INTERVIEW BY STEVE OLSON
INTRODUCTION BY STEVE OLSON
PHOTOS BY MIKE HORN, ERIC SWENSON & JAMES O’MAHONEY
Been around, more than once. Been there, done that… That seems to fit. Get a dictionary. There might be some big words that we haven’t heard yet, let alone read. Trust me, I don’t really LIE…
“I WAS WATCHING THIS CAT COMING TOWARDS ME WHILE I WAS GOING THROUGH THE INTERSECTION HEADING FOR A BRICK WALL GOING 60 MILES AN HOUR. I FIGURED I WOULD EITHER BREAK BOTH MY LEGS ON THE WALL, OR THE LADY WAS GOING TO RUN OVER ME AND I WAS GOING TO DIE.”
Okay, you said that it wouldn’t happen. I said that it would happen big time. This is the interview with Terry Nails.
That’s what we’re going to find out. When I hold the postcards up, and you see the image, you tell me what comes to mind.
Okay, I know you too well to interview you, so I gotta go.
I’m just kidding. Where did you grow up?
I never did.
I know that. Where did you experience life as you first knew it?
I lived in Vegas back in the ’50s.
Vegas was born in the late ’30s, right?
It was the early ’40s, when Bugsy opened the Flamingo.
Were you born in Vegas?
No, I was born in Portland, Oregon.
When were you born?
I was born in 1952.
That makes you that much older than me. [Laughs.] So you went from Portland to Vegas. I’m seeing the connection here.
Yeah. It’s called Amtrak.
Exactly. When did you start discovering the surf world and music and all of that?
Well, my dad’s a jazz musician. He was one of the Four Freshmen. He worked with lots of people like Billy Eckstein, Woody Herman and the Modernaires, which was the vocal group with Glenn Miller.
The Four Freshmen were kind of like a boy band. I don’t mean it in a derogatory way.
I have a hard time thinking about my dad as being in a boy band. They basically started out as a vocal group, but they did something different. Instead of the traditional vocal harmonies and barbershop quartet-type of stuff that everyone based their stuff on, they used jazz horn section harmonies for their vocal charts. They were a big influence on the Beach Boys, Manhattan Transfer and the Pointer Sisters, and a bunch of other people. They were also a big influence on Donald Fagen from Steely Dan.
They could, obviously, really sing?
Oh, yeah. That was in the days before lip-syncing.
That leads me back to the boy band question, because they were four guys. That’s the only connection to that gay term.
The Beach Boys and the Pointer Sisters based their harmonies off that sort of stuff. They had all kinds of songs.
What was the first instrument you picked up?
Well, because we were in a musical family, our parents had us taking piano lessons when we were little kids, so I guess piano was the first thing I picked up on.
Do you like Johnnie Johnson?
Yeah, but the piano wasn’t my thing. I wasn’t disciplined enough to sit down and do anything like that. Then I started playing drums. The drums were okay, until I had to start practicing, and I realized how much was involved.
When did you start listening to music seriously?
I always have. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t.
Come on. At age three, you weren’t going, ‘Dad, I want to go get a Cole Porter record.’
Actually, when I was four and five, my dad used to do these jam sessions in Vegas at the Tropicana at two in the morning. They jammed late at night because most of the show gigs would end around that time. There were a lot of really good musicians in town, like Lionel Hampton and Stan Getz. They’d improvise and do all this amazingly great crazy stuff. I grew up watching some of the greatest jazz guys around, like Carl Fontana, Joe Pass and Terry Gibbs. My dad used to dress me up like a little beatnik with a turtleneck sweater and a beret.
So, it’s all your dad’s fault?
Yeah. My dad was basically the guy, and still is.
The Four Freshmen were sharp dressers.
Yeah, for the time, they were. My dad also worked with Woody Herman. He worked with a lot of people.
What age did you start playing drums?
I was in fifth grade.
Then you learned to play bass?
No. I started playing guitar when I was about nine. We had a little Dan Electro Silvertone. It’s probably still my favorite type guitar, to this day.
That’s the one with the amp inside the case?
Exactly. In fact, I still play one inside the studio. It’s one of the nicest sounding guitars for the kind of stuff that you and I like to play.
So, you learned guitar, and then bass?
Yeah. I always liked playing bass, but they weren’t as readily available as guitars. Anyway, I realized I was more of a bass player when I was in San Francisco. I used to baby sit for James Gurley from Big Brother and The Holding Company. I did equipment for his band, Big Brother and Janis.
Big Brother was the backing band for Janis Joplin?
Yeah. It was Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company. I lived across the street from James, back in ’67 and ’68.
Was the hippie movement on?
Yep, that was the deal in Haight-Ashbury. I used to go over to James’s house to watch his son, Ongo. They had all this equipment set up in the front room, so I’d play my guitar. He’d come home with his wife, Nancy. Sometimes Sam Andrews, who was the other guitar player, would be there. They’d say, ‘Let’s jam.’ I was terrified, because those guys were like rock stars to me. I’d nervously say, ‘Okay.’ Then I’d grab a guitar. Then they’d say, ‘No. You’re playing bass.’
Yeah. I’d picked up a little bass before that from Bruce Bartho from Country Joe and The Fish. Everyone was in the same neighborhood at that time. Anyway, I’d end up playing the bass. I made the mistake of bringing my guitar over to the house one day to jam with them. It was a Gibson ES-335 double pickup, semi-hollow body. When I took my guitar out, James walked over and took the guitar out of my hand and put it back in the case. Then he closed the case and took it over to the closet. He put my guitar in the closet and took out another case and brought it back and put it at my feet. He opened it up and handed me a bass that looked identical to my guitar. It was a Gibson semi-hollow, same color and everything. He said to me, ‘You’re a bass player, now.’
Maybe he saw something that you weren’t aware of.
Obviously. He said, ‘Guitar players are like spoons players. They’re a dime a dozen. Everybody needs a bass player and there are not many good bass players. You actually play like a bass player.’ So I officially became a bass player.
How old were you when that happened?
I was 15, I think.
That’s fortunate to be surrounded by that environment, musically; I don’t know about physically, though.
Well, you know. There were some problems.
I’m just saying it was fortunate that you had cats that were players guiding you in some way.
Yes. I was very lucky.
Then you became a bass player.
Yeah, but the skateboarding and surfing thing started way before this.
That’s good because those are some other questions that I was going to ask. Tell me about skateboarding and surfing?
The skateboarding thing happened before I started surfing. My brother and I used to make these scooters with handles on them. At some point, the handle fell off, so we threw that away and started riding it. Then I saw one that someone had made that looked like a surfboard. It was all steel wheels back then, and it went from there. My brother and I used to get our allowance and go to this roller skating rink in Vegas. One of us would go in and rent roller skates and then run out the back door with them. They were the roller rink skates with the composition wheels.
You were heisting top of the line equipment, for scooters that were about to be built.
We were making skateboards by that time. We’d cut them in half and nail them to boards. There were a few times when we weren’t paying attention and put them on backwards.
Yeah. They’d turn the opposite way, which made it a challenge. My parents owned some land up on a mountain outside Vegas called Mt. Charleston. In the late ’50s, they paved it all the way up to the top with new asphalt. We used to go up to the top and ride all the way down the mountain on these skateboards. Every time we’d go skate, we had to steal more rollerskate wheels. By the time we got to the bottom of the hill, the wheels would wear down from full size, to only about a quarter inch around the bearing race. The problem with those wheels though, was if you hit rocks, they stopped you dead. So we started making longer boards, that way they wouldn’t tend to want to stop so much when they hit little rocks. We’d ride these long 2′ x 4’s down the mountain and kind of side slip down. I distinctly remember my mom yelling at us while she was following us in the car, She was screaming, ‘You’re going 50 miles an hour! Slow down!’ Which was pretty much impossible because we were usually barefooted.
What year was this?
Probably 1961. We started skating in ’59. Wow. I know I can’t be this old.
I was just thinking about how you’ve been going downhill that long. It made me tired thinking of the walk back up.
My mom would pick us up in her ’61 Ford Galaxy and drive us back to the top of the hill and we’d do it again. It was fabulous. Then we used to go to California periodically, too. I learned to surf on a 10-foot surfboard by Gordie in 1962.
Where were you surfing?
The first time I ever got in the water was in Newport at The Wedge.
I know it well.
I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to ride a 10-foot, 40-pound Gordie at The Wedge , but it was pretty interesting. I got my butt handed to me severely until a lifeguard came up and said, ‘You can’t surf here. No surfing here.’ I learned to surf in Orange County. My dad used to play Disneyland a lot. Back in the day, Disneyland had big, well-known bands play there, so my dad would take us there and we’d stay in Newport.
Why did you guys move to San Francisco?
It was just me.
You moved up there alone at age fourteen?
Yeah. I left home at age 12.
Why’d you leave home at 12-years old?
It’s a long story. My dad was on the road most of the time.
Isn’t that a little young to bail?
I don’t know how to explain it. I just had to go. I had a really hard time in school. They didn’t know what was going on with me, so they took me to do all these tests. They said that I had this really high IQ, and that I couldn’t function with what was going on, because it was too slow. They tried putting me up a couple grades, but I couldn’t cope socially.
I felt that something was drastically wrong or that something very important had been forgotten on this planet. It seemed much more important to find out what that was than to deal with any of the other stuff being presented to me. I had no desire to fit in anywhere in society.
There were stupefying notions being pushed upon you, but we’re not going to jump into that one. That could go on for hours.
I was reading books on Zen at age ten. I had read the ‘Iliad’ and ‘Odyssey’ by age nine. Everything was mythology, theology and cosmology. Needless to say, my overwhelming desire was to go out there and find out what was going on. I wanted to know the purpose of life, and if there even was one. So I hit the road. The first place I ended up was Hermosa Beach. I lived on the beach. We used to make these 20′ bicycle choppers and that was my transportation. I was just living on the beach and trying to hide from the police. I surfed and bodysurfed everyday. I conned people out of boards to surf. I did various other things, like making jewelry wire roach clips, panhandling and dealing acid.
That could be where the IQ thing happened.
That’s when it started to go in the opposite direction. That’s when I ended up in San Francisco. The first time that I left home I was 12. I ended up doing a year in reform school. I got arrested in the Hollywood Riots at Pandora’s Box. This was before the hippie movement was going on in San Francisco. It was what they called the ‘freak scene.’
How was the vibe of growing up back then? You had the birth of rock n’ roll. You had the hippie movement. You had surf music. Not everyone got to go through that like you did.
It was pretty trippy. L.A. had what they called the ‘freak scene’. The original freaks, to me, though, were the surfers. I used to see guys surfing that had way longer hair than the guys in any of the bands or any of the freaks. The surfers were really way out for that time period. They were the real freaks. Then along came the freak scene in LA with Zappa and all those cats and bands like Love and Clear Light. That’s back when The Doors were one of the local house bands on the Sunset Strip. I got to see all those bands at places like the Hullabaloo and the Kaleidoscope. I saw Buffalo Springfield, Sly and The Family Stone and The Byrds.
Did you see Hendrix?
No. I never saw them then, but I played with some of them later on. I saw Jefferson Airplane, Canned Heat, the Sons of Champlin, The Doors, Zeppelin, Cold Blood. I saw Country Joe. That’s how I left Vegas. When I left Vegas, Country Joe and the Fish were playing at the National Guard Armory. They were loading up equipment and getting ready to leave. I had gotten to know one of the roadies and Bruce Bartho, who was the bass player. They were going to another gig. I said, ‘Do you guys need any help?’ They said, ‘Sure.’ I just jumped in the equipment truck and that was it. I was gone. They went to do a festival around Newport. I saw Quicksilver, the Dead, and the Electric Flag. I ended up living with The Grateful Dead on one of the ranches a couple years later.
What about the Sex Pistols at Winterland?
Oh, yeah. I was there. I was on stage most of that night. I was working that gig.
Of course you were. You were running the backstage area.
Yeah. I was running the stage equipment and picking up the stuff on the stage that the people threw at the bands. The show was the Sex Pistols, with The Avengers, The Nuns and The Readymades opening up. All of them were old friends of mine. The Avengers were from the San Francisco Art Institute. They were art school bands except for the Nuns. They were their own form of art.
I love The Avengers. Continue the story. I love it.
They’d all only played small clubs. I was the only guy with the equipment for playing bigger venues, so the bass players borrowed my bass equipment. I was on stage all night making sure the stuff worked. That’s when I met Jonesy. Later on, I played with him for eight years and did a couple albums with him. I met Sid that night, too. He was the first guy I met from the band and he was very nice to me. It kind of shocked me how nice he was. After that gig, the place almost turned into a riot at the end. I ended up grabbing Paul Cook and taking him to my house. He stayed at my place for three or four days after that last Sex Pistols gig.
I want to know about punk rock and how you got into that.
It was weird, because I was a musician and most of the guys who played punk really weren’t.
How did that even happen?
I was playing with everyone up in Nor Cal. If you had a band and needed someone for a bass gig, I was there. I even got to play with Charley Musselwhite and Randy Hansen for a few gigs. Anyway, we had this band called Killerwatt for quite a while. We were more of an AC/DC kind of band. At some point, we started messing around with punk rock stuff. We wrote a song called ‘I Was A Punk Before You Were A Punk’. The Tubes ended up doing that song.
Bill Spooner, the guitar player from the Tubes, used to play with us a lot. He liked the song, so he took it. They were supposed to give us a song in return. We traded for a song that we didn’t even like and never did. They ended up doing that song and giving us no credit, but who cares? Anyway, I knew most of the local punk players pretty well. Some of them used to ask me for help. They liked doing the punk thing, but they wanted to know how to play. I’d give them five-minute pointers, so I got to know a lot of them well, like Will from Flipper. It was really sad when he died. A lot of those guys are gone now, mostly from drugs, such a waste really. Later on, a bunch of us put together a band called the Bobby Death band. This was after we’d been doing gigs with Mink DeVille, Devo and the Dead Boys. Rabbit, who was the cook at the Mabuhay, was in the band. It was a fun time.
You need to break it down some more.
The Mabuhay Gardens was the first northern California punk venue. It was one of the biggest punk venues in the country.
It was San Francisco’s answer to CBGBs.
Right. The Mab was insane. It was nuts. My band Killerwatt and the band Mary Monday were the first bands ever to play at the Mabuhay. Mary Monday’s claim was that she was the first woman to ever sing and dance at the North Pole.
The Mab was just a Filipino restaurant with a stage. The owner couldn’t make any money selling Filipino food, so he started doing rock n’ roll shows. Then the punk thing came in. Dirk Dirksen started doing the booking and The Mab and the punk scene just sort of evolved together. The Mab was an amazingly hellacious – and always fantastic – place to be.
You had the Dead Kennedys and the Avengers.
From what the old lead singer from Killerwatt, Ken Cameron says, The Dead Kennedys hadn’t had a gig yet at the Mabuhay, and nobody was really into them when they first started. They really wanted to play though. They just kept calling and saying they wanted to play. We were headliners, so we always had someone open up for us. One night, Magister Ludi was supposed to open. We found out four hours before we were supposed to go on that they couldn’t make it. The only band that we could get on short notice was the Dead Kennedys. That was the first time the Dead Kennedys ever played the Mabuhay. It’s one of those interesting, little known, little cared about facts.
I care. Let me ask you this, though. What about skateboarding, during that time in the mid ’70s? You were living in San Francisco, so there were hills. I’m trying to make the connection.
I was actually surfing in San Francisco. I surfed Ocean Beach and Fort Point.
Did you ever get swept away by the current and end up at the little beach north of there?
I don’t really remember. At that point, I still hadn’t gotten sober yet. I was pretty much a drug addict. I had been out of skateboarding for a while. After I worked for Big Brother and the Holding Company, I ended up moving up to Rancho Olompali. It was one of the Grateful Dead ranches. When I was living in Marin County, I didn’t really think much about surfing. I was working for Chet Helms and doing light show stuff for Jerry Abrams Head Lights. I started off at the Avalon, working the door right before Chet lost the lease on the place and Gary Scanlen took the place over. When they took the new place over, I started working with him at The Family Dog on the Great Highway at Playland, which was at the beach. That’s when I started surfing again. I got back into skateboarding right after that. The good urethane wheels came out and I got obsessed with skateboarding.
Going from the hard wood wheels from the roller rink to the urethane wheels was huge. It’s like jumping from a go-kart to a Cadillac.
Yeah. The Sure-Grips were the first ones that I saw. They were rock-hard and they didn’t grip hardly at all. They were made for roller rinks, but they were way better than the old composition wheels. The first street wheels were the Cadillac wheels. They were just insane.
How did you get into the Stroker car thing?
I’d been skating around town, doing mostly downhill stuff.
Tell us about the Stroker car.
The Stroker car was a coffin on wheels with a pointed end on one end and a pointed end on the other end. It was a skate car that was built for the World Speed Record Attempt at Signal Hill, which was really no hill.
Listen. It wasn’t a hill, but it was a good venue.
No, it wasn’t. If it was a good venue, I wouldn’t have been hit by a car.
No. It was a good venue, because you had a street that was totally open on both sides, so a lot of people could watch. When you came down over the hill over the first knoll, you couldn’t see the bottom. It was intimidating, not to the racers, maybe, but to me. It looked scary as fuck as you were coming up over that one knoll.
You’ve got to understand what I’d been doing. I would’ve never wasted my time on a road like that. We’d been doing open lay down stuff way before that. We were doing 73 miles an hour long before that.
I’ve got your blood pumping now. Go.
More people I know get hurt surfing on small days than they do big days. They go surfing out of sheer boredom and get hurt. That’s what that hill was like. That hill was nothing. It definitely wasn’t a good speed hill.
I loved that whole race.
I’m glad somebody did. Anyway, I started to bomb hills in the early ’70s. As some people know, I’d been a heroin addict from an early age. That happened during my time in Haight-Ashbury. I got put on one of the first methadone programs in the early ’70s, and it took me a couple of years to get off that shit. I slowly tapered myself off of the stuff. They didn’t like people to get off it because they wanted to keep all the druggies under control. Eventually, I just quit. I went into this really long period of having cold chills and leg and body cramps. It was like kicking heroin, except it lasted for about four months. I couldn’t sleep, so I would go bomb hills all night long. It felt really good to get out there and sweat and work the cramps out. There was a group of us that started to skate together. They’d come to my house after dark and we’d go find these really steep hills that were five or six blocks long that all had cross streets. The predicament was how to stay on the board after you’d crossed the cross street, because you’d have a tendency to get airborne. I did get airborne and wiped my ass out, several times, so I invented these knee boards. I had a six-foot long board that I would ride on my knees and I put these handles on the side that I could hold on to. I could skate through those intersections without falling on my ass. Somehow, I ended up riding for Maharajah. Then Jon Malvino did a movie called ‘That Magic Feeling’ and they did a section of me bombing hills. There was this one scene were five of us took off from the top at the same time, but I was the only one riding a regular downhill board. Malvino shot the footage from the bottom of the hill. When we got to the transitions coming through the cross streets, we disappeared, and then you see us come out of it. We’re all pushing down the hill, then we all disappear. All of a sudden, you see just me, coming through this intersection, half airborne, flying down the hill. I wiped them out. Bombing hills was all I did. I really liked going as fast as I could. I don’t know who turned me onto Fausto and Eric, but they were just starting the Stroker Company. This was way before they started ‘Thrasher’ and Independent trucks. Stroker didn’t have any riders, so we somehow hooked up. They were making beautifully engineered trucks, but they were amazingly over-engineered. They had independent suspension and steering on them. These guys were mechanics. They worked on the Harley-Davidson Bonneville racing crew. That’s what they knew. They used to pooh-pooh everything. Fausto used to give me such a hard time every time I’d see him. It was insane. I was the only rider they had for a long time. When they built the trucks, I was still doing the downhill stuff, so I started testing them, but we couldn’t get them to tighten up enough. Eventually we got some special springs made and that did the trick. I started looking around for special downhill boards. I was lucky enough to have Dave Dillberg make me one of a group of five custom boards that were made out of fiberglass and wood. They were really bitchen. Mine was purple on the bottom and black on the top. It’s one of the boards pictured in the Stoker ad. We finally figured out how to make everything work together. All we had left to do were the wheels, so we started making special wheels. We started with four-inch wheels and experimented with different materials. We lathed them out and used much bigger bearings. Then we’d find the biggest hill that we could and start testing. Then someone had the brilliant idea of doing the skate car thing, which turned out to be a total nightmare. I was much happier with the open board thing.
The skate car race was sick. My brother built the Powerflex car with Dave Leonard, so I know a little bit about this.
So, you know Fausto and Eric built the Stroker car, and I helped by not getting in the way.
And the Stroker car didn’t get a time.
Yeah. It did. I got one run, and then I got hit by a car. My brakes failed, and I went through the hay bales, and got hit by a car on my first run.
Why didn’t the braking unit work?
Well, some guys had a system to stop the urethane wheels themselves, like on bicycles. We had the old soapbox derby thing that came down with a piece of rubber on it worked by a Harley-Davidson clutch cable with a Harley brake lever. It was on a bar that went straight across the car from side to side. When I got to the end of the run, I was supposed to squeeze this thing and this piece of metal with rubber on it would drag on the ground and stop me. Well, it was really windy that day and there was dirt and dust all over the road. When I hit the brake, nothing happened. It just kept sliding because of the dust. I was squeezing it so hard that the clutch cable stretched and that was it. I went through the hay bales going about 60 miles an hour right into the path of a really nice 80-year-old lady, driving a ’51 Chevy.
You’re streaking Signal Hill in the Stroker car and the braking system fails and you go through the hay bales and hit an 80-year-old woman?
No, she hit me.
Okay. Whatever. I’m not an insurance claims adjuster.
Anyway, right at the end of the street was a brick wall. After I went through the hay bales, everything turned into slow motion. I was watching this car coming towards me while I was going through the intersection heading for a brick wall going 60 miles an hour. I figured I would either break both my legs on the wall, or the lady was going to run over me and I was going to die. It seemed to take 20 minutes to happen. Then she hit me. Fortunately, she put on her brakes just in time. The impact wrapped the skate car around me and cracked five ribs. Then it sent me spinning out really fast up the hill on the other street. I ended up wedged under the back of an old Ford Pickup. It took six guys to get me out of the thing. I was completely freaked. I couldn’t breathe. They took me away in an ambulance. They wouldn’t let me use my open board when I got back, so I didn’t get another run. I should have beaten everybody at that thing. They all got five runs and I got one. I came in second. Henry Hester beat me and he was my team rider.
They brought him in at the last minute. The guy had never gotten in the car before that race. He was afraid of it. To tell you the truth, so was I. Fausto, Eric and I were the only ones that ever got into that car and tested it. I was like, ‘I’m not riding in this thing again. The brake system is iffy and you’re laying down head-first. I don’t want to hit anything going head-first.’ Hester beat me by a tenth of a mile an hour, which didn’t make me really happy about the whole deal. When I went to the hospital, there had been a huge wreck, so there were some severely mangled people there. I waited for hours in the emergency room, but then I got tired of waiting, so Eric Swensen came and got me. I went back to the race and got drunk as hell. I was in so much pain that I just started drinking Jack Daniels and that was it for me.