An appreciation of the career of RANDY CALIFORNIA, who died on January 2nd, 1997
So, he’s gone then.
If Nick hadn’t metaphorically picked me up by the scruff of the neck and encouraged me to start writing the interviews and reviews which were to become the first issue of the Terrascope back in 1989, I could easily have become the David P. Housden of the Spirit world and created for Randy and chums the Spirit equivalent of the Love scrapbook and fanzine, ‘The Castle’. Perhaps I would have called it ‘Fresh Garbage’ - first track, first album, never really improved upon and a classic by any measure of success. Randy California was just seventeen years old when Ode Records released ‘Spirit’ in 1968. That’s him, standing in the centre of the rear sleeve, wrapped in a blanket and sporting the moustache I long suspected he was born with. Pictured in colour if you were lucky enough to pick up an import copy. Randy had already had a colourful career by the time that album was released; the oft-embellished story of him meeting Jimi Hendrix in Manny’s Music Store in New York City, catching up with him again three months later at the Cafe Wha? in Greenwich Village and trading licks together for a while in the band Jimmy James & The Blue Flames all took place when he was fourteen. Fourteen! I was only just discovering Spirit by the time I was fourteen, and by then (1973) the elder sages would already tell you that the best was over long before. Admittedly that year also coincided with something of a nadir in the career of Spirit. The original band, too small to contain the explosive talents (and egos) of both Randy California and Jay Ferguson, had broken up after the recording of ‘The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus’ in 1970. Jay had gone off to form Jo Jo Gunne; Randy fell off a horse and fractured his skull and by the time he was released from hospital he found an ersastz Spirit continuing without him, a band which released a travesty of an album called ‘Feedback’. Randy’s response was to put together a unit called Kapt. Kopter & The Fabulous Twirlybirds, who released an LP of the same name in 1972, a sensual blend of Beatles melodiousness (there’s a couple of Beatles covers on the album, the first time Randy had acknowledged his huge debt of gratitude to the Fab Four), Hendrix’s aural assault and Coltrane’s modal sheets of sound. Randy’s guitar has rarely sounded better, and when he really lets rip - as he did in particularly fine fashion on a promotional live Kapt. Kopter session recorded for radio station KPFK in Los Angeles - you come to realise that he really was an outrageously gifted player, and that our loss really is all the greater for that fact.
“If I had to listen to one album before I died, it would probably be ‘Rubber Soul’” (Randy California)
The Kapt. Kopter band toured England - as Spirit - at the same time as the bogus Spirit toured Australia. Randy’s Spirit were on the receiving end of seven encores at the Rainbow in London in April 1973. History does not relate how many encores Al Staheley’s Spirit received at the Sydney Billabong Bar the same month. Unfortunately however the Kaptain’s gear was nicked from the back of their van in London on the first of April, and Randy threw himself despairingly into the Thames, only to be fished out, little the worse for wear, by a passer-by. Now I don’t want to seem ungrateful here, but where was that passer-by on January 2nd 1997 when the waves finally closed over Randy’s head off the island of Molokai, Hawaii? Couldn’t someone have done something? “Eye witnesses stated that Randy was caught in a furious undertow which almost took the life of his 12 year old son, Quinn, as well. Reports had California pushing his son out of the way to safety before being swallowed by the surf.” (Music News of The World, January 8th 1997) Eye witnesses? You mean there were people stood there watching?
“Swim to the bottom and never come up...” (Spirit - ‘Water Woman’, 1968)
Maybe though I’d have called that imaginary fanzine ‘My Friend’, another title of a Randy California song - this time off the ill-starred ‘Potatoland’ project - but also the manner in which Randy signed off a letter to me a few years back. Perhaps that’s how he signed all his letters; it wouldn’t surprise me in the least, he was that sort of bloke. I’ll treasure my letter for as long as I live all the same. ‘Journey to Potatoland’, an unfinished conceptual work which has gone down in history as Spirit’s equivalent to the Beach Boys’ ‘Smile’, in fact dates from shortly after the Kapt. Kopter episode - the three-piece Spirit were here in the UK promoting it when that unfortunate Thames incident intervened, and what there was of the album was previewed on Radio One (and heavily bootlegged as a result). In a quote which perfectly illustrates Randy’s wonderfully child-like, uncomplicated and gentle sense of humour, it was reported that the remainder wasn’t completed because “we couldn’t make the trip to Potatoland... the Koptermobile needed an engine overhaul”. [Consumer note: some of the additional tracks did eventually surface on the Chord Records CD of ‘Potatoland’ here in the UK - if the only version of that album you’ve ever heard is the comic-book stitch-up released by Rhino/Beggars Banquet, at least half of which wasn’t recorded by Spirit at all, then do yourself a favour and don’t give up searching until you find the closest approximation there’s yet been to the real thing. You owe it to yourself, and more importantly you owe it to Randy.]
“As long as Cass can play those skins, we’ll be together.”
One trip Randy did make immediately upon his return to the States in April 1973 was to Hawaii, where he subsequently lived, well away from the music scene, for three years. Reports claimed that he subsequently “insulted the wrong person” and that the island elders took exception to his presence and asked him to leave. We should have seen then, of course, that Randy’s ill-starred association with water in general and with Hawaii in particular would one day combine to take his life. But we didn’t, just as nobody could ever have predicted that Randy would die in such freakish circumstances, or that the world’s oldest active rock drummer, Ed Cassidy, 74 this year and seemingly as strong as ever, would outlive his disgustingly healthy looking, deeply tanned, young (45 years old, and from where I’m sitting that’s still young, believe me) stepson guitar slinger who always did look more like a surfer than a psychedelic warlord anyway.
One advantage that comes from joining the Spirit story so late into proceedings - 1973, the attentive amongst you will remember from my opening paragraph, and a full five years after their inception - is that my personal perspective on what the best of Spirit really is is different perhaps to those who’d grown up with those classic first four albums, ‘Spirit’, ‘Clear’, ‘The Family That Plays Together’ and ‘The 12 Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus’. Whilst recognising the fact that here we have a body of work that represents one of the most idiosyncratic and consistently brilliant strains of indigenous American rock from a collective of socially aware musicians of the highest calibre, a band who flavoured their rock with jazz but never allowed “artiness” to interfere with their music, I’d had a good while to absorb those and was ready and waiting impatiently when Randy and Ed. released the Spirit comeback album ‘Spirit of ’76’ in 1975 (the intervening years had incidentally seen yet another California-less Spirit touring the States, although mercifully no LPs were released this time). Whether because of the long wait, or because as double LP’s go it really is the vicar’s knickers and an album from which very little, if anything, could or should be excised, I stand by that album as one of the very finest Randy left behind, matched only by the masterpiece which is ‘Future Games’, the near-solo conceptual kaleidoscope of an album from 1977 which he had been germinating, hatching and sifting ever since his sojurn in Hawaii. And in between them came the touchtone Diamond Spirits of ‘Son of Spirit’ and ‘Farther Along’, a pairing which came closer in intent to the original representation of Spiritual music as heard on those first four albums than anything before or since. I offer this not because I’m claiming albums like ‘Farther Along’ came within hat-doffing distance of the majesty of rightly revered classics such as ‘The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus’, which would be a patently absurd assertion, but because in their own way they served as defining moments in the voyage of discovery of a young musical acolyte, in this case my own. So though others might tell me the best days of Spirit were long over, I’d beg to differ: I had my own best days, and they were great; different perhaps, but special nonetheless. Music to live by, to love by (the first concert my then future wife Heather and myself ever attended together was a Randy California show, supporting Ian Gillan in October 1979) and to hand down to your children and grandchildren. Randy gave us all of that. And so much more besides.
“You’re gonna be born and you’re gonna die. They’re the two major events in your life, and in between you try to make it as interesting as possible and to get as much out of it as you can.”
In the end, of course, that fanzine I’d envisaged became the Terrascope, and sensibly was, and is, written in appreciation of many more bands than just the one. All the same, one of the things I’ve been proudest of during the magazine’s seven years of existence is our long and close association with Spirit. We published what remains pretty much the definitive story of the band, interpersed with in-depth interviews, across our first five issues, culminating with two otherwise unreleased songs by Randy California on the free EP with issue 6 in January 1991. Randy, for his part, always seemed to pull out all the stops for the Terrascope, just as he’d shown his appreciation for Dark Star magazine before us in 1978 (Dark Star released a flexi containing two out-takes from ‘Potatoland’; Randy’s song ‘Sherri’ was named after the former girlfriend of their writer, and early Spirit champion, Steve Burgess, who himself passed away three years ago). ‘The Whale Song’ and ‘American Society’ from the POT-6 EP, and latterly the new Spirit song ‘Cages’ on our ‘Succour’ compilation CD, were all jaw-droppingly great recordings and a long way from being the obvious outtakes they so easily could have been. ‘American Society’ is still the only number ever to see the light of day from the long-promised Kapt. Kopter Part Two project, and the hauntingly beautiful instrumental (and now doubly poignant) ‘The Whale Song’ comes from an as-yet unreleased instrumental Randy California solo album dedicated to endangered ocean creatures called ‘Sea Dream’. Randy also spoke of an untitled album of acoustic songs, and in an interview in 1991 told Terrascope reporter Fred Mills, “It’s amazing how many hundreds of hours of recordings I have which have never been released”. If the three songs which we’ve been privileged to hear are anything to go by, there’s every chance some youngster coming to the story right now could yet have their own favourite four as yet unreleased Spirit albums, just as the first generation of fans had their four albums in the early ’70s and I had mine in the mid/late ’70s.
“People tell me I’m a legend, which probably means I’ll sell more records when I die.”
The wealth of previously unheard Spirit recordings available has never been richer, Randy himself kicking things off with the well-received collection ‘Chronicles 1967-1992’ on the band’s own label WERC CREW, the Sony Epic Legacy imprint assembling the wonderful ‘Time Circle 1968-1972’ double CD collection, and more recently reissuing the first four Spirit albums with a treasure-chest of out-takes, alternate takes and mixes thrown in for good measure. In March this year Sony also released the follow-up, ‘Spirit — The Mercury Years’ which covers the period 1975 to 1977 and therefore takes in the albums ‘Spirit of ’76’ (reproduced on CD for the first time, almost in its entirety) plus ‘Son of Spirit’, ‘Farther Along’ and ‘Future Games’ (extracts thereof; each of those have been available on CD for several years though). The band themselves have also seen fit to add archive material to their most recent releases, including three live cuts from 1967 to their latest - and I’m sure it won’t be final - album ‘California Blues’.
I’ll leave you with a chillingly portent-filled lyric lifted from that album, which came out at the end of last year, literally weeks before the tragic accident which took Randy’s life:
“Won’t you carry me down to the ocean
Fall beneath the deep blue sea
If I happen to drown...
Don’t rescue me”
(‘The River’ by Randy California, Aqua Blue Music 1996)
Randy Craig Wolfe, b. February 20th 1951; died January 2nd 1997.
© Phil McMullen, Ptolemaic Terrascope 1997
Photo: a Columbia Pictures promo for 'The Model Shop'