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The Best of Spirit

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Here is the company Spirit kept in its brief heyday in the late ’60s and early ’70s:

When I was a SoCAl kid in that era, we used to drive from San Pedro to Torrance to go to the Del Amo Mall, and as a kind of emblem, on the wall of the “hip kids” clothing section at one of the department stores (I forget which) were the most happening band names – the Beatles, Stones, Who, Creedence, Doors, and Hendrix were up there, and so was Spirit. All but the lattermost are cornerstones of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, classic rock radio and the popular imagination, and while there may have been bit of hometeam favoritism that helped put Spirit on the rockin’ department store leader board, they were not altogether out of place.

A (very) long car trip last weekend enabled a rare stretch of concerted listening, including the recently reissued The Best of Spirit, and while Spirit may not belong in the Rock Hall, they certainly deserve more respect than they currently get (not much) from the rock establishment.

Spirit was something of a Topanga Canyon psychedelic supergroup with songwriters Jay Ferguson (later of Jo Jo Gunne, a brief solo career, and much film/TV composition work), guitar prodigy Randy (Wolfe) California (who had played with and been renamed by Hendrix), bassist Mark Andes (Jo Jo Gunne, Firefall, Heart), keyboardist John Locke, and drummer Ed “Mr Skin” Cassidy, Randy’s stepfather, who had been a professional jazz drummer since the ’30s (Thelonious Monk, Cannonball Adderley, Art Pepper, Gerry Mulligan).

The original group became a jazzy psychedelic jamming wonder before producing four fine, if uneven, albums between ’68 and ’70, which very nearly perfectly boil down to the 16 songs (11 from the original Best Of, plus 5 bonus tracks), beautifully remastered for this reissue.

Highlights include California’s charging, summery rock-pop classic “I Got a Line On You” (their only Top 40 hit); Ferguson’s buoyant, carnivalesque “Mr. Skin,” which touches upon sex, Ed Cassidy’s shaved head, and sex, with a wicked backbeat; California’s folky, charming, slightly foreboding “Nature’s Way” (in which he sounds uncannily like Jerry Garcia) with great group harmonies. Also of note are “Animal Zoo” “Nothin’ to Hide” “Aren’t You Glad” and the haunting orchestral instrumental “Taurus” (the acoustic guitar figure of which was borrowed whole for the intro to “Stairway to Heaven” – Randy was bitter).

The story ends somewhat badly: after the original band broke up, California and Cassidy formed and reformed various versions of Spirit – none up to the original – until California was lost at sea off the coast of Molokai, Hawaii in 1997.

Though not quite up to what some zealots (including the liner note writer here) have labeled them – “the American Pink Floyd” – a noteworthy chapter in rock history nonetheless, and worthy of your attention.

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About Eric Olsen

  • Nick Polak

    Always nice to see Spirit remembered. Their music has held up far more successfully than most of their West Coast contemporaries.

    The 2-CD Time Circle is a more comprehensive collection of the original lineup’s work, including the entirety of The 12 Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus , their best known album. The outtakes are as good as the album tracks, and IMNSHO, the first disc taken as a whole is as good a snapshot of the California music scene in the late sixties as any you’re likely to hear: it’s one of my favorites to spin first thing in the morning.

    BTW — Randy California drowned saving the life of his son in a surfing mishap.

  • Eric Olsen

    Thanks, Nick, for the information on Randy – a very noble way to go – and always great to hear from a Spirit fan.

  • Mark

    Hey Eric,

    Good post. I saw one of the various versions of Spirit in Raleigh, NC, about 25 years ago. A small club and one of the rare shows you still remember after all these years. I can’t remember all the players, but who can forget the driving drum beat of Cassidy.
    Have fun,
    Mark

  • http://oakhaus.blogspot.com/ Bill Sherman

    Chalk me up as another Spirit appreciator: Dr. Sardonicus is one of those albums that I love to periodically re-discover.

  • Dawn

    One of the fun things about road trips with you is I get to learn and discover new bands. While Spirit isn’t new – I sure didn’t have much appreciation for them until you forced me to listen, er I mean suggested I listen.

    Thanks 😉

  • Eric Olsen

    It was a fun trip – thank YOU.

  • http://folks@musicians-workshop.com dan Huckabee

    are the lyrics to spirit’s 1984 available anywhere?