What were your early influences and why did you decide upon the keyboard as your chosen instrument?
The very first music I remember listening to was the march from the opera "Carmen" by Bizet, which my parents had on a 78. That was when I was about three. I used to play it over & over and sit cross- legged on the floor in front of the record player, rocking back & forth with the rhythm. A couple of years later, I was into playing "war," as most little boys were at the time, and was fascinated with the armed services, their uniforms, weapons & paraphernalia. I wanted to be in the US Marine Corps. (We've never met, but I am about as unsuited for military service as a person could possibly be).
So I got my Dad to buy me a record of military "fight" songs, sung by a manly choir accompanied by an army marching band. Knowing that particular style has really come in handy over the years. As a composer, whether it's been for commercials, film or TV, a lot of gigs I've had have called for military music, and even though I've never had a formal "music education," I can whip that stuff out and it sounds totally authentic.
But the music that really moved me as a child, more than anything else was all the Rhythm & Blues and Jazz that my older sister listened to in the fifties. She was a big music fan and was friends with lots of famous Jazz musicians, so she fervently indoctrinated me. We listened to KGFJ, which was LA's "Negro" Station. Funny thing was, most of the DJ's were white! I was fondest of Hunter Hancock, a DJ for whom, if you're interested, he has a dedicated website, though he died several years ago.
Ol' HH, as he called himself, sounded like a super corny, square, southern white guy, but he had this warm, genuine, unaffected, "good-natured goof-off" kind of personality that really made you feel good. All the top R&B performers loved him and would come on his show. I liked everybody from that milieu. Some of my favourites were Jimmy Reed, Fats Domino, Howling Wolf, Laverne Baker, Muddy Waters, James Brown, Earl Bostic, Tiny Bradshaw, Big Jay McNeely, Little Richard, Johnny Otis, Ike & Tina Turner, The Clovers, Billy Ward & The Dominoes, and the rest of the black doo-wop groups. My sister had lots of 78's of them all, some of which I still have somewhere.
She had another record that totally entranced me. It was "Moonlight in Vermont" by the Gerry Mulligan Quartet with Chet Baker on trumpet. Man, I'd listen to that for hours! It was so moody and mysterious and quietly swinging that it cast a spell on me. It's very simple, slow and low-key, but very profound. It was a hit, too. Only baritone sax, trumpet, bass and drums. No chords. What a vibe, though.
Well, five paragraphs later, we haven't even gotten to Bob Dylan, The Stones, Beatles, Animals, Zombies, Them (Van Morrison), The Who, etc. Or Ray Charles, The Drifters, The Coasters, The Shirelles, Chuck Berry, Motown and Memphis, which were super-biggies to me. Then Miles, Monk, Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Horace Silver, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Charley Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins, Oliver Nelson, Quincy Jones, Blue Note, Prestige and Impulse Records from NY and Pacific Jazz and Contemporary Records on the west coast. All of these are firmly imbedded in my ears, mind, heart & body. The whole New Orleans thing too-- Dr John, Professor Longhair, Allen Toussaint, James Booker, Huey Piano Smith, The Meters (early Neville Bros), The Wild Magnolias and The Wild Tchoupitoulas.
Oh, and we cant forget Burt Bacharach, Henry Mancini, and Antonio Carlos Jobim (three gods). I don't know what music you’re into other than Clear Light, but most rockers I meet have no use for the latter three. Sorry, but Dionne Warwick’s Greatest Hits is a definite stranded on an island choice for me.
So I guess Id call those my early influences. Later on came Bob Marley & The Wailers, a lot of great country & bluegrass people (I love American roots music), and of course Classical, mostly the 20th century guys like Ravel, Stravinsky, Copeland, Bartok and Messiaen, and all the amazing film composers of the last sixty years. I could go on and on... I'm a music freak.
The epiphany that made me want to be a musician was when I was thirteen or fourteen. My sister invited me to go to this jazz club, Shelly’s Manne Hole to see Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. We rode in my sisters’ MGB convertible, with the wind in our faces. Everything was new and exciting, and the future held great promise.
That was right about the time I'd started smoking weed, maybe once or twice. I was really high. It was one of those early innocent moments when suddenly every person, movement, object, and conversation takes on an exaggerated, profound significance. You feel like all your life you’ve been blind, and for the first time you can see! You’re in the midst of this heavy, serious discovery, but strangely, you can’t stop giggling!
Shelly’s was a small, intimate, tightly packed dive where all the touring jazz greats played. To me, given my state of mind, it was exotic and mysterious, very film noir. We sat in the front row and I was directly in front of Blakey's drum kit. This was when Freddy Hubbard, Wayne Shorter and Curtis Fuller, all young jazz titans, were in the front line. Their first tune (I think it was Ugetsu or Children of the Night both favorites to this day) took me to, as they say, a whole nuther level. Changed the course of my life (which, up till then, had no particular course).
That was it. I can’t even describe it. This was powerful, swinging, high-energy improvisation. The tunes had great melodies and chord changes; the solos were clever and inspired. In the center of it all was Blakey, a tightly packed little guy with boundless energy, and an enormous unstoppable groove. He was a fountain of funk, and frequently punctuated the music with grunts, shouts and roars.
Blakey was obviously the boss, probably ten or fifteen years older than the rest of the guys, and he radiated positive, paternal love. He would verbally coax them when they soloed. On ballads, which built slowly and tastefully, if it seemed like they were playing too many notes, or peaking too soon, he’d say Take your time, now, or Breathe, Baby, and they’d get out of their technical explorations, and get back to the true feeling of the music.
If one of them soloed himself into a corner, or hit a clam (which was rare), he’d say, that’s cool, you got it, and he’d kick in with an inspiring fill, or a perfectly placed kick drum bomb, that would make everyone in the audience whoop. All through each tune, he was perpetual motion, his body synchronized, like that of a great athlete. All the guys were firmly committed to each and every note they played. Eyes usually closed, they listened and concentrated intensely. The music was flexible and spontaneous, but still accessible to non-musicians. They worked off each other beautifully. I've been to a lot of concerts and clubs, played with a lot of musical greats, jammed with major rock stars, but nothing has ever come even close to the feeling on that stage that night.
I don’t know if you like jazz, but if you don’t but would like to, any Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers CD from the mid to late fifties through the mid sixties is a great introduction. Horace Silver too. Horace was one of the early Messengers, then formed his own group, and I saw him several times at Shelly’s.
Horace's music also has that universal appeal. It’s always funky and his melodies are very catchy, without pandering to mediocrity. A lot of dance and hip-hop guys sample his stuff because it’s so funky.
Did you play in any High School bands?
Yes. I can remember three. One was a surf band called The Jolairs. The guys who started the band were named Joe and Larry, hence the name. We played a lot of surf music, some of which I/ we wrote. Later, we started doing covers of the Stones and The Animals and stuff like that and I was the singer.
I’m sure the two namesakes never went on to be pro musicians. They’re probably doctors or lawyers now. We had business cards and everything. We even recorded a single financed by a kid at school who fancied himself a record producer. I guess his parents gave him the money. My best friend in the group was also named Ralph. He played sax, and is now the Dean of a university. Somewhere in my attic are some business cards and our single which had the songs County Line, which we named after a well known surf spot, (even though none of us surfed) and Ralphie's Tune, a melodic mid tempo tune which I wrote but cant remember.
The coolest thing about the recording session was that it was at a great studio, which later became legendary for recording successful rock bands. It was called Whitney. It had a huge live room, which now I'd be really impressed by. I was pretty oblivious to the whole process, and didn’t appreciate how much I could’ve learned by paying attention and asking questions. We played two takes of each song, barely got a chance to listen back, and left.
The unique thing about that studio was that it had a huge old Wurlitzer theatre organ with four or five manuals and gazillion bright colored buttons and toggles. It was built into the wall and the huge pipes were in the wall of the studio so when it was played the whole place reverberated. But the weirdest thing was that there was a drum kit and a bunch of percussion stuff mounted high on a wall and you could press certain notes on the keyboard and somehow they would activate these drumsticks and mallets, which would mechanically play the drums and percussion.
The closest thing I can liken it to would be one of those old merry-go-rounds where you could see drums and cymbals clustered around the center. These would boom and crash periodically with the music. I learned that those kinds of organs were very common in the early 20th century. Most big city theatres had them, with a guy who would accompany the silent movies. Evidently one of the great Fats Waller's first paying gigs was doing that at a theatre in Harlem. I think Count Basie started out like that, too. Those contraptions were actually a crude precursor to today’s midi workstation/ drum machines.
The Jolairs always got paid pretty well for teenagers. That is amazing to me now, because nowadays most bands, in LA at least, play for free just for the exposure, and if it’s a club, they have to guarantee the club a certain minimum of paying customers. If not many show up, the band ends up paying the club owner in cash, whatever amount makes up the difference. But in those days we actually got paid. We played at UCLA and USC frat parties, community centers, Bar Mitzvahs and weddings.
The second band was a nameless jazz quintet, which was where my heart was. It was a co-operative effort, but the real motivating spirits of the group were the upright bass player, Roberto Miranda and his brother Louie, a drummer. It’s hard to describe the effect these guys had on me. They were the coolest guys, with tremendous positive energy. From one of LA's (at that time) few Puerto Rican families, they were the schools resident beatniks. They conversed in jazz/hipster lingo, which was sort of like black street slang, but with artsy/spiritual terminology thrown in. To Roberto especially, jazz was a religion. He and his brother radiated good vibes and were always supportive, not only to the guys in the band, but to their many friends, classmates and team mates. Roberto taught music at USC for a few years, and later moved to UCLA. Now he’s one of the foremost out jazz bass players in the country. By out I mean super wild, noisy, dissonant and experimental, like Ornette Coleman or Cecil Taylor.
Our school was one of the few racially and culturally mixed schools in the city. We had poor, working class Mexicans from my hood, Echo Park (now world famous for its music/art community). There were lots of Japanese, Chinese and Koreans, mostly middle class. There were the very wealthy; who lived in big, Spanish style mansions in the picturesque Los Feliz hills. This group had its sub-contingents, Jewish, Catholic and Protestant.
There was the Commonwealth Ave black community. There were Armenian, Lebanese and Persian communities, as well as Filipinos, Native Americans and East Indians. Lets not forget the southern white, redneck trailer trash people, whose poor families had migrated to California during the dust bowl in the 30s. A lot of people stayed in cliques, but there was cross-pollination too. My friends were mostly the arty kids from left wing intellectual families. I’m still close with a couple of them.
Anyway, back to the music, Bobby and Louie Miranda had friends and supporters in every class/racial sub-group, who would all come to hear us play. We held forth Friday and Saturday nights at a tiny club called The Jazz Cottage. We smoked a lot of weed. We played all the popular hard-bop tunes as well as pop standards. The band was completed by my sax playing friend Ralph from the Jolairs, who was very good, and a swinging, soulful trombonist who later went on to play with Bobby Womack and other soul bands. I, being self-taught, wasn’t technically a very accomplished piano player, but I really grooved and helped make our rhythm section solid.
Looking back, I realize that to play gigs with these guys, I had to lie to my parents virtually every time. I don’t even think they ever got to see me play with that group, because they would’ve freaked if they’d seen the neighborhoods we played in. They never found out that I was riding around late at night with a bunch of stoned out jazz musicians.
The other band I played with, I can’t remember the name, was mainly a Stones/ Animals/ Kinks cover band, for which I wasn’t the singer. We also played Louie Louie by the Kingsmen (the biggest party record around at that time), Land of 1000 Dances by Cannibal and the Headhunters, (a Chicano vocal group from East LA), and Time Wont Let Me by Thee Midnighters, a large horn-band with the same background.
The guys in my second band were from the poor white/Southern milieu. They must’ve been pretty non-descript because I can’t remember their names or faces. I remember at one point we heard that The Headhunters were the opening act on the one of the first Stones tours. They lived just a few miles away from us and they knew the Stones! I think that was my first inkling that there was a music biz, and that the world I knew only from the radio, wasn’t that far away.
But the main reason I mention this nameless band is that it was through them that I first encountered the one, the only, Cliff De Young.
We didn’t actually meet, we never spoke to one another, but he and his band totally blew my mind. They changed my entire point of view about rock music. Cliff probably doesn’t even know or remember this. I only realized it a few years ago, long after my Clear Light days. Here’s what happened.
The nameless southerners and I got a chance to audition to play at a party in Hancock Park, which was LA's old money neighborhood. Hancock Park's lush tree lined streets, with their stately old mansions and well-groomed gardens still exist in all their grandeur. It’s still the most beautiful, expensive parts of central LA, a stone throw from the downtown center of town.
I think the party was some kind of upper crust debutante ball, something that was as foreign to us as the swamps of Zanzibar. Id never had to audition for anything before, so this was a big deal. If we got the gig, wed split, maybe $500! Big money for those days.
We rehearsed for a couple of hours that day (we hardly ever rehearsed, none of us really cared that much). The next day we loaded our stuff in someone’s parents’ station wagon and set off for the audition. We saw the previous band breaking down their stuff, so we ambled in and set up.
It was in a large outdoor patio sort of place, adjacent to a huge pool, tennis courts and a four-car garage. We were pretty intimidated. We started to play and probably came off very stiff, though at the time, I didn’t really know what that meant. About half way through our set, a bunch of other guys with their equipment came in, and sort of loitered around, watching us, which made us more self-conscious.
When we finished, they started setting up their gear. I think they even had a roadie, which Id never seen or heard of back then. Then they disappeared for a few minutes.
Shortly the band returned, but now they were decked out in matching turquoise tux jackets, skinny black continental pants, fancy white shirts, skinny ties and pointy Beatle boots. When I saw them I felt like a little kid who’d been pretending something all his life and was suddenly face to face with the real thing. I think they even brought their own PA.
It was the first time I saw, live and up close, a band of pros. And they were my age! You could see when they started playing that these dudes were serious. They were there to take care of business. They started a groove and out comes this kid who is breathing fire (figuratively). A skinny curly haired kid, all perpetual motion, dancing, mugging and locking eyes with every person watching. He was a real entertainer.
He started to sing and sounded great. Like, in tune and everything! They did a lot of the same songs we did, and in retrospect, he was doing Mick Jagger, who then Id never actually seen, only heard on the radio. But he was adding his own thing to it. That band was very tight and had great dynamics, like a soul band. They worked off each other well.
They got me to thinking. How come we (The Jolairs and the nameless) never worked on our arrangements? Why did we always sound mushy and untogether? Why didn’t we think of having cool matching suits? Why hadn’t we looked for a flashy singer who could really whip up a crowd? Why didn’t we have dynamics and builds and dramatic stops? Why didn’t we take it seriously?
After that I bought lots of rock records and listened incessantly. Around that time two big national network TV rock shows came on: Shindig and Hullabaloo, which, every week featured performances by whoever had the hit records at the time. All the great early British bands were on there, as well as all the Motown people.
The first time I saw the Stones was on Shindig. They looked so cool. When Id heard them on the radio or at friends’ houses, I wasn’t that impressed, because they were doing all these early blues classics which Id already heard the originals of on KGFJ. I just thought they were a bad imitation of a real rhythm and blues band, like Muddy Waters or Jimmy Reed.
But that night on Shindig, the Stones did something that really got my respect. After they’d played a song or two, right after a commercial break, they were sort of standing around on stage without their instruments. I think it was Brian Jones who spoke.
He said something like, Ladies and gentlemen, wed like to introduce one of the greatest blues musicians who ever walked this earth. Without him there would be no Rolling Stones and no Rock n Roll. Most of you have probably never heard of him, but please pay attention, because you may never see anything like this on US network television again. Please welcome Howling Wolf!
Wolf came out and tore it up. I don’t remember if the Stones were backing him or if it was his own band. But the sight and sound of this big, middle-aged black man in a cheap suit, with the sandpaper voice, playing slide guitar (which looked like a toy in his massive hands), was amazing. He was just RAW!
I think the audience was shocked and confused. Some of my friends who hadn’t heard much real Blues before, were thinking, Who the hell is this guy, and what’s he doing on Shindig? It was just so incongruous for that time. No one really knew what to make of it. A lot of white kids didn’t dig it at all! The Stones could get over doing blues because they were young, skinny white sex symbols, but this guy?! Even the Motown loving urban black kids weren’t ready for it, because they were into the newer, more sophisticated R&B sounds from New York and Detroit.
It was a revolutionary political statement on the part of the Stones. I’m sure they had to go through a lot of shit with the network people, sponsors, etc. Everyone tried to talk them out of it, but they knew they had the hits, so they had the power. They said, Either Howling Wolf goes on the show, or we don’t play.
They were demonstrating that, over in Europe, this guy and many like him, were appreciated and revered. But here in the US, no one in the white world even knew they existed. They were acknowledging that, yes, he was the real thing. I don’t know how many white kids really got it, though. I guess enough, because the Stones and the Animals really helped broaden the audience for people like Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, Bo Diddley, BB King, etc. White kids thought, Hey if the Stones like it, it must be cool.
Eventually the Stones started writing their own songs, and that’s when I started to really respect them. The new songs were great, lyrically and melodically. The first time I heard Satisfaction, I was with a couple of friends at a typical Southern California drive-in restaurant. Everybody from my school and the neighboring ones would go there on Friday and Saturday nights, after a football game, or after just cruising on one of the streets where you cruise.
It was just like American Graffiti or one of those Beach Blanket movies. The waitresses were on roller skates and wore these silly red and white uniforms, and they brought your food to the car. Kids would hop from car to car, talking to their friends, or hitting on chicks, etc. It was mobbed, and noisy. There were a lot of drunken jocks and always an eventual fight or confrontation.
Anyway, we were all cramped in my friends tiny Datsun (what Nissans used to be called), stoned out of our minds, chomping on greasy cheeseburgers and listening to top forty radio. The DJ said, Stones new record, world premiere blah blah blah, and the riff came on and when I heard the lyrics and the whole gestalt/ attitude of it I got so excited. My heart started beating faster and my friends and I were looking at each other wide-eyed and saying Wow over and over, like stoned kids do.
Then I looked out and realized that every car in the place was tuned to that station. Everyone turned their radios up really loud and people were freaking! And a-hoopin and a-hollerin and moving in time to the song. The drunk jocks were dancing on top of cars, making all these idiotic faces, even the waitresses were skating to the beat. It was a whole event. Then of course the station was barraged with requests to hear it again, and a few minutes later it started all over. Ill bet every person in that place went out and bought the record the next day. I know I did.
Around that time the movie Help came out, and classics like Like A Rolling Stone by Dylan. Then the Byrds, The Buffalo Springfield, The Who, The Cream, Led Zeppelin, the whole San Francisco thing, and the kids of the world had their own, new music that was sexy and intelligent, rebellious and melodic, exciting and thoughtful.
I feel so thankful to have been alive during rocks heyday, and to have experienced all those great bands before things got all corporate and formula driven. Even Punk and New Wave got co-opted by the biz.
Now the biz has self-destructed, which I think is a good thing. The funny thing is, the conventional music biz is tanking, but the children of all those kids at the drive-in are buying music equipment and expressing themselves, more than ever. Music stores are packed with endless varieties of cool stuff, and throngs of people are buying it.
Now the Internet has created new opportunities for real musical artists. It’s levelled the playing field. Kids don’t trust major labels or bullshit promotion. They respond to the music, as well as the thoughts and feelings behind it. Now there is so much new music out there that you have to be really special to get anyone’s attention. You have to be the real thing! Either a hard working touring band that builds a following from the ground up, or an insightful songwriter with a unique voice and point of view. The people decide whom they want to listen to, without the major label middle men.
What was your first experience of playing to an audience?
Cant remember but I’m sure I was really nervous.
What bands were you playing with prior to joining Clear Light?
That’s a whole other epic novel.
What were the circumstances regarding you signing up with the band, were you invited in by Paul Rothchild or did you have other contacts within the band previously?
An ex-girlfriend from high school, who was in the Hollywood/ Sunset Strip scene, introduced me. They were actually looking for another guitar player, but Mickie (the girl) talked them into trying me. Confidentially, I don’t think Bob Seal was too thrilled with the idea of another guitar player. So I loaded my Hammond organ into the back of my 1964 Ford Falcon wagon, and arrived at the Clear Light house. I didn’t make a great first impression because the guys had to help me schlep the organ up a couple of flights of stairs (the front yard was a steep incline and the house was located behind that). Once we started playing they stopped grumbling.
What did you think of the other members of CL when you joined?
Danger: Digression Commencing! Proceed at own risk.
You have to remember that we were all VERY stoned most of the time. Close to delirious sometimes. When I first arrived I was confused because these guys had their own language and a whole backlog of common experiences and in-jokes between them. So they’d get into these nonsensical pothead free association conversations, with their own language and terminology. The only one I remember at the moment is, Heep heep hope hope, which was spoken in the voice of a very drunk Southern colonel type. Do you remember Simon Leghorn the rooster in the early Disney or WB cartoons? It sort of sounded like that guy.
They’d be talking and someone’s sentence would peter off into! Heep heep hope hope, and to this day I still don’t know what it means, or why it’s funny. That first day, someone would say that, and they’d all explode into paroxysms of laughter. Then they’d get into variations on Heep heep hope hope! more laughter. Eventually, as I loosened up, I'd be laughing too.
Bob Seal was very open, warm, genuine and welcoming. He had a great sense of humor, peppered with southern witticisms. He always initiated conversations, not only with me, but when he met people on the road. A very colourful character. He was also a bit older than the rest and had more experience. Lots of road stories from when he’d played in show bands down south.
He also had a dark side, and a sarcastic, defensive temper which I eventually witnessed, though never directed at me. You could always tell what mood he was in. When he was happy he had a peaceful, contented expression on his face and was relaxed, but when things weren’t going well for him, he didn’t pretend or cover it up. Like most of us, he had his personal demons, and when they came to the surface it he had a hard time. I know he was insecure about his chops as a mean lead guitar slinger, and was also plagued by arthritis in his hands, which didn’t happen often at first, but escalated with time. But his temper moments would pass, and he’d be the usual, open, jovial Bob. Two things happened around 1967 that totally scared the shit out of a lot of white rock n roll guitar players. Those things were Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. Before their records came to the US, there were a few white guys who used that slow vibrato and could bend strings in tune and play melodic solos, but they were scattered around the country lost in obscurity. The two who immediately come to mind are Roy Buchanan and Danny Gatton, both of whom gained some notoriety a couple of years later, and of course Duane Allman, with whom we crossed paths with quite a bit in those days, but that’s another story.
These were guys who worshipped BB King and Freddy King and people like that. The majority of white guys in rock bands had never heard much blues music. They listened to The Ventures, surf music, or Chuck Berry, who wasn’t really a lead guitar player. Or they were folkies, who could strum and do Travis picking and things like that.
But with Clapton and Beck, and later Hendrix and Page, a whole new world opened up to them, and many couldn’t make the adjustment. I think that probably happened to Bob, who’d been considered a great guitar player before those guys showed up. Bob also had a great, soulful voice, which was under-utilized in the band.
Danny Kortchmar also suffered from the Clapton/Beck comparison. Danny is a unique, clever and exciting guitar soloist, and probably the best rhythm guitar player I've ever worked with. But at that time couldn’t master the slow vibrato thing. I think it probably really frustrated him. He covered it up by singing the praises of guys who didn’t do that, like Steve Cropper, and the guys who played Tres in all the Latin bands. (Tres, meaning three in Spanish, is a sort of guitar with six strings, tuned to three notes, with two strings for each note. Kind of like 1/4 of a 12 string). Danny’s soloing style was heavily influenced by the passionate, polyrhythmic solos those guys played, where they turn the beat around and play 3 over 4 or 5 over 4, which really builds up tension for the dancers. After a phrase of that, the soloist will land heavily on one of the main clave, the simpler groove, and people go nuts because it feels like a tremendous relief.
It was mostly a matter of style, rather than talent or ability. To a lot of musicians and rock fans in general, if a guy didn’t play with long sustaining tones and vibrato, musicians weren’t very impressed. The guy could be doing something clever and interesting and technically difficult, but whatever it was, it wasn’t the rage at the time. I think part of that was because so many people were taking mind expanding drugs, and when you were in that state of mind, nothing was more satisfying to hear than a long, bending, screaming, vibratoed electric guitar note. Plus Clapton and Beck were young sexy white guys who dressed really cool.
None of the guys in the band ever got angry at me. Looking back, I think I was kind of a spaced out innocent mascot kind of guy. Id say or do something, and people would give me this sort of fond, isn’t he cute kind of look, and hug me or pat me on the back or nod their heads, sigh, and say, Ralphie, Ralphie, Ralphie. I think that started when I joined Clear Light. They were the first people Id ever gotten close with, whom I hadn’t grown up with. I hadn’t really gone through the whole desperate, broke, starving, paying dues days with them, so I was always the new guy. Id been desperate, broke and starving, but not with them.
Doug was a dark man of mystery at first. He seemed more serious than the others, and he was very decisive and opinionated. I think he had the most confidence of all of them. I remember he took me up to his room on the second floor. The walls were painted flat black and there was a bed. In one corner he had made a huge spiderweb out of rope or twine. It traversed the corner from one wall to the other. It had black lights behind it. I don’t remember if it had a resident spider.
Doug seemed like a very driven, focused, even disciplined guy compared to myself and most of my friends at that time. He was very sure of himself, not exactly cocky, but more aloof. Before I got to know him, something in his stature or manner reminded me of one of those Spanish military officers, like in Zorro. It might have been because of the way he dressed. I don’t remember him in jeans and tee-shirts. He had these black leather pants and shiny black boots. I could imagine him saying, in a Spanish accent, Sergeant, assemble the men. Onward to victory! Or something like that. The more I got to know him, I realized he was a very nice guy, easy to talk to.
From the first day I noticed that Doug had a steady parade of female visitors up to his room. I couldn’t believe it. It seemed like every three hours or so, one would leave and a few minutes later another would appear, and it seemed to go on all day. It was like a dentist’s office. I was so jealous. I remember thinking, How does he juggle all those chicks? I had a hard time just keeping it together with one, but it seemed like he had a swarm of devotees. He was a great bass player with great time and sound, and also had a good head for arranging.
Dallas' playing impressed me right of the bat because he was really funky, and he’d played a lot of jazz. We talked about our favorite records, players, etc. He was a very sensitive, deep guy. He and I would get into all these heavy conversations about ourselves and our lives. On one of the first days, when the other guys took a break, I think Dallas and I jammed for awhile, just the two of us, and had a long, serious talk. I don’t remember what we talked about, but I remember we were very sincere and very serious. He and I would jam together from time to time, even on the road. Wed go into the clubs early in the afternoon, when they were just cleaning up and getting ready for the night.
Later when the band played at the Electric Circus, Dallas and I would go in during the day and get into these free form jams for hours. I think Jim Fielder, the original bass player for Blood Sweat and Tears joined us a couple of times. Also bass player Jeff Kent, a New York musician who hung with us a lot. Years later, he and Doug became roommates in New York and started the band Dreams with the Brecker Brothers and Billy Cobham. After Dreams broke up they had another band called Pierce Arrow.
Dallas was also married and was a father. He was the first friend of mine who’d had a kid, and it was such a strange concept to me. I know he struggled a lot in those days because nobody had much money but he had two extra mouths to feed. I’m sure married life was oppressive sometimes, especially when the other guys were out clubbing or partying with girls, etc. I wouldn’t have liked to have had that over my head at that age. I think he might have been younger than I was, but by then, he’d seen a whole lot more of life than I had.
Cliff was a really cool guy. He seemed like a loose, casual, easy going guy. I think he was the only one of us who’d gone to college. Remember, at that time I hadn’t realized he was the slick Hancock Park audition singer Id seen a few years before. Cliff was really funny, in an ironic sort of way, and was fun to hang with.
I’ve mentioned that I was mostly into blues, R&B and jazz at that time, and black or black sounding singers. Even though Cliff didn’t sound remotely black, I was very impressed with his voice, stage presence and his professionality. He was always in tune, and never gave a bad show, even if he was ill. It was all that theatre training, and experience in top 40 bands like the one Id seen years before. He never broke character. A lot of people thought he was copying Jim Morrison, which I thought wasn’t fair. That was like saying Bruce Willis is copying Mel Gibson because they’re both leading men. It was just that there weren’t any other white, dramatic rock singers at the time, who could command an audience like they did.
When I first met Michael Ney, he had a sort of Cheshire Cat grin, and all that long hair. He looked like some kind of Viking warrior. He had a very dry sense of humor. He was always nice to me from the beginning. He had a drumming style that worked great with the dramatic stuff. He made things sound majestic and important, almost like an orchestral percussionist on a Beethoven symphony. When he played, especially on slower things, he’d get into this sort of gracefully flowing, ceremonial pageant body movement. It’s hard to describe, but every great rock drummer plays like that on big ballads. It’s not an easy feel to cop for a lot of drummers, especially back then, pre-Jon Bonham. It’s sort of like moving in slow motion through a gluey substance, but with broad, graceful movements. It’s what makes power ballads, or slower heavy metal songs sound powerful.
His style was totally different than Dallas. Dallas made everything rock and groove and made you dance. He played more on top of the beat, while Michael was more behind the beat. Dallas sort of pushed you and drove the beat, keeping it bright and energetic. He was very spontaneous and had that James Brown Cold Sweat thing. He also had a Charley Watts thing going, like a bridge between rock and jazz. I think later, he was one of the few drummers, other than Charley, that Bill Wyman liked to play with.
I remember when Doug had just written Sand, and taught it to the band. That was a cool, collaborative, productive day. Doug had this vision of the song in his head, and he was totally focused on it. I learned a lot from him that day about having an idea and following it through till it’s right. I think that was the first time Id seen a real band at work, where everyone cares and works really hard to make a song happen. It’s the act of making order out of chaos. It’s a caring group of people taking one persons idea and bringing it to life. I still don’t quite understand how it works, and I’ve been doing it for forty years.
Now I’m an experienced, educated musician. Since most of what I do lately is composing for TV, I write most of it myself. When I’m working with musicians I usually write a score, or just tell them what I want, because everything has to be done by a certain deadline. But I know that if you have the time and the right players, you don’t have to say much. You just let them do what they do naturally and, unless someone’s having a bad day, it usually comes out better than what you might write on paper.
I think Doug and Michael acted the most like rock stars, being more demanding of roadies, hotels, transportation, women, etc. All the guys acted more like rock stars than I did. Paul Rothchild would give us these football coach pep talks, telling us that if we thought like stars and acted like stars we would become stars. I would have felt guilty acting like that. I put no judgement on either behavior. Often I was overly accommodating to my own detriment.
I have my own 20-20 hindsight about Clear Light, about what we should have done and how we could have been huge. We should have taken advantage of Cliffs thing, the drama and theatricality, and not worried so much about being cool musicians. I had that feeling even then, when I worshipped Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf, or James Brown and Aretha. But my ego got in the way. I also knew, though I couldn’t have verbalized it, that none of us was a lyrical, literate, conceptual visionary like say, Peter Townshend.
So we had no format for a theatrical show. We had nothing in particular to tell the world. If we could have used Mr Blue as our template and done more stuff like that, with characters, plots and a futuristic, apocalyptic sci-fi-ish message, with the focus on Cliff, wed have been successful. God! We coulda been as big as Spinal Tap! (joke).
We could’ve had the two drummers on huge opposing pedestals, with me in the middle on a big spooky theatre organ with four manuals, looking sinister. Bob and Doug could have had guitars shaped like scythes and machine guns, and could have worn futuristic silver costumes. But hey! Who knew?
Did you get along OK with Paul Rothchild?
We didn’t fight, if that’s what you mean. I was pretty intimidated by him. He was older and had more life experience than any of us, and was, in retrospect, very slick. He had a way of talking! It’s hard to describe. When we were in New York, I met lots of people in music who talked that way. Eventually I found out they all got it from Bob Dylan. They all copied his cadence. So many people, male and female, spoke like that. People hanging in the Village clubs, people hanging at Max's Kansas City, they all spoke like that. David Blue, Eric Andersen, Bob Niewurth (Dylan’s road manager, the guy shouting in the background on Rainy Day Women, a great songwriter in his own right), Albert Grossman (legendary manager of Dylan, The Band and Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin).
Like I said, it’s hard to describe! They sounded tough, confrontational, no bullshit, but somehow stoned and jaded at the same time. If you watch that movie Don’t Look Back, the documentary of Dylan’s first rock tour of England, you’ll get the idea.
I know now that Paul was very manipulative! A control freak. I always got the feeling that he felt he was somehow, better than us. It seems like we were always waiting on him for things. He managed the band, too, which was a definite conflict of interest. Whenever we came to him with any complaints about the record company, or the accommodations on the road, or lack of money, he would just verbally decimate us.
I remember a serious meeting once, when Danny Kortchmar was in the band. I forget what the issue was, but it was something important to us. We were all kind of hyped up, ticked off, and pumped up with righteous indignation! The kind that comes with a group of dissatisfied people banding together for a common cause.
We got to the house that Paul shared with his friend Frazier Mohawk, a fledgling Elektra producer at the time. They got us really stoned, then totally annihilated us. They made it sound like we were just punks, just untogether fuck-ups, who barely even deserved to have a record deal at all, and were on the verge of ruining our careers. When we finally left, we had practically forgotten what we came for in the first place. We were all very deflated. We couldn’t even speak.
I remember Danny and I got into his car in silence. Finally Danny said, I don’t know what it is about that guy, but I sure always want him on my side. Danny was one of the hippest, street-wise, savvy, stubbornly opinionated people I knew, and Paul had even gotten the best of him!
A lot of material was already in the can by the time you became a part of the line up, did the band re-record those tracks or did you just dub your keyboard parts over the existent recordings?
Most of the first album was already recorded. I overdubbed some keyboard parts, replacing Robbie's guitar. I think we recorded a couple of new things. One was Freddie and Larry.
What keyboards did you use for the recording of the first album?
Just the house piano at Sunset Sound Studio B, and a Hammond B3. Maybe a harpsichord? Can’t remember.
Did playing with such a bombastic rhythm section pose any particular problems?
Shit got pretty loud.
What equipment did you use when you were on the road, just the Hammond B3?
This was before people started customizing Leslie speakers to make them really powerful. I ended up playing through a big Jordan amplifier. Jordan gave us a bunch of stuff for free. I think I was the only one who ended up actually using it. They went out of business shortly thereafter.
How did you get along with Robbie?
Never knew him very well. Nice person. Incredibly enthusiastic. Very positive vibes.
You and Cliff seemed to have struck up a friendship, due I guess to you both being new guys on the block. Doug and Bob seemed to be the major songwriters on the album but you and Cliff did co-write the very strange Ballad of Freddie & Larry, what was that all about?
Shortly before I met Clear Light, I was fooling around at the organ in my parents’ house, and I came up with the melody and chords of what eventually became B of F & L. When I joined the band they asked me if I had any songs of my own. I said, not really, but they were persistent.
Finally, I said, I do have this really weird little tune, but it’s probably not right for the band.
They said, Let’s hear it anyway. Maybe we can add something to it and make it right for the band.
I said, It’s a fucking waltz!
They said, That’s cool. We already do a few things in odd time signatures, lets hear it.
By the end of the day we had worked up a pretty wild arrangement of it. It became a loud, aggressive rock waltz. I couldn’t believe it. I was excited. Then came the matter of lyrics. No one had any ideas. I think Cliff was listening very carefully while we rehearsed it, because I know they didn’t have portable cassette recorders till a couple of years later. Anyway, later, or the next day, Cliff came up to me and said he had some lyrics. He sang it for me and I liked it. He explained to me what it was about, and I got it. There was one line that was missing a word! Wipe all that --- from your eyes. Wipe all that what? Loneliness? No, too dark for the music. Residue? No, too clinical. Here I have to digress again for a minute:
You remember what I said before about getting so blasted on weed wed be reduced to mumbling incoherently and extreme giggling about nonsensical jokes like, Heep heep hope hope. Well on the previous night, someone was talking about some party or something, and someone would say, Were you there? Bob was there, and someone else would say, I was there. Was Doug there? Etc. They were just trying to recall the party, as a time frame for something they were talking about.
Eventually everyone got into mentioning silly names, like Herby was there, or Mortimer was there, or Dudley was there, etc. Someone would say a ridiculous name and everyone would crack up. So that night, at one point, Cliff said, Freddie was there and Larry was there. For some reason, that night, on those drugs, with that particular group of people, the names Freddie and Larry, at least with the voice and facial expressions Cliff used, were the corniest, absurdest, nonsensical names wed ever heard, and we all collapsed in helpless paroxysms of laughter. The next day, when Cliff was working on the lyrics, he thought of the absurdity of the previous night, hence the title.
Another one of Cliff’s bits was when he or someone would suggest something, like lets go to McDonalds, or lets go see a movie. When no one responded enthusiastically, and there was a pregnant silence, Cliff would, in this sort of drunken voice, say, Or whatever! and everyone would crack up. I actually think that in the annals of the pop culture time continuum, Cliff invented Whatever. Up to that point, I don’t think Id ever heard anyone say, Whatever. So some of us started using or whatever as a humorous punctuation in conversations. Every band his its little in-jokes and I guess that was one of ours,
So, getting back to the song, when we couldn’t think of a word for that line, Cliff finally said, Or whatever. And it became, Wipe all that Or whatever from your eyes. He figured out that if he accented the right syllable, it fit perfectly. I didn’t object. Who cares if the song makes no sense whatsoever to the listener? It’s poetic imagery. It’s metaphorical.
I don’t know if that is an interesting story or not, but after hearing it, an appropriate response would be, Ah, the sixties! Anyway, you asked.
Do you have any particular recollections about the Clear Light house on Franklin Avenue, it seems that it was a key centre of the Hollywood music scene with a lot of groups coming over to rehearse there.
I don’t remember anyone else rehearsing there, but a lot of folks hung out there, and jammed sometimes. The only ones I remember at the moment, were Lowell George and Ritchie Hayward, who later formed the band Little Feat. I think there were a couple guys who later were in the Eagles, but I don’t remember their names. The Peanut Butter people hung out with us a lot. Great people.
It sounds like it was a real party place too.
I don’t recall any actually planned parties, but a lot of people came by. I was pretty shy back then so there were a lot of people I never even talked to. I am reminded of some other funny Clear Light situations, though. I don’t know if they’d interest anyone else, but here they are.
One day during a band practice, Lee Housekeeper (himself another epic novel) came in and said, Guys the landlord was just here and he flipped out over the trash in the back. He wants us to clean it up immediately or hell kick us out.
At that point I had never been to the back yard. So we went back there and I saw this huge mound of trash bags, about ten feet wide and almost as tall as the second story of the house. It looked like the city dump! All the bags were overflowing and the garbage from six or eight months was spilled all around, It was wet, and disgusting, and you can imagine how it smelled. There were communities of flies everywhere, and maggots and God knows what.
Everyone was high (big surprise) and we all groaned and cursed and kicked the bags and ranted and raved. Then we got to work, and I remember someone said, Hey, where’s Dallas? I guess Dallas had gone home for lunch or something, before housekeeper had delivered the nasty news. So, since it was unfair that Dallas, who was responsible for as much trash as the next guy, wasn’t present to do his share, someone called Dallas, and innocently told him that something had come up that we needed to discuss, and we needed his input.
Then I think we all hid, and soon Dallas, who only lived a block away, got there. When he found no one in the house, I guess he eventually came into the kitchen, which looked out on the back yard. He might’ve heard someone’s suppressed giggle or something because he finally came outside, and we all burst out laughing. Someone told him about the landlord’s order, and he just stood there dumbfounded. As I’ve said, the house was on a steep incline, two or three stories above the street, and it was probably a very hot day. I must have taken us hours to clear out the backyard, and relocate the trash on the front sidewalk. I guess the laws weren’t as strict back then, because nowadays, you’re only allowed two or three trash cans, and only on garbage day. If it happened now, wed be looking at a huge fine, and months of community service.
Shortly after you became a member of the group you all went to NYC and you made an indelible impression after that incident at the Scene club. What was the reaction of the audience to your upbraiding them about their response to the group?
You know, I remember very little about that incident. I think the people in the club were in a totally different head space than we California hippies. They were a little older, more conservative, more upscale, dressed more formally. I still have no idea why I did that! It was so unlike my usually mellow personality. I was probably really frustrated that we were so into the music, and the audience was oblivious. I remember one guy came up and asked if we did any Rascals songs. I always liked the Rascals but it was an insult to be thought of as a cover band.
How did the other band members react, did you think you would be fired from the band?
For the most part I think they were supportive. For weeks after that they kind of teased me, like, Hey Ralphie you okay? Not planning any tantrums tonight, are you? On one hand they respected me for being such a rebel, because all I did was verbalize what was on all of their minds, anyway. But we were definitely all pretty
scared that we might be sent home and kicked off the label. I think Bob, Michael and Dallas took it with a sense of humor, but maybe Cliff or Doug might have been a little angry at me. Nobody gave me a hard time, but none of us could sleep that night.
It turned out for the best because Steve Paul, the club owner, switched us over to his other club across town, where the crowd was more our kind of people. That was awesome because that was a super hip club, and a musician’s hangout. We were right in the center of New York’s hip music scene at that time. Everybody hung out there. And, coincidentally, Howling Wolf and his band were playing there the same weeks we were. Jimi Hendrix hung out there, and all the guys from the English bands. Everyone dressed in all these wild colors and had very long hair. There were hordes of groupies, many of them famous in their own right.
Between playing there, at the scene, The Electric Circus on St Mark's Place, and hanging out at Max's Kansas City on nights after the gigs, we were right in the middle of the NY scene that is now the stuff of legend. We also played at the Cafe au Go Go, another legendary club, and we lived at The Albert Hotel, another hotbed of sex, rock n roll and drugs.
What a wild place that was. A twenty four hour party. You never knew who you’d run into in the hall or the elevator. The Mothers of Invention lived there, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Moby Grape, and The Chambers Brothers, some of the Velvet Underground.
There were lots of wildly dressed loose women of all races and shapes. There were junkies, speed freaks, runaways! The police were always in there (law enforcement, not the band). It was like being in a weird, drug-hazed uber Bohemian dream. Of course my parents were right on the money when they said, playing in a rock band, you won’t meet many stable, healthy, responsible people. If I ever caught my kids living in an environment like that, Id lock them up and throw away the key.
What were your best and worst gigs with Clear Light, if it is possible to define them?
I don’t know about best or worst but there were certainly some strange ones.
Ralph Schuckett on IMDB