Versatile Seattle veterans Green Pajamas were never much into flannel.
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“All over Seattle, fans are twisting and squirming in uncontrollable spasms to the sounds of the Green Pajamas! They’re like Gilbert and Sullivan on drugs!” So went a hyperbolic 1984 radio spot created by the permanent core of the band, Jeff Kelly and Joe Ross, for the Green Pajamas’ debut album, Summer Of Lust. Of course, none of it was true.
“We made Summer Of Lust as a cassette—25 copies, I think—and put ’em in some University District record stores,” says Kelly. The “twisting and squirming” wasn’t due for another five years, when grunge would hijack the airwaves. Gilbert and Sullivan would be left to Rufus Wainwright and Antony & The Johnsons, more than a decade later.
Like its Southern California influences in the Paisley Underground (Rain Parade, Three O’Clock), named as an homage to the psychedelic heyday of Jefferson Airplane and Strawberry Alarm Clock, the Green Pajamas must hold the world’s record for most albums (somewhere around 30) recorded by a band with the fewest number of live appearances (somewhere more than 30) over a career that has spanned almost 30 years.
“Even though he has a really good time when he gets there, it’s very hard to get Jeff to play live,” says Pajamas alternate vocalist Laura Weller. The home Kelly shares with his wife Susanne and their two daughters is filled with books, art and classical music. “He should have been a professor of Gothic literature,” says Weller.
When Kelly was a young man, he worked 10-hour days, four days a week, for the Red Dot Corp. in Seattle. “They made parts for the cooling systems of semi-trucks,” says the soft-spoken, bespectacled Kelly. “I did nothing but brazing. I’d sing the Iggy Pop song ‘Mass Production,’ from his album The Idiot, all day. It was eight minutes long, and every time I finished it, I’d think, ‘That’s eight more minutes gone in my day.’ That’s when I figured out I wanted to go back to college.”
After earning his AA in graphic arts, Kelly met Ross at a party. “My girlfriend at the time set that up,” says Kelly. “I’m not very gregarious. Joe and I discovered a mutual adoration for the Beatles song ‘Rain,’ and that we were both ‘musicians.’” They chose one of Kelly’s song titles for a band name. “I wanted us to be the Flying Nuns, but Joe didn’t like that,” says Kelly, the fledgling combo’s vocalist, lead guitar and principal songwriter.
With Ross playing bass, drummer Karl Wilhelm and rhythm guitarist Steve Lawrence filled out the band. Ross would take a one-year leave of absence in 1985. “I fired him,” says Kelly. “He started seeing my girlfriend behind my back.” Kelly asked Ross to return the following year. “I guess I kinda missed him,” he says. “And besides, things become not such a big deal when your life changes for the better.”
“Better” for Kelly meant meeting Susanne Dailey, then 19, at Soho, a downtown Seattle club, that December. “She looked like a very young Chrissie Hynde in a black beret and black eye makeup,” says Kelly. “I kept looking over at this dark angel and wishing I knew her.” During a break, the mysterious girl walked up to new Pajamas keyboardist Bruce Haedt and gave him a hug. Kelly demanded an introduction. The two have been inseparable ever since, and Susanne’s ethereal paintings have graced many of Green Pajamas’ album covers.
It was Susanne who turned Jeff on to Leonard Cohen. When the grunge landslide began, Kelly swore he was giving up rock music for good. “Leonard Cohen changed everything for me,” he says. “I found this whole new thing: dark beauty, poetry, perfect lyrics, different chord changes. I was overcome.” When Kelly played Cohen’s records for Ross, Joe told him, “You’ve been doing that for a long time already.”
Now heavily into Pre-Raphaelite poetry and Victorian novels, Kelly began tracking almost all the material for GPJ albums himself, in his basement studio. “It’s a matter of convenience,” he says. “If I record everything myself, I don’t have to teach everybody their parts, and I don’t have to pay for studio time. But I’ve always admired the whole band thing. I don’t have anything against playing with people. It’s fun.”
Sometimes, though, the easiest way isn’t always the best. Says Kelly, “When Joe came over to put a bass line on ‘Queen Of Sunshine’ from our 1998 album All Clues Lead To Meagan’s Bed, he played something that was more grungy and cool than anything I would have ever come up with.”
Goblin Market is a side project Kelly created with Weller in 2000. “I’ve always dreamed of collaborating with a female singer to record material by Victorian poets set to original music,” he says. “As a major in 19th-century literature, Laura was a perfect fit to do something more delicate, dreamy and folky.” The third Goblin Market album, Beneath Far Gondal’s Foreign Sky, along with a reissue of Summer Of Lust and the new Green Pajamas’ long-player, Death By Misadventure, have recently been released by longtime Pajamas label Green Monkey.
The only live performance of Goblin Market took place in 2001, opening for Jonathan Richman at Seattle’s Showbox. “We had a cello and violin and (Pajamas keyboardist) Eric Lichter played percussion,” says Kelly. “Laura and I sat on chairs with our lyrics on music stands.” The show had only one sour note. “Karl Wilhelm got mad at me afterward because he felt I’d neglected to tell him we were playing.” Wilhelm was permanently replaced on drums by Weller’s husband, Scott Vanderpool.
The most surprising entry in the GPJ discography is its 2011 album Green Pajama Country, a deeply satisfying blend of Appalachian-style tragedy and honky-tonk tearjerkers. “Jeff is one of those people who soaks up all music that’s good, no matter where it comes from,” says Weller. “If you need any more country cachet, Jeff has always been a cigarette-smoking, beer-drinking kind of guy.”
Kelly fondly remembers listening to his dad play country music on the car radio. “I’d always written country songs,” says Kelly. “One night, with Joe’s country band the Birdwatchers, I played ‘Last Night Was Like The End Of The World,’ a song I meant as a George Jones parody. And the people loved it.”
Kelly’s life is not all backward-guitar psychedelia, backwoods weepers and baroque string quartets, however. Sometimes it’s just background music for a young girl’s birthday party. The daughter of Green Monkey owner Tom Dyer asked to have the Pajamas play for her special day, and Kelly agreed. He’d had a few drinks before leaving for the gig, just down the street, and a few more after arriving. “I was feeling no pain,” he says, “and I was wearing some comfortable old shoes with the heels worn down in back.”
As he began his guitar solo for the set’s last song, Kelly began to fall backward in slow motion like he was caught in quicksand in a bad dream. “I kept playing, even after I’d fallen,” he says. “Susanne was out in the bar when she heard someone say, ‘Look! That guy just fell over and he’s still playing his guitar!’“ No further identification necessary, she probably reckoned.