If you’re searching for a director with street cred to make a rock-and-roll film about the 1960s garage rock scene, it would be harder to beat Neil Norman’s qualifications. “I used to walk down Sunset Strip with Lenny Bruce when I was a little kid,” said Norman, who recently finished a film about the California proto-psych band The Seeds. I phoned Norman in his “very pastoral” Moorpark home last week to talk about the screening of the film this weekend in Carpinteria. How did Neil rate such a walk on the wild side? “Because of my dad — you know my father had basically five careers,” he explained about his famous papa Gene Norman (93 and still active, thank you very much). Gene’s list of accomplishments spans actor, disc jockey, record producer, label chief of GNP Crescendo Records, and owner of two of the hippest nightclubs in pre-longhaired Hollywood, the Crescendo and the Interlude, where, among other pleasures, son Neil got to see Jimi Hendrix playing as a sideman for Joey “Peppermint Twist” Dee. “I knew even then he was going to be a star,” said Neil. And most of that happened before he got a driver’s license.
Growing up between Hollywood and Malibu — Neil still surfs and was even out at the Rincon a few months back — he got an eyeful and an earful while his dad was building his Hollywood empire. Besides Bruce, who played Gene’s club, young Norman got to see the musical world shift on its axis from Sinatra to the British Invasion, through the surf guitars of Dick Dale and into the apex of Sunset Strip life. “I saw John Mayall and Led Zeppelin at the Whiskey a Go Go,” he said. Eventually he moved around the corner from Frank and Gail Zappa. In the meantime, his father signed The Seeds.
For those doomed not to remember the ’60s, Sky Saxon’s band was weird in a weird but democratic rock genre. Garage rock bands such as the Standells, the Kingsmen, and the Castaways were born in the mid-1960s as an answer to rock’s Pat Boone and Bobby Darin era, arriving just before the Beatles. They often get paradoxically blamed for birthing both psychedelic rock and punk, but The Seeds were clearly the gateway drug to either musical high. Signed by Norman’s dad after being rejected by all the majors, The Seeds’ “Pushin’ Too Hard” caught on, and before he knew it, Neil was in the hurricane’s eye of stardom right alongside the band. “They were huge, and I was sort of their mascot,” said Neil, who remembers a show where the Doors opened for Saxon. “One time I went with them to an Oxnard show that [promoter] Jim Salzer did, and it was full-on Beatlemania. Women were screaming so loud — they were all over him.”
Fame and LSD took its toll on the boys who wrote a long song (“Up in Her Room”) so cool that people like Iggy Pop and Beach Boy Bruce Johnston both fixated on it. Both feature prominently in Neil’s doc.
Shown in the ongoing series of Boomer-enriched films at Carp’s lovely Plaza Playhouse Theater, the film is big on talking heads and chronicles the band’s trip up and back. Neil, who is articulate and Santa Barbara friendly — he once owned a home on Hollister Ranch — will be on the premises to answer questions, which will certainly be a contact high for those who remember “Mr. Farmer,” an enigmatic anthem for strange old days. “I was there,” said Norman. “And I just had to tell the story of what real rock and roll was like.”
Neil Norman’s documentary The Seeds: Pushin’ Too Hard will screen at the Plaza Playhouse Theater (4916 Carpinteria Ave., Carpinteria) on Saturday, March 7, at 7 p.m. For tickets and info, call (805) 684-6380 or visit plazatheatercarpinteria.com.