Tales for Another Day: Night of the Badfinger
Music, much like politics and religion, is an amazingly personal proposition. People will argue vehemently on the merit of one particular artist or the detractions of a certain group and there is usually very little that can be done to sway them otherwise. I have always believed that every person has that one special musical artist or group that speaks to them personally, the one that seems to sum up the mysteries of life for them just a little more concisely than anyone else. Some artists, like Elvis, or groups like The Beatles, always struck me as too broad in their appeal to condense down to the level of any one person. For me, that one group is Badfinger.
In the wake of the rock and roll revolution caused by The Beatles, a fellow English group called The Iveys would receive a further boost from their famous countrymen. In 1968, at the behest of their trusted roadie Mal Evens, The Beatles signed The Iveys to their fledgling Apple Records label. After one single and sparsely distributed album, The Iveys underwent both a personnel and name change. When the dust settled, the newly christened Badfinger enjoyed a string of hits and solid selling albums for Apple. Following a miscalculated move to Warner Brothers Records in 1972, the band suffered a decline in popularity and personal mismanagement. This latter problem would eventually lead to a lawsuit and caused Warner Brothers to pull one recently released Badfinger album from the store shelves and cancel another that was almost completed. While the group was eventually vindicated of any wrong doings themselves, this turmoil effectively ended their recording career and contributed to the tragic suicide deaths of two members.
By the time I discovered Badfinger in the late 70’s, their heyday on Apple was long over and none of their records were in print. Thanks to the miracle of flea markets and used vinyl dealers, I was able to scrape together a passable collection of their works and proceeded to wear the grooves off the plastic. I didn’t know much about the history of the group at the time, except that two of the core members were dead. The possibility of seeing them perform live, never even entered my mind.
A few years later in 1990, I was wrapping up college but still went home to Ocala for regular weekend furloughs. It was on one of these visits that I happened across an ad in the local Ocala Star Banner newspaper for an event that seemed more than a little incongruent. Stillwaters Saloon on Highway 200 was well known as an establishment that specialized in rural charm and country music, a genre I had never acquired much of a taste for. When I saw the advertisement indicating that Badfinger would be playing there on the coming Monday night, June 26, it just didn’t seem right. I didn’t even know that a version of Badfinger was touring and here they were, supposedly at a local country and western bar. It was very much like the famous scene in The Blues Brothers when they perform at Bob’s Country Bunker!
Unable to trust what I was reading, I called Stillwaters that evening and the conversation I had with the initially bemused and eventually annoyed woman who answered the phone went something like this:
Stillwaters Employee: Stillwaters, how may I help you?
ED: Hi, I saw your ad in the newspaper about Badfinger performing there on Monday night.
SE: Yes, that’s right.
ED: This is the rock group Badfinger?
ED: This is the 70’s rock group Badfinger?
SE: Um, yes.
ED: This is the 70’s British rock group Badfinger?
SE: Yes sir, I believe this is the same group.
ED: This is the 70’s British rock group Badfinger that recorded on The Beatles Apple record label?
SE: Sir, I have told you all I know, I believe this is the rock band Badfinger but that’s all I know, OK?
ED: OK, thanks!
I still wasn’t convinced of what I was going to see on Monday night but I was convinced I was going to see it! Staying over at my parent’s house an extra day was no problem and I would only have to miss one class but I was going to need a creative story for why I would not be at work that day. I eventually settled on the cherished classic of “car trouble” but assured my employer it would be rectified by Tuesday.
The next phone call I made was to my best friend and fellow Beatles’ fan, John Hickey, to inform him of the development and enlist his participation. John, who was a student at the University of Florida at the time, was also home for the weekend. He and I had been introduced to one another about ten years earlier on the first day of high school. John had just transferred in from a different elementary school and was in a different home room. The person seated next to me in my home room was a friend of his and, noting my Beatles t-shirt, told me he had someone to introduce me to at lunch that day. John and I exchanged pleasantries over the introduction and proceeded to ignore each other until the following year. It was then that we had sparked up another conversation, attended the movie Arthur together, and had been friends ever since. John didn’t quite share my level of enthusiasm for the Badfinger concert but he agreed it was an odd event for an Ocala country nightclub. He was in.
At approximately 8:15 the following Monday evening, John Hickey and I strolled into Stillwaters Saloon looking pretty much like the naïve early twenties college students we were. Any concern I had about being assaulted by shine swilling rednecks for failing to wear cowboy boots or a belt buckle of an appropriate size was alleviated as soon as we stepped inside. The band on stage, Gunfighter, sounded like they could be country music group from their name but was actually some type of Guns ‘N Roses tribute act wailing away at top decibel. The crowd was a pretty middle of the road mixture of all types and, even if John and I were not in the majority, we didn’t stick out too badly. Now the only thing I had to worry about getting assaulted that night was my ears!
As we sat at one of the small floor tables drinking cheap beer and wondering how much longer the act on stage would be opening, I noticed a familiar figure. In the back corner of a small side bar off to our left sat a lone gentleman. Even at a distance, he looked uncannily like a slightly older version of Badfinger drummer Mike Gibbons than I was accustomed to on my fifteen year old albums. After conferring quickly with John, who declined to join me in my fanaticism, I headed over to where he was sitting and introduced myself.
Gibbons seemed a little distant at first but invited me to join him after I verified his identity and professed myself as a fan of Badfinger. When I noticed his beer was about three quarters gone, I offered to buy him another and added one for myself even though I still had a relatively full one back at my table. We chatted briefly about the group and then I produced the two albums I had brought with me in the hopes of getting autographs. One was Straight Up, easily the best album Badfinger created but not without competition. After he signed over his photo on the cover, I pulled out the second album I had intentionally saved for last. This was a bootleg, on the not so cleverly titled Rotten Apple record label, of alternate versions of some of their songs and unreleased demos of others. The equally creatively titled Unreleased and Some Released double album was surprisingly good quality for a bootleg and featured a number of tracks unavailable elsewhere. Gibbons grudgingly inscribed it “It’s a boot – Mike Gibbons” lest I forget it’s less than reputable origins. He then excused himself as it was nearing show time but told me that the rest of the group usually signed autographs after the show.
Returning to my seat with half of my unofficial mission for the evening accomplished, I brought John up to speed and we settled in to the watch the main event. The group introduced as Badfinger consisted of the previously encountered Mr. Gibbons on drums and the easily recognizable Joey Molland playing bass and tackling most of the vocals. Joining them on stage were two younger members I did not recognize. One looked like a preppie, Randy Anderson as I would discover later, and the other, A. J. Nicholas, was dressed like a fifties greaser. While obviously considerably younger than their seasoned band mates, both musicians did justice to the music they played.
After opening with many of the Badfinger hits like Paul McCartney’s Come and Get It, Day After Day, and Without You, the band switched to some of the newer material I was familiar with from my “boot”. Two stand out songs, the rocker Vampire Wedding and the touching tribute to fallen friends, Angels Like Us, would both find their way on to Molland’s solo albums but not for several years. After this brief but enjoyable side trip, Molland announced that they were going “back to the hits”. This included some of the expected songs like Money, Baby Blue, Carry on ‘Till Tomorrow, and Sweet Tuesday Morning, but they also worked in a few lesser known later tracks like Hold On, The Dreamer, and my personal favorite, Icicles.
I was fairly impressed by the time the encore ended and the band made their farewells. As most of the sizable audience began to file out of the club, I headed in the opposite direction towards the stage. Joey Molland and Mike Gibbons were nowhere to be seen but Anderson and Nicholas were mingling with the remaining patrons. Since both musicians were represented on the Unreleased album, I took the opportunity to have them sign it. Neither had seen it before and both were fascinated by the track list, especially the ones they played on. After hanging around for another twenty minutes or so, I finally asked A.J. Nicholas if he thought the other members were coming out. He told me he wasn’t sure but if they weren’t they were around back in the tour bus.
Even at this young age, I was quickly learning not to pass up opportunities or at least excuses to make opportunities, when they arose. John and I headed out the front door of the Stillwaters Saloon and swung around back to the large vehicle that had to be the aforementioned bus. There was one security person standing guard by the entrance so I decided to try the direct approach. I held out my albums like any good fan and asked if it would be possible to get Mr. Molland to sign them. The guard eyed us both up and down, told us to wait, and walked inside. I assumed he was going to ask Joey Molland if he was coming out to sign autographs or if he would sign a couple of albums for some star struck kid if he brought them back. I was almost floored a moment later when the guard returned with a simple invitation of “He says come on back”!
John and I exchanged glances and decided to act like we went into rock stars’ tour buses all the time and this was just another Monday night for us. I honestly had no idea what to expect and my mind immediately flashed to some of the documentaries I had seen on tours of groups like The Rolling Stones, where half naked women were constantly running down hallways and joints were passed around like candy. Before I could work myself up into too much of a misconception, I saw Joey Molland seated at a table in the bus and he motioned for us to come over and sit with him. The bubble of my media fueled imagination burst with an almost audible pop as I realized that, sitting in his Hawaiian shirt and massaging his tired stocking feet, he looked more like my father than some decadent rock god!
We spent the next fifteen to twenty minutes excitedly chatting with Joey Molland. Most of my questions centered on the whereabouts of some of the early members of the band and the possibility of any new records. Joey answered my questions but continually circled back to his disappointment with the sound system in the club and his placement of the blame for this on the promoters for not checking it out in advance of their performance. We continually reassured him that, as members of the audience, they sounded fine to us. Finally, not wishing to overstay our welcome, I ask Joey to sign my two albums prior to our departure. He was happy to sign Straight Up but recognized the bootleg and flatly refused. He said that the recent demos on this album had been recorded off a radio show he had done and even though I pointed out that this was the only way fans could currently get copies of this music, it was a no sale on the autograph. I would not have traded the previous few minutes of conversation for a hundred Joey Molland signatures so I still left extremely happy.
John and I talked on the drive home about how sad it was that Badfinger had been shot down in their prime and suffered such personal and professional tragedy. Even without the incredibly talented Pete Ham and Tom Evens, Molland and Gibbons still managed to rock the house. Of course if they had continued as a major band, they would have never been playing at a small country nightclub in Ocala on a Monday night and I would have never been able to sit and talk with two of their members as we had just done.
In 2009, almost twenty years later, I crossed paths with Joey Molland again. This time it was back stage in Daytona Beach, Florida when he was touring with Hippiefest. I took that opportunity to tell him just how much it had meant to me to have him invite us in and talk with us all those years ago and his love of the fans had clearly not diminished. Mike Gibbons passed away in 2005 but I also met his widow, Ellie, that night and was able to tell her how much meeting her husband had meant to me. Molland’s performance that evening was a lot of fun but nothing would ever come close to the Night of the Badfinger for me!
To anyone interested in learning more about Badfinger, I highly recommend the book Without You: The Tragic Story of Badfinger by Dan Matovina. It is both thorough and factual in documenting the rise, fall and perseverance of this troubled band.