OK, you might be wondering - who's Jeff Kagel and what's he got to do with the Soft White Underbelly...?
A few years back, a Google search on "Soft White Underbelly" started throwing up mysterious references to a certain "Jeff Kagel" (aka "Krishna Das") who was claiming to be their original singer but who subsequently left the band to pursue a path to spiritual enlightenment.
From what I can tell, Krishna Das originally made the claims in his autobiography, "Chants of a Lifetime", and this was later made into a biopic ("One Track Heart"). The New York Times even did a large feature on 'the singer who turned his back on rock'n'roll stardom'...
I decided I'd better try and find out some more about him, given that I was planning to do a section on the band on this website and had never previously come across his name...
If you have anything to add to this page, please let me ...
Ok, before I get into it, here are a couple of examples of the sort of information that is out there on the internet if you look for it:
In 1969, a Long Island-born bus driver named Jeff Kagel came close to learning the truth of those words the hard way. Kagel, an aspiring singer, had a daunting decision to make: join a newly signed band called Soft White Underbelly, thereby fulfilling his lifelong dream of being a rock star, or follow his heart by moving to New Hampshire to be with his spiritual teacher Ram Dass (who, in his former incarnation as Harvard professor Richard Alpert, had also discovered that prestige, accolades and worldly accumulations didn't add up to a state of fulfillment).
Kagel chose the holy path. Soft White Underbelly soon changed its name to Blue Oyster Cult, and Kagel was renamed Krishna Das by his and Ram Dass' guru, Neem Karoli Baba. Krishna Das, who is convinced that the rock life would have led him to an early meeting with the Reaper, is now known as "the rock star of kirtan" (call-and-response devotional chanting).
Krishna Das' intriguing tale is chronicled in his excellent book "Chants of a Lifetime" and in the new biopic "One Track Heart".
... and this:
While he dreamed of becoming a rock'n'roll singer, Krishna Das couldn't imagine that as a viable career path for "a white Jewish kid from Long Island." But in his second year at Stony Brook University, he hooked up with a fledging band of freshmen calling themselves the Soft White Underbelly - though they'd later achieve heavy metal dominance as the one and only Blue Oyster Cult.
"It was okay," Krishna Das recalls, "but they were young kids just starting to smoke dope and I was on the way out of that, at least at that period. So we weren't really jiving and I quit."
KD headed north to the State University at New Paltz, with a goal of pursuing his growing interest in Eastern Philosophy. He was soon disillusioned by academia and dropped out. It was at this driftless stage that he met Ram Dass, the spiritual writer/teacher who would forever alter his path.
In the spring of 1969, Ram Dass invited Krishna Das to join him in New Hampshire. Before heading north, he made one more trip down to Long Island, to attend a Jimi Hendrix gig at his alma mater of Stony Brook, where he hooked up with a number of his old friends, including Sandy Pearlman, now the producer/manager for the Soft White Underbelly.
He invited Krishna Das to rejoin the group on their album and upcoming tour and just like that, Krishna Das found himself standing smack in the middle of the crossroads, facing the most significant choice of his life.
But to Krishna Das, the choice was clear and he chose to spend the next year traveling across the country as a student of Ram Dass...
So, the story, as Jeff tells it, has two distinct stages:
OK - I'll now look at both of these separately in more detail ...
The first task then is to try and find out when exactly this first stage might have happened.
I asked Jeff Kagel himself to see what his memories were, to see if that might give me any clues:
I think I was the first singer when the band got started by John Weisenthal, but I don't remember much.
I think I taught Donald a few chords as they were all just starting with their instrments and I had been playing guitar for a few years.
I had traded some hash for a Epiphone Crestwood Deluxe guitar and wanted to move from Folk Blues to Rock.
But the "boys" were just getting into smoking weed for the first time and I was just finishing with it so it wasn't a great match.
I asked him how did he first hook up with the band?
It was via John Wiesenthal. I was a student at Stony Brook. Must have been after school started in Fall 67...
John asked me to come and join. I don't think I played guitar with them. It was for a very short time (maybe a few weeks at the most). I don't think they were even called "Soft White Underbelly" yet.
Albert Bouchard was there. Andy, forget last name played bass. Of course Donald.
I left school and transferred to another college at the end of the school year. Was gone from the area by June 68...
I asked Albert Bouchard:
The person who probably knows the most is Pearlman. I really don't remember him that well.
I think he sang with the group when Joe Dick was the drummer, before me, and Pearlman might have considered him when he started feeling frustrated with Les while we were making that first Elektra record.
If it was pre-weed then it was definitely before me. ;-)
So, if it was pre-Albert, that'd make it before mid-September or so, 1967. I asked John Wiesenthal for clarification:
The Kagel encounter was more like an audition. He may have sung with the band more than once and I thought it was a really good match because he had a strong and convincing blues mojo. I think Albert nixed the marriage.
Buck added his thoughts:
Kagel sort of jammed with the Underbelly, but was never officially in the band. It was before it officially was a band... but there wasn't much to it, in fact.
So, from what I can make out, Jeff Kagel "sort of" auditioned pre-September 67 but nobody seems to have much memory of that. Jeff says he remembers Albert but Albert says he thinks it must have been before his time as he doesn't really remember him, so Jeff must in fact be thinking of Joe Dick, not Albert.
Buck himself suggested as much. However, the situation is made a little murkier by Jeff adding this:
Just remembered something. Jackson Browne came to NY for the first time and came out to meet his old friend John W at Stony Brook.
He also met the boys and when he was asked to do a gig for Andy Warhol, he and the boys went into NYC to rehearse.
It was at that point that I left the band. Whenever I see Jackson, I tease him saying that he stole my band.
Now, this seems to be confusing things somewhat.
Jackson Browne's first trip to New York was around March 1967 - he famously made the trip East with his pals Greg and Adam, and stayed with Steve Noonan.
John Weisenthal was actually instrumental in arranging a Lounge gig for him on Sunday 19 March 1967 at Stony Brook with Steve Noonan and Tim Buckley (mixed by George Geranios, incidentally).
Tim Buckley had been appearing at The Dom with Nico, but quit after a week, and Jackson Browne had been filling in for him throughout March. John Weisenthal went into NY to see Jackson perform but there no question of "the boys" going in to NYC to "rehearse" - there was no band in March 1967 - Albert and Donald were still up in Potsdam playing with the last embers of Travesty.
So Jeff Kagel can't have quit The Underbelly at this stage as clearly there was no Underbelly yet.
After the Dom gigs, Jackson then returned to LA only to later come back to NY initially to perform with SWU but ended up playing just the one gig supporting Judy Collins at Stony Brook on 24 Feb 1968.
Working backwards, the assumption can be made that Jackson's NYC return was probably around the end of Jan/start of Feb 1968, around the time Les joined.
So - could the Jeff Kagel episode be later - around the end of Jan 1968 and the 2nd Jackson Browne trip to NY?
The problem with this is that the band were well established by then, and Albert had been installed as the drummer for the past 5 months or so, and Albert insists "Kagel" was "before me"...
So, all I can think is that Jeff is a bit confused over the exact sequence of events - he was friends with John Weisenthal and naturally would have known of John's interest and friendship with Jackson Browne and Jackson's first trip to NY.
He would also have heard about Jackson Browne's second trip to NY from John also (Jeff was at Stony Brook until June 1968), and clearly the two episodes have become a bit mixed up in his recollection.
Right the second stage...
The big story for me came a little later, in the spring of 69.
The way I remember it was that they had finished recording an "album" and had all the tracks done, but found that the guy who had replaced me, named Les, couldn't sing in the studio.
I had been living up in New Paltz, driving a school bus and came back down to Stonybrook for a Jimi Hendrix concert.
After the concert we were all hanging out and Sandy Pearlman asked me if I would come back to the band, cut the vocals and then go out on tour.
I really wanted to do it, but I was on my way to hang out with Ram Dass (Richard Alpert of LSD fame with Tim Leary) who had just returned from India.
I had found something in Ram Dass that I had been looking for my whole life... a spiritual connection, you might say, and wanted to move in that direction.
So I had to say no to the band.
I always thought Donald was a unique and special musician and guitar player. He had a way with melody, even in the milieu of hard rock, and I thought he was a genius.
Well, this information nearly holed my research below the waterline before I even started due to the simple fact that Hendrix only played the once at Stony Brook, and that was on 9 March 1968 (with Soft Machine).
When you consider that the Elektra tracks were recorded January 1969, and Les was having his vocal overdub problems around - so far as I can tell - March 1969, then clearly the two timescales do not mesh.
The Hendrix gig was clearly a year earlier, so if Jeff Kagel came back to college to see a gig in 1969, it wasn't Jimi Hendrix.
Here's all the gigs that were held in Stony Brook during that period:
07 Feb 1969: Earth Opera
08 Feb 1969: Arlo Guthrie, Flatt & Scruggs (2 shows)
16 Feb 1969: Jethro Tull, Mountain
07 Mar 1969: Jeff Beck Group, Savoy Brown
08 Mar 1969: Blood, Sweat & Tears
21 Mar 1969: Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespe
19 Apr 1969: Ten Years After, Taj Mahal (2 shows)
02 May 1969: Chuck Berry, James Cotton Blues Band, Slim Harpo (Carnival Concert)
03 May 1969: The Band, Soft White Underbelly (Carnival Concert)
07 May 1969: Byrds (Graduation Dance)
It would have to have been one of these shows if the gig Jeff came back for was at Stony Brook at this time...
Anyway, whatever gig it was, the question remains - whilst Les was still the singer of the band, did Pearlman really approach Jeff Kagel to be the singer - or, at least, to audition again as singer - and to actually redo Les's vocals on the Elektra recordings...?
I asked Buck if he knew anything about this...
I may have been aware of Pearlman's overture, but forget if I was. Never considered Kagel as a possibility.
So - not a "yes", not a "no"... I'll put him down as a "maybe"...
Well, that's pretty much all I know - so far as I can tell, then, Jeff Kagel may well have auditioned to be the singer in the very early stages of the band's formation, but as this page bears testimony, a number of other people also tried out for the role. Many are called but few are chosen...
It's hard to get to the bottom of whether or not Pearlman actually tried to re-recruit him in 1969, but - according to Albert - both Meltzer and Pearlman also tried out again as vocalist once Les was gone - despite them having already supposedly lined Eric Bloom up for the position...
I actually looked through copies of the Stony Brook Statesman magazine for any background info on Jeff, and he is mentioned a number of times, but always in the context of the basketball team, for whom he seems to have performed with distinction. My presumption must be, then, that he was somewhat taller than average...
So therein may lie the real reason for him not joining the Underbelly.
I remember once, back in the 70s, when I had the good fortune to interview Joe Bouchard, I asked him straight out: what happened to Andy Winters - at that time, I had little knowledge of the SWU back-story - and Joe replied - perhaps jokingly - "Andy was too tall for the group..."
Maybe Jeff Kagel also fell foul of this (unwritten) rule...?