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Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2007 09:46 am

No regrets

The enduring spirit of Springfield’s Tonguesnatcher Revue

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Untitled Document Back in the spring of 1977, I called my pal John Sluzalis in Springfield. I was in Denver and wanted to know whether Sluzalis, a drummer, could play in a band that had just lost its drummer. Made up of other musicians Sluzalis knew well, the band had plenty of gigs booked out West. We would be returning to Springfield to rehearse for two weeks and then hitting the road. Could he do it? The band was the Tonguesnatcher Revue, a collection of Springfield musicians who left their mark on the central Illinois music scene in many ways. Next month, Sluzalis and several other Tonguesnatcher alumni are reuniting for another project, in Taipei, Taiwan, of all places. This time around, Sluzalis and I will be joining former Tonguesnatcher lead singer Douglas Rapier for an appearance in Taiwan at the fourth annual Blues Bash, held Nov. 17 and 18 and sponsored by the Blues Society on Taiwan. The Blues Society on Taiwan, the mother organization for blues on the island, grew out of a blues show Rapier presented on Taiwan radio in 2004. When fans called to ask where they could hear the blues, they learned that there were bands but no venues. Rapier had a mind to change that. He applied to the Blues Foundation in Memphis, Tenn., so that the Taiwan group would attain official affiliate status, then began to spread the word. Fittingly, Rapier also spread the word with the music itself. He formed a blues band and called it BoPoMoFo. Rapier explains: “Just as the bo-po-mo-fo phonetic system acts as the ABCs for Mandarin, the tonalities of the blues can be considered as the basics of modern Western popular music, particularly rock, R&B, and jazz.” 
Rapier had the idea of hosting a full-fledged live blues concert in Taipei, both as a way to promote American music in Taiwan and to give local blues bands an opportunity to network. If the bands couldn’t go to the venue, then the venue would come to the bands. An international band of true blues enthusiasts was formed, and, after a couple of personnel changes and various false starts, Rapier began working in earnest with the current BoPoMoFo. The first Bash was held in March 2005; subsequent Bashes have been held each November. Rapier’s efforts also led to BoPoMoFo’s appearance at the 2007 International Blues Challenge, in Memphis. Springfield was also ably represented at the Blues Challenge by area blues artists sponsored by the Illinois Central Blues Club. Local Springfield blues aficionados, joining performers from around the world, have attended the event, held each year in Memphis at the end of February. Larry Wagoner, once and future wheelman for Tonguesnatcher and its associated incarnations, has kept in close contact with Rapier and has been the driving force behind the reunion. In 2006, Wagoner made the trip to Taiwan with Rapier’s brother Mike Rapier, a Springfield luthier and guitarist. Shortly after that trip, Wagoner got in touch and coaxed me into making the jaunt down to Memphis. The chance to visit with Rapier again, relive old adventures, and catch up on our current musical lives was appealing. As an added incentive, Rapier suggested that I sit in as saxophonist with BoPoMoFo at Memphis’ legendary Sun Studios, where he had booked two evenings of recording.
One question we all asked in Memphis: “Isn’t it about the music”? The answer and our subsequent brainstorming put the wheels in motion for an international event that would reunite a group of Springfield musicians who had not performed together in many years. But before we get into that, let’s rewind a few decades and fill in the backstory that led to this reunion.
If it has a life, it can be named.
The Tonguesnatcher band name was lifted from a Rahsaan Roland Kirk album in which Kirk told the story of a man with a tongue so long he had to carry it in his hand, hence the moniker Mr. Tonguesnatcher. Rapier and guitarist Rich Denhart, who first met as singer/songwriters in Nashville, Tenn.,
chose the name for a project with keyboardist Christy Bley, bass player Dale Gable, and drummer Mick Kilgos.
This early Tonguesnatcher played progressive rock and had quite an interesting beginning. “We used to rehearse in a smut theater near downtown Springfield after the last showing of porn,” Rapier says. “That ill-fated attempt to form a breathtaking, tongue-snatching band was an offshoot of a musical-theater company/commune that lived in the Vancil Mansion for a few months that staged a version of the rock opera Tommy at the Springfield Armory in 1970.” 
The band never made it past the initial stage of development, but the name stuck. Rapier, Denhart, and Bley continued to work together and began developing a project for Sangamon State University that evolved into an acoustic vocal trio. “By that time, we were operating as a unit, Christy, Doug and I,” Denhart recalls. “We were interested in a solid vocal approach that veered from the traditional. We were also very much interested in presenting a real event, a happening — sort of a contemporary version of Wagner’s Gesamkunstwerk.”
The vocal-trio idea met with positive feedback.
“Encouraged by the response from the SSU folks, we figured that we might have something to build on,” Rapier says. “In the summer, we started to learn some new songs.” After their prog-rock experiment, the trio had moved into quite a different musical arena. The drummer Sluzalis had replaced in 1977 was no slouch. Pat Greenan had been around the Springfield music scene since the ’60s and was coaxed into playing with Rapier and Denhart as Tonguesnatcher’s drummer. Denhart had known Greenan for years, and both had been active on the local band scene. Rapier and Denhart told Greenan about their concept for a semiacoustic group featuring close vocal harmonies and eschewing the normal commercial cover-band ethos. Greenan agreed to give it a go. 
This is the incarnation of the Tonguesnatcher Revue of which I became a part. It got started about the time Denhart and Bley were near the end of their first year at Springfield College in Illinois, in the spring of 1972. SSU was planning another concert event to celebrate the solstice, and somebody there asked Denhart to provide the music. Denhart approached Rapier about joining him. The Tonguesnatcher thing seemed tailor-made for the event.
Never one to leave well enough alone, Denhart also thought that adding horns to the project would be a good idea. Denhart was in school at SCI with Jay Fry, a trombone player who was studying composition. Fry wrote the charts for a small horn section, and Denhart asked him to find a trumpeter and a sax player to join the band for that special summer event. The trumpeter’s name was Tom Cartwright. Cartwright — now a bank executive — wore a rabbit suit for the gig and smoked a giant cigar. I was the saxophone player. We were collectively dubbed the Magic Tongue Horns. Rapier had even crafted red foam-rubber tongues to affix all the horns for the show. We had a floor lamp, end tables, and a sofa to relax on while the others did a tune or two without the horn section. We also had the mascot Murdoch, a stuffed alligator that stood on its tail with light bulbs in each hand. There were dancers, a professional whistler, and other interactive events — even an applause-o-meter to gauge the appreciation of the crowd. So this is what popular music was like, I thought. I could get used to it. As a gigging musician in Springfield I was fairly well connected with many of the musicians in town, especially players who were left of center. I introduced the band to Virden hipster William B. Hart, a kooky standup-bass player who fit the bill perfectly, replete with bebop lingo, soul patch, and beret. Hart joined Greenan, and the rhythm section was promptly christened the Waddlin’ Dog Rhythm Band. The next incarnation of the Tonguesnatcher Revue was complete and ready to go. The event at SSU was a smashing success — horn section, hepcats and all. Media attention soon followed. The Tonguesnatcher Revue found itself in need of an artistic advisor and lighting designer, and, magically, Mike Getz and Larry Wagoner appeared. Hart became Bernard Kazooty; I assumed the alias of Ben Binay Frith; and Bley, now the band’s gimmick, transformed herself into Hootsie Smoots. Getz provided practical business acumen, sound reinforcement, and contributed to the band’s creative direction; Wagoner did the lighting, provided a watchful eye, and collected obscure stage props for the band. Meanwhile, Rapier, Denhart, and Greenan were playing their asses off.
As early as 1972 the Tonguesnatcher Revue began blending a wide variety of American popular music into one big theatrical presentation. Tonguesnatcher setlists juxtaposed Tin Pan Alley, blues, jazz, and rock, inspiring a giant creative amalgam. The band glued together tunes from George Gershwin and the Beatles with Zappa and Martin Mull or Hoagy Carmichael and Elvis Presley with Motown hits. Many of the arrangements were nontraditional as well. Not one for conforming to the musical grid, Tonguesnatcher didn’t merely copy the original versions of tunes note-for-note but actually adapted the flavor of the original song to suit their esoteric plans.
The band was an experience in collage, visually as well as sonically. For every show the stage was filled to overflowing with stuffed animals and other props used in the interpretation of the tunes. For a vintage “Ukulele Lady,” the band donned grass skirts, coconut bras, and plenty of plastic leis; for “Under the Boardwalk,” they wore black-and-red Spanish hats with little dingly balls around the brim. By the summer of 1973 the Tonguesnatcher Revue had taken on a life of its own. Rapier and Denhart, more adept at the business end of the music business than the rest of us, scared up more gigs. Bley used her superb ears to transcribe yet more repertoire into the band’s unique style. Greenan’s exceptional musicianship challenged us all to achieve a better collective sound. Tonguesnatcher was nothing if not adaptable. Hart soon left the band for a career in the Navy, and the horn section shrank to just one player. It remained for me to expand my duties to singing. In one of the first rehearsals with the new leaner lineup, Bley began playing keyboard bass, and Denhart stuck a mike in front of me and said, “Sure you can sing. Go ahead and find a part that fits in!” Tonguesnatcher’s initial goal of a band that relied on intricate vocal arrangements while skirting the standard cover-band repertoire of the mid-’70s was intact.
The Tonguesnatcher Revue was supported by a vast assembly of enthusiastic fans. In the summer of 1974 we began playing regularly at Tino’s Hideaway. Tonguesnatcher had become the resident musical experience at the club — located at 2955 N. Jefferson St., now the site of a hair salon. It was at Tino’s that we refined our setlists and built a faithful following. It was there that we also learned to drink ouzo. The club was owned by a Greek businessman who took a shine to the swarthy Getz, and at the end of the night the Greek regularly attempted to cloud our fiduciary sense with shots of the licorice-flavored jet fuel, all good-naturedly, of course: “Drink! Yassou! You my boys! I make money, you make money! You my boys!”
“What about her?” someone asked, referring to Christy. “She my boys, too!”

The members of Tonguesnatcher were looking to expand the band’s horizons.
Wanting to capitalize on somewhat familiar territory, Rapier and Denhart packed up our demo tapes and persuaded Bley to make the journey, in her road-weary Citroën, to Nashville. A booking agent there made the trip up past the Mason-Dixon Line to see the band live at Tino’s. True to form, the band had papered the house with fans to impress the agent. It must have worked. Tony Moon, of Crescent Moon Talent in Nashville, offered the band a series of gigs throughout the South.
Moon brought some amount of credibility with him. His participation in Dante and the Evergreens in the early ’60s had planted him firmly in the music business; Moon was part of the other band that made the single “Alley Oop” a hit. But the savvy Rapier and Denhart were well versed in the rough-and-tumble world of Music City business. We trusted their business sense and our musical acumen and reached an agreement with Moon, then packed our gear and headed for the Southland. In Nashville the band changed its image and began to capitalize on its flashier aspects. At Moon’s suggestion, the boys in the band cut their hair. Following the inspiration led by the gangster-themed Sweetheart (also a Crescent Moon talent and a band that would figure prominently in Tonguesnatcher’s future), we began collecting and wearing vintage clothes. In one sweltering Southern summer, Tonguesnatcher went from thrift-store chic to vintage cool. Our musical style was changing as well — but, as Frank Zappa said, “No change in musical style will survive unless it’s accompanied by a change in clothing. Rock is to dress up to.”
Dress up we did. We had plenty of opportunity to polish our stage show and our brogans and even had time to network with other acts. One gig where we could flaunt our eclectic talents was with Darryl Starbird’s Rod & Custom Car Show. In what became known as the “Car Show Tour,” our gigs took us from Nashville to Wichita, Albuquerque, El Paso, and Oakland. Living with a band on the road is like being married without the sex. You get to know your bandmates intimately — their likes, their dislikes, and even their eating habits. One band member would not eat anything wet. “I want a cheeseburger — just the meat, the cheese, and the bun,” he’d say. “No lettuce, no pickles, no tomatoes, no mustard, no ketchup, no mayo . . . nothing but the meat, the cheese, and the bun.”
We all knew the litany by heart. Invariably, though, a burger would arrive at the table with pickles, lettuce, and tomato on the side. The meal was ruined just by the proximity of these wet fixings next to the sandwich. This circumstance was a drag for that band member but a boon to the rest of us, who lived off the leavings.
Humor was always part of the band’s shtick, and our timing and jokes were refined during the Car Show Tour. During a 10-day gig at the Oakland Coliseum we shared the stage with Burt Ward, TV’s Robin and sidekick to Adam West. Naturally, the stage banter was rife with underwear jokes, many supplied by Ward. He took pleasure in heckling the band from stage left. We appeared with two different Playboy Bunnies at each car-show gig. We also shared the trip with two fans who had signed on to drive a car from Chicago to Los Angeles — by way of Wichita, Albuquerque, El Paso, and the Bay Area — popping up at every Tonguesnatcher gig along the way. The Car Show Tour was a small bright spot in a long string of unfortunate gigs booked through Crescent Moon Talent. Many of our dates down South were busts and a few were even scary, but the band’s relationship with Crescent Moon began to wane when the agency sent us on a cross-country trip from Oakland, our last stop on the Car Show Tour, to a Holiday Inn gig somewhere near Rochester, N.Y. We drove into a blinding snowstorm, and when we arrived in New York the hotel manager blamed us for the meager turnout at the cocktail lounge — never mind that there was snow and ice several feet deep outside. We were fired after the first night but refused to leave our rooms, and the sheriff was called in to evict us. We ended up stranded far from home with no gig and no paycheck, conspiring to behead a hotel manager. The band eventually made it back to Nashville, where we cornered the agent in the parking lot of a local club and proceeded to vent our frustrations. The adventures were just beginning for the Tonguesnatcher Revue. Always interested in the “experience,” the band and its creative contingent began organizing another event, another “happening.” What could make a better happening than running for president of the United States in the bicentennial year? Try as we might, Tonguesnatcher band members can’t forget our bid for the White House in 1976. The promotion was enhanced by one of our most interesting band photos ever. Photographer Steve Morse shot the band from a distance, all of us waving from a balcony fully decorated in red, white, and blue bunting. In the promo photo the band is seen through the crosshairs of a high-powered rifle. Black humor had always been our stock in trade. Our nominating convention, held at a Springfield Knights of Columbus hall, drew hundreds of supporters. True to form, we were all dispatched midset by a mock assassination carried out by a writer and friend from the Illinois State Journal. Not having rehearsed the bit, the entire band fell to the floor at the sound of the first “gunshot.”
At the very least, the Journal has been efficient in dealing with local talent.
But we needed to work. In search of gigs, the band once again began making forays into other markets. On one trip to Denver, Rapier’s connections landed the band a gig at a venue called The Broadway. We had very little information about the place and weren’t told until we had passed Kansas City that the Broadway was a gay bar.
Naturally the band fit right in. Tonguesnatcher’s over-the-top stage show, the take-no-prisoners presentation of eclectic music delivered with panache, was a good starter. The band had always relied on audience interaction to make each gig an event rather than a passive stage show. At The Broadway, the band won over another audience. It was during the first trip to Denver that the strain of constant travel began to take its toll. Pat Greenan decided to call it quits after our initial gig in Denver. Once again the band returned to Springfield to rest and regroup. We had gigs booked, and we needed a full band to play them. After all, the show must go on. Enter here John Sluzalis. Sluzalis took over the drum throne from Greenan and learned the parts, arrangements, and most of the shtick in two short weeks of intensive rehearsals. In Springfield, Jim Troxell, another friend and excellent musician, had just graduated from Springfield High School. Tonguesnatcher was on its way out of town, back to Denver for work, and the thought occurred to someone that a roadie/tech-support person might be nice to have. Eighteen-year-old Jim volunteered and left a note on his kitchen table: “Mom, I’m going on the road with the Tonguesnatcher Revue.” At that moment, our good friend Tooter was born. With a full crew, Tonguesnatcher arrived in Denver in the early part of 1977 for another gig at The Broadway.
The Tonguesnatcher Revue returned to Denver for several more extended engagements and enjoyed positive press coverage in that town. It was in Denver’s aptly named Satire Lounge, over plates of tamales, that we shaped the setlist into an esoteric collection of Beatles, Beach Boys, Frank Zappa, Van Morrison, Dan Hicks, jug-band tunes, and an eclectic string of R&B, soul, and radio hits. Tonguesnatcher had become an emblematic band associated with music that moved the soul more than it did the pocketbook. Throughout the ’70s Tonguesnatcher disdained disco’s monotony and the hair bands’ hyperbole. It was here that the band’s eccentric combination caught the attention of Meadowlark Productions’ Chris Roberts, a booking agent based in Missoula, Mont.
The success of the Broadway gigs and collaboration with another agent led to other dates in the Mountain West. One such gig involved appearing as the house band at the Silver Slipper in Central City, Colo. There we shared sets with Swami Amazo and the Circus of Earthly Delights. Swami swallowed swords and threw playing cards into watermelons. His wife, the beautiful Sascha, walked on broken glass and did strongwoman stunts that embarrassed many a man in the audience. It was a strange presentation of the variety arts at 8,500 feet, and it was another perfect fit. At the Silver Slipper, the band alternated hour-long sets with the Swami and his Circus starting at 11 a.m., six days a week, for the entire summer. Our last show ended each day at 7 p.m. The tough schedule helped us hone our show and sharpen our wit while building our endurance. We were also again officially “on the road,” even if the road was coming to us in the steady stream of tourists filing through the Silver Slipper. We were living four to a room at the Bugs Bunny Motel in Lakewood, Colo., and after each grueling day we arrived at the motel exhausted but happy to be working.  
An agent told us at some showcase that the band would be perfect — perfect — if we had a “killer” guitar player. Denhart, who was already a fine guitarist, switched to bass and Tad Bley, Christy’s brother, took up lead guitar duties. We were now six onstage: Denhart on bass, Sluzalis on drums, Christy Bley on keyboards, and Tad Bley on guitar, with Doug and I fronting the lineup, both of us playing sax and flute and carrying a big shtick. We had a crew of three: Tooter, Wagoner, and the semiprofessional soundman John Peters (a.k.a. Pooters), whose battered Borsalino drew nasty looks in every truck stop from New Mexico to Montana. Thanks to Chris Roberts, the band began making regular tours of ski resorts along the Rocky Mountains. Those gigs gave us a chance to play fewer one-nighters and allowed us to develop our show. It also presented some logistical challenges. At one point we had built ourselves a trailer to carry our gear, a huge orange beast that was barely kept under control by the pickup truck pulling it. In Glacier, Mont., on the northern edge of our loop around the Rockies, the transmission went out on the pickup as it towed the overloaded trailer. The entire band and crew were stranded in the middle of nowhere on a Labor Day weekend with no means of escape. Not a business was open except one gas station and the diner across the street. We could do nothing but wait while the truck was repaired. It seemed as if David Lynch was directing this leg of the tour. “The Native Americans at the gas station agreed to try fix the transmission, which, to our surprise and delight, included sitting in a circle and chanting over the wounded parts,” Dehart recalls. “We were willing to try anything, and so were our mechanics.” The medicine worked. We gathered our transcultural karmic rewards and limped back to Springfield to ditch the trailer. Tonguesnatcher’s time out West gave us the impetus to further sharpen our show, but by this time money worries were starting to accumulate, and we also flirted with personal meltdowns. Tours of ski resorts in the Rocky Mountains, scenic as they were, were not enough to give the band what it needed. Debt and burnout eventually contributed to the breakup of our partnership. But it would take more than a band breakup to drive a stake into the heart of this beast.
While in Nashville in 1974 and ’75, the Tonguesnatcher Revue had cultivated a relationship with the band Sweetheart, which also had Crescent Moon Talent as an agent. Adrian Belew was brought in as a hired gun for Sweetheart, filling the “killer guitarist” slot. The members of the two bands would commiserate about our shared dislike of Crescent Moon Talent, swap road stories, and trade information about vintage-clothing stores whenever our schedules would allow. We became partners in misery. It was at a Sweetheart gig in Nashville that Frank Zappa stumbled onto Belew and his creativity on the guitar.
Things changed when we left Crescent Moon Talent. Belew moved on from Sweetheart and took a gig with a local Nashville star, but he was miserable. Talking about his gigging experience at the time, Belew tells of hearing a long, low drone emerging during one extended jam. He looked over to see the star of the show, his head flopped onto the organ keys, passed out. Shortly thereafter, Zappa called. Belew auditioned, was hired, and joined a world tour. After the Tonguesnatcher breakup, Denhart and Christy Bley returned to Springfield. Despite our difficulties, the Tonguesnatcher folks always managed to return to the Springfield area to regroup. The question on Denhart’s mind was “What now?” The prospect of starting or even joining another band was overwhelming. Denhart says, “Playing in a band requires so much energy, both physically and emotionally. I wasn’t ready to jump back into that just yet. What I did have a passion for was the recording studio. We just decided to go for it.”
Denhart and Bley began to look for the proper building. They found an abandoned potato warehouse on Springfield’s North End and began the work of remodeling the interior. Denhart designed the control room and put his carpentry skills to use. Then came the task of wiring the place, which took a month. Several more months were spent finishing the interior. Denhart started learning how to use the recording equipment they had purchased. Denhart says, “Cwazy Wabbit [Studios] was the continuation of my university training.”

It was at around this time that Denhart and Bley traveled to Chicago to visit Belew, who was now playing with David Bowie. Belew lamented that he had no friends left in Nashville. Almost as a joke, Denhart suggested that Belew check out Springfield, a friendly town where the rents were cheap. Belew was so eager for a change that his wife made arrangements to stop by the capital city. Shortly after visiting, Belew’s family made the move. When the Bowie tour ended, Belew settled in Springfield and began work on his own music at Cwazy Wabbit. I had relocated to Springfield from Boulder around the same time and began talking to Denhart and Belew about the music they were making. Springfield had always been home base for the Tonguesnatcher Revue. Now Springfield was world headquarters for our next phase of creative partnership. Much like the inception of the Tonguesnatcher Revue, the band GaGa had humble beginnings. We were living our art, ensconced at Cwazy Wabbit. We camped in the studio for days at a time whenever inspiration, or sheer necessity, called for it. Belew’s famous “rhino” guitar sound was discovered at Cwazy Wabbit during a late-night session. Arduous multitracked sax experiments evolved into the horn parts for such memorable Belew works as “Swingline” and “Adidas in Heat.” Denhart also had the opportunity to record just about every band in Springfield at Cwazy Wabbit in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Cwazy Wabbit closed its doors while GaGa played one-night dates around the Midwest. We had begun testing the waters with Belew’s original music in a live setting. Clif Mayhugh, a fine Cincinnati bassist, joined GaGa, our touring endeavors, and our wacky life in Springfield. GaGa saw the inside of nearly every rock club in central Illinois. We also opened for such bands as the Pretenders and Jefferson Starship and landed an extended set of dates with Robert Fripp’s League of Gentlemen, touring the East Coast.
GaGa worked long and hard to bring Belew’s bubbly songwriting and ferocious guitar work to a receptive audience. While the band was out playing, Belew’s manager, Stan Hertzman, was shopping the Cwazy Wabbit tapes. After a year of knocking on doors, Hertzman finally hit pay dirt. We were all thrilled when Belew signed with Island Records in 1981. The band was rewarded with a trip to the Bahamas and Compass Point Studios to record Adrian’s first solo record, The Lone Rhino.
After a couple of months of sun, surf, and sounds, we returned to Springfield, ready to perform. Recording The Lone Rhino was a creative shot in the arm for us all, especially Belew. Folks in central Illinois may remember some of the early GaGa shows, featuring a drummer on tape, suggested by pal Fripp. The taped drummer, fantastic musicianship, and sheer fun of it all brought a bit of Tonguesnatcher zaniness into all aspects of our lives in Springfield. Those who attended the Sunday afternoon volleyball games at Cwazy Wabbit were lucky enough to get a taste of that inventiveness first hand. The Lone Rhino gave Belew and the band a much wider audience. Through his connections we struck up a friendship with the New York band the Talking Heads and attended a bunch of their concerts across the Midwest and East. The Talking Heads reciprocated by attending our East Coast shows when we opened for Fripp. Eventually the Heads invited Belew to record on their next album. Before leaving town we schlepped Belew’s gear up several flights of stairs and sat in the control room as he laid down some searing guitar tracks for the Talking Heads album Remain in Light. In just a couple of passes, Belew recorded tracks that would stand out among the cliché-ridden guitar music of the mid-’80s. Demand for Belew grew and, purely out of necessity, GaGa disbanded. The band played a few live dates when Belew’s schedule allowed, but we also needed to support ourselves while he was away, and for economic reasons we gravitated to Champaign-Urbana’s lively music scene. In 1982 and ’83 we contributed heavily, along with the legendary Larrie Londin on drums and Clif Mayhugh on bass, to Belew’s sophomore solo recording, Twang Bar King. The Tonguesnatcher spirit was reflected in Belew’s approach to the Twang Bar King album and tour. Getz, the artistic advisor from Tonguesnatcher’s inception, did the album artwork for Twang Bar King and created the tour shirts, designed stage sets, and custom-painted Belew’s guitars. My wife, Carolyne, designed and made the color-coordinated stage clothes. The creative partnership that had begun 10 years earlier lasted through the final date of Belew’s Twang Bar Tour in 1983, but then we all went our separate ways. A vestigial Tonguesnatcher — Rapier, Denhart, and me — did attempt a reunion, in the summer of 1985. We sang together for an afternoon, but without Christy Bley’s honeyed voice and keyboard talent, the Tonguesnatcher Revue was incomplete, and the project was abandoned.
The question most asked of addicts is “Why don’t you just quit?” The answer: Because we can’t. Denhart and I continued to work in the music business, basing ourselves in Champaign-Urbana. Denhart developed his engineering and production skills working with Belew and on other projects, and he eventually landed a gig with Narada Records as an executive producer. I delighted in showcasing my playing and composing skills in my own group, Loud Shirts, a contemporary acoustic chamber trio. I continued to work on projects by Belew, the Bears, the California Guitar Trio, Robert Fripp, and others.
Rapier, in the meantime, had moved to Taiwan and begun teaching English. Bley took to the road again to follow her muse. Greenan moved to Madison, Wis., to teach drums. Tad Bley is rumored to have gotten a doctorate in chiropractic, and Bruce Hart has retired from the Navy and returned to Springfield. Jim Troxell made it back to Springfield and continues musically as a superb bassist. The nickname he earned in those first few days with the Tonguesnatcher Revue would live on in his own band, A Flock of Tooters. In the ’90s Jim and I had the pleasure of working with former Tonguesnatcher drummer Pat Greenan in one of the best improvising bands I’ve ever been in, Food and Money, with vocalist David Adams and guitarist John Novak. Novak would later join Dean Jensen and me in our Loud Shirts project.
After Tonguesnatcher, Sluzalis joined the Ice Capades as percussionist. When the ice melted, he too, returned to Springfield, adding his talents to the bands Cats on Holiday, the Merchant Street Rowdies, and several of his own projects. Tonguesnatcher alums continue to experience unique musical adventures, and the muse is indeed still alive. The spirit of the Tonguesnatcher Revue also lives on in the Blues Bash on Taiwan.
In Taiwan, Rapier, Sluzalis, and I will a chance to catch up on our past musical lives. If 50 is the new 40 (and I really hope it is), then maybe the Tonguesnatcher attitude will be around for another decade or so. Regardless of where the band traveled, Springfield and central Illinois have remained the inspiration for the band’s craftsmanship. As Sluzalis says, “I’ve played all over the world — Japan, Montreux, and everywhere in between. Springfield audiences are some of the best. They’re knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and really support good music.”
We’re hoping that the people of Taiwan are just as hip.
Bill Janssen was born in Springfield, graduated from Griffin High School in 1970, and majored in music at Springfield College. He works for the city of Denver and is completing his long-delayed undergraduate history degree at the University of Colorado.
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