Feature music article by curator of 'Music Over Mind', Dr. Thomas Stanley "Laughs Last" / The Bevis Griffin Story (slight return)
Life is a blues. This unsolicited journey is an aching puzzle of disappointment and disillusion occasionally interrupted by glimpses of joy and searing spasms of pain. The vibrant intensity of love always shares the room with the phlegmy anguish of loss. And this journey is inevitably terminated against its strongest instincts. In the illuminated East, holy men have cultivated powerful techniques of breath and posture through which the best among them claim to have burned away their body cage with all its limits and deficiencies and to have realized a blissful saffronorange liberation (moksha). Here in the Slaveship West, we have no such holy men. But some among us have in fact learned how to pour their red blood into these deep blues long enough and in just the right proportions to transform the hue of this melancholic entrapment into brilliant shades of purple. Jimi did it before he folded shop at the tender age of 27. Sun Ra danced beneath his glittery heliotrope standard, until he flew it off the planet after a mere 79 revolutions around our star. Neither one of these purple men is alive to tell us what they did and how they did it. Here then is a story told in purple by the one who lived it. This story begins in the City of Angels:
I would say I grew up comfortably, by 1960 standards, middle class. Both of my parents were working parents. My dad [Melvin] owned his own barbershop business enterprise. My mother [Navoline], once I got old enough to attend school, she took employment as store managers. We were almost considered as latchkey kids, except they made sure that there was a responsible adult in the household when we got home. I never had any outstanding financial stress or concerns as a child. Obviously, looking back we were still a relatively poor working class blue collar family, but there were two cars in the garage. We were changing clothes with the seasons. I always had spending change. The furniture was always crisp. I like to tell younger people that I grew up racially unfiltered. South Central Los Angeles was racially diverse; it was heavily integrated in the late 50s. A lot of people wouldn't accept that at face value. There were a lot of European families, people from Romania, the Baltic regions interspersed with the Hispanics and blacks. I grew up having white baby sitters. One of my principle babysitters was a white Ukrainian lady that lived right next door to me. When I was going through my elementary to junior high transitions, I had Asian girlfriends, and Mexican girlfriends. My first experience ever on a live stage was accidental. My mother had taken me to see the Lionel Hampton Orchestra perform at a neighborhood movie theater. This is in Los Angeles and I basically was so fascinated with the sound and the glitz of that live band/orchestra that I went right down to the orchestra pit at five years old and I was just on this automatic boogie mode. And I was just dancing in these aisles. Being a cute little kid in short pants, they thought that that was cute and they paired me up with another little girl that also had her little groove on and put us both on the stage above the orchestra pit to dance together. And that was the first time I ever experienced live applause. In 1968, marital problems force Bevis’ parents apart. His mother takes the children to Wichita Falls, Texas to live with her mother.
The move to Wichita Falls was very traumatic on several levels and not just the fact of being disenfranchised from my father. I had really just started to get my bearings in Los Angeles as a young teenager and the year 1968 was really a hot year musically speaking. I was just starting to find my way around the city and seeking out various musical events that a minor could attend. It was also a situation where I was just experiencing the aftermath of the Watts riots of 1965 which had really created a form of dystopia in South Central Los Angeles.
The year that I went to high school was the same year that they had forced busing. The civil rights initiative had come to a point where it was like you're not getting the government subsidies that you're requesting unless you comply with this busing mandate They closed a perfectly new beautiful black high school and dispersed all the kids to these five preexisting white schools around the city and that created a racial tension that was on parallel with what I presumed you would have experienced in Selma, or Montgomery Alabama back in 1961 or ‘62. It was a complete throwback to that.
I'll tell you unequivocally the first 90 days were knife fights, club battles. I'm talking about baseball bats and things like that. It was extremely violent and me being from Los Angeles, I'm almost ashamed to say, I kind of thrived on that. I grew up in L.A. in a rough hood: 74th St. between Wadsworth and McKinley. This was before Bloods and Crips; back then we were called Slausons. And we literally would have to fight for territorial respect. Just going to another school for an intermural sports event was a big deal, you know what I'm saying. I would say I was an affiliate because to be a hard core gang member you would to have had to have come out of the army or something like that. That was the kind of mentality that I grew up with, although I really hated violence as a concept. It was kind of a do or die thing: You either knuckled up or you stayed home and that's just the way it was. By the time I got to Texas, I was kind of comfortable with that If it was about some squabbles, I was pretty much in the mix just because I was wired that way. Ultimately, as soon as these schools started to benefit from the competition with these black athletes in the mix, all that anxiety went to the left. All that stuff subsided. It got real quiet real quick once they saw that these black athletes were bolstering their sports programs.
I had been woodshedding on drums for about three years up to that point but I was classically trained in woodwinds and so it wasn’t difficult for me to take the musical staffs for drum rudiments and put those together. I selftaught myself to play drums. I was one of those kids that would beat the shit out of a coffee table for no good reason. I always loved the drums. We were protometal. This is preBand of Gypsys. Once I joined Franklin’s mast it took on a different dynamic because I was really rooted in and influenced by that Mitch Mitchell drum style. I had to discipline myself to get into a heavy pocket mode because I was just so intrigued by the musicality of Mitch Mitchell’s drumming style. By reading every little bit and tidbit of Jimi Hendrix minutia, I eventually gleaned that Mitch Mitchell was heavily influenced by Elvin Jones and that was my entrée into the whole jazz milieu – Elvin Jones, Coltrane, Art Blakey, and subsequently Charlie Parker, Philly Joe Jones, and all that. I had started listening to all these heavy duty jazz drummers. I knew I was way out of my depth, but I was also young and naïve enough not to be intimidated. I was just going through the woodshed process. I would listen to that stuff and I would cop as many licks as I could even though they were always out of context, you know. I really embraced that attitude from the beginning. I graduated high school at 16. I went back to California after I graduated from Wichita Falls High School. I went back to California to be with my dad for a little while. He had just been released from a sanatorium. He had been afflicted with tuberculosis and they used to quarantine TB victims back then. Once they released him from quarantine, I went back. Ostensibly, I was going to go to college and enrolled in L.A. City College. I was going to study architecture because I always had a good artistic hand. I was above average in math and I was really interested in building. But my dad had always been in the crux of Los Angeles’ musical community. His barber shop was just a block away from this real popular 1950s, early 60s night spot called the FiveFour Ballroom which was a staple of the chittlin’ circuit. And because my dad used to run afterhours gambling operations – like crap games and card games – he would have these late night card games going on and these musicians would come and gamble with my dad and that’s how my he became friendly with a lot of them. He was friends with blues singer O. V. Wright. That was the first gig that I got. I went out on the road with O. V. Wright for almost four months in 1971. I got stranded by O. V. Wright in Canton, Ohio of all places – in the winter. He had gotten upside down with some gambling debt and just tipped out on the band. He just split in the middle of the night. I was going to try and tough it out and then my mother told me that my friend Jimmy Saurage was calling me from Austin Texas and had left these numbers, and I called Jimmy and he was like, “yeah I moved down here to Austin and I really was wondering if you would like to come down and jam because I want to restart the band. I was really hoping that you would think about coming down to join me.”
I was 18, going on 19, when I came down to Austin in the winter of 1971. We started performing together in 1972 in earnest. We had been exposed to a lot of the top Austin bands up in Wichita Falls when we were still in high school, because we would open a lot of dates for touring bands like ZZ Top and Trapeze and things like that. That’s where I first met people like Tommy Shannon and Uncle John Turner who had previously been principle members of the Johnny Winter Trio, the Progressive Blues Experiment. They did the whole ride when Johnny got signed with CBS to this massive record deal. These guys were the first real rock stars that I ever met. Johnny and Unc were like the real deal. They had played Woodstock; they knew Jimi Hendrix. All these things that I had only read about, they had done all these things. The drummer Uncle John who passed away a couple of years ago was one of my early mentors. He was one of those guys who could see my raw talent, see my raw unbridled enthusiasm and try to temper it. He tried to put some finesse into my game. I was dressing like Hendrix in Wichita Falls. That was just like being black twice, because the homophobia was off the chain. You don’t even have a frame of reference to what that was like. People were treating me like a Martian, except the upside was that the girls were enamored of that. I was as close as any of them were going to get to meeting Jimi Hendrix. We embraced that whole thing about androgyny. To me that was like the next wave. To me it was a godsend. To be honest with you, the reason that that stuff worked was I don’t know. You’d have to think about it on two planes. I even question myself about why did I take that path when there was a fork in the road. You have to understand that I totally embraced rocknroll as an alternative lifestyle. It wasn’t like a day job. It wasn’t something that I just did at night. We walked around getting arrested for female impersonation in broad daylight. They knew that we were basically off the chain. When I say they I’m talking about the police. When I would go out to East Texas or West Texas or Southern Texas to tour, that’s where it became dangerous. Because that’s where you would run into straightup Ku Klux Klan enclaves, where they don’t play that at all. And you roll into town with your little crew and, of course, it’s on the grapevine among the high school set and all these little cute cheerleaders and their friends come over and they’re smoking weed and drinking wine and they’re trying to get next to the situation, up close and personal, yeah, real personal. But their boyfriends, or their brothers and cousins aren’t necessarily digging that vibe. So we’ve had chainsaws taken to our equipment trailer before or had all of our tires flattened. I’ve had police, you know, like caravans of police stop us in midstream, dismantle the automobile, take everything out of the equipment van, looking for any reason [to arrest us]. They used to bust us for things like lewd and lascivious behavior, female impersonation, intent to incite riot, so on and so forth. That only amplified our reputation in Austin; we were getting props for that. The same way that the Sex Pistols and bands like the New York Dolls would get props, we were getting the same type of props for being so countercultural that people considered us dangerous and borderline insane.
There were a lot of people like that. I just happened to be one of the only black people in the state of Texas that looked like that. I naturally would jump out, because unfortunately, I was more often than not, the only black person in the environment. That definitely puts an exclamation point on the situation. So I capitalized on all of that, as far as my little naïve social strata was concerned, I had it going on. I was free wheeling and when I got to Austin, it just went to a whole nother paradigm. When I got to Austin, it was tantamount to when Dorothy opened the door after the tornado dropped her in the Land of Oz and everything went from sepia to technicolor. Now I’m in a situation where as freaky as I was, there was a lot of people trying to be as freaky as I was and I was still kind of a stand out because I was coming from a different flavor. It was just a point in time, like a confluence of all these things.
The band Franklin’s Mast became a really interesting experiment because what we were trying to do was establish who we were and by the same token we were still trying to learn how to play. It wasn’t like we were sitting here like seasoned veterans. We were still in a sense kind of like punk rockers, meaning that we had the will and the desire we just didn’t have tenure and the fully developed skill sets but we were going on a lot of attitude. Jimmy was a big Beatles fan and knew a lot of Beatles songs and he also was a couple of years older than me so he had a little bit more sensibility and reverence for what we call the golden age of rocknroll. He liked Elvis Presley a lot. He liked Roy Orbison. And he would pull these things out of the woodwork, which was a different frame of reference from what I was really digging. Obviously I was into Hendrix, I was into Buddy Miles and Electric Flag, definitely I was into Sly Stone, so I’m always trying to take everything that he was trying to do and make it funky. Whatever he did I was just trying to put some kind of funk texture or funk tapestry into it. Jimmy was very talented and very amorphous; he wasn’t very rigid at all. He went from being a big fish in a small pond to damn near invisible in Austin and the only way that he was going to reassert himself in a city that was full of veteran guitar players was to amplify our stage presence. That was the thing that set Franklin’s Mast apart from the pack.
But this was still in the aftermath of the Age of Aquarius and Austin was inundated with drug use. Everybody had their feet in the water. I was still so young. A lot of people in my circles, circles that I ran in were doing amphetamines. Some of them were dabbling with cocaine, but cocaine was expensive. It wasn’t a whole lot of cocaine use going on in the 70s. It was mostly speed because speed is cheap. Some people were doing a lot of methamphetamine. A lot of it was what
we used to call trucker’s pills – black mollies and white crosses and things like that. There was a lot of people that were eating acid – a lot. I didn’t see the long term benefit in continuing to do acid. Acid was usually a huge distraction from the flow. I couldn’t remember a lot of things that happened under the influence of LSD. And I never liked to be in a situation where I felt more vulnerable because I always felt like I was under surveillance anyway. I felt more paranoid than the average individual just because of the police harassment that I used to experience. I wanted to be able to at least talk, or think, or fight my way out of a corner if I got jackedup. San Francisco didn’t have shit on Austin. I tell people all the time that it was Austinites that influenced the hippy scene in San Francisco. Those guys like Chet Helms [the father of San Francisco's 1967 Summer of Love. Recruited Janis Joplin and founded Big Brother and the Holding Company] that used to run the Avalon Ballroom that was a competitor to the Fillmore West. All those guys that ran Avalon were from Texas. Roky Erikson and the 13th Floor Elevators – that was the first band that went out to San Francisco when the Grateful Dead were called the Warlocks. They [the Dead] saw the 13th Floor Elevators and that’s what flipped them over into the psychedelic mode. Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators – they’re from Houston Texas. [Erikson dropped out of Austin’s William B. Travis High School in 1966, rather than cut his hair in compliance to the dress code.] When those guys went out to the west coast, they flipped the script. These guys were the precursors to that whole movement.
We’re rolling up to about 1981, 82. By then I had developed myself into a pretty prominent high profile front man. I made the transition from being the drummer that sang to a singer, straightup. I had refined my fashion sense. I had developed a sense of confidence about my stage presence and my personal image to where I knew that girls were on my team. As an entertainer, if you’ve got a good female contingent in your constituency, then you’ve got a shot. That’s just the way it rolls. Girls make it happen.
So, I had this band called the Bats, which was my major foray as a frontman/song writer. And my collaborator Chris Bailey was an above average guitarist and composer in his own right so we formed a really good songwriting team. By that time I was hiring drummers. I felt like I could be spinning my wheels ad infinitum as a drummer. I needed to be with a star power situation and I just wasn’t finding anybody that had more star power than me. I could come to the gig later. I could spend more time dressing and come to the gig right on the cusp of being late and breeze in and hit the stage and people would be kind of like awestruck.
They didn’t view me as one of the regulars because I wasn’t hanging out at the bar checking out the opening act. I would never make the scene until it was five minutes before show time. And when I did I was already in my zone. We did a really high energy bombastic set; we acted as if we were playing arenas when we were playing clubs. There was a lack of career opportunity in Texas. Austin at that time did not have the sophisticated professional infrastructure that it exhibits today. People like myself and Stevie Ray Vaughan, who was a really good friend of mine, were always competing for the same opportunity. That was the thing. I was always trying to get into the studio. I always wanted to record. I didn’t really give a damn about touring as much as I wanted to record. I wanted to get a record deal so that I could just record and create art. I really wanted to master the art of recording. If we were drawing heavy enough at the clubs, then that would validate people making investments to take us into the studio. So that’s why the stage performance aspect of it was so crucial to me. It was supremely important to be a powerful live performer because that’s where you gained your leverage. If you had a good following, a good draw, a consistent turnout, people would roll the dice with you. The upstart of it was that it really gave me a lot of access to touring acts coming through. My inspirations were always driven by the big picture. We found ourselves doing a regional tour with Steven Van Zandt, little Stephen from the E Street Band, he had a solo project called the Disciples of Soul where he was working with this guitar player named Jean Beauvoir who previously I had met when we had opened for the Plasmatics when he was the bass player for the Plasmatics. We opened for those guys in Texas. That was a dangerous band. The police were showing up to these guys’ soundchecks. You always wanted to be where the heat is. I had a really great experience opening for Grace Jones and she really liked me. She liked me for the same reasons that I liked her – because we were just wild black people. It had less to do with being black than with just being wild. I was definitely a wild child. So we had done these tours with little Steven and little Steven was in my ear. He was like, “man, if you could just get yourself back to New York, I could probably help you do some things, help you connect some dots”. He was really kind of vague. I wasn’t really sure what he was talking about. It wasn’t like I’m gonna give you a bag full of money. It’s not like I’m gonna sign you to my label or I’m gonna sign you to Bruce Springsteen’s. I didn’t know what he had in mind, All I knew was it was an overture. I had a girlfriend at the time that was just graduating from the University of Texas at Austin with a fine art degree in photography and she wanted to break into editorial photography in New York, so she was game. It wasn’t like I was going to go totally alone. So we sold all of our personal possessions and went.
We moved to New York and I never did connect the dots the way that I intended to with Steve Van Zandt. It turns out that he was actually in the studio with the guy that had produced my most polished set of demos in Texas – an engineer/producer from England named John Rollo who had made his name working with Ray Davies and the Kinks. He had done a tensong demo with me. He and I had gone around the block in 1980 about me moving to New York, but without my band. He and his manager wanted to separate me from my band the Bats. They wanted me to develop a whole new core concept around me. It just didn’t sit well. It didn’t make sense to me on a visceral level because they were trying to separate me from my songwriting partner. I didn’t feel comfortable with it so we didn’t act upon that, Fast forward 18 months here I am now, I’m talking to John Rollo. I tell John that I’m trying to make this connection with Steve and John is playing some kind of deflection game; he’s inviting me to the studio, but every time he invites me, Steve just left. We went around that roseberry bush around two or three different occasions. I finally put two and two together. John, maybe, is trying to deflect my connection with Steve because John still wants to try to capitalize on the production overture that he made to me in Texas back in 1980. That was my whole first two years was circumnavigating these individuals who were trying to position themselves with me in an exclusive capacity without necessarily going whole hog to say well I’m going to give you a bag of money and I’m going to pay your rent and your financial troubles are not going to be a concern at this point in time. Meanwhile, I’ve enrolled myself into the Institute of Audio Research at NYU. Prior to that point I had always been at the mercy of engineers and technicians – people that wanted to record live gigs for an experiment or to broaden their own technical experience. I’ve been going into small studios where the guys didn’t really have their chops up to industry standard, but they wanted to practice on me. And that’s just painful. I wanted to enroll in school so that I could get enough acumen so that I wouldn’t be at the mercy of these hacks.
It was through [NYU] that I really got my first break. Through happenstance, I met this individual named Tim Hatfield who was a chief engineer at Media Sound Studio who actually happened to be from Texas. It was called Media Sound on west 57th; it was one of the top five studio outlets in the early 80s. Media was on par with the Hit Factory or the Power Station or the Record Plant. I got in there as an intern because Tim really liked my original material and I had this strong set of demos that I had developed from Austin. He wanted to form a little production company with me and see where we could take this thing. And before long I had found myself meeting some key individuals like Steve Blucher who was the senior vice president at DiMarzio pickups and also a guitar player and because of his position with the pickup company, he had a huge rolodex of contacts for session musicians and so on and so forth and there was just a short period of time before we had actually put together a physical group that could come in on the weekends and support me when I wanted to extend my repertoire and bring some new material to tape. I would bring my songwriting partner up from Austin for a threeday weekend and book these midnight ‘til sixinthemorning sessions and just set about the business of putting it all down.
As 1983 moved into 1984, I had some pretty substantial demos in my hip pocket. It was at that point that I was reading the Village Voice every week trying to sus out who was doing what where and Greg Tate was doing a lot of weekly columns and commentaries. I was just starting to hear whispers about Black Rock Coalition in some of Greg’s early Voice articles. So I just called him up cold one day and introduced myself. “I want to meet Vernon Reid.” Vernon Reid was in Greg’s office the day that I called. He’s like, “well let me put you on the phone with Vernon.” And Vernon and I had a fiveminute discourse, and he was like why don’t you come down to the village? Come down and let’s meet this Saturday.” Actually, the meeting was down in Chinatown. It was him, Konda Mason, Craig Street, Bill Toles, Greg, not even ten people. One of the people that was there was Lester Bowie, from the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Vernon was like, “well, did you bring any material?” Back then, it was about cassettes, right. I said, “yeah I got a tape, man.” I gave it to him and said go ahead and bust it. He dropped it in the beat box and then the eyebrows jumped. It was on. I walked an interesting tightrope, where I never wanted to be preoccupied by the racial dynamics, because I had ultimately grown such a thick skin because I had been walking in this landscape alone for such a long time. I’m looking at myself as a rocker. I’m not looking at myself as a Black rock and roller. I’m looking at myself as a dyed in the wool rock and roller. If I had fixated on the fact that [I was Black], oh man, I’m the only brother doing this shit, it wouldn’t have jumped off. I was an opportunity for them to put some diversity in their game plan. In Austin they were actually trying to embrace me as opposed to trying to ex me out.