It’s A Beautiful Day, with their soaring, unforgettable “White Bird,” were an anomaly among bands of the San Francisco psychedelic scene of the late 1960s. With David LaFlamme’s violin as lead instrument, and the keyboards of Linda LaFlamme (now Neska) as the solid foundation, they stood out. Their debut album on Columbia Records is now a bona fide classic. But then, things went South for the band and for Neska personally. She spoke with Richie Unterberger about those days for PKM.
In early 1968, the band It’s a Beautiful Day were in Seattle, remembers original keyboardist Linda LaFlamme, “in a band house that was very old, freezing cold. There was no food, there was no money, nothing. I was seven months pregnant. The first week that we were up there, I had the electric piano out. I was sitting on the bed, and just started playing some chords. And David [LaFlamme] turned around and said, ‘Do that again.’ ‘White Bird’ was developed through us just working together for about two hours.
“The song kept shifting. There came to be a middle part, and whatever I would lead with chords, David would take it, so that the words on that song were mostly David, I think. The chording was me; the melody was both of us. The song kept evolving, but that was the birth of ‘White Bird.’ When we finished after two hours, David and I looked at each other, and we knew we had a beautiful song.”
White Bird- It’s A Beautiful Day -1968
Within a few months of teetering on the edge of poverty and starvation, It’s a Beautiful Day would be one of the hottest emerging bands on the exploding San Francisco psychedelic scene. When it was finally released as part of their debut LP around spring 1969, “White Bird” became the band’s signature tune—the one by which they’re by far most remembered. Of all the groups from the era who are mostly known for just one track that wasn’t a hit single, It’s a Beautiful Day might be the most celebrated such act, and “White Bird” one of the most fondly regarded such tunes.
You’re the first person that’s ever asked about my input, what happened in the group. How all the music happened.
Yet there was more to It’s a Beautiful Day than “White Bird.” Their combination of bittersweet male-female vocal harmonies, David LaFlamme’s violin, and Linda LaFlamme’s haunting, jazz-classical-flavored electric keyboards both fit in snugly with the San Francisco Sound and distinguished them from the many other Bay Area groups trying to make a mark in the late ‘60s. Linda, however, wouldn’t be around to enjoy most of their notoriety as their fame spread beyond Northern California. Not long after their first and best album was completed, she was out of the group, as her marriage and musical partnership with David LaFlamme ended.
Of all the ‘60s San Francisco bands to gain national success, It’s a Beautiful Day is one of the most sketchily documented. In part that’s because, as I’m surprised to hear her tell me when we talk a couple years ago, “You’re the first person that’s ever asked about my input, what happened in the group. How all the music happened. They usually ask David, and it’s not been as accurate as I remember it.”
Besides playing organ, electric piano, harpsichord, and celeste, Linda—who now goes by the name Neska—shared songwriting credits with David for three songs on their self-titled debut. Her contributions have been overlooked, in part because she’s sometimes confused with a different Linda LaFlamme. After their marriage finished, David LaFlamme wedded a different woman named Linda, who became part of It’s a Beautiful Day. Neska was the Linda LaFlamme who played with them for the first couple years, not the one who began singing with a different lineup in the late 1990s. When finally approached for her memories of It’s a Beautiful Day’s early days, she had a lot to divulge.
Like many San Francisco psychedelic bands, It’s a Beautiful Day’s core founders weren’t from a rock background. Unlike many of those other core founders, they weren’t from the folk world, either. Neither Neska nor David LaFlamme were in rock bands when they met in 1963, marrying the following year. “I moved out to San Francisco, where a friend introduced me to David, who came over,” she explains. “When he walked in, I was totally flabbergasted by his wonderfully good looks. He brought a piece of music, and I had a piano in the studio apartment. He said, ‘Can you play this so I can sing it?’ It was ‘Laura,’ the name of his grandmother.
“So I sat down and played, and he sang, and that was it. I was in love. I don’t know what David was, but I thought he was in love,” she laughs. “We just clicked. So David started singing with me playing, just a few gigs. He met this man who decided he would have a fabulous career doing promotional shows—they wanted entertainment for the executives. So they hired David to sing, and a band would play.”
As the San Francisco psychedelic scene took off, the LaFlammes’ music took a turn for the more radical. “He met a group of guys – one was an oboe player, one was a cellist. Standup bass [by Jaime Leopold, who’d go on to play with Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks]. One was a drummer, Terry Wilson [later in the Charlatans]. David on violin, and on guitar was Bobby Beausoleil.” That’s the same Bobby Beausoleil who’d kill Gary Hinman in 1969 as part of the Charles Manson Family murders; back then, he was one of many struggling San Francisco teenage rock musicians.
Beausoleil and LaFlamme were part of the Orkustra, a sort of mélange of rock, classical, and avant-garde free-form music. The band didn’t release any records before splitting in 1967. But on the basis of recordings from that year that came to light on an archival release nearly four decades later, they were a rather inaccessible experimental outfit presenting instrumentals with a somber, sometimes darkly menacing ritualistic feel.
As a short item in the Daily Californian (the paper of the University of California at Berkeley) reported, “According to members of the Orkustra, ‘If you describe music, you put a fence around it. We don’t.’ Their music is not classical, Eastern, folk, or rock, but somewhere in between or beyond.” Some ads even billed them as an “electronic chamber orchestra.”
As for what Bobby Beausoleil was like back then, Neska simply comments, “He lived with us for six months, and I thank god still today that we got out of that alive.”
According to Neska, “Rock was in there, but all of those musicians, except for Terry Wilson as I remember, were classically trained. So it was a very unique sound. Also with Bobby Beausoleil, there was the rock influence. But it was classical rock, almost, I guess I would call it. Except they were really leaning toward the heavy rhythms.”
One of the pieces on that 2006 archival LP Light Shows for the Blind, “Bombay Calling,” was developed (with much alteration) into a track on It’s a Beautiful Day’s debut. However, it’s not surprising the Orkustra didn’t develop a following to rival their song-oriented competition. Beausoleil and “David had such egos that when they would go onstage at small clubs, it was truly who could outdo the other.” As for what Bobby Beausoleil was like back then, Neska simply comments, “He lived with us for six months, and I thank god still today that we got out of that alive.”
“Bombay Calling”-The Orkustra:
Neska was “managing the group for a while, so I got them gigs.” When they got the door takings at one club, she laughs, “We had a quarter left over. It was like, well, how should we divide this 25 cents? That group didn’t last super-long, but evolved into David asking me, ‘Will you play with us?’ I know he hesitated in asking me, because he wasn’t sure what that would lead to as far as his relationship with me. I said ‘Yeah, I’d love to.’ That led to the beginnings of It’s a Beautiful Day.”
It’s a Beautiful Day Dawns
Neska thinks they were still called the Orkustra when she started playing with them, but then “the oboist left, and the standup bass left. So it was really David and I and Terry Wilson, the drummer. David playing the electric violin was such a unique instrument that Matthew heard about us.” That was Matthew Katz, who’d managed Jefferson Airplane in their early days, later managing Moby Grape and working with less celebrated acts like Tripsichord Music Box and Indian Puddin’ and Pipe.
Katz would have a rocky relationship with It’s a Beautiful Day, but played a vital role in launching the band. He “called David and I into his office and said, ‘What can we do? What can the three of us do to get a band together?’
“Matthew said, ‘I already have the name of the band. One of my hobbies is naming bands and writing them on paper.’ He pulled his middle desk drawer, and took out sheets of paper on which he had written names of bands that he thought were terrific. He said, ‘I was thinking the name It’s a Beautiful Day for you.’ We said, ‘Sure.’ I wasn’t in love with the name, because it was during the Vietnam War, and I wasn’t thinking that it was such a beautiful day.
“And Matthew said, ‘let’s audition some musicians,’ and we did. We wound up with [bassist] Mitchell Holman and the drummer, Val Fuentes. And Matthew had this young girl singer, Pattie Santos, who had a phenomenal voice.” Still a teenager, Santos “was going to Catholic school. And we formed a band.
“I’m trying to remember who outfitted the group, and it had to have been Matthew. I was holding down a day job at a doctor’s office. Then we would rehearse afterwards. I had my own organ, and my own speaker for that organ, which was a rare speaker. Matthew had rehearsal space; that’s where we rehearsed. We were working out some songs.
“So Matthew said, ‘Well, what we need to do is, we need to have you rehearse. And then I’m going to take you all up to Seattle where you can get some experience playing. I have a theater up there that I run shows with.’ We were not really playing out yet.
“When we did go to Seattle, we lived in a band house that was very old, freezing cold. We had, I think, three rooms. David and I slept in one room, Mitchell and Val were in one room, and I think Pattie had her own room. There was another band in the house, and there might have been another two people in the house. It was filled. It was freezing.”
That at least gave the LaFlammes some down time to write some material, notably “White Bird.” Although their personal relationship would soon come in for stormy times, Neska has little but glowing praise for their musical collaboration. “I had a grand piano at the time in our apartment, and at night, we would sit down and start playing. We had no idea where we were going. We were on such a beautiful wavelength that it was orgasmic. We’d play until three or four in the morning, and be exhausted when we finished. Not from heavy playing, but from what was coming through. We were both so connected.”
He said, ‘I was thinking the name It’s a Beautiful Day for you.’ We said, ‘Sure.’ I wasn’t in love with the name, because it was during the Vietnam War, and I wasn’t thinking that it was such a beautiful day.
Both LaFlammes brought elements into It’s a Beautiful Day’s sound that were highly exotic for the time. Electric violin had been used in rock before their first LP, most notably on “Celeste” on Donovan’s classic 1966 Sunshine Superman album; guitarist Simon Nicol occasionally played the instrument in Fairport Convention’s early days. The Velvet Underground’s John Cale used viola to good effect in some of the group’s early songs, and the psychedelic-era Animals made violin a big part of some of their late-‘60s arrangements. Yet no full-time violin player had taken such a key role in a rock group prior to David LaFlamme when It’s a Beautiful Day emerged.
“It took the place of the guitar in our group,” says Neska. “It was the lead instrument.” Getting it heard in a rock group made some modifications necessary.
“When it first started, David was using his regular violin. Who knew about pickups for the violin? So [Rodney] Albin”—brother of Big Brother & the Holding Company bassist Peter Albin—“made this violin for David, which was a beautiful piece of art, I must say. It also weighed like 50 pounds,” she laughs. “It was a solid body. David finally said, ‘I can’t play this anymore. We have to do something.’ That was when pickups were coming out, and David put a pickup on his violin.”
Both he and Neska brought considerable dashes of classical flourishes into the ensemble, but with a rock sense of swing, Neska also adding some of the jazz and blues she’d also played before the group began. The melancholy folk-rock and male-female vocal harmonies so typical of the early San Francisco Sound both made the experimentation accessible and placed the band squarely in the zeitgeist of the city’s psychedelic scene. Never was this more memorable than in the lilting “White Bird,” which was at once mournful and uplifting.
“David had been trained classically,” she points out, and “had wanted to be asked by the Utah Symphony to play in the symphony, but he was too young. David is a genius violinist. He’s a genius fiddle player. Whatever he heard in his head he could really execute.
“What we didn’t realize is that we were connected so musically that we were not connected in the sense that you would say, married people had this love. I mean, I loved David. But our connection was so through the music.
“So I would get on the bus in the morning and go to my work at the doctor’s office, which was how ‘Hot Summer Day’ [one of the songs on the debut LP on which the LaFlammes shared the songwriting credits] came about. I was riding the 22 Fillmore [bus in San Francisco], looking out the window, and the words just went through my head. I got to the doctor’s office, phoned David, and said, ‘Write this down.’ He came up with the middle section. Then he would come in and we would mess around with the chords. He would come in with a melody.”
It’s A Beautiful Day – Hot Summer Day
The third song with LaFlamme co-writes on the first LP, “Girl With No Eyes,” also “came lyrically to me. It also came musically to me the first part, ‘cause I could hear it in my head. Then David took that and he expanded it.”
It’s a beautiful day – Girl With No Eyes
She also remembers making contributions to other songs that formed both the bulk of their early repertoire and the backbone of the It’s a Beautiful Day album. Like “Wasted Union Blues,” which was “all David, except when I came in, he said, “What can you do for the beginning of this? I came in with the piano lead-in, and that got the beat of the music going. But those lyrics were David’s. ‘Bulgaria,’ that was just David and I playing like we used to at three in the morning, and that just came about.”
But while Katz had done his part to get the band going, It’s a Beautiful Day wouldn’t work with him for long, in part because of an incident in Seattle involving another act he represented. “Moby Grape played,” in Neska’s account. “The lights were turned down so low that somebody in the audience said, ‘You know, man, can you turn up the lights? You can’t even see the group.’ And Matthew did not turn up the lights. But somebody got behind stage and did turn up the lights. And it was not Moby Grape playing. He was passing off this group as Moby Grape. Everybody got their money back, and we didn’t get any money to get back home.”
Subsequently “John Walker was able to scrounge up enough money to get us back home, and became our manager. That’s when It’s a Beautiful Day started taking off. We got gigs at the Avalon and he went to Bill Graham, and Graham said he would pay for our union fees, and we would just work ‘em off. But he would get those done right away so we could start working the ballrooms. That’s when we really were born” – though Katz wouldn’t disappear from the It’s a Beautiful Day story.
“I don’t know what happened to Matthew,” Neska muses. “I don’t know if Matthew was so frustrated that he wasn’t top gun – he went crazy. Matthew used to come over to David and our apartment, and sit and talk until one in the morning. He was an incredibly interesting man who’d done so many things in his life. I really loved him. David did too. We had wonderful evenings together, speaking evenings. And it just went south.”
The Rise of It’s a Beautiful Day
Neska wasn’t just busy with It’s a Beautiful Day and changing management in early 1968. Her daughter Kira was born in March, though she and the group kept gigging before and after the birth. “We played the Matrix”—one of San Francisco’s most crucial rock clubs since Jefferson Airplane started playing there in summer 1965— “when I was about eight months pregnant, with Jefferson Airplane. After each song, I would excuse myself to go to the ladies’ room.”
After It’s a Beautiful Day started to raise their profile with some shows at the Avalon in late March and early April, they made their first known recordings. Four demos were cut at the Avalon Ballroom itself on April 9, three of them (“Girl with No Eyes,” “Bulgaria,” and “Wasted Union Blues”) of songs that were redone for the debut album. The fourth, the rather atypically good-time country-shaded “Countryside,” wouldn’t make it onto their studio LPs, though a live version appears on the 2013 CD Live at Fillmore ’68.
“Countryside” – It’s A Beautiful Day, live at the Fillmore West, 1968, song starts at the 18-minute mark:
Oddly, “White Bird” wasn’t demoed at this session, though an unofficially circulated version identified as an April 1968 Avalon concert recording has. Taken at a markedly slower, more stately pace than the arrangement used on the debut LP, it was even at this early stage the obvious highlight of the band’s set.
Considering she didn’t have much experience in rock groups, Neska made a remarkably quick transition to playing electric keyboards in a psychedelic band. Her forceful, ingenious work comes through more strongly on 1968 live recordings than it would on the LP, particularly on the Live at the Fillmore ’68 CD and a half-dozen Fillmore shows from May and June that can now be heard (for a fee) at wolfgangs.com. Her deft use of eerie, mysterious embellishments with shades of jazz and classical isn’t all that dissimilar from what Ray Manzarek was doing in the Doors, though imbued with her own sense of restrained grace. She could also pump with a furious groove, as heard on some of the more extended breaks the band would take in a live setting.
“Most keyboard players back then, as I’m recalling, [would] mostly fill in chords until they would solo,” says Neska. “David made sure there was always space for everybody to get some kind of solo.” She was able to generate an especially rich sound by using both a Wurlitzer electric piano and a Hammond organ onstage, often playing them at the same time. “The electric piano would sit on top of the Hammond organ,” she notes.
“That must have been quite a schlep to haul around to clubs,” I remark.
“When we first started out, we were living on Potrero Hill,” she elaborates, the group even sharing a basement rehearsal space across the street for a time with another promising unsigned band, Santana. “The drummer would take his [instruments] over to the club earlier in the day. Everybody else would bring their instruments and their speaker. We’d wait for the bus on the corner. We’d get on with our instruments, and I remember everybody was just looking, like, ‘Okay.’ Later on, we got a UPS truck so we could load our instruments on the truck and take it to the gigs.” The lengthy route from Potrero Hill to the Fillmore is still traveled by the 22 bus in San Francisco. Anyone who’s taken that crowded line knows both how hard it would be to take not one but two electric keyboards on and off the bus, and how nearly impossible it would be to even find space for that and the other band instruments once they got onboard.
The organ was a Hammond B-3. It had that mid-range speaker. Al Kooper came to me once and said, ‘I’ll pay anything you want for that speaker.’ And I said, ‘It’s not for sale, Al.’
Adds Neska, “The organ was a Hammond B-3. It had that mid-range speaker. Al Kooper came to me once and said, ‘I’ll pay anything you want for that speaker.’ And I said, ‘It’s not for sale, Al.’ It was such an old speaker; there wasn’t a mid-range speaker for organs. So it was like a gem. I was very honored that Al Kooper would think that my organ speaker was really cool. I always thought that was flattering to my organ.”
Their ex-manager wanted the instrument too, for different reasons. “Matthew once, when we were playing the Avalon, said he was gonna go in and take all the instruments, because they really were his. Because he fronted the money for them. The Hell’s Angels found out, and when we got to the Avalon Ballroom that evening, before we started playing, there were Hell’s Angels lined up all in front of the stage,” she laughs. “If Matthew tried to come in, they were just gonna stop him. Probably kill him.”
As the live tapes reveal, by spring 1968, It’s a Beautiful Day were playing sets almost identical to the track list of their first LP, along with a few songs (“Countryside,” the uncharacteristically bluesy “Changes”) that wouldn’t make that cut. (As “Changes” included a lyric that used the phrase “fucked-up,” it might have had a hard time gaining official release anyway, at least in uncensored form.) The length of these would get pared down considerably in the studio, but they were playing with tight cohesion for a group that hadn’t been together long, and in some cases were new to rock and/or even performing before an audience. For this, Neska gives generous credit to her ex-husband.
“David is an incredible arranger,” she feels. “David had a real fabulous knack for arrangements. He knew how to put them together. We really were attuned to listening to each other. [Guitarist] Hal [Wagenet], particularly. I don’t know that Val and Mitchell had that same perception in listening. I’m not saying that they were bad players. It wasn’t so much the drums and the bass; it was really the guitar, the piano, and the violin.
“Hal brought a sensitivity. Hal really worked on his guitar parts. He wasn’t one of these people that would improvise on parts that he was playing with other musicians. He would improvise on his solos, and even then, worked very hard to make sure it’s what he wanted. So Hal brought his own unique sound. And he really listened to what the other members were playing, particularly David, particularly the piano, so that he just knew how to fit it in. Brilliant guitarist, very conscientious guitarist. He had a beautiful touch.
“And Pattie was just so sensitive a singer. She had this wonderful voice that she and David could really work their harmonies. She had a great ear for harmony, and for playing the tambourine and all of those rhythm instruments. And she was great onstage. She was a very wholesome kind of performer. She looked like a very wholesome 18-year-old, you know what I mean? She didn’t dress rock and roll-ish. That in itself I think was very unique as well. ‘Cause she wasn’t a Janis Joplin dresser. She wasn’t into that kind of shtick. It was just straightforward.”
We had no idea where we were going. We were on such a beautiful wavelength that it was orgasmic. We’d play until three or four in the morning, and be exhausted when we finished. Not from heavy playing, but from what was coming through. We were both so connected.”
Even at this early stage, there was one song that stood out above all their others. “We would play ‘White Bird’ and yeah, that was the song,” Neska acknowledges, though “Time Is” also got a big response. “I think it’s because it was so different from what was being played out there. It was a much more gentle song. It didn’t have a huge rock beat. That violin was different, and Pattie and David’s harmonies were different. I don’t know what people thought ‘White Bird,’ the phrase itself, meant. I got told, ‘oh, White Bird means cocaine,’ and all of these interpretations of what White Bird meant.
“The funny thing, that song is so simple. Because it really has three chords, and it’s written in the key of C. I always thought it was an incredibly simplistic song. Somehow it just worked.” When they played it at the Fillmore, according to a San Francisco Examiner piece by Philip Elwood, Ray Anderson’s Holy See light show surrounded them “with a film of white birds and white surf and blue sky.”
For “Time Is,” Neska continues, David “had read an anonymous poem in a magazine, and he just loved those words. And brought the words and said, “What can you do with this?’ I said, ‘There’s a classical piece written by Samuel Barber that is perfect for this.’ So I played the first part of Samuel Barber’s “Four Excursions.” I just played the first line…it set the rhythm of the song. David came in, and just started singing, and that song was born. It was not given proper credit on the album. Many of the songs weren’t given proper credit, I’m sorry to say. And a couple of musicians were very pissed, I should say.”
“Time Is” – It’s A Beautiful Day:
Signing to Columbia
With a strong original repertoire and a fast-building reputation in San Francisco now that they’d played numerous shows at the Fillmore and Avalon, record labels started to express interest. “Two people were very interested in the group – Lou Adler, and Columbia. Columbia had transformed a bus into a recording studio. They drove it up to the Fillmore, recorded us and whatever groups were at the Fillmore that night, and then sent us a letter that they were very interested. And would we like to come down and talk with them?
“We knew Lou Adler was interested and thought, ‘well, we’ll go talk to Lou Adler, and we’ll go talk to Columbia Records.’ So we drove down to Los Angeles, playing a gig at Whisky A Go Go. We got to Lou Adler’s, and Peggy Lipton was just walking out the door. We all stood there dumbstruck, like, ‘Oh, can we get your autograph?’
“We walked into Lou’s house, and I still to this day have not experienced that kind of stopping at the door, gasping for air at the beautifulness of this house. The wood was sent over from Spain. You walked over this little bridge, then around the swimming pool, and then came to this very open-spaced living room. All wood. And sitting there is John Phillips. He left, we talked to Lou Adler, and it was a wonderful experience. I’m sorry we chose Columbia. myself. But at the time, Columbia was the bigger company.
I don’t know what people thought ‘White Bird,’ the phrase itself, meant. I got told, ‘oh, White Bird means cocaine,’ and all of these interpretations of what White Bird meant.
“We then went to play our gig at Whisky A Go Go. Clive Davis came in wearing a turtleneck and a string of beads, or two string[s] of beads. After our gig, he and David split off and did some talking. They talked about contracts etc. Then David brought the information back to us. It was a session between Clive Davis and David. We made the decision to go with Columbia because they were the bigger company.”
Yet it was about a year before an album would hit the stores. The delay had much to do with their ex-manager. “Matthew owned our name,” says Neska. “The lawsuits against It’s a Beautiful Day were fast and furious. Then when he decided to drop them against It’s a Beautiful Day, he still has some going with David. David’s whole life has been one lawsuit after another from Matthew. Matthew told me he would never sue me individually, that he was only after David. And David has never been able to get out of it.”
Back in 1968, “where we got into sticky wicket was since Matthew owned the name, they immediately told Columbia, as they would have told Lou Adler, you cannot use the name. We had a decision to make – whether we were going to change our name to something like Beautiful Daze. But we had already built up a following, in San Francisco at least, that knew us by the name It’s a Beautiful Day. I don’t know if we knew that there was gonna be such lawsuits. Maybe we thought Columbia was going to back us all the way, which is what they did.
“But Matthew was absolutely certain that [we weren’t] going to be It’s a Beautiful Day. So that started a lot of terrible stuff right off the bat. Financially, it started a war. There were lawsuits, and ‘you can’t use this,’ and ‘you can’t use that.’” In a weird twist, the San Francisco Sound label issued a single credited to It’s a Beautiful Day, pairing a different version of one of the songs from the LP (“Bulgaria”) with “Aquarian Dream.” Neska doesn’t remember the song “Aquarian Dream,” doesn’t think the single was done by the lineup in which she played, and adds, “there are some recordings that sound like us but are not us. Matthew was notorious for that, unfortunately.”
The It’s a Beautiful Day Album
By the time they did manage to get into Columbia’s Los Angeles studio, there were some differences between the band as they sounded on those spring 1968 tapes and as they’d sound on the It’s a Beautiful Day LP. Neska was able to use a wider range of keyboards. The songs—always longer in concert, and sometimes a lot longer—were shortened and tightened up.
In Neska’s view, “They really are the same songs we played onstage, except the instrumental [breaks] would go on longer. Or sometimes somebody would play two instrumentals. That was really the only difference, the shortening of individual solos. The body of the song was really the same.”
The studio had “a great piano. What was really fabulous was being able to play that concert grand piano, particularly on ‘Wasted Union Blues.’ I’m a very heavy left-handed player, so I love bass lines, and being able to do it on that piano, that was heaven. A lot of times, I would play the electric piano and the organ at the same time, so that there was a left hand on the organ, and there was a right hand on the electric piano. Because I didn’t want to put the electric piano on top of the concert grand piano,” she laughs, “I think I had it to my right, and I had the organ to my left. I could still maneuver the electric piano and the organ at the same time. And then there was the concert piano in the middle.”
“Wasted Union Blues” – It’s A Beautiful Day:
In keeping with the increasingly easygoing studio ethos of late-‘60s bands, the one guest musician made his appearance by happenstance. Bruce Steinberg, who took the heavily shadowed group picture in the LP’s inner gatefold and the back cover picture of the seagull, plays on “Hot Summer Day” “because he was just a friend. He also always carried around his harmonica. One day when we were rehearsing, he brought it out and played it. So then he started playing it on ‘Summer Day.’”
Although Neska was pleased with the album and feels “it represented us very well, I will say, it was a very hard time for me. Because David had fallen in love, and had just left Kira and I. So between my crying of tears and going into the studio to record, listening to the album just was like knives being stuck in my body. The sound was fulfilling; the sound was very good. But I couldn’t truly realize that until there was seven years of pain that stopped being painful. And I got cheated out of a lot of money.
“I can’t say anything positive about David LaFlamme as a human being,” she adds. “I can say very positive things about David as a musician. And that’s who he is. Because the rest of it is not good. It took me a long time to listen to that album. It’s a shame that the It’s a Beautiful Day album wasn’t glorious to me.”
The sound was fulfilling; the sound was very good. But I couldn’t truly realize that until there was seven years of pain that stopped being painful. And I got cheated out of a lot of money.
Released around spring 1969, It’s a Beautiful Day finally made their music available to the world beyond the West Coast, making #47 in the Billboard Top Hundred. An edited version of “White Bird,” oddly, did not chart as a single, though it made #5 on San Francisco station KFRC. The long version quickly became a staple on FM stations across the nation, and remained one for several years. It’s still the song for which It’s a Beautiful Day are known, and Neska has a story to illustrate its longevity.
“I live in Luray, Virginia,” she says. “It’s a teeny-tiny town, with two red lights. I’m in the grocery store, and this woman is checking out ahead of me. She turns around, looks at me, and said ‘wait a second, somebody told me that you were in the group It’s a Beautiful Day.’ That’s the song “White Bird,” right?’ I said yes. [For] about five minutes, she was just holding on to my arm going, ‘“White Bird,” that’s the most fabulous song I’ve ever heard,’ da da da da.”
Leaving It’s a Beautiful Day
While Neska says she was still in the group when It’s a Beautiful Day came out, she wouldn’t be on their three subsequent early-‘70s albums. She submitted her resignation with high drama, to say the least. “We were playing at the University of the Pacific. A full crowd, we’re playing onstage, and we’re now at the last song, ‘Time Is.’ It’s our big show-ender. You know how it’s really vibrant, and that organ is just blaring.
“And David, being the brilliant musician he is, but not the nice human being, starts yelling words at me that are very derogatory. I said, ‘You know what? I think I’ve had it.’ I just turned off the organ, and the bottom dropped out of the whole band. It was just this stunned – ‘What happened to the whole bass sound of this song?’ I walked offstage and said, ‘Bye.’ And that was it. I left. Yep. I think inwardly, the band applauded,” she laughs.
In a more somber tone, she adds, “I think musicians in It’s a Beautiful Day were much younger than I was. I must have been 29. They were like 18, 19, except for Hal, who might have been 22, 21. I think they didn’t know what to do when David fell in love [with another woman]. They didn’t know whether to support me, whether to say anything.
“So there was a lot of confusion going on. When I left, I think it was like truly a big sigh of relief that they didn’t have to face that. They might have been stabbing a band member in the back by not supporting me. So they were caught as well. And the band started getting into much heavier kinds of dope scenes. You’re probably not gonna believe this, but I was not a smoker of anything. Did not take anything back in those days. I was pregnant, I was not gonna do anything.
“So I think they were relieved. I think that when band members leave bands, for whatever reasons, the band that stays together is probably experiencing a much more free feeling. That’s my guess.”
if David and I had not mistaken this musical connection that we had—if we had not mistaken that for love and getting married—I think we would have remained a songwriting team until forever.
Fred Webb replaced Neska on keyboards for their next album, Marrying Maiden, which would be their sole Top Forty LP, though the debut remains by far the most popular item in their discography. (And never an easy one to find on CD, due to rights issues.) The sound of the band had changed too, and not for the better, though she remembers playing one of its most popular songs, “Don and Dewey,” when she was still in the lineup.
“I do think the sound changed drastically,” she maintains. “I think that if David and I had not mistaken this musical connection that we had—if we had not mistaken that for love and getting married—I think we would have remained a songwriting team until forever. Because it was, I’m telling you, it was high. [When] I left, that element, that songwriting team, that energy, that feeding on one another and fueling each other, and knowing exactly where we wanted to go – I mean, it was seamless – that was gone. I’ve had a lot of people tell me that the band changed.
“I will say that David also—this is my own opinion—is such a genius musician that somehow he seemed to settle for musicians that stopped challenging him. He seemed to go backwards and go to a safe place. I kept telling him, ‘David, you need to play with players who will challenge you. Because that’s when you get great. And you need to stop playing with people who are not as equipped as musicians as you are.’ There something in him that I think was frightened to do that. [It’s] like he was playing bubblegum music.”
“I think David was a phenomenal musician, I really do. I wish David and I could get together and make an album, that’s all. ….That’s one of my dreams that I do not think is going to happen, but I sure would love to happen.
If she’d stayed in It’s a Beautiful Day, what kind of directions does she think they might have explored? “I think we would have taken what we did on the first album and just gone even, perhaps in my mind, more rhythmic, more different rhythms. Different meters. More modern, maybe less harmonic here and there. Not as sweet. Maybe a little more brutal. The times we were going through in the ‘70s would have determined a lot of what we wanted to say. No telling where we would have gone, but for me, it might have been spacier. Maybe not so full of sound, but freakier.
“And maybe scarier. I would have loved to have taken it politically further. I’m very big on what’s going on in the world. We would have just expanded more. I would love to have been able to work with tympanis and – who knows? There are so many instruments. Harps. And yet keep it really simple. ‘Simply complex.’”
Neska did go on to join other bands, first Titus Mother, who eventually changed their name to A Thought in Passing. They didn’t release any discs, however, and wouldn’t have been confused with It’s a Beautiful Day, not least because they didn’t feature a violin, and had a jazzier and more political bent. When Bill Graham saw them at the New Orleans House in Berkeley, “one of the songs in the set was called ‘There Once Was a Time.’ Bill said, ‘That’s a top ten song, right there.’ I don’t know that he was thrilled with anything else, but he said, ‘That one is a Top Ten.’
“This is the last thing I’ll say on the group. A woman came up, she and her partner always came to our concerts. And this night, she came up to me and she said, ‘Don’t you ever play anything happy?’” Neska laughs. “I said, ‘Well, it depends upon your definition of happy.’ I thought that was one of the greatest comments I’ve ever heard. And she was probably right.” Neska also put out a solo single in the late 1970s, and has remained active as a teacher.
Despite the fraught circumstances around the breakup of their personal and musical partnership, she still maintains the highest respect for David LaFlamme’s talents. “I think David was a phenomenal musician, I really do. I wish David and I could get together and make an album, that’s all. Because I have some music that I would love him to play on, that I would love to work with him on. That’s one of my dreams that I do not think is going to happen, but I sure would love to happen. ‘Cause I really got high playing with David. No question.”
And while some of her memories of It’s a Beautiful Day are painful due to a messy ending, with the passage of half a century, they’re outweighed by some good ones. Like when they were support band for the first concert of Cream’s final American tour in October 1968 at the Oakland Coliseum. “We go onstage, and of course all the instruments tune up to the organ, ‘cause you can’t tune the organ. There’s eight million thousand people – that’s what it looks like, looking out. I press an ‘A’ to tune the instrument, and as soon as I played the A, the audience started screaming and yelling and clapping. I don’t think they ever heard another note. I know I didn’t. At one point, somebody tripped over the electric plug, and it went off. I don’t think the audience even knew it. It was so funny. I could not stop laughing.”