Between The Tracks
- Imagine being the opening act for Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix – all before your 21st birthday. Jim Peterik did it and not only had one of the fastest-selling singles from a major label but also went on to co-write some of the biggest rock anthems of the 80s. It all started with a hot girl, an anti-drug pamphlet and a fumbling audio engineer.
The Ides of March
#2 Billboard Hot 100
I’m a friendly stranger in the black sedan
Won’t you hop inside my car?
I got pictures, got candy
I’m a lovable man
And I can take you to the nearest star
Jim Peterik was 15 years old in 1966 and fronting a suburban Chicago high school rock band called The Ides of March. They were previously known as The Shon-Dells until classmate and bassist Bob Bergland suggested a name change after reading Julius Caesar. The Ides of March had a minor hit that Summer with “You Wouldn’t Listen” that made it to #42 on the July Hot 100. Two years later, Jim had a chance encounter that would change his life. In an interview with The Tennessean, Jim shared the story of meeting Karen for the first time:
So, you know I’m 17 years old. I’m a junior in high school. I’ve heard that my favorite band was coming to Riverside Brookfield High School, the Turtles…I showed up early and it was open seating, so I was there at 6 o’clock for an 8 o’clock concert near the front of the line waiting to get in. All of a sudden, this gaggle of girls is dancing next to me, and one is cuter than the next. I went, “Oh my God.” There was one girl that just had these big eyes and she wasn’t looking at me. She was playing it cool. I said to myself, “Well, that girl’s way out of my league. She’ll never talk to me.” Just then, she turned around and said, “Aren’t you Peterik?” I go, “Yeah.” She said, “I just saw your band, The Ides of March, last week. You opened for The New Colony Six. You guys were great.” I go, “There is a God.” My nerves broke down and we started talking like we had known each other for a hundred years. We’re talking about our favorite movies, and the other girls, as cute as they were, they just kind of disappeared and there was just this one girl.
The concert ended, and my car was parked right in front. It was a ’65 Valiant, beautiful and white. I said, “Hey, do you want a ride home?” And she said, “Oh no. My dad would never let me do that, but you can walk me home to my girlfriend’s house.” So, I walked her home, memorized her phone number, and I said, “I’ll call you.” I couldn’t get up the nerve to call her for another week and she thought that I would never get up the nerve to call her. We started dating, and we went to a play at the high school. We were walking back to her house…she gave me the kiss of a lifetime. She was way more advanced than I was. I never had a kiss like that, and I floated home just like on gossamer wings, as they say.
Many romantic dates followed over the next six months. Life was good until Karen wanted to see other people. Peterik shared with SongFacts:
I was thoroughly heartbroken. I spent the next few months writing sad songs, depressive melodies, introspective garbage, and forcing the Ides to do long blues jams for our show encores. I was also on a mission to find another Karen. There was a girl who looked a lot like her, but when we started dating, I realized that personality was 9/10’s of the law. I guess I had to somehow win her back!
One day I got a call from Karen. My heart jumped into my throat. She asked me if I could drive her to modeling school. Instead of playing it cool, I found myself saying, ‘I’ll be right over.’ I figured our proximity would remind her how much she really loved me. It was great riding next to her again, though I had to make sure I controlled my hands and my heart. This pattern continued for a few weeks with Karen asking me to drive her to various appointments and functions.
While Karen continued helping herself to free travel, it was really Jim who was being taken for a ride. Meanwhile, The Ides of March gained momentum by adding Steve Daniels on trumpet with John Larsen and Chuck Soumar on horns. Bergland added occasional support on tenor sax. After adding Ray Herr as a rhythm guitarist/supporting vocalist, Peterik took over as lead guitar and soon secured the band a tentative recording contract with Warner Brothers. There was only one problem…no new material. Karen’s transactional friendship with Jim finally inspired him:
One day in a fit of frustration, I heard myself blurt out to her ‘You know, all I am to you is your Vehicle’…Just then the light bulb popped up on top of my head and I thought about all the guys like me who don’t mind being taken for a ride by a beautiful girl. I said ‘See you later’ and started writing the song…I was sitting in high school biology with a lab partner. The lab partner was a real stoner. He’d come to school every day totally ripped. He was stoned one day. He was laughing his head off. He showed me this pamphlet that was circulating through the school. It had a little cartoon. It was an anti-drug pamphlet. This little cartoon of a friendly stranger and beware of this guy. I went home and said, “I got it. I’m the friendly stranger in the black sedan. Won’t you hop inside my car?” I knew that that was magic. The rhythm of the words, the whole thing, boom! Went to rehearsal that night, worked out the song. As soon as I heard that horn riff by my guys, The Ides of March, I had goose bumps. I knew this is something really special.
“Vehicle” begins with a funky brass riff and a driving beat. The overall song rhythm and tight horn support have sometimes been mistaken for the band Blood, Sweat and Tears – a group Peterik loved and had seen only a few months prior. Soon, the sandy growl of Peterik offers the listener all kinds of trinkets to win a chance to get closer. The result is a catchy, trashy and fun-to-listen-to love song that clocks in at under three minutes. “Vehicle” was made-to-order for the increasingly popular FM radio market which boasted higher fidelity and stereophonic sound. Amazingly, The Ides of March didn’t put much stock in the song being a hit.
We totally devalued it as a recording song. It went over great live, and for some reason, we thought it was a great live song but would never be a hit, maybe because it was so simple. We thought so little of it, we put it fourth of four songs on the demo we sent to Warner Brothers. They get it and go, ‘Forget these first three, number four is a smash.’ We go, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ At that point, we started thinking, ‘Maybe we’ve got a hit here.’
We went to Art Roberts, who was kind of this disc jockey/guru here at WLS, probably the most powerful jock in Chicago…The managers brought it to him, and he said, ‘That’s a smash. All you’ve got to do is add the answers to the ‘Love You, Need You’s’, and you’ve got a #1 record.’ It’s funny that we never thought of adding the answers, the call and response. It seems so obvious now, but that was his idea.
Audio frontiers were continuously pushed in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Increasing numbers of instruments could be recorded simultaneously onto multitrack equipment without the need for time-consuming overdubs or mixdowns. Engineers had just installed a new, untested 16 track analog tape recorder into the Chicago studio where The Ides of March assembled to cut their single. Since all the sound was recorded directly to magnetic tape, there was no ‘undo’ button if something was erased or accidentally recorded over. It would be permanently gone. If an edit had to be made during a song, you would have to use a splicing block, a razor blade and divine guidance to sync the beat of one loose strip of magnetic tape to the other strip.
Peterik’s band pulled out all the stops to lay down a sizzling, inspired first take and had enough energy for a second. Everything was perfect until later that evening. Peterik recalled the scene for The Wall Street Journal:
We were doing background vocals and suddenly 14 seconds were gone from the master. No way to retrieve it. The second engineer had hit the wrong button. We spent two hours thinking our career is over, because at this time we knew we had something. Luckily, there was a Take One. They inserted 14 seconds of Take One and I redid the vocals. And now I hear it every time. From the second “Great God in heaven” all the way up to the guitar solo—-when you hear how abrupt that first note of the solo sounds, that’s an edit.
If you listen closely, you can hear the edit at 1:28 before the beginning of Peterik’s spirited, experimental guitar solo. “Vehicle” sold so well that it became the fastest-selling Warner Brothers single, reaching #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. Ides of March soon began touring as the opening act for Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead. After a hiatus, Peterik got a phone call from a familiar voice. He related the conversation with The Tennessean:
‘Hey, Jim. You know, I just heard your ‘Vehicle’ record.’“I said, “Is this Karen?” ‘Yeah. You know my voice,’ and I said, “Yeah.” “She said, I’ve been thinking it over. Maybe we should start seeing each other again.’ I let her hang on that phone for like a real dramatic three seconds. I said, ‘Yeah, sounds good.’
Karen and Jim reunited shortly thereafter. After the Ides of March broke up, Jim went from band to band until deciding on a strange solo act. He shared the story with SongFacts:
When I changed my name to Chalmers Garseny, I thought I was going to be the next Elton John. I hadn’t a clue that I wasn’t that guy. I wasn’t going to be Elton John, I wasn’t going to be Cat Stevens, Paul Simon. I would have loved to have been, but I’m a rocker. Those guys can bare their soul and do it well. I need to have a little support from a band. This Chalmers Garseny thing, it was just hilarious sitting in some record company office and my manager is going, “Yes, and Chalmers here will be going on the road.” And when he said, “And Chalmers here,” I went, oh, no, no, no. I can’t be Chalmers Garseny.
Peterik/Garseny released Don’t Fight the Feeling in 1976 but it was a dud. In 1978, he got back to his rock roots when his roadie begged him to talk to guitarist friend Frankie Sullivan. During that first meeting, the band Survivor was formed. Peterik co-penned several of their early hits including “Somewhere In America” which made #70 on the 1979 Hot 100. In 1981, they had another hit “Poor Man’s Son” from Premonition which made it to #33. By then Sullivan and Peterik were also co-writing songs originally meant for Survivor but somehow bounced to other bands like .38 Special. The southern rock group took “Rockin’ Into the Night”, “Hold On Loosely” and “Caught Up In You” and made them into hit records. In 1982, “Poor Man’s Son” got the attention of actor/director Sylvester Stallone who was looking for a similar song to be featured in Rocky III because he couldn’t get the song he intended to use. Peterik recalled the desperate phone conversation in an interview with Dutch television:
So here’s me, a kid from a small town in Illinois talking to my hero Sylvester Stallone. I didn’t know what to say. He says, ‘Well look. I really like your band, Survivor. That’s the sound I want for my new movie – Rocky III. Can you help me out?’ I go, ‘Are you kidding me? Yeah I can help you out.’ I called Frankie [Sullivan]…and he came over and we put the [rough draft of the movie montage] cartridge in and we see the action and we hear [singing] ‘bum, bum, bum…Another One Bites The Dust’” I go ”Hey Sly, you [already] got a song.’… He goes ‘Yeah, can’t use it – couldn’t get the publishing rights.’ Every day I thank God to Queen that they wouldn’t give him the publishing!
The timeless Survivor song “Eye of the Tiger” was the result of Sullivan and Peterik’s collaboration. The single went #1 for six weeks, went double platinum, won a Grammy and was nominated for an Oscar for ‘Best Song’. Peterik also co-wrote the follow-up hit “Burning Heart” for Rocky IV. Before leaving the band in 1988, he co-penned other hits like “The Search Is Over” and “High on You”.
Peterik reunited with The Ides of March in 1990 and continues to perform with them today (their 50th anniversary was in 2014). He also continues to write songs for other bands like The Doobie Brothers and Cheap Trick. In 2006, Peterik released his latest solo album Above the Storm. He also co-wrote the book Songwriting for Dummies.
Fifty years later, “Vehicle” continues to find its way into pop culture. General Motors thought the song was a good fit for their 2001 national ad campaigns. Various artists have covered “Vehicle” including Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey. Bo Bice used the song to catapult him to the runner-up spot in the fourth season of American Idol. Remember Karen? She married Jim in 1996 and they are still together. Some relationships, like black sedans, are just made to last.