October 14th, 2011 | Interviews

steven fiche

The Flamin Groovies should be right there with the Stooges, the MC5, the Modern Lovers and Big Star when it comes to bands who’d help determine the future of American rock ‘n’ roll—they could do it all, from cute to crushing, and beneath every Groovies classic (“Slow Death,” “Shake Some Action”) are … even more classics (“Teenage Head,” “Headin’ For The Texas Border,” “Love Have Mercy,” “Golden Clouds” …) and a ton of stories about drugs and freaks, including Ted Kennedy, Ike Turner, Jimi Hendrix and a giant mongoose. Co-founder and complete wildman Cyril Jordan speaks now before the Groovies’ first West Coast shows in 27 years. The Groovies (with principals Roy Loney and Cyril both) play Las Vegas tomorrow and Long Beach on Sunday. This interview by Chris Ziegler and Dan Collins.

I had a tape of your greatest hits and you had a quote explaining your Beatles obsession, and you say something like—we had the guitars, we had the songs, we even had the same exact jeans … we were so close! Was it frustrating for the Groovies never to quite break through?
I was just thinking the other day—we were kids, but we must have been out of our minds! Our competition was Led Zeppelin, the Stones, the Beatles… when you try and be a contender—and you’re becoming one—there’s still always that anxiety. Like Keith Richards said: ‘Are we gonna stop eating eggs every day or what?’
What was the Flamin Groovies starvation diet?
In New York City in 1969—we had just done Supersnazz with Epic and we ended up in a really cheap hotel on East or West 52nd St., and we only had enough money for 75 cents a day for food. This is on Epic! We had to stay there for three weeks because our next gig was in Pittsburgh. I found a place that made a big bowl of pea soup, and the waitress figured it out pretty quick and started giving me extra crackers. I ate pea soup every fucking day! One day our roadie came by: ‘Hey, man, we just got back from the Fillmore East and their opening band can’t make it!’ We woke everybody up, drove down there and the stage manager let us in and we started playing—and Bill Graham is walking down the aisle and does a double take. There was always a rift between us and Bill, and he couldn’t believe it—‘How’d these assholes get here!?’ But Richard Robinson, editor of Hit Parader, was there with Lenny Kaye and we didn’t know. We go back to the hotel and I get my pea soup and there’s a knock on the door at 9 AM—Richard and Lenny. They’d been trying to find out where we were, and they’d called Epic and Epic didn’t even know we were in town. But John Zacharley—the local horror host!—was driving by the hotel and saw the roadies loading amps with the FLAMIN GROOVIES stencil in big white lettering. So we open the door and those two guys are like, ‘We wanna sign you right now!’ We were like, ‘Well, we wanna leave Epic and I don’t think Epic gives a damn if we do!’ We go straight to 1650 Broadway and meet Neil Bogart of Buddha Records and we all fell in love instantly. He was a big prankster—he had a huge wooden crate in his office and it was stenciled with DANGER WILD MONGOOSE. It was basically a large version of the candy can you open and a big snake comes out. Except it wasn’t a snake—this huge furry thing sprung out at us and our drummer Danny almost had a fucking heart attack, and Bogart laughed so hard he almost fell out the window. We were living it, man! This was one of the only times we were actually starving. We’d go to the Big Monkey—we called New York ‘the Big Monkey’ because of King Kong. I can’t make an apple connection! So the first time we’re there, we’re starving and we sneak on the bill and we get a record deal because of it—that’s what keeps you in the biz! The thing of us with the Beatles jeans—we were playing the new Cavern Club in Liverpool because they’d torn the old one down, and we were walking around Matthew Street and we find this old clothes store. I recognized the trousers immediately. Black jeans with very thin gold thread, like a pinstripe down the legs. From a distance it had this sheen—way beyond sharkskin. I said, ‘Man, these are the jeans the Beatles had in ’63!’ We bought every pair there. It was obvious they’d been there since before the Beatles made it. The point is—we were really big fans. We started out as fans. Fanatical fans. Unlike Greg Shaw, we learned the music. We went headstrong into the band realm. As we became more and more famous, we’d travel and if we were in Liverpool, you bet your bottom dollar the first thing we’re gonna do is find souvenirs—we’d go to really old record stores and go through all the battered 45s, looking for the 1962 version of ‘Love Me Do’ on Parlophone. And we found one everytime we went there!
Do you have like a room with eighty copies of it?
I have five first editions of ‘Love Me Do.’ A couple have Liverpudlian girls’ names scrawled on ‘em. I’ve got five copies of Eddie Cochran ‘Summertime Blues’ on the Liberty label. One day ten years ago—mind you, I been collecting ‘Summertime Blues’ for forty years—I played them all in succession, and the third one doesn’t have echo on the whole record! That means the echo was put on the second or third press—on the mastering, not the recording. I freaked out! That record must be rare!
Is it true there’s a guy in France buried with a copy of your Sneakers 10”?
Not only is he buried with the 10” on his chest, but his belt buckle was custom made out of silver with Gene Vincent’s face and name—embossed in bas relief. Bruno—he was a young kid, I think 17, and he became legendary in his own time. He passed away a very long time ago. I think he OD-ed. All those French guys have that Moroccan connection. We did our anti-morphine song with ‘Slow Death.’
Which was banned by the BBC?
These idiots banned it because the word ‘morphine’ was used! Instead of seeing it was an ANTI-drug song. I’ll tell you—snobs, they’re amazing people. They can’t see the forest for the trees. It really messed with [our label] UA.
Didn’t they have Hawkwind who got banned at the same time?
But Hawkwind had a big hit with ‘Silver Machine’ so they brought in the gravy. I used to drop acid with their lead singer. Me and him and the rest of the Groovies, we went down on acid to J. Geils debut show in London in ’72. We were snowballin’! We went to get tickets but they were sold out. So we go to the alleway on the side of the Lyceum—where Mozart played!—and there’s all these bums sitting on couches, and I see the stage door … and we’ve all got leather jackets with studs and motorcycle shades … so I start pounding on the door and the doorman opens up like, ‘Here! Wot’s all this?’ ‘Hey man! We’re J. Geils! We’re late!’ So he lets us in and closes the door—‘That’s it! Nobody else is getting in!’ So then the real J. Geils shows up and they can’t get in! Meanwhile, the Hawkwind guy gave acid to some hippie chick and she was flipping out to the point an ambulance was coming, and the only reason J. Geils got into his own show was because when the ambulance came, the doors opened again! They were real pissed. Flamin Groovies were like the Little Rascals of rock. Complete pranksters! I put cigarette loads in Dave Edmunds cigarette when he was sitting across from me in a restaurant reading the menu. I used to be a magician when I was a kid, so I opened the back, pulled out a cigarette, stuck the load in, put it back and waited for the fun to begin. Edmunds was not pleased!
Didn’t you get the phrase ‘Teenage Head’ from some time you were on acid with Kim Fowley at a folk fest?
That’s true! I dropped two tabs that were 1500 mg each. He was getting a contact high off me! He had me in hysterics! Every time some little chippie would walk by, he’d immediately come on to her. ‘We’re available … we’re looking for teenage head!’ I laughed so hard that when I woke up the next morning, my mouth was wide open and stuck that way for an hour. We even said it to Linda Ronstadt! Let me tell you, she was not pleased!
Did you have bands you were friends with in San Francisco? Or were you the oddballs?
We were young—Jefferson Airplane, the Dead, Quicksilver, the Charlatans all had like ten years on us. I’m in high school when the Groovies formed. As a matter of fact, I just saw footage of us playing a party for the Democratic Convention in ’68. We were the Democratic Party’s rock band in ’68. If they had live music, that was us! I smoked pot with Ted Kennedy—
Were you 18?
So there weren’t multiple felonies.
I’m really depressed I didn’t think of encasing it in Lucite. The Kennedy roach! Lemme tell you, Rock Hudson was a big fan of the Groovies. He used to come see us. He was one of the biggest guys I ever met—I came up to his elbow. And Ted Kennedy was as big as Rock—a huge guy! All these little people were dancing around him. We finished our set and I go outside and light a joint, and Herb Caen—I guess he coined the term ‘beatnik’—he’s out there, and he’s like, ‘Where you from?’ ‘We’re from San Francisco! We’re the only band from San Francisco out of all these hippie bands!’ I give him the joint and he takes a big hit, and then Ted comes out and it’s the three of us in the street, and a cop car drives by … I look over like, ‘Man, I can’t wait to see what’s gonna happen next!’ Herb takes a big hit and passes the joint to Ted without looking at him, and Ted takes the joint and takes a HUGE hit! Like he sucks it down to ¼ of an inch. I’m like, ‘Ah, better roll another one!’ And then a week later Bobby gets killed.
Speaking of Rock Hudson … when you were after teenage head, were you after teenage head from … girls?
Oh, definitely. Let me clear something up! There’s a lot of urban legends about the Flamin Groovies. A lot of stuff that’s not true—at least it wasn’t true back then. One of them—we created a person named Flower Boy Venus, and we’d talk about him in interviews. He was a really rich Swiss German guy, a billionaire that was crazed about rock. We had him produce ‘Married Woman’ on UA. We were gonna kill him off if we got bigger and bigger—send out a press release that he got killed at some wild party in Geneva, and see if it got into the press.
The sound between the Roy era of the band and the Chris Wilson era changes so much—it’s like a totally different band.
I agree—the first period was the Stones version. That really climaxed with Teenage Head. Rodney Bingenheimer told me Mick was listening to Teenage Head that summer. Every time he’d go over, he’d hear it!
There are songs the Stones made then that sound like they’re imitating you!
I know! We were doing that to each other. That was something I was very proud of back then, but nobody knew but us and the Stones! We rehearsed in ’72 at the Stones’ studio in Birmansea—they were in France cutting Exile—and the first night we set up, we started to play ‘Little Queenie’ and Ed Leach comes down with a big tray of tea and crackers, saying, ‘It sounded like the boys were back!’ I met the Stones a couple times in ‘65—I was backstage and got thrown out! With Rodney! We’d crash the backstage at the Cow Palace from ’62 to about ’66 or ’67.
Did anyone recognize you later? ‘Hey, it’s that kid from the Cow Palace! Who got kicked out!’
No—we’d end up backstage after they fenced it all off, and after that no one would throw us out. I’m watching Murry Wilson pull out his glass eye in 1962 to scare girls, and we don’t know who he is! Brian is in the other room with Dennis and Carl and they’re singing ‘Surfer Girl’ a capella! Years later, my friend Don Ciccone—a big Groovies fan, who’s gonna play bass with me and Roy—said he met this old gay guy that used to do sound at the Cow Palace and he was showing him photos, and he freaked out when he saw me! ‘There’s that kid that used to sneak into the Cow Palace! He was real cute—I kinda had a crush on him. I told everybody to leave that kid alone!’ And I was walking around thinking I was hot shit because no one threw me out! I was hanging out with Roy Orbison, the Righteous Brothers—Jackie De Shannon kissed me on the cheek! This one Beach Boys and Byrds show … everyone was doing soundcheck, and it was empty except for the bands. Me and Dennis Wilson are talking and all of a sudden the Byrds come on stage—Crosby has the green suede cape he has on the second album—and they play ‘Turn Turn Turn!’ It hadn’t come out yet! Nobody had heard it! I’m gaping, Dennis is gaping—holy shit! When Shake Some Action came out, everyone thought we were Beatles fanatics—yeah, but we were also Byrds fanatics! Kim Fowley fanatics! We loved everybody. Our influences were everybody hip. It just took us a while to get around to a Byrds sound. We were too busy ripping off Dr. Ross and all these rhythm & blues guys. Like Ike Turner—man, when that movie came out with him and Tina … the Ike Turner I knew was not that guy! I snorted coke with Ike. I couldn’t believe it! I’m hanging with Ike Turner … just going with it! I never seen him yell at nobody! He did get real coked out, and you can lose your character when you’re too drugged out … but I still find it extremely hard to believe that he was that far over the edge. You know that book about Phil Spector—Wall of Pain? I didn’t think we’d be mentioned, but I got to the Ramones chapter and thought, ‘Maybe there’s something on the Groovies!’ And the next chapter there is! And it’s all lies! They said Phil invited us up to his mansion and we all went up there in velvet coats or some bullshit, and knocked on the door and got the bum’s rush—none of this happened! So I’m thinking now that the other weird shit in there about Phil … maybe that didn’t happen either! My memory is crystal clear, guys! I was bragging once to my mom how my memory is amazing, and she’s like, ‘Yeah, yeah—bullshit.’ ‘Oh yeah? I remember the color of the tile in the operating room when I was born. Aqua green.’ And she turned white.
What was it like being born?
I remember a lot of wind. Coming from complete quiet and stillness and warmth into a blast of air and wind—and I opened my eyes and there’s these aqua green walls! That’s what I remember! Me and my mom were really close—all of us from that generation were like that. Probably the same with the British of that generation. Close to their parents. And they also went to art school.
Did you go to art school?
The school of hard knocks! My art teacher in high school gave me As and at the end of the term, somebody stole all my artwork! Right before I was kicked out of high school. The technical reason was because I was a senior and I was 19. I flunked 10th grade when my mom and dad got divorced. The next year, I met Roy, George and Tim who were already out of high school and in state college. They had cars. They also had pot.
Is that all you need to rock ‘n’ roll?
I started smoking pot that weekend! They told me about it Friday, I was stoned til Sunday night and I woke up Monday morning like, ‘I can’t go to school!’ So I cut school. The phone rings at noon and it’s my girlfriend and she says my best friend Rodney was shot to death at Tick Tock’s Drive-In—some black guys drove in and started shooting! And I would have been standing next to him. You might say pot saved my life. I started getting into pot because it made me interested in everything. So I got all As and they threw me out of high school. And because they threw me out of high school, I met Jimi Hendrix. I had to make my last five credits so I enrolled in adult school—summer of ’67. Purple Haze was out. I only had two classes and I’d get out at 11 am, and I’m walking down Masonic across the Panhandle, which is part of Golden Gate Park, and the Jimi Hendrix experience is setting up! There’s like eight people there! So I walk over and I’ve got my red velvet coat and Beatle boots and Mitch Mitchell comes up—‘Hey, man, you from around here? We came in from England—yeah, yeah, we’re lookin’ for drugs!’ So I cop drugs for ‘em, and that’s how I started my friendship with Jimi Hendrix. When my dad was dying … he was not into rock ‘n’ roll. He was a classical guy and I was raised on classical music. As the legend goes, I could hum five minutes of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony by the time I was five. One time my dad came home and I was crying and the radio was on. ‘What’s wrong?’ I finally told him—it’s because I heard this music. My mom went, ‘Oh—Bach? Bach was on earlier!’ It was so beautiful it made me cry! I remember radio before rock ‘n’ roll at babysitter’s houses in the early ‘50s—it was horrible! Even as a little kid, I remember saying, ‘Get out of here with this stupid shit! It’s trash!’ Like it now. So on his deathbed, my dad asked me, ‘How did you get into this?’ He wasn’t too pleased with rock. I said, ‘Dad, I didn’t have a choice.’ Someone from England with long hair and a velvet coat—it’s like we were part of the same tribe.
You said that ‘rock ‘n’ roll is the only free country’—is that the same thing?
It’s the only country in the world where you’ve got equality with the people in it! I’m thrown out of high school, walking down the street and the Jimi Hendrix Experience is going, ‘Hey, man—we wanna talk to you!’ Hoooooooly shit, man! When Mitch said they were looking for drugs, he knew because I had Beatle boots, long hair and a red velvet coat that I knew where the drugs were! And if I didn’t, what was I doing with Beatle boots and a red velvet coat? It was like a secret society—done all in the open!
What did you think of the other bands in San Francisco? As opposed to the bands in L.A.?
We loved everybody! I don’t know if you know this, but when Bob Dylan went electric, a bunch of college and university people who were fans got really pissed. They were claiming that it was bubblegum, it was for children and the intellectualism in the protest agenda of the lyrics was now meaningless or some bullshit! I heard Dylan was in a car with Richard and Mimi Farina in like ’63 when ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ came out, and he freaked out halfway through the song! Apparently he told Richard to stop the car and was walking back and forth going, ‘Shit! Oh shit!’ He was tapped into how powerful the Beatles made electric guitars—that’s why he went electric. He turned them on to pot, apparently, and said, ‘Really? I thought that song says, “I get high…” I thought that was about pot?’ ‘No, it’s “I can’t hide.”’ That’s why we wrote ‘I Can’t Hide!’ We were really stoned, talking about how some of the psych bands kinda frowned on us … we got way more stoned than any of ‘em! I dropped acid when it was legal—that’s how far back I go!
Were you doing lots of drugs when you did ‘Shake Some Action’? Does that explain why the sound changed so much?
We were doing lots of drugs when we did Supersnazz, when we did Teenage Head, when we did Shake Some Action—on and on! We’re still on drugs! I’ve been snorting cocaine since 1968! Michael Clarke from the Byrds turned me on to coke at the Whiskey. I was ready to go on stage and he was like, ‘Hey, do me a favor—watch the door!’ He poured this powder on top of the toilet seat—‘You want some of this?’ ‘I don’t do heroin.’ ‘This ain’t heroin—it’s cocaine! You play guitar? You’re gonna like this!’ I take this big line … go on and play and I never been the same since! We had really good coke back then. Abalone fish shell Peruvian flake. You’d do a line about half an inch long and be stoned for hours. When we were hanging with Phil Spector … I was friends with one of Phil’s engineers and I took ‘em back to the hotel one night and tore a four-foot mirror off the wall and threw it on the bed and proceeded to make like three-and-a-half-foot lines of coke. I pulled out a straw three feet long!
From where?
From the inside of my three-quarters length coat! The next day at Gold Star, that engineer was pretty toasty. I said, ‘Hey, man, you OK?’ ‘You guys snorted more coke than John Lennon and Harry Nilsson the month they were here—and they almost died! We called ambulances!’
How did you get out of being drafted? Do you know how Iggy Pop did?
Iggy told me he put peanut butter in the crack of his butt, stuck his index finger in, put it in his mouth and did the ‘pop!’ thing—and that was it! He was outta there! I just dropped acid and showed up 12 hours late at the induction center. You were supposed to be at the UC hospital at 5AM and they were gonna drive everyone to the induction center. And bring a toothbrush and a suitcase because you were going to bootcamp! So instead of being there at 5 AM, I dropped acid at midnight. And I popped my cherry that night!
Just in case?
No—part of the trip! I was over at our manager’s house and his wife’s 15-year-old sister was visiting, and we were left in the living room on acid, you know … BOOM! Might as well light a match and start a fire. No way that’s not gonna get going. So I show up the next day on Owsley acid—White Lighting! With my manager, I go to the desk sergeant who is like, ‘Who the fuck are you? You shoulda been here at 6 AM!’ ‘Well, give him a break—he’s not too bright.’ The guy tells me to follow the brown line to room 220 but there are all these colored lines on the floor and I couldn’t tell what colors anything was, so I followed what appeared to be a purple line that went out the front door! They take me back in and all the other guys who showed up late are the retards—the morons. I’m in this room with all these idiots doing my test and there’s a big NO SMOKING sign in red on the wall and I’m freaking out—I just check boxes and turn the page. I get one right out of 100 and they start yelling, ‘This guy’s in high school! I don’t believe this!’ My manager is like, ‘Hey! He’s not too bright—be cool!’ I’m looking at the NO SMOKING sign and it starts dripping blood and the room fills with blood so I run out screaming. ‘Hey, kid—it’s go to jail or go back in.’ So then I’m back and I’m in t-shirt and skivvies, and the doctors are filling out my forms and I hear them talking: ‘He’s wandering around the room, staring at a blank wall, doesn’t respond when spoken to…’ At the eye test, I’m just staring into the machine—like God’s in there! They put me in this little room in my underwear and I’m like, ‘Holy shit! I got to do something! I claw my palms til they’re bloody and wipe the blood on my face, and then leave the room and go up a staircase to the next floor with 400 women typing in one room. Everybody starts fucking screaming! The doctors tell me, ‘Don’t worry, we’re not gonna send you to Vietnam.’ They gave me a 4-F and told me, ‘If Mars invades, we still wouldn’t need you.’ I told that guy, ‘Well, that’s when I’ll be there!’