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Gary Lee Yoder Obituary

Northern California 60s legend Gary Lee Yoder, of The Oxford Circle, Kak and Blue Cheer, passed away this weekend from numerous health complications. His friend Alec Palao remembers one of the coolest rockers around.

It’s not easy to explain why Gary Yoder was, and is, important. As nonchalant as the man could be, he had that intangible quality that is the sign of true artistry. Gary wrote simple but effective songs and delivered them with disarming confidence and a most soulful set of pipes. A Yoder tune could wistfully ponder ‘I’ve Got Time’, vent full-on hormonal rage in ‘Foolish Woman’, or play the psychedelic nudge-and-wink in ‘Lemonaide Kid.’ His vocal personae could snarl like Burdon or Morrison, extrude vowels like Dylan, or mimic the gentle cadence of Donovan. But these were influences, not imitations: Gary Yoder had very much his own style, and he remains one of those talents whom for whatever reason never made the transition to the big time. Instead, his legacy centres around his role as founder member of two legendary and distinctly different cult acts, time spent resuscitating a San Francisco rock institution, and a subsequent career that saw four decades of solid work as a much respected solo act and bandleader in his hometown of Davis, California.

An army brat who had spent his youngest years in Germany, Japan and various parts of the United States, Yoder ended up in Davis in 1961 when his father got a job at UC Davis. As a musician, he started with the expected folk music, but having always loved rock, he formulated a band together after graduating high school with pals Jim Keylor, Dehner Patten and Paul Whaley. This was The Hide-Aways, who soon shifted from small Davis gigs to take on the much more competitive group scene in nearby Sacramento, where surf was king. “We never did any Beach Boys or any of that kind of crap,” Gary told me. “We played Chuck Berry!” The quartet was equally fired by the British Invasion, and especially the rough soul of groups like the Animals, Yardbirds and Them. By the beginning of 1966 they had become The Oxford Circle, named for the girls’ dorm on the UC campus, and an appellation more than appropriate for the unit’s Anglophilic predilections.

A rapid local notoriety notwithstanding, it was in the psychedelic ballrooms of San Francisco that the Circle’s legend was made manifest, as their instrumental dexterity and suburban rock’n’roll smarts blew the psychedelic gentry like the Dead and Big Brother clean off the stages of the Fillmore and Avalon. Keylor held the groove down on bass and Patten let loose with sinous lead licks or shards of fuzz-toned fury, while Whaley literally walloped his kit into submission. And out front was Yoder, parlaying either a dark folk-rock croon or demonic blues howl on a selection of Brit R&B or his own punk originals, often delivered whilst writhing on the stage floor, or with the coaxing of otherworldly feedback from his Gibson guitar.

Something as fierce as the Oxford Circle was bound to burn too bright to last, and despite their popularity, the group only managed one single, some failed auditions and a gigging schedule that barely took them out of northern California. A new group was quickly assembled at the end of 1967, when Yoder ran into an admiring Gary Grelecki, nascent songwriter with some intriguing connections. Grelecki instigated a deal with Epic Records and Gary, Dehner, bass player Joe-Dave Damrell and drummer Chris Lockheed collectively became the artist known as Kak. The group spent most of 1968 lollygagging in a tony San Francisco townhouse whilst waiting for their album to come out, only to fracture immediately after its release, with just a handful of gigs under their belt.

After a solo single, Yoder’s next move was to save the sinking ship that was Blue Cheer, the hard rock behemoths that Paul Whaley had defected to from the Circle. The drummer having long since departed, and with the lone original member bass player Dickie Peterson, the Cheer’s trademarked three-chord sonic brutalism had already dissipated. Yoder helped steer a course towards a more organic, song-slanted horizon on the turn-of-the-decade swansongs “BC #5 The Original Human Being” and “Oh! Pleasant Hope.”

The 1970s saw an Oxford Circle reunion of sorts with the band Rock Salt, but Gary would soon discover a niche that would keep him relatively comfortable for the rest of his time on earth: that of the local minstrel, singing his songs, original or otherwise, with his favourite musicians behind him, wherever people wanted to hear him. After the frenetic activity of the late 1960s, Yoder preferred to remain a big fish in a small pond, and he maintained a devoted following. If you lived in Davis, California over the past decades and had even the slightest interest in music, you knew who Gary Lee Yoder was. This was his life when I first met Gary in 1996, and I was impressed that he was one of the few I had encountered that could still make a living simply from playing music.

It is somewhat ironic that Yoder has a relatively small portfolio of recordings to show for his lifelong vocation. But quantity does not always equal quality, and to be sure, every released recording that Gary was ever involved in was worthwhile - and frequently much more so. For starters, the Oxford Circle’s lone vinyl outing, ‘Foolish Woman’ / ‘Mind Destruction,’ is a double-whammy existential garage punk masterpiece, a raw-nerved pop-art explosion on wax. The disc’s notoriety might had remained in isolation, had I not later accessed Bob Cohen’s tapes of the band at the peak of their powers, where they fire one hundred per cent on all cylinders, every bit as coruscating and exhilarating as one might hope. Rarely has a rock group’s lore been so fully and utterly vindicated by the recorded evidence than on “Live At The Avalon 1966.”

Gary’s solo single from 1969, ‘Good Time Music,’ played to his love of basic R&B, although its flip ‘Flight From The East’ had an enticing air of psychedelic mystery to it. Both songs would provide signals for the direction Yoder pushed Blue Cheer in, commencing with his outstanding vocal on the single version of the band’s ‘Fool.’ Before then, of course, had been the eponymous Kak long-player, the masterpiece that, had he recorded nothing else, would nevertheless seal Yoder’s reputation as both songsmith and performer. It is a masterful, multi-textured evocation of the West Coast rock mood, executed with a deft touch upon a playlist of enduring resonance. To be sure, Kak was a collaborative effort, but Gary was front and centre, and it was his muse that set the scene and informed the proceedings completely. “I just designed the rocketship, and let those guys fly it.”

Over several decades as a rock archaeologist, I’ve had to deal with a fair tranche of high maintenance types, but I never had any issue of that sort with Gary Yoder. Just like his former bandmates Jim and Dehner, he was a salt-of-the earth gent who had few delusions of grandeur about his notable position within the firmanent of Bay Area rock’n’roll repute. In fact, he might outwardly act bemused at his so-called legend, but one could tell he was also calmly confident in his abilities. Gary was also endlessly appreciative of my efforts on his behalf. For example, I had arranged for Ace to handle his song publishing in the UK, and when Kak’s ‘Lemonaide Kid’ got used in an ad for British Telecom, he treated my wife Cindy and I to an expensive dinner in the wine country. In a business where too often, no good deed goes unpunished, such gestures are worth their weight in gold.

We always kept in touch. Until relatively recently, when his health started to deteriorate, I could expect a regular phone call from Gary, just checking in to say “mahalo”. It was always a complete pleasure to hear from him, and we laughed a lot. I would also see him in person fairly frequently, and the last time in 2017 remains somewhat bittersweet. It was at an annual party held in the town of Winters, near Davis, where musicians would gather to jam and reminisce. Gary of course led the band, and somehow I would always manage to inveigle my way onto the bandstand to sit in on bass for a couple of tunes, a groupie to the end. For this final occasion, I suddenly found myself with Gary and Dehner to my right. and Chris Lockheed behind me – three-quarters of Kak! - and we jammed on ‘Rain’ and a couple of R&B standards. If you know that music and those players, you can grasp just how meaningful this might be. Gary was his usual jovial self, but he looked tired and drawn, and I can understand now, in hindsight, that his health was starting to catch up with him.

I will always love his music, but I am truly going to miss Gary Lee Yoder the man. If you had known him, you would too.

Selected releases