Return of the Soul Assassins

MontageIt 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.

Balloon-2It 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.

Parking-LotVery 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.”

LizmarI’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.


In Praise of Ginger Baker

The+Graham+Bond+Organisation+Graham+Bond+Organisation1965+EThank you Showtime for putting up two fantastic rock documentaries this summer, first was the Bob Gruen story, and now the amazing history of one of the world’s greatest drummers, Ginger Baker.

Right away, I was blown away by an early clip of Ginger performing Harmonica with his second band, The Graham Bond Organisation (GBO), from the film Gonks Go Beat (1965).

Ginger was a natural-born drummer with perfect time who learned his skills from listening to Max Roach playing with Bird. He was a jazz drummer who got pulled into the big beat scene when it hit England in the early 1960s. Boy, do I love the fusion they created. GBO actually started with John McLaughlin on guitar, a man often called “the world’s greatest guitar player,” although others just call him “world’s greatest musician.” It must have been quite amazing to have been at those early jam sessions with Ginger and John and, of course, Jack Bruce, the greatest bass player of his generation. Although John Entwhistle of the Who may have had more technical skills and he could certainly play faster than anyone else, Jack was a much more accomplished all-around musician. Like Ginger, Jack had a background in jazz and began playing standup in a jazz band, although soon after joining up with Graham, he decided to switch to a short-neck Gibson SG. In 1966, my mom would buy me that same guitar as I wanted to join a band and was advised the bass was the easiest way into the game.

I was blown away listening to that first Cream album, but I never even heard Graham Bond until decades later unfortunately. Gonks Go Beat is now a camp classic but was savagely attacked when it first came out possibly because it was so ahead of its time and the world wasn’t ready for a sci-fi rock’n’roll fantasy comedy film. Maybe it’s time for a remake.

Jack and Ginger had quite a history together. Apparently, Ginger was very upset when Jack switched to electric guitar and he never forgave him. And I think I know why. See, when he was on stand-up, Jack remained in Ginger’s shadow because Ginger was the loudest drummer of his time. But when Jack got electrified, he began to spar with Ginger over who had control of the bottom. One night Jack tried to keep playing during Ginger’s solo, which prompted a fist fight that ended Cream as a band.

I’m pretty sure Ginger was the first rock drummer to go double bass, and his two bass drums were slightly different sizes, tuned to different notes. Ginger wasn’t just a drummer, he was a composer, arranger, and had a very sophisticated style that made use of harmonics and jazz techniques in a rock format. His signature was the flam, which is when you strike a drum with both sticks, but slightly apart so instead of two beats, it becomes like one booming beat. His famous drum solo “Toad” made a lot of use of that technique.

That first Cream album changed the world. With the breakup of GBO and the departure of Graham and John, Jack became a lead singer for the first time and Eric Clapton was brought in on guitar, one of the few players who could stand toe-to-toe with McLaughlin (others being Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana and maybe Jeff Beck on a good day). I did all my first acid trips to that first Cream album and still love to listen to it today. The only thing more inspiring on acid for me was the first Jimi Hendrix album.

Ginger has always had a huge streak of self-destruction and is forced to keep constantly reinventing himself. He’s a bit of a phoenix, just like me. It’s too bad he couldn’t keep bands or families together, but you have to admire the way he never compromised and just did pretty much exactly what he wanted to do his whole life. Other than drumming, his one big passion was playing polo. Over the course of time, he built some huge ranches for polo ponies, in England, Colorado, and finally, South Africa, but he eventually lost all his horses and all his money. See, drummers don’t get much in the way of royalties and residuals and even though Jack Bruce got rich from Cream, that was because he wrote some of the music. The other dude who cashed in was Jack’s lyricist. The laws regarding residuals are all messed up in my opinion because Ginger helped arrange all of those songs and provided essential creative input, not to mention he put the beat down on every song.

While I was watching the movie, I couldn’t help but be reminded of one of my own favorite completely unknown super group trios: Medicine Hat, formed in the East Village around 1989 or so. Dave Rodway was the Ginger Baker of the Lower East Side at the time, Frank Max was Eric Clapton, and Bobby Belfiore was a cross between Jack Bruce and Mick Jagger. They put on some mind-blowing performances, but only lasted a few weeks. I hope some of those performances make it to Youtube someday. In the meantime, I’d like to share that song, Harmonica, from Gonks Go Beat, so click this link and get ready to dance:

The Plan to Make Rock History: Phase 2

I guess you could say Phase 2 of the Soul Assassins’ plans to make rock history began in a rehearsal studio in the East Village, when I met four people for the first time, three of whom would become longtime friends. We must have been operating on a very high magic-factor, ’cause a Hollywood screenwriter could not have concocted a better set of characters for our script.

Where to begin?

Ok, Allegra’s friend, Abbey Lavine, she’s the super hottie on the left. Notice the Betty Page haircut (long before that craze took off). In fact, Abbey once played Betty in an independent film. She was a literary scholar and librarian. A brainiac. She was also semi-famous as the world’s greatest female 8-track music collector and appeared in a documentary on the subject. She was also a go-go dancer at a Queens strip club when she needed the money, but she vetoed the idea of me coming to see that performance once so I won’t be offering up any photos along those lines. Abbey was the first vegan I ever met and she knew garage rock history as good as I did! She hailed from Boston originally, and her crowd from Boston included Dino Sorbello, who was sort of the unofficial king of the garage scene at the time. He courted Abbey for years, and even won her heart for a while, and they lived as king and queen of garage rock on Sixth Street. Some of the best bands at the time were from Boston (Lyres), and the best after-parties were always at Dino’s, where the band could crash when the sun came up. But enough about Dino. Abbey had a very sharp wit, and sometimes put some camp into her go-go dancing. I particularly remember her “bunny” moves with paws outstretched. I do have video on that move.

Kimona 117 (above, far right) had a voice, though, nobody could fuck with. The second she started singing, the energy in the room shifted, with her at the center of gravity. We instantly hailed her as the female alpha in the band  just based on voice alone. She also had great style and a voluptuous figure. Kimona wasn’t comfortable and at-home with the music the way Abby was: she had yet to get her schooling in garage rock history, but that would come easy. You can see in the picture she has not yet assumed the regal bearing of garage rock goddess she would soon attain. Kimona was struck by many tragedies, unfortunately, and was struggling with a law-suit and bad-news boyfriend the day we met her. One of her best friends was on crack. So we quickly pulled Kimona out of that scene and she became our hang-out-every-day side-kick. We all knew instantly we had a diamond, not even in the rough, she was pretty polished even back then.

Drummer is always the hardest position to fill in any band. I got a whiff of the reason why when, for a micro-second, I was going to play organ and guitar in the Soul Assassins, before I figured out all the shit I was going to have to drag around to the gigs. Well, that shit doesn’t even come close to what a drummer needs to drag around to the gigs. Brian Morse had been the real thing, a former drummer for the Finchley Boys, the most famous garage rock band of central Illinois. But Brian could not shake a stick compared with the pad-pounding Dave Rodway! Holy cow, that guy had some crazy energy and the strength of Hercules! Dave was also an accomplished martial arts expert and his idea of a fun thing was to sleep on a bed of rocks. He avoided mattresses like the plague. It softened him up too much! Dave was a rock! I’ve never seen anybody so chiseled before or since. He was the dream drummer for any rock band, and of course, other bands instantly wanted to steal him away. Dave had a blast at the rehearsal, though. He had his pick of any band, any style he wanted to go for, but he went for us. He told me that day he loved playing off my rhythm guitar. That’s Mr. Brandel on the right. I don’t think he’s been properly introduced yet.

But the Joan-Jett lookalike in the middle (top photo)? That’s Kimona’s friend  Joia Morello, who left town the day after doing one gig with us. And wouldn’t you know it, Abby knew a garage rock goddess who wanted to join. And she was a blonde, which might go good with Abby’s black, and Kimona’s red. And she would actually evolve into the greatest of all the East Village garage rock goddesses, the favorite runway model for the top designers looking to achieve that magic “East Village” effect. But you’ll have to wait for the next episode of this blog to meet her.

If you like these stories please check out the Soul Assassins Greatest Hits on bandcamp, just click the link at the top-right. Also subscribe to my email alerts so you don’t miss any future posts. And please check out my free eBooks on smashwords. And thanks for stopping by. And….