The J. Geils Band have gone through every phase a group possibly can. They've been cultish, sort of popular and, for a while, really huge. Still, I like them best the way they are now — no longer together. They were once okay, I guess. A decent, well-meaning blues band. What really kind of ruined these guys for me was their lead singer, Peter Wolf.
The band chugged along competently enough. But Wolf? He was sort of the Anthony Kiedis of his day: a guy who couldn't find the correct key if he had a GPS tracking system. Still, I had nothing against Wolf personally, until the evening I had to deal with him and he trained that Woofa Goofa Mama Toofa bullshit of his on me. Years later, it had one decent aspect — it made me think better of Anthony Kiedis.
It was the late '70s. I was living in Boston, playing in a band and writing songs which is really Esperanto for, I was driving a cab. One fall night, I got a call from the dispatcher to go to a fancy address on Boylston Street and pick up a Mr. Wolf. The guy who sent me was under the misapprehension that he was funny, so I found myself immediately skeptical.
The dispatcher was a guy, who, after all, had once sent a driver to an appliance store, to get a "Mr. Coffee" — a real miscalculation on the dispatcher's part. The driver wasn't terribly smart, but was as strong as an African Bush Elephant, without the whimsical personality. When he returned to the garage, he punched out the glass window of the dispatcher's office, ripped his microphone from its chord and tried force feeding it to the guy, suffice to say, without condiments. In any case, I felt I was going to be scammed the same way.
Sure enough, the address proved to be real. After announcing to the doorman that I was here for "Mr. Wolf," five minutes later, out came the lead singer of The J. Geils Band — bearded, lean and, everything from his pointy shoes to his porkpie hat, in black. He looked like a stylish funeral director, but, as I was about to find out, minus those guys' warmth and puckish sense of humor.
If memory serves, Wolf wanted to go to some club in Cambridge. So, I pulled back onto Boylston, hung a left and began threading my way there, taking my usual route. Now, unlike, say, a London cabbie, I never took a test that asked me about every road and the best way to get there. So, admittedly, my methods were sometimes a little unorthodox. Just ask that guy who I took through Mystic, Conn., in order to get to the Boston suburb of Framingham. It wasn't to pad the bill. I just didn't know that the shortest distance between two points was a straight line. Coming from an eccentric family, I was raised in a strict non-Euclidian fashion.
Anyway, this atypical method was about to get me in trouble, with the guy in back. The guy who, when not talking to himself or snapping his fingers, was singing snatches of old doo wop, country and blues songs, judging from what I could tell, often at the same time.
"What are you doing, man?" were Peter Wolf's first words to me. "Why aren't you taking Storrow Drive?" This sort of outrage had happened before. I'd had longtime Bostonians before and when they questioned why I was going a different route than the one they envisioned, it always made me nervous, like they thought I was trying to squeeze a few extra bucks from them. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I was going to say to Wolf that my parents had serious philosophical problems with Euclid's shortest-distance-between-two-points theory, but I didn't think it would fly. I was heading to Mass. Avenue and planned to drive over the Harvard Bridge. And I responded with the familiar cabbie retort, "This is the way I always go."
"Oh, man, you've gotta be kidding," said Wolf, who slumped back into his seat. This simple phrase clearly came with subtitles which I read as, "Regarding your tip, kid? You should probably start thinking in terms of negative numbers."
On we drove.
Combining careerism and a feeble attempt to change the mood in the cab, I said to my antsy, usually articulate passenger, "Uh, Peter? Did you know I write songs, too?"
"Yeah?" said Wolf. He even spat out single words as fast as an auctioneer. "What are some of your titles?"
Up until then, I thought I'd heard all of history's most profoundly idiotic questions: Why is there war? Can you explain "Like A Rolling Stone" to me? Who invented the Scooter Pie and why? But Wolf had clearly invented a new category of stupid or, he was just trying to tell me, euphemistically, that he wasn't remotely interested in my songs, especially, since he was acting as if I was taking him to Cambridge, by way of New London.
Still, I found the question so reductive, so infuriating, so... Peter Wolf, that I nearly started throwing out titles that would really scare him: "The Night I Drove My Cab Off The Bridge," "I'm So Stoned," "By The Time You Get To The Club, Your Date Will Have Gone Home With The Dishwasher" and, the scariest of all, "MacArthur Park-Part II."
Instead, I mumbled, "Forget it." Wolf already had. He again began snapping his fingers and singing some old soul song. I took some satisfaction in the fact that he changed keys with almost every line. And not intentionally.
After a bit of looking and asking in Cambridge, I finally found the club in question. I don't think it took significantly longer than if I had taken Storrow Drive. Also considering Wolf was a hipster musician, I would have thought he'd have had a more fluid sense of time. Closer to, say, his sense of pitch.
I pulled up to the club. The meter, I believe, read $5.60. Wolf gave me six bucks plus a withering look — probably one he learned from J. Geils or Seth Justman every time they started a song in C and had to keep modulating to accommodate Peter until they ended up in... is X a key?
I took the money, grateful that no violence had occurred. And that I was mature enough not to mention my "MacArthur Park" sequel. Peter Wolf smoothed out his black clothes, stepped out of the cab and strutted in.
I pulled away and put on the radio. Hot Chocolate's "You Sexy Thing" was playing. To give you some idea of how rattled I was? I found myself absolutely elated and speeding away, listening to the guy on the radio whose voice shook like he had some horrible neurological problem I thought, "This is great, man. Now that guy can really sing!"