Laurel Canyon, California: “Why fear death? Death ?is the most beautiful part of life.” Such were the strangely sage words of a cackling skeleton pictured in ?the bottom left corner of a Hawkwind album circa 1972.
Death and its fine shades seem to mean quite a lot of different things — good things — to Guy Blakeslee, the chief guru/guitarist/singer of L.A.’s heavily blues-bruising, mind-expanding band-lifestyle-experience we’ve come to know as Entrance. We will approach these varied layers of doom and decay in just one minute, but first, note that Entrance can and should be pronounced with the emphasis either on the first syllable, so you get the effect of, you know, walking through a door of perception; or on the second syllable — En-trance — so you’re, like, fully baking under the glorious light of the revealing science of pure TONE . . .
Anyway, I recently sat down for a little chat with Blakeslee at the giant oak roundtable in the middle of his wondrous hippie hideaway deep in the mystical woods of exotic Laurel Canyon, a cavernous crash pad cascaded with guitars, drums, cruddy old keyboards, bongos, shakers, florid and creepy art, several ashtrays and assorted teapots. We’re in 1967 or thereabouts, and enjoying it immensely.
Blakeslee wanted to convey something about music, who and what it’s for and what it’s like playing it, and what the effect of hearing it might conceivably be — how it might make you want to live. These issues come up because Entrance specializes at least in part in a kind of raging and scary howl-music (not goth) that seems to confront him and you and me with fearsome, unnameable demons last conquered successfully only by the most righteous and real of our early Delta-blues croakers. It’s just that to play “the blues” remains an authenticity challenge in these semi-enlightened times, let’s say, no matter who you might be.
Blakeslee’s from Baltimore originally, played in punk and metal bands on the local scene as a kid, moved to Chicago to play in other bands, then came out West a couple of years ago to seek his fame and fortune, kind of. He got this wonderful house among the trees primarily because his landlord is a musician too who, like Blakeslee, also plays guitar left handed, without the strings reversed. “I didn’t even have money to buy dinner with,” says Blakeslee, “but he’s like, ‘You wanna live here? Here’s some blankets.’ ”
That above info is not just trivia, I don’t think. It says something about the sort of good karma that Blakeslee radiates, this sort of very sincere desire to dig deep into his music, to savor experience, to transcend this life in wickedly hailstorming aircraft hangar–size masses of electric guitar and warlock-banshee voice.
Hmmm. That left-handedness has something to do with the reason that Blakeslee’s blues- or folk- or Indian classical- or avant-jazz–imbued guitar workouts, as heard on his latest CD, Prayer of Death (Tee Pee), or live onstage, sound so extreme, so different, so unclichéd, so uncorny, so liberating.
“I play right-handed guitar backward, without the strings reversed,” he points out, helpfully. “Elizabeth Cotton is one of my favorite blues folk artists, and she played like that; Dick Dale plays like that too; Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain started like that, but they ended up switching the strings into the standard way.”
Thus he comes up with very odd approaches to chord voicings and melodic phrasing that consistently have a warping effect on the listener, as in actual physiological response to the tone combinations produced through heavy amplification (or just a ratty old acoustic), but then time-warping over eras and styles as well . . .
Flashing back a bit: On or around September 11, 2001, Blakeslee decided that he’d had enough playing in other people’s bands, that he was destined to do his own thing. Those 3,000-some-odd people dying like that caused him to have some sort of awakening. He’s been digging at it ever since, deeper, deeper. He doesn’t know where it’s leading, he just knows he’s got to dig and dig, then dig some more. He knows this because he acknowledges that he himself is someday going to die.
Nothing to get bummed out about, really, he says. The blues people of ancient lore knew what it’s all about. One might refer to it as “The Intensity.”
“What strikes me about the old blues artists that I started out trying to learn from is that even in a totally quiet setting, with just a person and a guitar and their voice, they’re somehow summoning an emotional transcendence. And that speaks to you even if you don’t know why.”
And, he says, that kind of going beyond can emit from surprising sources. “I’ve been really into Fleetwood Mac a lot recently, because of the way Stevie Nicks’ voice sounds to me — it channels this other level of emotional vibration that sounds supernatural. It’s not like screaming or smashing into things; it’s just like she opens her mouth and it just takes you to another world. She’s somehow tuning into something and bringing that to the audience.”
Yeah, it doesn’t matter what the genre of the music is; it has more to do with an artist’s intent or belief or integrity. And sometimes it’s a matter of pure tone — your body and your mind respond whether you want them to or not.
Blakeslee wasn’t so much into the blues or any kind of roots-folk music growing up. “When I was in high school and college, it was the DIY culture — music more like hardcore metal and punk. Now, genre names like that don’t mean as much, but back then it did.”
The punk or even metal aesthetic is another DNA strand pervasive in Entrance’s searing, cathartic performances, I venture to say.
“I think the aesthetic or ethic of that is something that got carried on in my style, totally. When I would go to shows when I was really young, there’d be like seven people there, and freaking out — not like some violent energy but some kind of release. That seemed to be the whole point, to the people in the band and in the audience. Just totally freaking out! [Laughs.] You know, energy that was sometimes not normal. It should be about some kind of escapist energy transmission, or something that is above and beyond your normal level of energy.”
In other words, whether he’s playing traditional folk songs or really loud rock, when Entrance performs, he’s baring his soul, and you, listener, just might do the same.
Not quite dead yet: Interesting how, when you look at the blues as the building block for about 90 percent of popular music, deep down there’s this undercurrent of bleak, doomy darkness. And how this, perversely, is a happy fact.
“Old-time Appalachian music had its gospel side to it, just like blues did,” says Blakeslee. “All this definitely tied into the church; their mothers taught them the good way to think, then they’d go and play in whorehouses. A lot of old gospel music isn’t about what you read in the Bible, but about death, your awareness of death, and that’s a pretty psychedelic concept to me.”
When he hears such music, its spirit, Blakeslee becomes aware, he says, of a cosmic consciousness of life and death and wanting to do right because he too knows he’s going to die. He likens the effect to a sort of mystical concept, an occult concept.
“Everyone dies and everyone has to live until they die,” he observes, with a faint grin. “ ‘Prayer of Death’ is a Charlie Patton song, but the song that I wrote with that title is not that song. His song is about meeting his mother and brother and sister in some other world. ‘I’ll see you there when I get there.’
“Events that have happened in the last six or so years in this country — those events were planned to create fear, which they did. The fear of death is hanging over our heads right now. Yet it’s muted, and muffled. The word death isn’t being mentioned in blogs. But addressing death — talking about it — is psychological liberation. It’s not going to keep you from making the most ?of life.”
Entrance plays at Spaceland on Sat., Dec. 1.