Hello, psych music fans! We managed to track down Randy Bowles, co-founder of Yakima, Washington’s Velvet Illusions, to ask him a series of probing questions. We found him ensconced in the senior citizens apartment building he calls home, in the Lower Queen Anne neighborhood of Seattle, WA:
Randy, aka ‘Jimmie James’ Bowles, why do you want to interview yourself regarding your 60’s psych/garage band, The Velvet Illusions?
“Because there are questions I’ve always wanted someone to ask me. I’m gonna ask them myself.”
By the way, do you like being called ‘aka Jimmie James’?
“No. I loathe it. It sounds like I have a criminal alias.”
Too bad. You’re stuck with it, son! Let’s get started: Randy, is it true that, when you and the rest of the boys in the band picked a name, you were influenced by the Velvet Underground? You were just copying them?
“No! We lived in Yakima, Washington. We had never heard of them. We were sheltered, highly-innocent, teenaged boys from a back-water town, who’d never heard of that band, let alone anything they sang about! ‘I’m waiting for my man’, indeed! — The first time I ever heard of the Velvet Underground was in the winter of 1967, after I left the Velvet Illusions. I was in my neighborhood Sprouse Reitz five-and-dime store, desperately combing through its meager 100-capacity record bin, searching for some fresh tracks, like a new Mamas and Papas LP. I saw this white album, sporting a banana peel on its cover. I bought it for three bucks, took it home and played it on the family console stereo. It scared the hell out of me. I later learned the music was called, at least by some, ‘proto-punk’, a genre I avoided like the plague. I was all about peace, love, and long solos, man. — Until 1979, when I became sick of all that jamming. I then discovered Elvis Costello, Gang Of Four…. I went back and listened to the ‘banana peel’ LP and said, ‘This is genius!’ But no, Dude, we named ourselves after our practice of wearing velvet uniforms, which, by the way, were actually made of upholstery material.
One noted author, Michael Hicks, in his book ‘Sixties Music’, wrote about groups inventing ‘names that bespoke a retreat into the private world of drug induced dreams and hallucinations, as well as a defiance of the prevailing laws’, and he used our name as an example. I had to write him and say, I’m sorry. We named ourselves after upholstery material. That’s all. No hidden meanings, no defiance. In the Velvet Illusions, if we defied, we died! – Michael was very cool about my writing to correct him. His book has received some great reviews. (See below.)
But that’s why the outfits look so good today, 47 years later. They were made to go on a couch or a sofa. — If we weren’t too fat, or deceased, we could probably slip into ‘em right now, start playing ‘Acid Head’, and nobody would know the difference. Well, except for some white hair and wrinkles.”
Why, since you were less than 200 miles from the huge, ultra-hip city of Seattle, Washington, did you never play there?
“Well, we traveled to Seattle to make six of those great sides ya’ll collect. But we were so booked-up and occupied in the Yakima/Eastern WA area, we just never thought of, or got around to, playing in Seattle. We were always looking toward the south. Way south. Hollywood.”
Next question. So just what did Patty Hearst have to do with your band?
“Nothing! I guess someone thought it would be a gas to dream up a scenario that had our fifteen year-old phenom, Steve Weed, hooking up with Patty Hearst. Total fabrication. It’s not fair to Steve. He wrote/played/sang so well that his accomplishments speak for themselves. He doesn’t need anyone gilding the lily, so to speak. No, if we were to align with an organization it would have been the Temperance League, not the Symbionese Liberation Army. Oh, and I’m sure Patty Hearst is sick of hearing about us.
BTW, we just released a retrospective LP, simply entitled ‘Velvet Illusions’, and even our current record company referred to the Patty Hearst B.S. in their promotional material. And they took it a step further: they said she was our manager! Yeah, Dude. This was our record company. I would have thought they would read some of the material I provided them.”
Even so, it must-a been great to have a guy in the band named Steve WEED, since you guys were such rad stoners.
“You’re all wet. Steve Weed is a very devout person, and I would bet my last Dunlop guitar pick that he has never been stoned. We boys didn’t even drink beer. Had Jimi asked us, ‘Are You Experienced?’, every one of us would have answered, ‘At what?’. A cursory listen to our lyrics exposes our complete ignorance regarding the subject of getting high. Take ‘Hippy Town’, for instance. Even ‘hippie’ is spelled incorrectly. But the song was about watching hippies, not being hippies.
Oh, by the way, the lyrics of ‘Hippy Town’ are, ‘Long, long hair, way-out suits. Painted faces, knee-high boots.’ But one website, lyrics.wickia, which posts song lyrics, lists them as: ‘Long long hair, without suits. Painted faces, Indian botts.’ — And then, they try to sell you a ringtone of the song. Gimme a break! And their stab at the lyrics of ‘Stereo Song’ is even worse. Don’t get me started…. They say if I don’t like the wrong lyrics, I have to try to fix them myself. It’s like if someone breaks something beautiful you made, and looks at you and says, if you don’t like it, fix it.”
I have read many times on internet websites (people on these websites seem to copy lines from other sites) that you journeyed to Hollywood, and you ‘released 3 singles in 1967 with little success’.
“Actually we released a total of five singles, in 1966 and ‘67. I’d say we were pretty successful. Very recently, one of our 45’s, ‘Mini Shimmy’/’Hippy Town’, sold on E-Bay for $1,800! A copy of ‘Velvet Illusions’/’Born To Be A Rolling Stone’ sold there for $413 in June of 2014. So success came late. Still, without a big machine behind us, we’ve managed to reach the status of ‘highly-collectible band’. Our music was great. It just took time for it to find the right ears. — Oh, by the way, none of us receives any of that $1,800 or $413. That’s OK. If I sold a Bubble Puppy 45 on E-Bay, I wouldn’t have to give that band any money. I’m not angry about that. That’s how it works. I’d say the bragging rights are pay enough. — While we were together and playing in Yakima, we were looked down upon because we weren’t snobby, rich kids in Paul Revere and the Raiders suits. But now our music is listened to by connoisseurs on every continent. We came from the middle of nowhere, but our music is everywhere.”
Yeah, but Mark Polzen wrote in ClassicRockMusicBlog.com that you ‘youngsters couldn’t hold it together long enough to wait for fame that didn’t arrive instantaneously.’ I’ve seen that copied and pasted into so many websites, where they then make your music available for free downloading!
“Argh! If we were so pathetic, why are they sharing our entire catalog, for free? Our average age was seventeen. We worked day jobs, we practiced, we packaged and mailed records day in and day out, and played when we could. We boys were the glue that was holding it together. We never expected instantaneous success. We only left Hollywood to get out from under management that was milking us dry, that had only antiquated ideas on how to promote us. One of our management team was crediting himself as producer on our singles, for songs we recorded before we met him. Our publicity agent was a senior citizen who wanted us to jump out of an ‘aeroplane’ wearing kilts. The least-hip idea was always the one that was thrust upon us, and we were not allowed to disagree. We were told that when our LP came out, it would feature little cartoons of us instead of a real photo. We had to wear suits and ties and meet (the admittedly charming) ‘Two Ton’ Tessie O’Shea at L.A. International Airport. She supposedly (and this was written about by the famous New York Post columnist, Earl Wilson) became our friend when ‘Steve Weed wrote to her asking for ukulele lessons’. Not! Made up. This was a long, long time before Eddie Vedder made the uke popular. We would not have gone near a uke then. We would have been mocked.”
So, you mentioned earlier that some of the band members have passed on.
“We lost our great, funny, always happy, double-neck Mosrite player Dewayne Russell in 1990, and we lost our incredible, nimble-fingered drummer, Danny Wagner, but I’m not sure of the date. They both could-a played jazz, country – you name it. In fact, one of our singles, which I was so happy to sing (credited to ‘Jimmie James’ on the label) was a country song. ‘Born To Be A Rolling Stone’ just happened to feature Steve Weed’s Vox Continental organ solo; otherwise, it was pure country. – And in December of 2014, our fabulous bassist, Dale Larrison, passed away. He was just excellent. Easy to live with — you know, we all lived together in a house on Hobart Avenue. Any similarity to the Grateful Dead is purely coincidental….
Get this! Since I’m talking about members who have gone on to the Big Sky Jam Session: I just learned that the boy who played lead guitar on the last four songs the band recorded, after I quit, was named Roland Bautista. And two years after all the boys from Yakima left Hollywood, Roland, who remained in California, joined Earth, Wind & Fire! Who would know that there’s a Velvet Illusions/Earth, Wind & Fire connection? Well, sad to say, Roland, whom I never met, passed away in 2012. Listen to “Lazy”, if you want to hear him playing all out.
Would you like to reunite the band?
“Sure, if the money is right. I’m sorry! I’ve always wanted to say that. There’s not many of us left. And, seriously, I don’t know where we’d play. Our fans live all over the globe. – Five here, ten there…. Perhaps we could just do a live webcast from someone’s basement! I know just the guy to produce a light show for us. (Hello Gray Newell!)”
When we broke up, we scattered to the four winds. At present though, several of us have located each other, and three of us even speak! — We’re in our 60’s now. That’s why it’s so cool to have people all over the world digging our music. It’s so comforting in our old age (laughs). People in the senior citizens’ home where I live have no idea who the hell I am; but I can sit in a coffee shop with a young person, strike up a conversation, and they tell me that The Velvet Illusions are on their I-Pod! What more could I want?”
We’re getting near the end here, Randy. But I must ask: Were you really in a band with Alice In Chains’ founder/drummer, Sean Kinney? ‘Cause that would be quite a career span: ‘Garage to Grunge’.
“Great title for a future article! Look, I’m not gonna deny it. — Tell ya later. We have all the time in the world.”
Then that wraps it up. Any final thoughts you’d like to share, especially with the young folks?
“Yeah. Define success in your own terms. Some people do become an ‘instantaneous’ success. For most, it takes a while. Don’t give in, don’t give up. Do it your way, do it yourself. That’s the rock ‘n roll way. Put your all into it. And, ask yourself: will this hold up, or will it embarrass me in 20 years? I can honestly say, we Velvet Illusions put everything we had into making our records nearly 50 years ago, and I am as far from being embarrassed as a guy could be. Finally, let me thank everyone who cares about our music. You make my day every time I hear from you.”
Video: Randy “Jimmie James” Bowles, May, 2014, singing his original composition, “Elder Hippie” at Black Coffee Coop, Seattle, Washington: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fWlQnxFb9Rw
Contact Randy Bowles on Facebook @ “Velvet Illusions Fans”