Spirit Guide : Ojai’s Randy California will lead his 25-year-old band to a Halloween gig at the Insomniac Coffeehouse in Ventura.
We’ve got spirit, yes we do. We’ve got spirit, how about you
--High school cheer
While high school spirit ebbs and flows with the scoreboard, the rock ‘n’ roll Spirit, the band that is, just keeps rolling along. Led by original founding member Randy California of Ojai, the band will make its Ventura debut on Halloween at the Insomniac Coffeehouse. That’s the all-ages place that used to be the Mayfair Theatre. Translation: No booze, no hassles, no cops, no problem.
Spirit formed in 1967 when everything was groovy (except Vietnam) and California, the dude, was still a teeny-bopper but had played with Jimi Hendrix, and California, the state, had far less people because you and yours were still back where you belonged. The guitarist California, along with Jay Ferguson, Ed Cassidy, John Locke and Mark Andes released a number of critically acclaimed albums.
Back in the 1960s when brevity was king and the three-minute pop gem was the soundtrack, Spirit cranked a number of memorable tunes. Their biggest hit was the potent “I Got A Line On You,” but they also scored with “Nature’s Way,” “Animal Zoo” and “Mr. Skin.” Soaring harmonies and tight musicianship were Spirit trademarks.
The band’s “Sgt. Pepper’s” album was “Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus,” a pop rock gem from 1970. Spirit was once touted as “The American Beatles,” but it was one of those woulda-coulda-shoulda things that never quite worked out. How ‘bout those stupid critics--no one ever agrees with anything they write, but everyone still wants their job. According to the commentary accompanying the last Spirit release (a 1991 2-CD greatest-hits package), a negative review essentially killed the spirit of Spirit. Yet, the band lives long and prospers on oldies radio. Moreover, the band itself has been playing all these years.
In a recent interview, California discussed his favorite band.
With a name like Randy California, I guess we can assume you weren’t born in Idaho or some other state?
I was born in Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles. I went to Nordhoff High School in Ojai, then high school in Santa Monica and later, Malibu. We moved around a lot when I was a kid.
How long have you lived in Ojai this time?
Ten years--Ojai allows for a lot of freedom. I ride everywhere on my bike. Not long ago, I went to India and bought a sitar. When I’m in town, I sit in the corner and play my sitar on Wednesday and Saturday nights at Govinda’s Veggie Buffet. I don’t do any Spirit songs, just nice music for people to look at their vegetables by.
How often does Spirit play these days?
We do a major European tour every year, usually about this time of the year, and we usually go out once a month for a few dates, usually on the East Coast.
What are the European fans like?
They’re just absolutely more knowledgeable, which is probably because their civilization has been around so much longer. Everyday those people walk by buildings that were built 500, 1,000 years ago. They just respect the arts more.
Why don’t you play around here more?
I guess the grass seems greener on the other side of the hill, but we’ve been thinking about playing around here more. There’s a few clubs in the San Fernando Valley that are interested. Last time we played around here was in 1987, when we did a festival in Ojai with Canned Heat and Buffalo Springfield. My mom promoted that show. We’ve never played in Ventura before, but we played at the Earl Warren Showgrounds back in the ‘60s.
Did the members of Spirit actually meet at a love-in in 1967?
We actually re-met at a love-in in Griffith Park. Before that, we were in a folk-rock band called Red Rooster, in 1965.
How did you meet Jimi Hendrix?
I walked into a music store, Manny’s Music in New York, and in the back of the store there was this guy playing a Stratocaster. For some reason, we just looked at each other and there was some sort of spiritual connection. I asked him if I could try the guitar, and we just started talking. It turned out that night was to be his first solo gig at a place called The Cafe Wha in Greenwich Village. He asked me to come down and play with him that night. We practiced for about 20 minutes before the show in the boiler room, and he taught me “Hey, Joe” and “Wild Thing.” We ended up playing together for about three months. Sometimes, we’d go hang out at John Hammond’s house, a white blues guitarist, and listen to Bob Dylan. When Jimi went to England, he wanted another guitarist for his band, but my parents wouldn’t let me go, and the rest is history. I was 15 years old then.
Did Spirit ever play with the Jimi Hendrix Experience?
We did a couple of festivals, I think, the Atlanta Pop Festival and the Seattle Pop Festival. I remember pictures of him in the studio of some radio station playing the first Spirit album. And he’d be saying, “Hey, there’s that little kid I used to play with.”
Spirit has been called “The American Beatles.” Why didn’t the band achieve major success?
There were politics between managers and record companies, and the group just didn’t get promoted half as much as, say, Jefferson Airplane. It’s the same old story of what happens beyond the music--the business. But I’m not blaming anybody.
In 1971, Rolling Stone trashed “Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus.” Does it matter what the press writes?
It doesn’t now, but it did then. It had an emotional effect on me, because we had spent six months on the album--it was our baby. Critics--you know how they are--they have to criticize. It hurt me. It was very depressing. Back then, Rolling Stone was a big deal, and since they were in San Francisco, they didn’t like any bands from L. A. They said L. A. bands are “plastic,” and L. A. is smoggy all the time and it stinks--that kind of stuff. But when I wrote “Nature’s Way,” I was sitting outside at a hotel right on the Bay in San Francisco, and this huge smog bank came drifting over--that’s why I wrote that song.
What was it like being a rock star in the 1960s?
I remember having to change my phone number every couple of months because fans would somehow get it. It was embarrassing walking into a supermarket. I was only 17 when the band started, so, mostly I was just embarrassed by it all. I’ve been through a lot of changes since then, and I’m just trying to get back to an unaffected state of mind.
Has your music changed over the years?
I don’t really think so. There’s a certain train of thought that goes from the beginning until now. The band was called Spirit for a reason. Our lyrics are not the “boy-girl, hey baby” stuff; our songs deal with human understanding. In 1967, “Fresh Garbage” was a song about all the things people throw away, a song about environmental awareness. But we also did fun songs such as “I Got A Line On You.”
What’s the coolest thing about being in Spirit?
Being a musician that has had past success, I’m now obligated to paint the same picture every night. We do a 50-50 mixture of old songs and new songs. Fans come to know the songs and expect to hear the songs they want to hear, even if you’d rather paint a new picture every night. We do have a loyal legion of fans that remember the music we made, and it’s a compliment that they want to hear songs from 20 years ago. So, I guess the whole thing is both a curse and a blessing.
If you could, would you change anything?
Yeah. If I could’ve had my choice, I would’ve started at 22 or 23 instead of 15, professionally, I mean. I would’ve gone to college to expand my mental capacities.
Any current bands you like?
I like Brilliant Daydream from Ojai, and I like Ariel. I’ve never been anywhere besides the Insomniac. I don’t pay much attention to the charts, and I don’t listen to the radio.
Do you ever see the other guys in the band?
Sometimes, we pop together with all the original guys just to see if we can still do it. Right now, we’re a three-piece. There’s Mr. Ed Cassidy on drums and Scott Monahan on keyboards and bass.