Even in the wild and wooly Berkeley music scene of the 1960s and ‘70s Robbie Basho stood out as an odd duck.
A self-taught guitarist and self-styled troubadour whose expansive influence far outstripped his cult following, Basho arrived in town as part of the disparate group of blues-besotted guitarists from the Baltimore area who recorded for Berkeley-based Takoma Records. Included on the label’s epochal 1966 Contemporary Guitar compilation with rediscovered Delta bluesman Bukka White, Max Ochs, Harry Taussig, and label co-founder John Fahey, Basho emerged as one of the most strikingly original players in the American Primitive guitar movement.
Initially inspired by North Indian classical music, his raga-influenced style on the 12-string steel guitar continued to evolve, absorbing (or some would say appropriating) a far-flung array of traditions, a process guided by his intense spirituality. The little renown Basho achieved in life mostly faded following his 1986 death at the age of 45 in Albany from a freak accident during chiropractic treatment. But he had made his mark, via a dozen or so albums and his influence on fellow guitarists such as Alex de Grassi, Leo Kottke, The Who’s Pete Townshend, and Windham Hill-founder William Ackerman, who was inspired to launch the label by Basho’s music.
While a coterie of passionate fans kept his name in circulation, most of Basho’s albums fell out of print. It wasn’t until 2006, when Tompkins Square Records reissued his 1969 album for Blue Thumb, Venus in Cancer, that Basho’s reputation started to climb again. Recorded at Robert DeSousa’s South Berkeley studio Sierra Sound on Alcatraz, where Chris Strachwitz brought many of the blues artists he documented on Arhoolie, it was Basho’s first release on a major label, but it didn’t do much to expand his audience.
Purchased by a young British music fan named Liam Barker, the reissue eventually helped bring Basho the kind of acclaim he never attained in life. The album sparked Barker’s obsession with Basho’s music and his austere persona as a mystic who seemed to have landed in the wrong era. Delving into the mysteries surrounding Basho’s life and death, he spent years searching for clues to explain the artist’s singular journey, an investigation that led to his 2015 documentary Voice of the Eagle: The Enigma of Robbie Basho.
The film traces his life from his adoption by a Baltimore doctor, who christened the boy Daniel R. Robinson, Jr., to his brief fling with the blues and his reinvention of himself in Berkeley as Robbie Basho, a name he took in honor of the 17th-century Japanese poet Matsuo Basho. An encounter with a Ravi Shankar record turned him onto Hindustani classical music, the discipline that set him on his wending path.
He played little gigs around town, though he wasn’t part of the Berkeley folk scene, or the new music scene. When Basho started focusing more on his vocals, which could come across as disconcertingly earnest, his music seemed to exist in its own world, though he wanted to draw on traditional sources. Moe Moskowitz, co-founder of Moe’s Books, was something of a patron, judging by his executive producer credit on Basho’s 1967 Takoma album The Falconer’s Arm II.
By the end of the 1960s he’d come into the orbit of Walnut Creek-based Sufi Reoriented, where he became a disciple of Murshida Ivy Duce. Pete Townshend, a follower Duce’s guru Meher Baba, got to know Basho through their shared faith, and he provides a good deal of insight into the guitarist’s personality and music throughout the film.
Barker’s dogged research for the documentary led to him uncovering the fate of Basho’s possessions, including his guitars and hundreds of hours of tapes that he had left in the care of the Sufis. On Friday, Tompkins Square Records releases Song of the Avatars: The Lost Master Tapes, a five-disc box set that Barker culled from the long-rumored recordings.
“It’s an example of the serendipity that has followed me,” said Tompkins Square’s Josh Rosenthal. “Liam Barker got his first exposure to Basho from the reissue of Venus and Cancer. Then he went on this incredible fact-finding journey and became an authority on Basho. Song of the Avatars is really Liam’s baby. I wasn’t involved in parsing out the tracks. There was 25-years-worth of recordings he had made, some at home, some at KPFA. It’s a parallel overview of his recorded work that adds six hours of Basho music never heard before.”
Part of the enduring mystery around Basho stems from the dearth of documentation. There’s precious little footage of him performing, with some of the best clips originally broadcast by KQED in 1971. And there are even fewer interviews available. Though the film doesn’t make it clear, Basho’s voice is heard mostly through a 1974 KPFA interview with Charles Amirkhanian.
As the station’s music director from 1969-92 “my door was always open, and there were some people who took advantage of that,” he said. “Robbie wanted to communicate his music, and not a lot of people were listening. He was a bit of an idealist who didn’t fit any convenient category.”
Deeply interested in the music Takoma Records was releasing, Amirkhanian was drawn to Basho’s hypnotic use of repetition and musical patterning. Like many people who interacted with the guitarist, he found him unpredictable, a little prickly, “and needy in the way a lot of artists who are marginalized,” Amirkhanian said.
“Robbie was a nice person, and a little bit sad. I remember I wanted to help him and he was hard to help. Sometimes a little too fixated on his own aesthetic. It was a miracle that he would sit down with me on the air for that long. I didn’t know if he would stay there or walk out.”
Song of the Avatars spends a lot of time trying to understand his psychology, which was clouded by his belief that he’d experienced trauma in past lives. Guarded and self-involved, he pushed people away, even has his music attracted intense devotion.
Guitarist Richard Osborn was a student at Stanford who had mastered many John Fahey’s pieces when he first saw Basho in concert in 1968. “He had a tremendous amount of gravitas, a tremendous amount of power,” Osborn recalled. “I knew I had to study with him. I had been a long-time fan of Indian classical music and here’s a guy who figured out a way to put that on the guitar.”
Basho was open to taking on a student, as long as Osborn assured him that he didn’t take any intoxicants. “That was the moment I stopped doing any drugs, which was really significant on a personal and spiritual level,” Osborn said. “It helped me get my feet back on the path.”
Osborn would drive up to Berkeley once a week for lessons, visiting Basho at his house on Bancroft. He studied with him for about a year, an experience that continues to shape his musical approach (he released his latest album, 2016’s Endless, on Tompkins Square). But ultimately he felt Basho was unsuited for teaching. He craved the discipline of discipleship, but couldn’t put his own practices into a transferable system.
“It was the lack of being able to translate what he did into a methodology,” Osborn said. “His personality was pretty damn self-involved. I think he was so driven he was in the grip of his inner spirit or demon. He suffered a lot trying to find an audience and get himself out there. I saw him first and foremost into a guitar innovator. When he got back into singing I saw it as a mistake. I think it was Liam’s film that helped me turn the corner. The guitar years were almost an anomaly. He was first and foremost a troubadour.”
Recommended gig: Destini Wolf livestreams Dec. 3
Berkeley native Destini Wolf’s highflying career with Cirque du Soleil was grounded by the pandemic, and the lustrous soul singer is back in town. She mixes live performance and multimedia in a special livestreamed event 7 p.m. Thursday Dec. 3 presented by BAMPFA. And on 4:30 p.m. Sunday Dec. 6 Berkeley piano great Benny Green plays a solo concert livestreamed from Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society. An improviser who swings with boisterous joy and unbridled momentum, Green is also a bracingly honest writer whose Facebook posts often garner hundreds of appreciative responses.