Sunday, July 19, 2009

Sunday Music: Spirit

A recent New Yorker carried a few paragraphs on the closing of Manny's Music,located on 48th street. For over 60 years, the store was a mandatory stop for visiting guitarists, who congregated there to try out the latest axe.

It was at Manny's, in 1966, that (not-yet-famous) Jimi Hendrix met a teenager named Randy Wolfe, a recent transplant from Los Angeles. After hearing the boy play, Hendrix recruited him for his band, Jimmy James & The Blue Flames. Since there was already a Randy in the band, Hendrix dubbed him "Randy California." He played with Hendrix until a touring opportunity in England appeared, and Randy's parents wouldn't allow him to cut school to follow the band.

For the most part, Wolfe/California's family encouraged his musical career. His mother Beatrice had been the co-owner of The Ash Grove, one of the earliest folk, jazz and blues venues in Los Angeles. His stepfather was Ed Cassidy, a drummer who had played with artists as diverse as Cannonball Adderly and Ry Cooder. The Cassidys moved to New York for Ed to pursue some regular work. One neighbor in their Long Island apartment building was future Steely Dan founder Walter Becker, who later credited Randy with teaching him how to play guitar. California briefly played with Becker's band The Tangerine Puppets, along with John Cummings and Tommy Erdelyi, who found later notoriety as Johnny and Tommy Ramone.

The family returned to Los Angeles in 1968, and stepfather and son formed the band Spirit. Their debut album was a mild underground success, but the first single "I Got A Line On You," shot up the pop charts. Cassidy was in his mid-40s when the band was formed. Concerned that his age might negatively impact the "hipness" of the band's image, he shaved his head, wore dark shades and black motorcycle jackets, and was intentionally coy when asked about his past. Publicity photos of the band showed four hairy hippy-fabulous young dudes and a ghostly-looking character straight out of a Warhol short film. It was strangely compelling. Cassidy's nickname "Mr. Skin" became the title of another hit for Spirit on the album Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, in 1970.

The band broke up and reformed repeatedly. California went off the grid in Molokai, Hawaii for a couple of years. Spirit had a final long, successful tour in the early 1990s. In 1997, Randy California was surfing with his young son when they were caught in a dangerous undertow. Randy saved the boy, but was unable to swim to safety himself. His body was never recovered.

I wanted to save the video of "I Got A Line On You" for last. Hearing it will, for me, forever evoke sitting on my downstairs neighbor's threadbare couch, facing two monumental speakers thudding with California's nimble Hendrix-like licks. Some herbs might have been involved.

The sound quality is terrible, but seeing the the band riding in a hooptie down Sunset Boulevard is the opposite of terrible.

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