Travel With Your Mind: Sky Saxon Remembered
Sky Saxon, lead singer with 60s garage punk legends the Seeds, died on the morning of June 25, 2009 (or as his official web site put it, he “passed over to be with YaHoWha”); as it happened, he died the same day as both Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett, ensuring that the entertainment press, who might have been expected to treat his passing like a one-line filler item, didn’t even give it that much attention. But Saxon hadn’t been a celebrity in the traditional sense for a very long time. Sky may have been a rock star for about two years on the strength of the singles “Pushin’ Too Hard” and “Can’t Seem To Make You Mine,” but after those twenty-four months as a bargain-basement Mick Jagger, he evolved into Flower Power’s Last Man Standing, a guy who let his freak flag fly with a wild-eyed sincerity that made most of his peers from the Sunset Strip scene look like weekenders, and transformed his story into something far more interesting than the typical two-hit wonder and cult hero.
Sky Saxon was born Richard Marsh in Salt Lake City, Utah; depending on which source one cites, Marsh was born in either 1937, 1945 or 1946. Whatever his age, Marsh lit out for the bright lights of Los Angeles, California in the early 60s, determined he was going to be a singing star. Under the name Dick Marsh, he cut his first single in 1963, “What Chance Have I” b/w “There’s Only One Girl,” and quickly released three more singles as Ritchie Marsh or Little Ritchie Marsh; the material was well-executed but lightweight assembly-line pop of the teen idol variety, complete with honking saxophone and adenoidal vocals, and the only thing that links them to his later work is Marsh’s willingness to throw himself into the emotional deep end on tunes like “Baby Bay Baby” or “They Say.” By 1964, Marsh had adopted the stage name Sky Saxon, and cut a pair of singles that, like his earlier releases, didn’t go too far. (Most of these pre-Seeds sides can be heard on the 2003 Norton Records collection A Starlight Date With Richard Marsh.)
In 1965, Saxon met a guitarist named Jan Savage and they started talking about forming a band. Bringing in Daryl Hooper on keyboards and Rick Andridge on drums, they became the Seeds and started playing clubs on the L.A. rock circuit. A far cry from the well-scrubbed teenage charm of Ritchie Marsh, the Seeds conjured up a sound that was grimy and minimal, built around cyclical melodic patterns and Hooper’s relentless keyboard riffs (one critic suggested that he only knew one solo but played it over and over in different keys and octaves on each song). Long before the word “psychedelic” gained common currency in the pop music scene, the Seeds cultivated a distinctly druggy sound and aura, and several of their early tunes (such as “Mr. Farmer” and “Rollin’ Machine”) pointed to their inescapable love of marijuana. GNP/Crescendo Records signed the Seeds to a record deal, and in 1966 their first single, “Pushin’ Too Hard,” quickly climbed the charts. With Saxon’s sneering vocals, Hooper’s loping keyboard lines and Savage’s … well, savage guitar breaks, the tune was an especially potent example of California garage punk, and soon the Seeds were one of the biggest draws in town. In quick succession, the Seeds cranked out two albums in 1966, The Seeds and A Web Of Sound, and charted two more singles, the oft-banned “Mr. Farmer” and the more successful “Can’t Seem To Make You Mine.” (The latter became something of a garage rock standard, covered by the Ramones, Johnny Thunders and most notably Alex Chilton, whose version sounds positively deranged.) However, the glorious crudity of the Seeds didn’t leave them much room for advancement, and after 1967’s Future, an ambitious concept album that sounds more clunky and pretentious than anything else, things began to go downhill for the band, and within a year they released a live album as well as a set of blues workouts credited to the Sky Saxon Blues Band, though the lineup was the same as the Seeds. In 1968, they were reduced to something like self-parody, playing a hapless rock band called the Warts on an episode of the sit-com The Mothers-In-Law (they do just fine miming to “Pushin’ Too Hard,” but while none of the Seeds were actors, Sky’s slack jawed mugging suggests he was under the influence on the day of filming.)
The Seeds limped along for a few years, releasing a few singles on various labels, until the band finally called it a day in 1972. However, by this time Saxon had become interested in loftier pursuits. Tunes from Future like “Travel With Your Mind” and “Where Is The Entrance Way To Play” suggested Sky was interested in something a bit deeper than the grungy sneer of the Seeds, and in the early 1970s he fell in with the Source Family, a spiritual commune overseen by one Father Yod, aka YaHoWha (born James Edward Baker). The Source Family was affiliated with a successful vegetarian restaurant in Los Angeles (the eatery financed the family’s activities), and when they weren’t serving food, they were walking a spiritual path that combined Eastern mysticism and an understanding of “vibrations” with a desire to return to the ways of nature. Saxon became a passionate devotee of Father Yod’s teachings; he changed his name to Sunlight, became a member of the Source Family’s experimental psychedelic music group Yahowha 13, and when the commune moved en masse to Hawaii in 1974, Sunlight joined them. The one-time rock star’s public profile dropped to zero as he and his fellow seekers followed Father Yod’s edicts of sharing, respecting the Earth and not allowing lust to interfere with spiritual love (a big jump for the guy who recorded the marathon paean to teenage sex, “Up In Her Room”). Sunlight also developed a special concern for dogs, believing they had a special connection with the Heavenly Father (just read dog backwards … see?) and he worked with animal rescue groups.
Unlike most rockers who flirted with arcane religious pursuits in the late 60s and early 70s, Sunlight never walked away from the Source Family and Father Yod’s teachings, though he did return to California in the late 70s, moving back and forth between Hawaii and California for most of the rest of his life. (He also helped compile a box set of rare YaHoWha 13 recordings, called God and Hair.) As the garage rock revival took hold and a handful of punk rockers name-checked the Seeds as a primal influence, Sunlight found that he had a small but loyal following, and while few outside of this band of loyalists were paying much attention, he began making music again, calling himself Sky Sunlight Saxon and mixing covers of the old Seeds standards with tunes that reflected his newer spiritual direction. Just a list of the names of his various bands of the 70s and 80s tells a tale in itself: Fire Water Air, Stars New Seeds, Universal Stars Peace Band, Purple Electricity, Fire Wall, Fast Planet, the Dragonslayers. Saxon assembled a new version of the Seeds and hit the road, though most of time Saxon was the only original Seed in the band (the rotating lineup at various times included Mars Bonfire, the studio keyboardist who wrote “Born To Be Wild,” and Don Bolles, drummer with the Germs, and the notion of one band finding room for both of those people is slightly mind boggling). Much of the time, Saxon’s new music made him sound like a slightly addled old hippie, but he also came off as a gentle eccentric with a plentiful head of energy and a willingness to do right by his increasingly warped legend.
In 2009, Sky Saxon relocated to Austin, Texas, a town noted for its friendliness to aging psychedelic rangers, and he continued to perform as his official website proclaimed him “King of garage rock! Master of psychedelia! Godfather of punk! Founding father of flower power!” That must have been a heavy legacy for one man to shoulder, and though Saxon soon found an unexpected patron in Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins, who recorded a tune with him, “Choose To Choose Love,” his health began to fail, and only a day after he played a show in Austin on June 20 with local band Shapes Have Fangs, Saxon was hospitalized, and succumbed to heart and liver failure on the morning of June 25. Or at least that’s how most of us look at it. As for Sunlight, only a few months before he passed on, he told an interviewer, “Well, I think you could retire when you die. I don’t, however, believe in death, so I guess I will retire when I leave my body. But I plan to continue writing and performing in heaven.” So who knows? Maybe Sky Saxon and Michael Jackson are teaming up for a double bill in The Great Blue Yonder at this moment. And why not? They both loved animals.