Archive for the ‘Soul Assassins’ Category
Before I arrived at High Times, I’d spent over a year working on a book about the East Village art scene, examining the art clubs. Art After Midnight goes for around $100 today, although you can buy an updated digital version on smashwords with new illos and photos for under $5. There was a lot of hybridization going on in the 1980s, with punk meeting hip hop and both invading the art world from different fronts. Both styles emanated out of the 1960s counterculture and both found the mainstream too soft.
So I was in a Club 57 frame of mind, where camp becomes a wilderness of mirrors, when I arrived at High Times and just to pass the time, started a column called My Amerika by Ed Hassle, a tribute to Ed Anger of the Weekly World News. I always thought the supermarket tabloids were run as propaganda tools by the CIA, but Anger was an obvious comedy act who made fun of right wing views by taking them to their illogical conclusions. Bill Kelly, my favorite deejay used to read from his column on his Sunday show. Funny thing, Bill was a big reason I diverted into forming the Soul Assassins. I was hanging out with the first generation of hip hop and inspired by their do-it-yourself energy. I could have formed a rap band I guess, or just become a hip hop journalist for the rest of my life and made a fortune like Nelson George. Instead I veered into garage rock? Maybe because I’d been kicked out of my first garage band for doing LSD in 1967 and never got to finish perfecting my garage rock set. Then I met Brian Spaeth and he’d been kicked out of the Fleshtones, the reigning garage kings of NYC. So I guess we both had something to prove.
Funny thing, after Ed Hassle called for the formation of a new movement called The Freedom Fighters, a hemp movement that would bring back the big pot rallies from the late 1960s (most of these events had died out) it began as a joke really, but when the issue came out, the concept took off like wild-fire, and I realized I had a tiger by the tale. Before long, I was touring around the country, playing with my band in front of tens of thousands of cheering fans, and giving speeches about legalization with Chef RA and Jack Herer at every stop. And afterwards, we’d head back to the campground and eat Ra’s Rasta Pasta, sip Budweiser and pass spliffs until late into the night while the Assassinettes danced around the fire with a full moon beaming down. See, I was trained in “Happenings” by the likes of Jasper Grootveld, Julian Beck, John Cage, and Ken Kesey, so I had a sense of the magic involved in changing people’s perceptions on a massive scale, as well as the techniques for manifesting that sort of magic.
Funny how the natural elements always seemed to be working against us, not to mention all those undercover cop cars that dogged us everywhere. The first time we left New York in our magic bus, we got stranded by a freak snow storm high in the Pennsylvania mountains. Much later, returning from the first Freedom Fighter National Convention, we got lost in a monsoon and a screaming fight broke out about which way to go. When the bus finally got back to our motel, I kissed the ground. But we lost Rodger, who had all the weed, as he couldn’t take the smell of hard liquor on some of us and disappeared never to trust us fully again. And then the party turned into a binge drinking bash with no weed in which our energy unraveled and we lost harmonization. We’d broken up and lost our Assassinettes, not to mention Brian, Bob and Rick. And the vibe just wasn’t the same without them.
But soon, the original band will re-unite, maybe even for some ceremonies of the Grand Lodge of the Pot Illuminati.
It sure was nice to see a copy of the second Soul Assassin’s 45 rpm record on display at the Hemp Museum in Barcelona. Most people know that name from a Cypress Hill splinter group started by DJ Muggs, but the name actually came to me shortly after arriving at High Times in 1986. Funny how four years spent researching hip hop and the downtown art scene had spiraled me back into my role in a garage band. I could have had a very comfortable career if I’d just stayed with hip hop as it crossed over into the commercial domain. Instead, I veered into the downtown garage scene, which overlapped with the art crowd.
I think Patti Astor was actually staying with me at the time, the Fun having crashed and burned for inexplicable reasons. If I’d had the money to buy out her shows, I’d be a billionaire today from the profit I could have made. David Allen was the art director of High Times when I arrived and his assistant was Brian Spaeth, formerly a member of the Fleshtones, although Brian got squeezed out right before the band went big, causing a strain on his relationship with his former bandmates, which included his brother and best friend.
It was Brian who told me to check out “Mindless Teenage Brain-rot,” Bill Kelly’s show on WFMU. Kelly was playing a lot of stuff I’d never heard before, and it inspired me to get into the game again to help celebrate those little-known masterpieces of primal rock. So I asked Brian if he wanted to start a band.
I wanted something that related to cannabis and sounded authentic to the sixties, and came up with Soul Assassins pretty quickly. I arranged the first rehearsal up in my Upper West Side apartment. I’d found two cardboard boxes and purchased a set of drumsticks. Brian brought a bass and tiny practice amp. I bought a $100 electric guitar and cheap amp. David Bither (who went on to become a leading exec and now co-runs Nonesuch) played guitar. The first song I wanted to learn was “Smell of Incense” by the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band. It was in E minor and I needed some help with a chord. David laughed at the weird changes. That song wasn’t something Kelly ever played, btw, just a psychedelic masterpiece I remembered from the era, one few of my peers seemed familiar with, and one we never did play in public as we got diverted into mostly Chocolate Watchband tunes for a while. I remember Patti coming home and seeing me beating on the cardboard with a bunch of people jamming. She laughed at this sudden career move and was very encouraging. She loved our energy and completely primitive instrumentation.
Very quickly, I recruited Bob Brandel and Brian Moores, two guys I’d known from the original garage band scene back in Illinois. Bob had played lead guitar with the best r&b band in town, and Brian had drummed with the Finchley Boys (central Illinois’ most famous garage band) after Mike Powers took a leave of absence. I tried to swing Dave Bither over to keyboards, but it turned out he was only interested if he could play guitar so we never saw Dave again. Eventually, for our early gigs, John McNaughton filled in on keyboard on a few songs. You might recognize his name. He was already a famous film director when he became the organist for some early Assassin gigs. But John never made it to any of the recording sessions, unfortunately.
Although no garage bands ever had a trio of female singers, it was a staple in r&b and something I really wanted to include in our sound. The first Assassinettes were our girl friends, but when conflict arose, I dissolved the original trio. I sent photographer Andre Grossmann to investigate The Minds Eye, a new scene that I targeted as something we needed to penetrate. Andre brought back photos and I was immediately struck by a photo of a very exotic-looking girl. Eventually, I called up Ivy, the promoter, as I wanted to run a story on her parties, and she came down to the office and ID’d the picture. “Oh, that’s Allegra,” she said. “She’s in the Black Orchids with Frank.”
I’d already planted this seed in my mind that Allegra was going to be the star of the new Assassinettes and began fomenting how to manifest that. Allegra showed up at the office with another girl named Abbey. She didn’t want to be part of the Assassinettes, but she was sure Abbey was perfect for the job. And boy, was she right.
Flick found the next piece of the puzzle tending bar down on Avenue A. Her name was Kimona 117, and she wasn’t really into the garage scene, but she had a voice that could bowl you over, really in a class all by herself. From the second she opened her voice up at the first rehearsal, we all sort of stood back and went, whoa, and from that point on she was treated as the Diva and assumed a role as big as Flick Ford, our male lead singer. We also got a new drummer around that time, and, as good as Brian was, he couldn’t compare with Dave Rodway, who took the vibe up several notches. Flick produced all our artwork and loved painting cartoons of the Assassinettes for our flyers.
We never had a decent recording made, which is why I’m anxious to return to a studio some day while we are still able. Unfortunately, we lost Abbey, and Lucy has now moved back to Boston. If she ever reads this, I hope she contacts me because we’re going to have that long-awaited reunion some day. Abbey has a sister in Texas around her age, maybe we can recruit her. That would be awesome.
I was working on creating a national hemp activist network called The Freedom Fighters at the time, so naturally the Soul Assassins became the house band for that group. The idea was to paint a psychedelic bus and have the Soul Assassins ride to rallies and crank rock vibes for an emerging political cause. I wanted to put my mark on the Magic Bus iconography and ride the Prankster magic to new heights if I could. And I guess we did, because the world started changing fast after a few of our ceremonies, although we soon found it difficult to get on some stages suddenly as our events now involved tens of thousands of people and there was much friction from local bands and promoters and everyone wanted the stage now. Even though the audience loved us, some of the people who controlled these rallies took an instant strong dislike to us, perhaps because I was editor of High Times and maybe they thought this was my scam, trying to launch a rock career, when really, having a commercial success was not on my mind. We were living in the moment, rocking out and having the time of our lives. If I could get that moment back, I could do a much better job navigating the industry. Because we had the talent. Somehow, the magic slipped away just as we were getting successful and once the band split apart and we lost our Assassinettes, we were a rudderless ship adrift at sea with no magic Goddess circle to orbit around.
I don’t know when it’s going to happen, but I imagine our next and perhaps last public performance will probably be at Giorgio’s in the next year or so, because that’s where we used to practice and it was also the scene of many of our best parties. Stay tuned for more info.
The Risk of Being Ridiculous by Guy Maynard got me interested in blogging about the 1960s. Maynard grew up in Urbana, Illinois, a year ahead of me, and was one of the leading figures in the garage-band movement that started around 1966. His book takes place in 1969 and really captures the intensity of the times. I gave it a rave review in High Times and it inspired me to dig up my own archives from the 1960s, especially a short story I wrote called “The Steam Tunnels.” I was surprised at how well my story had held up over the years. I’d forgotten most of the trauma I went through in the mid-’60s. People called it a “Generation Gap” but it was really a “Generation War.”
Well, there’s another novelist from my home town who wrote extensively about Carpenter and Cole, who (along with Guy and George Faber) had led the garage-rock movement in Central Illinois. Mandy Moores was actually one of my sister’s best friends in high school, and she ended up briefly married to Carp, and lived with him down in New Orleans when he and Cole were both deep-sea diving off oil platforms around the world. It was incredibly dangerous work, although the pay was pretty good.
Mandy’s book, Dream Palace, came out many years ago, but I just got around to reading it recently. Mandy’s brother, Brian, was the original drummer for my band, the Soul Assassins, as well as one of the drummers for a later incarnation of The Finchley Boys, the greatest garage band to emerge from Central Illinois. I’ve lost touch with both Brian and Mandy, so maybe this blog will bring them back into my orbits.
You can pick up a copy of Dream Palace for around a buck on Amazon. I kinda wish I could have helped Mandy edit this project, because she’s clearly a very talented writer. This first novel could have been something spectacular, on a similar level as Maynard’s book, but it has some flaws. For one, Mandy was a little too close to the subject when she wrote this, and had a lot of issues she was working out. Carp had a well-known anger-management problem, and we all knew you didn’t push his buttons unless you were looking for serious trouble. But Carp could also be a heroic figure, and this side of him is mostly missing. I also would have loved to have gotten more details on his garage band origins in Urbana, as well as more details on the dangers of deep-sea diving. For example, When Doug Blair got beat-up for making fun of the football coach (Smitty), it was Carp who went after Frank Sowers to take revenge. Reading the book, I couldn’t believe how tough Mandy was, pushing Carp’s buttons big-time, forcing confrontations with him, and basically not taking any shit at all. Unfortunately, their marriage was doomed because they were headed in completely different directions. Mandy had a fairy-tale view on life when in high school. I remember her many paintings that evoked this magical dream life. The book does a good job of capturing this side of her personality, but her fairy tale turned bad when Carp started getting violent.
Bugsy’s not in the book far as I could tell, although he was also part of that New Orleans crew, working as a deep sea diver. Carp always had some major schemes going on. Mandy goes into great detail on his 50-foot sailboat that he overhauled and eventually took to Jamaica for a load of pot. Unfortunately, this trip coincided with an anti-smuggling campaign supervised by then-Vice President George Bush. On their way back to the Florida Keys with a boatload of ganja, Carp and Bugsy were unexpectedly intercepted by a fleet of warships that had been deployed to root out drug smugglers. With the Coast Guard bearing down on him, Carp went into action-mode, and tried to dump all the bales before they were intercepted. Unfortunately, he wasn’t fast enough and the Coast Guard was able to pull a bunch of the bales out of the water.
In a most amazing coincidence, the head prosecutor in Florida handling their case was none other than Ralph Hersey, who’d been a columnist for my underground paper, The Tin Whistle. I tried to recruit all the best writers in my high school and Ralph had been suggested by one of the English teachers. Ralph was a good counterpoint to Charlie Geron. They were both black, but Charlie was angry and confrontational, while Ralph was the model of common sense and morality. We also had a great poet in our class, Jim Guthrie, and I remember going to Jim’s house and trying to recruit him. Jim took one look at the first issue of The Tin Whistle, however, and decided it wasn’t for him. His work was considerably more mature than what most of us were doing at the time and Jim would go on to win many poetry awards in the 1970s.
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Prior to the arrival of Cream and Jimi Hendrix, it was pretty much unheard of not to have a dedicated rhythm guitar player in almost every ’60s’ garage band. In fact, my former band, the Knight Riders, was actually one of those few since John Knight played organ. I played bass in the Knight Riders, a beautiful Gibson SG.
Twenty years later, when I started the Soul Assassins in my Upper West Side apartment in New York City, I began by playing cardboard boxes with drum sticks. Brian Spaeth was the first actual instrumentalist in the Soul Assassins, since he played both bass and sax. Bob Brandel, one of the leading guitar players from the original garage band scene in Central Illinois came in next on lead guitar. As soon as Brian Moores, a former drummer for the Finchley Boys came on board, it was only natural that I start playing rhythm.
One afternoon we were practicing “Just Like Me,” when, out-of-the-blue, I took a timid little solo on top of Brandel’s howling solo. And when we were listening to the tape later, the band went crazy: two guitars soloing at the same time! They thought it sounded great! Me, I had the exact opposite reaction. I thought the song lost all intensity the second the rhythm guitar dropped out and I vowed never to let the rhythm drop out of a song again. It was my first and final guitar solo.
Years later, I remember talking to Chip Znuff, who was a big Soul Assassins fan. I said something like, “I’m just a rhythm guitar player.” He looked stunned. He couldn’t believe I didn’t understand the crucial and central role played by the rhythm guitar in many bands, including the Soul Assassins. But as the Ramones proved so well, any band can get can by with no lead guitar. But few get by without a solid rhythm. In fact, it’s the rhythm guitar that defines the sound of many rock bands. The Rolling Stones would be a perfect example.
I was playing a Fender Telecaster out of a Fender Deluxe Reverb with trebles cranked up on both. The sound was super crunchy like a saw-blade carving up chunks of chords and spitting them out. Brandel’s lead guitar usually landed between me and the bass. That’s how far up in the treble atmosphere I normally resided.
Anyway, for those who care, the Soul Assassins are coming back for a grand performance soon. Dino Sorbello is on bass, Rodway on drums, Brandel on lead guitar and me. We’re all looking forward to loading up that old lumber truck for another ride down the mountain—two wheels on all the curves— a style also known as “r-r-r-real rock’n’roll.” To commemorate this occasion, I’ve been digitizing some of the old Soul Assassins tapes and I actually found that one and only guitar solo I ever took on “Just Like Me.” You can find it by clicking the link at the top-right column of this page that says “click here to listen to the Soul Assassins.”
Our third gig was Kimona’s friend’s swan-song (center), as she left town very shortly thereafter. The original Assassinates had been great, but after disharmony set in, we dissolved the group and started over. Kimona 117 and Abby were on a different level and both brought their unique and considerable talents to the table. You can also see that Kimoma is all rocked-out and in full garage goddess mode by her first gig. In fact, I’m the only one who looks the least bit shifty here, obviously my mind is in other places (top). Perhaps I’m looking at one of many promoters that showed up to check us out that night, Stacy Fine, for example, who was running the hottest Monday night scene and immediately wanted to book us for a new Wednesday night event she was starting at a plush restaurant (Big Kahuna) in Times Square of all places.
I remember early in this show the Assassinettes came down to the front row and started going bananas right in front of me, like I was some sort of rock god. They were hailing me and swooning and trying to touch my leg. It was a joke, of course, but the crowd didn’t know that because those three girls hadn’t taken the stage yet.
In a few days, we’d all assemble at the Big Kahuna to check out Stacy’s first party. We were already booked for the next week at. Abby showed up with this amazing blonde goddess from Boston we would soon be calling “Juicy Lucy.” We told Lucy she was in the band the second we saw her. No audition necessary. I don’t think we cared what she sang like, she looked fantastic! And it was so perfect, Kimona being a redhead, Abby a brunette and now this gorgeous blonde! Our whole scene was buzzing the second Lucy showed up and everybody wanted to be the first to date her. Both boys and the girls were going crazy over Lucy!
Here’s a candid shot I took on the road one morning when she was all tired and had no makeup on. Even then, Lucy was drop-dead beautiful. Even John Holmstrom, who had been sort of down on the Soul Assassins as a distraction from my job, turned to me and said, “I wanna be in the band now,” the second he saw Lucy. But I was thinking, what would John actually do in the band? Once those three new Assassinettes got together the magic really started to roll. First, they were all single! Every rock dude in the East Village was soon kissing my ass trying to pry their way into our scene so they could nail one of the Assassinettes. They were all crazy hot, but the energy field they created when all three got together was overpowering. Of course, we’d all pledged not to get involved with any of them, although that pledge would start eroding the second we all got drunk together. Another promoter, Deb Parker attended that Big Kahuna show and we instantly became her favorite garage band. Later Deb would open a bar in the East Village that instantly became our favorite watering hole.
I recently started listening to some old tapes recorded at my Upper West Side apartment back in 1986 when the band first started, and I was amazed at how great the band sounds using a Walkman Pro with stereo mike to record. One of the first things I did after forming the band was invest in a small PA system. If we were going to rehearse in my apartment, I wanted the singers to be able to blast over the amps and drums. And I didn’t want to rely on the crummy house PA’s that you always find in the bottom-tier of venues. On hot days we’d open the window and just let it blast! Saturday afternoons were our usual rehearsal time. I knew we had something when a bunch of people hanging out the windows in the building across the street on West End Avenue all started applauding and cheering after we finished a particularly rousing version of “All Night Long,” a ’60s garage tune from Texas that’s particularly hard to play. That first spring we actually developed a fan club in the windows across the street who knew our regular rehearsal schedule. Later, we moved the rehearsals to real rehearsal rooms and eventually to Giorgio Gomelsky’s, as my building started rattling sabers about the noise. It didn’t help that the super lived in the apartment next to me, or that we had clouds of marijuana smoke drifting into the elevators.
Bands and sports teams are very similar in that they rely on energy harmony and transference. Some days the energy and harmony and transference are working, and some days they’re not. Going into studios to record would always boost our energy, but it could never guarantee those transcendent performances. Flick especially seemed to do his best work when the band was alone, or even late at night when we were just hanging out drinking beers and smoking joints, when he’d suddenly bust into his Lil’ Miscreant cartoon character and start channeling the ghost of Elvis or anybody else he wanted to. But once Flick got on stage, much of that improvisational energy would evaporate, and while Flick always put on great performances, that special magic we knew existed deep inside him seldom surfaced full bloom in recording studios or even onstage. To give a little demonstration of this, in case people think I’m just talking shit, I just put an alternative version of “Scream,” the first rock song I ever wrote on bandcamp just so our fans can hear that other Flick Ford for the first time. I believe this was recorded the same afternoon as that rousing version of “All Night Long.” Certainly the performances are better on this than any other version I know. And this was the original version of “Scream,” before Gordon Spaeth told us my song sounded too much like “Have Love,” and I re-jigged the guitar riff and sped up the tempo. After Flick goes off you can hear Brandel step up to the plate and knock his guitar solo out of the park, and if you listen close, you’ll hear Brian do the same thing on his bass soon afterwards.
In case you just stumbled onto this blog, I’ve been telling the stories about the Finchley Boys and Knight Riders (and Seeds of Doubt) from central Illinois from 1966-69, while, at the same time, telling the story of the Soul Assassins, my New York City garage band from 1986-89. Check out my free eBooks, links top-right column. And thanks for stopping by.
Unfortunately the Soul Assassins made only a few trips a recording studio, the first, in fact, with the original Assassinettes (Claudia, Helena and Mean Jean), as well as original drummer Brian Moores on January 2, 1988. Flick and Brian Spaeth found the studio in the East Village where we eventually did most of our recordings. I guess it was run by some coke-head because the sound we got out of that place was always terrible. The owner was going to record and mix us one afternoon, but after a few songs, he split and left some crack-head behind to do the mixing. Of course, that dude was being paid by the hour, so he kept us there all night, twiddling knobs, acting like he was souping things up. What a joke. Garage bands sound best with zero mixing. But you have to know how to mic and EQ the instruments, which these guys obviously didn’t have a clue about. Even the demo tape they gave me on a cassette tape had crazy levels, one track riding the red all the time and the other barely there at all. It was sad that we never really stepped into a competent situation in a studio or who knows what sort of records we could have produced.
Flick and Brian were masters at showing up at the studio armed with Brian’s ancient tape-recorder and a brand-new song they wanted to do. Brian would play some Bill Kelly Show taped off his equally ancient radio. It was like a game of telephone tag trying to decipher those faint and scratchy sounds. I’m hopeless at transposing anyway, practically tone-deaf, so Bob Brandel would always work out the chords for me. He was so amazing on guitar that it usually only took Bob a few seconds before he riffed off some major chunks that sounded just like the record, only better.
In fact, it was a testament to how great the band was that we could even learn a song and record it minutes later as if we’d been playing it all our lives. I just put up a new track on our bandcamp site (see link top-right column). It’s from that first session: “That’s the Bag I’m In,” perfect for Flick’s bulldog personality. We also recorded two originals I wrote that day, “Scream” and “Higher Ground,” as well as “All Night Long,” “Down at the Nightclub,” “”Have Love,” “The Assassinettes Theme,” and a few others. The reason we picked up “Have Love” is Brian’s brother Gordon (a member of the Fleshtones) told us my song “Scream” was a copy of “Have Love” (even though I’d never heard that song before). But once I listened to “Have Love,” I realized it blew my humble tune out of the water. Gordon would eventually teach Flick how to play the harmonica.
The original Assassinettes had no problem with “Scream” but their replacements did. At least Abbey did. After she heard the song on the radio one day, she told me we couldn’t play it with her on stage because of the line that went: “If you got a gal that don’t know her place, all you have to do is laugh in her face, and just scream!” Abbey didn’t dig that line, so we dropped the song. I just posted a bunch of songs from that first session on our bandcamp site for the first time, so you might want to check them out.
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