When Grunge Met Psych… (Part 2 of–I think that’s it)

Posted: January 18, 2012 in Seattle-Related Lists

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.

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