SAVAGE GRACE... A SAVAGE PARADOX
By Debbie Burr
From CREEM Vol. 2, # 12 (April 1970)

Savage Grace is a band whose music and story is as paradoxical as its name. Over the past year, since their formation in early 1969, the Savage Grace have been surprising audiences and musicians with their music, an eclectic combination of sophisticated structure (frame-wise, not note for note) and overt concern with melody, along with that basic raw energy that seems innate to Detroit Rock. This controlled high energy keeps them from falling into the stilted empty riffs of their contemporaries with similar degrees of classical/jazz orientation.

This same orientation, that is in many other cases just rehashed classical music ('bad Beethoven' as they say), is well utilized and makes the Grace unique on the Detroit scene. The Savage Grace alone have those immeasurable surges of raw excitement while maintaining a high level of sophistication. Herein lies part of the paradox that is the Savage Grace.

Within lies the unique and contradictory backgrounds and personalities of the individual members of Savage Grace. And, like the name and the music, the coalescence of these musicians exemplifies paradox.

The guitar was the force that lured Ron Koss off the streets of Detroit's inner city when he was thirteen. He began to teach himself how to play. "All my friends who played were jealous of their skills and wouldn't show anyone anything, or they would show them wrong. It ended that at one point I had to completely relearn how to play."

At fifteen he began playing the bar scene, where he remained until the formation of the Savage Grace. But, probably more significant, at least in regards to discipline, is Koss' experience as a studio musician. Koss has been playing session guitar for years and has to his credit guitar tracks on Wilson Pickett's first album and singles, plus work with Hank Ballard and the Midnighters and Marv Johnson. The brutality of the city has left its mark on Koss' guitar style. All you have to do is listen to his furiously desperate guitar in "Hymn to Freedom" or "Watchtower" and watch his clamped eyes wrinkle his sweating brow as he throws his head back in ecstatical agony and surges over the strings with his fingers ... and you know he's got to be from Detroit. But, there is another side to Ron Koss. It's a side that is intensely peaceful and gentle, a side that can write and play beautiful optimistic songs like "Lenore" or mellow the sound of his guitar to mimic a cello.

There is no one musical concept that is the Savage Grace. It's a combination of the individual members' classical training, session experience, bar work, jazz and blues influence and good old rock and roll. It's an aggregation of violence, revolution, apathy, and peace-love-and-flowers optimism. So, when the name Savage Grace popped up in the discussion of a name for the group, it was immediately flashed upon as perfect to describe the extremes to which their music extends and their general paradoxical existence.

John Seanor is undoubtably the strangest member of the Savage Grace. He's also the most frequent target for attack, due to his condescending outspokeness and a recently developed Los Angeles chauvinism. Seanor studied classical piano for seven years and has a history in bar bands, but claims, "The relevant things in my background aren't in music. I did work for General Motors and I went to college for five years. I was going to become a lawyer. Music came as a rejection of all the other things I had been into. I had never even tried to write songs until a little over a year ago. Then Koss came along and said that if I played harpsichord, they'd let me in their group. My musical background is in classical and jazz, but I feel now that rock is the freest medium to express yourself musically. Two years ago I thought that rock and roll sucked. I was completely dropped out of my generation. In 1966 I didn't even know who the Beatles were. Then I started watching people I respected play rock and noticed the musicianship. I had thought that classical and jazz musicians were great, and rock musicians were a bunch of bullshit. I discovered that I was just a bunch of bullshit."

On stage Seanor is the most unpredictable. Like the little girl with the curl, when he is good, he is excellent and exciting, but when he is bad, he is horrid. Maybe not that bad, but there have been off nights when he seems to have been masturbating on the keyboards. All things aside, Seanor's classical training is a very integral and concrete part of the band, notable in the use of formal structure-theme, variation, recapitulation and coda-patterns. This structure doesn't stifle improvisation or spontaneity (no song is ever the same twice), but acts instead to add to the congruity of their music.

Larry Zack started playing drums in high school rock bands when he was fifteen because, as he puts it, "Rock was at that time the easiest medium to progress in. It was a stepping stone into classical or jazz." He gradually worked his way onto the bar scene and did session work at Artie Field's studio with Koss, developing his jazz style of drumming. Then, like Koss and Seanor, Zack evolved back into rock and roll. "The term rock denotes a lot more now than it did seven years ago. It's much freer. It's freedom to do what I want with people I love and hate as friends. I worked for the DPW and General Motors, etc., but I always wanted to play music. It enables me to express myself and communicate with all those people like being a high priest or something."

Zack is the quietest and least self-revealing member of the Savage Grace. He saves it all for on stage, because when he's behind those drums he's total energy, and his jazz influenced and extremely efficient drumming is an emphatic part of Savage Grace music.

Zack, Seanor and Koss made their way around the Detroit bar scene for several years and finally started working together in the Scarlet Letter, a rather successful bar band which was once signed to Mainstream. But, they still weren't satisfied. One thing led to another and the three musicians started to look for a bass player who could sing.

Meanwhile, the young Al Jacquez was cruising around Ann Arbor. "I had started a band when I was thirteen, after the first time I heard John Lennon. I thought that he couldn't be altogether that good. But, when I got a red guitar and found a job, I got as red as that fucking guitar. So, I started playing in front of audiences and developing because I just dug being in front of people." Through mutual friends, Zack, Seanor and Koss heard about Jacquez and asked him to try out for the band. "At that time I thought I was a singer and sort of called myself a bass player. I was sitting there buzzed out of my brain and I said, 'Sure I play bass, like doesn't everyone? But I really do have confidence in the way I sing." So Jacquez began to play with them. "I had the feeling that it was going to happen and when I saw those guys I said, "Man, this is it."

There was a period of debate among the other three. Jacquez was young, 17, and not a spectacular bass player, but his sexual appeal was a fitting addition, his voice unquestionably brilliant and he had potential on bass. Beside, the hand of fate is stronger than rationality. "I began working really hard on the way I play. I still am. I'm playing things I never thought of before. I don't have much experience. I just contribute some of the basics, scream a lot and try not to overdo it." In the past year, Jacquez' bass playing has improved remarkably. His vocals are a total religious experience by themselves, with each beastial, lust-thirsting scream stimulating the sexuality of men and women alike. Jacquez is no Jagger or Morrison or Iggy imitator. His stage act is basically calm and unpretentious, in comparison, but then he's got a guitar in his hands too. It's all in the voice and the facial contortions that result from singing/screaming with feeling. And it's enough.

So, with the addition of this rock and roll kid, the four musicians became a band. All four believing that "rock is the freest musical medium", they put no restrictions on what kind of band they wanted to be - except that they wanted to be a good band, the best band if possible.

None of the four are really good 'pals' and there is a definite diversity in their individual social/political musical ideas and beliefs. Jacquez admits candidly but sincerely, "We all have different weird tastes. People are always trying to get a killer group philosophy out of us, but this group makes no logical sense at all. We hate each other's guts, and yet we love each other at the same time. It's the most bizarre thing I've ever done in my life." But, none of this really matters. The important thing is that the Savage Grace can work together and play music together.

The common factor within the Grace is the heritage of most Michigan musicians, that unexplainable factor that makes local bands so totally relatable to Michigan audiences and has alienated them to a degree from the rest of the country. But, though this common Michigan ingredient is evident, the Savage Grace is different than most of our bands. They have a universal appeal in the very schizoid variance of their music. And schizophrenia is relatable everywhere. (At least in Amerika - Ed)

The growth of the Savage Grace is still another example of paradox. They began gigging almost immediately after forming and during the first few months did an incredible amount of songwriting. As soon as they began performing, people started talking about this new band that had such a fantastic show and even greater potential, and was it possible that they'd been together for such a short time? The Savage Grace were a legend before most people had heard them, by the old word-of-mouth publicity ruse. The Grace kept getting on stage and amazing people, literally driving them to their feet, receiving ovations every gig.

It wasn't long (August 1969) until Warner/Reprise heard about the Savage Grace and sent their representatives to check out the rumors. Reprise was impressed by what they heard and an agreeable contract was worked out (After the one with Mainstream was broken). Meanwhile, the Savage Grace music continued to progress, but rumors started flying that the quick rise to prominence had gone to their heads. "They haven't paid their dues," went the story by people who forgot that all four had been struggling in separate bands for years. The same people who had talked up the band, and were responsible for spreading the word about Savage Grace, were now bad-rapping the band, but with good cause. Despite the bloated conditions of their heads, the Savage Grace continued to play and play well, drawing large crowds wherever they appeared and earning the opportunity to play big draw concerts for exposure. According to many, the Grace blew Creedence right off the stage during their Detroit concert last summer, and it's been up ever since.

Last January, the Savage Grace began recording their album. They started doing the tracks at Artie Field's studio in Detroit, but found the sound and conditions unsatisfactory, and decided to make the pilgrimage to Los Angeles to do the album. According to the band, the Los Angeles facilities are far superior to anything in this area and improvement on the technical end of the Detroit scene would be advantageous to everyone. "Detroit could really be big if the people in the studios would open up," emphasized Seanor, "We're five years behind. The boards and engineers out there are really superior. An engineer would spend four hours just getting the drum sound right. Twenty-four hours a day we could get anything we wanted, harpsichords delivered at 3a.m., anything and everything goes, even Moog synthesizers (which the band utilized in several parts of the album.) Somebody should relate to the technical end of the Detroit scene, get involved and if they can't handle the board themselves, then hire an engineer who can."

"Our community is involved, added Jacquez, "The kids are here, but the people who have the bread and the studios are just fucked. A band can sit in Detroit and just mold away. Here, the only ones who are for the artist are the people of the community. Most of the club owners, studio people and etc. are just out for the money."

After six weeks of recording in LA and producing what they feel is a good album, the Savage Grace returned to Detroit. The trip seemed to have returned their egos to a normal, healthy state, but different rumors started. The Grace are going to move to the coast was the report, "Straight from the horse's mouth". If they had been thinking about moving, it was probably a result of their initial impression with the recording facilities. Seanor defended the accusation by saying, "We want to stay involved with the scene here. We tried to do the album here, but we got no cooperation so we went to Warner Bros. studio in L.A."

"I didn't like the people out there," added Jacquez, "They were a drag. I like people with balls, like here. Out there they don't relate to any kind of intensity. When we would get weird, just being ourselves, they thought we were some kind of maniacs putting on a show."

"I don't think it's that," differed Seanor, "They're just at a different energy level out there. It's all happened there five years ago. That's why music is coming out of Detroit right now. The life style is so intense."

Whether or not the Savage Grace will leave the area that supported and nurtured their growth is unclear, but looks doubtful at present. Quite possibly some of their observation about the conditions of recording here should be taken seriously. Nevertheless, they have returned to Detroit and have been gigging locally where they are performing their old tunes that will appear on the album, plus some new songs, notably "Lady of the Mountain" and "Mystery Train" (a song Koss wrote about Detroit). Their stage presence has improved and they have been received as well, if not better, than before they left.

Reprise is more than satisfied with the album, which would be released any day now, and is planning a full scale promotional campaign. Should the album be an accurate representation of Savage Grace music , its success seems eminent. They will be following up the album release with a tour with Hendrix in early May and several other tours now being negotiated. Hopefully, they will be able to back up their product in their live performances across the country and perpetuate the name of Savage Grace. The name that is the band and is a lifestyle. "Savage Grace is actually a concept," said Jacquez, "Think about the pattern that runs through all of life ... good/bad, violence/peace, beauty/ugliness and Savage Grace." To apply this life axiom of contradiction to music (which itself has become a sort of axiom for living) seems not only natural, but an honest and a real way to approach music.