Interview with Jay Ferguson from Dark Star magazine ca. 1978.
THE VOICE OVER INTRO
It must have been all of four years since I last spoke to Jay Ferguson - and in those days I was more inclined towards being awe- struck in the presence of genuine cultureheroes - but the tall and ostentatiously healthy (disgusting) man, the rangy Californian with hair straight out of a coiffure-boutique window standing at the open door of a plush London hotel box has a wide, white grin of recognition on his face and he gets the place right first time, if not the name. 'This'll go fine.
Nobody else from the press wants to point a microphone in Jay Ferguson's direction; they're all cut chasing moonbeams and X-Ray Spex. Well, that's dandy, gives us plenty of time to lay back and let Spirit's former frontman and (lets face it, kids) prime mover of the first quartet of albums, classics all, tell his Spirit tale from be- fore the beginning into the beyond. (Jo Jo Gunne and the two solo albums, which bear immediate investigation and will deliver fruit to anyone not cursed with tin ears, will be documented next time around)
But what's sweet and in store for you here and now is Jay Ferguson talking about Spirit in what are popularly known as outspoken terms and never mind the stuff we couldn't use - and I've done my level best not to be too intrusive, disrupting the flow by doing a fool thing like ask questions... Jay just wanted to tell it the way it is from the Jay Ferguson side of what has become a great divide in the minds of Spirit freaks everywhere (and they are, for sure), and I hope you'll give him his due and let him speak his piece.
One thing I do know, though. Jay Perguson is a gentleman, a real charmer, and spending the time of night with him is finding yourself in fine company. Yeah, but also... anyone who listens to this man's music as he wants it to be heard (as not in Jo Jo Gunne, all will be re- vealed soon) will discover an impor- tant and delightful fact - Jay Ferguson carries a lot of the spirit of Spirit around with him. Get "Thunder Island", 'nuff said.
INTERVIEW, PART THE FIRST THE SPIRIT LOWDOWN
DS: Well, right back to Griffith Park, okay?
JF: Okay, well, I'll just autobiograph to that a little bit. Born in San Fernando valley, raised in California, in the world's first suburb as we know it now, home of fried chicken and guitars - that's where it all started, specific view of culture from that, and I was born into a musical family - took piano, didn't like it; started playing guitar, singing in folkbands in junior high school, and high school, didn't really get any buzz off that until of course The Beatles hit America, as I was really interested in music and interested in rock'n'- roll specifically. And, I guess I went through a succession of what we call garage bands in those days. That's when you pull your dad's car out of the garage, set up your drums and amplifiers, and bash away until the neighbours call the police. All these garage bands were really just fun, but there was a band which was really the beginning of my career, and that was a band called the Red Roosters, and that was really Spirit before Spirit. We met by congregating round this club in Los Angeles called the Ash Grove, which at that time was a folk and blues club, slowly turning into a rock club. You'd see people there afterhours like the Byrds, the Springfield and the Doors. So running round that club I ran into pretty strange characters - like this 45 year old bald drummer, this 14 year old brilliant guitar player and my friend who'd come with me, Mark Andes, who was another born-and- raised-in-the-valley buddy. We were surfers, into the Beach Boys and clean living the American way, and we met these strange characters over the hill, and with another friend of ours, Mike Fondelier, we formed this band which was the Red Roosters. The band was sort of born out of the music which was being played at that club at the time, which was folk and blues, and I remember we idolised another band who'd gone before us in the Ash Grove, called the Rising Sons, and in that band were Ry Coo der and Taj Mahal and, at one time, Ed Cassidy. So these were people we wanted to play like, and we lasted, oh I'd say about six to nine months; we had a good time but we were just kids, and it really wasn't a serious career. At that point we broke up - Mark and I went back to the valley and recruited Mark's brother, Matt, and Mike Fondelier and we had a short-lived rock'n'roll band called the Western Union.
By this time, Ed Cassidy had really become Randy California's father by marrying Randy's mother, so now they were a family, and as a family they travelled back to New York; Ed played in some jazz groups in the Village and Randy started jamming and playing in this band with this crazy guy named Jimmy James, and the Blue Flames. And that's also how Randy got his name; there were two Randys in the band and so Jimmy James called one of them Randy California, and that name stuck. Well, little do we know Jimmy James was Jimi Hendrix after Chas Chandler took him to England. Randy came back from New York and Cass came back and we happened to meet by chance at this love-in in Griff ith Park, and that was the summer of peace and love and drugs and hippie and get-togethers in the park--I dpn't know why, but everybody was attracted to the mass gathering. There was safety in numbers, there was some sort of feeling of "This is a new generation.' So I remember walking through this mob of 100,000 people and spying this bald head in the distance (laughs) and 'Uh, the old guy's back.' So we started playing again, and Randy kept talk- ing about this Jimmy James guy. Then I went into a store and found an import record by Jimi Hendrix and I brought it back and showed it to Randy. Randy just lost his mind and said, 'That's Jimmy James, that's the man' and we played that record and we got off heavily. So we re- formed and we called ourselves Spirits Rebellious, a name taken from Kahlii Gibran, which was later shortened, thank God, to Spirit.
DS: Wasn't there some legal hassle with another band at the time or is this a legend?
JF: Yeah, there was a second Spirit, I think in Chicago, and, I mean, they were very gracious about it and sent us a letter giving up their name. I mean, we were expecting some sort of legal battle.
DS: Yeah, because they had a single out, or something, didn't they?
JF: I think so - uh, wasn't there an English Spirit as well?
DS: No, the way we heard it was the East Coast Spirit had a single out, and we could never figure out why they'd given up the name if they had a single out.
JF: Well, we couldn't figure it out either; we got word of this other band with our name and thought, 'Uh, oh boy, we're in for it now.' Then, as I said, they sent us this strange letter, sort of giving up without a shot being fired. They said, 'Well, tell you what, you can have the name.' Maybe they weren't happy with it, I don't know. So, we were gigging around LA - the Whiskey, the Ash Grove, the Magic Mushroom; all these crazy clubs kept popping up in '67 all over LA; and we couldn't for the life of us get a recording con- tract. We'd bring people from every company and they'd go 'Uh, that's nice.' and get interested, but no- one was biting. We ware starting to lose faith with the whole idea, we were close to breaking up 'cause we were just so frustrated - no-one was into nibbling at the new band; until we got Lou Adler to return a second time.
DS: Lou Adler came himself, did he? We heard that Marshall Blonatein came along...
JF: You know, you've got more infor- mation that I have Yeah, well, we were at the Ash Grove - and it was very mysterious how this was set up 'cause Lou Adler was at that time a break-off figure in the business- he'd Just come off the Mamas and Papas and was sort of mysterious, and we felt like it was Howard Hughes coming to see us. So they set up this audition at the Ash Grove, the good ol' Ash Grove, everything returned to the Ash Grove, and Mar shall Blonstein, who was Lou Adler's nephew I think, came down, saw us, and reported back to Lou Adler. But it vas through the persistent eff- orts of one Ann Applequist, who was this girl who knew Lou and loved Spirit; she kept pressing Lou and talked him into seeing us himself. This time we cleared out the Whiskey one afternoon and we were on stage, all tuned up with our instruments; the limousine arrives; door opens; man comes in in very dark sunglasses; sits in a booth in the shadows; we play four songs; man gets up; walks out; end of audition. I mean, it was like in the movies or something. Anyway, he turned out to say 'Yeah, that's it, I want that band,' and saved us from breaking up. He took us into the studio and introduced us to uh, well, the rest of the world, I guess.
And we were one of the first really so called 'underground' bands, and the term then really had meaning, because there was no 'above the ground' national press, no attention focused, no air-play - our whole life depended on this new phenomenon called underground FM rock'n'roll, which was coming at the same time in the States, where you had these wild-eyed DJs who'd play anything - including the new Spirit album (laughs). That's how we broke through. But at the same time, being tagged 'underground', which was sort of a compliment because we were hipper than thou, was also a detri- ment, because without that national attention being paid to us, or any notice being drawn to us, we in the band had the feeling that we weren't really making contact on any big scale. Eventually that helped lead to the breakup of the band. You know, even to "Dr. Sardonicus" we weren't aware we had followers - we knew we had people here and there, 'cause they'd come up and say 'Hi', but it wasn't 'til after the band really had broken up and the album contin- ued to sell and went gold, and the press came out of the closet and said what a great band it was, that we looked back and realised we were doing something special.
DS: One thing I'd like to ask you about is the film, "The Model Shop".
JF: (Laughing) I heard that came out on TV here, right?
DS: Yeah, well, it was coincidental actually, I was writing about Spirit at the time. How'd you get into it in the first place?
JF: Well, the whole thing was sort of a mismanaged project. It started off with great hopes. Jacques Demy had just come -off the success of "The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg", which he'd directed, and it was a big success in the States, everybody thought he was so lyrical and brilliant. Columbia Pictures invited him over to do a movie and Jacques took the bait and said, 'Okay, I'm gonna come over to Los Angeles and make my great American statement,' - having never been to the United States, speaking no English, which put him at a huge disadvantage. And really that's what killed the pro- ject - the language barrier - be- cause he spoke no English and I think he expected a lot more people would speak French, but no-one could. So here was this director, sitting in a chair, working with Columbia Pictures, which meant he had to use American technicians and he was unable to communicate his ideas to the lighting man, the ward- robe man and the actors, including me. That's why I just panicked; I was frightened about it to begin with, and then when I realised I couldn't even talk to him I completely froze up. It was a very sad ex- perience. That movie turned out in a funny way.
DS: Yeah, it did. It started out fine with your segment, then just fell apart.
JF: I know, you could feel it when it was being made, this man had really no way to control it and he was very unhappy about it.
DS: Was that really your house?
JF: Oh no, no, no.
DS: I didn't think it was, somehow (laughter).
JF: That was another problem. Rather than, say, come back to Spirit's house - actually I should tell you how he signed Spirit originally. He'd just come off the flight from France, he was in Los Angeles jet- lagged out of his mind, wanders down to Hollywood to see the hippies, you know, he wants to do research, walks into a place called the Aquarius Theatre where Spirit's on stage in all our woolly wild drag, playing rock'n'roll, and he was just extrem- ely struck by it and said 'That's the band to do the soundtrack.' Snap decision. But rather than get into the reality of the LA sixties, which was communes and drugs, I mean, you know, it was a very real thing - coming out to Topanga Canyon for instance, and seeing how Spirit was living in one house, he let Columbia Pictures talk him into creating an artificial view of the whole thing, and it comes across in the movie.
DS: There's a track in the movie which comes out of a car radio, it isn't very clear and it's really nice, and it sounds like one of your songs; can you identify it?
JF: It was originally gonna be the theme for the movie 'til Michel Le Grande got a hold of it and did some more work on it. We were gonna re- lease a soundtrack album; we did so many songs for the movie, but it was scrapped eventually in favour of "Clear Spirit", which contained some of the soundtrack, but mostly studio pieces. And you know, you mentioned a piece of music that I remember being very happy with and I've never heard it since. It's locked away in the Adler/Columbia/Screen Gems vaults somewhere.
DS: Yeah, I loved it... "Sardonicus" now - why was the title changed from "Animal Zoo" to "Sardonicus" ?
JF: Well, I was never under the impression that it was gonna be titled "Animal Zoo"...
DS: I may be wrong...
JF: Well, I may be wrong, too. I brought the name of the album to band, I guess I was responsible. There's a grade 'D' movie series in the US, just a very cheap shot, called "Dr. Sardonicus" - the Amaz- ing Doctor Sardonicus - he lived in a basement and his thing was that his face had frozen to this ghos- ly grin, this horrifying grin. Any- way, I liked that name and when we were recording the album, somehow it turned into "The Twelve Dreams..." because I wanted to conceptualise the record in the title without making it too rigid.
DS: Wasn't that a tagname for the studio console?
JF: No. This is true because I did bring the name to the band - I re- ember bringing it out and everybody thinking it was funny, and it never left, it kept sticking around 'til we said 'That's a good name, let's use it.' Then we went to New York and found this crazy photographer who'd just come back from whirling like a Dervish in Tunisia for six months and we shot the cover shots and soon it became very dreamlike.
DS: I've got a quote from an article where Randy says you wanted to make a concept album but couldn't think of a concept.
JF: Yeah, we did janna make a con- cept album (laughs), but the name a bit of a cheat because it hints the record-buyer that 'Here's a con- cept album,' and you can sort of follow it in that way because the songs go into one another, but there's no great nessage in it.
DS: By that time you were getting into recording as separate units- you with the band and Randy with band...
JF: Yeah, it started to splinter that point. I remember up 'til then, Lou Adler had been the rallying point-he'd settle the arguments- and suddenly he was gone and we were by ourselves and everything kinda came out. Randy wanted his things his way and I wanted my things my way. There were quite a lot of fights, but there was co-operation to the point where we got the record done and there were a lot of good ideas. I remember Randy came up with some great ideas for my songs and I think I tried to help his, too.
DS: I have to say in all fairness, because I know you'll read the article - it's not the way I've got him quoted actually. He said you wanted to put "Mr. Skin" on the album in mono, and that wasn't where his head was at at all.
JF: In mono? Oh wow, okay, the true story is this; Randy California wanted "Mr. Skin" in mono, and I didn't want it in mono, I wanted it in stereo. So he's got the right idea, but the wrong side (laughs). He believed "Mr. Skin"-wouId be stronger as a mono cut and I said 'No.' I wanted it in stereo.
DS: Were there any other cuts you got into arguments over?
JF: Well, there weren't a lot of arguments as much as people stopped listening to other peoples ideas For instance, When we we did "Nature's way", Randy -really didn't want to hear about any of my ideas for that song. He had a set pattern - and it turned out he was right 'cause that's a great cut. But it was insulting to me, I felt left out, and then it was probably the same way with him - we began losing trust in each other. It was just a bad time. He and I were strong personalities, both creative, and both overly sens- itive about that - and probably acting a lot like children. So we finished the album, the album came out, did terribly in the charts, looked like our biggest burn yet, went on tour, did some dates, it seemed like excitement for the band was waning, had some giant fights on the road - one in particular over a tour of Japan which Randy cancelled just because he didn't want go, on the eve of departure. It just seemed like it wasn't a sane career build- ing at this poInt. The album didn't go gold until three or four years after we'd split up, but the sales picked up and picked up and refused to die and they're still selling. And it's interesting, because if "Sardonicus" had come out to acclaim and if we'd done a successful tour, and the album had gone gold right away, then perhaps we might not have broken up. We might have said, 'It's worth sticking it out.' But when you looked at the situation, which didn't show much promise, then looked at the fights we were going through, there wasn't a lot of in- centive to stay together.
DS: Was Randy very cut-up about Jo Jo Gunne?
JF: Well, everybody was very sur- prised that we were going to call it quits, but I couldn't believe it because the fights we were having were so bitter and people were threatening to quit left and right - Cass would threaten 'I'm gonna leave this band, it's no good.' and Randy would threaten to quit... so finally we said 'Okay, it looks like there's not much holding us together - we're quitting.' and everybody's mouth dropped open and like were we just kidding, but no, we weren't, because it was getting painful and I remem- ber the night we announced it, we were in rehearsal. Randy understood, Randy knew that it was painful, he didn't seem that surprised. I remem- ber Randy said, 'Well, that's the end of Spirit.' You know, it was a special band, it was the five of us making music and unfortunately that wasn't the end of Spirit - I can't blame them for continuing.
DS: Randy fractured his skull just after that.
JF: What? Oh, yeah, see, all these things entered into it all the time - Randy falling off a horse, going through a lot of mental anguish, people thinking he was dying - and oh, wow, it was a crazy period. It was a crazy band, there's no two ways about it; all these sparks flying constantly - whether they were sparks of musical genius or sparks of personal bitterness, it was like we had to pay for every note we played with a lot of compro- mising, a lot of discussions and sometimes arguments. Towards the end it seemed like the arguments were growing in intensity and the music was slacking off, and we weren't getting a fair return for the effort.
DS: I know a lot of people over here would say it was the magic band; have you ever felt that you'd like to do it again? I know there was a Spirit reunion but I read somewhere that you and Randy were recording together.
JF: Well, no, we talked about it. We've been seeing each other and we're on friendly terms, because once you take the tight confines of a band away from it, you know we do like each other - that's how we first got together. I used to love Randy and I still consider him a friend. But they'd been asking me now and then to rejoin them and make some music together and I'd always felt that a) we wouldn't really make music that would do justice to the old Spirit, it would be a disapp- ointment and b) we'd lose that friendship and might fall into some conflicts. But I have to admit I was curious and so finally I let the curiosity get the best of me and last year ('76), Spirit was doing a concert in LA. They talked to Mark and me and they convinced us to do a reunion date. I was just gonna get back together with my old buddies in Spirit and do a show. But it was largely disappointing - we didn't have any rehearsals, which I couldn't believe, but Randy and Cass didn't feel that we needed rehearsal, so we just did the old songs as best we could. We sold out the Santa Monica Civic, which was our old favourite concert ground and we did a surpris- ingly good show; I mean there was some real magic in that, like you could feel it in the room, it was like the '60s were back or some- thing; Spirit making music. There were low points and high points but it was generally really special.
PS: That's after "Farther Along", which was the reunion without you. I know how the reunion came about, the benefit at Ebbetts Field, and; everyone turning up simultaneously, I just wondered if you were ever approached?
JF: Yes, I was. Well, we did the concert, and at the end, on stage, in front of the entire crowd, we had this crasy fight. I won't go into details, I won't try to point fingers, what's done is done. In that sense it was a very typical Spirit gig. and it answered my questions. You know, the music is very special. but the personalities are always gonna clash. I shouldn't say always' but they have the poten- tial to clash again and again. They'd asked me to do the "Farther Along" record but I was at that point working on "End Zone" and I just literally couldn't do it for scheduling. But you know I don't wanna say I'll never play with those people again because in this busin- ess it's stupid to discount anything completely, but if the time was right I think I'd know it, and I don't think it has been, for various reasons...
Randy is a very unstable person in that his personality will change suddenly, his ideas will change. Working with a person that can be unstable, you often get betrayed, you give them your trust and you plan on something and it gets pulled out from under you like a rug all of sudden. It happened to me with Randy several times. Until Randy changes that facet of his personal- ity I don't see the point in working with him because I feel like the rug'll be pulled out from under mgain, like it was in the Santa Monica Civic when we reunited. And that's not the way I choose to live my life; at the mercy of someone who may suddenly turn into something utterly crazy in the middle of a career movie you're trying to make together.
The Urantian philosophy is an example of this. He'll suddenly go off at an extreme tangent, he's very headstrong, and if you want to main- tain your viewpoint in a contest with Randy, you end up having to shout at him, because otherwise he'll steam all over you. It's not my nature to be a fighter and a shouter and a bitter person, but working with Randy at times forced me into that mould.
So what is your responsibility to the people who love your music and the music that you nade? That's something special, you know I feel bad that we're not making more of it because I know it was really good, but somewhere you have to draw the line and be responsible to your own self and it's very hard to choose an unhappy path, even if you feel like you're being creative. If you're unhappy, it doesn't seem worth it.
Now Randy, as much as he changes, is still a young person; he's still finding himself. Randy may find himself, he may seize on that streek in him that is genius and know how to handle it; and we may work together someday. I think I'll know it and I think he'll know it, when that time comes. The biggest criticism of Randy, this all aside, is that he doesn't let go of Spirit and become Randy California, and I think it's hindered him more than anything else, because he's never broken free of that, he's never had the freedom I've had - for example with Jo Jo Gunne - to make a million mistakes, but at least to be free of Spirit and try a different avenue. He's always had spirit on his shoul der, sort of haunting him and I think that makes it hard for him.
DS: A lot of that is Cass, isn't it?
JF: That's a relationship - the res ponsibility they feel towards each other; the responsibility they feel towards Spirit fans..
DS: Twice now Cass has taken out a copy band...
JL: Oh yeah, yeah (laughs). Well, see, all these things - in my mind - have only served to drag Spirit down from the heights that we built it up to, so it's another bit of' resent- ment I feel. For instance, had that not happened, had Spirit broken up totally in '71, had I gone my way with Jo Jo Gunne, and had Randy and Case gone their way to do bands or whatever, and Spirit had been left as it was, I have no doubt that we would have reunited as a band two years later - because' we'd have had nothing to come back to but good memories-good memories musically (laughs). But as it was, the further I saw Spirit's name dragged around, in this' band or that band, or this un8uccessful'or that drazy kind of sound, the less appealing it got to me.
I did do the reunion concert- with Spirit out of curiosity - you now, how would it be, how would it feel? I mean, there was a lot of pressure because people were saying in LA that when Spirit gets back together we can book this giant tour and everyone'll be making money and everyone'll be happy, but it's just not that simple.
DS: Do you know what's happening to the other guys at this moment?
JF: Well, the last thing I heard is Randy quit Spirit on the road and Mark Andes is in Firefall, doing quite well. Cass, I think, has an antique store in Colorado, so he has two careers going, musical and selling old things. John Locke has a beautiful house somewhere close to mine in California, a town called Ojai. He has a snall studio and he's working on a lot of jazz/rock ideas. He may do a solo album.
DS: Well, John's back. Randy wrote end told us he was playing with them.
JF: Well... when we did that reunion gig and had that fight on stage - someday I'll tell you what it was all about - last thing I heard as I walked out was John Locke screaning at the top of his lungs, 'I will never play with Randy as long as I live!' and he goes back - and that's the way this band is, it doesn't. die, people kinda wander back - and I'm the only guy who didn' wander back...
You have been reading (or have just missed) words that passed bet- ween Jay and myself way back last December, which I hope goes some way towards setting to rest any time- dilation effects some of you might have experienced...
And since then, in one mighty sonic blast of karmic sunshine, the now-band called Spirit has been and gone, leaving us beached, breathles. and softly blazing with rebuilt fires. The promise is that they'll be back soon, be there or be un- naturally square, 'cause the band promised to deliver and reveal all these three March dates past, and, you'll know, if you were there, that you can enter the heart of the sun and the sun of the heart. If you weren't, ain't it enough to know, for now, that you can go too. Soon. And we give thanks too, for and to friends, new and old, who we saw and made and met at the Rainbow Jam.
Rest assured, the data banks were wide open and hours of raw tape of Randy, Ed and Larry in informal and happy rap-session await sifting and sorting and the Spirit story will go on in these pages. (Somehow Spirit seems to have become this man's life-study, but you'll hear no complaining.) So, like they say, watch this space (and watch the skies, too...), -here's much more on the way from the Spirit world, maybe some real surprises, too, but sealed lips for now, okay?
And Jay Ferguson will surely be back next issue, in a saga entitled 'How A Dream Band Becomes A Nightmare. Yup, next up is Jo Jo and solo. And Spirit aplenty, too.
March '78 was a fine time to be alive. Aren't you glad, baby?