Evolving from The Captives, an earlier incarnation of the band, The Children of the Mushroom played all over Ventura County, California. Dennis Swanson (nee Christensen), however, chose to quit the band while it was still evolving. Though his group remained popular, Swanson decided he could no longer "be in a band anymore and stay alive." Thankfully, the lifestyle he lived during the latter part of the of the '60's hasn't negatively affected Swanson's views on the overall experience. He now fondly recalls his days as a rock and roll drummer as "wonderful memories."
Guitarist Jerry McMillen, too, has bittersweet memories of his days in The Mushroom. The primary creative force of the group, McMillen now realizes that "the public acceptance of our music gave me the breath of life." Having only recently learned of the cult status of the band, he's now working on restoring some of the band's unreleased recordings, and in preserving the history of the band via a DVD project.
Al Pisciotta joined The Children Of The Mushroom after their formation but in time to play on the band's classic single. Though he hasn't touched a guitar in over 30 years, he considers his time as a member of The Mushroom a "great experience." Along with Jerry, Al is preserving the legacy of the band by creating a CD of the group's music. And, according to Al, "we still sound hot!"
An Interview With Jerry McMillen, Al Pisciotta and Dennis Swanson
60sgaragebands.com (60s): How did you first get interested in music?
Dennis Swanson (DS): In the 1950's, my mother wanted me to play the accordian, which I did for two years. She was from South Dakota and perhaps was influenced by Lawrence Welk. I wanted to play the drums like Cubby on the MICKEY MOUSE CLUB, but Mom won out for a while. I began listening to all the '50’s groups on the radio. Elvis was a favorite then. I remember putting in coins to listen to Rock Around The Clock at a local hamburger joint in Torrance, California. It must have bothered all the patrons as I put in several to just play the song over and over. The overall big influence for me was The Beatles hitting America. I would listen to my little transistor radio while weeding the back lawn for my step dad, waiting for their music to come on radio station KRLA.
I began having a desire to get noticed by the girls. I was not a sports hero so I thought it was cool how all the girls were leaping on the rock stars and decided that would be the way to go. The point when I made the decision to get into a band was seeing The Beatles on THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW. I was on a church youth group progressive dinner the night this happened. The band bug bit me very hard. Also one big factor…I used to go to the recreation center in Thousand Oaks where Casey Kasem from KRLA hosted name bands. I was too shy to dance, so I just studied the drummers that came through. Thus I am a self-taught drummer. I could never stick with lessons worth a darn.
Jerry McMillen (JM): My mom played music - mainly piano - although she could strum a few chords on guitar. She used to hold choir practice at our home in Thousand Oaks. I can’t recall ever hearing her play anything other than hymns, so I did not realize the significance of her influence while growing up. She wanted me to learn to play an instrument, so in 1964, against my step dad’s wishes, she bought me an electric guitar; a Fender Mustang. I wasn’t really that excited at the time; I don’t think I had an amplifier yet. My best friend, Mark Mainer (who later played bass for Kaci and The Undertakers) was learning some chords from his brother Mike, so I picked up some beginner stuff from him. Around that time a song came out on the radio by Kai Winding called Apache. That vinyl 45 RPM was a lightning rod event for me. I spent days in my bedroom figuring out how to play the chords and melody note for note! Other guys around the neighborhood were starting to play as well, so we’d get together and trade snippets of songs. Good instruments were few; I jammed with a drummer for a little while who used cardboard boxes for drums. When the British rock invasion happened, I gave up The Four Seasons for the "Fab Four" and started to get serious.
Al Pisciotta (AP): I was a friend of Jerry’s and he got a Fender Mustang guitar. He and another friend of ours, Mark Mainer, started to learn how to play from Mark’s older brother, Mike. It looked pretty fun and Jerry asked me if I wanted to play bass, and that he would teach me to play. I said that sounds good - plus girls went wild about bands. I think it was Jerry’s Dad that took us to down town Los Angeles to the pawnshops and I bought an Imperia Bass guitar. It was a Fender look-alike. Then we where on our way.
60s: Was The Children of the Mushroom your first band?
DS: Yes. This was the only rock band that I was in, although the name of the band when we first got to gather was The Captives. Jerry McMillen and I went through several name and band member changes together. Later he married my sister, Peggy, and became my brother-in-law. I left the band in 1970.
AP: If I remember correctly, the first band was The Captives. I was in eighth grade. However, I remember the people in the band where Jerry; Mark Mainer on guitar; Grant Pastore with just a snare drum (and he used the cardboard case for a bass drum); Pat Wilnow - who was in class with me - played saxophone. I think we started in the winter months and played through the summer learning songs. I remember playing at our eigth grade dance and the girls screaming. I was involved in sports and when high school started I played football and baseball. It was then that Pat changed to guitar and I kind of left the band. Then I think Mark was asked by another band to play bass and he left, as well as Grant. I do not know how Jerry met Dennis. They started to play with Dennis’ friend, Mark McKean. I was not in the picture at this time. Pat left, and I was between sports and Jerry asked if I would like to start to play again. Mark McKean moved to rhythm and I played bass. This is when we really started to play gigs and sounding good.
JM: The first "named" group was The Captives. Formed in November 1965, the band consisted of: Jerry McMillen (lead guitar and vocals); Pat Wilnow (rhythm guitar); Mark McKean (bass and vocals); and Dennis Christensen (drums). We weren’t too good at first, but we had spirit and played anything our budding musicianship would allow. The core members, Dennis Christensen and I, stayed together through name and personnel changes until 1970. The band continued into the early-'70s under the name Lady.
60s: When was The Children of the Mushroom formed?
DS: As best as I can remember, the year was 1965, during my Junior year at Thousand Oaks High. Jerry McMillen sat behind me in a class; we just started talking about our desires to play music. He had been singing and playing guitar (he already had a white Fender Mustang and a Vox amp) with another fellow. I had been playing drums with sticks on books, and eventually purchased a red set of drums from a mail order catalog store. My neighbor, Mark McKean, and I got together. Mark could sing and had an electric guitar. Jerry asked us to come over to the Conejo Oaks School auditorium where his mom worked to practice, and thus the band had its humble beginnings. Jerry asked his friend, Al Pisciotta, to play bass at this time. We knew when to shut down practice…when the Ventura County Sheriff's officer drove up.
JM: Pat Wilnow left The Captives in May 1966. Mark McKean switched to guitar and Al Pisciotta took over on bass. We dabbled with a keyboard player for a short while named Mark Amparan, but geographics separated us. In July of '66 Mark McKean left the group and was replaced by Scott Lee on guitar and vocals. We were improving as musicians and realized that we needed a fuller sound. In December of 1966 a pivotal event occurred. We met a kid from the immediate neighborhood who said that he played the organ. He was only 14, and didn’t have a portable keyboard but we decided to meet and listen to him play at home. He had one of those console Hammond organs with all the bells and whistles. I can still remember how I felt when he sat down and gave us a full note-for-note rendition of The House of the Rising Sun, complete with a bass line on foot pedals. With his parent’s permission, he got a Vox portable and a Silvertone amp and joined the group. In March of 1967, The Captives became Children of the Mushroom. The band members at that time were: Jerry McMillen (lead guitar and vocals); Dennis Christensen (Ludwig drums); Al Pisciotta (Fender bass); Scott Lee (guitar and vocals); and Bob Holland (Vox organ and backup vocals)
60s: Was that the line-up that recorded the 45?
DS: On the 45, the members were as follows: Jerry McMillen on vocal and lead guitar; Bob Holland on vox organ (through a Silvertone amp). Bob was a music genius. He also added to the music composition; Al Pisciotta on Fender bass (played through a Fender Basemen amp); and me, Dennis Christensen, on Ludwig drums. We had a rhythm guitar player for a short time who is on the record and picture (I would have to do some research in the old school annual for his name). Scotty was guitar player and singer a short time just before the 45 was developed. Scotty's dad had been in several old cowboy films with Ronald Reagan. Jerry recruited Jim Rolfe a short time after our 45 came out. Jim was one of the very best lead guitarists around. Having Jim enabled us to play songs from The Iron Butterfly and beyond.
JM: Shortly after we changed our name to Children of the Mushroom, and prior to recording the 45-RPM, Scott Lee left the group. Paul Gabrinetti replaced him in May 1967. At the time the recording was made, the group consisted of: Jerry McMillen (lead guitar and vocals); Dennis Christensen (Ludwig drums); Al Pisciotta (Fender bass); Paul Gabrinetti (guitar and vocals); and Bob Holland (Vox organ and backup vocals).
60s: Where did Jerry locate Jim Rolfe from?
DS: I believe Jim had been in another local band. I just cannot seem to remember the details too well.
JM: Jim Rolfe was an important creative force in the evolution of The Mushroom, composing much of the later material. He was in another local group called Colors and as I recall we met at a Battle of the Bands. Actually, Jim replaced Paul Gabrinetti in the spring of 1968. Paul performed on the record. Scott "Scotty" Lee had left the group nearly a year prior.
60s: Who named the band? Was there any drug connotation to it?
AP: Jerry named the band. I do not know if he had talked to the other guys, but I remember that he just came out with it. I don’t know if it was drug related.
JM: It was a collaborative effort. The name was a tremendous boost to our creative spark. As I recall, we created the name Children of the Mushroom with an innocent, almost naïve motive. None of the band members knew anything about psychotropic drugs [then] and it took some time before we realized the full impact of the name. The meaning went far beyond the simple drug connotations, signifying the mushroom clouds of the nuclear age.
DS: We used to spend time out in the garage trying to think of catchy names. When we started, we were The Captives and it just had to change. We knew the developing music style needed a psychedelic name, thus ‘Children of the Mushroom’ was born (we later changed the name to just The Mushroom). None of us at the time of the 45 were doing drugs. We agreed early on and decided we would not smoke, drink, or do drugs. That did not last, of course. Drinking seemed to be our biggest vice. Jerry began playing the flute and as the music evolved toward Jethro Tull we renamed the group Lady. I believe they laid down some album tracks after I left the group in 1970.
60s: How long did Lady continue without you?
DS: I believe they went on for a short time. My life had taken a turn for the better and after I left I did not look back. I never did see the band again.
60s: Where did the band typically play?
AP: We played schools and rec halls, mostly. Our sound got too big for parties.
DS: We played in all of the surrounding high schools in Ventura County and at as many parties, etc. as we could. We opened for The Peanut Butter Conspiracy one time out at the California Lutheran College auditorium.
JM: What an age we were living in! High school and teen dances, free concerts, outdoor festivals, Battle of the Bands, flower happenings…Amazingly, we received invitations to play all over Ventura County and beyond. Dennis stated that we opened for The Peanut Butter Conspiracy at CLU, but actually it was Sweetwater. That night we had to rush home, scant minutes before the show to retrieve cymbals, which had been left behind.
60s: Did The Children of the Mushroom participate in many Battle Of The Bands?
DS: Yes, we played at a few battle of the bands in the beginning. We did not like doing these. Later we would play only as a featured non-participating group.
AP: We played several Battles and usually won. It came to a point that the other band wouldn’t play if we did. Then we were the host band at Battle of the Bands. I remember selling out the Melody Movie Theater as the featured band.
JM: Battles of the Bands were a great part of the times, and a fond memory, but how do you compare folk music to rock, or blues, or acid? When we played in those "battles", we played what we loved. We gave the audience our essence; what we felt; what we were; what we loved, and we didn’t care who won or lost.
60s: What were some of the other locals groups around at that time?
DS: The California Grassfield. The Undertakers - and a few others I just can't seem to pull them out of my head.
AP: There was a group called The California Grassfield that were good, and we were good friends with them. It is because of us that they also recorded a single.
JM: The California Grassfield. These guys emulated and covered The Buffalo Springfield. Excellent musicians and singers, they were later known as Fresh Air. Also, Colors (Jim Rolfe’s previous group); Tim Buley’s Blues Band (still performing today); The Union Bookstore; Kaci & The Undertakers (My friend, Mark Mainer); The Bleu Forest; Flying Circus. Thousand Oaks was a hotbed of musical talent at that time. There were many other groups we knew about and/or battled with.
60s: Did you play any of the local teen clubs?
DS: Yes. We played as many clubs parties and school dances as we could. There were too many for me to recall easily.
AP: We played a lot of larger hall in the San Fernando Valley and in our home town of Thousand Oaks.
JM: We were really the most comfortable in concert type settings as opposed to small clubs. We needed room on stage… We played at several of the popular clubs at that time, but it was simply not our venue. I recall one particularly disastrous performance in Hollywood at one of the most popular clubs at that time. The house was packed and the "go-go" dancers were all caged up. I don’t think they knew what hit them! If I remember correctly, we played what we called The Mushroom Theme, a surreal, 7-minute acid rendition of Sheherazade. To say the least, the crowd was in awe… You couldn’t dance to it, and in that environment couldn’t "smoke" to it, so the only thing to do was ignore it.
60s: How far was the band's "touring" territory?
DS: Our record was reported number two in some Texas markets. We were asked to go on tour, but as a couple of members were still in high school, that ended that.
AP: Mostly Ventura and Los Angeles County. About 100-mile radius.
JM: I believe the band would have done well on a professional tour. We would have been pushed harder to hone our material. Our 45 RPM record (as reported by our agents) did very well in a few parts of Southern California and reached number two for a brief period in Southern Texas. As I recall, we petitioned our promoters to send us on a limited tour of the El Paso area, but it was cost prohibitive and there were parental permission issues.
60s: How would you describe the band's sound?
AP: We went to see The Iron Butterfly at the theater in the round in Woodland Hills and we where all blown away with their sound, and their musical ability. We then started to write our own music that had a big sound and was much innovative.
DS: We played Light My Fire by The Doors. I believe we sounded just like they did. Then we would go to see The Iron Butterfly play at the Valley Music Center in Woodland Hills. Jerry did visit them at one or two of their practices. We did In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. Again, I believe we did it as well as they did. After that we did only our own music. Jethro Tull did influence us also when Jerry began playing the flute.
JM: We evolved the sound of the band through playing cover tunes by, among others, The Doors and The Iron Butterfly. All of us were becoming more proficient at our instruments by this time and Bob Holland was a pivotal force during this growth period. We learned to play the long version of Light My Fire with solos intact, which brought us almost instant local notoriety. One memorable night we all went to the Valley Music Center’s "Theatre in the Round" to see The Iron Butterfly. I think it was the first rock concert Bob Holland had ever attended. Upon arriving home, we discovered that he had photographically memorized one of their songs, You Can’t Win. A few lyrics were yet to be filled in, but that gave us a cover tune by The Butterfly even before their first album, Heavy, was recorded.
60s: The FUZZ ACID & FLOWERS website reports that it's rumored that Jerry possibly sang on Iron Butterfly's first LP. Is there any truth to this?
DS: You will have to ask Jerry on that one. Sometimes a little mystery is fun.
JM: Frankly, I was surprised when I discovered that there was some mystery surrounding this. When Darryl DeLoach (known as their contortionist) left The Iron Butterfly, I contacted them and asked if I could audition as a replacement. Darryl was a fabulous performer, but his singing voice was lacking. I thought I could add a modicum of both to the group. Unbeknownst to me, The Butterfly had lost more than Darryl; Danny Weiss (killer guitarist) had also left the band. During our casual telephone conversation, Ron Bushy gave me their address and asked me to "come on by". He told me that they were "in transition" and were working with a new guitar (former violin) virtuoso named Erik Brann. I arrived early in the day, and sort of "dressed" for the occasion, hoping for a chance to perform. To say the least, I was intimidated just to be in the same house as the guys who, in my opinion, were the most innovative band in existence. I spent most of the day with them. Ron Bushy kept prodding the band to start a practice session and "check me out", but sadly that moment never came. Maybe I was overdressed…
"Darryl with Jerry" refers to Jerry Penrod, The Iron Butterfly’s original bassist.
60s: Did The Children of the Mushroom have a manager?
DS: Bob Suchy, our schoolmate. Then we were approached by two record executives whose names I have forgotten. They were responsible for our recording our 45.
AP: I do not remember a manager, but a friend of Jerry’s, Bob Suchy, looked out for us.
JM: Bob Suchy, my sister’s high school sweetheart, "managed" us for a while. More an advocate than a manager, he has always been a fan and an inspiration. In retrospect, maybe a professional manager would have been beneficial, but we were hard to handle, knew just what we wanted to play and didn’t give a damn about what most people thought. During the period when the single was recorded and promoted, Dick Parker and Dick Torst of 2D Productions provided a lot of input, but in a recent discussion with Dick Torst, he said: "We were already in our 30’s, and you guys were so young… the youngest group we ever worked with, and one of the best. We realized that we were somehow just the tiniest bit out of step with what was 'happening'. We decided to take a small step back and observe." Torst and Parker were looking for local talent, and we were gaining a reputation as one of the best bands in the area in terms of writing our own stuff. I believe they invited us to hold a practice session at their house and liked what they heard. They were also intrigued with the name. Dick Torst made the original sketch for what later became our logo.
60s: Your 45, You Can't Erase A Mirror b/w August Mademoiselle, was reportedly recorded in the same bowling alley studio that The Iron Butterfly recorded in. Where exactly was this?
DS: It was in the Hollywood area, I believe.
AP: I don’t think it was a "bowling alley studio" but it wasn’t Capital Records either. It was called Nashville West, because I think it was on the corner of Western Blvd. in Hollywood. It was in the same building that a popular teen TV show called NINTH STREET WEST with host Sam Riddle was produced. And, by coincidences, it was the same studio that The Iron Butterfly did some songs in.
JM: It’s true we recorded in the same studio as The Iron Butterfly; It was in the Hollywood area. Maybe Al Pisciotta remembers. He was always a good one for details.
60s: What do you remember about the recording session?
DS: I remember caravanning down in a couple of cars. It was our crowning moment. We recorded several tracks. It took all of one Saturday to do it. I remember having Kentucky Fried Chicken out on the curb for lunch. I made it back to town in time to take my girlfriend at the time to the 101 Drive-in Theater in Ventura. The "real" moment came when we were driving across town a time later and heard our record on the car radio. What bliss!
AP: I do not remember a lot about it. I think it was a Saturday, and we had something to eat sitting on a sidewalk somewhere. The session seemed to take a long time. I remember that they where doing the TV show (NINTH STREET WEST) and some of the crew came over to listen to us.
JM: We were so excited and apprehensive and just plain scared, it’s understandable that we can’t remember where we were, much less what we were doing there. We were babes in electro-toyland. There is a memorable sequence close to the end of You Can’t Erase A Mirror (this is the track the band wanted on the A-side of the record). While capturing the guitar track, an unexpected sound was caught on tape. Listen to the very end, where the organ and guitar are interacting in a harmonic/vibrato bar exchange. What is that mysterious snap with the echo effect?
60s: Who wrote the songs that comprised the single?
DS: I believe Jerry wrote the words and was mostly responsible for the tunes. Bob Holland, our keyboard player, was also an influence.
JM: Bob Holland wrote the lyrics and most of the music for August Mademoiselle. The lyrics for You Can’t Erase A Mirror and the melody lines for both songs were mine. Bob and I partnered to create the musical compositions for both songs. This is not to diminish in any way the creativity of the other members. We were a band; we collaborated to create many of our own compositions.
AP: I believe that Jerry and Bob wrote the songs on the single. I still have two copies. I think that we had about 10 or 15 original songs, and most of them where over four minutes long.
60s: Do any (other) '60's Children of the Mushroom recordings exist?
DS: After I left the band I heard they were trying to record an album.
AP: Yes. I have five songs and a jam session on tape that I am making a CD of - and we still sound hot!
JM: There are other recordings of Children of the Mushroom that still exist. They are "garage" recordings of the band during one or two practice sessions. The quality is questionable. We are attempting to assemble them for our own retrospection. Thanks to Mike Dugo and Hans Kesteloo for prompting the search. The master tapes for our single were sold to SOHO records. In my recent conversation with Dick Torst, he lamented the fact that they (2D Productions) did not return to the studio with us. There were no other (professional) recordings of our material.
60s: Did the band make any local TV appearances?
AP: There was a local station that did a half hour show that we were in. I doubt if that still exists. I don’t think anyone had movies either.
DS: I know we were filmed by a television crew at Rio Mesa High. They were filming a documentary about what the rural farm kids did for entertainment. Rio Mesa was out in a rural section of Ventura County. The Santa Barbara station of KEYT might have had a hand in the filming or it might have been a network crew from Los Angeles. As a 17-year old I was only interested in seeing us on TV. I did later see it on television.
JM: I had forgotten about the TV filming at Rio Mesa High. I have been doing some investigation but the footage is, for now, unavailable. I am currently working on a DVD compilation / anthology on the history of the band. Its contents are, for the moment, a secret.
60s: How popular locally did The Children of the Mushroom become?
JM: The band was a local phenomenon. We were playing music that was out of the norm. The Vietnam era was in full swing and the kids were hungry for something…
DS: We became very popular in Ventura County and had quite a following. I remember signing a few autographs and I autographed some of my many broken sticks.
AP: We became very popular; everywhere we played, it was packed.
60s: Why did the band break up?
JM: We never really "broke up" in the '60’s. In late ’69 or early ‘70 Bob Holland left the group and Lady was born. The band consisted of: Jerry McMillen (vocals and flute); Dennis Christensen (drums); Al Pisciotta (bass); Jim Rolfe (guitar); and Larry Wiseman (keyboards). Changes came swiftly after that, with many new players coming and going, but we continued to write and perform original music until the mid-'70’s.
AP: We played a lot and practiced a lot and I think we just over did it. I probably should have been more focused in the band, but I still played sports in high school and liked to hang with my friends. I think that we were all so young that it was hard to do any gigs that were during the week and or had alcohol involved. Dennis was the old man at 18, Jerry was 17, Paul and I were 16, and Bob was only 14. That made it tough to perform.
60s: Why did you leave the group, Dennis?
DS: The '60's life style broke me into pieces in 1970. Toward the last year or so that I was in the group we had lots of parties: The drinking, smoking (you know of what), grabbing for all the ladies, etc. One day I started having a breakdown. That’s when God found me and helped me out. I just couldn’t be in a band anymore and stay alive. God found me and my life took another direction.
JM: It was difficult to replace Dennis. He was a powerful presence both on and off stage and we had been together from the beginning. After much searching, Denny was replaced by Tom Galella. Lady continued to write and perform original music into the mid-'70’s.
60s: What have you done musically since The Children of the Mushroom?
DS: I played for the People’s Church Choir. I toured London with them. I played in Trafalgar Square in London. I was the drummer on the Christ Church worship team.
AP: I laid off playing for a while. Jerry had a band called Lady. They had some personnel changes and once again, he asked if I would like to join. They were real good and now had Jim Rolfe playing guitar. I think we became better than The Mushroom. I still have some recordings of Lady and I think they would sell in today’s market. I also played with a band of college guys when Lady wasn’t playing. They played dance music and Top 40. They weren’t the best musicians, but they always played jobs. It was just a fun band. The funny thing was they were all over 6 feet tall and I am only 5’6". But they always played.
JM: Children of the Mushroom became The Mushroom in 1968. The Mushroom reformed and became Lady in 1970 and continued into the mid-'70’s. The late '70’s and early '80’s was a dismal time for me in terms of creativity. I was with several other groups during those years with very good players but they were mostly unremarkable cover bands.
60s: What keeps you busy today?
DS: I am not currently active in a band. My eight kids and eight grandkids keep me busy. I haven’t played in a while, but still would like too if given an opportunity.
AP: I haven’t touched a guitar in over 30 years, although I still have my bass and once in a while my daughter brings it out and makes me play it. Funny thing - I still got it!
JM: I have not performed in public for many years. Kaly, my POSSLQ of 15 years (Person of the Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters) had never heard any Mushroom music until recently. My daughter, 35, and two sons, 15 and 18, have still not heard any of the Mushroom or Lady material. That is about to change. I do have an acoustic guitar that I strum on occasionally, but lately I’ve been thinking about how nice it would be to play a solid body electric again. Kaly and I own and manage several investment properties in Oregon, which keeps us quite busy, but not that busy…
60s: How do you best summarize your experiences with The Children of the Mushroom?
DS: I have wonderful memories. We did of course have to deal with band politics. We became very popular, very fast and were caught up in the lifestyle. I’m glad that I was able to go on in life, given my state at the end of my time with the band. I'm glad we did not get more famous as I think I would not have been able to live through it. I would like to thank my wife, Cheryl Swanson, for her help in putting this together.
JM: My memories of those days are bittersweet in many ways. I grew up in an intensely chaotic family, which left me searching for identity and meaning. Creating and performing within the protected camaraderie of the band along with the public acceptance of our music gave me the breath of life.
AP: When I look back, it was a great experience. I wish that we, or at least that I would have been, smarter and taken better advantage of it. It was a lot of fun. I still think that if we had been older, we would have been real successful and famous.
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