Northwest Music History: NW Categories

BONNIE GUITAR

On March 25, 1923 Bonnie Buckingham was born in Seattle WA.  As a youn child she was raised in Redondo Beach,  a small community about 30 miles south of Seattle.  Her family were farmers who were able to weather the depression, unlike many of those in the Midwest who’s crops had been decimated by dustbowl storms and drought.  It was a bit later that the Buckingham family moved a short distance to Auburn WA and continued farming.  Growing up Bonnie had a fascination with the family guitar, and took every chance she could to take it from it’s hiding place to practice when her parents were away.  Her mother had told her that “guitars were for boys”.  But Bonnie persisted learning what she could. She recalls regularly climbing trees and pretending they were broadcast towers and she was sending out signals of her miusic  to the entire world.

Apparently her parent’s disapproval of girl’s playing guitars did not last long. By the age of 13 she had inherited her two older brothers’ flat top guitar and was appearing at talent shows throughout the Puget Sound region while gaining wider reception. During this period she took on her first stage name-Bonnie Lane.  She also began tutoring by local musicians.  At the age 16 she was allowed to tour the NW with a country revue and for the next several years she developed her skill at the guitar as well as finding her voice.

Eventually she began travelling to Seattle to be tutored by some of the best players in the city, including Paul Tutmarc. Not only did Bonnie receive lessons, she began to make recordings with Tutmarc in his primitive studio on Pine Street.  Tutmarc was 27 years older than Bonnie, but their work had brought them close together.  In 1943 Tutmarc divorced his first wife and married Bonnie the following year.  They juggled their married and professional lives, along with caring for their daughter Paula (born in 1950) for the next few years, doing Seattle gigs as a duo and finally joining a well-known NW country outfit called the K-6 Wranglers as with a local country outfit called but the couple divorced in 1955, before Bonnie’s wider success.

Around this time Bonnie took on the name she would always be known as- Bonnie Guitar. Bonnie recalls that one day a songwriter approached her with a few songs he wanted her to do demo’s of in order to shop them to labels in southern California. The songs themselves never went anywhere, but an independent producer, Fabor Robison heard Bonnie’s voice and her by now exceptional playing.  He immediately called her and convinced her to come to LA and work with his team.  Robison was well-connected in the growing country music scene.  He’d been involved in the early careers of Jim Reeves, Johnny Horton, the Browns, Mitchell Torok, Floyd Cramer along with Johnny and Dorsey Burnette.  His original label, Abbott Records had been a success starting in 1951 Robison established Abbott Records with the financial backing of pharmacist Sid Abbott and the major goal was to record Johnny Horton who Robison had discovered in Texas.  In fact all ten of Abbott Records first releases featured Johnny Horton. However, distribution problems led Robison to sell Horton’s contract to Mercury in mid-1952.  Even so, Fabor Robison’s Abbott and Fabor labels would find a good deal of success with later artists.

By early 1957 Robison had been trying to produce a new composition written by another of his studio players, Ned Miller. Despite take after take with Dorsey Burnette he was dissatisfied with the outcome. In his book Seattle Before Rock: A City and It’s Music author Kurt Armbruster recounts Bonnies tale:

I had been working in Seattle, and a woman asked me to demo seven or eight songs she’d written. I recorded them, and she sent the disc to Fabor Robison, a producer in L.A.  Fabor called ‘How soon can you get down here?’ I flew down and he hired me as a staff musician in his studio in Malibu Canyon. I played on and helped produce every hit record he had.  One day Fabor said ‘I have a new song that I’m recording with Dorsey Burnette (brother of Johnny Burnette).  I want you to hear it’.  Dorsey had had a big hit and was on his way up the charts.  Well, Fabor played me this song, Dark Moon and I was knocked out.  I had to have it!  I’ll forego all my royalties to record this song.  It’s going to be a smash!  So I recorded it and sure enough it hit big.  But what I didn’t know was that Fabor had already recorded the song with Dorsey and didn’t like the result.  He didn’t bother telling me that”.

Bonnie, was so taken by the song she convinced Fabor to allow her to record it, and hopefully release it as a single.  In exchange she told Fabor she was willing to forego all of the royalties that would be due her just to have a chance at the opportunity.  This was not a smart business deal, but it taught Bonnie lessons she would later be grateful for, and most of all it provided Bonnie with her first huge hit in 1957.  The song would become her signature song, and in it’s  has been covered by everyone form Elvis Presely to Chet Atkins & Hank Snow to Chris Issacs and beyond.
Bonnie had done what she calls “hundred of takes” on the song, accompanied by a backing band and larger production than the final version.  It is this spare, haunting, ethereal and shimmering.  Bonnie told the story in a later interview

Fabor recorded me on Dark Moon with as many as twelve musicians; we must have done it a hundred times, with different combinations, and still he wasn’t satisfied. Then one night Fabor and Ned Miller and I went into the studio to record it as a quartet.  I asked Ned to play just a straight rhythm on acoustic guitar, I played lead, and we had a bass.  That simple version was the one we ended up releasing’.

At the time Bonnie recorded “Dark Moon” Fabor was in search of a larger label to sell his company to, and found a taker in Dot Records who had the muscle and distribution to make Dark Moon a crossover hit on billboard magazne’s charts reaching # 14 on the country charts, and an amazing #6 on the popular chart.

At the height to Bonnie’s position in the charts another Dot artist

, Gale Storm (of My Little Margie fame) also recorded a version of Dark Moon. Storm’s version also raced up the charts and caused some confusion among the public.  But there’s no doubt that Bonnie’s rendition was far superior.  It was haunting and Bonnie’s crystal voice wasn’t muddied by the highly arranged and over-produced Gale Storm version.  Although this would be the last hit record for Gale her producer Randy Wood chose to present a version that was akin to what Pat Boone had done with early rock and roll hits.

Even though Gale Storms’ version charted slightly higher than Bonnie’s, at #4 in the charts, it is Bonnie Guitar’s version that is clealy the definitive recording.  Unfortunately Bonnie’s follow-up single Mr. Fire Eyes did well on the country charts but failed to make much of a dent on the pop charts.  The single only reached the #71 spot on Billboard’s pop chart.  Subsequently she was dropped from Dot Records.  In the future Bonnie Guitar would continue to record albums, release singles, play as a session musician and produce even though she chose to move back to the Seattle area.  She had a clear and dedicated base that weren’t interested in letting her go, despite her treatment by Dot Records.  In fact, Bonnie would later be picked up by several major labels into the 1980. But for the time being Bonnie turned her eye to found her own record label and produce other’s records.  In 1958 she paired up with former Seattle refrigerator salesman Bob Reisdorff to form Dolphin Records.  Soon after the labels founding Bonnie and Bob discovered there was already a label and record store using the Dolphin name.  The label (and store) was owned by John Dolphin a prominent black producer who had had great success in what were then called “race records”- R&B. Jazz and early Rock and Roll primarily aimed at black fans and among white teens and DJs that were more progressive.  Bonnie and Bob changed the name of their label to Dolton Records but before they made the change Bonnie came across a vocal group from Olympia WA   The group consisted of Gary Troxel, Gretchen Christopher, and Barbara Ellis .With Bonnie as producer and Reisdorff mainly in charge of finances the label had a hit straight out of the box with three vocalists from who went by the name The Fleetwoods . Come Softly With Me was a song the trio had written and it became an international sensation that was soon covered-and remains covered-by a multitude of American and British artists.  The attention of the first Dolphin/Dolton single led to a distribution deal with Liberty Records which lasted until Dolton merged with Liberty Records in 1966.  The Fleetwoods second hit (their third outing) with the newly-christened Dolton label was Mr. Blue. It quickly topped Billboard’s pop charts.  Later artists that found success with Dolton were Vic Dana who was a solo artist that had also taken on vocals for live gigs when Gary Troxell was drafted into the military. Other groups that would get their first taste of success at Dolton were Seattle’s The Frantics, and a little combo from Tacoma WA named The Ventures. The Ventures were dubbed “The Band that Launched a Thousand Bands” and ended up releasing 12 projects with Dolton.  Today The Ventures are considered seminal founders of what is considered modern Rock&Roll.

Bonnie herself released a few projects of her own on Dolton, the most intriguing being a song called Candy Apple Red, a self-penned song that she used to show off the virtues of her favorite car that she’d bought in 1956; a candy apple red Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner hardtop convertible.  It was a first production model with a retractable top. Bonnie bought it in 1956 and had it personalized with red guitars stitched into its white leather seats and musical notes that were fashioned into its hubcaps by hotrod hotshot Dee Wescott.  She still owns it.

Although Bonnie had been a co-founder of Dolton Records, there had been friction between herself and co-owner Bob Reisdorff, so in 1960 she left Dolton with another ex-employee, Jerry Denon to found Seattle-based Jerden Records.  Unfortunately Jerden only lasted for about a year, and both Bonnie and Dennon returned to Los Angeles.  Bonnie became a recording artist for Columbia and RCA records, and later returned to Dot Records, who had unceremoniously fired her only a few years before.  Eventually Bonnie ended up being a vice-president at Dot.

Dennon worked in promotions until he was drafted into the army.  Upon leaving the army Dennon revived the Jerden label as sole owner and re-released the entire Jerden catalogue-which featured several of Bonnie’s own recordings and others she had produced.  This second iteration of Jerden Records was far more successful than the first.  In 1963 Jerden released the single Louie Louie by The Kingsmen– a song which has become a high water mark in rock and roll history…and for better or worse on January 24th,  1986 Louie Louie was named the official song  of Washington State.

Bonnie churned out recording after recording during the 1960s and although most were only minor pop hits she continued to have a strong country music fan base and gained more and more respect from both the pop and the country music establishment.  By 1968 she had become one of the all-time biggest country solo artists in history. Later Bonnie released the successful country music hit I’m Living in Two Worlds which became Guitar’s first Top 10 Country hit and she released an even bigger country hit in 1967 with A Woman in Love which peaked at #4 on the Billboard charts. That same year, Bonnie won the Academy of Country Music’s “Top Female Vocalist” award. In 1968, she recorded another Top 10 Country hit I Believe in Love.  And finally she teamed up with Buddy Killen in 1969 to put out A Truer Love You’ll Never Find (Than Mine).  By that time Bonnie’s recording career had pretty much run it’s course, though she continued producing and became more and more involved with the business side of music, working as a talent scout, producer and an A&R representative…all positions she had previously involved herself in and was known for being very sharp at.

In 1969 Bonnie married Mario DiPiano and moved back to Washington State-Orting WA to be precise.  She and her husband spent their time raising quarter horses, but the pull of Hollywood and Nashville was too great.  She continued recording throughout the 1970s.  After DiPiano died in 1983 Bonnie went into seclusion.  A couple of years after Di Piano’s death -the man she called the love of my life-Bonnie received an invitation to perform one show at the Businessmen’s Club of the Notaras Lodge in the desert town of Soap Lake WA.  That single performance led to a residency that lasted until 1996!  Today Bonnie lives in Soap Lake and still tries to do a gig here and there.  She is somewhat active on face book and is happy to share memories and update daily occurances as health permits.

It’s hard to say if Bonnie Guitar was the first female session musician, but she’s the earliest we know of.  She’s certainly the first female artist to crossover from the Country charts to the Pop charts, and it’s near-certain that she was the first woman allowed to take on the task of music studio production.  Again, we simply don’t know of any woman that had previously done that job.  The world owes a great debt of gratitude to Bonnie Guitar, even though her accomplishments may seem over-shadowed today.  But she is surely one of the all-time greats in American recorded music and in the business of creating hits.

On March 23rd 2917 Bonnie Guitar turned 94 years old.  Her latest face book post (July 17, 2017) says:

It has been a little while but I have been working on getting stronger and ready to play some music for you all ! With kindest regards.
BG

-Dennis R. White. Sources:  The Herstory of Women in Rock N’ Roll, Vol 1. By Tia (Vashtia.com, March 15, 2017; Guitar, Bonnie (b. 1923) The Northwest’s Trail-Blazing Pop Pioneer, by Peter Blecha, (Posted 6/19/2008 HistoryLink.org Essay 8656); Womans Work-Bonnie Guitar, by Linda Ray, (No Depression, December 31, 2006); At Age 93, Northwest Music Legend ‘Bonnie Guitar’ Still Gigs Every Weekend by Gabriel Spitzer (KXPX.org, Nov 26, 2011);  Before Seattle Rocked: A City and Its Music, by Kurt E Armbruster (University of Washington Press 2011)

BALLIN’ JACK

Ballin’ Jack was formed in Seattle by former childhood friends Luther Rabb and Ronnie Hammon. Both of them had gone to school with and been friends with Jimi Hendrix at the city’s Garfield High School.  In the early 60s Luther Rabb played around the NW with several moderately successful outfits on the teen and R&B circuits.   He had even played saxophonist alongside Jimi Hendrix’s in The Velvetones, the first band Hendrix had been involved in.  Ronnie Hammon was a drummer who’d also backed a few Seattle bands-none of them particularly notable.  In 1967 Rabb and Hammon decided to form their own band.  Rabb, a multi-accomplished musician would leave the saxophone behind and switch to bass guitar.  Hammon continued drumming, thus forming a strong rhythm section.  Almost immeadiately they added Jim Coile on flute and Tim McFarland on trombone. A bit later Jim Walters would come onboard as their saxophonist and Glen Thomas providing the lead guitar.  The name Ballin’ Jack has obscure origins.  It could be based on “Ballin’ the Jack” a 1913 song written by Jim Burris and  Chris Smith.  It could refer to the and the ensuing dance that became popularized by the song.  The expression “Ballin’ the Jack” also has ties to railroad workers who used the expression “to go full speed”.  But the band’s use of the shortened expression probably was chosen for one of two other reasons.  Sometimes the term “ballin’ the jack” implied having a great time.  There’s certainly enough examples of the expression being used in film, on Broadway and popular music….but sometime the meaning was (literally) deep, full-on sex.  Blues great Big Bill Broonzy sang in “Feel So Good”

My baby’s coming home
I hope that she won’t fail because I feel so good, I feel so good.
You know I feel so good, feel like balling the jack

As Bessie Smith sang in “Baby Doll” in 1926,

He can be ugly, he can be black
So long as he can eagle rock and ball the jack

There’s several ways to interpret the term, but “ballin the jack” was an expression often used in jazz and blues circles to mean deep, full and fast sex.  It may be this veiled, slang reference is the meaning the band intended their name to represent.

Ballin’ Jack found themselves moving to Los Angeles, living in a large house cum-home studio near the Sunset Strip.  Although all of the members had put plenty of time paying dues, their signing to Columbia Records and tour success came almost immediately, partly due to the encouragement of their old friend Jimi Hendrix.  One key to their success is that Ballin’ Jack had been formed not only as a soulful funk unit, but also as one of the “horn bands” that were popular on the fringe of pop music in the late 60s and early 70s.  They found themselves treading the waters of both James Brown and Sylvester Stone along with bands like WAR, Pacific Gas and Electric, Cold Blood, Tower of Power and other rock bands featuring horns that were arising from on the West Coast.  Obviously the most successful of these bands was the more commercial Chicago Transit Authority-later shortened to Chicago-from the Windy City

Many of these bands had begun creating a new hybrid of soul, jazz, funk with strong horn sections. They also followed the current (at the time) move to integrate multi-ethinic players into their line-up. Ballin’ Jack could be counted among this new genre, and their rise had been quick, but Ballin’ Jack they only found modest success outside the Northwest and Bay Area of being an incredibly tight and incredibly well-loved live act.  They played the college circuit, auditoriums  like the Fillmore West and the Fillmore East and a myriad of rock festivals.  In 1970 Billboard Magazine proclaimed

“Ballin Jack’s’ reputation was that live their shows were so good that fans were known to have left afterwards, and that some headliners had actually refused to have them again as an opening act”.

Unfortunatly none of this translated into the kind of album sales and radio play they deserved. The band only lasted five years, but not before becoming a reliable touring draw and Jimi Hendrix insisting they be included as openers for several of his 1970 Cry of Love tour. After .Hendrix’s death that year they would continue to share bills with the likes of B.B. King, Spirit, Elton John, Sly and The Family Stone, The Kinks, and more of the most famous artists of their day.  They even found themselves playing two of America’s most venerated small clubs, The Bottom Line in New York City, and The Troubador in Los Angeles.  The band also played two separate sold-out dates in their hometown, at Seattle’s Paramount Theater in 1973 and 1974 respectively.  In 1973 Ballin’ Jack were featured on Burt Sugarman’s prestigious late-night show The Midnight Special.  One thing that distinguished the show was that bands played live in the TV studio.  No lip-synching.  No backing tracks.  Of course, Ballin’ Jack tore the place up.

In 1974 Ballin’ Jack called it quits due to poor album and single sales, and the band’s running it’s natural course. Co-founder Luther Rabb went on to tour as vocalist with Santana in 1976.  He then began working with Lola Falana and in 1977 released his own solo album Street Angel. Throughout the early to mid 1980’s Rabb was the bass player for

In 1986 Rabb was involved in a serious automobile accident that left him with nerve damage-consequently ending his career as a bassist.  At that point Rabb moved on to management and production until, sadly, he was left paralyzed by a stroke in 2002.  Eventually Rabb died in 2006, but he’s still recognized for his incredible talents in Ballin’ Jack,  Santana, and WAR.  He had kept close contacts with friends and musicians in the Seattle area, where his passing also had a great effect.

Although Ballin’ Jack never found the audience they should have in the 70s it’s ironic that since the band’s demise their music has been used in TV and Radio ads for the ESPN X Games and Found A Child was re-recorded in 2005, by Kon & Amir” and released as 12″ vinyl for sale to hip-hoppin’ live DJ’s.    The Beastie Boys also sampled Ballin’ Jack’s  “Never Let ‘Em Say” on their album Paul’s Boutique.  Their music has also been sampled by Ozamatli, Gang Starr and DoubleXX Posse Cheetah Girls .  Their most famous and most heavily sampled Found A Child was used liberally on Young MC’s international hit, Bust A Move.

 

-Dennis R. White.  Sources: “Luther James Rabb”  “Jump Up: “Crusin’ The Super Highway…”From Hendrix To Hip Hop”)  (DancingMonica.com); Ballinjack.com:  PNW Bands;  Harry Blair, The Louie Report, the blog for all things LOUIE LOUIE; Harry Blair ” RIP Luther Rabb, Seattle musician with Jimi Hendrix”,Feb 16, 2006.

 

 

 

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 REFUZORS

During the early to mid 1980s The Refuzors were A-list Seattle punk rockers. They were one of the best live bands around. Uncompromising, edgy and raw.  They could have been lumped in with alot of hardcore bands from that era but for one thing. The songwriting, mostly by guitarist and vocalist Mike Refuzor set them far ahead of other great hardcore Seattle bands.  And they were always unexpectedly fun.  The Refuzors started out as a trio, and it’s probably their original line-up or Mike Refuzor (Mike Lambert) Bass and Vocals, Danny Refuzor (Danny Barton) on guitar and Roach Refuzor Dan Bradshaw) on drums that is most memorable. Other incarnations included Ward Refuzor (Ward Nelson) on guitar, Al Dams, Mike Purdon on bass  and Renee Refuzor (Renee Vazquez) doing some of the vocals.

The Refuzors were good at creating controversy-but some of it was also the cause of the press.  In a revew of the band local rock critic (at the time) printed her views of The Refuzors (and Mike specifically) of being neo-Nazi, white supremecists and fascists.  The comments were made in the widely read but now defunct Seattle Post-Intelligencer.  Her pronouncement wasn’t based on the lyrics or outward signs of Nazism.  The Refuzors never associated themselves with the neo-Nazi or white supremacist movements.  Hackett based her opinon on their dress; the all black, all leather uniform that many punks adhered to in the early 1980s.  The result of the public accusation led Mike to write one of his best songs, “White Power”.  And of course, once more the media went wild.  How could any major band write such a song?
The fact is the song’s lyrics make clear that they did NOT support white supremacy.  The lyrics start:

People may say things about me.
Some of them things are true, some are lies
With the power of the press you labeled me a Nazi
I bet you can’t even look me in the eyes

Later in the chorus Mike sings;

I never said White Power
I never said White Power to you
White Power
I’m sayin’ it now
You put those words in my mouth…

A studio version of the song was included on the near-legendary “Seattle Syndrome” compilation, but it seems as of this writing there are only very poorly recorded live versions of the song available on the internet.  Aside from the inclusion on The Seattle Syndrome The Refuzors released a cassette-only project in 1987 titled “Q. Why Do It, You’ll Never Get Rich A. Cuz I’m A Refuser” as well as Idol Records’ i987 release of a compilation called “Flashback”.

Other controversies were totally staged by The Refuzors themselves. For instance swinging a dead cat into the audience while playing their song “Splat Goes The Cat” to an all-ages audience. The mainstream press was not amused.  Rock critic Regina Hackett took another stab at denouncing the band.  She publicly accused Mike Refuzor of not having morals, while Mike countered “The cat was already dead anyway”.  No matter.  The fans loved it and it has become local Seattle lore-and one of the most memorable antics in the city’s rock history.

The Refuzors never made it out of the confines of the Seattle/Portland alt vortex. They probably never made a penny, but they Refuzors were the real deal. Totally without guile or bullshit, their lives and music were undistinguishable. They were hombres, outside the lines, with fiercely loyal fans. By the late 80s, though, the band slowly unraveled from drugs, alcohol and limited recognition outside the Northwest. They called it quits in 1989.  It’s a typical story, but it’s without a typical ending. Read on.

In the early to mid-90s Mike had met the proto-punk, psychedelic “creator of Flower Power” Sky Saxon formerly of “The Seeds” (Pushin’ Too Hard, Can’t Seem to Make You Mine)  Sky was currently living in Seattle after going broke near the height of his career, ending up on the streets, and later joining a “The Source Family” in Hawaii and re-naming himself “Sunshine”. Mike palled around with Sky, did a few shows together as The Wolf Pack and took part in the kind of over-the-top-escapist drug use that both were known for

In 1993 Mike put The Refuzors back together, although with a completely different line-up that included several members of Seattle’s “The Accused”.  The reconstituted  band recorded two sides for the now defunct Seattle label ‘Bag of Hammers’. The songs had been long been in The Refuzors repertoire and results were spectacular. The single Think I Lost My Faith b/w Jim Jones’ might just be the true missing link between the brilliant NW underground punk scene of the 1980’s and the equally brilliant, but over-hyped ‘grunge’ of the 90’s. Unfortunately ‘Bag of Hammers’ released only 800 copies of the single and without any promotion it went nowhere.   An additional 200 of the singles were pressed on clear vinyl, making it a true rarity.

Meanwhile Mike sank lower and lower, eventually ending up on the street and in the 2000’s he suffered a mild stroke and lost some of his sight. Without support from his old friends and fans he ended up nearly forgotten by music fans who thought “grunge”

Both ‘Think I Lost My Faith’ and ‘Jim Jones’ along with the 1981 release “White Power” have upfront drums & bass that was typical punk of rhythm section.  But The Refuzors weren’t above a heavy guitar sound and the occasional solo. Mike’s vocals were torn, ragged and raw, but not like every other cookie-cutter hardcore vocalist. This was real pain. It’s not fake suburban angst. There was a beautiful, passionate cruelty at work here. These songs are a brilliant mix of writing and delivery.  Stuff that makes people want to howl and cry and bang my head at the same time. It proves the theory that the greatest bands in the world will probably never be heard, or at least only heard by a few. Most will never make it outside their garage door.  Luckily The Refuzors were able to be an important, influential part of the 80s Seattle music scene.

The Refuzors may never end up onstage again. Mike is somewhat disabled, and living the life of a hermit, although he’s spotted around town now and again, and has even appeared onstage with The Fags, and with his good friend Charlie Thunders of the band “Thankless Dogs. Sadly, Roach Refuzor (Dan Bradshaw) passed away in early 2015.  I don’t know if The Refuzors were some of the ‘Shoulders of Giants’ grunge bands stood on, or if they were just garage-bound guys that got stepped on and tossed aside when the music biz smelled cash. It doesn’t matter. They were brilliant, beautiful, caustic and heart-wrenching in their honesty.  Maybe one day they’ll receive the belated respect that’s been overdue for many years.

-Dennis R. White. Sources: Stephen Tow, “The Strangest Tribe: How a Group of Seattle Rock Bands Invented Grunge” (Sasquatch Books, 2011)  Garage Punk Hideout Forum, June 25-27, 2009, Discogs.com, Charlie Thunders, Mike Refuzor.

THE VISIBLE TARGETS

The Visible Targets, with the frontline of sisters Pamela Golden, Laura Keane and Rebecca Hamilton could have dressed up as babes.  They could have played covers for frat parties.  They could have been a “novelty band”.  Instead they chose to work within Seattle’s alternative scene, playing alongside art bands, punks and “loser” bands as well as the innovators.  It’s no wonder that the band was often scoffed at by the supposedly hip, more cynical and “serious bands.   The irony is those “hipper” more cynical audiences always showed-up at their shows.  The truth is The Visible Targets were original, musically talented and…fun.  They were secure in their musical talent and determination.  It’s fair to say they were the forerunners of the riot grrl movement that wouldn’t flourish for another

decade.  The sisters, originally from Yakima WA had paid their dues in cover bands and had even spent time in England trying to jump-start their career.  But it wasn’t until they returned to the US and recruited Ron Simmons as drummer.  Ron was an old friend of theirs from school, and he fit in perfectly.  With the sisters in front and Simmons in the back providing an excellent behind them the band (then known as Wreckless) set out to conquer Seattle-and further.  With their name change to The Visible Targets, and their musical and lyrical dexterity popularity was to come quickly with a dedicated fan base who loved their approach, their look, and most of all their musical and lyrical talent.

The Visible Targets first came to light via Bruce Pavitt’s 1980 ‘cassettezine’ Sub Pop 5. The band then caught the attention of Bob Jenniker, a successful record store owner in Portland and Seattle that had begun the Park Avenue Records label. Bob had released the The Wipers’ Alien Boy, Youth of America and Is This Real, all of them seminal recordings from the American underground. Jenniker was scouting for new talent for his label, and when he found The Visible Targets. He was so impressed he not only signed them; he became the band’s manager and dedicated friend.

The band reflected everything good about the ‘power pop” and new wave” music of the 1980’s. They had an incredible pop sensibility, a talented line-up with enough edge to satisfy serious musicians while appealing to fans that were more interested in being entertained than any of the complexities of what they were hearing. During their five year career they garnered major label interest, and took on national tours.  One of their tours was the Canadian leg of a worldwide tour by Simple Minds who were then at the height of their success. The tour gave them great exposure in Canada, but the US market still alluded them.

After touring with the The Simple Minds the Visible Targets had the great fortune to snag the legendary “Spider From Mars” guitarist Mick Ronson as a producer.   The result was their second EP “Autistic Savant”.  The EP omitted several songs that Ronson produced for them-one featuring Mick on piano.  He’s The Boy, which had been the the b-side of Little Eva’s monster hit The Loco-Motion was a fan favorite but not included on the Autistic Savant EP. The Ronson produced song from these sessions was finally released in 2012 on dadastic! sounds compilation That’s Dadastic!  At least two other songs have never been released, although the band members have the intention of releasing them on a CD/digital retrospective of their career some time in the future.

Their two EP’s ‘The Visible Targets’ and ‘Autistic Savant’ were well-received, but they never made as big a dent nationally as they should have. Their single, Life In The Twilight Zone is undoubtedly one of the most well-known songs to come out of Seattle’s 1980s music scene. But the hit was only a regional one and despite excellent live performances they were always on the look-out for that hit to provide them the national hit they sought.  In those days vinyl records and tapes by indie bands were poorly distributed.  Having to rely on self-promotion and the guidance of their friend and manager Bob Jenniker was not enough to send them over the top.  After a five year career, the band were gone and seemed to fade into history despite a large following of rabid Northwest fans…fans that remain to this day

Drummer Ron Simmons later explained in an interview with DJ El Toro of Seattle’s KEXP radio:

“One summer in the mid-’80s we all decided that we needed a long overdue break. We had been performing, writing and practicing pretty much all the time, five to six days a week, for five years. During that time most of us worked day gigs to make a living. We were all exhausted and decided to take the summer off. After the summer, we just kept putting off getting back together, taking time to do other projects that we now had time to do. Pamela started visiting Nancy Wilson (of Heart) briefly and did some jamming. She then started working on a solo project with the help of Tony Levin (bass player for King Crimson/David Bowie/Material, et al). She put out one CD shortly after. Rebecca spent some time with various musicians mixing tunes and writing new ones. Laura spent more time with her family. I threw myself into painting and various art projects that I had a passion for; I showed my work quite a bit in the late 80’s through the mid 90’s in the Seattle area“.

After the demise of The Visible Targets Pamela and Rebecca, with the help of another close friend, wrote a CD’s worth of music (actually quite good), and called me to get back together for a possible reunion. I had already made a commitment to move to the Portland area and start up a publishing company for a close friend, so our reunion never materialized

A CD full of new material was self-released by the sisters.  The music is a broadening of what would probably been the trajectory would have gone forth with.  Unfortunately the problem of distribution still prohibited a wider release, and the band’s new moniker, “Wonderland” may have confused fans.  There were several groups using that name in the 90s.  No matter how great the music and musicianship it’s always difficult to amass a following when exposure is a problem.  Remember, the digital age had not taken hold yet, especially not in terms of independent artists to make their music available to millions of listeners.
According to Ron Simmons “Today, Laura is working for a college in the area, and Pamela and Rebecca started their own business in the service industry. They still pick up their guitars and jam. I am North Regional Publisher for a regional publication, still painting and showing my work in the area. We all still stay in contact. Bob Jeniker our manager and best friend, died around the late ’90s of cancer. He kept encouraging us to get back together, but it was just not in the cards”.

Even though The Visible Targets broke up decades ago they are fondly remembered by those who had the experience of seeing or hearing them in their heyday.  Life In The Twilight Zone is still regularly requested on local stations.  In 2007 former members of the band did an interview on Seattle’s KEXP.  The station also has a very strong presence on the internet with listeners around the world.  The lead-up to the interview garnered a great deal of interest, with many fans waiting to hear plans of a reunion-or at least a career retrospective that has not yet come to fruition.  One can only hope a compilation of all their recorded music is released one day.  It will be a testament to the power of well-written, well executed power-pop.  The music of The Visible Targets is timeless.

-Dennis R. White.  Sources: Ron Simmons, Rebecca Hamilton, DJ El Toro “Weird At My School” KEXP blog, August 4, 2008.  Photograph Jo David

 

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),
 

STUDENT NURSE

By the early 1980s Student Nurse was a mainstay of the alternative Seattle music scene.  Their angular. slightly dissonant and dance-driven sound set them apart from the darker, punkier and heavier bands they shared bills with.  Bands like Audio Leter, The Fags, Red Dress, and The Refuzors.  Like the best of their contemporaries they honed-in on their particular, unique sound and the band expanded outward, sending them on a trajectory somewhere between subversion and art-damage.

Student Nurse started as the brainchild of married couple John Rogers (drums) Helena Rogers (guitar and vocals) along with bassist Joe Harris and rhythm guitarist Al Davis.  In 1979 the band self-released their first single, (“Disco Dog b/w Lies).  The songs stood perilously between weirdness and pop-exactly as the band had anticipated.  One other song from this line-up was included on the ground-breaking “Seattle Syndrome” compilation released on Engram Records in 1981. By that time Harris and Davis had left the band and the jittery guitar leads of Helena Rogers were accompanied by new members guitarist Tom Boetcher and bassist Eric Muhs.  Helena’s vocals were disjointed, pointalist and determined. John’s jazz-influenced drumming and rhythms were the perfect foil to the rest of the band which left the impression the music had fallen on it’s face-in the best possible way.

Their next vinyl outing was the one-sided 12″ “As Seen On TV” with individually hand-screened artwork by Helena on the cover-as had been the case with the first single.  This is the kind of stuff collectors drool over nowadays, but Helena and the rest of the band weren’t interested in collectors of the growing market for oddball packaging that would later cater to a pre-manufactured market for Seattle music, and the rest of the alternative/independent scene.  For Student Nurse it was all about the aesthetics and ethics they held.

In 1981 Student Nurse entered Triangle Studios-later to be renamed as the famous “Triad Studios” where so many other successful bands would record.  The choice of the material for their next single  may have seemed odd, as they chose two of their more accessible songs, the Dutch-lyriced “Recht Op Staan” (“Stand Up Straight” in English-a song referring to the importance of good posture).  The B-side was an instrumental called “Electronic Pop Smash”.  Both choices were designed to catch listeners and fans off-guard.  Maire Masco, one of the heads of Pravda, the label that released “Recht Op Staan” remarked “Who the hell sings a rock song in Dutch?  Not even the Dutch!”  And that was exactly the subversive kind of thing that could have been expected of Student Nurse.

David Javelosa (of “Los Microwaves” and” Baby Buddha”) was brought in to produce-another purposeful anomaly since Student Nurse were ostensibly a guitar-driven band while Javelosa was known more for his work in synthesizer-based outfits.  The fascination of weirdo-influenced pop made it a good fit for the band and Javelosa.  A totally unexpected lyric sung in an almost-obscure language backed with a song who’s title denoted electronic synth sound (yet contained no synthesizers) was not only an inside joke.  It was a decision to thumb the nose at everything American alternative music was becoming.  Over three decades later it’s easier to see this was an “inside job” calculated to challenge listeners and their perceptions.

Although it was clear John and Helena were the core of the band, it remained fairly democratic, but onstage Student Nurse belonged to Helena.  Skinny with piercing silver eyes and a Phranc-ish hair she was the epitome of lesbian-chic before lesbian-chic was even a thing.  All shouts and smiles, she provided the hyper-caffeinated energy at the center of the band.  The staccato performances combined with Helena’s butch persona scared many of the top booking agents from putting them on the bill with larger touring acts.  The band was too oddball and too difficult to pigeonhole…in fact they might even upset the sensibilities of a MOR audience.  But a few clubs regularly welcomed them, and the band was expert at putting together shows with other “unbookable” acts at private venues, lodges, halls and dance studios.  They did quite well without having to assuage the mass crowds and bookers that were starting to catch onto the poppier side of new wave.  Student Nurse didn’t spend time calculating what would have been best for their career-they simply did what they loved for as long as people wanted to hear them.  They were far more interested in being architects of their own very unique sound and approach to the art and dance.

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.