How did you get started as a drummer, and how did you come to meet up with Robbie Robison?
I played with Tito Puente originally, from the time I was twelve until I was about fifteen, then I started putting all these different conglomerations of what I wanted to do which was American blues band, we played all the old Howlin' Wolf tunes, same stuff the Stones were doing, covering the all the old great blues songs, just doing impressions of it before the English invasion of the Kinks and all those guys. We didn't do that style, we did a lot more traditional hard-line, Chicago style blues and stuff, where Clapton and all of those guys came from. I had a like a club band together, that was like a hard line blues band. I put a couple of feelers out - we were looking for another guitar player cause I wanted to get rid of the keyboard player and go to three guitar combo, so we put basically the feelers out for a rhythm guitar player and he showed up at the club one afternoon when we were in rehearsal, just playing, and blew everybody's mind. He was like a fish out of water, I mean he was like the absolute opposite of what we were looking for, I fell in love with the guy the minute he walked through the door there was just something about him, he was so incredibly intense, but so incredibly, musically, in the wrong place for that band. Obviously he didn't get the gig but we became fast friends right that afternoon in a honky tonk in Hawthorne California, out by the international airport. He said 'what are you doing after?' and I said stay and hang out, and he did. I ended up going back to his house in Manhattan Beach and him and Barbara were there, they had this little bitty cottage down by the beach, in Manhattan beach. They said well what are you doing?, and I said that's what I do – I put together these great bar bands, have fun and look into doing some recordings, y'know. And he said “you live alone in that house in Inglewood, why the hell do you live there?” I said well it's because everybody in my family is dead, I live alone. They wouldn't have it, Barbara and Robbie both said no, you gotta give up that house man, and you gotta move in with us, and for some reason I did.
So you then decided to put a band together with Robbie?
We started looking for people to put a band together. - we were going to Hollywood every night looking for players. I knew all the clubs because I'd played them all prior to that with these blues bands. We'd go to Bido Lito's and all these Sunset Strip clubs as well, which was where all the real players were. That's where we found Dallas and Bobby Seal up on one of those treks to Hollywood, same thing with Doug. Doug was living in this guy's basement, this guy who said he would produce the band if we could put a whole band together, Bud Mathis. He had this crazy chick, Wanda, it was just like one of these weekend things, I have no idea, she was just there. We were trying to talk Barbara into coming over and singing, y'know..., Peanut Butter weren't doing very much, just playing up at Frenchy's. The concept of a girl singer was not a bad idea, shit, none of us could sing worth a shit except Bob, Bob was the only one that could sing. We just wanted to play, everybody just wanted to play, and if you could work it out so you could play all day, and make money four nights a week playing some place, it didn't get any better than that. That's where the Light came from, we just wanted to play, we didn't give a shit about getting recorded and doin' anything, we just wanted to play.
Robbie was quite a unique character, living with him and Barbara must have been quite interesting.
This is a guy that leaped out of bed upon waking in the morning, when Barbara would go to sleep at night she would prepare a table with food on it, and most of it was like …. we're all starving to death.... buttered bread laid out, like ten slices, with white sugar poured over the top of it, and as long as he could jump out of bed and start stuffing food in his mouth, no one would get killed. He had this thing, I guess it was heavy duty hypoglycaemia or something, but it came from his injuries from when he was in the service, that's what he always attributed it to anyway. He just had a drastic sugar imbalance on waking. God forbid you got between him and the sugar sandwiches, 'cos he would literally run you down, dude! There was all of us at some point, within a short period of time, living in that little flat, y'know. It was just me and Barbara and Robbie and then we had Dallas and Bob, then we had Doug. We all lived in this one bedroom place on Manhattan Beach, y'know, a little beach cottage, and just happy as pigs in shit.
That must have been cramped. Of course, once you signed with Elektra you moved into a much larger house on Franklin Avenue.
Well we told them; this is what we need. We signed our lives away just for that... we said we want a mansion in the Hollywood Hills some place where we can all play and we can all live together. I think Billy James was working with Peanut Butter for Columbia, and him and Paul (Rothchild) started looking for houses and came up with Los Feliz, and they said, “you wanna go and look at this house?” What an unbelievable house that was, a crazy old Russian lady owned the house. Those big arched windows in the front of the house were like pocket windows, they all slid back in the walls, the windows were like twelve feet tall in that room. I think the height of the living room was twenty five plus feet in the main room, after you got out of the foyer and stuff. And it had a basement, nothing in California had a basement, it was very unusual. The house was built in 1910, something like that. It was WC Fields House. We walked in and said “yeah!”. Paul looked at me and was like, “This is an old house,” and I said, Dude this is perfect, peeerfect! It's in walking distance of the chicken joint, and the Catholic girls school is right on the corner, you couldn't ask for more!
It wasn't long before Robbie was moved out of the group and Cliff and Ralph came in, hadn't you and Cliff played together in a band before Clear Light?
Cliff may have been the singer in one of the R&B bands I was in but y'know, he wasn't the 'satin peacock' he became. He was a good singer, when he first came to the Light he was really good little singer and good performer, and then the minute he saw Morrison he became this other person, and it was like, yikes! I gave him his walking papers, man, but I was the guy in the band that did all that kinda stuff. When we didn't get paid I was the guy who went in and said; listen dude you've just got four hours of incredible music and if you expect us to walk out of here without the cash you are highly mistaken, and Smith & Wesson and I are prepared to evoke anything that is necessary to ensure that happens because otherwise we'll be in the parking lot in the morning when you get here, we can't go any further until we get paid. That comes from playing with all those Texas bands for so long, playing in white boy blues bands, the Texas All Stars and shit. You'd finish four or five hours at a big honky tonk, like Gilly's (sp?) or some place like that, suddenly the guy who has the cash isn't there. I said, Dude, you better find him wherever he is, get him back here, cause otherwise we're gonna be doing a lot of drinking, and you've got four thousand dollars of good Scotch here, man, so I'll start drinking till he gets here.
What do you remember about the Easter Sunday Love In at Griffith Park?
It was incredible, we went in in the middle of the night, the night before, and the sun came up, and everybody had been self medicating for a good twelve hours and it was like... There was this guy called... he was a male version of the GTO's, he was like one of Vito's dancers, and he carried around a piano, just the strings, the strung frame of an old upright, and he played it with glockenspiel mallets and he would play the strings. It was incredible... incredible... the sun was rising and this guy, I think they called him the Wind or some god-awful name... the sun rising on Easter Sunday and this bizarre wonderful music emanating from this guy malletising the piano. That was a good beginning to it. We actually played pretty good, considering (laughs).
How was your experience of playing in New York?
The Albert Hotel was like a cornucopia of music, man, the whole basement was set up as a huge gigantic rehearsal room, like four or five sets of drums, three or four Hammond organs, guitar amps and bass amps and a just crazy PA system. This was just extra shit that everybody just donated to the basement. The Mothers of Invention.... everybody played, y'know, all night long, the Light and the Mothers and the Airplane, and Moby Grape, just whoever was in town, the Albert was the happening place. It was walking distance from The Village, near the University, right two blocks from Needle park. It was all about the music, man, it wasn't about being anything other than a player. I remember we were playing in the Village, maybe the Café Wha, one of the big places.... the Mothers were next door, they had the Garrick Theatre, a huge stage. We had guys opening for us... we had Tim Buckley, who I ended up doing a lot of session work for later on, who I always felt was just great, I mean incredible.
You have one song credited to you on the album, the delicately sinister 'A Child's Smile', how did that come about?
It's like a psychedelic nursery rhyme, the way I saw it. When I wrote it it was like, that's pretty much, y'know, it's that part of your childhood that, y'know, like, it's OK to be childlike, as far as I am concerned, as an adult, but not childish, that's what it was. Van Dyke Parks played harpsichord on it. Paul kept saying 'what do you want to do, do you want Manzarek to play on it, do you want Ray to play on it? Do you want Ralph to play on it?' Well Ralph's gonna play on it, but I hear either harp, like real staccato harp, or harpsichord. Ralph tinkered around with the harpsichord, at that time he was really focussed on his Hammond playing and stuff and it was like, y'know he was really a sustain player, in the Procul Harum vein, Matthew Fisher and all these guys, y'know, who was one of my favourite bands. I got to play with all those guys when I was on the Cocker tour, years and years later. I grew up listening to, as far as great keyboards players go, Jimmy Smith and guys like that were always my cup of tea, R&B jazzers, and that's what I loved about Ralph's playing, he was so slick, for being a kid, not that we weren't all kids – except for Bob! Grandpa Bob! It was like, 'what d'ya think? Bob won't like that!' That where all those terms meenamacheema (?) and shit like that came from. 'I don't know, I don't know what to say,' Well ask Bob, 'Should we do it?' “well ah think we should, it wouldn't ruffle mah feathers”, he was a good ole boy. I miss him a lot.
Clear Light recorded Tom Paxton's 'Mr. Blue' and Steve Noonan's 'Street Singer' for the album before either of those artists released their own recordings of those songs, was there a concerted effort made to bring in songs by writers outside of the group?
We were looking for tunes when we were recording the first Light album, we were looking for songs, and Rothchild said “listen, I want you guys all to be available tomorrow morning, blah blah blah, we're gonna go to this place in Orange County' and I said Why, are you going to buy a used car from Cal Irvington (Sp?) why would we go to Orange County? And he goes “I've got these three writers I want you to meet, I don't want any judgements I just want you to look” – we were brand new, we didn't know shit, he said “I just want you to look and to listen to their songs”. It was Tim Buckley, and Steve Noonan and Jackson Brown, they were all kids who lived in the neighbourhood, they were all high school kids and they were starting to write tunes together. All of us just sat there going 'Oh my god!' it was just one tune after the other after the other, unbelievable, they had a glossary of over 150 tunes between the three of them, and every one better than the next. We didn't do any of their songs but it was certainly an eye opener.
Bob Seal seems to have been the most prolific writer in the group, contributing several tracks to the album, as well as singing lead on many of them.
He has such a great voice, I have always loved his voice. I would have been happy if Bob was the singer of the band. We almost hired this guy who ended up in one of Paul's bands Rhinoceros, Doug Hastings, a great little singer, great guitar player, y'know. Listen, we were hanging out and playing three days a week with the Allman brothers, with Duane and... when everybody was still alive, so we were used to really good guitar players. Bob to all intents and purposes was not a dramatic mind-blowing virtuoso soloist up against guys that were really doing it a couple of years down the line, but what a great writer, and what a great singer. He had this wonderful thing about him man, listen bottom line, between you and me, now and forever.... music, stories, and story tellers, you can have the greatest fucking section in the world, unless you're only playing instrumentals, it's about songs, it's about stories, it's about singers, storytellers, someone that will make you listen, well, for me any way that just my opinion man. You mentioned 'Child's Smile' – all it was was a story, about being little in a non judgemental world. Just being a child. Take me away man, take me to some place I am not.
Neil Young was present during some of the recording sessions for the LP, do you remember him being around?
Bob and Neil Young hit it off real well. Bob is very opinionated about guitar players and he just thought Neil was the real shit, whether you liked him or not. Personally, the only time I really enjoyed Neil's playing was when he was with Buffalo Springfield. There were such good guitar players within that genre that... he was unique from the get... he had one unique thing, that half a fuzztone. A Neil Young solo was comprised of... once again, he could have been the consummate guitar player, not considering his writing, for the Seeds. 'Neil, find another note dude, pick another string... ' But a sweet guy and a great great writer. I love his records, I love his songs.
Who were you favourites among your fellow LA groups at the time?
Love was one of the best bands ever in my life, Arthur Lee was just a great storyteller. I'd go to Bido Lito's, they were the house band there, him and Johnny I'd sit and listen to him tell stories all night long with this like art conglomeration of players, a folk guitar player, Johnny's electric extravaganza 12 string guitar and Arthur just painting pictures with words. I was like, wow I can get behind this shit, this is fabulous!
I loved playing with Peanut Butter Conspiracy, it was a lot of fun there was no pressure to do anything except play Alan's tunes and he was a great writer, I really enjoyed that. He was a total professional on the road, he was the leader, the singer, the bass player of the band, putting all the stuff together, taking care of Barbara, y'know.
I wanted to kill Sky Saxon, that was my goal for a long time. We played all the flower power shows for a while until we got our feet wet, we played with the Grass Roots and The Seeds, and the Sunshine Company and all this shit, and that guy comes out on stage and starts singing “you're pushing too hard, you're pushing too hard pushing on me!” I'm gonna shoot him OK - 'Ney, leave the gun at home”, no, I'm gonna shoot him, dude, and do music a huge favour. I'm gonna kill Sky Saxon. I just thought it was a shitty song until the first time I saw him, OK, got it! Listen, I'm not winning any beauty contests, but Sky Saxon was the ugliest human being I have ever seen in my life. He made Neil Young look like Brad Pitt, which is hard to do. It's the classic example of Rock n roll's all about three chords. No! Rock n roll, as far as the Seeds is concerned, was about a modulated one chord. And every song on the freaking record is like that, different words, a little bit different tempo, but basically....
How did the drumming dynamic between you and Dallas develop?
Dallas and I had it split up to where I'd start the fill and he'd finish it off, or he'd start the fill and I'd finish the fill, y'know, the interchange, the stereo aspects of it were just unbelievable. I came from the thing of show bands playing with two drummers, most of the R&B bands had two drummers, and when I suggested it everyone went “what?” I was like Dude, are you kidding, what about James Brown, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, all these great show bands that had fucking great music, knock down drag out kick ass music that no one could sit still to, they all had two drummers, and Dallas said ”Yeah I get it, OK, let's do it!” Live that band killed, man, the double drummers aspect never worked on record, I mean, OK, it worked but nothing compared to live. We all went in different directions in the end, Doug and I were always in the same pocket, and Ralph was in that pocket too, we were all session players, y'know, bass, drums and keyboards. I don't care who's playing guitar, whether it's Bob, or it's Danny Kootch, or whoever the hell it was. The recorded stuff by comparison to the live stuff – 10%/100% difference. We smoked man, and I'm not being cocky, I'm just saying it's true - that section cooked. When we played Steve Paul’s Scene in New York for all the Andy Warhol crew, we had people on stage every single night that we played, We had Hendrix come on stage and jam with us all the time. He'd hear we were were there and just come and plug in to one of the amps and we'd play until four or five o'clock in the morning. Steve Winwood would come and sit in, all the guys from Blood Sweat and Tears, the horn players, all these guys, everybody was just coming on at the same time while we were doing our piece, y'know, The Rascals, all these guys.
Is there one moment that stands out for you during your time with Clear Light?
I'll never forget Cynthia Plaster Caster, the plaster was warm but she had the coldest hands you could ever imagine. I wonder what happened to all those castings? I'd like to buy mine back as an aide-mémoire!