The Aviator, Part II: Sky Saxon

Baby, baby, I can’t let go
I got the Seeds on the stereo….

The Zeros, “Wild Weekend”

seedsLast Thursday, the world lost a musical pioneer known for his childlike wonder. He sealed his reputation making joyful noise, yet also seemed doomed to tiptoe through fields of anguish and despair. The singer precisely captured his moment in time. But in his increasingly strange last decades, he seemed to come from another planet, so absorbed in his restless search for solace that his oddness overshadowed his moments of unalloyed pop brilliance.

I speak, of course, of Sky Saxon, singer and bassist for the psychedelic garage band innovators the Seeds. Los Angeles-based writer and radio host Ken Levine aptly described Saxon’s music as “a mix of hard rock, blues, peyote, and not sleeping for several weeks.” Overshadowed in his time by hitmakers like the Kingsmen and the Troggs, and later by the likes of Love and the Doors, he continued the trend even in death, passing away within hours of a better-known guy who fancied himself as the King of Pop. Saxon and the Seeds were inconsistent and erratic, and their most fertile period was short-lived. But at their best, they produced relentless mini-anthems filled with love and danger. “Pushin’ Too Hard,” my favorite of these, is as compelling as anything in the Jacksons’ catalogues, and meant more to me personally.

Sky Saxon was also known as Richard Marsh, a Mormon kid from Utah and former doo-wop bandleader who discovered he could make his voice sound like Mick Jagger swallowing gasoline. When he moved to California and formed the Seeds in the mid-Sixties, his new moniker fit nicely with a new band taking flight, first with the roar of proto-punk garage rock and later with the birdlike flight patterns of flower power. The Seeds discovered trippy keyboards before the Doors, and were unleashing raw power before the Stooges. They were their best at their simplest, exemplifying Woody Guthrie’s dictum that if you use more than two chords, you’re showing off. It’s fitting that Saxon’s final days were spent in Austin, stomping grounds for fellow psych-garage head cases both old (Roky Erickson) and new (the Black Angels).

If the Seeds were a movie, they would have been a grainy, no-budget independent film that lingers in the memory longer than last year’s big-budget Oscar winner. They were a little scary, but they played with heart. Saxon wound up ingesting too many of the Sixties’ finest pharmaceuticals and joining a spiritual cult, but he remained a charismatic and inspirational figure to musicians. The Seeds remained his signature group, and they were as seminal as the name implies. Muddy Waters loved the Seeds so much that he described them as “America’s own Rolling Stones,” and wrote the liner notes to one of Saxon’s lesser side projects, an attempt at garage/ blues fusion. Joey Ramone claimed that listening to the Seeds’ “Pushin’ Too Hard” inspired him to sing, and the Ramones later covered a second Seeds standard, “Can’t Seem to Make You Mine.” I’m pretty sure the Ramones also took haircut tips from the Seeds.

The most heartfelt tribute I’ve seen to Saxon’s legacy came from Los Angeles native Nels Cline, whose genre-bending guitar work has found him collaborating with everyone from Charlie Haden to Mike Watt to Willie Nelson, fronting his own improvised music group, and playing lead for the fiery nineties roots-punk combo the Geraldine Fibbers on the way to his current lead duties with Wilco. In an obituary last week, Cline described Saxon as his first rock idol, not simply for the Seeds’ music, but for the charisma he exuded while appearing on TV programs with names like “Boss City” and “The Groovy Show.” Cline wrote that he “would stare in disbelief as he—clad in shiny satin Nehru shirts bedazzled with some gaudy brooch—would gyrate around lasciviously, holding the microphone in every cool way imaginable. He seemed from another planet.” Years later, Cline ran into an aging hippie at Trader Joe’s with an unmistakable style, and you can guess who it was. Saxon and Cline went on to play an improvised set, using the name Flower God Men and their Assistants. The flower god man has taken his final flight, but the thrill ride continues.

The Seeds, “Pushin’ Too Hard”

The Seeds, “Mr. Farmer”

If a deep, slow groove with big implications for globalization are your bag, all 10.5 minutes of “900 Million People Daily All Makin’ Love” should be required listening:


About Roger Moore

rocklobster3.JPGRoger Moore is a writer and musical obsessive who plays percussion instruments from around the world with an equal lack of dexterity. An environmental lawyer in his unplugged moments, he has written on subjects ranging from sustainable development practices to human rights and voting rights, as well as many music reviews. A native Chicagoan, Roger lives in Oakland, California with his wife Paula, who shares his Paul Weller fixation, and two young children, Amelia and Matthew, who enjoy dancing in circles to his Serge Gainsbourg records and falling asleep to his John Coltrane records.

Roger Moore’s Musical Timeline

1966. Dropped upside down on patio after oldest sister listened to “She Loves You” on the Beatles’ Saturday cartoon show. Ears have rung with the words “yeah, yeah, yeah” ever since.

1973. Memorized all 932 verses to Don McLean’s “American Pie.”

1975. Unsuccessfully lobbied to have “Louie Louie” named the official song of his grade school class. The teacher altered the lyrics of the winner, the Carpenters’ “I Won’t Last a Day Without You,” so that they referred to Jesus.

1977. After a trip to New Orleans, frequently broke drumheads attempting to mimic the style of the Meters’ Zigaboo Modeliste.

1979. In order to see Muddy Waters perform in Chicago, borrowed the birth certificate of a 27 year-old truck driver named Rocco.

1982. Published first music review, a glowing account of the Jam’s three-encore performance for the Chicago Reader. Reading the original, unedited piece would have taken longer than the concert itself.

1982. Spat on just before seeing the Who on the first of their 23 farewell tours, after giving applause to the previous band, the Clash.

1984. Mom: “This sounds perky. What’s it called?” Roger: “ It’s ‘That’s When I Reach for My Revolver’ by Mission of Burma.”

1985. Wrote first review of an African recording, King Sunny Ade’s Synchro System. A reader induced to buy the album by this review wrote a letter to the editor, noting that “anyone wishing a copy of this record, played only once” should contact him.

1985. At a Replacements show in Boston, helped redirect a bewildered Bob Stinson to the stage, which Bob had temporarily confused with the ladies’ bathroom.

1986. Walked forty blocks through a near-hurricane wearing a garbage bag because the Feelies were playing a show at Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club.

1987. Foolishly asked Alex Chilton why he had just performed “Volare.” Answer: “Because I can.”

1988. Moved to Northern California and, at a large outdoor reggae festival, discovered what Bob Marley songs sound like when sung by naked hippies.

1991. Attempted to explain to Flavor-Flav of Public Enemy that the clock hanging from his neck was at least two hours fast.

1992. Under the pseudonym Dr. Smudge, produced and performed for the Underwear of the Gods anthology, recorded live at the North Oakland Rest Home for the Bewildered. Local earplug sales skyrocketed.

1993. Attended first-ever fashion show in Chicago because Liz Phair was the opening act. Declined the complimentary bottles of cologne and moisturizer.

1997. Almost missed appointment with eventual wedding band because Sleater-Kinney performed earlier at Berkeley’s 924 Gilman Street. Recovered hearing days later.

1997. After sharing a romantic evening with Paula listening to Caetano Veloso at San Francisco’s Masonic Auditorium, purchased a Portuguese phrasebook that remains unread.

1998. Learned why you do not yell “Free Bird” at Whiskeytown's Ryan Adams in a crowded theater.

1999. During an intense bout of flu, made guttural noises bearing an uncanny resemblance to the Throat Singers of Tuva.

2000. Compiled a retrospective of music in the nineties as a fellow at the Coolwater Center for Strategic Studies and Barbecue Hut.

2001. Listened as Kahil El’Zabar, in the middle of a harrowing and funny duet show with Billy Bang, lowered his voice and spoke of the need to think of the children, whom he was concerned might grow up “unhip.”

2002. During a performance of Wilco’s “Ashes of American Flags,” barely dodged ashes of Jeff Tweedy’s cigarette.

2002. Arrived at the Alta Bates maternity ward in Berkeley with a world trance anthology specially designed to soothe Paula during Amelia’s birth, filled with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Ali Akbar Khan, and assorted other Khans. The project proved to be irrelevant to the actual process of labor.

2003. Emceed a memorable memorial concert for our friend Matthew Sperry at San Francisco’s Victoria Theater featuring a lineup of his former collaborators, including improvised music all-stars Orchesperry, Pauline Oliveros, Red Hot Tchotchkes, the cast of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Tom Waits.

2003. Failed to persuade Ted Leo to seek the Democratic nomination for President.

2005. Prevented two-year old daughter Amelia from diving off the balcony during a performance of Pierre Dorge’s New Jungle Orchestra at the Copenhagen Jazz Festival.

2006. On a family camping trip in the Sierra Nevadas, experienced the advanced stage of psychosis that comes from listening to the thirtieth rendition of Raffi’s “Bananaphone” on the same road trip.

One thought on “The Aviator, Part II: Sky Saxon

  1. Such a downer to lose Sky. “Mick Jagger swallowing gasoline” is so apt. But dang, the Seeds had *drive*. I like to close my eyes and pretend that dudes like Sky Saxon get global attention like MJ when they pass through.

    Couldn’t help but add audio from my personal fave Seeds track to this (“900 Million People Daily All Making Love,” end of post). Takes a minute to get off the ground (or for the drummer to stop drumming with his shoe), but after that the groove just keeps getting deeper.

    So what cult did Saxon end up in?

Comments are closed.