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"It Was Too Hip for the Room." - a conversation with Chester Crill

The following is the transcript of an interview conducted by Richie Unterberger on April 19, 1999 for his book, "Urban Spacemen and Wayfaring Strangers." Richie's chapter on Kaleidoscope is the most comprehensive account of the band to date. The interview appears here with the kind permission of the author. For a complete description of the book's contents & ordering info visit Richie's site. Richie's latest is Eight Miles High: Folk-Rock's Flight from Haight-Ashbury to Woodstock.

contents of this interview copyright 2000 Richie Unterberger

I: " To me, rock'n'roll was a howling mess."

Q: How did you get involved with Kaleidoscope?

I was staying at a place in Berkeley, and he and Solomon were upstairs practicing, and they appeared locally up there as David and Solomon, the Kings of Israel. I'm not kidding. My wife knew the guy's house we were staying in there, and they were practicing upstairs. So I went and played with him, just to show them how to do it right. Because neither of them could play violin as well as I could. And he instantly said, "You should be the bass player in this rock group I'm doing." That's kind of how his mind works.

He said, "Quit your day job," and I said, "I don't want to do that." And he said, "I guarantee you, you'll make $10,000 in the next six months." So I quit my day job. The first two years we made a lot of money playing live, a lot of money.

Q: In the early days of Kaleidoscope, how did it work, balancing all those different areas of interest and expertise?

After Chris came in David had this thing where this was supposed to be a first among equals arrangement. He took legal control of everything at that point, with nobody's permission particularly, and then it was, "I'm in charge of hiring and firing." Not much changed on the musical level.

What he had in mind, I think at that time...see, he'd just been with Solomon as a single act. He liked to play flamenco and kind of Leadbelly-type folk. Solomon was pretty well known on, and he still is, on kind of a, jeez, I don't know how to describe the circuit he works, except to say it's really dirt bag. But it works real well for him. And he has a lot of people who know who he is. Their act together was, Solomon would do a little flamenco, and David would play some banjo, and they wanted to get more involved in rock'n'roll. I knew nothing about rock'n'roll, absolutely nothing. I was a jazzman, I played jazz bass, I played violin as a kid, but hadn't played for years.

We probably learned about half an album's worth of, like, Dylanesque folk-rock, you know? Like on the first album, there's a song called "Please." That's the one that kind of survived that period of rehearsal and struggling.

Lindley and I never, ever got along. But the guy does have an appreciation of talent. I would say that's his strongest suit. He was always involved in trying to get the best players he could around him, which was one of the things that made me be interested in it. Because to me, rock'n'roll was a howling mess. I liked R&B to an extent, but my first professional gig was with a band that opened for Sonny & Cher's Caesar and Cleo. That stuff was miserable (laughs).

So it was like a folk-rock kind of a sound, and eventually, he recruited some high-school kid for a drummer. And the guy ended up not being bad. But, see, what it broke down to in the Kaleidoscope later on was, that each of us would have our own area of influence that would be--because it was so eclectic--there was no question that we were the authority in. Then we would teach the other people how to play in that style. That's what we did, Chris in particular. He was the only one that had any rock'n'roll knowledge at all. He'd had a couple rock'n'roll bands. Lindley, you know--the foremost banjo player of his era--kind of made up his own way of playing banjo. He used to [be] a hell of a lot better than Bela Fleck, say. He hasn't played in years, though. Solomon, probably a first-rate flamenco guitar player.

After Christopher left, then it became Stuart Brotman, who's one of the world-class ethnomusicologists. So there was always somebody there who just had so many credentials you couldn't give them any shit about what they...when we passed the hat around and it's your turn to pick the tune, it was great in that aspect after Christopher got there. But before, man, their attempts at rock'n'roll was just, whew. Solomon, as a lead singer, only that particular period of time would have even tolerated somebody who sang like that.

Next: "We'd just throw it every direction we could."