Midi Onodera

An interview with Rick Novak & D. A. McDowell from the Sidewalk Skipper Band

Around 1984, I was working at an artist-run center for experimental film in Toronto. I was the equipment coordinator and maintained the equipment and oversaw bookings for our limited editing facilities. We had a large pile of film stock that we used for editing fill and I found myself sorting through the footage and hoarding away some gems. One of these films was a 1960s music “video” featuring five young guys with paisley shirts, peace medallions and long hair. I tucked the film away and didn’t give it a second thought.

Skip forward 30+ years. I found the footage again and decided that 2014 was the year I would create a series of “found footage” videos for my website. I “shazamed” the music and discovered the name of the song and the artists: the “Sidewalk Skipper Band” from Wisconsin. I tried to locate someone from the band to let them know I had this footage. Unfortunately I wasn’t successful in tracking anyone down, but found different psychedelic music sites in my research. When we posted the film we emailed those sites to let them know it was out there. Shortly after, I received an email from Rick Novak, a member of the band.

Over the next few months Rick and I corresponded and I asked him if he would like to do an interview for all those psychedelic music fans. He agreed and also put me in touch with D.A. McDowell. I am happy to report that the original film has been finally sent back home and in the process I discovered a bit more about that time in music history. My thanks and appreciation to Rick and D.A.

— Midi Onodera

Midi: When and how did the band get started?

Rick: D.A., Joe and Brian got together in the summer of 1967 and set it up. D.A. called me in July of that year and asked me to come to Milwaukee from Chicago and meet the guys. We clicked and the band was formed.

Midi: How old were you and the other members?

Rick: D.A. and I were 23; I believe Joe was 22 and Brian 21.

Midi: Did you know each other from school?

Rick: D.A. and I met the first week of college at Marquette University. We clicked immediately and joined a girl singer and a guy who played bongos and formed a folk group; we played weekends at a coffee house our entire freshman year, as well as some bigger clubs in Milwaukee and Chicago; we broke up at the beginning of our second year, and D.A. and I moved on to play in a rock band with a couple of other guys; D.A. and I started writing together and, eventually, formed a band with another fraternity brother, Chris ‘Duck’ Olsen on bass and friend on drums; that band, the Racquet Squad, turned into a pretty big deal at Marquette and we packed the club we played at every weekend during the school year; this is where D.A. and I really got our writing chops honed; we had gone down to Chicago to audition for Mercury Records and were talking to several record people when the band broke up because our bass player went back home to L.A. and we couldn’t replace him; during the following school year, D.A. and I kept playing here and there and writing together; it was during this time we wrote a song called “Sidewalk Skipper”.

Midi: How long was the band together and why did you split up?

Rick: I think we lasted about a year and a half; we weren’t really progressing, our primary backer at Capitol had kind of left us and I think Brian and Joe wanted to scale back; we returned to Milwaukee, but it wasn’t working.

Midi: What are some of your best memories of that time?

Rick: Recording at the Capitol studios in L.A., where so many iconic artists had done the same; being the “house band” at Gazzarri’s on Sunset Strip whenever we were in L.A.; opening for big-name acts in various venues around the country; living crazy in L.A.; just being a part of that late 60s vibe in the place where it was really happening; hearing our records on the air; being thin.

D.A.: When I was a Disk Jockey – folks would say: “D.A., you talk about Classic Rock like you really were there ” – Well I guess we were, we opened for “BuffaloSpringfield” “Chicago” “Steppenwolf”, “The Beach Boys” and were part of an era 1966,’67,’68 ’69 that was unique. In 1967, we (The SSB) were ‘wacky’ and humorous and light hearted, Rick was a really funny stage emcee.

Midi: The 50th anniversary of the Beatles arriving in America has been prominently featured in the media this past year, in the liner notes for the CD, “Book A Trip”, it states that the band was “unabashedly Beatles-influenced”, do you agree with this statement?

Rick: Anyone who was young and of fledgling status in rock music at that time was almost certainly influenced by the Beatles; the Fab Four opened up writers’ ears and minds to the endless possibilities of melodies and lyrics that were new, viable and vital; our music was the bright side of the genre; when we got into the mind-altering phase, we followed the positive side of the psychedelic vibe.

Midi: The Sidewalk Skipper Band was signed with Capitol Records, which also released some 1963 recordings of the Beatles but Capitol altered their tracks to make them more appealing to a US market. What kind of pressure did SSB face with Capitol Records?

Rick: Nothing like that; what we didn’t get was the right response to our plea to launch “Cynthia at the Garden” first.

Midi: The single of “Strawberry’s Tuesday” and “Cynthia at the Garden” was your first Capitol Records release. I understand this combination of these two songs was not your choice can you expand on this?

Rick: It would have been better to put one of our other songs on the “B” side of either Cynthia or Strawberry’s Tuesday and focus on either one of those songs; putting both on the same 45 split the appeal of the music to radio programmers and diluted the impact that a single-focused attack would have produced; this was confirmed to both D.A. and me by our producer some years later; he even apologized for it.

Midi: “Strawberry’s Tuesday” seems to have the most psychedelic overtones in terms of the lyrics and instrumentation. How did you write this song and what does “Strawberry’s Tuesday” mean?

Rick: “Strawberry’s Tuesday” was the result of dropping LSD and the awakening of the endless possibilities that mind expansion offered; the title means that, once Strawberry dropped acid and understood her potential, she would no longer be subjected to the shackles with which conservative society (at the time) bound her; the chord structure and opening peg twist that offered the sagging bass note were attempts to convey the sense of Disney’s hookah-smoking caterpillar into the melody and lyrics of a coming of age metaphor.

Midi: Is there a conflict in the title? I see that it’s listed on the single as “Strawberry Tuesday”.

Rick: Just a typo. The song is “Strawberry’s Tuesday”.

Midi: Both “Strawberry” and “Cynthia” can be read as having (psychedelic) drug references, was this intentional?

Rick: Absolutely. D.A. had sampled the hallucinogenic goodies, as well.

Midi: Can you talk about the film that you made for the song? Who was the director? Was this produced on your own or through Capitol Records?

Rick: The video, which was a very rare thing in those days, was a Capitol undertaking. I don’t know who the director was. Obviously, there should have been more shots of D.A.’s great guitar work and the other band members (especially during the bridge, which featured Joe and Brian singing the haunting slow section).

Midi: Who is the young girl in the film?

Rick: I haven’t a clue.

Midi: At that time, the exhibition venues for short music films were very limited, why did you make this and what was the release plan?

Rick: The only thing I can think of was our producer was heavily tied into helping the Beatles set up Apple Corps and liked the idea of a music video.

Midi: Music is really a reflection of the times we live in and in the 1960s, young people forced open the doors of social conventions, with their desire to experiment and question authority. “Counter culture” philosophies, drugs, the Vietnam War, were great influences in the social/cultural landscape of that time. How was SSB influenced by these elements?

Rick: We were all anti-war; drug use was limited to D.A., our drummer and me (we smoked a lot of grass, but kept our intake of psilocybin and mescaline down to occasional use, at least I did); we were like a highlight reel of the youth movement, which was in its early radical stages and had yet to encounter Woodstock, Altamont and Kent State; we were naïve enough to believe we could make a difference, and our naiveté actually made it all work; when I look at the lack of demonstration and protest displayed by today’s youth (even with the “Occupy” and other movements showing some force), I wonder where the spirit of righteous dissent has gone and will we ever get it back; we did our best to contribute, and so did a lot of people who didn’t write, or play, or sing; writers, artists, filmmakers and others (even some politicians) put voices to what was being felt, but it was everyday people who picked up the causes and turned them into wins.

D.A. : Then of course The Tragic Assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy and the very real escalation of the war in Vietnam totally changed the “mood and Vibe” of The Time -but Created a Zeitgeist that we won’t as a culture experience again. So these events really damaged The Sidewalk Skipper Band’s appeal, So our timing was really unfortunate. But the music has stood the test of time, and seems to be appreciated today.

Midi: What are you doing today?

Rick: I’m a retired creative advertising and marketing executive who still consults for various clients. I’ve written two novels, and am setting up three more. An operation on my left ulnar nerve prohibits me from playing guitar and I have yet to commit to learning the piano to take its place.

D.A.: I returned to playing music full time in 1974 as staff pianist at J. Gatsby’s in Vail Colorado for two years (promoted from ‘Singing Waiter’), after stints on Bourbon Street in New Orleans and Biloxi Mississippi. I Relocated to Texas;. Played The Greenville Ave club scene in Dallas for eight years with “Carol and D.A.”, broke up with Carol and played the multi State Hotel Lounge Circuit. Wound up in College Station TX. I became a Classic Rock radio personality for 10 years. I set up ‘Brazos Valley Entertainment’ and currently play jazz piano and book talent at Christopher’s World Grille. I play other jazz gigs, and lead the “Texas Beach Band” a kind of Vintage Rock / Heritage C&W Party Band for fun and profit.

Midi: Are you still involved with music?

Rick: Although not directly involved in music, I enjoy its pursuit through following my two sons, one of whom creates background music for several TV shows and has his own rock band, and the other who travels the world playing in rock bands; my daughter is a cracker-jack writer.

Midi: Have your earlier experiences with SSB influenced your career paths?

Rick: Playing in front of large crowds cured me of being nervous about any kind of presentation. Writing and playing music helped me create TV and radio commercials, ads and videos.

D.A.: The Sidewalk Skipper Band and The Racket Squad (the previous band Rick and I were partners in) have been enormously influential to me as time progresses. Both groups were really fun, and everyone danced. It was “Animal House Meets the Psychedelic 60s “. Having been sober for 25 years, I still try to keep the fun in it. We perform a lot of 60s tunes (as well as Waylon and Willie, etc).

Midi: Are you still in touch with the other SSB members?

Rick: I have touched bases with Joe a couple of times; D.A. and I have continued to keep in contact over the years

Midi: Do you have anything you’d like to add?

Rick: We are amazed that, after all this time, our past is still, in some ways, relative and noteworthy (at least from the responses I’ve received from our records being re-released and, now, your resurrection of the video). It’s not often you get to look back on an archival documentation of something you did decades ago and have the people in your life see and hear the proof that, yes, you did that. We weren’t superstars, but we did make some noise and our efforts have stood the test of time, being well received by the contemporaries of our children and grandchildren (in my world). You wonder “what if”, but you shouldn’t. We could have ended up miserable, wasted, and riddled with failure if we had made it. Besides, I like the children, grandchildren, daughter- and son-in-law I have. Maybe none of them would be here today, if we’d “made it” and that would have been tragic. They say you get what you deserve. In my case, I received so much more than I ever could have imagined. The Sidewalk Skipper Band gave me the chance to take a first step I would have missed otherwise, and, so, set my life in motion. My thanks can never be enough to settle that debt. And thanks to you for having found and kept a forgotten part of our story.

D.A.: Midi, many, many thanks for this invaluable contribution. I actually found the video on Super Bowl Sunday, on a routine “Vanity Google Search” on my new iPad, and I said, “I have to call Rick and Joe. They’re not going to believe this.” Thank you many times over.

Posted January 1, 2014