Dispatches Tagline

The Terra Incognita Loft: Part 3 1985-1987

Wednesday, January 11th, 2017: Places, The Terra Incognita Loft.

Remaining loftmates John, Katie, and Max in shock from the loss of their roommate Laurie, September 1987

Sojourn in Los Feliz

This history takes a detour during the first few months of 1985, because I had temporarily moved to Los Angeles, joining Katie in her little bungalow in the quiet, sunny Los Feliz district, on a broad residential street lined with towering palm trees. There, I added extensively to my SoCal circle of friends through our frequent socializing and Katie’s generous introductions.

The previous summer had seen the beginning of a revolution in music production: a new company, Fostex, had launched a line of affordable multi-track recorders using convenient pre-existing tape formats. Suddenly, technology that had previously needed a professional studio and a five-figure budget could be acquired by virtually anyone and set up in your bedroom. After reuniting with ex-TI fiddler Mark T, I’d bought the Fostex 4-track cassette recorder/mixer, a briefcase-sized unit that enabled seemingly endless musical experimentation and the production of professional-sounding demos for promotion and booking gigs.

In Los Feliz, Katie and I put the Fostex to work, inventing a minimalist sound partly inspired by Young Marble Giants, writing and recording instrumentals as well as songs with lyrics, often juxtaposing two contrapuntal bass tracks. She was a smoker and horsewoman, and we starting working under the name Marlboro Men, later settling on Roundhouse. Laurie from the SF loft helped by providing historical hobo symbols for our graphics.

Since I had quit my Bay Area job, Katie also tried to help me find work down there. After dropping out of CalArts just short of her BFA in photographic art, she had developed a career in special effects. The 1980s were the last gasp of pre-digital effects, and she had spent the better part of a year rotoscoping – laboriously masking film images by hand with a pen, frame by frame – to create the blue eyes of the Fremen in David Lynch’s science fiction epic Dune. She got me a gig rotoscoping on an expensive commercial for Australian TV, in which a couple dozen of us worked in a big room on 12-hour shifts in 24-hour rotation, alongside other local artists like Nina Salerno and Joe Bishop. Joe was the life of the party with his caustic wit and constant wisecracking.

But this job suddenly ended when the Australian client refused to pay the Hollywood effects house. There were a few tense weeks as we waited to find out whether we would get any compensation for our work, but while we were waiting, Katie learned of a hot new production company that had opened in San Francisco and was already hiring some of her LA friends. And my old boss in the Bay Area wanted me back. So we both moved north to the Terra Incognita loft, where Katie immediately starting working at Colossal Pictures.

Terra Incognita Reborn

Shortly after our move to SF, we heard that our colleague and former co-worker Joe Bishop had died suddenly, of AIDs. He was the first widely known victim in the arts community, and it sent shock waves across the country.

Laurie’s new boyfriend, Sebastian, was a thoughtful and warm-hearted artist from an old aristocratic family in Portugal. Katie and I played him our Roundhouse tape, and it reminded him of England’s Penguin Cafe Orchestra, an experimental, ethnic-influenced chamber ensemble that would later become better-known when one of their instrumental pieces was used in an IBM commercial. Like the early Terra Incognita, they worked in odd time signatures and used ambient sound samples. Sebastian gave us a tape of their albums, we became huge fans, and they inspired me to keep pursuing a string-band sound.

Mark the fiddler was ready to pick up where we’d left off in 1984, so we re-formed Terra Incognita with me on electric guitar, Mark on electric violin, and Katie on electric bass. Mark had been experimenting with his fiddle for years, reinforcing the body, running it through amplifier distortion, adding a pick to the bow and teaching himself to play it percussively. In the new, totally unique sound we were developing, the picked fiddle became our percussion, with occasional traditional bowing to tie phrases together with melodic lines.

We all had day jobs, and on top of that, we were rehearsing five nights a week. All three of us were writing songs and trading off lead vocals while learning to simultaneously play complex polyrhythms on our instruments – far beyond what the Penguin Cafe or any other known artists were attempting. And most preposterously, none of us were even trained musicians.

Since I was working again at my old job, I could now afford the Fostex 1/4-inch 8-track recorder and mixer, and using it, we crafted a demo and started booking gigs. I sucked at marketing, so Katie stepped in and became our relentless promoter. In fact, from this distance in time I can see that Katie’s drive, her fearlessness and impatience, not to mention her persuasive charm, were responsible for whatever success we had. I have total faith in my talent and the quality of my work, but I can’t sell myself worth a damn.

Fittingly, the debut of the new TI was at Club Foot, the same place where the original TI had debuted four years earlier, and we were booked with the Invertebrates, an eccentric psychedelic-funk-performance-art ensemble that, oddly enough, more closely resembled the original Terra Incognita of 1981-1982. The Inverts became our friends and companions on many more gigs over the years.

Black Russians

Katie’s old friend Andy Chambers, an experimental filmmaker from Los Angeles who had grown up in an old California farming family and cultivated a rugged, taciturn Clint Eastwood persona, had acquired a wild and beautiful property in the Sierras, an abandoned and overgrown mountainside orchard below a legendary silver mine, and the two of us found time between jobs, rehearsals, and gigs to spend weekends camping up there in the woods and swimming in the boulder-strewn Merced River.

My old co-conspirator, Jon from the original TI, was living in New York, but we continued to collaborate long-distance, trying to build an arts community that would transcend the ironic bohemian cliches and celebrate mundane crafts like cooking. Our latest idea was a newsletter called TIPS, which would evolve into the next year’s Pow-Wow.

Laurie had a new boyfriend, Troy, a friendly, energetic young hustler from South Central Los Angeles. And John had teamed up with Terri, a quiet classics scholar with a young son. But all of our relationships were conflicted and unstable; Katie’s family had a history of violence and she’d inherited her father’s temper. Her meltdowns had scared me early in our relationship, but we’d already dived into so many intensely shared domains, from music to the desert to our home and friendships, it seemed there was no getting off this rollercoaster.

Shortly after Katie moved into the loft, Tiare had shown up outside, ringing our doorbell. As usual, I went to the front windows to see who it was, but Katie beat me there and started yelling at Tiare to get lost and never show her face again. And it was more than a decade after that before we reconnected.

In the aftermath of punk, post-punk, and new wave, the music scene had splintered into diffuse, divergent efforts. These were the years that saw the development of genres as diverse as electronic dance music, alt-rock, alt-country, and grunge, the emergence of stadium acts like REM and U2 as well as the persistence of urban icons Prince and The Smiths, all of which we danced to in the loft, with John keeping up his weekly rendezvous with trance at our neighborhood club, DNA.

Katie’s arrival had balanced out the loft population – two men and two women – and I can see in retrospect that that made it easier for us to do things as a group. From then on, for the first time, we loftmates began hanging out together, dancing together, heading out together for dinner and shows and parties and adventures.

In the fall, San Francisco’s cable car system was due to be shut down for a long period of maintenance, so we loftmates decided to hold a late-night wake, dressing in black and riding each line in succession from beginning to end, where we would toast with Black Russians in the nearest bar. I’ll never forget midnight, when we started the steep downhill segment of the California Street line, and John and I climbed to the roof of the car where we tottered, our jackets streaming in the wind, with the lights of the city and the Bay laid out below us.

Also that fall, late one night during a heavy rain, I was passing through the kitchen when I heard water dripping into the tub from the bathroom ceiling. Laurie was in her room, and I asked her if I could take the ladder up to the roof. There, I found almost the entire roof covered with a lake. I’d never really paid attention, but our flat roof drained into a pipe that ran down behind the tub, and this had clogged with debris collected from the entire 25’x100′ roof area. I waded over to the mouth of the pipe, and the water there was over six inches deep. Our roof was literally sagging under the weight of tons of trapped rainwater!

I managed to dig out most of the debris by hand, and the pooled water roared down the drainpipe – one of many close calls in our precarious, illegal existence.

Frosted Desert

Despite frequent reminders of our bohemian milieu, the four of us, with our reliable, relatively high-paying day jobs, were edging toward more bourgeois trappings. We decided to pool our resources for a TV, and I picked up a sleek, futuristic all-black video monitor at the Whole Earth Access store in Berkeley, a 1970s-era hippie emporium that had started catering to the emerging yuppie class. Laurie had established herself as our pop culture guru, and she and her best friend Madeline got us all addicted to a weekly ritual viewing of Knots Landing, the Dallas spinoff series that launched the career of Alec Baldwin, who played a creepy but seductive evangelical preacher.

I had also set up an annual order of a quarter-cord of firewood for our wood stove from a yard in Richmond, across the Bay. It would be dumped on the sidewalk and all four of us would plan to be at home, so we could hand it up the stairs from person to person in a human chain, stacking it carefully in a little corral I’d built against the wall of the front room.

Katie and I were the only loftmates with cars – Laurie and John were consummate urbanites – but we talked Laurie into accompanying us on a December road trip to our Mojave Desert cave. We arrived, shocked, to find the desert under six inches of snow, but we’d brought plenty of artificial stimulants, and quickly set to work making the cave cozy and warm.

In the morning the desert landscape appeared more enchanted than ever. We dosed on magic mushrooms and hiked a couple of miles through a frosted boulder field to an old ranch house, where we were surprised to meet Chris, the son of San Francisco’s assassinated mayor, a solitary biology student who eagerly accepted our offer of shrooms, joined us for the rest of our trip, and reconnected with us later in the loft at Christmas.

By the end of the year, after seven months of gigging, the new Terra Incognita band had established itself in the local music community, headlining the New Year’s Eve show at the V.I.S. club, which would later become the more famous Kennel Club and Independent, hosting major international acts. Our first friends in the scene were Josiah from the Invertebrates and his best buddy Carson, an artist who happened to be Mark the fiddler’s roommate. Carson and his fiancee, Kay, were always dancing in front of the stage at our shows, often accompanied by Rippy, a member of the experimental group Bardo, who was obsessed with my guitar style. We also did several gigs together with Blue Movie, a new wave group that jammed with us at the loft.

Like most of our colleagues, our dream was to become rich and famous, but strictly on our own terms as artists. We wanted to sell records and tour the world to the ringing acclaim of our peers.

Apocalypse New

In the new year of 1986, Katie’s ambition brought us into contact with more successful colleagues. Fellow musicians referred us to Tom Mallon, the hot new local producer, who recorded our first professional demo. Frank, bass player in the internationally-known local post-punk band, Romeo Void, moved into the apartment next door above Olen’s record shop. We met, gigged and jammed with, and became good friends with, Romeo Void sax player Benjamin and his new musical partner, Norman. All of them had credentials beyond ours, but to Katie’s endless frustration, I remained, to some degree, stubbornly aloof – I was single-mindedly obsessed with King Sunny Ade’s juju music, and it was hard for me to accept or recognize the value of other styles or genres.

We submitted our latest demo to Calendar Magazine, the local entertainment guide, and got high praise from their reviewer, Cary, who compared us to the 1960s English folk fusion group, Pentangle. Later in the year he would give us another rave review and become one of our pals and colleagues as he went on to pursue his own writing and performing career.

In April, the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the Ukraine exploded, melted down, and spewed toxic material across the northern hemisphere. We were back to the old apocalyptic days of the late 1970s, when I had marched against Three Mile Island. This new disaster unfolded over the remainder of the year and demonstrated to the whole world the insanity of nuclear technology as well as the foolishness of reliance on government oversight.

Simultaneously, information began emerging in the media about the Reagan administration’s secret, illegal sales of weapons to Iran to fund right wing death squads in Nicaragua. The actor president and his highest ministers were finally revealed to the world as the criminals I and my peers had expected them to be. A deadly epidemic was decimating our friends and fellow artists around the world, while the government played the same old games with money and power and peoples’ lives, and the complacent yuppie class basked in the glow of its seductive computer technology.

Terra Incognita had become the “house band” at Katie’s workplace, trendy special effects house Colossal Pictures, and the Colossal people had become fixtures at our gigs. We became close friends with Stuart, a charming, theatrical art director and collage artist who liked to dramatize everything and everyone he favored with his attention.

We solidified our friendship with Carson and Kay, now married, and with new fans Paul and Denise, a bohemian couple who also danced in front of the stage at our shows. We began a series of collaborations with Serge El Beze, an Algerian-born theater artist, musician and DJ who would become world-famous in the 1990s as Cheb i Sabbah, and with Pamela Z, an ambitious electronic musician who produced large-scale collaborative performance events that always included TI.

We also became friends with a more laid-back psychedelic group from Southern California, the Whitefronts, jammed with them at the loft, and added Scott, one of their members, to our informal family.

John began a tempestuous affair at the loft with Christy, a sultry, mercurial theater artist from his On/Ramp group, and their fireworks entertained us throughout the year.

Pow-Wow ’86

Then one night, I got a call from my Dad’s place up in Sacramento. My stepmother, a bipolar drug addict, had literally blown her brains out with my Dad’s 45 magnum pistol, and Katie and I had to drive up in the middle of the night, comfort my hysterical Dad, and clean up.

Laurie continued to refine her lightbox art, improving the hardware and electrical components as well as the carpentry and graphics. And she had met Marc, a brooding Berkeley grad student from New York who always wore a baggy tweed sport coat and was obsessed with postmodern literary theory. He was also fond of the bottle, and quickly sparked Katie’s ire by pilfering her loose change to buy liquor.

After joining us at our desert cave, Laurie had made a lightbox for Katie and me, capturing one of my occasional sagelike observations: “Documentation is the source of future satisfaction.” The irony of this only emerged later, when I discovered how spotty our documentation was during those years before the advent of digital and mobile media. I didn’t even have a camera of my own until Katie gave me a little autofocus point-and-shoot SLR for my birthday in 1987, and even then I seldom remembered to use it, because I’d never developed the habit of documenting life that way. From today’s perspective, it’s puzzling and frustrating that we hardly have any photos, let alone videos, of Terra Incognita shows from that period, or the numerous happy times we loftmates had together.

Over the summer, in addition to the band’s busy schedule, I began seriously collaborating with Jon on an event to be called the Pow-Wow, scheduled at the loft in the fall, gathering together our diverse friends from the arts and sciences in a community-building exercise in which we would share whatever we were passionate about, anchored around talks by Jon and my old friend Jack, a messianic engineer, educator, and population activist from Stanford. The idea struck a chord with everyone in my community, including those like Michael W and Nancy E from the ex-CalArts crowd in Los Angeles, who would participate remotely by phone and mail.

The first Pow-Wow went gloriously, far exceeding any of our expectations, in a Friday through Monday marathon that flowed deliriously from collaborative cooking and dining to passionately confessional group introductions and equally passionate topical discussions, late-night musical jamming, morning computer art workshops, and more of the same. Two of our artist friends had recently acquired the new Apple Macintosh computer, and this Pow-Wow was a local preview of its potential for the arts, which would take another decade to mature.

Rank Stranger

Despite how powerful the new home recording technology was for writing music and mixing demos, it still wasn’t good enough to make commercial grade recordings. By the start of 1987, I had saved up another little nest egg from my day job, and was determined to record a Terra Incognita album that we could then shop around to independent record companies.

The conventional approach would’ve been to shop our demo to the record companies and get them to fund the recording, but I didn’t have the patience – or maybe the confidence – to wait for that to happen. So we went on studio visits all over the city, finally settling on a relatively obscure operation way out in the Sunset District run by a congenial guy named Dave Wellhausen. I think we chose him partly because he wasn’t intimidating like the more famous, and more expensive, studios. And over a six-month period, we recorded, and re-recorded, and fine-tuned, and spent all my money, running those tracks into the ground trying to make them “perfect” – whatever that meant at the time.

In April, Katie and I took a big block of time off to pursue another of our new passions: Native American rock art. I’d first encountered it in books back in 1982, as an inspiration for my visual art, then Katie and I had begun to spot petroglyphs in the desert and collect more books that fed the graphics for our TI shows and demos. Katie had even started designing t-shirts with petroglyph imagery.

Our rock art trip through Nevada, Utah, and the Mojave was truly epic. We discovered the unearthly Barrier Canyon style together, and the pristine cliff dwellings of Grand Gulch, and we each took a quarter hit of acid each time we started a hike, adding a glow to the entire, exotic landscape and heightening our awareness of the Ancient Ones and their culture. Back home, our band graphics came to be almost completely dominated by Native American imagery.

Our musical best friends Norman and Benjamin had moved to the Big Apple to seek the next level of their duo career, but we found new local colleagues in girl garage band The Furies and emerging alt-rock stars American Music Club, both of which we did multiple gigs and birthday parties with. And we landed prestigious positions as opener for national touring acts like Brave Combo, Camper Van Beethoven, and a then-obscure Oklahoma band called Flaming Lips.

I’d become disillusioned with our seemingly endless recording sessions at Dave Wellhausen Studio. We enjoyed hanging out with Dave, and consuming delicious Middle-Eastern takeout from a nearby Persian deli, and Dave definitely enjoyed the thousands of dollars I was paying him for his time, but I was losing my passion for the music.

Katie, however, still had bigger plans for us, and she got one of our new recordings, our cover of the Stanley Brothers classic “Rank Stranger,” onto a compilation album being released by the local label Ralph Records, home of the notorious avant-garde ensemble, the Residents. When the record came out, our track received high praise in both the Los Angeles Times and New York’s Village Voice. It was our big breakthrough – now what would we do with it?

Despite the upscale business downstairs, our loft neighborhood remained very marginal and potentially dangerous. Harvey’s store had moved closer, from Clara to Shipley, and he’d opened his new back lot to the bike messengers that depended on him for check cashing. One Friday afternoon they went crazy, starting a drunken, coke-and-meth-fueled riot like something out of The Road Warrior, leading to a police crackdown.

Then one night in early summer, I was about to fall asleep when I heard heavy footsteps thudding on our roof above. What the HELL?

There was just me and Katie in our bed, and Marc and Laurie in hers – John was out for the night – so I scrambled out and went up John’s ladder to his trapdoor. Lifting the plexiglass hatch here at the back of the building, I peered out, finally spotting a big silhouette leaning over the facade in front, its back to me. “What the hell are you doing!” I shouted, without even thinking about consequences.

The figure turned slowly around and began silently advancing toward me across the length of the roof. It was a young man dressed in camouflage battle fatigues and carrying what appeared to be an assault rifle.

When he got close enough that I could see his face, he grinned and said “I was just playing. I didn’t know anyone lived here!” Then he ran to the side of the roof overhanging the tenement southeast of us, jumped over, and sprinted across to the next building, another artist warehouse owned by our landlord.

When he reached the roof on the corner, I could see the tenants there poking their heads out of their own trapdoor to start yelling at him. The last I saw of him, he was running away from them, trying to get to the next roof. We called the cops, but by the time they arrived, he was long gone.


Laurie’s boyfriend Marc had been spending a lot of time at the loft. When I was alone with him, one on one, he could be charming, respectful, and open-hearted, but in a social setting things were different. Like most in academia, Marc put a high price on intelligence, and the academic measure of intelligence tends to be demonstrated and proven rhetorically, by competing with and dominating others in conversation. He had run-ins with everyone who frequented the loft, and he occasionally targeted me as if we were rivals, wielding the technical jargon of his field to put me at a disadvantage.

It’s hard enough to sustain friendships between artists – harder still for us to work together – and hardest of all to live together, especially under the stress of an illegal, do-it-yourself habitation in a dangerous neighborhood. Katie and I had imposed our band rehearsals on Laurie and John for years. I had accepted my troubled brother’s occasional visits, when he would harass the women with his homemade pornography and graphic stories of swingers’ clubs. Katie would be the first to admit that her German ancestry made her domineering and intolerant, whereas I was mostly oblivious of my own obsessive-compulsive and passive-aggressive bad habits.

But Laurie was in love with Marc, and as the summer passed, it transpired that they would move to Minneapolis together and get married. She’d been our roommate for five years, and it was a traumatic loss, not least because we feared he would drag her down in a self-destructive alcoholic spiral.

For three years, since Katie had joined us in the loft, we’d been a cohesive household. In that atmosphere, the efforts of Jon and me to build a larger community had taken root in the first Pow-Wow, and would continue to bear fruit in the years ahead. But this was the golden age of the loft, the only time when our household really hung together and thrived. The addition of Katie had made it happen, and the subtraction of Laurie would end it.

On the day their moving truck rattled off down Fifth Street toward the freeway ramp and the long journey east, we were bereft. Katie and I had some blotter acid and we split it with John, spending the rest of the day in a stunned wake, ending up high as kites in Golden Gate Park in late afternoon, stumbling around the drained, bleak concrete fly-casting pools, alone in the fog with our loss.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *