Frank Gutch Jr: What Do You Say, Ray?— Music Anyone Can (and Should) Read… Plus Notes
The quote in the header is from Frank Secich‘s Circumstantial Evidence, a look back at a life which could easily have been one long stint at various penal institutions instead of sixties and seventies music venues. Secich (pronounced SESS-ich, by the way) admits in his book that he was on the cusp but never really made the leap, thanks to music and the people involved with it. One such person was Ray Chizmar, a musician and early idol to Secich who would always greet him with “What do you say, Ray?” to which Chizmar replied “Whatcha got in the bank, Frank?”
I laughed out loud when I read this and thought how cool it must have been to have had this kind of relationship with someone older and established as a local rock star. Little things like that brings alive not just the music but the times for me. I cannot seem to separate the two anymore because looking back demands perspective and to apply 2016 values to the sixties is to warp reality beyond real comprehension.
I find it odd that while most people want to know what Keith Richard had for breakfast in 1968, they have no interest in why Max Wisley, bass player with Cargoe in the early seventies, switched from guitar to bass, or why Wayne Berry (Timber, Volunteers, as well as recording as a solo artist) never made it. Fruit or cereal, Mr. Richards, or what got in your way, Mr. Berry? To myself, the real story is in details, not necessarily the personages involved. Of course, I suppose it doesn’t hurt.
And details are what Secich gives us in Evidence. The subtitle, Untold Stories of an Original Rock and Roller, says it all because when Secich starts writing, it is a barrage of the life and times. Secich, you see, started in the sixties and worked his way through a string of bands which included Blue Ash and Dead Boys among them. Blue Ash is where I remember him from, having grabbed a copy of their first album, No More, No Less fresh out of the racks at the House of Records in Eugene. I had already picked up on a number of what would become known as power pop bands and artists, not the least of which was Big Star, and had read a review which compared the two. I didn’t get the comparison, each group having its own sound and direction, but they both had the touch which brought melody and harmony together and made them the focus of a song. As my old friends used to say, “It’s the hooks, man!”
Blue Ash has not been afforded a second chance as was Big Star. There were few who picked up the standard for them, though there were that few. They did not get blanket airplay on college radio nor were they claimed power-pop demi-gods. Which is why, I suppose, Frank Secich wrote this book. Reading it, I understand why. Like I said before, the story is in the details and this story was fun to read. How could it not be with chapters with titles like Ed Sullivan… That Bastard Ruined Everything! and God Has a Tremendous Sense of Humor. (You have to read those chapters to understand)
While it is somewhat of a history, it is not technical. Secich set out to chronicle his travels and travails in the music business and he does that, but without lecturing. Indeed, the book comes off more as a friendly chat over coffee or beer than anything. He organized it by chapters but some of those are one or two paragraphs long, just enough to make a point or to link information. He portrays himself as half-crazy and a bit of an asshole at times but you cannot help but get the feeling that at times he did things without thinking and for the laughs but half-regretted the effect those instances had on the people involved. You have to realize that he lived the lifestyle and if you allow Keith Moon to trash a hotel room you cannot deny him his freedoms.
As for the music, you only need listen to Blue Ash, Dead Boys, the Stiv Bators Band and Deadbeat Poets to understand where he lives musically. Pop. Power Pop. Semi-punk (I would say punk but the real punk came from those with whom he found himself surrounded, though he loved and felt exhilarated by the extremes). His songwriting is personal at times and the stories behind the songs are intriguing if not downright fascinating. He tells of The Green Man in terms of fifties sci-f/horror (I first heard about him from another Ohio boy, one Jim Colegrove), of his hometown of Sharon PA, of Ohio and Phil Keaggy, of the music scene and the venues circa ’65-’68, of the Psychedelic Gas Station, of Anita Pallenberg and Bebe Buell and a string of models and rock stars who hovered on the edge of legend, of the craziness of Stiv Bators and others, and all in short entertaining bursts.
Stiv and Frank in an Un-Trashed Hotel Room
Few enough of us who lived the sixties and seventies are still around and there are fewer every day. We’re dropping like flies, the people I have known, and the music is disappearing almost as fast. Secich brings an energy to those times. He cuts through the chaff to what really mattered and it isn’t all celebrity-fueled. True, he does drop a name or two but does it in such a way that you experience what he experienced at the time— I mean, can you imagine finding yourself back-to-back with Mick Jagger at a party, or in the presence of Anita Pallenberg or Bebe Buell? Well, Secich did. Cool thing is, he uses those instances as decoration for the real stories— about the times and the people and, especially, the music. Ever hear of Holes In the Road? Neither had I, but Secich claims they were at one time the best band within striking distance.
It’s quite a story. Made even moreso by the photos included. If it lacks anything, it is a musicians tree like they used to have in each issue of Zig Zag Magazine— just so you can follow the players.
If any book could benefit from a musicians tree it would be Getting Nowhere Fast, the new book about the San Diego music scene from 1976 to 1986 by one Ray Brandes. Not that the book is confusing— quite the opposite, in fact. It is just that the SD bands of that period are so incestuous you practically need a scorecard. I thought I knew something about the scene back then— until I read this. Ray was part of it and gives an insiders look at the independent musicians and their struggles to survive as such. With very few places to play, especially at the beginning, it wasn’t easy.
I lived in SD close to the beginning. The band highlighted in Chapter One, Glory, was on hiatus but not yet history. A guy named Jerry Raney came into a record store I worked at not long after we opened and asked for me because he had heard somewhere that I had connections with the labels. Had had with him a beat up copy of Glory’s 45, apologized for the shape it was in and proceeded to regale me with the band history and success in SD while bemoaning their failure to break out. Would I know someone he could contact in L.A.? Unfortunately, the contacts I had were between labels so I had none. Still, he seemed like a pretty nice guy and I took the 45 with what I hoped was a semblance of grace. Truth be told, as trashed as that copy of High School Letter was, it became a real addition to my collection. Crunchy and raw, it grabbed me right off the bat, enough so that I seriously thought of finding a contact, somehow.
Brandes clears up any misconceptions I may have had about the band and Raney, who not too long after would join up with Dan McLain (Country Dick Montana) to form The Beat Farmers. I even found out that Glory had an album that they recorded before I left Oregon for SoCal. Recorded live, I do believe.
It is an odd place to start this book, really, because while Glory were the granddaddy of the indie bands, they might as well have been on a different planet, musically at least.
From Glory, Brandes zips right into the punk/alt.rock phase of SD with the Zeros, The Penetrators, The Crawdaddys and The Dinettes— bam, bam, bam— the period I almost caught. Truth is, I left SD at the very beginning of the local punk movement, my record store having “sponsored” the first showcase of local punk bands at the Adams Avenue Theater. I put sponsored in quotes because whereas the store was a connecting point for the movement, it was really only a meeting place where the ideas started coming together. I laugh when I look back on it— the few meetings we had focusing on ways around the lack of venues and lack of support from the city. The kids— Javier Escovedo (then going by “Spunk”) and members of the Zeros; Tim and Tom Griswold, the young twins who looked alike and acted alike, right down to their love of the punk/new wave music chipping away at what they thought was a lame and boring radio-dominated system which was choking the life out of… well, life; Jacqui Ramirez, enthralled by a new and exciting scene for youth which had been disenfranchised, shall we say; Raney; Tony and Chip Kinman of The Dils; Jeff Scott (The Hitmakers) and a handful of others. You could smell the enthusiasm in the room but I knew what I had envisioned would never work. The only ones who attended who had any real sense of the hard work building and maintaining a cohesive music scene were the young ones— the punks and new-wavers. Through a short series of meetings, everything fell into place for that first concert, then I left for Seattle. Brandes, in this book, tells me what I missed.
I missed The Penetrators. I knew Gary Heffern from the meetings and saw Jim Call every Thursday when he would stop by the store for a copy of The Reader (now the San Diego Reader). I had heard of Ron Silva and Chris Sullivan but knew little about them. I had stopped by to visit Dan McLain at Monty Rockers, a record store he owned and, according to Getting Nowhere Fast, a magnet for young people ready for something new musically. But the rest of the book is as new to me as anyone else. The Dinettes, an all-girl band which teetered and tottered its way to its own collapse (The Dinettes had a lot of potential but succumbed to all the classic rock and roll cliches— Joyce Rooks of The Dinettes). The Unknowns, whose legend revolved around a singer who had the chops but had to overcome obstacles to use them (If you never give up, you never lose— Bruce Joyner of The Unknowns). The All Bitchin’ All-Stud All-Stars. Manual Scan. The Nashville Ramblers. The Gravedigger V. The Tell-Tale Hearts, Brandes’ own band. Other bands and artists circled these, floating in and out as needed or wanted, but these were the core.
Throughout the book, Brandes balances the personal with the technical, following various musicians as they came and went. For them, and for Brandes, it was personal, so that’s how he wrote it. By the time I finished the book, I felt I knew the moles and warts on most of the musicians therein and I definitely knew more behind-the-scenes activity. Brandes got it right, as far as I can tell, largely because he got it straight from the horses’ mouths. Some of it is not pretty, but it never is when it comes to rock and roll.
There is a bit more of a separation in Getting Nowhere Fast than I noticed in Circumstantial Evidence, but it is in the approach. Secich blazed his way through remembrances. Brandes made sure the history was correct. Both excellent reads of you are into the eras and the subject matter. Both full of surprises and chuckles and the occasional belly laugh.
Michael Rabon begins his autobiography High Strung with a chapter titled “On Consideration of Suicide.” Hardly what you might expect from a guy who helped write such pop classics as I See the Light and Western Union. The fact is, life as a teen rock star was not as easy as we all thought (or think) and it eventually took its toll. That chapter was the end of his rock and roll years, though, and the beginning of the rest of his life. And what a life it was. Full of sex, drugs and rock and roll, like the cliché states.
I remember driving up I-5 from the University of Oregon one Spring afternoon— riding up, actually— a college buddy was driving, the AM radio blaring out I See the Light right before California Dreamin’. Those guys at KASH put together outstanding sets, blending one song into the other until you thought life could not get any better. From the pounding beat and high farfisa of the Five Americans to the folk rock of The Mamas and the Papas. Damn, but life was good! I mean, for them, right? Those were hits, you know, and the money had to be filling swimming pools it was coming in so fast. Then again…
Turns out that the amoebic version of the Americans, then calling themselves The Mutineers, were starving. Oh, they were making money all right but not really for themselves. They made it first for the tavern owner at the Pirate’s Nook and later for Abnak Records and its owner, Jon Abnor. They got paid weekly but all the checks were marked “Advance against Future Royalties” and, if you have any sense at all, know what that means. The Five Americans were getting screwed.
It wouldn’t be long until they were screwing themselves, getting involved with drugs and a very loose crowd and the next thing you know, things came untracked. In spite of putting four songs on the charts (I See the Light, Western Union, Sound of Love, and Zip Code), they were having trouble keeping it together. It became a soap opera of bad luck in spite of the good intentions. And Rabon lays it out like it was, pulling no punches in his assessment. To his credit, truth kicked ego to the curb and the result is intriguing at the very least. Stars. Big shots. Playing TV shows, Bandstand, touring with other stars, supposedly raking in barrels full of cash. Only it wasn’t really like that. Not even close. It seemed like that, if you read between Rabon’s lines, but when he started coming down…
It wasn’t supposed to be like that but it was and for all too many musicians back then. The contracts were vague and full of gobbledygook and entertainment lawyers were few and far between and, well, the labels, while promising you anything and everything, found ways from letting you read the fine print. Just sign on the dotted line, Mr. Rabon, and initial here, here and here.
Rabon survived it, though it was hit and miss for awhile. He learned and came out the other end stronger for the experience. And he lets us take that ride with him. I talked with a friend about the book when I got my copy. “It reads like fiction,” he said. But it’s not.
The life of Woody Guthrie reads a bit like fiction, too. Living generations ago in a world of dust bowls and starvation, a guy with a guitar thrown across his back rides the rails and hitches to nowhere from nowhere just to see what is and when he sees it, joins the fight for justice and the American way. Okay, that’s hokey and it bit off the mark, but that’s what Hollywood would do with it. Good for movies but surely not reality, according to the young. Yet it was once all too real.
Or real enough for someone like Ed Robbins— one-time editor of People’s World, a newspaper associated with the Communist Party, or so says Wikipedia— to take note. Robbins, in fact, was a friend who knew Guthrie about as well as anyone and who took it upon himself to write about him after his death. About his struggles with the real world, in fact, which Guthrie could not accept. About his struggle with Huntington’s chorea, which apparently are side effects of Huntington’s Disease. About the struggle against inequality of all kinds. About music, which was Guthrie’s main way of communicating.
Guthrie wrote songs. Hundreds of them. Some became famous and others are lost to time. He wrote songs about unions and poor people and fat cats and children and even one which was quite popular in the Pac Northwest when I was a toddler about the Grand Coulee Dam.
He wrote This Land Is Your Land, a banner song for the folk movement, and Red River Valley and Put Your Finger In the Air (most commonly referred to as Put Your Finger On Your Nose). He wrote So Long, It’s Been Good To Know You, a song I heard many times in my youth, possibly The Weavers’ version. Even the Grateful Dead picked up on Guthrie, melding Buddy Holly‘s Not Fade Away with Guthrie’s Going Down the Road Feeling Bad on their Grateful Dead album, more commonly known as Skull & Roses. Like I said, Guthrie has written hundreds.
And we are forgetting him. We were forgetting him in the seventies when Ed Robbins wrote Woody Guthrie and Me. I think it worried Robbins. In his world, Guthrie was bigger than life, though he probably didn’t know until he died. So he sat down and wrote what he remembered and what he thought important. It is a fascinating read, if you take the time to put yourself in the past. Robbins keys on the social struggle and the political struggle as well as survival itself. He picks apart Guthrie’s thoughts, trying to figure him out, and he talks of conversations he had with Will Geer (yeah, Grandpa Walton), even including one he had with Will after Guthrie’s death.
Woody Guthrie hates fascists, and if you don’t know what a fascist is look at most of your conservative politicians. He had a sticker on his guitar that said “This Machine kills Fascists.” It was a statement. While reading this book, I couldn’t help but think, Woody, we could sure use you now.
Notes….. Bobby Gottesman over at I Can’t Believe My Earz is still cranking out the word on music-worthy releases. Here, he unpacks a video by Canadian group The Auras who, on this track, sound like they just time-traveled back to the late-sixties. Put an old label on this one and it would be an instant collector’s item…
There is a distance between Marla and her music in this video which is reminiscent of Linda Draper and I find it captivating. Sometimes we all need to step back from the busy-ness of the music being produced these days if for no other reason than to breathe. Music produced by David Celia who, when he is not performing or recording outstanding music himself is evidently helping record it for others. Pull up a lawn chair on a white sand beach on a beautiful day and close your eyes. And I don’t apologize for posting this more than once. Everything is, after all, about me, right?
Sunday Lane has been a favorite ever since I saw her video for Heavy Heart, Heavy Hands, a look at the destructiveness of domestic abuse. I somehow missed this one altogether, a track from an EP she released a handful of months ago.
There is always space for Tom House in my column. One of the true keepers of the music archives and writer and performer in his own right. Thanks to Arthur Barnes who has had the foresight to document many of House’s performances.
I tell you, it doesn’t stop! An Internet conversation with a few people including Michael Coffey and Andi Emm turned up a band called Du Bellows and has me wondering how people like her can somehow evade my searches. Catch this:
And I found this, too– a bit of a history:
Not many people remember Buzzy Linhart, but bluesman Michael Packer does. At one time, Linhart was one of the buzzword names— back in the sixties and seventies— and was picked to make it big. So how shocked was I to see this documentary? Damn shocked, but thrilled too. With all of the talk about the big names in music, we need to remember the Linharts and Buzzy Feitens and Stephen Brutons and the other unknowns and lesser knowns who were as important to the music scene as the ones who made it. It is the only way to really understand the music which existed. It is the only way we can even begin to grasp the scene. Ladies and Gentlemen… Buzzy Linhart.
And just in time to make this weeks Notes section, it’s No Small Children (YAY!)…
Frank’s column appears every Wednesday
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“Frank Gutch Jr. looks like Cary Grant, writes like Hemingway and smells like Pepe Le Pew. He has been thrown out of more hotels than Keith Moon, is only slightly less pompous than Garth Brooks and at one time got laid at least once a year (one year in a row). He has written for various publications, all of which have threatened to sue if mentioned in any of his columns, and takes pride in the fact that he has never been quoted. Read at your own peril.”