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The Terra Incognita Loft: Part 4 1987-1989

Saturday, January 21st, 2017: Places, The Terra Incognita Loft.

Pow-Wow ’87

With Laurie’s departure at the end of summer 1987, the loft population was back to three. I’d been without an art studio for almost three years, and Katie’s projects had been wedged into a corner of the guest room, so we took over Laurie’s room, and on the nights we didn’t have rehearsal or a gig, we had art nights.

My pastels were now all about the desert: forms I’d seen or dreamed, stylized like Native American rock art. Back in 1986, after hearing from Chris, the biology student, that the University of California had established an ecological field station near our desert cave, we’d driven over there and met the new directors, Philippe and Cindy. The four of us clicked from the start and became good friends. They began to turn us on to the ecology and prehistory of our favorite place, the ongoing research and the people who were conducting it. Our heads were exploding with this new universe of images and ideas for our art and music. The more we learned, the more we wanted to know.

Our loft technology was also advancing. Back in 1985, we’d acquired a massive, used IBM Selectric electronic typewriter to produce lyric sheets, songbooks, and promotional correspondence for the band. But after the Pow-Wow in 1986, we’d replaced it with an Apple Macintosh computer and dot matrix printer. John had already set up a workstation in the hallway with his MS-DOS computer, so we added the Mac and began experimenting with graphics for posters and databases for our band mailing list.

John’s latest project was a brilliant Spiderman web of rope he strung across his room below the ceiling, from his sleeping loft to the opposite wall, so he could roll out of bed into it and crawl around up there. We knew he was airborne from the creaking sound of the ropes.

In the fall, despite our sadness over the loss of our roommate, the momentum of our activities kept intensifying. I’d been corresponding with Jon about the next art/science Pow-Wow, and with Philippe and Cindy about holding it on their desert field station, at the ranch house where we’d met Chris in December 1985. Katie had initially been skeptical about our Pow-Wows, thinking they’d be too nerdy and uncool, but now she was fully on board, along with our large community of artist friends in Los Angeles, for whom the desert was only a short drive away.

Philippe and Cindy put Pow-Wow ’87 on their calendar for late October, and I prepared a two-page invitation on our Mac and sent it out to dozens of people on our mailing list. As both artists and scientists eagerly signed up, I compiled text and images from dozens of references Katie and I had acquired during our desert researches and produced a 200-page Reader on this environment most attendees would be experiencing for the first time, and its prehistoric culture. As I had with previous projects, I printed and bound the Reader surreptitiously at my day job, after hours, and mailed copies to all the Pow-Wow registrants on my own dime. Many of them would read it out loud during their journeys to the desert, preparing questions and special projects to share with others.

Meanwhile, Katie was tirelessly badgering record companies with our recent recordings, and our friends Norman and Benjamin had scored us a gig headlining a Friday night show at the Knitting Factory in New York City, based on the Village Voice review of our track on the Potatoes album. This was our biggest opportunity ever – the Knitting Factory was the leading showcase for new and experimental music in the U.S.

The first desert Pow-Wow was a massive group effort. Jon flew from New York to Las Vegas, where he met John and Ellen from the Bay Area and they all rented a car to drive to the remote field station. Michael and others from Los Angeles carpooled and hauled loads of firewood, food, and beverages. Katie and I drove down from San Francisco on Wednesday and stayed at our cave the first night, to be joined by other Bay Area friends at the ranch house on Friday afternoon. Gear was unloaded and a cooking assembly line was set up in the kitchen, supervised by Katie and our friend Tia, a professional chef and caterer, while people erected tents amid the cactus and scrub outside.

As before, the first night was devoted to introductions, but this time in a circle outside around a roaring campfire. The desert had endured a drought for years, but after we went to bed, the drought was miraculously broken by a gentle, steady rain that lasted all night.

On Saturday we split into smaller groups for team activities and field trips: the game of Granite Ball invented by our friend Mark N from Los Angeles, the volunteer installation of solar panels near field station headquarters, an expedition among the boulders to investigate prehistoric rock art. Around the fire that night, we all learned more about the place, its history, and its issues from Cindy and Philippe.

The latest Pow-Wow had such a profound effect on people that they spent weeks processing what they’d learned, and sent us art, poetry, and essays in response during the coming months.

Terra Incognita in New York

The Terra Incognita band‘s big national hit, “Rank Stranger,” employed two electric basses, so we recruited loftmate John into the band to play the second bass in our shows beginning that fall. In addition to the Friday night Knitting Factory gig, Norman and Benjamin got us a Wednesday night date at the popular King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut in the Village, and a Thursday afternoon improv performance with Benjamin at PS 122, a trendy art venue.

On Tuesday evening, the four of us packed up our instruments and amps and boarded a flight out of SFO. It was Mark’s first flight, and almost his last. A blizzard lay over New York, and we were re-routed into a vast circular holding pattern to avoid it. The plane was repeatedly battered with turbulence, and at one point, a lightning bolt actually shot through the fuselage, from window to window, in front of Mark’s seat. We circled tensely for more than two hours, finally landing in Newark.

We cabbed to the Mansfield, an elderly but clean hotel in mid-Manhattan across the street from the legendary Algonquin. It was popular with musicians, and we soon found ourselves sharing lines of coke with a heavy metal band from Manchester, England. The city was blanketed by several inches of fresh snow, enough to make it truly magical but not enough to immobilize us. In between our gigs, we explored the city as a group, continuing the time-honored tradition dramatized in Beatles movies like A Hard Day’s Night, pelting each other with snowballs and amusing the locals with our juvenile hijinks and wide-eyed enthusiasm.

My mother Joan and her fiance Jack had flown out and were staying on Washington Square in the Village. They joined all of our New York friends at the packed Knitting Factory show. But we totally bombed it. I’m not sure it was as discouraging to the audience as to us, but the stress of our biggest gig ever had taken its toll. Mark, Katie, and John had partied too much with the boys from Manchester, and I, normally at home on the stage, was as nervous as if I’d never been in front of an audience before. We did two sets, alternating with Benjamin and Norman, and our second set was no better than the first. We flew back to San Francisco with our tails between our legs. Our only consolation was that our gig had been on Friday the 13th.

Speeding to Collapse

Terra Incognita’s disappointing Knitting Factory performance turned out to be a harbinger of worse things to come. Like the military in past wars, and the energy industry and other physically-demanding blue-collar livelihoods, the movie industry had come to accept the abuse of dangerous stimulants, and Katie’s workplace, Colossal Pictures, was no exception. The pressure we’d shouldered in our pursuit of a record company deal and the New York tour was coming to a head, and we resented the need to sleep, the lost hours when we could be productive. With some people drug abuse was partying; with us it was strictly a productivity issue.

In January 1988 this turned into a marathon of teeth-grinding and sleepless nights trying to write music in the wee hours of the morning, followed by zombie-like staggering around our day jobs. Of course, the drugs didn’t actually make us more creative – they made us the opposite, more nervous and uptight.

The last show of the Terra Incognita electric string band was at Noe Valley Ministry, an all-wooden church that was acclaimed for having the best acoustics in San Francisco. It had been one of the few venues in the Bay Area that we hadn’t been able to book yet; our friend Pamela Z, the pioneering electronic composer and performance artist, had finally gotten us in. Our performance was videotaped by Stuart – the only video ever shot of this band – but he refused to share it with us afterwards.

Throughout our performance, John, who stood behind Katie and I, kept drifting out of sync with us, and at one point during a song, I whipped around in frustration to see what was happening. John seemed oblivious to his surroundings. A week later, while Katie and I were away on a camping trip, he collapsed and was rushed to a hospital, where he was diagnosed with a serious, totally unexpected medical condition.

Building a New Band

After making sure John could handle his new reality – it was harsh, but John had always been a survivor – Katie and I sobered up and took stock of our troubled musical project. We felt handicapped by the band’s lack of musical skill and polish, but we had no intention of letting go the creative reins or the lead vocals. Although we’d worked on lyrics and laid down plenty of sweet instrumental tracks, neither of us had finished any new songs in years. And our recent live recordings had exposed our arrangements as tense, herky-jerky, cerebral clutter. Just as we’d reached the peak of our career, we lost faith in what we were doing. We decided to disband and recruit new, professional musicians: a bassist and lead guitarist to free up Katie and me so we could focus more on our singing, and a drummer to round out our sound and take the place of Mark’s fiddle picking.

The bassist came first. Not long after the Noe Valley Ministry fiasco, we attended a show at the Kennel Club by Snakefinger, a legendary guitarist and one of our Ralph Records labelmates. His bass player, Guy, was a virtuoso player with strong stage moves and a striking presence. I invited him over to the loft for a powwow. He was excited about joining us, but wanted creative equity – the chance to play and sing his own material, which he hadn’t been able to do with his previous bands. It was a challenge to my ego, but Katie talked me into it.

Katie and Guy got recommendations for various percussionists that we auditioned at the loft, but none of them impressed me – either too mainstream or too hippie-dippy. I put up a notice at the Art Institute and Michael responded. From the beginning of our first conversation, even without hearing him play, I knew he was perfect. He’d studied at Berklee College of Music under Ronald Shannon Jackson and had played in Kotoja, a Bay Area afro-funk band led by Nigerian star Ken Okulolo. In addition to the standard kit, he played a talking drum, the most charismatic instrument from West Africa, and was a conga master. He also had strong stage presence – he worked part-time modeling for art classes and had even done some fashion work. And like me, he was committed to music with a spiritual dimension.

The lead guitarist proved to be the hardest to find – unsurprisingly, because I’ve never really cared for lead guitarists or guitar solos. The first few auditions brought us rock players burdened with all the cliches in the book. Finally we settled on Mike, a modest, collaborative player with jazz chops who liked African music and loved our songs.

Love Will Tear Us Apart

The band wasn’t the only thing that needed fixing. Katie and I were in trouble in other ways. Despite all the passions and activities we shared, from music to the desert, our relationship had been dysfunctional from the start. Freaked out by her temper and other mismatches between us, I’d started viewing and treating her like a sister instead of a lover. I was blocked creatively, but she couldn’t write songs without me, and I refused to help her since I couldn’t help myself.

In early spring, while our musician search was still underway, we took a weekend getaway to Jenner, a romantic seaside village north of the Bay Area. The first night, we had just ordered an expensive gourmet meal in the fancy, crowded restaurant above our room when I said something wrong and Katie had a meltdown and stomped out, leaving me to eat alone amid the stares of other diners. We made up afterwards and spent the next day tripping in our room, watching and listening to a storm over the ocean, but we knew nothing had been fixed between us.

Someone recommended a couples counselor. The hour we spent there consisted of Katie accusing me, in relentless detail, of making her miserable. At the end, the counselor said she couldn’t help us and we should just break up.

This shocked both of us. I’d expected that I would get a chance to speak. We both assumed this would just be the beginning, that the counselor would offer us counseling. Neither of us was ready to give up. Leaving the office, we hugged each other tightly and cried all the way to the car.

We temporarily set our relationship problems aside to spend the summer rehearsing and recording the new band, putting together a demo to book gigs with the new sound and start all over with our promotional activities. Alongside this, Katie and I still had art nights in our shared studio, and in addition to her photography and printmaking, she had started to experiment with a new form of assemblage or sculpture using both natural and industrial detritus that she picked up during road trips.

As frustrating and traumatic as our winter had been, it had shaken something loose in me, and I started writing new songs for the first time in years – most of them inspired by the desert. Katie and Guy were also introducing new material, so that not only did we have a new band, we had a new repertoire as well.

Some well-heeled jazz lovers had bought the building down the block from us where Harvey’s store used to be, and were spending lavishly to turn it into an elegant, upscale jazz club. Our neighborhood was still dominated by artists, poor ethnic families, addicts, ex-cons, and the mentally ill, but the huge Moscone Center project, only a couple of blocks away, had progressed throughout the decade, accumulating the pressure that would ultimately gentrify South of Market. When the Milestones club opened, my dad, a lifelong jazz fan, came down from Sacramento for opening night to hear Joe Henderson, John Handy, and a young piano prodigy from New Orleans named Henry Butler. It was only a few steps from the loft, but my dad couldn’t climb our stairs due to his heart condition and obesity. It would be the last live music we saw together.

Finally the new Terra Incognita band was ready, and we booked our debut in September at the Paradise Lounge, our “home venue” and one of the anchors of the South of Market club scene, which had expanded over the years from a narrow storefront to two floors and three separate stages that could host simultaneous acts. We learned that famed producer Todd Rundgren would be checking us out, and we recruited friend and Colossal art director Stuart to videotape our show.

The show went well, but a few days later, Katie announced that she’d had an affair with Guy, the bass player, over the summer. He was married; the affair had ended and he’d gone back to his wife, but she couldn’t keep it to herself any longer, and needed some resolution between us. Of course, I was shocked, and saddened, but in a sense I was also relieved. I arranged for a meeting of the three of us, where I said that Katie would have to move out of the loft, and I wouldn’t be able to play music with either of them again.

Next I had to meet with Michael, the drummer, and Mike, the lead guitarist. I had no idea what would happen, but they both comforted me and offered their full support and total faith in my music. They said all we needed was to find another bassist and a female vocalist, and things would be better than ever.

So that’s what we did. Wendell, our suave and deep-thinking new bass virtuoso, responded to my ad and joined almost immediately. Finding a female vocalist was much harder – we worked with a series of them over the next year. But initially, it was just the four of us, and we were gigging again by December.

Late one night near the end of the year, I was working at the computer when I heard someone unlocking the street door downstairs, and heavy boots climbing the stairs. It couldn’t be John, who always wore soft-soled shoes. Suddenly Katie appeared, towering in the kitchen doorway, dressed in a long black leather coat. I hadn’t seen her since she’d moved out in September. “I’m going to kill you!” she said.

I was still seated as she strode across the kitchen and kicked our big metal trash can at me. It clattered and rolled away as I rose from my seat, and she turned and ran back toward the front of the loft.

I followed, and when I got to the top of the stairs, she was waiting on the landing below. Her eyes flashed murder and she charged up the stairs toward me. I had the advantage and it was now or never, so I jumped, we grappled, and rolled together back down to the landing. She was crying and hugging me even before we got there. Damn – we’d been together through thick and thin for more than four years – I’d hurt her deeply and didn’t know how to make it better. I missed her and wished we could’ve stayed friends.

Stuck in the Desert

As 1988 turned into 1989, I had a huge empty space in my life to fill. I was single for the first time in more than six years. The loft had gone from four roommates – two men and two women – to only two men, John and me. Laurie’s old room was vacant again, and the whole loft seemed to echo silently with loneliness. I had the band to keep me busy, but without Katie’s ambition and drive to promote us.

At first, I turned to my newest male friends: Michael the drummer, Carson, and Stuart. I hadn’t had a close male friend since Jon had moved away in 1983. Carson and Stuart and I had similar backgrounds and were on similar wavelengths as artists and polymaths; Michael was from a different world. Tall, “Black Irish” in ancestry, he was a flamboyant storyteller and a physical powerhouse: he ran on the beach in Alameda, did four-hour workouts at Gold’s Gym near his home in Oakland, then drank prodigious amounts of microbrewed beer at night. He nagged me about my skinny build and got me to start lifting weights and putting on muscle mass.

But my obsession with the desert was still growing. Years earlier, I’d dreamed of owning property in the mountains near our cave, but I soon learned it was all either public land or part of the University’s field station. Then Cindy and Philippe told me about another, similar mountain range that apparently had lots of private land. I subscribed to a desert newspaper and saw a large parcel for sale there, and I drove down alone, to investigate.

The mountains were beautiful, but I made the mistake of driving my front-wheel-drive Civic Wagon into a patch of deep sand, 20 miles from the highway, phone, and nearest human habitations. I had a shovel and tried to dig out the wheels, but the engine block was soon resting in the sand. I loaded my pack with water and food for the long walk to the highway, but within less than a mile I came upon some ancient, rusted sheets of corrugated steel. I dragged them back to the car, dug the wheels out again, and used the sheet metal for traction until I was off the sandy patch. The sun was setting, so I made dinner, then carried my sleeping bag back into the foothills and spent a blissful first night in the mountains that would eventually become my spiritual home.

The new band was advancing rapidly and landing good gigs. We were positioning ourselves within the emerging genre of World Beat, but although we used African-inspired arrangements, our music didn’t simply copy ethnic styles and rhythms like other World Beat bands. In addition to my new, desert-inspired songs, we were incorporating more repertoire from my old-time mountain music heroes, the Stanley Brothers. We were still as unique as the previous incarnations of Terra Incognita, but much more danceable.

Carson became our band photographer, and I made all the posters and other graphics. Michael and Mike helped with the booking. Michael was a brilliant innovator – he was passionate about costuming, choreography, stage layout, and even pre-show preparation – and he took us shopping at a Guatemalan-fusion boutique for dramatic new stage outfits and taught us little rituals to connect and focus us before going onstage.

I’d started using a wireless device with my guitar so I didn’t have to worry about cables, and we choreographed one of our first shows so that the entire band converged across the club room from opposite corners, walking through the audience, toward the stage, while playing the dueling instrumental parts forming the intro to our first song, finally joining each other onstage as all our musical parts came together.

Mountains on Fire

Our downstairs neighbors, the construction company, collapsed when the client on their biggest project went bankrupt and failed to pay them. I’ll never forget their last day – the young president drunk in the office, fighting back tears as he loaded what was left into boxes. A weird old guy with a button business moved in – an anachronistic maker of metal buttons for political campaigns and other short-time affairs. Unlike the construction company, he was messy and unconcerned with cleanliness, and the shop soon looked like he’d been there since the 19th century.

Katie and I had long since stopped using the sleeping loft in our room – she had a regular bed we set up on the floor, and when she moved out, it had gone with her. As an immediate replacement, I’d bought a futon and a cheap folding frame, but I was overdue for one of my periodic construction projects, so I designed and built a monumental, massive new all-wood bed frame, heavily reinforced and joined with wooden pegs and glue instead of nails, with redwood siding and legs which were actual oak logs from our firewood pile.

In June 1989, I flew down to the county seat where my desert mountains were administered, spent three days researching property ownership, then rented a 4wd Jeep and drove way back in the mountains on long-abandoned mine roads, trying to find the parcels I’d read about. After falling asleep in camp high up the side of a remote canyon one night, I woke, coughing, in the midst of a cloud of wood smoke – the mountains were on fire! I couldn’t see anything and didn’t know where the fire was, but I loaded up and started driving back down the way I’d come. I never saw the fire, but I did pass some huddled, terrified cattle, and didn’t get out of the smoke until miles later when I finally emerged onto the plain.

Nevertheless, what I saw on this trip blew my mind. It was the wildest place I’d ever seen, and incredibly beautiful. Back home, I zeroed in on three dozen parcels, wrote letters to all the owners, and waited to see what would happen.

And I wrote some more songs about the desert.

After my return from the desert, we held a party at the loft featuring Terra Incognita and Jungular Grooves, a Caribbean-inflected “international soul” band led by Reggie Benn and featuring our Michael on drums and Wendell on bass. Reggie had jammed at the first big TI party in January 1982, and immediately recognized the loft when he returned seven years later.

Also, after cycling through part-time female vocalists Irish and Lygia earlier in the year, we finally enlisted full-time backing vocalist Sophia, who had previously worked in Al Green’s gospel choir. And I hired a pro to shoot new band photos.

Premonitions of the End

In July, I started hearing from the desert property owners. I quickly zeroed in on the two largest properties, which were also the most accessible by vehicle, via abandoned mine roads. My first choice was also a Native American sacred site, owned by a foundation in Los Angeles. Correspondence proved the situation to be complicated.

Then one night I got a call from a man who sounded ancient, like Methuselah. He wanted to know why I was interested in his property. I was honest with him, he shared his own fond memories of the place, and he invited me to visit him in Las Vegas so we could talk about it. I flew down, but quickly saw that he was in an advanced stage of Alzheimers. He understood what was happening, and wanted to sell me the land, but couldn’t complete the deal himself. And although his asking price was astoundingly low, I didn’t have the money and couldn’t get a loan on undeveloped desert land.

Early one morning in August, my bed suddenly lurched sideways under me, waking me just as I heard glass slamming and shattering toward the front of the loft. The cast-concrete walls and steel-reinforced concrete columns holding the loft upright had long been cracked and rotten, and I’d expected an earthquake to bring this building down ever since I’d moved in. I jumped out of bed and raced the length of the loft, down the stairs, and out onto the street, where I finally stopped to breathe, looking anxiously up at the outside of the building.

John appeared in the window high above: “Max, are you all right?”

The breaking glass had come from a huge mirror that we’d leaned against the wall in the front room. Everything else was okay. But I was thoroughly spooked. I asked my friend Carson if I could stay with him and Kay in their new Bernal Heights rental – located hillside, on bedrock, unlike the loft, which floated in Bayside mud. I spent a week there in retreat before I could relax enough to come home.

Like many buildings rapidly erected after the 1906 earthquake, the shell and skeleton of our loft consisted of concrete mixed with beach sand, which was full of salt. Over time, the salt dissolved, fracturing the concrete and letting moisture in to rust the steel rebar. This building had no structural integrity – the whole thing was just resting on fragments of its original structure that would separate and collapse in a big quake. And we were perched on one of the most notorious active faults in the world.

The Countdown Begins

September was the biggest month yet for the new Terra Incognita band. We played the famous I-Beam nightclub – where I’d seen New Order in 1981 – and had our most successful show ever at a big club in Marin County.

Katie and I had patched up our post-relationship friendship, and our old friends Mark and Maureen flew up from Los Angeles to visit and stay with me in the loft. Katie now had a large studio in a former brick brewery artists’ complex in the Mission, where her salvage sculpture and assemblage were flourishing, and she was collaborating with other songwriters.

One Sunday morning at the end of September, I was sleeping late when I heard John yelling, “Max! Max! Come quick!” from the front of the loft. My car, parked at the curb in front of the building, had been hit from behind at high speed, collapsing the back end like an accordion.

John said he hadn’t heard anything – he’d just gone to the window with a cup of coffee and happened to look down and notice the damage. There was no one out and about, so I walked to the gas station on the corner at Folsom. The attendant said that a couple hours earlier, at dawn, some guys had gassed up in a Camero, and they looked like they were on something. They had peeled out of the station and he heard a loud crash immediately after. Apparently they were so high they couldn’t tell where they were or what they were doing, but they somehow managed to drive away after destroying my car.

I’d just paid this car off the year before, and had recently installed a new set of tires. But I had good insurance, and Katie told me about a new utility vehicle that had just come out called the Geo Tracker, which seemed perfect for my desert adventures. I tried one out, fell in love at first sight, and when my insurance check arrived, closed the deal and took delivery.

Party Like It’s 1989

In early October, we had another party at the loft featuring Reggie’s band, Jungular Grooves. My roommate John had just met a new girl, Quinn, and my most vivid memory from that party is a glimpse of them kissing tenderly, both dressed in black, on the landing at the bottom of our stairs, while the band played and people danced above them. It was as if they’d created a still point and were glowing softly inside it, while the noise and motion of the party raged unabated outside.

Laurie’s old room had been vacant for more than a year, since Katie had moved out. The loft felt empty most of the time – John and I passed occasionally like ships in the night – and we could use a break with the rent. I talked it over with John, and we decided to advertise for a roommate – at the Art Institute, as usual.

One of the first to respond was Leslie, a recent grad of the exclusive, all-female Mills College in Oakland. Her degree was in communications, and she’d been sharing a house in the East Bay and working as a political canvasser, door to door. She said she really wanted space and freedom to start working on her art, which had been on hold for lack of a studio.

When I opened the street door to her on the morning she came over, I had more than a millisecond of dizziness. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, an unashamedly romantic film based on Milan Kundera’s novel, had come out the previous year, but it was still fresh in my mind, and Leslie looked almost exactly like the young Juliette Binoche in that film – the same moppet hair, sky blue eyes, creamy skin and blushing pink cheeks, the same innocent shyness and fleeting smile. Her voice even had the same tone. Like a fool, I was starting to fall in love before she even stepped inside.

John and I both gave her the tour, and after she left I confessed to John that I didn’t know whether to ask her on a date, or to ask her to move in. It would be insane to do both. John sympathized with my quandary but couldn’t decide for me. He said he would be fine with her as a roommate, so in the end, I decided to crush my crush.

Leslie moved into Laurie’s old room on October 15. That night, she had a dream featuring three mysterious shrouded figures, and the next day, she made a drawing of them that really impressed me. She spent one more night in the loft, and then the earthquake hit.

  1. Hi Max-thanks nice report-enjoyed the pics-thanks for the compliments- conga master not sure- but innovator of playing conga and full drum set together- great pic of Kelly- and you were always solid on guitar- Michael

  2. Jack Alpert says:

    You keep renewing and expanding the reasons I like being your friend. Remember the magical hike in the dark up to the duck pond.

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