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You Asked for the Gary Thain Story -- Here It Is

At some point in this space, in the recent past, I must've referred to being at a Uriah Heep concert in Dallas, September, 1974, when their bassist, Gary Thain, suffered grave electrical shock onstage.


Several folks have contacted me to say they'd like to know more about it. (OK, one of you.)


Well, yes, it was a decidedly bizarre and unfortunate thing to witness, but Thain was a complete badass musician, so why not tell it all!


First, it is necessary as an Honest Person to say that I was in no way coerced into being there that night. In fact, I was enthusiastically in attendance at a Heep show. I just mention this to clear that up to those of you who would Hate the Heep, or who are curious because, in history, no professional writer about music (PWAM) has ever admitted to liking Uriah Heep. Until now: because I was a big fan, at least of that classic edition of the band with Thain, vocalist David Byron, guitarist Mick Box, keyboardist Ken Hensley, and drummer Lee Kerslake.)


In fact, I just typed their names from memory; it was not necessary to look any of it up! Take from that what ye will. Oh, and here are the must-own albums from that unit: Demons and Wizards, The Magician's Birthday, Sweet Freedom, and Wonderworld.


Well, at the time, I was in school at Baylor University, and my pal Kevin "Delroy" DeLorey and I drove up for the concert.


Delroy, I should point out, is famous for having been an All-America high jumper for the elite Baylor track squadron.


(An aside: DeLorey is also renowned — at least to me — for something I call The Great Grape Malt Duck Window Incident. What happened was, Kev owned a Toyota Celica, I believe it was, which he used to jump over for fun. Seriously. Anyhoo, we were driving around in it one night, drinking and listening to his 8-track. It was a warm evening so we had the windows down. At some point, Delroy decided — with my blithe approval, I'm sure — to cruise off-road and down the pristine fairways of a local golf course, maneuvering insofar as it was possible in the numerical order of the holes.


Our booze of choice that evening was a malt beverage called Malt Duck, which was available in a few egregiously fruity flavors such as apple and peach. They came in eight-ounce pony bottles for quick inhalation, and we'd bought a case of the very fine Grape flavor. We'd hammer one after another, throw the empty out the window like the jack-asses we were and probably still are, and then crack open another. Nice.


At some point on the front nine, a sudden storm blew in and at once it was raining like hell. We rolled up the windows and — you can see what's coming — Delroy finished a grape malt duck, pulled back and threw the bottle THROUGH THE ROLLED UP WINDOW. That sumbitch shattered in Big Fashion! Hilarious college boy fun!


To get back to the concert, it's DeLorey's renown as a high jumper comes into play.


The show, at SMU's Moody Coliseum, was general admission — meaning they unlock the arena doors at 8 p.m. and a stampede ensues (see The Who at Riverfront Coliseum). The fastest folks get the best vantage point on the open floor. Our plan was simple: DeLorey raced inside the foyer and up — instead of toward the crowd-clogged down staircases leading to the arena floor — and simply leaped from the balcony level onto the inset area by the stage. It was a heroic jump. He secured our spots directly in front, well ahead of the throng. Well played, Kevin!


As providence would have it, we were leaning on the stage about 10 feet straight ahead from Gary Thain's bass rig.


If I remember correctly, Suzy Quatro opened — snore-o — and was followed by the Elvin Bishop Group. Kevin and I were skeptical, but Bishop had a great band -- and this was before "Fooled Around and Fell in Love." I remember they opened with "Travelin' Shoes."


When Uriah Heep came out, we were ecstatic. That was a very good live band at the height of their powers, and they had a lot of hooky songs and sounded and looked bigger than life. To be propped against the edge of that stage was a pretty damned amazing perspective for a goofball like myself who was just learning how to play bass — and so it was even better because Thain was such a gifted player and I could watch his fingers in close detail.


I think it was probably about an hour into the set when they started "Sweet Lorraine" — and I've come across other accounts of this incident that claim the accident happened during "July Morning." I wasn't drinking any grape malt duck that night, and I'm almost 100 percent certain it was "Sweet Lorraine" and not "July Morning."


Looking back, we took note that Thain was sweating heavily through the whole concert. I only found out much later he was deeply addicted to heroin by that point. Maybe he always sweated like that or maybe it was the narcotics, but, either way, placed on the brain of his amplifier was a huge glass bowl filled with a white powder.


No, it wasn't dope.


Instead, it was some sort of talcum powder. All through the set, frequently in mid-song, he'd dash back to the amp and slap his right hand — he played with his fingers and not a pick — into the talcum, slapping a great cloud of powder into the air and presumably drying his sweaty and slick palm and fingers.


After the middle-eight section of "Sweet Lorraine," there's another chorus and then a sort of instrumental break where the dynamics soften into a driving, building groove before the band kicks back into it for the coda. Just as they were resuming full roar, Thain started this odd hopping motion and leaped into the air — then fell forward, slamming face-first onto the stage not five feet away, his guitar under his stomach.


He was seizing, his body lurching and his feet kicking back, and there was a massive WAH-WAH-WAH feedback noise from his amplifier. The absolute first impression for both Delroy and me was that it was part of the act — a conceptual precursor, if you will, to mosh pit diving that would come along a few years down the road. Only there was no mosh pit — just a solid wooden stage.


But almost before the idea that it was part of the act could crystallize, we realized something was terribly wrong. Several things happened almost simultaneously. First — and we were as close to him as anyone — there was no way this was an act. The way Thain was trashing around was far too visceral and disturbing.


Secondly, the other band guys were realizing something was amiss. Closest to Thain was the keyboard guy, Hensley, who was actually stage left and slightly behind Thain. He was staring at Thain and then just stopped playing and rose from behind his rig. Then the song began to jaggedly crash to a slow halt; on the far side of the stage, though, unaware, guitarist Box was still playing that catchy chordal rhythm (THAT'S why I believe it was "Sweet Lorraine" and not "July Morning"), interracting with the crowd and completley oblivious that anything was wrong. Finally, it must have hit him that — what the hell? — no one else was playing.


When Box quit strumming, there was a moment when all you could hear and see was Thain getting shocked. It was haunting and insane: a room full of 10,000 people had instantly gone completely silent — and then two roadies or paramedics or whomever raced out and somehow disentangled Thain and carried him offstage. He was completely stiff, as though he'd been encased in bronze. Very disturbing.


The spooky quiet continued for what seemed like several seconds, then David Byron approached his microphone and said something like, "We'll, uhm, be back. Let us see what's happening." Or words to that effect.


It seemed like the other band guys, except for Hensley, left the stage at that point. The houselights were up and people in the crowd started talking, but in a very hushed, respectful way. Hensley, pacing around in front of us, made a nervous comment or two, then went back behind his organ and sat down. He started to idly tinkle the keyboards, then realized a massive electric screw-up had just happened. He pulled his hands back in alarm. "What am I doing?!" he said, laughing shakily without humor, as though he could've been next.


After a few moments, Hensley, too, went to the dressing room. The low hum of voices in the hall continued, then softened again as the faint sound of a siren segued from the background association of random street noise and I realized it was a unit specifically arriving to treat Thain.


At some point, I believe it was David Byron who came back out and, with a puzzled but apologetic tone, said they were going to have to cancel the show. He thanked us and said the whole band vowed to come back to Dallas and play a free concert.


And, polite and respectful as folks leaving a funeral service, 10,000 of us walked quietly into the night.


After the incident, Thain, who had always been frail and prone to ill-health, sunk deeper into addiction. He was ultimately released from the band and died of an overdose in December, 1975.

Heep, with replacement bassist John Wetton, did in fact return and play the promised free concert, and even received Keys to the City. I assume the band survivors -- vocalist David Byron died of alcohol related complications in 1985 -- could still unlock any doors they want in Big D.


That, then, is what happened that evening — at least as I remember it. Somewhere in the world, someone will probably emerge at some point with a board recording of that gig — and maybe it will turn out that it was "July Morning." But, boy, I can hear Box playing that rhythm part all by himself and turning to see where the hell the rest of the band had gone … Here's a live recording of the tune from that era. About the 3:15 point, you'll hear the three chord section I'm referring to when Thain got shocked.

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