If you know me well, you know one of the groups I’ve championed for years is Spirit, the eclectic California act that made four classic albums for Ode/Epic in the late 60s, culminating in their masterpiece “The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus.” Sadly, Spirit is not one of the groups of the era that’s really translated down through the generations. Their sole Top 40 hit, “I Got A Line On You” has pretty much “demoed out” of classic rock radio playlists (in spite of my own professional efforts). Following “Sardonicus,” a major personnel shakeup occurred, a one-off new lineup recorded an album only to be followed by a complete dissolution, and then one last stint with a major label (Mercury) got the band back together in the mid-to-late 1970s with varying lineups.
Spirit hasn’t existed as a group since the mid 1990s, following the drowning death of guitarist/songwriter Randy California. Since then, keyboardist John Locke and drummer Ed Cassidy have also passed, leaving only bassist Mark Andes and vocalist/songwriter Jay “Thunder Island” Ferguson as the surviving original members. In fact, if Spirit is known for anything these days, it’s the band who’d dare drag Jimmy Page and Robert Plant into a courtroom (which they should have done years ago, but that’s a topic for another day.)
After diving head-first into their easily available 1968-1970 recordings, for a long time I never much bothered with anything Spirit recorded after “Sardonicus.” Years ago I did pick up 1972’s “Feedback,” their last Epic album, which sounded like a little like classic Spirit on some tracks, and Spirit after being locked in a room with nothing but Doobie Brothers albums on others. I really ought to give it a few more spins.
One “wilderness years” track that I did get acquainted with was their cover of “Like a Rolling Stone.” The first time I heard it was in the summer of 2004, during the brief time I had a satellite radio receiver in my vehicle. I must have been listening to the late George Taylor Morris on the XM Deep Tracks channel, now that I think of it. I wasn’t aware at the time, but this recording was basically the centerpiece of an album I’ve really grown to appreciate, 1975’s “Spirit of ’76.” This was something of a reunion album for Randy California and Ed Cassidy, who recruited only a bass player named Barry Keane to round out the lineup.
I found a cheap copy of this double LP effort on vinyl last year, and though 70s Spirit has a reputation for being a bit all over the road, there’s a really unique psychedelic vibe to this album that none of the others have. Certainly that sort of sound was long out of fashion by 1975, and the album didn’t create a whole lot of new fans (and didn’t sell all that well). I gave this album a spin for the first time in a while over the weekend, and again today. There’s a lot of washy, phasey guitar, which is perfectly fine to my ears. The Spirit take of “Like A Rolling Stone” stretches the already long song by an extra couple of minutes, and it’s recast as a hazy, dreamy meditation. It seems to go well with warm, slightly muggy mornings, which we’re finally starting to experience here in Maine.
I’ll never tell you “Like A Rolling Stone” is the best recording by Spirit. As much as I like “Spirit of ’76,” it’s almost a different band when stacked up to the works that defined them. It’s still an intriguing listen all the same. And I’ll never tell you Spirit’s “Like A Rolling Stone” is the best Dylan cover, or even one of the 500 greatest Dylan covers, it’s become one of my favorites in recent years (stiffest competition being Kooper/Stills’ “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” and The Byrds’ “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”).
In any case, looking forward to those Led Zeppelin IV reissues that will have to attribute “Stairway” to Page/Plant/California. I like the looks of it.