Hot Smoke & Sasafrass
Bubble Puppy Reissued
Riverside Farms Road is an unassuming dead-end street just off busy Riverside Drive in Southeast Austin. Despite the apartment complexes and shopping centers lurking behind its tree lines, the narrow road remains a nook of relative calm. An odd smattering of houses on oversized lots fronted by honeysuckle bushes and gravel driveways makes it easy to imagine the street 37 years ago when Bubble Puppy shared a house here, rehearsing into the night, poised to make Texas rock history.
If the 13th Floor Elevators pioneered the psychedelic sound, Bubble Puppy connected it to the hard rock of the Seventies with their 1969 hit, "Hot Smoke & Sasafrass" [sic]. The song was Houston-based International Artists Records' biggest single, even outpacing the Elevators' "You're Gonna Miss Me." While it's hard to overstate the Elevators' significance, their shadow has long obscured Bubble Puppy's formidable dual lead guitar interplay, malleable harmonies, and songwriting skills. The recent reissue of their sole LP, A Gathering of Promises, on Universal-distributed Fuel 2000 may help rectify that.
Bubble Puppy sprang from the ashes of the Bad Seeds, a popular Corpus Christi garage band co-fronted by guitarist/vocalist Rod Prince. When the Bad Seeds split in 1966, Prince started the New Seeds with bassist Roy Cox. It didn't last, but Prince and Cox relocated to San Antonio and met Austin-bred guitarist/vocalist Todd Potter, who quit high school to join the band.
The new group rehearsed at San Antonio's Pusi-Kat Club with a succession of drummers that came and went. Danny Segovia sang and played sax for a spell, too. They became Bubble Puppy after reading about a children's game called "Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy" in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.
The newly christened group lucked into a slot opening for the Who at Austin's Municipal Auditorium. Prince's motorcycle buddy David Fore drove up from Corpus for the show and became the band's permanent drummer shortly thereafter. The quartet moved to Austin in the summer of 1967, living in the house on Riverside Farms. None of them were over 19.
"We lived and breathed music," says Potter today. "We played eight hours a day. We'd get up in the morning, eat, and jam all day. We'd take a break at lunch, go to Campbell's Hole, swim for a while, stop and have a tuna frenchie on the way home, then play into the night."
That fall, the Vulcan Gas Company opened at 316 Congress and became the Puppy's second home. Their days of woodshedding paid off, and they amassed a significant draw. In 1968, they ventured to Houston to play at the Love Street Light Circus, located three flights up in a building on the banks of Buffalo Bayou.
"The entire club floor was a 4-inch thick mattress with black canvas over it," remembers Potter. "Then you had backrests, and everyone had a pillow. International Artists discovered us in that room."
International Artists was home to the 13th Floor Elevators, the Red Crayola, and several other Texas psychedelic groups. Unfortunately, the label's legendary roster was inversely proportional to both its business acumen and its treatment of artists.
"They waved the contract in front of us," recalls Potter. "Roky Erickson and the Elevators were already signed to International Artists, and they were like, 'Don't do it!'
"It was our first exposure to a record deal, and we just went for it. In hindsight, I don't know that it was the worst thing we could've done. Given our style, it's possible that major labels would've passed us over. I think this was a label that was willing to take a chance on this style of music."
The quartet moved to Houston and holed up in IA's Gold Star Studios with producer Ray Rush, a West Texas music veteran who'd worked with Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison. Combining a proto-prog time signature with a crunchy, dive-bombing guitar riff, they composed "Hot Smoke & Sasafrass" in the studio, leaving space for fast-flowing fretwork by Potter, who was out sick.
"We came home after playing the song, and we needed some words," recalls Fore. "We were watching The Beverly Hillbillies. Granny was berating Jethro for something, and she goes, 'Hot smoke and sassafras, Jethro, can't you do anything right?' That's where it came from."
Originally the B-side to "Lonely," "Hot Smoke" was released in December 1968 and was immediately embraced by stations like Dallas' KLIF and Houston's KILT. By the spring of 1969, Bubble Puppy was lip-synching their hit on American Bandstand. The single was in heavy rotation all over America, but it wasn't getting airplay in Los Angeles or New York.
"To get airplay in L.A. and New York, you had to pay the guys that controlled those markets," asserts Potter. "You had to cut 'em in."
The band was practicing in the IA studio when some legitimate businessmen dropped by to reiterate this arrangement.
"It was like a cartoon," chuckles Fore. "These guys came to our studio in a black limousine wearing black suits, white ties, and black bowlers, right? They came in and they demanded payola for the record or they'd stop it dead in its tracks. International Artists just laughed at them and told them to get out."
Coincidentally or otherwise, "Hot Smoke" ended its ride up the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 14. IA compounded problems by turning down a UK licensing deal with Apple Records. With no one expecting "Hot Smoke" to be a hit, there was no album in the can, either.
When A Gathering of Promises was finally released, it only went to No. 176. Nevertheless, the album remains a solid showcase of Bubble Puppy's multifaceted musical prowess beyond "Hot Smoke." The eight-minute "I've Got to Reach You" alternately explores the hard rock crunch later codified by Black Sabbath and the Allman Brothers' Southern-styled twin-guitar harmonies. By contrast, the title track is a lilting, folk-flavored love song.
No one knows what happened to the International Artists master tapes, so Fuel 2000 reissue producer Greg Russo remastered the album from vinyl. Unlike previous reissues, Russo insisted on including all of Bubble Puppy's IA singles, including the superior mono mix of "Hot Smoke & Sasafrass" and rare nonalbum rockers like "Thinkin' About Thinkin'" and "What Do You See," the latter being the group's last IA release.
Bubble Puppy toured well into 1970, bringing their oft-ferocious live presence to bear on headliners like Canned Heat, Spirit, and Steppenwolf. "We came home off the road from the initial tours, sat down for an accounting, and found out how much money we still owed International Artists," says Potter. "It should've been the other way around."
As a result, the group left IA with a trove of unreleased material and moved back to Austin, living in a house on Spicewood Springs Road. On the road, they'd become friendly with Steppenwolf bassist Nick St. Nicholas, who offered to manage them if they relocated to L.A.
"When we got out there, we signed with ABC-Dunhill, and they did not want to take on the fight with International over the name, so they convinced us to change our name," explains Potter. "That was a mistake."
Looking for an edgier moniker with no connection to bubblegum music, Bubble Puppy became Demian, following Steppenwolf's lead in using a Herman Hesse title as their namesake. Demian released one self-titled album in 1971. The album didn't sell well, and when ABC proposed a reduced budget for the follow-up in 1972, the band hung it up.
Returning once again to Austin, the members of Bubble Puppy remained active in music after the breakup. Potter played with Rusty Wier, while Fore drummed for Steven Fromholz. Potter and Prince formed Sirius in 1977. Fore, meanwhile, switched to guitar and co-wrote D-Day's beloved punk anthem, "Too Young to Date" in 1979. The Puppy even reunited briefly in the mid-Eighties.
In 2000, Prince formed Actual Artists and released Hot Smoke, a Bubble Puppy rarities album. He also joined Roy Cox's BluesKnights project, releasing Road to Freedom on Actual Artists in 2001. Unfortunately, their partnership ended acrimoniously, derailing tentative plans for another Bubble Puppy reunion.
After leaving music for several years to pursue a software engineering degree, Fore now spends most weekends drumming for Austin's Eggmen, a Beatles tribute band. Potter also took time off from music, but he's now working on a solo album. Neither Cox nor Prince could be contacted for this story.
The Bubble Puppies have been through a lot since the Riverside Farms days. U.K.-based Charly Records holds the license for their IA recordings, and the musicians are unlikely to see a dime from the Fuel 2000 reissue. Nevertheless, Potter sees a silver lining in the potential of Universal's distribution heft to bring their music to a new audience. And he doesn't rule out the possibility of a future reunion.
"The desire to share the music with each other and with people again is still there and always will be."