Dec 22, 2011
Homage to Saccharine Trust
Until the appearance/Of a lone ocean bird/Skimming over the choppy water/Airily eyeing after anchovies/And occasionally glancing at the people/Who had come to be at the beach/On the winter solstice – from “Estuary,” by Saccharine Trust
I think it was in the late summer of 1981 that I jokingly suggested to my friends that we go see a concert at the Whiskey A Go Go featuring the Minutemen, Saccharine Trust, and the Meat Puppets. I had not ever heard any music by these groups and was probably just amused by their names, especially the Meat Puppets.
Who knew, then, that some four years later these would actually be among my favorite bands?
Indeed, it was in the spring of 1985 that I went to see the Keystone Palo Alto installment of what SST billed as “The Tour.” The bands involved? SWA, Saccharine Trust, The Meat Puppets, the Minutemen, and Husker Du. I had gone mainly to see the Minutemen, having had my mind blown over the preceding months by their magnum opus, Double Nickels on the Dime.
The Minutemen totally rocked, as they did every single time I saw them. SWA was forgettable. The Meat Puppets, oddly enough, left no impression (though later in my life I devoted significant turntable time to Meat Puppets II and Up on the Sun, and, in fact, if I were inclined to recommend any band from that era now, it would probably be them). Husker Du were a white noise blur and my rock concert companion (Eric!) and I left during their set.
The band that ended up haunting me, however, was Saccharine Trust. Jack Brewer, the singer, was dressed in a banana yellow leisure suit; Joe Baiza, the guitarist, had a piece of spin art taped to his guitar. They produced a very angular and spastic kind of punk noise with Baiza given to hacking out long, experimental lines while Brewer—curly haired, baby faced—spit his beat-inspired words. At one point, Brewer hit himself in the forehead repeatedly with the mic until it drew blood. Later, he took off his belt, tied it around his neck, and awkwardly jerked himself into the air with it over and over again.
Saccharine Trust got under my skin because they were so weird. Although Baiza was undeniably cool, playing with an otherwordly, quasi-shamanic concentration, Brewer was just dorky, strange, and, I guess, scary in an erratic, “what the hell is up with this guy?,” sort of way. A few months later, while going through the bins at Rhino Records in LA, I found a copy of their album, Surviving You, Always, and bought it.
It was a difficult record. While I could fit the Minutemen into the music I’d been listening to for a while (they struck me, at times, as a punkier, pithier, and more political Talking Heads, for example), I couldn’t really place Saccharine Trust. Sure, they covered “Peace Frog” by the Doors—without sounding remotely like the Doors—but other songs like “All in a Good Night’s Bleeding” or “The Giver Takes” were avant, almost mathy (post?) hardcore. And “Yahweh on Acid” was a long, multi-layered, slow-burn freakout with Jack Brewer’s poetry draped across it like intestines before a haruspex.
I decided that I was going to like this record no matter what, so I put it on every day and listened to it until it became familiar and, slowly, comprehensible. Soon, I was listening to it because I actually liked it—to this day I think that “Our Discovery” is one of the great songs of that bygone (mid-80’s/LA punk) era—and would play it for my friends as an aesthetic litmus test: Could they dig it or not? How open were their musical minds really?
Compared to Surviving You, Always, their follow-up, World Broken—an entirely improvised live album with Mike Watt on bass and Jack reciting poetry or, on one song, reading at length from the second book of Samuel—could almost be considered accessible. Mike Watt’s swinging melodic bass certainly served to anchor things firmly in the known musical universe and even allowed Baiza’s raggedy psychedelia and Brewer’s warped ecstasies to shine in their most flattering and downright visionary light. I listened to this record a lot. (Listening to it again while writing this, I’m struck by how great it sounds—trippy, majestic, disturbing, funny, feral—we need more music like this.)
In the end, Saccharine Trust became a band that mattered to me; they made a difference to me and made me different. Joe Baiza’s guitar playing inspired the acid-tinged, Jerry Garcia-meets-Greg Ginn approach I favored way back when, and, more importantly, Jack Brewer, in all his unselfconscious and damaged dorkiness, actually encouraged me to be weird in my own way, on and off stage, and showed me that if you obey your own idiosyncratic muse, while you might create something that is difficult to like and even odd to the point of embarrassing, you might also create something truly original and, in its way, ineffably immortal.
I remember the concert. Is was just a few months before Minuteman D. Boon’s death in a car crash. If I remember right, Husker Du were the headliners, but their music seemed kind of featureless and unmemorable after all the interesting stuff that preceeded them.
I was hoping you’d read this and comment, Eric. I remember the Huskers just sounding like a squall but listening to their album Zen Arcade the other day I subsequently remembered that they were pretty great song writers!
Thank you for evoking an album which stands for me – thanks to you – up there with the Velvets’ White Light White Heat, Joy Division’s Closer, the Stooges Fun House and possibly Patti Smith’s Radio Ethiopia, albums that among many others we decorated your bedroom floor with one fine day in Ithaca like a new form of tile, imagining them inset into the floor and covered with plexiglass. Sadly, Surviving You Always seems the one album of theirs that is not on CD, at least last time I checked. I was curious if you might someday write a part II of this ST (S for snake and t for the cross the snake hangs around) eulogy, and explore perhaps in further exegetical finesse the strange intrigue that the old testament held for Brewer, along with a recognition of the greatness of We Became Snakes (your softer kinder intro for me, ha) and a description of the possible whats-wrong-with-this-picture meanings of the enigmatic/tragic cover image of Surviving You Always.
Dan – As I started writing this, I realized there was a lot more I could write. Saccharine Trust was one of those strange bands that was vaguely associated with hardcore (mainly cuz of SST and their friendship with the minutmen) but wasn’t exactly hardcore or punk. Definitely part of an “art rock” arc, and therewith connected to something like Radio Ethiopia, but more unselfconsciously abrasive. There was always something of the naif about Jack Brewer and Joe Baiza’s playing, while owing something to the Albert Ayler’s of the world, never felt schooled enough to count as jazz, even of the “out” variety—it was always more street folk, or something like that.
In any event, I promise to return to comment further on the dark, dense work of these unsung geniuses.