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Transfiguration by Steel String

Robbie Basho’s ‘The Seal of The Blue Lotus’ —

On 26 February 1986, guitarist Robbie Basho lay back on a chiropractor’s table in Albany, California, for an adjustment to treat back pain. An instant later, one of his vertebral arteries hemorrhaged and the chiropractor watched helplessly as his patient’s cranium filled with blood. Robbie died a few days later in a local hospital at age 45—a rude end to a life of earnest artistic self-discovery.

Photo: Jeff Dooley

Though it would surely have pained him to receive so little notice in the event of his death, this would not have surprised Robbie since, even as he entered his 40s, he was still sometimes playing his heart inside out to audiences of three, or even one. Henry Kaiser related an incident in which he found Robbie forlorn outside a Berkeley venue at the time he was scheduled to go on. Nobody except Henry showed up that night to hear him.

And yet. Though Robbie refused to work with a manager, publicist or lawyer who might have helped him and destroyed him in turns, his 15 albums are like wrought iron icons, some finer than others, each sculpted to detail with that energy which can only be drawn from a dedicated inner search; and spoken in that uniquely American transfigurative language also spoken by John Fahey, Albert Ayler, and Blind Willie Johnson. He did not, like Ayler, squeeze his soul through his instrument and progress into oblivion; instead he became a Baba-devotee and measured his chops in spectral colors. And because the quest was spiritual, he wouldn’t—thankfully—consider altering the course. Like the Hindustani masters in the early days of phonograph recording, he refused to hear his music chopped into media bites. The content of his art and the hallowedness of his playing were what he considered important until the end. Even if the neglect hurt, he never compromised.

Dravidian Sunday, Guitar and Written by Robbie Basho

 
Bardo Blues, Guitar and Written by Robbie Basho

 
This year, 4 Men With Beards reissued Robbie’s 1965 debut, The Seal of The Blue Lotus. In it you can hear something altogether unAmerican, and for that matter almost unHindustani. Certainly raw elements of the raga are there, especially in the title track and “Dravidian Sunday” but these are not—again, thankfully—the product of a man who has perfected classical forms. The title track is, in fact, a six-string rendition of Ravi Shankar’s rendition of “Dhun in Mishra Mand,” a raga for invoking Springrasa, while “Dravidian Sunday” is apparently a more impressionistic miscellanea. There is a river of Blues running beneath the ground of the record, occasionally springing to the surface. This element, surely held over perhaps from his time with John Fahey, (who introduced him to the sonorous properties of the steel string acoustic guitar, and whose Takoma label would later release six of Robbie’s 15 records)[1] would reappear later in the canon as he began to create a kind of Americana; Zen Buddhist cowboy songs, et al. Robbie was no scholar of Sanskrit or Tibetan or Persian, and his understanding of Hindu and Buddhist and Zoroastrian lifeways was—I’m sure he would be loath to admit—superficial[2], especially in 1965. He did not even visit India until 1969. Yet he did get at the essences of things, as he understood them. And, in Berkeley, he did study for a year’s time with Ali Akbar Khan–the residue of which is palpable in these earliest of American ragas. In spite of Alan Hovhaness’ advice to ‘tighten up’, we are fortunate Robbie never lost himself in virtuosity, either Hindustani or European, and that he believed in “soul first, technique later”, for it is his intuitive sense of harmony which colors these songs and allows them to continuously transform and open along the most non-repetitious ways, not spilling over with manic accidents like Daniel Johnston, but with precise fervor. As Glenn Jones astutely noted, ‘composers like Robbie and Fahey … were as much a product of what they didn’t know as what they did.’

There are many overwrought moments in Robbie’s catalogue, especially when he sings, and even Fahey claimed Robbie’s spiritual quest was for show. But this is not one of them. The Seal of The Blue Lotus is a pristine and enterprising set of secular ragas, with only a hint at the grafting of Hindu musicology and the American landscape that he would render on later records. It is also free of some of the labored and obtuse spiritual imagery characteristic of later periods of his music. Aside from his system of alternate tunings, Robbie was, here as always, beyond specific styles and techniques—effusively giving away everything he ever owned, as it were–and yet very specific about how to interpret each track. The overall vibe is belles-musique without virtuosity for its own sake; the work of a man who perhaps felt spiritually unmoored, wondered deeply about who he was, and lived and work ascetically, so as to allow his inner world time and space to obsess and produce; who, for all his social flaws and hypocondriacal concerns with purity, did not fully realize what an intense and articulated legacy he was leaving behind him.

 


[1] During his time at The University of Maryland, he also encountered the poetry of Matsuo Basho, whose name Daniel R. Robinson Jr. would later attach to his own to become Robbie Basho, after, according to John Fahey, “spending a night on a mountaintop and ingesting a great deal of peyote.”

 

[2] Though he did claim in a 1974 radio interview with Charles Amirkhanian that Hindu deities were communicating with fire through his guitar.

 

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