In This Day And Age
by Andrew LauA wall of amps.
They hiss behind a lone bearded figure checking his equipment one last time. A mess of wires and cords tangle at his feet, some of which feed into a drum machine or sampler. In front of him, an eager audience has packed the small club. Joe Preston is already a bit of a legend, having played in some of underground rock's most revered bands; now, it's just him and this hissing wall of amps, a one-man band he calls Thrones. After strapping on a bass, he hits a button and a high decibel drum pattern needles into the audience. Preston steps to the microphone and sings as he starts playing:
"I feel... a good sensation / and I've been lifted by your soul creation / don't you stop just to look away / I want you to listen, child, to what I say..."
A flair of recognition. The song is vaguely familiar to some in the audience, might be instantly known to a few. It's another band's song; echoes from the past dragged out, dusted off, brought into the light and given review, a new life. The song, "Just A Little Bit," recorded in 1967 by San Francisco's Blue Cheer, a band whose legacy has now reached that of the era's most popular bands and Joe Preston opening his set with one of their songs is just another tip of the hat.
Renowned jazz critic turned rock and roll enthusiast Ralph J. Gleason estimated over five hundred bands had called San Francisco home between 1965 and 1969. Five hundred. How many of those went on to "make it"? Two. Three, depending on your argument. The rest have slipped into different levels of ambiguity, known mostly to enthusiasts and maybe a few well-read historians. Blue Cheer is one of the better-known lesser-knows who've forged a difficult career path based on the desire to do it Their Way. Almost forty years after the release of their debut album, Vincebus Eruptum, they continued to reap the rewards as yet another generation picks up on their craft. Their hard work has paid off not necessarily in cash but appreciation and influence.
Oh, no... the Haight-Ashbury.
This isn't a great place to find yourself on weekends unless you enjoy large amounts of people crammed into a small area; although I suppose it's better to have a crowded Haight than none at all (the deluge of 1967 almost ruined this little neighborhood for good and it took twenty years for recovery). Blue Cheer watched this place go from creative hotbed to chewed-up slum in twelve quick months and was the perfect band to soundtrack the new menacing vibe as other local groups headed for the hills.
Blue Cheer lacked the popular folk or jazz influences that predominated the era and substituted noise and attack for melody and balance. While their work may've seemed crude, there was nothing like it going on at the time: brutal, colorless, sexless music that could overwhelm the listener. Onstage, they played at gut-wrenching levels and violence lurked in the music's shadows (not surprisingly, they became favorites in grittier cities such as Detroit where audiences matched their intensity). But beneath the strum and drang of their assault lies the same tremendous joy and exuberance of artists like Little Richard or the Johnny Burnett Trio.
They were the blackest sheep in a city of black sheep, giant sore thumbs in the psychedelic scene, going beyond what the scene had bargained for or even considered. For their efforts they were treated with complete disdain. This was furthered when their chunky version of "Summertime Blues" became a surprise hit in the summer of 1968- now they were a band with an un-hip sound and radio play. But their peer's contempt reeked of hypocrisy- what was the acid rock scene about if not pushing boundaries?
The purpose of this article is not to tag anyone as villain or victim, but to update an ongoing story. It must be pointed out, however, this reporter's requests for interviews regarding Blue Cheer and their place in Rock History went ignored by members of critical Bay Area acid rock bands.
The white 1980 Cadillac parked on the corner of Cole and Haight is named Kitty and belongs to Dickie Peterson. It's huge, big enough to sleep in if necessary. A pirate motif decorates the interior and his bass guitar is housed in the trunk for now as Peterson has no solid place of residence. He is a quintessential nomad and his only source of communication is a cell phone which doesn't always work.
One would think Peterson would blend in nicely on Haight Street, yet he sticks out from the tourists, panhandlers and shoppers. But then, he's always stuck out in one way or another. His appearance hasn't changed much over the years: thick long blond hair, sunglasses, denim jacket and jeans; he glides on his cowboy boots with confidence. With a gravelly, Wolfman Jack-like voice, he laughs a lot and takes life in a take-it-or-leave-it shrug. "He's a natural talker," his friend Rosyln tells me. She was handling press for the band when I was putting out feelers for interviews. It was while communicating with her that I realized how protective people are towards the band. There is a circle of helpers to keep it up and working: a new record, a tour, a web site and always the legacy. Peterson is the figurehead of Blue Cheer, the one constant member who's seen the band through its forty years. It's something neither good nor bad- it just is and from it, he's gained a type of wisdom that few possess.
It's a sunny but cool January day and people are out in droves on the sidewalks shopping, cars cramming the streets and everyone is vying for a parking space. We're inside Kitty (the car), I'm in the passenger seat, Peterson is at the wheel smoking, keys in the ignition but the motor is silent. "I feel very fortunate that I could last this long," he says looking out the window. "I've know since I was eight years old that I was going to be a musician. I guess anybody can last this long, this is just what I set out in my life to do and that's what I do."
Our conversation turns to his fellow band mates, drummer Paul Whaley and guitarist Duck MacDonald. "Duck is my producer, my manager, about one of the only guys in this business I really trust. I know he loves me and will take care of my interests. We were looking at [the tour itinerary] and he goes to the guy: 'Hold it, after Chicago we need two days. Dickie is almost sixty years old. He does two and a half hours every night for three days, you've got to give him a break.' So Duck looks out for me very much."
"Paul has been doing this as long as I have…we're fucking married. Sometimes we go for weeks and we don't even talk to each other. Duck is a great buffer because Paul and I can push each other's buttons without saying a word. We always resolve it, no matter how bad it gets. It think it helps because we're a trio, we have what we call 'The Odd Man Out Law': no matter what the band is deciding, it's always going to be two against one. The odd man out has to go along. Or leave the band."
There have been more than a few Odd Men Out. As the years ticked by, the band had many different faces gracing the covers of their albums. The most popular Odd Man Out is guitarist Leigh Stephens who helped create the classic Blue Cheer Sound on their first two records and then... well, too much volume, too much chaos, too much of too much. He saw something had changed and left.
Stephens rarely gives interviews and I was no exception. He did however surprise everyone when he agreed to appear with Peterson at a free memorial concert in October of 2005 for Chet Helms in Golden Gate Park. The all-day event had a packed bill of luminaries and Blue Cheer's inclusion (albeit without Whaley who was unable to attend) was in itself a long awaited nod of recognition. With Tubes drummer Prairie Prince filling in, Peterson and Stephens tore through three classics that had the capacity crowd salivating and their peers standing in the wings slack-jawed.
"I'll tell you, that was one of the highest days I ever had as far as playing music," says Peterson of that afternoon. There were rumblings soon thereafter of a possible full scale reunion- it seemed the perfect time for such a thing but Stephens slipped back into the quiet of his ranch.
Two months later, I drive to Peterson's newly acquired residence in Sebastopol, a quiet town in Sonoma County one hour north of San Francisco. The apartment is still in flux as old tenants are moving out and Peterson is moving in. A steady rainfall taps on the windows; the ever faithful companion Kitty is parked outside the front door. As we talk, he sits on a cushionless futon frame, smokes Pall Malls and looks to be wearing the same combination of clothes as the last time we spoke.
He puts on their newly recorded CD and he turns up the volume until it takes up the entire room. The music is much like their early days, (and less like their metal years of the 1980's): heavy blues-inspired rock, cresting guitar solos and Peterson's signature vocals. Believe it or not, the stand-out track is a ballad (their first) called "Young Lions Of Paradise." Periodically through our conversation, his cell phone has been ringing; the recent death of a friend has been bringing his close circle of friends together.
"[The song is] not about Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix and all these celebrity rock stars that overdosed. It's about friends of mine that I stood next to…the abuse we heaped upon ourselves that eventually took its toll. We weren't as immortal as we thought and this song is about that. I really don't have a lot of sympathy for dead rock stars. I mean, I have sympathy for anyone who gets caught up in a bad situation but we were all really lucky and abused it, myself included. I don't know why I'm walking around, I know a lot of the people I stood right next to and did the very same thing they were doing and they're not here. Whatever it is I'm here for, I'm not done yet."
After the CD ends, I ask about their recorded legacy and control of their master tapes.
"[Universal] can actually do whatever they want," says Peterson about the various compilations that pop up now and then. "They have to give us a piece of the action which is basically the mechanicals, a different form of royalties... we should be getting more but we're not. That's the because of the way contracts were done in the Sixties. There was a lot of people who were set up like this, (it) wasn't just us."
So you'll never get to own your masters?
"If I ever got to the position where I could think about buying them out, I would approach them and ask them how much they want."
Do you have any interest in that?
"Well, yeah, I have the interest in it, but I don't have the money. I can't afford the interest [laughs]. As I understand it, generally they just don't do that. It's just put in their library and that's where it sits."
The summer leg of the 2006 Blue Cheer World Tour started in Washington D.C. and fittingly ends up in the Bay Area three months later. Café Du Nord is a cozy venue tucked into the middle of a block located between the Castro and Civic Center. It's a clear, breezy night with a cold wind coming in from the west. Taxis come and go with illuminated billboards on top advertising a new musical called Love, Janis. This band has been working their asses off since 1967, and there she is, 37 years dead and her face still plastered all over the city. Odd.
The crowd inside is mostly older but mixed: punk/metal guys and girls, stoners and just curious onlookers here to see what the fuss is all about. Between bands, a DJ spins loud rock to jack up the energy and word of Arthur Lee's death is just beginning to circulate, injecting an odd mood into the room. They take the stage around 11PM and the audience is squeezed in as Peterson introduces the band with an honest: "We're Blue Cheer and this is what we do." With that, the band lurches into the recognizable swell of "Babylon," a buried gem from their second record which sends a roll of excitement back through the crowd. MacDonald stands expressionless wearing black pants with white pinstriped, boots and a Melvins Army T-shirt. Peterson has traded his denim for black leather pants, a black button-down shirt with Western designs and tan cowboys boots. Whaley looks as if he's jumped on stage from the crowd: baggy shorts, t-shirt, backward baseball cap, hair hanging past his ears. They look exhausted and Peterson's voice is hoarse after months of heavy use yet he still delivers the vocals in his usual style.
"We're in a strange position," he explained months earlier when we were sitting in his apartment. "People want to hear 'Summertime Blues,' they want to hear 'Out Of Focus,' they want to hear 'Babylon.' So at the end of the day we wind up playing a lot of our classic stuff that we're famous for and we throw in a few of our new songs we're working on. [laughs]"
He's right. All but two or three songs were pulled form the band's first two records. Each song is stretched and allows MacDonald to solo endlessly as the rhythm section effortlessly chugs behind him.
"There's nothing we like more than to be playing and have taken that song to a point to where people in the audience look up at you going: 'How are they going to get back into the song,'" he explained as the rain fell outside that afternoon. "And in a heartbeat, you're in it. They stayed with you through that whole thing and they watched you sweat that thing to the very edge of coherency and there's no where else to go, it's just madness from that point on. That's the magic of music."
"There's a younger generation out there that approaches this a little different than I do but there's nothing I can do about it," he continued. "We're not going to fit in... we're stoners, man, and if you want a bunch of predictable stuff, that's not gonna happen. We're going to give you a good show, that I promise. But exactly what's going to happen, I don't even fucking know. We play real honest rock 'n roll."
The band tears through the set list, note perfect, leaving room for plenty on improvisation and the packed audience eats it up. After the show, friends and family crowd into the small back room for conversations and pictures as fans mingle outside the door. The three are happily exhausted and sign everything handed to them. Paul Whaley sits on the stage winding down. Forty years ago, he was the boy wonder drumming for Sacramento's amazing Oxford Circle who tore up dances at U.C. Davis and then went on to gain a following on the ballroom circuit in the Bay Area. In 1967, Whaley had moved to San Francisco and began hanging out with Peterson who took a liking to his powerhouse style. By April, Oxford Circle was one less and Blue Cheer had acquired on of the best drummer in the country.
A gentleman hands him three LP's to sign, one of which is their 1969 self-titled record, the first in which Whaley wasn't involved. When he gets to it, he simply shakes his head and calmly says: "I'm not on that one."
The next night, I find him smoking alone outside the front door of Ghost Town Gallery, a creative oasis in an otherwise dreary section of Oakland where the band is set to play a secret end-of-the-tour show. Whaley is more reticent to talk, when he does it's in a slow, almost apprehensive voice. Unlike his band mate, he gives just enough information for an answer with a few sentences, but remains extremely polite. He has Tour Eyes, the thousand-yard stare that comes after being on the road for months.
"There's a lot of kids that are interested in us now," he says of the tour's success and the band's continual rise in popularity. "It's been a big surprise because we didn't know what to expect when we went out. We just booked the tour and said: 'We'll see what happens.'"
Lighting another cigarette, he continues. "We got back together in 1985 with a different guitarist and we were getting some pretty good write-ups in different magazines like we were one of the first to start this aggressive music. But it didn't just seem to come off as it's happening now."
He scans San Pablo Avenue with his tired eyes, watching figures creep in and out of the shadows. "The band is based in New York right now, all the business is being taken care of out there and it seems to be working. We got this tour together for two months, we gotta good reception and it gives us an idea of what to expect now from the audience." Then, with what may be the understatement of the year, he adds: "I think we have a chance to stick our foot in the cult band door."
"This is our final night party," he says exhaling smoke. "Duck drives back to New York on Monday alone, so it's gonna be a long haul for him. I fly out on Tuesday, back to Germany." For sixteen years, he has lived in a small town outside of Munich called Regensburg which may explain the slight accent heard in his voice occasionally. "We did a couple of tours there in the early '90's. And the second tour we did, I just decided to stay there."
"Last night really showed that there's a lot of interest here in the city for us. It's completely welcome." His voice expresses gratitude at the forty year old validation. "We were the red-headed step child," he says of their early years within the local acid rock scene. "We were getting slapped around by everybody, the press, other bands in San Francisco. But, we did what we like to do, so…" he trails off perhaps knowing there is no use to finish that sentence.
The audience is noticeably different from last night's, another breed of their fans: mid-twenties and aggressively steeped in art and an independent life. Most of them could care-a-less about any of the other San Francisco bands; Blue Cheer is the end-all, legends deserving the utmost respect.
Their influence is long and varied and one of the best bands to take Blue Cheer's catchy, fuzzed-out riffs and make something fresh is Seattle's legendary Mudhoney. Singer/guitarist Mark Arm still seems in awe when I asked him if he recalls hearing them for the first time.
"I remember exactly the first time I heard them," he laughs. "I was in a small college in Oregon in '81. This friend [and I] we were sitting around listening to punk rock records and whatnot and he pulls out Vincebus Eruptum and these words are probably close to verbatim: 'Check out what the freaky hippies did!' [laughs] I was like 'Holy Shit! This is amazing!' I was very focused on hardcore punk rock... extended guitar and drum solos were something I associated with crappy '70's bands and these guys were doing it in a whole different way."
As it turns out, Arm's experience isn't an unusual one. Jamie Sanitate, here to see the band for the first time, found them almost the same way. "After I found all the good old punk bands," he explains, "I kept going back in time trying to find older, heavier stuff." After their set I ask him what how he liked it. "[I thought] 'Damn, I'm seeing a piece of history right now,' he says with a satisfied grin. "There's a lot of groups coming back and playing and I'm satisfied with about 10% of them. Blue Cheer is at the top."
"We're jaded," Peterson told me with a grin back when we sat in his living room. "We know where you're supposed to go, when you're supposed to play and how you're supposed to do it. Young cats, they don't know so they boldly go where no one else will go. And sometimes, this turns out to be pure unadulterated genius and I live for those moments."
He sat on the edge of the couch, looking right at me. "I'll go a jam session with young musicians in a hot minute. If they can play, then I'll stay. If they can't, I'll teach them whatever I can and leave. It's a give-and-take thing. I know I have a lot of experience under my belt, reluctant experiences in many cases and I think that's part of my responsibility, part of my debt to be able to do this this long."
It's mid-set for Blue Cheer inside Ghost Town Gallery and Paul Whaley begins a song by pounding out a high decibel drum/cymbal pattern which needles into the audience. A flair of recognition, echoes from the past dragged out, dusted off, brought into the light and given a review, a new life. Peterson steps to the microphone and starts playing as he sings/growls:
"I feel... a good sensation / and I've been lifted, child, by your soul creation / don't you stop just to look away / I want you to listen, child, to what to say..." The crowd instantly recognizes the glory stomp that is "Just A Little Bit"; they smile and nod along. These lyrics, written some forty years ago, have turned into an unintentional self-tribute.
"Don't you... drift away too far / out of sad times…just exactly where you are / 'cuz it's just too much the way I feel / I just can't believe that it's all for real..."
Some mouth the words along with Peterson, others just smile. A sense of comradely fills the air, and everyone in the audience knows this is special, not only is little history being made every time these guys get up and play, but a small victory as well.
"You have a strange desire / when you walk across the ground / then you set the world on fire..."
As the song's wind-up finale begins, the intensity builds. "C'mon, c'mon... just a little bit closer..." Peterson sings. Waves of sound bounce off the walls and sink into everyone's skin, setting them aglow.
All the years of toil pay off in small but valueless dividends. The three tear further into the song with claws; faster and faster, six hands are blurry with action as the song turns round and round...
The silly bitchniess of their peers have no effect as Blue Cheer once again prove themselves stronger and more durable as they bolt everyone against the gallery walls with waves of cymbals and distorted guitar...
"...c'mon, c'mon, just a little bit clo-ser..."
...everybody seems happy as the air trembles...
...and everyone seems just a little bit closer.
See our other Blue Cheer article
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