After an obscure acetate turned up in Connecticut in 2004, Zero Street Records issued a 300-copy limited edition LP of the complete works of Johnny Lunchbreak. The non-album was a mélange of post-Velvets New York mixed with the upturned collar of Modern Lovers-era New England. Oddly enough, Lunchbreak had been shooting for the Bee Gees, and their horrible miss was our gain.
A few months later, we had the original tapes, a stack of unpublished photos, and one of five actual lunch boxes the band had made during their brief existence. Johnny Lunchbreak existed for less than two years and played outside of Hartford, Connecticut, only once, and yet somehow, they reached graduate levels in merchandising.
Michael Clare: In the beginning there were the Gents—Rick Weiner, Jim Kelman, Andy Merritt, Steve Murtha, and me—we played the 1966 King Philip Junior High end of year assembly in West Hartford, Connecticut. Over the next few years the ins and outs of school and bands led us in a circle that moved on to Andy and I playing in the Magic Theater and moving to Portland, Oregon for a year in 1970. When we got back to West Hartford, Andy had decided he no longer wanted to be a singing drummer and picked up the guitar. We played regularly in the basement working on songs that eventually became the repertoire of Johnny Lunchbreak.
In 1972 I went back to college in Syracuse, NY. Sometime in November Andy called and said that Rick had gotten a gig for the winter at the Balsams in Dixville Notch, New Hampshire and asked if I would come play bass. No way I could as I was committed to at least finishing the semester, so I declined. Rick was living in a cabin in the woods up there and recruited Andy, Guy Gengras, and some guy named Chris to form the End Of The Trail Boys. They regaled tired skiers and locals in the hotel lounge every night all winter with what must have seemed a curious mixture of old Stones, obscure Bee Gees, a cover of Charlie Pride’s “Kiss An Angel Good Morning” and a bunch of Andy’s originals.
John Gengras: When the season was over, I drove up to Dixville to pick Guy up and bring him home. When I got up there at 10PM he told me we were giving the guitar player a ride back to West Hartford. The only problem was the guitar player was passed out drunk in his underwear in his room. That’s how I met Andy. We threw him in the car and drove home.
Rick Weiner: After the winter gig at the Balsams, I was asked to join a country band—Big Al Orkins and the Countrymen. We had a huge following in the North Country of New Hampshire and Vermont. Anyway, Johnny Paycheck had a big hit at the time "Take This Job And Shove It." I thought that was a cool name, so I decided to name myself Johnny Lunchbreak. When I moved back to West Hartford and the End Of The Trail Boys re-formed Andy thought my new pseudonym would be a good name for the band.
John Gengras: Guy and I were parking cars at G Parking on Church Street and there was an empty office on the second floor. Guy got permission to use it as a rehearsal space for the group, and they started practicing three or four times a week. I used to check them out and I finally bugged them hard enough to let me sit in.
Michael Clare: We existed as a four piece for awhile but knew we needed a lead guitar player, then one day Guy's kid brother picked up a right handed guitar and played it left handed and so sweetly. He was in.
John Gengras: I really can’t remember our first gig together, but it was either a bar or a bar mitzvah. We did a lot of that. We also had long standing engagements at Flo’s Inn and Cypress Arms—two fine dives—where we played for $25 a man and usually ended up owing the owners money for our bar tab.
Tom Ekwurtzel: I was nowhere on the scene when Lunchbreak formed. I was in a popular cover band that performed 3-4 nights a week at the Steak Loft in Ellington, Connecticut, and weddings on Saturday afternoons. We were called the Victor Spoils Band or Killer Pizza or the Wedding Band. Lunchbreak had cute little promo ideas, bumper stickers, lunch pails, etcetera, but they also had Andy Merritt, who really had that x-factor thing going. Just a true definition of what a rock and roller should be.
In fact, I can’t forget the very first time I met with him to sit around a piano and exchange ideas. I showed up at his parent's house in West Hartford and was immediately nailed with a snowball. I look up and it’s Andy, wearing jeans, boots, a big leather jacket, a scarf and aviator glasses. When I met the others, I immediately took to them. Rick had split to pursue a business venture, and I took over the keyboards, harmony vocals, back up guitar, and whatever else was needed.
Michael Clare: I had taken a recording course at Trod Nossel Studio in Wallingford, and this was my first hands on experience as engineer and producer it all went very fast, one or two takes, vocal overdubs, mixed it, and then listened out in the car on the AM transmitter that the studio had. There was no real purpose for the recording other than we could. I made up one cassette that I gave to our friend Ben Pettis who got us a gig in New York at Club 82 and some press.
Variety, November 20, 1974: Johnny Lunchbreak is a Hartford rock combo still in the process of getting it together. Although their Gotham debut caught fire midway, the rest of their set was lackluster.
Tom Ekwurtzel: It was a discouraging night, and we had to motor back to Hartford and resume the day jobs we had. It was kind of obvious that this was going to be very tough to commit to.
Michael Clare: I remember our last gig out in Vernon. Guy didn't show up, Tom was embarrassed, we sucked, and the bar's softball team had just won some game or championship and came back to the bar to drink numerous pitchers while we were imploding on stage.
John Gengras: I feel like we broke up because the band really wasn't going anywhere. We were playing music nobody but us seemed to like, and we really had a hard time getting gigs. Andy and I joined another band, but it was not what either of us liked, just playing for the sake of playing. I had a job and a small child, so money called.
Michael Clare: Andy and I always knew in the back of our minds that we would continue together some day after the turbulence of life during your late twenties and early thirties settled down. It didn't happen.
[b[Tom Ekwurtzel:[/b] When I visit West Hartford, I sometimes drive past the corner where my friend lost control of his bike and died. I saw him about four months before. He seemed really happy.
John Gengras: Andy died in a motorcycle accident in September of 1984. For me it truly was the day my best friend and the music died. He had just married and was enjoying the birth of his daughter.
Michael Clare: That sucked and the feeling hasn't changed. The asshole drove a motorcycle into a telephone pole at 50 miles an hour on Trout Brook Drive in West Hartford just south of Farmington Avenue. The pole is now gone, so is he, but the memory remains.
Rick Weiner: He really could have been a contender. Started the excess before the stardom though.
Michael Clare: Sometime in the early 1980s John had four acetates made with side one being Appetizer and side two being Soup’s On as a Christmas gift to the former band members. In 2004 one was mistakenly sold and fell into the hands of Mike Garber at Zero Street Records.
Mike Garber: It was in a box marked “collectibles” at a Connecticut record shop, priced at $28. The cover was a plain sleeve with a sticker of a lunchbox and another sticker that read “Johnny Lunchbreak.” Inside were two psychedelic drawings as well as two photos of a shaggy haired rock band. It featured nine original compositions showing a healthy British influence (the Stones and Odessa era Bee Gees came to mind immediately). With no information, other than the band name, I posted the recordings on a message board to see if anyone knew anything. Within two days, I got an email from Michael Clare. Turns out it was his copy that he accidentally sold off with much of his prog-rock collection. We traded emails for a year, which finally resulted in a 300 copy vinyl reissue of the recordings in early 2006.
The Numero Group: That LP seemed to be perpetually on our office turntable throughout the spring of 2007. We mostly played side one, just picking up the needle and placing it back down, over and over. And if we liked it that much, we thought a few thousand others might too.
Tom Ekwurtzel: I think the project accurately reflects the time when these Connecticut kooks went into a studio and tried to do their best. It ain’t profound and it ain’t great, but I think there is something real honest about it.
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