Sky Saxon: Singer and bassist with seminal Sixties garage band the Seeds
Monday 13 July 2009
When the music journalist and future Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye compiled and annotated the double album Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from The First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968 for Jac Holzman’s Elektra Records in the early 1970s, he introduced a new generation of fans around the world to US garage bands like the Electric Prunes, the Standells, the Shadows Of Knight, the 13th Floor Elevators, Count Five, the Chocolate Watch Band and the Seeds.
Reissued by Sire in 1976, Nuggets became de rigueur listening for the punk groups from both sides of the Atlantic, who drew inspiration from the primal style and sound of the American bands that had followed in the wake of the British Invasion, and had short-lived careers, often with one minor hit to their name.
Formed in 1965 by the snarling,mercurial singer and bassist SkySaxon, and fuelled by a love of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds, the Seeds made the US Top 40 in 1967 with the insanely catchy,hypnotic single “Pushin’ Too Hard”. Written by Saxon around a cyclical riff embellished by Daryl Hooper’s freewheeling keyboards, Jan Savage’s fuzzy guitar and Rick Andridge’s frenetic drumming, and expressing teenage commitment- phobia, “Pushin’ Too Hard” was the group’s high watermark.
That year, they also charted with the sullen “Can’t Seem To Make You Mine”, the drug-referencing “Mr Farmer” and “A Thousand Shadows”, a single recycling the “Pushin’ Too Hard” proto-punk riff. Sadly, despite influencing the Doors, who had supported them at the Whisky a Go Go in Los Angeles in 1966, the Seeds failed to capitalise on their early success and Saxon began ringing the changes.
Always a volatile character, he could be business-like one minute and spout cosmic nonsense after taking too many drugs the next, and took to producing a picture of Jesus Christ as his ID, to the amazement of bandmates and scene-makers.
His erratic behaviour invited comparisons with Arthur Lee of Love and Roky Erickson of the 13th Floor Elevators, and fuelled the Seeds’ cult. The group broke up in 1972 and he joined a hippie commune, the Source Family, lead by Father Yod, or YaHoWa – né Jim Baker – a health food store owner turned spiritual guru, and became Sky “Sunlight” Saxon. In the late 1980s he relaunched the Seeds, and played Europe for the first time in 2003.
Born Richard Marsh in Salt Lake City in the late 1930s or in the mid- 1940s – accounts differ – he grew up in a Mormon household and loved classical music as a child. He discovered the blues when he moved to Los Angeles and studied at UCLA. In the early 1960s he styled himself as “Little”
Richie Marsh and tried to jump on the teen-idol and dance-craze bandwagons with a series of singles – “Goodbye”, “They Say”, “Do The Swim” – on various small labels. After leading the Electra Fires in 1962, he took up the Sky Saxon alias.
“To me, Sky Saxon was like my hero, Errol Flynn. The name sounded great,” explained the singer who fronted the Soul Rockers before launching the Seeds. “We were born from a dream in 1965,” he later told the Horror Garage website. “Everybody said we looked ‘seedy’ – we actually looked garage, grunge before grunge – and for that reason we adopted the name, the Seeds. The line-up was put together magically through a lot of prayer. It was, you might say, predestined to bring flower power to the earth, for we needed change and we needed it bad.”
Every record company in Los Angeles turned the group down until Gene Norman signed them to a typically exploitative deal with his GNPCrescendo operation. First released in 1965, “Can’t Seem To Make You Mine”
was a local hit in California, but fared much better when it was reissued after “Pushin’ Too Hard”. Both featured on the group’s April 1966 eponymous debut, which comprised 11 original compositions, a rare occurrence at the time, and was swiftly followed by the more ambitious A Web Of Sound in October of the same year. As “Pushin’ Too Hard” climbed up the charts, the Seeds appeared on TV shows like American Bandstand and undertook a back-breaking package tour with ? & The Mysterians, the Left Bank and the Shadows Of Knight.
In 1967, the English expat and selfstyled “Lord” Tim Hudson became their manager and encouraged the group to appeal to the emerging hippie movement with the Future album – featuring tracks such as “March Of The Flower Children” and “Travel With Your Mind” – while the veteran bluesman Muddy Waters endorsed the next album, A Full Spoon Of Seedy Blues, credited to the Sky Saxon Blues Band, and called them “America’s own Rolling Stones.”
The Seeds also appeared alongside the Strawberry Alarm Clock, Jack Nicholson and Dean Stockwell in Psych-Out, an exploitation film set in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, directed by Richard Rush and produced by TV host Dick Clark, which is now a period curio. But after the 1969 release of Raw And Alive: Merlin’s Music Box – actually live in the studio with dubbed applause – and working with producer Kim Fowley, they left GNP-Crescendo. The group issued a couple of singles on the MGM label, before Saxon lost his Mailbu home to the IRS after failing to pay income tax, and joined Father Yod. He sometimes performed and recorded with an ensemble called the the YaHoWha 13, and stuck to his beliefs, even after the death of the guru in a hang-gliding accident in 1974.
When asked to describe the YaHoWha religion to outsiders, he mentioned vegetarianism and declared: “Peace, love and kindness elevate the mind so you can liberate the soul. Remember the power of the I AM, and always use it positively. I AM healthy. I AM well. I AM successful. I AM love.”
In the 1970s he lived in Hawaii and added “Sunlight” to his name. “I really didn’t want to use ‘Sky Saxon’ anymore,”
he later said. “I went by the name SunStar but when I found YaHoWha, he gave me the name Sunlight to balance the energies, so I felt as Sunlight I was now coming back again, but with new energies. Sort of like Cassius Clay and Muhammad Ali, I became a new energy.”
In the mid-1980s he teamed up with Mars Bonfire, the writer of Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wild”, and released an album entitled Starry Ride. He also collaborated with the garage rock revivalists the Dream Syndicate, the Plimsouls and Redd Kross.
In 1989, Saxon reformed the Seeds with Savage, and toured the US under “The Summer Of Love” banner alongside Arthur Lee and Love, Big Brotherand the Holding Company, the Music Machine and the Strawberry Alarm Clock. In 2003, the Seeds finally came to the UK and packed them in at venues like the Borderline in London, the once mop-haired Saxon now looking every inch the hippie guru with his beard, moustache, unruly hair and sunglasses.
The group’s repertoire remains popular through compilations, usage in films and commercials as well as cover versions by the Ramones, Garbage and Yo La Tengo, but Saxon receives no royalties after using his publishing rights as collateral to secure loans.
Last year, Saxon appeared in the Smashing Pumpkins video for “Superchrist”.
He attributed the revival of interest in his music to the fact that, “The Seeds are garage rock. They are the ABC of garage rock. I would advise anyone playing music to listen to the Seeds’ first two albums, because they had a lot of energy and they were simple.
I wrote 76 songs for the Seeds. I consider them all to be classics to be discovered now or at a later date. It doesn’t matter.”
Saxon did not believe in retirement or death and recently declared: “I guess I will retire when I leave my body. But I plan to continue writing and performing in heaven.”
Richard Elvern Marsh (Sky Saxon), singer, songwriter, bassist: born Salt Lake City, Utah 20 August c. 1937 or 1945/46; twice married (several children); died Austin, Texas 25 June 2009.
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