One of the Princess’ favourite bands is Joy Division, a band that ceased to exist fully 10 years before she was born. Even though I was living in Manchester during their brief but glorious heyday, even though I saw them play at least a dozen times, even though I knew Bernard Sumner well enough to stand at the bar in the Russell Club and have a pint with him, even though I was in the BBC studios on Oxford Road when they recorded that extraordinary version of ‘Transmission‘ for ‘Something Else’ or whatever the show was called…… despite all this, she has told me stuff about Joy Division that I never knew anything about at all. Somehow, this spooks me just a little.
You would be entitled to ask, of course, what the hell this has got to do with Jimmie Spheeris, a California-based singer-songwriter who died quite tragically back in 1984 and was probably as unaware of Joy Division as they were of him. The point of course, is the extraordinary power of the internet to act as a focal point for fans; a place where they can gather and post their stories and their concert pictures and bootleg recordings and all the memorabilia of fandom. This is where the stories – real, imagined,apocryphal – get lodged in the collective psyche and become a narrative and almost mythical subtext to all the ‘official’ versions.
Joy Division have, of course been pretty well served by such mythical subtexts and by the mechanisms of posthumous marketing. There have been books -some of them of the doorstop ‘coffee table’ variety, there have been extensive issues and re-issues of existing recordings and previously unreleased recordings, there has been an enduring interest in Peter Savile’s iconic design work, there have been 2 feature length films, one of them Grant Gee’s excellent ‘Joy Division’ documentary, one Anton Corbijn’s fictionalised but equally excellent ‘Control’. All of this stuff has been sifted and measured and evaluated by the online Joy Divison fanbase; a process that will no doubt continue more or less indefinitely.
For the late Jimmie Spheeris, it’s a similar story in some respects, yet with a radically different set of outcomes. Born in Oklahoma in 1949, Jimmie was brother to film-maker Penelope, cousin to musician Chris and was also apparently somehow related through his Greek origins to the movie director Costa-Gavras. His family background was in the fairground/’carney’ trade and after his father was murdered by a ‘belligerent carnival-goer’, his mother relocated the family to California, eventually settling in Venice, in suburban Los Angeles. Once grown, Jimmie moved to New York City in the late 1960’s in an attempt to break into the music scene. At one point he apparently shared an apartment with the late Laura Nyro.
His break came when his friend Richie Havens introduced him to Clive Davis, at that point Head of A&R for Columbia Records. Davis signed him to a four-album contract and the first of his albums – ‘Isle of View‘ – appeared in 1971. Recorded in New York and Los Angeles with a band of largely unknown musicians, it got quite a lot of radio play in the States and was even released in the U.K. in 1972, but sank without trace here. The lyrics were, I suppose, of their time – poetic flights of fancy, filled with images of birds flyin’ free or swooping down, of mountains and trees and rain and the seashore and perhaps more than anything else a set of intensely sensual reflections on love and its ‘many-splendoured things’ – not sure how many Spheeris fans knew at this point that he was openly gay. Spheeris’ distinctive voice could soar across octaves, as on the standout ‘I am the mercury’, but the overall mood was of hushed intimacy, with acoustic guitar, flute and strings evoking a variety of moods; most of them in harmony with the hippie ethos of the times.
Jimmie Spheeris- early Columbia promo shot
In a way, that was the problem for Jimmie Spheeris and a host of other talented early 70’s American singer-songwriters, all surfing on the coat-tails of the success achieved by the likes of Crosby, Stills & Nash, Joni Mitchell or Simon & Garfunkel. The market was awash with sensitive long-haired minstrels crooning gentle odes to their ‘old ladies’ and a substantial number of ‘old ladies’ returning the compliment. A lot of this stuff was woeful rubbish, but some of it was really good and there’s little doubt that the music of Jimmie Spheeris had a magic all of its own. It’s something that each of his first four albums all possess to a greater or lesser extent. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Spheeris worked largely within the parameters of what would usually be described as folk music, without sliding into country-rock or pop clichés. Spheeris’ best songs tend to be introspective reflections on love and life; when he did step out with some more up-tempo rockers, or novelty numbers like the title track from his second album – ‘The Original Tap-Dancing Kid’, released in 1973 – the results were often a lot less compelling.
The second album was produced by former Rascals frontman Felix Cavaliere and featured a crew of seasoned Los Angeles sessioneers like Russ Kunkel, Leland Sklar and Bobbye Hall. Whilst it consolidated the achievements of ‘Isle of View’, it didn’t really move things along too much, getting lost among all the other ‘soft-rock’ albums of the day and sold only modestly. Jimmie Spheeris’ response was to take his music out on the road and he embarked on an 18-month period of touring with a band of close associates, such as bassist Johnny Pierce, guitarist Geoff Levin, drummer Bart Hall and keyboard/reeds player Jim Cowger. During this era, he would play support to a plethora of different acts – some more ‘sympathetic’ to his music than others.
By the time Spheeris released his third album – ‘The Dragon is Dancing’ – in 1975, his band were a battle-hardened force to be reckoned with. Jimmie had hooked up with producer Henry Lewy, who had worked extensively with Joni Mitchell and for ‘Dragon’ Lewy was shrewd enough to retain the core unit of the road band, adding other guests on an ad hoc basis. One of these guests was Chick Corea, who played synthesiser on the album’s atmospheric title track. Whilst it might seem a little odd that an A-List jazz fusioneer would crop up on such an album, the reason is probably that by this point, Jimmie Spheeris had begun to flirt with Scientology, of which Corea is a high-profile aficionado. Corea brought ace bassist Stanley Clarke (another Scientologist and Return to Forever member) along with him for the next Spheeris album ‘Ports of the Heart’, recorded the following year. Both ‘Dragon‘ and ‘Ports’ represented a quantum leap from the intimate ‘folky’ style of the first 2 albums. Strings were again used judiciously, but these were rock albums, pure and simple, often with fantastic, imaginative arrangements and excellent musicianship. Eighteen months of slog around the States had taught Jimmie and his band how to get the best out of one another. Add to this a particularly strong batch of songs on ‘Dragon’ and some interesting cover versions on ‘Ports’ and it was clear that Jimmie Spheeris had escaped from the ‘hippie folk ghetto’ and was on the way to somewhere far more interesting……..all of which makes it all the more frustrating that he seemed to have simply moved next door into the ‘cult artist ghetto’ instead.
By 1976, when ‘Ports of the Heart’ was released, there were major changes afoot in the world of rock music. Whilst the punk revolution was no more than a distant cloud on the hippie horizons of Southern California, things were nonetheless changing. The Eagles had transformed their open road country-rock into a highly-formalised pop-rock monster and Fleetwood Mac had come back from nowhere to take the airwaves by storm. What Jimmie Spheeris was doing was somehow too fragile and left-field to break out to a wider audience. By now Spheeris numbered Jackson Browne among his buddies – Browne sang backup vocals on ‘Ports’ – and whilst their lyrical concerns weren’t a million miles apart, Browne’s lyrics were somehow more rooted in the minutiae of everyday life and the hard compromises now afflicting those who had espoused the hippie dream. Jimmie Spheeris, meanwhile, still had his head to the skies, was lost in the mystical ‘otherness’ of the universe and his lyrics still reflected this. In this newer, harsher ‘Hotel California’ world, brute economics took over; Browne went on to stardom, whilst Columbia dropped Jimmie Spheeris from their roster.
As far as Spheeris’ career as a recording artist was concerned, there’s not much else to tell. If he did much recording between 1977 and his death in 1984, little has survived except for one final album (‘Spheeris‘), which he finished on the night that he died. Riding his motorbike home through Santa Monica at 2 am on the morning of 4 July, 1984, Jimmie Spheeris had the misfortune to meet a drunk driving a van travelling in his direction. He did not survive the collision. It was to be sixteen years before ‘Spheeris‘ saw the light of day.
During those sixteen years, the world had moved on in many ways; not all of them that positive. In terms of the record business, we were now listening to small shiny silver discs as opposed to larger black plastic discs. Punk had been and gone, leaving its claw-marks on the body politic and the thing we’d usually referred to as ‘rock & roll’ had morphed into a huge number of variants, from the frontiers of jazz to the retro stylings of rockabilly – and everything else inbetween.
The internet was already muscling in on the hegemony of the big record companies; bootleg tapes and CDR’s were being openly traded and the moguls of yesteryear were starting to lose their grip on what and who we listened to – a process that has only accelerated in the intervening 11 years.
Fans were starting to use the internet to share their enthusiasms for this or that band – fan websites were being set up and blogs were just around the corner. Jimmie Spheeris fans were still out there and starting to pester Sony (Columbia/Epic’s new owners) to give CD re-releases to the Jimmie Spheeris albums in their vaults as their treasured vinyl copies became ever more battered and scratched. No dice. Spheeris just wasn’t a hot enough proposition in economic terms. On the internet, Spheeris fan Andy Markley started up a Memorial Gallery and ‘Anybody remember Jimmie Spheeris?’ site and was amazed by the response he got. One person who broke cover at this point was Jimmie’s former bassist Johnny Pierce and together with some finance and the efforts of numerous enthusiasts, Rain Records was set up as a Sony Special Projects enterprise with Pierce as CEO. Its remit was to function solely as an outlet for existing and ‘new’ Spheeris recordings. An examination of the 4 sets of master tapes in the Sony vaults revealed that if the Spheeris albums were to be rescued and released on CD, something would have to be done at once as the tapes were de-oxidising at a rate of knots.
Sony drove a hard bargain. Rain Records had to pay them upfront for the manufacture of the CD’s at Sony’s own plants. Pierce took out a second mortgage on his house to cover this and many other costs. However, by 1998, all four of the original Columbia/Epic releases were out on CD and it was my good fortune to visit New York City the following year, where I was able to snaffle up copies at Virgin’s shop on Union Square. Even better, Rain had finally put out the ‘Spheeris’ album from 1984 and had put together a double CD entitled ‘An Evening with Jimmie Spheeris’ recorded at a club in Connecticut in 1976.
Jimmie Spheeris on stage in 1977
The ‘Spheeris‘ album is – frankly – a bit of a curate’s egg. There are a couple of good tracks – ‘Three in Venice’ and ‘Jungle Sweep’, for example – but by and large, it just doesn’t measure up to its predecessors. The live album, however, is terrific, despite the ubiquitous hooting and ‘wooooooooo – ing’ that is probably the worst feature of American audiences. Sometimes the delicacy of Spheeris’ songs gets lost in all the drunken ballyhoo of a smallish club gig, but enough of the real stuff gets through to make ‘An Evening with’ an invaluable addition to a painfully small catalogue.
‘Labour of Love’ is an overused phrase, but it’s one that’s definitely applicable to what Johnny Pierce and Andy Markley called ‘The Preservation Project’. Together with a number of dedicated activists, they had managed to bring the music of Jimmie Spheeris to a new generation whilst making thousands of existing fans very happy. It should have been an enduring monument to fan power; sadly, it wasn’t to last.
In the USA, the Rain CD’s were distributed by K-Tel, a name that will inspire mixed feelings among British readers of a certain age. In the early 1970’s, K-Tel were active here in releasing a series of ‘Now That’s What I Call Music’-type packages of hits on vinyl in gaudy covers and with little discernible quality control. In 3 words, they were cheap, re-packaged crap.
With such a reputation, what happened with K-Tel in the States shouldn’t come as a surprise. On 19 March, 2001, K-Tel International filed for bankruptcy. They did so owing Rain a substantial sum of money and holding all but a handful of the inventory of Rain’s Spheeris CD’s in their warehouses. This stock was, of course, immediately ‘impounded’ by whoever it is that deals with such matters….the Brain Police, the Mysterons…who the hell knows?
As a consequence of the K-Tel bankruptcy, Sony were quick to jump on the bandwagon. From 7 April, 2001, Rain were prohibited from distributing the Spheeris CD’s that they had paid for upfront and the licencing agreement they had with Sony was cancelled.
So, to sum up, Rain were now prohibited from manufacturing and selling Jimmie Spheeris CD’s, even though they had paid for the existing stock upfront. However, this was moot, as the K-Tel bankruptcy meant that said stock was now in the hands of the lawyers. Not a happy story and I am unable to tell you that either the remaining stock or the funds owing ever found their way back to Messrs Markley and Pierce. To make matters worse, Johnny Pierce died from cancer in 2005.
Since then, rather bizarrely, a ‘twofer’ CD that brings together ‘Isle of View’ and ‘The Original Tap-Dancing Kid’ seems to have emerged on British re-issue label BGO. Most recently – and this was what inspired this elongated post – Texas band Midlake have included a track from ‘Isle of View’ on their recent ‘Late Night Tales’ compilation. Midlaker Tim Smith has described ‘Isle of View’ as his all-time favourite album.
For all this, it’s unlikely, I would guess, that Jimmie Spheeris is going to acquire the same kind of posthumous reputation accorded to – for example – Nick Drake. Even so, the fans of Jimmie Spheeris, and, in particular Andy Markley and Johnny Pierce deserve enormous credit for what they did manage to achieve. By comparison, being a Joy Division ‘internet archaeologist’ is a stroll down Easy Street.