David Roback, who passed away yesterday at the age of 61, was a founding member of three deeply influential ‘80s-era bands: the Rain Parade, Opal and Mazzy Star. That the same guitarist-songwriter-producer would play a founding role in three such different but equally far-reaching groups is in itself remarkable, but Roback’s shunning of the spotlight — his attitude, as expressed in rare interviews, was essentially that music is meant for listening to, not looking at — has guaranteed that his influence has been as subtle as it’s been profound, even though Mazzy Star had a major early ‘90s hit with “Fade Into You.” Here, Pat Thomas, a longtime fan and current manager of Roback’s former bandmate Kendra Smith, takes a look at his life and musical legacy.
When the Los Angeles band Rain Parade released their debut album “Emergency Third Power Trip” in 1983, it was an anomaly from both the new wave-flavored pop on MTV (Cyndi Lauper, The Police, Culture Club,) as well as the more aggro sounds of Circle Jerks, Suicidal Tendencies and Social Distortion that were germinating in underground clubs.
The Rain Parade were among the first bands of the ‘80s to deliver Big Star-influenced melodic songwriting with a nod to the ‘60s psychedelic flourishes of the Byrds and Beatles. They were joined in this mission by other L.A. bands later grouped with them as the “Paisley Underground” — the Three O’Clock, the Bangles and others. Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles grew up down the street from Roback and his bassist brother Steven Roback. Her brother John was David’s best friend; John went to Yale and his roommate was future Rain Parade member Will Glenn.
Roback and Rain Parade guitarist Matt Piucci had been roommates in college in Minneapolis in the late 1970s and had stayed in touch. Matt eventually moved to L.A. for the express purpose of starting a band with David. Steven, as David’s brother, was an obvious addition on bass. Piucci recalled to me in 2017:
“David was always a top-down kind of guy — you know, a conceptualist. David was going to be an artist in one form or another… that was the thing about David that you just can’t ignore, was his ability to connect with people and figure out how to get that sh– done, because I sure wasn’t! I was a cork in the ocean floating over the raging sea.”
David connected the band to Bill Hein at Enigma Records and got them signed, which led to the recording of their debut album, “Emergency Third Power Trip.” Backstage at a club in Rochester, New York, in June of 1984, Rain Parade keyboardist Will Glenn told me the origins of the band’s name:
“The name came about in a talk between me and David. I had this weird experience with a really nice prostitute — not in a professional capacity, but she came over to my apartment with a friend of mine and was affecting to be Lena Horne’s daughter. She used that expression — she said Lena was raining on her parade like it was really urbane or something. I was talking about it with David and he thought it would be a good name, as we were called the Sidewalks at that point.”
By the mid-‘80s, the Rain Parade and their Paisley Underground cohort (also including primarily the Dream Syndicate, Green on Red and the Long Ryders) were gaining media attention on both sides of the Atlantic, and their influence could be heard in the next generation of British musicians — according to legend, the manager of the Stone Roses gave each member of the band more than one copy of “Emergency,” and the influence can be heard in the psychedelic shimmer of the that band’s 1989 debut.
In 2017, Steven Roback recalled in a phone call with me:
“We spent the first year holed up in a rehearsal studio evolving, playing, and learning how to write songs, getting instruments together. When we were the Sidewalks, we had more like an early Stones and Merseybeat vibe going, trying to do melodic vocals. But then, suddenly, we were like, ‘F— this, there’s gotta be something more.’ I remember the first day we played ‘Kaleidoscope,’ and David saying, ‘Hey, just play something different.’ Suddenly, the psychedelic Rain Parade was born. We all love psychedelic music, so it was kind of already in our blood. So yeah, we spent that first year slavishly imitating good stuff, and trying to learn how to produce. Then we recorded our self-released debut single ‘What She’s Done to Your Mind’ and ‘Kaleidoscope,’ which came out in early ‘82. We had our first gig based on that: May ’82, with Green on Red.”
David, whose strong personality occasionally led to clashes with the other band members, exited in 1984 before Rain Parade could record their second album. He started a new band called Clay Allison — soon renamed Opal — with singer/bassist Kendra Smith, who had recently quit The Dream Syndicate.
Opal’s ethereal folk-country-psychedelic blend was equally out of time to ‘80s pop culture sounds and recalled a hybrid of the English folk-rock of Sandy Denny and the fuzz-guitar sounds of Neil Young. Kendra’s vocals blended with Roback’s guitar playing in an almost mystical fashion, although they released just two EPs and one album during their 1984-87 existence — including the under-recognized psych-rock classic “Happy Nightmare Baby.”
In 1987, Kendra left Opal for a solo career and was replaced by vocalist Hope Sandoval. After a brief European tour, they became known as Mazzy Star. Sandoval’s detached yet sultry vocals were the perfect foil for Roback, who had now perfected a blend of blues-based psychedelica that owed as much to The Doors as it did to 1970s avant-garde European rock, such as the German cult band Slapp Happy, whose obscure 1972 song “Blue Flower” was covered by Mazzy Star on their 1990 debut, “She Hangs Brightly.”
In 1993 Mazzy Star released their follow-up album, “So Tonight That I Might See,” featuring the single “Fade Into You” — which became an unlikely alternative-radio and MTV hit.
British audiences were especially entranced and Mazzy Star spent more time in the UK than they did in Los Angeles, but the group’s reclusive personalities meant that they were uninterested in alt-rock stardom. Mazzy Star released a third album, 1996’s “Among My Swan,” but gradually dropped from view. Roback worked with both upcoming British artists such as Beth Orton (who he accompanied on her 1999 album “Central Reservation”) as well as Scottish folk legend Bert Jansch, who incorporated Roback into his 2006 album “The Black Swan.”
Mazzy Star, which never officially split up, reunited for a tour in the early 2010s and their fourth full-length album,” Seasons of Your Day,” in 2013 and an EP titled “Still” two years ago.
At the time of his passing, Roback was working with Kendra Smith on finalizing the re-release of their two albums together, “Happy Nightmare Baby” and a compilation of their first EPs titled “Early Recordings (first released in 1989). Both albums have been unavailable for decades and are not currently available on streaming services, but are due for imminent release digitally and physically via Ingrooves Music Group.
And while Roback’s reclusive and enigmatic nature meant that his work never received the attention it deserved during his life, the explosion of testimonials on social media in the hours and days after his death show that his influence reached much farther than he probably ever would have imagined.