Essay – Free Ears Part 1

Jul.02, 2013

Free Ears

Free Ears Part 1
A History of the Los Angeles Free Music Society
by Rick Potts
It just grew. It was fun, sometimes, mostly and pleasant, like spinning in
place. It can be fun but sometimes it makes you feel ill.Once, in 1975, after a Le Forte Four vs. Doodooettes freak-out
improvisation, we drove away from the studios at 35 South Raymond in
Pasadena’s pre “Old Town” crusty downtown porn-pawn-junk
store-hippie-art-trash skid neighborhood and I had an epiphany. Something
magical almost mystical goddam it happened, occasionally, where the frenetic
chaos of each individual unmusician’s sound would suddenly become one and
for 10 seconds we were transcendent. Then, when we realized it we would roll
out of control like my first solo bike ride and end up skinning my knee.
There were those surprising ecstatic moments but they would collapse and it
was a bit maddening.Occasionally Time would be missing. Out the window. Later on Time came
back and we rewound the tape. Pretty soon I got hooked. On the way home that
night we were driving past the Castle Green Hotel back when it was at it’s
most Haunted Mansion-y and I thought ‘someday everyone’s gonna be doing
this’. Then, I said out loud “someday everyone’s gonna be doing this” and
Dennis Duck said ‘What are you talking about Rick?” “Well,” I said “ like
ya know how we like make noise and tape it and stuff and sometimes it’s like
, ya know kinda good…well not too, bad?” Well ya know” I continued “
like… ah, never mind.” I wasn’t very articulate back then. Nor now.
My memory is probably faulty, too. Well at the very least it’s personal.
I’ve discovered we all have our own personal memories and sometimes the
emulsion flakes off the backing. When we compare notes thirty or so years
later we find out some of the notes are different or in different places.
This is the way I remember it, though. 

On my first day of High School in the fall of 1973 in 3rd period
“Beginning Instruments” class in the Music Building, the toupee topped
teacher had each student announce what instrument we planned on playing. I
had been fed up taking piano lessons from Alhambra’s premier lounge organist
Bob Abbey and said marimba was what I would like to play. I quickly was
talked into tenor sax after being offered glockenspiel in lieu of the school
not having a marimba. We finally got around to the two longhaired senior
students in the back of the class and I heard a voice answer “electronic
music synthesizer”. What the hell was this guy talking about? I’d never
heard of such a thing. We all laughed, but by the end of that school year
my new best friend Chip Chapman had gotten the school to purchase an Arp
Odyssey synthesizer, an Echoplex. an amp and a hot instructor to teach after
school Electronic Music class. Meanwhile, Chip got accepted into Cal Arts
Electronic Music Program by borrowing gear and recording in Pasadena City
College’s basement Moog-in-a-closet studio to make a demo reel to send with
his application. He had also organized a day of free improv freak outs in
the auditorium where I had to breath into a paper bag because I was
hyperventilating (again!) after some over-the-top saxophone blowing with
fellow sax honker Steve Nash. The summer before starting at Cal Arts Chip
and Joe Potts assembled a “camp cover band” at YMCA Camp Tatapotchin and
attempted a collaboration with ‘Patients’ Dan Weiss & mystery drummer Jay
Ross. Together with myself on sax and Susan Farthing on (rhythm) flute we
played an ill-fated show at a nearby Temple youth night. Our serious attempt
at rock music was hilariously embarrassing. Hilarembarrassing.

As I recall the show came about when Dan & Jay’s band, “Patients” were
asked to play a Teen Night show at their local Temple Beth Torah. Chip and
Joe (fresh from their camp band success) and I were asked to help out the
fledgling act. We sacrilegiously called the place of worship “Ethel’s
Tempura”. Patients pretty much knew one song, “Tuna Fish”, which repeated
one line “I hate it , I hate it, I hate it tuna fish!” over and over. Just
one part repeated ad nauseam (or until nausea). We quickly tried to help
them fill out their set. We could barely play our instruments and didn’t
really know any songs but that didn’t stop us. After each of us practicing
to Zappa’s “Weasals Ripped my Flesh” on our own, a bickering rehearsal
ensued when we tried to play “My Guitar wants to Kill your Mama” as a group.
Things were not meshing and soon arguments got heated and stupid. An edited
recording of this debaucle ended up being sent to an electronic music tape
in Norway and put on Bikini Tennis Shoes and several other LAFMS releases.
It is appropriatly titled “They are Asleep”. As the date of the show loomed
ahead I remember trying to lure other more professional musicians into the
act. One arrogant drummer dude showed up, retuned Jay’s drumkit (while Jay
waited outside), and rocked out leaving us in the dust. I don’t know if we
were more annoyed by his self-righteous ‘tude or he was more miffed by
wasting time with us.

On the afternoon of the show, Chip brought in some cool gear rented from

Hollywood and we set up to rehearse before the show. Joe had switched to
rhythm guitar using an open tuning and learned some Stones songs. The
potential vocalists who said they’d show up didn’t. We were beyond help
anyway but we managed to convince Mystery Drummer Jay to unplug the kick
drum pedal activated switch that lit up the inside of his kick drum with a
colored light and also made a loud POP through all the amps.
At dusk, we decorated the stage with a big box of Goodwill doll heads and
donned our rock costumes. Joe wore a torn up dress over his t-shirt and
jeans and a sideways Matador hat with a jockstrap over the bulge and a
celary stalk shoved in it. I wondered why I smeared racoon mascara around my
eyes and had a premonition that this was going to be the most embarrassing
night of my life. (In retrospect, it made the top three). I tried not to
hyperventilate.We dawdled on stage as party goers arrived and someone asked us if we were
playing any Alice Cooper. It must have been the mascara. Joe said “Nope,
only Zappa”. We “tuned up” and stumbled through our first tune, “Boris the
Spider”. Our version sounded like a demented polka and as we played the
sound hit the back wall and came galumphing back across the auditorium only
to crash head on with the outgoing din. We played “My Guitar Wants to Kill
Your Mama” and “Tuna Fish which left us with “Smoke on the Water” and the
Stones songs Joe learned. Chip asked me if I wanted to do vocals and I has
aghast. I told him “You’re the one who took choir”. I finally decided to try
“Little Queenie” and with the undecipherable lyrics scrawled on a piece of
paper in my hand I shyly mumbled the words rather than giving it the gutsy
growly R&B wail the song asked for. The party had long left the building and
mingled in the parking lot while we finished up without me singing “Smoke on
the Water”. We quickly packed up our gear and got the hell outta there.
Luckily, the money in the cash box pretty much covered the rented gear.Chip always has big, fun ideas. He’s smart and gets ideas and he goes
ahead and does’em. He has a way of making things happen that you didn’t
realize you could do. When he’d started at Cal Arts and after Joe and I had
recorded tapes with him a bunch of times, at our
Sunday-night-give-Chip-a-ride-back-to-Valencia sessions, he told us he’d
come up with a name for our ‘group’. We had just dragged our gear into
B-303. This probably included ; a three string japanese guitar with custom
scraped off failed epoxy resin finish, an empty 55 gallon cyanide drum, 

giant homemade (bamboo and weather stripping) “King Kong” mallet, the
Univox, Dad’s duck call, a little plastic toy violin and my Pedrini Music
tenor sax. We were standing outside an open closet filled with mike stands
and recording gear in a narrow passage in the Cal Arts music department
maze. I didn’t know we were a group.I was just having fun making sounds. Sure he had sent that tape to that
electronic tape festival in Norway as “The East Los Angeles Free Music
Society” but that was a joke, right? The name was supposed to get them to
take us seriously and it worked…temporarily. At first we were accepted
into the festival, but when Chip wrote asking for a copy of our master tape
Hal Clark, after hearing “They are Asleep” which was an edit of us arguing
during a rehearsal for the rock gone wrong Temple show and the ludicrous
Ka-Bella-Binsky-Bungo, sent our tape back with a letter that stated “Free
ears and minds are one thing, but what about aesthetics?”Chip tells us the new name of our group is Le Forte Four but I don’t quite
get it. Lay Fort-tay Four. Forte means loud or the thing someone does best,
like, “his forte is piano” or “piano forte”. It has the fancy French ‘le’
which is silly and also is mock pretentious. It also sounds like 44 (a film
noir or western gun reference?). I decide it’s a great name but I didn’t’t
know what to think.
I wondered about what having a name meant. It seemed too serious. I was
hoping we could still have fun ‘experimenting’ and it wouldn’t turn out like
the Temple Beth Torah show. It seems that I didn’t need to worry about Le
Forte Four being too serious.Back in B 303, Chip played us tapes of what he’d been working on that
week as we set up our shit. This was the most decked out of the three or so
Buchla laden electronic music studios. It was set up for Hi-Fi Quad as per
1973 audiophile specs. Two Ampeg half inch four tracks, a couple Revox half
tracks, a pair of stereo Marantz amps and a JBL Studio Monitor sitting on
a bright orange and chrome moderne Eames chair in each of the four corners.
On a table in the center was a four foot by four foot curved wall of knobs,
lights, jacks and joysticks often festooned with a literal tangle of
brightly colored patch cords by the end of the night. Don Buchla’s model
300 Electronic Music Box was the deluxe version, I repeat, it has joysticks
and pans sounds and signals around. This room set up with curved corners a
dark red curtain on far wall and all this cool gear set up in the middle
made me feel like I was behind the famous curtain from “The Wizard of Oz”. 

Cal Arts held a certain magic for me. The place was filled with the most
modern creative tools invented and amazing people to help teach you to use
them. I always wished I’d have been a student there. I wondered around the
Animation, Film , Video (they had a Nam June Paik designed Video

Synthesizer) Music, Art and Dance Departments and my mind would boggle at
all the possi-tunities. When I visited the animation studios I’d hear the
dreamy sounds of the Gamelan orchestra rehearsing nearby. I was often there
at nights or weekends when there weren’t’t many people around. The Main
Building is a big confusing labyrinth of classrooms lobbies, studios,
galleries, ,stairwells, long ass hallways and performance spaces. You felt
really isolated by the time you wound your way around and I never knew
where I was. It’s the kind of place you can get lost on a trip to the Men’s
Room.The few people we would run into would be smart, talented and funny.
We’d bump into Roland Kato or Carl Stone, Chas Smith, maybe bassoonist
Steve Braunstein or tabla player David Johnson who sat in with us a few
times. Most people had long hair and a magical gleam in their eyes. Peter
Cohen was an Elf who lived next door to Chip in the Dorm. He burnt off his
eyebrows when he grinned at the wrong time while doing a fire breathing
stunt. He wore a bell and giggled. You’d hear him down around some corner
jingling and tee-heeing as you tried to find your way through the maze. You
felt like you were in another world. Once, Woody Allen was revived out of
cryostasis into a future world when ‘Sleeper’ was filmed there.
Besides, the place had lot’s of really cool girls, nude dorm pool, beer
and Thai sticks via the Percussion Dept. My visits there pretty much ruined
high school for me. I just wanted to draw and make films and music after
that.That entire school year we recorded on most Sunday nights. My oldest
brother, Tom Potts, began recording with us and friends sometimes
participated. Most evenings would start with an hour’s drive in the green
Ford Raunch Wagon After dragging our stuff in from the parking lot Chip
would play us recordings he had done that week and then he would get out the
patch cords and start connecting modules on the Buchla. In most cases it
involved processing our instruments and microphones and sometimes turntables
and projectors. One week he played us a composite of a silly vocal improv we
had done the week before spliced and diced with some equally bombastic synth
movements. It’s the song Bikini Tennis Shoes and I was pretty startled and
amused by what Chip had done. For the first time I felt we had really done
something good.That summer Chip & I cleaned out a backyard tool shed to possibly use as
a studio. Chip showed me a new copy of the neo-dada magazine FILE (it was
formatted to look like LIFE magazine) and in amongst the pictures of the
person in the Mr. Peanut costume and articles about Ant Farm’s ‘Media Burn’
performance there was a full page ad with a flexi-disc single attached. The
Residents debut album ‘Meet the Residents’ could be bought by sending 2
dollars to an address in San Francisco. Back at my house we played the
flexi-disc. The odd music had a strange homemade feel to it. It was
definitely different and Chip told me “These guys aren’t signed to a record
label. I bet they just made it themselves!” At the time it was unheard and
unthought-of of. Chip might have already had the idea in mind but I assumed
only record companies put out records and that’s it. Chip got out the Yellow
Pages, called a couple places in Hollywood and started cutting up our tapes. 

Most of Bikini Tennis Shoes was recorded at Cal Arts in 1974. It ‘s got an
edit of an echoplex freak-out solo ‘Song of the Electric Drill’ (one of
Chip’s pre Cal Arts recordings) and home recorded fragments of his little
brother Tim’s kiddy comedy one liners. He put his Buchla projects up against
our modulated mock lounge trio playing to a thrift store bongo record. The
Pope bumping into a cheerful Jack-in the-Box jingle with sped up tape. It’s
Stockhausen meets Zappa arguing with Esquivel over hamburgers with Clutch
Cargo refereeing. There’s a section of our rock debacle and a song Chip sang
that’s based on a dream he had about our pal Steve Nash. Filtered noise ala
Columbia Princeton Electronic Music Center leaning against a nose solo and
an educational Tom Bosley quip

Chip took the finished master tapes to famous Gold Star Studios at Vine &
Santa Monica Blvd. in Hollywood to get the masters made. He dropped them off

and pretty soon we got a call from Ed the mastering engineer. He told Chip
“You brought the wrong tape. This one has a loud hum and cursing on it”.
Chip said “No, that’s the right one, that’s part of it”. Ed told Chip we
better come back down and be there for the mastering.
Before long we were taking the mother discs across the street to Alco to
get our run of 200 records made. When the test pressings showed up it was
very odd to hear our music on vinyl.
It was a great feeling but still hard to believe that Le Forte Four was
putting out a record. We still have hundreds of labels for Bikini Tennis
Shows somewhere because the smallest run they would do was 1000.
Next we had to come up with a cover and liner notes. The notes were a
collaborative thing with us shouting out lines in the Potts’ family living
room. Tom Potts edited & compiled our rantings and together he and I
‘transcribed’ the Popes speech. This amounted to listening to the Pope and
phonetically rendering his Latin sacrilegiously into English. “Thank you for
carrying me across to the sensuous intensely orphans immensely. The scallops
of She-She on the sockets all omnibus. Peculiarly small malt poured the tuna
the dent to. Duke University toured our morbid Christianity. Spirituality
boosts the restaurant, he’s sick Chris at the saw rays. No sermon of the
sewer is beyond avocado.”
The next formidable task was to paint the front of a printing shop. That’s
what we did in exchange for type setting and printing our notes and covers
for Bikini Tennis Shoes. Chip’s job at Cunningham Press had the perk of
scrounging reams of off register partial runs of postcards for the esteemed
Huntington Library. With only two or three of the five colors off register
the stodgy images of Blue Boy and Pinky (famous 19th century portraits) had
a dada psychedelic look. After they printed our name and album title on them
we snuck into they’re bookbinding shop signed all the liner notes and hand
glued the covers onto blank jackets with bookbinders glue. Once the two
hundred and something records got shrink-wrapped we had a record.
When Bikini Tennis Shoes came out we literally couldn’t give the damn
things away. On several occasions friends and family members gave the record
back to us saying “ I thought that you could give it to someone else who
might be able to ‘appreciate it more’. Finally Joe came up with the idea of
instructing recipients to ‘pass it on to a friend’ if they didn’t’t like
it. That way they would eventually find a home. Wise-asses would recite
“number nine, number nine, number nine” because referencing ‘Revolution
Number 9 ‘ off the Beatles ‘ White Album ‘ was the only way they could get
a handle on it. We figured if anyone could appreciate it the guys at Poobah
Records would dig it or at least put a few copies in their store.
Poobah Record Shop was born in 1971, Jay Green was the den mother of this
perennially bohemian establishment. In it’s basement lair in the 100 block
of N. Fair Oaks in rundown old Pasadena. LAFMS founding member, Juan Gomez,
remembers the indian bedspreads hung around, jazz playing and everyone
sporting beards.
I only went to the underground location a couple times but I do remember
meeting Tom Recchion.
I has tagging along with my brother Joe and we had driven across town
from the County Strip. A stretch of unincorporated LA County suburbia
ensnared by a cluster of post war boomed hamlets, namely Alhambra, Arcadia,
Temple City, South Pasadena, Rosemead, San Marino and our mailing address
city of San Gabriel. San Gabriel (city with a mission ) got started before
Los Angeles by Father Junipero Serra who enslaved the local Indians and
built a series of Missions from Mexico to the Bay Area. Joe called it “the
city with emissions” and back then the first stage smog alerts chain-smoked
through the summer. Joe started his ‘57 Ford Fairmont by opening the hood
and using a big screwdriver to arc from his battery to his starter as he
tugged on his gas cable. We drove through snooty squaresville San Marino in
the finned, Grey and White two tone number with the “Beautify America, Shoot
a Redneck” bumper on the inside drivers door, and into downtown tenderloin
Old, Old Town Pasadena, by all accounts, was a funky place in the early
70’s. About 8 square blocks of seedy urban grit set in a field of mixed
suburbia. It probably doubled for Times Square in Starsky and Hutch, Baretta
and Mannix episodes. There were dank pawn shops, smelly dive bars, greasy
Mexican restaurants, the Free Press Bookstore and the Free Clinic, sleazy
Adult Entertainment Center’s, and junky junk stores, mixed in with a few
patchouli stinking Hippie head/boutique/record/import/clothing stores. Lots
of unused abandoned office spaces and warehouses. In my mind it’s like 70’s
Noir, where there could be a Cassavetes film crew around the corner or I
could imagine seeing Barnaby Jones on the job. The funky scene was populated
with bums, drunks, junkies, tramps, hoods, pimps, whores, creeps, poor and
homeless, ghetto kids, artists and eccentrics. There were lots’o’ crusty
old men and scary old hags, plus a smattering of hip suburban teenagers
looking for cool shit to buy cheap. Slumming it.
At Poobah’s you had a very hip scene thriving at it’s new street level
location. From the latest Prog imports and jazz classics to all kinds of
rock and the bins of used stuff labeled $1.00 & under, 50 cents, 25 cents,
FREE. The Seventies was the vinyl decade and they had it all. Tom Recchion
worked at Poobah’s and was always enthusiastically pointing out his favorite
recent arrivals. “Have you heard the new Henry Cow record?” He turned us on
to some great records and we figured he was someone who might appreciate our
new baby.
Tom got Bikini Tennis Shoes. He GOT it. Soon, The Los Angeles Free Music
Society started germinating in Tom’s head. Why not create a society to go
with the factitious name? Unbeknownst to Le Forte Four, Poobah’s was also
the a vortex of musical experimentation by members of Tom’s group
Doodooettes and also Smegma and Ace & Duce as well as a whole bunch of other
pals. There was a whole underground scene rattling around. There was a
backroom where after-hours jam sessions ensued without the neighbors
freaking and three or four blocks away, in the derelict Raymond Building,
Tom had an abandoned office that he used as a music studio.
For us it was a refreshing surprise to meet like minded folks,
experimenters, who had none of the elitist, ‘What about esthetics?’ attitude
that sneered at us up at Cal Arts where our new album was received with
mixed annoyance by the other composers. I’m not sure LAFMS ever ‘formed’.
It was never a solid. It pooled and oozed and that made it more flexible. We
liked Tom’s concept for joining together as the Los Angeles Free Music
Society and his idea for a show in a abandoned ballroom over Poobah’s.
Later referred to as the Spaghetti Works Show (named after the restaurant at
the front of the building) it took place on Chinese New Year in January of
1975 and featured Ace & Duce, Doodooettes and Le Forte Four. It’s the
birth day of the LAFMS.

Essay- BYRON COLEY (Box Set)

Jul.02, 2013

The LAFMS was a lightning rod for pre-punk & non-punk musical whatsis from all over the globe. This compilation deals primarily with the associations core members and their good works, but one of the LAFMS' prime functions was to transform itself (via "mere" extended activity) into a kind of magneto-art-sump for universal noise oddballs. Because it was physically locate-able, and copiously documented its members' gush, the LAFMS drew disaffected weirdos to its hub in the way that doughnuts attract fat cops. Its name became a kind of secret handshake that allowed culturally disenfranchised puds & pudettes to identify each other. Indeed, several of my closest friendships were cemented in the 70s w/ phrases like, "Oh, you know Le Forte Four?" -spoken w/ surprised delight while poking through a new acquantance's records.

In a way, the LAFMS bridged the years between the appearance of Meet the Residents in '74 and 1/2 Japanese's first EP in '77; linking the Euro-rooted sophistication of early '70s American experimentation to the insanely intuitive noise gushing that came about after punk unlocked the undergrounds id. The sound of Smegma was the exact kind of thing that every isolated suburban Beefheart fan imagined himself or herself producing in the company of true peers. The same could be said of Le Forte Four, the Doo-Dooettes, Airway, and most of the other units that the LAFMS extruded. These bastards all glued together choice, disparate elements of musical-fringe-culture like the dedicated, all-American scientific-hobbyists they were.

Improvisation, concrete assemblage, kraut-moosh, tinkling, noise, and weirdness for the sake of weirdness were all perceived as hallmarks of the LAFMS ethos. In a year as dull as 1975, the wee-est taste of meat that strong could be enough to separate your head from your body. Forever. Again. For those who were brave enough to send away for LAFMS records or tapes, its name will gawp forever as a wide portal to a parallel cosmos that could only be suspected in the years before the "cassette revolution" (so called). And since almost no one has ever heard all the material that makes up this voluminous compendium, it is guaranteed to be its own set of trap doors to a very special void.

You are there. Now. Lucky. -

--Byron Coley, Northampton, MA. 1994