The Decoys will reunite to celebrate 50th anniversary of the night they opened for The Who

by JAY LUSTIG
Decoys reunion

COURTESY OF THE DECOYS

A Newark News photograph of The Decoys in the 1960s (from left, drummer Mike “Mazz” Mazzarisi, lead singer Jon Kenseth, lead guitarist Jim McClurken, bassist Rob Gilligan and rhythm guitarist Mike Testa).

The Who toured the United States in the summer of 1967, opening shows for Herman’s Hermits and electrifying the crowd at the Monterey Pop Festival. And in November and December of that year, the British band returned to the States for their first U.S. headlining tour, at venues including Shawnee Mission South High School in Overland Park, Kansas; Southfield High School in Southfield, Mich.; and Union Catholic High School in Scotch Plains.

A local band called The Decoys opened for them in Scotch Plains, and tickets were $2.50.

Fittingly enough, given their name, fame eluded The Decoys. But all five band members will reunite, Nov. 18, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of that Nov. 29, 1967 concert at The Academy of Our Lady of Peace in New Providence. The show was organized by Knights of Columbus Summit Council 783, and proceeds will go to the Academy of Our Lady of Peace Foundation and Union Catholic’s Hammeke Scholarship Fund. The band Interior Steel will perform an opening set, and Michael Rosenbloom — author of the book, “When the Stars Were in Reach: The Who at Union Catholic High School – November 29, 1967” — will speak.

For information, visit squareup.com/store/KofC-Benefit_Concert.

The Decoys featured, and still feature, lead singer Jon Kenseth, lead guitarist Jim McClurken, bassist Rob Gilligan, drummer Mike “Mazz” Mazzarisi and rhythm guitarist Mike Testa). I spoke to McClurken and Gilligan this week.

Q: Were you from Scotch Plains, or somewhere else in the area?

Jim McClurken: Most of us are from New Providence. Jon, our lead singer, is from Chatham Township, and Rob is from New Providence, but he went to school at Union Catholic High School, so we can give him credit for getting us the gig.

A $2.50 ticket to the Who/Decoys show.

Q: And what years were you initially together?

Rob Gilligan: We started with Jon, I would say, in the beginning of ’66, maybe. The last time I played with (The Decoys) was, I want to say, ’71. … And ’72 was, I think, the end of it.

JM: We all went off to college. That’s when the band kind of …

RG: Well, I came home almost every weekend. The band would fly me home from Boston.

Q: Was there any particular significance to the name The Decoys?

RG: (laughs) Not one you can print.

JM: Jon came up with the name.

RG: He actually, before we got together, he had played with some guys briefly, and they called themselves The Decoys. So we decided to adopt it when he came to play with Jim and I.

Q: So why don’t you tell me how the show with The Who came about?

RG: I had seen The Who as one of the opening acts for somebody, it might have been The Rolling Stones, down in Asbury Park, in the summer of ’67. [Editor’s note: The only known Who show in Asbury Park that summer was when the band opened for Herman’s Hermits and Blues Magoos at Convention Hall on Aug. 12, 1967] And when I went back to start my senior year of high school, in September of ’67, the student council was looking to try to run a concert, kind of as a benefit, and raise some money, and weren’t really sure what they wanted to do. And they didn’t know anybody in bands that could do anything about that.

So I said to them, “You ought to get this band that I saw. They put on an unbelievable show. The people will love it.” And they thought that was a good idea. And they said, “We have no idea of how to go about doing that.” And I said, “Well, I will take care of setting that up. But in return, I want my band to be able to open for them.” And they were like, “Oh, okay.” And because back then, everybody and their brother had a band, I said, “… and I don’t want anybody else to play as well.” And none of them being in bands, they agreed to that. Of course, when some of the other kids at school who were in bands found out, they were somewhat disappointed. But I knew that’s exactly what would happen.

The cover of The Who’s 1967 single, “I Can See for Miles.”

So my dad knew a guy in New Providence who was a booking agent, and he found out who booked The Who, and we went to them, and ultimately, the school, who were adults, had to sign the contract, and they did that for the November date. And The Who still weren’t very well known. But between that date, in late September or early October, and November, their song “I Can See for Miles” just ran up the charts, and they were on the radio, and they got to be pretty well known by the time the concert came around.

JM: And they performed that song at the concert.

Q: So what are your other memories of the concert itself?

JM: Well, we got to go backstage with the Who members before the concert in, I think, the teacher’s lounge. We got to mingle with them in the teacher’s lounge.

RG: They were drinking pretty heavily (laughs). Very heavily. We were kind of surprised that they could perform after how much they were drinking.

JM: It was just really exciting for us to share the stage with them. We did get a big round of applause when we said it was our last song, so that was probably a mistake (laughs). But one of the interesting things during the concert itself was that Keith Moon broke, I guess, the skin on his snare …

RG: He broke the whole side of the drum.

JM: He broke the whole side of his snare drum. And our equipment was still …

RG: … behind them.

JM: Yeah, behind the stage. So he grabbed our drummer’s snare drum, and used his snare drum for the rest of that concert.

RG: He bled on it.

JM: I think (our drummer) still has it.

RG: Oh, I hope so.

Just some context: The gymnasium that this was held in was actually a double-size gymnasium, Union Catholic at that time being split into a boys’ side and a girls’ side. And there was a big portable wall that divided the two gyms, which of course was retracted for this. It was also a two-story gym, so there were whole sets of bleachers on the second floor, in a U shape around the whole gymnasium. There were about 2,000 seats for the concert.

The Who showed up in a Greyhound bus. It was a big, huge bus, and they had all their equipment stowed in the bottom, in the luggage areas.

JM: At the end of the show, Pete Townshend did his typical smash-his-guitar thing, and threw that into the audience.

RG: He grabbed a cheaper one to do it. He threw pieces of it out into the audience …

JM: … and of course people in the audience were fighting over these pieces of the guitar.

RG: It was a great show. But what was funny to me is, later on, in school, there were people who said, “We didn’t really know their songs. We liked you guys better.” I would not say that’s the majority. But there were people who said that to us, which was very kind.

JM: But they put on a great show. I personally remember, just, Keith Moon being an unbelievable drummer.

RG: That also changed our style. After we played with them, we changed our whole playlist to a much more aggressive kind of rock, from the more easy-going stuff we had been doing.

Michael Rosenbloom’s book, “When the Stars Were in Reach: The Who at Union Catholic High School – November 29, 1967.”

Q: I know there were a lot of other concerts at Union Catholic in those days. Did you see any of those other concerts?

RG: I did.

JM: Yeah, I saw The Cream. I think I was in the second row. And there was The Lovin’ Spoonful.

RG: The Association. Now, at that time, what they were doing — of course, I was at school there, so I was involved with the concerts — but the boys’ side ran the Who concert and the Cream concert. And the girls’ side ran The Association, and probably the Spoonful. They kind of alternated at that point. We had basically proved the concept, because they didn’t know if any of this was gonna work. And then because it really went so well, they did it. And then I graduated in ’68 and went off to college. But they kept doing it, for three years after that.

Q: How far did you guys get in music? Did you release a single, or an album?

JM: We released a single, but it was just on our own. It was self-released.

RG: There was a producer who kind of sponsored that project, in the sense of, he funded the recording time and all of that, in the studio. But it didn’t really get funded into the whole publicity end of it. And at the time it was released, it was released under (the band name) Dizzy’s Farm. The band was just kind of disassembling at that time, in some sense. We had gone past college, I guess, at that point. That was much later.

JM: We basically had a backer who paid for our studio time in some big New York studios, and we made some professional demos, but the demos never got picked up.

RG: A lot of these guys rented a farmhouse in Basking Ridge, at that time, and a lot of our fans referred to that place as The Farm, or Dizzy’s Farm, and so they used that for the name of the band.

JM: So The Decoys kind of morphed into Dizzy’s Farm.

Q: Have band members stayed involved in music?

JM: Oh yeah, definitely. The interesting thing is, Mike Testa, the other guitar player, and I have been playing in bands since high school. We’ve been in our last band for, I don’t know, maybe 12 or 13 years. It’s a band called The Lifters, that plays cover tunes, and we do some originals, too.

I tell people there are three things you can count on in life: Death, taxes, and me and Mike being in a band (laughs). My wife is amazed that we’re still friends after all these years.

Also, the drummer, Michael Mazzarisi — we call him Mazz — he’s got a band called Mazz Force, of all things, and he plays down, like, the Shore circuit. He and his brother and his son are in the band, and they’ve been playing regularly. I actually joined that band about five years ago, for a year or so, and filled in with them when they were looking for a guitar player. So, yeah, we’ve all kind of played together. And Rob’s out in Arizona, in Mesa.

RG: I played briefly in New Jersey with a couple of bands, after college, one of which was high school kids at our church that I was basically being a counselor for, but played rock ‘n’ roll with them in a band, to keep them on the right track. I played in the worship bands at a fairly large evangelical church in Mesa, Ariz., for many years, and I recently joined a rock ‘n’ roll cover band in Arizona.

Decoys publicity

The Decoys, in a vintage publicity photo.

Q: So how did this show come about? Did someone come to you with the idea, or did it come from you?

JM: Well, our manager, Ed Cadmus, who’s also from New Providence, had the idea of a reunion years ago. And he started working on assembling some equipment, to get the P.A. system back together, similar to what we had way back when. And in 2015, my wife and I went to see The Who, in their 50th anniversary concert tour. Ed had the original idea, and then I said, “This would be the perfect time to have our 50th anniversary concert of opening for The Who.” So then we started getting serious about it. Now Jon, the singer, is coming down from Massachusetts. Rob came out from Arizona.

This band hasn’t played together in 41 years!

RG: The last time was at my wedding.

JM: Since Mike Testa and Mike Mazzarisi and I were all in the class of ’68 at New Providence High School, I got ahold of the class list that we use for reunions, and we did an email blast. We’re just amazed at the response we’re getting. I know we have a guy coming down from Providence, R.I., who told us that we were a big part of his life. Which was a surprise to us! And we have another guy who retired to North Carolina who’s coming up for the concert. So, we’re surprised at how much of a following we have.

Q: It’s true, high school and college bands can really make a big impact on people, especially, I guess, at a time when there’s wasn’t a lot of rock ‘n’ roll on TV, and you didn’t have all the other entertainment options you have today.

RG: And the fact that we were together … the consistency. Being together for the better part of six years was kind of unique back then. Bands didn’t stay together very long.

And we were different from a lot of the other bands of our era. I think the thing that made us stand out originally was that not only were we fairly good musicians, but we had a lot of harmony. We had four people of the five in the band singing, and most bands at that time had (just one) singer. Very few people did harmony at all, and we did, originally, like Beach Boys and The Byrds: things with three- and four-part harmony. Plus Jim was easily the best guitarist anywhere in the area. Nobody could play as fast and as well as he could play. And Mazz was easily the best drummer in the area: He went on to get a master’s in percussion. And that made us stand out.

JM: Mazz ended up founding a music festival company for high school music festivals that he still runs. It’s a very successful music company, called Performing Arts Consultants. They’re based in Brick.

Q: Did The Decoys play all covers, or did you have originals too?

JM: We had originals. We’re going to do two of the Decoys’ originals at the concert.

RG: Jim was the main composer. He wrote all the music and a lot of the lyrics, and Jon wrote some of the lyrics as well.

Q: And as far as covers, what are some of the dependable covers that you tend to do.

JM: Well, like Rob was saying, The Byrds were one of our favorites. Of course, The Rolling Stones.

RB: The Beach Boys. Hendrix.

JM: Yeah, we did some Hendrix.

RB: (The Who show) was kind of the switch-over. We started playing Who songs, and Hendrix songs. The much more aggressive stuff. Frankly, ’cause Jim could play it. And that really distinguished us, at the time. And Jon could sing it. I was in love with the way (John) Entwistle (of The Who) played bass. We did some Cream after that, also.

JM: The Cream song, “Crossroads,” is on the setlist for Saturday. So Rob and I are going to get a workout.

RB: “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” by The Byrds was our opening number, forever.

JM: We’re actually going to open with three 12-string numbers. I have a ’66 Rickenbacker 12-string, like Roger McGuinn used.

RB: Which was a big deal back then, that Jim had gotten that instrument. Because I don’t think anyone else in Northern New Jersey had a 12-string, much less a Rickenbacker.

Q: So before this show, will you rehearse, or will you just get together and play?

JM: Rob came in from Arizona on Monday, so we started Tuesday with the guitar players. The drummer’s coming up on Thursday.

RG: He got together with you a couple of weeks ago, right?

JM: Yeah, we did some pre-rehearsing. And then the lead singer’s gonna be the last one to show up, but we’ll have two full days of rehearsals with the entire band.

RG: What’s really cool is that Mike Testa and Jim have MP3s of live recordings of the band, from back in the ’60s. We’ve sent those out to everybody for us to rehearse to, on our own, to remember how the arrangements of a particular song went — so we could get a running start, before actually getting here.

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