Friday, December 2, 2011

Fables of the Reconstruction: Spirit

Last spring, I borrowed a hundred or so records from my uncle who used to play in rock and roll bands. Among them were a couple by Spirit, a band I’d never heard of, probably because they never quite made it to superstardom. They came close, but not all the way there. In fact, several members of Spirit came close to making it big before the band formed in LA in the late 60s. Their drummer, Ed Cassidy, had been in a band Rising Sons that also included Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder. They’d signed with Columbia, but Cassidy broke his hand and had to quit, and their album didn’t come out until 1992. Spirit’s keyboardist, John Locke, was in a band with Robbie Krieger -- right before Krieger joined The Doors. Bass player Mark Andes was an original member of Canned Heat, but he left the group right before they signed with a label. And at the age of 15 their guitarist, Randy California, played in a band called Jimmy James and the Blue Flames in 1966. When the band’s leader, whose real last name was Hendrix, left for England to form a new band called the Experience, he invited Randy to join him, but Randy’s parents wouldn’t let him go. In fact, Hendrix gave the young guitarist his stage name.
The near-hits kept coming after the band came together in Los Angeles and started making records. Led Zeppelin opened for them on their 1968 tour and went on to steal a riff from an instrumental on their first album and built “Stairway to Heaven” out of it. They were offered a slot at Woodstock, but their manager advised them to turn it down because he didn’t think the festival would be a big deal. It wasn’t until after the original lineup disbanded, in fact, that some of its members experienced some real success. Andes moved to Boulder and was a founding member of Firefall and later a member of Heart when the band was banging out number one hits. Ferguson had a monster hit in 1978 with “Thunder Island” before becoming a successful composer of movie and TV soundtracks. He wrote the theme to The Office.
When I asked my uncle why he’d kept those Spirit albums for all those years, he said, “They were really ahead of their time.” He had three of their records. Having listened to them all many times, I have to say I agree; they were ahead of their time. The question is, what time? I’ve never heard any other band that sounds quite like them. Their first two, their self-titled debut and The Family That Plays Together, came out a little less than a year apart in 1968, and they’ve got that influenced-by-the-Beatles sound, especially in the vocals. But the song arrangements are always shifting in and out of other sounds – classical, Latin rhythms, folk, blues, jazz. Especially jazz. Cassidy had drummed with some of the best jazz musicians in the world during the 50s and early 60s. And keyboardist John Locke clearly had some jazz in his blood, judging from his epic instrumental “Elijah,” which closes out side two of their first record. Clocking in at just under 11 minutes, it calls to mind a Dave Brubeck composition until it breaks down into a free jazz passage with a fuzzed-out acid-rock guitar solo as its centerpiece and, later, a spacey bass solo followed by a long drum break.
There was one glaring omission from my uncle’s collection: Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus. I had to buy that one myself after I found out that it’s widely regarded as their best. When I asked my uncle why he didn’t own that one, I could hear his cringe through the long distance wires. “Too ‘we’re in the seventies now,’” he said. It is a 70s record, I’ll grant him that, but I don’t share his disdain. It’s a black-light-poster-and-lava-lamp classic. It gets quite a bit heavier and more cosmic in places than their earlier releases (with a bit of pioneering moog mixed in), but it still has moments of quiet beauty like the earlier releases, especially on the AOR hit “Nature’s Way” (which my uncle admitted that his band used to cover).
Of the four, my favorite is The Family That Plays Together. Peaking at 22 on the Billboard charts, it was their biggest hit. The album has a brilliant flow to it, drifting seamlessly from the hard-driving hit single “I Got a Line on You” that opens side one to the dreamy-jazzy “It Shall Be,” to the hard-driving grooviness of “It’s All the Same,” through layered vocal harmonies in “Poor Richard” and full orchestra on the gorgeous “Silky Sam,” to the side’s conclusion, “Darlin’ If,” a love song so beautiful that I would put it up against any song released in 1968. It’s stunning to know that California was just 17 years old when he wrote it, because it shows a level of restraint that usually takes artists years and years of hard work to develop. And so much feeling in the vocals. It’s the kind of song auto-repeat was made for. It’s the kind of song that superstars are made from. But the story of Spirit shows that greatness doesn’t always hinge on artistic genius. Sometimes it’s a matter of luck. And having a manager smart enough to know a generation-defining festival when he sees one.

No comments: