After 35 years, the rock band Federal Duck waddles back to performance glory

July 25, 2004|By Dave Barry | Dave Barry,Knight Ridder / Tribune

WHEN WORD got around the music community that the original Federal Duck was getting back together after 35 years, the reaction from serious rock fans was unanimous: "Why?"

I should explain that the Federal Duck was the band I belonged to when I was a student at Haverford College back in the '60s. We were originally called the Stomp Jackson Quintet, and then the Guides (don't ask), but we came up with our new and final name one night when we were lying on the bank of the Haverford campus duck pond, and some ducks started waddling toward us in what looked like a purposeful manner, and as we watched them with increasing alarm -- an oncoming duck squadron in the moonlight -- the thought struck us that these ducks might be working for the government. And if you are wondering why that particular thought would have struck us, you did not experience the '60s.

We were one of many college bands formed in that era by young men with a sincere artistic desire to attract women of the opposite sex. We pretty much failed at that, but we did get hired a lot, because of a distinctive quality we had, which I would describe as "a low price." For as little as $100, or sometimes even less, you could have the Federal Duck perform at your dance, dorm mixer, fraternity party, pagan tree-worship ceremony, livestock neutering, whatever.

We would play anywhere, and we would play all night long, or until the police arrived, which happened sometimes, especially at the frat parties, where there tended to be a lot of spirited hijinks during that magical 45-minute interlude between the time the first keg was tapped and the time the last frat brother passed out in a puddle of his own bodily fluids.

The Federal Duck could play through pretty much anything, because we had a bulletproof repertoire consisting of songs containing three or fewer chords, one of which was always "E." If something distracting happened during a song -- say, a group of frat brothers suddenly appeared on the dance floor physically carrying a Volkswagen -- and you lost your place, you could always play an "E" chord, and the odds were good that this was also what the rest of the band was playing.

We did that for four years, and, although I am not proud of this fact, the Federal Duck was the single most memorable part of my college experience. I was an English major, and I studied some of the greatest works of literature the human mind has ever produced, and today I can remember virtually nothing about any of them, but I still know all the words to "Louie Louie."

Anyway, this year was the 35th reunion of my Haverford class, and one of the events was a dance, and the Federal Duck was offered a chance to play a couple of songs.

And so on a weekend in May, four of the old Duckers gathered -- Tom Pleatman (drums), Bob Stern (bass), Ken Stover (organ) and me ("E" chords).

It had been a long time, so for the first hour we just sat around, doing what guys do when they haven't seen each other for years and have experienced a lot of important life changes: We compared cell phones. It got pretty emotional, especially when we realized that some of us, without even realizing it, had text-messaging capability.

After that intimate gathering, we had a dinner with the other members of the class of '69. As we looked around at our classmates, we realized that, even though you could no longer call us "young bulls," you could definitely call us "old bulls." Some of us appeared to have been veterans of the Spanish-American War.

But being old doesn't mean you lack the ability to play good rock music. No, what makes you unable to play good rock music is a lack of talent, and the Federal Duck still has plenty of that. And so when our time came, we gimped up to the stage in Founders Hall, and -- as we had so many times in the '60s -- we launched into the opening chord of "Gloria," which is, of course, "E."

I'm not saying we all launched into it at the exact same "time," but we all got there eventually, and for a few glorious minutes, Tom and Bob and Ken and I were 20 again, with our whole lives ahead of us, not to mention a certain amount of permanent hearing loss. It was a great night, an exciting night, a night that seemed as if it would never end.

We were in bed by about 11:30.

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