Interviewed April 13, 1999
Eclecticism--farmore than the vaunted simulation of the drug experience--wasthe primary shared characteristic of the many 1960s bands now described as psychedelic. No bands, psychedelic or otherwise, were more eclectic than Kaleidoscope, whose very name served as a calling card for their hunger for investigating and fusing all forms of popular music. Old-time folk, British folk, folk-rock, jugband, R&B, blues, jazz, middle eastern, Cajun, Appalachian, comedy, flamenco, and yes, feedback-riddled psychedelic jams: all were fair game for Kaleidoscope's sonic pinwheel, sometimes within the same track. As a cult band, they were a natural, not only to record collectors, but also to fellow musicians. Jimmy Page is but the most famous of these, calling Kaleidoscope his favorite band in one interview, and perhaps drawing inspiration from them for his own violin-bowing guitar techniques and occasional African-Eastern-rock cocktails.
Such overarching ambition sacrificed consistency and was, perhaps, too demanding a palette for the pop audience to embrace, even as the group anticipated the world beat blends of the 1980s and 1990s. The wide scope of Kaleidoscope's tastes and virtuosic talents fueled some groundbreaking experimentation on their late-1960s albums. At the same time, it may well have contributed to the tenuous stability of a band that changed personnel with almost every album, as members were sacrificed and shuffled in a tangle of competing interests. The act that could, apparently, play anything at any time, on almost any instrument, could not manage to survive into the 1970s, despite a couple of reunion albums in subsequent years. More than 30 years after their heyday, their approach has seldom been duplicated within the framework of rock music. As with so many Californian psychedelic groups of the 1960s, Kaleidoscope's roots were not so much in rock or R&B as in traditional folk music. Here Chris Darrow, one of Kaleidoscope's multi-instrumentalists and songwriters, talks about the band at length.
What was the idea behind Kaleidoscope at the beginning?
Chester tells me that the day that I showed up, he said the band could have broken up if I hadn't showed up and tied it together. Because basically, there were disparate things. There was a lot of information. There was Solomon's middle eastern and flamenco stuff. There was David's country and his overlap into the flamenco/middle eastern stuff. There was Chester's jazz meets rock'n'roll kind of thing, and then there was the drummer, who basically was just a rock'n'roll drummer. So he had to kind of learn everything. Since I had been in a band already, and had for a couple of years on my own had been playing electric music--I could play electric guitar and bass--plus the other things...I think it was a band looking for a sense of something. Because as it turned out, I was the major writer. I was writing original material at that time as well, and other guys weren't. The song "Why Try" on the first album was one of the few...Solomon wrote "Elevator Man," and David and Solomon wrote "Why Try." But "Please" came from an outside source. Most of the other stuff that was original stuff was from me.
What it wanted to be, I think at the beginning, was that it wanted to be eclectic. David's idea of involving the middle eastern and the rock'n'roll thing was a very good idea. And Solomon, because of his particular interest, that's where he was at. And the other aspect was that it was understood that he was the voice of the band, Solomon. So that part of the idea of putting things, putting words in his mouth, was probably the other important thing. What was gonna sound good was him singing most of the time. That didn't mean that Chester and I didn't sing, or I didn't sing at all. But he was considered the lead singer, primarily, and it was to use that voice as a vehicle for a bunch of different kinds of stuff. So I think when I showed up, like I said, Chester told me, he said, he wasn't sure whether the band was going to stay together or not. Because there wasn't enough of a focus in it. I think I brought enough focus into the band by virtue of having played in an electric band, and also having material to bring in. About two-thirds of the stuff on the first album is either from my band, or from my pen.
So I think that it was a band looking for an identity, and we all threw in our two cents worth and came up with an identity that kind of fit what we thought we were trying to do. The name Kaleidoscope, the idea that it was a myriad of possibilities. And even when we did interpretive stuff, which was another thing we do, our rule was to always make it our own. Make who we were, what we were, and turn a Duke Ellington song into a Kaleidoscope song, or adapt into a Kaleidoscope song. I think we had a pretty good idea that we had something that was unique, and that we all had individuals. Like I told you before, when I was brought in, I was told that this was going to be a leader-less band, and that it was going to be a band of people who...everybody had their own strength, and each one of these guys could lead their own band their own way. But when it was my song or my turn to do it, I'd be the one to be able to tell everybody what to do, or instruct. And then if Solomon was doing the middle eastern stuff, he could say, well, this is how you play 9/8 time, this is how you play 7/8. So we had to listen, we couldn't...know what I mean.
Was that vision accurately reflected with your first album?
At the beginning, it was a very democratic situation. And I think very much...we recorded the first album in like no time. We recorded seven songs in like eight hours. We knew everything so well that the first album, the reason it's so kind of tight and short is that we were well-rehearsed. I think had we kind of been a little bit more unsure of ourselves in that regard, we might have even done a better first album, because we might have actually spent more time in the studio working out studio stuff. 'Cause none of us really had any studio experience. That was really the beginning of it. David had a little bit. I had a little bit, but not much, you know. Once we got together and started talking about this stuff, it became evident that we wanted to have original material that reflected somewhat the psychedelic/middle eastern kind of...I wouldn't kind of say phony spirituality, but that kind of metaphysical kind of area that seemed to so important at that time, you know what I mean?
The song that I wrote on the first album, called "Keep Your Mind Open," which is the one that MOJO picked on the Top Twenty psychedelic songs of all time, and apparently it's the one that's at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame now, that uses that same list as their list. That was about the Vietnam War, and that was one of the few politically charged kind of pieces of music that I ever wrote, and it was very strong. It's the one that gets on the anthologies, and the one that seems to get mentioned all the time. It had all the middle eastern instruments, but it wasn't fast, and it wasn't very kind of slow enough...you've got the guns bursting at the end and everything. That one, and "If the Night," and "Pulsating Dream"--it was actually a song that was called something else that we liked the melody to, but it wasn't "psychedelic" enough. But David and Solomon sat down one day and just wrote like almost half-psychedelic words to that, [because] it needed to be on there. That actually started out as "I Guess I'll Move on Down the Line," which is actually on my first album. It was my Dad's favorite song I ever wrote, he always loved that song. But that song turned into something else.
So those songs were written kind of...that was almost like hack writing. "If the Night" comes from the Floggs, the band I had before. "Keep Your Mind Open" was written for the Kaleidoscope. "Come On In, Ain't Nobody Home But Me" was a song that I did with my other band. "Hesitation Blues" and then Chester brought in the Cab Calloway song. Then Solomon wrote "Elevator Man," which wasn't on the first record, but it was the B-side of the first single. "Please" and a couple others, and that was pretty much the record. I would say from the first album, probably two-thirds of the stuff would be my songwriting, or through the band I had been playing with previous to this. They were certainly different. "If the Night," that was me singing it, but it was Solomon ended up doing a good interpretation of that song.
I would say we had a vision, but it wasn't really selectively thought out. It wasn't like a producer came and told us what to do. Barry Friedman was very instrumental in getting this band kind of hooked up, together, but in terms of him giving us ideas about that kind of stuff, this is what I think you should write. We pretty much came up with our own stuff. We self-edited within the band, pretty much. Chester and I ended up sort of being. David and I had been playing together for years. He and Solomon seemed to link up sort of vibrationally in the band, and Chester and I seemed to link up vibrationally. And John was kind of in the middle, the drummer. So as it turned out, after the first couple of records, which everybody always considers the best ones, I left. The third album, which I think may be musically, could be the best record, was basically tested out with the band that I was in. We had already done all those songs before the third album was recorded. It was just done with different guys by the time that those guys came in. I think that album really was, even though Stuart Brotman's playing bass and Paul Lagos was playing drums, it could have very easily been me and John, because I think two-thirds of those songs, we'd already done in the band previous to that.
How was it that you joined the band to begin with?
I was going to graduate school. I had been in a band of my own for about a year-and-half, almost two years. We had done demo tapes, I'd taken them around. People started to quit, wanted to get married and get jobs. I was married and had a kid. I was going to graduate school working in the graduate school art gallery, hanging up a show. I got a call from Lindley about 11 o'clock at night saying, looks like we've got a record deal. You want to join our band? And I said, what's it about? He said this, and I just said yes immediately. It took me like two seconds to yes. My ex-wife still would have loved me to have become an art professor. David knew what I was doing, he liked my group. We had always been in groups before together, and I seemed like a likely candidate. Like I said, Chester told me that when I came in, the focus came together. They had done one thing in the studio, which they ended up using Billy Mundi as the drummer on. It was the original "Why Try." That, apparently, was the one song that had gotten the group the deal. So they really didn't have a band when the deal was, they just sort of had a concept. The one song was enough to represent the concept.
That's pretty much how it happened. It was just a phone call, and I said sure, let's go. Probably a couple of days later, I was in Solomon's four-car garage to rehearse. It was a wonderful experience, because none of us had been involved in anything quite like this. At the time, nobody had instruments that were...you couldn't get an electric violin anywhere. You certainly couldn't get an electric almost anything. So we were taping on like contact mikes and all kinds of things, trying to make stuff work in this electric world. All of us had come out of acoustic world. I was probably the most learned in the electric, because I'd had my own band and my own amps and all that kind of stuff. So I had already gone through the learning phase. David was pretty good with it, because he had taken up electric guitar a little bit previous, and he's a good technical kind of guy. The drummer, he'd come out in more like the marching band stuff, kind of the high school marching band drummer. He was kind of an 18-year-old hippie guy who looked pretty good. Judging what I can gather from Chester's stuff, he was just sort of picked because he was cute.
Solomon Feldthouse's background has always been pretty mysterious.
The mystery is on purpose. Basically, he grew up in Idaho as far as I know, and being in Turkey and all that kind of stuff, I think he was just a regular kind of guy. He was in the Army for a while, and did some traveling. I'm not really too sure. I've always just kind of assumed that most of the stuff is just lies. Because he's not from Isthmuth Turkey. That's pretty much all I know. I have an old Icehouse thing from about the time we were playing at the Icehouse in the early sixties around Pasadena, and he was in a flamenco group that was playing around. He had always been involved in flamenco. He'd been playing in a place called Sid's Bloopy (?) down in...I think that's where he and David met. He was playing 12-string and kind of flamencoey, sort of mixing a little bit of Leadbelly with flamenco down at Sid's Bloopy down at Newport Beach, which is sort of one of the classic early-sixties folk hangouts in Southern California. I think that's where David met him. I really don't know much about how they really got together, quite honestly.
Solomon's up north. He's a pretty gruff kind of guy. Last time I talked to him, we were actually going to have him play on this new record we did. And was such a shithead that we decided we weren't going to ask him (laughs). "I don't know, fuck, I don't know about that. Let me know. Send me some stuff." He's not very outgoing when it comes to that kind of stuff. I've always had kind of a little trouble with him and his disposition, generally, in the band, because he was kind of an asshole, most of the time. You'd have to just put up with his shenanigans. But that was the way it was. He was always that way. Everybody worked it out, because everybody thought he was good.
Everybody thought the other people in the band were good at the time. We all really thought that everybody--that this was a great combination of factors, and we were willing to tolerate a bunch of stuff that might not have tolerated otherwise, for the musicianship and the ability to play with these people. Because I do think that we created something that was very unique and satisfying. That was why we did it for so long. The fact that the band was able to stick together as long as it was, judging from the commercial non-success that the band had, was pretty amazing. The first record, I think, sold 5000 or something like that. The second one, I don't know how many that sold. The third one I think maybe sold--I don't think it sold 100,000. It might have sold in the sixties or fifties, which is pretty good for that time for a band like that. But it was because the band played at the Newport Folk Festival and made a pretty good impression. I think that helped sell the record that particular year.
How did you end up leaving the band after the second album?
The respect for each other, in terms of what everybody knew how to do, was really there. It was always there, and is still there. Unfortunately, when things don't go very well, or when money's happening, or when you've got wives and children and rent to pay and stuff like that, little things start happening. I think that's what happened in our particular situation. I think David and Solomon--we had a big talk, and it was like, I think we gotta go middle eastern, and that was not my total focus. Chester and I both opposed it, because I was probably the most emphatic about it, I just said I'm leaving, and basically before David said you're fired, I said I'm leaving, and that was it.
About two weeks later I got a call saying, we got this tour of the East Coast. The guy who's going to take your place can't start until afterwards. Will you go with us? And I said sure. I'd never been anywhere, so I thought, well, I'll go to New York. It was miserable, but it was New York. There was some positive things about it. I got a chance to meet a lot of people. I hung out with Zal Yanovsky and Billy Mundi and Bob Neuwirth became like my guru and took me to all the clubs. I didn't have any money, and I was like a second-class citizen by virtue of I was really out of the band. I was staying with a friend who was going to Columbia at the time. I wasn't even staying with the band, because it was just too painful. There was kind of nothing for me to do. I'd just show up for the gigs and play and go home. But it introduced me to New York, and I had a chance...because I always thought that New York was a place that I was going to have to see, and I ended up actually spending a good deal of time there later on in my life and enjoyed it. And I just don't really care about New York that much anymore (laughs), because I've had my New York experience. But it was an eye-opener for me, from a West Coast guy that liked to go the beach, all of a sudden hanging out in New York in the wintertime where it's cold and people come up to you in the street. I almost got mugged. The only time I ever even close to getting mugged was that particular trip.
One of the things that distinguished Kaleidoscope from other bands of the time was how most of the members could play several instruments.
When we went back to our Mad Mountain Ramblers days and Dry City Scat Band Days, we were always multi-instrumental guys. Mike Seeger was in a band called the New Lost City Ramblers. Mike Seeger was pretty much all of our idol. He, and Tom Paley and John Cohen, who were also in the band, they were all these guys that played music from the twenties and thirties and traditional music, and they all played banjo and fiddle and mandolin and guitar. They could all sing, and they'd just trade instruments back and forth. So there was a precedent set in our particular bunch of people, that there was these guys out there that were our kind of idols, that were doing that stuff. So it was no big deal for us to pick up a fiddle, then pick up a dobro, and then pick up a banjo. Because we were all learning all the instruments simultaneously, because we wanted to be like our guys. I would say if you asked Ry Cooder, if you asked Taj Mahal, if you asked David Lindley, if you asked me, you would all get, "I wanted to be Mike Seeger." Because Mike Seeger was this guy who exemplified the kind of total folk musician. He knew the stuff, he sang the right songs, and he played all the right instruments, and he played really well.
So a lot of guys that came out of folk music, if they didn't come out of the traditional kind of thing like we came out of, a lot of those guys were playing guitar in Highwaymen kind of bands or Kingston Trio kinds of groups. We were all kind of ethnomusicologists kind of guys by the time we were all 20 years old, 18 years old. We were really into the old music, and we would find old records and because I'd grown up with--my dad is a jazz musician and played clarinet and stuff. I had pictures of Pee Wee Russell over my band when I was a kid, and was listening to Louis Armstrong as soon as I can remember. So I think that a lot of us...the fact that the band had so much background in musical heritage. We had four violin players. Actually everybody except the drummer played violin in that band, could play violin. I played also mandolin, I played also dobro, I played also bass, I played also guitar, and Lindley played banjo, he played harp guitar, he played electric guitar, he could play violin. Solomon could play 12-string, he could play saz and all these instruments, plus middle eastern stuff. He played 12-string, he played electric guitar, and he could play bass a little bit too. And he's a good violin player. And he also was interested in playing clarinet, which was never my favorite instrument, but he'd always end up staying up all night, playing it in the other room while we were trying to sleep (laughs). It was annoying, but nonetheless, he was actually not too bad of a sort of a middle eastern clarinet player.
That became part of our allure. I have a picture that we had when we were in the Mad Mountain Ramblers that were taken from the Icehouse gig. It wasn't even a picture of the band, it was a picture of all our instruments. It was like 20 instruments. In those days, we would always trade things back and forth and play two fiddles on one thing, or two mandolins, or two banjos, or one guy playing dobro. So I think it goes back farther conceptually, in our particular situation, than just that band. I think we were always pretty much used to trading things around. It just developed into that. It became part of our selling point. When people came to see us, we'd have things laid all over the stage, and it looked very impressive.
[Jackie DeShannon] and Ry once, when we were all working at Disneyland--I guess we were the Dry City Scat Band then--we were playing at the Icehouse in Pasadena. She was looking for a band to play with. Ry thought that we might be a good band for her to help back her up at that time. It would have been about 64, maybe. She came in to see us at the Icehouse, and she just hated us. She didn't want to talk to us at all afterwards (laughs). I always thought she was really good. She had that kind of eclecticism and she had a great voice and she was sexy. She was kind of one of a kind--Kim Novak of rock, or Tuesday Weld. She had a great combination of factors. I was always surprised that something more didn't happen with her.
It's kind of amazing how many experimental bands like you ended up on Columbia, one of the biggest labels in the world. They also had the United States of America, for instance, and also put out the Skip Spence solo album. But they didn't seem able to market the stuff that well.
Epic sort of took this stance that they were going to be the far-out Columbia. It was also Donovan, there was the Yardbirds, Lulu, and stuff like that that was basically Mickey Most. I think a lot of it had to do with producers that brought things to them. Barry Friedman seemed to have a relationship with Columbia, through that kind of stuff. If you look at the Byrds stuff and Moby Grape and all that kind of stuff, there was some...that's the biggest label, at that time the biggest label in the world. We were recording on the first eight-tracks that were actually around. Most of the stuff that was recorded previous, even the Beatles records, there were a couple of four-tracks. The Columbia Studios were--if you wanted to get the best equipment and the best distribution in the world at that time, Columbia was the company, I would think if you were a manager or somebody, you would probably want to get on it. Regardless of whether or not it was Mitch Miller and that kind of stuff, at the time. I was pretty naive about the music business in that time, so I can only give you a certain kind of feeling about what it was like. It seemed to me that the Columbia Studios--I remember going into the studio, and Moby Grape would be in another room, and then Sly Stone over there--those kinds of things would happen all the time. You gotta wait a couple of days because Donovan hasn't finished his record yet.
The element of all that kind of stuff that was going around at that time, it was sort of counter to what you were just saying, that there was no interest in it. Those kinds of people, they were entrenched in the business already, because of the show business and Doris Day and all that kind of stuff. There was a weird transition period, and some of those guys that had been around before had access to that machinery, Hollywood machinery that was being pushed around there. You just sort of have to think about it from the standpoint. I don't think Columbia, on a big picture level, had any kind of fucking idea of what they were doing, really. I think it was just all about, this is what's going on right now with the kids today. And they did the best they could to try to figure out who they could get. Stu Phillips, who was the A&R director at Epic, he didn't know heads from tails. He was like a movie soundtrack guy, and he came from a whole other era. He didn't get us at all. The guys over at OKeh, Johnny Guitar Watson and Larry Williams, probably of all the guys in the company, got us the best. They thought we were really cool (laughs). That's why they used us on that record. They were the ones that were really the most understanding of it.
A lot of the stuff came out of New York, too. I remember we had this thing about, what's our album cover going to look like? And we had these pictures taken. We never see any of these pictures or anything. And all of a sudden we get this black and white album cover that none of us are really particularly thrilled with. And they said, it's promised as a color cover and everything. And they said, turn it over, there's color in the back. They put it in blue ink--that was it. They didn't spend any money on it. There was no four-color, there was no double foldout, there was none of that kind of stuff. It was like ESP, those things. In retrospect, it's probably as good as anything. But we were all disappointed. We wanted something psychedelic and wowee (laughs). And we didn't get it.
I think that we were anathema to the people over there. At the time, we were being managed by this guy Mike Goldberg and his partner, Stu Eisen. Mike Goldberg had been in like helping working with Tommy James and the Shondells, and he came out from a whole other kind of thing. I don't think those guys had any idea. I just thought they thought that we were weird, and they could sell it. We always expected everybody to get it, but it hard to even find musicians that could get it. I'm starting to realize in retrospect now that it was maybe silly for us to assume that we were going to be some kind of huge commercial success, because it was hard enough to find musicians that could play the stuff, let alone people that knew how to listen to it. I think that it's been a long time coming in terms of our appreciation, because now, to use the term world beat, we've been termed in too many articles now the first world beat band, which I think we probably were. All the stuff that has sort of come now, where you can go and you can buy records from all over the world, from Somalia, and it's all available to you--at that time it wasn't available. It was really hard. You had to either have the record or know somebody that had one or had a tape.
The availability of information at that time was really different than it is now. There wasn't CDs, and there wasn't all this stuff being reprinted, because that stuff hadn't even been hardly out. The fifties was just getting over. There was not a whole lot of range. And there wasn't anybody who was thinking this way. Guys like Miles Davis and Monk and those kinds of guys were doing, "Tijuana Moods" by Mingus or something like that, those kind of things were just barely touching on some kind of one-other element besides Afro-Cuban or something like that, Dizzy Gillespie. If you start looking at the jazz stuff that came out at that time, they were toying with it a little bit. But it would usually just be one genre added to another. There was even a jazz bagpipe player. He had a record out in like '67. It was on Atlantic or CTI, one of those companies. It was a black guy wearing kilts and playing jazz bagpipe. But that was usually just one element that was fused in the thing. So if it was Latin Moods, it was Latin meets jazz. But with us, it was everything meeting everything all the time. I think that just got to be too much for some people. I don't think it sat well with people that might have liked some aspects of our career. I don't think their ears were, even at that time, which were pretty much listening to everything. Free-form radio at the time, KSAN and KPPC, and a lot of the channels, they were playing everything back-to-back. You could hear Joni Mitchell next to Hendrix next to Tim Buckley next to Kaleidoscope next to whatever, and nobody ever thought about it. But I think in terms of all that stuff coming out of one band, it was almost too hard for some people to like take.
I think in retrospect now, that's the thing that was one of our strongest suits. We thought it was a strong suit at the time, because why wouldn't you want to think of it, being good at a lot of different things. But it's almost like jack-of-all-trades, master of none. You almost can get that kind of element out of it if you want to. I think that because we were never trying to emulate anybody, we weren't trying to play phony middle eastern stuff, we were integrating middle eastern stuff into our way of presenting it to the world, which is something different than Paul Simon going and hiring a bunch of African guys to play on his record. What we did is we took the elements of different musical styles and genres that we liked, and tried to incorporate them into our particular viewpoint of the world. Over time, we developed an attitude that, it was pretty universal. We all kind of understood what that attitude meant. Maybe nobody else could really do that. But by the time we all had been in the band for a while, everybody knew kind of where the stuff was supposed to come from. And you kind of had to search what kind of element that was.
How was the second album different from the first?
Songs like "Oh Death," and songs like "Greenwood Sidee" and things like that, were sort of reminiscent of the Celtic thing. "You Don't Love Me, Yes I Know" and "Killing Floor" and even "Beacon From Mars," which starts out with [a "Smokestack Lightning" riff], I just ripped him off. I never got sued for that one, but (laughs) it is "Smokestack Lightning," and I admit it. That was me. I always liked that lick, and I used it. So those kind of things like that were, that was just part of our pastiche. It was putting, okay, we're going to stick this in here, we're going to stick this in here. Because I think we all had pretty good taste in where we were coming from, and knew the music that we were borrowing from well enough to know the difference between good, bad, indifferent with that stuff. I think that's where our--I think we were lucky to have been as good musicians at a young age as we were. There weren't many guys that were as good as us as a band who could really play. We could really play. I think that at the time when people actually realized that we could really play, it wasn't just a gimmick. The people who saw us live, we were a tremendously powerful live band at the time.
Most of the stuff was extended. Most of the stuff was a lot bigger-sounding. I mean the first album, like I said, we just went in there and recorded it and didn't know any better. The second album, we insisted on like having some live recording time. "Okay, you're going to have to do this right now, you got two takes, and that's it." It wasn't like we had--they weren't like the Buffalo Springfield, where they spent like the whole week on a fucking banjo part of something. We weren't allowed the luxury of that kind of recording at that time, like most of the rest of the guys were. It was in and out. We were the low-budget end of the scale. When "Beacon From Mars" was recorded, we wanted to take some time and really record it the way we sounded live. And that was probably as close of an approximation as we could have gotten at the time, judging from how it was done. But we didn't feel that that record was really even close to how good we were as a live performing band, because we were really good.
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