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The Bell

Saturday, July 14th, 2012: Places, Special Places.

First of a series about places that have become special to my friends and me, as we’ve ventured there together year after year to share good fellowship, and sometimes to witness the mysteries of creation.

The Bell was first discovered by James and me on an exploratory outing with a bottle of cheap wine, long ago in the mists of memory before my adult circle of friends had begun to crystallize. The ferry plowed the rough swells of the bay, carrying us out to the tall, green island, past rugged headlands and lush valleys in which stately antique buildings stood vacant but well-tended among groves of palm trees. We stood on the open upper deck, where a salt wind tugged at our hair and gulls swooped hungrily at the rails.

We made our way on the ring road around the darkly forested island to a point high above the water where we could see the great bridge opening westward on the ocean, and from there we scrambled precariously down a faint, crumbling game trail to a small beach of dark pebbles, where we drank our wine, talked, and occasionally waded a short ways into the cold, churning surf. The Bell stood above us, long abandoned and windswept, on its rock that jutted into the bay toward the distant bridge.

Hours later we realized it was high time we headed back to catch the last ferry, but the wine had sorely diminished us. We couldn’t retrace our steps up the precipitous slope, and ventured around The Bell to a long sandy beach with more high crumbling slopes. The tide stopped us at the end of this, and desperate, we began to claw our way up the trackless slope, grasping roots and branches and treetrunks, finally stumbling gratefully out onto the ring road and the way back.

Years later, after my bohemian inner-city loft had evolved from its early turbulence and drama into a hard-working, hard-partying, cohesive community of ambitious young artists, actors and musicians, I led the whole extended family back to the island with a full supply of wine, baguettes, cheese and fruit, in search of the looming Bell. It couldn’t be seen from the ring road above, but again I found an obscure game trail which halfway down the steep slope brought our destination in view, still far below. From there, the narrow dirt track fell off steeper and steeper until it became a landslide. The more confident among us started onto the slide, digging our shoes in for traction, but when we coaxed one of the girls into following, she froze in place, staring at the sharp rocks on the beach below, veering into full panic. None of us had solid footing, but after a tense debate we tottered, slid, and formed a human chain to lower her down. The subsequent debauch found us all laboring successfully to put the incident behind us, as we lay like kings and queens surrounded by our brilliant domain: the sparkling bay, its windblown yachts, its distant bridge and city arrayed for our pleasure as we lounged and played on a broad pedestal of weedy cement, both stage and balcony, high above waves flashing like broken glass in the sun.

Behind us in a small grassy lawn loomed the Bell suspended from its wooden frame, taller than any of us, a stupendous weight of bronze turned grey-green by a century of salt spray, waiting for our primitive driftwood drumsticks to ring it into complex resounding polyrhythms. And below and around our platform, the sheer, black rock hosting a feral garden of agave, yucca and flowering shrubs, anemones crowding in the tide zone, and a fringe of crashing waves out of which the occasional seal hauled itself up to bask.

The pattern was set, and henceforth for more than two decades, through thick and through thin, my friends and I made bohemian expeditions across the bay and carefully down that hidden landslide path to the Bell to celebrate nature near the city but seemingly a world away, to refresh our perspectives, expanding horizons that had been shrinking and confining us in the repetitive toil of our days. Despite millions of people living around the bay, never did we find evidence of other visitors; the slippery slope that was part of our adventure helped keep our secret. On each arrival, time itself seemed to expand as all our senses came alive. Once, we were surprised by historic square-rigged ships emerging from the mist and firing cannons at each other in deafening blasts of black powder. Another time, we saw a horde of giant jellyfish advancing suicidally across the waves, from all directions as far as the eye could see, to be tossed limply on the rocky beach where their soft iridescent bodies flowed over the dark stones like molten glass. And another time, John frightened and amazed us by swimming out into the powerful breakers where none of us had ever dared to go.

We who discovered this place were experimental musicians and performers, and we saw the rock and the Bell from the beginning as both stage and living instrument, seemingly timeless, primitive, and rooted in the wild elements like the temples of the ancient Greeks. There, drumming on the Bell itself was always the central experience, and the holy of holies was to stand inside while your friends kept it ringing around you, and you felt cradled by a great humming, keening, rumbling womb. And always, we hesitated as long as we believed possible before leaving to catch the last ferry back to the city, our bodies exhausted and our spirits restored, wondering when we’d see our Bell again.

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The Lake

Saturday, August 18th, 2012: Places, Special Places.

(photo gallery at bottom)

Second in a series about places that have become special to my friends and me, as we’ve ventured there together year after year to share good fellowship, and sometimes to witness the mysteries of creation.

Good fellowship, delicious grilled food, a keg of our favorite local ale, music improvised among the trees, diving from rocks and swimming in clear water – plus the occasional romance – how could you go wrong?

To get there, you drive through a maze of winding streets and roads up the steep, forested hills above the city, over a sharp ridge then down to where the Lake lies hidden in dense eucalyptus forest filling a long, narrow valley. Fed by creek water from the surrounding slopes, it’s popular for picnicking and swimming. The western shore is a broad meadow with sandy beach and parking lot; above the lake on the eastern side, a small picnic ground lies hidden among the eucalyptus.

My first visit was 30 years ago on a company picnic with a small engineering firm that did earthquake safety studies for nuclear power plants. Our eccentric, domineering boss treated us all like his somewhat wayward children, but he was the real loose cannon. You never knew what off-color insult he was going to sling at you in mixed company. My younger brother was visiting and I invited him to the picnic.

I had a huge enamel stockpot that I used for the group meals we often shared in our loft, and I made chili, with lots of jalapenos – the boss was from Texas. But, distracted with preparations, I allowed the thin metal to overheat, so there was a solid crust of charred chili lining the pot and it ended up tasting scorched. But as I recall, we all had a great time, my young co-workers and their families and dogs playing frisbee on green grass in the summer sun with light glinting off the Lake in the background.

Years passed, the company prospered and declined with the doomed industry, and my life continued to unfold as a never-ending drama of wild romance and ambitious projects in music and art, until at the end of the decade, the loft was destroyed in a massive earthquake. In the aftermath, we survivors were drawn to the hidden picnic ground above the Lake, where we barbecued in the dappled afternoon sunlight and improvised a long, wistful dirge on African percussion and clarinet, returning often to a quarter keg of our favorite local ale sitting in a barrel of ice under a tree.

In the following year I gradually got back on my feet, conceiving a big new project, and a new beauty appeared in my life. Luckily for me, our first date was on her birthday; we shared an intimate dinner then drove to the Lake in the dark and parked near the picnic area at the head of a trail. At the bottom of the trail we crossed the creek on a wooden bridge under a low canopy of boughs.

We left the trail and found a smooth bank where we could sit under a tree and watch starlight reflecting on the still surface of the Lake. I pulled her close, smelling her clean hair, and we began to kiss. It felt like a dream, like the renewal of my world. Later we found an expensive parking ticket on the car – the Lake had a curfew – but it was a small price to pay for a new life.

We returned in a year or so, after the dream had faded and my life was again losing all its moorings, to join her large contingent of urban-hippie friends in a sloppy gathering in a larger, hotter clearing higher up the slope. Scattered tents emitted clouds of pot smoke and boom boxes pumped out a mix of the Beastie Boys and Bob Marley. There I was singled out by a swarm of mutant mosquitos, the biggest I’d ever seen, but no one else seemed to be bothered by them. More and more often I found myself the outsider at gatherings of her friends, begging to leave early.

Ultimately she dumped me, unsurprisingly when I was at my lowest ebb of self-doubt and insecurity. My friends tried to console me with another Lake picnic, this time in the cool of autumn. One friend carried a new baby, and there was even a cute single girl, a stranger who turned out on further research not to be a prospect.

The next summer saw the beginning of an epic new romantic saga, but my life was still no more stable or grounded – I was unemployed and in debt and I had broken up my last band. Within months I sabotaged the new romance by moving away to another city where I hoped to find work. Trying to sustain the relationship somehow, I returned sporadically, and we held an even bigger picnic in our favorite Lakeside grove, pulling together old roommates from the loft, co-workers from several old jobs, and the usual crew of jamming musicians. There was a group of children for the first time, and I remember one friend carried a little battery-powered fan to keep her cool – it was the envy of all of us!

From the picnic ground you could take a narrow, winding trail down to the Lake, where a rock twice as tall as any of us stood out from the shore. Swimming on this side of the Lake was not permitted, so we would wait until late in the afternoon when the opposite beach emptied and the lifeguards retired from their towers. We could dive off the rock into deep, cool and clear creek water – but sometimes we were spotted anyway and chastised by distant bullhorns. And returning, we could pick and eat wild oats among the tall trailside grasses.

After a couple of years I moved back to the area, but settled far from my old friends in a village by the sea. Meanwhile, the drummer from my old band and his neighbors had formed a mini-community around “The Grotto” in their inland backyard. We learned that the last of my former loftmates was moving to Ireland with his family, so we organized another picnic at the Lake, based largely on the Grotto crowd. The drummer had become obsessed with golf and tried unsuccessfully to interest us in drunken lessons. Saying goodbye to old friends made it a melancholy gathering, especially since they left the picnic before the rest of us and we felt abandoned.

In the summer of the last year before I moved away to my current home, a local bandleader organized a big picnic and jam session on the main meadow across the Lake. The organizer and I had never been close – I had “borrowed” a guitar player and a singer from his band so were competing bandleaders in a sense – but late in the day I was walking on a trail far from the picnic with my guitar, starting to play “Rivers of Babylon,” and he appeared out of nowhere to join me, and it turned out to be one of the sweetest sessions I’ve ever had, there by the Lake that had seen so many unforgettable moments of our lives in the city.


The Cave

Sunday, July 14th, 2013: Places, Special Places.

Max & Katie keeping warm in their cave, December 1985

Third in a series about places that have become special to my friends and me, as we’ve ventured there together year after year to share good fellowship, and sometimes to witness the mysteries of creation.

Arrows in the Fog

It all began in the fall of 1981, on a drive back to CalArts from a weekend of cheap gambling and debauchery in Las Vegas. We were taking the scenic back roads, so that Mark could show me his new favorite camping spot in the desert. I had driven across the Mojave several times on the interstate, but my Midwestern eyes hadn’t really seen it – it looked empty to me, a big nothing of flat basins and distant mountains that just chewed up a few hours of a road trip.

We drove up a long, straight road toward an indistinct horizon between low hills, flanked by rugged mountains of bare rock, and at the top we entered a dense fog and the road turned to dirt and gravel under our tires. Both of us were surprised and puzzled to find fog in the desert. We couldn’t see off the road, and a short way down the other side of the pass Mark pulled off onto the shoulder.

Mark said that somewhere out there in the fog was his cave, but how could we find it and not get lost? We settled on arrows in the ground – we would set off with Mark in the lead, using a stick to scratch arrows in the hard-packed dirt, sand and gravel along our way. He led me on a winding course down gullies and up over low ridges and around the looming, ghostly edges of pale granite boulders and rounded, dark-green juniper trees, carefully avoiding grasping thorn bushes and branching cacti and their fallen stubby joints lying in wait like land mines waiting to pierce our shoes, and we could never see more than a few yards ahead of us through the fog. It was eerily silent until we came upon rivulets of clear water trickling down tiny gullies. We breathed tangy herbal fog. It was the most magical environment I’d ever entered. We found his cave – a low, deep cavity under a boulder. We followed our arrows back to the car. For weeks, I couldn’t get those images out of my mind, but I had no idea that this short walk in the fog would become the most important thing that ever happened to me.

Bohemians in Nature

Mark was finishing school at CalArts outside Los Angeles, and I was making art and music in a loft in San Francisco. The two of us became the nexus of a gradually expanding group of artist-campers, urban bohemians who escaped into nature. Mark and I worked sporadically as an art duo called the Didactyl Brothers, producing rude, irreverent music and installations. His desert cave was part of a rolling plateau of house-sized boulder piles at the foot of white granite cliffs, and on our cave camping trips, we started experimenting with large-scale tempera paintings on rock faces. We discovered that the water-based paint on exposed surfaces would completely weather away within a few months, leaving another blank canvas.

We’d park beside the dirt road and make two or three hikes to the cave with a cooler full of beer and ice, water jugs and food, camp stove and utensils, sleeping bags, guitars and folding chairs. His cave was small and low-ceilinged, only big enough for two people to sleep in. We’d wake up in the morning, make coffee on a propane stove outside the cave, carry our paints, water and beer to the rock face, mix the powdered tempera with water, and go crazy. At night, we’d grill steaks over a crackling fire of pungent juniper wood and warm up beans on the stove. The coyotes would start their eerie calls along the horizon, and we’d get wild and crazy and make up satirical songs and comic rants feeding off each other to higher and higher heights of crude genius, until we were literally rolling on the ground, laughing uncontrollably.

Wild Domestic

One of those early trips, in the spring of 1984, happened right after I’d broken up with a previous girlfriend and met a new one. Katie, a popular figure in the Los Angeles art scene, played bass in Mark’s band, and she’d heard about his cave and was curious. Soon she and I were out there scouting for our own cave. She was an experienced outdoorswoman and we were thorough. We found a larger, better rock shelter and started working to improve it. We drove the 90 miles to Twentynine Palms for thrift-shop tools and furnishings and occasional free showers in the town park. Shopping for our cave was fun, like being kids again, playing house!

There was a nasty pile of cholla cactus joints in one corner of the cave that we failed to recognize as a pack rat nest. We got the bright idea of burning it out. Pack rats create layers of compacted, urine-soaked, slow-burning waste, similar to a seam of coal. We ended up with a smoky, hard-to-get-at fire that burned for five days while we tried many ways of putting it out with increasing desperation. Early on, we drove the 90 miles to Twentynine Palms to buy a fire extinguisher, drove it back and used it all up in less than two minutes without any noticeable effect on the fire. In the end we laboriously dug out the fire and smothered it bit by bit with dirt. And turned our cave into a luxurious desert home with vaulted ceiling, sleeping alcove, living room/kitchen with indoor fireplace, storage closet, outdoor shower, and an elevated porch facing west to watch the sunset.

Katie showed me creative ways to camp in comfort. Permanent furnishings, which were stored in the “closet” when we departed, included straw mats for the floor, foam pads and a roll of carpet for our bed, tools, folding chairs, propane camp stove, and insulated ice chests full of cooking utensils, dinnerware and paper goods, matches, cooking oil, seasonings and candle lanterns for ambiance – the round, knobby, tinted glass ones used in older restaurants. In a desert thrift shop we found a beautiful vintage chrome breadbox to protect our bread, chips and crackers from the rats. On our arrival from the city, we hiked from the car to the cave carrying perishables and stuff that was too valuable to leave out there: water, ice, food, drinks, sleeping bags and musical instruments.

Then we settled in for an idyllic interlude of hiking and exploring, improvising and recording music, writing songs and poetry, drawing and painting – all by ourselves in a vast, ancient, and timeless landscape that felt welcoming and embracing, with its mild weather and its rounded, organic architecture of granite boulders and domelike junipers. A symphony of birds and insects surrounded us on hot summer days. I began to notice subtle ways in which the desert was making me healthier. My eyes, trained to focus at short range in the city, were learning to pick out details of mountains ten miles away. In the city, our lives were hectic and our minds were always racing; here, we learned to slow down and relax. One evening as I sat on the porch, a glass of whisky in my hand, watching the light fade above the jagged cliffs in the west, a great horned owl flew over my head from behind and landed on an opposite boulder to watch me in silence until darkness fell.

(Improvised by Max & Katie in their cave, 1985, and recorded by Max in 2010)

Katie shared my passion for the desert and together we pursued it farther. We wanted to know about the plants and animals, we wanted to know if Indians had lived out here and how? Putting down roots in this exotic piece of raw wilderness, actually becoming at home here, freed us to get to know it on levels inaccessible to ordinary campers and backpackers, who were always on a journey to somewhere else.

Shrooms and Science

By December 1985, Katie had moved into my San Francisco loft, and we planned a trip to the cave with our roommate Laurie, another artist. It was a ten-hour drive, and we arrived late to find the high desert, and the cave, blanketed with six inches of snow. But inside it was dry, and Laurie and I quickly warmed it up with a roaring fire as Katie ran around outside ripping dead branches off junipers and tossing them to us.

The next day we dosed on shrooms and hiked west through the snow out of our boulder garden toward a vacant cabin I’d discovered on an earlier trip. Approaching the cabin just as the shrooms were coming on, we suddenly realized there was a person sitting in front of it, watching us. Chris turned out to be a friendly biology student from the University of California; when he heard we were shrooming he wanted some.

That night he showed up unannounced at our cave – the first spontaneous visitor we’d ever had, making us feel like we were part of some sort of latter-day Flintstones neighborhood. Fortuitously, he was interested in Laurie, and became part of our group for the rest of our visit, informing us that the University had obtained land surrounding our area and was planning to establish an ecological preserve.

Back home, I contacted the University and learned they had just hired a director for the preserve, so on our next trip, Katie and I went over and introduced ourselves to Philippe and Cindy, who became two of my closest friends. Over the years, we would house-sit for them and I would work for Philippe here and on the Bay Area preserve he later managed, and get to know their son Ben from birth.

Images from the desert were beginning to dominate my art and music, and Katie and I began studying prehistoric native rock art throughout the Southwest deserts. Mark met a new girlfriend, Maureen, who later became his wife, and they moved from his old cave to a new, more ambitious rock shelter that had an elevated porch like ours. Another artist couple from Los Angeles developed their own cave a short distance away, so now we had three desert households and could visit each other back and forth.

We discovered a large, partly open rockshelter with a high vaulted ceiling that we dubbed the Party Cave, where we hung out on hot afternoons, creating an evolving gallery of paintings. With the advent of the preserve, our plateau had occasional visitors, including classes on field trips, but they almost always walked right past our caves, unaware, since we used a rake to erase our footprints when we left. Once, Mark and Maureen sat on their porch while an entire class filed past below them without looking up. Another time, Katie and I arrived from the city to find a paper plate inscribed “Nice place, have fun!” propped against our fireplace. Never did we find anything damaged or missing, despite the fact that we were only a half mile away from a road that was seeing more and more traffic, and was eventually paved.

Echoes of the Past

On one visit after particularly heavy rains, Katie and I discovered that deposits of pottery shards had been uncovered all over our area. We realized for the first time that we were part of a long tradition – Indians had camped here before us! Looking closer, we also found beautiful flakes of multi-colored agate from stone toolmaking, and Katie hit the jackpot: a perfect miniature “bird point” finely chipped from delicately mottled pink agate. But my favorite find on that trip was Snarling Head, the skull of a coyote with the desiccated nose and whiskers still attached, which was displayed in a place of honor back home, as Katie unleashed a new body of art work consisting of found objects from the desert – from bones to bushes to rusty cans – combined in ingenious, enigmatic formations and mounted on black foam core or rusty sheet metal.

For my part, I longed to engage more fully with this part of the desert, and with Philippe and Cindy’s new enterprise. Since childhood, I’d been a compulsive organizer, recruiting co-conspirators for secret clubs and events. My network of friends in Los Angeles and San Francisco had grown into an inspiring mix of artists and scientists, and we began collaborating on ambitious, intense weekend gatherings called Pow-Wows, in which we shared ideas, experiences and stories. The second and third Pow-Wows, in 1987 and 1991, were held at the cabin where we’d met Chris in December 1985, now part of the ecological preserve. These gatherings, which people called “life-changing,” enlightened us about everything from habitat restoration to aboriginal survival skills.

In the meantime, I had learned much more about the Chemehuevis, the nomadic Indians who had lived here, sometimes in semi-permanent villages. I had struck up a friendship with the only archaeologist currently working in the Mojave, and Katie and I had met the last living Chemehuevi basket-weaver, Mary Lou Brown. From the work of the legendary linguist and ethnographer Carobeth Laird, I learned that the last Chemehuevi shaman, known to whites as “Dusty,” had lived and died near our cave.

Beyond the Cave

Katie and I broke up in 1988, but I became even more obsessed with the desert and began looking for wilderness property, advised by Cindy and Philippe. Katie and her new boyfriend Gary continued to use, and improve, the cave that had been ours, while I explored the wider desert and eventually bought a big tract of mountain wilderness with the help of another desert-loving artist friend. Then, on the advice of my old mentor, my art teacher back in Indiana, I attended the “toughest survival school in the world” to learn the skills of the desert Indians.

In May 1992, chasing my dream, I moved to the desert for a year, living outdoors on my land and then on the ecological preserve not far from our old cave. By this time, the Mojave was truly the world to me! I was befriending and helping the scientists who were doing the cutting-edge research in wildlife biology, botany, geology, and archaeology. I was working with government agencies on habitat restoration and land use issues. I was absorbing the colorful histories of ghost towns, springs, canyons, mines and mountain ranges from crusty old desert rats. I’d experienced powerful visions and performed private rituals in my desert, and considered it my spiritual home, a sacred landscape. Once, while living on my land, I drove over to the caves to camp with Mark and Maureen. Maureen asked if I’d seen myself in a mirror lately and remarked that I looked dangerous and should probably get a haircut.

That year in the wilderness cost me the woman I loved, and I ended up back in the city, broke and homeless, with no viable livelihood. The desert had become a place of bittersweet memories, as I struggled to survive in the city. But I continued to venture out to my land once or twice a year, sleeping on the ground, watching the stars turn slowly overhead, wondering what my future would bring.

In June 1995, my friend Leslie, another artist, visited from Chicago, and we drove out and camped at the cave, which was still intact and comfortable after seven years. She had a vision while we were hiking in the nearby dunes; the desert affected her profoundly and she returned the following year for another dose.

In the late summer of 2001, unemployed after the dotcom crash, I joined Mark and Maureen and her brother Kevin at their cave, and Kevin made a miraculous, almost unbelievable discovery – a well-hidden shrine to Dusty, the last shaman. At that point our group had been using the caves continuously for 20 years.

In summer 2002 I lived in the cabin on the preserve as artist-in-residence, meeting more cool scientists. Returning a year later to house-sit for them, I hiked over to the caves and the shrine, and on my return watched an evolving sunset so beautiful it brought me to my knees, weeping.

In December 2005, twenty years after our snow & shrooms adventure, I visited the caves with Philippe and his son Ben and shared with them the mystery of Dusty’s shrine.

And finally, in April of this year, on my way to the Bay Area for work, I stopped and spent a relaxing afternoon at our old cave. Everything was there, but rats had gnawed through plastic storage bins and damaged some paper goods. Mark and Maureen likewise hadn’t been to their cave in years, but their stuff seemed to be in even better shape than ours.

Beginning with those arrows in the fog, the Mojave Desert seduced and captivated me, transforming every facet of my being, to the point where my life itself became a quest for a way to sustain myself in this ancient, mysterious and powerful land. I couldn’t find the right combination in the California desert; ultimately those arrows led me across the arid Southwest to my current home in New Mexico.

But the caves are waiting – for the next generation, or for future archaeologists. Years ago, Cindy recommended a book, Colin Fletcher’s The Man from the Cave, which poignantly describes his discovery of a furnished cave in another part of the Mojave, and his years-long search for its occupant. I may be able to save the next investigator some trouble…


Mel’s Farm

Thursday, October 10th, 2013: Places, Special Places.

Cabin and studio, winter 2002

Fourth in a series about places that have become special to my friends and me, as we’ve ventured there together year after year to share good fellowship, and sometimes to witness the mysteries of creation.

Close friends have heard me talk about Mel Gray, my art teacher from the seventh to the twelfth grades, who became a mentor for much of my life, the first among a small group of elders I’ve cultivated, people who’ve accumulated priceless knowledge and wisdom and who teach by example. In our rural farming community, school functioned as a repressive form of social control, bullying us into narrow conformity; some of our teachers rebelled against that system, befriending me and my fellow struggling outsiders and welcoming us into their homes and lives, but among them, Mel was special. He lived and breathed art, but in addition, he shared the love of nature, the love of crafting and building and self-reliance, that I had inherited from my father and grandfather. His curiosity was limitless, and he was that rarest of persons in our narcissistic times, a good listener. He took us, his proteges, seriously, cared about our lives and became a true friend as we grew up and went out into the world. In school, after class, and at home with his large, friendly and talented family, he challenged us and expanded our horizons. Forever after, throughout our far-flung lives, we would return on pilgrimages to honor that.

Mel had a large property with a stone cabin in virgin hardwood forest in the hills south of our county, where hillside springs feed creeks that drain into small rivers that in turn become tributaries to the big Ohio. During and after my senior year of high school, I met and fell in love with Mel’s niece, and as I recall, it was she who first took me to what we all came to call “Mel’s Farm,” although Mel himself called it “Gray’s Wilderness.”

We were both in college in Chicago and had been secretly living together in violation of her father’s decree. Her father, Mel’s cousin, despised me, and our relationship was always tinged with danger and rebellion as we conspired to avoid his wrath. Back in the countryside for summer vacation, we arranged to borrow a car and head south into the woods.

It really was just about the closest to wilderness you could find in the Midwest. Heading south from the glacially leveled fields of our county, the two-lane blacktop begins winding along forested ridges and dipping into hollows where sycamores line the courses of the little rivers. An even smaller and more tortuous country road takes you farther back to a tiny crossroads settlement, from which you head south into the deep forest. Eventually the pavement ends and you’re faced with a rough dirt track up a long hill, impassable during and after storms.

At the top of the hill there’s a deeply rutted trail through a small farm, past a decrepit tobacco barn, through a small ridgetop cornfield, and into a dark wood. A few more gentle turns along the ridgetop, then you reach the cabin in its clearing.

At that time, the two-foot-thick stone walls enclosed one big room. With small windows, it was dark and musty inside, and sparsely furnished, not much used by the family. The only piece of furniture I really remember was an old church pew. Outside the forest pressed in from all sides and the small clearing was drenched with sun and the singing of birds and insects. We were far from people and towns, living a magical dream of young romance, and it was the first time I’d ever made love outdoors.

Another summer, we returned with Mark and John, my best high school friends, to spend a night. The friends camped outside in the clearing while Kathryn and I slept in the cabin. In high school, we had formed a band which was really a precocious performance art ensemble, bursting with creativity, inventing new art forms. Now, we mostly jammed on traditional tunes that my friends picked up from retro recording artists like Ry Cooder and Leon Redbone. Being able to share that wilderness was priceless for us: a timeless space where we were freed from the painful emotional baggage of growing up as outsiders in a traditional rural community, and insulated by the dense forest from the prying, judgmental eyes of families and authorities.

When we got ready to leave, Kathryn marshaled us into a whirlwind of activity to sweep out the cabin. I remember young bodies swinging through a cloud of dust, all sparkling in sunbeams from the windows and doors.

A year later, Kathryn had left me, and I returned during the winter holidays with Mark and his girlfriend, Linda, and my grad school friend, Tom. I rode in Tom’s sports car; the dirt road was frozen hard, and the high ruts dislodged his exhaust pipe on the way in. The air was crisp and silent, the hardwood forest was bare, and the first thing we did was hike down through the bare woods to the creek on the north side. These small creeks flowed over shelves of limestone that were full of fossils; now they were mostly frozen over.

Other local friends joined us. At night we got a fire going in the cabin and started jamming.

Eventually, Mel retired from teaching and moved the family to a little rustic “art colony” a few miles downstream from the farm. That’s where I made my pilgrimages during my years as a bohemian in San Francisco. Then, after all the kids had moved out on their own, he and wife Pinkie, a prodigious and beloved painter and mistress of traditional crafts, moved out to the wilderness. They turned the cabin’s attic into a spacious loft with rollaway beds and a wall of windows facing south over the forest, and they added a big kitchen and bath. Mel had been collecting architectural salvage at farm sales all over the area and storing it in sheds on the farm; the rebuilt cabin had bits and pieces of this, including a stairway bannister made of wooden forms for the giant gears of historic grist mills, and they built a beautiful detached studio incorporating more of their architectural treasure trove. The farm had become a family work of art, with numerous outbuildings sprawled along the ridge: a trove of craft materials, books, records and memorabilia, the museum of their lifetime, so that visits became revelatory as Mel and Pinkie took us on tours and showed off their endless curiosities, including occasionally ambitious gardens and orchards and projects in alternative, self-sufficient technology.

At the same time, I was falling in love with the desert mountains and canyons of the West, growing more and more uncomfortable in the city, and fantasizing about living off the land in the ways of the desert Indians. During one winter visit, Mel unearthed a recent magazine article about a primitive survival school in Utah that claimed to teach those ancient ways, and the following summer I headed off for a field course at Boulder Outdoor Survival School that changed my life and showed me how people really lived in the lands that I loved. Mel was still showing me the way, and his place in the wilderness was still the source.

But knowing what I wanted didn’t make it happen. I was alone in my dream. I moved to my own wilderness for a year, leaving a girlfriend back in the city. Friends sympathized but none could join me. Hard years followed, more years in the city and the urban economy that took me farther from my dreams. Mel’s health was deteriorating, and visits often consisted of watching cable TV with him in the cabin. Aging changed his world and his focus and made him into a different person, less the mentor, less the role model. But occasionally we connected just as strongly as ever. I was able to show him my latest artwork on a laptop screen, and his home in the forest retained its magic and mystery.

One winter, I walked alone through the bare trees down the south slope to the creek on that side, and followed it toward the river. Nearing the river valley where a floodplain opened out, I was surprised by a shout from above. A young deer hunter had been hiding in brush up the slope from me. I told him I was a friend of the family, and he said Mel had given him permission to hunt in return for a share of the kill.

Another time, when Mel was in his mid-80s, he needed to grade the ridgetop trail, and he let me drive his ancient John Deere tractor while he rode on the side.

Sometimes I spent the night with Mel and Pinkie in the cabin, and other times I left late, driving those back roads alone, awash with precious memories and the chill of mortality. Once I had to pee and pulled off beside the river on a dirt trail through the trees. Standing in the darkness I noticed a small green light moving slowly through the grass, some unknown luminous being. Ah, the mysteries still hidden in that tired land of childhood.

As I write this, Mel is in a nursing home and his family is struggling to dispose of the place in the woods, the family work of art, the “museum of a lifetime” and the place that stood for me and my friends as an example of freedom and hope, of a more creative way of life in the midst of the society that seemed to trap us as adolescents.

As I re-evaluated my life experience, I came to see that isolation was not the answer, that even a big family was not enough; you needed an entire, robust community. It was not for me to retreat to a cabin in the woods. But Mel had never been truly isolated; the lesson I needed to emulate was his lifelong example of listening, caring, and encouraging young people to expand their curiosity, liberate their creativity, and pursue their dreams.


The Terra Incognita Loft: Part 1 1981-1982

Monday, December 12th, 2016: Places, The Terra Incognita Loft.

A Place, a Family, and a Community

A phantasmagorical building in a netherworld neighborhood built on the shifting sands of a kaleidoscopic city…A decade-long parade of ambitious young artists converging from around the world in a golden age of creativity and an epic of melodrama…Finally brought to the ground by a massive earthquake.

The cast of characters: Max, Gary, James, Chuck, Ann D, Francesca, Lurch, Mark, Mary, Scott, George, “Punk Monster” Erin, Olen, Dancy, Moses, Popeye, Pigeon Man, Harvey and his bike messengers, Jon, Betsy, Kathy, Tiare, Ed, Mark N, Jim L, Joan, Annette, Yasir, OJ, Malonga, Joni, Babatunde, Reggie, Laurie, John, Penny, George Gershwin and his wife, Kim, Clara, Patricia B, Victoria, Craig B, Pake, Ann, Tia, Jack B, Larry H, Brothers towing, Frank Z, Christy C, Katie, Madeline, Andrew, Troy, Carson, Kay, Paul and Denise, Ellen, Terri, Blue Movie, Chris M, Scott R and the White Fronts, Norman S, Benjamin B, Stuart, Colossal Pictures, Patti S, Mark F, Mark P, Cary, Jack A, Guy, Michael C, Kele, Mike E, Wendell, Quinn, Leslie, and many, many others.

Prologue: The Fall of Western Civilization

The Girl squinted through smoke at the lurid porno centerfolds papering the walls, her ears ringing and her body twitching nervously under an onslaught of conflicting drumbeats. She looked down at her bare feet in the dim light of the desk lamps surrounding the stage…Over to one side the shadowy figure of her friend huddled, shivering miserably, three days off a dope binge. The sound of running water from a tape loop spread deliriously across the room, a wavering, translucent curtain of background noise. Two guitars traded funk chops. A manic drummer held to a stiff tribal roll, interrupted at random by cheesy wood block sounds from a primitive drum sequencer…She scanned the smiling, mesmerized crowd, a motley assemblage of punks, hippies, yuppies, urban commandos in camo fatigues, boys in thriftshop jackets and girls in plastic miniskirts. From all over the city they had converged and now they wouldn’t leave, they wouldn’t let the band step down, even after three sets and five hours in this musty, smoky old room with nothing but Budweiser to drink. (from Loft of Dreams)

In 1980, young people all across Western Civilization were fed up, and we artists and musicians in San Francisco were no exception. We were the beneficiaries of the 1978 assassination of our liberal mayor and a leader of the gay community and the grisly mass suicide of the San Francisco-based People’s Temple, followed in 1979 by the fundamentalist Iranian Revolution and the Three Mile Island nuclear plant meltdown. Our president Jimmy Carter wasn’t a beloved humanitarian, he was a criminal accomplice in the Three Mile Island coverup, and the bumbling figurehead of a morally bankrupt consumer society that was rotten to the core and tottering in denial, a society that offered us NO FUTURE.

Our growing anger made 1980 the peak year of the punk music-inspired multi-media art scene in San Francisco, a flowering of underground culture that’s never since been matched in the U.S., and would take years to fade away.

I’d been down south at California Institute of the Arts with my Midwestern high school friend Mark N, making rebellious music and art in response to the unfolding societal collapse, and barely scraping by on welfare and food stamps. But in April I got an engineering job in the Bay Area, and moved north to San Francisco, where I rented a one-bedroom bungalow in the multi-ethnic Mission District. My day job was boring and undemanding, leaving me plenty of energy to write poetry, make music and visual art, and join thousands of peers at underground art events and punk and post-punk shows up to five nights a week, at venues all over the city like Mabuhay Gardens, the Savoy Tivoli, JetWave, Target Video, and Valencia Tool and Die.

My little house stood on a hill, and had a full basement where I built a cheap, primitive music studio. Mark moved up from Los Angeles for the summer, and we spent a couple months unsuccessfully trying to recruit musicians for an angry, ironic new wave pop band. After he left in the fall to resume studies at CalArts, I began recruiting a series of short-term artist roommates.

The peak event of that peak year was the Western Front festival, a citywide extravaganza of international music, multimedia and performance art, in October. There, I discovered electronic music pioneers Cabaret Voltaire and Rhythm & Noise, and minimalists Young Marble Giants from Wales and SF’s own Minimal Man. CalArts had been part of the high art establishment; this was a much more exciting DIY alternative. My mind was blown and my horizons exploded by radical work that could be created in the cultural underground by unattached people like me, outside the consumer marketplace and without the support of the big institutions of society, in complete freedom.

Immediately afterward, Ronald Reagan, an arch-conservative flagrantly unqualified to lead the country, and an actor trained to lie, was elected president, and started assembling a cabinet of criminals to rape and pillage the world. The month after that, John Lennon was assassinated. Personal trauma added to the political: I fell in love with one of my brief roommates, a young painter from New England, who ended up using me to make her boyfriend jealous, by sleeping with me the night before he visited from back east.

I reacted to all this with a burst of creativity, writing angry poems and songs, drawing and painting violent, distorted figurative compositions, and working solo in my recording studio to develop an idiosyncratic new series of dark, experimental compositions, using unconventional noisemakers, sampled recordings of ambient sound, and primitive overdubbing between two cassette decks, music that fell somewhere in the broad, poorly-defined vein of post-punk.

My latest roommate was Gary, a modest and soft-spoken but deeply insightful young artist from Southern California who was equally inspired by the new music and art scene. At the beginning of 1981, I met Jon, an Iowa-born writer, critic, and dropout from a prestigious Stanford doctoral program who was outspoken, culturally voracious, and eager for an outlet for his musical and theatrical passions. And I started sleeping with Francesca, a much younger, street-smart art student from New York by way of CalArts with a caustic wit and a skeptical bent. My work in the studio had reached critical mass, and I invited musician friends from CalArts to come up and join Jon, Gary, Cesca and me in an impromptu show at Club Foot, a legendary punk club in the derelict shipyard district south of downtown. I called this one-off collaboration “Terra Incognita” – the Latin term for unknown land which had appeared on the frontier of ancient maps of the world.

I booked the space, this group of strangers and near-strangers that had never played together spent only a day rehearsing compositions I had just written, and we played the show, to a packed, mesmerized house, for hours. Very rough, but very impassioned, and none of us had ever imagined trying anything this crazy before.

Immediately after the show, I received an eviction notice. It turned out to be an illegal attempt by my corrupt landlord to get around rent control, and months later, partly due to my complaints, he was convicted and fined by the city. But in the meantime, he succeeded in kicking me out.

Framing a Dream

My stuff went into storage, and Cesca and I drifted from floor to sofa at friends’ houses and apartments all over the Bay Area, but the memory of the Club Foot show, my new friends, and the musical experimentation I’d already started, kept me energized. And I was inspired by the months I’d spent exploring the underground art scene in San Francisco and Oakland, with its storefronts, lofts, and warehouses converted by artists into communal live-work-exhibition spaces. I wasn’t just searching for a new home, I was looking to establish Terra Incognita as a community arts center. And in April, Gary told me about a loft he’d looked at with a friend, on Fifth Street in the South of Market warehouse district, just a few blocks from the center of downtown.

At that time, South of Market was one of the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods of San Francisco. It was the heart of the gay leather scene, with a number of underground sex clubs, but it also had public housing projects and block after block of filthy, decrepit tenements and flophouses full of junkies, convicts, the mentally ill, and poor immigrant families packed together like sardines.

The loft Gary showed me was part of a half-block tract including several industrial, retail, and tenement buildings owned by a forty-something industrialist and real estate speculator named Chuck and managed by his mistress, Ann. Chuck was doing local artists a favor by giving them low rent and unregulated space. He was only planning to hold onto this property until the new Moscone Center development, which was just beginning construction a couple of blocks away, gradually pushed up land values in the neighborhood, turning his tract into a gold mine. In the meantime, he didn’t care what we did with the dilapidated old buildings. If a fire inspector came around, Ann would temporarily switch street numbers between different doors; our building was never inspected the whole time we lived there.

Located on a busy four-lane street that channeled commuter traffic between downtown and the nearby freeway, it was a 2-1/2 story crumbling concrete shell sandwiched between wood-frame tenements, divided into upper and lower rental units, with an ornate faux-Italianate front that hadn’t been painted in decades. The cast-concrete ground floor of the lower unit was several feet below grade, and a rough wooden mezzanine had been built above it, divided into windowless warrens occupied by anarchist musicians who were refusing to pay rent.

The upper unit, reached by a long windowless staircase, was gloriously open and bright, twenty-five feet wide by a hundred feet long, with a twelve-foot open-beam ceiling, white walls, generous windows front and back, and big old-fashioned pyramid-shaped skylights. The only dividing walls were a cross-wall a third of the way back, and a partial wall around the large bathroom. Previous tenants had installed a water heater and bathtub, and in the open kitchen, an enamel sink, Wedgewood range, and fridge.

Besides the sketchy, unpredictable downstairs neighbors, separated only by an uninsulated tongue-and-groove wooden deck that had been painted battleship gray, the only negative was the tilt. The entire building leaned like the Tower of Pisa, because one side of its foundation had been undermined by an underground stream. This whole neighborhood had been built on waterfront marshland after the 1906 earthquake. The top floor was inclined about six inches across its twenty-five-foot width.

But the front of the space, dominated by five tall, arched casement windows, was clearly the perfect rehearsal hall and showplace for parties and public events. And the rent was right – $600 a month at the beginning, for 2,500 square feet – especially considering that I planned to share it with several roommates. It was all so spectacular that I hoped we’d get used to the tilt and stop noticing it after a while.

Cesca and I moved in and I started employing the building skills and tools I’d inherited from my grandpa to frame, drywall and route electricity for five private rooms at the back of the space. Before framing, I painted the wood floor a pale sky blue. I’d just started a new day job across the bridge in Berkeley, so I had to hammer and saw at night, driving the downstairs people crazy until I moved my lumber pile and grandpa’s Skilsaw up to the roof, which was accessed by a trapdoor. Up there, I had a panoramic view of downtown and the busy freeway a block away.

All the framing lumber was salvaged from industrial construction and demolition sites – a habit I’d picked up while living in a DIY group house a couple years earlier, with enterprising older friends James and Mark. Mark was an eccentric fiddle player, mechanic, and all-around handyman who had recently returned from Vietnam-era draft-evasion exile in Canada, only to suffer major injuries in a freak highway accident. Recovered in body if not in mind, he was also interested in experimental music, and I enlisted him now as a co-conspirator and third roommate. Late at night, Mark and I would drive my VW Beetle through the darkened industrial area south of us, harvesting timbers to haul back home on the roof rack. Used doors and other fixtures came from the vast Caldwell Wrecking Yard farther to the south. A contractor I met in our neighborhood taught me how to hang drywall and run wiring, and I ordered a literal ton of half-inch thick sheetrock which was unloaded one morning on the sidewalk outside. I carried it all up the three flights myself, panel by 52-pound four-by-eight panel.

Cesca’s original boyfriend, another CalArts student nicknamed “Lurch”, had been recovering from multiple knife wounds in a Central Valley hometown altercation with a Latino gang, but now he joined us, and together he and Cesca starting hanging out with punks from one of the Sixth Street flophouses a couple blocks away. She returned one evening with Scott, a smart young bike messenger and aspiring drummer with movie star looks, who became our fourth roommate and started helping with construction. Soon after that, we were joined by an older painter, slender, reserved, prematurely gray-haired Mary, who took the room with the most light, in the far southwest corner.

The room nearest the big kitchen was also the smallest and the only one with no window or skylight. Wanting to make my roommates feel more welcome, I reserved that “cavelike” chamber for myself. The floor plan had been inspired by Lurch, who pointed out that the building itself, like the South of Market street grid, was oriented diagonally, so to maximize natural light, the interior walls should also be designed on the diagonal.

At some point in my exploration of the underground art scene, I’d developed a vision of a high-ceilinged artist loft with individual bedrooms hanging like cliff dwellings above a vast, open studio space. This ceiling wasn’t really high enough to achieve that, but we could still build sleeping lofts that would just hold a bed, and would be high enough to walk under, freeing up even more studio space. So I laid out a meandering hallway to access the rooms in the back, and three of the rooms, including mine, were built with sleeping lofts that extended over the hallway, making it into a tunnel. I even built homemade ladders out of two-by-fours with 1-1/2 inch hardwood dowels as rungs.

I left the bathroom as it came: surrounded by an eight-foot-tall partial wall that didn’t reach the ceiling, and with a doorway but no door. I remember us talking about it at the beginning, and agreeing it would be in keeping with our experimental lifestyle. We did hang a sheet across the doorway for visual privacy. And later there would be a partial door. But the “open” bathroom would challenge our visitors’ sense of privacy for the rest of the decade.

Community of Misfits

During the first few weeks, Cesca and I camped at the very front below the big windows, on a mattress walled off by broken pieces of drywall. But as construction was quickly completed and we moved into our individual rooms, those of us who were anxious to start playing music set up a schedule of rehearsals. On my drive home from work, I’d stop at the liquor store next to the Roxie Theater, on 16th Street in the Mission, to pick up a couple six packs of exotic imported beer for the Terra Incognita band, which now consisted of me, Cesca, Gary, Jon, Mark, Scott, and Scott’s bike messenger pal, Betsy, a very young, classically-trained singer from Berkeley who, as it turned out, had a crush on Scott.

We were all awkward but ambitious amateurs, feeling our way, deliberately exploring music beyond genres and boundaries, without a goal or direction. I, personally, wanted to draw something new and unpredictable out of our collective unconscious minds and bodies. We had a big room full of secondhand instruments and noisemakers – including our voices – and a reel-to-reel deck that recorded at slow speed so I could just leave it turning while we lost ourselves in the music. Some of what emerged was just noise, but you could also identify echoes of ambient and industrial rhythms and harmonics, and the occasional suggestion of a TV or movie theme one of us had absorbed in childhood. The energy was high, and furniture was occasionally broken.

The turbulent story of that group is told elsewhere. But between my hammering and sawing, our late-night music sessions, and Cesca’s increasingly rebellious circle of junkies, an angry rift developed between us and our downstairs neighbors. They were also musicians, and practiced at odd hours. George, the oldest, had a concert piano on the ground floor, at which he noodled pleasantly from time to time, unfolding endless new age melodies. Erin, known to us as Punk Monster, was a blonde who dressed in black leather and chains, and had just acquired a saxophone. Her room was just below Scott’s, and when she began whaling on that sax, it was just like a primal scream.

One night during the first week of construction, the minute I fired up the Skilsaw, our downstairs neighbors ran up our staircase and started attacking our inside door with an axe. That’s when I got the message and moved the saw to the roof. But a couple months later, perhaps inspired by TI’s evening music sessions, they organized their own band and began rehearsing at midnight, to which we reciprocated with our own intervention. That story, and others from that first summer, is told in Loft of Dreams.

Our first year in the loft was also the first year of the Reagan presidency, and we found ourselves on the front lines of Reagan’s mental health disaster. When I first moved into the loft, the sidewalks were full of burly guys wearing black leather chaps and jackets, lurching shoulder to shoulder, hungover, dissipated from long nights out. But they were soon displaced by people like “Moses,” the tall, bearded longhair of indeterminate age who endlessly circled our block, dressed in rags, feeling his way along by trailing his outstretched fingers across the facades of buildings, while his eyes stared off into the distance, unseeing. And “Popeye,” the handsome, athletic-looking older man who dressed up in antique costumes – including his sailor suit – and loped dramatically out into the street, stopping rush hour traffic wearing a broad grin. Popeye lived in the large halfway house around the corner on Folsom, visible from the back of our building. He would disappear for months at a time, then show up again, looking ten years older. The South of Market crazies just got scarier as the years went by and mental health services collapsed nationwide.

The tenement on our north side housed Olen’s record shop at ground level, and above that, the flat where rock band Journey got its start. Tall, slender, seemingly ageless Olen was our protector – he said he could “take care” of parking tickets for us, and fix any other little problems with the law. His eyeballs were a vivid yellow, and he spent most of his days standing outside his door, smoking and impassively watching the world roll by. He never seemed to sell any records, but every so often, a Mercedes would pull up to his shop, guys wearing suits would get out, and business was transacted around the open trunk of the car, sometimes after transporting an ice chest inside the shop. When I asked him about it, he said he had made connections overseas while in the service, and made a little money importing foreign cars through military channels.

Shipley Street, the narrow alley at Olen’s corner, was a narrow, dark canyon of tall wood-frame tenements. The rickety building behind our loft was a halfway house for violent felons who’d just been released from prison. Its yard, behind our back wall, was a junkyard run by Dancy, a big old guy who employed the ex-cons in his salvage operations. And farther down Shipley lived Pigeon Man, who brought his shotgun out at night to shoot pigeons off powerlines and the eaves of buildings.

Brothers Towing had the ground floor of the building on our south. They were good guys trying to make it with a marginal business, and eventually the cost of competition drove them out, but they were always really nice to us. Upstairs from them was a tenement apartment hosting a series of dangerously messed up people.

Past Brothers was another artist warehouse, at the corner of Clara Street, a narrow alley like Shipley, with more artist buildings, tenements, and marginal businesses. Across Clara was Harvey’s corner store. Harvey was the Chinese-American guy who cashed paychecks for bike messengers. In the late 80s, he would move to a larger space on the corner across from Olen, with a back lot facing our loft where messengers could reinact scenes from The Road Warrior.

At a TI party organized by Mary, the painter, I met her friend Kathy, a young student at the San Francisco Art Institute. We hit it off immediately and made plans to go backpacking at Point Reyes the following weekend. It was the start of a blissful bohemian romance. She lived in the Mission on Albion Street, just around the corner from the Roxie Theater, with another female art student, and I started spending a lot of nights there.

For the July 4th holiday, I made a big pot of chili, and the band piled into my old VW Beetle and rode over the Golden Gate Bridge to the Marin Headlands, where we clambered down into one of the ancient defensive bunkers overlooking the Bay and waited for the fireworks to start, listening to cassettes of our music sessions on a boom box. The music was going really well, and we were stoked.

Scott worked at the old Strand Theater on Market Street, a faded palace that offered cheap second-run movies, and one night after the program, he invited us in, to listen to our tapes on the house system. I’ll never forget sitting up in the balcony with my bandmates, looking out into the shadows of the darkened theater and listening to music we’d all created, booming on the biggest sound system we’d ever hear.

We didn’t have laundry facilities in the loft yet, there was no laundry in our neighborhood, and I was driving all the way out Mission to a laundromat I’d used in my previous location. There, one Sunday afternoon, I met George Gershwin, a sixty-something pianist who claimed to be the reincarnation of the famous composer – and a former CIA agent. George was such a thrilling storyteller that we had him and his much younger wife over for dinner, and attended a concert they gave downtown.

While I was dallying with Kathy in the Mission, the situation back at the loft with Cesca and her punk friends came to a head. Mary was sick of their late-night drunken parties, so she moved out, I moved to her room, and finally decided that Cesca had to go. She did not leave quietly.

Long Winter Nights

My new room at the back, with a wall of steel casement windows and a huge skylight overhead, brought my visual art back from several months of dormancy. I hung floodlights from the ceiling so I could work at night, and started using raw, unstretched canvas, tacking it to the wall and attacking it with charcoal and oil pastels, evoking distorted figurative compositions inspired by the drama and pathos of our little loft community. There were only three of us now, so one evening Scott showed up with Tiare, another SFAI student, who had grown up in Hawaii. She’d grown up in a creative, cosmopolitan milieu, had done some world traveling, and was steeping herself in the radical oeuvre of the Situationists at school. We all hit it off, Scott moved into Cesca’s old room, and Tiare took over Scott’s room.

As the most ambitious members of the Terra Incognita band, Jon and I were anxious to extend it beyond music into the realm of performance art. In the best tradition of political art, we began to envision a lunch-hour intervention a few blocks away, in the Financial District, that would force office workers to think twice about where they were and what they were doing. The rest of the group caught our enthusiasm in varying degrees.

It was fall, and Kathy was back in school. The pressure of her art projects was freaking her out, so that our time together was reduced to furtive nights and short weekend getaways. Scott brought home the latest single by New Order, Ceremony. My CalArts friends and I had danced to the nihilism of predecessor Joy Division before Ian Curtis’s suicide; I carried this new classic up to the turntable on the disco deck above the loft stairway, and its autumnal dirge became our new anthem. And when New Order came to the cavernous I-Beam nightclub in early November, I forced my way through the most packed house I’ve ever seen, just to get a glimpse of the dim figures onstage.

Tiare and I gravitated into a brother-and-sister relationship, and started making art together. She helped kick off the first Thanksgiving in the TI loft, a delirious party which ended in jail for Scott and me, as told in As If Apes Would Hurl. The following week, adding insult to injury, Kathy decided she couldn’t sustain a relationship alongside school any longer, and I was single again.

Loft life just got more and more intense as San Francisco fell under a record cold wave that holiday season. We had no source of heat, and the crumbling walls and rusted, warped window frames let in a constant draft, so as the temperature outside dropped toward freezing, we began sleeping together in a blanket pile in the front room, to share our body heat.

Drugs and booze also helped keep us warm. From early December on, we maintained a marathon of nightly creative sessions that lasted more than a month, with friends and colleagues streaming into the loft to pick up on our energy. Despite working full-time during the day and staying up most of the night, I somehow found time to shop for special Christmas gifts for everyone: a deluxe shaving brush, mug and soap for Mark, a cymbal for Scott, silk stockings for Tiare.

My friend Mark came up from CalArts just before Christmas, and my mother flew out from Indiana to stay in a downtown hotel. Tiare’s friend Kim, a painter and student of art star David Salle at the Art Institute, joined us for late-night drawing sessions, and Clara, a manic local drummer who reminded me of New Order’s Stephen Morris, joined Mark and I and other TI members in late-night opium jams.

Africa Invades Terra Incognita

Jon, the writer and original TI conga player, had met a professional percussionist named Annette, telling her about our loft, and immediately after New Year’s she asked if she could have her birthday party there. What made it extra appealing to me was that she knew all the local stars of African music, and the party was likely to turn into an African music jam.

When I first met him in January 1981, Jon had given me cassettes of African music. This was long before David Byrne, the Talking Heads, and Brian Eno brought out their African-inspired recordings, and many years before Paul Simon got on the bandwagon with his Graceland album. I had a natural attraction to African music – my dad had played albums by Miriam Makeba and others at home when I was a little kid.

That party, sampled in the video below, was a watershed moment for Jon and me, and a unique moment in the musical history of the world, featuring collaborations between Moroccan master Yasir Chadly, Nigerian Afrobeat founder OJ Ekemode (the mentor of Fela Kuti), Prince Joni Haastrup (another Afrobeat founder), and Malonga Casquelourd, legendary Congolese drummer, dancer, and choreographer and founder of the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts in Oakland. The jamming lasted till dawn, it set the course of my music for the next fifteen years, and it inspired us to produce a series of ambitious public multi-media events, called Music & Prophecy, at the TI loft.

Walls Come Crashing Down

Traumatized by winter in the unheated loft, I bought a cheap off-brand wood stove, and Mark and I installed it, cutting a flue hole through the asphalt-and-gravel roof with great difficulty. To save money, I resumed scrounging the industrial zone south of us for scrap firewood, but pine lumber burns much too quickly to be practical in an open space with high ceilings, so we ended up huddling around the stove as if it were an outdoor campfire. Desperately poor and without a vehicle to haul wood, Mark even rolled up and burned newspaper “logs.” I got a kerosene heater for my room, but it was still cold enough back there that I could keep my beer chilled by setting it on the windowsill.

A young aspiring drummer had moved to the mezzanine level of the downstairs anarchist squat, right underneath our bedrooms, and he started driving us nuts by practicing rolls on the floor with his drumsticks, sometimes for hours. There could’ve been drugs involved – or maybe he was just trying to keep warm.

As a follow-up to Annette’s party at the beginning of January, Jon and I launched our multi-media cabaret series a month later. In addition to Yasir and his Moroccan group, OJ showed up again, and there was a new guy, another Moroccan friend of Yasir’s, who played soprano sax and soared into a spine-tingling duet with OJ’s tenor.

Now that I was single, Tiare and I were spending more and more time together. She had a habit of walking through the loft naked, and I could tell it was getting on Scott’s and Mark’s nerves. Both of them were living from hand to mouth and hadn’t been able to pay rent for the past couple of months. We’d stopped playing music together and were becoming strangers in our own home.

In March, I summoned the two of them around the kitchen table and said they would have to move out. I’ve felt bad about it ever since. I went to bed early the night they left. Tiare was out. Just as I was falling asleep, I was shocked awake by a pounding, crashing, and shattering outside my room – it sounded like someone was trying to tear the building down – followed by the thunder of somebody big running down the hall and out the door. I was terrified, and just lay there for a while in the dark taking deep, silent breaths.

Mark, who tends to keep his frustrations bottled up inside, had reached the breaking point, but it wasn’t me he was mad at, it was Tiare. He seemed to blame her for my decision. He’d taken a hammer to the window in his room, to the wall between him and Tiare, and the glass panes of her door. As it turned out, I would end up demolishing that wall anyway. It was the end of the first phase of Terra Incognita, and the beginning of the next one.

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