Psychedelic-rock fans—including this blogger—were shocked to learn yesterday that David Roback had died at age 61. No cause of death has been reported and Mazzy Star's Facebook page does not note his passing. Roback was a prime mover in the 1980s West Coast scene of heady musicians putting distinctive spins on outward-bound '60s rock known as the Paisley Underground, to very few people's delight.
Roback figured heavily in the Rain Parade's classic first album, 1983's Emergency Third Rail Power Trip, which cleverly resurrected the highest achievements of the Beatles, the Byrds, and Pink Floyd. He also played a key role on the 1984 self-titled album by Rainy Day, which featured loving covers of the Paisley Underground musicians' major inspirations, such as Big Star, Velvet Underground, Jimi Hendrix, and Neil Young.
Even though he'd started Rain Parade with brother Steven, Roback bounced after one LP. In an interview I conducted with Mazzy Star for a 1996 cover story in Alternative Press, David said he left the band because "Musically it wasn't working out." In that same piece, Steven said, "There were too many cooks in [Rain Parade]. We needed to have a separation so we could all feel more productive. I was sad when [David] had to split. But he needed his own band..."
That band was Opal (previously Clay Allison), for many people the unit that represented the zenith of Roback's creative powers. Working with the great ex-Dream Syndicate vocalist/bassist Kendra Smith, Roback elevated Opal to the summits of sanctified psychedelia with their 1987 full-length for SST Records, Happy Nightmare Baby. It's like some kind of alchemical fusion of the Doors and T.Rex, a masterpiece of expansive songcraft and wah-wah-guitar sculpture. I've listened to that record so many times, it's become part of my DNA. The 1989 release Early Recordings revealed Opal's exquisite songwriting prowess in a context shorn of the grandiloquent FX that saturated Happy Nightmare Baby.
Paisley Underground authority and A&R rep for several indie labels Pat Thomas, who's working on a reissue of Opal material, considers Early Recordings Opal's undisputed peak. In an email interview, he said, "Kendra’s voice (not sounding like but capturing the same ethereal magic of Sandy Denny) blended with Roback’s delicious, Neil Young-like fuzzed-out guitar—filtered at times through traditional American country-folk influences and at other times under the spell of the psychedelic blues of the Doors was... some of the most unique music ever recorded and a perfect antidote against the commercial MTV pop-rock we had to suffer during the 1980s. Opal is right up there with Judee Sill and Nick Drake as some of the best music ever recorded."
Following Opal's dissolution, Roback formed Mazzy Star with vocalist/lyricist Hope Sandoval. This band would lead to his biggest commercial success by far: Mazzy Star went platinum with the second LP, 1993's So Tonight That I Might See, buoyed by the alt-rock smash "Fade into You," but they did so without compromising their vision. Mazzy Star also further proved that Roback works best with female foils.
In Mazzy Star, Roback refined his most outré psych-rock instincts from Opal into songs with deceptive hooks and midnight-blue moods. In that AP feature, I described their albums as "immaculate amalgams of folk, blues, country, and psychedelia. Suffused in a woozy, post-coital haziness courtesy of Roback's deft deployment of feedback and effects and Doorsy keyboard atmospherics, Mazzy Star's mellifluously moody music is best enjoyed with a lover or by yourself at 3 am. Hope and David write memorably beautiful songs bathed in a muted amber light; there's a shimmery gravitas that never allows the music to slip into schmaltziness."
Against the odds, Mazzy Star crept into the crass domain of the Top-40 charts and infiltrated mainstream rock despite being morose introverts who'd seemingly rather walk on hot coals than do interviews. In the one I conducted with them 24 years ago, Roback and Sandoval exhibited extreme evasiveness and shyness. "If it were up to us, we'd do maybe one interview per album," Roback told me as we sat in a secluded corner of a pub in London's Muswell Hill neighborhood. They looked as if they were being grilled in a courtroom by a merciless prosecutor. Back then, Roback resembled ex-Monkee Mike Nesmith with his long sideburns and beret, and he spoke haltingly in the soothing tones of a hip liberal-arts professor. Pregnant pauses followed nearly every question.
One perceptive thing David said in that session pertained to melancholy music, of which Mazzy Star are exemplars. "I think one of the great misconceptions people have about what is called melancholy music is that it's negative. A lot of times it has much more to do with personal release from melancholy, overcoming those feelings. I always thought a lot of what's called melancholy was about escape. I don't think people like sad music—they like the bliss that comes after listening to sad music."
Steven Roback offered an acute insight into his brother: "[David's is] a completely calculating persona. The more you insulate yourself from the press, the more you become a blank screen for projection of cultural myths. That's why he's so silent. He understands that."
When I interviewed Dream Syndicate's Steve Wynn for that Mazzy Star story, he discussed something I've yet to see anywhere else in print or online. Roback approached him with the idea of starting a band, "a sort of modern version of Cream. A freakout, acid, jamming kind of band" in which Wynn would sing. Wynn liked the concept, but after he told Roback to call him when he wanted to start work on it, he never heard from him. A shame, as that project could've been amazing.
While working on the Mazzy Star story, I accompanied Roback and Sandoval to the abode of the Jesus and Mary Chain's William Reid, with whom the latter was living. There were rumors that Sandoval and Roback had been lovers, but nobody I talked to would comment on it.
At Reid's house, Roback went into his back garden to pet Reid's cat. Roback talked about his love of animals, nature, and the beauty of Cambridge, where, he observed, Syd Barrett lived. "London's great if you like looking at clouds," Roback noted. "And I do."
Later, William drove us to Mazzy Star's rehearsal studio. Once there, Roback and I got out and were watching Sandoval say goodbye to Reid. After about 10 seconds, Roback seemed as if he couldn't bear to witness this show of affection between Hope and Reid, and said, "Come on, let's go."
I'll conclude with this vivid memory by Andy Zax, one of the most brilliant record producers and thinkers in the music business.
The most psychedelic musical experience I had during the entire 1990s was sitting on a couch six feet from Mazzy Star as they debuted “Into Dust” in a room so dark that the band and the music merged into an extra-temporal smear of ectoplasm. Thanks, Mr. Roback.
— Andy Zax (@andyzax) February 26, 2020