By Gene Triplett
January 25, 2008
Dickie Peterson is still fussing and hollering about his "Summertime
Blues" more than 40 years after the sun went down on the Summer of Love.
He remembers a period in his career when he was loathe to sing that
Eddie Cochran classic one more time, that 1958 hit that he and Blue
Cheer bandmates Leigh Stephens and Paul Whaley resurrected in 1968
with a feedback-and-thunder cover that's now considered a classic in
its own right. But he's made his peace with the song that's been his
calling card, like it or not, ever since it peaked at No. 14 on the
Billboard charts four decades ago.
"I can't walk into a place or even go to a jam session and not sing
this song," the bassist and vocalist said in a phone interview from
his Sebastopol, Calif., home. "If somebody knows I'm from Blue Cheer,
I've gotta do that song. The thing is, for a number of years I hated
this, that I couldn't go anywhere without playing this song. As I
grew older, I grew to realize how much I owed Eddie Cochran, how much
I owe that song. That is a great song. And I feel privileged and
honored every time I get to sing it."
It was the band's only hit single, considered by many to be a
prototype of heavy metal, along with the album that bore it,
"Vincebus Eruptum." It's even been said that The Who adopted the
Cochran song as a concert staple after hearing Blue Cheer's version,
which gives Peterson a laugh.
"I don't think their version touches ours," Peterson said, his voice
roughened from years of belting lyrics over a morass of grinding
guitar. "Yes, they technically do these things that are more precise
than we are. What I could compare it to is a Honda and a Harley.
They're the Honda. We're low-end. We're American-made iron, not heavy
metal. Heavy metal is high-end. We're low-end, man, we're low gear.
We don't run at you with speed, we just slowly overwhelm you."
The San Francisco power trio's career got its start when Peterson met
a Hell's Angel member named "Clean Gut" Turk while tripping on LSD in
Golden Gate Park. Peterson had been a motorcycle enthusiast and an
admirer of the outlaw biker club since he was kid; "Gut" was a music
lover. The two struck up a friendship.
"He himself was a really fantastic artist and a really good thinker,"
Peterson said. "He developed into a mentor for me, and he taught me
things about life and survival that I use to this day."
Turk also became Blue Cheer's manager for a time, and the trio, in
turn, was adopted as something of a Hell's Angels house band.
"The Angels were sort of like the hippie equivalent of the securities
and, you know, Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary and all this stuff was
happening," Peterson said.
The counter-culture acid-rock movement was booming as well, led by
such luminaries as the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, but the
ultra-loud, acid-damaged music churned out by Peterson, guitarist
Stephenson and drummer Whaley commanded little respect among Bay Area
"We were like 19 years old," Peterson said. "We could barely play,
which made us a lot of enemies around the San Francisco music scene,
because these older guys were supposed to make it, not us."
And make it Blue Cheer did, at least through 1971, before constant
personnel changes and lack of a follow-up hit single caused the
Phillips record label to drop the band from its roster, retaining the
publishing rights to all of Peterson's original songs.
"I can say unequivocally, the stone fact is, bikers never ripped us
off, and we've played for bikers for the last 40 years," he said.
"Never, ever, not one time did they ever rip us off. But the guys in
the suits, they got us."
Peterson, at that point the only remaining original member, decided
to pull the plug on one of the most influential bands of the acid rock era.
But Peterson has never stopped working as a musician. He re-formed
Blue Cheer in 1979, and various personnel lineups have been playing
and recording off and on ever since. Peterson, Whaley and guitarist
Andrew "Duck" MacDonald have just released an album of new material
called "What Doesn't Kill You ..." and are on a tour that will bring
them to Oklahoma City on Saturday.
"It's the only thing that keeps me alive, my friend," said Peterson,
61. "I'll never stop playing. I've said it before. When I go, I want
to be standing in front of my microphone with my hammer in my hand."