Rock ‘n’ roll survivor
Struggles. Successes. Setbacks. It’s the narrative of rock, and Mike Farrell has lived it through a succession of important local bands.
Mike Farrell definitely looks like a rock star.
His dark hair, stylish vintage clothes and lean body make him appear as if he just stepped off an old Yardbirds album cover, circa 1966.
Onstage at Old Ironsides, during a recent gig featuring Th’ Losin Streaks, one of his three regular bands, Farrell wrestled with his vintage Supro guitar. Though the low ceiling above the stage kept him from leaping into the air like the Who’s Pete Townshend, he managed to get in a few semi-spectacular jumps.
Farrell compensated with a few other choice poses, though. Holding his guitar aloft, he would coax long, sustained notes out of it. Or, launching into a solo, he would point the guitar neck theatrically at the crowd while freezing his facial muscles—not into the kind of fish-mouthed orgasmic gape that often makes soloing guitarists the butt of jokes, but into a photogenic grimace that appeared to be the epitome of cool.
And Farrell is certainly photogenic. Jay Spooner, a local photographer and club promoter who, throughout the years, has shot rolls of film capturing Farrell performing, described an e-mailed compliment he’d received from one of Farrell’s many fellow-musician fans around town, Greg “GB” Baxter, the onetime Magnolia Thunderfinger guitarist who now fronts his own band, the Carousers. “GB said that I did the impossible, by actually capturing Mike Farrell in a photograph with both feet on the ground,” Spooner said. “I thought that was pretty funny.”
Offstage, Farrell exudes a mild-mannered quality unbecoming of a typical rock star. Sitting outside Java City in Midtown, on a recent perfect Sacramento evening on the cusp of summer, Farrell looked more like a nattily dressed English beat-group enthusiast than some drugged-out veteran of Guns N’ Roses. He was wearing the kind of tan, wide-lapel shirt with broad black-and-white plaid squares that screams 1970s, plus black slacks and tan suede shoes. Topping off the tableau was a black pair of wrap-around sunglasses, which sat perched on his head atop his stylishly cut hair. Of course, one would expect a man who works full time at a 21st Street vintage clothing store, as Farrell does, to look sharp.
But that crisp image belies a musician who has been at the center of Sacramento’s downtown rock scene for nearly two decades, playing in numerous bands and genres—metal, blues, rock, offbeat pop and country—with many of the city’s well-known players. And the story of Farrell’s descent into addiction, and his subsequent redemption, at least equals any dissipated rock star’s biography on VH-1’s Behind the Music.
Still, Farrell has always retained what’s important once he steps onstage, even in his darkest period. “It should be any entertainer’s job to do just that—to entertain, to give the people their money’s worth, to give them something that they can escape with for a while,” he explained.
And though showmanship may be a concept that predates Al Jolson, it’s one often lost on many contemporary performers. As a young, budding music fan, Farrell happened to catch Jolson’s heirs apparent on television: Kiss. “I was a little kid, sitting and watching The Paul Lynde Halloween Special in 1976, and all of a sudden, these guys in painted faces came out, and I was like, ‘Whoa, what’s this?’ It was like a combination of rock ’n’ roll and a Bela Lugosi-meets-Godzilla movie. That was entertaining,” he said.
Farrell intuitively incorporated the theatric sense of a Kiss show into the way he presents himself onstage. “I have fun doing it,” he said. “And, chances are, if I’m having fun doing it, people are gonna have fun watching it.” It’s a quality that has made him one of the most watchable rock musicians, if not the most watchable, this town’s club stages have ever seen.
Farrell even will admit that he lets his guitar playing take a back seat to his theatrics. “I’m more of a good dancer than I am a guitar player,” he said. In Th’ Losin Streaks, Farrell focuses on the visual aspect of performance. He can stomp on a fuzzbox, manipulate the sustain and then dance around onstage and make it look good. “That’s the truth,” he said. “The quality of guitar playing really isn’t there.”
Some might disagree with Farrell’s self-appraisal.
For one, Tim Foster, the guitar-playing lead singer of Th’ Losin Streaks, which features Foster and Farrell on guitars; Stan Tindall, who also plays in Foster’s other band, the Trouble Makers, on bass; and Matt K. Shrugg on drums. It formed last August, and Farrell joined in September.
Th’ Losin Streaks are part of a back-to-the-garage movement in rock that seeks to recapture that magic moment in the mid-1960s after the Beatles landed in New York, when hundreds of bands formed in rec rooms and garages across America. The emphasis then was on playing loud, which meant creating a testosterone-fueled din using guitars and amps that, too often, weren’t up to the challenge. The original garage-band heyday ended when more powerful amplifiers were introduced, and such new acts as Jimi Hendrix, Cream and Led Zeppelin learned to exploit their dynamic potential and present a more refined and musical approach, capturing the hearts of teenaged noisemakers everywhere.
What the better garage revivalists, like Th’ Losin Streaks, do is capture the full-on pounding spirit of such genre luminaries as the Sonics, a notorious exponent of teen-oriented racket from the Pacific Northwest, along with such better-known bands as the Seeds, the Standells and others. Nuggets, a two-LP anthology compiled by rock historian and guitarist Lenny Kaye and released by Elektra Records in 1972, captured much of that era’s proto-headbanging glory.
“I’ve always been into the aesthetics of the ’60s, obviously,” Farrell said. “I love the way they dress and everything. And I certainly wasn’t opposed to the sound; I just wasn’t exposed to it.”
Foster recently gave Farrell a crash course in Sacramento garage-band culture via The Sounds of Young Sacramento, a CD that includes such bands as the Opposite Six; the Jaguars, which featured David Houston; and the Hustlers, which included Skip Maggiora of Skip’s Music.
“I think Mike is really excited to play with us because we force him to dumb down,” Foster said.
Foster recounted a recording session for the band’s new album, Sounds of Violence, which will be released any day on Slovenly, a Reno-based indie label. The band was working on a track called “The End” with no-frills producer Chris Woodhouse. “When I was playing solos on it, it was the best I could play—like, Chuck Berry meets a ’77 punk band, with a Billy Childish-or-whatever solo,” Foster said. When Farrell tried to play the part, his fluid style wasn’t meshing with what Foster said was the closest thing to a circa-1977 punk song in Th’ Losin Streaks’ repertoire. Foster figured the track needed to sound more “jagged,” and the band spent an entire practice trying to get it right. “Finally, I told him, ‘It’s like knitting needles hitting you in the face.’” That clinched it, and Farrell nailed the part on the next run-through.
Farrell’s guitar turn on “The End” amounts to an 11-second burst of noise. Though it’s perfect for the song, which closes the album, it’s nowhere near as exhilarating as what he pulls off on “If and When,” two songs before “The End.” There, Farrell executes a perfect melodic journey up the guitar neck over the band’s trashy, crunching rhythmic backing, the kind of solo that makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.
Farrell also contributed a couple of original songs to Sounds of Violence: “Fine Line” and “There Goes John.” The former is packed with blissfully blockheaded guitar freakouts; the latter begins with the kind of huge chords with which the Who used to open songs. Both songs fit in with the rest of the album, but they hint at something more sophisticated.
If Th’ Losin Streaks represent Farrell’s rock ‘n’ roll side, then Daisy Spot is his stairway to heaven.
“That’s truly my baby,” Farrell said, “because I wrote most of the songs.” He used the past tense because he hasn’t written anything new for the band in quite a while; he’s spent more time purging or salvaging old material. The distinction Farrell draws between Daisy Spot and Th’ Losin Streaks is this: “I guess it is what I’m about rather than what I’m excited about.”
What’s remarkable is that Daisy Spot, originally a duo Farrell and then-girlfriend Tatiana LaTour (nee Sunderland) formed around 1991, has one item in its discography: a 7-inch single, “Bring Down the Night” backed with “Silly Willy,” released in 1995 on the Echonet label. An online mail-order service described the group as “permanently stuck in some sort of 1974 Carpenters warp.” Farrell and LaTour recorded prolifically—informal boombox tapings, home four-track sessions, and even some studio time—but none of that music is available.
The duo formed via a mutual interest in the Ink Spots, a black vocal group that pre-dates rock ’n’ roll. “We wrote some cutesy songs that were kind of Ink Spot-influenced,” Farrell recalled, “and then it kinda progressed into this more ragtimey sound.” At the time, around 1993, the “swing” (read: jump-band blues) revival was in full flower, and Daisy Spot’s novel, out-of-time charm fit right in. “It wasn’t like I was trying to latch onto this whole resurgence,” he said. “It came naturally.” Unfortunately, Farrell’s second-guessing got the best of him; he couldn’t figure out where Daisy Spot might possibly fit. “My insecurities started to kick in, like this will never fly,” he said.
Today, it’s a different story. Farrell and LaTour have a quartet, with LaTour’s husband, Brian, on bass and Alex Jenkins on drums; the band has seven tracks finished that will appear on the band’s long-awaited debut, which will include 11-13 songs. Farrell hasn’t found a label for the project yet, but he hopes to get it released in the fall.
Inside Brighton Sound on Folsom Boulevard, the former filling station turned recording-studio home of the band Deathray, that band’s singer, Dana Gumbiner—who is engineering Daisy Spot’s album and, with Farrell, co-producing it—was fiddling with a control board. Gumbiner punched a button, and the gentle sounds of a song called “Reno Lights” filled the room; its lilting rhythm is light-years from Th’ Losin Streaks’ raw urgency. Farrell’s guitar parts are sweetly nuanced, like you might hear on a late-1960s recording of Glen Campbell singing Jimmy Webb songs, and there is also more than a hint of Brazilian samba pop. Singer LaTour possesses the kind of featherlike voice that made Astrud Gilberto’s “Girl From Ipanema” a smash hit in 1964, and with her vocals doubling Farrell’s vocals, albeit an octave higher, it gives the track an even more Brazilian feel.
After the song faded, Gumbiner looked up. “They’ve got this sort of hard-won optimism, you know?”
A second, less-complete song, “Cheyenne,” sounded rougher; it has a lovely minor-key melody and a cinematic “Indian Love Call”-style vocal by LaTour in a middle section. A third, “Leinaala,” begins with some very Brazilian-sounding guitar comp and rhythms, and then it shifts tempo when the vocals start; on the bridge, Farrell plays a lovely extended—and distorted—guitar solo. A fourth number, “Claire,” which LaTour wrote, has a stark, eerie quality, with her vocals floating over a repeating nylon-string guitar dirge, as electronic parts are slowly piled on.
“This Daisy Spot stuff has been a lot of fun,” Gumbiner said. “I’m going to be really sad when this album is over, because I have a huge crush on this band.”
The third band Farrell currently plays with is the Alkali Flats, an acoustic folk-revival group that features Mark Miller on snare drum; Chris Harvey and Tim White, who trade off on guitar and stand-up bass; and Joy Buzzards member Keith Cary on mandolin and accordion. “It’s a very low-maintenance band,” Farrell said, “in the way that all I’ve got to do is show up with—ah, hell—they provide me with the guitar.” He plays steel-stringed acoustic and some lap steel; the band plays so infrequently that it isn’t an imposition on Farrell. “I like playing in that band,” he said. “I like the whole country thing, because that’s a big part of me. [The Alkali Flats] take it even further back than what I’m accustomed to—being all acoustic, for one—and they like doing a lot of old Louvin Brothers songs and beyond that. And they have a lot of originals that resemble that sound.”
White, an accomplished painter who writes about the visual arts for SN&R, said that the Flats like Farrell, too. “It’s so unlike the way he plays in the other bands,” he enthused. “When he plays electric, much of what he does has to do with feedback and lots of notes. But he plays really straightforward, traditional melodies with us.”
Farrell fell into playing with Alkali Flats after he ran into White at a yard sale at Miller’s house the day of a show. The band had a CD-release show at Old Ironsides, and Farrell ran into White at the yard sale during the day and offered his services. He showed up for rehearsal a half-hour before the band left for the club. Harvey, figuring a disaster was in the offing, was mortified, but once Farrell began playing a difficult section effortlessly, everyone was won over. Farrell played the entire set on an acoustic guitar, launching into each solo whenever a band member would nod as a cue, playing perfectly into the next verse. “We’ve been begging him to play with us every show since,” White said.
Farrell has yet one other band he plays with: He’s a former and still unofficial member of Dave Gleason’s Wasted Days, an Oakland-based honky-tonk band in the Bakersfield tradition. Farrell played with the band on about half its first record, and he sits in with Wasted Days whenever they come to the area.
Farrell had been playing bass in a fifth band, Persephone’s Bees, a Bay Area pop group. But he was overcommitted, and something had to give, and because most of that band’s gigs were around San Francisco, which required traveling, he decided to limit his playing to local bands.
It may seem curious that Farrell can play in so many bands, but his story is far from unique on the Midtown grid; there are a number of musicians in town who play in two, three or more bands—some of which play out a lot, while others amount to little more than the occasional gig or recording session. In Farrell’s case, it’s like the swinging single who can’t quite settle down. He’s got his first love, Daisy Spot, in which he focuses his most musically eclectic impulses. But Farrell’s musical interests are too wide-ranging to be satisfied by one band. Or two or three.
And that level of activity for Farrell these days is also remarkable, because little more than a year ago, a lot of people around town were afraid they soon might be reading his obituary.
Farrell was born in San Mateo in 1968, but he pretty much grew up in South Sacramento near Florin Center, and he went to Hiram W. Johnson High School with a couple of guys who later became members of Tesla. When he was 18, he moved downtown. “I vowed never to live in any suburb again,” he said, laughing, “simply because there are so many beautiful trees here, and the suburbs are notorious for treeless land.” He’s been downtown ever since, except for a few forays to the East Bay.
Musically, Farrell’s development began when his father, a Marine for 20 years, gave him an album boxed set put out by the Marine Corps that contained music by a number of American musical heroes. “It had everybody,” Farrell remembered. “Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, the Beach Boys, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons—this is the stuff I grew up on, before I realized there was a Kiss and what the whole visual aspect was about.” His favorites were Chuck Berry and Little Richard.
He picked up a guitar around age 11, after his mother caught him mimicking Chuck Berry in front of a mirror with a baseball bat. He was embarrassed; she got him the guitar and suggested lessons.
By age 13, he was in a band playing AC/DC, Pat Benatar and Night Ranger covers. The turning point was seeing Angus Young in a 1980 AC/DC concert film called Let There Be Rock. “I was just blown away,” he said. “I thought, ‘OK, I really need to play guitar. This guy is obviously having a blast. He’s running around onstage and playing these amazing licks. I need to do that.’”
Farrell’s guitar teacher showed him “Highway to Hell,” and he was on his way.
He was in and out of a slew of suburban speed-metal bands—Exodus (not the band later signed to Capitol), Prowler, Sin Minister, Armageddon and Critical Mass, to name a few—and was dialed into early Metallica and other, more esoteric metal acts. “Playing fast but clean,” Farrell said.
Then he discovered Hendrix. “That opened the biggest door for me,” he said, “because that turned me onto—God, man—blues and jazz.” After that, Farrell’s father gave him a couple of Miles Davis albums, and some friends at school introduced him to the Rolling Stones and the Velvet Underground. By that time, he was playing in a band called the Attic Boys.
Farrell started coming downtown to hang out at the old Sam’s Hof-Brau at 17th and J Streets, currently the location of Hamburger Mary’s. Sam’s at the time was the nexus of Sacramento’s blues scene, and Johnny “Guitar” Knox was hosting a Sunday open jam with his band the Bluesbusters.
Knox, a player who has influenced a number of Sacramento guitarists, left his mark on Farrell, too. “He helped me understand that guitar playing didn’t have to be a million notes in one section,” Farrell said. “Play nice, tasteful, slow licks and make it count.”
One of the players Farrell hooked up with at Sam’s Sunday-night jam was Leo Boots, then a fixture on the open-mic scene. The result was FMK, which formed around 1986 and took its name from the last initials of Mike Farrell, drummer John Mitchell and Lee “Boots” Kinanahan. Later, FMK added a bass player, so it changed the acronym to stand for Fat Molly’s Kitchen, and Tesla guitarist Frank Hannon took the band under his wing for a demo deal, with major labels Virgin and Geffen interested. But FMK’s members were too enamored with the Midtown couch-surfing lifestyle to make anything happen, and the band ceased to exist around 1989.
Then came Sex 66. Farrell’s interest in the blues had been waning when he caught the Earwigs, a band led by Jimmy Self, an art student who moved to Sacramento from Reno and was playing music around town as Jim Bourbeau. Unfortunately, people confused him with already established Midtown singer-songwriter Anton Barbeau, so Bourbeau changed his name to Self.
FMK and the Earwigs both called it quits around the same time, and Farrell and Self started hanging out and playing music—and also fell into one of rock music’s legendary pitfalls, which had been lurking in this city’s punk-rock scene since at least the early 1980s. “Unfortunately,” Farrell said, laughing, “that’s when our heroin career started, too. Hence, we were known as ‘the heroin band.’”
In its first incarnation, from 1990 to 1993, Sex 66 earned a reputation around town as a brilliant—if somewhat inconsistent—live act. Catch the band on one of its up nights, and you would see rock ’n’ roll in all of its messed-up, messianic glory. Its songs, which contained plenty of Americana imagery, were amplified by the band into an unholy mix of rock, country, rockabilly, psychedelic rock, psychobilly and whatever else suited its fancy at the time. The band wrote prolifically, but most of it never made it to the stage much less got recorded. “A lot of our songs were what I see as genuine country, in that [they] came from a real country heart,” Self said. Then he added, “We weren’t trying to be Gram Parsons.”
In addition to Farrell and Self, the band included either Steve Vanoni or Chris Hall on sax, Paul Wells on organ and piano, Mike Curry (now in Jackpot) on drums, and a parade of bass players: Gabe Nelson (now in Cake), followed by former FMK bassist Vince Garcia, before the band settled down with Danny O’Grady. “We look back on it, with a lot of fondness, on some of those performances,” Self said. “And the real drag is, when you do that crap [heroin], obviously, you can’t have any consistency. Nobody wants to be around for that. But some nights we would show up, it was just weird how nice it was.”
“Man, we took a dive for the worst,” Farrell said of those years. “And it didn’t take very long.”
And on those wasted nights, Sex 66 could be the musical equivalent of watching a cat walk with tape on its paws, or a dog eat a peanut-butter sandwich: It was goofy as hell, but the performance still had its own internal logic and grace.
Self still remains in awe of Farrell’s gifts. “Even in the worst of times, the most fucked up of times, the highest of times, his playing, he always tapped into that pain that he has inside,” he said. “Mike has a real direct ability to get to the pain—that joyful pain. And that’s where it comes from for Mike, and he does it real genuinely. His playing was always awesome, in the middle of chaos. It could be so ragged, but it was perfect.”
In 1993, Self got into recovery, which spelled the end of Sex 66. He went back to Reno for a while and then moved back to Sacramento in 1995. Self, O’Grady, Wells and a guitarist named Todd Stephens got back together and played Harlow’s one night. “Mike was on Mars at the time,” Self recalled, “and he came in and said, ‘That’s my band.’ And I said, ‘Well, you’ve gotta get your butt clean if this is your band.’ So, he cleaned up.”
Thus, the second iteration of Sex 66, which resulted in the one item in the band’s discography, the album Grew Up Down, which was released in 1999 on Fire-Ram Records, a short-lived Nevada City indie label. “Some of those songs that we did on that album together are some of my favorites,” Self said. “The work was harder to eke out, but there was a connection to spirit that was just sort of splattered on before. It was a real experience to be artists together, trying to have a sober life and grow up a little bit and still be on fire with rock ’n’ roll.”
For Farrell, that period isn’t one he is as enthusiastic about, in retrospect. “I don’t mean to take away from the recovery process,” he said, “but something was lost when we reformed after we had gotten into recovery. There was a certain innocence or magic that was gone.”
Farrell had gotten into a recovery program, New Bridge, in Berkeley, where Self was a counselor, and the band appeared to be making a serious go of it. But disenchantment set in. “As time went on, I just grew to not enjoy it,” Farrell said. “And I knew Jimmy was breaking away from being a musician; he wanted to involve himself in a career. He kind of pulled the plug on us, which caused a lot of resentments in the band.”
As Self put it, “I just hit a point where I thought, ‘I just don’t want to do this night after night. My heart’s not in it.’”
After the demise of Sex 66, Farrell fell into playing bass with Persephone’s Bees, in addition to his ongoing project, Daisy Spot. He also started using again, which made touring difficult. “We’d get invited by John McCrea to go on tour with Cake to Canada,” Farrell said, “and I had to stock up—only to find out that I had to get rid of all my shit before we crossed the border. And then have to, like, score in Canada, which is actually really easy,” he said, laughing. “Once again, I’m not there for the music.”
Farrell hit bottom in April of last year. “I was totally involved in the ritual of getting and using and doing whatever I could to get more,” he said. “I resorted to ‘boosting’—ripping off stores and selling to others,” he said. “And I finally got busted.” That was the turning point. Sitting in the back of a cop car at Tower Records in Citrus Heights, he knew his run was over.
The good news is that Farrell has been clean for more than a year now. Though there are no guarantees, and any honest recovering addict or alcoholic will tell you that he only has a daily reprieve, Farrell seems to be taking things day by day in stride. Today, the people who love him aren’t wondering when they’re going to hear about his demise; they’re hoping that this major player in Sacramento’s music scene will fatten up his discography, or they’re hoping somebody will put together an anthology of Farrell’s unreleased gems, of which there are many. As Gumbiner put it, “If it was up to me, I’d have all his bands in one place for a long, long recording session.”
Farrell recently ran into an acquaintance who’d recently finished a book that was set in Sacramento, where the American and Sacramento rivers meet. Her premise was that you don’t ever get to leave the area where the two rivers meet until you find yourself. “That ties in for me,” Farrell said. “Even in my drug haze—especially in my drug haze—I had a real affinity about this area. This area has some sort of magic about it. I’ve always been right at home here. Every time I’ve gone away, I couldn’t wait to get back.”