The sunny, halcyon days of the 1960s have been shoved down our collective throats with every Woodstock anniversary and baby boomer film reveling in the music of the times. In the handwritten notes by California musician Bobby BeauSoleil that accompany Adventures in Experimental Electronic Orchestra from the San Francisco Psychedelic Underground, a hefty gatefold double LP released this month from BeauSoleil's first group, the Orkustra, we read part of his tale. While his story starts out as innocently and starry-eyed as any of the hippie generation, it winds up entangled with the Manson Family by decade's end. BeauSoleil's trajectory veers into the sordid, shadowy realm that parallels that same conflicted era.
Born Robert Kenneth BeauSoleil in Santa Barbara, BeauSoleil packed his bags in 1965 for San Francisco and found himself at the intersection of Haight and Ashbury. He was just down the street from where the Grateful Dead were holed up, loosening the knots on folk and blues and letting in more expansive jazzy improvisations. BeauSoleil performed a similar act with his own muse, moving beyond rock into weirder fields of play, drawing on Indian classical music, the works of John Coltrane, and avant-garde electronic fare. Trawling the basement of a music shop, BeauSoleil unearthed instruments like the Greek bouzouki and set about amplifying it onstage. A few like-minded travelers joined him, and while his original vision was for an “electric chamber orchestra,” the group soon pared down to five members and the unmodified name of the Orkustra. They began to share stages with the Grateful Dead, the Charlatans, and Big Brother and the Holding Company.
This two-album set culls its music from rehearsal tapes and concerts performed during the Orkustra's brief existence. While the distance of four decades casts a murkiness over the proceedings, the interplay among its participants still entrances. The novelty of its lineup, consisting of BeauSoleil's electric bouzouki, David LaFlamme's sinuous violin, Henry Rasof on oboe, future Dan Hicks and his Hot Licks member Jaime Leopold on standup bass, and drummer Terry Wilson, never overshadows the music. Meanwhile, mesmeric side-long tracks “Freeform Improvisation (While Watching an Experimental Underground Film)” and “Gypsy Odyssey,” which capture the group at a slow burn performing live at St. John's Church on Christmas Eve 1966, sprawl and unfurl at their leisure. Yet the Orkustra remains a snaky creature, deftly moving to the shadowy corners of sound. Even brief excursions conjured in its practice space — such as the tense “Punjabi's Barber” and cinematic “Flash Gordon” — thrill with their succinctness, a rarity in improvised music. In the modern age, these recordings find context, sounding right at home amid recent reissues of the free-form improvisational music of Arthur Russell (see his First Thought, Best Thought set) and former Sun Ra player Philip Cohran on his Malcolm X Memorial (A Tribute in Music) album.
Yet the center could not hold. The Orkustra drifted apart, unable to get into a studio to record an album, and BeauSoleil soon returned to Los Angeles, where he fell in with a different lot of musicians who were orbiting failed songwriter Charles Manson. As told in the book Helter Skelter, BeauSoleil exacted revenge for a bad drug deal by stabbing music teacher Gary Hinman to death in the summer of 1969, writing “Political Piggy” on the wall with Hinman's blood. BeauSoleil is now serving life in prison after his death sentence was commuted in 1970; the Orkustra hints at what could have been a happier ending to this story.