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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.
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.”
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.
July 12, 2022
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