By Joe Livernois
When it comes to describing Primus and frontman Les Claypool, critics and reviewers will always resort to the hackneyed mashup. They’ll usually start with Frank Zappa, then they’ll proceed to the rest of the off-kilter countercultural icons in the zeitgeist: Hunter S. Thompson, Captain Beefheart, Monty Python, The Dead Kennedys.
Primus is the band, after all, that recorded the original theme song for “South Park.”
The critics and reviewers “never really scratched the surface or paid too much attention to it,” said guitarist Larry LaLonde in an interview with Santa Cruz Good Times several years ago, “so it just sounded goofy to them, like a Dr. Demento type of thing. You always want to be taken somewhat seriously, but not too seriously. That’s the line we try to walk, I think.”
How about for once rock critics quit trying to compare and, in this case, acknowledge that Claypool and Primus are wholly original American musicians with abundant talent, quirky dispositions and loyal fans?
Whatever. What is important is that Les Claypool gets his due as one of the great bass players in rock history … and that Primus never fails to entertain. The band defies genre-fication, but thrash-funk might be an appropriate description, should anyone ask, with songs like “Those Damned Blue-Collar Tweekers” and “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver.” And Claypool is considered a bass god, whether he’s goofing on “Stayin’ Alive” with his old boyhood friend, Bryan Kehoe of M.I.R.V., or cranking out mind-blowing Beatles-infused psychedelia with Sean Lennon.
“The Beatles were our mother’s favorite band,” said Ron Pierce, a Monterey County resident and Claypool’s half-brother. “So his collaboration with Sean would have meant so much to her.”
Pierce, nine years younger than Claypool, dragged around the San Francisco Bay area following big brother from gig to gig as the band, first known as Primate, developed a hard-core following. “Primus was my Grateful Dead,” Pierce said. And when Pierce opened Green Gopher Garden Supply, his hydroponic shop in Sand City some years ago, big brother drew the weasely green gopher that is still used in the company’s promotion. (The latest iteration has the gopher wearing tie-dye, in honor of Jimi Hendrix.)
So when terrible misfortune struck the Pierce family in 2010, soon after Green Gopher’s opening, Claypool, Primus and M.I.R.V. came through with a benefit that fans in Santa Cruz still talk about.
Pierce and his wife, Aimee Grijalva, learned in 2010 that their newborn son, Matthew, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia; the baby was sent to Stanford Medical Center for treatment. The boy’s medical condition placed an incredible burden on the family, both financially and emotionally.
As rambunctious as Primus might be, in late 2010 Claypool issued a sobering memo to his fans about his nephew. And then, a couple of weeks later, he announced a special Primus show at the Catalyst in Santa Cruz to benefit the family, on March 18, 2011.
The band has a rich history in Santa Cruz. Primus first showed up as a headliner for about 500 fans at Veterans Memorial Hall back in 1990. And they’ve been charging through town ever since, but that night in May was special.
“I have seen them and Les around 30 times or so live,” said Jeff Feldeisen, a local fan, in a written exchange with Voices. “It was a different vibe than (any of their) shows I have seen before. My guess is it had to do with family and you could feel it. It was definitely close to home for all.”
While definitely a family affair, it was also classic Primus, featuring fans dressed in all manner of whacked-out top hats and pig masks. In fact, at one point, Claypool himself disappeared from stage briefly and returned wearing a pig mask.
To be honest, when launching Monterey Rocks, Primus was not on my rock radar. But Feldeisen recommended the benefit as worthy of Top 25 consideration. So I immersed myself in all things Claypool and I came away a convert. And the intensely personal family vibe at the 2011 show deserves special mention.
James Foley, another fan writing for Patch in Santa Cruz, reported that “the club was packed that night and Primus played a full-tilt show that Claypool claimed was the first time his step-dad had ever seen him live.”
Baby Matthew died about 20 months later.
In addition to his continuing work with Primus, Claypool has collaborated with dozens of notable rock stars, including Tom Waits and Buckethead. Most recently he has recorded two albums with Sean Lennon in a psychedelic collaboration known as The Claypool Lennon Delirium. The pairing is throw-back trippy, best represented in the song and video called “Little Fishes.”
Primus is on tour at the moment; they played the Oakland Arena with Ministry and Slayer, and will appear at the Forum in Los Angeles this weekend.
Better yet, little Matthew’s mother, Aimee Grijalva, has been a force of nature on behalf of two nonprofits dedicated to children’s cancer. She is on the board of both Jacob’s Heart, a support service organization to help families with children affected by a cancer diagnosis, and Key for a Cure, a charity she helped establish to raise funds for pediatric cancer research.
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