The music of Acetone seems to exist outside conventional methods of timekeeping. Off to the side. Suspended and slightly warped.
Likewise, the story told about the band in Sam Sweet’s non-fiction novel, Hadley Lee Lightcap and in the grooves 1992-2001, the book’s accompanying audio companion, eschews a strictly chronological approach. The book drifts, warm and hazily, through the lives of the Los Angeles trio, bassist and vocalist Richie Lee, guitarist and vocalist Mark Lightcap, and drummer Steve Hadley, matching the anthology’s tracklist of songs pulled from the group’s LPs and unreleased home demos. With care and no small dose of gallows humor, Sweet presents an intimate but nonetheless cinematic view of three guys, the singular thing they created, and the place where they lived.
Though Acetone were label-mates with the Verve at Virgin subsidiary Vernon Yard, recorded for Neil Young’s Vapor Records, and attracted high-profile fans like J. Spaceman and Hope Sandoval, nothing about 1992-2001 indicates a band bound for the spotlight. The trio’s music, a heady mix of surf, country, exotica, hillbilly spirituals, and slow-motion indie rock, pulled from thrift store LPs and adhered to its own logic. Hadley, Lightcap, and Lee listened to music deeply, searching for elements beneath the surface. The band uncovered psychedelic qualities in unlikely places, turning up lysergic textures in mood music, Tiki kitsch, and Charlie Rich record. Coupled with the foundational influences of the Velvet Underground, Brian Eno, Steve Reich, and Al Green, this strange blend takes time to reveal itself. Acetone’s music requires patience. Lee’s voice seems to float out of the speakers, his bass locked into meandering grooves with Hadley’s meditative drums and Lightcap’s tremolo and reverb-drenched guitar. Like its contemporaries, Low, Souled American, and Mercury Rev, Acetone created music that deconstructed and protracted rock & roll templates.
Sweet first heard the band in his friend Pete Relic’s car, driving on a Los Angeles freeway to Zuma Beach during the golden hour. As the proprietor of the small press All Night Menu, he’s long been attracted to specific stories about forgotten West Coast characters and locales. Sweet says the longer he’s been in and written about Los Angeles, the more he’s been convinced of its inherent mysteries. In the city, “the hidden is essential and the essential is hidden.” The Acetone disc in Relic’s car seemed connected to that same mystique. Slowly, over the course of ten years, Sweet began to untangle the band’s story, shadowed with tragedy following the 2001 suicide of Lee, following its threads through the lives of each band member and the few people who heard and connected, to their music.
“They weren’t popular, they didn’t have hit songs, they didn’t have songs that were ‘love at first sight,’ but they had that particular feeling which is really meaningful to me and very specific to L.A.,” Sweet says over the phone. “I always felt that in their sound.”
Like a conventional rock biography, Sweet traces Lightcap, Hadley, and Lee back to their sources, to their days surfing and discovering punk and the the Dead in school. But the connections to a standard rock book end there; it’s less a history of the band and more a recounting of the particular relationship the three men shared, and how it manifested itself through music.
“There were certainly earlier drafts of the book where I would go through the albums one by one and the whole book was more or less chronological [but] that never worked for me for this band; it didn’t get me to where I was trying to go,” Sweet says. “I always tried to put as much focus on what was happening with the characters in the place that they lived and their relationships as I did on just tracking the music. I wanted the music to be felt rather than described.”
Like the band that inspired it, it’s a soulful read, full of deep shadows and sadness, but never without warmth. While it illuminates the motives and documents a particularly fraught journey through the back channels of the music business, it doesn’t erase the mystery of the band. Walking the line, Sweet doesn’t explain away the magic that makes the songs work in their particular way. Instead, he embraces it, leaving open spaces and room for impressionistic views where ever possible. (At one point, describing the trio’s If You Only Knew, he writes, “It seems the more they revealed, the less people wanted to hear.”)
“I think even the people who knew they were difficult in a way would sometimes say they were ‘soulful,’ which to me never meant that they played R&B music, but that the most important part of the music was 10 meters below the surface,” Sweet says.
That sense of the undiscovered extends to 1992-2001, the soundtrack to the book. While it features highlights from the band’s discography (but omits some of the aggressive rock tendencies of the group’s early material, as well as “Sundown,” the band’s overt homage to Isaac Hayes’ “Walk On By”), the compilation mostly centers on unreleased recordings found on tapes stored for years in Hadley’s shed. Homespun and restrained, these recordings offer the most intimate look at the band: hushed, languid, searching. “Wrapped up tight/Cocooned,” Lee sings on “Too Much Time,” one of the most haunting of the bedroom recordings. “Sun still won’t shine/But I’m feeling fine.”
Yet it’s the quality of the sun, the way its light shines on the West Coast, which Sweet associates most with the music of Acetone.
“I think the light is one of those things in L.A. that epitomizes this quality of sadness and warmth enhancing each other,” Sweet says. “The light is at its peak here. There’s…this quality of the light being at its best when it’s fading or when it’s dying. It’s a complex thing to describe but somehow the beauty and warmth of the light enhances this subliminal feeling of loss, but also enhances the sweetness of the light.” When the light works its magic on a particular corner, the back wall of a drug store, or an intersection, it imbues the ordinary with an exquisite quality.
“It doesn’t seem abstract; it’s transformative,” Sweet says. “Suddenly, you’re in awe of objects that you would otherwise completely ignore.” words/j woodbury