Long ago, before the internet, the world of rock was a mysterious and balkanized place. These days, bands can be heard on the other side of the world with a click of a mouse, but that wasn't always the case. Sure, there were superstar bands that toured the globe back in the day, but it was the smaller groups that ruled their city's bars and clubs. Some of them even got regional airplay. But they never went national, let alone international. During hard rock's glory years in the 1970s, one of Ohio's best-kept secrets was the power trio Poobah.
Led by guitarist-singer Jim Gustafson, the Youngstown-based group plowed a heavy, Grand Funk-meets-Black Sabbath groove starting with its 1972 debut album, Let Me In. Songs like "Mr. Destroyer," "Live to Work," and "Enjoy What You Have" were written from a working-class perspective and made to be sung at full volume in crowded bars.
From the Robert Crumb-on-a-budget cover art to the photo collage on the back (not to mention the shout-outs to Cleveland and Youngstown radio stations like WMMS and WFMJ), Let Me In is a true artifact of the early '70s rock scene in Northeast Ohio. Produced with Gustafson's own money and independently released, it's been out of print for decades, but now it's back, loaded with twice as many bonus tracks, including demos and rehearsal tapes.
"My sister and her friends were watching the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show," recalls Gustafson. "She had four or five really good-lookin' friends who I was chasin' after, but they would ignore me, because I was 13 and they were 15. But they would act like these guys were everything that a man oughta be, so I said right then and there, I wanna play guitar and be like the Beatles."
Gustafson's grandmother started him on guitar lessons — first from a jazz player, who taught him single-note lead lines, and later from a rock player, who showed him the way of the barre chord (favored by rhythm guitar players everywhere, from Johnny Ramone to AC/DC's Malcolm Young). By the time he was 14, Gustafson was in a band called the Daze Endz and recorded his first single, "What Can I Do."
But it wasn't until the early 1970s that Gustafson formed Poobah. The band made a name for itself on the local club scene, taking any gig it could find — and there were plenty back then. "The state of the economy at the time was so amazing that you could play almost any night of the week," he recalls. "When I was 14 or 15 years old, I would find myself playing five nights a week with my band. Kids these days don't have as many opportunities as they had in the late '60s and early '70s."
Despite membership upheaval over the years, Poobah are still around today. The band's tenth album, No Control, was released in 2007, and they have a series of gigs lined up over the next couple months, including a NORML rally and the same kind of small-bar shows they played in the '70s.
Gustafson remembers Poobah shows at places like Woodstock (a Cleveland bar, not the outdoor festival), the House of Bud, the Diamond Dog, and several area high schools. They opened for Glass Harp, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, Brownsville Station, and Slade. They also played with Alice Cooper (back when they were a band and not the frontman's name), Canned Heat, Spirit, Judas Priest, Ted Nugent, and even Cheech & Chong.
Perhaps Gustafson's most memorable gig was a private party for the Who held at the Agora, where his pre-Poobah band Biggy Rat was booked as the evening's entertainment. "On Tuesday night, me and the bass player drove to Pittsburgh and saw the Who play," he says. "The next night we were back in Cleveland playing. About 20 minutes before closing time in walks John Entwistle and Keith Moon. And we almost couldn't even play, because the person you'd seen in front of ten thousand people the night before was now down there looking at [us]."
After their set, the guys chatted with Entwistle, and the Agora's owner announced he was throwing the Who a party, with Gustafson's group performing at it. "I can remember Pete Townshend sitting at a table watching me play," says Gustafson. "And making me really nervous."
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