It seems there are two types of late-'60s hard rockers: those who died young and those who have grown old in an embarrassing fashion. Jimi Hendrix lies in a grave in Seattle; Ozzy Osbourne jogs in place in an oversized Patriots jersey, singing "Crazy Train" before the AFC Championship game. Keith Moon returns to dust; Cream reunites for a Royal Albert Hall performance that could be mistaken for a Cialis ad.
There is a third way, however -- an alternative to getting old that doesn't involve early corpsedom -- and Blue Cheer exists in 2007 precisely to show us how.
Blue Cheer is the heaviest band you sort of know but don't really. Its classic first album, Vincebus Eruptum, arrived in 1968, alongside Disraeli Gears and Electric Ladyland. It predated (some might say prefigured) Black Sabbath by two years. The band climbed the Billboard Hot 100 to a respectable No. 14 with its supreme dressing-down of "Summertime Blues." If you're not old enough to remember that version from the first time around, you remember it from a few years ago when radio stations still played the occasional "classic rock deep cut."
While Blue Cheer came of age in San Francisco and co-existed with Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, it paid little mind to the flower-peddling of such Haight-Ashbury contemporaries. Its songs instead bridged the gap between the gritty Chicago blues the group grew out of and the heavy metal of the '70s it foreboded. Blue Cheer claimed to be the loudest band on Earth at the time; when that's your goal, flowers presumably aren't even an afterthought.
The band went on to make several more albums, but none quite as successful as Vincebus -- perhaps because it began to take a more straightforward biker-rock vibe, perhaps because it was no longer 1968. The group split in 1972 only to re-form in the late '80s, record a few more albums and tour infrequently. The current lineup is comprised of original bassist/lyricist Dickie Peterson and drummer Paul Whaley, and guitarist Andrew "Duck" McDonald, who has played with the band since its 1988 comeback.
Unlike many of its contemporaries, Blue Cheer doesn't play rib cook-offs; this week the band pulls into the 31st Street Pub, the quintessential Pittsburgh rock bar, to play to a crowd that will almost certainly span generations. Rumor has it the members are still liable to tear into "Summertime Blues," and still with the same volume and distortion. And that's not something you can say about most anyone else who was making heavy music 40 years ago.
Blue Cheer with An Albatross and Midnite Snake. Mon., April 16. 31st Street Pub, 3101 Penn Ave., Strip District. $10. 412-391-8334 or www.31stpub.com
- Better to rock out than to fade away: Blue Cheer