The Masterpiece Most of You Have Never Heard

Spirit is more then the band that might have been ripped off by Led Zeppelin. Much more.

In February of 1982, I was leafing through my tattered copy of The Encyclopedia of Rock. I was at letter S, almost finished with it, and came across an entry for a band called Spirit.

They were evidently a wacky bunch of guys from California. They had a bald drummer who was much older, they had a minor hit with a song called I Got a Line On You, broke up, etc… But the entry had one tantalizing little tidbit: in November of 1970, they released an album called The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus that was considered a “minor masterpiece.”

I special ordered it — there were no Spirit albums at all in the local record store in West Lafayette, Indiana.

Two weeks later, I pulled the shrink wrap off this:

Holy shit! That’s a cover!

I’m listening to Sardonicus as I write this. It makes me cry. It makes me cry because I remember it as the soundtrack to my college days. I cry because it represents everything I ever wanted to accomplish as a recording engineer and producer (file that under “dreams that won’t happen…”)

Mainly, I cry when I hear this record because it is so so so good. Great. Beautiful. Brilliant. Surprising. Perfect.

Many of the songs on it are guitar driven, but with an acoustic vibe. The “hit” off the album is Nature’s Way, which you can easily play on any old guitar. Nature’s Way is an early entry into the “anti-pollution” genre of songwriting, but like many of the songs on Sardonicus, its lyrics veer between elliptical and nonsensical.

Spirit is not a band about lyrics. The words are usually more concerned with the sound they make when sung, but there’s also a lot of humor in them:

You better get your ass to the Animal Zoo
Oh ho, something went wrong
When you’re much too fat and a little too long

And there are also moments that are lovely:

Softly say you’ll be my bride and
Our hopes all sun and feel, ahh
Say you’ll always be here by my side
With the hopes all constantly, ohh we

Walked in the dream and we knew it was
Married in the dreams
Strange as it seemed that we knew because
Because life has just begun
Life has just begun, life has just begun
Because life has just begun

There is something about this record… It’s hinting at things without quite saying them. It is like a dream — you find the meaning if you look for it, but even then it isn’t quite clear.

The songs go all over the place, from ballads to R&B with horns sections, to guitar raves, to instrumentals with really early, pioneering use of synthesizers. One song glides into another with no gaps, telling a story that doesn’t make sense in your head but somehow it make sense in your guts, in your heart… dare I say, your soul?

This is an album that seemingly begins in the morning and takes you in all directions to deposit you somewhere in the night at the end of side two. One minute you’re rocking out, the next minute there’s a tractor puffing its way across the soundscape. Vocals are everywhere, drums and percussion abound. Side one fades out into the distance on a jazz trumpet solo; side two fades in with a piano and a bass repeating what could be a Phillip Glass lick, until it turns into something off a Joe Zawinul record, maybe. Then a guitar comes swooping down like Wakan Tanka, the great spirit of the Lakotas, with backwards vocals and yet more bass… and then it’s just before sunrise as you fall asleep to a pipe organ only to dream the album again.

Spirit were a great bunch of players. And a great bunch of singers. The harmonies are dense and interesting, with voices layered and effected and panned around your head — this is a great headphone album! Singers range from whispers to screams — literally — yet it’s somehow always beautiful.

It’s also a spectacular recording. Producer David Briggs (he worked with Neil Young) and the band managed to arrange the mayhem and density such that you can hear everything always. Parts slide in and out, always complementing each other. The dynamics are all over the place, but happen seemingly three dimnesionally. Things don’t get merely get quiet. Instead, they move back in space, and then come screaming forwards again. The way things are panned on this record… again, listen to it on headphones and realize it was made in 1970!

The album was written and masterminded by guitarist Randy California, whose real name was Randy Wolfe. The “California” sobriquet was bestowed by Jimi Hendrix, who taught guitar to a then 16 year old Wolfe when the two were both living in NYC. Spirit’s bald drummer was Wolfe stepfather, jazz drummer Ed Cassidy.

Ed and Randy, along with Randy’s mom, later moved back to California, where they met singer / percussionist Jay Ferguson, and bassist Mark Andes. After Spirit’s demise, Ferguson formed Jo Jo Gunn and had a minor hit on his own with the song Thunder Island. Mark Andes went on to play on a lot of records and eventually wound up in the most pop (and commercially successful) incarnation of Heart.

Keyboardist John Locke brought a jazz flavor to Spirit. He stayed in the fold a long time, and played on Spirit reunion tours and on Randy California solo albums. Locke even did a stint in, of all bands, Scotland’s Nazareth. He died in 2006.

Randy California had his problems. He spent much of his career seemingly chasing the success that Spirit should have had, and not quite catching it yet again. And there were drug issues and whatnot, and it’s lurid and sad and you can read about it somewhere else.

In 1997, he was living in Hawaii with his mother and son. California and his son used to swim in the ocean. One day, a rip tide caught the two and pulled them under and out. Randy pushed his son out of the rip, saving the boy, but was too exhausted to save himself. He was 45.

The lawsuit between the estate of Randy Wolfe and the members of Led Zeppelin is focused on six measures of music. It’s the main riff of the Spirit instrumental Taurus, and it’s the beginning of Stairway to Heaven. Both songs are based on a common motif: a minor chord with a bass note descending from tonic though the seventh and down from there. Yes, the two songs do have a similarity, and Taurus was released first, and Jimmy Page was a Spirit fan. And Stairway to Heaven is a masterpiece while Taurus is a ditty.

Spirit’s masterpiece is The 12 Dreams. The Encyclopedia of Rock claimed it was a “minor masterpiece,” but I beg to disagree. It’s one of the best rock albums ever made, up there with anything by the Beatles or Bowie, and probably more consistently excellent than anything by Led Zeppelin. It defies categorization and genres as much now as it did almost 50 years ago.

Sardonicus has aged well. It remains fresh and surprising, and the production of it, while intricate and full of special effects, has none of the sonic characteristics that can make a recording sound dated. I played it for my son a few years ago, and he loved it. He’s 16 now, and when his friends are discussing music and great bands, he brings up Sardonicus on Amazon Music and blows everyone’s ears off.

In 1982 this record was magic to me. It lived on my turntable and in my cassette player. It was full of hope and yearning It hinted at great things to come. It was like a dream — a dream I really wanted to make true, to someday make something like it.

The 12 Dreams of Dr Sardonicus opens and closes with the same lyrics. They’re a wonderful mantra with which to begin and end your day:

You have the world at your fingertips
No one can make it better than you

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