I got to know Jerry Grant, B.J Lobermann, and Don Challenger gradually through the late seventies as they centered around my [then] favorite record store, I Like It Like That Records, on Main Street, Newark, Delaware. I remember the buzz in 1979 when their band was finally ready to play out. When I heard them I was blown away by their song choices. Their sound was instantly lovable, genuine, infectious, and danceable. Before then I hadn’t known them as musicians. But from that point on I will always remember them as:

Don’t Call Me Up” (5.2MB)
Jump Up” (4.8MB)
Right Click and “Save Target As”

Don Challenger: “I think the key to the Commotions, for better and for worse, is that we were music fans first and musicians second. For the most part, the band was a bunch of disgruntled 30-year-olds who were sick of hearing Journey and Foreigner and Queen every time we turned on the radio. We sat around and bitched about the sorry state of white pop music for most of the ’70s, but it didn’t dawn on us to do anything about it until we heard Elvis Costello and the Clash and the Ramones, Prince, Talking Heads, even Tom Petty.

At some point we said, “Hey, we know those three chords. Let’s get some beer and play.” As Raji, Vince Vaughan’s character, says in “Be Cool,” “Don’t hate, participate!”

The band “formed” – and that’s making it sound much more organized than it really was – in the summer of 1979. Jerry Grant, Cecilia Friend and I had been rehearsing off and on with a Newark legend in his own right, guitarist and luthier Bob “The Boss” Ross. I was doing most of the singing, which was the kiss of death right there. And we were doing a weird spectrum of stuff – I recall Buddy Holly, New York Dolls and the Stranglers. Find the common denominator. Meanwhile, Jim Grant had been working on original songs with Steve Hedgpeth, who would later assume the nom de guerre Cliff Anger. They would go sit in one of those tiny piano rehearsal rooms at the University of Delaware, working out chord progressions and lyrics.
Nobody quite had the goods to start a serious band, but we’d gotten up off the couch, and some good ideas were starting to float around. At some point we embraced the obvious and put the pieces together: Cliff on vocals and guitar, Jerry and Jim Grant on keyboards and vocals, Don on lead guitar and vocals, Cecilia on bass, and a drummer to be named later.

At first we practiced in the front room of the house Jerry, B.J. Lobermann and I rented on Wilbur Street in Newark. We had a cheap box fan going in the summer heat, lots of trips to the fridge. Eventually we moved rehearsals to I Like It Like That, where we would set up at the back of the store after closing. We didn’t have a drummer for a couple of months; we did hold one or two half-assed auditions, but at some point we decided to build a song list before we committed to someone on the pots and pans.

A few things were obvious pretty quickly. The first was that our equipment really sucked. Cliff’s guitar had four or five strings on it. Jerry was using a Rheem combo organ that he’d had since high school at Salesianum – a budget model even back in the day, but by this time Rheem was making industrial plumbing products or something like that. I had the amp that I’d gotten for Christmas as a sophomore at Smyrna High School. I don’t think anyone even owned a microphone. We eventually pieced some odds and ends together, but we remained resolutely low-tech in a rack-mounted, synth-pop era, and that was probably part of the band’s appeal.

Second, we didn’t play very well. I was a rhythm player struggling to play lead. Cliff initially played in a style that Brad Fish – the Young Rumblers’ original drummer who also drummed with Cliff and me in a later group – once called “Mr. Cowboy guitar.” Jerry was chording from memory on the keyboards, and Cecilia, who was then my often-girlfriend and is now my wife, was literally learning to play bass as the band evolved. The only real musician at that point was Jim, who in the early going spent a lot of time just telling everyone else where to put their fingers.

But the third thing was that we had a musical chemistry, and it was clear right out of the gate. It wasn’t necessarily a good mix on paper. Jerry was, as all serious regional music fans know, an unreconstructed scholar of soul and R-and-B and co-host of the “Hip City, Part 2″ radio show on what is now WVUD. Cliff was a classic Beatles, Mersey-beat junkie, with voice and songs and looks to match; if he’d been a few years younger, he would have been the lead in “That Thing You Do.” Jim was rooted in soul but loved the keyboard-based new wave of Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson. And I was kind of scattered across the map.
But in fact, all those impulses and influences had a magic center, at least for a while. We all instinctively seemed to understand the relationship between the best punk and new wave music and the conventions of classic pop, rock and soul. This was a band that could cover Prince, the Clash and the Young Rascals in the same set, or do a medley of the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and Elvis Costello’s “Oliver’s Army,” or add a little thrash to classics like “Tossin’ and Turnin’” and “Great Balls of Fire.” We were fans, not musicians. We had big ears, and we were pretty fearless.

We also found that we actually could perform classic rock and soul – as opposed to only making a punk gesture at it – because we had four singers. Cliff was clearly the Caruso del gruppo, but Jim, Jerry and I all took a few leads, and as a quartet we were capable of some really good harmonies. One of my fondest Commotions memories is not from a gig at all, but of singing four-part harmonies on Garnet Mimms’ “A Quiet Place” in rehearsal. I wonder if that exists on tape somewhere.

o o o

When school started in 1979, we were ready to search for a drummer. We posted an ad on the bulletin board in I Like It Like That, and a guy named Mark Minutola bit on it very quickly. I was working at the counter when he came up. I immediately rejected him as far too good-looking to be a serious candidate, but cooler heads prevailed and we auditioned him.

Mark was a decade younger than the rest of us, and he was a fraternity guy, while the rest of us were more like the guys that fraternity guys beat up. But it was an odd fit that turned out to be a perfect fit. It felt good right away. Mark didn’t bring in double bass drums and 16 tom-toms or want to do long drum solos with flaming sticks. That scored major points with us, since our idea of a great drummer was Charlie Watts. Mark was a sharp timekeeper, and he gave the band a major shot of energy from the first moment.
What he really wanted was to play, and if that required him to sign on with these old farts who could at least make it through a two-hour practice without getting stoned or starting a fistfight, he was good to go. He shared a lot of our musical tastes, and, like the rest of the band, he understood that any success the Commotions might have would depend on their capacity to rehearse, not on their ability to jam or solo.
Unlike the rest of the band, Mark was easygoing and didn’t get involved in musical or personal squabbles. He was a cool breeze in the sometimes superheated air of rehearsals. Band girlfriends also mentioned prominently and repeatedly that Mark’s youth and good looks would make the band a stronger draw for a college crowd. The band’s aging power center sternly dismissed these arguments, of course, preferring to hire Mark solely on the basis of his musical abilities.

That made a band of six, but in fact it’s crucial to add one more from the start. The Beatles had George Martin, the Stones had Andrew Loog Oldham and Ian Stewart, and the Commotions had B.J. Lobermann. It’s only fair to call him the seventh Commotion, a designation that has no doubt haunted his career in the music industry ever since.

B.J. was, as Newarkers of a certain age will recall, the face of I Like It Like That Records for the first seven years of its existence, as well as Jerry Grant’s on-the-air partner at “Hip City, Part 2.” B.J. also often worked the soundboard for the Commotions and served as the band’s resident critic and advisor. This is an ill-defined task, but in B.J.’s hands it was something of an art form. An arched eyebrow here, an ominous chuckle there might force a song off the set list and into the trash can, or vice versa. When a new tune was emerging, a wrinkled nose from B.J. could be ruinous, a toe tap an accolade.

By the fall of 1979 we had a songlist of 20 or 25 tunes, but we resisted jumping into the club scene too quickly. We were still pretty ragged, and we didn’t have a name. Frontrunners at that point were Cliff and the Sheerdrops, the Venetian Deaf, and Bad in Bed. Thank God we didn’t have to resort to any of them. One night that fall – it may have been Halloween – George Thorogood stopped by at a Wilbur Street party and dubbed the band the Commotions. To this day I don’t know if he’d been saving it or just pulled it off the top of his head, but it seemed right. It perfectly captured the garage-band pleasures of the group. When we heard it, we did a kind of collective Marv Albert: “Yesssss!” By the end of ’79, the Commotions were ready to rock.

The Commotions actually had quite a short run, less than two years, which is one reason it’s so surprising when someone remembers us as anything more than a vague blur. We played our first paying gig at Mel’s Place on Route 40 on Christmas Night, 1980, and our final show at the Cellar on Market Street in Wilmington on July 9, 1982. There was also a single reunion gig at the Deer Park late in 1983. We covered turf from Philadelphia’s South Street, where we played regularly at J.C. Dobbs, to Baltimore, where we competed with hardcore punk and glam bands at the Marble Bar.

On that front we owe major props, and probably several hundred bucks for gas, to Rich Horsley, our tireless and ever-bemused roadie. Rich hauled our stuff around in an ancient, frightening, powder-blue panel truck. He once worked for a professional moving company, and he had reached a kind of Zen state of beatific enlightenment regarding the timely movement of band apparatus. His stock reply to any absurd request was, “I don’t see why we couldn’t cause that to happen.”

I can remember riding down Route 40 toward Baltimore one night – we never took I-95 because the truck couldn’t manage interstate cruising speed – and having an 8-inch gap in the floor literally open between my feet as Rich negotiated a curve. I looked up at him with terror in my eyes, and he grinned and said, “No problem. She’s just … breathing.” That truck is probably operating today as a taxi on the streets of Mogadishu.

But Newark and Wilmington were home – particularly the Deer Park, the Stone Balloon and the Glass Mug in Newark, and the Cellar and the Flight Deck in Wilmington. In our year and a half of existence, I’d guess that many more than half our shows were in those five rooms. On good nights they were claustrophobic, chaotic, oxygen-depleted – and that was just the bandstand.

We also opened for Thorogood and the Destroyers on several occasions, including a memorable July 4, 1981, concert at the State Theater in Newark and a November 1981 University of Delaware concert on their 50-50 tour – 50 states in 50 days. George and all the Destroyers were always gracious in their support of the Commotions – at a time when they were also at their commercial peak, opening for the Stones and breaking “Bad to the Bone” – and that kindness is one of my cherished memories. I’d like to figure some way that it was a tradeoff for those guys, but in fact it was just their generosity.

Closest to our hearts, though, was the Deer Park, where for a year or so in 1981 Commotions gigs were just a phenomenon. Every time we played, the place would be a maniacal, frenzied asylum of churning, screaming, sweating bodies.

It was inexplicable, some sort of enchanted zone where the crowd energy would be so intense that we could do no wrong. Management would sometimes lock the doors to keep people out. You couldn’t get to the bar, you couldn’t get to the bathroom, you couldn’t hold a conversation. We’d finish a set and stagger out the doors at the back of the bandstand to towel down and fend off oxygen starvation. Those shows were closer to athletic events than musical performances.

We were never really able to take that kind of energy and focus on the road in a sustained way. We did some good shows here and there, but except for Mark, who was a University of Delaware student, we all worked. So it was very difficult to handle the kind of regular travel required to build a strong out-of-town following.

We also had some plain bad luck. We tried for months to work our way into the Philly-area Cabaret clubs, and in the spring of 1982 we finally got a weeknight job at the club in West Chester. We went in ready to slay some dragons, thinking it was going to be a breakthrough gig. But the night we played it just absolutely poured, the streets flooded, and there were about seven people in the place. When I tried to book a return engagement, the guy who booked bands for the club got cold feet, we ended up quarreling, and that was our first and last Cabaret booking.

That hurt us at a time when we really needed a new venue and an attitude check. A lot of friction had been surfacing at that point – tensions over musical direction, personality clashes – and a regular spot in the Philly rotation might have helped us cut through the psychic clutter and refocus. When we lost that chance, largely through my own temper and obstinacy, we were adrift. We broke up just a few weeks later.
On the other hand, the Commotions – except for Mark, maybe – were just not built for the long, strange trip of rock careerism anyway. I used to joke that the Commotions were like a meteor, except for the light and the heat. We didn’t have the polish to play well on off nights. We didn’t have a lot of the intermediate gears that bands with longevity need to survive. We had a chaotic democracy rather than a musical chain of command. We never developed the versatility to adapt to different audiences.

Those first Christmas-week gigs at Mel’s Place in 1980, for instance, were four nights that felt like four years. Mel’s was essentially a biker bar, and the patrons there regarded, say, Van Halen and AC/DC as light pop. We came in trying to sing Beatlesque harmonies, and the ladies and gentlemen of Mel’s did not regard that as a satisfactory musical experience. Fortunately, we had enough loyal friends there diluting the irritation to prevent things from reaching critical mass, but it was occasionally ugly. At one point somebody threw a rock through the front window at the bandstand.

We also had to back up Johnny Neel on an extended jam – I believe it was “Bring It on Home to Me.” It was just meant to be a good-time holiday thing, of course, and Johnny is so talented and stage-savvy that all we really had to do was get out of his way. But we couldn’t even do that. It was our first gig. We were like the junior-high woodwind section on stage with James Brown. To anyone watching, it must have been absolutely hilarious. To us, it was petrifying. I’ll always wonder if it was Johnny who threw that rock.

o o o

No one should think too seriously about What It All Meant. I regard it in the way that other people probably regard their memories of high school sports – a lot of fun, a lot of bonding, but one should eventually proceed along life’s continuously fascinating highway without too much rearview-mirror action.

I do wish, though, that some of the band’s original material had some kind of permanent status. At one point or another we probably had 20 or 25 original songs in play, and many of them – particularly Cliff’s – were quite good. “Regina,” “Silent Movie,” “Kids in Clubs,” “Don’t Call Me Up,” “Turn and Look the Other Way,” “Jump Up and Dance,” “The Girl’s in Trouble” were really fine pop songs, and I think they’d stand the test of time. There were a few others as well, particularly Jim’s “Devastated”, which was the only song of ours to be released commercially.

“Devastated” was actually written during those Jim-and-Cliff collaborations before the Commotions existed. We had submitted it for a WSTW contest before we ever played in public, doing a rough two-track version with Neil Tillotson of Bad Sneakers on drums. When the song was chosen for the 1981 album “WSTW Album Project One,” we got to re-record it – by this time Mark was in the band – at Kern Recording Studio in St. Georges.

Of course, every neighborhood band has a video and four CDs these days, but 25 years ago recording was a much more expensive proposition. There are a couple of live tapes and rehearsal tapes of Commotions originals floating around, but the quality tends to be pretty bad. Our friend James Hovanec did a great cassette collection many years ago titled “Three Chords, No Waiting,” but it combined originals and covers. And I have a whole box of reel-to-reel studio tapes that have never been mixed down. That would be a lot of fun to do if we had the money for studio time and someone had the time and patience to piece it all together.

I’m really thinking of the songs themselves rather than the performances, though. Most of the good songs, at least in their raw, original form, were Cliff’s, but the band often had a substantial hand in fleshing them out and arranging them, and I think we can all look back on them with some pride. I’d love to see them published and out there in the musical marketplace.

o o o

The Commotions were an odd mix. We crossed generations, we crossed musical genres, we wrote some very good songs, we sang well, and we never lost sight of the fact that our first job was to put feet on the dance floor. But all that worked only because we had an incredibly loyal and supportive group of Delaware friends and fans who would come out to see and hear us every time we made a racket. Whatever our problems and illusions, and they were legion, I don’t think we ever got complacent about that.
On many, many nights our fans and friends simply carried us. We were reminded of how dependent we were on those people every time we left town and ended up in some roadhouse playing for three drunk guys with their faces on the bar and a transvestite who kept yelling for Jethro Tull. The Commotions without Commotions fans were just another struggling band.

But when they believed, we believed. I have a memory of standing onstage at the Deer Park and closing my eyes to hear and feel the crowd at the end of a great night. It was so loud and so close that it had a physical impact. It was like standing next to a hurtling train. I recall telling myself, “Remember this moment, take this in, because you will never experience anything like it again.” And I was right. I never have.”

Today Steve Hedgepeth is TV Editor of the Star Ledger (Newark, NJ).

Jerry Grant can still be heard every Saturday night (6-9PM) on WVUD 91.3FM (www.wvud.org) with his “Hip City (Part 2)” Soul Music Show. He was elected to Newark City Council in 1994 and served 3 terms (6 years) and earned a law degree in 1999, and now works for the Democrats in the Delaware House of Representatives.

B.J. Lobermann left the Newark area in the late eighties to pursue a music business career in NYC where he was hired by Virgin Records as consultant for independent music acts and worked his way up to Vice President. Today, after leaving Virgin Records, he is in sales and marketing at TC Music, LLC.

Mark Minutola is IT Security Manager for Planned Parenthood of Delaware.

Don Challenger is college editor at Hamilton College in Clinton, NY. He is co-author, with Cecilia Friend, of the college journalism text Contemporary Editing and has been working on both his first album and his first novel for 22 years.

Cecilia Friend is a professor of journalism at Utica College in Utica, NY. She is co-author of the forthcoming book Online Journalism Ethics, and, with Don Challenger, Contemporary Editing. She still enjoys wearing the occasional pair of funny glasses.

Special thanks to: Don Challenger (whose excellent writings to me about the band were all I needed to say exactly what I wanted to say), Jerry Grant, Steve Hedgepeth (aka Cliff Anger), Cecilia Friend, & Monika Bullette for their great contributions to this article.

This entry was posted in bands, Legends of Newark Rock, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.

Browse by Topic