Cyril Jordan is like Woody Allen in Zelig: He was always there in the scene; it’s just that you missed him. His band, the Flamin' Groovies, San Francisco’s answer to the Rolling Stones -- Mick Jagger once said the Groovies’ Teenage Head was better than Sticky Fingers -- was arguably at the center of every scene worth noting in rock and roll history.
Soon after the Groovies started in 1966, they realized that their brand of high-energy rock ‘n’ roll didn’t fit in with the Bay Area’s then-delicate sensibilities, so they moved down to L.A. and became the house band at the Whisky A Go Go; you know, the same venue where the Doors, Love and other game-changing bands from '60s got their start. They were also Detroit’s beloved invaders, making quite the impression on a scene that birthed bands like Alice Cooper, MC5 and the Stooges. And when punk hit in England, the Groovies were already there, pioneering a new sound of rock ‘n’ roll later called “Power Pop.”
I’ve spoken with Jordan a few times in the past, and in honor of their 50th anniversary show coming up this Thursday, April 7 at the Chapel. I wanted to recreate what it’s like to have him rattle off one crazy tale after another. But before that begins, I should add that the show at the Chapel must not be missed, as it will feature both of the band’s best singers -- Roy Loney and Chris Wilson -- and is guaranteed to include hits like “Shake Some Action,” “Teenage Head,” and my personal favorite, “Slow Death.”
I recently found a copy of the Teenage Head LP on Kama Sutra and I could not be more stoked.
We were stoked to be on Kama Sutra because the Lovin' Spoonful were on that label. The Spoonful had a big influence on the Groovies back in the early days. I mean the names alone -- Fla-Min' Groo-Vies, Lov-In Spoon-Ful -- four syllables there!
By the way, a Flamin' Groovy is a marijuana cigarette. I thought I'd clarify that since Greil Marcus wrote in his book History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs, in the chapter about "Shake Some Action," he said it was the stupidest name he had ever seen. [Laughs]
Well, at least he liked the song!
We picked that name because nobody could live up to it. We had to have a name that was so hot that everyone would be like, "Nobody could be that great." [Laughs]
What was it like when you first started playing in San Francisco? It seems like your brand of rock 'n' roll didn't fit in with the Flower Power crowd.
We really didn't. When I first started playing in '65 and up through '67, I was still in high school and I was the only hippie in school. I used to hang out with all of those San Francisco bands -- they used to gather at Stinson Beach every third Sunday and when I found that out in '65, I hitchhiked up there. Sure enough, there they were, with their wives and children -- bands like Quicksilver Messenger Service, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Bill Graham... Bill Graham actually passed me a joint when I got there.
That's funny, because he turned out not to be a fan of the Groovies, right?
The reason why he wasn't a fan of ours was because his right-hand man, Alfred Kramer, quit his job with Bill to be our manager. When I found out that Kramer worked for Bill, I said, "We got to get him to manage us, that way will get to play the Fillmore!" It really backfired. Al said, "Yeah, I'd love to manage you," and then he called up Bill and told him "I quit." Well, then we got into this thing with Bill where he'd be like, "Today I like you, but tomorrow, forget it." It was this on-and-off thing that kept going on over and over.
The funny thing is is that whenever Bill needed somebody to fill in, he'd call the Groovies. Everybody else was working all the time so he had no choice! [Laughs] We were the band he called when he needed somebody to fill in when a band got sick or something. We were always doing that; we played a lot of Fillmore shows where we're not on the posters.
As soon as I got out of high school, I told everybody, "We got to get out of town. If we want to survive, we have to go somewhere." So we went to Hollywood and boom, we became the house band at the Whisky A Go Go, and everything just took off.
When you were playing at the Whisky, who were your favorite bands to watch?
We'd open for John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers when Mick Taylor just joined, before he got into the [Rolling] Stones. We were hanging out with those guys and John Mayall is an old, old friend; he married the girl I was in love with, and I wrote a song about that. I never talk about it, but the song is "Whiskey Woman."
I love that song!
I got a great story about that. I got a phone call three years ago from a woman who worked for Val Kilmer the movie star. I asked her what the call was about, and she said his daughter Mercedes is a big Groovies' fan and her 21st birthday was coming up. Apparently Kilmer had some trouble with her and I figured he thought the song was about a woman who was a "floozy" -- no, it was about a woman who worked as a waitress at the Whisky. It was actually the niece of John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, Nancy Throckmorton.
Why did Kilmer ask about "Whiskey Woman?
He wanted to pay me $1,000 to write out the lyrics. He was going to frame it and give it to his daughter on her birthday. And it was funny because I was down to $40. I had only been working part-time jobs so I could stay in show biz. I can't work a regular job because then I can't go on the road. Sometimes I'm happy and sometimes I'm broke. It was right before Christmas, I was down to $40 and I didn't know what I was going to do; was I going to hawk another guitar? And then the phone rings and I'm being told Val wants to give me $1,000.
Stuff like that happens every once in a while, where I get reminded how much love the Groovies have from a lot of famous people.
Why did you pick up Led Zeppelin when they first came to California?
It’s all because of my friend Michelle Meyers. Shelly knew everybody and all the cute girls would hang out at Shelly’s house. The girls in the Runaways, Miss Pamela [author of I'm With the Band] -- all those girls were hanging out at Shelly’s. We’d be staying there every time we were in Hollywood, sleeping on her floor. And since Jimmy Page was dating Miss Pamela at the time, he was over every day.
(I knew Jimmy back when he was in the Yardbirds because the Flamin’ Groovies opened for them on their last tour in ’67.)
Jimmy came over one day and needed someone to pick up [John] Bonham and [John Paul] Jones at the airport. So I said, “Sure,” and started up my ‘54 VW, rolled about 10 joints, picked them up and took them to Knotts Berry Farm. I was on acid and we were smoking pot -- they weren't used to the California weed so they got really stoned. We went on all the rides and had a ball.
What was funny was that when they came off the plane, they were dressed just like the Ramones. We’re talking 1971, and they’re just wearing tennis shoes, jeans, white t-shirts and motorcycle jackets. That just occurred to me the other day, like 40 years later.