By Greg Cahill
In 1969, the Cuyahoga River, clouded with decades of industrial waste from Cleveland, Ohio, factories, burst into flames. Smog seared the eyes of Los Angeles residents. And oil from offshore rigs fouled beaches in Santa Barbara. The following year, “Nature’s Way,” the acoustic-based cautionary tale from Spirit’s 1970 psychedelic album Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, echoed that haunting refrain, “It’s nature’s way of telling you, something’s wrong.”
The album, a loose-knit sci-fi concept album, became the best-selling album by one of the best, most eclectic and least appreciated West Coast bands of the 1960s and ’70s rock era. Neil Young cohort David Briggs produced the record. The album spawned the Top 100 hit “Animal Zoo,” a social commentary on civilization’s thin veneer, as well as the classic-rock radio staple “Nature’s Way,” built around a droning Asus2 chord (an A with an open B).
Spirit guitarist and boy genius Randy California penned “Nature’s Way” in San Francisco one afternoon while the band waited to perform at the Fillmore Auditorium. That stark environmental anthem coincided with the inaugural Earth Day celebration, becoming the first pop song to seriously address concerns about pollution and ecological disaster. The album continues to have an impact: Walter Becker of Steely Dan, who lived in the same apartment building as Randy California, reportedly has credited the Spirit guitarist’s bluesy style as a major influence and has noted that Spirit’s jazz-inflected prog-rock paved the way for Steely Dan’s distinct 1970s pop sound (many have noted the similarity between the piano figure that opens “Space Child” and the intro to Steely Dan’s hit “FM”).
More recently, the lo-fi indie-rock icon Sam Beam of Iron & Wine shaped part of his song “Wolves” after “Prelude—Nothing to Hide,” from Twelve Dreams, and both hip-hop star Common and rocker Pink have sampled Spirit recordings.
Five years after its release, and with the original lineup split up, the album went gold. That lineup was a musically diverse bunch. Ed Cassidy, who was guitarist Randy California’s stepfather, had played drums for Thelonious Monk, Roland Kirk and other jazz greats. He was a founding member—along with Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder—of the Rising Sons. Keyboardist John Locke also had strong jazz roots. While vocalist and percussionist Jay Ferguson was classically trained and immersed in bluegrass before turning to rock and then film and TV composing (most recently, he wrote the theme to the hit TV series The Office).
At 15, Randy California (nee Randy Craig Wolfe) played guitar for Jimmy James and the Blue Flames, the New York band led by Jimi Hendrix—Hendrix dubbed him Randy California to avoid confusing him with another band member. The young guitarist turned down an offer by the future rock superstar to move to London when Hendrix headed overseas to start the Experience. Instead, he returned to his native L.A. At first, his genre-leaping, multi-generational band (ages 16-44) was named Spirits Rebellious, after the mystical writer Kahlil Gibran’s poem. Spirit released its self-titled debut in 1968.
On its first tour of the United States, Led Zeppelin opened several shows for Spirit. Jimmy Page later pilfered the descending chord progression and main guitar riff from the Spirit tune “Taurus” for the signature Zep song “Stairway to Heaven.” In April 2016, a judge agreed to hear a lawsuit filed on behalf of the families of Spirit’s members seeking damages against Led Zeppelin for copyright infringement.
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Page has never admitted the plunder, but Randy California did live to see others embrace his musical vision.
In 1997, he drowned while saving his 12-year-old surfer son from a riptide near a friend’s home in Molokai, Hawaii.
His body was never recovered.