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The Terra Incognita Loft: Part 2 1982-1984

Sunday, December 25th, 2016: Places, The Terra Incognita Loft.

Rising From the Rubble

The city was going through major changes. While Jon and I were struggling to build community at Terra Incognita, all the other underground art spaces in San Francisco were closing, and the vibrant art scene that had thrived in the wake of punk music was collapsing as everyone faced the harsh realities of the Reagan years.

Five people sharing the loft had been an experiment. After Mark and Scott’s exit, and Mark’s late-night hammer attack, I decided that three was a more reasonable number. Although we stayed best friends, Tiare was spooked by Mark’s attack, and she moved out soon after. Then I tore down the two walls between Scott’s, Mark’s, and Tiare’s old rooms, and built a new wall dividing the remaining space into two larger, more usable private rooms.

I also wanted more stable, reliable roommates, and in one of the miracles of my life, I found them almost immediately in Laurie and John, the best roommates I’ve ever had. Laurie was a postmodern artist who worked full-time as a graphic designer, and John was a polymath and theatrical artist-of-all-trades who worked full-time as a computer programmer. He built a sleeping loft in his room to match Laurie’s and mine, Laurie installed some of her art work, and together, we gradually transformed the loft into a world-class home, studio, and venue.

Music, Prophecy, and Lust

With the band dissolved, Jon and I threw more energy into planning our multi-media events, and I devoted more private time to visual art. At a party in April, I met Victoria, a vivacious Italian-American woman a few years younger than me, with a heavy, glossy mane of jet-black hair. She introduced herself as an aspiring writer, photographer, and actress who also happened to be a vice president at one of California’s largest banks. We hit it off and exchanged phone numbers, and when Jon and I scheduled the first event of our new Music & Prophecy series for May 1, I invited Victoria.

Despite the chemistry, and her attraction to the novelty of my bohemian lifestyle, there was a deep cultural gap between us. I’ll never forget my chagrin at first visiting her apartment on Union Street, ground zero for yuppies. Her furniture and decor were totally bourgeois, heavy on floral prints, throw pillows and lace. But that all blurred into the background as she started tearing off my clothes, and we ended up in a two-year relationship.

Another big change in my life had to do with the desert. Immediately after my first date with Victoria, my CalArts friend Mark had invited me on a camping trip in a remote, exotically beautiful corner of the Mojave, where we slept in a cave under a granite boulder. That clinched my obsession with the desert that would spread to affect everyone else in the loft community and continue to grow for decades.

Inspired by our Music & Prophecy kickoff, which had included rare industrial films by Craig Baldwin, the city’s dean of experimental film, I temporarily quit my day job, and Jon and I spent the month of June planning two ambitious events for July. I built a two-piece modular stage that could be assembled in different shapes, and projection screens that could be hung at angles from the ceiling. We met with Yasir and his group to review samples of Arabic calligraphy that could be used for our posters and projections, and to plan a menu of Moroccan food.

Earlier in the year, I’d been approached at my favorite coffee house by an imperious, strikingly beautiful local actress, Patricia Butler, who had recruited me to play the lovers of Edith Piaf in a two-person performance piece she’d written. There would only be one staging, to be filmed for her acting portfolio, and my part would be silent, with the role changes signified only by changes of costume. It was quite an experience for me to represent Marcel Cerdan, a famous French boxer, not to mention the four other guys!

In return, we asked Patricia to do a dramatic reading at Music & Prophecy of a story of her choice by Isabelle Eberhardt, the tragic genius and desert lover who posed as a man in North Africa and drowned in a flash flood at the age of 27 with her Arab husband, deep in the Sahara. Patricia picked the most melodramatic story, of a young woman’s suicide, and after the final crushing line, I struck the lights and she made the perfect stage exit, down the stairs and out our lives forever.

Reflections on Black Plastic

I was still driving my old 1965 VW Beetle, which I had been doing all the maintenance and repairs on since moving to California in 1976. Now, the front end needed rebuilding, and in the midst of everything else that was going on, I started working on that, in the dirt lot across the street where I kept it parked. One day while I was sprawled underneath with the front end up on blocks, two guys hailed me as they crossed Fifth from the corner at Shipley. I was a captive audience, and they were offering to help, so there wasn’t much I could do. It was clear that they were ex-cons from Dancey’s crew in the tenement behind our loft, and as I got to know them over the next few weeks, I discovered they’d both been released from San Quentin after doing time on felony charges. One was tall and massive, built like a linebacker, while the other looked more like a basketball player.

They started out on their best behavior, treating me with respect and restraint, but as soon as they found out we were hosting public events, they made themselves at home and began hitting on the girls at Terra Incognita. At one Music & Prophecy night, I was trying to be everywhere at once and solve everyone’s problems, when Laurie pulled me aside and said I would have to get rid of the ex-cons. So somehow, without even thinking of the danger, I corralled those two drunken giants and shepherded them down the stairs and out the door, marshaling deep reserves of tact I never knew I had. Jon was watching and came over to give me a supportive hug when I returned to the top of the stairs.

The next, and as it turned out, the final, Music & Prophecy featured my CalArts friend Larry, a wry, jaded photo artist who had a little of the old Clark Gable vibe. Larry had started experimenting with black and white portraits taken with flash against a background of black plastic, falling somewhere in the Sally Mann – Helmut Newton spectrum. Collaborating with Larry at a distance, Jon and I put together a program in which the front room would be completely lined with black plastic, Larry would set up a portrait station at one end, jugglers would entertain and titillate by passing flaming firebrands the length of the plastic-lined room, and Scott’s new rock band would finish off the night.

Celebrity Photo Nite was a huge success until the band started playing at midnight. One of our neighbors immediately called the cops and we were shut down after the second song, for disturbing the peace. And then at 1am, long after the band had loaded out and we’d started to clean up, a big crowd of the band’s fans showed up at the front door, demanding a show. So much for Music & Prophecy.

Embracing Decadence

Downstairs from us, after a year with no rent payments, landlord Chuck finally closed a deal with the anarchists: since eviction had become virtually impossible in San Francisco, he simply paid them thousands of dollars to move out. Next, a couple with a young child moved in and spent weeks rebuilding, turning the mezzanine level, immediately below us, into a more upscale open-plan space like ours. But then the husband began beating on the wife, and the kid started screaming….

Another young couple moved into the tenement apartment on our south side. He was friendly and had a steady job, but she turned out to be dangerously psychotic, so that he had to keep her confined indoors. I’ll never forget the afternoon when she escaped, and ran naked into the middle of Fifth Street, where she collapsed, thrashing and howling plaintively, in the midst of heavy traffic.

My new roommates, Laurie and John, were both into the minimal look. John dressed all in black and had laboriously lined the floor of his room with hundreds of black plastic rectangles he’d found abandoned somewhere in the neighborhood. The two of them prevailed upon me to repaint the blue floor, and we settled on the radical solution of a glossy white floor. This implied high maintenance, leading us to buy a vacuum cleaner and hire a housekeeper, a friend of Laurie’s who came in one day a week. Her partner, Ellen, followed, becoming another new member of our loft family, which from now on would include John and Laurie’s partners as well as friends and relatives, both local and visiting from out of town.

We also pooled our funds for a washer and dryer that I installed in the bathroom, ending the long trips to laundromats. I also picked up a huge door at Cleveland Wrecking that I turned into a kitchen table big enough to seat a dozen people. It was such a relief to finally have roommates that could contribute, instead of just taking advantage of my steady job and reliable income!

With his long theater background, including guerilla performances across Europe, John became an integral part of a local group called On/Ramp. Laurie, whose previous installation work had been text-based and cerebral, started experimenting with more ambitious and evocative “light boxes,” shallow wooden chambers with an interior photo backdrop and a hinged front cover framing a sheet of acetate printed with a foreground photo which was backlit by a lamp hidden inside the box.

Tiare and I were still best buds – Victoria was generously accepting of our close friendship – but she had a new boyfriend – a stylish, reserved professional trumpet player who was transitioning from Art Lande’s jazz group to Van Morrison’s touring band. She’d invite me over to his elegant bungalow on Bernal Hill while he was touring, and I’d noodle dreamily on his Steinway piano, an instrument I can only play while buzzed and stoned.

Alongside all of this social and creative activity in the San Francisco loft, I was living a parallel life in Southern California, driving down to CalArts every few months to play in Mark N’s new group, the tribal/electronic Our Camp, along with a new CalArts friend, Claire. My SoCal connection made me unique in San Francisco, a sort of cultural ambassador between cities that had always been antagonistic.

Partly because my work with Jon in San Francisco was becoming more and more structured and organized, I gravitated toward free improvisation with Mark at CalArts, and we started recording drunken jams and raps under the name of Didactyl Brothers, Daryl (Mark) and Dartaigne (Max), a multi-media art duo riffing on the didacticism of conceptual art, the CalArts-based movement which was then struggling against the rise of Neo-Expressionism. The Didactyl Brothers were irreverent, confrontational, and infantile – a total contrast to the serious, reserved image I presented elsewhere. During my trips, we created and exhibited notorious, disruptive guerilla art shows in the CalArts Main Gallery.

In the fall of 1982, Jon and Tiare joined me on a trip to CalArts, where Jon and I jammed and recorded as Terra Incognita with Mark and his CalArts buddies, and Tiare and Claire became friends and “Didactyl Sisters.” And later that year, Tiare and I participated at the San Francisco Art Institute in a groundbreaking live video linkup with Claire and others at CalArts, and produced a Didactyl Brother and Sister guerilla art intervention at the Art Institute’s main gallery.

Another major CalArts-based trend in my life revolved around Las Vegas and gambling. This was probably an ironic reaction to the conservative Reagan years, as well as an extension of bohemian, low-rent desert gambling trips that Mark and I had started taking in the late 1970s. Now, we teamed up with Larry the photographer, who nudged us in a faux-rat-pack direction, and our Las Vegas trips took on a dimension of epic decadence, with all-night binges at the craps table, followed by hungover tennis matches in the unforgiving desert sun. We’d also started seeking bliss in pharmaceuticals, and I exported as much of this new culture as I could back to San Francisco.

Victoria was less than impressed when I dosed and nodded out in the middle of her yuppie dinner parties, but on the plus side, we took up tennis together, and I even showed up, scandalously, at one of roommate Laurie’s art shows, wearing my tennis outfit.

As I embraced this temporary camouflage, my relationship with bourgeois Victoria began to look like a sort of ironic lark, a self-conscious flirtation with squareness. I truly loved her, but this could hardly be sustainable.

With all the underground art spaces shut down, young people in the cities gravitated toward a new form of nightlife. Punk and post-punk had evolved into new wave dance music, the urban dance scene was blossoming all over the world, and our neighborhood, South of Market, was its center in San Francisco. We all became regulars at DNA, a cavernous corner club with a central bar, a few blocks southwest of us. This was the time of Michael Jackson’s Thriller and the Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams. Victoria and I made great dance partners, and my wardrobe graduated from the Salvation Army to the retro boutiques.

But this second year of the Reagan ordeal was also the dawn of AIDs. We started hearing of it, but had no idea what it meant or how bad it would get.

Dance, Drama, and Irony

I moved into the new year of 1983 without the structure of Music & Prophecy or the Terra Incognita band to anchor me and deploy my creative energies. Laurie and John were comfortably settled in the loft, their jobs and relationships, and John was moonlighting as both actor and director in the On/Ramp group. I continued to move my visual art forward, but Victoria was making it clear that she was on a relentless track toward marriage and children, and it took more and more of my energy to maintain a relationship with someone whose goals were completely different from mine.

This came to a head one day in early summer, when she invited me to lunch at The Ramp, a bohemian burger and beer garden on the waterfront in the shipyard district south of downtown. Her plan was to give me the marriage ultimatum, but I decided to treat it ironically, suggesting that we have a Vegas wedding and enjoy it while it lasted, without any expectations for the future.

To her credit, she took this preposterous suggestion gracefully, merely shaking her head in resignation. That night, we drove to a trash-lined alley between abandoned railroad tracks and an abandoned factory, smoked a joint, and had a wild bohemian fling in the back of her station wagon. The artist had won, for the time being.

Meanwhile, as AIDs was wreaking havoc in the gay community, the media reported that heterosexuals were also at risk through unsafe sex. Fear spread through the cities, where partnerships were more fluid, accelerating the trend toward conservatism in culture and society. The sexual freedom of the 1970s was over, and monogamy became the choice of the prudent.

So, postponing a decision about our relationship, Victoria sublimated her dream of marriage in creative work, joining John’s On/Ramp group as an actress. I should’ve welcomed this, but since I now lacked a creative collaboration of my own, I was childishly jealous of her and the theater. I even resented On/Ramp’s rehearsals in the front room of the loft, which I’d used dozens of times for my own band.

Downstairs, the abusive family moved out, and an upscale construction company, Ludington Construction, moved in, redecorating yet again. This worked out well for us, because they worked regular daytime hours, and we finally had the building to ourselves at night.

Outside the loft, the neighborhood remained sketchy. A Vietnamese family moved into the eastside tenement, and one afternoon I happened to be in my room when I noticed the neighbor kids setting fire to a mattress on the roof outside my window.

Over the previous winter, a new French-produced album had come out featuring Nigerian pop star King Sunny Ade, and Victoria and I had fallen in love with juju dance music, dragging Jon to King Sunny’s first Bay Area show, in Berkeley. I became obsessed with juju, adapting my old bluegrass flatpicking guitar style to juju-inspired polyrhythms, and dreaming of a new African-inspired style of original music.

Some Nigerian dancers at King Sunny’s shows were wearing robes patterned with the Mercedes-Benz logo, a symbol of prosperity. I was tired of perpetually working on my old Beetle and decided to look for a used Mercedes, hoping it would win me points with the African expatriates in the Bay Area. And after I found one, a 1962 diesel sedan with white tuck-and-roll seats, Victoria and I decided to revitalize our relationship with a road trip to the East Coast, stopping off to see Jon, who had moved back home to Iowa, and my family, in Indiana.

In New York City, we were treated to a night in the spectacular metallic-gold-painted Little Italy flat of art star Sherrie Levine, a friend from CalArts. And, dance-crazy as we were, we spent an entire night dancing our way across New York’s most famous nightclubs, finally lurching blissfully into a Manhattan dawn.

Although he’d moved away, Jon and I were still close, holding long phone sessions late at night, collaborating on ideas for music, art, and events. I was excited about the direction my visual art was taking, and he badgered me to give up music completely and focus on art, where he thought my talent was stronger.

Go South, Young Artist

Victoria’s older sister Patti was an art director in the movie industry, the girlfriend of a famous video artist, and a fixture in the Los Angeles art scene. We’d visited her Hollywood apartment for an art party the previous winter, dropping our new King Sunny album on her stereo and dancing while conceptual art star Stephen Prina led the rest of the group to the bedroom to snort lines of coke. Patti introduced us to rising gallerist Richard Kuhlenschmidt, who was helping to put the LA scene on the international art map. The four of us hung out, and he took an interest in my work.

At the same time, Mark and Larry were getting involved with another ambitious gallerist, James Turcotte, who had recently scored a beautiful space just off a gentrifying section of inner Wilshire Boulevard. He currently hosted a group show including an elegantly eerie plaster image of a tornado by sculptor Dana Duff; I showed him slides of my work in progress and he scheduled me for a two-person show with Dana in summer 1984. It was my first real opportunity in any of the arts, and intense preparations took over my life back home.

Meanwhile, my day job flew me to New England for a few days, and on the way back, I stopped in New York to spend a couple of nights at the Manhattan loft of Andy Moses, son of Los Angeles art star Ed Moses. Andy took me to a series of loft parties, including one at Robert Rauschenberg’s East Coast studio, and another on a rooftop where experimental films were projected on the opposite building. My head was in the clouds; I was finally getting somewhere.

The work I planned to show with Turcotte was based on the mixed-media drawings on raw canvas that I’d been creating for the past couple of years, enriched by my recent research into Native American rock art and prehistoric culture. A friend had given me an inspirational book on the radical Swedish artist Oyvind Fahlstrom, who assembled wall-hanging installations from miscellaneous collections of graphical elements, and in conversations with Turcotte, I began to envision a layered, conceptually sophisticated presentation in which my canvas drawings would be displayed along with other suggestive items that I would create or collect, the whole assemblage would be photographed and printed in large format, and prints would be available for purchase at a reasonable price, in addition to the original assemblage – a two-tiered marketing strategy.

In the early months of 1984, I was working hard and sinking lots of money into large-format photography, printing, and framing, and Turcotte assured me that we were on track. Everything was copacetic in the loft, and my relationship with Victoria seemed to be on autopilot. Then, at the end of April, with the show only two months away, I was starting to get anxious about finishing on time, and uncertain about the quality of the product, when I suddenly received a short letter from Turcotte saying he’d had to cancel the show due to overbooking.

Stunned, I immediately called the gallerist. He said that in addition to booking problems, he didn’t think my work was really ready to show, and, humiliated, I threw a tantrum, telling him none of my friends would ever set foot in his gallery again. I also talked to Dana; she was shocked and disappointed, but there was nothing either of us could do.

Victoria was with me as I read the letter; she comforted me, but she also announced – with all the compassion she could muster – that our relationship had to end, so she could be free to pursue her dream of marriage and family. She’d met a corporate lawyer who wanted to go out with her – clearly a better match – and he claimed to share her goals.

Turcotte’s cancellation aborted my gallery career in the visual arts. Whereas with most people it would be only a temporary setback, I realized I just wasn’t committed to the commercial gallery scene. I had an easy day job, and I was much more interested in experimenting and growing my art work organically, not in grooming it for a fiercely competitive market. I eventually came to agree that the planned assemblage and photo presentation were weak; my drawings were as strong as anything out there, but you can’t build a career on drawings – they’re considered secondary work, only marketable if you’re already established with “major” work like paintings.

Cowgirl in the Band

Things happened fast in those days. When I told Mark about the breakup with Victoria, he invited me to Los Angeles to play a gig with his new country band, Days of Glory, so I grabbed my banjo and jumped on Amtrak. I met them at the Frolic II, a new art scene bar in Hollywood. Katie, the standup-bass player, was there with her current boyfriend, a successful Neo-Expressionist painter, and John Baldessari, the international art star and CalArts teacher that she was escorting around town. Five inches taller than me, she was a party girl with a Mona Lisa smile and a svelte body, and later in the evening, when we found ourselves alone together out on the grubby Hollywood sidewalk, she literally swept me off my feet.

Mark and I left on a desert camping trip the day after the gig. It was the year of Halley’s Comet, and to celebrate, we made giant symbolic tempera paintings on the side of a house-sized boulder near our cave. But on my return to the city, Katie and I immediately became an item. She seemed to be exactly what I needed – a fearless tomboy from North Dakota, at home in the wilderness, but also an ambitious and well-connected artist, musician, and urban bohemian with an impeccable fashion sense. The only problem was that she lived in Los Angeles, but I was already used to commuting between SF and LA several times a year.

A couple weeks later she flew up to visit me, and I introduced her to the loft family, where she fit right in. She scrutinized my art, and contradicted Jon by insisting that I give up art for music, since, in her opinion, I had more talent for the latter.

But I wasn’t ready to give up on art completely – shortly after abandoning painting for drawing, I had started experimenting with pastels. I loved rubbing and blending colors with my fingers and hands, and the desert was inspiring me with new forms both natural and surrealistic.

Laurie’s friend Madeline, also an artist and fashion model, had moved into a warehouse space a few steps away, across Fifth on Clara Street, with her boyfriend Andrew, bass player for the notorious local post-punk act, Minimal Man. And I reconnected with Mark, the Terra Incognita fiddler who’d attacked Tiare’s room two years ago. Together, often playing and recording outdoors on the loft roof high above the city, we began developing a new electric string band sound, blending King Sunny’s Nigerian juju rhythms with the bluegrass styles both of us had learned in the 1970s.

Tiare’s boyfriend was still touring with Van Morrison, and Van had recruited them all, including Tiare, into Scientology, which drove a wedge between us. We were still in touch, but I was keeping my distance.

My old Volkswagen was on its last legs. Our musician neighbor, Andrew, recommended the Honda Civic Wagon, a quirky car design that had just come out, looked like a toaster, and would be perfect for hauling both musical instruments and camping gear. It was the first new car I’d ever bought on my own, and I special-ordered it in a desert tan color that perfectly matched our Mojave landscape.

On my trips to LA to see Katie, I jammed with Days of Glory, working out some of the tunes I would later use with the new Terra Incognita, and she and I got comfortable playing together. I also took her out to the Mojave, where we found a cave of our own, larger and nicer than Mark’s, and spent a week improving and furnishing it as a home away from home.

Meanwhile, Jon from TI had landed a writing gig in New York, and I made a special trip out to visit him. One afternoon as we walked up a street of sidewalk cafes in the East Village, I spotted my ex-girlfriend Kathy from San Francisco. That first year in the loft already felt like ancient history, and I had nothing left to say to her.

Katie and I were anxious to start writing and recording music together. She had a quiet, shady bungalow in desirable Los Feliz and high-paying hourly work doing special effects in the movie industry, so moving to SF wasn’t a great option for her. But I’d saved up a little nest egg, so at the end of 1984, I quit my day job again and packed up, leaving everything at the loft as it was, hoping to return and rejoin Laurie and John sometime soon. Reagan had been re-elected in a landslide, and it had recently been announced that AIDs was spreading through IV drug use in both the gay and straight communities. A full-blown epidemic loomed on the horizon, and many in our arts community were at risk. My move wasn’t exactly a leap into the unknown, but it was definitely the beginning of a new story.

  1. michael corbett says:

    sounds like a full fun life to me

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