Friday, September 19, 2008

topanga windows

Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus. Picture this: The year is 1968. A hippie rock 'n roll band, who call themselves Spirit, rehearse in a garage at the end of a dry, dusty road in Topanga Canyon. Lou Adler has recently signed the band to his Ode label and recorded their first album... A lot of hippies have begun to migrate to Topanga in what can be thought of as L.A.'s version of the rural turn. The move to a more rustic setting is compelled in large part by the LAPD's imposition of authoritarian rule over the Sunset Strip in the wake of the recent teenage riots. Additionally, Laurel Canyon and some of the other Hollywood canyon communities (Beachwood Canyon, Nichols Canyon, Bronson Canyon, etc.) are becoming crowded with scenesters. Topanga feels more removed and low key, at least in the beginning...

So as Spirit practices its repertoire there in Topanga, a little man, not much more than five feet tall, shows up, takes a seat on a rock outside the garage, and watches them play. He has recently been released from prison and appears to be in very bad need of a bath and shave. After spending the Summer of Love in Frisco, he traveled down to the Plastic Fantastic Wonderland for reasons unknown. He goes by the name of Charlie.

Charlie fancies himself something of a songwriter and musician. Eventually he will befriend Dennis Wilson, who will arrange for the Beach Boys to record Charlie's song, "Cease to Exist," on their album, 20/20, though the title of the song will be changed to "Never Learn not to Love."

Cease to resist, come on say you love me
Give up your world, come on and be with me
I'm your kind, I'm your kind, and I see

This (true) story about Manson and Spirit, such as it is, is admittedly gratuitous. I guess you could say that I'm one of those very distinct geeks who fixate ghoulishly on Manson Family esoterica, especially those aspects of the Family that intersect with Southern California's 60s rock scene. I know this is probably not an especially appealing quality, and perhaps it's best to keep it under wraps, but it's difficult to resist sharing the pleasing mental image I have of Charlie watching, wild-eyed, as Randy California shreds out Hendrix-esque licks in a Topanga garage. In my defense, I should point out that Charlie and Spirit are actually connected in a way that goes beyond my blissed out rock reveries (a friend of mine, by the way, calls these daydreams 'chick repellents'. Oh, well.). ...While Charlie is arguably the personification of The Great Collapse, Spirits's 1970 classic, Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, is an important musical expression of said Collapse. This, in combination with the image of Charlie sitting on the Topanga rock as the band kicks out the jams, means that the two - Manson ad Spirit - will forever be etched together in my scrambled little brain...

Spirit's sound is hard to classify. 'Jazzy folk-pop psychedelia' maybe does it justice, almost. The jazzier it gets, the less I like it. The folkier and more psychedelic it gets,
sans the jazz noodling, the more I fall in love with it. This is just a matter of taste, of course. The band's first album, Spirit, is heavier on the jazz than I would like it t be, but the record has a few great songs, including the blistering guitar fest that is "Mechanical World." Spirit's second album, The Family That Plays Together, is an outstanding psychedelic pop album, on par with Love's Forever Changes and The Byrds' Notorious Byrds Brothers. The Family That Plays Together features Spirit's first well-known single, "I Got a Line on You," a song that I find absolutely infectious, especially if you're on an empty Hollywood Freeway, early Sunday morning, heading towards Topanga State Beach... The group's third album, Clear Spirit, is their least jazzy and most conventional attempt at hard rock, and yet I find the songs fairly weak overall (except for "Dark Eyed Woman"), and the album as a whole strikes me as being unsatsifying.

All the right elements come together gloriously on
Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, Spirit's fourth and best album. By this time, Lou Adler turned production duties over to David Briggs (who was working closely with another Topanga resident, Neil Young), and the result is magical... Dr. Sardonicus is by no means a perfect album. It has several annoying jazzbo interludes that, for me anyway, detract from the overall pacing of the record. Nor is Dr. Sardonicus an unambiguous expression of the Great Collapse. The album has definite moments of what you might call hippy naivete, especially given that it was released in 1970, and late 1970 at that. 'You have the world at your fingertips,' Jay Ferguson sings in the opening line of the album, 'No one can make it better than you.' Please. ...Elsewhere, Randy California (whose real name is probably something like Irv Birnbaum) seems to pat himself on the back as he proclaims, 'you know I was never born to wear no collar, you know I was never born to make no deals...' So it's not as if Spirit have completely thrown in the towel on hippie utopia. But the record also has a darkness about it and a number of the songs seem to acknowledge that things have changed. 'Oh no, something went wrong/Well you're much to fat and a litle too long/Hey, hey you got too much to lose/Gotta find your way back to the animal zoo.' And in the most moving moment on the album, Ferguson sings,

I don't know what it is to be free
And I cry when you say that you can't free me
(please free me)
I just can't go on
Why can't I be free?

Dr. Sardonicus is also one of the first records to deal with ecological issues. "Nature's Way" is the obvious example of this, but there's also the sadness is Randy California's voice as he sings,

See what you done to the rain and the sun?
So many changes have all just begun
to reap
I know you're asleep
Wake up!

This refers directly to the problem of enviornmental deterioration, but it should also be interpreted as a metaphor for the social deterioration that has taken place as a result of the arrogance and hubris of the counterculture. What once seemed progressive and librating has now created oppressive dysfunction and unleashed the ruthless forces of unthinking reaction. It's nature's way of telling you something's wrong.

PS - Apologies for the changing fonts. I'm having a little trouble using this blogging program...

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