Ter­rell’s Tune-Up

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Steve Ter­rell re­views the new doc­u­men­tary The Seeds:

Pushin’ Too Hard

Thurs­day, June 25, 2009. A beloved and in­flu­en­tial in­no­va­tor of mod­ern pop­u­lar mu­sic is dead. A stunned na­tion mourns.

Ac­tu­ally, most of those stunned and mourn­ing peo­ple that day were griev­ing for some guy named Michael Jackson. But not me. The only tears I shed that sum­mer day were for Richard Marsh, bet­ter known as Sky Saxon, the singer of one of most im­por­tant ’60s-garage, proto-punk (and don’t forget flower power) bands in rock ’n’ roll history.

I didn’t care about the King of Pop! On that sad day, I looked to the Sky!

Saxon and his band, the Seeds, are now the sub­ject of a well-re­searched, thor­oughly en­ter­tain­ing, and to­tally rock­ing doc­u­men­tary called The Seeds: Pushin’ Too Hard. I’ve been a Seeds fan since I was in ju­nior high in the mid-’60s, which was back when their song (“You’re) Pushin’ Too Hard” was first a big hit. That tune fit in per­fectly with some of the great snot-rock of the era such as “Dirty Wa­ter,” “96 Tears,” and “Psy­chotic Re­ac­tion.” Un­til this film I didn’t really know that much about Saxon or the Seeds. First of all, this was a real band, not just a charis­matic singer with a bunch of side­men. Di­rec­tor Neil Nor­man (whose fa­ther Gene Nor­man signed the group to his GNP Crescendo Records) in­cludes footage of re­cent in­ter­views with for­mer Seeds key­boardist Daryl Hooper (whose Wurl­itzer elec­tric pi­ano with heavy tremolo made early Seeds records un­for­get­table) and fuz­ztone-gui­tar pioneer Jan Sav­age, as well as some footage and taped com­men­tary of drum­mer Rick An­dridge, who died in 2011.

I also didn’t re­al­ize that Saxon him­self had been knock­ing around Hol­ly­wood for as long as he did, try­ing to get a break in the show­biz game. Born in Utah, he first went to Tin­sel­town in the late ’50s, ini­tially sign­ing to a la­bel co-owned by Fred As­taire. Some of those quasi-doo-wop songs, which he re­leased un­der the name “Lit­tle Richie Marsh,” can be found on YouTube to­day. They’re kind of cool, but you’d never re­al­ize th­ese songs are the seeds of the Seeds.

The magic didn’t really start un­til Lit­tle Richie hooked up with Hooper and An­dridge, a couple of high school pals who moved to Hol­ly­wood from their home­town of Farm­ing­ton, Michi­gan. They started out cov­er­ing the usual early rock clas­sics. Things started to hap­pen af­ter they be­gan writ­ing their own songs.

Like many rock docs, much of the story told comes from fa­mous folks who are fans of the film’s sub­ject. Here we have the likes of the late Hol­ly­wood creep Kim Fow­ley, Bruce John­ston of the Beach Boys, mem­bers of the ’80s girl band the Ban­gles, Johnny Echols of the group Love, and oth­ers. My fa­vorite celeb tes­ti­mony in Pushin’ Too Hard is Iggy Pop, who says The Seeds “gave a lot of peo­ple a vo­cab­u­lary.” Of Saxon, Iggy says, “Be­sides his great name, which is su­per cool, he doesn’t sound stop­pable. He sounds like you can’t stop him or shut him up. ... He couldn’t really sing, but nei­ther can any­one else who’s any [darn] good.”

Watch­ing the rise of the Seeds is ex­cit­ing, and watch­ing their fall in the doc­u­men­tary is painful. Nor­man presents the case that it was too much ego, as well as too many drugs, that led to Saxon’s de­cline and the dis­in­te­gra­tion of the band. Af­ter two snarling, rock­ing albums came

Fu­ture, an ill-con­ceived, badly ex­e­cuted third al­bum — an artsy ex­per­i­ment, prob­a­bly in­flu­enced by Sgt. Pep­per’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and all the other “rock is art” id­iocy of the era. The Beach Boys’ John­ston grouses, “I didn’t want to hear the Seeds with harps.” (Per­haps he didn’t rec­og­nize the irony here — a lot of peo­ple said the same thing about the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.)

Saxon’s ap­petite for LSD be­came a prob­lem. “On stage it was like talk­ing to a six-year-old,” a band­mate says. He tended to adopt stray hu­manoids who took ad­van­tage of his gen­eros­ity and trust. Saxon’s house be­came a “flop­house for de­gen­er­ates,” Sav­age says. “Peo­ple fed Sky’s ego, giv­ing him dope. He lost his edge.” The Seeds broke up in 1969. Saxon ap­par­ently went to seed. (I apol­o­gize for that.) He lost his house, and folks would see him walk­ing the streets or “wan­der­ing around the hills play­ing the flute,” ac­cord­ing to one ac­count in the film.

At one point in the ’70s, Saxon be­came in­volved with a utopian communal ex­per­i­ment (none dare call it cult) in Hol­ly­wood that ran a pop­u­lar Sun­set Strip health food restau­rant (which is the sub­ject of an­other fine doc­u­men­tary, The Source Fam­ily, re­leased in 2012). Saxon was given a new name, “Are­lich Aquar­ian,” by the group’s head hon­cho Fa­ther Yod. The for­mer rock star worked in the restau­rant and moved to Hawaii with the group when Yod de­cided it was time to flee the main­land.

There were re­unions and re­for­ma­tions of the Seeds. Saxon recorded sev­eral solo albums (I have Trans­parency, which was re­leased a few years be­fore he died. It’s not bad, though it’s not the Seeds). He even­tu­ally moved to Austin, where he worked with a band called Shapes Have Fangs. At the time of his death, he’d been plan­ning on a tour with the con­tem­po­rary ver­sions of the Elec­tric Prunes and Love.

It’s a corny cliché to com­pare a fallen mu­sic star to Icarus, who flew too close to the sun. Yet it seems ap­pro­pri­ate for Saxon, who in his fi­nal years, this film shows, seemed like a sad, be­wil­dered Icarus on a doomed quest to find his long-lost wings. But don’t forget — this crazy sucker in his prime flew pretty darn close to the sun.

The Seeds: Pushin’ Too Hard is show­ing at the Jean Cocteau Cin­ema (418 Mon­tezuma Ave., 505-466-5528) at 7 p.m. on Wed­nes­day, Nov. 18, and Thurs­day, Nov. 19. The doc’s di­rec­tor will be on hand both nights. For in­for­ma­tion check out www.jean­cocteaucin­ema.com/film/the-seeds-pushin-too-hard.

Tune in to Ter­rell’s Sound World on Sun­day, Nov. 15, for a spe­cial seg­ment fea­tur­ing the mu­sic of the Seeds, Sky Saxon, and lots of cool bands cov­er­ing their songs. The show starts at 10 p.m. with the Seeds set start­ing at the 11th hour. That’s on KSFR-101.1 FM and www.ksfr.org.

It’s a corny cliché to com­pare a fallen mu­sic star to Icarus, who flew too close to the sun. Yet it seems ap­pro­pri­ate for Sky Saxon.

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