Confessions of a Garage Rock Junky
“It just seems like when rock and roll is dead the whole world’s gonna explode.”
— Kurdt Kobain
Rock and Roll is the only redeeming invention America has thrown together in its short and bloody history. The antithesis to the atom bomb. I detail my feelings on why that is in a piece I wrote, Bob Dylan Lays Down What Really Killed Rock ’n’ Roll. I’ll be furthering the sentiment in what follows.
What’s often taken for granted in music history is garage rock — what arose out of rock and roll’s 1959 spiritual demise due to big money payola bullshit. Songs like “You’re Gonna Miss Me” by The Thirteenth Floor Elevators signaled a new, weird era that only the tuned-in saw coming. Garage was a primitive answer to the commercial interests taking over: pick up a shoddy guitar, plug it into a janky amp, and start pissing off your neighbors. Stomp that fuzzbox ’til lightning strikes.
Most wouldn’t associate 2018 America with rock, certainly not garage rock. Fact is, whether its starting a band or sucking down carbon monoxide, the garage is the alpha and omega of American life. This is lost on us. In this social media-saturated and anxietized moment where reality TV stars are running the machine, rock is dead at worst, and, at best, some old pastime like eating peanuts on Opening Day at Fenway. But the initiated know better — the garage rock junkies.
And I do mean Junky. As in, William S. Burrough’s semi-autobiographical novel, now considered a seminal text; an unflinching dive into the otherworldly and underground world of addicts in the late 1950’s.
Burroughs was never much of a music fiend (only expressing affinity for the blues singer Lead Belly), let alone any kind of rock and roll aficionado, but he would later become adopted by the early New York punk scene as kind of priestly father figure. ‘The Pope of Dope’ who ushered in an era of kick — kick for insight, but also kick for kicks’ sake: “Kick is seeing things from a special angle. Kick is momentary freedom from the claims of the ageing, cautious, nagging, frightened flesh” (Burroughs, 150).
Me? I’m fixed on garage rock. I get edgy and sexless without it. I drool and moan sweaty-nude on the floor at the very prospect of a good lineup. When I manage to drag myself out of my swamp cooler cave, I crawl on hands and knees across Sunset Blvd., slithering like a lost gopher snake into the Permanent Records store, sucking on the fingertips of the long-haired cashier, the both of us knowing I’m too broke to buy the latest Frankie and the Witch Fingers vinyl: “I’ll do anything, boss man, aaannnyyythinggg…” He chucks a dusty CD at me. “Just take this old Brown Acid and beat it, man…” Well, you get the idea.
And while this analogy of my love for garage rock to that of sickened drug dependency may come off as crude and cavalier, what I experience through the loop of low-fidelity sound is that of consciousness expansion — as opposed to the neurotic narrowing-down that our soul-crushing culture instills in us lately. It’s an expansion not unlike the spiritual effects of using psychedelics… but we’ll get to that.
I stumbled into the current garage rock community like Alice stumbled into Wonderland. The darkly-magickal underworld is both pervasive and uneasy to see in Los Angeles. The city’s warm and glittery surface is enough for most people (it’s enough for me most days). Garage is biggest and most fierce in L.A., but its resurrection began in San Francisco. I remember hearing early Ty Segall — via The Traditional Fools — in college circa 2008. (Already ten years ago. Fuck me.)
After the aughts proved scarce for rock (with few exceptions like Yeah Yeah Yeahs), I was relieved and surprised to suddenly hear the imperfect lo-fi sounds of chunky power chords and fuzzy surf riffs. An early marker for the return of vinyl, it was a timeless sound — essentially American — and as likely to be a lost demo tape from the late ‘60s as much as a fresh sound from a few Fog City rockers. Ty Segall brought that old time religion — rock ’n’ roll — into a 21st century context.
At the time, I never thought much of it beyond the music, and its deeper connection to a burgeoning and cohesive garage scene that arose like a phoenix out of the ashes of the digitally-ruined, post-millennial music industry.
A few years later, I became intimate with today’s garage wave— that is, hooked — as a writer. Writing was my white rabbit. When you’re a prose writer in L.A. you quickly learn how it’s still the Wild West.
There is no publishing industry out here, and there never was. There are no spunky publishers looking out for you in magazine articles, and tuned-in editors scouring the bars for your kind died out with quaaludes. Magazines themselves are run with a Stalinist fervor, where cult-of-personality is the only currency. Any budget there happens to be is spent throwing celebrity parties at the Roosevelt Hotel and keeping managing editors hopped on blow.
You’re on your own. You just need to write, and you need to write right now. DIY or die. Fire ’em out like fanning a revolver and ask questions later.
In that sense, being a writer in L.A. is a lot like being a rock ‘n’ roller in L.A.
For a few years I wrote for the local blog, Janky Smooth, where nothing mattered to my editor other than reviewing live shows and listening to new LP’s until my eyes and ears bled. It was in this time I dove headfirst into the deep end of the scene. And while the garage underground suddenly had a pulse in every major city in America, the blood was pumping most feverishly in L.A. Ground zero.
I had just turned 30 and wasn’t at all ready to lay my youth to rest (especially when Boomers and X’ers kept condescendingly telling me how young I still was, “aww, you’re still a babyyy…”) My four walls were caving in. I was among the watching dead — locked in on streaming content with the shades drawn never knowing what time of day it was. I needed a new kick. I needed to get out. I needed to stay part of the Body — the Party. I needed to move or I would die.
I was revived, my spirit cultivated like Kundalini rising. I was pulled out of the doomed continuum of my late-capitalist, millennial fate. I forced myself out of my comfort zone and I did what Angelenos aren’t known for doing: showing up.
The more I dug, the more that was revealed to me:
Interviewing Cherry Glazerr for their Apocalipstick LP and talking about the contradictive intersection of capitalism and feminism; covering The Regrettes at the Echo when they were still just a two-piece band and opening for Kim & the Created (amazing how quickly that flipped); covering Fuzz at the Troubadour (one of several Ty Segall incarnations); interviewing Charles Moothart on the eve of his solo debut and talking about exorcising demons; covering Satanic doo-woppers Twin Temple at an Anton LaVey Halloween party at the subterranean Hollywood Blvd. bar Madame Siam; interviewing Bonnie Bloomgarden of Death Valley Girls at Red Lion Tavern and talking about spiritualism and the art of pulling lyrics from dreams… the list goes on.
But before all of that, there was the Ho99o9 2015 EP release show for The Horrors of 1999; an unholy baptism in its own right. In the conclusion of my review, I wrote, “There’s a reason the new EP is available to download for free. It’s all about the live shows. Participation. Initiation. There’s freedom in shows like this. Body and souls at the door […] All the free songs in the world won’t save you from the confines of your overpriced studio apartment. Through Ho99o9 in the flesh, if you can bare it, your atrophied soul is rekindled. You are initiated. Beyond. Now get your ass out there and see a show.”
This call-to-action rang true for every show I went to. I found my midnight mass.
The electric guitar became a symbol as much as an instrument. It’s as sacred to me as the Confederate flag to a fire-eyed hillbilly. Except I wouldn’t care if you burned it. That would be the opposite of sacrilege. Burning a guitar into oblivion is, after all, half the fun. Like how Hendrix psychedelicized the guitar in a single act. Burn it so that it may live. This, in tandem with performing the Star-Spangled Banner at Woodstock in ’69 (the best version of our anthem, by the way, sorry to all you feigned patriots), exemplified the guitar for what it is — an electric-powered emblem of the human spirit.
Garage rock has many masks, but there’s one prominent element: psychedelia. Hack music critics often pigeon-hole psychedelic rock as merely a 1960’s sound. For starters, they miss the temporal-shattering effect psychedelics have, and, more importantly, they miss the subtle way in which psychedelia has shaped Americana in the last fifty years.
They especially miss how psychedelia and garage rock have both shared a 21st Century renaissance. This isn’t coincidence.
After fifty years of being relegated to illegality and immorality, psychedelics have been reintroduced into research for depression, terminal illness, and drug addiction. The psychedelic revival was highlighted in a recent New Yorker article, “The Science of the Psychedelic Renaissance: On trip reports from Timothy Leary, Michael Pollan, and Tao Lin.” In it, writer Emily Witt dissects “three new books [that] suggest that psychedelic drugs did not necessarily have the power to rewrite society, but, instead, brought on revelations concerning earthly themes.”
Michael Pollan’s bestseller, How to Change Your Mind attributes the modern resurgence of psychedelics to the year 2006.
In fact, it was around this time I myself discovered psychedelics at the age of 20. In London during the summer of 2005 (and just a day after the 7/7 terrorist bombing), I tried my first “heroic dose” of shrooms. “Magic mushrooms” were street legal at the time and sold for $20/eighth in tourist shops next to “I ❤ London” t-shirts. Thinking it was a gag, I ate the whole eighth and proceeded to meet my classmates at a mandatory field trip to watch a Shakespearean play. Long story short, those shrooms got the jump on me. It was a trip, mind you, in which I experienced disembodied consciousness, spoke telepathically to cosmic voices, and cried over my parents’ divorce for the first time…all the while sitting in the middle of Wyndham’s Theatre during a performance of As You Like It.
Another story for another time. Needless to say, despite years of D.A.R.E. programming in elementary school, psychedelics made themselves at home in my mind’s eye.
Tao Lin, a key figure in the alt-lit movement circa 2011, wrote poetry books and novels whose narrators grapple with numb, existentialist plights — a generation of pillheads clinically diagnosed into perpetual purgatory. This more or less mirrored Lin’s past journey through the pharmaceutical bardo, taking a ‘whatever it takes’ approach to writing in terms of unrestrained amphetamine use. Lin’s latest book, Trip, details his transition to psychedelics, in which he saw a “sustained, conscious effort” to steer clear of that bleak narrowing-down.
As psychedelics pull refugees from my generation out of the big pharma onslaught, its intersection with garage rock is inevitable — synchronistic even. The union has been there from the very beginning; since the mid-’60s acid wave.
I’ve not only encountered bands whose art has been crystallized by their use of psychedelics, but go so far as to trip while performing.
Atom aka Adam Brooks, singer and saxist in the L.A. deathrock band, Egrets On Ergot, is no stranger to LSD onstage. They even dropped hits of acid on the sleeve of their first EP. I interviewed the band at the very bar from which they were banned a few years earlier (Taix on Sunset Blvd.) after indirectly inciting a riot among concert-goers. Atom was very open and raw about his experiences.
“I was obsessed with psychedelics the years leading up to forming the band. I knew whatever I was going to do in any creative endeavor had to be tied in with this substance that really did change me forever.”
Though L.A.-based, their vibe is both rootless and earthly, and you can usually find them performing in the desert void and sleeping in broken down buses among the benevolent acid cults of East Jesus and Slab City.
The band name may sound odd, until you break it down. ‘Egret’ is a bird marked by its long neck and fine, milky white plume. ‘Ergot’ is a fungus that grows on rye grass, which, most notably during the Middle Ages, caused people to hallucinate, writhe in their beds in agony, vomit, and run crazy in the streets. Beauty and madness may seem a trite duality, but in the shadow realm of psychedelics, trite doesn’t mean any less true.
Psychedelics were vital to Egrets On Ergot’s maturation, like the first Neanderthals who gobbled shrooms and started painting on cave walls.
During the interview, Atom brought up a moment he had while on acid with guitarist Crow Jane aka Heather Galipo:
“I was tripping pretty heavily. I remember reaching a mental state, lying on the floor, where we became non-human entities. When I snapped out of it, translated to English, what we were was TAMBA. You were your own, just dancing around, and I was my own, but there was this great unity…”
It’s one thing to intellectually consider unity and dissolution of boundary between inner and outer, but it’s quite another thing to experience it firsthand. It may seem exotic, or idealistic, but for those uninterested in the psychedelic shortcut, it’s as easy as going to a live show in some low-rent L.A. bar (while they still exist).
It was in a dive bar I interviewed Dylan Sizemore, lead singer of Frankie and the Witch Fingers. We were on York Blvd., the main drag in the enclave of Mount Washington and a new haven for L.A. rockers fruitlessly dodging obscene rent and packs of starry-eyed tourists.
The city was in the midst of another blazing, record-setting summer. The dark of the bar and cold beer kept the heat at bay and allowed for us mull over sonic hyperspace. We touched on many subjects, too many to get into here, but the crux was music as transcendental catalyst, and the ways in which it can interreact with psychedelics — like plugging a guitar into a fuzz pedal and stepping on the proverbial gas.
“In the ‘70s, the hippie thing got squashed, but the psychedelic mindset was still there…” Dylan told me. “But it was more like, fuck tie-dye. Things got more earthy. And spacey. [see: Bolan and Bowie] Synthesizers were becoming more popular and there was this sense of ‘we can see the future with psychedelics.’”
Access to altered states have always been around, and we take for granted their Holy Ghost relationship to music — omnipresent and occult.
“Ever since [psych] has been around, it’s been around. There was an ‘80s psychedelic resurgence, there was a ‘90s psychedelic resurgence, and it’s all taken the shape of that time… There’s psych music every decade, and it really evolves with technology and certain things that come about.”
Though versed in the freaky realm of mind expansion, Dylan doesn’t much care for his band to be considered some run-of-the-mill psych rock act. And to the band’s credit, it’s much more than that. Frankie and the Witch Fingers is a seasoned L.A. rock band that has taken flight from the garage and soared to higher fidelity and a formidable body of work.
The influence of psychedelics on Dylan’s evolution as an artist, however, is undeniable, and I appreciated his candidness with his personal experiences. How did he go from rural-Midwest folk rocker to fronting a wall-blasting quartet with ‘Witch Fingers’ in the name?
“I didn’t really get into what we’re doing now until the first time I did Molly [at a show]. I had done acid once, but it hadn’t connected music and drugs for me. I didn’t know what the effects of Molly were, I was at this small basement show, and when I started coming up, this super energetic band, OBN IIIs, started playing. Someone had tipped the singer that I was rolling my face off… but just from looking at me, he could probably tell. So he totally performed in a way that enhanced the experience. He would [do things like] fuck with the light bulb while looking at me. That really stuck out to me. I could feel the energy of this band and all I wanted to do was give it back.”
It gave him the dual perspective of performer/audience, knowing what’s it like for a band to lift him to that kind of elation, and wanting to reciprocate.
“This has such an effect on you as a person. If you can make that connection to the listener, to the participant, to the audience — then it’s fucking divine. It’s like church. It is church.”
Shared, spontaneous visions. Transcedence on-demand. I riffed as I swigged my beer.
“Absolutely. Music opens that. It’s a language we all speak.”
“After I had this experience on Molly, I realized the importance of how music sounds,” he tells me. “I had never heard music through…I guess you could call it…your ‘primitive’ ears. What psychedelics do is awaken parts of your brain that have been dulled down over time. So, in terms of sounds, take the fact that there’s a ton of people talking all around us. And we’re not listening to any of that. But if we were on psychedelics right now, we’d hear everyone’s conversation. That’s where my psychedelic exploration started — listening to music. These drugs made music tangible and revealed dimensions that I wouldn’t have normally thought about. So that’s when I started playing with a louder band. Instead of playing this sleepy, stoner music, I wanted to freak out.”
I know in the past that members of the band have performed high, and I probe Dylan on what that’s like.
“I’ve learned that it’s hit or miss. Sometimes it can be this holy shit moment, like, ‘Communication was great! Everyone was tight! We were this free-form organism!’ And then sometimes it can be, like, ‘Wow, I could only hear my own guitar and it sounded like a dragon…I shouldn’t have eaten that much acid.’ [both laugh] That was at an earlier stage of performing where we could experiment, but with the music we’re writing and the shows we’re playing, I don’t think I would take psychedelics at this point. It’s fine for writing or practicing, but people come to see the best we can be.”
As philosopher Alan Watts once said, ‘When you get the message, hang up the phone.’ It’s not like what these tech bros are doing with micro-dosing.
“That’s just the capitalistic side of it: How can I be a better robot for the Man?”
Now that Dylan’s on the other side of the looking glass from that basement show on Molly, I asked what his relationship is now to his audience.
“It’s church. Anyone can come. The strongest point of our band has been the live performance. We love to record, but the biggest return is after a show and hearing from people in the flesh. I want to be able to steer a crowd. It’s really fun — to play music that makes people hang on and go, ‘Oh shit, where are we going?!’ There’s no better feeling. Like, that is the point of the music. And then it happens. There are two parts for me: the music and the performance. We spend 24 hours a day making music we would want to hear, and then when we get together as a band it’s, like, how are we going to take this and freak people out?”
Like a good trip, a good rock show gets people outside of themselves — blasts ‘em outta their skin. Live shows, especially nowadays, is what it’s all about. Ripping songs is as easy as streaming porn, and record sales are only for the true believers and gimme-gimme junkies. Appearing in obscure towns across America, like a string of UFO sightings, is the only way rock bands can hope to stay alive. And like UFO sightings, the life-altering phenomenon of rock shows exists, if only we break the modern spell and look upward.
We get back to the sound, and hearing with psychedelic ears. What is it about garage rock that’s so elemental?
“You’ve heard ‘Louie Louie’ a hundred times. You’ve heard a fucking marching band play ‘Louie Louie.’ But nothing compares to the first time you hear ‘Louie Louie’ on acid,” Dylan says with a grin. “And you’re like, goddamn, this sounds crazy. It’s one microphone, in one room. But because of the tones of the instruments through these beautifully handcrafted amps, and the sheer spontaneity of how it came together, you can’t help but think, ‘There’s something to this music.’ This music that you hear all the time in commercials, it’s just nostalgic, but when you listen to it on acid, you realize they were on another plane. And maybe they couldn’t play their instruments well, but they played them in a way that reflects this idea of primitive knowledge that no one’s [consciously] aware of.”
In 1964, the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover investigated “Louie Louie” for several months after enough handwringing parents wrote letters in concern, in an attempt to decipher some encoded obscenity in its unintelligible lyrics. All in vain, of course. The song lives on as one of the greatest rock songs ever recorded.
“That’s what makes garage rock so special. It’s primitive and simple. Most of these bands were teenagers. You picture teenagers in a garage, picking up instruments, playing for a couple months, and they decide to be a band. They have one single, and it goes on a compilation that lasts forever. The Nuggets compilation is still a huge inspiration for a bazillion bands. That’s what my idea of garage rock is. This higher knowledge within really primitive music. And that’s even more psychedelic because now you’re talking about where it all began. Before you had influence, you already knew how to play music. ‘Louie Louie’ was on [the radio] forever because it’s so psychedelic. Because it came from a mind that was turned on to more than what was going on at the time.”
Rock and roll transformed humanity for the better, and psychedelics transformed rock and roll for the better. An amplified ouroboros. This is best exemplified by the sharp evolution of The Beatles. The same band who wrote “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” went on to write “Revolution 9.” Dylan becomes hushed, as if concerned others around could hear us:
“It’s because they got turned on. Everything you create is influence. Everything the Beatles were doing was influenced by R&B and blues. But then you take psychedelics and you tune in to something that’s more than influence. It’s this natural thing that occurs in your mind. These ideas, these reflections of the universe and being connected. They became obsessed. Their whole message was love, and that’s where that comes from. John Lennon isn’t gonna be obsessed with love until he trips his balls off. When you’re talking about innovation, altered states is the name of the game — drugs or no drugs.”
Frankie and the Witch Fingers is on the road as I write this, playing a two-week stretch through the heart of America. I can only hope those who show up are forever changed the way Dylan was in that basement show all those years ago.
Altered states are populated with visions. Ancients likened it to a spirit realm where prophecies were bestowed by ancestors. The go-betweens, or spiritual adepts (priests), were shamans who would visit these realms and bring back a vision that would heal the tribe. In the current Information Age, where cultural gatekeepers are losing their grip, we are all shamans, if we so choose. Information is out there to be perceived, and we now have unprecedented means to express our individual experiences. We are all shamans talking to each other.
What I experience in today’s underground rock revival, there is no longer a heightened stage (i.e. pedestal) that the performer is on, doling out higher knowledge to an unwitting audience. Now the playing field is level, and we’re playing to each other. Now it’s a church with no authority.
Like the proto-shoegazey demureness of the Paisley Underground, the tripped-out garage wave of the 2010’s is benevolent and communal. Except what’s going on now is much more in-your-face — like riot grrrl medicine men — like a dark, spiritual wake-up call — like an ayahuasca romp in the jungle — like Mother Gaia bringing down the wrath. Year after year, the west coast burns and the east coast floods as we continue buying into our perceived separateness from the environment. The need for a new world right now screams from the underground through shoddy, fuzzed-out amps.
Not surprisingly, several bands did not return request for comment as to their psychedelic use. Strides have been made, but the stigma lingers. And make no mistake, the sheer amount of musicians out there that have pierced the veil is staggering.
It’s still up in the air whether today’s psychedelic garage rock will move out from the underground and alchemize the greater human life, as it has alchemized mine and the lives of others. I think it already has. Garage requires no commercial success to affect its culture. Like fungus, rock thrives in the dark. It needs no thank you, no award show recognition. It’ll keep doing what it’s always done — invading the minds of the young at heart and those that have at least some reservation as to what our maniacal culture offers us.
Lo-fi Connection — Grounding to Gaia like copper wire alchemists — In the beginning there was the Word — Vibration — Frequency — Sonic waves are the voice of God — It’s church — Come as you are.