I am sure you still get a lot of interest in your time with Clear Light, even though it formed just a brief part of your career.
When people ask me about that now, and a lot of them do; mostly they want to know about Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, ya know, all the dead people. I say it was a great time, so much fun. The only problem was we were so busy being pissed off that we weren’t headlining instead of opening that we sort of missed it. We were living the life but there was always this underpinning of "why aren’t we breaking through, what’s the secret?" Paul Rothchild always said, try this, try that, and we thought he had the secret. He had the Doors, he had Love and whoever else he produced so we thought he had the secret, but he didn’t. So when push came to shove, I think it was Paul’s idea to get rid of Bob, and then it was Paul’s idea to get rid of me, and then the whole thing went up in smoke.
I worked with him afterward; I did a movie with Cheech Marin called "Rude Awakenings" and Paul was the musical director on this film. So we used to have these long lunches where I would say to him, "you used to be really a prick!" If I knew then what I know now, I would have said get rid of this fucking guy; let’s go and play some music. He was always trying to tweak it, do this and do that, you gotta do this and you gotta do that. So you had all these rebellious guys and you had this stern schoolteacher guy saying "I know what’s right, you have to do this and you have to do that". So we were trying to toe the line so we could be rock stars, but it was against our natures. It was a weird situation to be in. It was very funny going to see the Doors movie with this guy in the control room playing Paul Rothchild with this big head of hair; Paul was bald since he was 18 years old! And I thought, you know, Paul must have cast this guy "I don’t care what he looks like as long as he has a lot of hair".
So, how did you come to get involved with Clear Light?
I met my wife Gypsi through Clear Light. She was with the drummer Michael Ney, and I was at Cal State and had been in some bar bands with Michael. They (Clear Light) got the deal with Elektra and they went into the studio and they were trying to do some kind of harmony, like the Turtles or something, with Bob and Doug, and it sounded like shit next to the music. So they needed a singer. They already a deal, so they were auditioning singers at their house. They all lived in a house on Franklin Avenue, which is right opposite a house of a friend of mine now, so whenever I go by I salute!
So Gypsi, my wife, describes it as they were having all these guys coming in singing and then Michael called me and said we’re looking for a singer. So I walked in, I had short hair and white socks, and she said "Oh, this guy...???" So then I got the gig.
That’s interesting, I always assumed that Paul Rothchild had brought you into the group.
Well I think Paul had put out the feelers, and I had worked with Michael in a bar band called the GFG, they must have said call all the singers you know and Michael called me. I think that was how it happened, he was my connection to the group as I had worked with him before. I dropped out from school and went pretty much right into the studio. I got rid of the white socks and started growing my hair, to fit in and all that stuff. Then Gypsi broke up with Michael and she had some friends going in and out of the house. I had a lot of girlfriends and two of them showed up at the house at the same time and they didn’t know about each other and it was very, very upsetting. I snuck out the back window because I didn’t want to see them and was kind of sneaking around in the front yard. And Gypsi was sitting there because her friend was going to see Bob but she didn’t want to see Michael so she was hanging around outside. I saw her and she asked me where I was going and I said well they showed up and I gotta leave. She said she didn’t wanna go in so I said then let’s go together. We got in the car and drove off and we’ve been together ever since.
So you met Gypsi and Bob met his wife Nancy during the Clear Light days.
Yeah, we met Nancy in New York on our first tour she was great person. She worked for Elektra and we were always going up there asking for something or another because they put us up in the Albert hotel and didn’t give us any money and we were always lacking stuff to eat. We were continually going up to Elektra begging for things, and Nancy was our interlocutor with those people. She would come to the concerts and hang out and bring friends and she and Bob hit it off. Then when we came back to LA all of a sudden Nancy showed up there and she and Bob were together and still are to this day.
Lee sometimes joined you on stage for Mr Blue, dressed as a cop and brandishing a cap gun.
I hated that, he didn’t tell me he was going to do that. Mr Blue was my big number. I didn’t like having, Y’know, a partner on my big number. I think we did it one time at a concert that was the last performance of the Buffalo Springfield in Hollywood. It was a big deal and lots of bands were playing and it was the Springfield’s last big "hurrah". We did our set and we got to Mr Blue (that always brought the house down) and here comes Lee out in some strange cop outfit and grabs me. I said "What the hell is this?" So whether it enhanced the performance or whether he was trying to get his foot in... bless him, you know.
I remember we had a terrible drive back from Boston, from the East Coast to the West Coast, which was like Abbot and Costello on the road. We were in a rental car and pulling a trailer with all the equipment in it. The two things I remember were there were a lot of toll roads in Pennsylvania, so you had to stop every 10 miles and pay a guy in a booth. We had this cash from the last gig in Boston; a couple of thousand in hundreds, and Lee had this great idea. "Listen, if we give the guy in the tollbooth a hundred, he won’t be able to break it and he’ll send us on our way," I mean fuck this". So here we are, five hippies in a car pulling a trailer in "Podunk" Pennsylvania. Lee gives the hundred and the guy says, "Could you wait a minute please?" and (makes siren noise) two cop cars pull up! "Pull over there". They thought we stole the shit. They went through all the money. It’s a good thing they didn’t find our grass. We all said "Great idea Lee!" So we got through that. We were on the last leg of the journey coming into California and everyone was sleeping except Lee who was driving. We heard a siren. He was driving too fast, and a cop is saying "pull over, pull over". I was sleeping in the passenger seat and Lee says "Oh god, I don’t have a license and I don’t have any insurance, you gotta switch with me" The trailer was at the back so the cop couldn’t see who was driving. "You gotta switch with me or I am going to jail, when this cop gets to the window I am going to jail, you have to switch". So I changed places with him like I was driving and I got fined $150. He never paid me back the prick! There was always that stuff going on with Lee, these weird ideas where everyone would be so stoned they would go " Oh! great idea" but it was never a good idea.
When you became a part of the band was Robbie still in the line up?
Robbie was still there yeah. He was trying to do it, they were trying to figure out what to do with Robbie. He was an old folk guy and he was in the band. He had a wife and kid out on the beach someplace, but he would stay at the house. He was a bad fit, so Paul Rothchild came along and said "OK, he’s out". Robbie was a strange guy, man, I mean he was really crazy. Y’know "Robbie the werewolf," it wasn’t far off. In the morning he wouldn’t have any money for breakfast and he was hungry and he would walk around the Clear Light house sorta growling "I need some money, I need some money for food". So everybody would say give him a couple of bucks to get him out of here, so you’d give him a couple of bucks and he’d go down to the store and get something to eat and that would cool him out for the day.
I believe he had some kind of blood sugar imbalance.
Yes I think’ that might well have been true, if he got too hungry he got real crazy so that was a little scary, Robbie the werewolf. He was a scary guy, old Robbie.
He came up with his bizarre light guitar invention for the band after he was ousted from his position in the band.
Yes, and it was bizarre and he was always coming up with these bizarre things. We tried it a couple of times with him on the stage with his, "light guitar". But then a lot of times when you played the bigger venues they had their own light show in the background. So here’s Robbie doing his little "dick dick dick dick dick" with his little tiny lights which were completely overwhelmed by the light show at the venue. So that didn’t work, Y’know, we tried it. But when Paul got there, Robbie was toast, ‘‘cos he knew that wasn’t gonna work.
Then Ralph came along..
And then Ralph came along too and we bonded, 'cos we were the new guys. Y’know they were pretty intimidating. Doug was the young wunderkind. He was only nineteen years old, and he had a bit of an attitude; and he always had an idea or an opinion. Y’know, this was big time Elektra; and the Doors, which they constantly brought up, "Jim Morrison wouldn’t do that". "Well fuck you, go get Jim Morrison!". The good thing about Clear Light was I was so intimidated most of the time by the people we played with and by the guys in the band and Paul Rothchild that when I finally left to be an actor on my own, it was hard to intimidate me. People would say "You’ll never work in this town again" and I would say, "fuck you! I’ve got the talent and people will buy what I’m selling," and they have done. But when we were in the band, everyone was running scared. We had a great time but we weren’t successful enough for everyone to just chill, just relax and look around and realise how much fun we were having.
When we got into the studio I was really looking forward to doing Mr Blue, because Jim Morrison had never done a song like that, so they couldn’t say "Jim would’ve done it this way". When I hear that record now I think, "This was a time when I wasn’t afraid of anything" That song is, for me, a liberating experience, as it was in the studio. I mean I couldn’t have let go anymore than in that one, so I put it all in there, got crazy. When they finally heard my rendition of that they thought maybe "hey this guy isn’t so bad after all, maybe we don’t have to mention Jim Morrison in every other sentence".
Did Rothchild select that song especially for you?
I knew you were going to ask me that question, I just cannot remember. You had two folk guys, you had Tom Paxton who wrote the damn thing; and then, the Street Singer song was some other folk guy, Steve Noonan. So someone had the idea of turning these into some kind of weird apocalyptic. The atmosphere of those two tunes is really unusual. Somebody had the idea, so it could have been Rothchild.
They seemed to have been chosen as a showcase to your vocal talents.
I think they were, maybe Paul was smart enough to say, "OK, you’ve got this singer who’s an actor, maybe I can play that," so maybe that was Paul’s wisdom to do that. It was good for me as it actually let me do something that was unique and so I didn’t get criticised for not being all the other rock stars. The other thing was, mostly it was my insecurities, but because Mr Blue was so successful, when we started performing it, it would always bring the house down. Then the band would say, "God what a boring song to play, let’s not do that". Then they would say to Paul, "Can we not do Mr Blue anymore? It’s so boring musically" And I’d think, "Fuck you! That’s my signature, the tune where I blow my head off! And you guys are saying let’s not do that anymore...". There was always that tension going on. The other thing was "You’re not a musician, you don’t play anything, how good are you?" But that was at the beginning, after a while we came together; and for about a year there on the road we had a good time.
Some people have said you guys were L.A.’s answer to the Grateful Dead, because of the family spirit of the group.
Well yeah, there was that. We all lived together and we did a lot of stuff together. When we went to New York we meet a lot of cool.., Y’know the whole Andy Warhol Velvet Underground crowd and Max’s Kansas City. We had some good things going for a while. Had we not been so insecure with the "Why aren’t we making it?" idea we probably could have evolved into a pretty..., You know there are hints of it on that first album, Dallas, god! Dallas was a great musician and with Doug they were a tight little rhythm section. And Ralph and Bob, I mean sometimes we just hit it, we were just cooking like a son-of-a-bitch. And then you’d come off stage and say "Ah damn that was cooking" and you’d get back " oh well, Mr Blue was boring and ya ya this and ya ya that ya ya ya...". I’d be like "C’mon, get happy," I’m a happy kind of guy!
So I guess Mr Blue was responsible for you getting the sobriquet "Hamlet on acid".
Well I never heard that till... I think that was after. Maybe it was from Mr Blue, it’s wonderful but I thought it was sort of an afterthought after I became an actor that somebody said now he’s an actor he must have played Hamlet or something, and he did a lot of acid. I laughed when I read that, that was pretty funny. I wish I would have got a review like that in one of the papers, that would have helped me.
The whole Ralph thing, where we got fired from the club. He wasn’t ready for all these up-towners yelling at us to turn it down, I mean c’mon, this is rock n roll, what the hell are you talking about? In retrospect he was right, at the moment I felt ooh, this isn’t good, to be in New York without a gig.
But I understand that incident got you a lot of prestige among the underground.
Oh yeah with the underground we got cachet from that for a year "You told those suckers!" Then I thought maybe this is gonna work for us.
Oh man, you know we were at the Scene and someone said hey this little trio is coming in you gotta hear these guys, the Jimi Hendrix Experience. What an experience! I almost fell out of my chair, what the hell? It made you wanna go home and not do it anymore. Then he became kind of a pal, he had these two girls, Donna and Denise, the two most beautiful groupies in New York. Dallas liked Donna and I like Denise, but in the interim they were Jimi’s girls, so between them, Dallas and I started hanging with this guy and it was just amazing. He was this brilliant soft-spoken, very gentlemanly, courtly guy. You’d say "You know the opening of that song is so beautiful" and he’d look at you and go "You kidding me man?" "No it’s brilliant, I’ve never heard anything like it before". "Don’t fuck with me man. What are ya saying?" You try and give the guy a compliment and he wouldn’t listen, he wasn’t ready for it. But in retrospect that was a fun part, he did eventually come and hear us play somewhere and he was very complimentary and all that and that was fun.
Do you recall Hendrix jamming with you guys in New York?
I do, although it wasn’t the whole band, it was like Dallas, Doug, Ralph and Jimi, Bob and me weren’t involved. Damn man! You finally had an idea of what Clear Light could have been like. Get rid of Michael Ney and let’s just play some straight-ahead rock n roll without all these time changes and just play! And they played their asses of and it was just great. That’s why I think Jimi liked us, because of that jam, because those three guys were great musicians.
The Franklin Avenue Clear Light house was a popular place for people to hang out.
I remember there was a whole bunch of people, a lot, maybe 20, in the living room. Sergeant Pepper had just come out and everyone took acid and we listened to Sergeant Pepper and it was a wonderful experience. Five times we listened to this album getting more stoned and dancing and running up and down the lawn, having a real celebration of this album. It was kind of the quintessential hippie rock and roll moment.
Plus you had people like the Doors and the Turtles coming over to rehearse and jam at the house.
Sure, they all showed up and there were always people around. When I finally met Gypsi I moved out of the house and in with her because it got to be too much, it was noisy and too crazy. But when we got into that little room and started playing music it was magic. Mostly we saw the Doors in New York when we were on tour. We went to a couple of parties, I think they had an album opening at one of these restaurants in a basement. Clear Light were there, the Doors were there, it was the Doors party and Jim Morrison needed a tie to go to the bar to get a drink. So I had to take off my tie and give it to Jim so he could go get a couple of drinks. I think that was his drug of choice you know, alcohol, fuck all this hippy dippy marijuana and acid y’know. He wanted to be like Baudelaire and all those wild 19th century poet types. And he had a piece of paper in his pocket and he was smiling to himself, he’d had a couple. Then he said "Oh yeah, I read this review of you Cliff" and he pulled out the review and it said "Cliff De Young, a Jim Morrison want to be, sang very well at the..." and he started bugging me, actually digging me about why I was imitating him on stage. I said no, that’s bullshit man. I thought he went to a lot of trouble to cut that out of the paper just to annoy me! I guess I should be flattered. After we left it turned out there was a wine cellar in this place and Jim got really drunk and started taking out wine and throwing it against the opposite wall until they dragged him out of this place. I can’t remember the name of that restaurant but it was a pretty high class joint.
Well you will be glad to know that a lot of people rate you as a much better vocalist than Morrison.
I really appreciate that because I really worked hard at it and really wanted to do it. Because we were so young and because we were so intimidated and because of the fact that we took everybody’s advice rather than just going with the original impetus that brought us all together which was making really cool music and having a lot of fun. Another couple of albums and we could have hit the scene. But no, I’m very pleased to hear that because after the band broke up I went back to California and started other little bands with Rus Grossman. Then I said I don’t want to be in a band because I don’t want 4 or 5 other people dictating my life, I want to be on my own and then thought I can be on my own as an actor. This is the way to run my life without having to have a meeting every time you wanted to make a decision, and usually they voted against my decisions. Unless I was going to be the leader and make all the decisions, which was something we needed. We needed a guy in the band who made the decisions, not Paul Rothchild. Someone who was making the music to say we should do this we should do that. I applaud Clear Light because it gave me a lot of strength in the way that I didn’t want to do that anymore. I wanted to sink or swim on my own as a decision-maker rather than sit around saying, "God I hope these guys make the right decision for my future". I was low man on the totem pole so you had to let them decide what they were going to do. Paul was always throwing his weight around and trying to be the tough guy, and he knew everything, then he would fight with Doug because Doug was a pretty feisty guy. Bob would get all crazy and then Dallas would go into his room and close the door. But strange, when we were on stage playing, man it was cool.
I am always singing at these wrap parties because they have bands. Harry Dean Stanton has a band that I sit in with and sing occasionally, Randy Quaid has a band but he hasn’t let me sit in yet but I have gone a couple of times. I always feel like the debutante at the ball going to Harry Dean’s "Harry Dean, I’m sitting down here, would you asked me to sing a couple of songs please". "And here’s Cliff De Young, we’d like to bring him up..." " Oh no, no please no, I’m so reluctant, well if you ask me nicely...".
What do you perform when you sit in?
You know, just some blues tunes, Bob Dylan or Rolling Stones, Midnight Hour. For a while they had me do "They’re Gonna Put me In the Movies" which they thought was really funny, it’s a bit too corny and country for me. But usually just some kind of standards where the band is playing and I can do my rock and roll voice.
They don’t have you doing "Sunshine" then?
No, God no! God bless ‘‘em no. Sunshine was fun, that was great, but it wasn’t my kind of music. After Sunshine I got a deal with MCA, Bob Seal sang background on the album on a couple of songs, I tried to get as many guys in as I could. The Sunshine TV series I was doing that was supposed to tie in with the album folded before the release so it didn’t quite work out the way we wanted it to. I got a gold record for Sunshine (the 45) in Australia; yeah it went gold there. The Sunshine soundtrack album was interesting, as it was the first time they had ever released an album from a TV movie soundtrack. It was John Denver songs and people just bought it like crazy, it was amazing. Then I got the deal with MCA and did one album and then that was that.
By that time you were concentrating on your acting career.
Yeah, absolutely, but I was always singing with everybody all the time, never in a professional capacity but always somewhere. Music and singing, that was part of the drill. The wonderful thing of having been with Clear Light and having done the soundtrack album is that you go to see these little local groups and they recognise your name and they ask you to come up, you know there’s that whole friendly thing which pleases me greatly. Asking you to come up and sing and sit in, I’m a great "sitter inner". And I have my guitar; I still play every day.
You have been lucky enough to have a continuous career as an actor; you’ve made a lot of movies.
That’s the optimum word, lucky, you gotta be good but you do have to be lucky as well. And that’s the interesting thing about Clear Light, if we’d had a little luck, if we’d done another album, if we hadn’t been so crazed by the stardom thing. If we’d have had a little luck in that regard I think this band could have been really hot, because the musicians were great, we had some good songwriters. Take Rothchild out of the equation...
I think the problem with Paul Rothchild was having him as manager of Clear Light and as producer.
I don’t know how the hell that happened, he’s the producer he worked for Elektra, how can you have the guy working for you and negotiate with himself at the record company? We were so naive, and he was so hot. One forgets how hot Paul Rothchild was he produced three of the biggest bands in America at that time so he had the key, he knew the secret, so we thought. So of course if he said you can’t get the white van you have to get the blue van, you got the blue van!
That is one of the things that is so perplexing about Clear Light because it appeared that you guys were in the right place at the right time, with all the right connections and talent. Everything seemed to be going for you but for some bizarre reason it didn’t seem to happen. Maybe Elektra didn’t push the album enough?
Yeah but it’s also as you say lucky, you have to have a little luck. We had a little bit of luck with Mr Blue getting airplay. Rothchild put us on this show, the Pat Boone Show, and were going to go on and do one of our things and promote the album. Then we find out it’s one of those lip sync things, which all of them were, but of course we were a rebel band and we don’t take that shit. So we decided it would be a very good idea, and funny and rebellious for everyone to play different instruments. I would be the guitar player, Ralph was the singer, Dallas was the bass player and so on. It was a fucking stupid idea, nobody knew who we were anyway so what was the point. I didn’t like the idea anyway because I wanted to be out front, but everyone thought it was such "Hoot!" So we were all at somebody’s house, maybe the Clear Light house, and Paul Rothchild was over and we were all gonna watch ourselves, you know it was a taped thing. So we came out, and there’s Ralph with the microphone, "singing"... You could just see the veins in his (Rothchild’s) neck pounding and him turning red. We were all laughing and then suddenly we all looked at each other like, maybe this wasn’t such a great idea, oh God was he pissed off! "You’ve just killed yourself in LA, you just wrecked your career..." It might have been a stupid idea, but it was ours! That’s why we did it, it wasn’t his idea it was ours, so we had at least one thing that we did that was ours, even if it was stupid and counter productive.
It always seemed to me that Elektra failed to realise what they actually had with Clear Light, you guys should have been a major league group.
In my acting days I ran into Jac Holzman at some function and he said the same thing, but they were just overloaded with bands. They had The Doors, Love, this one that one, then they had us and we were touring and... Oh well. We had some other songs ready but I think they got rid of me before they broke up. They got rid of Bob, and the guy who replaced him, Danny Kootch Kortchmar from the Fugs, he wasn’t the same, he just didn’t fit. He was this funky New York, Eastern cynical guy, and we were these wide-eyed West Coast hippies, it just wasn’t a good fit at all. The band split shortly after that.
The Clear Light album came out at a point when everything Elektra released seemed to be a success, it was in the batch of releases that included The Doors’ Strange Days and Love’s Forever Changes.
Love were a very underestimated band, I mean that Arthur Lee could kick ass like nobody’s business. If he hadn’t have been certifiably insane that band would have really gone someplace. The poor guys in his band, they were great guys and they were all really good but they had this look in their eye like, "It ain’t gonna happen with this guy, he’s so good and so brilliant and so disturbed that we are just hanging on by our fingertips." When you heard them live it was the tightest band in the world. With Arthur there was always the idea that he was some kind of alien from outer space, that he wasn’t even an earthling. God bless him, he was a wonderful guy and there were a couple of albums there I really liked.
Another example of that Elektra golden touch.
Well yeah absolutely, they found those guys, and they found the Doors, which is wonderful too, except those last couple of albums, I can’t listen to any of that music. In Paul Rothchild’s defence I don’t think he wanted to produce the last album, he told them this sounds like Las Vegas lounge music, you know, at least have a chord change in there somewhere, please. In retrospect I admire that band really a lot, and Love, and I admire Clear Light. For all the stuff we went through there’s some good stuff, and every once in a while on stage we got in the zone and stayed there for 15 minutes and... Wow!
We were trying to figure out what the identity of the band was going to be. We had two drummers, a strong singer and what was it gonna be? Was it gonna be this wild Mr Blue, Street Singer stuff, was it gonna be the Ballad Of Freddie & Larry, was it gonna be Black Roses with Bob? What was the identity of this band gonna be? I think we were just finding that identity when the break up occurred and it was just going to be pretty straight-ahead California hard acid rock.
The album is pretty eclectic musically, especially when you compare things like The Street Singer and Mr Blue with stuff like Mike Ney’s A Child’s Smile.
I loved doing that in concert, A Child’s Smile, I liked that. But sooner or later you had to stop all the time changes, I’d be singing a song and I’m in a groove and all of a sudden it changes from 4/4 to 5/8 and I’m in a waltz! Who the hell had that idea, why didn’t we shoot it down? Stay in the groove, whenever I hear the album I say it two or three times; just stay in the groove, it’s a good groove it’s interesting, believe me. And then the time changes and you’re all waltzing around, maybe that was a trend then?
That 4/4-waltz type beat seemed pretty popular at the time. The Doors used it and Tim Buckley too around that time. Like a fairground sort of a sound.
That’s right, we’re in a groove and everybody is cooking and then boom! it stops, and we are into some waltzy thing. I’m trying to remember whose idea...why did they figure that was necessary? Was this groove so boring that people needed to have that silly change? God bless us, we were just experimenting. By the second and third album we would have worked all that stuff out and we would have just torn it up. But you got to be lucky and in certain ways we weren’t lucky.
So what are you up to currently?
Apart from appearing in movies and TV shows I’ve been doing a lot of theatre again lately, over the last four or five years. There’s the one-man show of Samuel Beckett stuff that I have been doing for about 4 years. It took me a long time to learn it, and then I had a little run but I hope to be taking it on the road, if someone will pay for it... But I’m in great voice still, so maybe it’s time for a Clear Light reunion.