Thursday, September 4, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 247): "GRAMOPHONE MAN" (1968) Spirit

Here’s a song by a band I barely know. Spirit was one of those bands that seemed mysterious to me in my early years—their heyday was 1968 to 1970—because I never heard any of their songs on the radio, either AM or FM, but I did see their records in stores and in music catalogs. Their 1970 album, The 12 Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, had the kind of title that would intrigue me at 10 or 11. Though, from what I could glean at the time, I felt the album would’ve disappointed me in not actually providing interlinked dreams. There are 12 songs on the album, so I guess one could extrapolate from that . . .

In 2012, when Cutler’s, the venerable record/CD store of New Haven, was going out of business and liquidated its entire inventory at reduced prices, I picked up a used LP of the latter album and I liked it well enough. So, there you have it: the idle curiosity of a 10 year old is finally satisfied past 50. Hmm, I wonder if I can satisfy a few more curiosities before it’s all over (actually, I did: I picked up a used copy of Savoy Brown’s Hellbound Train not so long ago—that’s a case where the title so intrigued me as a pre-teen, I wrote my own “song” (the lyrics anyway) to go with it).

My foray into Dr. Sardonicus’s 12 dreams left me looking for more. So when I saw that Sundazed had released a reissue of Spirit’s debut album—from that fascinating year 1968—I went for it. And today’s song is from that album. I recently put the song on a tape I made for Kajsa to mark the fact that the tape was made with my new turntable—so, just call me, for the nonce, Mr. Gramophone Man.

I’ll accept the silly moniker. And I suspect that Spirit is trying to play with the words “gramophone”—the best way to listen to trippy albums like theirs—and “grams,” for measuring whatever substances you might be inclined to imbibe before giving the ol’ disk a spin. Mr. Gramophone Man seems sort of benign in the song, at first, but then sort of sinister too. Might just be some a’ that paranoia I’ve heard so much about, but I also suspect that he’s trying to sucker them somehow.

In any case, the song has a sudden, surprise change in the middle—a common enough feature of psychedelic songs, but in this case it breaks into something jazzier than usual. Ed Cassidy, the bald, older gent in the band, played drums with some big jazz names in his youth (he was already my age when Spirit debuted), and Spirit was unique in its use of jazz ideas in rock. Though that became more common later, Spirit still seems an unusual version of the kinds of jam bands CA was known for spawning. And on 12 Dreams, they seem to have taken their cue—as many did at the time—from The Band’s great first two LPs. They sound a bit more Americana than they do on Spirit. Though they never sound Brit-wannabes. What I’m always hearing, listening to them, is “California”—fitting enough, since the main singer/writer is called Randy California, a last name given to him by his buddy, Jimi Hendrix.

In terms of my ongoing cataloging of ghosts, I’d have to say today’s song ranks high. Everyone who wrote this song—the entire original formation of Spirit—is dead now except for bass player Mark Andes. So, Cassidy, drummer, is gone; Randy California, vocalist/guitarist (and Cassidy’s stepson), is gone; Jay Ferguson, percussionist/vocalist, is gone; John Locke, keyboardist, is gone. All were in Spirit and now are spirit, we might say.

The song has got trapped in my mind from hearing it on the tape (before I delivered it) and I suppose that something of the serenity of jazz and the buzz of psychedelia seems to suit me—or the new elements of the sound system—reasonably well at the moment. And I’m willing to identify with Gramphone Man—who might owe a little something to The Beatles’ “Nowhere Man”—who at first has “magic presents” in his head and his hands, but later the presents prove “empty.” I suspect that Spirit is commenting on the empty promises of record companies and the like, the whole big bozo bucks sweepstakes that fuels, to borrow Joni’s phrase, “the star-maker machinery behind the popular song.” Gramophone Man bids them sing, and, being cool CA music-dudes, they comply, only to feel ill-used and abused later. Mr. Gramophone Man will no doubt laugh all the way to the bank. The detail—“you find out too soon as you notice his ring”—is a bit cryptic. Usually, noticing a ring means you learn of someone’s marital status; here I suppose it means that he’s really a materialistic guy. Though it might also mean that he’s evil and sporting some kind of ring to win them all and in the darkness bind them.

Anyway, I don’t think he’s evil. He’s just in thrall to the spinning disks of his own pleasure, seeking surfeit through his ear-holes. Poor bastard. Say a prayer for Mr. Gramophone Man. The road is long with many winding turns and the time grows short, but not short enough.

Gramophone mind that wants what you bring

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