Open Tunings

April News & Notes

With days warming, spring buds winking, and a Johnson & Johnson poke in my arm (thanks, Kaiser . . . I hope!), things are looking up. Things are also opening up, at least enough for me to realize two things. One is that, as a “gregarious introvert” — the charming name of my particular affective tribe, which enjoys animated socializing until the cocktail party turns around and eats my soul — I have gotten very used to highly constrained and only occasional fraternizing. I will need active retraining. Booze and beats should help.

The other thing is that I don’t want the protocols for sanity that I have developed this last year to disappear in the rush toward life beyond the nest. I am thinking here about my recommitment to guitar, which I have been mostly finger-picking, with a sort of desultory self-absorption, for four decades. I was in bands and stuff back in the day; as lead guitarist in the Revelators I performed at CBGB, and Roland Howard once told me I played like Karl Precoda. But for the bulk of my life I have improvised on a steel string set, mostly, to fairly standard open tunings. Kinda sad-sack elven-hippie raga-blues stuff, sometimes lovely and sometimes tedious. Once in a while I turn on the electronic shruti box for full sandalwood misterioso. If I am lucky, I get to jam once in a while with other noodlers.

Last year I started taking lessons for the first time since high school, on Zoom. The old ruts are filling with juice again, not so much disappearing as getting wiggly, long-forged patterns melting into a slurry of new possibilities. My teacher is a wise dude with a bit of Robert Fripp’s guitar metaphysician in him, and he has helped me reframe what I am doing when I pick up my Martin. Rather than playing guitar, I am practicing with it. I don’t mean rote exercises — though I do some of those — but something more like meditation practice: a daily commitment to disciplined method and unpredictable encounter, to emotional exploration and deconstruction, to attention and listening as much as to performance or “doing.”

My current challenge is seemingly the easiest thing in the world: recording myself. Since I improvise and rarely compose, write, or learn songs, almost everything I have done on guitar is a sand castle to the waves. But when I hit record, even when I am alone in my room, the playing that emerges is generally flat and uninspired.

I now see that playing guitar has been an act of escapism for me, in the specific sense of eluding the demands of productivity that otherwise rule our digital lives, not to mention my (sorta) creative life as a (sorta) working writer. As a music fan and sometimes critic, I take recordings very seriously. As such, recording has always associated with birthing a tangible product, something for others. These days, when recording devices are as fundamental to self-definition as clothing, that association has only intensified.

Without a recording device, without a plan or a plot, I was “free,” which also meant I could hide. A false freedom, or at least a rut. By recording and then listening to those recordings, I can gently upset my “habits of freedom” without unravelling the whole thing. I want the recording device to become part of practice rather than ambition, no longer a staff sergeant of the Productivity Regime but a challenging feedback friend, breaking the spell to deepen it.

May you too, dear reader, sift your pandemic practices and keep the gold as the world intensifies its tumble in the months ahead. We are gonna need some ballast in our pockets where we are headed.

Listening

Speaking of sad-sack elven-hippie open-tuning steel-string blues, but on an actual genius level this time, I must throw some attention toward Tompkins Square’s Robbie Basho collection, Song of the Avatars: The Lost Master Tapes. Tompkins Square released the five CD set a year ago. I asked the label to sell me one with a critic discount and a promise to review it here, but they refused. Get in line, buddy. Pissed about not being a Big Enough Cheese, I decided to screw it — but I was just smart enough to see I was being stupid, so I bought a box before they went seriously out of print. Whew. For a sacred Californiast like me, Songs of the Avatars is essential — about as pure and visionary a sonic distillation of West Coast spiritual seeking as could be imagined.

Tompkins Square has now made Song of the Avatars available on digital platforms worldwide, so you can go at it yourselves. What will you find, I wonder — or rather, knowing what you will find, how will you find it? It’s hard for me to say. As noted above, I am a steel-string picker with a taste for exotica, melancholy, and raga guitar, and Robbie Basho is the sad strange king of this particular purple mountain. In the annals of American Primitive Guitar, he is the mystic moon to John Fahey’s brash, strumming sun.

Born in Baltimore in 1940, Basho moved to Berkeley in time for the ‘60s, when he played in coffeehouses and started recording for Fahey’s Takoma label. As you might have guessed from the title of his first album, The Seal of the Blue Lotus — not to mention his adopted last name, which may have come to him on a peyote trip — Basho was seriously and devotedly tuned to non-Western sounds and spiritual ideas. He started out playing instrumentals and what he called “Zen Buddhist cowboy songs,” sometimes accompanying himself by whistling, an eerie keening you can hear on “Merhera’s Lament” off of Songs. Playing fulsomely on a 12-string, with its thick, tambura-like resonances, Basho also sang in a powerful if arcane vocal style — plummy, zealous, with a theatrical vibrato that went out with the beatnik beret. He made a lot of records and never sold many, recording his last albums (but one) for Windham Hill in the early ‘80s, when lesser guitarists like Will Ackerman and Alex de Grassi grabbed the spotlight. He died from a freak chiropractic adjustment in 1986.

In my California pantheon, Basho occupies a space like that of Philip K. Dick. I am fascinated and moved by the work, which I read through a distinctly West Coast, deracinated, make-it-up-as-you-go-along lens. But I am equally intrigued by the men themselves, and how, in both cases, something deeply broken made room for something deeply spiritual but also deeply weird. Basho was already a rather strange fellow when, like PKD, he experimented with LSD in mid-‘60s Berkeley and, like PKD on his first trip, had a pretty rough time. In “Hippie Song,” an unrepresentative bit of goofy folk doggerel from the new collection, he sings

Jack and Jill went up the hill
Fetch a pail of sugar cubes
Jack fell down and broke his mind
And Jill still don’t know what’s happening

Basho may well have broken his mind, or at least never closed the acid portal. As Liam Barker’s wonderful, warts-and-all Basho documentary Voice of the Eagle informs us, Basho was sometimes vexed by invisible beings and would occasionally address them on stage. His spiritual needs were not just hazy hippie whims, and he pursued them seriously and with need. While studying with the sarod master Ali Akbar Khan in the mid-‘60s, a tutelage that dramatically expanded his style, Basho got turned onto the Indian spiritual master Meher Baba. In 1968, he joined a Bay Area Baba group known as Sufism Reoriented, led by Murshida Ivy Duce, a New Jersey-born Anglo woman. Basho never left the group, whose strict discipline and deeply religious orientation helped him calm his demons.

When Barker was researching the doc, he got in contact with Sufism Reoriented (for more on this fascinating group, see Amos Barshad’s excellent article in The Fader). Praise Allah, Ahura Mazda, and all the Dakinis: Liam discovered a cache of Basho treasures, including dozens of reel-to-reels, from which Songs of the Avatars was compiled.

Initially, I was bummed to discover how few tracks resembled my favorite Basho material: complex, uncanny, and wordless high plains driftings through keys and modes learned in a land unknown. (For a good guzzle of these raga fantasias, check out Basho’s 1967 album The Falconer’s Arm.) But the more I listened, the more I appreciated the religious orientation and devotional demands of these songs, as well as the focusing role they clearly played in a specific religious community. Listening to “Hindu Christmas Carol” or “Symphonic Quisada for the Prophet” (which sounds like the score for an Orientalist advent play) you get to peer through the stained glass window onto a singular seeker scene far removed from today’s garish and commercial spiritual landscape.

Other tracks, like “Cry of the Nightingale,” which recalls those haunting Gurdjieff/de Hartmann compositions, are unabashedly somber, esoteric, and emotionally recondite. To really open to them, you have to do some work, maybe go somewhere inside yourself you are not quite up for, some tangy well of yearning for a Beyond that, in disbelieving or ignoring, you have learned to cloak in cynical reason. Basho voices the reminder, equally comfortable and uncomfortable, that it is not about the god, but the yearning.

There are tons of secular Robbie Basho lovers, of course, because the man was a singular musical genius and one of the greatest acoustic guitarists on record. That said, it is hard for me to imagine someone enjoying Song of the Avatars who could not relate on some level or other with the god-sized hole in Basho’s soul. Here’s a litmus test for you:

I love this track, just as at some point I have been attracted to, and even nurtured by, many of these same myths, mantras, and religious tropes. At the same time, I really have to be in the right mood for this stuff. On more than one occasion, preparing for this review, John Belushi lumbered into my imagination in a toga, poised to grab and smash that poor folkie’s guitar as he gives his love a cherry.

There are a lot of triggers in this music, in other words: the relentless god-talk; the tight, mannered voice; the humorless, even morbid emotionality; the cheesy sentimentality that Quietus critic Jennifer Lucy Allan associates with the “Romantic Troubadour Basho,” eternally seeking the eternal lady on her eternally languid horse. Things get particularly tough when the Romantic Troubadour goes Native American. In a recent post, I talked about the complexity of the hippie relationship with American Indians. However earnest its origins, Basho’s fascination had a privileged rootlessness, connected not to a specific culture or people, but to his own misty land of longing and myth. Voice of the Eagle tells the story of a gig Basho played for a crowd of Natives in the Southwest, and how confused and disappointed he was at their puzzlement and boredom upon encountering his music. Maybe he played “Bride of Thunder.”

There’s no question: singing about a Native woman in the style of a European lyric poet enacts all sorts of colonialism, mythic and otherwise. At the same time, to my ears, this is a gorgeous song, its naivety a veil of something deeper and more vexed. In Basho’s imagination, the Land O’Lakes lady here is really the Beloved, or the Leila of Sufi allegory (and Derek and the Dominos), or a grieving allegory for a mode of life on this old earth that is now trashed or twisted forever. The bride of thunder may be a doll-like artifact of an old and poisonous romance, as well as a lonely man’s anima, crafted to heal and resolve some wound that remains raw. But that’s what spiritual art is about, right? Garbage in, gold out, the essential alchemy of the broken heart.

Upcoming Events

(•) TONIGHT: SF PSYCHEDELIC SANGHA: The San Francisco Psychedelic Sangha will meet this month at 6:00 p.m. Pacific Time on Saturday, April 3. A gathering of heretics, dharmanauts, and spiritual misfits. As always, tonight’s event will combine a talk, a practice, and an unrecorded discussion. Tonight we will play around with the expanding and contracting Self, with a little help from Walt Whitman, that original dharma bum, whose Leaves of Grass I have been rereading of late. Sign up here; any dana should be tossed into the SF Dharma Collective bucket.

(•) CENTER FOR THE STUDY OF WORLD RELIGIONS: I am honored to be appearing in conversation later this month at the CSWR, a center at the Harvard Divinity School that has been stirring things up this spring with their series “Psychedelics and the Future of Religion” (including a recent talk by Wouter Hanegraaff about theurgy and the scholarly pathologization of entheogenic experience, which should be posted soon on the CSWR site). On Wednesday, April 21st, at 5:00 p.m. Pacific Time, I will be in dialogue with CSWR fellow Dr. Christian Greer and Dr. Gary Laderman, a scholar of American religion at Emory University who specializes in death and drugs. Our conversation is called “Between Sacred & Profane: Psychedelic Culture, Drug Spiritualites, and Contemporary America.” The event is free and open to the public, but registration is required.

(•) SACRED PLANTS IN THE AMERICAS: Ironically, at the moment when the largely white entheogenic underground is getting colonized by venture capital, pharmaceutical companies, and mainstream therapy culture, a growing number of indigenous activists, healers, and scientists are asserting themselves within the cacophonous shitshow that is the contemporary psychedelic “space.” One reason I am on the board of the Chacruna Institute is that the organization is a strong advocate for indigenous voices, as well as for greater representation of LGBTQ and BIPOC within psychedelic research and therapy. The other reason is that founder Bia Labate is not just a friend but a wonderful and vivid character. Influenced by anthropology as much as clinical research, she and Chacruna are pursuing a genuinely multidisciplinary strategy that makes room for humanities, politics, and pluralistic approaches to knowledge. I am really looking forward to their second Sacred Plants in the Americas conference, which will take place on April 23-25. I won’t be presenting, but I will be there as much as Zoom fatigue allows.

Links

(•) DARK PSYCHEDELIA: In February I organized a scholarly panel on the dark side of psychedelic culture for the Southwest Popular/American Culture Association conference, a gathering I have always wanted to attend because that’s where the Grateful Dead scholars do their do. My now thickly congealed resistance to Zoom prevented me from attending much else in the conference, but I had a blast on the panel, which was part of an esoterica thread organized by scholar George Sieg. After introducing the cultural space of “dark psychedelia” with a discussion of the weird pulp fiction that informed the drug culture of the ‘60s and ‘70s, I handed it over to three awesome friends and presenters: Amy Hale talked about the dark feminine in the trippy work of Marjorie Cameron and Tai Shani; James Riley, author of The Bad Trip, talked about psychedelic horror films; and Christian Greer rounded out the show with a discussion of the role that Charles Manson played in the ‘80s shock underground, and how outfits like Feral House and Amok Books fused psychedelia with creepy crawly politics. I am not entirely sure it’s OK to share the video of the panel but here it is!

(•) SELF PORTRAITS AS OTHER PEOPLE: I have a strange super-power. When I meet a bunch of random people, especially at parties or gigs, I sometimes am made instantly and overwhelmingly aware — I am talking seconds here — that someone in the crowd is very much worth my time. I have come to trust these intuitions, since many of these people have become important friends and colleagues, opening all manner of Doors to Fun. One of them is The Ungoogleable Michaelangelo, a multi-talented, psychedelicized, and exceptionally witty Dutch-American wordsmith with a great gift for impressions, puns, neologisms, and accents (one of his alters is the Scottish rapper Void Denizen).

Michaelangelo I shared a stage years ago when we both dropped Ayahuasca Monologues (here is Michaelangelo’s, and here is mine). Though he has now (reasonably) fled California, I keep up with him and was very happy to appear on an episode of his podcast Self Portraits as Other People. We discussed language and the writing life, and I talked about a lot of stuff I hadn’t reflected on before, at least publicly. Here is Michaelangelo’s description of the show, which he called “Writing at the Crossroads” and he suggests you listen to with headphones:

This episode will be especially interesting for our fellow word-workers, but even if you don’t identify as a writer, we all, inevitably, work with words, whether we want to or not. It’s too late in the game to turn back, go mute, or become illiterate. This episode is a portrait of a writer at the crossroads, adapting to a changing media landscape, and the shifting mindfield that comes with it.

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