Spirit: '12 Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus' (1970)

Rediscovering lost music via the vinyl bins at secondhand stores

Artist: Spirit

Album: 12 Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus (1970)

Place: AMVETS Thrift Store, East Knoxville

Price: $1

About 20 years ago, after gazing nonplussed at my collection of ragged old LPs, a friend told me, "Don't ever get rid of those records, they're gonna be worth a lot of money someday." He was wrong. I don't own the Beatles' butcher cover or much of anything on the Sun label. So most of my records are worth a buck or two, if that. Why haven't LPs appreciated? Thrift stores, I think, are partially to blame. Goodwill Industries and KARM and the Salvation Army do wonderful work helping people, but they're hell on record collectors. That pristine Traffic LP I have lovingly preserved in a plastic sleeve since 1981 won't gain much value as long as there are thousands just like it jammed between Anne Murray and Olivia Newton-John on dusty second-hand bookshelves across the country.

So why do I keep buying records? Because I listen to them and I enjoy having them around. Sometimes the latter is more important than the former. I learn this every time I find one of my favorite albums floundering among vinyl jetsam. And this happens surprisingly often. Early last year I found a badly bruised copy of Spirit's 12 Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus. I've now bought the album three times. Spirit is not as obscure as some of the musicians I have reviewed in this column, but neither are they well known. Their leader, the late Randy California, penned a couple of minor hits—the oft-covered "Nature's Way," and "1984." And the band's Jay Ferguson now has a thriving career in Hollywood. (He wrote the theme for NBC's The Office.) I found this battered 12 Dreams languishing amid a stack of Christian praise albums featuring freshly scrubbed white teenagers trying desperately in the godless 1970s to make Christianity seem hip.

If you ever find 12 Dreams, buy it. Spirit is often called "jazzy" or "psychedelic" by rock critics. But as usual these labels obscure rather than reveal. The music reflects its time—there is some breathless and trite '60s peace/love babble ("I don't know what it means to be free/And I cry when you say you can't free me"), lots of fuzz guitar, an extemporaneous F-word, a loose and relaxed vibe, and some "far-out" vocal arrangements. But mostly there is just good rock music. The songwriting is on par with some of the best of the era. "Nature's Way," which is about either death or nature or both, is an acoustic tune in the mode of "Here Comes the Sun," with simple but effective lyrics and a simple but gorgeous chorus. The Ferguson compositions, especially "Mr. Skin," and "Animal Zoo," are as weird as they are catchy. In the latter, Ferguson (I think) sings, "Oh no, something went wrong/Well, you're much too fat and a little too long." Either the singer or the person being sung to here is on some serious mind-melting crap. The centerpiece is the magnificent, "Prelude—Nothin' to Hide," which begins simply and quietly and conventionally enough, then explodes into a raucous but controlled rocker, complete with desultory lyrics that urge us to "drink down a jug full of beer," and beware of the "stars in our pants." The chorus reassuringly reports that the fellas "have nothing to hide," and that "we're married to the same bride."

It sounds weird and it is weird. But it is also great.