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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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Jack Vigliatura sat alone at a tiny table at the Stephen Talkhouse, wearing a tricornered Paul Revere hat and big white sunglasses, dressed for Halloween in the middle of April. He didn't look like a typical fan of Forget the Name, that evening's headline band. People gawked, but he sat serious and stock-still. Eventually it was time for the show's opening act, a Gainesville-based band called For Squirrels, to play. When Vigliatura took his place behind the mike, jaws dropped. Then, when he pulled a harmonica from his jacket pocket and broke into a wild melody, which gave way to the flowing guitar chords and moody bass line of "Flagboy," those dropped jaws turned into smiles, smiles that lasted throughout a set of songs that most of the audience had never heard before.
For Squirrels continued to spread smiles -- first in Florida, later in other parts of the nation -- after that show at the Talkhouse in early 1994. Their exuberant, infectious sound -- often compared to the guitar jangle of early R.E.M. -- not only won over executives and staff members at 550 Music (a Sony Music subsidiary), which signed the band to a record deal earlier this year, but most recently entranced an audience at New York City's CBGB club during this month's annual College Music Journal (CMJ) conference.
That CBGB gig might have been the band's last, however. At a little after four in the afternoon on Friday, September 8, on a stretch of I-95 in Midway, Georgia, the equipment-heavy van For Squirrels was traveling in blew out its right rear tire while returning from the CBGB show to the band's Gainesville home base. Vigliatura, behind the wheel, lost control, and the van flipped over three times, killing Vigliatura, 21, bassist Bill White, 23, and the band's road manager, Tim Bender, also 23. Drummer Jack Griego, 28, suffered a neck fracture in the accident, successfully undergoing a three-hour operation the next day at Memorial Medical Center in Savannah, Georgia. And guitarist Travis Tooke, 23, sustained a broken elbow and several minor injuries; he was released the day after the accident from Liberty Memorial Hospital in Hinesville, Georgia. Last Wednesday, September 13, services were held for Vigliatura and White in Clearwater, Florida, and for Bender in Cary, North Carolina.
The previous night's CMJ show at CBGB -- one of the best For Squirrels ever played, according to the band's manager, Rich Ulloa, of Y&T Music A had come at the end of a four-week tour. For Squirrels signed with Sony (550 Music) this past February, began recording their major-label debut at Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas in late May, and just finished recording in mid-July when they embarked on the monthlong tour. The album, entitled Example, is scheduled for release on October 3.
"[The title] is appropriate because they were an example -- they never judged anyone, never preached," says Ulloa, who worked with the band for approximately a year and a half. "They just played music and lived with integrity and decency, being positive and having faith in family and God."
Ulloa contends that For Squirrels' main accomplishment was that they won the hearts of everyone at 550 Music. "They just captivated them not only with their music, but with their incredible vision and work ethic," Ulloa notes, going on to add that, in Example, the band produced "an amazing record that will stand eternal."
Dave Gottlieb, head of marketing for 550 Music, agrees that the two-year-old label had placed much faith in For Squirrels. "This was one of those bands whose music was great and made even greater because they were such great people," Gottlieb explains. He adds that the label feels very strongly that Example will be released as scheduled. "I've never doubted putting out the record on the same date," says Gottlieb. "It's what Jack and Travis, who survived the crash, want. As far as we're concerned, they are still signed to us, and we'll be there for them."
For Squirrels' story began at the University of Florida in Gainesville in 1992, when high school friends White and Tooke bought guitars at a pawnshop and taught themselves to play. Soon afterward another high school chum, Vigliatura, joined as vocalist, and Griego took his place behind the drums. In less than two years the band worked their way up to being one of the most popular acts in Gainesville, a college town with a thriving live music scene. The band came to Ulloa's attention in the spring of 1994 after they performed at an AIDS benefit sponsored by Y&T's short-lived Gainesville outlet; they'd been befriended by store manager Scott Williams, who played For Squirrels' self-produced debut CD, Baypath Rd, for Ulloa, also manager of Mary Karlzen. At the time, Ulloa indicated he wasn't interested in managing another band, and yet after listening to nothing else but Baypath Rd for four days, he invited For Squirrels to play their first Miami show, opening for Karlzen at the Stephen Talkhouse.
WVUM-FM (90.5) station manager Glenn Richards remembers that first Miami show. "Rich and Scott raved about them, and Rich was telling everyone to stick around [after Karlzen's set]," Richards recalls. "They were really raw and fun, and they did a Beatles song, which made them cool with me."