By JAYME KELLY CURTIS
The phrase “keep the faith” recently took on a whole new meaning for a local music icon now entering his seventh decade. Back in March of 1968, RCA released a self-titled first album by an East Coast psychedelic band calling itself Autosalvage. Not much happened. Fast forward 44 years and the remnants of the band have found themselves preparing for a 40-minute slot at South By Southwest (SXSW), the holy grail of gigs for up-and-coming bands hoping to ascend to the rock star life.
Though rock-star status has eluded him (so far), Rick Turner, the creative genius behind Santa Cruz’s Renaissance Guitar Company, has made his mark in rock & roll in several arenas. As a guitar builder, Turner has created instruments for some of the most enduring figures in rock, including Lindsay Buckingham and Jesse Colin Young. And it’s widely known that the sounds we now take for granted wouldn’t be possible without Turner’s groundbreaking guitar pick ups, which have become a standard in the industry.
Turner got his start touring and recording with Canadian folk duo Ian & Sylvia.His college roommates became the iconic sixties band The Youngbloods. “Banana (aka Lowell Levinger), Michael Kane and I met at Boston University in 1963. We were the three guys who refused to wear the brown beanies at freshman initiation. We thought they were stupid,” he said. “Later we formed a band called Banana and The Bunch: Old Time Music with Appeal.”
Turner’s life reads like a Who’s Who of rock & roll. As one of the inventors of the first true active electronics to be installed in musical instruments, he toured with the Grateful Dead’s sound crew. Along the way he formed a lifelong friendship with the late Owsley “Bear” Stanley, the LSD pioneer who was busy dosing everybody who drifted into his path. Felix Papparlardi was the best man at his first wedding. He even dated Joan Baez’s sister (the beguiling Mimi, muse and widow of Richard Farina). By virtue of his association with pioneering guitar electronics company Alembic, Inc., Turner earned a place in John Bassett McCleary’s Hippie Dictionary, sealing his status as a serious player in the counter culture. You can look him up on page 20.
In 1988, Turner was startled to discover that the original 1968 Autosalvage recording had been reissued on vinyl by the Edsel label. “I was living in West Hollywood and I wandered down to Tower Records. I saw this bin marked Autosalvage, loaded with records and I thought ‘Oh how cute. Some young band is using our name.’ Then I realized it was our album and there were a dozen of them in the bin.” Turner got in touch with the band and with the label. The guys each got a check for an underwhelming $112. “And I still am not sure what the money was for,” he said. “I’m not even sure they did it officially with RCA.”
And then it happened again. In 2001 UK-based label Acadia Records reissued the recording on CD, complete with informative historical liner notes. The reissue is distributed by Universal Music (#ACA 8011). The CD seems to be selling and, in August of 2012, reporter Ed Ward tracked down the band for a feature story on NPR’s “Fresh Air.” The band has a core group of fans and the album frequently pops up on Top 100 Psychedelic lists, according to Turner. “Original copies of the album have become quite collectible,” he said. “I’ve seen them go for as much as $90 on eBay.”
So where’s the money? According to Turner, a predictable record business paradigm is in play. “You don’t see jack diddley squat until the record company recoups its investment,” he said. “And the way the contracts are written, it’s almost impossible for the record company to recoup. That’s the shell game that’s played. But we did get a $25,000 advance back in 1967. That was big money back then.”
A SHORT, STRANGE TRIP
“I was walking down Bleecker Street in New York in 1967 and ran into Tom Danaher, an old buddy of mine from Boston who’d bought out the contents of a music store that had recently failed. We jammed a bit and Tom asked me if I wanted to start a band. Sylvia Tyson had decided to take a break from touring because she was pregnant. So I was at loose ends. We pulled in Darius LaNoue Davenport on drums, and Skip Boone on bass.”
Though Turner was the only member of the quartet with professional music experience, Darius and Skip both came with some pedigree. Darius’s father was a member of the New York Pro Musica. Skip’s brother Steve Boone was The Lovin’ Spoonful’s drummer. “So we had some connections,” said Turner.
The Spoonful, who were on tour much of the time, weren’t using their rehearsal space in the basement of the Albert Hotel. “We borrowed the use of the Spoonful’s access to the Albert before Skip convinced Steve and the Spoonful management to get us a ‘real’ rehearsal space on 7th Avenue.” (Note: The Albert was a notorious Greenwich Village crash pad for rock bands such as the Electric Flag, Canned Heat, Cream, Paul Butterfield and the Blues Project, andmore. Michelle and John Phillips allegedly wrote “California Dreamin’” there.)
“In the year and a half we were together, we played maybe 30 gigs and the album got a few good reviews. One of our most significant gigs was opening for the Mothers of Invention at the Balloon Farm, one of the stops on Frank Zappa’s first East Coast tour. Frank loved us but he hated our name. Frank suggested we change our name to Autosalvage, the title of a long jam tune we had written. I think we’d been calling ourselves the Northern Lights back then. The Youngbloods were with RCA Records, so we made a cool connection there and that’s how we got signed.” (Note: The Balloon Farm was a brief incarnation of an uncommonly strange East Village nightclub better known as The Electric Circus. The club featured light shows, music, circus performers and experimental theater. The Velvet Underground was the house band.)
RCA booked Autosalvage into Studio B, which Turner was familiar with from sessions with Ian & Sylvia. “Nobody knew how to deal with us at that point,” said Turner. “We were feedback loud and lovin’ it. At that time, all the really loud psychedelic bands were out on the West Coast. Nobody in New York had dealt with a band this loud. But RCA staff producer Bob Cullen gave us free rein to make the record and we just cut loose. It also helped that Studio B was one of the world’s first 8-track studios. We were like kids in a candy store.”
It’s no surprise Zappa felt an affinity for Autosalvage. Their music was not only loud, it was complicated. Autosalvage’s music is told by frequent tempo changes, composed parts, and construction that went far beyond the usual “verse, chorus, bridge” framework of most popular music. “It was a lot of composition,” says Turner, “We played worked out parts. We were not very improvisatory and I think that’s the one thing that might have changed if we had all moved to California at the same time. We would have stretched out a bit.”
As in real estate, location mattered when it came to finding long-term success. “Unless you were a neo-Chicago blues band or a pop rock band, there wasn’t any work. We were just on the wrong coast,” said Turner. “Pioneering San Francisco DJs like KSAN’s Voco (who was busy inventing modern FM radio) loved us. I came out to California as the advance man. But we also had a musical parting of the ways. Tom and I wanted to push deeper into what we were doing. Darius and Skip wanted a more ‘normal’ sounding band.”
SXSW takes place each March in Austin, Texas. More than 2,000 hopeful bands annually vie for the attention of more than 13,000 music industry representatives. It’s a place where dreams are realized, famously launching the careers of rocker John Mayer, British singer James Blunt and more. The Austin Music Awards traditionally kick off the festival. In 2011 the Foo Fighters chose SXSW to screen their documentary Back and Forth, followed by a surprise live performance by the band which debuted the entirety of their then-upcoming album Wasting Light.
To say this is an important gig is putting it mildly, even if it’s coming 45 years after Autosalvage’s star initially blinked. The NPR journalist Ed Ward suggested that we apply,” said Turner. “And then he went a step further and used his connections to put in a good word for us. We’re even getting strong interest from a major indie record producer who’s worked with Joan Osborne, Willie Nelson and Prince.”
So how does a band that hasn’t played together in 45 years prepare for such an auspicious gig? “We’re writing new material,” says Turner. Keep the faith, Bro.