Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Me & the Hells Angels

Here’s another chapter in my early checkered radio career. The first installment is here.

1971 and I’m doing weeekends at KERN in Bakersfield. I was five at the time. (All TV writers older than twenty who hope to work lie about their age.) As mentioned before, the station was this shack out in the middle of nowhere. And since Bakersfield itself is in the middle of nowhere, the station is really REALLY in the middle of nowhere.

It was my second week. I was holding down the coveted Saturday 6-midnight shift. At about 10:00 the doorbell rings. Who would be coming to call at this hour? Maybe the Jehovah's Witnesses work late in this town. I put a record on and like an idiot went to the front lobby and opened the door.

There was a full gang of Hell Angels – probably thirty of the scariest leather clad, chain wielding, tattoo sporting (before it was fashionable), chopper riding, engine revving, ass kicking (and in my mind, Jew hating) dudes you’ve ever seen. And their girlfriends who could beat the shit out of me.

So I’m Jello in a windstorm. Picture Ralph Kramden as the “Chef of the Future”. “Hummina hummina hummina” The leader (at least I thought he was the leader. I didn’t ask for ID.), growls, “You the fucking guy on the radio?”

“Hummina hummina”.


“HUMMINA hummina hummina.”

I’m thinking, “What offensive thing did I say that is going to get me killed?” And “This will be a good indication of how many people are actually listening to KERN. Let’s see how long it takes for someone to discover my body."

Mr. Leader of the Pack says, “Do you have Sweet Cream Ladies?” (A late 60s moderate hit by the Box Tops)

A request? That’s why they’re there? To make a song request?

Somewhat relieved I mumble “Sure.”

He signals to the others and they roar off to terrorize someone else. I lock the door, check my underwear, and go to the record library PRAYING that it's in there.

There is a God! They had it.

I run back to the studio and cue it up. It’s my next record. I completely break format but who gives a shit! I could be dead by the time the format says to play an oldie.

A half hour later the doorbell rings again. What to do? They know I’m in there. And they all smoke so they all have matches. Any one of them could set the building on fire. I could just see them dismantling the tower and welding it into more bikes.

I reluctantly open the door. There they are again. The leader hands me a beer and says, “Thanks, man.” They drive off.

Usually I don’t drink beer while on the air but not that night. Anything to settle my jangled nerves.

The next week, same thing. At about 10:00 they're at the front door to request Sweet Cream Ladies. A half hour later they return with a beer as thanks for playing it.

The following week I just play the song at 10:00 and at 10:30 receive my reward.

Thus began a ritual that lasted almost a year. And it really proved to be a Godsend on Halloween.

Houses get T.P.ed, and cars get egged and vandalized on Halloween in Bakersfield. It’s a proud tradition. And my car is alone in a lot next to the shack in a dark empty field. I figured I’d get off of work and there would be nothing left but a drive shaft and maybe one hub cap. Instead, the car was completely untouched. Guess word got around that I was BFF with the local Hells Angels.

Sorry to say me and the gang haven’t stayed in touch. Especially during network note meetings.


Ian said...

"Weld it into more bikes" made me laugh out loud. Thanks for that.

Dan Serafini said...

"Hell's Angels are beating up musicians?"

- The best line from Gimme Shelter

wv: vencess - what every deer hopes to achieve

Sunshine Vitamin said...

Much better feedback than waiting around for the Arbitron!

Great story, beautifully told.

David K. M. Klaus said...

My observation is that the Angels never messed with anyone who didn't mess with them first. A girlfriend and I stopped for gasoline one night and an Angel was filling the tank on his bike. She was nervous, but I just said "Why should he bother us? We're not bothering him." We didn't, and he didn't.

Bob Summers said...

My mom did her internship and residency at Fresno County from 64-68. She had to pronounce one of the leaders of the Hell's Angels dead. The attending physician was scared to death they were going to kill everybody, so he had her do it.

They call up and were so nice, thanking her for treating him. I understand it was a very sweet group.

Ref said...

Angels (of the "Hell's" variety) generally don't look for trouble since it usually finds them on a regular basis. Like Greta Garbo (how's THAT for a comparison?) they mostly "vant to be alone."

A. Buck Short said...

My ol' lady wanted me to ask if there's ever been a Vespa gang called Heck's Angels?

Anonymous said...

Nothing like the old studios/transmitter set up somewhere on the edge of town. Usually a good ten miles from anything like a gas station,or even some form of 7 Eleven. Usually they were windowless & were a converegnce of various remodels, expansion, & period
piece design. It was always fun if it was after hours or on the weekend to bring a hot groupie back into the break room, and do the nasty or variations. Also, the kitchens were disgusting with 50 dirty coffee cups and some empty generic house brown coffee container. Now every station looks the same in some office park, with empty studios.

l.a.guy said...

Great story. I wasn't familiar with the song. It's kind of a surprising request from a gang of hardened motorcycle jockeys.

So in hindsight which were scarier-- Hells Angels or Network Executives?

Alan Elias said...

Great story, Ken. I actually used to work for KERN many years ago, too...but the worst thing that happened to me was a woman who called up and yelled at me. As I recall she was arrested by the Sheriffs Dept. for something and decided to open up her door to them while in the nude. I thought it was a vital part of the story (at least fun to say nude on the air). She didn't. But she didn't send out the Hells Angels after me.

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

Ian, I agree. "Weld it into more bikes," is a hoot. Thanks Ken!

Howard Hoffman said...

You got off light. I had crazy old ladies sending me baked goods through the mail during my radio days. FAR more dangerous.

Harley Davidson said...

Imagine the grief you'd get if you were called "Harley Davidson".

Anonymous said...

I once employed a guy who played "Puff the magic dragon" every morning at 2am. Considering how hard it was to find someone to run a board at that hour I never asked him why he broke format for such a thing.
I think about that weird dude all the time...geez.


Jeff Ash said...

Great story, Ken. For those who'd like to hear the tune, it's on YouTube.

Jeffrey Leonard said...

Ken...Did Russ Gerber and Lee Duncan work at KERN while you were there? They are both old friends of mine.

Unknown said...

"Sweet Cream Ladies" is one of the few Top 40 hits in praise of prostitution.

By Ken Levine said...

Russ Gerber was indeed there. Great guy. I've lost touch with him. Jeff, if you see him please send my best regards.

MattA said...

Tsk, tsk. First, you accept payment for playing a record, then the next thing you know you're a comedy writer for a TV show. Who said payola wasn't a gateway crime?
Great story, Ken.

yobeb said...

May i know 1 name of a member of Hells Angels? do you have?

Paul Duca said...

Mr. Aloha...I'm glad you read this installment. I saw your comment under the previous one and wanted you to learn this story, just to see if you would rethink your statement about who had the better groupies.

And would they KNOW you were Jewish, being that you said how your bris was reversed, so to speak, with the "Ken Stevens" nomenclature?

A. Buck Short said...

Paul D., I think the tip off might have been having broadcast from Altamont under the name Harley Levinson.

Michael Hagerty said...

Hey, at least you got beer for a year!

The 350 pound, seriously intoxicated Paiute gentleman who walked into KIBS in Bishop that same summer (the front door locked only from the outside) and wanted to hear "Witch Queen of New Orleans" SEVEN times in a row only showed his gratitude by keeping the gun he showed me tucked into the waistband of his pants throughout his visit.

Bob Harlow said...

Hey Ken,
That doorbell at KERN got quite a workout every night and all weekend back then.

I'll never forget one late night
when someone got the idea to have The "KERN Miss Nude Bakersfield' contest.

"Just come on down to 5600 Planz Road and ring the doorbell."

The the first contestant to show up wins a free record.

A few actually come to the station,
including a couple of bikers!
I heard from Russ Gerber about a month ago, he has been living in the Boston area for quite a few years.

Anonymous said...

Surprised the Chicken headed Hells angels did not blow him for the favor

Anonymous said...

I think the hells angels in the USA normally pick on and kill women and children.

This guy must be a punk if he still remembers something so unimportant.

Vinyl Score said...

So you were essentially into payola from the very first moments of your career. Good job. Ah, the free market. At least it was a good song and a west coast legit hit!

Doug DeRoo said...

One thing that Ken didn't mention was that KERN did not trust the stinkin' DJs and none of them had keys to the building. So if you worked during non-business hours, the DJ on duty had to let you in...

Cheap bastards....

Unknown said...

Thank you for the story, : )