Ian Bruce-Douglas was in the wrong
place at the wrong time - Boston, 1968, just in time for one of the biggest
PR disasters in the history of the music business. The debacle was called "Bosstown"
or the "Boston Sound," and Bruce-Douglas's band Ultimate Spinach was the
major casualty. Conceived by producer-arranger Alan Lorber, the Boston Sound
was an attempt to promote several Boston bands simultaneously, for the sake
of efficiency and momentum. MGM Records liked the idea and released the
debut albums of Ultimate Spinach, the Beacon Street Union, and Orpheus in
early 1968, all promoted as the first wave of a new "Boston Sound" movement.
MGM called it "the sound heard 'round the world." Rolling Stone's review by Jon Landau said the sound was "kerplop." In castigating the MGM albums, Landau presented what quickly became the Final Word on the subject: there was no Boston rock scene; the Boston Sound was pure hype; the bands weren't very good; the music was "derivative."
That view has gone mostly unchallenged since 1968. Landau, a Bostonian, positioned himself as a purist and went on to a very successful career as a rock critic. He later became Bruce Springsteen's producer and manager, remaining a partisan of that elusive musical quality known as authenticity.
However, as Fred Goodman documents in his 1997 book The Mansion on the Hill, purism and authenticity are not always pure or authentic, and Landau has stepped over a number of corpses on his way to the top. Ultimate Spinach was one of his first victims. Despite strong sales of their records, the band's reputation was severely damaged.
In retrospect, it's clear that Ultimate Spinach deserved a much better fate. The Bosstown hype was not their idea, and their records are some of the best psychedelic music available then or now. Their brief time in the spotlight brought them not well-earned glory but unexpected trauma, which fractured an already-fragile band.
In contrast with the collectivist spirit of the 1960s, Ultimate Spinach was not so much a group effort as the vision of one man. Ian Bruce-Douglas was the leader, lead singer, and songwriter. He even designed his own clothing for use on stage. He played numerous instruments and wrote sprawling, cosmic liner notes for the first album. Both Ultimate Spinach (MGM E-/SE-4518, 1968) and its successor, Behold & See (MGM SE-4570, 1968), can be considered concept albums, unified by the darkly utopian vision and domineering personality of Bruce-Douglas.
Unfortunately, the "Bosstown" controversy took a psychological toll. Squabbles with band members and strong-willed producer Lorber led Bruce-Douglas - at the ripe old age of 21 - to leave his own band after Behold & See was released. In 1969, Lorber, who owned the rights to the band's name, released a third and final Ultimate Spinach album (MGM SE-4600, self-titled, like the first album) with Ted Myers as lead singer and songwriter. By then, only singer Barbara Hudson remained from the original band.
Ian Bruce-Douglas has been in and out of the music business since his departure from Ultimate Spinach. His only album since then is In the Valley of the Shadow, a 1988 cassette-only release by his band Azlbrax (Intergalactic IRC-001). In the Valley sounds quite different from Ultimate Spinach, but once again Bruce-Douglas's personality ties everything together. As usual, his vision is simultaneously upbeat and apocalyptic - one might even say tortured.
Today Bruce-Douglas lives in the Fort Lauderdale (Florida) area and records music in his own studio. He occasionally plays locally with his long-time bassist, Caryn Beth Spring.
All three Ultimate Spinach albums have been reissued on CD twice. First came the Big Beat label with a straight reissue of the first album in 1995 (CDWIKD 142) and altered versions of Behold & See (CDWIKD 148) and the third album (CDWIKD 165, rechristened Ultimate Spinach III) in 1996. A box set containing all three albums appeared in 2000 (Akarma 121/3). In the box set, the albums appear in their original form except for Behold & See, on which the masterpiece "Jazz Thing" is still represented only in an edited version. The box set also includes a few mono mixes as bonus tracks. The noticeably unpsychedelic cover art of the box set shows a ‘Jaws’-like shark gobbling massive quantities of spinach. Presumably this is intended as a wicked visual pun, but by whom? And who is the shark supposed to be? Assuming Alan Lorber had approval over the cover art, he may be making a rare ironic comment about the music industry, or perhaps about Jon Landau or the rock press. Bruce-Douglas views the shark as Alan Lorber himself--but that would imply that the image was planted as a sort of inside joke by somebody at the record company.
In addition to the Big Beat individual issues and the Akarma box set, there is The Very Best of Ultimate Spinach on Varèse Sarabande (302 066 237 2, 2001), another anthology on the same label called The Best of the Boston Sound (302 066 235 2, 2001), and a 1996 Big Beat anthology called Bosstown Sound, 1968: The Music & the Time (CDWIK2 167). The latter volume includes three tracks from the first two Ultimate Spinach albums, while The Best of the Boston Sound only includes one such track (the classic "Hip Death Goddess").
The reissues have sparked new interest in the band and especially its founder and main creative force. However, Bruce-Douglas is not happy with the reissues, which have reopened some old wounds and prompted complaints by reviewers (and Bruce-Douglas himself) about the alteration of Behold & See from its original form.
The Big Beat version of the album is billed as the "director's cut," and the director is Alan Lorber. "Visions of Your Reality" from the LP is not included; the sequence of the songs is altered; and "Fragmentary March of Green," "Jazz Thing," and "Mind Flowers" are edited. Bruce-Douglas objects to this, claims he was not consulted about the reissues, and has only disdain for Lorber, whom he sarcastically calls "The Creative Genius," borrowing a line from the immodest liner notes of the original LP release of the first album.
The following interview provides Bruce-Douglas with a forum for telling his own story, which has not often been heard since the meltdown of 1968. In the process, he settles scores not only with Lorber but with Jon Landau and some bandmates. This not being a news story, the individuals in question have not been contacted to reply to Bruce-Douglas's complaints. Alan Lorber's side of the story, or at least part of it, is available in his self-penned liner notes for the various CD reissues.
The interview is edited, with Ian Bruce-Douglas's approval, from numerous e-mail exchanges in 1997, 1998, and 2001 and from an in-person meeting in 1998. Contrary to rumor, "The Old Bastard," as he calls himself, is alive, well, and making music three decades after the meteoric rise and fall of Ultimate Spinach. He is cantankerous, opinionated and blunt, but also generous, funny, and still visionary and ambitious (he calls his company Intergalactic Productions!). He can be reached by e-mail at <firstname.lastname@example.org> and has a grand, illuminating website at <www.ultimate-ian-spinach.com>, complete with a recipe for Ultimate Spinach Lasagna!
PT: When and where were you born?
Ian Bruce-Douglas (IB-D): I was born on October 7, 1946, at the Bolling Air Force Base hospital [in Washington, D.C.]. I spent most of my first twelve years on a five-acre farm in Fairfax County, Virginia. Growing up as an only child and living in the country may have a lot to do with the fact that I became creative and very solitary as I matured. As an adult, I became an amateur naturalist. I'm still a hell of a lot more comfortable exploring a rain forest or jungle than going to a mall or a party.
PT: In an old article it says your name was originally Wise.
IB-D: My birth name was Ian Bruce Douglas Wise. I'm descended from an old Southern family. In fact, there's still a Wise County, Virginia, named after Henry A. Wise, who was Governor of Virginia, who signed the death warrant for John Brown after Harper's Ferry. He was a Confederate general who served as Robert E. Lee's personal aide-de-camp, and he was renowned for his temper. (Who does that remind you of?) I'm also descended from "Devil-John Wise" of the Shreveport, Louisiana, Wises. His temper was even worse than Henry A.'s. Obviously, I'm not ashamed of my heritage. I only shortened my name because my first serious girlfriend suggested it. "Bruce" and "Douglas" are distant relatives from Scotland. Let's face it - my mother didn't do me any favours giving me three first names. Anyway, I've been Ian Bruce-Douglas a helluva lot longer than I was Ian Bruce Douglas Wise. And frankly, I doubt the rest of the Wises are losing any sleep over my dropping the name. I mean, would you want to have to claim me as a family member?
PT: How did you become interested in music?
IB-D: I was always interested in music. My mother had been an opera singer in Italy before World War II. My father had been a band leader before he became a bomber pilot and career Air Force officer. So there was lots of music around my house - everything from big band music and opera to a great deal of orchestral and classical music. On my own I became fascinated by the local "race" stations and preferred that to the rock and roll my contemporaries favored (Elvis etc.) I started piano lessons at age 5 and wrote my first composition ("Desert Plains") at age 6. I even wrote out the music with big goose-egg notes.
Eventually I found my dad's old guitar in the attic and figured out a couple of chords on it. Then my parents shipped me off to military school, where I saw a student get up on stage at one of our dances and perform a couple of Buddy Holly tunes. That's when I decided I wanted to touch and excite others the way others' music had touched and excited me.
I attended Berklee School of Music [in Boston] on a Down Beat [magazine] scholarship when I was 16. My parents insisted that I finish high school, and I ended up starting at the University of Virginia with nonmusical goals. I was miserably unhappy and only found solace when I would pick up a guitar, go off somewhere alone, and play. I started writing again at that point. I was heavily influenced by those who were touching me - Bob Dylan and Richard Fariña particularly.
Finally, I got so depressed that I tried to kill myself and was sent home from school on a medical leave of absence. Music-making sustained me through this period. I began seriously supporting myself teaching and performing. This led to The Big Split between my parents and me, although I ended up going to help them out when my father hurt himself. That led to my creating the Underground Cinema just to keep from going crazy while staying with my parents.
PT: Who was in the Underground Cinema?
IB-D: The Underground Cinema consisted of Keith Lahteinen (drums), Richard Nese (bass), Geoff Winthrop (guitar), Barbara Hudson (vocals), and me. This devolved into Ultimate Spinach. We recorded the first album, and right after its completion Keith was smart enough to quit. He was replaced by Russell Levine. We also added Priscilla DiDonato to fatten the live vocals because we had done a lot of vocal overdubs on the album that we couldn't reproduce with the original five members. We began our tour to coincide with the release of the first album, January 6, 1968. Before we recorded the second album, Priscilla was replaced by Caryl Lee Britt [misspelled ‘Carol’ by Lorber in the Behold and See liner notes]. Right after that I replaced Geoff with Jimmy Thompson [a former member of the Boston power trio Butter]. Then Jeff ["Skunk"] Baxter [later a member of Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers] replaced Jimmy. And I replaced Richard with Mike Levine. A couple of months after the second album was completed, I fired myself - August or September of 1968, if memory serves.
PT: Was Steve Cataldo in the Underground Cinema?
IB-D: Steve Cataldo was involved in my very first effort to put a band together on Cape Cod [Massachusetts] in 1966. I didn't really know how to run a band. It fell apart quickly. This may have been the Underground Cinema, but it had nothing to do with the band that devolved into Spinach. The personnel on the first Spinach album are the same people who were in the Underground Cinema.
PT: On the New England Teen Scene Unreleased compilation CD [Arf! Arf! AA-060, 1996], there are three demos credited to Underground Cinema, featuring you and Skip Tull.
IB-D: That's not the Underground Cinema.
PT: Who was Skip Tull?
IB-D: He was a would-be musician I met at one of the open mikes at the Unicorn Coffee House [in Boston] before I formed the Underground Cinema. I think he may have been a rich kid who enjoyed hanging around crazy musicians like me. I barely remember doing demos with him. He either paid for them or worked some sort of deal for the studio time. We drifted apart soon after that.
PT: Was Steve Cataldo or Richie Bartlett involved in the Skip Tull sessions?
IB-D: No. Tull came up after my first abortive attempt to start the Underground Cinema, which included Cataldo. I don't know why Richie Bartlett's name keeps coming up. I don't think I ever met him. [Note: Bartlett and Cataldo were mentioned as possible early members of the Underground Cinema and Ultimate Spinach in the liner notes to New England Teen Scene Unreleased - GB.]
PT: Why was the name changed to Ultimate Spinach?
IB-D: When Amphion Management picked us up and Alan Lorber agreed to produce us, I changed the name for "luck" - after ingesting some LSD, painting myself with a green Magic Marker, staring at the results in a mirror, and exclaiming "Whoa, that's Ultimate Spinach! Ultimate Spinach is me!" I liked the sound of the words, so I decided to use it.
PT: How was Ultimate Spinach "discovered"?
IB-D: We played at the Unicorn six nights a week, plus a matinee on Sundays, for $60 each. We'd been hired on the spot after doing a Monday night open mike hosted by Dick Summer, a dj at [Boston radio station] WBZ. We left the audience yelling for encores and throwing flowers on the stage after we did "Hip Death Goddess" or "Mind Flowers." One of the waitresses told her ex-husband about us. That was David Jenks. He was a fine graphic artist who did the cover of Behold & See. He and Ray Paret were just forming Amphion and looking for acts to manage. Ray was student entertainment director at MIT [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge]. They came to hear us and immediately wanted us to do a demo for them to shop. Ray came from a rich family and got all his rich friends to invest in Amphion so he could buy studio time and get us real equipment. I didn't really take them seriously, especially when Ray told me we'd have a record deal before the end of the year. But they were attentive and helpful, so I let them do their thing. I guess Lorber was a family friend or something.
PT: What was it like to work with Alan Lorber?
IB-D: He was a fledgling producer, way out of his element dealing with a madman like me. He was coming from a background as an arranger for people like Paul Anka and some of those horrible sides where they took perfectly good soul singers, laid on heavy doses of strings, and made them acceptable to white folks. So his whole background was very stylized and greatly removed from the psychedelic experience that was beginning to permeate the music. I remember him as a bit of a cold fish. I was a second-string John Lennon type back then and would frequently play the clown. I never got the guy to crack more than a smile. Never shared a meal, a drink, or a joint with him. Here was a man who was intimately involved with my music, yet he never visited my home. I was only at his apartment once for five minutes. He always wore suits and ties. When he first came to hear us at the Unicorn, we sat and talked afterwards. I could have sworn that he told me that I'd be involved with the album from start to finish. Yet, when we were done recording, he basically dismissed me and mixed it as he saw fit.
PT: I've always liked the Ultimate Spinach albums.
IB-D: There's no accounting for one's taste, is there? Unfortunately, I outgrew the music almost as fast as I wrote it, and I really hated the wimpy production. In fairness, I will say that the CD reissues do sound much punchier, and closer to my original vision, than the originals. I'm still not too happy with the bulk of my writing. Some things never change, I guess.
PT: What do you think about the alterations to Behold & See in the CD reissues?
IB-D: Well, I have always thought that "The Creative Genius" [Alan Lorber] is totally arrogant in claiming that he has some special insight into how my songs were supposed to sound. How the hell would he know? He never was interested in my vision of these songs. With all the grace and style of a bull in a china shop, he slapped those albums together - both the originals and the reissues - and marketed the hell out of them with no regard for artistic creativity or integrity, just maximum profit: his! He has never sought out my input on any of these reissues. In fact, I only discovered that they had been released by accident. Certainly not from him. I suspect that he was very disappointed to discover that I'm not dead!
PT: Surely you don't mean that literally.
IB-D: Yes, actually, I do. There are still a lot of questions about his business dealings with me that need answering - questions that would likely never get asked if I were incorporeal.
PT: There is now a Very Best of Ultimate Spinach compilation CD and a three-CD Ultimate Spinach box set. Also two Bosstown compilations on which Ultimate Spinach appears. Have you seen all those? Any comments about them?
IB-D: How many ways can one keep rereleasing those albums? What "The Creative Genius" lacks as a producer or person of any creative vision, he certainly more than makes up for as a totally exploitive, self-serving marketing genius. The only way another release of those albums would have any legitimacy would be for him to let me remix and remaster them. That's the only way the public will ever hear those albums as I intended them. Who cares what he thinks they should sound like? Frankly, I would warn everyone not to buy these re-reissues. I consider them nothing more than a scam for profit.
I'd be embarrassed to tell you what kind of royalty checks I've received. Even though I wrote all those songs and thought up the band's name, he owns it all. When Bryna [Golden] from the Babylonian Tiles started using the name "Hip Death Goddess" as her alter-ego stage persona - with my blessing, incidentally - he totally freaked and threatened the poor woman with all kinds of legal horrors if she continued doing so. Which is when he suddenly trademarked "Hip Death Goddess"!
PT: Have you approached Lorber about remixing and remastering the albums?
PT: Would you still be interested in doing it at this point?
IB-D: Not unless I was paid properly, and from my experience, I don't think that's very likely. He clutches everything "Spinach" with the tenacity of a death grip.
PT: What were Lorber's contributions as producer?
IB-D: As I've learned my producer's skills over the years, I've come to realize that he really wasn't a very good producer. I really hated the way the albums originally sounded. I literally couldn't stand to listen to them for years after the fact. But [as I said] he's a marketing genius. The fact that he took Spinach and Orpheus as far as he did proves this. Neither band had anything exceptional going for it, although Orpheus was certainly a much more polished and commercial affair. Spinach was intended to sound gigantic: walls of amps and speakers. Even though we weren't in the same league, I heard more of a fat, Jimi Hendrix sound - really aggressive, punchy bass and drums. Instead we ended up with this thin, mid-rangey bubblegum sound. [Lorber] did such a sloppy editing job that there is at least one place (in "Mind Flowers") where you can hear the splice point because the tempo and pitch are slightly different - even in the CD reissues. We did have a wall of sound on stage. We had an endorsement deal with Ampeg and got to use prototypes of the first transistorized amps before they were on the market.
PT: What did Lorber contribute musically?
IB-D: He was certainly a better sight-reader than I was. One of the few real production moves he did was to totally rearrange "Pamela," including a bit of J.S. Bach at the beginning. He tried to get me to sight-read it, but frankly I froze up. So he played the right hand while I bumbled with the left. Actually, "Pamela" was the only tune that got any real creative input from Lorber. I had written the entire tune in the up-tempo rock beat of the middle sections. He insisted on turning parts of it into the a cappella sections that ended up on the recording. I could never decide whether I liked his ideas or not. One thing that wasn't his fault - I really hated the sound of my voice. At least in the last thirty years I've learned how to control it so that I can pretty much sing whatever I'm inspired to.
PT: One of the criticisms of Ultimate Spinach was that you started touring before you had polished your act by gigging locally.
IB-D: That's inaccurate. We played extensively for several months before we recorded the first album. The problem was that we started our tour for the first album at the Fillmore in San Francisco and didn't play well. Bill Graham called us the worst band that ever played there. I agreed and said so to Graham.
PT: Why was it that you "fired yourself" from the band?
IB-D: After the fact, I realized I had given up all control of the band when I signed the various contracts. In order to hire or fire, I needed permission of our managers, our producer, his business manager, and one band member. The trick was getting that band member's vote, because nobody really liked me and no one wanted to be responsible for canning a fellow band member. When I quit, technically I had to fire myself and get all those permissions. By that point everybody was happy to see me leave, so no problem. Lorber kept me under contract for several years after I quit. He released everybody else who quit or was fired. Legally I wasn't allowed to perform or record without his involvement. I did one demo for him, but he rejected it. I decided to sit out the contracts rather than give him more control over me.
PT: You're very hard on Lorber, but in his liner notes to the CD reissues he's complimentary toward you. Do you have anything good to say about him?
IB-D: As I've already said, he's a very poor, sloppy producer more interested in cranking that "product" out, factory-style, than in setting any production standards. At least, that's how it was with the Spinach sessions. As a self-serving promoter and marketer, however, he's a genius.
PT: What do you remember about the members of Ultimate Spinach?
IB-D: Richard Nese and Geoff Winthrop came from Cape Cod. Barbara Hudson was an amazon - very tall, 18, fresh out of high school. She was one of the more pleasant people in the band. If she hated me as much as some of the others did, she at least kept it from me. I met her once for coffee a couple of years later. She was still the same pleasant individual and actually seemed glad to see me! Everybody in the band was married except Barbara and me. Keith Lahteinen was from Hyannis [Massachusetts]. That's him singing on "Dove in Hawk's Clothing." He introduced me to Richard and Geoff. By the way, "Winthrop" wasn't Geoff's real name. Can't remember what it was.
PT: In an old magazine article there is the name Jeff Cahoon. Is that him?
IB-D: Yes. Both Jeff and Keith altered their names. Keith's last name was actually Lahtien (not sure of the i and e placement). Jeff was every bit as surly as he looked in our publicity pictures. He and Richard were the primary bitchers in the original band. We nearly came to blows on more than one occasion. They'd sit backstage at the Unicorn between sets, sucking down the beers and sulking, brooding and complaining. Keith had the good sense to quit after we finished the first album and before we toured. I suspect he could see this wasn't going to be a happy family. He was a hell of a nice guy with a good job as a surveyor and a really lovely wife. The weasel I hired to replace him, Russ Levine, ended up being one of the biggest snakes in the grass. He was another reason I quit. He gave me a tab of what was supposed to be pure LSD. Later I heard he had been bragging that he really gave me LSD laced with strychnine to try to short-circuit me! Very nice. I think he's now a network executive in Los Angeles. When we added Jeff Baxter, he and Levine became fast friends. Jeff used to brag how he'd tried to "accidentally" brain me with his guitar when we played in Miami.
PT: Those are serious charges. How sure are you about them?
IB-D: As sure as I am that I'm sitting here answering your questions.
PT: Do you remember who told you? Was it more than one source, or only one?
IB-D: Multiple and varied sources, actually. Evidently the two of them had become great buddies and were bragging to anyone within earshot.
PT: Did you ever talk about it with Levine and Baxter?
IB-D: No, but I'd sure love to! Nothing would please me more than to have the opportunity to "thank" each of them for the wonderful experiences I shared with them.
PT: Why didn't the band members get along better?
IB-D: Besides being terribly naïve, I was also inept as a bandleader. I didn't understand the concept of auditions. I picked most of the band members because they were friends of a mutual acquaintance and played an instrument. The only person I heard before the fact was Barbara, because she attended the same open mikes at the Unicorn that I did. Besides that, I was terrible at organizing and running the band. I wanted to write the songs and direct the arrangements, but I also wanted us all to be friends. So I was very weak about exerting control. I let a lot of bad playing slip by, including my own. Spinach gave me a lot to ponder. Eventually I turned into a pretty good bandleader. I ran my later bands firmly and took responsibility for my decisions. I found good players who were motivated by satisfaction rather than pay-by-the-note. Wonder of wonders, we all became good friends. We genuinely liked and respected each other.
PT: Did Ultimate Spinach do any covers?
PT: Tell me about the covers of "Hip Death Goddess."
IB-D: Two groups do covers of "Hip Death Goddess" - the Babylonian Tiles and Lithium X-mas. The Tiles are a goth-psych band from Los Angeles. [Their] version comes closest to the original - except, frankly, I think it sounds better! Bryna Golden's vocal is far superior to Barbara Hudson's and I only wish I had had Bryna's eerie styling when I originally recorded it. Too bad this version probably won't be released because of contract hassles with their former label [note: it's available on the compilation Saints & Sorcerers Volume II, Saint Thomas STP 0044, 1998; Bruce-Douglas wrote liner notes for the Tiles' album Teknicolour Aftermath, Pangea OM2021, 2000 - GB]. Lithium X-mas did a very different and more original version of the song, which I also like very much [on their Helldorado CD, Direct Hit DH-011, 1993 - GB]. Even though the chick singing lead sounds kinda snotty!
PT: Did you write "Hip Death Goddess" especially for Barbara Hudson to sing?
IB-D: Absolutely not! In fact, I had written it months before I even put the band together. Let me put it this way: my vision of the Hip Death Goddess was a slinky, slim woman - quite beautiful, although severe and bored-looking, wearing the latest designer-label black evening dress. She would be the kind of creature who used to frequent the psychedelic clubs, looking like a pale ghost in a black sheath dress, the kind of female who could intimidate the average man with a look that would leave him feeling quite insecure and unworthy. Poor Barbara, while a nice enough person to deal with, was none of the above!
PT: You mentioned that Keith Lahteinen sang lead on "Dove in Hawk's Clothing." Do any of the other males sing lead on anything, or is that always you?
IB-D: Jeff [Cahoon/Winthrop] and Barbara sang harmonies on my lead vocals. I alone added extra vocal overdubs in the studio, which was the reason I brought in another singer, to help make the live versions sound more like the recordings. No one else sang.
PT: Did you use any session musicians on the records?
IB-D: No, we didn't use any outside musicians.
PT: What are your favorite Ultimate Spinach songs?
IB-D: Generally I liked the second album better, even if I wrote a bunch of it in the studio between takes. On the first album, I think "Hip Death Goddess" and "Your Head Is Reeling" are the purest and least derivative. I also liked the two instrumentals ["Sacrifice of the Moon" and "Baroque #1"]. On the second album, "Fragmentary March of Green" and, again, the instrumental parts were OK.
PT: Was the second album written after the first?
IB-D: Yes. Except for "Mind Flowers," all the second album material was written after the first album.
PT: You used the word "derivative." That was the same word used by some reviewers to criticise Ultimate Spinach.
IB-D: To some degree my early music was derivative, but not intentionally. Like all musicians, I was influenced by other music. I hadn't really found my own voice yet. Were my lyrics and liner notes pretentious? For many years, Jon Landau and other critics had me believing that. But the recent interest in me and those albums has caused me to reevaluate things, and the answer is an unequivocal no. My lyrics were the direct result of my experiments with psychedelics and psychotropic plants. The experience was overwhelming and profound. It forever altered my perceptions. My words were all sincere and heartfelt. Essentially, I bared my soul and spirit. I tried to reach out and touch others who might have experienced similar things. According to most of the mail from my listeners, I succeeded. If anyone was pretentious, it was Landau and his ilk. How could someone like him possibly understand or relate to my experiences? The fact that he could write what he did only proves he was an ignorant young man pretending he knew what was going on.
PT: Lorber mentions in his liner notes that you were influenced by Kenneth Patchen, and the first LP was dedicated to Patchen and Dick Summer. Was Patchen a significant influence?
IB-D: Here's another example of the arrogance of this self-proclaimed "Creative Genius." What the hell would he know about my influences? It's not like we ever hung out and had any kind of real conversation. Was Patchen an influence on me? Not really. What he was, was a dear man I became "pen pals" with, via his wife Miriam. Someone had turned me on to his poetry several years before I started Spinach. I was so moved by it that I was compelled to write him a letter. I never expected to hear back from him and had written the letter more to get it out of my system than anything else. I just don't write "fan letters." I've only ever written Patchen and Andrew Wyeth, the painter - who also replied. Several months after writing Patchen, I was surprised to receive a letter from Miriam. I didn't know that poor Kenneth had been rendered paraplegic by a botched surgery. He went through excruciating pain whenever he picked up a pen. So, Miriam had taken to writing what he dictated, most of the time. Evidently, my letter to him touched them as much as his poetry had touched me, and we began a long correspondence. I never met them in person, although we did speak on the phone a few times. The most touching thing I remember about the Patchens was when I wrote to tell them I was getting ready to marry my first wife - the "Pamela" on the first album. In a previous letter, I had expressed an interest in reading one of his novels, which were very hard to find. After my marriage announcement, I got a package from them - Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer, which was very nice. The best part was when I opened it, because Kenneth had inscribed it to me in his own hand, which was very distinctive. I was touched by this gesture, especially knowing the pain that [it] must have caused him. Miriam told me he refused to take painkillers because he didn't want to dull his creative mind. In describing this to you, I'm having second thoughts. Yes, maybe Kenneth - and Miriam - Patchen influenced me more than I realized!
PT: Did you borrow the Erik Satie figure in "Baroque #1" from "The Masked Marauder," by Country Joe and the Fish?
IB-D: The funny thing is that I wasn't influenced by Country Joe, even though I can see why people would think so. I wrote "Baroque #1" before I even heard of that band. I think the truth is that Joe McDonald and I both derived our idea from listening to Satie's Gymnopédies. But I consider much of the Spinach music to be derivative of the music I liked. Listening to it years later, I certainly hear those influences. Also, I had been experimenting with the same psychotropic substances as a lot of other folks. I think the psychedelic commonality was in trying to reproduce that overpowering, immense roar that was part of the experience. Which is why God invented Marshall amps.
PT: You guys never released a single. Why not?
IB-D: Lorber definitely wanted to release a single - "Funny Freak Parade" or "Plastic Raincoats," I think. I just kept fighting this because he wanted to market us as G-rated psychedelic bubblegum. I was more interested in projecting the dark side of the hippie movement. I really pissed Lorber and MGM off when we were on The Pat Boone Show. I wanted to do "Your Head Is Reeling" and raised hell until they allowed us to do that instead of "Freak Parade" or "Plastic Raincoats." Ol' Pat has been carrying on bland conversations with Moms Mabley and some squeaky-clean actress and out we come, looking like something from a bad acid trip and start singing these dark lyrics with feedback guitars. Lorber never said anything to me about it, but his business manager - I think his name was Ed Abramson - got in my face a month later. That was the first reason I decided to quit the band.
PT: Were you close with the other "Bosstown" bands?
IB-D: I'll be honest with you. Except for hearing Orpheus's single because it was getting local airplay, I've never heard much of the music from the other bands. The more the whole mess turned into an utter miasma, the more I insulated myself from external input. I do remember feeling that the Spinach albums had to be the worst of the lot. But then I was too personally involved to be more objective. Orpheus was the only Boston band we shared a stage with, and that was only once or twice in Boston, never on tour. Before we were "discovered," as the Underground Cinema, we spent the summer of '67 as the main house band at the Unicorn, along with the J. Geils [Blues] Band, the Ill Wind, and Streetchoir. We also opened for name acts playing the Boston Tea Party.
PT: How did the whole Bosstown debacle affect you?
IB-D: The thing that really hurt was the sense of betrayal I felt from the public. Even before we were signed to do that first album, we were already well-received in Boston. Those were encouraging times, and that continued after the first album was released. After the album hit the charts we started to get negative publicity. Things really hit the fan when Landau decided to "expose" the so-called "Bosstown Sound" - and, of course, Spinach. His article was thoughtless. He provoked a mindless mob reaction against us. Suddenly we were no longer loved. People thought we were in on the hype. That's when Landau called my music derivative and pretentious. The mob took up that cry. I survived, of course, but the whole thing left me unwilling to put myself in that line of fire again. What angered and hurt me most was that this fool Landau never once attempted to communicate with me to find out how I felt about things. If he had, I'd like to think he might have been a whole lot fairer to the bands. We were the real victims of the charade. He made a rush to judgment. To this day I denounce him for this. He hurt a lot of people.
PT: How did you feel about the version of Ultimate Spinach that carried on after you left?
IB-D: Ted [Myers] was pleasant enough, although I must admit that I found his girlfriend a whole lot more interesting! I did find it funnier than hell that Lorber tried to plug the leak of my quitting by bringing Ted and Tony Scheuren in. Let's face it - Ultimate Spinach was my personal vision, even if ultimately it became my personal Frankenstein's monster!
PT: Ted told me that Tony died a couple of years ago.
IB-D: I'm sorry to hear that. He was always a very pleasant, unassuming, low-key guy. He was originally one of our roadies and one of the few people I didn't have conflict with in the Spinach organization.
PT: What did you do after Ultimate Spinach?
IB-D: I tried to quit music. I've worked on a lot of blue-collar jobs: floor washer, taxi driver, construction, warehouseman, long-haul truck driver. I also spent some time as a mercenary shortly after I quit Spinach, until I was shot and almost bled to death.
PT: A mercenary? Really? From your songs I get the impression of a pacifist.
IB-D: I tried being a pacifist for awhile, but it never really took. I accept the world for the violent place it is and deal with it accordingly. Given a choice, I always prefer peace and solitude, but I won't suffer bullies or predators. I've been against most of the wars that have occurred during my [50+] years because most are about politics and business, not moral issues. My reasons for becoming a mercenary are very involved and personal. I will say that it was a necessary rite of passage for me. My experiences were enriching in their way. Put in shamanistic terms, I have suffered "the Little Death" and survived.
PT: How about musical ventures after Ultimate Spinach?
IB-D: After Spinach, I dropped out of the picture for about a year. When I dropped back in, I started the Ian Bruce-Douglas Apocalypse, a power trio. I played organ and guitar. I'm proud to say I overcame the hostility generated in the Rolling Stone smear. We became very popular around Boston and did concerts in support of the Black Panthers. After that came Copperhead [not the same as the John Cippolina band - GB], which was my first horn band. This evolved into Copperhead II, one of my better bands - four saxes, bass, drums, and me on acoustic piano and electric guitar. A very satisfying experience - really hot musicians who kept me on my toes. The music had a definite funk to it. Then I spent some time gigging around with my bassist, Augustine Antoine, from the Copperheads - basically doing "unplugged" originals. After this I just gigged around as a side player in a bunch of bar bands. Then I moved to New Orleans. My biggest deal there was Lord of Light, which went through several incarnations. We were the house band at one of the nastiest clubs in the city. The final version of that band wasn't very satisfying, and I got tired of running a band. For awhile, I hired out as a musician. Then I got disgusted with music, period. I spent the next couple of years working blue-collar gigs.
In 1980, I moved to south Florida with the idea of starting a lawn-care business, but there were already thousands in the yellow pages. So I started giving private music lessons, which led to a piano bar gig and becoming a full-tilt lounge lizard. I also put together a number of commercial cover bands and graduated from clubs to private parties - hated every moment of it. Some friends encouraged me to put together another band. That was Bloodlust - me on piano, Randy Ball on guitar, Caryn Beth Spring on bass, and sometimes Marilyn Ann Howman on synth. We couldn't find the right drummer, so eventually I decided to program a Roland TR-808 for the drum parts. We had a spec deal with a studio to do an album, but they went out of business and left us with three or four incomplete recordings. That tore the band apart. [Note: Bloodlust released one 45 - "Lonely No More"/ "Song for the Dead and Dying," Intergalactic Bicycle-Demon ibd 111, 1986, with picture sleeve - GB.] After licking my wounds, I put together a full-fledged MIDI trio - Azlbrax - with Caryn Beth Spring on bass and vocoder trigger and Dona Maggio (then later Debra McKinnon) on synth. I played synths, sang, and programmed everything else. The sound was intentionally huge and bombastic. Almost more symphonic but set to rock/funk rhythms.
PT: What does the name Azlbrax mean?
IB-D: When we were in Bloodlust, I used to use the expression "fire, brimstone, and azlbrax." Caryn suggested Azlbrax as the name for the new band.
PT: What have you been doing since Azlbrax?
IB-D: I took a couple of years off and didn't play at all. Lately I've begun to write a lot again, in a minimalist style. Caryn has begun learning the stuff. In the near future I'll begin building a new band. As soon as I finish remodeling my studio and upgrading my recording system to HDD-based, I plan to start work on three different albums: acoustic guitar-based songs, band-oriented songs, and an instrumental album. I may even record a symphonic work. I'm open to go wherever the Spirit leads me.
PT: On your website you mentioned that you were thinking about an anthology to be called Ian Bruce-Douglas: The Post-Spinach Years. Is there any news on that, or on the possibility of the Azlbrax cassette being reissued on CD?
IB-D: Unfortunately, my website <www.ultimate-ian-spinach.com> is overdue for a major updating. I hope to make some major changes there shortly, after I reregister my domain name. It's coming due, and I could just about imagine "The Creative Genius" waiting impatiently to try and scoop that up too! As for any forthcoming recording projects, that's kind of a tough one to answer. Frankly, I'm not really sure I want to release my stuff to the public anymore. While I'm very gratified by all the e-mails I've been getting from all over the world, I've been disappointed that the only thing anyone seems interested in is Spinach.
I've posted some sound-clips of a few of the kinds of things I'm writing these days. I've gotten very little feedback, positive or negative, about any of this - stuff I consider so far superior to anything I wrote for Spinach that it's not even in the same universe. So, if the public isn't interested in the really good music I've been composing, why should I bother releasing it? I'm still pondering all this, of course, but at the moment I'm more inclined to record my stuff and just archive it. With a little luck, in another 20 to 30 years someone else will "rediscover" my music. I will become another Famous Dead Artist, and those archived recordings can be released then. Kind of an estate for my heirs, if you will. If I release anything at all, I would be more likely to release some of my instrumental stuff.
PT: What reactions have you gotten to your website? How did the voting turn out for favorite Ultimate Spinach songs?
IB-D: My site has been online less than two years [as of December 2001] and I just passed the 3,000 visitors mark. Which means that I've been averaging a steady three or four visitors daily. Not bad for a minor, mostly forgotten cult icon! The feedback has been very supportive. As for the song votes, unfortunately I lost several hundred of them when the PC they were stored on crashed. However, I know that "Hip Death Goddess" is probably #1. "Mind Flowers" and "Your Head Is Reeling" have also received a lot of votes. So has "Pamela," which kinda surprises me. Otherwise, it's been the instrumentals on the second album that get a lot of votes ["Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse" and part 3 of "Suite: Genesis Of Beauty"]. One thing that was very cool and pleasing to me was that one person voted for a couple of the sound-clips from the Azlbrax album - "Song for the Dead and Dying" and "Spider Chant." I suspect that was someone I know just trying to cheer me up. Well, it did!
PT: Any final thoughts about your place in musical history?
IB-D: For whatever reason, the Spinach albums did a lot better on the charts than any of the other Boston bands, even Orpheus. In that sense, we were the most successful of those bands. But as far as Spinach goes, I doubt that anybody could be more critical of it than I am. That's why I'm pleasantly shocked to find that there's still interest in that music and its creator. I've written a handful of songs that I'm really proud of. I guess my biggest fear has always been that I'd die without the world ever hearing this stuff, and I'd be stuck with nothing more in my musical epitaph than "creator and songwriter for Ultimate Spinach."
I'm just not the stuff a real "star" is made of. I may be intense, but I'm not really on an "Ego Trip." By the way, did you know I coined that phrase back in 1967? I really don't remember it existing before I used it as a song title. My contribution to twentieth-century culture!
Ian Bruce-Douglas was interviewed by: Gary Burns. Feature written and directed by Phil McMullen. Artwork: Iker Spozio © Ptolemaic Terrascope, 2001