July 23, 2011

“Robbie Basho was an angel. I don’t believe he was terrestrial.”

The temple bell stops.

But the sound keeps coming

out of the flowers.

-Matsuo Basho (1644-1694)

About 12 p.m. on Feb. 26, 1986, in Albany, Calif., a little known musical genius with little money was getting worked on by his chiropractor for pains that tormented the guitarist in recent years, pains he played through during his short lived, but rich musical career.

Something went wrong and the guitarist who took the steel string guitar into so many incarnations of musical joy would sing no more.

The vertebral artery in Robbie Basho’s neck accidently ruptured as chiropractor Ray Biase shifted his head back. The musician’s brain filled with blood, his limbs became cold and his vision blurred. He had a stroke. Basho was rushed to Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley confused, disoriented and with slurred speech. There it was discovered that the musician’s artery was torn. He fell into a coma and was put on a respirator.

Basho’s stepfather, Daniel Robinson, was living in Florida and flew across the country to see is son in this helpless state.

“His prognosis was poor and chance for recovery was negative,” the coroner’s report reads. “Family members agreed that the respirator be turned off.”

Robbie Basho passed away Feb. 28, 1986. He was 45.

Chiropractor Patrick Tribble was under the mentorship of Biase at the time and said such fragile arteries are unusual in people so young. There was nothing that could have been done to save Basho, Tribble said.

“There was no negligence, it was just a freak accident and the artery was about to blow,” Tribble said. “Ray was just devastated for years. There’s no way to really predict that. It’s a one out of four million chance.”

Biase was a gifted chiropractor with hundreds of people on his waiting list, Tribble said. Basho, who believed in the chiropractic practice, had been a patient there for months. Biase died in 1996 at age 50 of a brain tumor.

There was little mention of the death of the passionate singer, guitar and piano composer of world music with 15 albums. The short obituaries that there were merely said he died of a stroke and was survived by his father and sister.

Basho left the world just like he came into it — Alone.

Born in Baltimore Aug. 31, 1940, Basho was an orphan. His stepfather, who died in 1989, adopted him and named him Daniel Robinson Jr. Basho’s stepsister, Penny is nowhere to be found.

In what was Basho’s last known interview that appeared November 1985 in the San Francisco Chronicle he said he was hospitalized in traction for back pain and suffered pinched leg nerves because of the traction. His injury, stemming from a climbing accident, left him unable to sit up for months but he willed himself back into performing. Four months later he was dead, his ashes spread in a private ceremony.

He was a burly man, who had the powerful voice of an operatic tenor and took to wearing knee high moccasins and dashikis in his early years, along with a long beard and wild gaze. In the 80s he tamed down to a mustache, glasses and button downs but the gravitas of his gaze remained.

Basho went to Catholic schools and developed his vibrato voice in choirs then attended the University of Maryland where he didn’t graduate and didn’t have a major listed. But during his years there from 1958 to 1962, he discovered the guitar and a passion for Asian arts and culture.  Basho became particularly fond of the 17th Century Japanese poet Matsuo Basho, whose name he would later use.

Guitar luminary John Fahey introduced Basho to the steel string in his college years and was into the blues until he discovered Ravi Shankar in 1962. He listened to the maestro for hours in the dark, which helped give birth to Basho’s steel string ragas, developing an open style of tuning for 6 and 12 string guitar. The ragas are long winding pieces that take the listener on a journey of joy and hope and grace, such as Pavan India on the Art of the Acoustic Steel String Guitar 6&12 album.

Basho has had many musical incarnations. Though there was little audience for them during his short life, many of his contemporaries say he was just ahead of his time. People weren’t ready for “New Age” type of world music. That bothered Basho, and his bank account, but he never altered his path.

Today, with the internet and a plethora of Basho’s grace and style on sites like Youtube.com, people are starting to discover him and posting comments such as “My God, why have I not heard of this before?”

A tribute album to Basho, We are all one, in the Sun was released last year.

“I felt so sad when he died, I felt like he’d struggled so hard to keep a career going for himself and in 10 years no one will remember who this guy was,” said guitarist Glenn Jones who has a song on the tribute album.

Basho slipped through the cracks of the musical landscape. And 25 years after his unfortunate death, he’s starting to get some recognition. But the mystery of the man, his death and birth still remain. His adoption files are sealed. His death certificate only reveals his mother’s name: Ilene C. Webb.

People who knew Basho said he never spoke of his family and didn’t mention he was adopted. But all one has to do is listen to Basho’s Orphan’s Lament off the Visions of the Country album to know his identity and roots were part of the discovery of himself.

“To all the little orphans of the rainbow; and may they find the gentle hand of the Creator,” Basho wrote as the song’s dedication.

He tried to discover who he was through music. Perhaps that’s why he passed through so many phases with acute details: Asian to Hindu style, to Native American to American folk to Persian. Basho created a distinct sound that was his own, that was North America’s own.

“Whatever bag he was in, he was in all the way. There was no holding back and no wobbliness at all,” Jones said. “He just had the ability to take you somewhere else.”

That’s what Basho thought music should do.

“The superego isn’t satisfied with meat and potatoes music anymore, it really wants the best it can get… Music is supposed to say something, music is supposed to do something,” Basho said in his soft voice in a 1974 interview on KPFA radio in Berkeley, the city where the musician made his home. “People that know what I’m doing rave about me and people that don’t put me down like the dickens.”

He knew he didn’t reach the masses and it bothered him. Basho, who didn’t have a manager, considered his music a meditation on God and revolted against any attempts to bottle his music to short, radio friendly pieces.

“For some people, it’s their Karma to get breaks, like Bobby Dylan,” Basho said in a Guitar Player magazine interview when he was 32, “but for me it’s been a hard struggle. It still is.”

Guitarist Henry Kaiser said he was going to see a Basho show in Berkeley in the late 70s when he came across the forlorn musician in front of the venue.

“There’s nobody here,” Basho said.

“Well I’m here,” replied his dedicated fan.

So he got a private show.

“Basho is a great example of somebody who’s a true original,” Kaiser said. “It’s impressive how much stuff he figured out so quickly.”

Basho’s personal journey was an intense one. He received his stage name in the 60s “after spending a night on a mountaintop and ingesting a great deal of peyote,” Fahey wrote in 2000 for the liner notes of Bashovia.

The next morning, Basho said he was the reincarnation of the Japanese poet. But his psychedelic spiritual quest came with consequences and he suffered flashbacks by the late 60s while studying North Indian music with the legendary Ali Akbar Khan in Berkeley. There he met fellow guitarist Hank Mindlin, a follower of Meher Baba, the silent Indian spiritual teacher known for his strong stance against the use of drugs for any spiritual purpose.

Basho devoted himself to Baba’s teachings and adhered to consistent practices for sleep, diet, exercise and work. The flashbacks were cured and Basho joined Sufism Reoriented, Meher Baba’s spiritual school in California. After discovering Baba, Basho refused to teach any guitar students who were using drugs.

He experimented with several healing methods including Chinese medicine, herbalists, acupuncture, massage, and he went to several chiropractors. He also tired different diets such as macrobiotics and vegetarianism, except when he had a show – then he ate a steak because he thought the iron gave him more vigor.

Sufism Reoriented executed Basho’s will and still has some of his music scores and rights to Basho’s music. Where Basho’s guitars and other belongings are remains a mystery.

Those who understood what Basho was doing were crushed upon learning of his premature demise. A German guitarist who took on the Basho name made a pilgrimage to Berkeley to meet the maestro. But by the time Steffen Basho-Junghans got there it was too late.

“He was very downcast because Robbie wasn’t around anymore,” Basho’s neighbor Janet Smith said. “He expected to find him.”

Some people, including Fahey, thought Basho’s spiritual quest was a bit of a show and called the poetry overly effusive. To others, he was one touched by God in a way few are. To his neighbors, he was an odd man with long dirty fingernails and no driver’s license who shuffled around the neighborhood and once worked as a stock clerk.

“He thought it was hilarious that he would wander around the store, mostly working on musical ideas in his head, and finally got fired when the manager discovered him sitting down in the back rapidly trying to get down some of his ideas,” said guitarist Rich Osborn, who was a student of Basho’s and also played shows with him.

The spirit of the man shone through his music. But sometimes his spirituality overlapped.

Will Ackerman, founder Windham Hill Records that Basho recorded two albums with, said he was at Basho’s apartment on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley when something odd happened.

“He interrupted our talk to have a brief talk with someone in the room I couldn’t see who he referred to as The Black Madonna,” Ackerman said.  “Robbie Basho was an angel. I don’t believe he was terrestrial. I would watch him play and be transported in a way I’ve never been transported before. I’d see him have conversations with people who I did not see in the room. I truly believe that his reality was more accurate than mine. He was seeing a spirit that I was not.”

Basho had synesthesia and saw all tones as colors. He journeyed with his voice, guitar and later taking on the piano, which he used because his musical ideas were getting bigger. He may have been imbued with spirit, but it is not something he had control of or could share beyond his music. He was sometimes tough to be around, fussy, moody, self absorbed and a bit of a hypochondriac.

“He was a madman, a divine fool,” Osborn said. “Robbie was one of those rare individuals who are ‘touched’ by God, and in a sense almost used by God.”

Like many spiritual people, Basho too got his fill traveling to India in 1969 to partake in the “Great Darshan” to honor Meher Baba who passed away that year.

“Robbie participated in the darshan program in India, performing one of his guitar ragas at this gathering in the beautiful summer palace of the Maharani of Baroda known as ‘Guruprasad’ in the city of Pune in April 1969,” Mindlin said. “He regarded it as one of the most memorable experiences of his life and very forcefully felt the living presence of the divine.”

To those who knew him, Basho was not of this world and didn’t conform to its realities. He was only here for a little while and left us with grace, despite his shortcomings as a human. All of his imperfections and worries melted away during his captivating performances. A video of one has yet to be discovered.

“At a lesson, Robbie once spoke of how he husbanded his energy and was very careful even of what and how he looked,” Osborn said.  “Then he did turn his gaze directly on me, and I could feel the power of his presence and gaze, almost like being shoved in the chest.”

In the 1974 radio interview, Basho spoke of Hindu deities and communicating with fire through his steel string guitar.

“During the interview he was a little bit over the top into this spiritual area,” said Charles Amirkhanian, who interviewed him. “For me it seemed like he a little bit nuts, but now he seems saner than ever.”

It broke Basho’s heart that the masses never listened. He’d well up with joy to see his music lives on with some reissues of albums and internet listening.

“I don’t call a lot of my stuff far out, I just call it a different level of feeling,” Basho said during the Amirkhanian interview.  “It’s far in as far as I’m concerned.”

The one divine thing Basho never got may be the thing he wanted most…Love.

Some said he was a ladies’ man living with two Asian girlfriends, and some thought he was a virgin. But his romantic poetry revealed Basho’s upholding of women and he often told friends how he wished he’d find a woman to settle down with.

“She is coming,” were words scrawled on a piece of paper over his bed.

“Relationships with women didn’t pan out,” Jones said. “Reality didn’t match his romanticized version.”

In Wine Song, Basho sings:

The drink of love she satisfies/ But the thirst he lingers on/ When first she drew me to her eyes/ The swallows soared in song/ Won’t be long till she’s gone.

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