Archive for January, 2012

UK Experience (Part 2)

Posted: January 31, 2012 in Unrelated Shit

After the Beatles tour, I wandered around Liverpool with the express purpose of staying awake.  The key to beating jet lag is forcing onesself to stay up that first night.  I had visions of hanging at the Cavern in the evening, but at 7 pm on the dot my head hit the pillow…and my eyes did not open until 12 hours later.

Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head (sorry for the dorky Beatles reference.)  Then, took a walk down to the waterfront before catching a train to Oxford.  I love European trains.  They’re so comfortable and efficient…just like in the States.  (Blame Eisenhower.)  In any event, I arrived at the Oxford station in the early afternoon.  Oxford is about an hour west of London.

I caught a cab ride to Manchester College, one of the 29 colleges comprising Oxford University.  The Oxford Round Table conference staff greeted me, showing me to my room.  They said I had a couple of hours before our initial champagne reception.

So I wandered around, taking photos…absorbing the history that is Oxford…a place where they began assigning homework in the 1180s.  (Yeah, that’s not a misprint.)  Unfortunately, I have most of the pics in an album somewhere (that was the last trip I shot on film), but I managed to catch a cricket match in action, which was pretty cool.

I enjoyed the champagne reception, even though I’m somewhat shy around new people.  Everyone seemed geniunely interested in making new friends.  (The pic below shows the main courtyard at Manchester College.)

Unlike in the States, Oxford colleges don’t have campuses per se.  Rather, they have some buildings, and courtyards.  They’re all organized under a loose Oxford University umbrella, but they operate independently.  So, if you attend, say Manchester or Christ Church or whatever college of Oxford, you go to that college and that’s pretty much it, other than some facilities that the University shares.  When you get your degree, it says Oxford University, with no mention of the particular college.  Make sense?  No?  Well, it’s England…the same place that created a tennis scoring system of love, 15, 30, and 40.

The next morning, we headed over to the Oxford Union for the first day of the conference.  The top photo below shows the Union hall, and the bottom shows where we ate.

About an hour into the conference I realized I was totally outclassed.  These folks were scholars.  I was merely an amateur.  Fortunately, I kept my cool and decided to enjoy myself regardless.  I presented a paper that first morning on how the West can challenge China’s economic dominance…wasn’t one of my best efforts, but the other attendees received it favorably, and asked some good, probing questions.

At 7 pm, we all met in the library (I have to get that pic…stained glass windows…wonderful) and chatted it up over champagne.  I’m not a big champagne guy, but this stuff was top notch.  I had two of those every night before dinner.  Dinner, as I would come to expect, was amazing.  Chef David (from Scotland) prepared the most wonderful gourmet food during our stay.

That night, some of us got together to head to the pubs.  At my request, we took a walk to an establishment called “The Bear.”  I had a lab/goldie mix named Bear whom I had lost the previous spring, so I wanted to go to that particular pub.  About ten of us sat outside, chatted over English bitters, and did a toast to my Bear.  The Bear was pretty cool…it boasts of having no right angles in the entire structure.  It also claims to have first opened in 1284.

As the conference wore on, I found the entire experience incredibly enriching–between the academic exchanges during the sessions and companionship at the pubs afterwards.  I’ll pick up the next installment with the joy that is the English pub, when I’ll be introducing our starring characters: “Stealth,” “Clouseau,” and “Mr. Beige.”

Reading and signing scheduled for Friday, March 2 at 7 pm.  The event will be held in conjunction with Manayunk’s First Friday festivities.  (For you Seattle folks, Manayunk is to Philly like Ballard is to your town.)  This should be amazing!  Come out, have some beers, and listen to my favorite Seattle characters tell their stories.

You may have noticed a lack of posts over the last week or so.  That’s ’cause I’ve kind of hit a bit of a wall.  So, any suggestions about topics or anything you’d like addressed, please let me know and I’ll do my best to accomodate.  I am still working on a piece about the Blackouts.

In the meantime, I thought I’d write about an experience I had five years ago traveling to the UK.  Back in the summer of ’06, I attended a week-long history conference at the University of Oxford.  It was one of the best weeks of my life.

We had to check in on a Sunday afternoon, but being a Beatles fan, I decided to come in a day early and go to Liverpool.  So I flew into Manchester airport on Saturday morning, completely exhausted from a lack of sleep on the flight (the older gentleman sitting next to me had this wonderful habit of jabbing me with his elbow just as I was falling asleep…happened like three times.)  I then caught the hour-long train ride to Liverpool, which faces the Irish Sea in Northwest England.

If you’ve ever been overseas, you’ll relate to what I’m about to talk about.  I had travelers’ disorientation going big time…a combination of the physical exhaustion and lack of familiarity with my surroundings in a foreign city.  I also found Liverpudlians difficult to understand.  Every sentence seemed to trail off into mumble-land.  I finally got tired of asking people to repeat themselves after four of five times, resorting to the standard “foreigner nod.”  Hopefully, I didn’t incite any international incidents.

I had scheduled a Beatles tour at 3 pm that afternoon.  Our guide must have been in his sixties and he freely talked about the Liverpool music scene of the late ’50s/early ’60s.  He met John Lennon when he was ten, and was in a band like everyone else at the time.  We stopped at Paul’s boyhood home…

Then, we visited two sites that inspired Beatles songs….

And of course, we had to check out the Cavern, the jazz club where the Beatles gigged prior to their superstardom…

Despite my excitement, I nearly nodded off several times during the tour–I was that wiped.  (I also think the “Peterman Reality Tour” flavor of the cassette tape our guide played…that didn’t help.)

So now that I’ve attempted to define organic grunge, I’m going to try to tackle psychedelia.

Psych is arguably the most difficult of rock n roll genres to get one’s head around.  It’s not a “style” like metal or prog; it’s not an “attitude” like punk; it’s not about a “cause” like folk/rock; it’s not about sheer rebellion like hardcore.  In fact, the ultimate destination does not play into psych.  It’s about the journey.

Early San Francisco psych progenitors like the Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, and the Grateful Dead began constructing songs free from the three minute verse-chorus-verse hook-laden format.  Songs would just go…with the audience tagging along for the trip.

Speaking of the “trip,” drugs, of course, played a major role.  (And now, for you kids reading this, please note that this essay does not endorse or encourage the consumption of mind-altering substances…although reading about it may get you high.)  Acid became the drug of choice during the early psych days, and continued to do so throughout the genre’s decades-long existence.  I’ve never done acid, but I know enough people who have to get a feel for the drug’s impact on reality.  Some artists used it to stimulate the muse, and the San Francisco folks (and later the Beatles, of course), took acid for inspiration.

In Seattle, Upchuck and the Fags became one of the early psych enthusiasts…imbibing in something called MDA.  MDA can change the speed at which one perceives his or her environment.  Later, bands would take MDMA (aka Ecstasy) to further alter awareness of their surroundings…in addition to mushrooms and acid.

By the mid-1980s, just as grunge began to form, psych increasingly made its presence felt within Seattle’s underground music scene.  Ron Rudzitis’ Room Nine led the way, heavily drawing from Los Angeles’ Paisley Underground bands like Rain Parade, Dream Syndicate, and the Three O’Clock.  Room Nine and its audience embarked on Ecstacy-fueled excursions together.  “Psych was always there,” Ron recalls, “even in the ‘new music’ we were listening to.  As far as making a conscious decision to be psychedelic, I don’t think there was one.  Maybe subconsciously we longed to be part of the Paisley Underground, or to stick out from the crowd in Seattle.  Maybe it was the drugs around at the time?”

Room Nine’s performances were accompanied by lighting projections from one Michael Laton.  (See “Interviewing Michael Laton” in the Doing the Interviews/Other Key Interviews for more details…some of that will be repeated here along with some new stuff.)  Michael had been an integral part of the San Francisco scene in the ’60s.  “We hooked up with Michael Laton,” says Ron.  “I used to love to hear his stories from ground zero of the original psychedelic era.  Frankly, I’m still impressed as hell with the fact that he’s quoted in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.  Again, ’67-’70 were mythic, and Michael lived it.  If only Seattle could get that kind of attention San Francisco did back then.  Playing with Michael’s light show, the reaction of the audience, and what we were on…just added up to support the psych direction.”

Michael grew up in Southern California, and then moved to San Francisco in the mid ’60s to experience the cultural happenings there.  “Most of the people I befriended [in San Francisco] had grown up in Southern California—we all rushed to San Francisco because that’s where it was happening,” says Michael.  “I went to do graduate work up at the San Francisco State College, along with a bunch of other people.  Of course, at that moment in time, everything was way more interesting than the classroom, so some of us—myself included—we just stopped going to classes, ’cause it just wasn’t important anymore.  I mean, there was just way more interesting stuff going on.

“I was a theater person,” he continues, “and we wanted to put on European theater….Somebody suggested, ‘Well, why don’t you hire these local bands, and you can pay for your theater,’ and we said, ‘Cool.  What a great idea.’  All the bands were the bands, you know—Big Brother & the Holding Company, the Grateful Dead, Country Joe & the Fish—all of that.  Their theater was way more interesting than ours.”

By the late ’70s, Michael found himself in Oregon doing projections for punk rock shows.  “I had put together these visualizations with all the new music, and all these visuals in a kind of—I called them the ‘dark show’ because it was significantly not the Grateful Dead,” he says.

In 1980, Michael arrived in Seattle, where he began working with a band called Red Masque, a Bauhaus-esque dark post-punk band, and then eventually became Room Nine’s personal lighting man.  He immediately recognized a sharp contrast between San Francisco psych and Seattle’s version.

“In relationship to San Francisco it was…the whole cowboy thing,” Laton says.  “You can look at the clothing that everybody was effecting in the ’60s and into the ’70s, whether you’re looking at Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young on the cover of Déjà Vu, where they’re all dressed as gunslingers, the whole Eagles thing, that whole—whatever.

“Up here [in Seattle],” Michael continues, “…it all looked like—and I was a Marvel Comic books reader, so maybe that had something to do with it—but it all had that Valhalla Viking warrior kind of thing.  It was a whole other kind of folklore in everybody’s head.  This was not ‘John Wayne Cowboy.’  This was not ‘Alternative Cowboy.’  This was not ‘Bob Dylan Alternative Folk Hero’ bullshit.  This was not about that.

“The mood up here is really different….It always seemed way more serious to me [than San Francisco.]  And whatever people do for partying in Seattle always struck me as being like having a good time had more to do with making things that I never quite understood go away.  I’m more interested in having a good time.  I don’t think I ever heard anyone talking about ‘Let’s have a good time,’ or ‘Let’s go out, and let’s go to the beach.’  You don’t hear that up here….Don’t misunderstand me.  I’m not trying to be glib or silly about it, but it’s very different here.”

Seattle’s psych, whether practiced by Room Nine or others, seemed to exist in black & white and shades of gray rather than San Francisco Technicolor.  Charles Peterson’s famous B&W photos of the period reinforce the contrast.  “You have to remember this was way pre-digital, and therefore black and white [was] a lot more accessible and cheaper,” says Charles.  “And all of my photographic heroes worked primarily in black and white.  Color never really crossed my/our mind until later….It also seemed to fit the subject better.”

Besides Room Nine, a band called the Green Pajamas also practiced the musical genre of psych.  Initially consisting of Jeff Kelly and Joe Ross, the Pajamas self-released a cassette called Summer of Lust in 1984.  Lust has the kind of trippy feel of late-era Beatles, further infecting Seattle.  Psych would later penetrate grungy bands like Skin Yard (listen to “OP4” from Hallowed Ground); Soundgarden (“Flower” from Ultramega OK); and My Eye (“Empty Box”).

By 1988, Screaming Trees invaded Seattle with their own brand of psychedelia, fueled in part by the mod-era Who and guitarist Gary Lee Conner’s use of ear-piercing feedback.  The band continued its psychedelic direction even after it went major label (check out “Butterfly” from Sweet Oblivion).

Finally, Love Battery, Ron Rudzitis’ successor to Room Nine, continued to expand the psych experience.  The band ditched RN’s keyboards in exchange for the dual-guitar attack of Ron and Kevin Whitworth.  Love Battery combined the ethereal nature of psych with grunge’s guitar-driven aggression.

Love Battery’s first LP, 1992’s Dayglo…I would make the argument that this record epitomizes Seattle psych better than any single effort.  In fact, Dayglo may be my favorite Seattle record, period.

I’ll leave you with an excerpt from a J.R. Higgins interview with Ron and Love Battery drummer Jason Finn.

“Some of the songs we play, I actually wrote when I was in Room 9,” says Ron.  “But I didn’t feel they were right for Room 9.”

“Not gay enough?” asks Jason.

—J. R. Higgins, Backlash, October 1989.

I’ve been mulling over this topic for a couple of days, after someone asked Mark Yarm and I about folk’s influence on grunge.  In short, I stated (and Mark mostly agreed) that I believe folk had a minimal influence on grunge—at least the organic kind that existed in Seattle in the ’80s.  So, it got me thinking about underrated threads that impacted grunge…and psychedelia immediately came to mind.

Before I bring up my wonderful definition of psych, however, I think I’d like to address what the hell grunge was before going any further…and again I’m talking about the actual musical genre that the Northwest created in the ’80s, not the media manipulation of it in the subsequent decade.

I tend to agree with Jack Endino that grunge was really more about an approach to playing than an actual musical “style.”  The genre emphasized spontaneity over technical proficiency, passion over competence, joy for its own sake over political commentary.  Thus if you look at early grunge bands, they all drew from different wellsprings including Iggy, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Joy Division, Gang of Four, Scratch Acid, Big Black, Neil Young, the Sonics, Aerosmith, Beat Happening, Kiss, etc.  So the whole notion that grunge bands worshiped entirely at the punk/metal altar is overly simplistic and often plain inaccurate.

I will make the argument that Soundgarden was likely the only one of those bands that truly represented the punk/metal combo.  Soundgarden represented the aesthetic of urban punk while at the same time displaying the technical ability and style of dirty metal.  As far as the other early grunge bands…

Green River, with Mark Arm and Steve Turner (at least until he quit in 1985), had the punk credentials, and tapped into Black Sabbath in their early days…but I believe that band had more to do with Aerosmith and ’70s riff rock than metal.

Mudhoney, Green River’s successor, had everything to do with punk, garage, and Iggy, but had little in common with metal.

Malfunkshun was more about cartoon metal—read Kiss—and glam than anything seriously heavy, due to Landrew’s presence.

64 Spiders drew from ’60s Mod stylings due to James Burdyshaw’s presence.

TAD…nothing really punk about that band, other than perhaps by association, and their approach drew from postpunk.

Skin Yard came more from prog and postpunk than straight-up punk or metal.  Later, that band became more metallic, especially with their second record, Hallowed Ground.

My Eye—and I haven’t heard a lot from this band, so feel free to correct me—also had little in common with punk.  From what little I’ve sampled, they sound heavy psych, with some metal influence.

The Thrown Ups.  Okay, that’s Flipper…nothing metal about this band.

Bundle of Hiss.  Once that band became a three-piece, I would say yes, BOH effectively combined punk and metal.

The Melvins.  Not sure how I’d describe early Melvins…or I should say early recorded Melvins.  Once that band slowed things down to a crawl, they effectively stopped the runaway freight train that was hardcore.  I’m still undecided about these folks.

Nirvana.  Early Nirvana had little to do with punk, even though they came from the underground.  Further, once Kurt moved to Olympia, Nirvana began to acquire a pop sensibility that you can hear a little on Bleach–coming to fruition on Nevermind.

Love Battery was all about psych given the presence of Ron Rudzitis, whose previous band–Room Nine–drew directly from the Paisley Underground.

Screaming Trees.  Can’t hear much metal in this band.  As it evolved from its early Who-influenced Mod days, the band incorporated more of a psych approach into its music. 

So, given the varied influences on the grunge bands, I thought I’d tackle psych as a singular influence, since that thread weaved its way throughout underground Seattle in the ’80s.  Before we go further, though, I have to play the professor and define psych.  We’ll tackle that one in the next installment (doesn’t that just leave you at the edge of your seat in a Harry Potter Part 7, part 1 kind of way?)

In the summer of 1982, Rosco Louie hosted a standout gig featuring the Fastbacks and the Living.  (See “From the Cutting Room Floor/Narrative/The Living” for  details about the Living.)  “I remember the [Fastbacks] drummer was Duffy McKagan,” says Larry.  “He went to LA later and…he had [a] big arena rock band—brain cramp—you know, Guns N Roses, that’s the band.”  (Duff also played guitar with the Living that night.)

An artist from New York approached Larry about painting the Fastbacks as they performed.  “He was painting them while they were playing,” says Larry, “….And that turned out to be really interesting.  You know, just a real nice element, having this painter—he was a little flamboyant.  He was a lot flamboyant.  He was very, very—not that it matters—gay.  Visually, with the Fastbacks, it was just wonderful.

“I’ll tell you another thing about that night that probably nobody knows,” Larry continues.  “A guy named John Bigley who I just sorta met—you know, he was one of these patrons of Rosco Louie, came up to me—told me about his band, the U-Men….The U-Men—I recognized that [name] as sort of being an element of this absurdist Alfred Jarry play [Ubu Roi], a French absurdist poet that was associated with the surrealists.  I thought, ‘Well that’s pretty sophisticated.’  And then I kinda went to see ’em and all hell broke loose.  Oh man, it was great.  It was just utterly chaotic.  I don’t even know if they performed.  It was just kinda this riot going on.  That totally appealed to me.”

Larry would go on to manage the U-Men over the next few years.  “That Fastbacks/Living show,” says Larry, “was the beginning of a very interesting relationship I had with the U-Men.”

Larry closed Rosco Louie in December of 1982 as he felt it was becoming “just another gallery,” to use his words.  He opened a new art space—called Graven Image—the following fall.  His new gallery was smaller than Rosco Louie, but it came with an entire basement that the U-Men would use as their practice space.  Furthermore, Graven Image would become a key element of a vibrant all-ages music scene happening in Seattle’s Pioneer Square in 1983 and 1984.  Within a square mile of each other, young punk fans could attend shows at the Metropolis, Ground Zero, the Grey Door, as well as Larry’s gallery.

In the fall of 1985, Larry’s U-Men performed at Bumbershoot, Seattle’s annual outdoor music festival.  You may know about this legendary exploding moat show by now, and I won’t repeat it here.  You can find out the about it in the book, as well as this youtube clip:

Around the same time as the Bumbershoot show, producer Chris Hanzsek was recording the seminal Deep Six compilation, the opening salvo for what would become grunge.  Five bands had been chosen for the record: Green River, Malfunkshun, the Melvins, Skin Yard, and Soundgarden.  Given the U-Men’s enormous popularity in underground Seattle, Skin Yard’s Daniel House wanted Larry’s band to be number six.  While the grungy acts contributed two songs apiece to Deep Six, the U-Men would only offer up one—called “They”—as they were set to go on tour.  “[The U-Men] didn’t wanna do it at all,” Larry recalls.  “But Daniel was just insistent.  And they went in and they just did it in one take.

“I remember going in there,” he continues, “and [saying], ‘One take and we gotta go.  I mean, we gotta go.  We’re not being obnoxious, but we gotta be on stage 300 miles away—tonight.’”

So they did it as a favor to Daniel?

“A favor?” Larry responds.  “Yeah.  To shut him up.”

(Chris Hanzsek’s C/Z Records would release Deep Six in January of 1986.)

Following his stint with the U-Men, Larry became director of CoCA (Center on Contemporary Arts.)  In August of 1989, CoCA hosted a show headlined by Mudhoney and Nirvana.  In the book, I state:

Mudhoney went on after Cat Butt to an adoring crowd.  Mark Arm and Co. were on that night and for their finale opened up a box of confectioners’ sugar, placed it in front of a fan, and blew it out into the crowd*.  The sweaty bodies instantly became sticky messes.  The fans loved it, further adding to Mudhoney’s phenomenal live repertoire.  Nirvana had to follow that.

*Cat Butt’s James Burdyshaw disputes this.  He recalls a CoCA organizer heaving the contents at the crowd from the stage without Mudhoney’s participation.

On the day of my book’s production deadline—last July, I think—Mark called me up and mentioned that Brother James was right.  The CoCA organizer happened to be Larry Reid.

Despite Larry’s various art affiliations over the years, he still keeps in touch with the musicians that comprised the legendary U-Men.  “I just produced the first show of the Tom Price Desert Classic, which [features] Tom Price—the guitar player from the U-Men,” Larry mentioned in our 2008 interview.

“[Tom’s] a freakin’ genius,” he continues.  “I’m still really close with both Tom and John.”

Barnes & Noble, Jenkintown, PA

Sunday, February 12, 1 to 3 pm.  Unlike last time, which was a signing only, I will do a reading and play interview and music clips. (yay)

Siren Records, Doylestown, PA

Saturday, February 18, 1 to 3 pm.