No. 47: ‘My Crystal Spider’

psychedelic band sweetwaterThe crystal spider crawled into Alex Del Zoppo’s brain in a waking dream. A “fantasy experience” that yielded a surrealistic web of sound for his band, Sweetwater.

While “My Crystal Spider” ranks as the most psychedelic of Sweetwater’s songs, the songwriter says his creepy-crawly creation wasn’t necessarily the product of an altered state:

“Psychedelic substances may have helped to bring this into focus, but it is not about that,” keyboardist Del Zoppo says today.

“It’s about having a runaway pet spider in an unusually whimsical environment.”

Dr. Demento, noted connoisseur of audio bizarre, dug the 1968 song’s “weirdness” and often played it on his radio show.

Rock festival audiences of the hippie era were entranced as well, as Sweetwater singer Nancy Nevins put an “Arabian Nights” spin on her vocals:

Have you seen
My crystal spider?
He has eyes of mercury
He has left his web of paisley
Be aware — if you care
Would you please
Send him back to me

The dash of Middle Eastern singing was unusual if not unique for rock music of the day — decades ahead of Dead Can Dance and their spawn — but fusion was the name of the game for L.A.’s Sweetwater. The song also mixes in some monastery chants and chamber music piano.

Working without a full-time guitarist, the eight-piece band had a cello player front and center. On “Crystal Spider,” the cellist, August Burns, got his opportunity to freak out mid-song, to chilling effect.

Del Zoppo told Psychedelic Sight the story of how Sweetwater transformed the originally straightforward number into a full-blown psychedelic workout:

“During one night’s performance at the Whisky a Go Go, we tried something we had fooled around with during a recent rehearsal: August’s cello slowly ascended to a screeching apex, writhing in aural agony for a few seconds, then slowly descended back to the key the song was in — we enhanced this by having (the bassist) manipulate the knob on a variable speed tremolo box which the cello was patched through, creating the eerie effect heard on the (debut album).

“When we began the rhythm again, we looked at the audience, which had been dancing, and found them staring with mouths agape. As the rhythm re-established its groove again, they slowly began to dance again, as if they’d been on a long, dangerous trip and were happily returning.”

“My Crystal Spider” proved a reliable show-stopper for the band as it built a following on the festival circuit. The road led to a day 1 slot at Woodstock.

The song, as recorded on the debut LP “Sweetwater,” had only one verse, repeated before and after the cello freakout. But there was a second verse, more or less lost in the mists of time, that goes like so:

As he cries his mystery
He belongs with those who love him
Be aware — if you care
Would you please
Send him back to me

Comments

  1. Astroman says:

    A cool and very trippy song that deserves a spot on any list of good Psychedelic songs, although it does sound like they were seriously channeling the Jefferson Airplane on this one. Even Nancy Nevins’ delivery of the line “Send him back to me” sounds like Grace herself. While I don’t think it’s quite on the level of the Airplane, it’s still a pretty soundtrack for a freak-out. If “White Rabbit” is Coca-Cola, then “My Crystal Spider” could be considered Diet Coke.

  2. Patrick Edmondson says:

    And it was a show stopper as was the band. Nancy vocals were an aural trip twining around the flute. The unusual instrumentation with a rock beat was show stopping at each major festival where I had the joy to hear them play. I treasure a letter from Nancy Nivens in response to a fan letter after the Miami Pop festival where I first saw the band.

  3. Patrick: I caught them at the Miami festival as well — probably every guy in the audience felt like sending her fan mail! Sensational performance. Alex DZ told me he and the band “fell in love with the entire state and returned many times — it seemed that Florida and Sweetwater enjoyed a mutual attraction.”

  4. Race Baker says:

    I need to get this album.

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