Saturday, February 29, 2020

RIP David Roback

Pittsburgh Current polled its contributing writers for last year's Valentines Day issue, asking each of us for what we considered the "Sexiest Song." (Proving how one letter can make a world of difference, my original email accidentally asked for the most sexist song, which naturally was Burt Bacharach & Hal David's "Wives and Lovers.") Rushed to come up with one quickly, I chose the Stooges' "We Will Fall," a long, sensual and somewhat dangerous sounding number about loving and leaving (I hope).

A year and a couple weeks later I realized the drastic oversight I made. "We Will Fall" is pretty steamy, but kiss for kiss and sigh for sigh, I think side two of Opal's Happy Nightmare, Baby takes the love cake. That's actually four songs total, but after "Supernova," it's hard to stop. Layers of guitars, droning organs, some dirty riffs and that ever-so-seductive deadpan voice of Kendra Smith is hard to resist.

Sadly, all this came to me because I pulled the album off the shelf this week after hearing about the death of David Roback, the other half, with Smith, of the brains behind Opal. The guitarist was a mere 61 years old. Although the cause of death wasn't immediately released, Roback's mother confirmed that it was metastatic cancer, according to the New York Times.

Roback came to prominence first in connection with the so-called Paisley Underground, the community of California bands that borrowed heavily from '60s bands of both the pop and psychedelic sides of things. He was a founding member of the Rain Parade and also appeared on the highly collectible compilation Rainy Day, playing songs by Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix with kindred spirits from the Dream Syndicate, Three O'Clock and the Bangles.

He found his greatest attention with Mazzy Star, who had some mild mainstream success in the early '90s with their second album So Tonight That I Might See and the single "Fade Into You." But that group's template was set in place by Opal, which began under the name Clay Allison. (Pittsburgh history note - Clay Allison's sole Pittsburgh appearance in 1984 at the Electric Banana was also the debut of the original Cynics.) Happy Nightmare Baby, the group's one album released during their lifetime (a compilation of singles followed later) has more of a raw, visceral feel, giving the feeling that the group is still discovering what is possible for them. "Rocket Machine" opens it with a riff straight out of a T. Rex song. "Magick Power" follows, built on a slinky groove that gets pushed in an Eastern direction courtesy of the organ, before breaking into a double-time freak out.

And then there's side two. The title track is the album's understatement. Aside from a few slide guitar leads from Roback, all ears are on Smith, who could be either cruel or loving, judging from the lyrics. Two other songs prove that sometimes you can lean heavily on just one or two chords as long they occasionally change into a powerful release that heightens the mood. That happens in the sensual "Supernova" which bounces between C# and D, with only a short break that leads back in.

"Soul Giver" is essentially a guitar freak out, closing the album in much the same way So Tonight That I Might See's title track would do the same six years later. But while the latter tune beat one riff into the ground, "Soul Giver" has guitars and organs tumbling over one chord, some of them never sure if the song is major or minor. Then every time Smith returns to sing a verse, it's followed by a chord change that keeps things from ever getting tedious. When it ends, eight-and-a-half minutes later, there's no climax. It feels right when it suddenly halts.

Released by SST Records in 1987, the album has been hard to find in the ensuing years. Part of that could be Roback's doing, as he was supposedly stubborn about letting his work get reissued. (Hence Rainy Day's collectablility too.) One story about his passing mentioned that both Happy Nightmare Baby and the Early Singles compilation might finally be re-released. If so, it would be a good way to rediscover the elusive, creative Mr. Roback.

Thanks for the loving, David.

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