The Satori Underground
By John Albert
- From the book Yes Is The Answer (And Other Prog Rock Tales)
If the renowned progressive rock band King Crimson conveyed a sense of epic grandeur and complexity, on that morning in 1981 my friend Dwight and I were at the opposite end of the universe. Two 16 year old heroin addicts standing in a fenced in patch of dried cracked dirt and tumbleweeds in the backyard of his mom’s home on the edge of the Southern California desert. He was tall and black and I was white and blond. The sun was burning through a haze of thick smog that emanated from the massive nearby Kaiser Steel plant and we were each wearing a thrift store suit.
The neighborhood was a bleak approximation of the suburban dream — a cheaply constructed recently erected stucco slum for the working poor fleeing the gang violence and crime of nearby Los Angeles. A section of houses towards the back of the tract had been unofficially designated for black people and so that’s where Dwight and his single mother Rosa were living. It was also where I had been staying after running away from my parent’s tree shaded and book filled home in the nearby college town of Claremont. Like so many restless middle class teenagers, I had rejected a world of comfort and access for an exotic sense of downward mobility
Dwight and I had met a year before our freshman year of high school. He had moved in with his grandmother in an apartment near my parent’s house. Most of our classmates had long feathered hair and wore casual surf-wear even though we were miles from the beach. The listened to the mellow sounds of Jackson Brown or the seventies inspired arena rock of Van Halen. Dwight joined a small group of us who bonded over a shared love for aggressive punk music, alcohol and vandalism. From there things had progressed accordingly. A year later, we had both been expelled from school, begun injecting Mexican heroin and listening to the artier and dissonant sounds of post punk — an emerging genre that included bands like Throbbing Gristle, The Fall, Public Image Ltd and Killing Joke.
Squinting and sweating in the desert heart that day, we stared off across a barren field of scrub towards a small bar attached to a bowling alley. There were several choppers parked outside, one draped with a leather jacket adorned with a patch reading “Devils Disciples MC, Southern Cal.”
“You can get it,” Dee told me. “You’re a fast. I have complete confidence.”
“Those Vikings would lasso me with a chain before I got halfway back,” I replied.
“That jacket’s worth at least five hundred on Melrose. We’ll be high for days.”
“Then you fucking do it.”
“Always trying to get the black man to do your dirty work,” he said with a laugh, taking a hit off a joint and passing it to me. He reached down and pressed play on large battered ghetto blaster. The futuristic sound of the David Bowie song “Heroes” filled the little yard. “Heroes” is the title song from Bowie’s 1977 album of the same name. Recorded in Berlin it features a stark and atmospheric sound created by Bowie and co writer Brian Eno. The sonic centerpiece of the song is a futuristic dissonant guitar played by Robert Fripp, a founding member of the before mentioned King Crimson.
Neither Dwight nor I were fans of King Crimson or any other even remotely progressive rock bands. When punk came along, me and my pot smoking skateboarding friends, like a cadre of prepubescent rock Maoists, had obliterated the past in order to rewrite our musical landscape. Taking a cue from Sex Pistol singer Johnny Rotten who had recently marched through London in a homemade “(I hate) Pink Floyd” shirt, once cherished bands like Led Zeppelin had abruptly been deemed irrelevant dinosaurs while mainstream prog rock practitioners like Yes and Rush with their virtuoso musicianship and escapist fantasy themes had become objects of outright derision.
Yet we continued to revere David Bowie. While his signature glitter albums predated and influenced punk, his subsequent Berlin era records; Low, Heroes and Lodger helped usher in the post punk movement that perfectly mirrored our personal descents into teenage nihilism and deadly addiction. This was relevant because Fripp and Adrian Belew, another guitarist who played on Bowie’s album Lodger and with Bowie’s band during the Stage tour of 1978, were scheduled to perform that November night in 1981 with a reformed version of King Crimson. Dwight and I planned to go.
The closest I had come to seeing a prog rock show before that had been years before when I was 12 and a bunch of my friends had stolen some wine and gone to a local screening of the Yes concert film “Yessongs.” After consuming much of the bottle concealed in my jacket, I had loudly addressed the theater full of bearded hippies, accusing the band’s cape adorned keyboardist Rick Wakeman of being a warlock. Why I thought that was news to anyone can only be attributed to the naiveté of youth and the pilfered Zinfandel. After another outburst regarding Yes singer Jon Anderson being a eunuch, the theater’s ushers appeared and threw us out as the surrounding long hairs applauded.
But by the age of sixteen, we were doing everything possible to distance ourselves from such innocent hijinks. For some inexplicable reason my friends and I wanted desperately to be old and jaded. For me the oppressive stillness of the Southern California suburbs and an inner emotional turmoil resulted in a painful restlessness. For others, including Dwight, there were also broken homes. All this merged with above average intellects to create a hunger for adventure which drew us to new music and literature, but also a destructive underworld of drugs and crime. And so instead of skateboarding and kissing girls we spent our teenage years using heroin and dressing like middle aged criminals from some dreary nonexistent European city of another era.
That night as we drove the freeway in Dwight’s mom’s old Chevy Camero, he slipped in a cassette of Brian Eno’s solo album Here Come The Warm Jets. The mix of theatrical glitter rock and dissonant futurism merged perfectly with the scenery outside as the barren desert turned to sprawling suburbia and then the lights and violent chaos of Los Angeles.
We exited the freeway on to Hollywood Boulevard and headed towards Western. Back then the intersection of Hollywood and Western was a bustling outdoor bazaar of drugs and prostitution. We slowed to survey the scene outside. The song playing was “Baby’s on Fire,” a tension filled track where Eno sings in a mocking sneer accompanied by a beautifully violent guitar solo from Robert Fripp.
“That’s my dad,” Dwight suddenly said, pointing out the window to a crowd in front of an adult book store. I spotted a tall forty-something African American man standing on the corner wearing a white captain’s hat with the calm confident demeanor of a dangerous man.
“Are you serious?” I asked.
Years later I would find out that Dwight’s mom had lived in constant fear that her son would some day reconnect with his career criminal father, anticipating the pull his presence might have on her gifted but troubled son.
We parked and walked to where his dad was standing. The two greeted one another with smiles. Dwight introduced us.
“So what you young men doing out here in Hollywood?” His father asked.
“Going up to Pasadena and see a band — was looking to go downtown first.” Dwight answered, using an old time slang term for heroin.
“I see…. Well there ain’t none around here,” his dad responded. “Maybe over on the Eastside — I’ll take a ride with you if you want, but I can’t guarantee we’ll find anything.”
“You got anything else?” Dwight asked.
“Got some loads — doors and fours.” He answered, referring to a powerful and potentially lethal combination of Codeine and Doriden that had become popular in the black community and was gaining traction in the Hollywood punk scene. Doriden was a powerful tranquilizer that enabled the body to convert the codeine to morphine.
“They’re pills, right?” Dwight asked, noticeably disappointed.
“Put your head in your chest better than the strongest her-ron will,” his father said, putting a hand on Dwight’s shoulder and smiling. “I wouldn’t steer you wrong, son. Give ’em to you for what they cost me, cause we’re family.”
A half hour later, Dwight and I were in a grassy park across the street from Perkin’s Palace in Pasadena. The grand old theater’s marquee read “King Crimson” with the band member’s names — Adrian Belew, Bill Bruford, Robert Fripp, Tony Levin — spelled out below. We washed down the pills with a bottle of King Cobra malt liquor and watched the crowd. The people filing into the venue were vastly different than the jaded black clad Hollywood scenester we were used to. They appeared a mix of serious musician types and aging hippies. Having neither tickets nor money, we walked around to the back stage door of the theater and asked for a guy we knew. Dennis was a part time bouncer from my parent’s neighborhood — hulking long haired giant with a bushy beard and a metal plate in his head from a botched suicide attempt with a pellet gun. That night he smiled the two of us in, teasing that we were finally going to hear what he deemed some “real” music. A year later Dennis would publically vow to kill me, believing incorrectly that I had burglarized house –but would overdose and die before he could make good on his threat.
Once inside Dwight and I pushed through the crowd and stood in the orchestra pit just beneath the stage. After a bit the houselights dimmed, the crowd cheered and four musicians strolled out looking like new wave college professors. They took their places and began t play a song called “Frippertronics.” Accustomed to the theatrical bombast of hard rock and the unrestrained aggression of punk, the complex math rock being played was completely foreign to us. While the rest of the audience seemed to marvel at the musicianship on display, Dwight and I were lost. It felt more a loud academic presentation than the Bowie adjacent performance we were expecting.
Like the pills we had recently ingested, the effects of King Crimson took a while for us to feel. As the synthetic warmth of the narcotics began to spread through our teenage bloodstreams, the group launched into a song called “Sartori In Tangier,” the title referencing Tangier, a favorite destination in the fifties for beat writers such as Paul Bowles, William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsburg.
The song started out slow and atmospheric, then the bass came in like a syncopated ultra heavy frantic version of funk. The band was suddenly playing with a newfound urgency, pounding drums and bass propelling the music with a jagged tension. Dwight, who had grown up listening to his mother’s R&B and had embraced Parliament and Rick James and then the “no wave” funk of James Chance and Blurt, got it before I did. I looked over and saw him doing a herky-jerky new wave like dance resembling one of the violently twisting suit and tie characters from artist Robert Longo’s “Men in the Cities” series.
I remember laughing in appreciation of my friend’s absolute fuck everything abandon. Then I began to move as well. As a cynical white suburban intellectual, I had never been much of a dancer. But the pills provided an overwhelming sense of well being that allowed me to lose myself in the moment and the sound. And so there I was gyrating next to my friend. No one else in the audience was dancing. Amidst a sea of long haired nodding heads, were two young suit adorned punks flailing around. I have a blurry perhaps hallucinatory vision of Adrian Belew smiling down at us from the stage. Whether that is true of not, I still believe the point of the band in that incarnation was the power of its beautiful and exotic noise.
After a few minutes, Robert Fripp let loose with a solo unlike any guitar I had ever heard. It was a frenetic and beautifully evocative wall of noise that conveyed both an otherworldly exoticism and profound sense of yearning. At some point I smiled and closed my eyes, the sound stirring visions of tangier like landscapes in my brain.
When I eventually woke up, Dwight was driving the car back into the desert as the sun rose. I remember thinking that he looked old in his suit, staring out at the road with heavy-lidded eyes. I faded out again and when I regained consciousness it was the after- noon and I was in Dwight’s mom’s house. I wandered into the backyard. Dwight was sitting in a lawn chair holding a guitar. His six year old brother Selino was next to him listening as his big brother played the David Bowie song “Heroes,” singing the words in a raspy whisper: “We can beat them — for ever and ever, we can be heroes — just for one day.”
Dwight died just a few years later. As his mother had feared, he returned to Hollywood and reconnected with his father. The two had lived with a roving band of thieves, dealers and prostitutes in the motels around Hollywood while his dad schooled him in the criminal life. The afternoon of his death, Dwight was sharing a jail cell with his dad. Both of them were facing separate life sentences for different drug related murders. At twenty-one years old, Dwight took a rope he had constructed out of bed sheets and climbed out an eleventh story window. He lost his grip and slipped away.
Decades after that, I was riding through Los Angeles in the back of a sleek Mercedes with a famous and rich rock star I was interviewing. As we drove into the Hollywood hills, he put on the King Crimson album “In the Court of the Crimson King.” The epic music played loudly and I began to think about the band and then my friend. In the silence between songs, the rock star had looked at the lights below and asked if I had grown up in Los Angeles. I told him I had.