ComFest 2023 Program Guide
In Memoriam — Pete Linzell
By Curtis Schieber
I first heard Pete Linzell play at the Moonshine Co-op at 11th and N. 4th in 1975. There are nondescript apartments there now but in its heyday, the southeast corner was a musical beehive, first as Positively Fourth Street and later the Moonshine. Ace jazz arranger Dave Wheeler had a weekly big band gig and it was smoking. Pete was playing tenor and I thought he was about 16—actually, he was likely 18 or maybe 19—but he was killing it.
I don’t believe I actually got to know him until 1980, perhaps in the Alligators or after he had joined with Ronald Koal, Matt Newman, Mike Valentine, and Jim Castoe in a band initially called Kid Koal and later Ronald Koal & the Trillionaires. Mark Moormann and I had just bought Schoolkids Records and we released the band’s “What A Bargain” EP in 1981 and the self-titled album and an advance single on our No Other Records. They were all terrific musicians but Matt and Pete seemed to inhabit music in a way I had never known. The two of them had their own special language.
During the week or two it took to record the album in Cincinnati’s great Fifth Floor Studios, Mark or I would ferry the band back and forth and sit in the control room with engineer extraordinaire Gary Platt for every session. It was exhilarating and often exhausting, as five creative individuals—especially the headstrong Koal, Newman, and Linzell—brainstormed, fought, and bargained.
Six months later, I’m not sure all of them were completely happy with the results. Soon after the album’s release, they started woodshedding in a couple other studios and further developed their sound and approach. Pete would bring working tapes by the store for us to hear, on fire with excitement and seeming disdain for everything that came before. It is something I have noticed in many musicians—the current project is always their best work—but Pete, the master of hyperbole, was uncommonly partial. “Beyond great,” he would claim, not only about the band’s newest work, but whatever vintage rock-and-roll, r&b, jazz, and soundtrack music he had recently discovered. It was a dialogue he and I kept alive for years. For a time he became obsessed with the r&b tenor saxophone of the likes of Sam The Man Taylor and Big Jay McNeely, saying that like them he was in search of the “perfect one note solo.”
Seemingly overnight a few years later, Pete started playing guitar with the band, gradually edging out his saxophone contributions. He must have been playing it for some time, because he had the fundamentals down and proved a fine partner for Matt Newman’s unique style. It really rankled him if folks said he was just “pretty good.”
It must have been around that time that Pete almost completely stopped listening to jazz and began dismissing it as stuffy and irrelevant. And he sold all his jazz records. My theory always was that it represented the intellectual to him, as opposed to the fiery emotion of rock-and-roll and r&b. He was very bright and intellectual but seemed sometimes embarrassed by it. I think that contradiction was one of the two that shaped his life and kept him up at night. The other was his outward demeanor. Gabor Klein, longtime Trillionaires manager recently described him as “gruff and incorrigible man, but a sweetheart.” Later he clarified: “I think his gruffness was just his outward defense mechanism. He didn’t show his gruffness to strangers. He saved it for his friends.” I think it was often difficult for him to reveal just how sensitive he was.
Just as his quicksilver musical mind never stayed in one place long, so did his passion for listening and constantly learning keep moving. A couple years after he sold all his jazz records, he started coming into the store buying a few and asking to borrow a few favorites. It started with the big sound of tenors such as Booker Ervin, Gene Ammons, and Dexter Gordon and eventually opened up. There were constants for most of the time we were friends, though. He lived for garage rock, was obsessed with surf music, loved r&b, and was fascinated by soundtrack composers, especially the Italian greats Ennio Morricone and Nino Rota. He and Matt injected surf into the foundation of the Trillionaires and used it as a secret weapon. It was always guaranteed to get the audience frugging madly. In fact, after the Trills, Pete formed the Trouser Pilots with Matt, Ben Pridgeon, and Jim Castoe. Then he moved to New York in 1987. We spoke on the phone with some regularity and I dropped in on him when I was in the city. He seemed in his element and was working in a record store. But I think it was economically, a nightmare for him, as he tried to devote all his time to music.
He and late-Trillionaires guitarist Todd Novak had formed the surf band The Dragsters and met with some success, recording a couple singles and an album. They toured with The Fleshtones and other NYC bands. Later Pete toured with The Fleshtones, the Raunch Hands, and a bit with NRBQ in the US and Europe. He also played in several other New York bands.
Pete came back to Columbus in 2003 and immersed himself in composing and recording soundtrack music and exotic instrumentals with Matt and his friend Scott Castle. We made it a point to check in with each other every six months or year since then. Sometimes it would be longer and I would worry about him. The last time we spoke, a couple years ago, he was about to leave the hospital after a harrowing critical illness. My old high school buddy Doug Wygal—who played in a couple bands with Pete in New York, was coming through town and asked to visit him. Pete seemed relieved and optimistic to be getting back on his feet. He told me that this was his third near-death experience, without a shred of bravado and a lot of implied gratitude. I didn’t hear from him in more than a year and was intending to contact him. That conversation in the hospital, though, was to be our last.
It’s been a couple months since his passing and I am just now beginning to sort through all the great times, the stimulating—sometimes frustrating—conversations, and, especially, the bittersweet, now-circumscribed fruit of that restless creativity. I can’t help but wonder what he would have been on about next.