The Truth behind Mormon Psychedelia: an interview with David Zandonatti
This summer marked the fortieth anniversary of the Monterey Pop Festival—the multi-day music event that launched the harder side of the psychedelic rock movement, and ushered in the Summer of Love. As people found a voice that embraced added social, sexual and political freedom, they also began to see value in music that could stretch the traditional boundaries of the past. As a result, over space of three days in June, the hippie music torch was passed from folksier sounding bands like the Mamas and the Papas and Country Joe and the Fish to the harder and more experimental sounds of the Who and Jimi Hendrix. The wave of psychedlia that started there in Monterey would eventually stretch across the nation, taking root in San Francisco, Houston and even the Midwest. The times really were “a changin’”.
As easy as it would be to write off psychedelic rock as a reckless, drug-fueled trend, there was a serious spiritual side to it—especially early on. This was less apparent as the movement progressed (it would difficult to argue that “Purple Haze” was about anything other than getting loaded), but many early forays into psychedlia took the unexpected spiritual path. The sitar, long associated with Hindu religious music, featured prominently into the psych recordings of the Beatles—a result of George Harrison’s study of traditional Eastern religious music. Christianity also played a significant role, with the Byrds scoring a #1 hit with Turn, Turn, Turn, a song whose lyrics were taken directly from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes (via the Pete Seeger songbook). But as the music got heavier, the subtleties of openly religious music gave way to cryptic lyrics and endless guitar jams. One notable exception, a band called Tripsichord Music Box, managed to fuse overt Mormon spirituality with the hardest and most guitar-jamming music of the era. The result, a full-length LP and two singles on Matthew Katz’s San Francisco Sound label, exemplified the spiritual/psychedelic dichotomy by merging authentic psyche music with lyrics that, in their enigmatic and sometimes dark way, spelled out many of Mormonism’s deepest and most controversial doctrines.
Tripsichord spawned from an LA-based band called the Now. When the Now relocated to San Francisco in the late sixties, they would fall under the tutelage of Matthew Katz—promoter, band developer and manager of both Jefferson Airplane and Moby Grape. It was Katz who changed their name to Tripsichord Music Box—a move indicative of his efforts to be involved with every aspect of his bands’ careers. At a time when many SF bands were inking high dollar deals with Los Angeles record companies (a move that many hippie purists saw as “selling out”), Tripsichord stayed loyal to Katz and to his vision of what psychedelic music was supposed to be. The ultimate result of this decision was that Tripsichord would become a footnote in psych music history. Where Moby Grape and Jefferson Airplane parlayed their San Francisco experience into lucrative careers, Tripsichord would break up with little fanfare. In the early seventies a couple of members would relocate to Utah, start one of the first Christian rock bands (the Free Agency) and eek out a living playing Mormon youth fireside meetings as part of a collective called the Sons of Mosiah. Still, Tripsichord remains the only period psych band to have lived the full Haight-Ashbury experience while managing to stay true to their faith-based roots. To better understand where Tripsichord Music Box fit into the psych music scene, SLUG tracked down original guitarist and songwriter David Zandonatti. A convert to Mormonism in the 1960s, Zandonatti channeled much of the optimism and hope that came into his life with the restored gospel into the rock music he was writing and performing. Mr. Zandonatti was kind enough to talk with us about his work with Tripsichord, his later experiments with Christian rock and his continuing and storied music career. The following is a transcription of our conversation:
SLUG: So Tripsichord Music Box spawned from a band called the Now?
Zandonatti: I first started playing music back when I was 16. I had a band going, and these guys came over from Lompoc, California, near Vandenberg Air Force Base, and that was Frank Straight, and Randy Guzman and Oliver McKinney who ended up being Tripsichord with me, but they had a band called the Now. Well, it wasn’t even the Now, because I joined up with them and we got switched over to that name by Milton Berle’s brother. . .
SLUG: Okay, okay, you signed to Embassy Records, and that was Berle’s label…
Zandonatti: Yeah Embassy, Jack Berle, that’s how we got the name the Now. Let’s see, yeah that was, I don’t remember the year, but that was about right…’66 or something.
SLUG: So were you part of the music scene then, is that how you got hooked up with these guys?
Zandonatti: Part of the scene? Yeah, because we had a band and they had a band and the bands in the area were, they would play different places, and we would play, and they came and checked us out, and they heard me when they were going to lose their guitar player. He was going into the army; he’d been drafted into Vietnam. What was his name…?b
SLUG: I’ve got it somewhere here in my notes, it was Tony, Tony McGuire…
Zandonatti: Yeah, Tony McGuire. So then Tony left, and they asked me to play. Tony played lead though, and they asked me to play bass because Frank Straight was starting to play lead. So Frank started to play lead, and he ended up being an awesome guitar player. Matter of fact, when we went to San Francisco we were the Now, but when we got hooked up with Matthew Katz he wanted to give us one of the names he had. He developed bands, and he promoted them, so one of the stipulations was that we would be given a name that he owned. And he owned the name basically, because he managed the band, and that was fine with us because we thought we were going to get famous with him. So they changed the name and we weren’t the Now anymore, we were the Tripsichord Music Box. But it was the same guys.
SLUG: Now history hasn’t been too kind to the memory of Matthew Katz and his management style and his influence in music…
Zandonatti: Yeah, he’s got a lot of bad rap about him. And that’s maybe one reason why we ended up not making it big, because when David Rubenstein came into town and started gobbling up all the bands from LA (the bands started going toward him because of the dollar signs)—they were leaving Matthew and going with him—but we stayed with Matthew. Matthew, he was just so adamant about keeping pure the thing that he did that he got in arguments and rubbed a lot of people wrong, so people started bad rapping him, and the bands, even the bands he gave everything to…because I’d tell him, God, Matthew, you gave us more than we could ever repay you for: you gave us a house to live in, paid for all of our food and transportation, bought all of our equipment, and we got gigs all over the place. And so did Jefferson Airplane, and so did Moby Grape, and they turn around and crap on you—because of money.
SLUG: You never read that side of it; all you ever hear is that bands weren’t satisfied with his management, but you never hear how much he did for them.
Zandonatti: Yeah, but they couldn’t not be satisfied with his management, because they were only getting good PR and lots of stuff out of him. It’s just that, for one reason or another, and I imagine he would end up having an argument with them about the fact that they were leaving him, for money…and they’d go somewhere else, and where would the loyalty be when he got them that far. And that happens in music all the time; you always hear stories like that.
SLUG: Now you mentioned that Matthew had chosen the name for you, and that it was a name that he owned, and this brings up another point—since he also owned the name Moby Grape, and as they imploded quite spectacularly, was there any point where Tripsichord performed as Moby Grape? Because there are rumors that this happened on occasion.
Zandonatti: No, Tripsichord didn’t perform as Moby Grape. I think that they said that we did, but actually it was just a couple of us guys from Tripsichord that agreed to perform with some of the other guys from Moby Grape, when a couple of the guys had left the band. And then sometimes, it was that the gigs were already booked, and they were already advertised, and then once or twice, a couple of the original guys we were playing with didn’t even want to play the gig, so we ended up getting all new guys, but we still had to call ourselves Moby Grape. I didn’t like it that much, because it was kind of fakey, but…
SLUG: But it was legal, if you own the name you do what you want…
Zandonatti: Yeah, but how many gigs did we actually do like that? I think there was three or four total. Out of a whole tour of 20 dates, where most of it was Moby Grape. But the story, after years and years gets to be, “yeah it was the Fake Grape.” And Randy (Guzman, of Tripsichord) is playing with Peter Lewis (Moby Grape) now, and all those guys, so it couldn’t have been that fake.
SLUG: I guess not. If there playing together now, there can’t be that much bad blood…
Zandonatti: And they’re recording, Randy told me the other day that Peter called him and that they’re going out and playing some gigs…
SLUG: Now, I’ve been listening to the Tripsichord LP, and it is as good as anything that came out of San Francisco in the late sixties. But what really interests me is that there seems to be some really serious, overt Mormon overtones with much of the Tripsichord lyrics.
Zandonatti: Because I wrote all the songs. I was in San Francisco and that’s when I got converted to the church, through a round about way. So I just forsook all those ways, of what was going on there, and I went to Salt Lake for a little while, and came back, and I decided—I don’t know, I just started writing all this stuff. Because when you write…what comes out is what comes out, you know? I was getting inspired by thoughts of, and you know some of the words are pretty out-there, pretty cryptic, and pretty off the wall, but that was the kind of stuff I was writing. That’s what it’s all about. And even Bill Carr, who is Jewish, he never really got into the church, and he was writing some stuff like that too.
SLUG: Yeah, cosmic is a word that gets thrown around a lot. I think it’s also very spiritual. This was common for a lot of the psych movement. People tend to dwell on the drug addled side of psychedlia, but there was a lot of spirituality in the mix—especially Eastern spirituality. I mean you had George Harrison getting into the traditional Indian music of Ravi Shankar, the Byrds were recording songs that took lyrics directly from the Old Testament (Turn, Turn, Turn).
Zandonatti: Right, they we were the first Christian rock band. Really, that whole movement hadn’t even started yet, and we got out there and started doing the Free Agency thing that Orrin (Hatch) was involved with, that really was a Christian rock band. It was a good message, and we go around and give talks to the kids, even though we were only a few years older than them. But and we would even do seminars and stuff like that, and talk about the thing about, not so much staying straight and staying off of drugs, but more about finding spirituality and finding God and finding your way and finally being grounded in life, not having to experiment with all of those things. And if you did you could repent and you could come back. That was our message.
SLUG: Is taking that path what led to the demise of Tripsichord then? Trading the SF scene for Utah?
Zandonatti: This is somewhat true, because Ollie (McKinney) didn’t want to be involved with that, and Randy (Guzman), he did, but he only wanted to be involved with it for the music, and for the money, but he never really got converted to the church. And then Frank (Straight), of course Frank played with Free Agency for a little while, but he left, I’m trying to remember what happened. It was shortly after we left San Francisco and came up there to Salt Lake and Provo and all that, and I think Frank just decided to go the other way, and then we found another guitar player, and that was it, we started Free Agency. It was two of the guys from Tripsichord.
SLUG: Now what about Sons of Mosiah, because I have a really hard time even calling this a band. It was almost a troupe or a collective of musicians and comedians and story tellers. . .
Zandonatti: It wasn’t a band. Ron McNeeley, who sang lead with us in San Francisco in the last days, he did some stuff with me and then I converted him to the church in the sense that I told him about it, and had him come out and check it out, and it was the thing for him, and then he got baptized. And then we were buds, we were together and so he ended up being with me in Tripsichord, and later in Free Agency. We were playing somewhere up there near BYU or in Salt Lake and this guy named Lynn Bryson came and saw us, and was a kind of radio DJ, promoter, kind of songwriter—dinked around on the guitar but he wasn’t very good—but he knew how to entertain an audience. So he had a couple of guys, a couple of returned missionaries that he played some acoustic stuff with, and heard us and asked us to come over and do a few songs. So Ron and I went over and did a few songs acoustically—taking it away from the band and doing the singer/songwriter acoustic thing. He played a guitar and I played a guitar, but it wasn’t electric. I mean, we did plug in, but it was still acoustic. And then I just took some of my songs and played them there. And then Ron and I started doing that stuff with Lynn and his two guys and then we met Alan Cherry who was a stand-up comic at the time. And so it was Alan, Lynn and his two guys and me and Ron—the Sons of Mosiah. And so it was a kind of a troupe, cause we would do these shows, and we would do a thing, and then they would do a thing and then Alan do a thing and then we’d all come out and do an encore. And that’s what that was, and it lasted a while, because Orrin helped us a little bit to get booked, and we got gigs on our own.
SLUG: So was Hatch involved with Sons of Mosiah?
Zandonatti: Um, a little bit. He never really…it wasn’t like with Free Agency that Orrin managed for a while.
SLUG: So I kind of lose track of you after then. What happened with you after your time in SLC?
Zandonatti: So we were in Utah, and then we, somehow the Free Agency broke up, bands didn’t last too long back then, but I was still playing with Randy (Guzman), and then I met this return missionary guy named Dennis MacGregor. I started jamming with him and then we put a band together with Randy and me and him and another fellow named Danny Coletti, and we formed Natty Bumppo. Then we met this fellow named Scott Norton that was a band manager, and he hooked up with a management company in LA, and he started working for them, and he was trying to get bands, and so he became our manager. He got us to move to LA. We played the Troubadour and at several other venues in and around LA. Natty Bumppo became semi-famous, and we played all over, and we played for quite a few years actually—all the way from when we started with Scott Norton in about 1971, until I left the band in ’81 or ’82. I left because I wanted to get out of music for a while. I’d been doing it forever and I had a family now and we lived in Ventura, California. Dennis lived there too. He eventually relocated to Oregon, and then about three or four years later I moved my family up to Oregon as well. And only about a year later I started playing with Dennis again, and we formed a band called the Blue D’arts, and we played for another ten years. This was all the way to just a few years back. And then we stopped doing that, but I was still a singer/songwriter, my love has always been writing, and I started doing it on my own. I’ve got my own band now, and I’m playing again and I’m really excited about it.
[David Zandonatti currently resides in a small town in central Oregon. His band the Blue D’Arts, which disbanded only a few years ago, is credited by many with establishing a real music scene in the Sisters, Oregon area. His current band, the Rockin’ Folkers, consists of Zandonatti on guitar and vocals, Patrick Lombardi on guitar, Ted Brainard on bass and guitar, and Greg Wieland on drums and percussion. Zandonatti continues to write and perform music, and has twice been a finalist in the Sisters Folk Festival Dave Carter Memorial Songwriting Contest. He recently self-released a CD (“What’s That Stuff”) under the name David Z.].
Before they signed to Embassy records and became the Now, they were called the Ban. The Ban released a single on Brent records before changing their name and replacing Tony McGuire with David Zandonatti.
Moby Grape started to fall apart during their last tour. Several members of Tripsichord were tapped to play live dates with the remaining members of Moby Grape. On rare occasions no one from Grape would come to a performance, and those who had been sitting in with them ended up taking the stage in their stead. Zandonatti doesn’t see this as a very big deal, and cites the fact that Tripsichord drummer Randy Guzman went on to play in a legitimate incarnation of Moby Grape as his proof—the rational being that if Tripsichord had ripped off Grape, then Grape wouldn’t allow Tripsichord’s drummer to play with them now.
Some lyric examples include references to outsmarting the “son of the morning” (a Mormon name for Satan), and speak of a “voice arising from the dust in a time when revelation had ceased” (an allusion to the golden plates, the source material for the Book of Mormon, being buried underground until a new prophet could be called to reveal them to the world.) Listeners are also encouraged to enter through the “narrow gate” (embrace an LDS lifestyle) and are reminded of the “everlasting joy” that awaits those who live in accordance to God’s laws.
All of the songs on the Tripsichord LP were written by either Zandonatti or Bill Carr.
Free Agency was a mormon-themed rock band that featured David Zandonatti and Ron McNeeley of Tripsichord. Frank Straight also played briefly in the band. Orrin Hatch managed the Free Agency during the time before he was elected to the U.S. Senate.