Melissa Merli's Art Beat: New film looks at the glory days of the C-U rock scene

Melissa Merli's Art Beat: New film looks at the glory days of the C-U rock scene

Bob Zimmerman remembers hearing a lot of Champaign rock bands at Saturday night dances in Tuscola when he was growing up there.

As he got older, Zimmerman would drive to Champaign-Urbana to hear the music. He soon noticed how vibrant the scene was here.

Not a musician himself, he nonetheless became part of the scene, working on road crews for the bands Skater and Starcastle.

Two years ago, about the time the Finchley Boys reunited for a concert in downtown Champaign, Zimmerman began working on a documentary about the Champaign music scene. He eventually titled it "Out of Nowhere" in reference to promo material on a Starcastle album.

The documentary opens with rural scenes that Zimmerman shot in Douglas and Champaign counties, presumably to show C-U is nowhere, though he doesn't believe that and neither did Starcastle.

The documentary mainly covers the 1960s, '70s and '80s, when the Champaign rock scene was arguably at its strongest (though a couple of decades later, there was some talk about C-U being the "next Seattle").

And Zimmerman brings the scene up to date with interviews of Ryan Groff, the frontman for Elsinore, one of the most successful local rock bands on the current Champaign music scene.

In "Out of Nowhere," Zimmerman explores why Champaign had such a big scene, interviewing numerous musicians, former record store owners and folks who were in the music supply business.

Interspersed with the interviews are live concert footage and recorded music by local bands, among them the Delta Kings, whose "Rock and Roll Will Take You In," written by Cody Sokolski, opens the documentary.

This documentary would appeal to people who grew up here and/or were fans of the music scene or who are nostalgic for it. There are a lot of blasts from the past in "Out of Nowhere," with Slink Rand, Roger Francisco, John Schlitt who was in Head East and others adding their input.

And Mark Rubel, owner of Pogo Studio and a member of Captain Rat and the Blind Rivets, appears often. A townie who admits to sneaking into local bars when he was underage, Rubel is the first and last talking head in the documentary.

"He's just this wealth of knowledge," Zimmerman said. "Once I started putting this film together, he just kept popping up a lot."

The strongest material comes from uber-guitarist Adrian Belew, who lived in Urbana for five years after he had already achieved mainstream success, and R.E.O. Speedwagon, the most successful and long-lasting rock band to come out of Champaign and who sort of kicked off the rock music scene here.

Zimmerman interviewed Belew at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts when he played at the Ellnora Guitar Festival.

The Speedwagon interviews took place on the band's touring bus as it tooled around C-U a couple of years ago, with band members Kevin Cronin and Neal Doughty reminiscing about the band's start. Both rockers are sharp and funny.

Cronin says C-U was a hotbed for rock 'n' roll in the Midwest; he  refers to it as Berkeley East.

He and others interviewed offer plenty of reasons for that, one being that the University of Illinois provides a ready-made target demographic for rock music. The university also supplies students who form or join bands here.

Other reasons cited were the large number of venues, among them the Red Lion, Mabel's, Ruby Gulch and frat parties; enough businesses that could supply bands with instruments and other equipment, actually everything they needed; and C-U's proximity to Chicago, Indianapolis and St. Louis.

Also contributing big time to the strength of the music scene was Blytham Ltd., a booking agency, and agent Irving Azoff, a Danville resident who hooked up with Blytham after he came to the UI as a student.

In the documentary, Cronin describes the young Azoff as a powerhouse and go-getter; after leaving Illinois, Azoff eventually managed the Eagles and other major rock acts. He's now CEO of Live Nation Entertainment, a mega-company formed from the merger of Live Nation and Ticketmaster.

"Irving, of course, went on to take over the world," Cronin says in "Out of Nowhere." "His global dominance started right here in Champaign."

Zimmerman tried but failed to land an interview with Azoff. That doesn't surprise me. I remember that Azoff, or his managers, always declined interview requests from The Commercial-News in Danville as well as The News-Gazette.

You can catch up with Azoff as he is today at There in a video and text posted just last month he tells "classic Neil Young and Joe Walsh stories," as the headline reads, and talks about the current state of the music business.

(I've often wondered why Danville doesn't pay more tribute to Azoff, one of its most successful products and Danville High alumni? Why not a street? Or a Walldogs mural? Something!)

Also making the Champaign music scene special was that most rock bands played original music.

"If you didn't have original music, that separated you," Cronin said. "If you could play a whole set of original music, that was a rite of passage. R.E.O. Speedwagon was one of the first bands to pull that off."

Zimmerman shows throughout the documentary many promo photographs, most in black and white, of bands through the years, among them Nix 86, the Mighty Pranksters, Moon Seven Times and the Poster Children.

Unfortunately, the only time women rockers make an appearance in the documentary is in those stills. Zimmerman told me some people he contacted never got back to him — or got back to him too late.

"It really came down to what I had to work with once I finally decided I was going to finish the edit," he said. "There were some and still are some really good woman artists in the area."

Zimmerman hopes to make a follow-up. In it he would perhaps cover other musical genres and include some of the people left out of "Out of Nowhere."

He said he aimed for an overview and to keep the film positive.

"The music scene is an important part of the community and the UI," he said. "That is what really came out to me. We had a lot of big-name people who came out of this area, but we have thousands of others who can say they were part of this scene. In Part 2, I hope to get a lot more of them in that film."

He also thinks a book would be great.

"You wouldn't believe all the stories I heard," he said.

Zimmerman believes "Out of Nowhere" is the first documentary made on the Champaign rock scene. Around the same time Zimmerman first previewed "Out of Nowhere," in September, the Illinois Alumni magazine published an article, written by Doug Peterson, about the scene here, titling it "School of Rock."

But, "No one has every tried to do a film about the local music scene, and I'm pretty happy with what I've done," Zimmerman said.

For you techies, he used a Panasonic DVX100b camera, a MacBook Pro and Final Cut. He's selling the DVD for $15 at Exile on Main, Parasol Records, and through

Earlier this fall, Zimmerman previewed "Out of Nowhere" in the snazzy viewing room at Garrett Oostdyk's Picture Perfect Sound in west Champaign. Oostdyk, a guitarist, appears in the documentary as a talking head and as a member of The Finchley Boys. He also was in The Rave and other bands.

Oostdyk calls "Out of Nowhere" a must-see for music lovers.

Brian Cook, who played in the Rave and who's also interviewed in "Out of Nowhere," says: "One of music history's most-often ignored and best-kept secrets has been 'outed' in a newly released DVD by local filmmaker Bob Zimmerman. Champaign was a virtual 'Rock Garden' during the '60s, '70s and '80s, giving life to some of the finest and original musicians and musical groups anywhere."

U.S.A. Fellow

LeAnne Howe, a UI professor of English and Native American studies, recently received a U.S.A. Ford Fellowship worth $50,000. The bestowing agency is the nonprofit United States Artists, which each year gives fellowships to 50 American artists in multiple disciplines.

Other 2012 U.S.A. Fellows with (loose) UI connections are Edgar Heap of Birds and Aleksandar Hemon.

Heap of Birds works in multidisciplinary forms that include public art, large-scale drawing, paintings and prints. You might remember that he created the "Native Hosts" signs for the block of Nevada Street in Urbana where the UI's cultural houses are. The signs, installed in 2009, marked previously unmarked and unnamed removals of American Indians from the land. Heap of Birds visited campus several times while the signs were up; the university later purchased them.

Hemon is known primarily as a fiction writer. He has lived since 1993 in Chicago, where he was stranded during the outbreak of the Bosnian war while visiting from his native Sarajevo. "He writes about displacement and exile, mixing autobiography and fiction," according to his U.S.A. Fellow bio.

Hemon was a visiting professor in creative writing at the UI in fall 2004, the same semester he received a MacArthur genius grant.

The fellows picked up their awards last Sunday at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

"The celebration was elegant, snazzy, and filled with humble, yet exuberant artists," Howe wrote in her blog. "There were the presentations by various artists, dancers, musicians and poet Adrian Castro, U.S.A. Fellow 2012, read from his work."

Howe is a novelist, poet, playwright and screenwriter as well as a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Her work deals primarily with American Indian experiences.

I feel privileged to have interviewed Howe, Hemon and Heap of Birds in the past, and I wish them all continued success.

News-Gazette staff writer Melissa Merli can be reached at 351-5367 or Her blog is at

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