Sixteen months before I met or knew of Jeff, he indirectly inspired me to attend the University of Missouri.
I was 17, a high-school junior in Rockford, when the Big Star show happened. I had a part-time job at the Rockford Register Star and spent a chunk of my meager income on whatever new-to-me music sounded interesting. I first heard about the show on “120 Minutes,” or maybe “MTV News with Kurt Loder.” I jotted down “Big Star” on a piece of paper, or a discarded envelope or receipt, as has always been my custom when I hear something new. A day or two later I made my twice-weekly pilgrimage to Appletree Records, and as usual, I warily approached the “Staff Picks” display in the front of the store near the window. Half of the Staff Picks were always Pegboy, Pigface, Naked Raygun, Meat Beat Manifesto, anything new or semi-new on Touch & Go, Wax Trax!, SST, etc. The other half were always something like Material Issue, Hoodoo Gurus, Paul Weller, XTC, something college-rockish, jangly, paisley, esteemed singer-songwriter-ish, etc. I was stunned to find that half of the six or seven Staff Picks were Big Star. I thought, “Well, I certainly need to check out Big Star. I wonder if someone has a copy I can dub?” and “It’s sure notable that this college radio station made this happen and that the reunion of this band is resonating so widely as to capture the attention of people that listen to nothing but Pegboy and Meat Beat Manifesto.” Over the next month, it seemed like the Big Star reunion was mentioned everywhere: Rolling Stone, SPIN, Option, Chicago Reader, zines, mail-order catalogs, the Dionysus distribution catalog, etc. I began to think, “Well, if I go to Missouri for journalism school, it will probably be a little intense. But maybe I could volunteer at this radio station and spend half my time just hanging out with cool people and learning about music.”
On my first full day in Columbia, maybe a Sunday or Monday in mid-August 1994 before classes started, there was a freshman-orientation mixer for my dorm. It was one of those things where you throw around a beanbag, catch it, introduce yourself and say something like, “People might be surprised if they knew I hated olives.” I already knew that everyone in my dorm was in the marching band and/or into Magic: The Gathering, so I thought, “Well, fuck this. I should go visit the record stores.” I was already familiar with Salt of the Earth after spending a few hours there, so I rambled up 10th St. to Whizz! The guy behind the counter (who I was about to learn was Jeff) immediately made fun of my shirt for being too big. It was probably an XL Coctails or Polvo shirt, and I weighed about 120 pounds. I was accustomed to being casually insulted by record-store clerks, so I immediately felt at peace. I started looking around, getting my bearings of how things were organized, and all of a sudden I thought, “Holy shit. What is this beautiful record that he just put on?” I asked Jeff, and he gave me this weirdly intense look. His eyes narrowed, his whole body froze, his mouth fell open and he slowly and almost imperceptibly nodded two or three times. Then he picked up Gaunt “Sob Story,” slid it over to me across the counter, turned the stereo up a few notches and silently went back to reading. I sat on the old Whizz! couch and dove into the zine racks as the rest of “Sob Story” played. That was the first of 999,999,999 things that Jeff clued me into, and the first of 999,999,999 times that I saw that intense look, followed by two or three slow imperceptible nods.
In the spring of 1996, South by Southwest was at the same time as Missouri’s spring break. Jeff and a few other people somehow persuaded the Missouri Students Association to rent a van and send a bunch of Music Committee folks to Austin. I was only loosely affiliated with the Music Committee (so it didn’t seem right to get a festival bracelet), I had just turned 20 (so I couldn’t get into bars) and I wanted to go to Rockford for a few days to see my family (so I’d have to find another way to get down there). Jeff suggested, “Fly down, sleep on the floor, play it by ear, something will happen.” I flew from O’Hare at dawn and found Jeff and a few of the others in the Austin airport parking lot, waiting by the back of the university’s rental van. With a big smile on his face, Jeff reached into his pocket and produced a thick joint the size of a taquito. It was so large that I felt as if I struggled to get anything at all, but suddenly we were on the highway and I was 400 million light years away in outer space. We got to the La Quinta just after 11 a.m. to rendezvous with the rest of the group and the Music Committee advisor/chaperone. I hadn’t slept in 30 hours and rolled up in a ball on the floor for a few minutes like a big stoner-worm. Our advisor knocked on the door, and Jeff suggested, “Go in the bathroom and drink some water. When she asks what’s wrong with you, we’ll say you have allergies and a stomachache.” That worked just fine, and soon we set out on an arduous, circuitous march to see every in-store record store performance that we could get to in time. I believe that was the afternoon we saw Iggy Pop perform on a giant raised stage in the middle of an intersection. I was still thoroughly baked, and I thought, “Man, he looks like Skeletor from He-Man.” He got naked and dangled his crustacean-like, 900-year-old wang all over the place, and all I could think about was Orko and Battle Cat. About 11 or 12 hours later, once all the bars were closed and the streets were covered in hot garbage and discarded paper plates, Jeff suggested, “Let’s see what else is going on.” I was still utterly stoned and up for whatever. We waded through the hot garbage for what seemed like hours and suddenly came upon Mary Lou Lord playing through a portable amp in front of a Kinko’s. One other person was paying attention: a shirtless gentleman wearing a beaded vest and Moon Boots. The three of us sat listening for a while on the edge of a raised curbside planter, then she made a cryptic remark about a song she had played. Jeff immediately responded, as if recognizing a familiar language in a far-away, foreign market. At once, they were off to the races, speaking easily in some indecipherable tongue about some unknown shared appreciation. Twenty minutes later, we moved up the street to get a slice from a pizza window, and we sat on the curb to eat it. Almost immediately, a naked man ran up the street 10 feet in front of us, tripping balls and screaming about ghosts. Two heavily armed cops on horseback pulled up and forcefully subdued the hell out of the naked man, as we ate our slices. I said, “Hey, what in the world were you and Mary Lou Lord talking about back there?” Jeff said, “You GOTTA hear side B of (one of Kris Kristofferson’s albums from the early 1970s.) It’s…A-MAZING.”
For Jeff’s ghost, when there’s no curling to watch: