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Sunday, December 25th, 2016

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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Strangers on the Train

Thursday, December 22nd, 2016: Stories, Travel.

Steak on the Floor

Shortly after noon, as I turned into the desolate gravel lot between the elevated interstate highway and the lonely railroad crossing at Deming, I saw some baggage piled at the edge of the small, open-ended shelter provided by Amtrak for waiting passengers. And when I rolled down the window of my truck to let in some freeway air as I ate a sandwich, a short, gray-haired lady emerged from the shelter to stare at me.

“Train’s running twenty minutes late,” she said. “I just got a message on my phone.” I was also set up for text alerts, but I’d been sitting on my phone so I hadn’t heard the tone. Not that I cared about a twenty minute delay at the start of a two-and-a-half day train ride.

While I was eating, I noticed two young guys wearing packs approaching the shelter, one Asian-looking, the other an Anglo kid pushing a bike. They were both dressed in globally stylish trekking gear and wearing garish neon sneakers, so they looked like aliens in this dusty old cowboy town. The Anglo kid started doing showy handstands and elaborate yoga poses while balancing on the railing of the shelter – the kind of thing a college student might do to impress chicks.

I finished my sandwich. Deming is a couple thousand feet lower than my home, and the truck was getting hot in the bright sun, so I joined the others in the scanty shade of the shelter.

“Have you taken this train before?” I asked the old lady.

“Sure, every year I take it to San Antonio to see my relatives. This delay is nothing. One time I had to wait five hours because some idiot stopped his car on the tracks and the train hit him. Probably some idiot committing suicide. Damn government people made us wait five hours while they checked everything out.”

“Well, I’ve had to wait longer than that,” I replied, surprised by her callousness. “You need patience if you want to ride the trains.” I winked at the young guys listening to us.

“Damn government regulations are killing everything,” she continued. “I wonder how much longer Amtrak will last, running on nothing but subsidies from the rest of us.”

I chuckled. “That’s exactly what we were saying thirty or forty years ago. But somehow it just keeps going.”

“Government spoils everything it gets its hands on,” she said.

“Well, I’ve worked my whole life in private enterprise, and that can be just as bad. I rode the private railways before Amtrak, and the equipment was old and shabby, the trains were dirty, and the service was awful. Amtrak is a big improvement over that.”

“It’s government regulations that killed the private railroads,” she insisted.

The young guys were talking about a transmission that was due to arrive here from somewhere else. The Asian kid had a British accent. “Did your car break down?” I asked.

“Yeah, it was making a grinding noise all the way from Las Cruces, and we only made it to Akela, east of here, where it finally gave up. We got a tow into town, and we’ve been waiting five days for the replacement. It’s a really big one for a Ford van, so it’s coming from somewhere far away.”

“I hope they found you a rebuilt one, so you didn’t have to pay for new!”

“Yeah, no problem there.” The Asian kid left to get snacks at the gas station across the road, and his Anglo friend looked back at us. “My friend is from Australia, he got tired of waiting and decided to take the train east.”

“There’s a lady that sells burritos at the El Paso station,” said the old woman. “The train stops long enough so you can buy ’em from her right there on the platform. Two dollars for a good burrito.

“Some people won’t buy ’em because they think they’re not sanitary. They only eat in the dining car. But I know what goes on in restaurant kitchens. I had a friend that was a chef in a fancy restaurant, and somebody came in just before closing and ordered a steak.

“That chef pulled a steak out of the fridge, threw it on the floor and stepped on it.”

I laughed.

“Then he just picked it up and dropped it on the grill. And I don’t blame him for a minute. In a restaurant, they make you work overtime but they never pay you for it. It goes on everywhere, all the time, people working for nothing.”

I wondered how that fit into her hatred of government regulations. Then we heard the horn blow, as the train came rolling in from the west.

Dining Car Dreams

At 5pm, somewhere between El Paso and Alpine, I heard a call for dining car seating on the loudspeaker, and realized no one had come through the coach taking dinner reservations, like they used to. A conductor told me you have to go up to the dining car and make a reservation on your own, but when I got there, there was only one table occupied, and the hostess said she could seat me now, so I took the first empty table.

A few minutes later, a tall, full-figured young woman wearing a formal, all-black goth outfit strode past and dropped decisively into the middle of the seat facing me across the table. She was pale-skinned, with a tiny jeweled stud oddly-placed above her upper lip, dark lipstick, and a delicate but ornate black choker circling her neck. The dining car is normally strict about seating four people to a table, but they left us alone for the rest of the evening, as the tables around us filled up.

She was quiet at first, nervously glancing out the windows from side to side, where the sun was setting behind blue mountains and shadows were spreading across the plain. She looked to be about nineteen years old. “The desert!” she finally exclaimed. “I love the desert!” She spoke with an Eastern European accent so thick I needed an effort to understand her.

“Where’d you get on at?”


“Long trip! Where are you bound?”

“San Antonio. I grew up in Texas, so I love the desert, where you can run free as the wind.”

She stared at me out of big, dark eyes as I wondered how she ended up with that accent, after a childhood in Texas.

Suddenly she turned and grabbed a pen out of a glass by the window, and started drawing on the paper tablecloth. I watched her, entranced. She was outlining something that might’ve been part of a figure, but I couldn’t tell what part. She glanced up briefly to explain, with a serious look, “The tablecloth is paper, that’s why they give us pens.”

I was burning with curiosity, but I waited a few more minutes before asking, “Are you always drawing, wherever you go?”


“Are you in art school?”

“No, I’d like to study, but I can’t afford it. I could only go if I got a scholarship.”

“That’s the best way to do it anyway. You don’t want to get stuck with loans.”

Her accent was driving me crazy, in combination with her exotic appearance. She was like something out of an old movie. And even in the midst of drawing, she still seemed nervous, glancing from side to side like a spy, or a fugitive.

She’d added a female torso, head, and long hair above the original abstract outline, and said it was Rapunzel. Her lines were scratchy and hard-etched with nervous energy. She talked about women’s hair as a locus of power. Her eyes blazed as she recalled an art teacher in high school who had tried to stifle her creativity.

I hadn’t yet said anything about myself, but now I told her about my own teacher and mentor, who’d seen my potential from the start, introducing me to avant-garde work and giving me total freedom to experiment. I was studying her drawing upside-down from across the table, trying to figure out all the lines. “I would like to show her nude, but they might not like it here,” she said. “I always prefer to draw nude bodies, but nudity means you are vulnerable and not secure.”

“Or not. I took a year of life drawing with nude models, and for them, getting naked was a job. Men and women, sometimes old people with sagging bodies, they just stood or sat there in the middle of the room with everyone staring at them for hours at a time, getting paid for it. They seemed to have lost all sense that they were even on display, let alone naked. In some cases, I think being naked can be a sign of strength.”

Her eyebrows went up and she looked at me wide-eyed again. “I never thought of that!” I asked her if she’d ever used pastels, but she didn’t have any idea what I was talking about. I told her how I’d migrated from oil painting to pastel drawing because of the immediacy and tactile excitement of blending colors directly with my fingers and hands, and she recognized, accurately, that it would be like using charcoal, but in color.

How strange that two frustrated artists, one young and barely emerging, one old and burdened with experience, should be brought together, entirely by chance, in this dining car rumbling across southern Texas at night.

She was out on her own in the world, but drifting without a plan. She said she’d lived in three different cities during the past year. She scoffed at Los Angeles, so I told her about my friends there who’d survived as artists by working in the movie industry.

I mentioned the Ghost Ship tragedy in Oakland, but at first she didn’t know what I was talking about – I had to supply a lot more detail before she could figure out what I meant. So I went on to describe the post-punk festival in San Francisco that had inspired me to create my own art space and community, long ago, and how important it is for artists to have communities and spaces in cities where they can be totally free to experiment.

That reminded her of Austin. “Austin is – I don’t know, I think it is the arts capital of the world!” she exclaimed. “They have this thing called Freak Week, where anyone can do anything they want anywhere! It’s amazing!”

We were passing through Marfa – the minimalist’s idea of an arts capital. Blocky shadows, dim sodium vapor lamps. Not a human in sight.

“Do you know what is my dream? My dream is to live in a bus!”

I told her about the young woman I’d met outside Silver City, a refugee from the artist loft scene in Chicago, who was raising her daughter in a bus parked in the middle of a corn field, beside a desert river.

The hostess announced the 7:30 seating. Two hours had passed and our world had shrunken to the brittle, glaring brightness of the dining car, sandwiched between mirror-black windows. She sat back, sighing. “Well…it is very nice talking to you, but I should be going.”

She offered me her hand. “My name is Candace.”

“Max.” I shook her hand. “I hope you find what you’re looking for!”

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The Terra Incognita Loft: Part 2 1982-1984

Sunday, December 25th, 2016: Places, The Terra Incognita Loft.

Rising From the Rubble

The city was going through major changes. While Jon and I were struggling to build community at Terra Incognita, all the other underground art spaces in San Francisco were closing, and the vibrant art scene that had thrived in the wake of punk music was collapsing as everyone faced the harsh realities of the Reagan years.

Five people sharing the loft had been an experiment. After Mark and Scott’s exit, and Mark’s late-night hammer attack, I decided that three was a more reasonable number. Although we stayed best friends, Tiare was spooked by Mark’s attack, and she moved out soon after. Then I tore down the two walls between Scott’s, Mark’s, and Tiare’s old rooms, and built a new wall dividing the remaining space into two larger, more usable private rooms.

I also wanted more stable, reliable roommates, and in one of the miracles of my life, I found them almost immediately in Laurie and John, the best roommates I’ve ever had. Laurie was a postmodern artist who worked full-time as a graphic designer, and John was a polymath and theatrical artist-of-all-trades who worked full-time as a computer programmer. He built a sleeping loft in his room to match Laurie’s and mine, Laurie installed some of her art work, and together, we gradually transformed the loft into a world-class home, studio, and venue.

Music, Prophecy, and Lust

With the band dissolved, Jon and I threw more energy into planning our multi-media events, and I devoted more private time to visual art. At a party in April, I met Victoria, a vivacious Italian-American woman a few years younger than me, with a heavy, glossy mane of jet-black hair. She introduced herself as an aspiring writer, photographer, and actress who also happened to be a vice president at one of California’s largest banks. We hit it off and exchanged phone numbers, and when Jon and I scheduled the first event of our new Music & Prophecy series for May 1, I invited Victoria.

Despite the chemistry, and her attraction to the novelty of my bohemian lifestyle, there was a deep cultural gap between us. I’ll never forget my chagrin at first visiting her apartment on Union Street, ground zero for yuppies. Her furniture and decor were totally bourgeois, heavy on floral prints, throw pillows and lace. But that all blurred into the background as she started tearing off my clothes, and we ended up in a two-year relationship.

Another big change in my life had to do with the desert. Immediately after my first date with Victoria, my CalArts friend Mark had invited me on a camping trip in a remote, exotically beautiful corner of the Mojave, where we slept in a cave under a granite boulder. That clinched my obsession with the desert that would spread to affect everyone else in the loft community and continue to grow for decades.

Inspired by our Music & Prophecy kickoff, which had included rare industrial films by Craig Baldwin, the city’s dean of experimental film, I temporarily quit my day job, and Jon and I spent the month of June planning two ambitious events for July. I built a two-piece modular stage that could be assembled in different shapes, and projection screens that could be hung at angles from the ceiling. We met with Yasir and his group to review samples of Arabic calligraphy that could be used for our posters and projections, and to plan a menu of Moroccan food.

Earlier in the year, I’d been approached at my favorite coffee house by an imperious, strikingly beautiful local actress, Patricia Butler, who had recruited me to play the lovers of Edith Piaf in a two-person performance piece she’d written. There would only be one staging, to be filmed for her acting portfolio, and my part would be silent, with the role changes signified only by changes of costume. It was quite an experience for me to represent Marcel Cerdan, a famous French boxer, not to mention the four other guys!

In return, we asked Patricia to do a dramatic reading at Music & Prophecy of a story of her choice by Isabelle Eberhardt, the tragic genius and desert lover who posed as a man in North Africa and drowned in a flash flood at the age of 27 with her Arab husband, deep in the Sahara. Patricia picked the most melodramatic story, of a young woman’s suicide, and after the final crushing line, I struck the lights and she made the perfect stage exit, down the stairs and out our lives forever.

Reflections on Black Plastic

I was still driving my old 1965 VW Beetle, which I had been doing all the maintenance and repairs on since moving to California in 1976. Now, the front end needed rebuilding, and in the midst of everything else that was going on, I started working on that, in the dirt lot across the street where I kept it parked. One day while I was sprawled underneath with the front end up on blocks, two guys hailed me as they crossed Fifth from the corner at Shipley. I was a captive audience, and they were offering to help, so there wasn’t much I could do. It was clear that they were ex-cons from Dancey’s crew in the tenement behind our loft, and as I got to know them over the next few weeks, I discovered they’d both been released from San Quentin after doing time on felony charges. One was tall and massive, built like a linebacker, while the other looked more like a basketball player.

They started out on their best behavior, treating me with respect and restraint, but as soon as they found out we were hosting public events, they made themselves at home and began hitting on the girls at Terra Incognita. At one Music & Prophecy night, I was trying to be everywhere at once and solve everyone’s problems, when Laurie pulled me aside and said I would have to get rid of the ex-cons. So somehow, without even thinking of the danger, I corralled those two drunken giants and shepherded them down the stairs and out the door, marshaling deep reserves of tact I never knew I had. Jon was watching and came over to give me a supportive hug when I returned to the top of the stairs.

The next, and as it turned out, the final, Music & Prophecy featured my CalArts friend Larry, a wry, jaded photo artist who had a little of the old Clark Gable vibe. Larry had started experimenting with black and white portraits taken with flash against a background of black plastic, falling somewhere in the Sally Mann – Helmut Newton spectrum. Collaborating with Larry at a distance, Jon and I put together a program in which the front room would be completely lined with black plastic, Larry would set up a portrait station at one end, jugglers would entertain and titillate by passing flaming firebrands the length of the plastic-lined room, and Scott’s new rock band would finish off the night.

Celebrity Photo Nite was a huge success until the band started playing at midnight. One of our neighbors immediately called the cops and we were shut down after the second song, for disturbing the peace. And then at 1am, long after the band had loaded out and we’d started to clean up, a big crowd of the band’s fans showed up at the front door, demanding a show. So much for Music & Prophecy.

Embracing Decadence

Downstairs from us, after a year with no rent payments, landlord Chuck finally closed a deal with the anarchists: since eviction had become virtually impossible in San Francisco, he simply paid them thousands of dollars to move out. Next, a couple with a young child moved in and spent weeks rebuilding, turning the mezzanine level, immediately below us, into a more upscale open-plan space like ours. But then the husband began beating on the wife, and the kid started screaming….

Another young couple moved into the tenement apartment on our south side. He was friendly and had a steady job, but she turned out to be dangerously psychotic, so that he had to keep her confined indoors. I’ll never forget the afternoon when she escaped, and ran naked into the middle of Fifth Street, where she collapsed, thrashing and howling plaintively, in the midst of heavy traffic.

My new roommates, Laurie and John, were both into the minimal look. John dressed all in black and had laboriously lined the floor of his room with hundreds of black plastic rectangles he’d found abandoned somewhere in the neighborhood. The two of them prevailed upon me to repaint the blue floor, and we settled on the radical solution of a glossy white floor. This implied high maintenance, leading us to buy a vacuum cleaner and hire a housekeeper, a friend of Laurie’s who came in one day a week. Her partner, Ellen, followed, becoming another new member of our loft family, which from now on would include John and Laurie’s partners as well as friends and relatives, both local and visiting from out of town.

We also pooled our funds for a washer and dryer that I installed in the bathroom, ending the long trips to laundromats. I also picked up a huge door at Cleveland Wrecking that I turned into a kitchen table big enough to seat a dozen people. It was such a relief to finally have roommates that could contribute, instead of just taking advantage of my steady job and reliable income!

With his long theater background, including guerilla performances across Europe, John became an integral part of a local group called On/Ramp. Laurie, whose previous installation work had been text-based and cerebral, started experimenting with more ambitious and evocative “light boxes,” shallow wooden chambers with an interior photo backdrop and a hinged front cover framing a sheet of acetate printed with a foreground photo which was backlit by a lamp hidden inside the box.

Tiare and I were still best buds – Victoria was generously accepting of our close friendship – but she had a new boyfriend – a stylish, reserved professional trumpet player who was transitioning from Art Lande’s jazz group to Van Morrison’s touring band. She’d invite me over to his elegant bungalow on Bernal Hill while he was touring, and I’d noodle dreamily on his Steinway piano, an instrument I can only play while buzzed and stoned.

Alongside all of this social and creative activity in the San Francisco loft, I was living a parallel life in Southern California, driving down to CalArts every few months to play in Mark N’s new group, the tribal/electronic Our Camp, along with a new CalArts friend, Claire. My SoCal connection made me unique in San Francisco, a sort of cultural ambassador between cities that had always been antagonistic.

Partly because my work with Jon in San Francisco was becoming more and more structured and organized, I gravitated toward free improvisation with Mark at CalArts, and we started recording drunken jams and raps under the name of Didactyl Brothers, Daryl (Mark) and Dartaigne (Max), a multi-media art duo riffing on the didacticism of conceptual art, the CalArts-based movement which was then struggling against the rise of Neo-Expressionism. The Didactyl Brothers were irreverent, confrontational, and infantile – a total contrast to the serious, reserved image I presented elsewhere. During my trips, we created and exhibited notorious, disruptive guerilla art shows in the CalArts Main Gallery.

In the fall of 1982, Jon and Tiare joined me on a trip to CalArts, where Jon and I jammed and recorded as Terra Incognita with Mark and his CalArts buddies, and Tiare and Claire became friends and “Didactyl Sisters.” And later that year, Tiare and I participated at the San Francisco Art Institute in a groundbreaking live video linkup with Claire and others at CalArts, and produced a Didactyl Brother and Sister guerilla art intervention at the Art Institute’s main gallery.

Another major CalArts-based trend in my life revolved around Las Vegas and gambling. This was probably an ironic reaction to the conservative Reagan years, as well as an extension of bohemian, low-rent desert gambling trips that Mark and I had started taking in the late 1970s. Now, we teamed up with Larry the photographer, who nudged us in a faux-rat-pack direction, and our Las Vegas trips took on a dimension of epic decadence, with all-night binges at the craps table, followed by hungover tennis matches in the unforgiving desert sun. We’d also started seeking bliss in pharmaceuticals, and I exported as much of this new culture as I could back to San Francisco.

Victoria was less than impressed when I dosed and nodded out in the middle of her yuppie dinner parties, but on the plus side, we took up tennis together, and I even showed up, scandalously, at one of roommate Laurie’s art shows, wearing my tennis outfit.

As I embraced this temporary camouflage, my relationship with bourgeois Victoria began to look like a sort of ironic lark, a self-conscious flirtation with squareness. I truly loved her, but this could hardly be sustainable.

With all the underground art spaces shut down, young people in the cities gravitated toward a new form of nightlife. Punk and post-punk had evolved into new wave dance music, the urban dance scene was blossoming all over the world, and our neighborhood, South of Market, was its center in San Francisco. We all became regulars at DNA, a cavernous corner club with a central bar, a few blocks southwest of us. This was the time of Michael Jackson’s Thriller and the Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams. Victoria and I made great dance partners, and my wardrobe graduated from the Salvation Army to the retro boutiques.

But this second year of the Reagan ordeal was also the dawn of AIDs. We started hearing of it, but had no idea what it meant or how bad it would get.

Dance, Drama, and Irony

I moved into the new year of 1983 without the structure of Music & Prophecy or the Terra Incognita band to anchor me and deploy my creative energies. Laurie and John were comfortably settled in the loft, their jobs and relationships, and John was moonlighting as both actor and director in the On/Ramp group. I continued to move my visual art forward, but Victoria was making it clear that she was on a relentless track toward marriage and children, and it took more and more of my energy to maintain a relationship with someone whose goals were completely different from mine.

This came to a head one day in early summer, when she invited me to lunch at The Ramp, a bohemian burger and beer garden on the waterfront in the shipyard district south of downtown. Her plan was to give me the marriage ultimatum, but I decided to treat it ironically, suggesting that we have a Vegas wedding and enjoy it while it lasted, without any expectations for the future.

To her credit, she took this preposterous suggestion gracefully, merely shaking her head in resignation. That night, we drove to a trash-lined alley between abandoned railroad tracks and an abandoned factory, smoked a joint, and had a wild bohemian fling in the back of her station wagon. The artist had won, for the time being.

Meanwhile, as AIDs was wreaking havoc in the gay community, the media reported that heterosexuals were also at risk through unsafe sex. Fear spread through the cities, where partnerships were more fluid, accelerating the trend toward conservatism in culture and society. The sexual freedom of the 1970s was over, and monogamy became the choice of the prudent.

So, postponing a decision about our relationship, Victoria sublimated her dream of marriage in creative work, joining John’s On/Ramp group as an actress. I should’ve welcomed this, but since I now lacked a creative collaboration of my own, I was childishly jealous of her and the theater. I even resented On/Ramp’s rehearsals in the front room of the loft, which I’d used dozens of times for my own band.

Downstairs, the abusive family moved out, and an upscale construction company, Ludington Construction, moved in, redecorating yet again. This worked out well for us, because they worked regular daytime hours, and we finally had the building to ourselves at night.

Outside the loft, the neighborhood remained sketchy. A Vietnamese family moved into the eastside tenement, and one afternoon I happened to be in my room when I noticed the neighbor kids setting fire to a mattress on the roof outside my window.

Over the previous winter, a new French-produced album had come out featuring Nigerian pop star King Sunny Ade, and Victoria and I had fallen in love with juju dance music, dragging Jon to King Sunny’s first Bay Area show, in Berkeley. I became obsessed with juju, adapting my old bluegrass flatpicking guitar style to juju-inspired polyrhythms, and dreaming of a new African-inspired style of original music.

Some Nigerian dancers at King Sunny’s shows were wearing robes patterned with the Mercedes-Benz logo, a symbol of prosperity. I was tired of perpetually working on my old Beetle and decided to look for a used Mercedes, hoping it would win me points with the African expatriates in the Bay Area. And after I found one, a 1962 diesel sedan with white tuck-and-roll seats, Victoria and I decided to revitalize our relationship with a road trip to the East Coast, stopping off to see Jon, who had moved back home to Iowa, and my family, in Indiana.

In New York City, we were treated to a night in the spectacular metallic-gold-painted Little Italy flat of art star Sherrie Levine, a friend from CalArts. And, dance-crazy as we were, we spent an entire night dancing our way across New York’s most famous nightclubs, finally lurching blissfully into a Manhattan dawn.

Although he’d moved away, Jon and I were still close, holding long phone sessions late at night, collaborating on ideas for music, art, and events. I was excited about the direction my visual art was taking, and he badgered me to give up music completely and focus on art, where he thought my talent was stronger.

Go South, Young Artist

Victoria’s older sister Patti was an art director in the movie industry, the girlfriend of a famous video artist, and a fixture in the Los Angeles art scene. We’d visited her Hollywood apartment for an art party the previous winter, dropping our new King Sunny album on her stereo and dancing while conceptual art star Stephen Prina led the rest of the group to the bedroom to snort lines of coke. Patti introduced us to rising gallerist Richard Kuhlenschmidt, who was helping to put the LA scene on the international art map. The four of us hung out, and he took an interest in my work.

At the same time, Mark and Larry were getting involved with another ambitious gallerist, James Turcotte, who had recently scored a beautiful space just off a gentrifying section of inner Wilshire Boulevard. He currently hosted a group show including an elegantly eerie plaster image of a tornado by sculptor Dana Duff; I showed him slides of my work in progress and he scheduled me for a two-person show with Dana in summer 1984. It was my first real opportunity in any of the arts, and intense preparations took over my life back home.

Meanwhile, my day job flew me to New England for a few days, and on the way back, I stopped in New York to spend a couple of nights at the Manhattan loft of Andy Moses, son of Los Angeles art star Ed Moses. Andy took me to a series of loft parties, including one at Robert Rauschenberg’s East Coast studio, and another on a rooftop where experimental films were projected on the opposite building. My head was in the clouds; I was finally getting somewhere.

The work I planned to show with Turcotte was based on the mixed-media drawings on raw canvas that I’d been creating for the past couple of years, enriched by my recent research into Native American rock art and prehistoric culture. A friend had given me an inspirational book on the radical Swedish artist Oyvind Fahlstrom, who assembled wall-hanging installations from miscellaneous collections of graphical elements, and in conversations with Turcotte, I began to envision a layered, conceptually sophisticated presentation in which my canvas drawings would be displayed along with other suggestive items that I would create or collect, the whole assemblage would be photographed and printed in large format, and prints would be available for purchase at a reasonable price, in addition to the original assemblage – a two-tiered marketing strategy.

In the early months of 1984, I was working hard and sinking lots of money into large-format photography, printing, and framing, and Turcotte assured me that we were on track. Everything was copacetic in the loft, and my relationship with Victoria seemed to be on autopilot. Then, at the end of April, with the show only two months away, I was starting to get anxious about finishing on time, and uncertain about the quality of the product, when I suddenly received a short letter from Turcotte saying he’d had to cancel the show due to overbooking.

Stunned, I immediately called the gallerist. He said that in addition to booking problems, he didn’t think my work was really ready to show, and, humiliated, I threw a tantrum, telling him none of my friends would ever set foot in his gallery again. I also talked to Dana; she was shocked and disappointed, but there was nothing either of us could do.

Victoria was with me as I read the letter; she comforted me, but she also announced – with all the compassion she could muster – that our relationship had to end, so she could be free to pursue her dream of marriage and family. She’d met a corporate lawyer who wanted to go out with her – clearly a better match – and he claimed to share her goals.

Turcotte’s cancellation aborted my gallery career in the visual arts. Whereas with most people it would be only a temporary setback, I realized I just wasn’t committed to the commercial gallery scene. I had an easy day job, and I was much more interested in experimenting and growing my art work organically, not in grooming it for a fiercely competitive market. I eventually came to agree that the planned assemblage and photo presentation were weak; my drawings were as strong as anything out there, but you can’t build a career on drawings – they’re considered secondary work, only marketable if you’re already established with “major” work like paintings.

Cowgirl in the Band

Things happened fast in those days. When I told Mark about the breakup with Victoria, he invited me to Los Angeles to play a gig with his new country band, Days of Glory, so I grabbed my banjo and jumped on Amtrak. I met them at the Frolic II, a new art scene bar in Hollywood. Katie, the standup-bass player, was there with her current boyfriend, a successful Neo-Expressionist painter, and John Baldessari, the international art star and CalArts teacher that she was escorting around town. Five inches taller than me, she was a party girl with a Mona Lisa smile and a svelte body, and later in the evening, when we found ourselves alone together out on the grubby Hollywood sidewalk, she literally swept me off my feet.

Mark and I left on a desert camping trip the day after the gig. It was the year of Halley’s Comet, and to celebrate, we made giant symbolic tempera paintings on the side of a house-sized boulder near our cave. But on my return to the city, Katie and I immediately became an item. She seemed to be exactly what I needed – a fearless tomboy from North Dakota, at home in the wilderness, but also an ambitious and well-connected artist, musician, and urban bohemian with an impeccable fashion sense. The only problem was that she lived in Los Angeles, but I was already used to commuting between SF and LA several times a year.

A couple weeks later she flew up to visit me, and I introduced her to the loft family, where she fit right in. She scrutinized my art, and contradicted Jon by insisting that I give up art for music, since, in her opinion, I had more talent for the latter.

But I wasn’t ready to give up on art completely – shortly after abandoning painting for drawing, I had started experimenting with pastels. I loved rubbing and blending colors with my fingers and hands, and the desert was inspiring me with new forms both natural and surrealistic.

Laurie’s friend Madeline, also an artist and fashion model, had moved into a warehouse space a few steps away, across Fifth on Clara Street, with her boyfriend Andrew, bass player for the notorious local post-punk act, Minimal Man. And I reconnected with Mark, the Terra Incognita fiddler who’d attacked Tiare’s room two years ago. Together, often playing and recording outdoors on the loft roof high above the city, we began developing a new electric string band sound, blending King Sunny’s Nigerian juju rhythms with the bluegrass styles both of us had learned in the 1970s.

Tiare’s boyfriend was still touring with Van Morrison, and Van had recruited them all, including Tiare, into Scientology, which drove a wedge between us. We were still in touch, but I was keeping my distance.

My old Volkswagen was on its last legs. Our musician neighbor, Andrew, recommended the Honda Civic Wagon, a quirky car design that had just come out, looked like a toaster, and would be perfect for hauling both musical instruments and camping gear. It was the first new car I’d ever bought on my own, and I special-ordered it in a desert tan color that perfectly matched our Mojave landscape.

On my trips to LA to see Katie, I jammed with Days of Glory, working out some of the tunes I would later use with the new Terra Incognita, and she and I got comfortable playing together. I also took her out to the Mojave, where we found a cave of our own, larger and nicer than Mark’s, and spent a week improving and furnishing it as a home away from home.

Meanwhile, Jon from TI had landed a writing gig in New York, and I made a special trip out to visit him. One afternoon as we walked up a street of sidewalk cafes in the East Village, I spotted my ex-girlfriend Kathy from San Francisco. That first year in the loft already felt like ancient history, and I had nothing left to say to her.

Katie and I were anxious to start writing and recording music together. She had a quiet, shady bungalow in desirable Los Feliz and high-paying hourly work doing special effects in the movie industry, so moving to SF wasn’t a great option for her. But I’d saved up a little nest egg, so at the end of 1984, I quit my day job again and packed up, leaving everything at the loft as it was, hoping to return and rejoin Laurie and John sometime soon. Reagan had been re-elected in a landslide, and it had recently been announced that AIDs was spreading through IV drug use in both the gay and straight communities. A full-blown epidemic loomed on the horizon, and many in our arts community were at risk. My move wasn’t exactly a leap into the unknown, but it was definitely the beginning of a new story.

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