Return of the Soul Assassins
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 might be at Giorgio’s, 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.