Valenti, as Ben Fong-Torres wrote in his 1969 profile on the singer in Rolling Stone,had a reputation as "the 'underground Dylan'," and Columbia Records was going to try and capitalize on it. "When Dino first signed with Epic, for [Columbia executive] Clive Davis, that was a big feather in his cap," claims Quicksilver Messenger Service guitarist Gary Duncan. "Because Dino was notoriously hard to deal with. In the business, he had a reputation of being a total fucking prick. When Clive got him to sign, everybody sort of went, 'Clive, alright, you got him.'" Ensuing events, however, would probably make everyone involve wish the Columbia-Valenti deal had never happened.
According to Duncan, Valenti first cut an album with producer Jack Nitzsche, who was vital to Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound" as an arranger, and had worked with other top acts like the Rolling Stones. "It was like a pop record," remembers Duncan, who played on some of the sessions. "It was well-produced little nuggets of radio stuff. He'd have been the new Bob Dylan. Nitzsche took Dino's songs, wrote arrangements, they had a certain length. He made 'em into a palatable, salable product. Dino's stuff lent itself so well to that format. He wrote songs like Beatles songs -- they had bridges, they were magnificently written.
"They had the final mixes on it, and he didn't like it. It was too homogenized, it was too clean for him, and I could understand that from an artistic standpoint. From a business standpoint, it was a great record. It would have made him a fucking millionaire. But he didn't like it."
So an entirely different album was recorded, says Duncan, using some but not all of the original compositions on the Nitzsche-produced effort, and adding some other songs of Dino's. The result, Dino Valente[sic], was probably the best representation of Valenti's unique writing, singing, and guitar playing to get captured in the studio. Oddly, "Get Together" was missing. "I never heard Dino sing that song," states a bemused Duncan. "In all the years that I knew him -- and I was with him all the time -- he'd never sing it. I asked him to sing it a few times, and he wouldn't. I think he was pissed off, because somebody else did it and had a hit. [Losing the copyright] wasn't the only reason."
The ten songs that did make it onto the record, however, were effective and sympathetically produced, if not terribly commercial. The album's most arresting quality was the guitar playing, the 12-string guitar layered in shimmering reverb as it strummed the sad but pretty melodies Valenti was so skilled in summoning. Dino's vocals, too, were bathed in echo, creating a hushed, one-man-alone-in-a-barely-lit-room atmosphere. That ambience would also be the trademark of another low-selling cult acid folk album on Columbia in the late 1960s, Skip Spence's Oar (Spence, coincidentally, had also been considered for membership in the embryonic Quicksilver Messenger Service before getting spirited away to the early Jefferson Airplane).
While Spence invoked half-mad, ghostly echoes of country, blues, and folk that alternated between the angelic and the demonic, Valenti favored a sunnier if equally inscrutable vibe. Valenti was a notorious ladies' man, and many of the album's lyrics were trippy stream-of-consciousness one-sided conversations, seemingly directed toward a never-ending parade of beautiful but confused young hippie women. He and only he, Valenti seemed to be intimating, could understand the pain and changes they were going through, and only through his help could they, together, transcend them with beatific love.
There were other moods floating around the record too, such as the jazzy horns and phrasing of "My Friend," the troubadour folk of "Me and My Uncle" (written by John Phillips of the Mamas & the Papas), the symphonic pop of "Tomorrow" (the only cut that sounded like it could have fit into the lost Nitzsche-produced LP), and the unearthly flutes and echo spinning around Dino's disembodied vocals on the most psychedelic cut, "Test." The melody for "Children of the Sun," reveals Duncan, was inspired by the pop-jazz standard "My Funny Valentine," whose chords Gary had taught to Dino. With valuable help from producer Bob Johnston, Valenti's 12-string guitar and voice was sometimes embellished with subtle but tasteful additional horns, strings, harpsichords, background vocals, drums, and guitars, changing what could have been a solo acoustic album into a record that sat on the margins of psychedelic rock.
When Ben Fong-Torres asked Valenti about the album for his Rolling Stoneprofile, Dino's reply was as elusive to grasp as the tunes themselves were. "Every song is different, like every day; a completely different thing, man. You sit down and something turns you on and you hear a timbre, a vibration because you're right this instant turned on about something. And it's in your mind that you hear it. It may be soft, it may be fine, it may be heavy, it's just a certain set of tonalities, or sometimes it's just a set of chords that start going around your head...
"Well, you sit down and start to play it on your guitar and as you play the music, sometimes you hear the music has words in it. And so then you find out what the song says. Other times you're down and may be pissed about something so you write the words without bothering with the music; then you listen to the words over and over again and you hear the music. When a song starts you don't think about anything but getting next to it without breaking it. It's like getting next to a wild horse."
The record was an artistic if enigmatic triumph, and as Tom Donahue (as quoted in Lillian Roxon's Rock Encyclopedia) proclaimed, "If every chick Dino's ever known buys the record, it will be number one." That didn't happen; in fact, hardly anyone even saw or heard a copy, and the album was nearly impossible to find before it was reissued on CD (with two previously unreleased bonus tracks) in 1997. Its poor sales performance was not solely due to the adventurous nature of the music. It was, perhaps, due more to Valenti's inimitable talent for alienating people.
According to Duncan, when Valenti wanted to scrap the Nitzsche-produced album, "Instead of trying to discuss this with Clive [Davis] in a sane manner, Dino did what he usually did. He got pissed off, called Clive in the middle of the night, woke him up, and insulted the fuck out of him. If he hollered long enough, he usually got what he wanted. Bob Johnston was hired by Clive Davis to get a record out of Dino that they could bury, and fulfill their contractual obligation with him. They didn't promote it. They misspelled his name."
For good measure, Johnston -- producer of classic and huge-selling albums and singles by Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, and Johnny Cash in the 1960s -- says that Valenti pulled much the same tantrum on Columbia executive David Kapralik. "I was told that Kapralik came to him and said, 'I want all your publishing, I want your management, and if you give me that I'll make you a star.' Dino told me he called about five o'clock in the morning and woke Kapralik up. He said, 'I just wanted to tell you that in California, the sky is so blue. There's not a cloud in the sky, it's the most beautiful day I've ever seen in my life.' Kapralik says, 'You woke me up to tell me that?' And Dino said, 'Wait a minute. Something's happening. Oh my god, there's a big, dark, horrible-looking cloud that's blotting the sun out, and it's coming right over me. Oh Jesus, it started pouring. That cloud is you, David.' And that was pretty well the end of Dino."
That didn't mean, however, that Dino and his pals couldn't party hardy on the way to commercial oblivion. "Bob at that time, from what I understand, was sort of like Epic Records' troubleshooter," says Duncan, who played on Dino Valente. "He was the producer they sent in for acts they couldn't really deal with. Bob Dylan. Johnny Cash. Dino Valenti. Guys that were temperamental. His job was to go in and make the artist feel comfortable, and get a performance out of him that they could sell. And that's what he did with Dino. He made Dino happy. He let him do what he wanted.
"There was a couple of days straight that we didn't do anything in the studio but fly paper airplanes. 'Cause Dino was in a bad mood. So Johnston came in with this international paper airplane book. It had all these paper airplanes that you could put together and fly. We spent two days in the studio -- I don't know what it cost, but it wasn't cheap -- to sit around and just fly airplanes. We didn't do any music at all. But that's the way Johnston did things. He made him feel like he was a king. And they got a record out of him that made Dino happy. He loved it.
"Dino had to have bagpipes on something, so they got these two pipers in. These guys were serious Scots, boy, I mean, you could barely understand what they said. They came in with their kilts on and their pipes, a father-and-son piper team. They never used these tracks. There's time that was spent in the studio, and money that got pissed away."
Johnston, while not oblivious to the goings-on in Valenti's entourage -- "he carried a harem with him wherever he went, when he was in the studio, there was like anywhere from ten to thirty little girls popping up and out" -- maintains his admiration for Dino's musical talents thirty years later. "I just went along for the ride, 'cause he was really special. He's a brilliant, brilliant guitar player.
"You had to bring him back into check because he'd start a song, and 25 minutes later he'd be playing the same song. When we first started, I told him that we had to pick songs for the album. He said, 'Well, let me do these two.' Two of them were about an hour, and I said 'Okay, need to cut one of them off, Dino.' He said, 'What do you mean? I've only got two songs.'" Johnston pauses to laugh at the benign lunacy of the enterprise. "I said, 'I don't care. If you want to make an hour record, that's fine. But otherwise, you'll have one song.' He said, 'Oh man, you can't do that. What can I do?' I said, 'You don't have to ask me. Chop 'em up. I don't want to chop your songs up.'"
Another highly respected industry professional was most unimpressed with Valenti's unconventional methodology. Carol Kaye, who played on numerous Hollywood-recorded classics in the 1960s (including hits by Phil Spector and the Beach Boys), was the most highly regarded session bassist in Los Angeles, and remembers her session with Valenti as "really a chore, the worst record date. He put us all through hell that night. I had to write out the chord charts from his terrible un-musical tape. Mind you, I've worked with a great deal of non-talented people. It was our job to get everybody a hit, didn't matter if they could or couldn't sing, or how bad their songs were. That wasn't the problem. His demeanor, use of a lot of drugs, putting us in a dangerous situation, and his attitude and smart-ass ways were the problem. I don't mind a person being dramatic, but put it on stage where it belongs. I do mind open uses of drugs -- it was a LOT of drugs there, turning the lights totally off, lighting candles and putting them on the teetering baffles that could be blown over easily by soundwaves.
"After struggling with his awful non-musical track for about one-and-a-half hours -- now we were the best in the business -- Dino decided to 'demonstrate' by throwing his long locks of hair around in the studio stage-style, putting on quite a big show while singing. I looked over at [guitarist] Dennis Budimer who was in stitches, grinning from ear to ear. He was trying to contain himself from busting out laughing, Dino was downright hysterical. I must have let out a half-smile as Dino stopped playing and said, 'What are you smiling at?'
"I replied, 'I wasn't smiling. I was looking at Dennis.'
"It went downhill from there. He said, 'What is wrong that you all can't play with my guitar track?' I said, still being very nice about the whole mess, 'Well...because of the situation, please let us cut you a basic good track so that we can all play together, as we just can't play along with your track.' He answered, 'Why can't you?' I finally said, 'because you have really BAD TIME' (like telling someone they have bad breath). At that, he said, 'Well, my bass player can play along with me just fine.' At that, I started packing up my instrument. 'Well, get your bass player then, as I have an early morning film call and we're never going to get this even if it takes ALL NIGHT with the way you want to overdub on YOUR track.' At that point, the producer from the booth said something like, 'I don't like the attitude here, you're all fired.' We all walked out in silence."
For more wild and crazy stories about the folk-rock pioneer who was Dino Valenti, read the entire chapter in Urban Spacemen & Wayfaring Strangers: Overlooked Innovators and Eccentric Visionaries of '60s Rock.
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