Seventies ambient pioneers Robert Bearns and Ron Dexter may be the unlikeliest psychedelic heroes in today's underground music world.
Indie reissue label Real Gone Music will release a retrospective of the best from their New Age-y six volume LP series, Golden Voyage, tomorrow. The timing seems about right.
Over the past decade, Golden Voyage has become a cult favorite to a growing number of creatives, like post-rockers Yume Bitsu, who expressed devotion through their Golden Vessel of Sound LP in 2004.
The High Llamas from London crafted the Musical Painting album in direct homage to Golden Voyage. Electro-collage DJ James Ferraro sampled bits from the series on recent LPs and waxed ecstatically about its visionary construction on his blog.
What exactly do today's cool kids see in this epic series?
Bearns was a native Angeleno – born in 1928, the second of four siblings whose parents owned a laundromat in West Hollywood. Dexter, born in 1932, hailed from Ohio, though according to Greg Adams, writer of the booklet notes for the forthcoming Golden Voyage compilation, Bearns liked to tell friends that Dexter was “beamed aboard” from outer space.
With an undercurrent of homophobia that was ordinary in '60s L.A., Bearns moved to San Francisco, where he partnered romantically with Dexter. In the Bay Area, they self-published Bearns' book of poetry, The Awakening: Electromagnetic Spectrum in 1974 and, by '75, moved to a small condo in Culver City, where they'd remain for the rest of their lives.
Ron Sukenick is one of the few musicians who had direct experience working with Bearns and Dexter. The 26-year-old bassist came to L.A. in the early '70s looking for employment in the music business.
“I first auditioned for Bearns and Dexter at the old Randolph Hearst Mansion,” Sukenick remembers from his home today in Indianapolis. After coming on-board, the band played a series of shows at the Ice House in Pasadena, when the famous comedy club was still a folk music venue.
“The types who came to their gigs,” says Sukenick, who travels these days as a motivational speaker, “were basically psychics and people interested in the human potential.” He recalls the more musical Dexter playing piano and guitar on-stage, while Bearns sang and occasionally played guitar. Besides Sukenick on bass, the band was rounded out by a flautist and conga player, neither of whom he remembers by name.
As for the music, Sukenick says it was mostly vocal – recitations and chants from Bearns' book of verse. Lines like, “To lay an egg/not easy/Harder still/to crack it from within,” were typical of the poet's drippy metaphysical style, which Dexter transformed into a series of home recordings with Sukenick throughout 1975-76.
According to Sukenick, Dexter – formerly a dancer in the Broadway version of Lil' Abner – balanced Bearns' metaphysical disposition with that of the flamboyant entertainer. “Ron would always tell us how to get from here to there by dancing across the floor,” says Sukenick with a laugh. He left the group in 1976 because “gigs were seldom and there wasn't much money being made.” Paired back to just a duo, Bearns and Dexter set about recording Golden Voyage Vol. 1 as an instrumental project.
The album sleeves – drawn by Bearns himself, who must have been a wizard with a slide-ruler – are evocative of the pseudo-scientific style common in '70s progressive design. Noted psychedelic album cover artist Robert Beatty likens the Bearns covers to “some sort of new age bastard child of pinball playfield art and Paul Laffoley's [quasi-mystical posters].” They also recall the sketchwork of '20s Italian futurists like Giacomo Balla and Edyth von Haynau (aka Rosa Rosa), whose hardline, geometric visions left a heavy imprint on later 20th century design. Bearns' book is full of similar illustrations, which incorporate butterflies and hummingbirds into complex hexagrams.
A track on Golden Voyage 3, titled “Look After Tomorrow for Me,” began life as a third-rate transcendental poem in The Awakening. Its backing track – a rueful soundscape that crosses placid harpsichord and billowy synths with chirping birds and rain effects – belies a lengthy tradition of mood music that runs throughout Bearns and Dexter's work.
“I'll Remember,” for example, is reminiscent of the melody to Les Baxter's “Voodoo Dreams,” a 1959 exotica instrumental whose ersatz tribal rhythms and lush orchestration are toned down in the hands of Dexter, who transforms the jungle travelogue into a journey through the inner-space of memory. The pair never specify what exactly they “remember,” but a Bearns drawing from The Awakening sheds some light: A view of a grid-like sunrise, fractured to reveal an Easter Island tiki god gazing upward at a flying saucer, serves to unite everything from postwar South Seas pop to the psychedelic generation's hunger for enlightenment and co-existence.
In that way, their appeal to contemporary post-rockers making trippy instrumental albums out of their bedrooms makes perfect sense.
The final entry in the Golden Voyage series (Vol. 6) landed in early 1987. It was released by Moss Music, a budget classical label, who reissued the first five volumes to CD at the same time. Each disc came with Bearns' liner notes, which, according to Adams, “are full of wild, self-aggrandizing claims, like that The Awakening was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 'contemporary verse and poetry,' which isn't even a Pulitzer category.”
Dexter, by this time, was deceased. Bearns passed away in 1987.
Before the Golden Voyage series began, Bearns closed his poetry book with the words, “Would you have me tell you lies/I myself do not believe?” It seems, however, that somewhere along the way, fantasy and reality blurred in the mind of this artist. What today's listener is left to bask in then is not realism, but rather, six albums of unabashed imagination, whose makers had utter conviction in their cause.