Ultimate Spinach interview with Ian Bruce-Douglas
The unique blend of psych, jazz, rock, Gregorian vocals and Baroque instrumentation sets Ultimate Spinach apart from anything released at the time. It was legendary record producer Alan Lorber that came up with the concept of “The Bosstown Sound” — “The Sound Heard ‘Round The World” to market and promote the best and brightest of the Bean Town sixties psychedelic scene. (Boston’s key groups at the time included Orpheus, Beacon Street Union, Ultimate Spinach, Chamaeleon Church and others).
“The prototype of the Bosstown Sound!”
Ian Bruce-Douglas was the leader, lead singer, and songwriter.
How are you? Where and when did you grow up? Was music a big part of your family life?
Ian Bruce-Douglas: First, thank you for your interest in this old Psychedelic Dinosaur… and I’m the one who’s honored. How am I doing? I’m old and tired! Most of my influences were Progressive Jazz and Classical/ Orchestral music. Also, old R&B music, which they used to call “race music”, back in the ‘50s. I didn’t really like that much Rock with the exception of Jerry Lee Lewis, The Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly. I absolutely HATED Elvis. I also listened to a lot of what they now call Third World Music: African tribal, Native American chants, Japanese and Chinese traditional music: that sort of thing. Not the usual stuff that most kids my age were listening to! But then, looking back, I realize that I was a pretty weird little kid who didn’t have or want many friends.
Were you or other in any bands before forming Ultimate Spinach?
I started putting bands together when I was in high school. Back then, I hadn’t started composing or singing so we just covered instrumentals, mostly by The Ventures and Duane Eddy.
“At the time, I had started taking LSD and had even spent a weekend at Timothy Leary’s place in Millbrook, New York.”
Can you elaborate the formation of Ultimate Spinach?
I had moved to Cape Cod, Massachusetts to help my parents out with their ceramics business. During this time, I studied with world-renowned potter, Harry Hull. He and his wife, Martha, became my good friends and encouraged me to become myself. This even extended to my music, although neither of them could play anything. At the time, I had started taking LSD and had even spent a weekend at Timothy Leary’s place in Millbrook, New York. Because of all the Cannabis and LSD, I started having these great creative flashes. First it was drawings… no doubt inspired by my favorite poet and painter, Kenneth Patchen, who I began corresponding with on a regular basis. Then, it was poetry… again, probably inspired by Patchen. Finally, I started hearing all these strange little tunes in my head. I had a couple of acoustic guitars but what I was hearing was much larger than a simple guitar. So, I decided to put together an original band so I could hear my tunes live as I heard them in my head. I started asking around in Hyannis if anybody knew of guitarists, bass players and drummers. The first experiment was a total disaster and fell apart within a couple of months of my putting it together. But, we DID record one demo. I’ve heard one of those tunes pop up on the ‘Net: an instrumental called “Night Owl Blues” with me playing harmonica. Even after this abysmal failure, I was STILL hot to hear these tunes played so I tried again. In retrospect, I realize that I had no idea about what I was doing and didn’t even hold auditions. It was like “Oh, you play guitar? Wanna be in my band?” Which is why that combination of people ended up being such a nightmare for me.
How do you remember some of the early sessions you had together?
The demo sessions we did at Patrucci & Atwell Studios were okay. Our new managers had raised money for the demo from among their rich friends and we cut 4 tunes. I thought that Geoff had written some really pretty tunes. In fact, I thought his tunes had a better chance of landing us a deal than mine. So, I asked him to include 2 on the demo. But when our managers shopped the demo in New York City, a few companies were mildly interested but said that we needed to give ourselves another 6 months to mature as a band and then submit another demo. They were right! We were very, VERY raw. But then, Alan Lorber… who I will refer to as “The Parasite”… took an interest in the demo and this was very exciting for me… especially after the rejections from the major labels. He was only interested in my tunes, however… which surprised me, since Geoff’s stuff had a more commercial feel, kind of like The Mamas & Papas. I’m sure that Geoff held that against me. The first album sessions were a mixture of frustration and comedy. I was nervous, of course, and clowned around a lot between takes. Over all, things seemed to be going pretty well… except that The Parasite took “Pamela” and completely changed it around, including adding the Bach intro. Then, he screwed me over because, before we had signed with him, he had promised me that I would be involved with the mixes, which was VERY important to me, since I knew how I heard the finished product in my head. But, when we were done recording, he told me to go back to Boston. Period. That really upset me, as you can imagine. From that point on, things went downhill. Geoff, Richard and I had never gotten along all that well and we had argued a lot, backstage, the summer we were discovered by The Parasite, while we were playing The Unicorn Coffeehouse. Back then, they were bitching because we weren’t making much money. Looking back, I can understand their concerns, somewhat. They were married and Richard had a kid. I was single and carefree. So, they’d start whining and I’d get pissed off and we’d end up having really loud shouting matches backstage that the audience could hear. When we started touring, we STILL weren’t making much money and the arguments got worse. I was the only one in the band who, actually, took LSD and smoked Cannabis. The rest of the guys were beer drinkers. Richard was a flat-out drunk. And Barbara? She was barely 18, a Catholic school graduate and virgin and she didn’t have any bad habits. In a word: a pleasant enough but VERY boring girl!
The second album was a nightmare. I wrote most of it in the studio between takes. I had bronchitis and pneumonia and the rest of the band and I weren’t even talking to each other anymore. To make it worse, the first drummer had… wisely… quit before the first tour. I replaced him with what turned out to be a total weasel, Russ Levine. When we were in the studio, he would ask me “Well, Ian, which one of your abortions are we going to record next?” The Parasite was playing his own games, too. The band was calling him up and bitching about me. I called him and told him that I wanted to quit. He played us both against each other, telling each of us to keep it together until the second album was completed. Then, he promised them that he would get rid of me, while promising me that he would get rid of them. Nice! When the smoke cleared, however, I came out on top and fired Richard and Geoff. I was going to fire Russ, too, but he got wind of my intentions and called me and begged me, through crocodile tears, not to fire him; that he realized that he had been wrong about me, etc. I fell for it and let him stay… and then, things got even worse, mainly because Russ started back with his shit and was stirring up trouble behind my back. He, my replacement guitarist, Jeff Baxter, and my “friend” and road-manager, Bob Kelleher, became the Team From Hell. I finally quit within a few months of this ever-growing cesspool starting up, even though it meant that I had to sit out contracts with The Parasite for another 3 years. So, for me, “Ultimate Spinach” was not a pleasant experience, although I learned a lot from it and went on to have several much better bands where everybody got along.
““Whoa! I am ultimate spinach. Ultimate spinach is me!””
How did you decide to use the name “Ultimate Spinach”?
I’ve been asked that question so many times! One day, in 1967, I was in my room, tripping on some really pure LSD. I started looking at myself in the mirror and my face was doing funny things. I had a bunch of colored markers I used to draw with. I grabbed a green one and started drawing all these psychedelic designs on my face. When I was done, I looked at myself and said “Whoa! I am ultimate spinach. Ultimate spinach is me!” A couple of months later, I started “The Underground Cinema” and when we signed with The Parasite, I changed the band’s name to “Ultimate Spinach” for “luck”. Some luck!
“I was always searching for answers.”
Kenneth Patchen and Jean-Paul Sartre was an influence?
Actually, we started recording the first album in September of ’67. It was released on January 6, 1968. But you’re right about some of my influences. Patchen was a big one, for sure. And, yes, I was going through my “Existential phase” and had read everything by Sartre and also Albert Camus which, in turn, got me reading Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Cant and a few others. I was always searching for answers. Still am! I was, also, influenced by John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Charlie Mingus, Miles Davis and other Modern Jazz greats. As for my “strongest memories”: I think I’ve already answered that one previously. The only other things I remember are a lot of good LSD, mescaline, Cannabis and hashish and all those wonderful groupies who kept my spirits up.
What can you tell me about the cover artwork?
Both albums were created by a wonderful artist and photographer, David Jenks. Google his name and you’ll find his website. The first album was a series of photos taken at Bert Stern Studios in NYC. David then superimposed them on each other and added his artistic touches. The second album cover was a beautiful and delicate painting. In this one, you can see David’s minimalist Japanese influence. His current paintings are much richer and remind me of Andrew Wyeth’s, although not in an imitative way. His style is uniquely his. It’s just like Wyeth and Jenks are part of the same school, like the Impressionists or Surrealists.
The Boston music scene was really exciting in the late 60’s.
Yes, it was an exciting time but not just in Boston. San Francisco, Los Angeles, NYC, Philadelphia, Chicago and other major US cities all went through similar creative explosions. I suspect that this was largely due to the influence of the new music coming out of England as well as the introduction of LSD, Cannabis and other psychotropic substances into mainstream culture. There was an incredible difference between the time I started high school in 1960 and the so-called “Summer of Love” in ’67. The anti-war movement had become a dominating force that would, effectively, end the Viet Nam war. Women were burning their bras and demanding to be treated as equals. Men were growing their hair long and dressing colorfully. Then, of course, there was the whole “Free Love” thing… which was my favorite part. Sadly, it was short-lived and Woodstock was the beginning of the end. The drugs of choice became cocaine, heroin, prescription tranquilizers and speed. Young people started drinking again and the women’s movement took a wrong turn and too many turned back into mindless breeders. Disco became all the rage and Nixon had all Psychedelic music banned from the radio, including Spinach’s. It was an incredible time to come of age in but I doubt we will ever see anything like it again. Want proof? Listen to the shit that passes for Pop music, these days. Look at the ugly, uptight fashions. We’ve got HIV and condoms and LOTS of prescription tranquilizers and mood elevators. The US government has intensified its “War on Drugs” but targets Cannabis users and growers, while the Mexicans are importing heroin and crack by the ton. Our leaders are all bought and paid for and Big Business and a bunch of bible-thumping fascists are firmly in control. Creativity and independent thinking are NOT encouraged. We have become a nation of sheep. Can you say “B-A-A-A-A-A”?
Would you share your insight on the albums’ tracks?
This was one of the first tunes I wrote after I started taking LSD. I wrote it about a jerk I met on Cape Cod who thought that he was just too cool.
“Sacrifice of the Moon”
It was my first serious attempt at writing a Rock instrumental and I was heavily influenced by Erik Satie.
“Plastic Raincoats” / “Hung-Up Minds”
There were the hippies and then there were the ultra-cool NYC types who thought that Andy Warhol was “God”. The latter girls wore white plastic boots, stiff bouffant hairstyles and plastic raincoats. I tried one of them and decided that I liked the little hippie girls MUCH better! I tried to express my disdain for the “Plastic People” in this song.
“(Ballad of The) Hip Death Goddess”
I was, actually, straight when I wrote this… but very, very tired to the point of hallucinating naturally. Again: I was describing the ultra-cool type of woman who was beautiful in a sterile sort of way. Guys would fawn all over her but she treated them all with utter indifference and disdain.
“Your Head Is Reeling”
This is probably my favorite tune from the first album. It describes nightmare visions I was having and you can hear the pain and fear I was feeling in my voice.
“Dove in Hawk’s Clothing”
This was a straight-ahead anti-war tune I wrote for our original drummer to sing because he had a deep Bluesy voice. When he left, I was stuck singing it in concert and it never sounded as good.
This was my second Rock instrumental. You can hear the influence that the Baroque composers had on me. I listened to… and played… a lot of Bach, Handel and others from that period. I’ve always loved that music even if I play it very poorly!
“Funny Freak Parade”
This was me affectionately mocking the hippies.
This was named for my first wife and described our making love while tripping on some incredibly potent LSD.
What do you remember from recording Behold & See?
I’ve already answered these questions earlier. All I would add is that, even though I wrote most of the tunes in the studio and was under a lot of pressure from The Parasite to do so… and even though I was as sick as a dog and running a high fever throughout most of those sessions, I think that, over all, the songs were a lot more creative than those on the first album and, even though it didn’t sell as well, I think that it was a MUCH better album. I had grown a lot between the first and second album and I think that this is reflected in the music.
How about the songs on it?
At my age, just getting up in the morning is an effort!
“Gilded Lamp of the Cosmos”
I wrote this song especially for Caryl May Britt to sing. She was a tiny young woman with a powerful voice. The lyrics… like most of the lyrics on this album were the result of LSD experiences.
“Visions of Your Reality”
My voice on both of these albums was terrible and I can’t believe that The Parasite didn’t try to get me to try harder. The lyrics are pretentious and “deep”. But what could you expect from a 21-year old novice songwriter?
As I’ve already mentioned: I didn’t really listen to that much Rock until Psychedelic music started being played on the radio. I always preferred Jazz and orchestral music. Just about all Rock tunes were in 4/4 time, which sounded monotonous. Some of my favorite modern Jazz pieces were in ¾ waltz time. So I decided to use 4/4 for the vocal parts and ¾ for the instrumental parts. I think this worked pretty well, actually.
After “Hip Death Goddess”, this was the second really intense Psychedelic song I wrote and it shifted between the low quiet vocals and the higher screaming vocals and expressed the different elements warring within me.
“Where You’re At”
This is just me trying to be “hip” and use a “cool” phrase.
“Suite: Genesis of Beauty (In Four Parts)”
Richer harmonies than most of the Spinach tunes and you can hear my Floyd Cramer influence on the Wurlitzer electric piano parts.
“Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse”
This one has a nice melody line and with the harmonica, it almost sounds like it could have been the soundtrack to a Western movie. Except for the lame guitar solos, I like this one.
“Fragmentary March of Green”
Another one of my favorites! Essentially, it’s about a poor guy who lives a “normal” life, is married to a fat nagging wife, has a job and too many responsibilities. He tries to do The Right Thing and in the process, he goes totally insane and considers suicide.
How about gigs?
Without getting too explicit: LOTS of hot sex, LSD, peyote, hashish and Cannabis. I don’t remember too much else!
What happened next?
I’ve already described this previously. I got thoroughly disgusted with my personal “Frankenstein’s Monster” and quit. They attempted a third album without me. It failed miserably and the band broke up. I went into seclusion for about 6 months and spent a lot of time at a beach near my house on Cape Cod, playing my guitar and composing new music.
You released In the Valley of the Shadow in 1988.
While I like most of the tunes and feel that they represent a new maturity in my writing, I must say that I was very disappointed with my production. Unfortunately, I allowed my recording engineer to have too many opinions about how we should mix and the results are, frankly, poor. But, since I was the producer, the responsibility for the success or failure of this album is mine and mine alone. The biggest lesson I learned from this experience is that… IF I use outside people… I will not allow myself to be swayed or influenced by their opinions. Making that album was a horror-show, actually. The first studio we used was owned by a guy who was on the verge of a nervous breakdown… which, of course, I didn’t know until the damage was done. He had a very nice MCI 24-track analog mixer and tape-deck. Unfortunately, with tape, the machines had to be calibrated very precisely not to screw up the premastering and mastering processes that followed the recording/ mixing stage. At his studio, everything sounded fine… but the minute I tried playing the mixes on another system, they sounded horribly shrill and crunchy. I finally discovered that this idiot had tweaked the calibrations because he thought that this would result in a “hotter” sound… which it did… but not in a good way! Then, when he was supposed to be watching the meters on the MCI board while we were recording, he had an overhead TV on and was watching football games. That was the last straw and I pulled my project. The next place I went to had the same MCI setup… which was where we discovered that the first place’s machines were improperly calibrated. So, everything except my vocals had to be scrapped and re-recorded.
What are you doing these days?
I’m living on a remote 10 acre farm and rescuing stray and feral cats. Mostly, they’re old, sickly or ugly and no one else would want them. I am still writing music… probably the best ever… and I plan to record again. Not only recent originals but I plan to re-record the best of my “Azlbrax” tunes and all of the Spinach tunes which… to quote The Parasite… will FINALLY sound as they were intended!
Thank you for taking your time. Last word is yours.
Yes! Please tell everyone to buy my forthcoming CDs and ask their friends to do so, too. 100% of the profits from album sales will go to support The Cat Farm kitties. My Beloved Mate and I finance the care of our kitties totally. We do NOT accept donations and we don’t adopt out our cats. It costs us about $200 per week to do this… and we’re not rich. I will be selling my albums online and, maybe at amazon.com. If you love kitties… or just animals in general, please help support us. I thank you for your support.
– Klemen Breznikar