Sunday, December 20, 2009

Spirit -- "Prelude/Nothin' to Hide" (1970)

We got nothin' to hide
Married to the same bride
She eats away from inside

This song is the first track on Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, Spirit's fourth (and last) album with its original lineup -- a great record. It wasn't easy picking one song to feature here, but that's what the rules say.

I originally was going to use "Morning Will Come" from the same album, but it has fairly uninteresting lyrics, and this blog's format does require that each entry begin with 2 or 3 lines from the featured songs. I have no clue what the lines above mean -- if you do, please share it with the whole class.

But even though I decided to feature a different song, here's a link to "Morning Will Come" so you can listen to it -- a little bonus for my fans.

I used to listen to "Morning Will Come" every morning before going to my summer job. I was in college when Dr. Sardonicus released, living at home and unloading rail cars at a grocery warehouse for $5 an hour. My shift started at 7 am, and I was usually a little banged up when my mother woke me up to get ready for work in the mornings because I spent all my evenings and Nina's Green Parrot, Buck's Recreation Parlor, and other establishments of that ilk in Galena, Kansas, drinking 3.2% beer and playing spades. So I needed some musical inspiration to get myself going in the mornings.

Galena was a very sad little mining town just over the Missouri-Kansas line. I grew up in Joplin, Missouri, only about 10 miles from Galena via old Route 66 ("It goes from St. Louie/Joplin, Missouri/Oklahoma City/Looks oh so pretty"). Missouri had relatively normal liquor laws -- bars could serve liquor by the drink. Kansas did not have liquor by the drink, but allowed 18-year-olds to drink 3.2% beer, legally classified as non-intoxicating. (Ha.) So on weekend nights, there was a steady stream of Kansas adults going eastward to Joplin's tonier nightclubs to sip martinis and manhattans, while Missouri teenagers were heading the other way to drink 35-cent quarts of Falstaff, Schlitz, and Coors -- which had a particular cachet in those days because it was not sold east of Kansas.

Fortunately, the Kansas beer joints closed at midnight, so I did get 6 or so hours of sleep each night. But I was a growing boy, and that didn't really get the job done. Hence the need for some musical stimulation to help clear out the cobwebs each weekday morning.

There to help me out was "Morning Will Come," which I would play on my family's Magnavox console stereo. Here's one of dozens of the videos of 1970-vintage Magnavox stereos you can find on YouTube (no extra charge for the vintage Loretta Lynn song):

Ours had a simpler cabinet style than this one features, but the turntable and controls were almost identical. There was enough ground clearance on ours for me to lie down on my back and slide my head underneath the stereo, much in the manner of a mechanic sliding under a car to change the oil. I did that so I could block out the rest of the world and really focus on the music -- plus stereo sound was fairly new, and positioning myself in this fashion allowed me to maximize the separation between the channels -- one channel for the left ear, the other for the right.

A couple of times through "Morning Will Come" and I was ready to do battle with the 50-foot rail cars from General Mills, Scott Paper, Ralson-Purina, Del Monte, Clorox, etc. , that I unloaded every day at the warehouse.

I remember two of those freight cars with particular displeasure. One time, a Clorox car had been banged around a little too much en route. Because the car wasn't fully loaded, some of the cases of one-gallon bleach bottles had tipped over and crashed to the floor, and there were a few dozen gallons of undiluted bleach sloshing around when I opened the car's doors. My black high-top tennis shoes and the bottom six inches or so of my Levi's were bleached almost entirely white by the time I finished cleaning up the mess. (Today, that much exposure to concentrated chlorine fumes would have been more than enough to attract dozens of sleazy personal-injury lawyers smelling major contingency fees as well as chlorine.)

Even worse was the Ralston-Purina car that had been bumped around sufficiently to break open a number of cans of cat and dog food. The car then sat on various Midwestern railroad sidings in the hot August sun for a few days, plenty of time for a few gazillion maggots to hatch and grow before we opened the car to unload it. You should have seen the look on my face when I picked up an undamaged case and exposed those little creepy-crawlies feasting on some cans Alpo-brand "Prime Cuts in Gravy" dog food. Quelle surprise! But I digress.

Spirit is somewhat forgotten today, but they were a remarkably talented collection of musicians with a unique style (or mixture of styles). If you had to choose one adjective to characterize their music, you might pick "psychedelic" -- but their music includes bouncy pop songs, jazz, art rock, and quite a bit more. (The band's song lyrics include an unusual number of environmental messages.) Before they came together to form Spirit, the band's members played with musicians as diverse as Jimi Hendrix, Canned Heat, and Thelonius Monk.

Spirit was not a great commercial success. The band's most successful single -- the irresistible "I've Got a Line on You" -- peaked at #25. The group's biggest mistake was probably turning down an invitation to appear at Woodstock in order to tour in support of their third album. Spirit would have appeared just before Jimi Hendrix.

Many believe that Jimmy Page lifted the descending guitar figure in "Stairway to Heaven" from the Spirit instrumental, "Taurus." You can judge that for yourself:

The band's most recognizable member was drummer Ed Cassidy -- a sort of Mr. Clean look-alike who had a shaved head (very unusual in an era where long hair was de rigeur) and always dressed in black. Cassidy was 37 when Dr. Sardonicus was released -- also very unusual in those days. He started working as a musician before World War II, and played with a long list of jazz greats in the 1950's -- including Cannonball Adderely, Art Pepper, Lee Konitz, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk.

Kirk was notorious for playing two saxophones at the same time -- and playing them well:

(By the way, if digressions aren't your cup of tea, you are on the wrong blog.)

Cassidy was the stepfather of Spirit guitarist and singer Randy California. (He was given that name in 1966 by Jimi Hendrix to distinguish him from another Randy in Hendrix's 1966-era band -- "Jimmy James and the Blue Flames" -- who was called "Randy Texas." Randy California met Hendrix when he was living in Queens.) California was not quite 17 when Spirit's first album was released. He wrote "I Got a Line on You" and a number of Spirit's other signature songs.

Jay Ferguson (songwriter/vocalist) and Mark Andes (bass) left the band after Dr. Sardonicus and founded Jo Jo Gunne, which was moderately successful. Ferguson later released several solo albums. His "Thunder Island" is a wonderfully innocent, appealing little song that doesn't make a lot of sense, but who's counting? Here's a live version of it:

After Ferguson and Andes left, California pursued a solo career, joined by stepfather Ed Cassidy and former Hendrix bassist Noel Redding (who called himself "Clit McTorius" when the group performed live). His first album, Kapt. Kopter and the (Fabulous) Twirly Birds, was an odd conglomeration of original songs and covers that critic Robert Christgau said was characterized by "sheer dense weirdness."

After Dr. Sardonicus, the band's original lineup never recorded together again, but there have been a number of subsequent Spirit albums -- Cassidy was part of all of them, and California contributed to most of them. California drowned in 1997 while helping his twelve-year-old escape from a rip current while both were swimming off the coast of Molokai, Hawaii.

Here's the song:

Here's a link you can use to order the song on iTunes:

Here's a link to use to order from Amazon:

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