“Hello my name is John T. & I’m an alcoholic. I haven’t had a drink for thirty-two years, four months and nine days. It feels like lifetimes ago that I was living at the bottom of a bottle, but almost like yesterday that I ran the Hot Licks record shop in Minneapolis. My mentor and friend ‘Short’ Mort Brudell ran Harpo’s record shop in Bloomington, Michigan and got me the job in November 1976 because I was the only person who knew more about music than he did. And he thought he knew everything.
The Licks staff was a real tight knit crew, as was the Harpo’s gang. There was a friendly but competitive streak between the staff of both stores. It could be over monthly sales, musical knowledge or women, but usually just over who partied harder; as this was the mid-70s, the bar was already admittedly high. So, for a few summers starting in 1977, we got both our squads together to find out who could go stronger for longer. Mort even had a trophy made up for the winner which was a 12″ record melted into some sort of origami sailboat, atop a cheap gold pedestal that read “STRONG MAN COMPETITION – 1st PLACE”. I have no idea if he made it himself, and if not, where he could have possibly had it made in Bloomington, but he would never tell.
The photo you’re looking at is from our ’79 Booze Crooze’. This was the first year we won & brought the trophy back to Licks where it was proudly displayed behind the counter all year and constantly received looks but never any questions. I’m the guy seated on the bottom right in the blue satin jacket with the big, beautiful hair. Mort is in the top back left in the glasses and white fly-away collar. Everyone from Randy Wexler (in the shades leaning on his son Ricky in the cowboy hat) to the right is Licks and everyone to the left is Harpo’s. We’d meet up in Dead Horse Bay, Wisconsin at Mort’s dry dock where we’d stuff his cruising yacht with as much beer and “hard a” as we could fit.
And the drugs. Oh the drugs. This group didn’t stop at ludes, coke and poppers. No. This was an experimental psychedelic cook-off with a ton of different homemade recipes. I’m not sure what was more obscure – the music or the drugs. There was harmaline and mescaline. Ketamine and elemicin. Even some Kenyan khat and a few ortho-dots. No one was ever quite sure. Throughout that time, the only thing we did more than drink and drug was DJ and dance. The only time anyone stayed purposefully sober-ish was to spin some records. Mort and I would program the sets so they matched whatever trip most people were on, giving ourselves the longer ‘anchor sets’ at peak time. And in those days, most of the music rocked…softly. Soft rock dominated the airwaves and most of the narratives of our adult lives. We defined it broadly but played it loosely. We joined a sea of record pools and picked up Tom Lewis’ weekly ‘Disco Bible’, studying beats per minute and practicing slip-cuing and blending records. DJing as a concept and as a lifestyle was just starting to catch on (at the time we called it ‘selecting’), and we foolishly thought we were part of the plot. It sounded great to us at the time, but I’m sure it was just substances over style.
By ’81 our ship had sailed. While high on mescaline, and convinced he was a bad influence on Ricky, Randy Wexler tried to force his wife Georgie to shoot him. She wouldn’t. So he tried to strangle her with a phone cord to convince her, which he did. She shot him six times in front of Ricky. He lived but could never walk again, and she left him. Randy’s car was found in a Schnuck’s parking lot in Baraboo, Wisconsin six months later with no sign of him. Georgie ended up in an institution and at Ricky ran off to the southwest. That really scared a lot of people straight. Especially me. At the time, Linda (green cardigan in the middle making funny faces) and I were dating long-distance. She quit Harpo’s and moved to Minneapolis and I quit Licks and started going to meetings.
I never really had anywhere as strong of a connection with music as I did then. I got older and we had a few kids. I cut what I had left of that beautiful hair off and started wearing a suit to work everyday. This photo brings back so many memories (thanks Tom Smith!): some bad, but most good. I still keep in touch with a few guys from this picture. Reggie Arew (in the blue baseball cap in front) and his husband run a pool cleaning business a few towns over, and we have dinner once a year. His ex Keith Pilbourne (pink jacket in the back) actually became a pastor in Green Bay. Dennis Donner (top right, moustache, looking up) went to jail for selling cocaine to an undercover cop in Rockford and started a halfway house in Rockford, Michigan when he got out. And Mike Skill (bottom left in the tie) rejoined his band The Romantics on bass before their biggest album In Heat in 1983. I cherish what I remember of those times now even though I would never want to relive them.
Many alcoholics are enthusiasts. They run to extremes. I know I did. But life mellows you and while my son may never have witnessed my transgressions firsthand, I’ve never worried much about him going down that path. But his life is his own to enjoy. I’m thrilled he’s carrying on the music torch while leaving behind those wilderness years you can never get back. At first, I wasn’t sure if I was comfortable speaking to an audience that I couldn’t actually see. But when he played this mix for me the first time and told me that I inspired him and his friend to make it, it made me cry, and I thought maybe these words or this music could actually help some people. I hope it does.
We alcoholics are sensitive people. It takes some of us a long time to outgrow that handicap. But after some trial and error, I’ve found a design for living to achieve spiritual progress rather than perfection. Because while you may need a higher power, your highest power is always YOU. Be considerate of others but hard on yourself. Keep some life in your years but some years in your life. And don’t abandon hope – the most satisfactory years of your existence lie ahead. Unlike an alcoholic, a DJ in his cups IS a lovely creature. Thanks for letting me share.”
- as told to PersonPeople, 2012