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Almost Famous: Iron Butterfly

April 4, 2009

This is the amazing true story of how I met Iron Butterfly, but didn’t.

It was summer 1990, when I had turned my back on journalism and was working as a jeweller and watch salesman. The chain I worked for was very old in Canada, very prestigious, and I was an odd fit; I had cut my hair for the job, and kept getting warnings from the bossman that it was creeping past my collar again. I wanted to rock, but wore suits and ties. Still, it was interesting work, and those were recession days; you took what you could.

One afternoon, my long-haired, tattooed brother stormed into the place and loudly announced, to me and the six older ladies who worked there, that Iron Butterfly was playing at a bar down the block, and he’d just been to their soundcheck, and I had to get down there with him ASAP. This was before I started entertainment reporting, so my encounters with celebrities were limited to the few bands I talked to in college a couple of years before. I’m all jaded now and all, but 20 years ago I was a wide-eyed fanboy.

I had 15 minutes to go on my shift, which I carried out efficiently and professionally as my brother eyed the $400 pens and flirted with the ladies. There were many giggles and squeals. Finally, at 5 pm, I hurriedly changed into my jeans, cowboy boots and Cult T-shirt, buckling my Union Jack buckle as I left (this earned me a warning the next day, but was worth it … my brother isn’t the only one of us who can make old ladies titter).

We found the band members at the bar, having a beer. Two guys, in their 40s, still looking cool. One was Manny, a Cheech-ish drummer with a headband. The other was Mike, a tall singer/guitarist with an ankle-length leather duster. They welcomed these two young players to their table, we bought a pitcher or three, and we shot the shit for a couple of hours.

They were particularly impressed that we played In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida a lot. In fact, it was the first song we played together (and the first song I learned on piano, at a very young age). They shared our opinion on Slayer’s cover of that song (from the Less Than Zero soundtrack).

They also explained that, due to licensing issues, they couldn’t use the name Iron Butterfly; they were “The Butterfly.” That made sense.

Later, while Mike rested, we took Manny for a tour of my brother’s workplace, a local concert hall where he was a lighting tech. That night, we returned for the show. It was … strange. More early Doors than anything else. They were joined by a young guy with dreadlocks who played keyboards and bass at the same time, which never really works.

The music was jammy and fluid. There was no denying their talent, but it didn’t have the 60s hard-rock groove we loved, and in the end, we were a little disappointed. But hey, we’d met Iron Butterfly, right?

Uh, no.

The next day, we stopped by a downtown record store to look at the LP sleeve, because, really, we had no idea who was in Iron Butterfly. We were fans of a song, not a band. I had In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida on cassette, but it didn’t have liner notes, and this was before the Internet and all that. We found it, flipped it, read the back … and realized that neither of the guys we’d met had played on the album, and nobody on the album had been in the band we’d watched the night before. Were they members who’d joined later? Was it all a sham? We didn’t know.

Such is life.

Years later, I came across a website for Mike Pinera, a talented California guitar player who did, in fact, play a stint in Iron Butterfly long after In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. He has an astonishing talent and a long, solid reputation as a frontman and session player. And somewhere, way back in his memory, he went on tour as frontman of The Butterfly and met two Canadian kids who wanted to rock, and they all had a great time.

Update: (I just checked Wikipedia and discovered the most convoluted band-members list in the history of rock music. When some members are listed as “Last name unknown,” you know it’s complex. I got all confused. So I played In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida on that Casio SK-1 just for kicks, and now I think I’ll break out the guitar, because there isn’t enough suck around here.)

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