Active as a full-time band: 1974-1980
Musical Style: Eclectic original music. Mad Fables music was the result of a process that nourished and drew upon their collective experience, fusing the music with whatever emotions arose while playing. This audio alchemy unleashed an energy that enveloped those tuned to this type of frequency, and drove all to a joyful madness. Most closely associated with music of the Grateful Dead.
Annual highlight: The feast. Every year Mad Fables would celebrate the end of winter and arrival of Spring, by throwing a huge party to which the entire world was invited. Attendees were asked to bring their signature dish or beverage and the group would play spirited sets of music. The leftovers usually fed the group for a month. After the group disbanded around 1980, the feasts continued as a type of once a year reunion. Shockingly enough, the Feast was held for 30 consecutive years.
During a winter where three week spans of heatless days and nights were common and the erratic wheezing and coughing from bass player Jeff Hays’ five month bout with bronchitis rattled the bare walls, the Fables were exposed to the hardships of hunger and desperation.
While the unemployment benefits that two members were receiving helped the others along, had it not been for kindness and generosity of loyal fans, Mad Fables would not have survived Belleville.
Throughout the entirety of their career, the helping hands extended by fans made Mad Fables a “Peoples Band” where like- minded souls were welcome to join this unpredictable musical excursion. And join they did, providing food, vans, equipment, light men, roadies, managers, agents, libations, entertainment, art, money, love ,enlightenment and encouragement.
All that was ever needed was always provided by their fans. They were treated like musical mendicants, and that’s exactly what they were.
Mad Fables music was characterized by an organic intertwining of parts. Each player’s music bonded to the other’s into a free flowing gumbo of Ideas and emotions spontaneously created and delivered. Bassist Jeff Hays and guitar player Rich Rheiner had been playing together in a band professionally since age 15, when Jeff moved 100 miles north from his South Jersey home to Montclair State College.
The very first person he encountered at Montclair State College was an impossibly tall (6’4″ at least) oddly dressed fellow with long shaggy long hair, suspenders wearing an Appalachian style hat that resembled a small sombrero. Fixing his eyes on the bass case dangling from Jeff’s hand, Mike Radtke loped across the room and without hesitation looked Jeff straight in the eye and asked “Do you play the Blues”?
Mike was not only a piano player who loved the Doors and John Sebastian, he ran the place! The following year after completing his undergraduate studies, he would become a dorm director and use his pull to secure lounges and recreation rooms to host jams. Whenever Rich Rheiner and the fellow he was jamming with, virtuoso guitarist Mike Dugan could make the 100 mile trip north, Mike would not only find a place on campus to play,but would cook delicious meals of beef stroganoff, or hot dogs boiled in Knickerbocker Beer. In short he “wowed” the South Jersey guys.
The reaction of listeners who happened across these jams and early gigs was the element that convinced the members to give full time music a try. From Montclair State dormitories, to its outside amphitheater to a festival in Passaic Park listeners were wildly enthusiastic and drawn to the free-wheeling musical expression that exploded from these encounters. In October 1974, the stars aligned and Michael Radtke, Rich Rheiner, Mike Dugan, Jeff Hays, and Spence Hiller left whatever life’s path they had been following and moved to Bellville NJ to make a career out of performing original music.
The harshness of the Bellville winter finally relented and spring brought renewed hopes for the group members. Living eight people in a three bedroom house, whose make shift furniture was burned for heat and the oil tank painted like a pig, the group practiced individually and collectively on a near continual basis.
In the cement basement whose coal bin served as drummer Spence Hiller’s bedroom, the group poured over original compositions that were rock symphonies, blues, jazz, acid rock, swing, country rock and rolled all into a repertoire that each night took on a life of its own.
When the group briefly became homeless in September of 1975, the shelter afforded them by their friends and fans were a step up from Bellville’s bleakness. When fate smiled upon them in the form of a publishing deal (TRO) that would pay half their rent for six months, the group rented a house 50 miles west in pastoral Hampton NJ and the musical madness spread.
Moving to the country provided more space to practice and access to a whole new fan base, as dedicated and kind as those in eastern NJ. Mad Fables playing circuit expanded and new original music was constantly being added.
By osmosis, it appeared that Michael Radtke’s song writing brilliance infected the others as did Mike Dugan’s drive to improve upon the mastery that he had gained over the guitar. As a result of this move, the group found more venues to play and while commercial success would always remain elusive, the group was earning enough money to survive.
Before long, the group began playing in Oak Valley, the Southern NJ town in which Rich, Jeff and Mike Dugan had grown up. Familiar to listeners from former bands, Fables kaleidoscope of sound caught fire with the locals who embraced the band as their own.
From this new bastion of fans emerged managers and investors who would help finance equipment and a mail truck to haul it around. Fans met fans from other areas and Mad Fables grew beyond the musicians into a grass roots movement of openness. Somehow the freedom and energy gained from bucking “conventional” thinking that would require narrowing its musical vision to a marketable subset of styles, served as beacon and a magnet for those who continued to embrace the ideals of the 60’s.
In 1977, the group moved 20 miles north to Blairstown NJ, just outside of the Delaware Water gap. Once again expanding its playing circuit and fan base, the Blairstown house was spacious, beautiful and situated on a land parcel with its own pond.
While playing a gig at The Bottom of the Fox just over the NJ border into Pennsylvania, a slight soft spoken fellow asked if it would be OK for him to keep an eye on the PA levels. The moment his hand touched the dial, Mad Fables had found its missing ingredient, and its sound.
Dennis Alichwer was educated in electrical engineering and shared the Fables love for roots and eclectic music. His acceptance into the band was instantaneous and total. Working with Mad Fables new manager, he ordered equipment and parts to build a high quality sound system.
Manning the controls, Dennis shaped each night’s music, adapting it to whatever audio challenges the room or venue presented. Dennis also began taping the shows and crates and cartons began to fill up, silently sleeping as if in a time capsule.
In 1979, Mad Fables said farewell to the Blairstown house and moved 40 miles south to Stockton NJ, just outside New Hope PA. The group and its fans were inching towards the symbolic 30 years of age, and the free spirited 70’s were about to give way to recession and the hard line policies of Ronald Reagen. Mike Radtke announced that he would be leaving the band and following his heart and his destiny to California. Spence Hiller opted for the promise of steady employment in a “Disco Band”, and Mike Dugan, Jeff Hays and Rich Rheiner began playing with other drummers, keeping Mad Fables music alive.
Playing as a quartet provided opportunities to find and work with space within the music. The group proved viable and was carried forward by virtue of its stellar musicianship and close knit chemistry. While its music would always be interesting and fun, the loss of its creative songwriting dynamo imbued on it a sense that its best days had passed. In 1980, Mike Dugan who had been handling all the vocals and business dealings for the group announced that he was leaving to go it alone as a blues artist. With this announcement, Mad Fables disbanded.
Mad Fables music was never destined for commercial acceptance. In its best years, its members’ incomes would never rise to the poverty line. But for those who were touched by it, the music burns brightly even today.
But brighter still, burns the memories of a time when logic was thrown out the window and openness and creativity were celebrated, by the band and their fans, who joined in the fracas. People helped each other. For the better part of a decade, ideals still held sway, as if riding on the tail of a wind.
All of the above would have made a nice little fable, told by the boomers that are inching towards their retirements. No doubt that those who would hear such tales would nod and acknowledge the tendency of memory to kindly fill in the blanks from a view distorted by rose colored glasses.
But in 1997, Dennis Alichwer, the sixth Mad Fable, once again blew a gust of wind into Mad Fables sails. A successful sound engineer who worked at Fantasy Records and Electric Ladyland studios and recorded the likes of the Brecker Brothers, Dennis had access to state of the art technology. Reaching into the crates of live tapes from past Mad Fables gigs, he began a project to re-master and clean up these old tapes.
What has emerged, and continues to grow is an archive of musical performances that captures the essence of Mad Fables eclectic style and its improvisational approach. To this day, the music is fresh; mind bending and each rendition exhibits a life of its own unfolding in a way that was right, but right for that moment alone.
Michael Radtke has created this web site telling the band’s story and making much of the original music available thru free downloads. The availability of the music is sparking interest around the globe as internet surfers discover this unique musical art form.
And with its inclusion into the American music archives, comes an opportunity to recognize that what really happened with Mad Fables was borne of the love and spirit from its fans and its members. In a time when hearts were more open and a bunch of twenty something’s followed their collective heart.
2009, Montclair, NJ