Hyattsville has become a hotbed of arts activity in recent years, with Pyramid Atlantic Art Center moving to the neighborhood and an annual festival setting up shop along Route 1. But over in West Hyattsville, which hasn’t attracted developers as much as the historic neighborhood to the East, there was once strange music coming out of a stately Victorian house on Ager Road. The house burned to the ground after the dawn of the new millennium, but in its heyday a revolving door of musicians passed through its doors into Glass Wing Studios and experienced the trippiness of the ’60s, where musicians would sit on the rooftop and see God and host reggae bands “that were totally insane.”
Glass Wing was the brainchild of Richard Sales and a man who was one of his best friends.
They met in in third grade—a match made on 1950s television. Bob Denver was on the airwaves, years before Gilligan’s Island, playing the goateed beatnik Maynard G. Krebs on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. One Halloween around 1956 or 1957, Sales penciled in a goatee, and like Krebs put on white sneakers and a boatneck shirt. “I thought I was the coolest thing on Earth,” Sales says. But across the schoolyard at recess, he saw a fellow student with the same white sneakers, boatneck shirt and penciled in goatee. It was Jay Yarnall, and the two became lifelong pals and musical collaborators.
“I’m looking out across a field of blueberries and a forest of mostly cedar and blue skies. It’s incredible. I still pinch myself. Is this a dream? I keep waking up and it’s still here,” says Sales, speaking from the farm where he and his wife live in British Columbia,
That dream passed through a stream of bands that included the Jefferson Street Jug Band, who almost played Woodstock; Sky Cobb, who through their manager Mike Oberman met David Bowie in 1971; and The Richard Sales Band, who once played a College Park set that agitated the biker crowd so much that a fight broke outside and a kid was stabbed to death on his 21st birthday.
Through all this, Sales says he and Jay were “blood brothers.” Yarnall, who died in 2013, was “a visionary guy” who came up playing drums in the Brentwood Majorettes and later in a swing band that was a favorite at Lions Club dances. He remained a vital musician even after tragedy struck. In 1967 Yarnall was playing in a Navy Band but he went AWOL after he was told he was going to Vietnam. He ended up at a party in Haight-Ashbury and drank from a punch bowl spiked with the psychedelic drug STP, which sent him—tripping for only the second time in his life—jumping out a window and landing on his head, the impact left him quadriplegic.
Yarnall eventually learned move his arms, and could play the piano “kind of the way you or I might slap a bongo drum,” Sales says. While Sales cut his teeth in the blues and country rock idiom singing “like a male Janis Joplin” and fronting bands influenced by The Band, Yarnall introduced him to Delta blues and far-out music like Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler. With Yarnall’s encouragement, Circus Underwater was formed.
Released in 1984, their sole, self-titled album features titles that seem inspired by the kind of hallucinations that injured Yarnall. But the vivid imagery came from real life. “I Washed My Hair with Limes” comes from a Trinidadian practice shared by one of Sales’ students at Takoma Park Jr. High, where he spent a brief stint as a guidance counselor. “Big Buck Meets the Perpendicular Fish” is about Sales’ two sons.
If the album has a certain headiness, that comes in part from the fact that Sales and Yarnall were awake for nearly 28 straight hours when they recorded it in 1982. One day, Yarnall just told Sales, “you’ve been hammering me about starting a studio, so let’s do it!” They drove to California and bought “a shitload of equipment” and recorded Circus Underwater, giving birth to Glass Wing Studios.
In the Ager Road space, Sales recorded early go-go act Davis/Pinckney, synth-pop group Orson and The True Goats, soul jazz harpist Jeff Majors, and rockabilly singer Leslee “Bird” Anderson. When the neighborhood around them went to seed in the ’80s and dealers tried to sell crack to his wife—and his mother—they sold the Victorian house to a Columbian church that was itself a front for drugs. By 2002, the house had burned to the ground.
Sales lived the dream of the ’60s rock musician, and now lives another more subdued dream. “In the late ’60s and early ’70s it was just an utter and absolute revolution… I came up in those times, we went to California a lot. I did all the drugs and all the polygamy. I did all of it. It was a crazy time. It was a good time. I’m glad it’s gone.”
The Crate Digger is Pat Padua’s occasional column that looks into the forgotten tunes recorded in the D.C. of yesteryear. Read the previous entry here.