An Ode to Cub Koda of Brownsville Station

October 01, 2013, 9:40 PM

Born in Detroit on October 1, 1948, Michael Koda, better known by his stage name, Cub Koda, died suddenly on July 1, 2000, of kidney-disease complications. The Brownsville Station front man and rock star would have turned 65 today. His widow, Jeannie Koda, talks publicly for the first time since his death, in this exclusive to Deadline Detroit, and – with many others who knew him well – reflects on his life, music, and legacy.

By William Hanson

When Cub Koda and his Ann Arbor-based band Brownsville Station shot to the top of the Billboard charts in 1974 with the rebellious anthem “Smokin’ In the Boys Room,” Koda, whose unmistakable snarl and bluesy guitar drove the song, was 25, and living with his parents at the family home in Manchester, a sleepy farm town on the western edge of Washtenaw County.

Cub and Jeannie Koda on their wedding day in 1976

Brownsville Station, formed by Koda and Michael Lutz in swinging Ann Arbor five years earlier, had a well-earned reputation for hard-charging performances and proto-punk sensibilities. The band charted seven Billboard Hot 100 singles from 1972 to 1977. That Koda, described by friends and associates as brash and rebellious, lived with his mother and father above the family’s small-town newspaper business defied rock ‘n’ roll convention and show-biz norms.

But Cub Koda, singer-songwriter-guitarist and musicologist, was never easy to pigeonhole. He was a complex man, friends and loved ones recall, and that complexity, searing sense of humor, charisma and undeniable talent, was endearing.

“Music always came first,” Jeannie Koda recalls. “I knew that, and I was OK with it. He made so many people happy.” At Brownsville Station concerts Jeannie says she would disappear into the crowd and absorb the energy that radiated from her husband. “Audiences were never short-changed. Even when he was sick.”

Ann Arbor musician Kim French, a native of Marquette, met the 18-year-old showy down-stater at Northern Michigan University in 1966. He wound up playing bass in two of Koda’s bands, and followed him back to Manchester in 1968. The stoic Yooper, who said he loved Koda “like an older brother,” choked up when talking about his old friend. 

“We had our little spats and stuff,” French recalls. “He was a type A, and I was a type B.” Koda could be difficult. “His social skills were a little lacking, put it that way,” French says, shaking his head. “He could let his ego get the better of him at times.”

While performing Koda would routinely turn his back to the audience. But it wasn’t some punk gimmick or artifice. “He was so confident of his skills,” French says with a laugh, “he simply didn’t want other guitar players, who might be in the audience, to steal his licks.”

“I didn’t know who Cub Koda was until I met him, years after he became famous,” says guitarist Bill Kirchen. “Even though our careers were parallel, and I was a classmate of Jim Osterberg (Iggy Pop) at Ann Arbor High, I went from classical nerd to folkie nerd, and I never crossed paths with Cub. I had no preconceptions about him. I’m delighted that I got to know him. And I was proud to call him my friend.”

Ann Arbor all stars at the Ark: From left, Bill Kirchen, Sarah Brown, Koda, and George Bedard.

Kirchen, who now lives in Austin, Texas is an acclaimed musician widely known for his guitar wizardry on the Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen top-ten remake of “Hot Rod Lincoln.” He graduated from Ann Arbor High School in 1965. He got to know Koda in the 1990s at an annual holiday homecoming concert he helped put together at the Ark in Ann Arbor.

“Cub was a great guitar player,” Kirchen says. “He had the bluesman’s ability to sound forceful and self-assured. He played as if he were incapable of playing a wrong note. I admired that.”

Kirchen says he respected Koda as a songwriter too. “ ‘Smokin’ in the Boys Room’ (which Koda cowrote with Lutz) is a great rock ‘n’ roll song. There would be a lot more ‘Satisfactions’ if it were easy. I mean, come on. You’re three quarters of the way home with a title like that.”

Always Selling Musical Equipment

Phil Lower first met Koda while hanging out at the famous Al Nalli Music on Ann Arbor’s Main Street. “Cub was quite the trader back then,” Lower says. “He was always at Nalli’s selling musical equipment.” The Nalli family figured large in Brownsville’s rise; Al Nalli Jr. was the band’s manager.

Lower was a fan, and left a roadie gig in neighboring Jackson with hopes of working for Brownsville. He convinced Nalli to hire him, and went out on the road for “four of the most enjoyable and informative years of my life.”

At Brownsville shows, Koda and Lutz worked well together, Lower says. “Cub understood that he wasn’t going to be the pretty guy. He wasn’t tall. He had a big schnoz and milky white skin. Lutz was a strikingly handsome guy. But they matched up well together. You need that in a band. Mike was a big fan of Ricky Nelson. Cub was a big fan of Ricky Nelson’s guitar player. Mike was more commercial. Cub was more esoteric. Cub was the one who was always broadening the band’s horizon,” Lower adds. “He was the one who wanted to listen to Benny Goodman or Jerry Lee Lewis or Slade or Howling Wolf.”

Cub and Jeannie Koda

Lower, who lives outside Atlanta, Georgia, runs transportation for a large lumber company. He credits his time on the road with Brownsville for his knowledge of logistics and moving things from point A to point B.

“The amazing thing to me,” Lower recalls, “was that you had a bunch of kids in their 20s touring the nation and playing venues big and small. There were large amounts of cash involved, and you had to get it to a bank on Monday, and wire it home. No GPS or cell phones. Sixteen gigs in 20 days. The days of analogue. It was pretty cool.”

In Sickness and In Health

“Cub always said write about what you know,” Jeannie Koda says. “Right after he passed, I started writing a book of thoughts to him.”

It helped her cope, she says, but she tore it up a couple of years ago, and “decided this was really a waste, and that I needed to get off my ass and get better. There’s an awful lot of good stuff about Cub Koda that people don’t know that needs to get out.”

I knew from a mutual friend that Jeannie was interested in talking to me about her late husband for this Deadline Detroit feature. After a couple of icebreaker phone conversations, we agreed to meet at Cleary’s Pub in Chelsea. I asked her how I would locate her during the lunch rush. We described ourselves, and she said she would bring Cub’s iconic round Coke bottle eyeglasses, and wave them at me as a signal.

When she was a sophomore at Chelsea High School, Jeannie Parker first came into contact with Cub Koda, who was a senior at Manchester High School, a dozen miles down M-52, when his band the Del-Tinos played at her school’s dance in 1966. Koda had moved with his family from Detroit to rural Washtenaw County as a young boy. Jeannie says she remembers little about the evening or the band.

It would be eight years before she came across Koda again. At an Ann Arbor party thrown by a mutual friend, they noticed each other. She worked as a seamstress at Handmade Things, a little shop near Jacobson’s department store in Ann Arbor, and was going through a divorce.

He flirted with her. She had no idea about his celebrity. “At some point he got down on his hands and knees and asked me to marry him. I walked away.” Later, she asked the host “Who was that ass?” Koda pursued her, and asked her to make shirts for him. She refused, but agreed to make a jacket for him.

They were married a year-and-a-half later.

He called her Lady J, and she called him Michael. They lived on Valley Drive on Ann Arbor’s west side until the summer of 1978, when they headed back to the country, near Chelsea.

They built a modest home and a 16-by-20-foot office-studio for Cub.  “He had a phenomenal record collection. Newspaper articles, photos, tapes, guitars, and amps.” She is still sorting through his personal archives, and put two of his favorite guitars, a ‘54 Les Paul Goldtop, and ‘57 Telecaster, which he lovingly called Old Gus, into storage offsite.

Early in the marriage he found out he was diabetic, and that he had to regularly inject insulin.

“He had to start watching his sleep and diet and so on. He did the best he could but he was a meat-oriented cigarette-smoking rock and roller. He drank quite a bit – mostly Jack Daniels – when I first met him. The Brownsville guys were rowdy and loud.

“They were punk before there was punk. There was so much energy in those shows. He did believe – as do I – that they were short-changed in a sense, and that they could never translate the live energy to their studio records.”

Kim French, who had parted ways with Koda professionally, first saw Brownsville Station at the Michigan Union in 1969. “They were better than the MC5. They were more entertaining. Cub wanted to make a deep impression for audiences everywhere they played.”

Koda cut a mean figure onstage. His improvised banter and showmanship is said to have influenced Alice Cooper and Peter Wolf of the J. Geils Band.

“He always got a kick if fans were brave enough to come and ask him questions after shows,” Jeannie says. “He liked that.”

After Brownsville Station broke up in 1979, Koda went on to do many different things, including recording and performing solo; writing a highly regarded column for Goldmine magazine, called “the Vinyl Junkie”; contributing liner notes for Rhino’s acclaimed Blues Masters series; performing regularly with Hound Dog Taylor’s band the Houserockers; editing the All Music Guide to Blues; and co-writing the “Blues for Dummies” guide.

“He knew more about music than he did anything,” Jeannie says. “That’s why I drove when we went on trips. He was too distracted thinking about music. He couldn’t tie his shoes or balance a checkbook to save his ass – all the regular things people do. But give him a guitar, an amp, and an audience, and he would blow you away.”

As a musicologist and journalist, Koda showed a softer side.

“He remembered what it was like to get a bad review,” Jeannie says. “He thought it was easy to knock something down. It was hard to explain it in a journalistic way. For his ‘Vinyl Junkie’ column if he got sent a record he didn’t like, he wouldn’t write about it.”

She says the family business made an impression on him. “It was required that he work at the newspaper. He really was an ink-stained wretch. His dad, Max, loved him so much, and was always very supportive of him.  But Cub regretted that it just wasn’t in Max – who was very old-school – to say to Cub that he loved him. Or tell him ‘Good show, Michael.’ ”

Koda was also close to his mother, “who everybody called Mama,” Phil Lower recalls.  She developed dementia and was moved to an assisted living facility in Stockbridge, after her care became too difficult for Max to manage.

Cub visited her regularly, and “she always seemed to light up when he did,” Jeannie says. Lower joined Koda on visits periodically, and they would play guitars and perform for residents.

“Cub had a caustic sense of humor,” says Lower. “He loved the comedian Lenny Bruce, and he used to joke that we were performing at Seizure Palace when we visited his mom there. Some days his mom didn’t know who he was. You could see the hurt in his eyes. I think he used humor to shield himself from the hurt. The love he had for his mother was pretty obvious. In a weird way, I think our performing out there helped him see that the talent he had could bring real joy to others.”

Northern Exposure  

“I was sitting in Gordie McDonald’s bedroom listening to ‘Happy Jack’ by the Who,” Kim French says about meeting Koda at Northern Michigan University. “This guy just burst into the room,” he recalls with a laugh. “He had this forest green fake fur coat on, Paul Revere and the Raiders boots, and Prince Valiant hairdo. And those goofy black glasses.” 

Koda asked French to join his band.  The Blue Blades, as they were called, included Koda, French, and brothers Gordie and Warren McDonald. It lasted a year, and evolved into the Koda Corporation.

Jeannie Koda says that Cub's father had sent him to college in the Upper Peninsula so he would get one last crack at a conventional life. It backfired.

Randy Tessier, longtime Ann Arbor musician and University of Michigan English instructor, grew up with French in Marquette.

“Koda was searching for the best of the local musicians up there. Us locals gravitated toward the cool college kids,” Tessier recalls. “The dorm where they lived – Hunt Hall – was nicknamed the Left Bank.”

“He was not shy by any means,” French says of Koda. “He just did what he wanted. And he knew how to get what he wanted.”

There was tension between greasers and hippies in Marquette at the time. “At a dance we were playing somebody pulled the plug on the sound system,” French recalls. “Cub was dating the sister of a particularly tough greaser, Bobby Montagna. After that incident Monza became our security guy. We never had any problems like that again.”

In 1968 French and the other band members moved with Koda to the family home in Manchester. “His parents hooked us up with Army cots, and stuck us down in the shop to sleep. That lasted three or four months before Cub decided it wasn’t working.“

“We were really close at the time,” French says. “He turned me on to all these different groups like the Yardbirds and the Mothers of Invention. Then one day he took me aside and told me to get a haircut, and to stop hanging around with the hippies and stuff. He said we weren’t showy enough. He tried to get me to conform to what he wanted. I wasn’t into that, so that was that.” The Koda Corporation fizzled.

French started another band, and moved to Ann Arbor, which, unlike Manchester, was “vibrant and full of potential trouble.’’

Years later, and a few months before Koda died, French and his mentor had gotten back in touch.

They planned to play together again. But Koda was sick. They talked about a new Yardbirds compilation set that had come out.

“He turned me onto them,” French says. Koda, the musicologist, told his old friend that he had recently spoken with Paul Samwell-Smith, record producer, bassist and founding member of the Yardbirds. “He was pretty excited,” French says. “Next thing I knew he was gone. I don’t even remember how I found out. I went to his funeral. It pretty much sucked.”

Funeral for a Friend

“Cub always said he wouldn’t make old bones,” Jeannie recalls. Too many years on the road, and living hard. “I don’t think he knew he was going to die but he knew he was sick.” During the last few weeks of his life he was getting dialysis three times a week and spending a lot of time in his office writing.

“After he passed away it took me a couple of weeks before I could go in there,” Jeannie recalls, wiping the steady stream of tears from her eyes. With the help of her son, Jesse, she was able to access Cub’s computer, and was moved by what she found.

“He never kept track of anything,” Jeannie recalls. “He was not orderly. But somehow during those last weeks he got everything organized. He had catalogued all his music and photos for me.” 

Jeannie says she plans to publicly share much of what he left her.

On the night Koda passed he was recovering from a medical procedure from earlier in the day.

“He called his dad,” Jeannie says in a near whisper. “I fed him. He lay down on the couch and went to sleep.”

At 1 a.m. he woke up, and was in distress. Jeannie and EMS techs performed CPR, and he was rushed to Chelsea Community Hospital. A couple hours later, in the early morning of July 1, 2000, Cub Koda, one of the most unique and colorful musicians of his era, was gone.

Jeannie says that she and Cub had talked long before, and had agreed on the two records that would be played at his funeral. She chose the gospel song “Don’t Knock,” by the Staple Singers. Cub had something more unconventional in mind, which resonated with his musician friends: “Surfin’ Bird,” by the Trashmen.

“His dad was there,” Bill Kirchen recalls. “It was a dark rainy day, and we didn’t know it was coming. The Staple Singers song played. A very beautiful and emotional song. Very teary. Then somebody held up this cheesy boom box and out blares ‘Oh well everybody’s heard about the bird, the bird bird bird, the bird is the word.’ The next show I did we played the song in tribute to Cub.”

Phil Lower says Koda had a constant desire to evolve. “When he passed, I felt like he had completed the arc of life. It wasn’t all about him anymore. He had advanced from one of the more ego-driven people I knew to one of the most kind and considerate. Jeannie certainly had a big influence on him. She had no problem calling out his bullshit, and he loved her for it.”

“Cub’s was the only funeral I’ve been to where they played ‘Surfin’ Bird’ as loud as you can.” After a long pause, he adds, “and it was the saddest day of my life.”

Struggling to get the words out, Lower continues. “Sorry. I haven’t talked about him in a while. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about him. I was a lucky man to have known him.”

Randy Tessier, who knew Koda in Marquette, and played bass in his backing band at the release party of Koda’s “Abba Dabba Dabba” CD in 1994, has a musician’s perspective on Koda’s life and accomplishments.

“It’s hard to make it in the music business,” Tessier says. “Cub climbed his way to the top with Brownsville, and we all admired him for it. Fifty years from now some kid will walk into a karaoke bar in Tokyo, and belt out ‘Smokin’ in the Boys Room.’ His music connected. That’s what it’s all about. ”

William Hanson is director of communications at the Skillman Foundation. He has written about music for the Detroit Free Press, and was a contributing editor on MusicHound Rock: The Essential Album Guide.  Follow him @wilhan on Twitter.


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