Forty years ago, in January of 1976, I had arrived in Liverpool, England and was preparing myself for one of the greatest adventures of my life.
Going to England with the intention of performing and getting our rock band signed to a record contract was the plan for three very determined musicians, Chris Schindler, on bass guitar, Tom Howes, on guitar and myself, on drums.
This had been a long held dream of mine – go to England, perform and visit the places where The Beatles had honed their musical craft. Part of the dream was bearing fruit, our destination was Liverpool, England, the home of The Beatles and we had arrived.
So how did this dream, this plan of ours materialize? There was a slow steady evolution of goals and actions that helped to bring this about. But it all started for me when I was a young boy and saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, nine years old, but seeing and hearing them set me on a course with music that has sustained me my whole life.
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Lao-tse
1974 and 1975 were some pretty decent years for me, as a person and as a musician. I had stopped the craziness of my constant drinking, fighting, getting in trouble, one-night stands and ignoring music, the one true passion of my life.
Chris and I had our beginnings back in 1967, when my band, The Other Side, was able to steal Chris away from the band he was in with Paul Auger, who played guitar and sang. We had more gigs and better paying ones, so that helped to sway in the drafting of Chris into our band. Soon, Paul joined us as well, after we parted company with one of our guitar players. Now the line-up was complete, Bruce Ciesla, rhythm guitar & vocals, Chris Schindler, bass guitar, Paul Auger, lead guitar & vocals and myself on drums. We practiced our butts off and soon we had a really good band that was in demand for a lot of school dances, parties, outdoor events and eventually, bars and nightclubs. We accomplished this, while we were still young teenagers, in 1967, I was thirteen years old, Chris was twelve. We all shared the love of The Beatles and other rock groups and we were determined to make it as a famous rock and roll band. We knew that hard work was the way to achieve this dream of ours.
Over time, we changed our name to Resistance and enlisted the aid of several other musicians when Bruce had to leave the band due to personal reasons. Bruce was one one of my best friends, but even back then, the band came first. But I was sad to see him go.
Our constant performances and practicing and the addition of some really good musicians on keyboards and vocals, helped to transform, Resistance, into a really tight musical group. We loved what we were doing and were being paid for it. And we were still in high school.
I knew back then, that music was a way to keep the demons at bay and help me to cope with the nightmares of my home life. The band and my high-school girlfriend helped to keep me sane and alive.
1972 was going to be a great year for me, or so I thought. My girlfriend and I were engaged to be married and though it was unplanned, we were excited about her pregnancy. Soon, I would be graduating from high school and the band kept getting better all the time; I was confident in my abilities to support us because of my earnings from the band and various part-time jobs. All of that came to a crashing halt when the baby was lost, a little boy. This loss of the baby fueled my drinking into excess, I became promiscuous and had countless fights at school or in bars. The breakup between my girlfriend and me sent me into a tailspin.
Several months later I thought it best that I take a leave of absence from the band, I was just too darn confused. I did not understand that the trauma and the abuse of my home life were playing havoc with me back then. It took me close to two years to come back from that spiral of despair and loneliness. But I did.
Chris, Paul and myself got back together as band-mates and soon enlisted the services of Paul Goodwin, for vocals, guitar and keyboards and Ron Jazwienski, on guitar and vocals. The two new members of this band, re-named, Wildfire, had great singing voices and Paul Auger was able to lend his voice for harmonies. Musically, this was a pretty diverse band. We could rock out with Led Zeppelin, Grand Funk and Jethro Tull and also pull off songs from the Doobie Brothers, The Eagles and some original songs. We had good gigs in nightclubs and in bars where one did not know when the next fight would erupt. I referred to those bars as, ‘buckets of blood and beer.’ We also performed in strip clubs, and those were long nights of playing, until 2 am, but it did help to sharpen our craft as musicians.
The simple fact of having paying gigs is huge for any band and we were happy with that and knew we could accomplish even more. But for a few of us, we still had our eyes on a bigger prize, we wanted to write and perform only our own songs and get signed to a record contract. That was the dream for many musicians. Our band was split on this idea of going for the record contract and all of the hard work and sacrifice that it would involve. A few of the guys were quite content with the status quo and could not understand why we would want to jeopardize what we had.
Chris and I started looking at ads for other bands and musicians who wanted we we did. And that is how we met Tom Howes.
Tom was a brilliant guitar player who had been with the band, Spirit In Flesh, they were signed to MCA Records, recorded an album and had toured the United States. He too shared the dream of writing songs, touring and getting signed to a record contract and he broached the idea of, “let’s do it in England.”
Chris, Tom and I, asked Paul Auger and Paul Goodwin if they wanted to be a part of this endeavor, each declined for personal reasons. Chris and I kept performing with Wildfire, while at the same time we started a new band with Tom. This in of itself was quite the task. I was living in Hudson, NH, Chris in Billerica, Ma and Tom lived in Turners Falls, MA – an 85 mile drive for me and 80 miles for Chris. But we did it, we drove to Turners Falls on the nights when Wildfire was not gigging, to practice. Chris and I, both had day jobs building houses, but we were determined to make this happen.
We gave our notice to the guys in Wildfire, once our other band was ready to gig. We rounded out the new group with the addition of Mitch Ceasar on vocals and Ronnie Zeno on guitar and vocals. Mitch agreed to help us with the gigs so we could save our share of the money to put towards our expedition to England. Ronnie was to be a part of this adventure, his guitar and his voice were a great addition for our planned tour overseas. Mitch had a good voice, but he was not the type of singer we were looking for to go to England.
We bought the airline tickets, arranged for our equipment to be shipped and Tom secured us a place to live in Liverpool with some friends of his. Unfortunately, Ronnie backed out several weeks before our departure. His loss was huge, his voice and guitar playing were an integral part of this dream, but we were determined not to let it stop us. Our thoughts were simple, we’ll find a singer in England.
Early in January of 1976, we arrived in England, I was 21 years old and was excited beyond belief. We had a huge task ahead of us, but we were determined that we would do what we set out to do.
We shared a large ‘flat’ with three of Tom’s friends from the States. The living arrangements were tight and we slept on mattresses on the floor. Yes, this was going to be an adventure.
Once our musical equipment arrived we set about auditioning for singers. I wish we had video recorders back then, this was a true comedy in the making. We advertised for hard rock singers and we had singers from cabaret, pop, blues, jazz, country and everything in between show up, along with those who could not carry a tune at all. This was Liverpool, we could not believe, that a city this size, lacked hard rock singers. After a few weeks of frustration and laughter, Jon Tootil showed up. He was a rock singer, he had a decent voice, but did not have the range we were looking for, but he was a good guy and seemed to want to work hard. So, we gave it a shot.
We immediately set about writing songs and rehearsing for gigs. We decided to perform some covers from Led Zeppelin, Humble Pie and Black Sabbath to round out our set list. We ended up with 5 – 6 covers, but we put our own spin on them and the rest were originals.
We wanted a name for the band that signified motion and moving forward, which is how we came up with the name, TRAIN. I started finding us gigs and we decided to call the band AMERICAN TRAIN to help give us a promotional boost, even though we had an English singer.
Our first gig was at Liverpool University on a bill with Medicine Head, we had never heard of them, but Jon did. They were huge in England and in Europe. Our band kicked ass and we blew away the crowd. The noise for the encore was loud and oh-so-encouraging for our first gig. Right after we finished our set, the head of the student union wanted to re-book us immediately for our own concert. People swarmed into our dressing room…we were on our way.
I am mindful that this is a blog post and folks want something short and easy to read…I cannot do justice in a blog and share all of what we did and what we accomplished in England for those two years back then in a short piece. But, I can share these snippets…
Our band ended up touring all of Great Britain, we enjoyed a 100% re-booking rate – we packed rock clubs, pubs, colleges, & outdoor events. We would perform at a university with over a thousand people in attendance, to playing in a small pub that could only fit a few hundred. It did not matter to us, we just wanted to play for people and get our music out there, so if that meant playing in a little pub, we did it. Heck, we played matinee shows and then at night in another venue; every night was a different gig. Yes, we were the proverbial skinny, starving, over-worked and underpaid musicians, but it did not matter, we were doing what we loved and we found the ways and means to sustain ourselves to keep doing it. Back in 1976 and 1977, we were playing in the same venues as AC/DC.
Our band was written up in the press all of the time and we were touted as being the next big rock band, many journalists were stating that we were next in line to take over the mantle of Deep Purple, who had broken up.
There were so many good things happening, but this came about because of our dedication to our craft and to our dreams. We ended up with three different singers, but it did not stop us. One of the singers quit on us without notice, but the show must go on, so I sang all of the songs for a few weeks till we enlisted our last singer, David Ceasar.
TRAIN had become a great band, we worked hard, worked together, ironed out differences and kept to the course, and focused on the goals. We were courted by several record companies, we turned down one deal with CBS Records, but were excited with one that seemed to be the best fit and it was going to happen…and then disaster struck.
After several months of touring, we had attracted many managers and agents who wanted to represent us. As musicians, we had all been burned by bad agents and bad management, so we set the bar high and ‘dated‘ folks for awhile, before we decided to go with Johnny Quinton. Originally, he was helping us to set up some nice tours, but he wanted to represent the band as the manager. He helped us in getting more gigs and in front of record companies; he was the business person that we wanted and needed.
The term sex, drugs and rock & roll is synonymous with rock bands, and we were no exception. But we were a band that did not have any hard drug use what-so-ever. A few of the guys smoked the ‘wacky tobacky‘, and we all enjoyed a beer or two…but drugs were a no-no, period. Our quest, our goals were too darn important for us to be waylaid by drug use.
Unfortunately, we did not know that our manager had been sober and clean for several years. He went back to drinking and drug use….we came home to Liverpool after a long tour of Scotland and northern England and found that all of the money in our account and the huge sums of deposit monies had been taken by Johnny. This was devastating, but we felt we could climb out of this financial hole and our creditors, the trucking company, our road crew and the sound company were willing to wait for us to sort things out. We soon learned that he had absconded with even larger amounts of money from the agency that represented us. This was a setback, but we felt we could prevail. The worst of the news would soon arrive…
Every time we performed at a college, a university a large rock club, etc, there was the VAT [valued added tax] tacked onto the amount paid to us – that was deposited into our banking account with the understanding that our manager was taking care of the taxes being paid to the government – it wasn’t, he was pocketing all of that money that had accrued well over a years time. And soon, the tax man was calling…
Though the funds had been stolen, we were still responsible for the taxes owed, we knew of other bands who had their equipment confiscated and shipped home, that was a real fear to contend with. I wanted to stay and find a way around this, the band thought otherwise and a vote was taken, we would go home before our equipment was taken.
My one final hope was that the band would stay together and start again in Boston, but it was not to be. This huge setback broke the spirit of the band, but a few took it quite harder; back then, I did not know what depression was, I do now. A few of the guys were devastated and did not have the energy and focus to carry on with the band. All of our hard work went down the drain.
Dreams and goals are wonderful things to have, I still believe in them to this day…England was the adventure of a lifetime for me, I am sad with the way things turned out. BUT, I have no regrets. I have wonderful memories of a great time in another country doing what I wanted to do, meeting all kinds of folks, visiting castles, spending time on the North Sea, performing in places that the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Deep Purple, Jethro Tull, AC/DC and so many others played in; it was the journey itself, the final destination was not reached, but that is okay.
So follow your dreams, set your goals, create your vision…we don’t know where it will take us, but enjoy the ride. For many of us, trauma, abuse, mental health challenges, health concerns, life, etc, can and will affect what you set out to do, rest when you need to…it will not be a straight linear line, readjust the goal post and take delight in the simple act of trying when following your dreams, you deserve it.
“All glory comes from daring to begin.” Eugene F. Ware
Take care, Michael Skinner
Further reading – My Musical Career – Male Survivor
To help in your Vision, goals & dreams – WTF Is A Vision Board, And How Do You Make One? Abigail Williams – Huffington Post
Bring your resolutions to life this year.