“SexyBack”. “To the left, to the left, everything you own in the box to the left”. Stadium Arcadium. Welcome to the candy coated, bombastic and horny sound of 2006. In the heat of my daily grind at one of the gargantuan music superstores I was then employed at, these were the sounds that endlessly filled the air. Here’s the weird thing about being a music lover that works in a music store; sometimes by the end of the day you hate music, especially if you’ve spent the previous 8 hours listening to stuff you weren’t necessarily into. This means that once you get home you sometimes don’t want to listen to music at all. You crave quiet. White noise. Dead air. John Cage’s 4’33” on repeat. Peace. It was then, in that noisy year of 2006 that a band called Midlake entered my listening life.
One day that summer, I was rummaging through a box of new promotional CDs, stuffing them into the player and “auditioning” them to figure out how much we should order. This is how I stumbled upon The Trials Of Van Occupanther, the second album by Midlake, the sublime band who were to lead me to one of the most beloved musical finds of my whole nerdy life.
With its acoustic guitars, sweet harmonizing, and overt ’70s singer-songwriter flavor ( mountains, forests, rabbits, young brides all present and accounted for), Trials sounded utterly out of time, a complete left turn away from what was happening in mega shiny pop world. It was melodic and poetic and resembled the kind of thing your cool babysitter would listen to back in the day ( ed.note, we had some cool, music-head sitters as kids including one who sweetly, insidiously tried to turn 9-year-old me into a Deadhead but failed).Trials was the sound of a band turning their backs on modern civilization, walking steadfastly off the grid and into the woods…and as such I just plain loved it.
Think I’ll head home…
Not long after it’s release I read an interview with the band’s since departed singer-songwriter Tim Smith. In it he said something that piqued my interest beyond all reason:
“My favorite is a guy named Jimmie Spheeris. I always bring his name up because he’s not well known at all and it’s seriously my favorite album of all time, for the last four years. It’s called Isle of View. It was made in 1971. He put out five albums and then he got killed in a motorcycle accident. Yeah, it’s a brilliant album. It’s really beautiful. It’s still my favorite after so many years now”.
Jimmie Spheeris? The name rang no bells. But I loved Midlake and if Tim Smith loved this Jimmie Spheeris guy then maybe just maybe I’d like him too. I tracked down the aforementioned Isle of View and discovered that yes it was both beautiful and kind of brilliant, an epic-spiritual-hippie-romantic piece of genuine singer-songwriter art. It was idyllic and outdoorsy, even a little “proggy” in places, and relentlessly melodic all the while. And, added bonus, this Jimmie Spheeris also possessed a ridiculously fine and sensuous voice. Yup, the sonic connection between Isle of View and Trials was clear and palpable and I was instantly, eternally grateful to Tim Smith for enlightening me.
Once I’d “found” Jimmie Spheeris it didn’t take any hardcore sleuthing to get more in-depth information. Turned out there was a lovingly curated website as well as a Facebook page both of which offered up extensive factual history as well as personal remembrances from bandmates, friends, and fans. The short story went something like this: he was signed to Columbia records by Clive Davis on the recommendation of the wondrous Richie Havens, had issued four official albums in his lifetime but never achieved real mainstream success though he regularly appeared as the opening act for a slew of name artists throughout the ’70s ( everyone from Kenny Loggins to Cheech and Chong to The Moody Blues). His parents had run a traveling carnival when he was a child where his father had been murdered, he was bisexual ( or gay, sources differ) and at some point he’d become involved with Scientology. Then in 1984, in the midst of recording what was to be his fifth album, he was tragically killed in a motorcycle accident. On top of all that, turned out his sister was renowned film director Penelope Spheeris of The Decline of Western Civilization I & II and Wayne’s World fame.
Jimmie Spheeris toured hard…
I know that’s a lot to take in. And there are enough twists and turns within the Spheeris story that the mere idea of encapsulating it into a single paragraph is ridiculous. But this thing you’re reading is not meant to be a comprehensive history. It’s really just a humble invitation to anyone previously unaware of Jimmie to investigate and to start their journey at the main, most important point of entry, the music itself. It’s also just an unabashed, loved up validation of what long term fans have known forever and 21st century acolytes like myself have blessedly discovered along the way, which is basically that Jimmie Spheeris was f-ing amazing.
Isle Of View (1971)
Carole King’s Tapestry, George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass and CSNY’s live recording 4 Way Street all hit the # 1 album spot in 1971, the year Jimmie’s debut album Isle Of View was released. And listening to Isle in the context of what else was popular, it doesn’t seem all that different. Its songs were as tuneful and addictive as what was offered up on the aforementioned beautiful behemoths and you could easily imagine someone driving their VW bug to the record store and happily walking out with both Harrison and Isle Of View under the arm of their suede fringe jacket. Remember earlier when I said things get a little proggy ? Yeah that happens pretty fast, like on the opening track “The Nest”, a quiet/loud epic, all urgent strings, piano flourishes and crazy rock flute plus bonus awesome note twisting ( can’t beat Spheeris singing “unlock the tray-sure of stolen play-sure”). Isle Of View is melodic, utterly pragmatic and optimistically new age and sees Jimmie playing the role of both folk-rock hippie Nilsson ( “Seeds Of Spring”,”For Roach”) and wistful acoustic balladeer ( “Monte Luna”, “Come Back”). The album’s centerpiece is “I Am The Mercury” a monumental worship tune that morphs from a rainy day acoustic ballad into a stadium rock song, all thunderous drums, swirling strings and soaring falsettos, to true steamrolling effect.
Fun fact: the album was produced by Paul Leka who composed “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye”. One last thing ! In 2011 singer Kim Guy did a pretty sweet, shimmery gothic version of “I Am The Mercury” that is absolutely worth a listen (here).
The Original Tap Dancing Kid (1973)
Okay, gonna say it. This is my least favorite Spheeris album, home to only three songs I play on a regular basis. It the most dated sounding full length in the discography with nearly every track timestamped “70s” in some brazenly boldfaced way. It features some especially ostentatious flute playing ( “Shirtful of Apples”), flanged-out guitar soloing ( “Open Up”) as well as a bit of marginally cringey kitsch ( the title track, “Sweet Wahina Mama”). I also detest the cover art. But please don’t let any of that put you off for there is some unquestionably good stuff to be had within TOTDK, namely “Streets of the Harbour” which sounds like the world’s leeriest, foxiest John Denver song, the beauteously hazy acoustic ballad “Keeper of the Canyon” ( which feels like it wandered straight off Isle Of View) and “Moon on the Water” a warm, slow moving epic with some straight up “Fire and Rain” style drum action courtesy of the very man responsible, Russ Kunkel. This album is by no means bad ( Jimmie never made a bad album), but when compared to the other in the discography, it runs a tiny bit behind. Onward…
Listen to The Original Tap Dancing Kid here.
The Dragon Is Dancing (1975)
During a radio interview with KOFM in Oklahoma City in 1975, Jimmie said that he owned two horses ( one being an Appaloosa) and that he lived at the beach ( “I go swimming every day”). He also said he was “much more into the concept of artistic creation than money” and that he especially connected to the advice his longtime friend (and genius) Laura Nyro used to to tell him about creating music; “It’s just a feeling“. He then elaborated on her one line wisdom nugget; “it’s not so much the lyrical content or the musical notes being played but the spirit, the feeling in back of it. That’s my goal, to be able to really emote freely and totally’.
And that kind of nails the sound of The Dragon Is Dancing right there. These songs are straight up running around naked on a sunny beach. They are racing down the shoreline on their Appaloosa’s, wild as the wind and feelin’ it. Dragon sees Jimmie moving in a decidedly more pop direction, the sweetly tuneful “Tequila Moonlite” and jaunty heartbreak on the beach of “Summer Salt” being the most sugared up and singalong ready. And the latter half of the album is absolutely f-ing sublime i.e. there’s a lot to love and lose yourself in. There’s stunning, skeletal, nostalgic piano ballad “Lost In The Midway”, assertive Neil Young-esque rocker “Eternity Spin”, the aforementioned sweet “Salt” and the swirling acoustics of “Sunken Sighs”. “In The Misty Woods” unspools with genuine hypnotic beauty and features both an alluringly breathy vocal and the sound of gulls and waves crashing to further ensure you are where this album needs you be mentally if not physically. “Blown Out” is forthright and punchy, a declaration of dark obsession with a big fat chorus as well as a pre-cursor to the sound Kenny Loggins very successfully began serving up on his own solo albums just a couple of years later ( oh yes, read about that here). The piano led closer, ballad “Blue Streets” is one of the all-time finest songs in the Spheeris canon, all melancholy, lush and lonely; it’s the perfect note to end on. And have to stress one more time, that Spheeris voice is positively swoon-inducing on like, every damn song.
Fun fact: The Dragon Is Dancing was produced by the late Henry Lewy with Paul Lewinson. Lewy engineered and assisted in the production of a stream of Laurel Canyon classics including Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon, Blue and Court and Spark, Neil Young’s Harvest and Judee Sill’s only two studio albums. His CV is just your basic standard mindblowing. That pedigree is all over Dragon and another reason why the album holds up so well today. Legend. Also, Jimmie’s back tattoo was real.
Ports Of The Heart (1976)
You know how Sgt Pepper sounds just like it looks ? Well Ports Of The Heart sounds just like it looks. It is the aural embodiment of suntan lotion and burning rays ( with a little summer rain thrown in because you know, life sucks sometimes). Ports is where Jimmie Spheeris goes full on pop to glorious effect and is home to the most woulda/shoulda/ coulda been hits. It’s also a prescient precursor of the fabled West Coast sound ( read about that here and here) that was about to flood the U.S. pop and AC singles charts. In other words, Ports is radio-ready melodic end to end. But while there is infectious ear candy to be had namely in the form of “Captain Comes Cold” and “Sweet Separation”( which may remind you of the Dragon album’s “Tequila Moonlite”), Ports is by no means a party album, it’s more of a long, languorous stroll with a couple of fireworks thrown in along the way to break things up. The peacefully paced tracks are exquisite to the last; Dark, hot and historic “Bayou Eyes”, glistening pop hymn of rebirth “Child From Nowhere”, gentle nod to higher love “It’s You They’re Dreaming Of”, the simultaneously cryptic and revealing “So Darkly Fall the Shadows” and the seriously loved up “Whirlpool” are all wondrous things. These songs are the kind of gorgeous, immersive shiz you put on when you need to calm the hell down or just feel too much in the world and want to escape. There are also a couple of sentimental covers on Ports of evergreen oldies “It’s All in the Game” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, both of which are, you know, okay. If they weren’t included it wouldn’t have affected the quality of the overall album one iota, Ports would still be a beautiful thing.
Fun fact: Perhaps you can surmise it from the album cover but yes, Jimmie was tall, 6’4″ to be exact.
Spheeris (recorded in 1984, not released until 2000)
Jimmie Spheeris was killed in Santa Monica, California by an drunk driver while riding his motorcycle on the Fourth of July in 1984. He was returning home after finishing work on what turned out to be his final album. Spheeris wasn’t officially released on cd until 2000, 16 years after it had been completed.
The list of established artists who put out substandard music in the ’80s in a desperate attempt to sound modern is endless. Dylan, The Stones, Bowie, Leonard Cohen, CSN and on and on. But this “forced” shift into modernity with its fat synths and effects doesn’t sound remotely unnatural or awkward coming from Jimmie on the Spheeris album. It never sounds like he is acting out the sad old “fake it ’til you make it” adage. Nope, the songs and production make it clear that he has totally embraced the “future sound” ( and far more seamlessly and believably than his old school counterparts). And oh yes, there are some absurdly fine and frothy tunes to be had within Spheeris, the best being synthesized epic “Hear It”, a plush and heavenly thing featuring some badass and enormous Phil Collins style drum injections, and the groovy, Thomas Dolby-esque “Jungle Sweep”. Honorable mentions go to the seriously Prince-ly “You Will Be Coming Back”, “You Got” ( kinda Devo meets early Madonna), “You Must Be Laughing Somewhere” ( a tip of the hat to ’80s era Joni Mitchell) and “Eyes”, an eerie ballad that sounds like it wandered off a slick ’80s crime-thriller soundtrack and straight onto this record.
Still if you are not a fan of the processed and echoey sounds of the ’80s then you might not be into what Jimmie and co are doing here ( I love it but I get that not everyone does, yup). Thankfully there are a couple of tracks to sate you if you crave more of that old school Jimmie sound. If you are a traditionalist then mournfully gorgeous tearjerker “Three In Venice” will be right up your alley as will the sticky, endearingly rockin’ “Decatur Street” (which is also home to a Hook with a capitol H).
Fun fact but mostly FYI: 2000 also saw the release of a live cd, recorded in 1976, called An Evening With Jimmie Spheeris. It’s a cool curio but not essential unless you are a mega-fan. Much as I love him, I don’t actually listen to it very often and generally stay barnacled to the studio albums. An Evening is not available on the streaming services as of this writing but a few tracks have found their way to YouTube. You can check out the live version of “I Am The Mercury” here.
Who is Jimmie Speeris? At every record shop I ever worked at in days of yore, we would sell truckloads of Miles Davis’s Kind Of Blue. New people were discovering this 50+ year old record and Miles himself every single day. And I always thought, how cool is that, that something as old and established as Kind Of Blue can still be new to someone, can still blow someone’s mind a trillion years later. Anyway, what all those years of watching people discover music taught me was that it doesn’t matter where or when you came in. Songs, albums, and bands find you when they sense you are ready to welcome them. It’s not science, it’s just some fortuitous, otherworldly force that hits the switch and says “now”. And isn’t that the best? To know that there’s still a wealth of great stuff from the past to discover in addition to all the new stuff coming down the pike? When I get wind of an R & B song from the early ’70s that I’ve never heard, I am as thrilled as a toddler tearing ass to the gift pile under the tree Xmas morning.
I discovered Jimmie right when I was supposed to, not too late, definitely not too early but right on time. And I’m genuinely grateful to all the hardcores that kept the flame burning ( without whom…) and psyched for anyone who is about to discover this guy for the first time because he was, is, and will continue to be pretty damn awesome. “Unlock the tray-sure of stolen play-sure”, hell yeah.