Frank Gutch Jr: Let’s Talk Notary Sojac; The Return of Highlight Bomb; Jeff Ellis (Plus Notes)

Frank Gutch young

I was twenty-three, fresh out of the Army and full of frustration and cynicism.  I had spent the last one year, nine months, two days, four hours and thirty-five minutes in what I considered a military prison.  Before I was drafted, I was a radical, a hippie, an idealist.  Staunchly anti-war, I isolated myself from old friends and family.  I smoked dope, joined The Resistance and demonstrated on and off the University of Oregon campus.  When I got out of the Army and returned to Eugene, I learned that I hated everyone who displayed bumper stickers or posters which heralded “America— Love It Or Leave It” or “My Country, Right or Wrong” as if they were the Eleventh and Twelfth Commandments.  Those who upheld vocal groups like Up With People as true American music became my enemy.

meporch1972It wasn’t all bad.  I was out of the Army.  I was relieved.  I buried myself so deep in the counterculture that I actually thought we had a chance to change things— everything, if we wanted.  I joined the Community Switchboard, an organization which was a last ditch clearinghouse for helping people.  We cut and gave free firewood to senior citizens, provided places for hitchhikers and travelers to crash, gave food to the hungry and a listening ear to whomever needed one.  We shopped for the homebound and provided rides and made enough of an impact on a few that we felt the good could not help but grow and the world would change.

And it did change.  For me.  Something funny happened on the way to the forum (and if you knew the music scene in Eugene in the early seventies you would know that as a reference to The Roman Forum, a tavern situated between Eugene and Springfield which housed Notary Sojac for a stretch as a sort of house band).  I ran headlong into a band whose members felt largely the way I did— that good begets good and that music was medicine and that we are all but small cogs in the wheel called life.  It sounds hokey, I know, but after hearing and then meeting the band, that was the way I felt.

I remember the first time I saw Notary Sojac perform,” I wrote years later.  “It was at a Rainier Sunbust at Eugene’s Skinner’s Butte Park (Rainier Beer did music lovers a great favor in the early seventies, sponsoring free concerts at various outdoor venues) and one could not have asked for a better day.  The sun was shining, the gathering was mellow and the opening band, Sand (another Pac NW music phenomenon) had just laid down a great set of originals.  The response was lukewarm and I wondered why, because Sand had played their asses off.  Of course, the crowd was young and of the (shall we say) vegetarian bent.  My injured hands (swollen from clapping— I thought Sand rocked!) recovered whilst equipment moved on and off the stage and Sand morphed from the tactile to the memorial, replaced by a band of longhaired gnomes dressed in clean but worn castoffs, much like their equipment.  Amps were stacked and drums and keyboards slid into place, mics plugged in and guitars placed here and there amongst the mess slowly taking shape.  Loud zaps zonked the eardrums as instruments and mics took their first breaths after being awhile in suspended animation.

A ragtag bunch they were, seemingly deposited on stage by some jester ridding himself of finger puppets of a hippie variety.  The Brothers Koski tested mics during tuning and warmups, acting more like Top 40 disc jockeys than rockers, saying anything and everything to and toward each other until each mic proved worthy.  Then a short intro and, voila!, the Sojac Miracle!  Music to rival the gods, they might have said at the turn of the century, but that day it was to rival The Dead and The Allmans and any other band you would care to mention.  From that moment on, I was a fan!

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To the left was a tall afro’d Tom McMeekan, strangling the neck of his guitar in hand-to-music combat, right hand flailing his only weapon (a pick), sometimes so wildly that one wondered how he could hit the right strings (mostly, he did) and later coaxing the guitar into floating melody or ethereal harmony (dual leads were one of the bands specialties).  Next to him was Steve Koski, head keeping time like a bobblehead doll whose spring had broken, face twisting and contorting as it helped squeeze just the right sounds from the string-to-pickup-to-amp circuit.  Doug Ness, hidden behind a rack of drums, paradiddled and syncopated between solid thwacks of the bass drum, making up for his imprisoned stature with the power of the beat which Jim Lowry, to the right, helped enforce.  Lowry, hair hanging limp way past shoulders, thrumbed his bass with an intelligence beyond the music itself and stayed content in the circle made of his own sound.  Will Herold, tied to the Hammond B-3 which hid him from a portion of the crowd, made up for lack of body motion with hands which turned chords to gold and took you from high to higher and, as in the case of the bridge in Carolina, ripped heads off and made us laugh.  And Bob?  Bob Koski was voice and humor and heart all in one.  What he lacked in voice he made up for in obvious love of music and it soon became evident that his and his voice only could fit that music.  And if that wasn’t enough, he danced and laughed and flauted his way through one great original after another.  Yes, the songs were all originals (note: mostly, I found out later) and all I could think was, man, these guys could play with anyone, anywhere!

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That was only one man’s opinion, mind you, but the only one I really trusted.  Over thirty years later, I feel the same.  Notary Sojac had something, you see… something you can’t measure by any scale outside of the human heart and soul.  The experience was not religious by any means, but it was real and stayed with me all of this time.

I wrote that over ten years ago and it is still with me.  Notary Sojac, it seems, was my Beatles and perhaps that day was my Ed Sullivan Show.  There was adventure in their music and a camaraderie in their stage presence.  They were the kind of musician I had wanted to be before I hung up my sticks.  I watched a very young Doug Ness play way beyond my level and realized that there was real talent there and thought that he was the reason the band was able to do what they did musically.  He could play anything, I soon learned, and even though a kid was as settled in his music as any drummer I had heard.  It didn’t hurt that Lowry was there, for they were a rhythm section in a very real sense.  You could see and hear it when they jammed.

When I came upon that gig at Skinner’s Butte, they were in their last phase.  They had spent a few years in different incarnations utilizing a number of musicians who wove into and out of the fabric of the band as it evolved.  In the end, there were six— Steve Koski: guitar, pedal steel.  Steve was the experimental member of the band, always searching for new sounds and ways of producing them (at a point in the very latest period of the band, he asked me if I could find him a copy of Bunny Berigan‘s I Can’t Get Started, a song which he was researching for its jazzy big band sound— he had this uncanny ability to turn old ideas new again).

Tom McMeekan supplied the harder guitar sound and sometimes the jazzy chords of Steve’s rhythm offset Tom’s brassy rock sound perfectly, and when they kicked into double leads, which they did quite often, it was sometimes laughingly good.  I had never heard anything quite like the triple lead, in fact, on Carolina, a song written by Steve and Fred Cole during Steve’s pre-Notary Sojac stint with The Weeds.  Brother Bob Koski started the bridge with a riff and Steve, after one riff was laid down, supplied harmony just off the count and on the next riff Tom overlaid another, three guitars screaming and building to a climax before slipping right back into the verse.  It was something to behold and I was lucky enough to have beheld it many times over a two-and-a-half year period.

Brother Bob was the main vocalist, specializing in a slurring jazz blues style when not belting out flute solos.  Bob had started as a guitarist but began playing it less and less as the band progressed, probably intimidated by the expertise shown by Steve and Bob.  I mean, when you had two guitarists of that caliber…..  Still, Bob’s voice was crucial to the band’s sound and he did love that flute.

Jim Lowry was still learning the bass at that time, he told me, and as good as he was (and he was) he felt somewhat inadequate.  When I saw him play, he was a monster on the good nights and they had more than not.  I can hear him right now in my head playing those bass runs on Carolina, his hands walking up and down the neck of that electric bass which he many times held with the neck sticking almost straight up.  He closed his eyes during many of the jamming stretches, feeling the tumble and roll which was a musical tidal wave, of sorts.  He was a student of the instrument, obviously, and later became a disciple of Jaco Pastorius, who as a bassist broke more new ground sojaclive1than anyone of that time.

Doug Ness was just a kid then but you couldn’t tell it by his drumming.  Lowry remembers the band auditioning him “when he was sixteen and would have hired him then had he not been underage.  As soon as he turned eighteen, we did hire him.”  Doug turned out to be a catalyst.  The band had tried numerous drummers, all good, but the styles just didn’t give the band room for progress or something.  With Doug, it was different.  “He and I connected on so many different levels,” Lowry remembers.  “And he connected in so many ways with the rest of the band that it all kind of really jelled for the first time, really totally.  The way I think we wanted it to jell.  After that, it was just a matter of playing together as much as we could.”

And there was keyboard man Will Herold.  I have never met a musician as good as he was who did not have a clue just how good he was.  When he played the Hammond, if it didn’t sing, it screamed.  He incorporated styles ranging from Jimmy Smith and Groove Holmes to Gregg Allman and Brian Auger and so many others and made it all seem so effortless.  Every time I saw Sojac play, I waited for Carolina so I could hear his organ swim into Allmans territory, taking the band on an always too-short ride.  When they played Eddie Lockjaw Davis and Johnny Griffin‘s Oh Gee, my heartbeat tripled as the whole band took short solo shots and Herold’s organ was from another dimension.  One of my favorite moments in live music.

The guys were from Portland and Boise, on the whole.  Ness lived in Eugene when he finally joined.  Their home territory was Portland until they moved to Eugene and then Springfield and became a consummate band of roving hippies with a following which grew and grew until ’74 when certain members exited for other pastures and new ones entered, forming a new collective which they called simply Sojac.  This was a sometimes larger and more fluid lineup which leaned toward jazz and the theatrical but covered massive musical territory.

There is a side story to the band which I find a bit amusing.  There was this guy in Eugene at the time of the band who called himself Drippy Moon.  He was a juggler.  If I stopped there you would probably think so what.  Well, the guys in Sojac befriended him to the point of giving him gigs with the band as their opening act.  His schtick, as far as I can tell, was juggling to music with flourescent tennis balls and a black light.  Sound familiar?  Yeah, that is him— the guy who has a video or two on YouTube of him juggling to The Beatles.  Turns out, after he left Eugene, he tied up with Leo Kottke and then, of all people, Michael Jackson and juggled in front of tens of thousands. His name became Chris Bliss and he does standup comedy today, but he was always an alter member of the group if not the band.  To this day, he credits Notary Sojac with giving him his first real chance.  Here is the video, though the music has been replaced due to copyright— I blame Howie Wahlen.

The reason I am writing this is because it is time to put together the Notary Sojac Story.  They were a huge part of the history of music in the Portland, Oregon of the late-sixties and early-seventies and their story is a good one.  One day, barring act of God or Congress, I will write it with the help of members of the band and, hopefully, you will read it.  With luck, I will also chronicle a bit of the run the band Sand had during the same period.  Sand actually signed with a label (Barnaby Records, a label owned by none other than Andy Williams and headed by Ken Mansfield), had a chance to kick off a new label with a second album but instead watched their chances explode in their faces.  Sojac and Sand.  Two of the best Portland gave us only to suffer the slings and arrows, so to speak.

And then there was Providence, but they were from a different galaxy.

By the way, our Fearless Leader, Bob Segarini, knew the guys from Sojac.  He spent a number of months in the Pac Northwest with his band The Family Tree (or was it Roxy) and became acquaintances with a number of musicians who populated the music scene.  He has mentioned a few happenings around Portland.  Perhaps this will spur him to mention a few more.

(Editor’s note: Oh I will, Junior…I will, and it was the Family Tree and Roxy BOTH!)

Highlight Bomb Returns!

After approximately a two year hiatus, Highlight Bomb has returned to the studio and put together another fine album.  I happened upon them a number of years ago and gave them a plug or two because they had a certain something beyond the norm.  So let us return to those days so you can (re)acquaint yourselves with a band worth hearing.

And here is the first track from their new album, Slobberknocker.  Hell, I like these guys just for the album title.  Ha!

That’s is just a taste.  The album itself is another in an all-too-short string of classics.  Keep your ears out.  Coming soon.

Jeff Ellis is from West Virginia and I waste my time feeling sorry for him (or at least feel an empathy toward him) because of it.  To me, the State epitomizes so many things States do wrong— like allowing mountaintop mining, fracking and the like?  Or it did.  Through Jeff, I have learned that many in the State have fought hard against the evils wrought by corporations and a bureaucracy so bogged down in the past and in today’s economy that they are willing to sacrifice clean water and air for a handful of jobs which, pittance that they are, in their minds justify their positions.  Fracking?  Hell, no, until a federal judge comes along and overturns an attempt to stop it with a few words arranged to fit corporates needs.  Clean water?  It’s plenty safe enough according to federal guidelines which are loosened to fit individual situations.  Mine spills?  Just don’t drink the water until we have the situation under control.  Jeff opened my eyes to a lot of things, one of which has been my limited views of situations I know little about.  This was the first thing I heard by Jeff, and please keep in mind that I am a strict environmentalist when it comes to air and water, two things we have struggled to keep out of corporates hands for years here in Oregon.

There is a mountain sense to the music and I liked it but what really struck me was the pride.  If I didn’t know he was a West Virginian, I sure as hell did by the end of that song.  There is a sense of pride, yes, but there is also a sense of right and wrong and of responsibility.  I heard it right off.  The ethics of a time past, I am sad to say, but one which Jeff takes very personally.  Some of what he does is a look back not unlike the folkies of the past— capturing history in such a way that it is a lesson in itself.  The Sago Mine— I had not heard of it until I watched this video.  This took place in 2006, not 2013 or 1897.  This, my friends, is what tragedy sounds like.

His music isn’t all historical nor is it all folk-bent.  He rocks.  He has even been known to roll on occasion.  But no matter what comes out, it is as sincere as he or anyone else could possibly make it.

His new album is titled Modern Time Blues and is a natural extension of what he has been doing for a number of years— writing and performing music of real worth.  I would suggest that you check out his earlier albums as well.  There ain’t a clunker in the bunch.

Amy van Keeken.  I love this lady’s music.  And it is available on vinyl!

NotesNotes…..  Too much music gets swept downstream anymore.  A musician makes an impact and before the vibrations dissipate people have moved on to the next trend.  One guy I hear very little about these days is an old favorite named Lester Quitzau who completely blew me away with an album a few years ago titled The Same Light.  He lives somewhere on an island close to British Columbia— Canadian soil— and plays like the devil himself when he feels like it.  Take a listen to this:

Here he is doing his version of Pete Seeger’s To My Old Brown Earth, my favorite version of the song to-date.

I love everything Tom Mank and Sera Smolen have done, but this one strikes very deep.  Tom lived in Baltimore during the riots of 1963 and wrote this song about it.  Speak of history!

One of the voices on the previous track was courtesy of one Kirsti Gholson who also records under the moniker of Little Green Blackbird.  When she recorded The Summer I Stopped Whining, she touched upon the subject of experimentation on animals with this song about one of the so-called researchers.  When I asked about the story behind the song, she sent me this note:

My song inspiration came from the book Next of Kin by Roger Fouts.  Lots about him online.  Fouts worked for Lemmon doing primate language research.  When I’m home I can send you some other links but I highly recommend the book if you ever have the time.  It’s fascinating regardless of one’s feelings toward animals.

Listen to the lyrics closely because the music is a bit deceptive.  Really good song, though.  Really good.  So is the album.

Just so you know, this is the very first track I ever heard from Kirsti.  Everyone time I hear it it breaks me a little more.

I’m sinking fast and I don’t know why.  I have to end this.  Not only does the deadline approach but I need to go somewhere and I am not sure where or why.  I leave you with this, one of the songs from Greg Laswell‘s superb Through Toledo album.  If you haven’t heard it, I recommend it highly.

=FGJ=

Frank’s column appears every Tuesday

Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

dbawis-button7Frank 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 Frank bottle capone 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.”

2 Responses to “Frank Gutch Jr: Let’s Talk Notary Sojac; The Return of Highlight Bomb; Jeff Ellis (Plus Notes)”

  1. You, sir, are a hoot. And a pretty fun writer. The Warlocks later Notary Sojack as well as some others you so aptly recall played for my many of my rock shows primarily in Portland and were especially Bob Koski friends of mine.
    Nice to see your post.
    Carry on.

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