Mike "Cub" Koda
By STEVE SEYMOUR
One of the greatest rock songs ever to come out of Michigan was written by a former Northern Michigan University student named Mike Koda.
"Smokin' in the Boys Room" not only reached the Top Three for Brownsville Station in 1973, it became Motley Crue's break-out hit when they covered the tune a dozen years later.
Born in 1948, Koda had a life-long fascination with music. He began playing drums at age 5, but switched to guitar at 14. At downstate Manchester High School, he formed The Del-Tinos with rhythm guitarist Rusty Creech and drummer Doug Hankes. With Koda taking vocals and lead guitar, the trio put out three singles, starting with a version of Roy Orbison's "Go, Go, Go" in the fall of 1963.
Koda came to Marquette after graduating from high school in 1966. The move to college forced the break-up of The Del-Tinos, but didn't quiet Koda's musical aspirations.
He walked into MacDonald's Music Store, then located on Washington St., and introduced himself to Gordon MacDonald, whose parents owned the musical instrument business. That was the start of a new band which took the name Mike Koda and the Blue Blades. The group included MacDonald on rhythm guitar, his brother Warren on drums and Kim French on bass.
At a time when most teenagers were interested strictly in pop music, Koda was enthused by the blues. With a repertoire of blues tunes, Mike Koda and the Blue Blades played teen dances in Marquette County for young people who were disappointed when they heard the strange songs of Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson instead of current hits. The band got a better response when it played before a more diverse audience at K. I. Sawyer Air Force Base, Warren MacDonald remembered.
Koda made an impression on many people who heard him play, including MacDonald. "He was a fabulous guitar player, the best, hands down."
The guitarist also made an impression on campus, where he lived at 151 Gries Hall. Harry Nelson of Cornell, then an NMU student, remembered Koda wearing a "shaggy bright green jacket" which stood out from the attire worn by other students. Nelson recalled seeing Koda perform on campus several times, as well.
Others remember the Blue Blades from their appearance during a production of T. R. Richard's "Revival" at Forest Roberts Theatre. The band played blues on stage for the three act play, which had an evangelical theme. "It was fairly risque for its time," MacDonald said.
Koda's musical ambitions also led him to the recording studio for his first solo disc. "Let's Hear a Word (For the Folks in the Cemetery)" was paired with "More Than Me" on a 45 rpm single released on Marquette's Princeton label. The record, produced by label owner F. L. Crook, was pressed in a small quantity and few people have ever heard it. Bearing a five-point crown printed on yellow background, the label lists the record's catalog number as Princeton 110.
While Koda was having some success as a musician, college wasn't mixing well into the rock star formula. Finally, the young musician confronted his parents about his situation. "Dad, I can't be a rock 'n' roll star and go to college," George Koda quoted his son as saying. With that, Koda dropped out of NMU, after a year, and returned to the lower peninsula.
Then, in early 1969, Koda entered an Ann Arbor music store and met guitarist Mike Lutz. Together with bassist Tony Driggins and drummer T. J. Cronley, they formed Brownsville Station.
Their first single, "Rock & Roll Holiday," appeared on the Hideout label in June, 1969. The song was credited to Cubby Koda, an early reference to the guitarist's nickname. He was also called simply "Cub."
The band's debut LP, "No B. S." was released a year later on Palladium Records, based in Birmingham, Mich. Koda had a new gig and the memories of college in the Upper Peninsula faded.
Years passed for Brownsville Station as they toured and continued to release records. On the road, they developed an incredible live show and Cubby was master of ceremonies. I was lucky enough to see the band perform at Finch Fieldhouse on Saturday, April 8, 1972, while I was a student at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant. I remember a very animated show, with the band sporting outrageous costumes and Koda wearing his trademark round black-framed glasses. Contrary to their flamboyant image, the music didn't stray too far from the influences of Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and classic Who.
In the fall of 1973, an FM radio station in Portland, Maine began playing "Smokin' in the Boys Room" off the Brownsville Station LP titled "Yeah." Other stations joined in. But, producer Doug Morris, also owner of Big Tree Records, didn't like the song, and it wasn't immediately released as a single. He changed his mind after the label received 100,000 orders.
The song became an anthem, eventually selling two million copies.
Although it was credited to Koda and fellow band member Mike Lutz, Cubby wrote the song while still in high school, his father said.
Koda played the hit when Brownsville Station performed at Northern Michigan University's Hedgecock Fieldhouse in Marquette on March 25, 1976. Koda's drummer from the Blue Blades, Warren MacDonald, was there near the front of the stage to watch his former bandmate bask in the glory he worked so hard to attain.
Brownsville Station broke up in 1979, but Koda was to enjoy much more success. Hard rock band Motley Crue covered "Smokin' in the Boys Room" in 1985 and it became their first song to be heavily featured on radio. "He made more money off Motley Crue than he did off Brownsville Station," Koda's father reported.
In succeeding years, the multi-talented Koda formed several other bands, recorded prolifically, and wrote about music as well. His popular column, "The Vinyl Junkie," appeared in "Goldmine" magazine and he contributed heavily to the "All Music Guide to the Blues."
Sadly, Koda died at age 51 in downstate Chelsea on July 1, 2000, from complications related to kidney dialysis.
Millions of fans, including many here in the Upper Peninsula, won't soon forget the man who gave us "Smokin' in the Boys Room" and so much more.