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Rock n Roll Suicide: Richie Lee of Acetone (1966-2001)

April 28, 2011

Richie Lee, bass player and singer of Los Angeles’s Acetone killed himself on July 23, 2001. His band had put out York Blvd, their best album, a year earlier. He was 34 years old. I don’t know exactly how he did it, although I think it was an intentional overdose. I suppose that says it all and nothing at the same time. All that matters is that he’s gone now.

He was still young and his music was only getting better. If 90% of life is just showing up, Acetone was on its way to breaking through. They just needed to hang in there, to persevere. Just a bit little longer. In an interview from 1998, he said: “You know, this record [their 4h LP, Acetone] is sort of lending credence to our other records. People had a hard time understanding our last one, If You Only Knew, and the new record’s helping people understand our other stuff. I can remember when I was a kid, you know, I wouldn’t get a band until their third or four record, and then I’d understand it all.”

A common refrain of the suicidal mind is “they will miss me when I’m gone.” They might be an unappreciative public or they might be a girlfriend. Richie Lee may have been happy with his career trajectory, I don’t know. He certainly had a body of work to proud of. But if you’re an artist and you kill yourself, like it or not, you’ve become a martyr for you back catalog. The least your suicide can do is create awareness of the music, to make people take a look at what they will never again get to hear live. The tragedy of Richie Lee’s death is compounded by the fact that his band remains obscure and generally undiscovered.

I miss Acetone. I loved all of their albums, their countrified neo-psychedelic haze perfectly dovetailed with my seemingly aimless Silver Lake life. They played at Spaceland and the Silverlake Lounge all the time. And I took them completely for granted. I hate myself for that. I kept blowing them off, even as I wore out their CDs, hypnotized by their spell, splayed out on my couch. I may have seen them open for someone else, but if I did see them live, pitifully, I don’t remember it.

My skin literally warms when I hear this band; my blood rushes. Their rich, fuzzy layered glow is infectious, both a balm for the depression I often felt in the 90s and a means to revel in it. Now, ten years after their last recording, it still has its same potency. Richie Lee was my age and from what I understand lived not so far away. We probably traded glances at Rockaway Records or at the Backdoor Bakery. Maybe seeing Acetone live would have been getting too close. Maybe it was too much like looking in the mirror and I knew I couldn’t stand what I’d see.

When a songwriter pulls the final curtain on himself, it’s hard not to go through old lyrics, looking for clues, but with Richie Lee, the writing could not have been more on the wall. A literary detective is not required for this post-mortem. Their first album Cindy begins with the tune “I’m Gone.” It’s about a guy thinking about drowning himself in the ocean. Other song titles include “I’ve Enjoyed as Much of This as I Can Stand, ” “I Don’t Really Care” and a cover of “Sometimes You Just Can’t Win.” On York Blvd, it appears that things might be looking up with “Things Are Gonna Be Alright,” but he didn’t really mean it. That song, which opens the album, begins with Richie Lee singing:

You may try and try again
Not to be unsatisfied
Just squeezing by one more time
But how long do you go on
Believing things are gonna be alright?

Those words gut me. I want so much to say that he’s looking at it all wrong. How long do you go on? Richie Lee knew the answer before he framed the question. Not much longer at all.

I want to say to Richie Lee that life can be a grind and things aren’t going to be alright – at least, not for long – and to believe they will be is only setting ourselves up for disappointment. Because even when things are okay, we’ll just want more. We’re never satisfied. We only appreciate the present when it’s too late, when we see it fading fast in the rear-view mirror. Maybe all we can do is realize that things are hopelessly fucked up and they always will be. Life can be a tragedy or a comedy, it’s up to us. Either way, it’s pretty entertaining, but only if we’re alive to watch the show … that is, if we’re willing to get off the fucking couch and just go to the show in the first place.

But, of course, Richie Lee is gone now, so that just leaves me talking to myself.

Acetone – Things Are Gonna Be Alright MP3

Acetone toured with Spiritualized in 1997. Jason Pierce and Richie Lee were friends.  “The Ballad of Richie Lee” can be found on their 2003 album “Amazing Grace.”
Spiritualized – The Ballad of Richie Lee MP3

13 Comments leave one →
  1. roger permalink
    June 15, 2011 10:39 pm

    underrated band. get the same reaction to their music as you. interesting and insightful post, thanks.

  2. June 16, 2011 5:01 pm

    Thanks for reading, Roger. I really appreciate your taking the time ….

  3. Winston Payne permalink
    February 12, 2012 10:01 am

    12 years after Lee’s death…people are and will keep talking about the band Acetone – 3 very sympathetic musicians who fortunately recorded their passion for us to hear and be affected by. Their deep relationship to their sound (masters of the slow grind) really sets them apart. Viva Acetone.

  4. May 27, 2012 9:58 pm

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who loves this band.

  5. October 4, 2012 1:44 am

    I’ve made more than a few records, and worked with more artists than I can count. These guys were the best of them all. That is if naked unvarnished confession is the best we can do. Difficult records to make but worth every bit of torture that came with all the joy. I miss Richie more as the years scream past. Love that stuff. Except for York. That one is just too sad and for all the wrong reasons..

  6. October 24, 2012 9:59 am

    Thank you for your tribute. I discovered Acetone in 1994 when I was 23 shortly after Cindy came out. Indubitably they are the best band I personally have become a fan of since then. Despite my love for their catalog I regret never seeing them live. It’s crushing that they are no longer around to create for us. However, I take comfort in what was left behind. I cherish it and forever will. “No I don’t wanna see you now….”
    Mike in Memphis.

  7. Jeff in Peoria permalink
    November 23, 2012 3:43 pm

    This is a beautiful article. Thank you. Their music has meant so much to me through the years. I saw them at Spaceland in 2000. Stood next to Elliot Smith during their set. He loved it. “If You Only Knew” kept me afloat through a number of bad times in my life. They saved my life again this year. That irony is not lost on me. Richie was brilliant. RIP.

  8. Mark W Fay permalink
    June 30, 2013 4:19 pm

    First saw Acetone when they played a party in the bottom of an empty swimming pool in west texas. Had never heard them before, but immediately fell under their spell for the duration of their existence. Still often return to the warm, sad, ultimately honest music they created….

    • stirgy permalink
      February 6, 2017 5:52 am

      what a venue! lol. wish I could have been there. I can only imagine it!

  9. Joel. permalink
    April 2, 2014 3:58 am

    Great band…saw them support Verve in London and followed them ever since. Really sad that the press are banging on ceaselessly about Kurt Cobain at the moment when Ritchie Lee is barely remembered. Maybe his ‘Nick Drake’ time will come. Too late for him but more fans will get to hear those fantastic records.

  10. April 7, 2016 9:59 pm

    Going through Cindy tonight, just reliving the sounds. Thanks for this article. Acetone was ahead of their time and are still missed.

  11. stirgy permalink
    February 6, 2017 5:49 am

    Luckily, I got to see them perform live in Philadelphia – about a year before Richie Lee’s suicide. I really knew nothing about them before seeing them play. I was entranced by them, which is rare for me, since I’m a pretty harsh critic. I get bored easily, especially with mediocre bands. It’s just a personal thing. But, man – that show was like 16 years ago and I still think about it. No glam, no special lighting or effects – just 3 people making some enthralling music. They will always remain one of those special bands for me.

  12. vilis2 permalink
    March 6, 2018 11:53 am

    Amazing band. Music that slows you right down. I’m so grateful that i found out about them thanks to that new compilation that came out recently. It’s just a shame that it’s so hard to find their other stuff around these days.

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