Sunday, December 19, 2004

Greg Sage and the Wipers
Alien Boy 12" EP

So, if I was one of those anonymous MacArthur Fellows award (the so-called "genius" awards) nominators, I'd be pretty fucking embarrassed at their 20-some year track record when it comes to music. As it is, almost all the awards have gone to avant gardist, classical musicians and composers and jazzmen. And while I don't dispute the selections - I'm too dumb or izzit middlebrow to know enough about the avant gardists and academics and I agree that Ornette and Max Roach are pretty fucking genius - I do think they are overlooking some "potential" (which is the operative word for the awards) by not scrounging around a bit on the fringes. Maybe they need to assign one of us ordinary bloggers to bring in some nominations? I can just see Fluxblog nominating Mousse T. But if they acksed me, um, right off the top of my head, I'd say there were two living people who could use that no-strings-attached $500k and probably do something quite worthy for, y'know, society, with it. The first being Mark E. "Fucking Rowche Rumble" Smith and the second being the subject of this post, the guy that Kurt Cobain called a "romantic, quiet visionary" and that be Greg "Fucking Deemension Seven" Sage.

Lord knows Greg has been around long enough. Following in the flukeish and odd tradition of other contemporary rock guitarists (Bob Mould, Rifle Sport's Boissey) there's first that professional wrestling connection. One of Sage's first recordings was with the outlandish PacNorthwest wrestler known as Beauregarde. Greg was a 17-year-old and the wrestler, at the height of his popularity, wanted to take some of his money and put out a record. Told that Greg plays like fellow NorWester Jimi Hendrix,
Beauregarde snapped him up in what has been described as a muscular 70s rawkout. Sage has somehow gotten his hands on the record and remastered it if you want to own this chunk of history. At this point, my anonymous MacArthur nominator is probably shuddering at the mere mention of professional wrestling. I know, I know, I'm not a big fan of seeing grown men in tights throw each other around a stage but bear with me as I'm getting to the whole potential genius thing.

So... interesting fact: Sage grew up with a record lathe in his room that was picked up for a song when a radio station divested itself of it. He used to cut records for his friends and became obsessed with the grooves, putting them under microscopes and learning all he could about the transfer of music to medium. It became a lifelong obsession - trying to duplicate the sound that he heard in his ears to a medium that could preserve it. He likens records to statues and wants to create something that will stand for a long time. Not surprisingly, he eschews live shows - probably because he can't control the sound and the results are ephemeral. So, back to the short history lesson - after playing around, Sage forms the Wipers who as it turned out were pretty much excavating the same terrain as Gizmos and Ramones. In fact, Sage said he had to laugh when he went to a Ramones show in the late '70s since he felt they were pretty much doing the same time of stuff. However, unlike the Ramones, he didn't see music as an excuse to play three chords and then go home and watch TV. He instead continues to explore his idee fixe with sound and decided against the tide that the old style was the better sound even if the equipment was more fragile and heavier to lug around (quoting from TapeOP):
People would laugh when I talked about vacuum tubes because solid state was the only thing out there. Even professionals, other studios, and engineers would just laugh and call me prehistoric. Because I saw value in vacuum tubes. I just started learning all that I could about it, it was kind of a lost art form during the 70s. Tubes were basically cast out. Even the old equipment that would be revered these days, people would laugh at.
In 1980 or so, the Wipers released their first album, Is This Real, and the answer was a slap-on-the-table YES. The sound being so immediate that its rare even today to hear someone who has come close. His uniquely sounding guitar with its controlled feedback and fuzz echo and the meticulous mic'ing of the drums are what you first notice. For a first self-produced record, very few of the common recording mistakes are made. It makes it more amazing to learn that it was recorded on a 4-track. I might quibble with some of his new wave-ish vocal styling but this has certainly improved over the years. Anyway, "Alien Boy" was a standout cut from Is This Real and released as part of a 4-song EP and then some German company came along and re-released it as a 12" with a different cover (I've put the original cover art into the MP3s, though). The three fairly short songs ("Image of Man", "Telepathic Love" and "Voices in the Rain") on the B-side didn't appear on Is This Real and were recorded at a different "studio" from "Alien Boy". Was this a "real" studio or some other version of Sage's 4-track set-up? I dunno. There is a slightly different, more paranoid feeling with these songs I guess. SubPop later re-released Is This Real as a CD and stuck these three songs on it. And then Greg Sage put out a box set of his first three record for a shockingly low $17 (available on his website, link below - great Christmas gift for your indie pals).

Geniuses can be cited as starting whole new schools of thought or study. In Greg's case, we can go no further than Kurt Cobain who wrote that the Wipers "started Seattle grunge rock in Portland, 1977" and his band Nirvana covered two Wipers songs to boot. His wife, Ms. Love never to be one not to follow a trend, also covered a Wipers song with Hole. Every time I hear Foo Fighters I can't help but think that they've somehow channeled the Wipers into a pop-friendly construct. Sage has also recorded Soundgarden and The Melvins. But it doesn't stop there. Sage's minimalist techniques in the studio so inspired Beat Happening that they asked him to produce their record. And while I'm not a big fan of this record (as previously explained), I can't quibble with the singular and cozy sound. I don't back down from my argument that this record started the modern Lo-Fi movement so we can credit Sage with a hand in that as well. So that's two major genres that Sage has helped mid-wife. And while
I wouldn't go so far as to say that he fathered the great Northwest Hardcore movement, he produced songs from Poison Idea (who play on his tribute record) and the pre-Steve Fisk Pell Mell. So that's three genres that have been greatly influenced by our man. Hmmmm... seem to remember that whole father of a genre being the argument for Max Roach and Ornette Coleman - their roles in be-bop, cool jazz and the like. And although I mention his obsession above with sound above, did I mention that he fucking well did something about it? I mean I haven't even begun to mention that Sage builds his own pre-amps, has designed a unique (all wood) studio in Arizona to get the sound he wants and has pretty much been a leading innovator in his field even if the snooty major studios won't acknowledge it (TapeOp interview covers this well).

Finally, we forgive geniuses for their somewhat weird theories. We understand that often these odd beliefs keep them going towards their unique vision and breakthroughs so even if we have to look away, it's worth humoring them. I'm thinking of folks like Tesla and Issac Newton. Interviews with Greg and his lyrics suggest that he has some strange beliefs. In the Smokebox interview (undated but probably 2000), for example, Sage says:

I also think, well, it’s a crazy theory of mine, but that everybody is subconsciously clairvoyant, and that maybe since your subconscious has no communication with your conscious, that maybe people foresee the future being so different that they remove themselves from it, consciously, but without being aware of it.

This isn't a new idea for Sage - "Telepathic Love" seems to echo this notion if ya listen up to the lyrics. His approach to finding inspirations for songs is also, shall we say, somewhat unique as well:
As with every Wipers LP I would spend many months observing people and their situations to get ideas of what was in their mind and their motivations. This was always where the inspiration would come from for our songs. I would get a glimpse of the future by doing this and it was easy to write songs that would make sense 10 years from then. (from In Music We Trust, Sept 2004):
So if you're ever in Arizona and some cadaverous gray-haired vaguely punkish guy in a bandana starts following you around, just ignore 'im and check out his next album because you might be in it. This notion of "telepathy" is a common theme in his songs -- "Telepathic Love" of course being one literal example. Come to think of it, aliens are also a common theme in Sage songs although usually to describe differentness from the conformists. But who knows, he may also believe in UFOs.

So if you are one of those mysterious MacArthur folks, fucking ay get to it and go visit Zeno studios in Arizona. Who knows you might end up being responsible for the next piece of cool recording gear getting invented or a whole new Phoenix-based musical genre being founded. Next October I wanna open up my newspaper and see you're cutting the check for him (and Mark E. Smith for fucks sake).

"Alien Boy" - Wipers (192 kbps, 4.7 Mb, digitally enhanced to remove surface noise)
"Voices in the Rain" - Wipers (218 kbps VBR, 2.2 Mb, straight from EP)
"Telepathic Love" - Wipers (217 kbps VBR, 2.4 Mb, recorded with no digital enhancements)

Cuts are provided under Fair Use provisions. I do not make or intend to make a penny off this website. They are recorded from vinyl with all its so-called imperfections. All cuts are removed after two weeks or at the request of the copyright holder.

Saved Rounds

Personal story - I first discovered Greg Sage as a cut on the Enigma Variations I compilation in the mid-80s (vastly superior to II and a great collection even if the label owners turned out to the the biggest asshats of that era) so I'm a poser when it comes to being able to say I was there from the start you know rockin' in my flannel shirt - hell, I've almost never been to Portland (there was that drunken episode people tell me occurred during the '99 Rose festival but I don't wanna talk about it). In my defense, after hearing just this one song - an acoustic piece to boot - I went out and bought as much Wipers I could find including this EP.

Favorite Wipers LP: Over the Edge.

Favorite cut: "D-7" although I still like "Straight Ahead" in the quieter moments.

Credits: The photo above is from the back cover of the German reissue I have. I should also mention that we had Dave Koupal on bass and Sam Henry playing drums. Originally release on
Park Ave., 1980 - Reissued by Weird Systems 1987.

Condition of my record: The album cover is torn at the top (thanks to my cat) but vinyl is in fairly good condition.

"THE Wipers were a Portland punk band who were started in the late Seventies by Greg Sage and released maybe four or five albums. The first were totally classic, and influenced The Melvins and all the other punk rock bands. They're another band I tried to assimilate. Their songs were so good.

"Greg Sage was pretty much the romantic, quiet, visionary kind of guy. What more can I say about them? They started Seattle grunge rock in Portland, 1977."


Fire of lovE said...

Toughest group ever from Seattle. ( Long before Kurt Cobain)
personal favourite is Romeo

Well, The Sonics where pretty tough

Dave said...

Good call on the Wipers and Is This Real?. It does have a bit of a New Wave touch with the vocals, but not distractingly so. Until I see Sage's face on the cover of Rolling Stone - ie. sometime never - he will always be under-rated.

Eric said...

I've always viewed Sage as on of the under appreciated 'guitar heros' of indiedom. Even on his later records there was no denying that signature 'sound' he created. In my highly opionated mind everyone should own those first 3 LP's (all on the box set) 'Over The Edge' is also my personal fav - OOP for so long, it's nice to have it back.

Jim H said...

As my Deadhead friends would say - "amen, bruthas"... Sage for genius award!

Anonymous said...

from portland, not seattle.

Anonymous said...

why is nobody mentioning "Land of th Lost"? it's brilliant!

Jan from Holland said...

How different the situation was/ is overhere in Europe.
Having had songs in top 5 of most favourite on Amsterdam local Radio ( I think it was "When it's over".)
Wipers and Sage solo albums frequently being voted into the best of the year lists by what you could call dutch Rolling Stone, called Muziekkrant OOR
( musicpaper EAR).
The man ( Sage) having a sort of icon like status right from the start. Not after 10 years or just after Kurt C. had mentioned him or played some of Sage's songs.

You just spoke repectfull of him and the Wipers. Everybody into honest music was.
A true Rebel with a real cause; and you felt it when he was on stage. All of the concerts I,ve been to, were more then just concerts.
I can very vividly "reproduce" all the emotions, even after decades.

I remember gigs that totally shook me up for weeks, not being able to listen to other music.
It moved me and many of my friends; I mean touched me deeply.

I also liked the fact that his audience overhere was so diverse; wannabe punks and old Hendrix freaks alike; but mostly people who were looking for honest music, without labels put on.

Ractions sometimes were nearly as intense as the music.
I can't remember having been to a concert in Holland that was not a sellout.

This was the situation all over Europe as far as I know.
Greg once told me he didn't know why of all places the people in Greece liked the Wipers so much, but he didn,t mind. Think I saw even a bit of pride in his eyes.

I moved to the countryside a few years ago, a place without clubs bars or anything. Since I also just recently am an Internet user, I found out very late about the Boxset; ordered and after years it is the Wipers again. amazing how well this music fits in this time, but also this new surrounding. Isn't that what good music is about; having multiple layers, never ages and keeps on giving you chills down your spine?

wsp-pdx said...

Oh, yeah. I was Greg Sage's brother's friend during the early days - Beauregard, etc. and hung out at their house often. The bro, some friends and I were running a pirate radio station out of the Sage's basement. We were in 8th grade but the brother and I were also working at the local underground/community station KBOO.(circa 1970-71) And did I lust over the record cutter.

I'm pretty sure Greg took over the studio/sound proofing we built.

I was friends with the guy who put out the Wipers' first records - he owned a record store - Park Avenue Records - and was convinced the Wipers were it. My memory is that they were commercially recorded, because it was costing some amount of cash and I thought it a dicey venture.

Some thoughts about Portland being the Birthplace of Grunge and indy-pop. The first definately yes, the second no.

To understand, grunge, you have to understand that PDX and Seattle are very different culturally. In the same magazine that quotes Kurt Cobain saying the Seattle sound come from Portland, the editors made the trueism "Seattle is wacky weird. Portland is just plain weird."

Seattle has hustle, is vibrant and is a bit more trendy. Portland in the 1970s was the end of the world, not as cosmopolitan as Seattle, lilly-white and really isolated. 300,000 people hundreds of miles from anywhere. Portland was insular, but you could do what you wanted, we had control of what was then a depressed, violent, depressing city. People with talent //and// drive went to Seattle, San Francisco or NYC.

The rest of us could rent a house for $100/month and do what we liked. We just wouldn't get heard outside of PDX.

So in the late 1970s/80s Punk/allternative bands shows drew as many people as the ones drawing on the suburbs. We had the Satyricon club, which was the West Coast's analogy to CBGB in NYC. So bands from Seattle and Olympia gravitated to Portland and were influenced by the Portland sounds.

Why was the Portland scene ignored? Because we didn't have a Sub-Pop. In a recent interview, Jonathan Poneman from Sub-Pop said:

"Sub Pop's ascendancy came to be the framing of the story of the "Seattle Sound," and the last thing that I wanted to happen-even though I played into it in some ways-was for Seattle to move into Portland, and for people to say, "Now there is a Portland Sound. Yesterday it was Green River and Nirvana, and today it's Pond and Crackerbash."

BTW: The grunge uniform was what most street punks/kids wore during the 9 months of rain, army boots, multiple layers of flannel and stocking caps.