Sunday, May 30, 2010

Hot Smoke and Sasafrass, Bubble Puppy (1968)

Armchair musicology, as it turns out, is an optimistic avocation.  Which is a good thing, because I am not optimistic by nature. Every time I think I've exhausted all the ideas for a blog post, one thing leads to another and new doors open. That's exactly what happened with Bubble Puppy.  

In this instance, the door was Pandora-based. I don't even remember which "radio station" it was now, but in the rotation was an arresting song by someone named Billy Wade McKnight called Trouble's Comin' On.  So obscure was this that it wasn't even on YouTube. But a search by my friend Wade (no relation to B. Wade McKnight) unearthed a compilation called Never Ever Land: 83 Texan Nuggets from International Artists Records 1965-1970 and lo ... three CDs worth of uncharted territory presented itself to me.

Sure enough, there that guy was, with two singles, but so was Bubble Puppy, whose big hit Hot Smoke and Sasafrass I'd forgotten about completely.  My indie record store-owning friend Dave ordered the box set for me, and I've been listening to it obsessively like an acid head for days now.

The thing about psychedelic music was, I didn't always like it.  The sound bending that went along with the mind bending wasn't very musical - although it could be.  Hot Smoke was.  The instrumental bridge alone is worth the price of admission, that drummer, David Fore, was 17 when he played it. 

Bubble Puppy's roots were in San Antonio and Corpus Christi; one of its precursor bands, fronted by guitarist Rod Prince, was the Bad Seeds (not to be confused with the name they later migrated to, the New Seeds; Nick Cave's Bad Seeds; or the Seeds of Pushin' Too Hard fame), which had a locally popular following with such songs as Taste of the Same.  Check out Prince's solo - certainly a "taste" of what was to come later.

Eventually the seed persona lost its luster, however; once coming under the influence of Jimi Hendrix and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, they latched upon Bubble Puppy as a variant to a phrase in the book. They got their big break as performers when their then-manager invited the Who, then on tour in Texas, to spend some of their down time in the Puppy's rehearsal venue (as Rod Prince described it, "a godsend to a touring act"). Being up close and personal led to an invitation to open the San Antonio show. Happenstance like that is a thing of the distant past in this age of LiveNation. 

Moving on to Austin and then Houston, they were seen in a psychedelic club called Love Street Light Circus and signed to International Artists. (Although the club no longer exists, its legacy continues as a nonprofit organization where local acts raise money for children's causes in Houston.)

They became IA's most successful group. Unfortunately IA's lack of a head for business, apparently legendary, made it impossible to do right by its acts, which also included the 13th Floor Elevators. The tales are so many and varied it would be pointless to try and summarize them, but the music industry was as unsavory then as it is now, suffice it to say. Rod Prince himself described IA as a organization of "no-talent lawyers, thugs, and the spawn of the shallow end of the gene pool - clueless all."

After a tour with Steppenwolf, Prince and company were convinced to relocate to California, where another literary allusion - Hermann Hesse's novel Demian, one of my absolute favorite novels of that time - led to a name change so that they didn't have to fight with IA over the use of Bubble Puppy. Here's Love People, a vastly mellower sound but just as pleasing.


buck said...

Every man in Texas is middle-named Wade, by the way (it's my middle name, too.)

Come down and we'll do a tour of the Houston music past, starting at the Americana Building (home of IA and now home to a James Coney Island and the worst Chinese buffet I've ever had) and ending up at Sugar Hill.

wendy said...

Wade, if your middle name is Wade, then what in tarnation is your first name? (I know I'm not going to get an answer.)

I am working on that Houston trip; what a pilgrimage that would be!

Holly A Hughes said...

Now there's a song I never heard before -- and what a beauty! I agree with you about the psychedelic sound, Wendy; there was a lot of murky crap out there, making it hard to dig out the really good stuff. And a lot of it stayed regional, which is why for example even the 13th Floor Elevators never made it to my ears in Indiana.

As always, I am in debt to you for your detective work!

wendy said...

My pleasure, Holly.

I never heard 13th Floor Elevators either. The regional hits phenom is like having a parallel universe out there. I find it endlessly fascinating.