FRED COLE’S PATH TO BECOMING a Portland underground rock deity was a meandering one. Born in Tacoma in 1948, he bounced down to Klamath Falls when his parents split up, and ended up living in Las Vegas as a teenager after his mom took a job working as a fecal tester for the Atomic Energy Commission. The job involved an unpleasant 60-mile bus trip every day to Mercury, a radiation-riddled town near the Nevada nuclear test site, where she spent hours digging through animal waste for signs of contamination.
Cole got kicked out of school four days into his junior year. He’d just seen the Beatles live in Vegas and decided to grow his hair out long. The principal of his high school gave him an ultimatum: cut your hair or else. Cole’s response was not surprising. “I said, ‘Fuck you, I’m outta here.’”
By 16, Cole was already a garage-band veteran: the Barracudas, the Little Red Roosters, the Lords. He played solo shows under the name Deep Soul Cole with an all-black rhythm-and-blues band. On the strength of his soulful adolescent warbling, he was billed as “the white Stevie Wonder.” Sometimes he would make his entrance from the back of the hall, walking on the tops of seats and over heads toward the microphone while the band blasted away onstage. He learned how to play strip clubs, how to get arrested, how to escape a girlfriend’s angry father by jumping out of a second-floor window.
At 17, he and four other Vegas teens formed the Weeds, a slightly psychedelic rock band in the vein of the Zombies. After a year of packing midsize local venues, they made a break for San Francisco in 1966 to plug into the exploding Haight-Ashbury scene. A Vegas disc jockey promised them a slot opening for the Jeff Beck–era Yardbirds at the Fillmore—but when they showed up, nobody had heard of the Weeds. While they were figuring out their next move, a car jumped the sidewalk, sending the five members of the band scrambling for cover. Citing bad juju, the Weeds hopped into their van, pointed it north, and punched the gas. They sputtered to a stop 635 miles later, hungry, broke, and frustrated. Fred Cole had finally made it to Portland.
It took a few months of bandaging their pride at the Rose City’s now-defunct Folksinger club, but the Weeds finally returned to the road in 1967. After a show in Los Angeles, they were taken under the wing of Lord Tim Hudson, a scenester DJ who ran with the Beatles and credited himself with coining the term “flower power.” Hudson got the band signed to the Uni label, a subsidiary of MCA Records. He even convinced them to change their name to the Lollipop Shoppe in order to cash in on the bubblegum rock running wild on the airwaves at the time.
The maneuver worked. The Lollipop Shoppe scored a minor hit with “You Must Be a Witch”; had a brief appearance in a biker B-movie, Angels from Hell; and opened dates for the Doors, Buffalo Springfield, Steppenwolf, and Big Brother and the Holding Company, fronted by Janis Joplin. Cole even had a run-in with Joplin that helped give a sobering dash of clarity to the much more personal project he’d been working on back home.