Wanna have some fun?
Imagine Wes Craven directing a Ventures music video. Add Space Ghost and Jason to the lineup. Now, imagine all this is taking place in your living room.
Got the picture? Then chances are you’re at a Concussions concert. With masked identities (literally), an infectious stage presence, and a clean, engaging musicality, the Concussions are one of West Michigan’s most enduring, and perhaps only, garage surf band.
Started as a fill-in band for a benefit concert, the group has stayed together for nine years with the same basic lineup and a philosophy that it all starts, and ends, with having a good time.
The Concussions trace their roots to the Torpedos, a three-man rock band featuring (not real names) guitarist Dick Chiclet, his brother, Matt Mason, on bass, and a cousin, Johnny Lightning on drums. Johnny took ill with leukemia at age 33 and was quickly gone. The group disbanded and Chiclet helped set up a benefit for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society at St. George’s Hall on the west side.
Local drummer Billy Vits was invited to play and he and guitarist Mark Stanton (aka Claude Nine) joined the newly christened group.
“We had a good turnout and we raised a fair amount of money,” Chiclet recalls. “It was supposed to be a one time thing but we had so much fun...and we started getting offers to play about 45 minutes into our set. We’ve stayed together for nine years and two records.”
The group’s style is classic instrumental rock, played without mikes and with skeleton head masks. There’s a reason for both.
“We want to maintain the feel of performing in your garage or living room,” Chiclet says. “We only consider using mikes if it’s a large venue.”
“People react differently when they see us,” he explains. “There’s an air of mystery. Would you pay attention to a surf band wearing Hawaiian shirts and flip-flops?”
Adds Vits: “We live in a visual society. I don’t care how good the music is, if there’s nothing to watch people aren’t into it.”
“If you don’t go chasing everything, it comes to you.” — Dick Chiclet
The masks can be limiting, Chiclet admits, but he makes do: “They’re a real bitch to wear when you’re playing — you lose five to ten pounds each time.” But there’s room for refreshment. Specially cut mouth holes follow the natural curvature of a stein. “And you can always use a straw,” he adds.
Having and creating good times is a mantra for the group, one Chiclet traces to the group’s incarnation.
“When Johnny died we shifted into another gear,” he recalls. “It wasn’t as important to know what people thought; you had to lose your ego and just have fun. If you don’t go chasing everything, it comes to you.”
The music first came to him in the early 1990s when he heard his idol, Link Wray, play “Big City After Dark.” He says “it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Never playing a note before, I went out and bought a Danelectro guitar and Premier amp — Link's weapons of choice.”
Chiclet worked with a number of top-flight area musicians who taught him more than picking up licks.
“Their talent was off the charts but they couldn’t tame their egos,” he recalls. “The older I get, the more willing I am to lose my ego.”
Vits, a well-respected and versatile drummer, has been part of the Grand Rapids music scene since the late 1970s when he joined the Grand Rapids Symphony.
His early love for the drums came as a piano student in his hometown of Nashville. The son of his piano teacher was a drummer who was into soul, R&B and jazz. Vits’ first exposure to this type music was a recording of “Green Onions” by Booker T and the MGs.
“I’d rather play something again than edit the performance.” — Bill Vits
The Vits family later moved to Indiana and Bill earned a degree in music education from Ball State and a Master’s from U-M, all in four years. Following the latter, he was hired by the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra. He joined the symphony at a key point in its history. The orchestra musicians were gaining full-time status, many of them funded by local benefactors. Edith Blodgett sponsored Vits’ chair and is still his patron.
His broad tastes in music led Vits to venture into areas such as Eastown, where he connected with local musicians, such as fellow drummer Randy Marsh, the late Bruce Early, and the Torpedoes, among others. “I went to all the places — The Biermeister, White Rabbit, the Intersection, the Eastown Saloon,” Vits remembers. The contrast in styles and venues contributed to a flexible style that allows him to find a groove in any musical context.
“Drumming has almost gotten assaultive,” he explains. “Lots of people have lost their sense of dynamics. They just play loud all the time. In the symphony you have to play soft; you can’t play like a Cro-Magnon man. You hear all this talk about playing through the drums...I’m more of a snap it with a towel type.”
Chiclet and Vits extend their musical sensibilities to recording as well, preferring analog technology to digital.
“Our stuff is recorded in analog, in real time,” Vits says. “We’re not in there correcting individual notes and shifting stuff around. I’d rather play something again than edit the performance. I jumped off that technological bus a few years ago.”
Chiclet still operates his own studio, the Goon Lagoon, and has gained a reputation for supporting and recording as many acts as he can. And While Vits and Chiclet show no signs of slowing down, they are viewing their success with a different perspective.
Vits’ goal is to enjoy a 50-year tenure with the GRSO and continue with the Concussions as long as they can go.
“We have a great niche thing going,” he says. “We don’t look to play bars or clubs every weekend. We look for special events and we try to keep them fresh and fun.”
Vits is married and he and his wife, Stacey have a son, Tabor, who is “more of a singer dancer type. He can play some drums, but he’s pursued that part of it.”
Chiclet, once divorced, is engaged to his longtime girlfriend, Emily. Emily has a five-and-a-half year old daughter and Chiclet hints that a change in lifestyle will have a calming influence.
And there’s more than a ghost of a chance they’ll have some fun along the way.
The Concussions have produced two CDs to date: “Introducing the Concussions” and “Magic Fingers.” Both are available at fine music outlets everywhere or by visiting the Concussions web site: theconcussions.com. The Concussions on Facebook.
The Concussions will next appear at Goodnight Gracie in Ann Arbor October 1st. Event info.
Many thanks to our friends at Modern Skate & Surf for letting us shoot our video in their place!
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