It was the summer of ’67 and, musically, things had slowed down a bit in Wheeling. The British invasion had spurred guitar sales, but that craze was starting to wane. You know that feeling when things seem to stop in anticipation of something big to start? That’s where we were. I was managing the guitar department of Gerrero’s Music on Main Street in Wheeling, and we were just waiting for the next musical fad to catch on so guitars would once again be something that every teenager wanted as a birthday present.
A little hip coffee shop had opened just around the corner. It was called “The Junction” because it was originally a train station just next to the train tracks on Water Street. The ownership situation was fuzzy to most people, and I didn’t learn the details until I had been going there for a while. I found out that a group of churches in Wheeling had bought the property from the Pennsylvania Railroad and leased it for a dollar a year just to create a space where young people could gather and create in a safe environment. Kind of an alternative to the dance clubs that were prevalent at that time. It had a large room with a stage, another smaller room with overstuffed furniture and bookcases around the room. In between the two rooms was a small kitchen capable of pumping out gallons of coffee, pastries and hot dogs.
The Start of a Performing Career
As a budding folk music singer, I was intrigued with the possibility of airing my music there and started “hanging out” frequently. I was soon offered a spot on stage several nights a month,and it formed the basis of what my performances became to this day.
Hal O’Leary, a much-respected local playwright, poet and writer, was involved in some capacity, and one day, I got a call to meet with him and show him some original songs as an example of what was being done there. He looked over my body of work and had me play and sing a few. As he closed my notebook, he said, “They will be very happy to know the quality of what is happening there.”
The Junction was managed by Scott Smith, also a folk singer who knew the people involved in the folk movement of the day. He scheduled the music and made sure everything ran smoothly.
I don’t know exactly when or why the Junction evolved into its next incarnation. Perhaps it was because the group of churches lost interest or maybe they decided it was a good start but needed to be on its own. The next thing anybody knew, it was “The Equinox Coffeehouse” under the capable management of Tommy Doepken.
The new coffeehouse retained the hipness and vibe of the old Junction but it was magnified, partly by the addition of stage lights, sound system and artwork and, of course, murals painted on the walls. The music had changed just a bit. Friday was folk night and Saturday was rock night.
I got together with another folk music enthusiast and excellent guitar player, Gregg Hartman, and we were a regular feature on Fridays doing a lot of Simon and Garfunkel; Peter, Paul and Mary; and many protest songs of the era. Sometime in the fall of ’67, I also joined four other musicians – Mary Lynch, Rick White, Bob Dougherty and Danny McElwain – to form the band “Bag Shot Row” (named after the street in “The Hobbit” where Bilbo Baggins lived). It was part folk rock, part blues, part psychedelic, part rock and roll and a lot of just us. Bag Shot was a regular feature on many Saturdays, and more than once I played folk music on Friday and rock on Saturday in the same weekend.
Yes, drugs were around and just getting to be popular, especially in the psychedelic circles but not at the Equinox. There was no pungent smell of marijuana in the air. No out-of-control druggies starting trouble and no drunks fighting. It was a very laid back and comfortable place where love and peace just seemed to waft out of the walls. As peaceful as it was, people were ready to go to extremes to keep it that way. Drug dealers were not appreciated and were strongly encouraged to do business elsewhere.
Confirmation that Wheeling Was on the Right Musical Path
One afternoon at Gerrero’s, a group of four young hippies came in just looking for a congenial place to be. I was strangely attracted to their story and the very hip way they appeared. They were part of a band from Columbia, Miss., on their way back from gigs in New York City. These guys had been all around the country and had seen it all.
I invited them to the Equinox to have a bite. They were truly amazed. They kept telling me that Wheeling, W.Va., was the last place they expected to find a place that hip. They loved the atmosphere, the people and they could see the music scene was right where it should be.
They kept saying things like, “But how did you people know to do this when you aren’t even close to any cities that have this culture.”
The only thing I could tell them was that the music was an influence, and then everyone just did what we felt was right and comfortable for us.
A ’49 Hudson’s Place in the Mythology of the Equinox
They had been driving a 1949 Hudson – old even in 1968. It had broken down several times and although it was running it needed some expensive parts to make it dependable enough to make the journey back to Columbia. They decided to buy bus tickets home and said they would be glad to give the old car away if someone would take it. I was eager to help my new freaky friends, so I said that I would take the car if they sent me the title when they got home. I drove to the bus terminal. I wasn’t about to get caught driving what might be a stolen vehicle so I parked it in the small alleyway just below the Equinox. If they sent the title, I had an antique car to play with, and if they didn’t, it would stay parked.
The Hudson became many things while it was parked there. An extra storage area for the coffeehouse supplies, a place to leave sound equipment between gigs, and I’m sure, a romantic getaway, all while parked in the alley where I left it. It locked with a key that hung on the wall in the kitchen, and the motor ran for heat in the winter but it never moved an inch. It was legal to park there when I left it, but a year later, they made it a no parking area. Soon the Hudson sported an array of parking tickets on its windshield. Anyone passing by would occasionally wipe the tickets off so it remained untouched a surprisingly long time. The title never came and one day, our beloved Hudson was unceremoniously towed away, never to be seen again.
We were fiercely (well as fierce as hippies could be) defensive of our culture. One evening a couple of the regulars were talking about how a local restaurant had made fun of their clothes and hair and the two girls were very angry and embarrassed about it but didn’t know what to do. Someone in the tribe had an idea. About 30 of us walked to the establishment, and one person ordered one large cup of black coffee. When it was served, the first person took one sip, passed it to the next who took a sip and passed it down until everyone had a sip. We each took out a few coins, and we all laid them on the bar, turned and walked out as a group. Now maybe that didn’t accomplish much in the way of retribution, but the looks on the faces of the restaurant staff was worth it to us, and it sent a message that we were a tribe and a family that looked after each other.
The “Timeless” New Year’s Eve and Wheeling’s First Strobe Light Show
The holidays were always celebrated but in our own way of course. New Years Eve of 1968 was special for several reasons. Because I worked in a music store, I got them a deal on the very first strobe light in town. It was the beginning of a very intense light show that became a valuable part of the music and experience of The Equinox. It was debuted that night. Bag Shot Row was playing along with several opening acts. Because we wanted to be different than the rest of the world, all timepieces were collected in a big box held in the kitchen until the festivities were over. Imagine that happening in a venue today. Tommy was the only one who knew when midnight came. To this day, I don’t know if it was half an hour early or half an hour late but we celebrated our own New Year’s at our own time. Oh, and everyone got their own watches back.
The Legendary Tribe Suffers Loss but Keeps the Spirit
We had become the Equinox Tribe by this time, and all who gathered there on a regular basis felt like they belonged to something. The other big holiday was the first day of Spring, the Vernal Equinox. There were plans and preparations being made for weeks ahead of time, and it was going to be “far out.” There was to be music of course. The folk music first to warm up the crowd for the pounding, psychedelic, mind-bending light-show and music of Bag Shot Row.
The morning of the event, my mother woke me with the news that I wouldn’t be doing a show that night because the Equinox burned to the ground. Our world was gone.
The drug dealers that we strongly encouraged to do their business elsewhere couldn’t stand the fact that their best market was off limits and torched it.
Wheeling had no idea how many freaks, as we affectionately called ourselves, were now lost and roaming the streets searching for a place that could once again make us feel like we belonged. After a couple of weeks of mourning and shoulder crying, we realized that the Equinox Coffeehouse was the brick and mortar of something much more enduring – our little Equinox Tribe.
We started having picnics at Oglebay Park until folks with some corporate conglomerate, who were also having a picnic on the same day as one of ours, complained that there were hippies playing music and dancing in the woods. They made it sound like the return of Woodstock. As a result, we could no longer reserve a site under the Equinox name. Being the inventive and highly improvisational people, we were, the Earthquake Volunteers came into being. We reserved a site under that name, and it worked. Now we felt obligated to the project and everyone came equipped and dressed as you would if there was an earthquake. We needed to practice our life-saving skills just in case an earthquake ever occurred in Wheeling. Someone even crafted a stretcher out of tree limbs, and we had great fun carrying volunteers up and down the hills. The music, at least the acoustic part of it, was still there and people singing along around the fire. They were truly good times.
Finally, guitar sales were back up. The Peace movement with its protest songs and the best rock music in the history of popular music was being made right here in the U.S.
In April of 1969, Janice Allen, who saw me for the very first time on stage at the Equinox, and I were married. As I stood at the altar of Blessed Trinity on Wheeling Island and looked out over the crowd that was eagerly awaiting the entrance of the lovely bride, I saw, between family members, the familiar faces of our Tribe.