The following is written by Allen Etzler. You can follow him on Twitter here.
A jukebox used to sit in the cafeteria at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda. As a student at the school, Martha Hull used to listen a local band named Grin on the jukebox for most of the school day. Members of the band, Tom and Nils Lofgren, went to the same high school and the band was hugely popular in the D.C. area.
“In my high school, Grin was God,” Hull recalls. “They were God. Grin was the band. The jukebox played Grin all day long. We didn’t go to class a whole lot.”
Hull would attend shows throughout the region to see Grin in small local teen clubs. More than four decades later, Hull, now married to Grin’s drummer Bob Berberich, stood inside Villain and Saint in Bethesda watching the band that filled her high school days reunite for just the second time since 1974.
“It felt very much like I was re-visiting high school,” Hull said. “It was like, I’m back in high school, in a non-airconditioned teen club, everyone is soaked in sweat and mouthing all the lyrics. It was thrilling.
“I might not want to admit it to all the people who didn’t get in,” she added, “but it was everything you’d want it to be.”
The recent Grin reunion at Villain and Saint was part of a benefit concert for Berberich and Hull’s record shop, Vinyl Acres, in Downtown Frederick, which experienced severe flood damage in May for the second time in three years. A last-minute commitment from Nils Lofgren completed a full Grin reunion and guaranteed a sellout, which raised thousands of dollars for Vinyl Acres.
“Once Nils signed on, I said we could have sold five times as many tickets,” Berberich said. “But we were committed to this club. And it was just like going back to those teen clubs — you know, super small and sweaty. It was great.”
Creating a legacy
Berberich’s bands have always had a large following, particularly in the D.C. region.
Lofgren, Bob Gordon and Berberich formed the original version of Grin in 1968. But before that, Berberich played in a band called The Hangmen. Berberich, 70, joined The Hangmen when he was a junior in high school.
The original leader of the band, Tom Guernsey, was also in a band called The Reekers with Berberich. The Reekers played together at the same time as The Hangmen, but the Reekers only played during the summer because two members went away to college for the rest of the year.
The Reekers originally recorded a song called “What A Girl Can’t Do,” which was eventually released as a single. But,by the time the song got picked up, The Reekers didn’t exist, so the band released it under The Hangmen name.
The release worked as “What A Girl Can’t Do,” became the No. 1 hit in the region and The Hangmen became the top band in the area.
The band was then so popular, that in 1966 they were scheduled to play a show at Giant Record Shop in Falls Church, Virginia. With thousands of people trying to squeeze into the record store, a riot broke out. People were standing on glass cases, breaking glass cases, and eventually, the police had to be called.
The band had to be escorted out the back of the store and out of Falls Church following police in their 1953 Cadillac hearse. They didn’t event get to play a song.
“It was like the Beatles had shown up,” Berberich recalled. “The Hangmen at that particular point, if you hadnt seen us live, you didn’t know we were a local band. They didn’t know we weren’t from England. So everyone in the area came to this show. I’d love to have a picture of the police escorting the hearse out of Virginia.”
But the band hit a plateau, which led to its demise in 1967. Later, Berberich joined Lofgren and Gordon to form Grin. While the band was hugely popular in the region, it never quite caught on nationally.
“We didn’t sound like anybody else at the time,” Berberich said of the band. “We had two lead singers, which was probably to our detriment. It just wasn’t a sound anybody had heard before, and it didn’t quite catch on.”
Prior to the band signing a record deal, they were highly sought after by several record labels. Neil Young flew the band to California in hopes of producing its first record, but Young received a call to play at Woodstock with Crosby, Stills & Nash, and ended up not being able to produce the album.
While they were in California, however, a record producer who hoped to sign them booked them for three shows opening for Jimi Hendrix in an effort to entice the band to sign with him.
While the band didn’t sign with him, they signed their own record deal shortly thereafter. After signing the record deal, Berberich bought a 1955 maroon and cream two-tone Cadillac and “a pound of the best pot I could find.”
Still, after the band failed to hit the big time, the record label wanted to separate Nils Lofgren and give him new bandmates to see if he could make it on his own. That album didn’t hit either, Berberich recalled.
Berberic, meanwhile, joined the Rosslyn Mountain Boys for several years, but he stopped playing full-time in the early ‘80s. In 1983, Berberich lived in Kensington in a house with several musicians they called “the Kensington home for wayward boys.” All of the guys were single, and they all rode British motorcycles.
“It was a real party house,” Berberich said.
That year, Nils gave Berberich a call with a request. Nils had been granted an audition with Bruce Springsteen’s band, and asked Berberich if he could drive him to the airport. He obliged and Lofgren’s audition was successful.
“I like to think I helped him a little bit,” Berberich laughed.
Three decades later, Nils is still touring internationally, and Berberich is the owner of one of three record stores downtown. Berberich had originally tried to open a record shop as a partner with another man several years ago.
But, in what he calls a “total f- — job” the store never came to fruition, and he signed a legal agreement that prevented him from talking about the situation. The only positive that came out of the situation, though, is the fact that Berberich had acquired more than 20,000 records that he put in storage.
In 2013, he opened the shop at Hull’s behest even though other stores like Rock and Roll Graveyard and the Record Exchange were already established in the area.
“We went to the other shops before we opened and said we kind of need to do this,” Berberich said. “But we don’t want to screw you guys. And they were cool with it. … And we formed this kind of friendly competition where we help each other out. If I don’t have something, I send you to the other stores and vice versa.”
Now, the family makes a modest living, especially given the amount of damage they’ve take on in via two floods in the last three years. It’s been challenging, and Berberich has considered closing the store for good, especially after the last flood. But the opportunity to be around the music he loves every day is one he’s not willing to throw away quite yet.
“I love my job,” he said. “I love being here. I love being around music everyday. I love my customers. I love this atmosphere. When I show up here today, I’m a happy guy. I get to discover new music all the time. My own music horizons have expanded. I’ve discovered that Ella Fitzgerald is the best singer that’s ever lived.
“I hadn’t really ever listened to jazz,” he said, “until I was running this store.”