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Iron Butterfly's Ron Bushy
Making History

Words by Jonathan Mover

It’s summer of 1968 and every day, from what seems like every radio and every record player in the entire universe, countless times you hear it: Diggy diggy dum dum, dum dum - diggy diggy dum dum, dum dum - da dum… And it seems to go on forever, burrowing its way into the reptilian part of your brain, way down deep where flashier stuff like Mitch Mitchell’s jazzy fills and rolls cannot penetrate.

It’s a simple but effective drum solo, one that every kid with a pair of sticks can play. Hell, you don’t even need sticks; countless kids pound it out on their desks in school: Diggy diggy dum dum, dum dum. But nothing lasts forever and eventually, time paves its way for something new. Which is too bad, because after all the hoopla dies down and some perspective is gained on the history (such as it is) of rock ‘n’ roll, Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” and its drum solo remains one of the most recognized moments ever recorded.

And it’s popular, too, as its multi-platinum status clearly shows. It may not have the snob appeal of, say, one of Jack DeJohnette’s denser forays into advanced polyrhythmic sub-atomic particle physics, but a whole lot of people bought a whole lot of copies of it, and drum solos with that kind of social impact are few and far between. And while we’re at it, after you listen to the “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” solo, doesn’t Ringo Starr’s solo on Abbey Road sound a bit, well, imitative? I’m just asking.

Ron Bushy, creator of said solo, currently lives in Los Angeles, and after a lot of ups and downs in the music business, is back drumming with Iron Butterfly in an effort to keep it alive and moving forward.

 


 

From The Beginning
DRUMHEAD: You’re the reason I play drums. How many times have you heard that before?
Ron Bushy: I hear that every time I go out and play a concert. It’s just amazing, you know. I’ve played drums since ‘66 when the Butterfly formed.

DH: How did it come together? Were you schoolmates or neighborhood friends?
RB: No, no. We were actually kind of arch enemies. I was in a band called The Voxmen, and there was another band called the Palace Pages. The Palace Pages actually played at a couple of the same places we played.

DH: In San Diego?
RB: Out in El Cajon, which is part of San Diego. I was in The Voxmen, and Doug Ingle, Danny Weiss and Henry Penrod were in the Palace Pages. We were just arch enemies; it was weird. But anyway, the two bands played a couple of dates together and then I didn’t hear anything about them for a while. Later I heard that they went to L.A. to “make it,” but I don’t think they had changed the name to Iron Butterfly yet.

I had an NSU Prince, a little red car. I could actually pick it up, lift it up and park it that way. I totaled that car, and from the money I made, I took my band, the Voxmen, to L.A.

So, we got up to L.A. and we found a couple of guys that I had known in the Palace Pages. They were playing this club called Bido Litos. Their drummer’s mother got sick, so he had to leave and go back to San Diego. The guys asked me to come and sit in, so I did. I sat in one night at Bido Lito’s and they all turned around and said to me, “you have to be our drummer.” Now, you know, I was really very loyal — I make a decision and that’s it.

But they just pressured me and pressured me to join the band. So I said OK. And what happened was the drummer from Butterfly – I think his name was Jack – he liked the music of The Voxmen better, so we just traded gigs and I joined the Butterfly. We played at Bido Litos six nights a week, five sets a night, and we got really tight.

The Glamorous Life
From there, the guitar player met this girl who did stunts in the movies. She had connections, and she hooked us up with Dave Winters, who was a dancer — he was in West Side Story — so he came down to see us. At the time we weren’t exactly living the American dream: we were actually living upstairs in Bido Lito’s; I slept underneath the desk in the office, Daryl slept out on the roof, Doug Ingle slept in the girls’ bathroom, and I don’t remember where Jerry slept.

DH: So you guys were the house band at Bido Lito’s.
RB: Yeah. We were playing six nights a week, five sets a night. We played there for six or seven weeks. Got paid $125 a night for the whole group, and there were five of us!

DH: Those were the days.
RB: Yeah, but during the day we could go downstairs in the cellar where the stage was, and we could practice and write songs. We got really tight, and that was that. We got a great underground following, and one of the nights, after we were playing at Bido Lito’s, we went down and played one set at the Whisky A Go Go. Elmer and Mario hired us then and there as the house band.

DH: That was quite a step up.
RB: Oh, yeah, it was like, boom! Instantaneous. It was just amazing. So, we played there for 31 straight days as the opening act for all the big acts that came through town — The Doors, Buffalo Springfield, The Byrds, everybody from that time. But because all the hippies only got stoned and didn’t drink, the club didn’t make any money with that genre of music. So they decided to shut the place down, remodel, and open up and go to Motown, because the Motown audience didn’t get stoned; they drank and they spent money.

So we went two doors down from the Whisky to the Galaxy and played there for three months. That’s when things really started to happen.


 

DH: Your name got out, you got record company interest.
RB: Exactly, and we had everybody champing at the bit trying to sign us. I remember talking to Neil Young because they were signed with Green & Stone, a management and production company that had “ins” to Atlantic/Atco. Green & Stone had the Troggs, Springfield, Sonny and Cher. So we signed to Green & Stone, and now they had the Butterfly, too.

Butterflies & Zeppelins
DH: Were you called Iron Butterfly by that time?

RB: Yes.

DH: OK: Iron Butterfly — Led Zeppelin. Same combination: something very heavy and something light that flies. Any connection there?
RB: Yes there is. Obviously we were a band before Led Zeppelin, but Jimmy Page told me that basically their name was based off of us. As a matter of fact, I think Zeppelin’s very first date in the States was when they opened for us at the Fillmore East in New York.

DH: What was your impression of Bonham, seeing him for the first time when they opened up for you?
RB: The guy was awesome, you know, what can I say?

Using Your Heads
DH: What were you using for gear back then?
RB: I had a mish mash of drums. When we recorded “Vida,” I had a very cheap Pearl drum set. It was only three ply, really thin. So what I did was I took the bottom heads off and coated the inside with white fiberglass, putting the mesh in the empty holes that were there when I removed the bottom head and hardware.

I also started making my own drumheads because I was such a thrasher that I would break heads, sticks and cymbals almost once a night.

DH: What did you make your own drumheads out of?
RB: Here’s the deal. Remo makes their heads out of Mylar, but they’re heat treated. If you buy a sheet of Mylar that’s not heat treated and you hit it, it will split right down the middle. And I found that out real quick because I used to go to Cadillac Plastics in the Valley and buy stuff and experiment with it a lot.

I finally went to Remo, which was in the Valley at that time. I talked to him and told him what I wanted. He told me why they were splitting. So I would buy two or three extra clear bass drum heads. Then I would draw a circle on the head that I wanted to reinforce and cut a circle out of the bass drum head that was heat treated. Next I would sandpaper the head and the patch, take rubber-based contact cement, coat the section on the head, coat the patch and put them together. That’s how I started making my own heads. You’ve seen the black dots? That’s me a couple of years before they came out.

DH: So on a tom-tom, you would take the head as is, cut out a small hole from the bass drum head and glue it to the center of the tom with contact cement?
RB: Exactly. So a 12” head would maybe have a 5” dot. And it got such an incredible sound; it would almost sound like a tabla, and I wouldn’t break heads. And that was important because we were playing every night.

DH: This was in the days before endorsements, so I’m sure it was very cost effective.

Take One: The Solo That Sold The Song
DH: If we can talk a little about the solo. In a time when most drum solos were chops displays, you chose to go for a very tribal and more melodic solo. Was it a composed solo?
RB: No.

DH: Just off-the-cuff, improvised that night in the studio?
RB: That’s it babe, but it actually started as a country ballad and was originally only one minute and 20 seconds long.

DH: You’re kidding me – from 1:20 to 17 minutes!
RB: The first time we played it live, at the Whisky, it was eight minutes long. Then we went on tour all over the US with the (Jefferson) Airplane for three months, and we fine tuned it. We played that song in concert every night during that tour with a drum solo in it.

DH: Did you know the effects that they were going to put on it? Did you hear that in your headphone as you were playing, which could’ve influenced what you were doing?
RB: No, we did the flange and the phase shift before they had flangers and phase shifters. They did it in the studio by putting the speakers out of phase. When they mixed it down out of phase, they would go woosh and sound like they would swirl back and forth.

DH: How many takes did you do of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”?
RB: One take, first take

Seeing Red (or not)
DH: First take and that’s it. Unbelievable.
RB: After the tour was over, Atlantic was champing at the bit to get us to make a new album. We had already done half an album, so they sent us into Ultra Sonic, the studio where Vanilla Fudge and Young Rascals recorded.

We set up our gear and Don Casale, the engineer, asked us to run through a song so he could get some levels on the mic’s, so we did. But he wasn’t even in the room, he was upstairs watching through a window.

We didn’t even know we were being recorded. Unbeknownst to us, Don pressed the record button, but we didn’t know that because we couldn’t see that the red “record” light was on inside the control room. So we’re playing through the song, and thank god we didn’t stop.

After the first take of the song is over, we’re going, “Is this guy brain dead or what?” Then he said, “Guys, why don’t you come out and come on up to the control room.” So we went on up and listened to it, and we went, “Oh my god, this is great.”

DH: Did you record vocals and everything?
RB: A scratch vocal and scratch lead guitar, so all we did was redo the vocal and overdub the lead guitar, and it was done.

Who Did What
DH: What’s the origin of the song?
RB: Well, that goes back a few years. I was making pizza for a living, supporting the band, and Lee Dorman (Butterfly’s bassist) was hanging down there on the Sunset Strip with me. We came home one night with some pizza and beer. Doug was a little shit-faced, so I copped an attitude and said, “What the f--k did you do today?” And he said, “I wrote a song.” “Oh, OK then, let me hear it.” He had his little Vox Continental on the cocktail table and a gallon of Red Mountain wine. It was a buck forty-nine in those days, and there was nothing left. Needless to say he was f----d.

So anyway, I said, “Play it for me.” He played it and tried to sing it, and it was supposed to be “In the Garden of Eden,” but he was so drunk that it came out “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” So I wrote it down phonetically just like it sounded. The next day we woke up and looked at it. And it sounded really catchy: “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, in the Garden of Eden, In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” So we kept the title and then took it to rehearsal, started playing with it and messing with it. Before you knew it, it went from a one minute and 20 seconds country song to what it is today.

DH: A psychedelic masterpiece. Dare I ask: the drummer was actually the person who coined the phrase and wrote it down. Were you rewarded for it? Any publishing, especially with a “composed” solo?
RB: No. We were stupid and young. Doug Ingle gets all the money for that song. I’ve talked to him about it many, many times. But he owed so many back taxes that he’s still paying the government.

DH: It’s the same old story you hear over and over. So many drummers, and not just the young ones, but drummers in general, who are not melody writers or lyricists or part of a band that shares, are usually the last in the collection line for a pay out.
RB: I still get money, but nothing like Doug.

DH: Well, hopefully you can feel rich from knowing that there is a whole world of drummers out there playing because of you.
RB: That’s true, I keep hearing that. Thank you Jonathan.

Bongo Fury & Green Onions
DH: You were playing drums back in the mid-‘60s when music was really changing and rock was just beginning to be established, thanks to people like you. There were essentially no models to follow, so who were you listening to?
RB: The Beatles.

DH: Any jazz?
RB: No, classical.

DH: Really? How interesting, because you have a lot of swing in your playing. Especially in “Vida” where you have a quarter-note groove, and no eighth notes in between to give it that “lope,” as Jeff Porcaro used to say.
RB: I never had a lesson. I couldn’t read a note if my life depended on it.

DH: OK then, I won’t ask you to transcribe the solo.
RB: Good, because I couldn’t do it! And I play it a little different every time.

DH: So what classical are we talking about?
RB: Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky.

DH: So you didn’t study classical percussion, you just liked listening to classical music?
RB: I love listening to classical music. Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony is probably my favorite. Do you listen to classical?

DH: Quite a bit, actually. Wagner and Rodrigo are two of my favorites.
RB: Also, one of my favorite jazz albums was Dave Brubeck’s Take Five. That and Sketches of Spain by Miles Davis. I didn’t even play drums then, but I was listening to it when I was in college. You see, my dad and my mom didn’t like music. I would lock myself in my room and listen to Enrico Caruso, Mario Lanza, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky. The very first record I ever bought was “March Slav,” a little 45 and I had a Crosley radio, the little round thing. That was my baby. And I would just sit there for hours. For years I wanted to be an opera singer or a conductor. I would stand there in front of the speaker and conduct. I was just a little tyke.

DH: So what pushed you towards drums? Was it Ringo?
RB: No, no. It was a total accident. I think the thing that started me was the Preston Epps song “Bongo Rock.” It was mostly bongos, and when I was in college in San Diego, I saved my money to buy the best pair of bongos I could find.

DH: So you started playing quite late — 19 or 20, no later than that. And you had never played drums before?
RB: Never. And do you know what I learned to play drums to? “Green Onions” by Booker T and the MGs. I sat down at my little rental drum set and that’s the song that I started with, and one week later I was playing with my own little group. This was before The Voxmen.

DH: Wow, fantastic — a serious natural! How old were you when you joined Iron Butterfly?
RB: When Butterfly started I think I was 26.

DH: So, literally, within a year, you started playing drums, you were signed, recorded and out touring.
RB: Yeah, it happened like that. [snapping his fingers]

All That Glitters Is Not Just Gold
DH: Back to “Vida” again for a minute. Most people probably don’t know this, but you are the very first drummer in the very first band to receive a platinum record.
RB: Yeah, we were. They actually invented platinum for us, and I’ve got that record in my den. Ahmet Ertegun invented it for us, because nobody had ever sold that many albums before, ever.

DH: So it was Iron Butterfly who raised the bar.
RB: And now I have a multi-platinum record. I’m not quite sure I know what that means, but I have them on the wall.

DH: It means it’s well past two million and still selling, I’m sure.


 

Bushwacked
DH: The last actual Iron Butterfly recording, Sun & Steel, was done in 1975, when you had some new members in the band. What have you been doing since then?

RB: For a while, I wasn’t in music. Well, I was and I wasn’t. I built Bushwack Studios, which was a rehearsal/recording studio up in the Valley.

DH: So most of the time away from drums was spent running Bushwack?
RB: Yes.

DH: What brought you back to the drums and playing again?
RB: I was tinkering around with music, building the studio and in the middle of a divorce, which just freaked me out. So, I just immersed myself in keeping busy. Then I ran into Erik Braunn.

DH: The original guitarist?
RB: The second original guitarist. The first was Danny Weiss, who is amazing. Danny is on the first album, Heavy.

DH: Erik joined for In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida?
RB: Yeah, and he was only 16. Anyway, I ran into him at Jack in the Box and told him about Bushwack. He came down and loved it. He said, “I can get us a record deal at MCA,” so we got signed. This was around ’74 or ’75, leading up to Scorching Beauty and Sun & Steel. We got together with a different bass player and a different keyboard player.

DH: So when you and Erik got back together and started talking about reforming Butterfly, did you contact Doug and Lee to see if they were interested?
RB: Honestly, I don’t remember. We had our own little click at Bushwack; it was kind of like a symbiotic boiling pot for creativity, and a lot of great stuff came out of there.

Today’s Butterfly
DH: The original Vida line up of you, Lee, Erik and Doug got back together for the big Atlantic anniversary concert back in ‘88. What was that like?
RB: It was great. They taped it, but I never got a copy. I’d like to hear that.

DH: You’re out with Butterfly again, back with Lee and two new members [Charlie Marinkovich on guitar and Martin Gerschwitz on keyboards and violin]. What kind of audiences attend an Iron Butterfly show these days?
RB: It varies from little kids to 80-year-olds.

DH: Are there any plans to record a new album?
RB: We’d sure like to, but right now it’s just in the talking stage.

DH: Do you play any new material on the road or just the classics?
RB: You know, the problem is nowadays we have to play “Vida.”

DH: The same solo every night?
RB: No, it’s a little different each time. Basically the same, but always I play it a little different.

Woodstock or Bust
DH: I heard you were supposed to play Woodstock. What happened?
RB: Basically, we were in New York City at the Americana Hotel, waiting and waiting. Our semi with all of our equipment was in the parking lot, but we couldn’t get it onto that little highway up to Woodstock. So we spoke to The Who, and they said we could use their equipment.

But what happened was, because so many babies were being born and with all the health problems, they commandeered all the helicopters, which was the only way for us to get up there. We were scheduled to play on the last day, but we couldn’t get up there. We went down to the Port Authority three times and waited for the helicopter, but it never showed up.

DH: Did you have any idea of the size of Woodstock, what it was all about?
RB: No, it was just another outdoor gig for us.

DH: Makes you wonder how things might have been different.
RB: Oh, yeah, it would’ve changed our career, for sure.

DH: You’ve had quite an interesting life, and I’m glad to see it’s still going strong.
RB: If I had to do it all over again, I don’t think I’d change anything.

DH: Maybe just the transportation to Woodstock.
RB: Yeah, exactly.