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Prisoners of Rock 'n' Roll
Hailed as successors to The Beatles, the British band Badfinger had an extended stay in Milwaukee – a bizarre nightmare from which it never recovered.

by Tom Matthews, illustration by Gluekit

The movie for that Saturday afternoon was 1967’s Journey to the Center of Time, a leaden hunk of sci-fi schlock. The show was WISN’s “Shock Theater,” hosted by Toulouse No-Neck, your typical horror movie host whose schtick included throwing a dummy of himself off the Sky Ride at Summerfest. It would have been a less-than-ideal setting for a performance by any rock band, much less one with the international recognition of Badfinger. This was the British band once hailed as the successor to The Beatles, a classic power-pop group that had several big hits in the late 1960s and early ’70s. True, the band’s fortunes had declined in the intervening years, but it still seemed inconceivable that Badfinger was reduced to performing on “Shock Theater.”

But there it was: Badfinger taping several songs for this low-rent show, including its first hit single, “Come and Get It,” written and produced for the band in 1969 by Paul McCartney. Tom Evans, one of two remaining original members, sang the song with the same youthful spirit of the recording, but behind glassy eyes that seemed haunted by the reality of what his career had come to. Toulouse No-Neck barged onto the set to sing along in an obnoxious cackle. A rubber chicken attached to Evans’ mic stand completed the degradation.

If the episode seemed bizarre, it was merely one incident in a dark two-month period when Badfinger was marooned in Milwaukee. Lured into signing a questionable contract with a shadowy Milwaukee manager, the once-elite band was stuck here with little money and shabby accommodations while performing infrequently for miniscule fees at low-down venues. Badfinger’s nightmarish experience in Milwaukee set off forces that would ultimately finish off the band.

 

It all began so promisingly. It was London, 1968, and Badfinger was freshly signed to Apple Records, the new company launched by The Beatles. Bandmates Pete Ham, Tom Evans, Joey Molland and Mike Gibbins were brought under the tutelage of the Fab Four, and the relationship quickly bore creative fruit. McCartney’s songwriting and production skills sent “Come and Get It” to No. 7 on the charts in 1970. George Harrison co-produced Badfinger’s first album, and they later performed with him at the groundbreaking Concert for Bangladesh and on his solo debut, All Things Must Pass. John Lennon used them on Imagine and gave them their name, supposedly in reference to his clumsy piano skills.

There were three more hit Badfinger singles – “No Matter What,” “Day After Day” and “Baby Blue” – which stand today as perfect displays of power-pop, a minor rock genre Badfinger is credited with innovating. A fourth song – “Without You” – went unnoticed when recorded by the band, but went to No. 1 when Harry Nilsson covered it in 1972, hitting the jackpot for Tom Evans and Pete Ham, who composed it.

That same year, the last of the band’s hits, “Baby Blue,” was released. Things would never be as good again for Badfinger.

The Beatles turned out to be shoddy stewards of their career. The bitter infighting at the end of The Beatles’ reign – combined with the chaotic, dope-addled mess of Apple Records – left Badfinger adrift. Desperate for guidance, they made the mistake of signing with manager Stan Polley, a New York music figure who turned out to be spectacularly corrupt. He created the kind of shell companies and private corporations that make artists blink dimly while signing contracts they don’t understand, and magically made much of the Badfinger fortune disappear. When Polley forced a battle between Apple and Warner Bros. Records, the rights to Badfinger songs (and rich royalty payments from “Without You” and its other hits) were tied into a legal knot that would not be untangled for a decade.

By 1975, the band was floundering. Worthy Badfinger albums went unreleased, while lousy ones – issued quickly to meet contractual demands – turned off record buyers. Ham, the primary songwriter and an emotionally fragile man, was devastated.

On the night of April 23, 1975, Ham and Evans had drinks at a pub while bemoaning their fate, then went back to Ham’s house to work on some songs. Sometime after Evans left, Pete Ham went to the music space he kept in his garage and hanged himself at the age of 27.

The next morning, Tom Evans would cut him down.

 

By all rights, that should have been it for Badfinger. Completely soured on the music business and nearly destitute, Molland worked for a time laying carpet in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley. Evans toiled as a pipefitter in England. But in time, music pulled them back in. For the rest of the ’70s and into the early ’80s, various combinations of Evans, Molland and Gibbins – along with Bob Jackson, who had joined the band while Ham was still alive – toured and recorded as Badfinger. New albums were poorly produced and generally ignored. Those joyous hit singles, their author dead by his own hand, were performed for small crowds in smaller and smaller venues. Fewer and fewer people cared about Badfinger.

But John Cass cared. Thirty years old and a lifelong Milwaukeean, Cass was eking out a living selling restaurant coupon books. And he was a huge Badfinger fan. He had somehow gotten his hands on Evans’ phone number in England, and was certain he was the man to get the band’s career back on track. He would later claim in a legal deposition that he had been involved in booking concerts for Journey, Little Feat and other big-name acts in Wisconsin. He told Evans he had a way to get his songs to Frank Sinatra. When Evans insisted Cass travel to England as a show of seriousness, he complied. Impressed, Evans figured there might be a use one day for this John Cass.

By the late spring of 1982, Evans and drummer Mike Gibbins were stranded in Detroit after yet another attempt to revive Badfinger. Evans reached out to Cass from across Lake Michigan, and Cass made his move: If the band could get themselves to Milwaukee, Cass would put together a proper tour and restore Badfinger to its past glory.

The first call Evans made was to Bob Jackson back in England. Jackson was suspicious of the deal.

“I was very dubious,” Jackson says, recalling when Evans put Cass on the phone to discuss it. “But the thing that drew me to it was Tom. He had been a mate and a good friend, and the idea of getting back together to move Badfinger forward was a labor of love. So I went because of Tom, not because it was a great money deal.”

Cass said something about $500 a week for each band member and a full slate of gigs, the details of which had yet to be worked out. A journeyman musician, Jackson was compelled to leave behind his wife and newborn daughter. But he insisted Cass pay for a roundtrip plane ticket.

“The idea was that I was just going over for two or three weeks to see if there was really work for us,” Jackson says. “That’s what I left telling my wife.”

Jackson met up with his bandmates and Cass in Detroit, and complications immediately arose. Cass insisted on separate work contracts with each band member; it would later come out that he had already signed Evans to a far more extensive agreement. Cass demanded an eight-week commitment, with an optional 10-week extension. Suddenly Jackson’s few weeks away from home were threatening to turn into four months.

Desperate, disoriented and eager to revive a band he truly believed in, Jackson signed the papers along with everyone else. And then Tom Evans, Bob Jackson, Mike Gibbins, a pickup guitar player and two roadies crawled into a van and headed for Milwaukee.

 

Cass was required by the contract to provide the band lodging. To that end, he dropped off the band in Hales Corners, where he had access to an empty house. The problem was that it was a show home for a development complex. And it had almost no furniture.

“There was no place for all of us to sleep,” Jackson says. “I think there was one double bed. There were four of us plus the road crew. A big alarm bell rang, but by this point, we were locked into this work contract.”

But the work didn’t seem to be coming. While the band waited for gigs to be scheduled, it spent more time with its new benefactor. Jackson recalls one moment vividly.

“Tommy and I went ’round to see Cass and we were talking about this, that and the other, and then he started all this quasi-religious talk about The Beatles. He said The Beatles were like gods or spiritual leaders to him. And he said he was writing a book about them, which he kept in his refrigerator.

“Tommy and I were like, ‘O-o-o-kay. So why is it in the fridge, then?’ And he said, very seriously, that if the house burned down, he wouldn’t want the world to lose this important thing he had written.”

Cass did manage to book rehearsal space for Badfinger at a warehouse at Second and National, which was home base to numerous Milwaukee bands in the early ’80s. One of them was The Wigs, whose own brand of power-pop would soon take them to Los Angeles for their shot at the Big Time. Bandleader Jim Cushinery, who still works in the L.A. music industry, had been a hardcore Badfinger fan in his youth. He was astonished to find himself sharing a space with them.

“They were direct descendants of The Beatles, for God’s sake,” Cushinery says. “They created some of the most perfect pop melodies of the very early ’70s.”

Aghast at the level to which his heroes had fallen, Cushinery socialized briefly with Evans in the rehearsal hall’s communal kitchen. He saw firsthand the pain the musician was in. “I brought in my copy of their album Straight Up, intending to have him sign it. I said, ‘Hey, look what I’ve got,’ and the life drained out of his face. He just said, ‘Oh, that.’ I sheepishly put it away.

“My impression was that he seemed beaten. It was easy to understand why.”

Cushinery says some of Evans’ distress was caused by local musicians, who were pretty nasty to the band. “Badfinger had one of their posters hanging in the rehearsal space, and someone from one of the other bands scrawled on it that Pete Ham was spinning in his grave.” Someone else hung a doll to mock Ham’s suicide. “It was pretty awful,” Cushinery says with a grimace all these years later.

 

Soon, Cass was able to cobble together some dates, but the bookings were slapdash. They were squeezed into a midday slot at Summerfest, without billing or pay (no record exists of this, but Jackson swears they were there). They played to a puny outdoor crowd at an oldies show at Little Switzerland in Slinger, where the highlight for the audience was watching security guards chase off a couple having sex on the ski hill. They played tiny clubs like Judges and the Peppermint Lounge, where Mike Shumway – who ironically would grow up to perform as John Lennon in Milwaukee’s venerable Beatles tribute band, The BriTins – was just out of high school and could not believe his good luck.

“The Peppermint Lounge was where local bands played. It was kind of a dump; it held maybe 150 people,” Shumway says. “My friend and I must’ve heard about the show on WEMP or WOKY. But the tickets were only five bucks! We thought it had to be some kind of farce.

“We showed up and there wasn’t much of a crowd. We went right to the front of the stage and figured this was going to be a joke. But over the course of the show, we were like, ‘Wow!’ They were really good.”

Indeed, recollections found on the Internet and through interviews with those who caught Badfinger in the area over the summer of ’82 are almost universal: Fans couldn’t believe how good the band was, and couldn’t believe it was playing such lousy places.

“Can I second that opinion?” Jackson asks with a wounded laugh 27 years later. “We went to Cass and said, ‘What else do you have lined up, because these gigs are hopeless.’ He’d just put us off: ‘It’s all just around the corner, these things take time.’ ”

As the band became more obstinate, Cass became menacing. A secretive figure with unknown sources of income (“He never seemed to have to go to a job,” Jackson recalls), it eventually came out that Cass lived in Milwaukee under an entirely different name: Greg Dell’Aringa. And when the band started to rebel, Jackson says Cass/Dell’Aringa would drop hints that he had mob connections they didn’t want to provoke.

“We were very concerned about it, particularly Tom. He had signed a lot more documents than I had,” says Jackson. “You wonder if you’re being paranoid, but then you worry, maybe it’s for real.”

The threats were subtle, but as Evans would later dryly observe of underworld figures: “Those types of people don’t give specifics, do they?”

 

A handful of gigs followed, including “Shock Theater.” According to Rick Felski, who played Toulouse No-Neck on the show from 1979-84, Cass (known to him as Dell’Aringa) had earlier been hawking his restaurant coupon books on WISN. When he subsequently turned up with the once-renowned Badfinger, now scrounging for exposure, Felski eagerly brought them onto the soundstage where WISN also produced “Dialing For Dollars with Howard & Rosemary.”

“We couldn’t quite believe what was happening,” Jackson says of the gig, which is on YouTube. “We didn’t know what this show was or what the tone was until we saw the guy in full makeup. We didn’t know that Toulouse No-Neck was going to jump on stage to sing ‘Come and Get It’ with us, or that there’d be dancing girls.”

The band hadn’t been in Milwaukee a month, and it had been reduced to a laughingstock. “I got terribly depressed,” Jackson recalls. “I remember calling my wife in England from some supermarket in Milwaukee and just crying. I felt awful that I had been away all this while and was going to come back with nothing.”

Nearing the end of the original eight-week commitment and with the gigs and money dwindled to nothing, there was no more reason to stick around. The problem was that, while Jackson had been smart enough to demand a return ticket to England from Cass, Evans – co-author of a No. 1 song 10 years earlier – didn’t have the money to leave town. “I could have gone home to my wife and kiddie and just left Tom to fend for himself. I had my Get Out of Jail Free card. But I couldn’t do that.”

Salvation would come from an unlikely source. The band’s imprisonment in its empty Hales Corners house had become unbearable. When they complained to Cass that they were starving from lack of funds, he mocked their desperation by sending over a case of dog food. To escape such indignities, Jackson and Evans started frequenting Poppers, a bar down the street at Highway 100 and Janesville Road. There they befriended an Iranian émigré named Alex Shlimanoff, who owned a TV repair shop nearby. Seeing how the band was suffering, Shlimanoff began inviting the musicians to his home. Badfinger may have encountered the worst that Milwaukee had to offer in Cass, but they also found the best, some old-fashioned Midwestern hospitality, in Alex Shlimanoff.

“I can remember sitting at a barbecue with Alex and his wife and their kiddie, playing guitars and singing and just being happy,” Jackson recalls fondly. “We had escaped that horrible show home for a night or two. We were really indebted to him for giving us that.” (Shlimanoff declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Shlimanoff’s generosity grew to finally loaning Evans the money he needed for a plane ticket home. Still fearful of Cass’ threats, Jackson says he and Evans slunk down in the car to the airport to avoid detection and didn’t feel safe until the plane left the ground. “It was like a bad movie: Escape From Milwaukee,” he says with a laugh.

 

And yet, just two months later, they were back in Milwaukee to try it all again. Tending bar at Poppers over that past summer had been Jack Koshick, a fledgling manager and promoter. Somehow Koshick convinced Evans, Jackson and Mike Gibbins that he was the under- credentialed Milwaukeean to bring them back to musical relevance. By October of ’82 they had returned, this time sleeping on Koshick’s floor and steering clear of his furious wife, as Jackson recalls it.

They assembled yet another version of Badfinger, which for a time included Mequon’s Reed Kailing. Kailing had enjoyed some local Beatles-era glory of his own with the Destinations in the ’60s, and went on to play with the Grass Roots and – again, ironically – as Paul McCartney in early stagings of Beatlemania in Los Angeles and New York.

This new Badfinger at least broke free of metro Milwaukee and toured the Midwest and East Coast. Money was tight and touring conditions often abysmal, but in the final quarter of ’82, Badfinger played nearly 50 dates.

According to Kailing, this Badfinger really could have gone places. “Tommy and I became very tight right off the bat, like brothers. We both had the same musical interests. It was just one of those magical things. But Jack really bungled up the tour. He had good intentions. … He would deliver something good, but then there was a lot of bad.”

Whatever prospects Badfinger might’ve had took a major hit in mid-December 1982. Hanging out in a dressing room at a club in Alton, Ill., Evans and Jackson were approached by someone they thought was a fan, but turned out to be a process server: The two of them – along with Gibbins – were being sued by Cass for breaking the contracts they had signed in June.

Jackson and Gibbins were on the hook for sums that could have been crippling for musicians in their position. “I called home to tell my wife I’d been sued, and she told me the bailiff had already been around our house,” Jackson says. “He was looking at the furniture and taking notes, possibly to turn it all over to Cass. We could have lost everything.”

But for Evans, who had signed a separate agreement with Cass, the financial stakes were beyond belief. Cass had to have known Evans was a pauper with a small fortune pending. Despite the fact that Evans’ home in England was nearly foreclosed upon while he toured the states, despite the fact that he was fielding calls on the road from his wife, who despaired that she couldn’t afford new shoes for their son, on ledger books at Apple Records, Evans was a wealthy man. More than $1 million from the early Badfinger records remained locked up at Apple, just waiting for lawyers to sort it out. Royalties from “Without You” and the band’s other hits would continue to pay dividends for decades.

In his suit against Evans, Cass claimed the loss of profits, remunerations, royalties and business opportunities as a result of Evans breaking their deal. The amount that would make the former coupon book mogul whole again? Five million dollars.

In a deposition taken in Milwaukee in September 1983, Evans’ lack of legal savvy is heartbreaking and exasperating. Pressed by Cass’ lawyers to explain the deal he had signed with Cass and his justification for breaking it, Evans floundered. (“I’m no lawyer, I’m a musician,” he pleads at one point.) Also evident in Evans’ testimony is the argument his lawyers would make – that Cass may have secured Evans’ signature while plying him with alcohol and drugs. Evans’ supporters admit he frequently abused both.

As the case dragged on, yet another version of Badfinger – no longer including Reed Kailing – kept trudging to bars and small clubs in the eastern U.S. With Koshick still scrambling to hold things together, money and tour logistics remained slipshod. Koshick later won infamy for running the Odd Rock Café and a 1989 performance there by gross-out rocker G.G. Allin, who defecated on stage as part of his act (Koshick would sue Allin for $2 million). Koshick more recently managed TV has-been and Milwaukee-area resident Dustin Diamond (“Saved By the Bell”), and looks destined to forever toil at the hind end of the entertainment industry.

“The thing with Jack was that he did try,” Jackson says generously of Koshick. “But he either didn’t have the skills or the contacts to see it through properly. Every tour we did with him just crumbled and went wrong.” Koshick insists the tour was as well run as circumstances allowed.

With the Cass suit still hanging over its head, Badfinger played its final U.S. date in Florida in late September 1983, and Evans and Jackson returned to England, dejected. Evans, by this point, was at his emotional depths. He was getting harangued by original Badfinger manager Bill Collins and former bandmates Gibbins and Molland for a bigger share of the Apple Records funds. Despite the fact that none of them had anything to do with Harry Nilsson’s recording of “Without You,” they were pressuring Evans for a cut. The money would not be released until he acquiesced.

Then there was the $5 million John Cass was demanding. In Without You: The Tragic Story of Badfinger, Tom’s brother David Evans says that Cass was never far from his sibling’s mind. “Tom talked a lot about this John Cass thing. He’d been trying to laugh it off, but [Cass] was persistent. Tom was worried. ... He said he wanted a lot of money.”

On the night of Nov. 18, 1983 – two months after he was in Milwaukee giving his deposition – Evans had a furious phone conversation with Molland about the Apple stalemate. He slammed down the phone and told his wife, Marianne, “I’ll be dead before I get the money!”

The next morning, Evans’ 6-year-old son woke his mother, saying a man was standing in their garden. Drawing near, she saw it was her husband’s body. Tom Evans had hanged himself from a backyard tree. He was 36.

 

In September 1985, almost two years after Evans died, funds being held by Apple Records were finally released and royalties began to flow. In 1994, when “Without You” became a hit yet again – this time for Mariah Carey – the estates of Pete Ham and Tom Evans prospered, as did Molland, Gibbins and Collins, who grabbed their share of a hit they neither wrote nor recorded. Molland – the last surviving original member – is still out hustling for work with a band prominently billed as Joey Molland’s Badfinger.

In October 1985, a settlement in the John Cass suit was reached in Milwaukee. The cases against Jackson and the others were dismissed. In the separate suit against Evans, Evans’ estate was ordered to grant Cass publishing rights to albums and songs recorded well after Badfinger’s heyday that are essentially worthless. However, something in the settlement apparently keeps Cass hopeful there is still a big score to be had from his brush with Badfinger. Court documents show that as recently as January 2002, he was seeking a new judgment against the widow of Evans, claiming to be owed more money. (Cass, who still lives in Milwaukee under the name Gregory Dell’Aringa, refused interview requests.)

“Cass was a con man,” says Jackson. “He was a factor in Tommy’s death. He wasn’t the only thing, but he was definitely a factor. He certainly caused me a great deal of mental anguish and worry.”

At 61, Jackson is still a working musician in his native Coventry, England, touring with the Beatles-era band The Fortunes, writing songs and trying to find an audience for his solo material. Having never scored a hit of his own, the highs were never as high as they were for Evans and Ham. But all these years later, Jackson’s the one still around to make music.

“So many times over the years, people have learned I’m a musician and they say, ‘What a life you have. You go on stage for an hour and that’s it.’ They think we’re just sitting around twiddling our thumbs and having a great time, and it’s never been like that,” he says. “The good times are on the stage, but there have been so many business problems over the years. It’s just the musician’s life.”

And yet it never stops attracting starry-eyed newcomers: The infant daughter Jackson left behind to come to Milwaukee 27 years ago is now a musician herself, looking for a break in The Beatles’ Liverpool. Jackson hopes she won’t repeat his mistakes.

“Coming to Milwaukee was not the best thing,” Jackson says, his endearing British understatement not disguising the pain still felt. “If only we hadn’t gotten trapped over there. If only we’d taken a bit more stock of what would be best for the band. But we were a bit naïve and desperate, and desperate people do desperate things.”

 

Freelancer Tom Matthews also profiled The BoDeans for Milwaukee Magazine. Write to him at letters@milwaukeemagazine.com.

 





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