Kenny Weissberg began to march to the beat of a different (rock ‘n’ roll) drummer during his time in Madison, Wisconsin during the 1960s.
The University of Wisconsin — along with the University of California at Berkeley — were the measurable seismic centers for student unrest during the turbulent decade. The oldest child in a Jewish family, Weissberg had grown up in an affluent neighborhood in South Orange, New Jersey. His father, Ned Weissberg, was a successful stockbroker; his mother, Snooks Weissberg, had her tangles with her son but would go to bat for Kenny if she perceived an injustice. Both parents embraced the American dream ethos that Kenny would make his mark in the medical, legal, or business fields. Instead, Kenny utilized a functional (and moral) compass and followed his road map and his heart to the upper Midwest, where he pursued a sociology degree. Ned and Snooks gave Kenny his freedom to sow some wild oats; surely, he would eventually settle down and attend graduate school.
The well-intentioned plan of the Weissberg parents might have become reality if it hadn’t been for the tragic event associated with December 10, 1967. Kenny and his friends were waiting in freezing temperatures outside a Madison nightclub called the Factory when it was announced the small plane flying Otis Redding and the Bar-Kays to the concert had crashed in Lake Monona, a few miles from the Madison airport. For Weissberg, the incomprehensible death of his favorite singer (he still has the ticket to the show that never was) put his own future at a crossroads; “Otis’ death left a hole in my soul,” writes Weissberg in the opening chapter of his splendid new memoir, Off My Rocker. “Over the years, he would make cameo appearances in my dreams, and I’d have sporadic ‘conversations’ with him. His message was always clear. I needed to sing. I needed to dance. I needed to surround myself with music. I didn’t have to become an orthodontist, pediatrician, or corporate lawyer like every kid I grew up with.”
Over the course of several decades, Weissberg would eventually make his mark in different areas of contemporary music. His substantial curriculum vitae includes the following: record store clerk, radio disc jockey and interviewer, print journalist, video music TV host, artist manager, and leader of his own rock band, the appropriately titled Kenny & the Kritix. In San Diego, he is best known as the innovative concert producer of Humphrey’s by the Bay in Shelter Island, putting on two thousand concerts during his 23 years of involvement. In 2006, he surprised many industry insiders and loyal concert attendees by announcing his departure from his position at Humphrey’s. Kenny gave some spirited goodbye interviews around town (including a memorable one with this publication in August 2006). After that, the rare Weissberg “sightings” were limited to his voice being heard over the wireless. Kenny’s award-winning “Music Without Boundaries” radio program — probably the most eclectic mix of music [anyone for a little Bessie Smith followed by the Ramones?] ever heard over the San Diego airwaves before being canceled by 91X (its last stop after bouncing around several stations during its 14-year run). Nearly seven years later, the likelihood of “Music Without Boundaries” returning to the air seems unfortunately remote.
Sex and drugs — the backdrop to the typical pop music “read” — are part of the journey in Off My Rocker. But there are poignant chapters that resonate with the reader long after the tales of partying: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Richie Furay returning to live secular music at Kenny’s request; Roy Orbison bringing Weissberg to tears during a performance of “Crying” at Humphrey’s; and B.B. King’s consistently satisfying concerts over the years. “Gracious, appreciative, articulate, and gifted, B.B. embodies sheer wonder, “ writes Weissberg.
Initial responses to Off My Rocker have been favorable, with sizable activity on Amazon.com and positive reviews. During a recent promotional trek, Weissberg stopped in to talk to the San Diego Troubadour.
San Diego Troubadour: What were the challenges of writing the book?
Kenny Weissberg: The beginning, middle, and end. Everything. I originally set out to write a book in 2004 called Conversations With Otis, which was half-memoir and half-fictitious dialogues with Otis Redding. After about eight chapters I ran out of things to say to Otis, so I scrapped the book idea entirely. When I made the major life decision to quit my job [as producer of the Humphrey’s Concerts by the Bay series] after a 23-year run in 2006, I suddenly had an oasis of time on my hands. I decided to write honestly about my life devoted to music and the stories just started pouring out of me. Then life got in the way. My father started dying a slow death in New Jersey and I crossed the continent nine times in 2009-2010 to keep him company at the end of his life. My momentum as a writer disappeared and the manuscript lay in a box that gathered a hungry population of silverfish. The book was essentially dead in the water.
SDT: When did you return to it?
KW: I almost didn’t. The worst thing you can ask a writer is “How’s your book going?” I heard that constantly and my answer was “I’ve given up on it.” At the end of 2011, a writer/friend of mine in Colorado, G. Brown, who’d been following my progress, said to me without hesitation, “I won’t let that happen.” He then introduced me to the woman [Sandra Jonas] who read my manuscript, loved it, and became my publisher. Suddenly, my juices were flowing again and I nearly sprinted to what I thought was the finish line. Then came over a year of rewrites, tweaking, deletions, creating new chapters, ridding the book of dangling modifiers… it was a painstaking, headache-inducing time period and I was convinced that Sandra would never let go of Off My Rocker and it would never see the light of day. Only when UPS delivered a box of books to our front porch did we pop the cork and celebrate a real book!
SDT: You had as many harrowing experiences as joyous ones. Was it difficult writing about the bad times?
KW: Absolutely. I had to revisit questionable behavior and bad decisions I made along the way. Writing about how my actions affected my family — both positively and adversely — was pretty cringe-worthy. I dealt with a horde of colorful, yet devious, people and decided to change names in certain instances to preserve the anonymity of these characters. I’ve had conversations with some of them and assured them that no one comes off worse in this book than I do. I’ve been married to [artist] Helen Redman for 41 years and even my granddaughter, who read the book, asked her “Grandma, how could you have stayed with Grampa?” There’s no easy answer to that question.
SDT: You defied the odds by producing a concert series for 23 years in a city that has a lot of entertainment options. How did you do it?
KW: Other than keeping a marriage together for 41 years while living a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, I consider my run at Humphrey’s to be my greatest personal achievement. I started quitting the job my very first year… you’ll find out why if you read Off My Rocker… and contemplated leaving many times after that. It’s a brutal business, rife with deception, greed, drugs, bribery, ruthless competition… and that’s the easy part! It didn’t help that my friend who recruited me to move to San Diego from Boulder had a checkered past. I thought he had reformed, but he hadn’t. My first three years on the job had wondrous moments of sheer excitement for a music lover like me… I got to hang out with Miles Davis, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Bonnie Raitt, and countless others. But there were long periods of existential misery. I drank too much, did way too much blow, and worked around the clock trying to learn my new trade. I was nervous, anxious, and unhealthy.
SDT: In the ’80s, you decided to clean up your act by quitting recreational drug use after nearly two decades of regular involvement. How difficult was it to quit cold turkey and what were the main factors that led to your decision?
KW: It was October 11, 1986 to be exact. It was the last night of the Humphrey’s season. I had convinced my friend/boss to leave the concert business and was looking forward to a new beginning in 1987, working as Humphrey’s in-house producer under Richard Bartell, the owner of the Humphrey’s Half Moon Inn. My friend threw himself a farewell party and I snorted coke all night. Sleepless, I flew up to Mountain View, California with a friend to see the first-ever Bridge School benefit concert, which featured Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Don Henley, Robin Williams, and CSN&Y. We had tenth row center seats for an amazing four-hour show. We flew home the next morning, I slept for 24 hours and when I woke up, I didn’t remember anything about the concert. A light bulb burned brightly in my head and I immediately knew what I had to do. I quit drugs on a dime with no outside help, I joined a health club and have worked out regularly for the past 26 years, and I found a wonderful marriage counselor who helped save our marriage. It was the epiphany of a lifetime.
SDT: We certainly felt a void in the San Diego radio market left by the demise of your specialty radio show “Music Without Boundaries” (1993-2007). Is it just me, or has commercial radio ever been this dull or predictable?
KW: I write about the devolution of commercial radio pretty extensively in Off My Rocker. MWB was on five different commercial stations in San Diego. I enjoyed my time at all of them, but they all went through consolidation or changes in personnel, which resulted in my moving on. My longest tenure was at KPRI [six-and-a-half years] and they are on a positive rebound from, in my opinion, an ill-advised hiring of a slick program director who was more suited to corporate Top-40 than AAA. Fortunately, he’s gone. I will always wish KPRI well. I loved my 15 months at 91X too, where I was twice as old as the demo they were trying to attract. Ironically, the day I was fired by 91X, also by a new program director who is no longer there, I bought a new car with Sirius XM satellite radio and I’ve never listened to commercial radio again.
SDT: How has the response been to Off My Rocker since its release last month?
KW: I’m overwhelmed in the best way possible. Writing this book was a very lonely, insular process, and I’m neurotic and self-deprecating to the point that I thought it was crap. As soon as it came out, I started getting calls from musicians, former agents, ex-girlfriends who are now grandmothers, visual artists, radio professionals… the feedback has really lifted me up. I had my first book signing on October 16 in my old stomping grounds of Boulder, Colorado and more than 100 people showed up and bought books. Even if I don’t sell another book, I’ll never forget that night and the fact that for a week, I was #1 on the Boulder Book Store best seller list ahead of Stephen King, David Sedaris, Cheryl Strayed, and David Foster Wallace.
SDT: Kenny, you may now add “published memoir author” to your curriculum vitae. Any idea what your next “chapter” in music will be?
KW: No, Steve, but I’m open to any suggestions you might have. Every job I’ve had post college [Kenny is a 1970 graduate of the University of Wisconsin] has been music related. I worked retail in two record stores. I talked into a microphone, spun records, and interviewed pop culture icons for eight radio stations. I wrote music criticism and features for 17 publications. I was a disco DJ at two major hotel nightclubs. I hosted a rock video TV show in Denver. I designed and booked a live music venue in Boulder. I fronted my own rock band [Kenny & the Kritix] for three-and-a-half years. I managed the fledgling career of A.J. Croce for 21 months. And I capped it off with 23 years of producing Humphrey’s Concerts by the Bay. What’s next? Whatever it is, it will likely be wholly unexpected and emanate from my heart!
An evening of readings and a book signing of Off My Rocker is scheduled for Thursday, November 7 at 7pm at Point Loma Nazarene University’s Draper Hall. Call 619-849-2297 for further information. Off My Rocker is also available online at Amazon.com.