from the archives of The Oregonian
February 3, 2002
by Marty Hughley
RETURNING TO NAPALM BEACH
For one night the rock band, scuttled by drug addiction, brings back the glory days
The old-home-night thing was going strong. The nightclub in Old Town was relatively full, especially for a night when Portlanders had been scared by a slight snowfall, and the room was filled with clutches of long-lost pals, and/or familiar faces whose names had slipped further away than their hairlines. The overheard banter (“Dude! You remember that time I kicked you down your own front steps?!”) carried echoes of wildness and youth.
Then, about 15 minutes after midnight, a few guys stepped out of the crowd, took the stage, and quickly the old days really seemed to be back again.
The music came out full, thick, heavy — guitar riffs moving with grace and menace, drums crashing and splashing in unpredictably fluid patterns, the voice a classic growl of desire. For the first time in years, Napalm Beach was back.
But this was late January of 2002 at Ash St., and plenty was different from the fondly remembered times. What once had looked like a promise now seemed a cautionary tale.
Back in the day — which in this case means the mid-1980s — Napalm Beach was a titan. Before the rise to world domination of the Seattle scene, before “grunge” was something other than a synonym for “gunk,” the Northwest had a thriving rock underground. And Portland took no back seat to its northern neighbor. Seattle rock bands, so the perception around here went, were gimmicky. Portland had the real deal, no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners bands such as Napalm Beach, the Wipers, Poison Idea.
Led by singer-guitarist Chris Newman, Napalm was a revered institution, playing regularly to packed houses at Satyricon. The band welded the ferocious attitude of punk to the accessible song forms and exacting musicianship of classic rock. Drummer Sam Henry’s whirlwind expressiveness and Newman’s glowering riffage and heated solos were admired by musicians of all genres. “Newman’s an awesome rock guitar player,” says Jeff Hudis, who observed the Northwest scene up close in the ’80s as a member of the Razorbacks. “He was part of the punk thing, but he rocks in the tradition of Jimmy Page or Hendrix.”
A 1995 poll in the now-defunct music paper the Rocket listed Napalm’s 1989 “Liquid Love” at No. 168 among the Top 200 Northwest Records of All Time. But that was a heavily Seattle-centric list, and you could easily argue that not only was that ranking way too low, but that such other albums as the hard-hitting “Fire, Air and Water” and the surreal “Curiosities” (with songs inspired by the Katherine Dunn novel “Geek Love”) should have made the cut as well. Then there was Newman’s early-’90s side project Snow Bud and the Flower People, named by High Times magazine as one of the five best bands of all time.
In other words, Newman could have been a contender.
But just about the time that the alternative-rock gravy train began to chug out of the Northwest, following Nirvana to mainstream success, Newman’s fortunes began a turn for the worse.
A long-standing predilection for altered states (that High Times endorsement didn’t just drop out of the sky, after all) became a debilitating heroin addiction. Even though Henry, his bandmate, had a longtime addiction (Henry says he’s been clean now for more than two years), Newman thought he could dabble with the drug and not get hooked.
“I thought I was cool,” he said the day after the reunion show, sitting at the home of his longtime producer, Jan Celt. “That was stupid. It sneaks up on you. It took, like, seven years to really get me. It wasn’t until ’91 that I was doing it every day.”
He sounds embarrassed, remorseful, when he recalls stealing from friends to support his habit. A good-natured, likable guy, he began to find himself unwelcome even where he’d been a hero. “That really broke my heart, when Satyricon eighty-sixed me,” he said.
While younger bands with lesser players and writers, bands that started out opening for Napalm Beach, landed major-label deals, Napalm Beach never quite caught on, despite several tours of Europe. Eventually the band quit working and, according to friends, Newman was reduced to living in a cardboard box in Forest Park. For the past few years he and his wife have lived in San Francisco, with only a tent or the occasional hotel room to call home.
Announcing the Jan. 26 reunion gig, Celt wrote in an e-mail that Newman had “lost a lot of weight and a few teeth, but otherwise the man is unbreakable.”
Newman never cut a glamorous figure, even by punk-rock standards, and weight loss might not be all bad for him. On the stage at Ash St., in jeans, a couple of plaid shirts and a zipper hoody, he looks all his 48 years, despite the shock of blue hair hanging over the right side of his face.
Having long since sold his guitars and equipment, he plays a borrowed Gibson SG. “That boy is a monster,” he sings in the first song. “He plays monster guitar.” And though he hasn’t played in ages, it’s still true. Many of the songs deal with the hardscrabble realities of junkie life, and though they’re not all about him, they all hang heavy in the air. “Heroin just took another friend,” he snarls in a tune called “Plague.” Of another friend who avoids that fate, he marvels “you’re a cat with nine lives.”
How many lives Newman himself may still have to spare, or whether he is, as Celt asserts repeatedly, “unbreakable,” is hard to say. He admits that he’s still using, still homeless, but he’s also still hopeful. For one thing, the reunion show reminded him of music’s power and of a community where he once belonged.
“It was like going to church and getting saved,” he said of playing in front of his fans again. “There was so much love in the room.”
He said he wants to move back to Portland, though that requires resolving some legal issues he’d rather leave off the record, and get into a rehab program.
“Then it’s time to put my nose to the grindstone and really get to work on music and art. ‘Cause I’m really tired of just being down there using up air.”
He once was used to moving air and turning it into magic, to being a performer, a musician. “I’m going to do it again,” he said. “I don’t know how I lived without it. It’s better than sex and drugs, it really is. Music is wonderful.”