It was one of those gigs that you unexpectedly learn about, one that you immediately know you have to see.
The Ides of March — the Chicago-area group that in 1970 did “Vehicle,” one of my favorite songs — was playing nearby a couple of weeks ago. So I called down to Sheboygan, an hour south, and got tickets. One ticket was for the show. The other ticket was for something special.
When 3 p.m. rolled around that Saturday afternoon, they ushered about 40 of us out from the wings and out onto the stage of the Weill Center. I grew up in Sheboygan and had not been in the building in 40 years. Back then, it was the Sheboygan Theater, showing movies. It’s since been elegantly restored, and I stood there looking up at the small lights twinkling on the ceiling.
It wasn’t long before the teacher came around and introduced himself. “Hi, I’m Jim Peterik.” Yes, the same guy who led the Ides all those years ago. The guy who led Survivor and wrote some of .38 Special’s most memorable songs. The guy who then got back together with his childhood friends and revived the Ides.
Peterik, guitarist Larry Millas and bass player Bob Bergland — that’s them above — led an afternoon session on songwriting. They shared a few stories, offered a few tips, and played acoustic bits of their songs. They’ve been pals since 1964, when they were in seventh grade, playing in Larry’s basement in Berwyn, Illinois.
In 1966, after the boys had played together for about a year and half, Larry’s mom called Mercury Records in Chicago to convince someone to listen to them. The boys thought they needed a new song so they, along with drummer Mike Borch, wrote “You Wouldn’t Listen” the night before. Mercury didn’t sign them, but London Records did, and its Parrot label released the tune in 1966 as the Ides’ first single. “Not bad for a sleepover,” Peterik said.
“Vehicle,” which became a smash in 1970, was about an ex-girlfriend. “She didn’t want to date me. She just wanted me to be her chauffeur,” Peterik said.
Then, of course, Warner Brothers wanted a follow-up to “Vehicle,” preferably something that sounded a little like “Vehicle.” The Ides came up with “Superman,” which Jim and Larry and Bob sampled during the session.
Even though “Superman” didn’t do as well as “Vehicle,” the Ides were one of the hottest bands going in 1970. They toured with the Allman Brothers, Poco and Led Zeppelin. They also were on a bill with the Grateful Dead, who played so long that the Ides had to cut “Vehicle” from their set.
There was no such problem in Sheboygan. The Ides deftly mixed old Ides songs, new Ides songs, Survivor songs and .38 Special songs. It takes some balls to end your first set with “Vehicle.” But when you end the show with “Eye of the Tiger” as a wild, extended jam, it all makes sense.
Anytime the Ides play in Wisconsin, it’s a bit of a homecoming. They played here often on their way up in the ’60s. To hear Peterik rattle off the towns they played, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were booked by the Catholic priest who moonlighted as a rock promoter back then.
Here’s what the Ides sound like today.
“Keep Rocking” and “I Found Love,” the Ides of March, from “Still 19,” 2010.
The first tune is written by Peterik, Millas and keyboard player Scott May.
The second tune is by Peterik. The CD also has a “vintage mix” of “Vehicle” that’s fairly true to the original and a cover of the Beatles’ “A Day In The Life.”