This week’s episode of Arthur Radio begins with a late summer breeze, wafting between blades of bright green grass under a saturated blue sky, not a cloud in sight. Saturday morning cartoons creep out of an open window, on the other side of which the smell of hot cornbread begins to fill an empty kitchen. Beyond billowing white curtains, a lonesome gray-haired wolf rambles through the rolling meadows, whistling a nostalgic tune… in the distance, a soaring note begins to accompany his song, which soon escalates into a full-on bittersweet dirge of emotion.
When I was living in Point Reyes, my closest friends became people in their sixties. They would share stories with me as I managed the community print shop. One day I was listening to Sandy Bull, and a visiting Vietnam vet shared a great story with me. One day back in the late ’60s he was riding his bicycle through Mill Valley when he heard very, very loud music. He was able to locate the house it was coming from, and sat on the porch and listened for about three hours. Then the music stopped and he knocked on the door to thank the artist. Two very tall African women opened the door, traditionally dressed and very gorgeous. Then Sandy appeared, and was friendly, but also severely spacey. The house was empty with white walls and carpet. My friend was already familiar with Sandy’s music, and had attended some of the shows in San Francisco that Sandy was doing. He rode away on his bicycle, surprised and happy.
Sandy lived in Berkeley, Mill Valley and Fairfax in the ’60s and his best friend was Hamza El Din, the oudist from Egypt. What a special time these men had together. Hamza had arrived in the United States after opening for the Grateful Dead at the Pyramids. He is best known for his ’70s release Escalay (translated as “The Water Wheel”), which features Sandy playing an ancient beat on an ancient drum. In Escalay, Hamza wanted to translate the feelings of the folks whose role it was to haul water to and from the well. It’s the best cinematic folk music I’ve heard—when you listen to it alone you actually arrive at his homeland. The oud is the most gut-pounding stringed instrument I’ve heard: it sends out depthful waves, resonations that have bass where you wouldn’t expect it.
Still Valentine’s Day 1969: Live at the Matrix, San Francisco is a live album from 1969, and the result of Sandy pushing the limits by using an electric oud through about four different Fender amps, all with heavy reverb and vibrato. I really enjoy the entire collection of songs, and have spent some high times with them lately. The songs feel a little more blurry and druggy than on E Pluribus Unum, the 1968 studio album where a lot of them first appeared. Which I appreciate: I am getting stoned a lot, so I am currently looking for items to reflect that, that I respect. Yet I know he was into the junkier side of drug experimentations. I feel if the tapes were mixed track-by track, that it could expose some more low-end that might be now missing. Sandy had a degree in classical bass; he was highly skilled, and his bass lines are sometimes just as interesting as his oud.
Sandy’s shows are another discussion, but briefly, he wouldn’t play with anyone. So he recorded all the instrumentation on analog tape, and then figured a way to synch up each tape machine. He would then haul this to a gig, press play on everything, then rotate between electric oud and pedal steel. Sandy bootlegs are amazing and even funny, as he was so interesting—Sandy had a great style and it is rumored that William Burroughs saw Sandy and immediately copied his fashion; the Beatles song “Come Together” is actually about Sandy; etc. Anyway, Sandy told obscure funny stories between songs. This release has a small dialogue about the live sound engineer ; the un-mastered version I have actually has a huge wallop of stage feedback due to the lack of understanding by the evening’s sound engineer of just what Sandy was attempting in relation to amplified reverb. The feedback is a painful-sounding slash across the speakers, not interesting at all, and isn’t approved of by Sandy. The same thing regularly happens today in live performance—this realm has not progressed much, and the truth of it is that it’s the fault of people’s stagnant exchange with audio psychedelia. There’s been a lack of progression or maybe a lack of respect for the trade of sound engineering folk.
If you get to know the songs you can actually feel Sandy become elated with tonality as he plays here. Some may think his jams are light, or even beatnik. I think his jams are of the heaviest order, and I believe him to be Northern California’s greatest artist ever because he wasn’t a contrived enterprise. This music is a reflection of what was the norm in NorCal back then. People were learning about the strength of folk culture around the world, and using that knowledge to justify dropping out … and to drop out in colorful, musical ways.
A documentary screening slash musical showcase in commemoration of the legendary banjo-pickin’, oud-playing folk guitarist Sandy Bull. This lineup will surely satiate the soul of any wayfaring traveler…