|It began in late 1969. Guitarist Rick Levy C’71 and his childhood friend, bassist Beau Jones, had recently graduated from an Allentown-area garage band called the Limits, which covered mostly simple, catchy songs. (Their manic version of “Suzie Q” is as fun as it is raw.) Though the Limits continued to play after Levy came to Penn in the fall of ’67, they disbanded when Jones was drafted into the Army and stationed at a (supposedly) top-secret missile base in Clementon, New Jersey. Eventually he was allowed to live off-base, and soon found himself in a house full of crazed college students at 1308 Rodman Street. One of his roommates was Levy, who had been drifting in and out of bands, including the bluesy Mrs. Wigg’s Cabbage Patch.
The pair started a new band: Uncle Beau’s Day Camp, which quickly became Wax. The original direction of the band was folk rock (à la Fairport Convention), with flute player Steve Morris C’70, Limits drummer Ned Earley, and lead vocalist Susan Hamlin CW’72.
The Rodman Street house may have been a dump at the edge of a seedy neighborhood—Hamlin remembers the winter wind “blowing the snow in through the cracks in the kitchen walls”—but it spawned some lifelong friendships. One housemate was a Daily Pennsylvanian writer and 34th Street editor named Arnie Holland C’71 L’74, who would become Wax’s “sixth member” from inception to resurrection. He booked the band on campus, traveled with them off campus, did the bulk of their publicity, and was their No. 1 fan.
“There were all kinds of people coming in and out, and wild parties going on all the time,” recalls Holland. At one point, the non-stop partying prompted one of the roommates to move out, whereupon David Kagan C’70, who had been the lead singer for Mrs. Wigg’s Cabbage Patch, moved in. Kagan, who went by Cohen in those days, was a little older and a tad more intellectual than his new bandmates, versed in literature and classical music. He also upped the ante on the debauchery.
“When David moved in the parties got even wilder,” says Levy, an assertion that no one challenges.
One day several members of the band got arrested a few doors down for “crossing the street and looking like a bunch of freaks,” in Holland’s words. The Rizzo-era cops rounded them up, tossed them in the back of a paddy wagon, and hauled them off to the South Philly police station. “Levy and Kagan were nervous, but I was terrified,” says Holland. “As usual, Beau was as cool as a cucumber.” When Holland finally got back to Rodman Street, he opened the door and saw that his LSAT scores had arrived in the mail.
“I took it as a cosmic sign and decided on the spot that I would become a lawyer and defend my friends,” he says. “I would never let anything like that happen again.”
One of the gigs he booked for the band—behind Houston Hall, in the area now known as Wynn Commons—paid immediate dividends. In the audience was a soft-spoken, ambitious 18-year-old from Gladwyne named John David Kalodner, who would go on to sign some of the biggest names in pop music, including AC/DC, Phil Collins, Cher, Aerosmith, and Foreigner. He was a regular at Hassle Records at 20th and Sansom streets, an area known as Sansom Village, which was the closest thing to Haight-Ashbury that Philadelphia had. After the gig Kalodner persuaded Hassle owner Bill Sisca to come over to 1308 Rodman to meet the guys and hear them play. The two promptly became Wax’s managers, and their talent, if not their experience, represented a major coup for the upstart band. Sisca was only 21, but he was already running a small chain of record stores. Moreover, he truly believed—as did Kalodner—a managerial trait that no amount of experience can replace.
“Billy had a way of talking about the band that would really get people excited,” says Levy. Plus, “he was an ex-Marine with balls the size of a battleship.”
Sisca and Kalodner were “focused on a record deal from the get-go,” Levy says, and “wanted the band to move in a more commercial rock direction, which was happening naturally anyway.”
By then Ned Earley had moved to New York, and he and his future wife, Sue Hamlin, left the band. So did Steve Morris. At that point Levy recruited Kagan, a natural talent with charisma and a powerful, wide-ranging voice, to be the new singer/frontman. Kagan knew that he could “sing and project”; he just needed the right set of circumstances and musicians. Given that his other career option at that point was becoming a substitute teacher, it didn’t take much persuading.
The next two additions were Rob Hyman C’72 (keyboards) and Rick Chertoff C’72 (drums), who had met over a biology-lab dissection and were playing in a rootsy blues-rock band called Buckwheat. Both say that it was Kalodner who asked them to join up. Chertoff, who had lined up a summer job driving a dry-cleaning truck, says he told Kalodner that if he could get them a summer’s worth of gigs, he would join. As it turned out, Kalodner “had a very organized, ambitious plan, so I said sure.”
“Rob and Rick came in and the band changed,” says Levy. “That’s when the magic started—and we just took off from there.”
Kalodner and Sisca delivered some impressive bookings: the Electric Factory (with the likes of John Mayall, the Flamin’ Groovies, and Manfred Mann’s Earth Band); opening for the Byrds at Playhouse in the Park; playing for 25,000 people at the very first Earth Day celebration in Fairmount Park; and opening for Chicago (the band) in Allentown (the city).
Yet their performances on campus were, in a way, the most quintessential. Doris Cochran-Fikes CW’72, now director of alumni secondary-school committees at Penn, has vivid memories of Wax playing the Locust Walk fraternity scene, and of the crudely painted sheets advertising their appearances hanging from the windows.
“They would set up their gear on Friday afternoons along the old Beta House wall that campus organizations used to paint to advertise coming events,” she recalls. “The Green would be crowded with Penn students wearing bell bottoms and work shirts, playing Frisbee and just hanging out.” With bandana-wearing canines scampering about, cheap wine flowing from brown-bagged bottles, and the smell of marijuana in the air, Wax played “magnificently loudly, keeping us rocking and bonded,” she adds fondly. “They were very talented musicians, and Penn students loved them especially more because they were ours.”
“Wax was very much a Penn band,” says Holland. “In that era music meant a lot in all of our lives, and Wax was the hottest band on campus. When Robbie and Rick came in, it became something else: Wax was the hottest band in Philly. We all thought it would explode—and it almost did.”
FEATURE: When Wax Was Hot By Geoff Ginsberg
| ©2010 The Pennsylvania
Last modified 8/25/10