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Jan Savage

Jan Savage, founder member of 1960s garage rock avatars the Seeds died in Oklahoma on 5 August. Alec Palao pays tribute and points out the importance of this iconic guitar slinger.

In the gallery of 60s rock’n’roll heroes, Jan Savage of the Seeds has his own special position. A hatchet-faced punk brave, Fender Mustang slung low and Ramones-like, radiating nonchalance and deadly cool: mystery as much as menace. All image aside, if you discount the work of Jan Savage for its minimalism or lack of complexity, you don’t really get it. Jan brought a remarkable texture and tension to the Seeds sound with simple but effective technique. With fuzztone and whammy bar, he was able to articulate the same febrile energy emanating from bandleader Sky Saxon’s brainstorms. As rock guitar got more verbose in the late 1960s, and technique became king, the Seeds were derided as basic, and it took the filter of punk to recognize the band’s greatness. If Reed and Morrison, or Karoli and Czukay, are seen as pioneers of the instrumentally obsessive-compulsive in rock, then so should Jan and The Seeds.

Buck Jan Reeder was born in Ardmore, Oklahoma in 1942, the son of a postal railroad worker, which meant a somewhat nomadic early life. His parents split while the family was in Albuquerque, which is where, fired by country music, the youngster first started fooling around with guitar. Basically on his own from the age of fourteen, Jan spent time in Fresno and San Jose before settling in Los Angeles in 1962 to attend college, with the intent of becoming a police officer. He soon fell in with local surf and rock musicians, although his first professional jobs were as part of a large folk group.

Jan came from Native American stock, with his roots a combination of Tejas and Chickasaw, although for decades he was led to believe he was Cherokee. The adaptation of “Jan Savage” as a stage name was considered a necessary measure for the time, but Jan’s acknowledgement of his heritage, particularly in the stage persona of feathers, armbands, and ahead-of-the-curve suede garb, was never the novelty that other musicians with loose affiliation to indigenous America would later employ. Instead, it played right into the Seeds’ deathless image, so vividly captured on the cover of their eponymous first album.

Doing time as guitarist with middling surf outfit Jack & The Rippers, Jan set his sights higher and made the rounds of studios and clubs, eventually running into quixotic vocalist and veteran of the Hollywood scene, Sky Saxon, who originally enticed Jan to join forces with him with promises he could get him on Shindig. By early 1965, the pair had connected with a couple of wide-eyed refugees from Michigan, drummer Rick Andridge and keyboard player Daryl Hooper. After a few false starts, the combo found their feet, began to make a name for themselves, and were first enshrined on master tape in April 1965 with the recording of ‘Can’t Seem To Make You Mine,’ under their new name of the Seeds.

This opening gambit remains a perfect example of how Jan Savage brought exactly what was needed to the Seeds. Its catcall guitar hook, a mere inflection of the whammy bar, with an onomatopoeic echo from Sky, acted as a veritable clarion call when the song became their debut 45 in July 1965, after the act had been signed to Gene Norman’s GNP Crescendo label. On its sequel, the Seeds’ eventual Top 40 signature ‘Pushin’ Too Hard,’ Jan contributed an epigrammatic, slightly dissonant solo that spoke volumes in its simplicity. The band’s third chart single ‘Mr Farmer,’ was driven by the nagging fuzz that Jan had already perfected on album cuts like ‘Out Of The Question’ and ‘Nobody Spoil My Fun’.

It was the insistent rifferama of these and other songs like ‘Tripmaker,’ spiced with curlicued steel and surf licks, and of course the weird self-propelled energy that occasionally ran amok in crazed solos such as those of ‘It’s A Hard Life’, that were the main tools in the Savage arsenal. In the spirit of the age, experiment did occur, as with the Vox guitar-organ on ‘Night Time Girl,’ or the dropping of his St George reverb unit to achieve some otherworldly thunder. Jan was also an excellent rhythm player, using precise, economical chording that could either rankle (‘No Escape’) or soothe (‘A Faded Picture’).

Though he did love to extemporize – Jan told me that he loved the relentless two-chord showstopper ‘Up In Her Room’ because “I was nothing but busy’ - rarely was there anything on his part that got in the way or threatened to deviate from the full-on thrust of the band’s music. In the documentary The Seeds: Pushin’ Too Hard, no less than an authority than Iggy Pop makes this astute observation on the guitarist’s crucial role: “Jan Savage made great choices. He never filled up everything to exclude others - as so many of them do . . .”

The group would graduate from 1966’s underground Hollywood milieu, where they had vied with the Doors and Love as top dogs, to become genuine pop stars at the start of 1967, in southern California at least. Once the notorious “Lord Tim” Hudson took over the Seeds’ management, Jan’s modern primitivism gave way to a generic mod look, but thankfully he would never alter his musical contribution, and in fact after the florid lugubriousness of the “Future” album, helped steer the band somewhat back on course with the nightmare bubblegum of ‘Satisfy You.’ Although Jan was less prolific than Daryl in sharing songwriting credits with Sky, he had as much involvement with the instrumental arrangements as anyone.

Jan quit the Seeds in the autumn of 1968, shortly after the recording of the last GNP single ‘Falling Off The Edge,’ the country-rock lilt of which he had ironically warmed to. Sky had already elected to bring in additional players including a second guitarist. But like Rick before him, Jan had tired of Sky’s ego and increasingly erratic attitude, and was to later admit he had never felt particularly close to the eccentric leader of the Seeds.

Rather than join another outfit, Jan – as would Rick and Daryl when they each made their departure from the band –essentially disappeared for the best part of twenty years. He married, moved to Las Vegas and took an office job, with the rags-to-riches-to-rags saga of his time as a pop star most definitely in the rearview mirror. In the meantime, the music of the Seeds had found a new audience amongst punk and post-punk musicians like the Fall, who thrilled to the off-kilter, haunting patina of the group’s vintage catalogue, with many making a note of that singular guitar tone. Sky Saxon’s subsequent resurgence in 1980s Hollywood added fuel to the embers of a Seeds revival, and so by 1989 there was enough interest to bankroll a reunion tour by the original quartet.

Having just moved to California at that time, I was fortunate enough to witness one of these rare shows. While Sky was firmly entrenched in a by-now trademark rambling stage routine, I freely admit to becoming fixated on Jan for almost the entire performance. There he stood beaming, rocking back and forth in front of the de rigeur Vox Super Beatle, all the while delivering note-perfect renditions of those iconic riffs from the Seeds’ heyday. It was almost as though the man had been miraculously whisked from 1968 right to that stage, with all the clapped-out blues licks, indeterminate shredding and pseudo-classical poppycock, all that inexorable rubbish that passes for “classic rock” guitar, having mercifully passed him by.

This Seeds rapprochement was not to survive, yet Sky kept the dying beast alive over the next two decades with various sets of players, and in the early 2000s, Jan was somehow persuaded to temporarily come on board, thanks to younger band members who knew how important his role had been. Sadly, that didn’t last either – unlike 1989, Jan was now truthfully too disengaged as a player to be able to continue.  He would spend the last decade or so of his life domiciled on a reservation in Oklahoma where, when he felt up to it, he had a much less stressful opportunity to pick up his guitar by sitting in with the local bar band.

Over the course of six years of working on the movie and assembling the various Seeds reissues for Ace, I got to know Jan about as well anyone might, and came to really enjoy the company of this extremely modest and humble individual. Occasionally dour but never miserable, he seemed in odd denial of the influence that his guitar style has wielded over the years, and candidly admitted to me at one point his bewilderment that “this Seeds thing just won’t die!” But Jan was equally proud that the band had made its mark, and when I took him for dinner ahead of the film’s debut at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood in 2014, he literally had tears in his eyes, overwhelmed at the obvious response to the Seeds’ legacy. It was touching to see how much that meant to him, but then, what he did, has meant a lot to a lot of us. Jan Savage will always be a hero.

Selected releases