The King of Garage means more to me than the King of Pop
Sometimes more than one famous person dies on the same day. If you're the less famous one, your tragic-death hype will be overshadowed by the tragic-death hype of the more famous person.
Among those interested in punk rock, for example, it is lore that Darby Crash, lead singer of The Germs, OD'd on the same day John Lennon was killed, and now that a movie about Crash has been produced (What We Do is Secret), a few more people outside the modest circle of longtime Germs fans have taken some notice of his tweaked, snotty, poetic punk legacy. But back in December of 1980, it was all “Give Peace a Chance” and not even a blip of “Lexicon Devil.” And on “the day the music died,” Buddy Holly and Richie Valens became icons destined to have movies made about them, while the Big Bopper's fate was sealed as a nearly anonymous provider of a dollop of chantilly nostalgia to top your pie at the retro '50s diner.
So who will remember that on the same day Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson died, Sky Saxon died, too? He was the singer and bass guitarist of the 1960s psychedelic garage-rock band The Seeds. Originally a teenage doo-wop crooner from Utah, Little Richie Marsh moved to Los Angeles, cut a few records and fell under the spell of the British Invasion like so many other young American musicians in the mid-'60s hungry to capture some of that screaming-girl glory.
Renaming himself Sky Saxon, he took his cues from the gritty blues-inspired primitivism of The Stones over the sleeker, more melody-focused approach of The Beatles. His hits with The Seeds, “Pushin' Too Hard” and “Can't Seem to Make You Mine,” have endured (in places like Axe Body Spray commercials and as a Diplo spank-rock sample, yes, but also in the collections of aficionados and repertoires of great musicians like Alex Chilton, The Ramones and Yo La Tengo) because the simple, raw guitar and organ grooves and thumping beats are relentlessly infectious and sexually charged. But it worked most of all because of Saxon's plaintive growl, at once sincere and maniacal. He literally cast a spell over Southern California's youth and garnered a following and mystique on the Sunset Strip every bit as potent as Jim Morrison's. San Diego was particularly receptive to Saxon's tripped-out messages:
“All the bikers around San Diego thought the Seeds were apocalypse, then,” legendary rock critic Lester Bangs wrote in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll. “I recall one hog-ridin' couple... who didn't take the Seeds' first album off their turntable for three solid months.”
As unabashedly pro-experimentation in his personal life as in his music, Saxon became an integral figure in popularizing the flower-power movement in Southern California. Eventually, the band dissolved and re-formed through many permutations and names, but always led by Saxon, who became and remained a devotee of a religious sect called The Source Family, inspired by an allegedly divine leader named Father Yod, who died in a hang-gliding accident in 1974. Saxon continued to collaborate musically with various sect members until his own death.
In the mid-1980s, I played in one of the many bands that had the good fortune to open for Saxon on one of his tours. At the time, he was living in Hawaii and had a deep concern and love for dogs. It was said that he'd been in trouble with the law for liberating dogs from the pound.
After my band finished its set, Saxon approached and told me that famed Jimi Hendrix drummer Mitch Mitchell was supposed to play the show but had flaked, and would I fill in on drums?
Most of the 10 or so songs we played in the half-empty bar had that primitive “Pushin' Too Hard” beat, so I had no problem keeping up. But it was hard not to be distracted when, during “Love Dog,” one of his newer originals (which sounded a lot like “Pushin' Too Hard”), Saxon brought his terrier onstage and chased him around, singing “looooove dooooog” to the cute little pooch.
When the show was over, Saxon and his entourage came over to my house in University Heights to hang out. One friend seemed devoted specifically to keeping Saxon's pipe full. The others were members of his group: a pleasant, relaxed group of hippies.
Saxon was sweet, gentle and blasted. He asked if I had anything to eat. Luckily, I'd been getting into baking back then and had some homemade carrot cake in the fridge.
While he took bites of the cake between hits from the pipe, I showed him a VHS tape I'd acquired from San Diego archivist Dave Peck of a 1966 Seeds appearance on an obscure Texas TV show.
“Do you remember that, Sky?” I asked him. I was sure he hadn't seen the video in decades, if ever.
“Oh yeah, man. I remember,” he responded, inching his chair closer to the TV. “I remember those guys.” He locked his droopy eyes on the screen, transfixed.
“There's Darryl. He thought he was Beethoven. Maybe he was. I don't know. This is really great carrot cake, man. Thanks so much for having us over. It's really nice of you. I really appreciate it. This carrot cake is really good, man.”
He hung out for about 20 minutes, thanked me again, and then left to go wherever he was going.
Thanks, Sky, for your music, idealism and freakiness, for letting me be the drummer of The Seeds for one fantastic and funny night, for complimenting my rudimentary baking skills, for being a champion of animal rights and for signing my Seeds album. I still have it, and it's not for sale.Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com