How I Met Your Grandmother

Tell me Gramps, what’s a Zonkaraz?

Well, you little whipper snapper, because of Zonkaraz I met your Grandma.

Someday (probably too soon) I’m going to have that conversation, so I should collect my thoughts while I can. If you are from the greater Worcester area and were born in the 50s you know Zonkaraz. This was one of Worcester’s premiere bands in the 70s and one that almost made it to the big time.

I was a college dropout working for Atlantis Sound with Tuesdays off. What did a young man with Tuesdays off do? Look for a place to rock on a Monday! A band played on Monday night at Zachary’s, which had the additional attraction of being within walking distance from work. The band was Zonkaraz. My manager had been in a local band, The Prairie Oysters, and said they were pretty good. I went.

I didn’t like them. Not loud enough, not Humble Pie enough and the only song I knew that they played was “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” My mother likes “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”  That’s not rock and roll, but there were girls there and that made up for everything else. So I became a regular on Monday nights.

It was a well-behaved crowd, but one night I saw this guy leave right before last call who got met just outside the club by a bunch of bikers. As soon as he was outside these guys cold-cocked him and he went straight down to the asphalt sidewalk face first. Stupid got the better of me and not knowing any of the players in this drama, just knowing that four on one wasn’t fair, I decided to help a brother out. Peace and love.

Bikers on both sides showed up while I was on my way to save the day. On the ground and out cold the victim was getting kicked when I made out the door. Fights were all around him so my plan was to just pull him to the side so he wouldn’t get stepped on. Somehow I rolled him over, stood him up and, with my arms wrapped around him, slow danced him away from the melee. Now propped up against the side of the building I take a look around when I hear a voice ask if he’s a friend. I turn to the voice and I’m met with a fist – Christ! What the…  The guy who hits me gets nailed by some other guy and I’m still holding up the guy I went out to rescue. He comes to finally and there is that awkward moment when he realizes he is being embraced by some skinny long-hair. He wanders off. I walk to Lincoln Square to hitch-hike home to my parent’s house.

A couple weeks later I would be fired from Atlantis Sound and looking for work. I asked Paul Vuona if they needed help. I could roadie and do lights. I did a lot of college theater and had set up stuff for friends bands both in college and in high school. I was highly qualified. To my surprise Paul said yes because they just lost the guy who was doing the lights. Turned out Paul also knew my sister, though I prefer to think I got the job on my own.

For the next five years I had the honor of being part of the phenomenon that was Zonkaraz. The band played throughout New England, in clubs, at colleges, outdoor festivals, civic centers and even an occasional wedding doing nothing but originals (and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”). I grew to love the music. It really did rock if you just let yourself feel it. I got to meet Robert Palmer, Arlo Guthrie, Tom Rush, Harry Chapin, Pousette-Dart Band, Ambrosia, The Rolling Stones. I got to know some of the best musicians that played Worcester. The Mitch Chakour Band, Albatross, The Ellis Hall Group, American Standard, Tornado Alley, Crockett. I got to meet many people who influenced me in ways large and small.

Just as the musicians shared a bond when they play together the crew of Zonkaraz bonded in supporting that effort. On stage there were seven musicians and backstage there were five in the crew; we all were focused on giving a loyal audience our best each night.

Off stage we also gave each other our best, whether it was listening to Steve Martin at Jon’s, savoring Walter’s pancakes, bending Paul’s patient ear, playing farmland at Ric’s before there was Farmland. My first apartment was with “Smokin’” George Weston, the band’s soundman. From George I learned that you actually have to pay the landlord and that it is possible to keep a cigarette going in every room in the house. He introduced me to Shepard’s pie and creamed chipped beef in a boil-a-bag, the simple joys of catalog shopping with no intention of buying and “art” photography.  George also set an example as the elder statesman in the crew by NEVER saying anything bad about anyone. This feat is all the more remarkable considering that most of the people we dealt with were drunk.

Another of my crew mentors was Paul Hanson, Spider. From Spider I learned how to hit parts of an engine to make it run and that it is almost always better to finish what needs to be done that night instead of trying to get up early to do it the next day because you won’t. He taught me to not be a snob about education because he was one of the smartest people I ever met and hadn’t graduated high school. (Maybe I taught Spider not to be put off by all college kids – When I started it was pretty clear he didn’t much care for me, however one night when packing the truck he called for the guitar amps and I showed up announcing in my best barker voice, “You say you want kids, well I got Twins.” Spider laughed – We were friends). He taught me a thousand jokes – I can’t tell ‘em, but I know ‘em.

There was the band, the crew and one other part, the audience. We all hung out with each other. The band didn’t sit separate in the dressing room during the breaks. They went out and talked to folks to see how it was going. They were the stars, but some of their light bounced off the crew giving us the ability to talk to whomever we wanted to in the audience as well. And, let’s be honest here, that meant girls. This was, after all, rock and roll.

On New Year’s Eve 1977, playing at Simeon’s in Shrewsbury, a delicate blonde I had spoken to a few times after being attracted to the way she fit in her jeans refused me a New Year’s Eve kiss! The hook was set. Stupid took over and I hoped that there never was that awkward moment when she realized she was in the arms of a no longer skinny and now balding guy. From her I learned that kids are a blessing, that the world is much better explored together and little traditions are to be cherished like the one that began that night and has continued now for over thirty years between your Grandma and me – no nooky on New Year’s Eve. And it’s all because of Zonkaraz. 

Thanks Paul, Ric, Walter, Jon, Jo, Spider, George, Dennis, Mitch, Matt, Bobby, Ray, Tom, Kenny, Nancy, Larry, Kim, Dave and all the dogs – It’s all your fault.

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4 Responses to “How I Met Your Grandmother”

  1. Jan Anderson Says:

    LOVED this Mike!!!!! Spider was my first kiss in the 6th grade. He had a party and we were playing spin the bottle! We used to laugh about that all the time. Zonkaraz played at Jon’s and my wedding 32 years ago!! Lots of crazy, fun memories.

  2. Larry Preston Says:

    I loved reading this. Miss you Mike. I didn’t get to say hi to you at the Zonk-fest 3…I saw you in the wing but then you were gone.

    • m2smith Says:

      I always show your art work to all the art teachers at school – yeah, I know him. They’re jealous and they can’t play guitar either. HA!

      I would have stayed, but I had been dancing all night – I’m old…

  3. Mud Says:

    Nice Michael! Thank you!

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