March of the Flower Children
The final thoughts of the Seeds' Sky Saxon
With perfect poise, Sky Saxon sits cross-legged atop a bed of brown and gold silk sheets in his living room. Unpacked boxes surround him, only heightening the sense of physical disconnect permeating the rustic, South Austin home he recently leased. There's a cosmic awareness to his presence, an aloofness that suggests he's fallen down a rabbit hole and made himself quite comfortable in it.
Exactly one week from today, on June 25, the onetime leader and bassist of 1960s garage-rock pioneers the Seeds will die unexpectedly of heart and kidney failure at St. David's South Austin Hospital from an undiagnosed infection in his internal organs. At the moment, he appears peaceful and at relative ease, casually pulling at strands of his thinning, shoulder-length hair with slightly overgrown fingernails. His emerald, starry eyes look distant and tired; his face droops down low, resembling Dumbledore from the Harry Potter series – an aged wizard passing on his torch. With an assembly worker's precision, he rolls a joint effortlessly, as if by second nature.
"If someone were to ask me, I'd say there were four bands that defined the Sixties," bellows Saxon in a deep, dry voice, without prompt and to no one in particular, opening what was intended to be a series of interviews. "They are, in no particular order: Love, the Seeds, the Doors, and the Byrds. With those four bands it was enough, and all the ones that came after that imitated our sound. The Byrds brought Dylan back in with the 12-string guitar. With the Seeds, I brought in the piano and organ the way it had never been heard before. The Doors copied the Seeds, but they did heroin, so their music was more down."
Saxon's already lost to the world within his head, an iridescent realm of profound spiritual conviction and conspiracy theories, filtered through the haze of the psychedelic 1960s.
"The Seeds smoked herb, sacred herb," he clarifies while continuing the tradition. "That's why their music was up. Of all the music, the Seeds will probably survive. I'd have to say that whatever drug someone does is going to reflect on their music.
"If people have hanging over their head that they might die for this country at 18 or 19, cut 'em some slack and let them smoke some herb, at least past the draft years. That weighs on a lot of people. With the trillion dollars that funded the tobacco industry, we could have had sacred herb all that time and paid the tobacco industry to grow it. Then we'd have a world that didn't want war.
"It's the three I's: imagination, inspiration, and intuition. People should drink champagne, women especially, and they should be allowed to smoke herb 'cause nobody knows how long we're going to be here."
The life of Sky Saxon is purposely shrouded in vague mystique. He was born Richard Elvern Marsh in Salt Lake City, Utah, on August 20, though the exact year remains unknown, the dates given in various interviews ranging from 1937 to 1946. In the early Sixties, he began his career under the moniker Little Richie Marsh, issuing a handful of sugary doo-wop singles before morphing into Sky Saxon on Conquest Records, where he led the Soul Rockers and the Electra Fires.
Led by his proto-punk sneer, the Seeds, who formed and signed to GNP Crescendo in 1965, encapsulated the heathen magic of the Los Angeles scene leading up to the original Summer of Love. The band's eponymous debut and follow-up A Web of Sound, both released in 1966, are pure shamanic mischief, a mesmerizing amalgam of primitive psychedelia formed by Jan Savage's crude-fuzz guitar, the organ haze of Daryl Hooper, and Rick Andridge's infectious, rock-steady percussion.
At once heralded by Muddy Waters in the liner notes to 1967's A Full Spoon of Seedy Blues – originally issued under the name the Sky Saxon Blues Band – as the American Rolling Stones and dismissed by famed rock critic and brief Austinite Lester Bangs on the same accord, the Seeds' legacy has largely been reduced to two incendiary singles, "Pushin' Too Hard" and "Can't Seem to Make You Mine." Both are preserved on Rhino's essential box set Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968.
The Seeds broke up officially in 1968, following the departure of Savage and Andridge, though Saxon sporadically released new material under the name. That's when the facts start to blur.
In the early 1970s, Saxon joined the Source Family, perhaps the quintessential hippie commune, in Hollywood Hills. Founded by Jim Baker, the magnetic owner of L.A. vegetarian restaurant the Source, who christened himself Father Yod and then Ya Ho Wha, the Source Family blessed Saxon with the names Sunlight and Arlick and informed his spiritual philosophies. In 1998, he curated God and Hair, a confounding, 13-disc collection of tribal meditations and improvised electric freak-outs from Ya Ho Wa 13, the Source Family's musical offspring, which featured one of his many spoken-word dialogues.
All the while, Saxon amassed an aberrant solo career, dropping several albums of pastoral acid-pop in the tradition of the Seeds' 1967 LP, Future, each one credited to a different incarnation: Sky Sunlight, Sunlight & the New Seeds, Sunstar, Star's New Seeds Band, and the Universal Stars Band.
Upon his arrival in Austin last month, Saxon seemed poised for a second coming on par with that of local contemporary Roky Erickson. Following last year's King of Garage Rock on Cleopatra Records, a selection of covers and greatest hits, Saxon recorded a duet with Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins, "Choose to Choose Love," that recently cropped up online. Billed as World Spirits, he headlined the Black Angels' Texas Psych Fest No. 2 in March and was scheduled to take part in the California '66 Revue Tour this summer with members of the Electric Prunes and Love. A reissue campaign of the Seeds' core catalog, along with a corresponding documentary, is slated for release next year through Ace Records UK.
"The Seeds had a singular sound and were a crack rock & roll band, with an edge, in both look and sound, that few bands had in the mid-1960s," writes Ace's Alec Palao. "Once the band had their initial success, the hipsters deserted the Seeds because they perceived the band's music as 'simple.' Ironically, it's that very element that's given the group an enduring appeal to the post-punk generations."
Try to Understand
Sabrina Sherry Smith Saxon, the singer's wife of two years, exudes the aura of the newly converted. A generation his junior, she's clearly fascinated by his story and utterly devoted to his career, serving as his manager, booking agent, and publicist.
"The big thing for people to realize is that he's a master lyricist and a master spontaneous lyricist," she smiles as she enters the room, bearing cups of freshly brewed coffee in both hands.
"Thank you," summons Saxon in response and then, with the wave of his right hand, adds: "I channel. I channel. I've been rehearsing for a thousand years."
At the Psych Fest in March, you kept chanting, "Acid is in the air."
"What I meant by that is for anyone that's ever taken acid, it's all an imaginary thing. I believe that as sick as a person gets, they should never go to the hospital. They should smoke some sacred herb and go within themselves and try to pinpoint what's wrong, what they ate that's causing the problem. Ninety-five percent of people that are sick are sick because they went to the hospital and all of the negativity that goes along with it.
"What I didn't know, and what I'd like to share with the people, is that just because someone calls an ambulance, that doesn't mean you have to go. You can wave them off and say: 'I'm sorry, I feel better. I don't want to go.' But, you can only do it once. The second time they'll come get you for real. How safe is anyone?"
Saxon pauses momentarily for an answer that doesn't come.
"Roky Erickson was a pure genius, a gift to Austin, Texas," he continues, "but he got ran through the system. The system misunderstood him and took his genius away 'cause they thought he was crazy. He actually opened for me twice. I thought that 13th [Floor Elevators] was a really good name.
"Here's what's up. I used to think that [the Source Family] was the only one that's saved. There's about 150 of us. We were the ones that were going to open the doors for everyone else to come whenever we leave. My thinking's still about the same. We developed a deep consciousness through ancient teachings, and because of that, we are special people."
A plate of sliced cantaloupe arrives next.
"You can quote me on this," states Saxon with a sudden change in tone. "I'm a vegetarian, of course, but I think that the music industry is far bigger than all the meat industries of the world. If we went back to music and vegetarianism, we could have way past 2012, but if people keep eating meat, God's going to view it like the T. rex. The T. rex lasted for like 70 million years, and the herbivorous dinosaur lasted for like 900 million years. In 70 million years, the T. rex almost wiped out the herb-eating dinosaur. If man keeps eating meat like they're doing, God has no choice but to send the comet. It's the same comet that took out the dinosaurs. It would take out two-thirds of the earth and two-thirds of the people. I also believe that a lot of gods are invisible. They're counseling mortals to do good things."
Going back to Roky Erickson, did his recent personal and professional resurrection inspire your relocation to Austin?
"I have to think that Roky's resurrection was when he sent me a song and asked me if I wanted to do it," responds Saxon without hesitation. "The song was called 'Don't Slander Me.' It became famous in an underground way because it had Mitch Mitchell on it, Jimi Hendrix's drummer. I rewrote it, but I didn't take credit on it. Instead of 'Don't slander me,' I put, 'Don't slander me and my dog.' I brought the dog into it. Because I did that record [1988's World Fantastic], it made a resurrection for him. I actually like to use the word returning. He's returning; I'm returning, like we've always been here.
"I listen to my own records. No one's going to make records like that anymore unless they use the same procedures. All of the Seeds' records were made on 2-inch tape with 16-track analog. That's how you make the hit records."
There's a momentary break in Saxon's streaming narrative as Sabrina brings in a loaf of fresh baked bread and sliced cheddar cheese.
"I'd like to do a 78 vinyl just to be collectable."
What's the Seeds' legacy?
"Their legacy would be flower power. It'll never go away. Flower power is here to stay. It made the earth better. My objection to rock and roll was that Alan Freed named it, and at the time, rock and roll was under payola. I didn't want to be a part of it, so I had to come up with something. I thought, 'flower people, flower rock, flower power'; that was my genre. It was a whole different thing. It was the words I put into it, like 'March of the Flower Children.'
"When I think of all the songs I've written, maybe 10,000, most of them are lost. The ones that stayed are classics. If I were born in England, I could have been the Beatles. And had the Beatles been born in America, they could've been the Seeds. ... I would disqualify every band if they didn't bring in a movement. The Grateful Dead's movement was drugs. They made everyone drug-dependent without trying to get them to God."
A Faded Picture
Two days after the interview, no one expects Saxon to show up at Antone's, where he's booked to headline as World Spirits with Shapes Have Fangs. In fact, those closest to him discourage the notion. His health has taken a sudden, drastic turn for the worse, and his self-medicating isn't working this time. He feels weak and is having difficulty breathing, which has prevented him from attending any of the band's rehearsals.
Sets from the Tunnels and Christian Bland's Revelators seem to drag on through the evening, as if attempting to buy more time. There's still no consensus as to Saxon's whereabouts. Alex Maas and Bland of the Black Angels attempt to stall the crowd, improvising a series of dark, Texas drones.
When Saxon finally appears at the club's front doors close to midnight, he does so unannounced and unassuming, appearing frail and grizzled in his usual garb and skullcap. Onstage he sits down at the front facing the audience and waits for Shapes Have Fangs – guitarist/singer Dustin Coffey, guitarist/keyboardist Skyler McGlothlin, drummer Evan McGlothlin, and bassist Josh Willis – to reposition its gear, still set up from the band's performance earlier in the evening.
What transpires is nothing short of a miracle. With studied enthusiasm, Shapes Have Fangs lock into a hard groove behind "Can't Seem to Make You Mine," each band member bobbing to the beat. Saxon's raspy voice comes through in colors for the closing refrain, repeating the words like a personal prayer.
I can't seem to make you mine.
I can't seem to make you mine.
I can't seem to make you mine.
World Spirits manage four more Seeds' staples – "Pushin' Too Hard," "Evil Hoodoo," "Just Let Go," and "Girl I Want You" – that bottle the group's timeless appeal and playful psychedelia. Then it just ends. Having summoned the last of his strength, Saxon receives help back to his van.
"I know Sky was pleased," relays Coffey later. "He said he felt like it was a great show. It was a nice way to say goodbye together."
Travel With Your Mind
After a brief intermission, Saxon returns to his living room draped in a pale blue scarf, encrusted with small plastic diamonds.
"He's famous for his scarves," Sabrina enthuses.
"From this interview on, you should be Austin Powers Powell, APP," instructs Saxon. "Austin Powers is a copy of the Seeds. The logo and everything, it was the same thing we were doing with the Seeds back then. Look it up. You'll find out it's true. The point is when someone uses three names, you get their attention. Mine is like three lightning bolts: Sky Sunlight Saxon.
"I think everyone should get struck by lightning at least once," he continues almost tauntingly. "How about that? I would rather get struck by lightning than tazed by the police. If I got struck by lightning, I'd be a new person. Something new would happen to me. I would chance it. Why not? You'd come out a superhuman."
He fumbles with his laptop, attempting to play the music he recorded with Yesterday's Thoughts, a retro-psych outfit from Athens, Greece, for 2004's Let's Take a Ride With ... (Sound Effect).
"So anyway, I think all the computers are going to go down," prophesizes the host out of mild frustration. "I give them to 2012. By that time a third of the people using them will be sort of blind. Life will be altered. I'm sure if Elvis were alive today, he'd be shooting computers not TVs. He'd shoot a few TVs, too."
With assistance from Sabrina, he pulls up his own MySpace page, on which both the names Sky Sunlight Saxon and the Seeds are trademarked, and streams all six of the floral relics from 2008's Back to the Garden. Forming a cone out of newspaper, he illustrates the way he achieved the echo-laden effect in "Mystery Man" and is particularly roused by "Halt." He repeats each lyric – apocalyptic visions of war and the redemptive power of Ya Ho Wha – with added emphasis and explanation. He acts out the music with both hands.
"Here's my far-range vision," Saxon offers upon the song's conclusion. "Ninety-seven people onstage all representing different countries, and they're all in the Seeds band. Ninety-seven people bringing peace to the earth. The reason I say 97 is nine and seven is 16. One and six is seven, and seven is the number that rules the power of the whole universe. Maybe I would come out with seven Seeds and then 16 Seeds. Just say my vision is 16 Seeds onstage. That's realistic."
I nod and begin making my way toward the dining room, which is barren save for a beat-up, old piano.
"I was signed by Fred Astaire," Saxon blurts out, as if trying to stop me in my tracks. He takes a seat at the piano and tinkers with a few chord progressions. "I was the reason he got into the music business."
He continues playing, forming a series of circular trills. "Everyone needs to do acid once – especially if you're going to play with me," he cracks. "Then you'll wake up and realize we're all just characters in the Bible."
His hands slowly come to a rest, and he gazes toward the ceiling in the far right corner of the room.
"I don't believe in death; there is no death," Sky Sunlight Saxon reiterates. "In a higher understanding, none of us die; we leave our body. We're going from one room to another room. Once you realize there's no death, then you'll live forever. I believe that going to church is good if you want it to be good, but the greatest church is within. You're the church. The resurrection is living within you."