Sky Saxon: The long strange trip of a psychedelic innovator

 By  Austin Powell
Sky Saxon, second from the right, was the frontman for the psychedelic garage band The Seeds. (GNP Crescendo Recordings)
Sky Saxon, second from the right, was the frontman for the psychedelic garage band The Seeds. (GNP Crescendo Recordings)
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, Texas, 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.

In late June, 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. 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 ’60s,” 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 Is: 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 on Aug. 20, though the exact year remains unknown, the dates given in various interviews ranging from 1937 to 1946. In the early ’60s, 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’ 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. 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.

Upon his arrival in Austin, 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, 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 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 U.K.

“The big thing for people to realize is that he’s a master lyricist and a master spontaneous lyricist,” says Sabrina Sherry Smith Saxon, the singer’s wife of two years. A generation his junior, she exudes the aura of the newly converted, clearly fascinated by his story and utterly devoted to his career, serving as his manager, booking agent and publicist.

In response and then, with the wave of his right hand, Saxon adds: “I channel. I channel. I’ve been rehearsing for a thousand years.

“You can quote me on this,” continues 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 [gone] way past 2012, but if people keep eating meat, God’s going to view it like the T. rex … 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. ”

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.

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 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.”    

Originally published in its entirety in the Austin Chronicle on July 24, 2009.

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