Behind the Curtain: Randy California of Spirit and Writer Steve Rosen’s Rocker Scale

Behind the Curtain: Randy California of Spirit and Writer Steve Rosen’s Rocker Scale

This is something I get asked all the time: “Who is your favorite guitar player you’ve ever interviewed?” I both love and hate this question.

I love when people ask me this because it gives me a chance to think back on all the astonishing guitarists I’ve met, and what it was like sitting there in a room with them and, for a brief moment, sharing their lives. But at the same time I hate that question for the very same reasons. I go back to when I interviewed Jeff Beck or Jimmy Page or Pete Townshend or Paul Kossoff, and what I realize is it’s almost impossible to answer that question because it’s nearly impossible to define what “favorite” means. I start thinking about all the extraordinary people I’ve met and in order to answer that eternal question, I try and visualize a scale of 1 to 10 and where I’d position each guitar player in terms of my most favorite and my least favorite.

This is hardly an accurate measurement because not only am I likely to change my mind each time the question is presented to me and thusly guitarists will be shifted up and down the scale accordingly, but I must also take into account where, when, and how the physical interview took place. Those are quantifiable elements, which can be accurately considered.

Rosen and Page (Photo: Neal Preston)

For example, I interviewed Jimmy Page while being on the road with Led Zeppelin in 1977. I stayed at their hotel and flew in their private plane, and that has a ton of impact in terms of where I place Jimmy Page on my Rocker Scale of favorite/least favorite guitar players. The truth is, my interview with Page back then was very good — but it was nowhere near as complete as I wanted it to be. I was in awe of Jimmy and Zeppelin and talking to him was one of the great moments of my life, but to this day our conversation leaves me wanting and wishing I could have done more. But then, on the other side of the scale, is the fact that I got to hang out with the band for 11 days or whatever it was and drive in the limos and how much does that weigh on putting Page at the top of my list?

Or how can I discount the fact that I flew to New York from my guest house retreat in the Hollywood Hills and the whole time I was on the plane I could only think a single thought: “Holy s—t. I am going to meet Pete Townshend.”

Townshend & Rosen
Pete Townshend and journalist Steve Rosen

The Who were my favorite band in the world—don’t get me started on trying to quantify my favorite and least favorite bands—and there I was flying across the country to meet Pete himself. The entire experience was bathed in a golden light, and when I go back there now in my head, I can still dredge up those feelings of utter anticipation and profound happiness. Again, however, I was not entirely satisfied with my interview with Townshend and I thought I could have gone deeper and asked better questions.

So that also factors in to my response to being asked about my favorite guitar interviews. You can see how complex this becomes, and how tangled it gets. Anyway, for better or worse, here is my scale of favorite and least guitar players. [Note: Just because a musician occupies a lower position, it has nothing to do with his talent or creativity. It is merely my emotional attachment to meeting certain players. In fact, there were certain musicians who would have ranked much higher but their very conduct during the conversation—rudeness, sarcasm, inattentiveness—caused them to slip down the slide of the scale].

Rosen’s Rocker Scale [10 is my most favorite; 1 is my least favorite]

 

Ranking                                                      Guitar Player

10                                                                Randy California

10                                                                   Jeff Beck

10                                                                   Jimmy Page

10                                                                   Ritchie Blackmore

10                                                                   Pete Townshend

9.9                                                                 Paul Kossoff

9.8                                                                 Eddie Van Halen

 

[Note: You can see how complex this becomes. Pete Townshend ranks at No. 10 because the Who were unequivocally my favorite band in the world and meeting Pete was truly living a dream. But as I mentioned earlier, I was not 100 percent happy with the interview itself. But that piece of it was balanced out by the fact that I was flown across the country, where I would not only meet one of my biggest heroes but I’d meet him in New York, a city I’d never visited before. Had I not been afforded the luxury of a plane trip and my first memorable visit to New York, then perhaps the interview would have flip-flopped in its ranking with the Kossoff conversation and my time spent with the Free guitarist would have climbed the ladder of my favorite interviews. As I said, this question of favorites has confounded me for years].

 

9.8                                                                   George Harrison

8                                                                      Brian May

7                                                                      Les Paul

6                                                                      Rory Gallagher

5                                                                      Robert Fripp

4                                                                      Stephen Stills

3                                                                      Gene Simmons

2                                                                      Andy Summers

1                                                                      Frank Zappa

 

[2nd Note: If you ask me this same question tomorrow, I’ll probably come up with an entirely different breakdown so don’t pay any notice to what I have to say].

In assembling this scale and really pondering that elusive question, I have come up with a few other pieces of the puzzle. A guitarist sits high atop my favorites list because I not only treasure and idolize his playing but because I also revere his band; his songwriting; and his singing [if he sings].

For those reasons and all the reasons I previously listed, Randy California is absolutely in the Number 10 ranking and would quite possibly occupy the Number 11 spot if there was one. I have been fixated on Randy and Spirit for as long as I can remember. In fact, one of the earliest reviews I’ve ever written appeared in the January 12, 1971 issue of my high school newspaper called the Culver City Centaurian. I had a little music column [job description: entertainment editor] emblazoned with the Woodstock logo of the dove sitting atop a guitar neck and a hand clutching the strings and I used to review shows at various clubs such as the Whisky A Go Go, Troubadour, Ice House and others. On one evening, I made a 55-minute drive down to the Golden Bear in Long Beach to see Spirit perform. The show left an indelible impression on me and this is what I wrote for my school paper:

“Randy California and Company, played to capacity crowds Thursday and Friday night at the Golden Bear. Spirit performed two sets each night, and the only fault I could find with the group was they didn’t play long enough.

“…..California would make like Pete Townsend [my spelling of Pete’s name back in 1971] and just as his guitar would come down, the lead singer would bring the microphone, stand and all, over his head. Nothing was artificial or contrived—everything was plain Spirit music.”

The writing is atrocious, trite and pitiful, but my adulation for the guitar player still manages to peek through the prosaic fog. I ended the review with this cryptic sentence: “Alexis Turner deserves credit in the writing of this review, as she offered needed information and spiritual support.” Remember I mentioned earlier about extenuating circumstances influencing the rankings? Such as flying on a plane paid for by the record company to interview Townshend or spending 11 days on the road with Zeppelin? Well, Alexis Turner was an extenuating circumstance. She was there that night at the Golden Bear to see Spirit and I just happened to sit next to her. She was blonde, beautiful and angelic and knew more about the band than I did. She’d make comments about what songs they were playing and talked about Randy and I was fascinated by what she said. So my earliest memory of Randy California is forever linked to this breathtaking blonde and the brief moment I shared with her.

When I wrote that little piece as a member of the school newspaper staff, I didn’t have an inkling that just five years later I’d actually be talking to California. I was still a senior in high school, and as much as I dug writing the reviews and seeing the shows, I had never given any serious thought to pursuing journalism on any grand scale.

Still, there I was. In 1976, I met Randy California, the figure who loomed larger than life in my imagination. I had no idea what to expect or what he might be like. If he had walked in with wings on his back and breathing fire it wouldn’t have surprised me. In my mind, he was one of the greatest guitar players in the world and why shouldn’t a living legend be spitting flames and flying around the room with a guitar in his claws, uh, I mean hands?

But Randy didn’t have green scales or two heads and was just a living, breathing, carbon-based life form like the rest of us. Or almost. He spoke in a deep voice, very controlled. He was honest and forthright and treated me with respect and consideration even though I was fawning all over him like a supplicant on bended knee. Even when I began our discussion with an inane and poorly-worded question—“Why didn’t Spirit ever make it?—he never flinched or came back at me from a defensive posture. Instead, he told me in a voice filled with resignation and bewilderment that Spirit had simply never benefited from record label support. “We always got the shaft,” he said. “Therefore with all our beautiful songs, we never made it except for ‘I Got A Line On You’ and ‘Nature’s Way.’”

There was sadness in Randy’s voice when he said that, and rightly so. Spirit should have been as big as the Doors or Buffalo Springfield and other successful bands who were semi-contemporaries, but sadly and unfairly they fell through the cracks. At that point, he grabbed an acoustic guitar he’d brought with him, tuned it—and listening to and watching him simply tune the instrument was a thing of joy—and began playing and singing a new song he’d just written.

How can I express my feelings these 41 years later as I sat there in a room with Randy California while he sang a new song in my presence? I was thrilled, overjoyed and awed all over again by his beautifully executed finger-picking licks and the haunting and majestic melodies he brought to all his songs.

As I’m writing this, I pulled out the original cassette tape from that interview. The label on the tape has yellowed and faded and while my memory of this sublime moment over four decades ago has also faded, when I hear the song jumping out of the headphones I recall all over again what a truly transformative experience that really was. I was in a room with Randy California, one of the great heroes of my young life, while he serenaded me in a concert-for-one.

As much as hearing that song makes my heart jump with gladness, it also brings tears to my eyes and a profound sadness. Randy would pass away on January 2, 1997, while he attempted to save his drowning son, Quinn. The young 12-year old boy was saved but Randy lost his life in the process. He was only 45 years old.

Randy California was never given the recognition and acclaim he so mightily deserved. His use of feedback, sustain, and Echoplex was as unique as any guitarist who’d ever utilized those elements. He was a masterful songwriter and vocalist. His solos were beautifully and organically structured. The solo on “1984” is as innovative and imaginative as any solo ever played.

Sadly, life is not fair. Of all the hundreds of guitarists I’ve met, I don’t think a single one of them ever mentioned Randy California as an influence. It is only when I bring up his name do they even reference him at all. But that doesn’t matter because I know.

I will continue to bring up his name and expound on his profound talent. And I will give him the greatest gift of all—the  uppermost position on my Rocker Scale where he will sit alone at Number 1.

10 Responses to "Behind the Curtain: Randy California of Spirit and Writer Steve Rosen’s Rocker Scale"

  1. Tim Tjernlund   January 13, 2018 at 6:49 am

    Randy California’s guitar solo in “I Got A Line On You” was the first I every tried to master and as I was able to finally play the notes, I was never able to copy the feelling that Randy put on his strings. A terribly underrated guitarist and songwriter who should be mentioned in the same breath as Page, Beck, Blackmore, Kath etc.

    Reply
  2. Sam   January 13, 2018 at 12:51 pm

    Fantastic review! Randy was an incredible talent, and from what I’ve gathered a genuine and spirited person who put his craft before his ego. Spirit deserves much more attention than they got, and will forever be my favorite band. Perhaps one day the public might understand the gravity of his music.

    Reply
  3. Johan Bengtsson   January 13, 2018 at 3:02 pm

    Great article, Randy California is one my favorite songwriters.

    Reply
  4. Brian Kmetz   January 13, 2018 at 10:05 pm

    I couldn’t agree with the final words of this more. You never hear anyone ever mention Randy but they all knew and respected him, trust me. It doesn’t seem to make sense that they wouldn’t bring him up. The only few things I can think of is egos. The other is Randy’s playing was very diverse, you never knew how he was going to play something, where other players were more predictable. The guy was just so creative and on top of that he really understood sounds. He was my favorite guitarist.
    Thank you for this, glad to see others feel the same.

    Reply
  5. Dave Aumann   January 13, 2018 at 11:08 pm

    I loved Randy and Ed , the other Spirit folks I knew through e-mails or phone calls, they were all wonderful people, my band 13 Dreams did a Spirit tribute Cd, Twelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus Redux, John Locke helped us promote it. All of 13 Dreams loved Spirit, It took 4 years to finish and we have some great guest stars on it. Spirit changed my life in the way I played guitar and in so many other ways! Dave Aumann 13 Dreams Inc.

    Reply
  6. Mike Slvester   January 14, 2018 at 6:36 am

    I too hung out with Spirit for many years. As one of the top bands, I have always blown away by each and every show. Then to interview chit chat with Ed, Randy and various band members was as comfortable as hanging out with longtime friends. The laughs, discussions of creating songs was timeless. Still, sadden by the sudden loss and tragedy of my friend is something hard to put into reality. Seems like a bad dream. Their playing together was so polished and the sounds that came out of those speakers were never duplicated. I can only say I have all their music and a home video I treasure.

    Reply
  7. Michael Wolf   January 17, 2018 at 9:08 pm

    Reading this article rekindled memories and brought back feelings of a band I first discovered in the summer of ’69. I was on a Jacksonville Fla beach and met a young lovely in a bikini who had a cassette of Spirit playing while she sunned on her blanket. I made her acquaintence and spent the next hour listening to some of the most incredible songs I have ever heard. To this day, I put YouTube “concerts” of Spirit together. A live version of “I’ve got a line on you” with Skunk Baxter and a host of musicians. A second drummer next to Ed. It still brings chills. All of those Dr Sardonicus songs do. Like so many before me, I was mesmerized by the clean licks and soulful renderings of Randy’s play. He made you FEEL what he wanted you to hear. “Fresh Garbage”, “1984”, “Nature’s Way”. Just brilliant. You’re right Steve. Randy and Spirit SHOULD have made it huge. Life is indeed unfair in how brilliance and art is often brushed aside while lesser efforts are rewarded. Thanks for sharing the memories. I won’t forget any of the members of Spirit nor their work. I too was sad upon learning how Randy lost his life But I know his son is proud that his dad was a wonderful human being. You’re very blessed to have seen him and the band. I never did in person. These are the memories that make life worthwhile.

    Reply
  8. Alex Somerville   January 20, 2018 at 4:51 am

    My friend Vic & I saw them at Mothers in January 1970 and I still rate it as just about the best gig I’ve ever been to. We waited for ages before they came on close to midnight and played for an hour. Nice to know so many other people still rate them so highly. I believe Randy was a big influence for Walter Becker. Thanks.

    Reply
  9. Guy DeVillez   April 13, 2018 at 1:42 pm

    Randy gave me a pick, one of his personal SPIRIT picks a week or so before he died in Hawaii. I treasure it. He was playing around with a “Tric Pik” the pick with an LED light in it. I asked him for a pick, and he said “You ain’t getting THIS ONE!”, I said, I have a bunch of those, but I don’t have any of yours!. He laughed and dug one out of his case for me. TREASURE

    Reply
  10. Tom Brown   April 14, 2018 at 1:39 pm

    Spirit has always been one of my favorite bands. Their 1st album, with Fresh Garbage and Uncle Jack just blew me away! Got to see them first time in 1970 at Pirate’s World in Hollywood, Florida. They were memorable, with Ed Cassidy playing that enormous drum kit! Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus was a great album! Randy California was a really nice guy! I ordered the Live at LaPaloma CD from him and he sent me back a hand written letter, thanking me for attending the House of Blues concert. He attached a Spirit pick to the letter! I was fortunate to see Spirit at least 4 times over the years. Randy was an incredible song writer! I miss him, but his music lives on! RIP Randy

    Reply

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