The Aviator, Part II: Sky Saxon
Baby, baby, I can’t let go
I got the Seeds on the stereo….
The Zeros, “Wild Weekend”
Last 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:[audio:http://stuckbetweenstations.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/06/900million.mp3]