Dude that’s an awesome story! So many good bands that so many never heard of, check out Old 97’s they have. A similar thing going onAugust 5th will be one of the coolest dates I’ve ever done. I’ve played on some big stages. Opened for some very famous acts and big names. Toured domestically and abroad. I’ve done just about everything you can do in this business except be rich and famous myself. Which as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized really worked out for the best.
But this is the big one.
Once upon a time there was a band called California Speedbag. It was formed by veterans of the 70’s Cle-punk scene. Members of The Kneecappers, Neptune’s Car, and Dr. Bloodmoney. Guys that were deep in the scene with bands like The Deadboys, St. Jayne, and The Easter Monkeys.
Speedbag was something new. Something nobody had ever seen before. It was a punk country band. Before there was a Jason and the Scorchers, or anything else in the genre, before the names “alt-country” or “cow punk” were even born, there was California Speedbag. Nobody knew what to do with them, because nobody had ever done it before. Rock clubs didn’t want them because they were too redneck. People in Country clubs literally threatened their lives after half a set. But they slowly built a regional following around north east Ohio, and even played some dates as far away as NYC. Labels didn’t want anything to do with them, as they defied any kind of classification at that time. But they made a couple records.
One of these, Little Guns, found it’s way to me all the way down in west Texas in 1992. Little Guns was released in 1990, on cassette only, when the band got tired of shopping for labels and being denied everywhere, and spent the last couple years of the 80’s DIY’ing their own recording, which really wasn’t a thing then.
I have no idea how the tape got to Texas. It was a dub. A Memorex cassette that just had “Speedbag” scrawled on it in magic marker. Some guy gave it to me after a gig, said he didn’t like it at all, but he thought I might get a kick out of it. I had a long drive home so I popped it in. I immediately fell in love with it. The songwriting was absolutely killer, and the music was like nothing I’d ever heard in my life. The closest thing I’d ever heard to people mixing country and rock was the whole SoCal Eagles/Byrds/Poco/Parsons scene, and while I have always loved that stuff, and always will, it suddenly seemed like elevator music. I had no idea stuff like this existed. Because really, it didn’t.
I wore that tape about plumb out, until somebody stole it out of my car at a party. Over time it kind of slipped my mind.
Fast forward to spring of 1998. I had just gotten married, and moved to my new wife’s hometown to start a new life and find new people to play music with. I knocked around town for a couple of years playing in various blues and rock bands, until I stumbled onto this retro/alt country act that was looking for a guitar player. I auditioned, got the job, and started working with them all the time.
One night after leaving a gig opening for someone (I forget who) at the Beachland Ballroom, we were back at the singer’s house for some after-show partying and he said “I’ve got something you need to hear, you’re gonna love it!” He pulled out a cassette tape, popped it in, and as soon as it started I yelled “Speedbag!! No way!”. Everyone was floored. They were positive pretty much nobody outside of Cleveland had ever heard of California Speedbag. And everyone who ever had had forgotten. The band had been defunct for several years at that point. I had no reference but the old tape. I had never even known they were from Cleveland. You couldn’t just Google stuff in those days.
Anyhow, a couple years later that band I was in went into the studio to record an EP. The studio was owned, and the EP was engineered by Gary Lupico. Who was the songwriter and front man for California Speedbag. It’s not often you get to meet someone who’s work you really admire and hold high, who also happens to be an incredibly swell dude that you immediately become friends with.
At the end of those sessions, the other guys would go do whatever it was they were doing in those days, and Gary and I would walk down the street to Mitzi’s Bar. We’d take over the jukebox, drink way too many beers, talk about all kinds of music, and he’d pick my brain until the wee hours of the morning about what it was like to live and work in Texas. He’d always wanted to relocate there and was planning a move.
Not long after that, he packed up his studio and moved to Dripping Springs to set up shop. Not six months after that, in early 2004, he had a massive heart attack while mowing his grass and died instantly. He left a lot of heartbroken people behind. He was truly one of the greatest guys you’d ever meet.
Almost exactly one year after that, I was fronting my own band again, and had a house gig a couple blocks from his old Cleveland studio. One day the owner called me up and asked if I’d mind splitting the bill that weekend with an old Cleveland band that wanted to do a reunion show. She promised it wouldn’t affect my pay, they just wanted to invite some old friends and fans out and play a set of their old songs. You could have knocked me over with a feather when she said “have you ever heard of California Speedbag?”
Well the day arrived. I have to admit I was skeptical. I’d never met anyone in the band other than Gary, but he wrote and sang all the songs, and he was most definitely dead. How were they going to handle this? It was about that time this wiry dude approaches me back in the kitchen and says “Are you Harper?” I said I was. He says “I’m Brian. I understand you and Gary were friends, and this is your gig here.” I confirmed. He said “Well if you knew Gary, you know we’re short a guitar player. I can sing most of the stuff, but I can’t do everything at once. Would you maybe come up and play with us?” I said I’d love to, but I really didn’t know the songs well enough to feel comfortable with that. He smiled and said “it’s alright man, neither do we!” So I went up. And I played with one of my all time favorite bands. And it was super surreal. And so much fun. Crazy fun. When it was over, we all had a toast to Gary, and everyone went home.
Then many months later I got the call to play with them again, for a special Christmas time show at the Beachland. A gathering of old guard Cleveland rock and punk bands. It was a blast. Next thing I know it’s spring of ‘06, and there’s talk of another get together.
It’s now been seventeen years since my first gig with California Speedbag. And it never stops being the coolest thing in the world. We play 1-2 times a year. That’s all. But it’s a gathering of family, playing our old friend’s songs, behaving in appallingly ridiculous ways for guys our age (I’m 49 and the youngest member by fifteen years), and I still can’t believe I’m in the band. I know we’re not famous, or well known, and never had a hit, but how many people get to spend a huge chunk of their life playing in one of their all time favorite bands? It still knocks me out.
So what’s the point of all this?
On August 5th, at the Beachland Ballroom, the band will play to celebrate as Little Guns gets re-released. For the first time since 1990. On vinyl. Re-mixed and re-mastered by Grammy nominated producer and Pere Ubu alum Tony Maimone. With two previously lost and never released tracks.
This was the brain child of Clint Holley from Well Made Music (that front man that played the tape for me at his house after I moved to Cleveland) and Speedbag bassist Russell Sherman. They have put countless numbers of their own hours and dollars into making this a reality. I’m tickled pink. Gary has been gone since 2004, but these songs just keep getting better. I’m super stoked that so many new people are going to get the chance to finally hear them. No, I didn’t write them. I didn’t play on the record. I was still in high school in Texas the first time it came out. But these tunes mean the world to me and it will be one of the great honors of my life to be part of bringing this record a new lease on life by playing them live yet again. I’m positively flying.
Speedbag, July 2022. Even managed to get Gary in the picture.
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