II: "We'd just throw it every direction we could."
|I wanted to play jazz. But jazz was dying. All these other guys wanted to play their own kinds of music, but there was no commercial viability or stage to play those things on. We ended up trying real early stabs at fusion. I mean, really, that's what it was. We'd play eastern beats with western instruments, we'd play jazz on eastern instruments, we'd just throw it every direction we could. The major reason it ended up that way was because we were all multi-instrumentalists. There wasn't anybody there who didn't play more than three instruments. The instruments we all shared were ridiculous. Four of us played clarinet, five of us played violin. Where are you going to find something like that? A lot of our early live concerts, the only problem was the timing of throwing the instruments around the stage. The only reason we existed was because of our success as a live band. Our recordings didn't sell doodle. We used to have a slogan that was like, if you can make a record that you'll like, and they put it out, it's like robbing a bank. Because the record company structure that we were in, which was Columbia/Epic...
When we started recording, for instance the Byrds couldn't even do their own recording in the studio. They couldn't even go in and play their instruments. Even if they could have, they wouldn't have let them do it. Paul Revere & the Raiders, all of the other bands that we watched being recorded in the same space that we were occupying, that they were giving major promotion to, they had studio guys play all their albums. So one of the things David particularly concocted was, we would get stuff that they couldn't do that. And that's how it was. We couldn't stay on one sound, and the other thing was the time was so fabulous.
Q: How did your sound work live in ways that might not be apparent from the records?
The first couple places that we went up and played in San Francisco, the bills would be like, Son House, Booker T. & the MG's, and the Yardbirds, you know? There were audiences for mixed music then. And if you went to any one of these bills, there was like three entirely different types of music from three parts of the country. Early on, they were doing great kind of promotional things there. And we figured, in that kind of an atmosphere, we could just play anything that we were already really capable at. And we didn't have to compete with rock'n'roll, although that was a tremendous drawback on the recordings, that was the ace as far as any place we wanted....I've got a list of the places we played. There isn't any place we didn't, high to low. It was fabulous, that part of it. So, we never had a bad response, playing anywhere. Even if it was just opening for seven other bands.
The sound on "Beacon From Mars" is exactly what we sounded like during our psychedelic period. There are like two whole takes of "Beacon From Mars," the cut, on the second album. Which is like, I don't know, maybe 12-15 minutes. Someday I'll get a hold of the alternate. And it was never structured, but that's about what we sounded like when we did psychedelic music. "Seven Ate Sweet" on the third album, that approximates what we sounded like live. I mean, it's much more studio, and the playing would be longer. But that's a good approximation. There was very little on the albums that doesn't sound pretty much [like how] we could reproduce them live. But at the same time, see, we never would go out and promote the albums, or play them as albums, or even rarely play the cuts. After we recorded it, we were pretty well through with it.
If we had to work three nights in a row, we'd never play the same set. We just changed it all the time, because it was boring. We disparaged people who would go out and play the same thing night after night, and we'd see them do it. We'd see how listless and unexciting it'd get to be for them. The [Nitty Gritty] Dirt Band had to go through that all that time. If there's any band we didn't want to end up [being like], it was the Dirt Band.
Q: How did the band go over at the Newport Folk Festival?
The Newport Folk Festival in '68 was a total disaster. But it was like a...they tried to make like a free-form festival. So on Saturday afternoon, they had a new faces concert. The new faces were, I believe, us, Tim Buckley, Big Brother & the Holding Company, and Taj Mahal with Ry Cooder. And the people had no idea what to make of the entire thing. Those four acts, we just played and boom, they went right past you. Then Richie Havens got up, and before he hit the stage they were on the feet applauding, 'cause they knew who he was. He followed Tim Buckley. Tim Buckley finished, it was like, you could hear the ocean coming in. I'm not familiar with any of these guys' careers to that extent, but he had kind of a semi-jazz combo. And all of these acts, in a row, at a folk festival, were just whsssshhh. I think we were second. Then Taj Mahal came on, a black guy with a white band.
Q: Columbia signed a lot of good, adventurous bands like Kaleidoscope in last half of the 1960s that seemed to have gotten lost, and victimized by poor promotion. Did you feel that to be the case with Kaleidoscope?
The sales of the first and second album were so low that any reunion album we made initially sold more than they did, like, for the first two years. Initially, I think they put out, if I remember the contract correctly, they were only required to put out 2500 copies. And I believe that was it for the second album.
I can't remember who their representation was. They were going to flush Spirit down the same toilet that we went. If you talk to everybody, [they say] "oh the label this, the label that." But you know, none of us went into this with any kind of--maybe Lindley did, I take that back (laughs)--but the rest of us, like, we'd all hard knocked on some pretty low levels, and the ability to be able to get away with stuff that we liked and actually record it was such an affront that we couldn't help but want to participate in it. The first weekend we played, we got paid $750. Holy crap, are you kidding me? To open on a four-band bill, we got $750? Man! So, for four years, that was a gravy train for me, absolutely.
We were always engaged in a debate about recordings, and it didn't make any difference. That was the good part about it, see? That's where we managed to get as much done as we did. There were only two kinds of recordings. They'd give us enough money in a session to do a single, or they'd say, you got x number of dollars for an album. The reunion albums [are] a good indication of where all of us went individually. And also what we used to try to do collectively. I think they're really good.
Whenever we were given a budget, and they were foolish enough to tell us how much it was--and it was usually, you know, nothing--often what would happen, particularly in the first reunion album, they'd say, we want you to do a single, and here's two thousand bucks. Well, we'd go and do a single in like 30 seconds, and then we'd take the rest of the two thousand bucks and record a bunch of long tunes. (snickers) That was kind of how we did it. So the first reunion album, we talked to, I guess, this guy at Warner, and he said, we'll give you fifteen hundred bucks to do a single and see how it goes. So we recorded an album, knowing that they'd turn it down anyway. And then we sold it to Nesmith. But that's kind of how we worked. And we'll probably do another reunion, my guess, in the near future.