Two brothers and their rock’n’roll dream: the Screaming Trees based on Gary Lee Conner

My name is Gary Lee Conner. I was born in the desert. 1962 at Fort Irwin, California. Four years later, seeing a star, I expressed a desire to have a little brother, and Van arrived in 1967. That was the beginning of what would become the Screaming Trees. We were two brothers with their little provincial friends from Ellensburg, Washington, and for the decades that followed we would live our rock ‘n’ roll dream. And that way, to our own astonishment, we would have played our small part in the history of rock music.

It all started with a box of 45 rpm records. Our mother, Cathy, graduated from high school in 1957. She was the culmination of two musical generations, before and after rock ‘n’ roll. Luckily it headed towards Elvis, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and so on. That was in the box, fifties rock ‘n’ roll. As kids, Van and I “ate” the stuff and probably did a good job consuming those records. When we were very young, well before the seventies started, the music we were exposed to was exactly that. The only musical memories I have of the ’60s are the cheap Beatles cartoon on Saturday morning and then hearing on the evening news from Walter Cronkite a few years later that they had split up.

As we got a little older, we also became more aware of the existence of other music. One of the first rock albums we really got into was Cosmo’s factory by Creedence Clearwater Revival. We found out after it was dropped off at our house by a friend of our parents’ after a party. Rock music was ubiquitous in the early 70’s and we were about to dive really deep into that sea.

Every Saturday the most exciting thing I could do in Ellensburg was go with my mother to the “sales” in the gardens of private houses. In the early 1970s, the hippie generation was approaching its thirties, and that apparently meant they had to ditch their teenage habits, including listening to vinyl records. Back then, second-hand sales were a bonanza for cheap 1960s vinyl. We have restored all of the original Beatles and Rolling Stones records to their American prints and more. Another great place to listen to music was the public library where I discovered Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band (Replica of a trout mask), that white album the Beatles e Your satanic majesties ask by the Rolling Stones (complete with 3D cover!). Later, when we started buying records, we were lucky enough to have a big record store in town called Ace Records, where the shelves were stocked with all sorts of dark gems that we would soon loot.

However, the most significant and influential album found in these searches in the backyards of hippie homes was Out with the jams of the MC5. I didn’t listen to it straight away but after reading about the band in the Rock Encyclopedia by Lillian Roxon (1970 edition), I immediately shot it on the record. By this point in my life (I was about fifteen or sixteen) I had become a total art rock fan, I was kind of a snob and mostly listened to Yes, King Crimson and Emerson, Lake & Palmer but with raw power. and there was something about MC5’s artistic expression that shook us inside. It foreshadowed my future immersion in punk, new wave and other genres in the early 1980s.

Around the same time, Van and I had started visiting the local pawn shop BJ’s and buying cheap guitars. I had taken lessons to play it for a few months in fifth grade, but I had given up; i always had the acoustic guitar at home and played with it from time to time, and little by little i learned to play on my own. One of our favorite things to do before we actually learned to play was to dress up in colorful and wacky clothes, wear American flags as capes, and sing and strum our guitars while we listened. Out with the jams. We had found our true love: we wanted to be part of a band.

The night I graduated high school in 1980, I made a decision. What I wanted to do with my life was play in a real band, the kind that makes albums. Van and I had no idea how to do that, and living in a small rural college town like Ellensburg in eastern Washington definitely wasn’t going to help. In the early 1980’s I also attempted to get a music degree from Central Washington University in Ellensburg. However, my main study instrument was the trumpet, but I didn’t particularly enjoy playing it. My true love in life was just the electric guitar, but my school music education had nothing to do with the guitar. My studies did not help me to see what my aspiration was. So after a few years I dropped out of college. Back then, Van and I (who was in high school at the time) formed a band with some of his friends.

During this time we were constantly discovering new music. We had learned to love every facet of rock music, from punk to new wave, from psychedelia to heavy metal. Whatever sounded like rock was worth listening to for us. Around 1985 I decided to buy a four track Fostex X15 cassette deck. For us it was a revelation. I loved writing poetry when I was in my twenties, but I was never able to turn my writings into songs. The songs were the key to everything. We realized that we could be a proper band and play our own material. With the help of Mark Lanegan and Mark Pickerel, the Screaming Trees were born. We went to the local studio and recorded a demo (other worlds) with producer Steve Fisk. And within a short time, studio owner Sam Albright helped us release our first album, clairvoyance, on his Velvetone label. It was a black record and our music was on it! As far as we were concerned, we had made it. We were a real band. A dream come true. Or not?

We continued our musical journey and, by luck or fate, we were able to broaden our ambitions by signing with SST (and that was already a dream come true!), touring the United States and Europe, and later a Major signed deal with Epic Records. Then things took a strange turn.

In 1991, the indie music scene changed suddenly when Nirvana and all that “grunge” music exploded in public interest. What was underground in the 1980s was now at the forefront of early 1990s pop music. Suddenly the bands we loved so much like MC5 or the Stooges were the biggest bands in the world. We were in a position where we would get a little taste of this great moment.

The 90’s saw ups, downs and ups and downs for the band, but we kept our commitment to writing good songs and trying to make great albums. There were many personal and professional challenges, including drugs, alcohol and the general madness of the music industry, but it was all still part of the dream.

In the spring of 1993, the Screaming Trees headlined at Seattle’s Paramount Theater. The show was sold out and we played right on the stage where we had seen so many of our favorite bands perform over the years. It was definitely the high point of our career. During the encores, Mark Lanegan went out and sang a few songs and then left the stage as he often did. We usually stayed for a while to play another song that either Van or I sang on. This time, however, it clicked in our heads. Suddenly we found ourselves in our bedroom miming the MC5s, but now we were playing come together really, in front of thousands of our fans. A dream becomes true! Already…

It turned out to be a very surreal dream. Me, Van and the other Screaming Trees did what our musical heroes did. We’ve gone places and done things that we could never have imagined doing in our bedroom in the seventies. And after all these years it seems even more so; appears to have been seriously involved in the true history of rock music. Van and I lived our dream. And I can say, even if I’m a bit ashamed, it fills me with pride when I realize that for some people we have become musical heroes ourselves.

Foreword from the book Subtle Poison. The Story of the Screaming Trees by Davide Pansolin, Tsunami Edizioni.

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