DESPITE BEING a huge influence on the grunge and alternative rock of the 1990s, Napalm Beach never had the name recognition of other Portland bands like Poison Idea or the Wipers. Frontman Chris Newman's battle with heroin addiction never helped matters. "People don't want to deal with an addict," says Newman, getting ready to celebrate his 60th birthday and play his final Napalm Beach gig on July 11 at Star Theater. "They're always lying and covering things up."
Why now? "I love playing to people and putting out records," he says, "But just 10 percent of it is good and the rest is shit." After Napalm Beach's farewell show this week, Newman will concentrate on his new band, Boo Frog, a band more steeped in psychedelia, blues, and rockabilly, with his girlfriend Erika Meyer. "When I saw [late Cramps frontman] Lux Interior, I wanted to throw everything out. I got rid of my Marshall and got a Fender Twin Reverb."
Napalm Beach began in 1980 in Longview, Washington, where Newman was born. They were first called the Goners, but quickly changed their name to the Untouchables before settling on Napalm Beach. Playing their first gig at the Long Goodbye in Portland, they soon decided that the grass was greener in the City of Roses and relocated.
"It was a whole new thing," says Newman, adding with a laugh, "we thought we were going to take the world by storm." As naïve as this might sound today, try remembering punk's first wave was a different time and place; the Ramones, Elvis Costello, and Talking Heads were cutting record deals and getting buzz. X, the Germs, and Fear thought they were weeks away from similar fame. Major labels hadn't yet realized that "punk" proper had no curb appeal and repackaged the softer version, dubbed "new wave." "People used to tell us, 'Come to LA, come to New York—you can make it too.'"
The band always had problems, even before drugs. "When you're poor and hungry you have huge fights over little things," says Newman. "We used to fight all the time over food." More than just bread-and-butter issues, fame and notoriety caused tension within the band. Members would get mad at each other for spending too much time backstage, schmoozing with the leading lights of LA's nascent punk scene.
And like countless others in the punk and rock worlds, Newman is no stranger to the mythology of smack. "All my guitar heroes used it. Thunders. Keith. Hendrix. It sounds stupid, but it seemed like the ultimate bad-ass drug to do." However, his troubles started out smaller and simpler. More than just his artistic life, Newman's drug addiction sent his personal life into turmoil. He spent a bit of time living on the streets in San Francisco, ducking problems with the law. Still, when all is said and done, Newman says he has no regrets.
"I started out drinking and smoking pot to get over stage fright," he says, but he admits to a love of partying for its own sake. "I was born in the era of the acid, freeing your mind, all that shit. I wanted to try everything." Starting as a casual user, he tried junk once before leaving it alone for three years. His addiction began with dabbling. Newman warns, "Heroin addiction creeps up on you so slow. I didn't even realize I was an addict."
When the '90s and grunge hit, the Wipers—whose founding drummer, Sam Henry, is another long-term member of Napalm Beach—got a lot of attention due to Kurt Cobain's obsession with the band. Napalm Beach did reap some of the benefits of this revived interest in '80s punk rock, sharing the stage with Seattle young bloods Mudhoney, Soundgarden, and Screaming Trees. None of it translated into mainstream success, though they did cover "Potential Suicide" for the Kurt & Courtney soundtrack.
Newman finds a bit of kinship with Wipers frontman Greg Sage, who famously disappeared from sight. "I can relate to it, but I love playing for people and recording," he says, adding somberly, "I don't know how he can live without it." Now with the baggage of his past demons and music behind him, Newman can concentrate on his true love: making music for its own sake.