Sad news has come through the Orange County punk rock dispatches this last week: James Levesque, one of Agent Orange's original bassists, passed away on October 19.
Levesque joined the Fullerton-based band — which all but defined the skate-punk genre — in 1981 after Steve Soto (of the Adolescents) left, and stayed with them until 1988, when he was replaced by Brent Liles. Levesque performed on Agent Orange's biggest album, 1981's Living in Darkness, and helped write the record's first single, “Everything Turns Grey,” among other songs. The album was released on seminal local indie label Posh Boy Records.
In an email to Heard Mentality from his current home in Europe, Posh Boy owner Robbie Fields remembers Levesque as a talented musician who was crucial to the early days of his label:
The producer David Foster tells a terrible story about Paul McCartney when asking Paul for his estimation of the late George Harrison's ability as a songwriter. “Everybody's got one in them,” Paul dryly observed.
James co-wrote a handful of songs for Agent Orange and one of them was our choice for their first single on the Posh Boy label. “Everything Turns Grey” and it has been a huge copyright for us since it was such a profound influence on groups like Nirvana, for a start. So James did have “one” in him. Contrary to what McCartney alleges, few do of the same caliber.
Agent Orange's original drummer Scott Miller remembers meeting Levesque in their 7th grade science class at Tuffree Junior High. Levesque was already an illustrator and loquacious storyteller and by high school, his eye for marketing was manifesting as he tried to help further the bands in the local Fullerton punk scene.
In an email to Heard Mentality, Miller describes the unique chemistry that Levesque brought to Agent Orange:
Around the same time, James had started his own band, The Idle Rich with Jon Wahl (Amadans, Clawhammer). So, when Steve Soto left Agent Orange to start The Adolescents with Tony Brandenberg, John O'Donovan, and Frank Agnew, James was the obvious replacement for Steve. Similar to Steve's bass playing, James always played a consistent sturdy rhythm that set a rock solid foundation. James was consistent and played a reliable bass line for every song exactly the same, each and every time. And, once the timing was set, James would not fluctuate from the pulsing measure.
Even before the Living in Darkness studio sessions, each performance, live, in the studio or in rehearsal, James consistently played each song the exact same way, with precision, each and every time. However, James and I differed in our musical approaches. I would never play a song the same way twice. I know this is the antithesis to the traditional role of the drummer…but wtf… this is punk rock. I enjoy creating the ambiance of chaos with my drumming. I believe that the perpetual, cathartic, whirlpool trance of the slam pit would cease if there wasn't uncertainty and chaos in the air. In many ways, James' musical philosophy completely contradicted my own. James was a huge Elvis fan; I like the Beatles. On stage, James looked to create familiar consistent sameness in a chaotic world; I looked to instigate untested chaos around all the sameness. James and I respectfully disagreed about this. I would assert that why would anyone want to go to a show to hear the same song, exactly the same again? If you want to hear the same song again, exactly the same…go listen to the recording! James disagreed; he believed that the music fan arrived at the show wanting familiarity and wanting to recognize the song that they recall from the recording or the radio. I disagreed with James stating that each new moment in time is qualified a new experience; each new experience will require a different musical approach . Our clashing musical approaches and conflicting philosophies added to the exciting tension and angst of the early live Agent Orange performances.
However, it was James' thumping consistency on bass that afforded me this opportunity to experiment and improvise with the rhythms and create my musical chaos. Musically, I could always rely on James to be there, so that when I returned from my hayhem , back into the meter , James was there with the consistent pulse. So at this time in punk rock, the rhythm section of Agent Orange consisted of these two conflicting, dissonant links into our songs. I always found it peculiar that people were attracted to the music that we created together. It wasn't until years later that I realized… it is in these offbeat, harmonically dissonant relationships that produce some of the most original sounds.
After leaving Agent Orange, Levesque worked as a music and entertainment publicist, advising other artists on their careers. However, it was rumored that he had fallen on hard times in the last few years, and as recently two years ago was living in his car whenever he was not staying with one of his grown children.
His contributions to Agent Orange and punk rock as a whole will never be forgotten.
“I am so, so sad to hear about the death of my childhood friend and band mate James Levesque,” said Miller. “My thoughts and prayers go out to his children, grandchildren, friends, and those who also loved him.”
Sarah Bennett is a freelance journalist who has spent nearly a decade covering food, music, craft beer, arts, culture and all sorts of bizarro things that interest her for local, regional and national publications.