“Spirit” by Spirit (1968)
In the summer of 1966, Randy Craig Wolfe was a 15-year-old kid with a strong interest in music and a family to match: His uncle Ed Pearl ran the Ash Grove club in his native Los Angeles, and Ed Cassidy, the man who’d recently married Randy’s mother, had been a professional drummer since the ’30s.
Ed, then 42, had taken his new family to New York City so that he could find more work, and Randy, an aspiring guitarist, started hanging out at the legendary Manny’s Music on West 48th Street. Perhaps he was hoping to see someone famous; according to a New York Times article published when Manny’s closed in 2009, “The store hit its heyday in the 1960s, when British Invasion bands like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Who made Manny’s a must-stop destination upon landing in America. ”
Instead, he met another young, out-of-state guitarist, a black guy from Seattle. As Randy recalled:
He was in the back of the store playing a Strat. Our eyes caught each other, and I asked him if I could show him some things I learned on the guitar. He then gave me the Strat and I played slide guitar. He really liked it and invited me down that night, which I believe was his first night of this gig at the Cafe Wha?
The band, billed as Jimmy James & the Blue Flames, had a bass player who also was named Randy. So the guitarist started referring to them by their home states, Randy Texas (Palmer) and Randy California (Wolfe).
Jimmy James, of course, turned out to be James Marshall Hendrix, and he started teaching Wolfe some of his own favorite chops.
“I know he showed me the chords to ‘Hey Joe,’ because I had never heard that before,” Wolfe reminisced, as quoted in Johnny Black’s “Jimi Hendrix: The Ultimate Experience.”
Cafe Wha? is where Hendrix met Keith Richards’ girlfriend Linda Keith, who in turn introduced Jimi to Animals bass player Chas Chandler, who in turn was looking to get into the management side. The rest is history, as Hendrix went with Chandler to his native U.K. and to superstardom … without Wolfe. As Chandler told Black:
Jimi genuinely wanted to bring Randy to England, but I was adamant that he made space between them. I said, “How the fuck am I going to get a visa for a 15-year-old, anyway? Do you understand what implications there are with something like that? You just don’t do it.
And so Randy was left with this observation:
One day I arrived to find that Jimi’d split for England. That was the end of it.
But Hendrix’s desertion didn’t deter Wolfe from his pursuit of music. After his family moved back to Los Angeles, he met up with some musicians he’d played with as the Red Roosters prior to the extended New York stay. They got back together, this time with Ed as the drummer, and with a new name: Spirits Rebellious, from a Khalil Gibran book. Plus Randy kept the name Jimi had given him, now professionally known as Randy California.
The five-piece band – also including vocalist Jay Ferguson, bass player Mark Andes and keyboard player John Locke – eventually shortened its name to Spirit and started drawing a decent following around the L.A. clubs. In an era of increased musical experimentation, Spirit drew from a variety of influences for a cross between acoustic folk, early jazz-rock fusion, hard blues-based rock, wowing audiences with its ability to mix tight song structures with long, technically advanced improvisation.
One such vehicle for improvisation was a song Locke composed called “Elijah.” Spirit recorded an 11-minute version as part of its demo tape, made available some 25 years later on an anthology called “Chronicle” by an obscure Canadian label. The songs on the tape, although poorly recorded, helped the band draw interest from record companies.
One of those was Ode Records, a fledgling label formed by music entrepreneur Lou Adler after he sold his Dunhill label to ABC. Although he later signed Carole King as a solo artist – she recorded the landmark, top-selling “Tapestry” for Ode – and launched the record- and movie-making career of Cheech & Chong, Adler’s first release for his new venture was Spirit’s debut album.
The album came out in January 1968 amid a wildly eclectic musical landscape, one that had broadened during the decade to embrace all kinds of styles. As such, “Spirit” seemed to have something for everyone, what with its musicians’ variety of influences and, perhaps directly related, the age range of its members (Ed was 44, Randy 16).
Perhaps there was too much diversity within the grooves. The LP did peak at No. 31, but at a time when singles dominated the market, Spirit’s initial offering, an odd dirge called “Mechanical World,” went nowhere.
Among albums released in 1968, though, “Spirit” has aged extremely well, as many of its compositions sound not the least bit dated nearly 45 years later.
The message put forth in the album opener, “Fresh Garbage,” certainly still rings true. The lyrics are short and to the point: “Look beneath your lid this morning/See those things you didn’t quite consume/The world’s a can for your fresh garbage.” Ferguson was inspired by a trash collectors’ strike to write the song, but its environmental implications proved to be ahead of the curve.
Musically, the song features a memorable riff, one that might sound familiar to heavy-duty Led Zeppelin fans: It was used by that band during performances of Garnet Mimms’ “As Long As I Have You” during early Zeppelin concerts, some of which as the opening act for Spirit.
The bridge of “Fresh Garbage” demonstrates that Spirit is no ordinary band. The song abruptly breaks into a peppy, piano-driven section that reaches a multi-instrumental crescendo before returning to the main theme, over which Ferguson repeats the lyrics.
By contrast, Ferguson’s “Uncle Jack” is a relatively straightforward rocker, although what he sings is somewhat enigmatic: “‘So many lives to live,’ I heard him say/’But some people live to give themselves away, to find peace of mind, waiting where they can’t get it'” The song is the only one from Spirit’s August 1967 sessions to make it to the LP; the remainder was recorded between Nov. 9 and 17.
About “Mechanical World,” California later wrote:
Mark was very ill with the flu and was confined to his room for weeks, making him feel very depressed and mechanical. Towards the end of his sickness, Jay could be seen sneaking in and out of Mark’s room with guitar in hand. When Mark finally came out, there was a brand new song. The group really collaborated on this track, and everyone was happy to see Mark smiling and healthy again.
As for the song, it lurches along spouting lyrics that reflect a sick person’s outlook: “Death falls so heavy on my soul/Death falls so heavy, makes me moan/Somebody tell my father that I died/Somebody tell my mother that I cried.” Even with that baggage and its clocking in at more than 5 minutes, it became the single, perhaps because of the money spent by Adler on its orchestral arrangement.
The orchestra returns for “Taurus,” an instrumental that serves as California’s first solo composition. Since 1971, conjecture has been rampant that Led Zeppelin copped part of the melody for none other than “Stairway to Heaven”; the listener is the ultimate judge. California simply had this to say:
Written for my first love, Robin. She was a Taurus. But I must also mention the perfect astrological balance of the band with two Tauri (Cass and Jay), two Pisces (Randy and Mark) and one Libra (John).
Now, that sounds like 1968!
Ferguson’s “Girl in Your Eye” perhaps is the most 1968-sounding track on the album, with its incorporation of the sitar and orchestral sweeps. California’s pioneering use of feedback sustain, however, is used to great effect to counteract some of the period elements.
“Straight Arrow” is a fun piece that Ferguson wrote about Keith Andes, Mark’s father, an actor who inspired the composition with his performance as Don Quixote in “Man of La Mancha.” Again, the song takes a jazzy sidetrack in the middle before returning to its main theme.
The lyrics for the most part evoke a Western-type hero, with one line standing out: “Watch what you do because Straight Arrow watches you.” Spirit would revisit that line of thinking on California’s seemingly paranoiac “1984,” a song that climbed up the charts in early 1970 before radio play ceased for no apparent reason. So, who was being paranoid? …
The “Spirit” album continues with the ultra-heady “Topanga Windows,” which features some of Ferguson’s most catchy wordplay: “People searching for a better season, trying to catch their moment on the run/Always asking wanting what’s the reason, what do you want when you just want to have some fun?” The song’s languid, dreamlike pace picks up substantially in the middle, bolstered by California’s double-tracked guitar, again putting the teenager’s tremendous talent on full display.
“Gramophone Man,” the album’s sole group composition, chronicles a common plight among musicians: meeting with record-company executives who care only about sales, not who might be doing the performing. The message is conveyed in a sly manner: “And watch the time, the world is waiting, give a tune for Mr. Gramophone Man/Jack and Jill falling down off their hill, singing songs for Mr. Gramophone Man.”
Ferguson contributes two brief compositions, “Water Woman” and “The Great Grand Canyon Fire in General,” that lead up to the album’s conclusion. The latter is interesting for its allusions to an actual Los Angeles event, “a big summer fire that burned about half of Topanga Canyon,” California wrote. “Our yellow house was saved, but everyone had to evacuate and spend a week camping at the beach.”
“Elijah” clocks in at nearly 11 minutes on the LP version, allowing the various members to show their chops. California wrote about its serving as a concert extravaganza:
Some of the more memorable solos I recall were Jay and Mark pulling out two chairs center stage and facing each other doing the “hambone,” a two-man, hand-slappin’, thigh-hittin’ rhythmic affair. On John’s solo, he often would use a hand-held, breath-controlled keyboard that sounded like a sax. …
Sometimes I would do my guitar solo by turning my amp off and playing acoustically right on the microphone. Our audiences were great – you could hear a pin drop.
“Elijah” probably worked better as performance art than as an album track, but it does present a clear picture of each of the musicians’ capabilities. California’s section is a bit disappointing considering his groundbreaking work on most of the rest of “Spirit,” but he certainly acquits himself well, particularly considering his age at the time.
For fans of rock’s psychedelic era, “Spirit” is a real treat in that it doesn’t have to go to great lengths to offer a cerebral listening experience. Even the orchestration, something Spirit never again integrated, is subtle enough to serve pretty much as an auxiliary instrument, rather than tending to drown out the proceedings.
Perhaps it didn’t resonate with the record-buying public, or for posterity, as did the albums recorded around the same time by California’s former bandmate.
But Hendrix continued to hold Spirit in high regard until the end of his life, always acknowledging the role that young Randy Wolfe played in Jimi’s salad days.