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."
In short order For Squirrels signed on with Ulloa, frequently trekking to Miami as well as to other points in Florida and to Georgia, often driving all day to play a 40- or 50-minute set, then drive back in time for class or work the next day. In July 1994 the band released the EP Plymouth, which featured five songs from Baypath Rd, on Ulloa's independent Y&T label.
When they first hit the Miami scene, For Squirrels' sound was riddled with quick-change guitar chords, bubbling bass lines, and double-time drumming. That sound matured over the year and a half that followed, and when the band played their final Miami show, in June at Rose's Bar and Music Lounge, they exhibited a more focused approach. Tooke's guitar work retained some of its fast-paced, hypermelodic chordings, but it also evinced a crunchier, darker sound. Vigliatura's still-boyish voice was exploring extremes, from deep mumblings to crackling screams. On-stage, each band member exuded a distinct personality. Griego was the tireless athlete; Tooke the mod, cool and distant in a satin shirt, guitar slung across his chest; White the group's comedian, looking not unlike a young Jerry Seinfeld; and Vigliatura a man possessed, flailing at layers of clothing, squirming around on the stage, and generally wreaking havoc on the equipment.
While their sound was constantly compared to that of early R.E.M., the members of For Squirrels cited a wide variety of influences, from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones (they covered songs by each of those bands at almost every show) to the Pixies and Smashing Pumpkins. One of the biggest influences was lyricist Vigliatura's upbringing in a small New England town A that experience provided the force behind the historically influenced lyrics and spirit of songs such as "Flagboy," "Plymouth," and "Orangeworker."
"Between all of us, we come up with this mishmash of stuff," explained Griego in a June 1994 interview in New Times. "Pop is the only common ground we have, and we put our differences into that."
For Squirrels also had a realistic way of looking at what they were doing. "We have a confidence in the band, but even getting on a label isn't the final answer," said Vigliatura in the same interview. "Having a successful music career is like playing in the NBA: If you hit, you hit big. But you have a better chance of being struck by lightning. You could always end up in the three-dollar rack six weeks later."
Members of the local music scene agree that For Squirrels were well on their way to hitting big. "Personally, I think it's heartbreaking," says Greg Baker, co-host of the Beast and Baker Show on WAXY-AM (790) and former New Times music editor. "They were young guys who were creative and doing something in their lives. They were as good as anything I'd ever heard, and they were an even better live band. They were strange in that they came out of nowhere and already had a CD. These guys were right out of the box, and what impressed me most was how quickly and efficiently they did what a band has to do to be successful."
For his part, WVUM's Richards, who was present for that final show at CBGB, reckons that For Squirrels' appeal came from the connection the band forged with their audiences. "They made a lot of friends and fans in a very short time," Richards points out. "Spirit and youthfulness A that's what I got out of them. They lived life to the fullest, wrung everything out of life. I guess that's the lesson A never take anything for granted."
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Jacques Milhomme, floor manager at Rose's Bar, says the club's entire staff is shocked at the loss of one of its most successful acts. "What set them apart was that they were really great guys A young, fresh, no drugs, no drinking," Milhomme says. "They always brought 110 percent to the stage and left the room buzzing." Milhomme, who books the bands that perform at Rose's, estimates that over the course of an average night, For Squirrels could bring 700 people into the tiny club. "They were one of the brightest stars in the local music scene, and now they're gone. We're still stunned and really hurting."
Meanwhile manager Ulloa says doctors are hopeful that Griego will recover fully from his neck injury, and adds that he (Ulloa) is committed to working with Tooke and Griego in the future: "We will emerge from this. Travis will be making music all his life, but now is not a time to make plans, but to heal and think.
"My family and I lost three very special friends," Ulloa concludes. "I am so grateful for the year and a half I spent with them, and we'll carry on to make their work meaningful."
A medical fund has been established to assist the surviving members of For Squirrels. Please send checks to For Squirrels Medical Fund, Capital Bank, 1221 Brickell Ave, Miami