John Adamian – “The Psychedelic Sounds and the Quiet Disappearance of NGC-4594” (2010)

October 8, 2010 at 11:25 pm (Music, Reviews & Articles)

A recent (Oct. 4th) article in The Hartford Advocate on this very obscure psych band from CT…


UConn’s ’60s Band That Almost Made It

If you went to UConn in the late ‘60s, or if you spent much time hanging out in the emerging hippie scene in Storrs — as the folkies and the beatniks started tuning in to the new consciousness, maybe smoking dope and even dropping acid while it was still legal, becoming full-fledged counter-culture freaks — you might have gathered at The Campus Restaurant to talk politics or debate art with the English majors, and, if you did, you might have heard someone put a single called “Going Home” by NGC-4594 on the impressive jukebox there.

NGC-4594 was, in fact, a band name, not the catalog number, nor an industrial lubricant or a chemical compound, and the band was briefly maybe Connecticut’s big psychedelic hope. NGC-4594 was named in classic hippie fashion when one of the band’s leaders found a remote galaxy while flipping through an astronomy book. They moved to New York, inking a record deal, and sharing bills with some of the era’s biggest acts. But something happened. A tour collapsed, equipment got stolen, relationships strained, other options presented themselves. And the band, with a name that one of its former members describes as “eminently forgettable,” was largely forgotten.

But not completely. Earlier this year a British label re-issued the band’s only recorded single — the one you would have heard on the jukebox at The Campus Restaurant sandwiched between tracks by the likes of Nina Simone and Jimmy Giuffre (“It was a very hip jukebox,” says keyboardist Steve Starger) along with a bunch of tracks that NGC-4594 had demoed.

The group’s core members David Bliss, Chas Mirsky, Danny Shanok and Starger first ran into each other at informal jam sessions at campus hootenannies in 1964. They started making music together casually. Meanwhile, Starger was drafted, riding out the war teaching English to Puerto Rican recruits at Fort Buchanan in San Juan. The music culture was changing fast, with releases like the Beatles’ Revolver and Freak Out! by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention signaling seismic shifts in pop, the tremors of which took time to reach Starger in Puerto Rico. “Every time I came home on leave, the scene was getting a little freakier,” he says.

The band took shape in early 1967, after Starger returned from his two-year stint in the service. Starger, who went on to write for this paper and for the Hartford Courant, returned to the area and found his buddies pretty deep into the counterculture. Bliss, who Starger calls “the guru of the group,” had shaved his head and was wearing day-glo beads. And they picked back up, jamming. Stoned, of course, says Starger.

“Bliss was writing these lyrics that were kind of Leary-esque — acid, Tibetan Book of the Dead, ego death, clear light, all those references,” says Starger. “It was starting to happen. Life Magazine ran a cover story on acid when it was still legal. I had a little bit of knowledge about it, but these guys had been tripping already. They were further down the road than I was. So we would just toke up and play.”

You can kinda tell. Not that the band was sloppy; if anything they sound like a jazzier East Coast version of the Doors, with lots of keyboards, Farfisa, crazed harmonica and wigged-out flute playing all piling on to make a woozy and airy sound. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to hear connections to Sun Ra, the Velvet Undergound and Country Joe and the Fish. In fact, NGC-4594 got to open for the Doors. That was a little later; by that point they’d relocated to New York City and plugged into the whole blossoming hippie scene in the Lower East Side’s portion of the Summer of Love.

One song, “Sea Ballad,” with its strange staggered round-style vocals, sounds like some kind of trippy attempt at vocalizing a drastic delay pattern, replicating a delirious echo. And the lyrics (“There is no you or me”) point to a kind of mystic obliteration of the self. Another tune, “So Bright,” works through some transcendent cosmic images about “shimmering eternal light” and fading “right out of sight,” revealing that “life on this earth is a dream.” Now it all sounds like a kind of shorthand for the strange — some might say haunting, others might find it comforting — sense of the ultimate insignificance of humankind in the context of the intergalactic swirl, and similar insights brought on by ingesting psychedelic drugs. It’s the kind of interstellar stuff that makes sense coming from a band named after a distant galaxy.

“[W]e were singing almost exclusively about drug experiences,” says Bliss in the liner notes to the recent re-issue.

Before settling in the city, the group holed up in Stamford at the family home of one of the musicians. Writing music, practicing and taking acid, basically. From there they headed to New York. After recording demos of 14 songs for Mercury in New York and releasing their single on the label’s Smash imprint, NGC-4594 was ready for big things to happen. (All of those initial recordings — the demos and the single — have recently been re-issued under the title Skipping Through the Night on a British import.) The group members thought a full-length record might be in the works. They’d had an offer to head out west and hang in San Francisco with the Grateful Dead. There was talk touring with Leary’s traveling acid show, complete with psychedelic lights and all kinds of consciousness-expanding possibilities. But somehow it all fell through. Mercury lost interest in the group. The hangers-on of the hippie scene on St. Mark’s Place weren’t as altruistic as one might hope. The band’s equipment got stolen. Internal squabbling and substance abuse made it difficult to proceed. So, in the fall of 1967, the members of NGC-4594 retreated to Storrs and planned on regrouping. But it didn’t happen.

Like a signal from a far-off galaxy, when the stars have long burnt out and died but the light keeps shooting across space — the music of NGC-4594 continued to twinkle and shine to some, even after the band had imploded. That single on The Campus Restaurant jukebox was heard by countless hippies and freaks who congregated there. One of them was a young man named Tim Page, who grew up in Storrs and would go on to become a Pulitzer Prize winning music critic for the Washington Post. Page’s memoir, Parallel Play, just came out in paperback, and in it he writes a lot about his time at The Campus Restaurant, which he describes as the “epicenter of Storrs hip.” It was the place where visiting dignitaries of the counterculture — like Leonard Cohen or Jean Genet (can you believe it?) — would stop by when they were in town. “All in all, it was the strangest establishment I ever knew,” writes Page, “and the one to which I would most like to return, with the stipulation that I could flee the moment I wanted to.” Recently I spoke with Page, who now teaches journalism at the University of Southern California, and who contributed an essay to the re-issue of NGC-4594, whose sound he describes as having a “pulsing strangeness.” Page remembers the super-cool jukebox at The Campus Restaurant, which he calls a “den of iniquity.” Paage says the single for “Going Home” was “getting worn down and worn down.” The song remained on the jukebox until the place closed in 1977. Page was a teenager — a budding acid freak — when he started going to listen to music and talk literature and smoke cigarettes at The Campus. “It was a very stoned time,” he says of the era. “I fashioned myself an LSD connoisseur,” he writes in the book.

In the early ‘70s Page says he ran into Chas Mirsky from the band back in Storrs. Page was sort of star-struck. (Mirsky died in Middletown in 1997 at the age of 54. The rest of the band are now mostly retired, with some members in California and Georgia. Bliss lives in England. Starger recently retired from Manchester Community College and moved from Portland, Conn. to Rhode Island.) “I was terribly impressed because he was the first musician I’d known who’d actually made a record,” says Page. “I was kind of worshipful.”

In his essay about the band, Page writes, “What fascinates me most, though, all these years later, is the number of legendary groups that NGC-4594 couldn’t possibly yet have heard but seem to have been in some kind of cosmic aural alliance with the Storrs band — most notably the early Soft Machine (down to the William Burroughs references) and Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd.”

It’s safe to say that, since so few people actually heard their single, NGC-4594 didn’t really influence the music scene that emerged after the band’s dissolution, but in their way the band members continued to shape the counterculture in Connecticut.

Some of the members of NGC-4594 were instrumental in forming something called The Tribe, a commune that lived on Coventry Lake. That went on for a while, but Starger says he decided he needed to change his life.

“So I cut my hair and applied to the Hartford Courant.”

Starger covered the anti-war movement for the Courant. He also did some music writing. But he didn’t give up playing altogether. He played in a band called Sunship in the early ‘70s. Starger says they sounded a little like Earth Wind and Fire. Their big moment was opening for Steely Dan in Waterbury. Sunship released a record. It’s out of print. But perhaps some intrepid British fans of obscure American music will stumble upon the vinyl in a bin somewhere and decide to re-issue the stuff.

“Maybe that will be next,” says Starger.

John Adamian


1 Comment

  1. Gray Newell said,

    The NGC 4594 CD “Skipping Through the Night” released on the Tune In label is available direct from or from discerning music stores.

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