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Present Tense

“If you want to do something, and you want it more than anything else in the world, you’ll get it.”*

- Curt Boettcher (1944-1987) 
*Interview with Yoshi Nagato, February 10, 1980.

At the dawn of the psychedelic era, Gary Usher wanted more than anything to make a record that would be both inspired and inspirational.  A sublimely spiritual creation that would represent a quantum leap from all he had done before; as different from “409” as “Stardust” is from “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”  Present Tense is the realization of that dream.
When Usher (1938-1990) conceived Sagittarius in late 1966, he wasn’t exactly hurting for work.  As a staff producer at Columbia Records, his schedule was crammed with sessions by the Byrds, Simon and Garfunkel, Chad Stewart and Jeremy Clyde, the Peanut Butter Conspiracy, Gene Clark, and Keith Allison, to name a few.  Formerly the king of surf music, Usher had risen from that fad’s ashes and made a surprisingly clean transition to producing cutting-edge rock.  But, despite his enviable position, he was not happy.

“I used to get very frustrated,” he recalled in a 1988 interview, “because working with Paul Simon, or with the Byrds when David Crosby was there, I had very little creative input.  I was strictly a producer, and it was hard for me because all I had done beforehand – that tremendous rush of product, 30-some-odd albums in a year and a half – it was a tremendous amount of creating taking place.  And all of a sudden I’m making good records and I’m having success, but I’m doing very little creating and not much songwriting.  It started eating away at me.  But I didn’t want to compete with the artists I was producing.”

Usher found the situation especially frustrating because for the first time in his career, he wanted to create music with a message.  “The problem I had at CBS was that I could not do an inspirational album.  There was no New Age stuff then.  They had me doing money music.

“I was a hired gun.  I worked 80 hours a week, and I cranked ‘em out.  I put out a lot of product, and I didn’t have time to sit back like Brian Wilson could do and take three, four, five months on a record.  I was expected to turn one out in days.
“Believe me, we were making millions of dollars there.  They were paying me a good salary.  I could have quit, but I didn’t, probably because I was too insecure.  I was living in Brian’s shadow; ‘King of the Surf,’ living in the surf era, and trying to move on.  I didn’t want to be tagged as that because I knew that period had come to an end, and had served its purpose, and I didn’t want to get stuck back there, because I really thought my talents were multifarious.  I pride myself on doing everything, from writing to arranging and producing.  I’ve always wanted to increase my knowledge, to know and to learn.

“So what I decided to do was, on off-hours, and late-night hours, I would start making my own recordings down in the studio and try various techniques.”

Among Usher’s charges at Columbia was a stubborn pair of Englishmen.  “I’m getting pressure from (Columbia president) Clive Davis to get Chad and Jeremy singles,” he later recalled.  “So I put the word out and I got a record in from two English writers, John Carter and Geoffrey Stephens.  I played it and said, ‘Gee, I love this record.  It would be a great Chad and Jeremy single.’”

His charges, however, thought otherwise.  “I played it for Chad and Jeremy,” continued Usher, “and they both went, ‘What a piece of crap that is.’

“And I went, ‘What do you have that’s any better?’  They played me some songs that I just thought were uncommercial as hell.  I went, ‘I don’t want to put politics on you or get heavy with you, but I’m going to insist that you cut the record.’

“They went, ‘All right, we’ll cut it, but we don’t want to do it and our hearts aren’t in it, and we’re just gonna be there.’  I said, ‘Oh, come on.  Try it.  What have you got to lose?  If it doesn’t come out well, we won’t release it.  I’m willing to spend the money.  I’ll put my neck out.  I think you guys are gonna have a hit record with it.’

“So really, what happened was they bruised my ego.  I remember leaving the meeting and saying, ‘Those guys are really out to lunch.  That could put Chad and Jeremy back on the charts again.  I love that record so much that I’m gonna go do it myself, and I’ll do it in my free time at night, on demo time, won’t bother anybody.’  So I went in at odd hours with just my friends, and I cut that song.”

He had friends, all right.  Practically the whole darn Wrecking Crew turned up for his “My World Fell Down” sessions, from Hal Blaine on down.

Among the vocalists were Bruce Johnston and Terry Melcher, Johnston singing the first “my world fell down” in each chorus.  Contrary to previous reports, Curt Boettcher was not on the record, but the lead singer was another L.A. great; the one and only Glen Campbell, making fine use of the vocal skills he honed while touring with the Beach Boys.
“The company heard it and loved it,” recalled Usher.  “I had sent it back East and Clive Davis said, ‘What a great group.  Sign them.’  Oh, Jesus.  I have no group!  Now what do I do?  I was always getting into those kinds of problems.  I had a thousand groups, but no groups.  Here I go again.  And Clive said, ‘I’d like to hear more things by this group.’
“I was intimidated.  I didn’t have the nerve to say, ‘Clive, it was just me.’  Because the minute I would say I had free time, he would say to me, ‘You’ve got free time?’  And he would send me out with another artist, and then I wouldn’t have any free time.  But it was a (necessary) creative outlet for me.

“My astrological sign is Sagittarius, so I said, ‘It’s Sagittarius.’  He said, ‘Oh, that’s a great name.’”

One thing to which Clive Davis was not hip was Usher’s penchant for dropping sonic non-sequiturs in the midst of otherwise-commercial songs.  While the Beatles had dropped some unusual noises onto Revolver, the fully-fledged sound collages of Sgt. Pepper were still months away.  The Beach Boys were experimenting with atmospheric sounds at their Smile sessions, but that was known only to a clique of L.A. hipsters.  So Davis may be forgiven for not getting the point of the baby cries, alarm clock (pre-“Good Morning Good Morning”!), and bullfight that punctuate the middle of “My World Fell Down.”  Neither did he appreciate the hilarious Firesign Theater segment (“We are all hip, two, three, four”) in the midst of the follow-up 45, “Hotel Indiscreet.”

“Clive Davis didn’t understand those breaks and thought I was going bananas,” Usher explained.  “He gave me all sorts of trouble about it, so the label insisted I remove them when those songs made it to the LP.”

While the break on “My World Fell Down” more likely hindered than helped its commercial chances, it nonetheless sat in the Billboard’s Hot 100 for five weeks during the Summer of Love, peaking at #70.  Usher said that, despite its relatively minor national impact, it did extremely well in many local markets.  “I know it charted in Chicago, San Francisco, various places, and wherever it charted, it was a Top 5 record.  We were getting requests for the group, and we couldn’t back up the song with live appearances.  That hurt.  We sold somewhere between 75,000 and 100,000 records on that.”

Curt Boettcher first entered Usher’s consciousness in the spring of 1966.  Their meeting had such a dramatic impact upon Usher that he still remembered it in detail 22 years later.  “I’m over at Studio Three West with Brian Wilson.  We were with (engineer) Chuck Britz, doing something.  I think it was a movie soundtrack.  The (tape) machine was stopped.  All of a sudden, I heard a sound, and the instant I heard it, I froze just like someone had thrown a bowling ball at me.  My ears just perked right up.  And Brian looked at me, I looked at Brian, and we both said simultaneously, ‘What was that?’
“I walked over to the hallway,” Usher continued.  “We put our ears out the door and listened to what was coming down that way.  We went right down the hallway, around a corner, and when we followed the sound, the louder it got.  We were walking and walking and walking up to the point where we were running into this room.  And here’s this little kid with an earring.  That was the first time I met Curt, and it was while he was producing Lee Mallory’s record ‘That’s the Way it’s Gonna Be.’

“Brian said, ‘What is that?’  That record stunned Brian.  He’s doing little surfer music, and here comes this kid who is light years ahead of him.  I had never seen Brian turn white.  It stunned him.  All he talked about for a week was that song and that kid.  Brian sensed that was where it was at, that’s where it was going.”  Boettcher, a staff producer at Our Productions, was relatively unknown at the time, but his considerable talent would soon become evident from his production of the Association’s debut album, which included “Cherish” and the truly groundbreaking “Along Comes Mary.”
Boettcher and Usher’s paths would not cross again until the end of that same year.  By then, Boettcher had formed a vocal harmony-oriented group called the Ballroom.  The Ballroom’s sound was an unusual blend of sunshiny pop and avant-garde rock, with a bit of musique concrete thrown in for good measure.  They recorded their vocals at Columbia’s Studio D, the same one where Usher did his work.  “I was producing the Byrds’ Younger Than Yesterday album,” Usher recalled, “and Curt was finishing up the Ballroom album.  I would be scheduled to come in at, say, six p.m., and I could never get into the studio because of this group of strange, freaky people.  Slowly, each day, I was getting shoved out of half an hour, an hour, sometimes two hours worth of time, because he was always running over.

“So one day I got irate, because, after all, we were making hot records.  My patience was being pushed.  I remember somewhat storming in one day to find out what was going on.  You have to keep in mind what I was like at the time.  I was pretty straight.

“This little kid with an earring came out and was just as nice as can be, deeply apologizing, saying what a fan of mine he was…I walked out like a little puppy dog.”
Boettcher played Usher the Ballroom’s version of “Baby Please Don’t Go,” which would become the B-side of their only single.  (With the A-side “Spinning Spinning Spinning,” the disc came out on Warner Brothers in early ’67.)  “Knocked me on my buns,” Usher later said.  “I never felt so musically inadequate.  That was light years away from what I was doing with Chad and Jeremy…certainly more progressive.  I remember saying, ‘That was a phenomenal rhythm pattern.  I’d like to hear it (completed).  When you’re finished, bring it up.’

“So he stopped up one day and played me the completed song.  I gave him some comments about it, how fantastic he was, how impressed I was with what he was doing.  He played me a couple of other things and he said, ‘What are you doing?’”

Fortunately, Usher had just begun work on the Michael Z. Gordon / James Griffin song “Hotel Indiscreet” and wanted to use it as a jumping-off point for musical experimentation.  “I said, ‘I need some vocal help,’” Usher recalled.  “I guess the Beach Boys were out of town or something.  I said, ‘Why don’t you come on and give me a hand?  I’ll pay you for it.’  He said, ‘I’d love to.’”

As Boettcher joined Usher on what would become Present Tense, he quickly realized that he was much more comfortable with Usher than he was with Our Productions to which he was still under contract.  Usher, for his part, was thrilled to have Boettcher on board, but he was also a bit unnerved.

“It was really hard for me to work around Curt,” Usher explained, “because he was so damn talented!  He had such an angelic voice, and I had always been attracted to angelic voices.  You wanna get honest?  I’m a hack as a singer!  And Curt was a vocalist!”

Since Curt Boettcher is not alive to heap reciprocal praise on Gary Usher, it should be noted that the man behind Sagittarius was no slouch.  While Usher was, by his own admission, a subpar singer, his genius came through in countless other ways.  Here was someone coming from the oldest tradition of take-the-money-and-run music biz, making a remarkable spiritual and artistic progression within just a couple of years.  With Sagittarius, he was taking all the knowledge he’d acquired from countless hours making purely commercial records, and applying them to music that was commercially speaking, completely un-charted territory.  In short, Gary Usher was going by feel, and his instincts proved brilliant.

When it became clear that Boettcher wanted to continue on the musical path that he had begun with Usher, Usher helped him get a contract as a staff producer for Columbia Records.  However, in order to get Boettcher out of his Our Productions contract, Columbia had to buy the Ballroom’s recordings.  As a result, Usher was able to include Ballroom recordings on Present Tense.  “Would You Like To Go” and “Musty Dusty” both appear in roughly the same form as they did on the unreleased Ballroom album.  In a 1975 ZigZag interview, Boettcher told writer Ray McCarthy that “Another Time,” “Song to the Magic Frog,” and “Keeper of the Games” were originally Ballroom tunes as well, although these are not the versions which appear on Present Tense.

Boettcher’s abundance of musical ideas overwhelmed Usher.  “Curt just came on the scene and ‘WOOM!’  Here’s a little project I’m doing all by myself, just hacking away, minding my own business, friends coming in and singing.  The next thing I know, he just comes in and says, ‘Here, take that (song)!  Use that!  Here!’  So I’m bombarded with this great input for me to use, and what started as a closet project of my own, on my own time, turned out to be an album of Curt and Gary.  All right.  It didn’t bother me.”

Boettcher wasn’t just bringing in songs.  During the course of recording Present Tense, he put together the Millennium, whose lone album, Begin (Columbia, 1968) would become a legend in the annals of Sixties West Coast rock.  To keep the group’s seven members alive while Columbia put together a contract for them, Usher allowed Boettcher to bring them in as session musicians and vocalists.  He also listed each one of them – Boettcher, Lee Mallory, Joey Stec, Michael Fennelly, Doug Rhodes, Sandy Salisbury, and Ron Edgar – on the back cover of Present Tense.

While Usher credited Boettcher with enlightening him to all things hip, Usher’s lone composition on Present Tense happens to be the most mindwarping song on the album: “The Truth is Not Real.”  His and Boettcher’s shared attitude towards drugs can best be expressed in the apologia Boettcher later gave to Ray McCarthy: “I was into LSD, but I did it way before anyone else was doing it.  I did it for real reasons, not as a hedonistic self-stroke.  I did it because I really wanted to find out more about myself.  The music reflects it; it’s not a period where you’re landing, it’s a period when you’re stretching, and all that music was a stretch.”
If the lyrics to “The Truth is Not Real” aren’t metaphysical enough, Usher and Boettcher also intended the music to reach listeners’ higher selves.  As Usher later explained, “Curt and I had always envisioned a music that was rich in the vibratory element.  A certain ingredient in music that, when someone heard it, it would actually affect their etheric bodies – healing them, making them whole, and uplifting them.”
Gary Usher guessed that Present Tense, released in July 1968, sold “maybe forty to fifty thousand copies, a surprisingly large number for the fact that there was no group.”  The fact that it partly consisted of previously recorded material no doubt kept studio costs down.  If Usher’s sales figures are accurate, the album most likely turned a profit.

On paper, it seems impossible that there could be such a high level of interest in Present Tense today, nearly thirty years after its release.  While, over the years, the album has earned a sprinkling of mentions in the rock press and even an article or two, its reputation is largely based on the meaning it retains for those who bought it when it came out.  Original copies are surprisingly difficult to find, considering how many were sold.  It seems that this is an album whose owners simply refuse to part with it.  Some people have dreamed for years of finding a copy.  Fortunately, as Gary Usher was wont to say, imagination is just as strong as reality.  And if that conversely means the truth is not real, then this album is one fine hallucination.

– Dawn Eden
Hoboken, New Jersey
May 1997


Commentary on selected tracks:

You Know I’ve Found a Way
Curt Boettcher and Lee Mallory wrote this song together during the Summer of Love.

The Keeper of the Games
Another Summer of Love ditty, this one penned by Boettcher alone, with strong spiritual elements that would later resurface on the Millennium’s album.

Written by producer Larry Marks (Phil Ochs, the Merry-Go-Round) and Ernie Sheldon, “Glass” was originally recorded by the Sandpipers, of all people.  The enigmatic lead vocalist on this version, Craig Brewer, reportedly was not a professional singer, but just a friend of Boettcher’s who wandered in.

Would You Like to Go
Jules (a.k.a. Gary) Alexander of the Association says that this is one of the four or five songs that he and Curt Boettcher wrote together and the only one that was recorded.  The lyrics are an intentional hoot.

My World Fell Down
The album version of this song does not contain the middle break which Usher included in the single.

Hotel Indiscreet

Michael Z. Gordon recalls that he and writing partner James Griffin got the idea for this song from a “Peyton Place”-style paperback about just such a domicile.

I’m Not Living Here
Curt Boettcher wrote this song during the summer of 1967, just before he severed his contractual ties to Our Productions owner Steve Clark.  The lyrics could well be directed at him.

Musty Dusty

This song has its roots in one written by former GoldeBriars manager Bob Goldstein; “Musty, Dusty, Tattered and Torn.”  Curt Boettcher and Tandyn Almer took Goldstein’s concept and turned it into “Musty Dusty” one day in 1965 as the summer was changing into fall.  Victoria Morris (né Winston), then Boettcher’s partner in the duo Summer’s Children, says that the lyrics were so personal for Almer that he cried as they wrote it.  Unfortunately, the writers’ friendship disintegrated the following year when Almer claimed sole writing credit for the Association smash “Along Comes Mary.”  For the rest of his life, Boettcher, who sang the original demo of “Along Comes Mary,” insisted that he co-wrote the song and was cheated out of his share of it.  Reportedly, Boettcher’s omitting Almer’s name on the Sagittarius LP’s writer credit for “Musty Dusty” was meant as tit for tat.

The Truth Is Not Real
In which Gary Usher delivers a nifty aural pun, singing, “rejecting truth because you’re out of phase,” when it’s his voice that’s out of phase.

Get the Message
This track was recorded during the same group of sessions in which Gary Usher was recording “Hotel Indiscreet,” and was penned by the same writers, Michael Z. Gordon and James Griffin.  Usher’s production notes credit the lead vocal to a “Michael” and, while Gordon does not recall the session, he admits that the singer’s voice sounds suspiciously like his own.  The song was also recorded by Brian Hyland, who scraped the Hot 100 with it in August 1967.

Mass #586

Peter Bergman of the Firesign Theater preaches as a heavenly host of Gary Ushers fill the choir box.

Love’s Fatal Way
Randy Naylor of the Poor (the Randy Meisner group that became Ricky Nelson’s Stone Canyon Band) wrote this song with Curt Boettcher, who produced this recording for the Ballroom’s projected album.

My World Fell Down (45 version)
There is an intriguing rumor that Usher took the bullfight section straight from the Smile cutting room floor, but there is no evidence to substantiate it.  Curiously, the bridge section that follows (“I wish I didn’t feel like winter…”) does not appear on the original Ivy League recording.  It is likely that Usher wrote it himself but did not take the credit for it.

Hotel Indiscreet (45 version)
Gary Usher was very enthusiastic about his new signees the Firesign Theater and incorporated them into every recording that he could, not only tracks like this by Sagittarius, but also ones by Chad and Jeremy and the Byrds.

Lonely Girl
Collectors and fans who know Sandy Salisbury from his work with the Millennium and his solo 45s will instantly recognize this as a typical Sandy track; a catchy hook, a bouncy melody, the word “girl” in the title, and the tiniest hint of sadness amidst the mirth.

The Keeper of the Games (demo)
A rare and lovely opportunity to hear Curt Boettcher’s voice on its own, without double tracking, phasing, oscillating, etc., etc.

Sister Marie

Usher recorded this backing track with Sagittarius in mind but decided to give it to Chad and Jeremy instead.  Their version may be heard on the Legacy CD Painted Dayglow Smile.


1. Another Time
    (C. Boettcher)  2:39
    recorded: October 25, 1967
    release: Columbia LP CS 9644

2. Song To The Magic Frog (Will You Ever Know)
    (C. Boettcher-M. O’Malley)  2:48
    recorded: February 12, 1968
    release: Columbia LP CS 9644

3. You Know I’ve Found A Way
    (C. Boettcher-L. Mallory)  2:00
    recorded: January 25, 1968
    release: Columbia LP CS 9644

4. The Keeper Of The Games
    (C. Boettcher)  1:54
    recorded: May 13, 1968
    release: Columbia LP CS 9644

5. Glass
    (L. Marks-E. Sheldon)  2:26
    recorded: March 19, 1968
    release: Columbia LP CS 9644

6. Would You Like To Go
    (C. Boettcher-G. Alexander)  2:36
    recorded: May 22, 1968
    release: Columbia LP CS 9644

7. My World Fell Down
    (J. Carter-G. Stephens)  2:55
    recorded: January 10, 1967
    release: Columbia LP CS 9644

8. Hotel Indiscreet
    (M.Z. Gordon-J. Griffin)  2:11
    recorded: May 24, 1967
    release: Columbia LP CS 9644

9. I’m Not Living Here
    (C. Boettcher)  2:26
    recorded: March 6, 1968
     release: Columbia LP CS 9644

10. Musty Dusty
      (C. Boettcher)  3:12
      recorded: October, 1966
      release: Columbia LP CS 9644

11. The Truth Is Not Real
      (G. Usher)  2:46
      recorded: January 26, 1968
      release: Columbia LP CS 9644

12. Artificial Light (Of All The Living Lies)
      (E. Levitt-A. Badale)  2:49
      recorded: March 6, 1968
      previously unissued

13. Get The Message
      (M.Z. Gordon-J. Griffin)  2:48
      recorded: April 24, 1967
      previously unissued

14. Mass #586
      (G. Usher)  2:50
      recorded: November 6, 1967
      previously unissued

15. Love’s Fatal Way
      (Boettcher-Naylor)  2:49
      recorded: October, 1966
      previously unissued

16. My World Fell Down (mono single version)
      (J. Carter-G. Stephens)  3:45
      recorded: February 9, 1967
      release: Columbia single 4-44163

17. Hotel Indiscreet
(mono single version)
      (M.Z. Gordon-J. Griffin)  2:20
      recorded: May 24, 1967
      release: Columbia single 4-44289

18. Lonely Girl
      (S. Salisbury)  2:33
      recorded: August 7, 1968
      previously unissued

19. The Keeper Of The Games (demo version)
      (C. Boettcher)  1:47
      recorded: March 19, 1968
      previously unissued

20. Sister Marie
(instrumental version)
      (D. Morrow)  3:19
      recorded: March 21, 1968
      previously unissued

Mixed and mastered by Bob Irwin at Sundazed Studios, Coxsackie, NY.

Project manager: Tim Livingston

Booklet design by Janet Atkins/Sundazed Music

Photos courtesy of the Sony Music Photo Archive, Sundazed Music, Dawn Eden, and Clark and Steve Besch

Original sessions produced by Gary Usher & Curt Boettcher

Original sessions engineered by Roy Halee & Tom May

All musical arrangements by Gary Usher, Curt Boettcher and Keith Olsen

All vocal arrangements by Curt Boettcher, other than “My World Fell Down”, arranged by Gary Usher

Original album cover design by Tom Wilkes

Sundazed would like to thank: Jeff Jones, Adam Block, Jim Gavigan, Harold Fein, Jamie Reamer, Risa Kantor, Doug Wygal, Susan Breitel, Dawn Eden, Marguerite Hisen Debra Parkinson, John Naatjes, Al Quaglieri, Bob Wolff, Clark Besch, Gary Usher, Jr., Chuck Girard, Yoshi Nagato, Christopher Peake, Dominic Priore, Michael Z. Gordon, Valley Center Studios.

(Original album) special thanks to: Curt Boettcher, Michael Fennelly, Lee Mallory, Doug Rhodes, Joey Stec, Keith Olsen, Ron Edgar, Glen Campbell, Bruce Johnston, Steve Clark, Roy Halee, Richard Burns, Craig Butler, Tom May, Paul Wyatt, Al Newell, Phil Masey, Bob Brown, Sandy Salisbury, Bill Keane, Craig Brewer, Dave Burgess and Joe Johnson.

In fond memory of Gary Usher and Curt Boettcher

A 28575
Sony Music Special Products
© 1997 Sundazed Music, Inc.
(P) 1997 Sony Music Entertainment Inc.
Manufactured by Sony Music Special Products / 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022-3211 / “Sony” Reg. U.S. Patent & TM Office Marca Regitrada/WARNING: All Rights Reserved.  Unauthorized duplication is a violation of applicable laws.

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