Photo by Rodney Gitzel
Acetone vocalist, bassist and songwriter Richie Lee died at his home on July 23. It was an apparent suicide. He was 34.
Lee formed Acetone with guitarist-vocalist Mark Lightcap and drummer Steve Hadley in ’93, following the trio’s stint in garage-rockers Spinout. The group had played just a few showcases when they became an initial signing to Virgin’s fledgling subsidiary Vernon Yard. Folks there, hoping to cherry-pick quality bands and cash in on the early-’90s alterna-craze simultaneously, no doubt thought Acetone would be the next Nirvana.
But Acetone’s gorgeously stacked blend of California country, grinding psychedelia and New York–style drone — arriving in peaks and valleys, one or two or three styles at a time — was unique and graceful in a landscape then obsessed with grunge and four-track indie rock. Filling L.A. clubs and touring with like-minded acts like the Verve and Spiritualized, Lee and Acetone flew under the radar through eight years, five albums (plus several EPs) and a switch to Neil Young’s Vapor Records. And the band stayed consistent. This year’s York Blvd. was as heartily praised by critics and fans as their first full-length, Cindy, in ’93.
Acetone’s music transformed every bedroom or barroom it was introduced into. It changed the color of the air to an eye-closing, swaying, psychedelic swirl. Their countrified harmonics are now echoed in L.A. bands like Beachwood Sparks and Wisky Biscuit, and their retro-groove feel was a near decade ahead of current darlings BRMC and the Strokes. Lee, a former student at CalArts, shaped not only the sound but the look and feel of Acetone releases by creating most of their artwork and packaging. He was also an accomplished painter who had pieces in many shows through the years.
In “I’m Gone,” the first song on Acetone’s first, self-titled EP, a man contemplates walking into the ocean to drown himself. Richie Lee’s own ocean overwhelmed him, and the world is now a less beautiful place.