Linda Perhacs' Parallel Universe

Perhacs counts Daft Punk, Opeth and Devendra among her admirers.

A roommate first introduced me to the music of Linda Perhacs in 2000. Obsessed with rare psychedelic music, he cued up her lone album, Parallelograms,released in 1970.Imagine strolling through a hushed forest, only to have the humus break open and swallow you whole; such was the sensation of first hearing her uncanny, ruminative music. With a lovely, near-weightless whisper that conjures Karen Carpenter and British she-folk legend Vashti Bunyan, Perhacs gently moves with the acoustic guitar lines. But at crucial moments, drones and mystifying electronic effects appear, her voice suddenly deepens, and within arises a music of portent.

Neither I nor anyone else had heard a peep out of Perhacs in the intervening three decades. She never played a show, never released another note. Yet in one of those odd, magical twists of life, eight years after my first encounter with her music, I’m turning off the Pacific Coast Highway, a trace of wildfire smoke in the air, winding through the slopes of Topanga Canyon on the way to meet one of acid-folk’s most enigmatic and elusive figures for lunch.

Resplendent in pink shirt and white slacks, Perhacs greets me at the Inn of the Seventh Ray restaurant, and amid the burbling fountains and settled Buddhas in the legendary canyon hideaway, proceeds to recount the story of how, 30 years after she threw away her lone recorded LP in heartbroken disgust, it crept back into the world. “I had almost died in the hospital from a life-threatening pneumonia,” she recalls. “The day I got home after a month on life support, there was something in the mail. And there was this forgotten album of mine on CD with a handwritten note asking, ‘Are you Linda Perhacs?’ ”

Born Linda Arnold into a conservative family, Perhacs grew up in a small Northern California row house that abutted the Pacific Ocean and was surrounded by towering redwoods. Perhacs’ talent revealed itself in her teens. “In school I was creating musicals with complex choreography and songs and words. But I was simply asked to stop, because it didn’t fit the curriculum.” She says she found solace in the woods. “I’d sneak up into the mountains and be all alone, sitting and thinking.” She laughs at the memory. “I was kinda unusual. I don’t remember a TV and we never used the telephone, so the world that would teach me was the outdoors.”

In the midst of the nascent explosion of free love, flower power, hallucinogens and music, Perhacs found herself in a parallel world — at USC training to be a dental hygienist in the late 1960s. She barely noticed the music revolution going on around her. Motioning to the hills surrounding us, she recalls the hand-painted vans that wound their way down these same slopes: “I kept saying to myself, ‘As soon as I graduate, I’ve got to find out who these Beatles are, and I’m going to find out what’s going on in these canyons.’”

She wed sculptor Les Perhacs while still in school, and he turned her on to the music of their canyons, artists like Crosby, Stills and Nash, Tim Buckley, the Doors and Joni Mitchell. The two traveled through the wilds of California and the Pacific Northwest, and once back in Los Angeles, she rekindled her creative spirit and began crafting her own songs, trying to capture the ephemeral moments she experienced in the wilderness: watching the rain fall on the forests surrounding the Olympia peninsula (“Chimacum Rain”); witnessing the dolphins at play in the Sea of Cortez (“Dolphins”). These early ruminations took shape over her kitchen table at night. While her husband slept, she practiced guitar.

Perhacs never considered a career in music, though. In her mind, she already had a profession working in a dentist’s office, where she bent over the sparkling teeth of celebrities like Cary Grant, Paul Newman and Dinah Shore. Another longtime client was Hollywood composer Leonard Rosenman. Rosenman had studied serial music and the 12-tone scale under Arnold Shoenberg, and gained renown for making soundtracks to films including Rebel Without a Cause and Beneath the Planet of the Apes, going on to win consecutive Oscars for 1975’s Barry Lyndon and 1976’s Bound for Glory.

“One day Leonard looked up at me and said, ‘I can’t believe this is all you do,’ ” Perhacs recalls. She hesitated before handing over a cassette of the little songs she had been concocting in her kitchen. “He called the very next day — woke me up on a Saturday morning — and said, ‘How soon can you get here?’ ”

On first listen, Perhacs’ whispered voice recalls a more famous artist of the era: First Lady of the Canyon, Joni Mitchell. Yet her acoustic guitar on Parallelograms seems to dilate and transmogrify. As the then-20-something sings lines like “I’m spacing out/I’m seeing silences between leaves,” alien overtones invade and engulf the wispy melody. Songs may be about no-good men (“Paper Mountain Man”) or the hypocrisy of fancy marriages (“Porcelain Baked-Over Cast-Iron Wedding”), although the quotidian subject matter belies something deeper.

“I had an inner sense that there were tones in the universe like you have light in the universe — it just goes out forever, there’s no stopping it,” she explains. Her session guitarist 30 years ago, Stephen Cohn, recalls working with her. “She was very intuitive, her music had this purity; she was just doing her own thing.” With Rosenman’s musical acumen and connections, Perhacs landed a recording contract and worked closely with the composer, and his electronics, in the studio. There, they realized her creations and infused them with proto-digital tones.

Late one night with — she assures me — only coffee in her system, Perhacs was driving home from the Rosenmans’ Pacific Palisades hideaway on the Ventura Freeway, when a vision of light danced before her in the darkness. Thinking she was losing her sanity, she pulled over and began to draw the incandescent shapes on scraps of paper. Taping together the sketches a week later, she realized she had witnessed ‘visual music,’ the color determining the pitches, all of it together transforming into “a three-dimensional sculpture.” She called the musical piece inspired by that vision “Parallelograms” and nervously presented it to the astonished composer, who expressed to her in no uncertain terms that this was “a true composition.” An amalgam of her multitracked vocals, a cycling, Celtic-tinged guitar figure and electronic effects, the four-minute “Parallelograms” remains one of the most mystifying and beautiful moments of the psychedelic era, on par with any outré work of the time.

Yet, when her debut album finally arrived in the mail, Perhacs was crushed to hear the result. “The pressing plant had crimped the beautiful sounds, taking off the highs and lows so it would fit in the AM radio vein.” Her voice breaks up even now at the memory of taking her album off her turntable and dumping it into the garbage can. “They destroyed it; it was wooden and dead.” Instead, she listened back to her practice tapes, thinking only of what could have been.

A divorce and other life changes followed, as Perhacs not only pursued her dental career but — in her words — “began to climb spiritually.” Throughout the years, unbeknownst to her, the album’s reputation also climbed, among psych and folk fans who traded the rare copies online for outrageous sums. One fan, Michael Piper, reissued Parallelograms on CD and tracked down the songwriter. Since her rediscovery with its first reissue in 1998, Perhacs has collaborated with her one-time Topanga neighbor and longtime fan, Devendra Banhart, singing harmony on his 2007 album, Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon. She also has fans in the Swedish metal band Opeth, and her wistful piano-led plaint “If You Were My Man” appears in Daft Punk’s film, Electroma. Her lone recording has just been reissued by the British record label Sunbeam. She’s even returned to the studio.

But the renaissance is bittersweet, as Perhacs’ most ardent supporters, Rosenman and Piper, both passed away earlier this year. Sunbeam has stepped in to keep this little gem in print for future listeners. “I always wanted my music to have peace,” she says, gesturing to the hills around us.

Linda Perhacs | Parallelograms | Sunbeam Records

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