The first time Jerry Roslie opened his mouth to sing on a stage, he knew he had something special. Roslie — the demonic shredded-blues howler of Tacoma, Washington garage-rock legends the Sonics — was sixteen, playing with a high-school combo, when the guitarist told Roslie to take a turn at “Louie, Louie.” “They start playing, I start singing — and everybody in the band turned around and walked toward their amplifiers, away from me,” Roslie recalls, laughing, “I didn’t make it halfway through the song before I got the picture.”
Roslie was soon making history with that voice — and the Sonics. Their 1964 debut single, a furious dirty-R&B stomp called “The Witch”, launched a two-year run of classics such as “Psycho,” “Strychnine” and “He’s Waiting” that made the Sonics stars in the Pacific Northwest (the young Jimi Hendrix was a fan), defined the teenage-animal majesty of Sixties punk and influenced later generations of Northwest bands, including Nirvana and Soundgarden. However, few people east of the Rockies saw the Sonics live in their prime. In 1966, the group made it to Cleveland and Pittsburgh for a handful of appearances — then broke up the next year.
But on November 2nd and 4th, the Sonics finally make their New York debut, headlining the first and third nights of the Cavestomp 2007 festival at Warsaw in Brookyn. (Strawberry Alarm Clock top the bill on November 3rd. Visit www.myspace.com/cavestomp and www.ticketmaster.com for information and tickets.) Roslie, guitarist Larry Parypa and saxophonist Rob Lind from the Sonics’ classic lineup will be in the front line — bassist Andy Parypa (Larry’s brother) and drummer Bob Bennett will be replaced by Don Wilhelm and Ricky Lynn Johnson respectively — and Larry, now 61, says the band has rehearsed twenty-two songs over six months for these shows: “When we’re done, mistakes and all, we want people to say, ‘Wow, they have a lot of power for old people who haven’t played in forty years.’ And I think they will.”
Founded in the early Sixties by refugees from other Tacoma groups, the Sonics were newcomers to a fiercely competitive Northwest scene already ruled by more technically accomplished bands like the Wailers (not the Jamaican group) and Paul Revere and the Raiders. “There was no decision to play more aggressively than the other guys,” Parypa says of the Sonics’ first rehearsals and shows. “A lot of it was lack of ability. We couldn’t play with technique. So we pounded on everything instead.”
Roslie, 63 (he spells his first name with a J, not the G in most sources), cites Little Richard as a key vocal inspiration: “I liked his power — and he made it look so easy. But another thing was the equipment we had was so poor. Half the time, you’d be singing on a microphone you got from your parents’ tape recorder, plugged into the guitar player’s amplifier. It made me sing louder, because most of the time people couldn’t hear you.”
“The Witch,” a Number Two hit in Seattle, established the Sonics as regional heroes, and they were soon making a thousand dollars a night in Northwest clubs, huge bread for the day. But the band’s singles, issued on local labels, never charted in Billboard, and the good gig pay kept the Sonics close to home. “We were immature and un-business-like,” Parypa admits. “Our immediate goal was, how many women can we pick up tonight? We’d put our instruments in the van after a show, and not get them out again until we had to play someplace else. If we had a recording session, sometimes we didn’t write the material until we were in the studio.”
Roslie looks back at the outrageous-for-their-time songs he wrote for the Sonics — “Psycho,” “He’s Waiting” (“He” being Satan) and “Strychnine” (“Some folks like water/Some folks like wine/But I like the taste/Of straight Strychnine”) — as the kind of fun you were supposed to have in rock & roll. “It was just me being over the top,” he says. “I loved people like Jerry Lee Lewis, who got so crazy they almost forgot they were doing it, because they put their whole soul into it.”
But the intensity took its toll. The Sonics broke up in ’67, Roslie claims, over “crazy stuff.” Parypa simply says, “We were tired.” After a 1972 reunion show in Seattle, the group resisted all calls and temptations to get back together for thirty-five years. Roslie worked as a roofer and ran an asphalt paving business. Then, five years ago, he had a heart transplant and subsequently lost parts of both kidneys.
Parypa says Roslie’s voice is still a thing of wonder: “It’s bluesy and intense. He’s doing some wild things I’ve never heard him do before.” And Parypa believes the Sonics are playing again in part because of Roslie’s close brush with mortality. “I think his medical problems shocked him into doing this. We would tell him, ‘This was an important part of our lives. Why wouldn’t you want to recapture that?’ He finally agreed.”
Roslie and Parypa have no plans for Sonics shows beyond Cavestomp — yet. But Parypa says the old frenzy came back fast in rehearsals, especially after the new guys understood what was required. “At first, Don wasn’t sure what to do on the bass,” Parypa explains. “He said he didn’t want to step on anyone’s shoes. I said, ‘Step on all the shoes you can.”
“If you come to these shows expecting top musicianship, you’re in the wrong place,” Parypa warns. “But if we can blow your face off, that will be cool.”