Posts Tagged ‘Jay Ferguson’

Spirit were a highly regarded rock band that achieved modest commercial success, charting 11 albums in the U.S. between 1968 and 1977. Founded in Los Angeles in 1967 by musicians who had a mixture of rock, pop, folk, blues, classical, and jazz backgrounds, and who ranged in age from 16 to 44, the group had an eclectic musical style in keeping with the early days of progressive rock; they were as likely to play a folk ballad featuring finger picked acoustic guitar, a jazz instrumental full of imaginative improvisation, or a driving rhythm tune dominated by acid rock electric guitar playing.

Most people got to know the band Spirit because of their belated and ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit alleging that Led Zeppelin plagiarized part of “Stairway to Heaven” from their tune “Taurus”. That’s a very sad legacy for a quirky crew of visionaries whose guitarist was mentored by Jimi Hendrix and who created an original sound that embraced everything from psychedelia to jazz rock. They deserve to be remembered as more than a legal anecdote.
Spirit is almost certainly the only band of the psychedelic era whose story actually starts in the 1930s. That’s when their oldest member, drummer Ed Cassidy (born 1923), began his musical career. By the mid ’60s, he had played everything from big-band music to country, and had backed up jazz giants like Gerry Mulligan, Roland Kirk, and Cannonball Adderley. After playing with a young Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal in pioneering L.A. blues-rock band The Rising Sons, Cassidy looked closer to home for musical mates. It turned out that his girlfriend Bernice Pearl (whom he would marry in 1965) had a teenage son who was something of a guitar prodigy.

Randy Wolfe was just 13 when he started playing with his future stepfather in The Red Roosters. Pearl’s brother Ed was the owner of the Ash Grove, the legendary Los Angeles club where some of the greatest folk and blues figures appeared on a regular basis, so Wolfe had gotten guitar tips from the likes of Sleepy John Estes and Mance Lipscomb early days. Two other founding members of Spirit were from the Red Roosters too: singer Jay Ferguson and bassist Mark Andes. But the band abruptly ended when Cassidy, Pearl, and Wolfe moved across the country to Queens, New York in 1966.

Wolfe, then just 15 but already showing signs of greatness, ended up performing with Jimmy James & The Blue Flames, led by an unknown but wildly gifted guitarist making a name for himself on the Greenwich Village scene. The man the world would soon come to know as Jimi Hendrix took Wolfe under his wing, teaching him some tricks of the trade and even giving him his stage name: Randy California, to distinguish him from another Randy in the band.

It was pretty heady stuff for a kid California’s age. And when he wasn’t playing in the Village, he was giving guitar lessons to his neighbor Walter Becker, who would go on to form Steely Dan. But the egocentric behavior that would come to plague California in years to come is said to have started in his days as a Blue Flame. Depending on which story you believe, California stayed behind when Hendrix made the trip to England that would eventually lead to stardom One night at the Café Au Go Go, California starts playing slide using the neck of a sawn-off 7-Up bottle while James/Hendrix guns down a fat riff. Suddenly the kid reaches across to his boss’s guitar and spins the volume control down to zero. Hendrix throws a fit, flings his Stratocaster across the room and walks out on to the street. A tentative invitation from Jimi for Randy to join him on his maiden visit to London is withdrawn.

In either case, Cassidy, his wife, and his stepson moved back to L.A. in 1967, where the Red Roosters regrouped as Spirits Rebellious, bringing jazz keyboardist John Locke into the fold as well. Shortening that name to Spirit, they delineated their new, ambitious agenda to forge a free-flowing sound that could incorporate jazz, rock, folk, and anything else they cared to explore. Southern California in 1967 was about as hospitable an environment for such ambitions as one could want.

Like a lot of bands in those days, Spirit lived communally, sharing a house in Topanga Canyon. One of their housemates happened to be a young record collector named Barry Hansen, who would find fame in the ’70s as radio personality Dr. Demento. But at the time, his deep musical knowledge made him a guiding light for the band, and he oversaw the demo that got them signed to Ode Records, the imprint of producer Lou Adler.

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Spirit (1968)

Adler, who had recently become a key architect of the era’s West coast sound through his work with The Mamas & The Papas, produced Spirit’s self-titled 1968 debut album, Though the band was unhappy with the orchestral arrangements Adler gave some of the tunes, the record would eventually come to be regarded as one of the great sonic statements of its day. From the very first track, the album exploded with eclecticism and offbeat inspiration.

The lead-off track to Spirit’s 1968 debut album comes out of nowhere and sounds like nothing else out there at the time. The closest relatives to the style of the song would probably be Love or the Doors, but with a touch of Frank Zappa and the Mothers Of Invention thrown in. Even that doesn’t quite tell the story of the sound here.

It’s psychedelic to be sure, Fresh Garbage is a quirky, almost comedic variant on the ecological themes of the time, and it shifts organically from Latinate rhythms to distorted rock riffs to straight-ahead jazz and back again, with California’s liquid but larger-than-life guitar lines leading the way. From the moody, orchestrated art-rock landscape of Mechanical World to the hooky psych pop of Uncle Jack  ‘Spirit’ is pretty much a perfect debut, with Ferguson and California seamlessly sharing lead vocal duties and the band establishing a singular sonic fingerprint. Though no real hits emerged from the record, it did manage to make its way to No. 31 on the U.S. album chart.

‘Girl in Your Eye’ Very much of its era, lets loose with a flood of sitar-laced sounds. The song, however, is strong enough to hold its own and conquer any ‘period piece’ daggers you want to throw at it. A beautiful melody carries this one along while the sitar gives way to a biting guitar solo from unsung six-stringer Randy California who drives this deeper into lysergic territory. Come along for the ride, the weather’s fine.

The Family That Plays Together (1968)

The second album, The Family That Plays Together, followed in December 1968.

One of the album’s deeper cuts, the shimmering instrumental “Taurus,” would make headlines more than four decades later. On December 26th, 1968, an unknown Led Zeppelin, preparing for the release of their own debut album, played their first American show, opening up for Spirit. In 1971, Zeppelin, who had been known to insert the riff from “Fresh Garbage” into their early shows and would eventually become notorious for appropriating other artists’ material without credit or compensation, released a little tune called “Stairway to Heaven” bearing an acoustic guitar intro uncannily similar to “Taurus.” But the copyright infringement suit that was finally filed in 2014 failed.

Spirit’s innovations continued apace on The Family That Plays Together released at the end of ’68. Besides encompassing everything from Jewish —California’s nod to his background based on a Hebrew hymn—to the delicate chamber pop of Drunkard the album contained the band’s only real brush with mainstream fame. I Got a Line on You is probably the most straightforward rocker in the Spirit catalog, and undeniably among the most infectious, with its surging momentum and stinging guitar. It became the band’s only Top 40 single and helped the album make it to No. 22, a career peak.

Unlike the vocal-free atmospherics of “Taurus,” “I Got a Line on You” featured harmony galore, straddling the line between the soulful hard rock that was on the rise at the end of the Sixties and the lingering traces of peace-and-love trippiness that still informed California’s supple guitar work. California’s voice is gutsy and melodic, helping to propel the single to success.

‘Dream Within a Dream’ from the second album is one of the few that retains the more psychedelic overtones from their debut disc. showcasing the incredible guitar work of Randy California. Perfectly produced by the legendary Lou Adler, this Jay Ferguson composition has it all — a great arrangement, stellar instrumental interplay and beautiful lyrics. The harmonies have an almost Association-like feel to them, but California’s piercing guitar running throughout makes it unique.

Clear Spirit (1969)

In 1969, the band made its foray into the film world, scoring Model Shop for French New Wave director Jacques Demy of Umbrellas of Cherbourg fame. Spirit made an appearance in the movie as well, and Ferguson was even given a few lines. But the film was a flop and the soundtrack album didn’t see the light of day until 2005.The work Spirit did on the score wasn’t a total loss at the time, though; a number of tracks were re-purposed for the band’s third album, “Clear” which consequently ended up being the most intriguingly atmospheric of their releases. In retrospect it also paved the way for Spirit’s true tour de force.

Spirit flaunted California’s parallel love of sci-fi. The song was named after George Orwell’s dystopian classic, and in its own way, the music is just as chilling. “1984/Knocking on your door,” California intones at the start of the track before it segues into an angular, almost mechanical bass line that sounds totally New Wave – more than a decade ahead of its time, as if the year 1984 really were knocking at Spirit’s door.

Not included on the band’s third album, ‘Clear,’ ‘1984’ was released as a single in late-1969 and tried to warn us of a future that may have seemed distant then, but was obviously not too far off. Another killer Randy California guitar solo makes this one a home run and its catchy-as-can-be chorus should have made this a hit. It didn’t and it wasn’t, but it’s still one of the band’s finest moments

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Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus (1970)

The band hired David Briggs, who had worked on Neil Young’s albums, to produce its fourth LP. Sessions for that album commenced in April 1970, but they were interrupted when California suffered a fractured skull due to a fall from a horse and spent a month in the hospital. A single, Ferguson’s “Animal Zoo,” emerged in July and grazed the bottom of the charts, Another great track from the band’s fourth LP, a pretty straight ahead pop-rock and roll, at times coming off like a cross between the Kinks and Paul Revere and the Raiders, of all things. That’s a compliment by the way! This gem from the pen of Jay Ferguson has an ultra-catchy chorus that should have made this a big hit, but it ultimately took six months to complete the LP, released as Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus in November.

Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus can justifiably be considered Spirit’s Neil Young’s producer David Briggs, the band really strutted its stuff, tapping more fully than ever into California’s six-string bag of tricks, his and Ferguson’s complementary songwriting gifts, and the whole ensemble’s empathetic interplay.

The case for California’s as a guitar-hero status requires no more substantiation than his work on ‘Sardonicus’. Harnessing feedback, overdrive, slide, and sustain with the precision of a master jeweler while investing it all with his left-field psychedelic shaman vibe, California creates a guitar language that’s informed by the innovations of his old mentor Hendrix but exists in a self-created space all its own. And on tunes like the folkish environmental lament “Nature’s Way” and horn-punctuated, (named for Cassidy’s clean-shaved cranium), California and Ferguson were pushing their compositional powers to their peak. Toss in forward-looking excursions like John Locke’s cosmic electro-jazz journey Space Child and it all adds up to the brightest moment in Spirit’s career, not to mention hippie-era rock in general.

The year, the band released its magnum opus, “Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus”. Ambitious, multi-layered and sprawling – at the time, Rolling Stone raved that the album “lay languidly upon the very steps to Parnassus” – it produced the single “Nature’s Way,” which became a Spirit staple. It’s not hard to see why. Over a driving acoustic guitar, California pleads, “It’s nature’s way of telling you something’s wrong” – sounding favorably like fellow Angeleno Arthur Lee of Love, one of Spirit’s closest contemporaries. The coughing at the end of the song is reminiscent of the coughing at the start of Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf,” released a year later,

Mr. Skin – which became the title of the b-side of “Nature’s Way.” Starting with a staccato organ-and-guitar salvo, the song eases into a brass-punctuated, cowbell-happy jam that mythologizes Cassidy’s alter ego. The song proved to be so popular among fans,

In between the recording and release of ‘Sardonicus’, Randy California fall from a horse, fracturing his skull. He was down for the count for a while, and during that time, he started snorting epic amounts of cocaine and going a bit crazy (or crazier) to boot. Mark Andes has stated that California was forever changed by this period, and not for the better. There had already been friction between the guitarist and his bandmates before, but after the accident things worsened drastically, almost coming to the point of an onstage punch-up before Andes and Ferguson finally quit to start the much more conventional-sounding (and briefly successful) Jo Jo Gunne.

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Feedback (1972)

California found his way into a rehab program. Cassidy and Locke, suddenly finding themselves without a band, hooked up with singer/bassist Al Staehely and his guitar-playing brother Chris in a band that released 1972’s extremely mediocre “Feedback” as a Spirit album but resembled that band in name only. When California was match fit once more, he set to work on his first solo album, the weirdly wonderful Kapt. Kopter and the (Fabulous) Twirly Birds  which reunited him with his stepfather.

“Spirit of ’76” (1975)

After the dissolution of that unit, Cassidy traveled to Hawaii and got back in touch with California. Joined by Mark Andes, who had left Jo Jo Gunne, they began playing dates by September 1974; Locke also performed with them at the start of 1975, but neither he nor Andes stayed permanently. Instead, California and Cassidy hired another bass player, Barry Keene, and carried on. They recorded an album that they shopped, signing to Mercury Records, which released the double-LP “Spirit of ’76” in May 1975. It made the lower reaches of the charts.

When the stepdad/stepson team returned for the 1975 album Spirit of ’76, and like The Grateful Dead, Spirit decided to snub the trends of the decade and stick with what it knew best: psychedelia. While “Lady of the Lakes,” a single and standout track from Spirit of ’76, didn’t help Spirit become psychedelic standard-bearers like the Dead, the song’s easygoing vibe and swirling Americana weren’t that far from the concurrent work of Garcia and company.

They quickly followed in October with Son of Spirit, another modest seller. For Farther Along, released in June 1976,

Son Of Spirit (1976)

The following year, California and Cassidy toured Europe with ‘Kapt. Kopter’ bassist Larry “Fuzzy” Knight as Spirit, but California’s behavior was still disturbingly erratic and his drug problems seemed undiminished. He ended up in rehab again, and didn’t play music for two years. He dropped out of sight, seeking sanctuary in Hawaii, but Cassidy managed to reconnect with him eventually. With a new bassist in Barry Keane, they reemerged as Spirit in 1975.
The mid-’70s version of Spirit released two odd but excellent albums, ‘Spirit of ’76’ and ‘Son of Spirit’. It was a distinctly different band from the ’60s iteration, bearing a casual, stoner approach more in line with California’s solo album, but unlike the ‘Feedback’-era band, this was a lineup fully worthy of operating under the Spirit moniker.

Son of Spirit and Farther Along (1976)

All the original members of Spirit mended their fences and reunited for the 1976 album ‘Farther Along’, adding Andes‘ guitarist brother Matt to the roster for good measure. Unfortunately, the magic was missing. The production was too ’70s-slick, and the songs seemed to be courting commercial success more than answering the call of the muse as Spirit had done in the past. The public rightly turned a deaf ear, and the reunion didn’t last past the one album.

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Future Games (1977)

Randy righted the ship somewhat with 1977’s ‘Future Games’, a trippy, homemade sounding album that was really more of a solo session than a Spirit record, despite the name on the album cover. Spirit released Future Games, it was a safe bet the album was going to be weird. And it was. His interest in science fiction took an obsessive turn, with several of the songs even having pronounced Star Trek themes, including “Gorn Attack,” “The Romulan Experience” and, even more blatantly, “Star Trek Dreaming.”

Future Games (A Magical Kahauna Dream), the fourth Spirit album on Mercury, released in January 1977, found California standing alone and bare-chested on the front and back covers, and he played all the instruments on the record.

Potatoland (1981)

Randy California and his stepfather, Ed Cassidy, became the touring Spirit who kept the tradition alive until California’s untimely passing in 1997. The strengths and the weaknesses of creative freedom are evident on “Potatoland: Adventures of Kaptain Kopter & Commander Cassidy in Potato Land”, a concept album with a theme that is far removed from the intuitive cool that was The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus. The material by California and drummer Cassidy is somewhat tremendous – “Open Up Your Heart” has wonderful Beach Boys/Beatles harmonies, there is some elegant playing, and a trippy melody. The production is also first-rate.

The music, however, is for the most part exemplary: at times a terrific listening experience resplendent in Randy California’s trademark guitar-oriented pop. Spirit needed a bit of discipline and direction at this juncture; but the zany nature of California’s Kaptain Kopter and potato obsessions inhibiting this stellar music from reaching a wider audience.

Other Albums

But another ill-advised reunion occurred on 1984’s ‘The 13th Dream’, on which all the original members convened one last time to desecrate the memory of the classic tunes they’d crafted together years before. The record consisted mostly of generic-sounding AOR-style versions of early Spirit material. The fact that members of The Doobie Brothers contributed to the tracks should offer some idea of the overall vibe. 1989’s ‘Rapture in the Chambers’, featuring everybody but Ferguson, suffered from similar problems, and lacked worthwhile material to boot.

California and the ageless, ever-faithful Cassidy kept Spirit going through the ’90s with a variety of bandmates, touring extensively and releasing a couple more unexceptional albums. But the Spirit story came crashing to an abrupt end on January 2nd, 1997. California, then 45, was swimming in the ocean with his 12-year-old son near their Hawaii home, when a tidal wave took them by surprise. Guitar hero California died a real-life hero, pushing his son to safety before being overtaken by the ocean. His body was never recovered, but in a strange way that’s probably fitting for a man who spent much of his life pushing the boundaries of his world to see what lay on the other side.

Cassidy died of cancer in 2012

Compilations, It Shall Be: The Ode & Epic Recordings 1968-1972; and Time Circle

Spirit’s catalog was regularly reissued in various editions over the first decade of the 21st century, but it wasn’t until 2018 that they received a proper box set treatment. In March, Esoteric Recordings released It Shall Be: The Ode & Epic Recordings 1968-1972; The five-disc set gathered their first five albums (including both mono and stereo mixes of their self-titled debut), and the soundtrack to the 1968 film The Model Shop. Each disc was packed with outtakes, demos, and alternative mixes from 1991’s Time Circle compilation. It also included a booklet with a critical and historical essay by Malcolm Dome, as well as archival interviews with California and Cassidy.

Newly re-mastered, this anthology features all of Spirit’s recordings for the Ode and Epic labels between 1968 and 1972 and notably includes the entire mono mix of the band’s self-titled debut album (appearing on CD for the first time), the complete soundtrack to the film The Model Shop, along with original 1968 stereo mix of The Family That Plays Together, associated out-takes, singles and alternate mixes undertaken in 1991 for the Time Circle compilation. It Shall Be also includes an illustrated booklet with essay by Malcolm Dome featuring archive interviews with Randy California and Ed Cassidy.

Esoteric Recordings are pleased to announce the release of a new 5CD remastered clamshell box set by the legendary American band SPIRIT. Formed in Los Angeles in 1967 from the remnants of The Red Roosters, SPIRIT was one of the great bands to emerge on the US West Coast in the Psychedelic era. Featuring the talents of 16 year old guitarist Randy California (who had played guitar with Jimi Hendrix in New York the previous year), his step-father drummer Ed Cassidy along with Jay Ferguson (vocals, percussion), John Locke (keyboards) and Mark Andes (bass), Spirit signed to producer Lou Adler’s newly established Ode Records label in late 1967. Their self-titled debut album appeared some months later and demonstrated the breadth and diversity of the band covering psychedelic, rock and jazz influences and featuring such legendary cuts as Fresh Garbage, Uncle Jack, Topanga Windows, Mechanical World , Elijah and Taurus (the subject of a court case decades later when it was alleged Led Zeppelin had taken the musical structure of the piece as a basis for Stairway to Heaven). The band’s follow-up album, The Family That Plays Together, spawned the hit single I’ve Got a Line on You and was one of their finest works thanks to material such as It Shall Be, Aren’t You Glad, Silky Sam and Darlin’ If. Leading up to the recording of 1969’s Clear album Spirit recorded the soundtrack to Jaques Demy’s film The Model Shop. In 1970 Spirit recorded the classic The Twelve Dreams of Doctor Sardonicus for Epic Records, from which the single Animal Zoo was taken and included excellent material such as Nature’s Way, Mr Skin, Space Child, Morning Will Come and Soldier. Sadly the original line- up of Spirit fell apart some months later leaving just Ed Cassidy and John Locke to assemble a new incarnation of Spirit for 1972’s Feedback, which saw brothers Al and John Staehely join the band on bass and drums respectively. Spirit went on hiatus soon after, although California and Cassidy would continue to tour and record as Spirit on and off until California’s untimely death in 1997.

Led by mercurial guitarist Randy California, Spirit were buddies of Jimi Hendrix and praised by Led Zeppelin. But their promise would collapse in blur of drugs and death

Murmuring an incantation, American guitarist Randy California. He’s been tripping on LSD all night in the King’s Road flat, above a dress shop, that he shares with his fellow band members – stepfather drummer Ed Cassidy and bassist Larry ‘Fuzzy’ Knight – while the trio complete a European tour as Kapt. Kopter And The (Fabulous) Twirly Birds, aka Spirit.


Recalling that period, Randy California had said in 1976: “If I hadn’t left London I’d be dead now for sure. I had to straighten out. Apart from being a church caretaker, I made charcoal and did some gardening. I grew pineapples and started to lead a happy, normal life.”

Fast-rewind to New York, June 1966. Fifteen-year-old Randy Craig Wolfe is playing guitar with a black cat calling himself Jimmy James who is running a group, the Blue Flames, in local clubs. Jimmy (or James ‘Jimi’ Hendrix) spotted Wolfe by Manny’s Music Store and invited him to sit in with them at Café Wha? in Greenwich Village.

Manny Roth, who owned the café, told Jimmy: “This kid is dynamite. Give him a go.” During the next month, Wolfe blossoms in the band’s six-nights-a-week residency and is christened Randy California – to distinguish him from bass player Randy Palmer, who then becomes Randy Texas.

California shines on a repertoire including Hey Joe, Wild Thing, the beginnings of Look Over Yonder, Shotgun and Like A Rolling Stone.

One night at the Café Au Go Go, California starts playing slide using the neck of a sawn-off 7-Up bottle while James/Hendrix guns down a fat riff. Suddenly the kid reaches across to his boss’s guitar and spins the volume control down to zero. Hendrix throws a fit, flings his Stratocaster across the room and walks out on to the street. A tentative invitation from Jimi for the kid to join him on his maiden visit to London is withdrawn, and Randy resumes fitful studies in NYC before his mother Eunice Pearl and Cassidy whisk him and his sisters back to LA in January 1967.

The origins of Spirit date back to 1965 when Randy and Cassidy formed the Red Roosters with high-school friends Jay Ferguson and Mark Andes and Mike Fondiler at a music camp in the mountains outside LA. They played regularly at the Ash Grove, a folk and blues joint run on left-wing principles, owned by Ed Pearl, Randy’s uncle. The kid is so annoyingly precocious that he walks in to chat to the legendary bluesmen before their sets. He has to be hauled out by the ear one night when he discovers Lightnin’ Hopkins swigging a bottle of gin, with a couple of eager gals sucking on something else.

Back on the LA scene the Roosters became Western Union for a spell, but when Randy California returned everyone noticed that playing with Jimmy James had altered his style; he wasn’t just playing Chuck Berry riffs. The old gang minus Fondiler reunited with Ed, adding his jazz pal John Locke.

Locke and Cassidy were two more reasons why Spirit were so fucking weird. Ed had a completely shaved head and always wore all black. Born in 1923 he was already a veteran, having played with the likes of Gerry Mulligan, Cannonball Adderley and avant garde guru Roland Kirk. Ed’s mate Locke looked studious but was immersed in the West Coast acid culture. A friend of Doors guitarist Robby Krieger, he’d been living in a commune in Topanga. Eventually the hippies bummed him out so he told them to get lost and invited the group to move in. Calling themselves Spirits Rebellious, after a book of short stories written by Lebanese-American writer Kahlil Gibran.


Lou Adler, boss of recently formed Ode Records and an impresario of note, had Spirit audition for Adler at the Whisky A Go Go in Hollywood, Spirit signed – on the strength of Adler’s success with the Mamas And The Papas – and began recording in August 1967. But not everyone liked Adler, an old-school cigar chomper with a brusque manner.

Mark Andes: “Three of us were technically minors so our parents had to okay the contract. Adler was respected and ruthless but he didn’t nurture us. Our single Mechanical World was a regional hit despite minimal support. We signed the week before Adler organised the Monterey Pop Festival. He could have put us on. It was a missed opportunity because we were part of the thriving LA scene – we played a lot at the Ash Grove, the Golden Bear, the Kaleidoscope with The Byrds. We opened for Cream. Trouble was, our reputation as an idiosyncratic psychedelic jazz group meant we were influential rather than successful.”

Lou was a strong personality, and on the first two albums I thought he was fine,” Jay Ferguson says today. “Although when we heard our debut album and discovered he’d got Marty Paich to orchestrate the songs, fundamentally changing our sound, our jaws hit the floor.”

Randy California was irate. “My problem wasn’t using Paich – who had worked with Frank Sinatra and Mel Tormé – but what happened to the overall sound. Paich didn’t come cheap, so we paid for that. Plus, Adler took the balls and guts out of what we’d done. I didn’t recognise half of it.”

In retrospect, Adler’s interference chimed with the ‘let’s add strings to the acid’ times. Love, who Spirit played with many times, had been ‘sophisticated’ by orchestration on Forever Changes; The Doors would soon pursue symphonic rock ground with The Soft Parade. Later, Randy took a pragmatic view. “We thought Adler would make us some bread. He didn’t, and instead he owned our publishing for five years and four albums.”

The self-titled Spirit, released in early 1968, a cult favourite in Britain, much loved by Robert Plant who persuaded the emerging New Yardbirds/Led Zeppelin to cover its opening track, Fresh Garbage, in their live sets. Another song, Taurus, would feature in Zeppelin folklore, due to the similarity of its harmonic sequence to the future Stairway To Heaven. During the 70s, California might shrug and pass that off as one of those things. But by 1997 he’d changed his mind. “Well, if you listen to the two songs, you can make your own judgment. I’d say it was a rip-off. Maybe some day their conscience will make them do something about it. There are funny business dealings between record companies, managers, publishers and artists. But when artists do it to other artists… there’s no excuse for that. I’m mad!”

Spirit’s second album, The Family That Plays Together, produced a bona fide single hit in California’s I Got A Line On You (later covered by Blackfoot), but Andes accepts that Spirit were too strange for their own good. “We were so goofy we were doing John Coltrane tunes,” he says. “Fresh Garbage was influenced by Hugh Masekala [the trumpeter behind the riff on The Byrds’ So You Want To Be A Rock’N’Roll Star]. The Topanga Corral crowd loved us. Buffalo Springfield and Taj Mahal came to see us and we built a real buzz.

The cracks began to show. Ferguson describes Spirit as “an underground thing where the centre could barely hold. Musically we were very good. We had a dramatic act. Randy was like the wizard, with lots of spacey effects at his feet. He dressed in furs and silks. Cassidy was impossible to ignore, shaved and dressed all in black. He had two field drums, like the ones used at football games, which he played with his bare hands. I had the Traffic look – very Anglophile with scarves and vintage jackets.

Mark [Andes] was the good-looking one, and John Locke was like a mad professor in charge of the keys to the kingdom. We certainly didn’t dress down. But we seldom got further than middle-of-the-road money. We were never street-level savvy like the English groups. We met those people, The Move and Led Zeppelin, and they’d emerged from industrial towns and took no prisoners, whereas we were happy sitting on the beach. That’s the Californian disease.”


Spirit were about to open the pod bay doors with their own spaced art-rock masterpiece Twelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus. Yet having spent 1969 on the road promoting their opening trilogy of wonderment, they seemed to have missed the psychedelic bus. They played a few dates with Led Zeppelin at the turn of ’69 and made headway at the Atlanta Pop Festival, but after falling out with Adler they had no one to represent them when it came to appearing at Woodstock.

California was furious that they missed out, blaming it on a rift between himself and Ferguson. “Jimi [Hendrix] instilled freedom and spontaneity in me – be loose and electric. But Jay always wanted tight, controlled sets. We were pitching for Woodstock, but since we couldn’t agree on anything it fell through. That was the beginning of the end for the original band.”

Still,Dr Sardonicus really was something else. Adler’s departure persuaded California and Locke to get off their arses. They went to see Neil Young to ask his advice. “Try my guy, David Briggs,” Neil ventured. A stroll down Topanga Canyon found Briggs at home with his entourage of Valley chicks. After checking Epic’s advance, he agreed to slot Spirit into his production schedule while he was finishing Young’s After The Gold Rush album.

Briggs was quite a character. His studio catchphrase was: “Be great, man – or fuck off.” Andes describes him as “a gruff, tough guy with shades and a black hat who hung with a biker-type crowd. Randy loved him because he gave him room to express himself, but it felt like divide and conquer. Briggs was also the ‘sleep with your girlfriend’ type. We went on the road and he shagged my girlfriend. He was a complete rogue. I’m like, ‘The producer’s fucking my girl?’ Did it bother me? Yes it did!”

Andes couldn’t get a fix on Briggs. “He was unobtrusive in the studio, but he didn’t have any vision,” he says. “I thought he over-produced us. He had intuition, I guess. Now I agree – yeah, Sardonicus is Spirit’s masterwork. At the time, I didn’t.”

Briggs introduced Spirit to a lot more hard drug use. Whereas before pot and LSD were taken for granted, now cocaine entered the room.

“We started hanging out with Neil Young a lot,” says Andes. “I used to drive round Hollywood smoking joints with him in his black Mini. During this time one of our dealer friends was shot dead after he fucked up on a financial transaction. Topanga started getting hard-edged. We were doing bottle caps full of blow but the creative juices were flowing. While we were mixing Sardonicus Randy fell off a horse and fractured his skull. During his recovery he was doing vast – and I mean vast – amounts of blow. Which was very unfortunate for everyone because he was never the same again.”

Dr Sardonicus, released in late 1970, featured songs that would put the group at the forefront of conceptual psych-rock. The otherworldly atmosphere of the music was mirrored by trippy album artwork, created by mystic poet Ira Cohen at his Mylar Chamber studio in New York City.

“I saw that album as a quantum leap,” says Ferguson. “We made it at Studio B Sound City, and the talk was of making our own Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake, or a Sgt. Pepper thing. Nobody else thought it that special. It got no airplay, terrible sales and shocking reviews, apart from in England where you thought it was the highlight of our career. That’s where it gained the reputation that eventually saw it go gold many years later. It was our pinnacle.”

In fact critic Nick Tosches gave Sardonicus a fair crack in Rolling Stone (“a blockbuster of a record”). Among the album’s many gems were California’s eco-epic “Nature’s Way”, Ferguson’s “Mr Skin”, and the stupendous Nothin’ To Hide where Randy lampooned the black magick crowd of Topanga weirdos in the lines ‘Swastika plug in your ear… jealous stars in your pants.’ Credit Briggs for suggesting they inject a drop-dead drawl ‘fuuaaack’ in the bridge. It’s total classic rock.

That album should have turned Spirit into stars themselves. “It was expensive enough,” laughs Ferguson . “A real Frankenstein thing. We had the ability to be like a Grateful Dead jamming group but I insisted on some structure. Randy blew up on that record as a writer. He was magnificent. It’s no wonder that we’ll always be known for Dr Sardonicus, but we never made it to the Hall Of Fame. Since Cass died last year and John died in 2006 I’d love that to happen. Mark and me are the only two surviving members. That is chilling.”

At the height of their powers the original quintet imploded. Sick and unable to function, California began having visions. He cancelled a Japanese tour in 1970 and accused Andes and Ferguson of plotting against him. “Randy stopped acting rationally,” Andes says. “He wanted too much control of my life.” Following a near fist fight after their final gig, at Fillmore East in New York on January 30, 1970, Spirit slouched off in disarray – Andes and Ferguson quit and formed Jo Jo Gunne, California went into rehab. Having nothing better to do, Cassidy and Locke hooked up with the Staehely Brothers Al and Christian and recorded Feedback, again with Briggs.

Having tried unsuccessfully to kick his coke habit, Randy California re-emerged in 1972 with the blueprint for his future career – the downright peculiar Kapt. Kopter And The (Fabulous) Twirly Birds solo album, which saw him reunited with Cass and a cast including Noel Redding (billed as Clit McTorius), his sisters Janet and Robin, and bassist Larry ‘Fuzzy’ Knight. Together they set about sifting over the debris of the guitarist’s on-hold Potatoland project, an Orwellian concept that produced the old Spirit’s swansong single 1984, while attempting a mash-up of tributes to Hendrix, The Beatles and Paul Simon.

In spring1973 the Kapt. Kopter band, now a trio of Randy, Larry and Cass, accepted an invitation to tour Europe, where demand for Sardonicus guaranteed kudos and ticket sales. According to Knight, “our agency said the import was top of the charts, so we left Topanga Canyon just after Randy’s divorce from his first wife and flew over. Randy was as weird as ever, if not more so. He was on a bulimia kick. We’d go out to eat good meals, then he’d rush back to our Chelsea flat and throw up. It was awful. The whole place smelt of vomit. It was all a big secret. We did The Old Grey Whistle Test. He took his shirt off in the performance and his ribs were sticking out. It was painful to witness.”

Knight watched California endure a protracted breakdown. “He’d be relaxed and open and talk about anything, or he’d become introverted and darkly brooding. He was stoned all the time. His cocaine usage was way out of hand and he was doing LSD. He lived in his own world but he had this obsession – he wanted the world to know that he was as good a guitarist as Hendrix – or better, or better than anybody else ever in rock’n’roll.”

California was a mass of contradictions. A supremely healthy jock, he was also embarking on a path to oblivion. “On that tour he deteriorated,” says Knight. “We played Finland, Denmark and Holland. And then we came back to London to headline at the Rainbow Theatre, and I saw him completely forget where he was or what he was doing. He blanked out. We did a twenty-minute drum and bass solo before his memory returned. When we finished, Cass and me went to the dressing room and he’d locked us out.

“Eventually he opened the door, and he was sitting there covered in blood. He’d taken a razor blade and carved words into his arm. He was so out of his body he was in an altered state, way out on the psychic edge. He said: ‘I always want it to sound like my guitar sounds to me on acid.’ It was more than crazy. He wouldn’t even listen to Cass; they had a bond, but who wants to hear what their dad says? That was a huge part of his problem – the father-figure thing. They respected and loved each other, but they’d grown apart.”

Returning to the US, Randy again booked into rehab. He didn’t pick up a guitar for two years as he tried to sublimate the ego problems leading him towards catastrophe. By 1975 he was living in Hawaii, working in McDonalds and also doing a stint in a rock mine. According to Knight, that was also a disaster. “He hurt his leg and it got so infected he was close to amputation.”

Finally shelving plans for the ill-fated and somewhat half-arsed Potatoland album, California embarked on a sequence of albums that cemented his reputation as one of the strangest dudes on the planet: the brilliant Spirit Of ’76, Son Of Spirit, the reunion Farther Along and Future Games – A Magical Kahauna Dream. During a concert at Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, Neil Young had been invited to sing the encore, Like A Rolling Stone. But when he lurched drunkenly on stage California shoved him into the wings in front of an audience including many celebrities. A furious John Locke confronted California after and screamed: “I’m never gonna work with you again.”

Knight maintains that was “normal behaviour. Just before he got the Mercury deal for Spirit of ’76 Randy and me went to see Doors producer Paul Rothchild at his home in Laurel Canyon. Rothchild told us: ‘I can make you guys successful again.’ He asked Randy for his cassette, which was reluctantly handed over. While Paul sets up, Randy wanders round the house like he owns it then walks out the door into the woods for two hours. He was tripping. When he got back he picked up the tape and said to Rothchild: ‘I’m leaving now, your vibe isn’t right.’ That was typical. He hated the idea of being produced by anyone. His ego wouldn’t allow for that.”

Yet the man I met in 1976, though a space cadet of magnificent proportions, was a gentle and impressive individual who wouldn’t drink anything stronger than peach juice. “I can’t handle alcohol,” he said. “But I am addicted to tobacco.” He also admitted he still enjoyed LSD. Prone to non-violent mood swings, he was a manic-depressive but he was physically fit.

An attempt to revive the old Sprit occurred when they made The Thirteenth Dream in 1984. “It wasn’t satisfying,” recalls Ferguson. “We did the old songs, but without the old mood. There wasn’t much point to it.”

Randy California continued recording until his death, making a number of decent albums for various labels with minimal commercial success. He stayed in touch. In a late letter, he poured out his soul as usual and he’d drawn a few pictures in the margins – a guitar and a spaceship. What else? At the foot of the letter was the quote from Ecclesiastes: ‘To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heavens.’

On January 2, 1997 Randy California drowned off the coast of Molokai. He’d been surfing with his 12-year old son Quinn when they were caught in a rip tide, which swept them from the shore. The coastguard rescued Quinn but as his father pushed him towards safety he didn’t save himself. The coastguard believed Randy let himself go. No one really knows. I imagine his death as simply being retrieved by a greater force. It’s nature’s way, after all. We’ll never see his like again.

thanks to Classic Rock,


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