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Butterfly's New Wings : 'Vida' Ties Rockers to '60s, but They're Ready for the Present

September 26, 1997|JOHN ROOS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Certain bands will always be identified with one definitive song: Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven." Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Freebird." And Iron Butterfly's 17-minute opus of acid-rock, "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida."

That dark, keyboard-heavy title song filled one side of an LP in 1968 and spent 140 weeks on the charts, selling more than 4 million copies. At the time, rock critics dismissed "Vida" as self-indulgent and even wretched, but it would survive as a benchmark of pop culture, earning countless mentions and soundtrack credits in movies ("Manhunter," "Fatal Instinct," "Nightmare on Elm Street") and on TV ("The Wonder Years," "Roseanne," "The Simpsons," "Home Improvement.")

The making of the famous song is fuzzy, said bassist Lee Dorman, one of three original Iron Butterfly members who will play their 30-year-old hit plus newer material Saturday night in San Juan Capistrano.

"We didn't know what we were doing," he said during a recent phone interview. "It just somehow came out of us. We thought it was a good, different song, but we didn't know it would explode [commercially]. We were happy just playing our 30 minutes while opening for the [Jefferson] Airplane, Janis [Joplin] and the Doors.

"But I think if you remember the times, a whole generation of people were kind of walking around in a fog, looking for something new and different. FM radio started playing more experimental kinds of rock 'n' roll, so you could hear the original, long versions of [the Doors'] 'Light My Fire' and 'Vida.' With the Who's 'Tommy,' even rock operas were in."

Because "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida," or "In the Garden of Life," is so long, with lots of room for experimentation, Dorman said, the band manages to keep it fresh with every performance.

"We do play it fairly true to the original version, but the drum solo is never the same," he said. "And at times, our guitar player and I stretch out and play subtle little movements, breaks or solos. . . . I think there's still a sense of excitement surrounding that song."

After "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida," Iron Butterfly released three more albums that reached the pop chart's Top 20 from 1969 to 1971. Then, after a pair of forgettable albums for MCA flopped, the group broke up. Drummer Ron Bushy and Dorman reformed Iron Butterfly in 1991, but lead singer and keyboardist Doug Ingle waited until a 1995 reunion tour to return. The lineup now also includes Eric Barnett on lead guitar.

Their challenge is to offer more than a nostalgia trip, said Dorman, 52, who moved from Los Angeles to Dana Point 12 years ago to enjoy the beach and clean air. He also works part time as a record producer in Los Angeles.

"We are a new band in the sense that we started recording new material about four months ago," he said. "It's still pretty embryonic, and each song is a little bit different because we're all contributing as songwriters. By the end of the year, we hope to have 16 or more songs recorded."

Will they be a '60s-era blend of psychedelic, acid and hard rock?

"Well, we're not doing a retro album--it is the '90s now," Dorman said. "But we're still basically a guitar-bass-drums rock trio, only with keyboard overlays and now three-part harmonies. I honestly don't know what our next album will sound like. When we're through writing and recording, we'll sit down and evaluate the new batch of songs. Some won't make the final cut, but the best of 'em will. Those will define what the new Iron Butterfly is."

* Iron Butterfly, Big Daddy & the Swinging Johnsons and Groove Salad perform Saturday night at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. 8 p.m. $13.50-$15.50. (714) 496-8930.

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