was immediately put in contact with the biker that hired us. I explained to him why I was calling and with a voice laden with false bravado I detailed what I expected to happen within the next 5 business days. You danced so now it is time to PAY THE BAND! Using a tone that was as much sinister as it was threatening (in which he never raised his voice), he questioned my ability…my manhood…to bother him with this S***, after all we not only insulted them by sneaking off the way we did, but we violated some of their rules. Namely, rules 1 through 5…yes, all of them. We violated them when we asked the women at the campsite where the men were and by refusing to play Saturday night and locking ourselves in the church basement. Additionally, we drank the children’s pop. We took something that was for the kids and used it for our own selfish enjoyment. It was like we had stolen food out of the kid’s mouths. He was so upset that he should make us pay them instead of him paying us. I could not believe my ears. The only time I asked for a pop was when I was denied at the end of a gun and he somehow distorted that attempt to visualizing us sitting in the shade of an oak tree sipping pop like it was a godly nectar? Come on, this was B***S***! He knew it…I knew it…He knew I knew he knew…and on and on it went. Finally he said the magic words…”Leave me the F*** alone or he and his buddies were going to come to our house and burn it down. If you have had the opportunity to read the story about Merlin and The Peoples Ballroom, you would know that we have had our share of fires. So if you wanted to scare us in the most effective way just say “fire”. That’s all it would take and whatever we were doing or thinking would come to a screeching halt. So “mister biker man” pushed the right button…he hit the bulls eye…and he won the kewpie doll and I backed off immediately. Sadly, I got off the phone and told the guys that we need to put this behind us…we were not getting paid. The important thing was that we survived and we will never do something like that again.
The end of the story? Not quite!
The phone conversation with the biker was a bitter end to a terrifying experience, but it was not the complete end of the story. For you see about two weeks after that chat, on a Saturday, we got a call from a bar in Livonia called the “Playmates Lounge” and the owner wanted to know if we could come in on Sunday night to audition to play at his club. Believing that we needed positive affirmation of our talent we agreed to come down and play without thinking how this guy had come to hear about us and how he got our phone number. So we rented a truck (paying extra for getting it on a Saturday), loaded up enough gear to do a good audition and drove to Livonia to perform. When we got there, the bartender told us that he had not been advised that we were expected to show up and play for him or anybody because the owner was out of town and they were booked for several weeks. Right about then a light bulb should have came on over our heads, but it didn’t. The bartender said that since we were there and we had our equipment with us, we should go ahead and play and he would give the owner his opinion. Including set up and tear down we were at the club for nearly four hours. On our return home and as we turned onto our street we saw up ahead several fire trucks. Even our exhaustion didn’t prevent us from making wisecracks and jokes about the poor neighbor that lost his house. As we slowly made our way up the street and little girl came up to our truck and asked, “Are you the band?” Slamming on the brakes we jumped out of our vehicles and ran to the house. Our house…our beautiful house had burned to the ground. Thankfully we had most of our equipment with us, but we did lose a couple of guitars, a baritone saxophone and a record collection that consisted of nearly 500 albums. Another blessing was that my cat, which had just had a litter of 6 kittens, also survived. She had the kittens hidden in our attached garage, which somehow did not burn with the rest of the house. As we walked and sifted through the remains the one thing that was on everybody’s mind was that we were set up and we pretty much knew by whom.
The West Bloomfield police confirmed that we were the victims of arson and wanted to know if we knew of anybody that didn’t like us. We told them about our recent experience with the motorcycle club (GANG) and their party and we all felt that they were the most likely suspects. It was then that we were told that our house was formerly the residence of a bunch of bikers and he believed that they were members of the hosting club (GANG). And though they did go out and question some members of the club, they did not find anything that connected them to the crime.
I should have said at the beginning that this story didn’t have a F****** happy ending!
Arthur Littsey, Guitar/Vocals; Marcus Dawson, Bass/Vocals; James "Jimmy" Lifton, Keyboards/Vocals; Richard "Oval" Wood, Drums