Be of Good (Blue) Cheer
For more than 40 years he’s been making eardrums ring and, according to his physician, growing calluses on his own. But Blue Cheer founding bassist/vocalist Dickie Peterson shows no desire to turn down the volume knob on his power trio. Houstoned Rocks recently spoke with the sage stoner while he was somewhere on the East Coast, touring to promote the band’s surprisingly powerful new record, the aptly titled What Doesn’t Kill You…
Houstoned Rocks: Your Houston show piggybacks on Blue Cheer’s SXSW showcase and appearance at High Times magazine’s “Doobie Awards,” where you’re getting the Lifetime Achievement nod and have been nominated for “Best Pot Song.” How did you feel when you heard that news?
Dickie Peterson: I am quite proud of this. In California, for some time, I’ve been involved with the legalization of marijuana, which I think is a lot less dangerous than alcohol. I support both medical marijuana and social smoking. I used to be a horrible alcoholic, and I liked nothing more than to pop a few beers and have a few shots and drive my car. Now, if I smoke a joint, I just want to sit down and watch Comedy Central.
HR: What do you think has to be realistically done to advance legalization?
DP: The general public needs to respond. We’ve been spending billions of dollars on the war against marijuana, and a lot of the politicians smoke themselves! But how are they going to go to their constituency and say, “I’m sorry we wasted all this money”?
I used to live about a half hour from Holland, where they have the coffee shops that sell marijuana. And it’s taxed, and this is how they pay for their schools’ after-school activities like band and choir. Then you have the people that say it leads to heroin, and that’s just not the truth. I love my country to death, but living over there, you just get a whole different perspective of what goes on in America. The middle class is only one paycheck away from bankruptcy. We’re also run by corporations, and I don’t like it. I don’t like corporate rock, and I don’t like corporate America.
HR: When Blue Cheer started in San Francisco in 1967, the prevailing sound was the hippie vibe of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service. And then you guys come along with this huge, loud sound. How did those early audiences react?
DP: The listeners really liked us because we had the balls to do what no one else was doing. A lot of the musicians, though, didn’t like it. They would tell us on the way to the stage that we couldn’t play. But it made us more determined.
HR: The band is credited by a lot of journalists with laying the foundations for everything from metal and punk to heavy rock, yet the average classic rock listener may only know Blue Cheer for your cover of “Summertime Blues.”
DP: I think a lot of it comes down to…we’ve always been renegades and gone against the grain. There are a lot of good players who are quite noted, and they’ve all said they’d love to have us on tour. But their management doesn’t want us because we’re a very hard act to follow.
HR: The constant lineup changes for those first six records probably didn’t help either…
DP: I think it probably didn’t. But today, we only really acknowledge the first two records [Vincebus Eruptum and Outsideinside] and the new one. When we put out that first one, I was 19 or 20 years old. The thing about this business is that by the time you get to 25 or 26, the record company doesn’t want you to change or expand your horizons. Our later records don’t sound like those first two. But there’s a growth process in anything you do, whether you’re a carpenter or a musician.
HR: So what made you look at a rockabilly number like “Summertime Blues” and want to do something else with it?
DP: We wanted to make it contemporary to our time. And it’s still accepted as that by the young stoner bands.
HR: So what did you want to accomplish what What Doesn’t Kill You… that you couldn’t with any of the other records?
DP: We wanted to do exactly what we did before, but update it and bring in some of the new technology. When we started out, an 8-track studio was state of the art. We wanted to capture what got lost, and still keep that warm, analog sound that you lose when you get too digital. People use click tracks today. We deplore click tracks.
HR: You always cite Jimmy Reed as a guitar influence. What do you think of Texas players like Freddie King or T-Bone Walker?
DP: I am a blues fanatic. Our music in Blue Cheer is really based on it. This is one of the things that set us apart from the other San Francisco psychedelic bands, which came out of folk music. We came out of Jimmy Reed and Howlin’ Wolf.
HR: Likewise, your bass heroes are Motown’s James Jamerson and Duck Dunn of Stax rather than any hard rock players.
DP: For me, it’s the rhythms. I play power bass in a trio. And the secret to playing that at the volumes we do is playing less, not more. Nothing against people like Jack Bruce, Jaco Pastorius or Stanley Clarke, all of whom I admire. I take nothing away from Jack Bruce.
HR: Paul Whaley is your original drummer, and has been on and off with you since the first Blue Cheer rehearsal. And your guitarist, Duck MacDonald, is also a singer, writer and producer. Tell me a bit about what they add.
DP: Paul and I don’t even really have to talk that much, we know each other so well. I know where he stands and he knows where I stand. We’re a family that really looks out for each other. And Duck has been playing much longer than he’s been with us, which is more than 20 years. The chemistry in a band is what’s important. I once read an interview with Miles Davis where he said what I’m trying to say. He said he’s rather have a mediocre musician that was part of the chemistry than a great musician who wasn’t. So you’ve got to all be on the same page as a band.
HR: One of the songs on the new record is probably the most un-Blue Cheer sounding song you’ve ever done, the ballad “Young Lions in Paradise” about friends you’ve lost along the way to drugs. I understand it’s the song you feel closest to.
DP: I didn’t think that song would even make it on the record. I sang it and came out of the studio and Duck was crying. The reason it’s so personal to me… anybody that knows anything about our band knows that we’ve had out bouts with drugs. Why Paul and I are alive, I don’t know. And that’s what the song is about.
And it’s not about Jimi [Hendrix] and Jim Morrison and Brian Jones and Janis [Joplin], these super rock people who got overloaded and killed themselves. It’s about guys I stood right next to and did the same thing who nobody even knows, and for some reason, I lived through that. It’s to my dead friends, and hopefully, younger people will pick up on it and know that [hard drugs] is not the way to go. Of course, my other favorite song on the record is “Rollin’ Dem Bones,” which is about smoking [marijuana].
HR: While the Blue Cheer anthology, Good Times Are So Hard to Find, is readily available, most of your first six records are either out of print or available only as expensive Japanese imports. Do you see that changing?
DP: All that stuff is owned by Universal Vivendi now, so we have no say over what they do with it at all, though they do lean toward those first two albums. There is talk about a box set coming out, but I have no idea how that’s progressing. They don’t talk to us. But some of those [later] records I don’t have very good memories of. I was the only original member left, and a lot of the players I was pulling into the sessions where just making money by the hour. It was all a big hustle, and I had to be part of it because I wanted to complete the contract.
HR: Any particular memories of either Houston or Texas gigs over the years?
DP: Yeah, we played at the Alamo once, and it was such a great time! My daughter lives in Dallas/Fort Worth, so we see them. And playing at Emo’s in Austin was great. [Talks to someone in the back, yelling, “Hey, get me a Pepsi!”] Sorry about that. The band was going to the store and I wanted them to get me something. That’s what we do in this family. Duck handles the business, Paul handles the drums and I handle the PR work! – Bob Ruggerio
Blue Cheer performs Wednesday, March 12, at the Continental Club, 3700 Main, 713-529-9666. Rocrament is also on the bill.