Turn on, tune in and testify
Ever heard of Azitis, Search Party or Bobby Brown? Collectors still seek grails by these three religion-infused acts from Sacramento’s dim psychedelic past.
It is widely believed that the spirit of the 1960s died when the Rolling Stones took the stage at Altamont Speedway on December 6, 1969. A horrific chain of events, Altamont was more than just a poorly organized, free concert gone terribly wrong. It was the straw that broke the counterculture’s back. The party was officially over.
Looking back on the days leading to Altamont, it’s clear that the party had been dying down for quite some time. By November 1967, the number of U.S. casualties in Vietnam had reached 15,058, leaving the American public on the verge of psychological breakdown. On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down in Memphis, Tenn., striking a terrible blow to the civil-rights movement. The times were a-changin’.
Though the idealism of the counterculture remained at odds with the outside world, psychedelia endured as an artistically diverse window into the changing times. But though the focus of psych music a few years earlier had been to celebrate or even emulate the drug experience, the focus now turned toward finding asylum amid its ill-fated aftermath.
Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Byrds, the Grateful Dead and many others all found refuge in American roots music and delivered barebones, heavily acoustic records. Other weren’t so lucky. Unable to cope with undying drug addiction, Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett became psychedelia’s first acid casualty, with Moby Grape’s Skip Spence trailing not far behind. In the coming years, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison all would die prematurely. It was enough to harsh anybody’s buzz.
In rhythm with these changes, pop culture’s fascination with Eastern religions also started to fade. Psychedelic drugs had brought with them a yearning for spiritual awareness, but as new religious saviors came out of the woodwork every day, even the most devout began to question their beliefs.
In response, the Christian establishment arrived to offer refuge to the disillusioned. By most accounts, the Jesus People movement first began in 1967 with the opening of a storefront mission in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. Enlisting “Jesus freaks” who dressed the part and acted the part but advertised salvation, street preachers took to the counterculture’s favorite avenues, spreading the good word while dropping enough slang so as not to arouse suspicion.
Around the same time, myriad previously conservative churches began opening their doors to the hippie generation. Christian coffeehouses sprang up in many of America’s cities, and “Jesus communes” were created to provide accommodation for the newly converted.
Many adopted the Christian life. Others not keen on conversion just retreated. Envisioning the world on the eve of destruction, thousands of disenchanted souls took to the hills and the desert. Some just retreated into themselves, fashioning their own self-guided spiritual practices as a means of coping.
In the midst of this unnerving flux, a group of bands and musicians took to spirituality as an inspiring conceptual guide. Whether they sprang from Christian, Eastern or even self-sired metaphysical influences, at their most spirited and spiritual moments, these musicians’ records embodied a quest for enlightenment that both pleased the ears and fed the soul.
Buried deep beneath much of the popular psych music of the time, several of these records stack up against the bulk of the day’s classics. And, in the late 1960s, Sacramento was the stamping ground for some of the bands and musicians that would record a slice of this music.
Though never at the heart of the counterculture movement, Sacramento, like many other California cities at the time, found inspiration in the nearby San Francisco scene while breeding a unique, local personality of its own. Littered with bands like Public Nuisance, She, the New Breed, Boy Blues, the Oxford Circle and many others, Sacramento epitomized a homegrown underground scene.
However, as sweeping changes took shape in America and in music, in the late 1960s, Sacramento’s music scene, too, underwent a similar makeover. Out of this transformation, a small legacy of spiritually themed psych music was born. Here are a handful of the players involved and their finest and, tragically for some, only moment.
Originally known as Help, until threatened with legal action by the British band of the same name, Christian psych troupe Azitis marks our first mystical landmark. Azitis (pronounced as-it-is) was first conceived in 1966 by Sacramento-area musicians Don Lower and Steve Nelson. Lower had cut his musical teeth playing in two of the area’s better mid-’60s rock outfits, the Cambridge Coroners and the Roadside Business, and after Lower met Nelson, the two formed a songwriting partnership.
Guitarist Fred Gerrard then was added to the mix, but after a brief touring stint, he packed it in. In his place, Lower and Nelson brought in guitarist/flutist Michael Welch and keyboardist Dennis Sullivan. It’s with this lineup that the band hit its musical stride.
After signing to Sacramento’s own Elco Records in 1969, Help recorded its first 45, “Life Worth Living” backed with “Questions Why.” From there, the four-piece changed its name to Azitis, and in 1971, the band cut its first and only full-length, Help, a Christian psych classic.
Swirling with mood-driven organ work and spirited vocals, Help is a full-blown psych affair. Opening with the aptly titled “Creation,” Help floats through a series of biblical themes, including the Fall, Judgment Day and the Revelation, backed by some of the day’s trippiest fuzz and most weirded-out phasing. Though the album’s considerable Christian content may not suit everyone’s musical palate, Help bears testament that inspired psych music could exist outside of the secular world.
Plagued by the disappearance of keyboardist Sullivan, in late 1971, Azitis collapsed into musical instability, halting production of its debut at 1,000 copies and triggering the eventual demise of Elco. Later reforming with the newly discovered Zeke Nuez at the keys, Azitis toured for a bit but called it quits not long afterward.
Today, original copies of the band’s debut fetch upwards of $1,000 among avid record collectors, but, fortunately, Modo Publishing released Help on CD in 2000, complete with both tracks from the band’s first 45. Turn on, tune in and testify.
Our next spiritual signpost, the Search Party’s Montgomery Chapel, is affectionately described in the album’s liner notes as “a demonstration of these five people’s concern for you.” Recorded at the San Francisco Theological Seminary’s own Montgomery Chapel, this acid-folk gem is the brainchild of the Rev. Nicholas Freund of Mount Saint Paul College in Waukesha, Wis. (which closed in 1970). Having left Wisconsin in the late 1960s to join a burgeoning West Coast religious scene, Freund and a handful of others spent considerable time in Sacramento before making their way to San Francisco in 1968 to lay down this one-off.
The result is a spooky, metaphysical trip that’s equal parts God and acid-dripped mind expansion. Laced with haunting vocals and dreamlike passages, Montgomery Chapel is psychedelic folk at its most evocative and most spiritual. Again, original copies (only 600 were pressed on the custom label Century out of Saugus) carry substantial price tags, which makes the Korean import CD version on Beatball Records or the vinyl reissues on the Void and Rapturedelic labels, the better buys. Now, if only Sunday-morning Mass sounded this good.
The last and most enigmatic character in this group, Bobby Brown remains a figure shrouded in mystery. Attempting to reconstruct a history of this Sacramento musician is like putting together an old jigsaw puzzle that, over time, has come to lose many of its pieces. Most of what is known about Brown comes either from firsthand, and usually clouded, accounts of his performances or from the detailed liner notes that Brown meticulously scribed on the back covers of his records. Here’s what we know.
From the late 1960s thru the 1980s, Brown toured up and down the California coast, performing live and selling records out of his van. A bona-fide one-man band, Brown was proficient in nearly 50 different instruments, including the guitar, Irish harp, koto, dulcimer, flute, sitar and drums. All things considered, Brown’s most intriguing instrument may very well have been his voice, which covers a six-octave range.
Over the course of his career, Brown recorded three albums: his 1972 debut, The Enlightening Beam of Axonda; a 1978 live record; and 1982’s Prayers of a One-Man Band. His 1972 debut remains his most inspired and most fully realized moment.
Taken from the album’s liner notes, “[The story of The Enlightening Beam of Axonda] is an original contribution to the field of religion and science—based on physics—to my knowledge not yet discovered by humanoids—more revolutionary than Einstein’s revelation of Newtonian physics—the application of this physics will perhaps (in fact) lead to the most significant change in the history of humanity (plus total religious unity).”
Obscure to say the least, on its edges, Brown’s debut is a fusion of art, science and religion, drenched with honeyed melodies and the hot California sun. But, upon closer listen, the record appears to follow a more personal path. Marked by Brown’s inspired playing and vacillating vocals, The Enlightening Beam of Axonda communicates a man’s inner quest for spiritual enlightenment.
To date, his music is only available on vinyl on the obscure Destiny label, which makes it fairly hard to find. But, legend has it that he used to sell his wares at some of the area’s flea markets. It just might be worth a trip. You never know. Brown’s records might be long gone, but you might uncover yet another of Sacramento’s underappreciated, long-forgotten music legends.