Feature music article by curator of 'Music Over Mind', Dr. Thomas Stanley "Laughs Last" / The Bevis Griffin Story (slight return)
Bevis’ efforts in New York eventually pay off when he gains the attention of one Jack Douglas, the legendary recording engineer/producer who was a shadow member of Aerosmith and produced John Lennon’s last recorded works beginning with Imagine.
Let me set the table. 1987, right, me and Vernon and the Black Rock Coalition and we were all on the same page. We had amalgamated and formed this touring party called the Black Rock Coalition Orchestra. In February 1987, we staged a twoday rock festival at CBGBs which was called the Stalking Heads of 87. Those two days my band Banzai Kik, we played just before Living Colour on both dates. As a result of the two shows at CBGBs, we hit the press pretty hard, because Greg Tate was kind of like the publicist for those affairs and we had gotten a lot of international press, and my band Banzai Kik had been cited in a couple of articles in Rolling Stone Magazine and the New York times. We popped out and made enough of a splash to where I got a phone call from this executive named Ian Ralfini who used to be the executive vice president for Warner Brothers Records in the United Kingdom. More recently Ian Ralfini, he’s been the president at Blue Note and Manhattan Records, but back then he was in a state of transition and the bottom line was his publicist was at both of those shows and said like, “yo, this Banzai Kik thing is definitely something you want to check out.” You have to remember that at that time, 1987, Prince was a big deal. Purple Rain had already hit. And Van Halen was a big deal. They’re looking at me as if I’m a hybrid of Prince and Van Halen. I’m like the hard rock version of Prince. This is what these guys are thinking in the back of their mind from a marketing aspect. Prince opened up a whole nother can of androgynous controversy, but the irony was the first time I ever saw a copy of Dirty Minds, a friend of mine brought it over to me as a joke, going like, “hey man, this dude is trying to copy your style.” I had been looking like that for a long time. By the time that Purple Rain came out and he’s rocking the purple trench coat, and he’s got the ringlets and the whole nine yards, I’m trying to dial my thing into what I call more of a darker, edgier type thing, literally moving at right angles to whichever direction he was moving in, because one thing I didn’t want to do was get caught up in the wave of the Prince trend, the Prince wannabes.
This guy Ian wanted to sign me to a new configuration of Shelter Records. He had bought the catalog from this guy Denny Cordell and Denny Cordell had gone up on federal tax evasion charges and so this catalog came up for sale through an auction. This guy [Ian Ralfini] basically gave me a letter of intent and said if I can’t sign you in 90 days, keep this check and he gave me a check for 10,000 dollars. It turned out that the 90 days lapsed and he couldn’t formulate and close the deal. And so I did keep the check.
I went back into the studio and I wound up getting a meeting with Anthony Countey who was the manager for the Bad Brains and it was through Anthony that I was introduced to a lady named Lynne Robinson, a childhood friend of Anton Fig, the drummer that you always see on the David Letterman show. Anton Fig was a heavyweight session drummer at that time and he had been in conversation or in contact with Jack Douglas who was just coming back on the other side of a long standing legal entanglement with Yoko Ono because of some past due royalties that were outstanding from the Lennon estate, because he produced the last three John Lennon albums. Jack was coming back into the production realm after this hiatus. He had basically dried up and cleaned up his psychological act because he had been involved with Aerosmith so long that he had developed some of those same personal issues. So he got out the other side of that and he wanted to form a new label of his own that was going to be distributed by EMI and I was going to be one of the first acts that he released under this new label called Supertrack. So he took us into the Record Plant. The irony was we booked into studio B, which is the same principle studio where Hendrix recorded Electric Ladyland. It was also his [Douglas’] pet studio, that’s the label [studio] where he cut the lion’s share of all those Aerosmith records that he used to produce – Get your Wings all the way up to Draw the Line. Aerosmith were a big influence on me and I was a big fan of Jack Douglas, because I was into all the things that he had done before, like the work he had done with Cheap Trick, work that he had done with Patti Smith, work that he had done with Graham Parker and Rumour. I knew a lot about his production technique and his production aesthetic and he was like the hard rock guy. What Nile Rodgers was in the 80s, Jack Douglas was in the 70s, and he was my guy. He was just intrigued by my voice and when he got a sense of my image, he was like, “oh man, this is like getting with a fresh Steven Tyler vibe all over again”. It felt familiar to him.
I had surrounded myself with a really great group of seasoned group of musicians. I had Warren Benbow from James Blood Ulmer’s band; he was my drummer and I had David Gross who was a really wellknown session bass player. It was just a great group of musicians. We went in and recorded the first six songs at the Record Plant and then Jack and I went to the Midem Convention in Cannes and he introduced me to a bunch of his label executives and then we took a pit sop back in London. He wanted to introduce me to some of the principles of this new label that I was about to be signed to and then when I got back home, we went on hiatus for the holiday because it was Christmas time. And, uh, while I was on hiatus, my mom had an altercation and shot and killed my dad.
At this point in our discussion, Bevis asks for a break to collect himself. He tells me he would like to call back in a few minutes. I’m surprised when the phone rings very shortly after he had hung up. I had actually signed a management agreement, a twoyear commitment with Anthony Countey and this production company called Shake the Earth and without getting into all the technical minutia of it, this was at the same time that the Bad Brains had just released IagainstI. It was a pretty ironic situation: Vernon had called me one afternoon and asked me if I’d like to come down to the Ritz, because the Bad Brains were going to be playing there. I had heard the Bad Brains before I ever moved to New York. Obviously, when Rock the Light came out, I’ll never forget, my giuitar player brought me this copy of “Pay to Cum” and I thought it was a joke. I thought it was like a chipmunk record, like somebody had just set the RPM to like 78. I was like, “you are totally joking, there’s no way that this band is playing like this live”. So when Vernon was like, “yeah, you want to come see the Bad Brains”, I was like, “most definitely”. I had met Dr. No, briefly, in passing at that CBGBs performance, I met him there, I had met Bernard Fowler there, I met Michael Hampton from PFunk that was the first time that I ever met Michael Hampton. Vernon was really generous about introducing me to what I call the roots of the lower east side, downtown underground music scene. And at this point that’s where I’m starting to meet people like Elliot Sharp and Arto Lindsay. There was a whole great, rich group of these outsider avant garde, avant jazz cats, you know, it wasn’t really straight jazz, it wasn’t really straight rock. It was a fusion of jazz and rock and it was really forward thinking, really hyper kinetic. I was intrigued by all of that, because that was still the drummer in me. I was still operating on like a duality. Part of me is like this really hardcore rock and roll front man and then there’s the other part of me that’s this really hard, deeply ambitious musician. And I’m just coming from, you know, no bullshit. The shit’s either real or it ain’t real. You either got chops, you don’t have chops. And I was always
drawn to that.
We had this beautiful recording session underway and things are starting to look really rosy. We break for the holiday hiatus and then shortly after Christmas, my mom and dad had an altercation. My mom shot my dad and he died from the gunshot wounds. It became a situation to where none of us [Bevis’ siblings] were present when it occurred. There weren’t any witnesses. The D.A. in Wichita Falls, Texas wanted to bring her up on involuntary manslaughter charges. I had some advance funds in my personal bank account that I allocated to her legal defense. It took me several months to get her thoroughly disentangled from this murder rap. She claimed that she pulled this gun as a deterrent, that my dad was in this aggressive mode. They had not only gotten back together, they had remarried. All the kids had left the house and the two of them were caretakers for my grandmother who had developed a pretty aggressive case of Alzheimer’s and I think that that was exacerbating the stress factor in the household.
So, it’s the Twilight Zone. It really sent me into a weird distracted mindset. By the time I kind of regained my bearings, and felt like I had at least devoted enough time, because it wasn’t just me, I mean I’m the oldest of four. I really had to kind of circle the wagons on my younger brothers and sisters, kind of get everybody soothed and on the same page. We’re all adults at this point’ it’s not like there were any children involved. But it was the kind of situation where it really took a whole lot of internal family bonding to work through this incident. By the time the dust had started to settle on that and it was time for me to roll up my sleeves and get back to the business of this rock star business, I get back to New York to discover that there’s an internal conflict that had manifested between my management firm and Jack Douglas’ production company. Yes. And that was basically the straw that broke the camel’s back. To put it in a nutshell, when I got back, I was told that my management had filed litigation, had filed counterlitigation against Jack Douglas’ Waterfront Productions that had put the entire project in stasis until this litigation could be untangled. The worst part about it for me was that nobody was talking to me. Nobody was sitting down telling me the truth. My production company had a substantial amount of funding that they had committed not just to me, but to Jack’s production company. Jack had positioned himself to where he was going to bring this production to EMI under the auspices of his label. So he was still operating on a scheduled production budget. My managers were still giving him a certain modicum of financial input that he was going to share with the Record Plant. They weren’t doing it on straight spec. They weren’t doing it on speculation and they definitely weren’t doing it for free. The budget was at a ridiculously discounted rate considering that we’re working with Jack Douglas, you dig? They had to still give him weekly installments or weekly increments of somewhere in the neighborhood of 78000 dollars. One of the checks that they had issued to Jack had bounced and when Jack’s financial people went back about this money this dispute ensued. They’re going like no way that check bounced; we got the funds and the resources. One of my backers was one of the original songwriters for Tommy James and the Shondells, a cat named Richie Cordell; he’s the guy that wrote “Crimson and Clover” and “Money, Money” and all that shit. Well, he was one of the financial backers of my management team’s production company. At this point Bevis takes me off the record to describe the complicated web of deceit that had sunk his recording deal.
At the core there was a whole bunch of hanky panky and cocainedriven sexual activity afoot, under the surface. It’s rock and roll to the bone. I say, if you got to get shot down, make sure you get shot down in flames. This is definitely shot down in flames. Subsequently, Jack Douglas had gone back to EMI saying that if they ever tried to backdoor his production company with these tapes, that it was like a red flag, red light, do not pass go. That shit hit the zeitgeist and I’ve got eight tracks produced by Jack Douglas that I can’t take to any other label in New York City. For the year of 1987 going into 1988, 1988 going into 1989, my shit is locked up. [He never got the tapes back.] I’ve got outtakes from the production submasters. As recently as two months ago I was on the telephone with Jack Douglas for the first time in twentyeight years. Jack Douglas is 70yearsold now. And when he and I are speaking, the rapport, the mutual respect is still in place, but there’s so much water under the bridge that he couldn’t tell me in earnest where the last cycle of submasters that he had his hands on. He’s claiming that because they were being subcontracted, that my management people actually had the physical master tape. And Jack, god bless him, he’s saying for all intents and purposes, if it was up to him, I could have the damn tapes. He doesn’t have a dog in this thing.
But he swears up and down that he doesn’t have any remnants. Through my exbandmates, I managed to recover some first, second, third generation dubs from some of the submasters that we were using before we went into the final phase of mastering the record. I’ve got a few of those tracks posted on YouTube. Here’s the irony: I’m in the Record Plant in 1987. Living Colour gets signed in the winter of 1987. By 1988 their record Vivid comes out and it’s not making a lot of noise at first, not until they get to the point where “Cult of Personality” drops. By the time that single is dropped, I’ve already moved to L.A., because now, my whole thing is getting myself disentangled from this litigation. I’ve gone all the way back to Hollywood to decompress from the shock and disappointment of all this bullshit. I’m on the borderline of committing suicide because I’ve worked my whole life to get in this position and now I’m working with my ideal production icon; I’m working with Jack Douglas. I go from Wichita Falls, Texas to working with Jack Douglas in New York City in the fucking Record Plant and my record’s not going to come out?
I’ve got a younger sister, three years younger than me, who’s a transit executive. She just retired a few weeks ago from the city of Santa Monica; she was director of the Transit Department for the city of Santa Monica for the last 15 years. Her name is Stephanie Griffin, her married name is Negriff. I explained to her what was going on, I told her. My girlfriend photographer and I, we were at opposite ends of the spectrum, because she was going nuts. She was totally freaked out by my mom shooting my dad and the whole thing it just kind of brought some extra anxiety into her realm and in the meantime she’s trying to pursue her career and she’s traveling to Europe frequently for these photo sessions and I’m like right now, this relationship is not working for me at all. I got to get my ass back to square one. I get back to Los Angeles and my sister is like, “look, I don’t want you to worry; I don’t want you to think. I just want you to sit down and collect your thoughts and think about what you want to do when you feel like doing something. I want you to just chill, just hibernate.” The whole thing was the massive buildup and the set of expectations that had been mounting, but it wasn’t just me. As bad as I felt about the circumstances, I felt worse about it for all of my bandmates. Everybody had been pushing this rock up a hill. It wasn’t just me. People had been sacrificing a considerable amount of man hours to get this ship out of the harbor and when it becomes apparent to me that not only is it not coming out of the harbor, it’s about to freaking sink, it was literally unbearable. All I can tell you is that the concept of suicide was not that farfetched. I just couldn’t envision how I was going to work my way through it. In 1988 I took this hiatus in L.A. I did not deliberately avail myself to hang out with any musicians the entire time that I was in Hollywood. One of my good friends from Austin named Kim Banks, she married this actor named Joe Dallesandro, one of the original core actors in the Andy Warhol camp. I met with Joe and we hit it off and he introduced me to Whoopie Goldberg and Whoopie Goldberg introduced me to one of her attorneys that actually came to my aid and went about the business of extricating me from this legal obligation. While I was in L.A., Living Colour’s profile hit the ceiling. I was totally elated, happy for them, but every time I would see these guys on MTV, I felt like taking a cyanide pill. It was not a matter of jealousy as much as it was a feeling of despair. Vernon was always looking at me as an older brother, almost like a mentor. It’s about the right to selfexpression. You can’t tear down one wall and throw up another wall and then say that we’re still operating on an equal playing field. That’s where it does become a blackwhite issue for me. I wasn’t being hated on to the point where people were not giving me respect because I was black. If anything, it seems like I was getting a lot of love because I was black – in Austin, Texas. Now, once I got outside of the Austin, Texas safety zone obviously I’m dealing in the cold light of day as any other Black man in America. When I got the validation from Jack Douglas that was my passage; my right of passage was saying, “I’m working with one of the greatest rock producers in the world and it’s predicated on my music, not on the fact that I’ve got black skin.”
The happy ending to this story is called survival. It’s called breathing and walking and having second, third, and fourth chances and truth be told, it beats the hell out of all that dead rock star shit.
Stephanie and Bevis are the only two of Melvin and Navoline’s children who are still living. Bevis has been married to his wife Kim (Evans) for twenty fulfilling years. They have no children. Bevis lives in Austin where he continues to actively perform and runs Deux Voix, Ltd., which he describes as a “polydynamic marketing strategy to personally administer talent development to an exceptionally talented clientele.” As for his story of gripping personal tragedy and abruptly truncated fame, Bevis Griffin recounts it all with a stoic lack of bitterness or rancor. From all outward appearances he appears whole, even happy. He is a genuinely fun guy to kick it with. From a musicological standpoint, it is interesting to speculate how history might have changed if his recording debut had not been torpedoed by litigated corruption and personal intrigue. Could Griffin’s edgier version of androgynous black rock have displaced, redirected, or modified Prince’s meteoric rise. Might the name Bevis Griffin have been added to the ranks of well recognized musical luminaries with Lone Star roots like Ornette Coleman, Stevie Ray Vaughan, or TBone Walker? Even Sly was born in Texas. Griffin is working on a memoir (featuring a forward by Vernon Reid) that may go a long way towards establishing his role as something of a missing link in a transitional period in American popular music. Within Texas, and mostly through his own tenacious efforts, Bevis has been written back into the musical annals of a state whose contributions have been as large as its outsized selfimage. In 2010 supporters at the University of Texas facilitated Bevis’ induction into the Texas Music Museum. As the state’s first AfricanAmerican hard rocker, he was indeed a lone star and Bevis’ modest account of the way things went down largely undersells the blood and guts that his strike at pop star glory entailed. In the end, his relative obscurity might confirm, rather than refute, his singular place within the patchwork narrative of American modern music, and, of course, he is still making music. But this is not that story. This is a simple story about colors and breathing, in and out – one holy breath at a time, gracefully, until that rhythm ceases and the colors have faded away.