Sunday, March 31, 2019

Saying Goodbye to Juke Records and Bill Oliver

Yesterday was a rare Saturday for me because I wasn't scheduled to work. (The weekend is prime work time when you're in retail.) In thinking about what I could do, if I got beyond all the commitments I had for the day, the natural thought of going to a record store made its way to my mental surface. (Even though I have plenty of new music to keep me occupied at the moment.)

At that point it occurred to me that it was the first time in the last 38 years that I couldn't do any record shopping at 4526 Liberty Avenue in Bloomfield. Juke Records closed their doors last weekend, a little more than a month after they announced that the end was near.  The shop was the final iteration of a storefront that began in the late '70s as Jim's Records, which became Paul's CDs in the mid '90s. The late Karl Hendricks bought the business in 2012 and rechristened it Sound Cat Records. When his illness got worse, he sold it to Jeff Gallagher who ran Juke.

I actually wrote a column about it for Pittsburgh Current several weeks ago, kind of meditating on the end of it. It can be found here. I'm rather happy with how it turned out so please give it a read.

Another loss this week came when I heard about the passing of Pittsburgh musician Bill Oliver. He had been battling MS for several years and had been unable to get around for the last few years. Michael from the Cynics said he visited him a few times and encouraged me to come along. It was a noble idea but as usual I overthought it, wondering if work and family and the search for work (when that was an issue) would allow it. In the last year or so, Bill was more active on Facebook. I often woke up to 4 a.m. messages from him with links to Beatles videos. He was often engaged in conversations with people online which made me think that maybe he was making some sort of rebound. One of the last times I spoke to him in person he mentioned some sort of treatment that might help him. Sadly it was not to be.

Bill and I first around the same time that I started going to Jim's Records. He had a band called Blue Collar whose single was produced by my brother's friend Michael Butscher. Considering the connection, and my desire to find out about cool Pittsburgh bands, I bought a copy (which I still own). Thing was, Bill wasn't really a punk rocker. He was a rocker who was just fine with pure pop and wearing his Beatles influence on his sleeve. But he could hang with punks and was always willing to engage them - or a precocious teenage kid like me - in a meaningful conversation about music. He might not have dug all the crazy post-punk stuff that was happening, but he kept up with it.

He also did one thing for me which I'll always remember: He got me drunk for the first time. As in woah-I've-never-felt-this-way-before-I-am-soooooo-loopy drunk. And it happened at a radio station. Just shy of my 17th birthday.

I regularly dropped by WYEP-FM in the early '80s when it was still in the basement of a garage in South Oakland. I befriended the Friday DJ who went by the name Concrete Window (see the link to the PC story above). On one September evening, Bill was there with Conc, pouring gin and grapefruit soda drinks. My closest friends will know this combination later became known as "gin and shanleys" but which technically is called "gin and sours." I had a nip of it for the first time at a show about a year earlier, courtesy of an older punk gal that I knew. Unlike beer, which I wouldn't enjoy for another year or so, this bit of hooch was good and fruity.

Bill had a few extra cups and offered me one. Being my first real time imbibing, I put away a few of them, drinking them like pop. He and Conc later had to pour me out on the sidewalk in front of my house after the radio show was over. If I was in a bad state, I didn't feel it. I was having a good time. If my dad knew I was snockered (I think he did), he didn't give me a hard time about it. Talking too loud on the street, that was a problem though.

Well that sort of sealed the deal with me and Bill. He would later blur that story together with the time that he and Conc played Yoko Ono's "Don't Worry Kyoko" repeatedly in order to get people to pledge to WYEP, even though that happened on another night, probably several years earlier. But why nitpick?

Even though that Blue Collar 45 wasn't really punk rock, there was some serious heft to it. In particular, the B-side, "First Snows." Lyrically, it touched on the plight of working class people who were struggling to get by in those early days of Reaganomics and the crumbling steel industry. He dedicated it to Yoko and Sean Lennon, which I didn't quite understand, wondering back then if I was missing something.

In addition to sounding really pissed off in the song (maybe punk rockers were rubbing off on him) Bill's guitar playing really slashed hard. He repeatedly told me how the original version was too long for the single so Butscher deftly queued up the tape so it would skip the intro and begin where the band all kicked in. When he compiled a CD overview of his career, Bill included the uncut version, where you can get it all. The other thing I really like is that during the guitar solo, it sounds like one track of guitars is interrupted by another one, which gets more chopping and antagonistic. It should be a classic in Pittsburgh music history. I meant to dig it out when I heard the news but haven't gotten to it yet. Maybe tonight.

Thanks, Bill. Wherever you are I hope there's a guitar and maybe a hero or two of yours standing around.

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