The '60s were a moment only in advertising and art school; if they really happened, they were the '50s overamplified into more noise than order, and except for one last anomalous artifact that didn't fit then and doesn't fit now, we could forever discount them as exaggeration and hopeful false memory and so end a long national nightmare for good. But instead there is Blue Cheer, a band that was stuck in the '60s like the Russian chimponaut who got stuck on the moon, a band who played the blues like Black Flag when Black Flag was just a bug spray and who persisted so long that music has finally given up and gone ashamedly back to meet them. And Blue Cheer are happy to welcome it back: "Hey, man," says bassist Dickie Peterson now. "I really feel my life has not been wasted."
1967 was a long time ago: Brian Wilson's Smile, Sgt. Pepper, the Summer of Love and a lot of other things that didn't have a hope of penetrating the record Blue Cheer was recording, a frothing-at-the-mouth six-song debut with a misremembered Latin title translating to something like "to break out from chains." Then LSD was criminalized, and then the Chinese announced their first successful hydrogen bomb detonation, and then the next day Jimi Hendrix set fire to his guitar at Monterey Pop. And that might have been the very weekend Blue Cheer as we know it was started: outlaw acid, nuclear fallout, and the melting plastic on an electric guitar together made Vincebus Eruptum, remembered for almost 40 years mostly as the album audacious enough to include a cover of "Summertime Blues" as it would have sounded to original singer Eddie Cochran had he gone to hell after he died.
And every year since, Blue Cheer has gotten cooler and creepier; every year the early curse—Lester Bangs famously called the band sub-sub-sub-sub-Hendrix—shifts more into reverse. The distance is disappearing between a band like the Velvet Underground—currently topping a list of the most influential albums of all time in some glossy airline-lobby magazine—and this SF power trio whose singer had so much scuzzy hair in 1968 that a TV appearance looked like someone poked a microphone into a tumbleweed. Now Blue Cheer are getting their due credit. They had no goofball shtick like Alice Cooper or the MC5, and they weren't snobs like Zappa, and they weren't art darlings like the Velvet Underground; they could play the hell out of the Stooges (who wouldn't show up until Blue Cheer had turned into a country rock band) and they didn't need a million dollars to do it.
They were so ahead of the game they didn't invent heavy metal—they skipped ahead and invented the heavy metal people would play after they got tired of heavy metal; they were the band to listen to when you were bored by Led Zeppelin except they produced two albums before Led Zeppelin released any one thing. Plus they did acid, too. And they were managed by an ex-Hell's Angel named Gut, and they played so famously loud—they were billed as the loudest band on the planet, with six Marshall stacks between Peterson and guitarist Leigh Stevens and a double drum kit for Paul Whaley—that they were rumored to have once killed a dog with a single riff.
Everyone else was on a head trip, says Peterson now, so Blue Cheer decided to push a physical trip—something that manager Gut once said turned the air into cottage cheese. On early tours, they trained roadies to set up and break down their equipment in just 30 minutes because promoters thought the Blue Cheer artillery battery would take too long to set up. And stories like that forever attach Blue Cheer to a sort of glory—scary caveman burnouts who stepped into the fire before anyone else: "They thought we were mad," says Peterson. "And we were . . . "
But Peterson's stories now come with a cute kind of innocence: 1968 Blue Cheer as kids, not cavemen. He tells writer Trevor Sutcliffe now he once almost cried when other SF bands put Blue Cheer down; he remembers meeting Muddy Waters on a shared bill and being too frightened to find out what he thought of their set ("He may well have been horrified!") and he becomes suddenly very serious as he puts down the dog story: "If I ever thought our music killed something—anything!—I wouldn't play. I'd stop playing if I thought I brought the death of something. Our music is actually the opposite. I know for a fact many babies have been conceived to our music—people say, 'Hey, man, we were listening to Blue Cheer and fucking! And I say, 'Hey, man, that's great—I'm glad I can be a part of it.'"
So this is Blue Cheer: enjoying redemption with magnanimity. Peterson never considered himself a hippie, "but I did believe peace and love are the only way to go, and I still believe it to this day"—except as regards his peer group ("The generation that's running the show now is jam-packed with traitors") and rock & roll bands that charge hundreds of dollars for tickets (they should be dragged behind stadiums and shot).
In 1968, fathers hid their daughters—about a million little hippie chicks into free love, laughs Peterson. Now fathers bring their (grown) sons to Blue Cheer: the first generation B.C., who even have a website—stonerrock.com—that accords Blue Cheer the godhead cult status ex-Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis might get on stonerbaseball.com. This has both helped them and hurt them: they didn't become frat bait like AC/DC, but since 1988, they hadn't been able to tour their own country. ("Nobody wanted us," Peterson told Sutcliffe.)
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If Blue Cheer was ripping off Hendrix, they missed the real lesson: die well. Instead, there was a prolonged lack of grace in the way this extraterrestrially heavy trio settled into a Byrds-style country-rock foursome (which at some points had no original members besides Peterson) after Vincebus and twin follow-up Outsideinside and then finally ashed out in the palm of Kim Fowley, who recorded a last set of unrecognizable demos in 1974. An unheralded '80s reunion took them everywhere but here, and then in rehearsal in Germany two years ago, Peterson says he turned to current guitarist/manager Duck MacDonald and said, "You know what? We want to go home."
And strangely, America was ready—ideally, it is because they are bored of Led Zeppelin. One fan said it's like they've awakened from an immortal sleep—he meant Blue Cheer, but it's just as correct for everyone else.
"Some of it still mystifies," says Peterson. "I have theories. Something like this, maybe things go full cycle. Or maybe young people are just tired of getting crap shoved down their throat. My personal opinion is that young people wanted to hear real honest rock & roll and not so much acrobats and samplers—and Blue Cheer, what you see is what you get. I had kids say to me the other night, 'You know what? Your music is old enough to be brand new.'"
BLUE CHEER PERFORM WITH GOBLIN COCK, THE RELATIVE STRANGERS AND P.S.I. AT THE GALAXY, 3503 S. HARBOR BLVD., SANTA ANA, (714) 957-0600; WWW.GALAXYTHEATER.COM. SUN., 7:30 P.M. $18. CALL FOR AGE RESTRICTION.