CHRIS DARROW: YOU SAVED MY LIFE!
Stream: Chris Darrow “Albuquerque Rainbow”
Chris Darrow was the underheralded sideman of ‘70s L.A as well as one of the founders of the Kaleidoscope, one of the best psych-and-everything-else bands to ever come out of California. He is present on perhaps 15% of the records in your collection. He speaks now on a Friday evening from his hometown of Claremont. This interview by Dan Collins.
You sound really young!
How did you end up in Kaleidoscope?
I started out in folk music. When I was a real small kid, I played ukulele, and then my sister broke my ukulele when I was about five years old. In the fifties, I was about thirteen years old, and the folk boom hit America, and most of my heroes of rock and roll—I saw Richie Valens play about a month before he died—all those guys by the end of the fifties and early sixties were either gone or in jail. Chuck Berry was in jail for a Mann Act violation, Jerry Lee Lewis had just married his cousin, Elvis was in the army… so during the latter part of the fifties I played folk music and had gotten into bluegrass music. I joined the ‘Mad Mountain Ramblers,’ and we started playing at Disneyland and playing at the Icehouse, and we merged two bands together and formed the Dry City Scat Band…
You played the Icehouse in Pasadena? The one that’s now a comedy club? It used to be hip?
Oh, it was totally an epicenter music club! We were sort of a Claremont/Pasadena/Arcadia group of guys. And that summer, Richard Greene, the fiddle player, brought this guy to the gig who was Jim McGuinn, who was the original guy from the Byrds. And I’d heard about the Beatles, but I’d never heard the Beatles. And he had Beatle boots on and bobbed hair and pegged pants, and one of those John Lennon Gibson acoustic electrics. And my friend Chris Hillman, a mandolin player—I ran into him at the Ash Grove one night, and he unabashedly said, ‘Oh, I had to join a rock ‘n’ roll band. I needed the money.’ So my wife and I later on were watching Hullabaloo, and all of a sudden this song starts, and I look and it’s that guy I met in the summer, Jim McGuinn, and Chris Hillman—and I said ‘Oh, cool!’
He changed his name to Roger McGuinn later?
Yeah, it was a Buddhist thing. So the Beatles… I said, ‘I get it: Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, bluegrass harmony…’ Almost all of us bought ourselves electric guitars and started ourselves bands. I started a band called the Floggs, kind of based on a combination of Animals, Yardbirds, Stones, Them—the rockers as opposed to the mods. More bluesbased. We became kind of the hot band of the area. And I was married, had a kid, going to graduate school…
What were you getting your masters in?
In art. I went to the Claremont graduate school. And I got a call and they said ‘Do you want to join this band,’ a band of a bunch of guys who could all be leaders… that band became the Kaleidoscope. It started out with Dave and I playing bluegrass together and finally getting together as a rock ‘n’ roll band. And so I stayed with the band for a couple years.
And you guys played on Leonard Cohen’s first record.
That’s right. I’d left the band, and the guy who was going to take my place hadn’t joined the band yet, and I’d never been to New York, so when they asked if I’d go on this East Coast tour, I said, ‘Sure.’ And we played at this place called the Scene, and we opened for Nico. So people like Warhol came in. And one night Leonard Cohen came up to me. And he was this guy who was dressed in a black leather jacket, and carrying a briefcase, and short kinda cropped hair, and said ‘I’m making an album.’ And this was the sixties—he didn’t look like a guy that would be making a record album. We were kind of scruffy, long-haired guys from the West Coast. The East Coast wasn’t as hippie-oriented as the West Coast. So the next day we were up in his hotel room working on some of his songs. And he wasn’t a really good guitar player—he was a poet and a novelist—and a lot of people were having a hard time trying to figure out what he was trying to say. And we were all folk musicians, so it was pretty easy for us to read what he was trying to do. We ended up playing on a number of his songs. It happened completely by accident.
The right place at the right time?
I’m finding that in my life I’ve been in the right place at the right time more often than not. Much later, ten or fifteen years ago, he moved to a Buddhist retreat up in Mt. Baldy, north of Claremont here. He had broken up with Rebecca De Mornay, and he was up there for about five years. One day I was in downtown Claremont, and my niece said she’d seen Leonard Cohen at one of the restaurants downtown out front—Yiannis—drinking some coffee. So I went over and said, ‘Remember me?’ And he said ‘Of course! You saved my life.’ It was weird to have it come full circle after all these years. And him—living in my own hometown. And it just so happens this week, Philip Glass is giving a concert that he wrote to a hundred poems of Leonard Cohen—in Claremont!
Back in the Kaleidoscope days—was it weird being in a band called ‘Kaleidoscope’ when there were at least two other bands with that name, one in the UK and one in Mexico?
At the time, we had never heard about the Mexican Kaleidoscope, and no one ever mentioned the one from England. As far as anybody knew, we were the Kaleidoscope—we were from the West Coast and we were playing at the Avalon and the Fillmore. We were part of the California scene, so at that moment in time, the hippie-psychedelic scene was totally West Coast. Right before the Beatles hit, most of the records being made in America by guys my age were being done on the East Coast because most of the guys were playing folk music. People like John Sebastian were playing on Vanguard Records and Folkways records, a lot of the record companies on the East Coast. As soon as the Beatles hit, most of the bands that formed all came from California. A couple came from Texas. Ultimate Spinach came from Boston, but those bands sucked!
As far as L.A. bands, it feels like you were a little bit against type. Unlike the San Francisco bands, a lot of the L.A. bands were more comfortable with three-minute songs. Like the Seeds songs sound very consistently like each other. Whereas you guys—every song was a different style. Do you think you guys were atypical?
I think we were, and we set out to be that way. We were playing Middle Eastern music, and Cajun music, and rock and roll, and country, and bluegrass, and that made us unique. We could open for anybody, and we weren’t in competition with anybody, so people loved playing with us. The problem with that was the people who might like the Middle Eastern stuff wouldn’t like the twenties-style stuff we did. We became known as an eclectic band. We were the first rock ‘n’ roll band to ever be reviewed in Downbeat, for instance. We played the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco, the first band ever allowed to be played there. But because we were so diverse, you know… if you liked one Seeds song, they all sounded like the other ones. Same with the Doors, and same with the Byrds. They were much more stylistically linear with what they did. So it became our signature. That’s why we were called the Kaleidoscope—because we were all over the place. It was an advantage and a disadvantage. The disadvantage is that it didn’t allow us to sell very many records.
Your solo records are pretty eclectic, too—were you at all influenced by Skip Spence’s solo album, Oar?
No, not at all! I’ve never even heard that record. But I actually had a band for a short while with Bob Mosley, the bass player [of Moby Grape] called the Darrow Mosley Band, in the early seventies. It sounded something like a California version of the Faces. There’s no records out—if you give me your email, I can send you an MP3. Moby Grape was probably my favorite California band. But I wasn’t really into most of the San Francisco bands. I liked the Byrds from the word ‘go.’ I was never a Doors fan. The first time I saw them at the Whiskey, before they had a record deal, they were opening for Them, who I was just mad about at the time. And I was so not knocked out by the Doors, I went up to the owner and I said—I was in the Floggs at the time—I said, ‘I have a band better than these guys, you should let us play.’
Was he like, ‘You got spunk, kid!’?
No. I gave him a tape, and he never called me back. I got to know Morrison later on. But most of us guys were trying to be organic guys. I was living in the middle of 40 acres of lemon groves, and driving VW buses, and wearing Levis and flannel shirts and growing our hair long. And those guys—he was wearing leather pants and trying to be the cute, prancing guy, and it just didn’t sit with me at the time. He was an okay guy, but I just wasn’t into their music. The Byrds, I really liked their scene. I especially liked Gene Clark. He was my favorite.
Let’s talk about your solo records for a minute. I got the two albums, Chris Darrow and Under My Own Disguise, and they sound shockingly contemporary—like something that would come out on Manimal. Do you think music is cyclical, and that you might be back at the top of the slot again?
I think you’re right. ‘Cyclical’ might be a good word. I put two different types of cloth with this—flannel and polyester. Polyester would be the boy bands, and Michael Jackson, and all the stuff that happened during the disco period, and Madonna. And then the flannel stuff would be something like the Seattle sound, and the West Coast sound during the sixties and seventies, and just recently, I don’t know if you watched the Grammys… well, the person who got the five Grammys this year was Alison Krauss and Robert Plant. And when they started playing the song that was the winning song, I said, ‘That guitar player sounds like me.’ And when they sang together, it sounds like my singing partner and I singing together. So, okay, there are ears nowadays that are listening to stuff… of all the things out there, to have a bluegrass chick and the guy from Led Zeppelin win five Grammys—they won everything! And a couple years ago, when O Brother, Where Art Thou? won the album of the year, I said, ‘Oh, we’re in a flannel period right now.’ I think when the Seattle scene came in, I think it initiated the second wave… not the second wave of punk necessarily, but took the attitude to the next level. And it had to happen in a place that wasn’t L.A. or New York. A lot of regional things evolve on their own. Like what happened with Elvis in the fifties, and Memphis, Tennessee. It didn’t happen in L.A. or New York. Or the stuff that happened in Detroit—the Stooges and all that kind of stuff. I think Detroit might still be the rock ‘n’ roll city of America. The hardest core stuff comes out of there. I’m a big Bob Seger fan. And Kid Rock, too.
Are there any local acts that you’ve seen in L.A. who bring the ‘flannel’?
To some degree, yeah. You know Mike Stinson? He’s considered to be the Southern California alt-country guy. My son Steven was in the Decadents, which was a great punk band in L.A., and then the Super Heroines, and then in the original Guns & Roses, when it was Hollywood Rose, and he and Mike Stinson had a band called High Horses for a while. I don’t see too many people play. I have not performed on stage in close to ten years, mostly because I just wanted to record. I made most of my money coming as a result of royalties.
You put out Angela Bowie’s record, I heard.
I played on it, but that was a Kim Fowley project. Kim and I have been friends for over forty years now. I was at a party at Tom Marris’s house and Kim came up to me and said [in a deep voice] ‘Chris Darrow?’ and I said yeah. ‘Kim Fowley!’ And he proceeded to run down my entire career in a two and a half minute total. He knew exactly everything: ‘This, this, this, this, this, and this… and if I were you, this is what I would do.’ He was right on the money on everything. He obviously had taken the time to find out who I was, he’d listened to what I did, he had an opinion about it, and he was right on the money. And a lot of people don’t like him—he’s a really tall guy, he’s really smart, and he’s usually right, and it’s so hard to take it from a guy who’s so blunt. And he’s got a reputation that’s not necessarily totally who he is. But he works the reputation part of it too a bit.
You talked a bit about playing with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Did Steve Martin open for you?
Sure! I’ve known Steve Martin since way before. When we were playing bluegrass at Disneyland, he and John McEuen who was the banjo played in the Dirt band used to work at Coke Corner, and used to do magic tricks. When I was in the Dirt Band the first time, he opened for us at the Troubadour in ‘67. John McEuen just put out an album of banjo songs by Steve Martin that came out a few weeks ago.
Wild and Crazy Guy is one of the most amazing albums ever.
There was a time when people could not figure him out. They couldn’t figure out why he was funny. I remember Jeff Hanna from the Dirt Band and I used to sit in the audience and be laughing, and there would be nobody else getting it for a long time. When he started writing for the Smothers Brothers, that’s when he really started taking off. He was always a funny guy, but his humor was so off-kilter that it took people a while to figure out what he was trying to do. Once he caught on, he’s a phenomenon.
I wish he wasn’t doing movies with Hilary Duff, but otherwise he’s okay. Did you ever have run-ins with Bobby Beausoleil or the Manson Family?
No, but Kim Fowley and Rodney Bingenheimer actually went out to Spahn Ranch to see if they could hang out with the chicks out there! To me, that’s such an unspeakable thing, I’m glad I never had to touch any of those people. That was really the end of the sixties for us, in Southern California. It created a whole different vibration.
Johnny Legend—of all people—said that if you lived in Los Angeles in the sixties and you had long hair, girls from out of town would hook up with you and then take a photo, like it was a postcard from their trip.
Oh yeah. I remember being in San Francisco, and walking down Haight Street and going through the stores, and everybody had a smile on their face, and everybody was beautiful, and there was no bad vibes. Once the people from out of town—everybody ran away from home, and came to San Francisco, and started sleeping on the streets, and they started doing speed and heroin, and then it changed. And then the edge started building up in the situation, and that was really sad. The Monterey Pop Festival was really the turning point where everything started becoming about money. All of a sudden it became very mercenary. The Manson family finally put the lid on it, and Altamont was another one of those things. Having been there, it’s hard to explain. The music only gives you a piece of it. There was a tonality that was pervasive. It began with ‘Mr. Tambourine Man,’ and ended with ‘Hotel California.’
CHRIS DARROW’S SELF-TITLED SOLO ALBUM AND UNDER MY OWN DISGUISE ARE OUT NOW ON EVERLOVING. VISIT CHRIS DARROW AT CHRISDARROW.COM OR MYSPACE.COM/CHRISDARROW.