Interviewing the Thrown Ups’ John Leighton Beezer

Posted: September 19, 2011 in Interviewing the Elliott Bay Panelists

Fourth in a series of how I came to interview panelists who will appear at the musician/producer Q&A at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Company (Wednesday, October 19, 7 pm.)  These blog entries appear here as follows:

Jack Endino: Friday, September 16

Rob Morgan: Saturday, September 17

Tom Price: Sunday, September 18

John Leighton Beezer: Today

Steve Fisk: Tomorrow

Some people refer to him as John. I call him Leighton.  Let’s just get that out of the way.

Leighton’s Thrown Ups never became as prominent as some of his friends’ bands like Mudhoney and Pearl Jam.  But that was by design.  Regardless, the Thrown Ups were arguably the quintessential grunge ensemble.  They embodied the aesthetic of grunge more than anybody else in Seattle.  And I mean real grunge—the organic version that existed in Seattle in the late ’80s, not the mass-market phenomenon of the ’90s.

The Thrown Ups didn’t practice.  They didn’t even have songs.  Anything was possible when Leighton’s band took the stage.  The Thrown Ups began life in 1985 opening for Hüsker Du.  Concerned they might get booed off the stage, Leighton & Co. brought raw oysters ready to heave at the audience if necessary.  You’ll have to read the book to find out what happened next (is this pattern getting annoying yet?).

Leighton has a specific musical philosophy he’s stuck to all these years: enjoy yourself, and don’t practice.  He could never understand why people would miss a party because of a band rehearsal. “Get out.  Have fun,” he stated.  “Make contacts with people.  And so, the scene was much healthier. The bands weren’t all isolated and focused on their careers.  They were practicing maybe once a week, and they weren’t too uptight if they didn’t have it right.  And in fact everybody knew full well that a show that turned into a train wreck was probably better than one that didn’t.”

I interviewed Leighton for the first time in April of 2007.  He is–quite frankly–a quote machine.  Sometimes it’s tough to transcribe a conversation into a usable quote.  Not so with Leighton.   I pretty much could just use our dialogue as a narrative of Seattle’s punk rock history.

We’ve met twice, and our second meeting stands out in my mind…I think it was 2008.  He had a gig at a bar in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood.  You have to understand something about Leighton’s bands.  Similar to how he approaches his craft, Leighton’s musical collectives literally come together at the last minute.

We chatted over a beer for half an hour.  Then he went up to the hostess and asked, “Do you know who’s playing here tonight?”  She didn’t respond, save for a look of bewilderment.  “Because,” Leighton continued, “it might be me.”

A couple of musicians trickled in, but with just a few minutes before show time, Leighton wasn’t sure if he would have enough players.  Specifically, he was waiting on a bassist named “Five.”  A couple of minutes later, Five sauntered in, and the show was on.

Leighton’s band played for forty-five minutes—literally—without stopping.  No vocals, just an improvised piece of music.  The volume was tremendous, and the notes bounced off the walls.  It was–in a word–outstanding.

A year later, I hit a wall with my book project.  I had just finished a section on Seattle’s vibrant 1983/84 all-ages scene.  Then that string seemed to die out, and I had nowhere to go.  At the other end of that string, I had written about a club called the Gorilla Gardens, which opened in 1985.  I just couldn’t join the two strands.  So, I called up Leighton.

I told him about my dilemma, and he laughed, saying he had been thinking about that time as well.  In fact, he had been reconnecting with people from that era on Facebook.  Yeah, it was one of those cosmic vibe moments.

So, Leighton walked me through that “lost” era, a time I call “Interlude Underground” in the book.  That period was critical to the development of Seattle’s music scene, including of course grunge.  Since the all-ages community had died out, people had nothing left to do.  Nobody believed they could make money with their band, so they just created music for fun.  It was during Interlude Underground that Green River, Soundgarden, the Young Fresh Fellows, the Green Pajamas, and the Walkabouts emerged.

Needless to say, Leighton has been an invaluable asset to my book.

Another couple of years passed, and the publisher and I were kicking around potential book titles.  They finally decided on The Strangest Tribe, and at the time I had mixed feelings about it.  (Like I said before, it has grown on me quite a bit since.)  So, I called up a few people to get their thoughts including Leighton, Jack Endino, Rob Morgan, and Kurt Danielson.  Leighton laughed when I told him the title, suggesting we call it The Dumbest Club instead.  Did I mention he is a quote machine?

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