We were sad to learn of Music Machine lead singer Sean Bonniwell’s death from cancer just before Christmas 2011. An admiring Alec Palao pays his respects.
Artists the calibre of Sean Bonniwell are a rare breed in rock’n’roll. As a songwriter, his gift was a blend of intelligence and empathy, thoughtful text allied to quixotic chords, a style completely unique in the genre his work has since been ascribed to – garage rock. Equally, as a performer, Bonniwell was a compelling, expressive vocalist who understood how inflection can totally affect meaning. He was also a lucky chap, fortunate that he found the exactly right combination of players in the Music Machine to translate his words and music into nuggets of sound far more powerful than he could have ever envisaged. But whilst the Machine as a whole drove the car, it was Sean Bonniwell who charted the course, for this band amongst bands.
Sean wrote a lengthy memoir in the early 90s, “Beyond The Garage”, that goes into great detail about his life. It’s required reading for any Music Machine fan, but a brief summary of his career is still in order. Born Thomas Harvey Bonniwell in San Jose, California, his first taste of the entertainment biz was with The Wayfarers. The quartet was strictly supper-club folk in the mode of the Limeliters or Kingston Trio, but the folk process would remain a significant constituent of Bonniwell’s creative make-up. At a loose end after the quartets demise in 1965, the singer fell in with two other refugees of the hootenanny era, Keith Olsen and Ron Edgar, and they formed the faltering folk-rock trio Ragamuffins, where Sean first tested his deft and often obtuse originals. With the addition of Mark Landon and Doug Rhodes, the Los Angeles-based aggregation became the Music Machine: a blisteringly powerful and exceptionally dynamic ensemble, tight, committed and supremely confident. As the elder in age and experience, Bonniwell guided his accompanists - dressing them in forbidding black, rehearsing them to the point of exhaustion - but they were never sidemen. In truth, it was Olsen, Landon, Rhodes and Edgar that made manifest the untutored promise of Sean’s songs. Foremost amongst which was ‘Talk Talk’, two cathartic minutes that completely articulated the frustration central to the restless spirit of mid-1960s grass roots rock’n’roll. Released as a single on Original Sound, the tune hit #15 on the Billboard chart in December 1966.
Most historical mentions of the Music Machine end there, condemning their name to the purgatory of One-Hit Wonders. There are those however who know better. Across several further singles, an album, and copious unreleased sessions – collected together on “The Ultimate Turn On” - pretty much everything the original Machine recorded is of intrinsic value, and so very much of it is utterly essential. The underlying quality is derived from Sean’s writing: both musically and lyrically, a unique and transcendent blend of the intellectual, emotional and visceral. Songs like ‘Trouble’, ‘The Eagle Never Hunts The Fly’, ‘No Girl Gonna Cry’ and ‘Wrong’ all sound as amazing now as they no doubt did back then. As is usually the case when a musical group burns so brightly, the quintet fractured toward the end of 1967, Sean becoming the sole survivor. He recruited an able set of replacements and continued to record and tour as the Bonniwell Music Machine for the next year, in the process producing more disturbed-rock gems like ‘You’ll Love Me Again’ and ‘Dark White’. In 1970, after the final break-up of the act, came a quiet, pastoral solo album on Capitol, "Close" as T.S.Bonniwell, but the original Music Machine would always be Sean’s crowning achievement on disc.
Bonniwell spent much of the 1970s and the 1980s somewhat as a nomad, moving between California and the Carolinas. He acted in various B movies, furthered an interest in astrology to become a popular radio personality, and increasingly looked to his Christian faith as the muse for both his music and his life. By the time I got to know him, Sean was living in extremely frugal circumstances in a small town at the foot of the Sierras in central California, but no less the happy for that. He was always slightly bemused by, but friendly toward, the new post-punk generation of Music Machine fans; those who, like myself, who discovered his name from those incomparable records, espied the cryptic gloved hand and monochromatic visage, and considered him a major icon of 60s cool.
The Machine’s coalescence in Sean’s San Pedro garage back in early 1966 might literally quantify them as a garage band, but wary of the potential short-sightedness of that attribute, in “The Ultimate Turn On” I wrote that that same garage was, “equally, a sonic foundry, psychoanalyst’s couch, philosopher’s salon and boot camp.” Sean liked that. He remained intensely proud of the band’s work, and was thus enthusiastic about my intention to create a definitive anthology of the original Machine. One of my favourite memories is the two of us sitting in a car outside his abode for several hours, cranking each and every vintage Music Machine recording at top volume, with Sean gleefully immersing himself in the sheer power of his former outfit. The Machine’s producer Brian Ross had once remarked to me that Sean intrinsically thought of his songs as his “children”, and that was exactly the fashion in which the author recalled the creation of, and meaning behind, each and every tune we listened to: as a father, proud in the knowledge that his progeny had matured so well.
I spoke to Sean a few days before he passed in December. He sounded very weak, but in good spirits, and completely at peace with himself – ready to go home, as he put it. I think he knew the significance of his musical legacy, even if he chuckled softly when I mentioned that people would be still be marveling at ‘Talk Talk’, and all the other Machine songs, a hundred years from now. When “The Ultimate Turn On” came out, I caught flak from some quarters who felt I had over-stated the historical significance of The Music Machine. On the contrary, I don’t think I “overstated” it enough. There will never be another Music Machine, just as there will never be another Thomas Sean Bonniwell. Rest in peace, my friend.