Posts Tagged ‘Neil Young’

“Sweetheart of the Rodeo” by the Byrds (1968)

The cover of the Byrds’ fifth album, “The Notorious Byrd Brothers,” famously features the image of a horse in place of David Crosby, who’d either left the band or been fired during recording sessions, depending on whom you believe.

Crosby had been increasingly at odds with fellow founding members Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, who chafed at Crosby’s spaced-out ramblings between songs during the Byrds’ set at the Monterey Pop Festival, as well as his guest spot spelling Neil Young in Buffalo Springfield.

Crosby, in turn, opposed the others’ song selections for “Notorious,” arguing that his ode to a menage a trois, “Triad,” should be on the album, and Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s “Goin’ Back” should not.


Roger McGuinn

At any rate, he was gone as of October 1967, and McGuinn and Hillman coaxed former lead singer Gene Clark back into the band. He’d left the previous year – the classic “Eight Miles High” was prompted by his fear of flying – but decided to return for an appearance on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” and a short tour of the Midwest. After only a couple of weeks, he bowed out again.

Drummer Michael Clarke wasn’t far behind. A Columbia Records CD re-release contains a section of studio chatter that puts the rest of the Byrds’ dissatisfaction with Clarke on full display, with Crosby taunting him with crybaby sounds. Clarke stuck around long enough to finish the LP, but by the time it was released in January 1968, the Byrds effectively were a duo.

While two other groundbreaking bands with personnel problems imploded that same year – Young, Richie Furay and Stephen Stills went their separate ways, as did Jimmy Page and the rest of the Yardbirds – McGuinn and Hillman decided to carry on and went about recruiting new members.

McGuinn’s concept at the time – he never would quite see a Byrds’ concept album to fruition – was an overview of American popular music, exploring bluegrass, country, jazz and blues, all the way up to Moog synthesizer experiments, such as he had tried during the “Notorious” sessions.

Kevin Kelley, Hillman’s drummer cousin, came aboard to get proceedings going, and a potential fourth member auditioned in March. In his book “Hickory Wind,” Ben Fong-Torres describes the scenario:


Gram Parsons

“Gram Parsons wasn’t exactly bursting with credentials when he came up for consideration as a member of the Byrds … His first album was flopping; he wrote a song that Peter Fonda had recorded; and he had a few flickers of a bit part in (the Roger Corman movie) ‘The Trip.’ He was just the kind of dilettante that a guy like Chris Hillman should have snubbed.”

The two had hit it off a few months before, though, when they met while waiting in line at the bank. He invited Parsons to rehearsal, where McGuinn asked him if he could play jazz piano.

“Gram, as he recalled, faked a blues figure of some sort, sang, played some guitar, and seemed like a nice guy who’d fit in with the band. Roger, in classic ’60s, laissez-faire style, hired him on the spot,” Fong-Torres wrote in his Parsons biography.

McGuinn’s rumination remains an integral part of Byrds lore:

“I had no idea he was Hank Williams Jr.”

Parsons’ recently released album, “Safe at Home” by the International Submarine Band, combined elements of rock and country in a manner that some bands – the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield were among them – had dabbled in a bit. But the ISB’s lone long-player stands as the first example of the two styles melding together as a seamless whole.

What’s fascinating in retrospect is how Parsons was able almost immediately to convince McGuinn to concentrate solely on the country component of his American music vision.

“Soon, the band decided to cut its next album in Nashville: Music City, USA. And not only would they be the first long-haired folk-rock band from California to invade Nashville, they would crash the temple of all that was good and backward about country music, the Grand Ole Opry.

The March 10, 1968, performance is legendary for Parsons’ blowing off the Opry producers and launching into his own composition “Hickory Wind” instead of the Merle Haggard song that host Tompall Glaser was expecting.

“The other Byrds looked at each other,” Fong-Torres wrote. “They had gotten stoned backstage, and they weren’t ready for a plot twist like this. They just managed to catch up with Gram, and the song proceeded smoothly.”

Just 21 years old at the time, Parsons apparently had become de facto leader of the Byrds, and sessions for what would become “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” proceeded accordingly. Studio musicians assisted the band for the March sessions in Nashville, and recording continued in Los Angeles during April and May.

Meanwhile …

The International Submarine Band was under contract to LHI Productions, owned by Lee Hazlewood, the guy who wrote and produced “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'” for Nancy Sinatra. According to Fong-Torres:

Hazlewood had worked hard to establish his first record company, and he didn’t like watching the Submarine Band fall apart just as its first album was being issued. Nor did he appreciate the leader of that band wandering off to another group. He decided to get hard-nosed. He contacted CBS Records to inform the company that LHI Productions still owned the rights to Gram’s vocal performances, if not to his compositions or to his work as an instrumentalists.

Parsons had sung lead vocals on several of the songs on which the Byrds were working. But, Fong-Torres wrote:

After Lee’s call, Columbia ordered Gram’s voice stripped off the album and replaced it with Roger’s and Chris’. Roger got to work putting his own voice, with a brand-new Southern acent, where Gram’s had been.


Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons

Eventually, the two companies settled.

“We were just about to scratch ‘Hickory Wind’ when somebody ran in with a piece of paper,” Parsons, who died of an overdose in 1973, recalled in an interview. “That’s the last one they saved.”

According to at least one source, the whole Hazlewood controversy just may have served as an excuse for McGuinn to do some reconsidering.

Gary Usher, who produced “Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” told a publication shortly before his death in 1990 that McGuinn had overdubbed some songs because of the legal issue, but that the differences were resolved early in the process.

“So whoever sang leads on the songs were there because that’s how we wanted to slice the album up,” he said, noting McGuinn was wary “that Parsons was getting a little bit too much out of this thing. He didn’t want the album to turn into a Gram Parsons album. You just don’t take a hit group and interject a new singer for no reason.”

Whatever the true story, Columbia released “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” on Aug. 30, much to the confusion of fans who were expecting more psychedelia-tinged folk-rock along the lines of “The Notorious Byrd Brothers.”

A radio commercial included in a CD re-release plays on the band’s shift in musical direction, as a couple debate whether what’s playing really is the Byrds. The spot ends with the voiceover guy unequivocally announcing:

“The Byrds take 11 trips to the country. Why not fly with them?”

Not too many record buyers did, compared with previous Byrds releases. The album peaked at No. 77 on Billboard, and in the United Kingdom, where the band had a substantial following, it failed to reach the charts.

As far as the LP tracks, the band revisits familiar territory to start Side One, covering a Bob Dylan song. This time around, though, instead of a 12-string guitar lick along the lines of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” this particular tune opens with the unmistakably country-tinged twang of guest Lloyd Green’s pedal steel guitar.

“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” successfully combines Dylan’s amusingly obscure lyrics with a swinging rhythm, all in a two-and-a-half minute package that also came out as the album’s first single. It performed slightly better than the LP, reaching No. 74.

On the second track, the Byrds delve fully into the country genre with the traditional “I Am a Pilgrim.” The choice of instruments veers far off the rock ‘n’ roll path, with John Hartford providing fiddle, Roy Husky on double bass and McGuinn playing banjo.

“The Christian Life” is a song by Charles and Ira Loudermilk, better known as the gospel-country duo the Louvin Brothers. Parsons brought the song to the Byrds, but McGuinn’s lead vocal ended up on the album. A comparison between the two singers shows Parsons, in a version released decades after the fact, giving “The Christian Life” a much more reverential treatment than McGuinn, who seems to put tongue in cheek for lines like “My buddies shun me since I turned to Jesus/They say I’m missing a whole world of fun.”

Stax/Volt singer William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water” received an R&B treatment in its original incarnation, as it did on Otis Redding’s cover. The Byrds’ backwoods reading originally featured Parsons’ lead vocal, but McGuinn’s appears on the album, for whichever reason the listener wants to believe. For comparison’s sake, Gram’s version has surfaced on the 1990 boxed set “The Byrds” and re-releases of “Sweetheart of the Rodeo.”

“You’re Still On My Mind” is a honky-tonk-flavored song penned by Mississippi musician Luke McDaniel, a friend of Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins. Parsons, who brought the song to the band, ended up with the “Sweetheart” lead vocal, regardless of his own story about the album’s making.

Woody Guthrie wrote “Pretty Boy Floyd” as a romanticized version of the infamous bank robber’s proclivity to play Robin Hood: “Well you say that I’m an outlaw, you say that I’m a thief/Well, here’s a Christmas dinner for the families on relief.” The tune perhaps is the most Byrds-like, at least compared to the band’s folk-rock origins, on the album.

Parsons actually co-wrote “Hickory Wind” with Bob Buchanan, who contributed lyrical input while the two were passengers on a train to Los Angeles. The song combines Gram’s nostalgia for his upbringing in Georgia and Florida with homesickness and disappointment on the part of both musicians:

It’s hard to find out that trouble is real
In a far away city, with a far away feel
But it makes me feel better each time it begins
Callin’ me home, hickory wind

The next album track is another Parsons composition, “One Hundred Years from Now,” although McGuinn and Hillman share the vocal on the finished product. A rehearsal version featuring Gram appears on re-releases.


Clarence White

Veteran country songwriter and singer Cindy Walker wrote “Blue Canadian Rockies” for Gene Autry’s 1952 movie of the same name. Hillman’s vocal carries the relatively straightforward love song, and future Byrds member Clarence White plays guitar.

Merle Haggard’s “Life In Prison” explores a time-honored country theme: The protagonist has murdered the love of his life. In this case, the powers that be won’t execute him, much to his chagrin: “If I die, my pain will go away.” Haggard, a former inmate, has gotten a lot of mileage out of jail-oriented songs, including the better-known “Mama Tried” and “Sing Me Back Home,” both of which were covered by the Grateful Dead.

The original LP wraps up with another Dylan composition that had not been released as of 1968, “Nothing Was Delivered.” As with “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” the dominant instrument is Green’s pedal steel, which opens the song on somewhat of an upbeat note before the vocals begin.

As for the subject matter, Dylan is relatively straightforward in his description of a drug deal gone bad (although nowhere near as graphic as Don “Buck Dharma” Roeser in the Blue Oyster Cult’s “Then Came the Last Day of May”). Bob’s narrator plays it cool, but his message is clear:

Nothing was delivered
But I can’t say I sympathize
With what your fate is going to be
Yes, for telling all those lies
Now you must provide some answers
For what you sold has not been received
And the sooner you come up with them
The sooner you can leave

The outtakes from the album that eventually saw the light of day include three tunes that didn’t make the album: Parsons’ “Lazy Day,” Tim Hardin’s “You Got a Reputation” and the traditional “Pretty Polly.” The latter is the sinister tale of a gambler who “courts” a young girl, then brutally murders her. Perhaps he’s related to the “Life in Prison” guy.

Although it tanked sales-wise, “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” received critical praise and went on to influence myriad bands that sought to combine rock with country, most notably (from a commercial standpoint) the Eagles.

But Parsons’ stay with the band was brief. The Byrds left for London in July, wowing the crowd at a “Sounds ’68” charity concert at the Royal Albert Hall. From there, it was on to then-segregated South Africa, but without Gram.

“Something a lot of people don’t know about me is that I was brought up with a Negro for a brother,” Parsons later claimed. “Like all Southern families, we had maids and servants, a whole family called the Dixons that took care of us. Sammy Dixon was a little older than me, and he lived with and grew up with me, so I learned at a real close leel that segregation was just not it.”

The other Byrds weren’t buying it.

“It was total garbage,” a still-bitter Hillman told Fong-Torres. “I really wanted to murder him.”

Hillman figured Parsons wanted to hang out with new friend Keith Richards, and the Rolling Stones guitarist confirmed his role in Gram’s decision.

“I was instrumental in his leaving the Byrds,” Fong-Torres quotes Richards as admitting, “because I said, ‘Nobody goes to play in South Africa.'”

Hillman bailed out later in the year, leaving McGuinn, the band’s sole original member, to regroup around White. Drummer Gene Parsons (no relation to Gram) and bass player John York came aboard, but the Byrds had trouble regaining their artistic and commercial heights before breaking up in 1972.

Gram Parsons later talked Hillman into joining a new band, the Flying Burrito Brothers, which recorded the de facto followup to “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” for their classic debut, “The Gilded Palace of Sin.”

White, whose guitar-playing skills made him far and away the best instrumentalist the band ever had, died in 1973. While loading equipment into his car, he was hit by a drunken driver.


Gram Parsons died in Room 8 at the Joshua Tree Inn.

Parsons, who had recorded to “solo” albums with singing partner and future country superstar Emmylou Harris, died a few months later, on Sept. 18. He’d gone on vacation to Joshua Tree National Park in California, staying at a nondescript motel on the edge of the desert.

“Gram wasted little time in making a connection with a heroin dealer in town,” Fong-Torres wrote. “Before scoring, he drank heavily at lunch” with two women. “They sat and watched Gram chain-drink Jack Daniel’s, then drove him back to the Joshua Tree Inn. There, he found his drug connection, and in a room next to the owners’ apartment, he added heroin to his already overloaded system.”

After his death, friend Phil Kaufman, honoring some kind of pledge the two supposedly had made, stole Gram’s casket from Los Angeles International Airport and burned his body at Joshua Tree.

All that drama might have made for a good song on “Sweetheart of the Rodeo.”

“On the Beach” by Neil Young (1974)

As far back as 1967, Neil Young expressed in song his ambiguity about fame. Stephen Stills’ “For What Its Worth” had put Buffalo Springfield on the charts, becoming an anthem for the era with its us-vs.-them rhetoric.

Young’s answer to his band’s success was “Mr. Soul,” a witty, self-deprecating look at “the thought that I caught that my head was the event of the season.” He frankly admitted to his quirkiness, even at age 21, with the key line: “She said, you’re strange, but don’t change, and I let her.”

He went on to display flashes of eccentricity with the advanced sound collage “Broken Arrow,” which joined “Mr. Soul” on the tremendous “Buffalo Springfield Again” album, and certainly with the bizarre imagery of “Last Trip to Tulsa” on Young’s solo debut. But he’d played it relatively straight during the first round of his collaboration with Crosby, Stills and Nash, and on his own next three albums, “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere,” “After the Gold Rush” and “Harvest.”

By the time of the latter’s release in 1972, Young had become a bona fide rock star, a status that was cemented when both “Harvest” and the AM-friendly single “Heart of Gold” reached No. 1.

His immediate followup was the two-record soundtrack to a barely watchable film called “Journey Through the Past,” featuring Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young performances, along with “Harvest”-era outtakes and some true oddities, including versions of Handel’s “Messiah,” performed by the Tony & Susan Alamo Christian Foundation Orchestra & Chorus, and the Beach Boys doing “Let’s Go Away for Awhile.”

“Journey Through the Past” has remained out of print since its initial release, disappointing fans who might want to hear the side-length version of “Words (Between the Lines of Age).”

As 1972 drew to a close, it was without guitarist Danny Whitten, his Crazy Horse compatriot (and the subject of “The Needle and the Damage Done”). Whitten had planned to join Young’s backing band, the Stray Gators, but was in no shape to play. On Nov. 18, 1972, he died of a heroin overdose.

With that cloud hanging over his head, and with an apparent disdain for hitting the top of the charts, Young went on tour with a repertoire that concentrated on newer, darker material. Fans weren’t positive about the switch in material, and Young, himself, experienced physical and emotional problems while on the road, culminating in a throat infection toward the end of the tour.

Despite the difficulties, Reprise Records, hoping to keep the Neil Young gravy train rolling, culled live recordings from the tour, added one from 1971 and released the package as “Time Fades Away.” Fans who expected a standard live album of hits instead found unfamiliar songs amid a sludgy mix, the result of Young insisting on an early digital system that didn’t prove reliable. (Producer David Briggs referred to it as the “Compufuck.”)

As Young later explained about “Time Fades Away” in the liner notes to his anthology “Decade” (1977):

No songs from this album are included here. It was recorded on my biggest tour ever, 65 shows in 90 days. Money hassles among everyone concerned ruined this tour and record for me but I released it anyway so you folks could see what could happen if you lose it for a while. I was becoming more interested in an audio verite approach than satisfying the public demands for a repetition of ‘Harvest.’

On the strength of “Harvest,” though, the live album peaked at No. 22 and ended up selling more than a million copies. Like “Journey Through the Past,” it never has been released on compact disc.

On Aug. 26, 1973, Young gathered musicians to record an album’s worth of songs he’d written about drugs and depression, influenced by the deaths of Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry. Reprise bigwigs gasped at the idea of releasing such material on the heels of “Times Fade Away,” and the project was shelved.

Three months later, Young tried again, recording at his Arrow Ranch in Woodside, Calif., with a small group of session men. According to “Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography” by Jimmy McDonough, the musicians consumed a homemade concoction dubbed “Honey Slides,” sautéd marijuana and honey. Perhaps that enlivened the proceedings, but the songs again were pretty much on the bleak side. Reprise had to go with a proper follow-up to “Harvest” after two full years, and on July 16, 1974, “On the Beach” hit the shelves.

Record buyers probably enjoyed the enigmatic cover art, which includes a ’59 Cadillac half-buried in the sand. But most weren’t quite prepared for the music.

“Walk On” starts the album with its most accessible composition, featuring a relatively upbeat tempo and a suitably harmonized chorus: “Ooh baby, that’s hard to change, I can’t tell them how to feel/Some get stoned, some get strange, but sooner or later it all gets real.”

That statement sets the tone for the rest of the way, as Young explores a variety of topics through somber lyrics with sparse accompaniment. The result is a revelatory statement that subtly draws the listener into the composer’s bleak frame of mind, evoking images of fear, dejection and hopelessness.

Of course, Neil had treaded those waters before. His “Ohio” stands as perhaps having the longest shelf life for a song written about a specific event, still receiving plenty of airplay going on 43 years after the National Guard killings at Kent State.

The drama inherent in the recording of “Ohio” is muted throughout “On the Beach,” as is evidenced by its second song, “See the Sky About to Rain.” Young’s Wurlitzer electric piano combines with Ben Keith’s steel guitar to form a dreary soundscape, over which Neil sings in his high-pitched study in melancholia: “See the sky about to rain, broken clouds and rain/Locomotive, pull the train, whistle blowing through my brain.”

The song wraps up with a line that’s become legendary in its anti-establishment stance, with Young even using part of it as the name for his publishing company: “I was down in Dixie Land, played a silver fiddle/Played it loud and then the Man broke it down the middle.”

That imagery seems positively glowing compared with what follows, perhaps the most unnerving song in Neil Young’s overwhelmingly vast catalog, and that’s saying a lot.

“Revolution Blues” tells the story of Charlie Manson’s “family” through their eyes, which is a chilling approach in as of itself. But Young also managed to convey the attitude that such grisly events aren’t a onetime occurrence, that they can happen at any time. Young is in his creepiest vocal form as he narrates as much as sings:

Well, we live in a trailer at the edge of town
You never see us ’cause we don’t come around.
We got 25 rifles just to keep the population down …

Well, I’m a barrel of laughs, with my carbine on
I keep ’em hoppin’ ’til my ammunition’s gone
But I’m still not happy, I feel like there’s something wrong

I got the revolution blues, I see bloody fountains
And 10 million dune buggies comin’ down the mountains
Well, I hear that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars,
But I hate them worse than lepers and I’ll kill them in their cars

Wow. Try sleeping after you listen to that.

At first listen, “For the Turnstiles” seems to alleviate the tension, with its simple, banjo-and-dobro arrangement. But then Neil launches into another diatribe about the seamy side of life, about desperation: “Though your confidence may be shattered, it doesn’t matter.” That sense deepens as the song arrives at this stunning piece of imagery that provides the title: “All the bush-league batters are left to die on the diamond/In the stands, the home crowd scatters for the turnstiles.”

Perhaps it was Family Night for the Mansons at the ballgame?

“Vampire Blues,” written in response to the first Energy Crisis, has a subject matter that should have been relegated to its own time. But like “Ohio,” it persists, this time simply because nothing much has changed in the past 39 years:

I’m a vampire, babe, suckin’ blood from the earth
I’m a vampire, baby, suckin’ blood from the earth
Well, I’m a vampire, babe, sell you 20 barrels’ worth

I’m a black bat, babe, bangin’ on your window pane
I’m a black bat, baby, bangin’ on your window pane
Well, I’m a black bat, babe, I need my high octane

Structured as a 12-bar blues, the song crawls at a sinister pace, with the imagery strengthened by the tone of Neil’s guitar, which he seems to scratch more than play.

Listeners who made it through the first side of the LP may have left it sit on the turntable and gone on to happier pursuits. But the adventurous among them flipped it over and heard the title track.

“On the Beach” is a blues at an even slower tempo than “Vampire Blues,” mostly consisting of minor chords. Interestingly, the major motif that appears in the middle of each verse adds an eerie contrast, as if some kind of relief seems to be on the way but never comes.

Lyrically, Young sums up the song’s theme of everyman’ misery with this key verse: “Though my problems are meaningless, that don’t make them go away.”

Actress Carrie Snodgress (1945-2004), best known for her Academy Award-nominated role in “Diary of a Mad Housewife,” was Young’s longtime girlfriend when he wrote “Motion Pictures (For Carrie).” On the surface, the largely acoustic piece would seemed to stray a bit from the overall theme of “On the Beach,” as Neil notes how he’s happy not to be on the Silver Screen. But once more, he goes further to reveal his insecurities: “Well, all those headlines, they just bore me now/I’m deep inside myself, but I’ll get out somehow/And I’ll stand before you, and I’ll bring a smile to your eyes.”

The album’s longest track, “Ambulance Blues,” also its closing number, an encapsulation of the angst throughout “On the Beach.” For nearly nine minutes, Young chronicles a journey through devastation and deception, with this warning about so many people he had met in the entertainment business:

I never knew a man could tell so many lies
He had a different story for every set of eyes
How can he remember who he’s talking to?
Cause I know it ain’t me, and hope it isn’t you

Combine that with the climactic line – “And there ain’t nothin’ like a friend who can tell you, you’re just pissin’ in the wind” – and Neil Young has the last word on how having a No. 1 record ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

“On the Beach” didn’t quite make No. 1. It peaked at No. 16 and always was among Young’s poorest-selling efforts.

Reprise ended up releasing “Tonight’s the Night” in 1975 to ecstatic critical reception, but the momentum established by “Harvest” was lost. But that’s quite OK with Neil Young fans who consider some of his lesser-known albums to be more rewarding than the top-sellers.

“Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus” by Spirit (1970)

When Spirit made the switch to Epic Records in 1970, signing with the Columbia subsidiary after three releases on Lou Adler’s Ode label, the band had the added benefit of working with producer David Briggs.

Fresh off working with Neil Young & Crazy Horse on “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere,” Briggs helped the five members of Spirit fully realize their songwriting and album-crafting potential with “Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus.”

The band’s fourth effort, though, turned out to be its least commercially successful to that point. Despite critical praise and heavy FM play, “Dr. Sardonicus” peaked at No. 63 on the Billboard charts. And sadly, it turned out to be the final album by Spirit’s original lineup (except for a 1984 effort consisting mostly of remakes), pretty much closing the book on one of the more interesting bands of the late ’60s.

A rift had developed between the band’s two primary composers, vocalist Jay Ferguson and guitarist Randy California. A listen to their subsequent releases shows the divergent directions each wanted to go: Ferguson, with Jo Jo Gunne, keyed in on Spirit’s more commercial elements; California, on his solo “Kapt. Kopter and the (Fabulous) Twirly Birds,” pursues a decidedly more experimental edge.

Both facets are evident on “Dr. Sardonicus,” which contains some of Spirit’s most enduring work. Songs like “Nature’s Way,” “Animal Zoo” and particularly “Mr. Skin” – Ferguson wrote it about the band’s bald-headed drummer, Ed Cassidy – continue to pop up on classic-rock playlists.

The album opens with the brief, acoustic “Prelude,” which segues into “Nothing to Hide,” with California singing obscure lyrics about being “married to the same bride.” He’s much more direct on “Nature’s Way,” an early commentary on environmental problems that maintains its relevance to this day.

Ferguson’s “Animal Zoo” mines a similar vein in a lamentation about living in the city: “The air I breathe, the water I drink/Is selling me short and turning me ’round.” There’s a bit of a misogynistic twist, though, it seems: “Oh, no, something went wrong/You’re much too fat and a little too long.” That last line is chanted quite a few times during the song’s fadeout.

California and keyboardist John Locke, both of whom now are deceased, combined to write “Love Has Found a Way.” That segues into the short, plaintive “Why Can’t I Be Free,” yet another world-gone-wrong rumination.

The attitude picks up with “Mr. Skin,” which is carried by Mark Andes’ thundering bass and the use of a horn section to punctuate the quirky melody. Ferguson’s lyrics reflect the boats of some kind of larger-than-life character: “I can bring you pain, I can bring you sudden pleasure/Your life will only gain if your love’s final measure.”

Locke provides one of his many ethereal instrumentals with “Space Child,” which is followed by a couple of Spirit’s harder-rocking numbers, Ferguson’s “When I Touch You” and “Street Worm.” A trio of California compositions wrap up the album on a relatively optimistic note: “Life Has Just Begun,” “Morning Will Come” and “Soldier,” which reprises a touch of “Prelude” toward the end, bringing “Dr. Sardonicus” full circle.

California eventually returned to the Spirit fold, teaming with Cassidy to keep the band going into the mid-’90s. Unfortunately, California drowned off the coast of Molokai, Hawaii, while swimming with his 12-year-old son, who survived. Randy was only 45.

Locke, who played occasionally with Spirit after the end of the original lineup, died of lymphoma in 2006.

Ferguson went on to have a solo hit in 1978 with “Thunder Island.” Three decades later, he won a Film & TV Music Award for his score of the NBC-TV series “The Office.” Andes has played with numerous musicians over the years, including Ian McLagan, who’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Small Faces and Faces.

Cassidy, who was California’s father-in-law, was one of the senior citizens of rock during Spirit’s heyday, having started his professional music career in 1937. He’ll turn 89 on May 4.

As for “Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus,” it remained a steady seller for Epic, eventually being awarded Gold Album status six years after its release. For fans of the classic rock era, it remains a must-hear effort.

“re-ac-tor” by Neil Young & Crazy Horse (1981)

Around 1990, I read a profile in a magazine – I can’t recall what it was – about Neil Young, focusing on his comeback after a series of a relatively weak and low-selling releases during the ’80s.

The writer included ratings for each of Young’s albums to date, with 10 scoring highest and 1 the lowest.

The usual suspects appeared on each end of the spectrum – “Rust Never Sleeps” and “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” near the top; “Trans” and “Everybody’s Rockin'” near the bottom – but one album deviated for the normal type of rating: The writer gave it a 1 AND a 10.

The writer’s explanation: Listeners either love or hate “re-ac-tor,” with no middle ground.

I wasn’t surprised to read about the “hate” factor. After “Rust Never Sleeps” and its companion “Live Rust,” Neil explored a variety of musical tangets, none of which seemed to click with fans or critics. Later he revealed he was preoccupied with caring for his son Zeke, who is autistic.

But at the time, people were scratching their heads over his output, including David Geffen, who signed Young to a record deal in 1981. As Don McLeese explains in a Rolling Stone article:

“Neil Young is the only artist in the history of modern recording to be sued for refusing to be himself. The suit, filed by Geffen Records, Young’s label for much of the ’80s, charged that he was violating his contract by recording ‘unrepresentative’ albums. In other words, Neil Young wasn’t making Neil Young music.”

Young and Geffen eventually shook hands and settled, but Neil didn’t regain his relevance until re-signing with his original label Reprise and releasing “Freedom,” which included two versions of his anti-George H.W. Bush anthem “Rockin’ in the Free World.”

Just before he left Reprise, Young turned in “re-ac-tor,” with Crazy Horse backing him instrumentally. At the time, the album received a warm response; Rolling Stone’s reviewer gave it four stars and complimented it as exhibiting something along the lines of combining the distortion of Blue Cheer with the tightness of Creedence Clearwater Revival.

I was a sophomore in college, and we certainly enjoyed “re-ac-tor,” which is reminiscent of the electric half of “Rust Never Sleeps.” It became a near-constant play in our apartment the last few months of ’81.

But time certainly has not been kind to “re-ac-tor.” Reprise didn’t bother to put it on compact disc until 22 years after its initial release, and by then it was generally considered as one of Young’s definite low points. William Ruhlmann’s review on allmusic.com, for example, calls it a “half-baked effort” and accuses Neil of “sounding like second-rate Talking Heads.”

I guess you just had to be there …

For those who enjoy Young’s rocket-fueled collaborations with Crazy Horse, believe me when I say “re-ac-tor” won’t disappoint. From the riff that opens “Opera Star” to the feedback that closes “Shots,” the band doesn’t let up whatsoever, resulting in probably the hardest-rocking album of Neil’s career.

“Opera Star” tells the story of a working-class type whose girlfriend from ran off “with some highbrow from the city light,” but that’s OK with the guy, who decides instead to “stay out all night gettin’ fucked up in that rock and roll bar.” With any luck, he’ll find a new lady who shares his musical interests.

Musically, “Surfer Joe and Moe the Sleaze” rides a two-chord riff that melds into a minor-chord progression for the verses, which deal with a pair of characters from the beach. Some catchy Young guitar carries the chorus: “Come on down for a pleasure cruise/Plenty of women, plenty of booze.”

When critics take aim at “re-ac-tor,” they usually single out the song “T-Bone,” the lyrics of which consist, in total: “Got mashed potatoes/Ain’t got no T-bone.” For nine-plus minutes. But what’s important is the jam that occurs between Young, guitarist Frank Sampedro, bass player Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina, who tear through the song with the gusto of a heavy-metal band.

“Get Back On It” is a relatively straightforward, modified 12-bar-blues song about a trucker who may have something underhanded going on: “I may be late comin’, though/I got some things I gotta do.” Maybe something similar to Lowell George in “Willin'”?

Fans of “Powderfinger” on “Rust Never Sleeps” might also enjoy “Southern Pacific,” the tale of a railroader who reaches the end of the line: “I rode the highball, I fired the Daylight/When I turned 65, I couldn’t see right/It was, ‘Mr. Jones, we’ve got to let you go/It’s company policy, you’ve got a pension, though.'”

“Motor City” laments the decline of the American automotive industry and the influx of Japanese imports: “There’s already too many Datsuns in this town.” Anyone who experienced what came out of Detroit during the ’70s will identify with Neil’s assessment of the situation.

The title of “re-ac-tor” seems to have its roots in the song “Rapid Transit,” which refers to “meltdown” and “containment,” two pertinent words in the wake of the near-disaster at Three Mile Island. Frankly, I’m not sure what they have to do with what seems to be the overriding theme of the song, a swipe at a type of music that was popular at the time: “No wave rockers/Every wave is new until it breaks.” In “Cinnamon Girl” fashion, Young plays a one-note guitar solo that actually works as such.

If one “re-ac-tor” tune gets a begrudging nod, it’s usually the anti-war “Shots,” in which Young makes his guitar sound like gunfire while using his high-pitched voice to effectively convey the album’s strongest set of lyrics. Molina’s rapid-fire drumming provides the song a military-like cadence as Neil reminds the listener, “I keep hearing shots.”

I wouldn’t rate “re-ac-tor” at 10 out of 10; perhaps the original Rolling Stone assessment is more like it. But anyone who veers toward 1 is going on reputation alone, rather than giving the album an objective listen.

“Blues for Allah” by the Grateful Dead (1975)

When the late promoter Bill Graham organized a concert he called SNACK – that stood for Students Need Athletics, Culture and Kicks – to benefit after-school programs in the San Francisco area, he corralled a bunch of his heavyweight buddies to participate.

How about some of these names: Bob Dylan, Neil Young (backed by The Band), Santana, Jefferson Starship, Joan Baez, Tower of Power and the Doobie Brothers.

Also part of the March 25, 1975, extravaganza, coming out of “retirement,” was a group of Graham’s oldest friends, the Grateful Dead.

The Dead ostensibly had played a series of farewell concerts at Graham’s Winterland in October 1974, part of which later appeared in “The Grateful Dead Movie” and the poorly mixed “Steal Your Face” album, and still later as a much-better-sounding five-CD soundtrack to the movie.

At any rate, when members of the Dead reunited for SNACK, they performed perhaps the most esoteric set of their 30-year career: a half-hour-plus instrumental jam of music that was new to the band’s repertoire, neither the psychedelia of the ’60s nor the roots-rock of the ’70s. This was a jazzier version of the Dead, augmented by keyboard player Merl Saunders and anchored by the rhythm section of bassist Phil Lesh and drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart. And of course, the late Jerry Garcia’s fluid guitar playing helped weave everything together.

Even for a San Francisco audience, those in attendance at Kezar Stadium must have been mystified by the proceedings until Bob Weir sang the familiar “Johnny B. Goode” for the encore.

The bulk of the performance laid the groundwork for what became the Grateful Dead’s “comeback” album, “Blues for Allah.” Unlike its approach to previous studio albums, the band woodshedded for three months at Hart’s house, formulating new music throughout.

The finished product kicks off with a three-song medley that served as a highlight of many a Dead show for the next 20 years: “Help On the Way/Slipknot!/Franklin’s Tower.” The relatively complex rhythmic patterns of the first two sections give way to a three-chord progression that benefits significantly from Garcia’s tasteful picking.

An instrumental medley, “King Solomon’s Marbles/Stronger Than Dirt or Milkin’ the Turkey,” incorporates themes that were prevalent at the SNACK show, with the rhythm section at full power.

Side One of the LP concludes with “The Music Never Stopped,” with lyricist John Perry Barlow capturing the Dead’s essence of “a band without description, like Jehovah’s favorite choir.” The original version clocks in at 4 1/2 minutes, but later concert versions often stretched beyond the 10-minute mark.

Side Two consists of an esoteric but rewarding sequence of songs, starting with the deceptively relaxed “Crazy Fingers,” which on closer examination contains a series of unconventional key changes, built around an arcane Robert Hunter poem.

Weir contributes an acoustic guitar instrumental, “Sage & Spirit.” According to longtime band associate Rock Scully in his book, “Living With the Dead”:

“Bobby wrote ‘Sage & Spirit’ while my daughters, named Sage and Spirit, were jumping on his bed and generally trashing his hotel room. He was trying to play his guitar and came up with the rhythm for this from their jumping. The flute (played by Steven Schuster) mimics their laughter.”

The album closes with another medley, “Blues for Allah/Sand Castles and Glass Camels/Unusual Occurrences in the Desert,” which fully exhibits the band’s experimental orientation. Supposedly the compositions were supposed to be the next in line among epic Dead concert jams, from “Viola Lee Blues” to “The Other One” to “Dark Star” to “Playing in the Band.” But the group played it live only a handful of times before abandoning it.

“Blues for Allah” is one of the Grateful Dead’s most fully realized studio projects, and one that stands up under scrutiny better than the band’s subsequent albums in the ’70s and ’80s. The title medley might be a bit of a challenge for the listener, but the other songs are among the Dead’s more memorable in the course of the long, strange trip.

One of my favorite online resources is AllMusic.

The database, if it doesn’t literally contain all music, comes pretty darned close. It certainly is a great resource for learning about worthwhile listens.

The guide rates recordings, from 1 to 5 stars. Following is a list of the 5-star albums in my collection. Well, most of them. I didn’t delve into “various artists” collections, and there may be some single-artists compilations that I missed. But this might give you an idea of what to check out on Spotify, or if you want to actually spend money and support the various artists.

  • AC/DC: “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap”
  • Allman Brothers Band: “Idlewild South,” “At Fillmore East,” “Eat a Peach”
  • Gene Ammons: “The Happy Blues”
  • Louis Armstong: “Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy”
  • Albert Ayler: “Live in Greenwich Village: The Complete Impulse Sessions”
  • The Band: “Music from Big Pink,” “The Band”
  • The Beatles: “Please Please Me,” “With the Beatles,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Beatles for Sale,” “Help!,” “Rubber Soul,” “Revolver,” “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “Magical Mystery Tour,” “The Beatles,” “Abbey Road”
  • Jeff Beck: “Truth”
  • Chuck Berry: “St. Louis to Liverpool”
  • Big Brother & the Holding Company: “Cheap Thrills”
  • Big Star: “#1 Record,” “Third/Sister Lovers”
  • Black Sabbath: “Paranoid,” “Master of Reality,” “Volume 4”
  • Blur: “Parklife”
  • David Bowie: “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars,” “Low,” “Heroes”
  • Brinsley Schwarz: “Nervous On the Road”
  • Dave Brubeck Quartet: “Time Out”
  • Jeff Buckley: “Grace”
  • Butterfield Blues Band: “Paul Butterfield Blues Band,” “East-West”
  • The Byrds: “Sweetheart of the Rodeo”
  • Can: “Tago Mago”
  • Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band: “Safe As Milk,” “Trout Mask Replica”
  • Johnny Cash: “Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison”
  • Ray Charles: “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music”
  • Charlie Christian: “The Genius of the Electric Guitar”
  • Eric Clapton: “Crossroads”
  • Sonny Clark: “Cool Struttin'”
  • The Clash: “The Clash,” “London Calling”
  • John Coltrane: “Blue Train,” “Bags & Trane,” “My Favorite Things,” “Duke Ellington and John Coltrane,” “John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman,” “A Love Supreme”
  • Chick Corea: “Return to Forever”
  • Elvis Costello: “My Aim Is True,” “This Year’s Model,” “Get Happy!!”
  • Creedence Clearwater Revival: “Green River,” “Willy & the Poor Boys,” “Cosmos Factory”
  • Crosby, Stills & Nash: “Crosby, Stills & Nash”
  • Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young: “Deja Vu”
  • Miles Davis: “Birth of the Cool,” “‘Round About Midnight,” “Relaxin’,” “Porgy and Bess,” “Kind of Blue,” “Sketches of Spain,” “Workin’,” “Steamin’,” “Miles Smiles,” “In a Silent Way,” “Bitches Brew,” “A Tribute to Jack Johnson,” “On the Corner”
  • Deep Purple: “Machine Head”
  • Derek & the Dominos: “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs”
  • Dillard & Clark: “The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark”
  • Willie Dixon: “The Chess Box”
  • Eric Dolphy: “Out There,” “Out to Lunch”
  • The Doors: “The Doors”
  • Bob Dylan: “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Blonde On Blonde,” “Blood On the Tracks”
  • Bob Dylan & the Band: “The Basement Tapes”
  • Duke Ellington: “Ellington at Newport,” “… and His Mother Called Him Bill”
  • Brian Eno: “Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy),” “Another Green World”
  • Faces: “Five Guys Walk into a Bar …”
  • The Firesign Theatre: “How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All,” “Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers”
  • The Flaming Lips: “The Soft Bulletin”
  • The Flying Burrito Brothers: “The Gilded Palace of Sin”
  • Funkdadelic: “Maggot Brain”
  • Gang of Four: “Entertainment!”
  • Erroll Garner: “Concert By the Sea”
  • Marvin Gaye: “What’s Going On”
  • Genesis: “Foxtrot”
  • Grateful Dead: “Workingman’s Dead,” “American Beauty,” “Dick’s Picks, Vol. 4”
  • Green Day: “American Idiot”
  • Herbie Hancock: “Maiden Voyage,” “Head Hunters”
  • George Harrison: “All Things Must Pass”
  • Jimi Hendrix Experience: “Are You Experienced?,” “Axis: Bold As Love,” “Electric Ladyland”
  • Howlin’ Wolf: “Howlin’ Wolf/Moanin’ in the Moonlight,” “The Chess Box”
  • Husker Du: “Zen Arcade”
  • Incredible String Band: “The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter”
  • Etta James: “At Last!”
  • Keith Jarrett: “The Koln Concert”
  • Jefferson Airplane: “Surrealistic Pillow”
  • Lonnie Johnson: “Steppin’ on the Blues”
  • Robert Johnson: “The Complete Recordings”
  • Janis Joplin: “Pearl”
  • King Crimson: “In the Court of the Crimson King”
  • Albert King: “Born Under a Bad Sign”
  • The Kinks: “Face to Face,” “Something Else by the Kinks,” “The Village Green Preservation Society”
  • Kraftwerk: “Autobahn,” “Trans-Europe Express”
  • Led Zeppelin: “Led Zeppelin,” “Led Zeppelin II,” “Led Zeppelin III,” “Physical Graffiti”
  • John Lennon: “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band,” “Imagine”
  • Little Feat: “Little Feat”
  • Love: “Da Capo,” “Forever Changes”
  • Nick Lowe: “Jesus of Cool”
  • Magic Sam: “West Side Soul”
  • Mahavishnu Orchestra: “The Inner Mounting Flame,” “Birds of Fire”
  • Bob Marley & the Wailers: “Catch a Fire”
  • John Mayall: “Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton”
  • The MC5: “Kick Out the Jams”
  • Metallica: “Master of Puppets”
  • Pat Metheny Group: “Pat Methenhy Group”
  • Charles Mingues: “Mingus Ah Um,” “Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus”
  • The Minutemen: “Double Nickels on the Dime”
  • Moby Grape: “Moby Grape”
  • Modern Jazz Quartet: “The Complete Last Concert”
  • Wes Montgomery: “Full House”
  • Van Morrison: “Astral Weeks,” “Moondance”
  • Mothers of Invention: “Freak Out!,” “We’re Only In It for the Money”
  • Mott the Hoople: “All the Young Dudes,” “Mott”
  • The Move: “Shazam”
  • My Bloody Valentine: “Loveless”
  • Randy Newman: “12 Songs,” “Sail Away”
  • Parliament: “Mothership Connection”
  • Gram Parsons: “G.P.”
  • Joe Pass: “Virtuoso”
  • Jaco Pastorius: “Jaco Pastorius”
  • Pavement: “Slanted & Enchanted,” “Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain”
  • Pearl Jam: “Ten”
  • Pere Ubu: “Terminal Tower”
  • Pink Floyd: “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” “The Dark Side of the Moon,” “Wish You Were Here”
  • Iggy Pop: “The Idiot,” “Lust for Life”
  • The Quintet: “Jazz at Massey Hall”
  • The Replacements: “Let It Be”
  • The Rolling Stones: “Between the Buttons,” “Beggars Banquet,” “Let It Bleed, “Sticky Fingers,” “Exile on Main St.,” “Some Girls,” “Singles Collection: The London Years,” “Forty Licks”
  • Sonny Rollins: “Sonny Rollins Plus 4,” “Saxophone Colossus,” “Way Out West”
  • Todd Rundgren: “Something/Anything?”
  • Pharoah Sanders: “Karma”
  • Santana: “Abraxas”
  • Klaus Schulze: “Moondawn”
  • Gil Scott-Heron: “Small Talk at 125th and Lenox”
  • The Sex Pistols: “Never Mind the Bollocks”
  • Sonny Sharrock: “Ask the Ages”
  • Wayne Shorter: “Speak No Evil”
  • Horace Silver: “Song for My Father”
  • Paul Simon: “Paul Simon,” “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon”
  • Skin Alley: “To Pagham & Beyond”
  • Sly & the Family Stone: “Stand!,” “There’s a Riot Goin’ On”
  • Small Faces: “The Darlings of Wapping Wharf Launderette”
  • Patti Smith: “Horses”
  • The Soft Boys: “Underwater Moonlight”
  • Sonic Youth: “Sister,” “Daydream Nation”
  • The Stooges: “Fun House,” “Raw Power”
  • Sun Ra: “Atlantis,” “Space Is the Place”
  • Talking Heads: “Talking Heads 77,” “More Songs About Buildings and Food,” “Remain In Light”
  • Hound Dog Taylor: “Hound Dog Taylor & the Houserockers”
  • Television: “Marquee Moon”
  • Thin Lizzy: “Jailbreak”
  • Richard & Linda Thompson: “Shoot Out the Lights”
  • Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble: “Texas Flood”
  • Velvet Underground: “The Velvet Underground & Nico,” “White Light/White Heat,” “The Velvet Underground,” “Loaded”
  • The Wailers: “Burnin'”
  • T-Bone Walker: “The Complete Imperial Recordings: 1950-1954”
  • Muddy Waters: “At Newport,” “The Chess Box”
  • Weather Report: “Heavy Weather”
  • The White Stripes: “Elephant”
  • The Who: “The Who Sings My Generation,” “The Who Sell Out,” “Live at Leeds,” “Who’s Next”
  • Tony Williams’ Lifetime: “Emergency!”
  • Wire: “Pink Flag,” “Chairs Missing”
  • Stevie Wonder: “Talking Book,” “Innervisions,” “Songs in the Key of Life”
  • Link Wray: “Rumble!”
  • X: “Los Angeles,” “Under the Big Black Sun”
  • Yes: “Fragile,” “Close to the Edge”
  • Neil Young: “On the Beach,” “Rust Never Sleeps”

By the way, I’ve been working on this list for a couple of weeks during some “down time.” And it’s been a lot of fun! Gotta listen to some of these albums again in the near future.

I’ve been collecting music for nearly 40 years. I’ll admit to having more music on various media than I’d ever be able to listen to the rest of my life. But I’m trying …

Following are some titles from the past half century, presented reverse chronologically and kind of at random, that I’d recommend as decent listens. That’s assuming, of course, that I’ve actually listened to them!