The fuzzy guitar work on “I’ve Been Through it Before,” by Lansing band The Plagues, is some of the finest, most potent riffing ever laid down on a 1960s garage-rock single. The man behind that work, Van Decker, died Dec. 6, leaving behind a long catalog of top-notch recordings.
Decker, who was also a member of Lansing’s own Plain Brown Wrapper in the ‘70s, died in California, where he moved decades ago. The cause of death was a sudden pulmonary hemorrhage in his lung. He’d been battling stage three lung cancer since 2019.
On the day of his passing, Decker, a lifelong musician and music teacher, played his final solo show featuring songs from his catalog of music, including his 2020 “Songs from the Heart” LP.
Back in 1964, during the height of Beatlemania, Decker’s tenure as a lead guitarist started with The Plagues. Along with Bill Malone (vocals, bass), James Hosley (rhythm guitar) and Phil Nobach (drums), the group released singles and packed teen clubs across the state. “Through this World,” released on the band’s own Quarantine Records imprint, charted in 1966 on WILS.
“We were basically a Beatles band to start with,” recalled Malone in a 2016 interview. “We did all Beatles tunes. Then we started branching out. We also liked the Byrds and the Animals. It wasn’t long after our first show at Everett High School that we played Waverly Junior High School — we nearly started a riot. It was like something out of ‘Hard Day’s Night.’”
After Malone left The Plagues, Decker and the remaining members shifted their focus to building a new, more progressive outfit: Plain Brown Wrapper. From the jump, the band pushed sonic boundaries — like adding horns and jazzy elements thanks to the addition of Scott Durbin on keys, trumpet and vocals. Later additions of Chuck Sweitzer (guitar, vocals) and David Livingston (bass, trumpet, trombone, vocals) further enhanced their musical chops.
When they weren’t opening shows in the Motor City for big acts like the MC5 and Bob Seger, the Wrapper grew locally as well, winning many “battle of the bands” contests and performing as the house band on “Swing Lively,” a music and dance TV show on WJIM (now WLNS) in Lansing. The band’s outdoor shows at Valley Court in East Lansing attracted hundreds and often doubled as Vietnam War protests.
“Many people have said Plain Brown Wrapper sounded like Phish,” Livingston told City Pulse in 2014. “We definitely had some jam band elements. There were times when we sounded like the Allman Brothers. One of the things we did was an a cappella version of ‘Maria’ from ‘West Side Story.’ We’d close with ‘When You Wish Upon a Star.’”
Touring around the state in their self-converted, equipment-hauling school bus wasn’t so bad. The makeshift vehicle had a dressing room and a coal stove for heat. The band may have never broken through to the mainstream, but it did get a couple of record contract offers, including one from Capitol Records. Unfortunately, the only official releases are a few 45s.
Luckily, the band’s long-shelved recordings are now available. Visit plainbrownwrapper.org to hear the previously unreleased songs and view a collection of old band photos and show flyers. The site, curated by Decker over the last year, is a fascinating time capsule of what a hardworking Lansing band looked like in the 1970s.