Northwest Music History: Alternative

Jeff Simmons: From The Blues to Easy Chair to Ethiopia to Zappa and Back

By the time the mid-60s had come around The Northwest Sound has pretty much wound down.  Many former teen-dance bands were moving closer to rock and the new psychedelic sounds coming out of L.A. and San Francisco. In some ways many local artists had begun to see Seattle as a northern outpost of San Francisco.
One of the bands that emerged in the mid-60s was Blues Interchange.  David Lanz (future star of “new age” music) had been one of the band’s first members.  The band began making the rounds of Seattle venues and became very popular with the tripped-out psychedelic crowd.   Due to some of the members being drafted local boy Jeff Simmons signed on as bassist in 1967. Simmons was already an accomplished player with a gregarious, often comedic air about him  Other members included Al Malosky on drums and guitarists Peter Larson (later replaced by Burke Wallace), and Danny Hoefer.  Danny Hoefer would later go on to play in Tower of Power.
After the change of personnel, Blues Interchange found even more favor with Northwest audiences.  One result of the changes was re-naming the band to Easy Chair. The transformation caught the eye of Seattle’s emerging rock scene as well as other pockets of psychedelic blues  around the country

In 2014 the website Clear Spot would look back on Easy Chair, writing;

“Their epic West Coast blues features the unique chemistry of psychedelic guitar leads, fluid lines and hypnotic chording”.

Around this time the band was emerging they met up with notorious San Francisco manager Matthew Katz.  Katz had been the first manager of Jefferson Airplane and had ben fired even before the release of their first album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off.   Seattle native Signe Anderson (September 15, 1941-January 28, 2016) did vocals, but soon left the band, handing over the task to Grace Slick. The firing of Katz would result in ongoing litigation over the release of original or licensed material by Jefferson Airplane.  The litigation between Katz and Jefferson Airplane was not settled until 1987.

Katz was also  involved in a dispute with Moby Grape beginning in 1968.   Katz had sold the  group members’ rights to their songs as well as their own name were signed away in 1973 to manager/producer David Rubinson without the band members knowing it. He retained rights to the name Moby Grape and a large part of their songs. Katz continued to send out various personnel under the name “Moby Grape” until 2005, the original members won back the rights to their name and started performing again as “Moby Grape” Even as late as 2007  Moby Grape (who’d won back the rights to their name) Katz  threatened to file a lawsuit against Sundazed Records (licensed by SONY) claiming ownership of the album artwork and songwriting for the first three albums.  The label was forced to withdraw the albums Moby Grape, Wow and Grape Jam.  The albums have since been re-released.

Hooking up with Katz could have resulted in disaster but he remained a savvy (though untrustworthy) entrepreneur.  In 1967 he opened the club “The San Francisco Sound” on Seattle’s Capitol Hill.  The club was  popular, but it lasted for less than a year.  Katz’s real interest was to establish a venue for bands he managed..  The meeting between Blues Interchange and Katz gave the band more high-profile gigs opening for San Francisco bands he’d booked in his club including  It’s A Beautiful Day,  Tripsacord Music Box, West Coast Natural Gas and Black Swan. Katz also convinced Blues Interchange to change their name to  Indian’ Puddin’ and Pipe. In yet another case of Katz’s dissembling, another band called Indian Puddin’ and Pipe already existed. Katz owned the names of several bands and could bestow them on any line-up he desired.  Simmons’s Indian Puddin’ and Pipe dropped the name after severing ties with Katz in 1968.  Fortunately neither the band nor it’s members walked away beholden to Katz except for the  name he’d given them-not a very good one in the first place.  Obtaining a new manager was painless.  Glen Harmon was chosen to take on Katz’s job and endlessly worked to book and promote Easy Chair. Hammon had been a big fan who worked at Boeing, but from the start of his association with Easy Chair he proved to be a natural for the jobs of promotion and management.

Meanwhile Harmon and the band sought to get a record deal  Eventually they were forced to finance their own recording at Vancouver WA’s Ripcord Studio.  The songs recorded there were  produced by Rick Keefer-who would go on to found Sea-West Studio in Seattle.  The result of their sessions was a single-sided 12′ EP that included only three songs, Slender Woman, My Own Life and Easy Chair.  Both Slender Woman and Easy Chair were written by Jeff Simmons.  My Own Life was written by Peter Larson.  With a release of only 1000 copies, it did well in the Northwest.    The songs show a slight reliance on the San Francisco Sound, but also retains a bit of the jazz-inspired R&B that successful NW bands of the 50s and early 60s had always imbued into their music.  The recordings are sparse, but have an honest, almost innocent quality.  The band would later go on to be much heavier, but their initial (and only) release is probably the most sought-after, and most valuable record by any Seattle band in the collectors market. In the past few years the EP has been re-released on CD by several foreign and domestic labels.

With some powerful gigs behind them and a popular regional hit, Easy Chair were on their way.  An opening slot for Cream at Seattle’s Eagles Auditorium may have been their high point.  They also opened for The Chambers Brothers who were then at the height of their success.  These concerts, along with opening for Blue Cheer the early Led Zeppelin enhanced their reputation.   They were offered a contract with Tetragrammaton Records but turned it down.  The label which was co-owned by Bill Cosby, a fact Easy Chair did not know at the time they were approached by the label  Soon  Tetragrammaton released a worldwide hit with Deep Purple ( “Hush”)    In 1968 the label also licensed the release of  John Lennon’s and Yoko Ono’sUnfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins” in the United States. The album’s cover featured nude photos of John and Yoko on the front and back jacket cover. The Beatles and Lennon’s US label, Capitol Records, refused to release or distribute it, citing negative responses from retailers, and American audiences objection to nuditiy, so Tetragrammaton stepped in to distribute the album in the US.

Easy Chair under the name Ethiopia was slated to open for Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention at the Seattle Center Arena on August 24, 1968. During sound check, Frank Zappa and his business partner Herb Cohen listened to the band and were impressed enough to fly them to Los Angeles for an audition and possible contract with one of two new labels Zappa had created (Straight and Bizarre Records). The Zappa gig took place a week before the band (billed as Easy Chair) performed at the first Sky River Rock Festival.  Easy Chair/Ethiopia played their booked obligations in the Northwest and were then on the way to L.A.  Soon Ethiopia was signed to Bizarre Records and the band waited to record….and waited.  Although they were signed as Ethiopia, the band once again reverted to Easy Chair for a handful of gigs with Zappa.

Their finest moment during their stay in Los Angeles was taking part in  Bizarre Record’s legendary “Gala Pre-Xmas Bash” at Santa Monica’s Shrine Exhibition Hall on December 6th & 7th 1968.   Easy Chair played the shows alongside The Mothers of Invention, Wild Man FischerAlice Cooper, and the GTOs. Ostensibly a pre-Christmas gig, it was actually Zappa’s debut of the roster of Bizarre acts that he, for the most part, had personally signed. This gig was definitely one of the most important shows of it’s day and possibly one of the most important gigs The Mothers of  Invention ever played.

After months of living in hotels, recording negotiations and long periods of inactivity Easy Chair members became discouraged.  It was clear the studio sessions were never going to happen. They decided to return to Seattle.  Jeff Simmons and drummer Al Malosky stayed in LA.  In 1969 Jeff Simmons (as a solo artist) was signed to Frank Zappa’s Straight Records to record two solo albums.  Malosky went along for the ride as a sideman on the first album.   Jeff’s assignment was to create the soundtrack for Naked Angels a biker/sexploitation film .  Although it’s not meant to be high art, the film itself is fairly decent within it’s genre.  Jeff”s soundtrack stands out as well executed psychedelia and is really the highlight of the film.  The film featured Penelope Spheeris (who would later direct both Decline of Western Civilization documentaries) and Corey Fischer (one of Robert Altman’s stable of actors, and who appeared in both the film and the TV series M.A.S.H.  The film got very little attention outside it’s intended audience but Simmon’s soundtrack album has long been a favorite among his fans.

Later in 1969 Jeff released what is universally considered his best solo work.  The album Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up leans more toward the accessible music Frank Zappa had released.  In fact Zappa contributed heavily to the album as a guitarist, wrote the title track and co-produced with engineer Chris Huston.  Zappa wrote the title track and also co-wrote “Wonderful Wino” with Simmons.  Zappa credited his work on the album under the pseudonym Lamarr Bruister.  Later Zappa would work Lucille into an entirely different version for Joe’s Garage and “Wonderful Wino” later shows up on Zappa’s  Zoot Allures.  Zappa rarely co-wrote his music, so it’s apparent that he had high regard for Simmons during this period.

 On “Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up” a variety of players who are often heard in Mothers and Zappa’s bands show up. Simmons is featured on lead vocals, keyboards, bass guitar, and accordion. Craig Tarwater-former member of the legendary L.A. garage band Sons Of Adam plays guitar, Ron Woods (of Pacific Gas and Electric) on drums, Ian Underwood on Sax and fellow Seattle native John Kehlior, (who’d played with The Frantics and The Daily Flash) on drums for two tracks (“Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up” & “Raye“).  The reception of Lucille was positive, but like all Zappa-related albums up ’til then, did not sell to the masses.

Instead of offering another contract with Straight Records, Zappa went a step further.  He asked Jeff to join The Mothers of Invention. He had already played a one-off concert of the the album Hot Rats.

Around this time Jeff reminisced about his hometown to the U.K. Music journal Melody Maker, saying:
“There’s a lot of music in Seattle, a lot of clubs and musically it’s influenced by San Francisco and even more, Chicago.  For instance when I started playing, the first people I heard were the Spoonful and The New Vaudeville Band.  But it wasn’t long before I forgot them and got into Little Milton and Magic Sam”.

In 1970 Simmons appeared on Chunga’s Revenge, which was Frank’s third “solo” album…even though Zappa included his floating roster of musicians with himself as the main character. The album was largely a transitional one, retaining some of the satire and humor of earlier albums, though heading more toward the avant-jazz of future projects.  It was also the first time Flo & Eddie  (Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, formerly of The Turtles) made a studio appearance with Zappa.  Jeff Simmons had also stepped up his game with Chunga’s Revenge by playing alongside Ian Underwood again, as well as drummer Aunsley Dunbar, and keyboardist George Duke.  Others who took part in Chunga’s Revenge was John Guerin, Max Bennett and Don “Sugarcane” Harris.

In 1971 Frank Zappa began to film his ambitious art film 200 Motels.  It’s commonly held that Jeff Simmons had quit the band shortly before the shoot began, but it’s not entirely clear what happenedSimmons is seen in the documentary The True Story of Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels-though not credited.  The actual film has large segments based on Jeff.  There is a cartoon segment in which “Jeff”, tired of playing what he refers to as “Zappa’s comedy music”is convinced by his good conscience (played by Donovan) to “quit the group”  There’s an ongoing (inside joke?) of characters saying “Jeff quit the group” throughout the film. “Dental Hygiene Dilemma” sees Jeff smoking a marijuana cigarette which had been dipped in Don Preston’s “foamy liquids” and Jeff’s imagining Donovan appearing to him on a wall-mounted television as his “good conscience”.  “His good conscience” asks Jeff not to steal the towels.   Studebaker Hoch appears to him as his evil conscience in the form of Jim Pons, tells Jeff to steal ashtrays and convinces Jeff to quit the Mothers of Invention, to “et your own group together. Heavy! Like Grand Funk or Black Sabbath.

Although it’s likely he was on set at least occasionally it’s claimed that had read the script of 200 Motels before the shooting and discovered it included things Simmons and others had actually said when they thought Frank was out of earshot.  It’s claimed these negative comments were based on secret hotel-room recordings.  Another version is that Zappa fired Simmons for smoking too much marijuana.  This version would be in keeping with Zappa’s firm rule of not working with musicians using drugs…at least not if it affected their professionalism.  But the former version would back up Zappa’s habit of taping discussions among band members (recorded with or without their knowing it).  They were “anthropological field recordings” as Zappa liked to call them.  It would be a more interesting story if Simmons had actually quit because he was angry about the secret recordings.  But it’s just as probable that he was fired for his objection to the  script.  Many years later full songs, out-takes and interviews were included on Playground Psychotics. The album includes a track called “Jeff Quits” and further complicates the question of whether Simmons quit or was fired.  Jeff probably was smoking too much pot and he may have well wanted to move on from Zappa.  In 1972 Frank Zappa told Jip Golsteijn of the Dutch magazine OOR:

“Jeff Simmons is a great bassist, which will become obvious to everyone during the European tour, but I thought he had another talent. He was a comedian and I wanted to exploit it, especially because we use  quite visual elements in our shows. I let (Jeff) play Rudolph the Reindeer which has always been a huge success. Initially, he had no objection, but I was told after a while that he considered himself a heavy bass player not a clown. I knew which way the wind was blowing since Jeff’s wife had  recently said something like that to me. His wife, of course, complained that he should not be misused by me and should leave the group.  Jeff told me in honesty that he was seriously considering starting his own band.  I then said ‘can’t we play that conflict in 200 Motels that he wanted to quit’?
Then at Pinewood Studios ( London), where we recorded the film, I thought we could show Jeff brooding in a hotel room and is torn by doubt. His good conscience tells him to stay in the group, but his bad conscience tells him that he will be made a fool by Zappa and that he has become the real heavy bass player he really is. When Jeff heard what this meant, he turned quite pale, because he took it as a dig, although he knew exactly what was intended. Shortly afterwards he quit the group anyway…precisely at a time when we could not afford to lose him, right in the middle of recordings. Eventually we decided to change Jeff’s portion of the film. Another part was created for Martin Liquort (Ringo Starr’s driver) that is reminiscent of Jeff.  In the scenes where ‘Jeff’ is  playing, it’s Martin in the background with a guitar in his hand. Martin can not really play.”
(Zappa’s words here have been translated to English from Jip Golsteijn interview, originally written in Dutch)

Athough Jeff doesn’t appear in the film there’s an ongoing line of “Jeff has quit the group” sprinkled throughout the dialogue as an inside joke. One long animated sequence called “Dental Hygiene Dilemna” finds a very high Jeff  struggling with his good conscience (who he believes to be Donovan on a wall mounted TV screen) and his bad conscience.  Among advice Jeff’s good conscience  gives him  is”don’t rip off the towels, Jeff“.  His bad conscience soon appears and says “Jeff, I’d like to have a word with you . . . about your soul. Why are you wasting your life, night after night playing this comedy music?” Jeff replies “I get so tense“.  “Of course you do my boy” says his bad conscience.  That’s why it would be best to leave his stern employ….You’ll make it big!”  “That’s right” says Jeff.  “And then I won’t be SMALL!” This is the real you!” Jeff’s bad conscience tells him  “Rip off a few more ashtrays. Get rid of some of that inner tension. Quit the comedy group! Get your own group together. Heavy! Like GRAND FUNK! or BLACK SABBATH “.”Like COVEN!” shouts Jeff.

Apparently it would take animation, in the absence of Simmons, to complete Frank’s vision.

Whatever the reason for Simmon’s leaving, by 1972 he was back in the fold of musicians Frank Zappa employed to record Waka/Jawaka • Hot Rats.  He also continued to tour with Zappa’s band, and took part in the 1974’s Roxy and Elsewhere.  The album includes a live performance at The Roxy Theater in Los Angeles (with some overdubs) recorded the 8th, 9th and 10th of December, 1973.  The Elsewhere” tracks (“Son of Orange County” and “More Trouble Every Day”) were recorded on May 8th, 1974, at the Edinboro State College in Edinboro, PA.  Sections of “Son of Orange County” were also recorded on May 11, 1974, at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago but does not contain overdubbed material.  Jeff Simmons plays rhythm guitar on all tracks and adds occasional vocals. After Roxy and Elsewhere, Jeff played live with some of  Zappa’s succeeding live performances. He’s also heard playing on some of the “official” live albums that were released after Frank’s death.  Recordings Zappa  probably wouldn’t have allowed to be released because of their poor audio quality.

Jeff Simmon’s recorded legacy with Zappa had included  him providing bass, guitar, and/or vocal for Chunga’s Revenge, Waka/Jawaka, Roxy & Elsewhere, You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 1, You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 6, and Playground Psychotics; He’s also featured on the Beat The Boots series of bootlegs that were later released by Rhino Records.  Disc’s he’s included on include Freaks & Motherfuckers, Unmitigated Audacity, Piquantique, Disconnected Synapses, Tengo Na Minchia Tanta, and At The Circus 

Although Jeff’s history after saying goodbye to Frank is a bit sketchy, by 1980 he found his way back to Seattle.  In the 80’s, Simmons was busy performing with such bands as The Backtrackers, The Shimmering Guitars, and Cocktails For Ladies and as his alter-ego l’il Bobby Sumpner and his band The Stump Blasters. He claimed in the 1990’s, he was writing a book (“I Joined The Mothers Of Invention… For The F.B.I.”) which is now in unpublished manuscript form.  Given Jeff’s sense of humor it’s hard to know if the manuscript actually exists.  It would be hard for a publisher or editor to pass up a book based on Jeff’s time with the Mothers…even the title is intriguing!

In 1982 Frank Zappa appeared as a guest DJ on BBC radio (UK).  He played some of his favorite songs including “I’m in The Music Business” by Jeff.

In 1988 Jeff was featured in the psychotronic  “grunge” inspired local film Rock and Roll Mobster Girls, directed by Rick Werner.  Aside from being barrels of fun the film also includes more Seattle rock luminaries as well as local fans.

Over the years Simmons had worked on material for a potential new CD. He says it is the culmination of 20 years work. Finally, in 2004 he was able to release “Blue Universe” which got rave reviews.

In the webzine Jet City Blues Mark Dalton wrote:

“Jeff Simmons, a man with his heart in the blues no matter what he’s doing, has a hilarious persona as a performer that draws from this same well. Simmons has written a whole cycle of great tunes about “Treatment,” for example – with a couple such tunes residing on this CD. Simmons’ ne’er-do-well musician character is always one step ahead of those pesky treatment program guys – whether he’s “Breakin’ Out of Treatment,”or kicking back and enjoying the life of a “Treatmon’ Center Playboy” while he’s there, as he does on this CD.

In November 2010, Jeff Simmons took part in a Q&A session at the “Frank Zappa At The Roundhouse” celebration of Frank Zappa’s music in London. Jeff played with the Dweezil Zappa Played Zappa band at the same festival with special guests Ian Underwood & Scott Thunes as well.  The celebration also included the UK premiere of “The Adventures of Greggery Peccary” an avant-symphonic work that is one of Zappa’s most epic and most popular classical pieces.  Besides The Adventures of Greggery Peccary, the London Sinfonietta played Zappa’s “Revised Music for a Low Budget Orchestra”.  The performance included a solo set by Jeff as a multi-instrumentalist and a long-time member of Zappa’s circle.

Archival footage of Jeff Simmons was included in Thorsten Schütte’s 2016 documentary Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words

IMDb credits Jeff Simmons for sound editor of several TV series during the 90s but I can’t confirm this is the same Jeff Simmons.  Any information would be welcome.  Also feel free to offer corrections or comments below.

-Dennis R. White. Sources; “Jeff Simmons” (Zappa Wikijawaka); Lemonde Kid “Its too late for them to get their due but Katz needs to get HIS!” (Love:  The Message Board for Love Fans, October 12, 2011); Mark Dalton, (“Blue Universe CD Review” Jet City Blues, November 19, 2005); “Jeff Simmons” (spotify.com); “Jeff Simmons” (World in Sound, worldinsound.com); “Jeff Simmons – ‘Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up” ( The Day After Sabbath, Jan 23, 2015) “Jeff Simmons” (Melody Maker, December 5th 1970);  Dean R. Hegerty,”A Guide To Straight Label Records & Compact Discs” (United Mutations, 2002); “Jeff Simmons” (lastfm.com) “Eagles Auditorium” (A Seattle Lexicon)callihan.com/seattle/pophist.htm); Jeff Simmons-Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up (allmusic.com); Alan J. Stein “Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair opens a three-day run near Sultan on August 30, 1968” (HistoryLink.org, Essay 5425. March 15, 2003); “Easy Chair” (Clearspot, www.clear-spot.nl/item/410251/easy_chair_easy_chair.htm); “FZ and Secret Recordings” zappateers.com, July 20, 2010); Jip Golsteijn “De industrie wilde het Fillmore album ontzettend geil aanprijzen”(OOR Magazine, Issue 15. 1971); “Frank Zappa at The Roundhouse”(The 405, September 17, 2010); James Bush, “Easy Chair” (Encyclopedia of Northwest Music. Sasquatch Books, 1999); “Naked Angels” (IMDb.com); 200 Motels. film “Dental Hygiene Dilemna” sequence (directors Frank Zappa & Tony Palmer, 1971); “The True Story of Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels” film. (written and directed by Frank Zappa, 1988); “Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words” film. ( directed by Thorsten Schütte, 2016) Scott Hill “From Straight to Bizarre Explores Frank Zappa’s Freak Indies” (Wired Magazine, January 19, 2012); “Jeff Simmons” (IMDb.com)

 


 

 


 

3 Swimmers

The band that would become 3 Swimmers rose out of the ashes of The Beakers-probably the first Olympia WA band that made the town the musical gravitational force it has become today.  Other contributors to the early Olympia scene-and later contributors to the overall NW music scene- included DJ/editor/musician John Foster and the alarmingly underappreciated producer Steve Fisk. Both were early champions of the local scene, and had been students at The Evergreen State College just outside Olympia. TESC, as it’s often known was at the time a free-wheeling liberal arts college that pushed students to express their social and artistic endeavors to the maximum.

As well as Fisk and Foster, the college produced well-known graduates like Bruce Pavitt (Sub Pop) Matt Groening (The Simpsons) artist/cartoonist Lynda Barry (Ernie Pook’s Comeek, the illustrated novel The Good Times are Killing Me as well as the iconic image “Poodle with a Mohawk“). Later alum include Bill Hagerty (aka Macklemore of Ryan Lewis and Macklemore) and the pro-Palestinian advocate and martyr Rachel Corrie. A cadre of musicians, filmmakers, early video artists, writers, activists, idealists and excessively talented and motivated individuals emerged from the college. Many of them collaborate off and on up til this day.

The Beakers had had some great underground success based on the strength of only one single, the Bill Reiflin produced Red Towel b/w Football Season Is In Full Swing. Bill was the drummer for the near-mythic Seattle band, The Blackouts, and later worked with Ministry, Revolting Cocks, KMFDM, REM, Minus 5 as well as a myriad of other projects. He would also become a couple with-and marry Frankie Sundsten during the late 1980s. As of August, 2017 Bill is a member of the reconstituted King Crimson.

The Beakers label, Mr. Brown Records was a project of the Lost Music Network headed by the aforementioned DJ, chronicaller of underground music and founder of the influential OP magazine, John Foster A couple of inclusions (Figure 21 and I’m Crawling (on The Floor) appeard on Foster’s 1980 “Life Elsewhere EP and in 1981 The Beakers song What’s Important was incluced Pavitt’s Sub Pop 5 cassette release. A rather dull (for The Beakers) rendition of Lipps Inc. Funky Town is out there in the internet ether, but ultimately it doesn’t represent the sound of the motif of the band. The Beakers were angular, sometimes chaotic and sparse, with vocals by Mark H. Smith, drummer George Romansic, bassist Francesca (Frankie) Sundsten and the wildly manic saxophone of Jim Anderson who also shared vocals. This formula would transfer nicely when 3 Swimmers was founded. 3 Swimmers retained much of the angularity (especially in Smith’s vocals) but the sound was a bit more refined and not as purposefully caustic. Whereas The Beakers were shining lights among the underground, 3 Swimmers’ sound was more accessible to mainstream audiences, and the ever important college DJ’s who could break a band within weeks.

After a year of mostly success, touring and opening for major acts The Beakers called it quits. Each of the members would pursue projects of their own, but remain involved in one another’s projects. Frankie pursued her main love-painting, and became a member of Children of Kellogg along with Annie Mulcahey, a longtime fixture on the Seattle scene and experimental provacateur, Sue Anne Harkey who would later find success with one of her highly experimental ongoing groups, Audio Leter. Jim Anderson became involved in several music projects including Little Bears From Bangkok (with occassional drumming by Romansic. He also devotes himself to social justice and political causes. In 1981 George Romansic and Mark H. Smith would go on to be founding members of 3 Swmmers, eventually coelescing into Romansic on drums, Smith on Vocals, guitars and synths, Fred Chalenor on bass. Chalenor had worked with avant-garde artists like Wayne Horvitz, and after 3 Swimmers he co-founded The Tone Dogs with Amy Denio, and later included Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron. The original 3 Swimmers line-up also included Colin McDonell of Cinema 90 and The Macs Band (alongside brother Angus). McConnell had been label-mates with The Beakers earlier at Mr. Brown Records. After 3 Swimmers recorded their first EP, The Worker Works To Live (1982, Engram Records) McDonnell departed the band to pursue solo projects and production. Shortly after McDonell bowing out MacKenzie Smith was brought on to play keyboards and take on some of the vocals. Taylor Nelson Little shared drumming duties with George Romansic, and Craig Florey, another Seattle stalwart joined as the groups saxophonist. Mark H. Smith recounts

“Taylor Nelson Little from Vancouver was just the best drummer we could find, we didn’t care that he lived in Canada. He and Fred really locked in together, which was critical because we were a groove-oriented band. We added Craig Florey on sax because he was irresistible”

A second EP-also on Engram-American Technology (also released by Engram Records in 1982) brought even more attention to the band and they ended up touring on their own and as opening acts for international headliners, most notably Gang of Four, with which they shared a socially conscious, perpendicular, jagged and jarring sound-and ideals…at least the sound and ideals found on Gang of Four’s first outing Entertainment. The sweeteners, back up singers and highly produced sound of later Gang of Four releases was not a direction 3 Swimmers would take.

We were young” says Smith. We wanted to do things differently. We wrote the songs together. Made business decisions together. It was very much a collective. And I think the pressure of trying to do what we were trying to do caused some strain”.

Still the band weathered it out until Fred Chalenor yearned for a different direction for the band. According to Smith;

“When Fred, who is a genius bass player, decided he wanted to put his energy into more experimental music, the band fell apart. From the very beginning he was the key component to the 3 Swimmers sound. He was irreplaceable”.

Somewhere out there another full EP of completed recording remains. Smith believes it’s the best thing 3 Swimers ever recorded. It remains unreleased and will probably never see the light of day. That’s unfortunate. Despite some criticism of the band being derivative (they weren’t) and Mark’s vocals as somewhere between “a hysterical David Byrne or an illiterate David”(they were) 3 Swimmers still stand out even among the stratospheric talent found among 80s Seattle bands. After the band’s demise MacKenzie Smith would go on to become Associate Director for Technology at MIT. She’s recently moved on to teach at UC Davis. George Romansic passed away on Sunday January 25, 2015, after a months-long battle with cancer.  He remained bright, generous and kind up ’til the end, and is still mourned by family, friends and just about anyone who ever met him.  He will continue to be remembered, honored and missed for many, many years. In a tribute to her friend, Patti Smith dedicated the song “Beautiful Boy” to George at a performance she gave in Seattle the night after George’s passing.

Mark H. Smith now is an assistant professor in the MFA program for Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts at UC Riverside, Palm Desert Graduate Center. He’s a regular contributor to journals and newspapers around the country and an accomplished novelist. His newest book, Blown, is due in the summer of 2018. He still remembers the importance 3 Swmmers made in his life and career. He says:

“For an indie band playing slightly annoying music from the northwest corner of the country, we came close to some kind of success. We supported some great bands like Gang of Four, Duran Duran, and Bow Wow Wow. We played Los Angeles with the Gang of Four, we had meetings at Warner Bros and IRS records. But listening to the songs now, I really wish someone had suggested I take singing lessons. I am a terrible singer”.

Despite their short run 3 Swimmers were not just “could have beens“. They played intricate, but enthusiastic music to live audiences. There recorded output almost perfectly captures their sound. And despite what Smith has to say about his voice, I for one am very happy he never took singing lessons.

 

-Dennis R. White. Sources; Mark H. Smith interview (August 20, 2017). Clark Humphrey (Loser. The Real Seattle Music Story. Updated and revised 2nd edition, MISCmedia, Seattle, 1999). Gillian G. Gaar: History and Revolution: Two Timely 80’s Acts Resurface. (The Stranger, November 4, 2004) markhaskellsmith.com retrieved August 25, 2017; Rocket writer, Champion of Local Music, George Romansic dies at 58 (Northwest Music Scene, January 27, 2015); Photo by Kristine Larsen. The Worker Works To Live design by Robert Newman.

 

Red Dress

Any live-music lover who’s lived in Seattle long enough has seen Red Dress. In fact, it’s likely their parents-or grandparents have seen the band play. Red Dress might be the longest-running show in the Northwest. Throughout their career they’ve attracted punk rockers, hippies, drunks, blues aficionados, art-rockers, probably a few metal heads and everyone in between. Despite their long-running history, the band are still one of the most creative and relevant bands working the clubs, bars and festivals in and around Seattle. They do what they do better than anyone else; they always have. Red Dress infuse absurdity with the pure joy of funk, jazz and R&B. The result is far from what one would expect from looking at it on paper. This isn’t a retread of the typical whitebread tribute to a style long out of date. This isn’t a goofy pastiche of kitsch and nostalgia. This is as real and original as things get. Producer Conrad Uno Producer Conrad Uno (Love Battery, Young Fresh Fellows, The Presidents of the United States of America, etc.) hit the nail on the head when he described Red Dress as “Captain Beefheart meets James Brown.”  Minkler himself confirms that when he heard Captain Beefheart’s seminal Trout Mask Replica everything changed

Red Dress has always been a band of solid, professional musicians. Orignally formed with Minkler’s high school friend Rich Riggins in 1976. The duo explored jazz, contemporary classical music, and of course the blossoming punk rock scene.  Eventually Riggins left the band-taking with him the poet/singer/performance artist Cynthia Genser.  Minkler would man the more and more funky and soulful Red Dress, while Riggins and Genser went on to found Chinas Comidas, a band that also found an important place within the city’s alternative music  community.  In fact, it wasn’t unusual to find Red Dress and Chinas Comidas on the same bills in the late 1970s and early 80s.  The stylistic, musical and lyrical content of those on the punk/alternative scene meant little in those days.  Seattle had a very tight-knit community that was too interested in innovation to face off in differing camps.

Over the years more than a few have wandered in and out of the band. But the songwriting has been consistently impeccable and the players pitch-perfect. But there’s no getting around it. This is a band dominated by the talent and presence of vocalist Gary Minkler, and the rest of the band are smart enough to know it. None of them are expendable. Any of them could play in a myriad of talented and successful bands, but there’s real camaraderie at work here.

Minkler is a force to be reckoned with. A huge voice full of character and surprise come out of this guy that producer Conrad Uno referred to as “the wild little red-faced singer’. Uno described Minkler perfectly in very few words, but listeners know there should be equal emphasis on the word ‘wild’ as ‘singer’. Minkler wanders, dances and shuffles his way across the stage and directly into the audiences’ hearts. He has an almost unheard of combination of sheer talent onstage and kind humility offstage. His performance is full of self-deprecation and supreme self-assurance. And above all else he knows how toentertain. Red Dress have never exactly been underappreciated…at least by anyone whose seen them perform.  But the focus on the immensely white, suburban and angsty sound popularized in 1990s Seattle locked the band out of major label attention at their height. It’s not certain by watching the band live that they really care about record deals and stardom.  They seem happiest when they are in front of a live audience and entertaining anyone watching…or dancing.  By the time a career-spanning album was released in 1994 Red Dress was not quite together as a band and not quite broken up. Fortunately, in the past few years the band has reconstituted and re-committed itself to bringing audiences their “strange and wonderful musical vantage point” (that’s Conrad Uno again). Nowadays Red Dress gigs are frequent in Seattle, but they’ve moved offstage and into people’s living rooms where they do acoustic sets.  The audience members may be limited but it proves how enjoyable it is to see live music from your recliner.  Red Dress also has the distinction of recording the final song at Conrad Uno’s Egg Studios.  The song will be released in 2017

-Dennis R. White. Sources: Stephen Tow, “The Strangest Tribe: How a Group of Seattle Rock Bands Invented Grunge” (Sasquatch Books, 2011), “Pacific Northwest Bands” June 2013, Gary Minkler.  Artwork by Art Chantry.
 

The Spectators

The Spectators played fewer than 20 gigs. They performed only 15 songs live. But their reputation as one of the most original and accomplished bands of the early Seattle alternative scene continues to grow into the 21st century. Their first gig was December 8th 1980, the same day John Lennon was gunned down in New York City. It was just like most other nights at Seattle’s legendary Gorilla Room on Second Avenue; a handful of people showed up, and more free beer was drunk up by the bar staff and their under-aged buddies than was ever sold. But that night one of the finest Seattle bands of the era played to the nearly empty club. Over the next few months the band would be regulars at the Gorilla Room and WREX and end up on the stage of Seattle’s Showbox Theater at least twice, as co-headliners, and as openers for The Stranglers. Later, Bob Mould, having played three dates with The Spectators while on the first national tour by Hüsker Dü , called them “the greatest unsigned band in America“. Less than a yearlater The Spectators were gone.

The Spectators combination of surf, metal, jazz and punk predates most alt bands with similar influences by a full decade. They were a power-trio, but one that dealt their deadly blows with intricate and subtle precision rather than blind swings. This was a band that had brains as well as brawn. By using a limited amount ofeffects, guitarist Byron Duff and bass player Stanford “Stan” Filarca created a sound so tightly woven that it was hard totell who was playing lead, where the rhythm was coming from and how they could possibly sound so big and layered at the same time. Add to the mix the powerful, inventive and perfect tempo of drummer Jeff Farrand and it’s hard to think of any finer trio in rock, signed or unsigned, even today.

During their short life The Spectators recorded very little of their output in the studio-about six studio tracks still exist. Unfortunately most of it has been lost or the tapes have degraded so badly they’re practically unlistenable.  Fortunately there still are some fairly high quality mono recording caught on a cassette player using a condenser mike! Some of these cassettes and board mixes have been discovered, including this recording of Call It Chaos. One-time Seattle promoter and indie label owner Maire Masco found an almost-perfect copy of the song (and four others) hidden away in an attic. Another notable tape that has surfaces is a live-in-studio session they did with producer/engineer Ed Shepard at his Seattle space The Funhole. Two of those songs were released on Masco’s 1982 cassette-only compilation release PRAVDA Volume I. The cassette is incredibly rare, and those that remain are worn-out, but the brilliance of The Spectators still shines through. They show the deft ability to meld bass, rhythm and lead guitar sections into their music so effectively that it can confound the listener into thinking there are far more instrument than a simple trio at work.  Oddly enough, The Spectators biggest influence wasn’t punk…it was the Prog Rock of the 1970s and early 80s.  It’s hard to envision that in their music.

After The Spectators disbanded, guitarist Byron Duff faded from the Seattle scene, much to it loss. Drummer Jeff Farrand left the NW for San Francisco. Bassist Stan Filarca managed to fill duties-although a bit funkier-for another of Seattle’s best bands to emerge in the 1980s The Beat Pagodas. He used the same creative arsenal as he did in The Spectators allowing for them to revel in their “no guitar“ ethos. Byron Duff re-emerged briefly in the late 1980s with his band Dive, Moth and more recently as guitarist for the band Idiot Culture, who finally released a brilliant album in 2012.

Duff was no slacker in the lyrics department either. That first night the band played at Seattle’s notorious Gorilla Room an old beat-up big-screen TV projected flickering images behind them. As someone behind the bar changed channels back and forth they stopped on an old sci-fi flick. Giant locusts were attacking a horrified city. At that moment, by coincidence, the band lit into one of their signature tunes, Idiot Culture – a title Duff would later take as a band name. As the creatures wrecked havoc and terrified the population Byron sang:

There is

Something of great size

Out of control in the head

Of an insect

Of an INSECT!

“Great size and out of control”…it’s a perfect metaphor for The Spectators

Call it Chaos is one of the few remaining songs from sessions produced by Jack Weaver at Seattle’s Triangle Studio.  A few years later the studio was re-named “Reciprocal Recording” and the room became the home of seminal grunge recordings engineered and produced by Jack Endino. The song begins in a slightly more pop style than typical of The Spectators, but it was soon apparent the song wasn’t going for the radio-friendly new wave sound popular at the time. It implodes into a pile of chaotic, but intentional sonic bricks…each one falling on another in an almost precise way. It’s an example of what The Spectators were best at; simplicity appearing as much more than the sum of it’s parts.

-Dennis R. White. Sources: Byron Duff, Stanford Filarca

 

WREX

WREX was established in Belltown, Seattle by Michael Clay, Wes Bradley, and Aaron McKiernan in the early Fall of 1979.  The venue, at 2018 First Avenue, was formerly a leather gay bar called Johnny’s Handlebar, located on the ground floor of a former brothel. Johnny’s Handlebar, at the time it closed was said to be the oldest, continuously open gay bar on the West Coast.  For the first few months of it’s life WREX remained a typical 70s/80s gay bar, catering to local gay men.  The unique décor inside WREX included old car seats in the back, old airplane seats in the side area, and Seattle’s first music video system curated by Ted Ladd.  A DJ spun the popular music found in thousands of gay discos around the nation (and in Seattle) which also included a handful of the poppier “new wave” hits that most gay bars also included among their playlists. As the novelty of the new gay bar wore off the gay clientele retreated to many of their previous haunts around town.  The Brass Door, Neighbors, The Park Avenue, and a plethora of other LGBT venues that  were popping up with regularity.  WREX was still viable as a business, but they needed something more to bring in customers.  One of the targets WREX had not yet tapped into was the growing popularity of punk in the LGBT community  Many who came of age during the punk era rejected the “clone” culture that pervaded the  gay scene at the time.  Not only that, alot of younger straight adults interested in punk barely regarded a difference between themselves and their queer friends. They all gravitated  toward punk as an alternative, so they were all one tribe. It’s not surprising that gays bars were regularly part of the punk scene of the late 70’s and early 80’s.  They were always ready to allow punk rock in their midst because it represented the same kind of outsidership, and it’s no wonder so many gay youth were willing to embrace more outré artists that had emerged from gay disco-artists like Sylvester and the iconic Grace Jones.

Seattle’s punk and gay communities have often mingled together, and the subcultural mise-en-scène at WREX was no exception to that general rule. Occasionally, former Johnny’s Handlebar clientele would drop in after WREX’s opening, not yet knowing about the change in management and regular crowd. Since both gays and punks were then equally shunned by mainstream Seattleites, there was no true clash between the two subcultures.

Armed with that knowledge two gay young men who were familiar with the cross-pollination between punk and gay culture approached Aaron McKiernan, the principle investor in WREX with a proposal.  One night a week WREX would host dances showcasing the latest independent, alternative and punk rock. The two DJs there were Charles “Upchuck” Gerra, then a prominent figure within Seattle’s punk scene, and Dennis R. White who would later become a graphic designer. promoter. manager and part of the staff of The Rocket.  Although Gerra spun a few records each night, his real strength was hosting, mingling with and entertaining the crowd and promoting the fact that WREX had now become a haven for young gay and lesbians searching for their own space.  And with them came their allies and friends in the punk community.  All-ages clubs and all-ages shows had come and gone in Seattle, but no single club had devoted itself to punk and alternative dance music.  There was a ready audience waiting, so, on a rainy night in December 1979 just after 8PM the needle dropped onto “Orphans” by Teenage Jesus and The Jerks.  A new chapter in Seattle music had begun.

At first the crowds were sparse, but they grew throughout 1980 and eventually the club was just as much a “gay” venue as a “punk” venue that welcomed anyone with a love for the alternative scene.  Some time during this period, Mike Vraney (of Time Travellers and Modern Productions) began to book live music at the club.  His sights were high and he intended to showcase the best of popular local alternative bands with rising stars on the indie scene both in the US and Europe.  The first live band to play WREX was The Fastbacks (with a young Duff McKagen on drums).  Their set was meant to work out any kinks in presenting live music, and in anticipation of the first official show at WREX.  The next night The Blackouts and The Beakers opened for Delta 5 from Leeds, England.  Delta 5’s politically infused feminist politics had made them stand-outs in the early post-punk years.

From then on bands played at WREX three nights a week, originally booked by Vraney.  During his very successful run of bookings Vraney brought national and international acts to the club, as well as booking the cream of the crop of Seattle alternative bands.  The job was eventually turned over to WREX manager/publicist Wes Bradley.  Bradley had extensive ties within the established music business, so it wasn’t hard for him to get his foot in the door of the labels promoting alternative acts that were finally seeing some success in the wider music business.   Bookings were also handed over to independent agents as well as bookings by members of WREX’s own staff.  At the same time Ted Ladd, a video artist and curator was in the process of making headway with both video wallpaper and showing music videos between DJ’s and live music sets.

The shows filled it’s tiny space for most of the time WREX existed. Along with almost every local band then playing original music (starting with the Enemy), touring acts who played at WREX included Grace Jones, Joan Jett, X, The Fleshtones, Romeo Void, Wall of Voodoo, Los Microwaves, Hüsker Dü and others who were then becoming staples of alternative and college radio.  The frequency of shows — and their apparent local popularity — inspired other bars around Seattle to start booking original-music bands, thus giving a crucial boost to Seattle’s punk scene at a crucial time in its development. Additionally, certain bars near WREX in Belltown — such as the Frontier Room and the Rendezvous — soon became local punk hangouts. One gay bar that had always been punk-friendly was Tugs, Belltown.  The proximity of Tugs and WREX exponentially help create what would be one of the city’s best strips to enjoy music on, First Avenue.  A little further south down road lay The Showbox, and during the heyday of it’s operation was a showcase for everyone from Captain Beefheart to John Cale to The Specials to James Brown.  Smaller all-ages venues like Danceland and one-off store front gigs and artists’ studios became common.

By the height of WREX’s popularity Upchuck had continued pursuing his career as a rock performer, Dennis White was spinning records  one night a week, and involved in The Rocket, his own musical side projects, churning out hundreds of rock posters and producing a few band’s recordings on his Pravda label.  But the bulk of the music was presented by DJ’s Michael Clay and Ross Bostwick.  Bostwick would become the one single DJ that was the powerhouse behind the dance music at WREX.  He also made  the transition to the most popular DJ when the space became The Vogue, a few years later. His excellent taste in what was new, progressive, alternative or downright spooky kept the audience intrigued.  Meanwhile Ted Ladd continued to curate punk and new wave videos-a job he continued after the club became The Vogue.

Along with the fertile subcultural ferment that thrived at WREX, there was also an inevitable element of sleaze. At the end of many nights there, spilled beer lingered an inch or two thick on the concrete floor, and young couples often had sex openly on the back staircase during shows. Such was the standard punk nightlife during that time, in Seattle and elsewhere. The nature of its clientele wasn’t WREX’s most important problem: it also had constant problems with cash flow. Dennis White once lamented,

WREX was always out of cash. Toward the end I was buying the keg off the truck in the afternoon out of my own pocket, hoping they’d sell enough that night to pay me back.

Money-or lack of it-is the most common downfall of great nightclubs, so WREX officially closed on March 18, 1982. One year later, the same venue would reopen as The Vogue (in honor of the original hotel’s name-something lost on many of WREX’s former clientele). While focusing on recorded dance music played by DJs, also The Vogue hosted live music acts on off nights — including Nirvana’s first Seattle gig before a full audience on April 24, 1988.  Perhaps it was Nirvana’s “first Seattle gig before a live audience” Most rock historians consider this show the band’s first Seattle gig, but Bruce Pavitt, founder of Sub Pop Reocrds insisted that a Nirvana showcase he attended on April 10, 1988, at the Central Saloon was the band’s very first in Seattle.  He claims “No one else remembers it because it was just me, the doorman and about three other people.”

Some people see The Vogue as one of the first venues to host bands that would one day be known as “grunge”…but like the transition from the 80s to 90s Seattle music scene, it’s hard to escape that WREX had been important to that which would emerge around The Vogue and other clubs like Gorilla Gardens, The OK Hotel and The Metropolis.  Anyone old enough or with a good fake ID who would go onto become part of the late 80s/early 90s movement had stepped inside the doors of WREX at least once. “We all stand on the shoulders of giants” as has been pointed out so many times.

 

–Jeff Stevens & Dennis R. White Sources: Clark Humphrey, “Loser: The Real Seattle Music Story” (Feral House, 1995; MiscMedia, 1999, 2016); Clark Humphrey, “Seattle’s Belltown” (Arcadia Publishing, 2007); Peter Blecha, “Sonic Boom: The History of Northwest Rock, from ‘Louie Louie’ to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’” (Backbeat Books, 2009); Stephen Tow, “The Strangest Tribe: How a Group of Seattle Rock Bands Invented Grunge” (Sasquatch Books, 2011),
 

Gary Heffern

Gary Heffern began his career the late 70’s singing with San Diego punk band The Penetrators alongside Country Dick Montana. Heffern’s done poetry readings with everyone from John Doe, to Nina Hagen, The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Henry Rollins. His first two solo albums ‘Bald Tires in the Rain’ and ‘Painful Days’ have featured some of the incredible cadre of his admirers. John Doe, Mojo Nixon, Country Dick Montana, The Walkabouts, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam and Mark Arm of Mudhoney.

Heffern spent a good part of his career as part of the Seattle music scene, but his muse has taken him to Finland, living near the Arctic Circle where an incredible video of his song ‘La La Land’ was shot in 2008. It’s an epic, sad, beautiful, and reflective observation of the fading away of a parent…It’s touching without ever slipping into the sentimentality one would expect.

His album “Consolation” featured a who’s who of American roots music; Steve Berlin of Los Lobos, Alejandro Escovedo, Peter Case, Mark Lanegan, Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows/R.E.M.) Chris and Carla of The Walkabouts, Jim Roth from ‘Built to Spill‘, and on and on. The depth and breadth of Heffern’s friends and admirers who join him on Consolation and currently as “Gary Heffern And The Beautiful People” and is a continuing testament to his position as an important songwriter whose work rises to the top of the heap.

Seattle rock critic and well-known author Charles R. Cross writes:”In Heffern’s own songs there is a constant struggle between darkness and light, between failed dreams and reckless prayer, between a world where all hope is lost and one where a consoling friend offers a sliver of deliverance. Even on a song as haunting as “(I Am Your) Destroyer” from the album “Consulation” sounds like Iggy Pop could have written it. There is still a core of sweetness among the ruins. “That’s the Beauty (Of the Little Things in Life)” truly rings with a ghost: It was written in Seattle’s Comet Tavern on the very night that Gits’ singer Mia Zapata went missing (and later turned up murdered). Not only a remarkable timepiece, “That’s the Beauty” demonstrates Heffern’s skill at creating a story arc that celebrates the fragility of life at the same time it bemoans it. It’s the kind of re-framing that is uniquely Gary Heffern”.
Aside from his songwriting, albums. online music and live performances, Gary has also been the subject of Finnish filmmaker Erkki Määttänen’s “Sweet Kisses From Mommy” It recounts Gary’s birth in Finland as Veli-Matti Tervaneimi through his adoption, childhood and renaming and growing up in 1950s and 60s San Diego.

Dennis R. White: Sources, Gary Heffern, Charles R. Cross, liner notes for the album Consolation (2008).  Video Janne Huotari / Wolf Productions.