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October 2nd, 2013 MATTHEW SINGER | Music Stories
 

The Legend of Hazel

A story of bearded Cupids, Christmas lights and Portland’s favorite songwriter.

music_hazel_3948Image courtesy of Sub Pop
Hazel didn’t care about being famous. It only wanted to be legendary.

Which helps explain the Christmas lights. The power-pop foursome, led by singer-songwriter Pete Krebs, played its first show on Valentine’s Day 1992, at a screen-printing warehouse in Southeast Portland. Naturally, dancer Fred Nemo dressed as Cupid, wearing a pink tutu and brandishing a promotional Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves bow he used to fire plush arrows into the crowd. In addition, the rest of the band tangled itself up, rather uncomfortably, in yards of blinking holiday lights. Why? Because that’s what legends do. 

The bulbs shorted out 30 seconds into the first song, but no matter: If legend is what Hazel was aiming for, it could’ve broken up the next day and been secure. 

Still, when Krebs learned his old band was going to be inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame, he was floored. 

“I guess I always sort of felt the band was…not an anomaly, but we were just kind of a freaky band,” Krebs says, sitting cross-legged in a small second-floor den in his Northeast Portland home, his dog, Willie the Shrimp, sprawled at his feet. “We didn’t get together with any intent of doing anything else but play rock-’n’-roll shows. So to have an acknowledgement like this is just sort of above and beyond, if you’d spoken to me 22 years ago, what I would’ve expected to happen.”

Until this year, Krebs, 47, tried to keep the notion of “legacy” at arm’s length. But this is the second time in eight months that his legacy has reached out and smacked him in the face. In February, Krebs was diagnosed with desmoplastic melanoma, a rare form of cancer unresponsive to chemotherapy, brought on by the radiation he received to treat the Hodgkin’s lymphoma that afflicted him in his early 20s. His wife, Birdie, sent out a message online, soliciting donations to help with the medical bills. The response was immediate: Within 24 hours, the fundraiser well surpassed its goal. Peter Buck of R.E.M. donated $5,000. Colin Meloy later headlined a series of benefit concerts. And thus far, the surgery to remove the cancer appears to have been successful.

If he didn’t know it before, it’s undeniable now: Pete Krebs is, indeed, a legend.

Of course, when he stepped onstage that night in 1992, looking like he’d just walked out of a display at Peacock Lane, the only impact Krebs was hoping to make was on the audience. That isn’t to say he never thought about the future, though. Quite the opposite, actually. According to his bandmates, in the Hazel days, every move was made with the hope of being remembered.

“All those decisions that came our way in 10 years playing out generally came back to, ‘Does that decision contribute to making us legendary or making us famous?’” says bassist Brady Smith. “It helped us understand what we were about, which isn’t fame or fortune—it was about staying true to what ‘legendary’ represented to us.”

Krebs and Smith met while shipping posters for an art gallery in what is now the Pearl District, bonding over a love of Hüsker Dü and the Pixies. At the time, Krebs was coming off the implosion of his first band, the aggressive (and unfortunately named) Thrillhammer. Up in Smith’s attic, the two began writing what would eventually become Toreador of Love, Hazel’s first full-length record, with Krebs leaning in a more tuneful direction. 

They had songs, but needed a drummer. On the recommendation of Smith’s girlfriend, they went to see Jody Bleyle play at Reed College. “It was just the coolest, most wonderful, chaotic drumming I’d ever seen in my life,” Krebs says. Even better, Bleyle sang as well. A huge fan of L.A. punk greats X, Krebs had found his Exene Cervenka, a female voice to bristle against and challenge his own. 

For her part, Bleyle treated her new suitors with bemusement. “They were just kind of square guys, wearing their vintage clothes,” she says. It quickly became apparent that these guys were much more serious than the musicians she normally dealt with: After a single practice, they already started plotting merchandise. “It was big-time, man,” she says. “‘They’re a real band! They’re gonna make T-shirts! Shit just got real!’”

But Hazel wasn’t complete until the addition of Nemo. About 20 years older than the rest of the group, with a prolific beard, Nemo was known for dancing between the pool tables at LaurelThirst Pub, where Krebs was also a regular. He recruited Nemo for Hazel’s debut performance, if only for the added spectacle. Slathered in heart-shaped glitter and whipping the crowd into a frenzy with his toy bow and arrow, it became obvious afterward that he should be made a permanent fixture. “In my mind,” Krebs says, “it didn’t make any sense for him not to be in the band.” 

Adding a 40-something interpretive dancer to the lineup was just the sort of “legendary” decision Smith alluded to. But in the post-Nirvana Pacific Northwest, as the sweet swell of mainstream success wafted down the I-5 from Seattle, the pull of fame and fortune became difficult to ignore. Hazel wasn’t immune. It released two albums on Sub Pop, 1993’s Toreador of Love and 1995’s Are You Going to Eat That?, neither proving to be the next Bleach, but the band received enough major-label interest to pique Krebs’ nascent rock-’n’-roll dreams. He admits the songs on Hazel’s final release, 1997’s Ariana EP, were his last-ditch attempts to write a hit. It didn’t work. “Every time I’ve tried to be successful in music,” Krebs says, “I’ve failed miserably.”

By then, though, Hazel was reaching its natural expiration date anyway. Bleyle became increasingly focused on her label, Candy Ass, and her punk band, Team Dresch. Krebs, meanwhile, had already embarked on a solo career, putting out two well-received, folk-inflected albums that started him down the path to becoming one of Portland’s most beloved songwriters—second only, perhaps, to his close friend, the late Elliott Smith. Hazel didn’t formally break up. It just drifted apart.

Now, 16 years later, Hazel is going into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame, which is precisely the kind of acknowledgement you’d think the group was aiming for all along. If it seems a bit absurd—like the band is somehow crashing a party it’s been invited to—that only makes sense.

“What our career was about, in retrospect, is collecting these weird, amazing, wonderful little stories and events,” says Brady Smith, now a principal at a New York high school, “and this is the totally fitting cherry on top.”

But Hazel isn’t exactly done. The members still convene for occasional gigs, though not all of them can be deemed “high-profile.” Just a few weeks ago, the band played Bleyle’s backyard for Smith’s daughter’s sweet 16 party. But it’s those shows that help reconnect Hazel to its own legend, and the time in which it was created: When the band could do a show, and all it had to worry about was that moment.

“None of us are getting any younger, no one’s getting any richer, none of us are going to be rock stars,” Krebs says. “What’s left is the good stuff.”


THE REST OF OMHOF’S CLASS OF 2013


POISON IDEA

Portland’s most incendiary ’80s hardcore act isn’t likely to show up at the induction in tuxes, both because the band’s scathing worldview doesn’t allow for such decorum, and because the musicians would have difficulty finding ones that fit: In the ’80s, Poison Idea’s principal members, screamer Jerry A. and late guitarist Tom “Pig Champion” Roberts, let themselves go in the name of punk nihilism, bingeing and boozing their way to sumo size, which only made their unrelenting assault more imposing.


RICHMOND FONTAINE

Singer-songwriter and acclaimed novelist Willy Vlautin formed Richmond Fontaine with bassist Dave Harding two decades ago while playing the ponies at Portland Meadows, and built a 10-album oeuvre of stellar country rock around tales of just the kind of hard-luck folk who inhabit the world’s racetracks, not to mention its casinos and dive bars.


CHRIS BOTTI

The Portland-born, Corvallis-raised trumpeter’s résumé includes gigs playing with Frank Sinatra, Buddy Rich and Paul Simon; a Grammy; and three No. 1 jazz albums—impressive enough entries on their own that become even more eyebrow-raising once you realize the guy’s only 50.


KELLY JOE PHELPS

A blues guitarist with a jazzer’s improvisational sensibilities, Phelps has explored the boundaries of Americana over his prolific career, proving roots music doesn’t have to stay planted in any one particular patch of dirt.


JANICE SCROGGINS

Scroggins’ soulful piano has been the connective tissue of nearly all the gospel, blues and R&B produced in Portland since the late ’70s. Though she’s being inducted as a side player, her 1987 solo album, Janice Plays Scott Joplin, was nominated for a Grammy. Her new disc, Piano Love, is out later this month.


GREGG WILLIAMS

An omnipresent drummer-producer, Williams spans generations of Portland music, from Quarterflash and Nu Shooz up through the Dandy Warhols and Blitzen Trapper.


MARTY HUGHLEY

Before becoming a victim of The Oregonian’s cost-cutting purge, Hughley was one of the city’s sharpest theater critics. Before that, he was one of The O’s best music critics. And before that, he was music editor of this very paper.


MAYOR BUD CLARK

What’s the “Expose Yourself to Art” guy doing here? Well, during his mayorship, Clark supported the local music scene by booking Portland bands to play his annual Mayor’s Ball charity concert, which was basically a proto-PDX Pop Now. And you thought DJ Sam Adams was our first
hipster mayor. —Matthew Singer


SEE IT: The Oregon Music Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, featuring performances by Quarterflash, the Kingsmen and Richmond Fontaine, is at Aladdin Theatre, 3017 SE Milwaukie Ave., on Saturday, Oct. 5. 7 pm. $25 advance, $30 day of show for general admission; $100 advance, $110 day of show for VIP seating. Under 21 permitted with legal guardian.

 
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