By ANDREW MCGINN
There’s nary a boomer male alive who doesn’t wish his mom hadn’t thrown out Mickey Mantle’s rookie card or the first issue of “Spider-Man.”
But what Steve Hance really wishes he still had from his formative years, he got rid of himself.
Oh, to once again own that white, 1964 Fender Strat with the gold-plated hardware.
“I sold that guitar,” Hance recalled, “for money to get married.”
The Hances — Trish Ponx, a classmate in the Jefferson Community High School Class of ’69, was the bride — will celebrate 45 years of marriage in August.
Back in 1973, he hawked the Strat for $275.
Even though that same guitar is now worth upwards of $35,000, Hance stands by his decision.
“Best investment I’ve made in my life,” Hance, 66, said.
(Smart answer, Steve, and clearly the logical first step in making a case for being able to buy it back.)
Once upon a time, Hance put the Strat to good use in Elm Street Grocery, a local rock band that existed — as most high school rock bands do — for just a brief moment in time. But as a foundation for future success, you’d be hard-pressed to find another band in the history of Iowa rock ‘n’ roll that did it better than Elm Street Grocery.
One of them went on to become a Grammy winner. Another wrote and performed a tune that wound up on the soundtrack to “American Beauty,” the Oscar-winning 1999 movie, and also played a certain jaunty little flute riff that would come to grace the opening credits of “SpongeBob SquarePants.”
Yet another member went on to tour with soul great Wilson Pickett and joined the Stan Kenton Orchestra, and another became a classical guitarist in Europe.
Others have played gigs with everyone from Herb Alpert to Bonnie Raitt.
Not bad for a bunch of kids from Jefferson, eh?
Hance, who’s now retired after spending the last 11 years of his career as director of employee relations for Best Buy, might not have his guitar anymore from those days, but he recently discovered he’s owned something all these years far more valuable: A recording of the band in concert.
Hance was unaware until just weeks ago that he was in possession of two priceless reels containing about 120 minutes worth of Elm Street Grocery’s final gig, recorded in the spring of ’69 at either the local roller rink (present-day Spare Time Lanes) or the Elks Lodge.
See what happens when you decide to finally clean out your basement?
Reels have gone the way of wax cylinders, but as fate would have it, Hance also unearthed his old Lafayette reel-to-reel tape machine.
“I put the tape on and it started to play,” he explained. “I couldn’t believe the tape didn’t break.
“I couldn’t believe that it was working.”
Hance had thought on and off through the years about his days in the band, but as soon as the tape started rolling, he was hurled almost 50 years back through time in an instant.
“In high school, I thought, ‘All kids play like this,’ ” said Hance, who lives in Marion, near Cedar Rapids. “Now I listen to it and think, ‘Listen, we’re 13 to 17 years old.’ There’s such a high level of satisfaction listening to it.
“Dang, we did good.”
And then, two songs in, the tape player went kablooey.
“All of a sudden,” Hance said, “there was a loud pop and smoke started pouring out the back. The next thing you know, flames are coming out the back.”
Hance could only think about saving the tape. Damn the machine. To hell with the kitchen countertop.
He rapidly (but carefully) pulled the reel off and threw the flaming tape player off the deck into a snowbank.
“You know that electrical fire odor?” Hance asked. “That filled our house for about 24 hours after that.”
That close call led Hance to have the tapes converted digitally in order to preserve the artifact.
The recent find also inspired him to reconnect with his old bandmates in Elm Street Grocery — Rick Arbuckle, Steve Arbuckle, Jim Oatts, Dick Oatts, Hank Davis, Scott Sutherland, Jim Heath and Bruce (Smith) Banister — who are now flung from coast to coast.
The timing of it all suggests that these tapes were preordained to resurface.
Not only are we now exactly 50 years removed from the band’s peak, but later this year, the Bushmen will be welcomed into the Iowa Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame — the first Jefferson band to get that nod.
The audio evidence unearthed by Hance of Elm Street Grocery makes a convincing argument that the Bushmen could use some company in the hall of fame.
“Looking back,” Rick Arbuckle said, “we went for it, even though some of the performances are kind of rough. We tried.”
Coincidentally, it was the Bushmen who first spurred Arbuckle and Hance into action.
“We saw what they were doing,” Hance said, “and would really like to try that.”
Hance and Arbuckle date their friendship back to sixth grade.
“By seventh grade,” Arbuckle, now 67, recalled, “we had guitars.”
In the ’60s, though, music evolved at an almost breakneck pace.
The Beatles packed a lifetime of innovation into seven years. In 27 months, the Beach Boys catapulted from “Fun, Fun, Fun” to “God Only Knows.”
As Jefferson’s first rock band, the Bushmen in 1964 had shock and awe on their side. By the time Elm Street Grocery popped up in 1967, a band needed bona-fide chops to convincingly cover the hits of the day, which were becoming jazzier, funkier and more complex.
In other words, it was a good time to be a band geek.
Elm Street Grocery — which started out as the Chessmen, then the Lynx — spun out of Jack Oatts’ legendary jazz band at Jefferson Community High School.
Hance, who played trombone in the school band, found himself now playing trombone in Elm Street Grocery when he wasn’t needed on guitar or organ.
With Arbuckle on tenor sax, Jim Oatts on trumpet and, eventually, brother Dick Oatts on alto sax, Elm Street Grocery boasted a teenage horn section that did honest-to-God justice to Blood, Sweat and Tears’ “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy.”
And that instrumental arrangement of “Eleanor Rigby” that opens the newly found recording? How old were these kids again?
“The drummer you hear on the tape is 13 years old,” Hance said.
That would be Steve Arbuckle, Rick’s younger brother, ironically playing the same set of drums used by Dave Baller in the Bushmen.
Before heading off to college, the Bushmen divested themselves of equipment. Rick Arbuckle ended up with David Williamson’s Fender Jazzmaster.
Elm Street Grocery even got themselves a real Bushman, too — Banister played bass in the Bushmen, but later joined Elm Street Grocery on guitar his final year of high school.
Bassist Hank Davis, a member of the Class of ’68, was the one who most often selected Elm Street Grocery’s repertoire, drawing from what must have been the best collection of 45s in town.
“He really had an ear,” Rick Arbuckle said.
Davis brought to the table gritty Southern soul (Eddie Floyd’s epic “Knock on Wood,” along with tunes by Sam and Dave), shimmering Tamla-Motown sides (Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight”) and a bucket’s worth o’ James Brown funk that no white-bread band from rural Iowa had any business covering.
And, yet, there they are, honking their bad selves through “Licking Stick” and taking extended solos on JB’s “I Got the Feelin’.”
They did, in fact, have that feelin’ — they worked by ear.
“It was listen to it and learn it,” Hance said.
Working with Des Moines audio engineer Bob Economaki, Hance whittled his tapes down to a 53-minute set.
“Fifty-three minutes is probably more than you want to listen to anyway,” he joked. “That’s enough to bring back a flood of memories.”
The audio quality never quite rises above that of a decent bootleg, but that’s not the point.
“It sounded far better than I would’ve thought,” Hance said.
After nearly a half-century, certain details — like who actually recorded the show — are now lost to time.
Arbuckle believes Bill McGregor recorded that night’s show, but that his microphones were a tad too sensitive for Elm Street Grocery’s onslaught.
“I don’t think he was prepared to record such a loud band,” Arbuckle said.
The band’s name, by the way, came from a Mom and Pop convenience store of the same name that had recently closed up shop (located where Dairy Queen’s parking lot is today).
Names like the Chessmen and the Lynx were out, but Elm Street Grocery had a nice ring to it in the era of Chicago Transit Authority.
Even the gear had evolved.
Elm Street Grocery boasted solid-state Kustom amps covered in sparkly white Naugahyde. (“The Mellow Sound of Space Age Design,” the company touted.)
The band stepped effortlessly into the void created when the Bushmen disbanded in 1966, playing the same circuit of ballrooms and ISU frat and sorority parties. (“That,” Hance recalled with a smile, “was a whole nother education for us.”)
They also appeared on Bill Riley’s “Teen Town ’68” TV program.
“It was foundational,” Rick Arbuckle said. “What a way to learn music.”
Dick Oatts ended up in New York City, where he remains the artistic director of the Grammy-winning Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.
Jim Oatts, who recently relocated to Philadelphia, toured with Wilson Pickett, joined Stan Kenton’s orchestra and for years led the Des Moines Big Band. He also was a member in the ’70s of Chase, the jazz-rock band on Epic Records that came to a horrific end in a soybean field near Jackson, Minn., with a 1974 plane crash that killed leader Bill Chase and several members of the band.
As for Arbuckle, he went West in 1978.
“The last winter I had in Iowa was it,” he said. “It didn’t get above freezing the whole month of January.”
He ventured to Los Angeles “dead set on performing music.”
While assembling a rough cut of “American Beauty,” an assistant editor on the film inserted Arbuckle’s composition “Tenderfoot,” a showcase for his C-melody saxophone recorded by his band, Zen Dadio, into the movie.
Director Sam Mendes, who later won the Oscar for best director, took a liking to it and it stayed.
“They only used 56 seconds of it,” Arbuckle said, “but I was very grateful.”
He still gets residuals.
When in Hollywood, you may as well work in Hollywood — Arbuckle worked as an assistant editor on such movies as “About Last Night” (with Brat Packers Rob Lowe and Demi Moore) and served for years as a dialogue editor on the hit Nickelodeon cartoon “Rugrats.”
In the late ’90s, he was asked to play a bit of flute for what became the theme song to an animated series being developed called “SpongeBob SquarePants.”
The recording engineer explained the premise of the show.
“We both laughed about it,” Arbuckle said, “thinking that it probably would get canceled after the first season.”
So, yeah, you know that part in the opening where SpongeBob plays his nose like a flute? Arbuckle played that original melody.
“Hollywood is an interesting, small community,” he said. “You can be an unsung hero and do a lot of cool stuff. I was fine with that.”
Now a born-again Christian in Orange County who works at a middle school as a special education aide, Arbuckle continues to do studio work when not playing in the church praise band.
The lesson of Elm Street Grocery is that we should perhaps place a higher value on our high school music programs.
What’s crystal clear from even Hance’s muddy-sounding audio document is that for one glorious moment, the pecking order reversed and the band geeks ruled.
“Quite simply,” Hance said, “it’s something you’ll remember forever.”
Elm Street Grocery: Who was who
The lineup fluctuated, but the following Jefferson High students were members of Elm Street Grocery between 1967 and 1969:
Rick Arbuckle (guitar, sax)
Steve Arbuckle (drums)
Bruce (Smith) Banister (guitar)
Hank Davis (bass)
Steve Hance (guitar, trombone, organ)
Jim Heath (organ)
Jim Oatts (trumpet)
Dick Oatts (sax)
Scott Sutherland (drums, organ, lead vocals)
Elm Street live: Visit our website, beeherald.com, to hear an excerpt of the newly unearthed tape of Elm Street Grocery.