Eric Frein, Rasputin, and a Rockin’ New Year’s Eve

At the height of the manhunt for Eric Frein this past fall, I saw a news broadcast from one of his hideouts. It looked like an abandoned crack house in the South Bronx. Sunlight reflected off of empty bottles, fast food bags, and various other debris. My jaw dropped when the newscaster said he was showing live footage from The Buck Hill Inn.

I immediately drifted back to a New Year’s Eve in the 1970s. I was a sophomore at Penn State and manager of the Northeastern Pennsylvania rock band “Rasputin.” The group had some very talented musicians, including Robbie Walsh and Jiggs Shorten, both of whom later formed a band with Noel Redding of The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Until that night Rasputin had played mainly high school dances. While those gigs had been fun and provided valuable experience for the band, they were not financially lucrative for a five man group. But all of that could change in one night.

The Buck Hill Inn was one of the top resorts in the Poconos at that time. Located less than two hours west of New York City, its scenic grounds featured Buck Hill Falls, a series of waterfalls cascading over rocks worn smooth by thousands of years of erosion. By day, hundreds of tourists would snap pictures of those breathtaking vistas. By night, a dozen or so of us would take multiple rides on Mother Nature’s roller coaster.

The band’s anticipation of playing for a sophisticated, well-heeled, well-connected crowd on New Year’s Eve was electric. As band manager, visions of New York gigs danced in my head. Just two years earlier I saw Procol Harum and Country Joe McDonald perform at the Fillmore East. I realized that our gig at The Buck Hill Inn could be a portal to the major New York venues as well as the rock & roll lifestyle portrayed in Rolling Stone and several other rock publications of that era.

In addition to being the band manager, I also operated the PA system. To prepare for the big gig, I figured out windows of opportunity when I could leave the sound board at fixed settings and work the crowd for valuable networking connections. I thought of a few opening lines that seemed promising at the time. I thought of a few closing ones too, and I assumed the middle of those conversations would take care of themselves.

One of my old bosses used to frequently stress The P Rule: Proper prior planning prevents piss poor procedure. On New Year’s Eve day The P Rule was in full force. No one was late for the caravan to Buck Hill; no equipment was down; no one was in need of a date with Betty Ford. Opportunity was about to knock and we were at the door as ready as a SWAT team on double espresso.

The gig was scheduled to begin at 8:00 PM. Our usual routine for high school dances involved being fashionably late. This meant being set up by 8:10, and the music usually starting around 8:15 if all band members and girlfriends were present and fully functional. We were set and ready to go by 7:30 PM at The Buck Hill Inn.

I had been told in advance that the resort guests would be ushered directly from the dining room at or around 8:00. The band’s plan was to launch into “Under My Wheels” by Alice Cooper as soon as the guests started coming through the door, in hopes of enticing them right out onto the dance floor. No one wanted a wallflower warm-up when there were high rollers to impress.

At 7:55 the band members were on stage and ready to go. At exactly 8:00 PM the concierge walked through one of the polished cherry wood double doors and told me that dessert was running late. The guests would be delayed until 8:15. Tension mounted. The band milled around for ten minutes, then returned to their instruments with five minutes to spare.

At exactly 8:15 PM the concierge parted the double doors and I checked the sound levels as the opening riff to “Under My Wheels” marked the start of the show. Once I determined that everything was under control I looked over my left shoulder and saw about 100 eight to twelve-year-olds with terror in their eyes. All of them were dressed in tuxes and evening gowns. None of them headed for the dance floor. Instead, they fanned out across the back and side walls. None of them smiled. None of them kept time to the music. Their collective look of absolute shock told me that none of them had any exposure to rock music whatsoever. I suspected that they were raised on chamber music in sheltered environments. I wondered if the concierge described Rasputin to the parents as a string quintet with a “never say die” attitude.

There was no applause at the end of the first song. Nary a single polite golf clap. Knowing that the next scheduled song was a Black Sabbath number, I half-expected to see most of them running away, in need of immediate therapy. Instead, a few of them exchanged bewildered looks.

The start of the third song was my first opportunity to leave the sound board. Instead of working the crowd, I led my girlfriend out to the dance floor and did my first show-and-tell since elementary school. Two of the braver boys asked two of the more adventurous girls to dance and they imitated our every move. By the end of the fifth song the dancers outnumbered the wallflowers.

The following decade, when the film “Footloose” hit the theaters, I got a Buck Hill Inn déjà vu. I couldn’t help but wonder if the writer might have been one of the chamber music kids. Perhaps he was sent to live with a relative in the Midwest for deprogramming after experiencing the bacchanal at The Buck Hill Inn.

I went to see Robbie Walsh play a gig at a local restaurant the night before Thanksgiving in 2009. A few songs into the first set I recognized the singer from Rasputin sitting with his girlfriend from back in the day. I found out they married a few months after the band broke up and have been going strong ever since. Shortly after I joined them she handed me a photo album and said I’d appreciate the pics. Most of the album documented our New Year’s Eve at The Buck Hill Inn. Hearing accounts of that night from three different perspectives, along with the visual documentation, brought back the feeling that we had liberated an oppressed group. I remembered relating the experience to the novel “1984,” which I had read in high school a few years before the gig.

Upon seeing the dilapidated condition of The Buck Hill Inn during the Eric Frein manhunt I wondered if I would be sharing that fate as I advance toward my retirement years. Then I flashed on the way I felt when those kids joined in on the dance floor and decided my spirit would weather more like The Buck Hill Falls that we rode into the wee hours of the morning. Each year is a new beginning. Another ride down the falls. Make the most of your 2015 and have a happy, healthy, and rockin’ New Year.

RJ

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