One day in February 2012, Donna F. Brown was sitting at her desk at home in Broomfield, going through paperwork for her job handling long-term-care insurance assessments, when the phone rang. On the other end was Rob Sevier, co-founder of Chicago-based archival record label Numero Group. Confused, Donna asked the reason for the call.
“We’ve been listening to your music,” Sevier said. “It’s phenomenal.”
Donna struggled to find her voice.
Before she could, Sevier continued: “Please tell me, do you still have any of this music? I would love to put out an album.”
Now Donna was speechless. The songs in question were primarily garage recordings made on a four-track reel-to-reel recorder; nearly forty years had passed since they were written, recorded and, ultimately, shelved.
In the summer of 1973, at the suggestion of a friend, Donna went to check out a band that practiced in a garage just a couple miles from her childhood home in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood.
“There was Gary, his hair almost as long as mine,” she says of that first meeting with guitarist Gary Brown, with whom she’d later found Medusa. Also there: drummer Lee Teuber, bassist Kim Gudaniec and vocalist Peter Basaraba. But there was another guitar player present that day, as well, and Donna waited with her red Epiphone guitar — her first electric — for a chance to show her stuff. The second guitarist never took a break, though, and an exasperated Donna finally got back in her Volkswagen and left.
Gary called the next day, apologizing and explaining that they didn’t know how to tell the other guy to leave, and Donna agreed to return for an audition.
At the time, she was primarily a folk musician and writer, fervently involved in the political activism of the era — a fixture at sit-ins and love-ins, and present at the MC5 performance in Lincoln Park during the notorious 1968 Democratic National Convention, when police in full battle regalia beat, bloodied and arrested many peaceful protesters, including some of her friends. At the protest, Donna was grabbed, dragged and tossed in a paddy wagon for positioning herself — arms outstretched, guitar slung over shoulder — in the path of one of the police vehicles and demanding they stop their aggression.
Despite having a different musical background from her future bandmates, she passed the audition and turned out to be a perfect fit. Donna and Gary (who eventually married) formed an immediate connection, fast becoming collaborators, always trying to one-up each other with a new riff or melody. With Donna, a fan of mythology, came a name for their new group: Medusa.
In 1975, after a couple of years of playing civic centers, high school auditoriums and the like, the band recorded a number of original songs in drummer Lee Teuber’s basement and at Pepperhead Studios in Chicago. A pair of tracks from the studio session, “Strangulation” and “Temptress,” were released by Pepperhead Records on that 45. The basement tapes — what would later become the band’s first LP, First Step Beyond — lay dormant in Teuber’s Nederland garage, undisturbed for decades, until that momentous Numero Group call in 2012.
Not long after those recording sessions, Donna left the group and headed off to Truman College to study to become a registered nurse. “I thought, ‘Who would want to listen to our music?’” she says. “I thought it was just garage music, and I didn’t think I could make any type of a living with music.” The dynamic was never the same without her, and Medusa disbanded completely shortly after her departure.
The rock landscape changed dramatically in the years to follow. Hair metal, grunge, nü metal and other sounds exploded and dissipated. As the second decade of the new millennium was getting under way, a renewed interest in ’70s hard rock and proto-metal that’d been simmering for years began to boil over. Bands like Pentagram, Bang, Truth & Janey and myriad others from that era were enjoying a move from being fringe groups to bona fide underground legends, landing prominent billing at major rock festivals and enjoying greater commercial success than they’d ever achieved in their younger years.
First Step Beyond was finally released internationally in February 2013, and the timing couldn’t have been better. Vinyl record sales had been climbing year over year in the U.S. since 2006, and there was plenty of demand for vintage rock-and-roll slabs. Medusa garnered favorable reviews in distinguished rock publications and was included on lists and compilations alongside legendary acts from the ’70s. Now living in the suburbs of Denver, Gary and Donna took the logical next step and resurrected Medusa, recruiting Dean McCall on drums, Randy Bobzien on bass and Kameron Wentworth on guitar. (Later, upon Wentworth’s exit, Phoenix Johnson took over on bass and Bobzien moved to rhythm guitar.) In between that first phone call from Sevier and the album’s release, Donna began writing a book about Medusa’s history.
The Internet hype and reviews surrounding the album’s release paled in comparison to the frenzied enthusiasm the group would be met with when they tore through a stretch of shows over the next couple of years with some of the hottest rock bands in America.
Like the time Medusa was invited to close out the after-party for the premiere of the 303 Boards movie Landrace at the Squire Lounge alongside Arctic, a band made up of eminent pro skateboarders. By the time Medusa took the stage, the joint felt like a tinderbox. “I remember standing in a puddle of beer,” says Donna, laughing as she recalls the chaotic scene. As the beer lake inched closer to Gary’s pedal board, a friend of Bobzien’s attempted to create some distance between the fans and the band. He was promptly hoisted overhead and carried out the door at the opposite side of the bar.
Or, just a couple of months later, when the band pulled into Chicago’s Cobra Lounge for the sold-out “hometown” finale of its tour across the American heartland with Southern California heavy psych band JOY — a show that included original vocalist Peter Basaraba. There the bandmates ran into the man who’d put the whole second coming into motion. “He’s this big bear of a man, and he goes, ‘I’m Dan, the guy who found your 45,’” says Donna. “I swung my arms around him and said, ‘No kidding! You’re the guy who put us back on the map musically. I can’t thank you enough.’ Tears were streaking down my face. There were tears in his eyes. He said, ‘Go for it. I can’t wait to hear you guys play. You guys slay!’”
Or when they were invited down for an unofficial SXSW show at famed East Austin metal haunt The Lost Well, and the popular Dallas rock band Mothership swapped the headlining spot with them because of the buzz around Medusa. “People are here to see you,” Donna remembers Kelley Juett, Mothership’s guitarist, telling her. Although Medusa didn’t take the stage until 1 a.m., a feverish mob swelled in anticipation. “There was no room to even squeeze anyone else in sideways,” Donna says. “I don’t even know how to put it into words. The electricity in the room was unbelievable.” The crowd sent deafening roars and cheers of “Medusa!” through the place before a note was even struck. “We played, and the crowd started yelling, ‘Don-na! Don-na! Don-na!’ I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Words just can’t describe the feeling.”
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When Donna started writing Finding Medusa: The Making of an Unlikely Rockstar, she thought it would be a biography of the band and its incredible ride. But as she moved forward, the narrative began to take a more personal form.
“It began to start branching into who I was as a person, what influenced and shaped me into the person I became,” she says of the recently released book. “I took numerous detours in my life — nursing, pantomime [she trained under renowned French actor and mime Marcel Marceau before opening her own pantomime business in 1988], yoga — because I didn’t think I could make a living playing music. But it came full circle with the phone call from Rob. It just confirmed, and affirmed, that we were supposed to be playing music. That was our purpose in life.”
There’s no bitterness about the fact that Medusa never made it big all those years ago. Instead, Donna radiates awe and appreciation that the band had a second chance to share its music.
“It’s almost indescribable,” she says. “I found Medusa not once, but twice, but there are a lot of different layers to it.” Finding Medusa, she adds, is about “me finding myself as a person, finding my purpose in my life as a musician.”