As a child I spent many of an hour dumpster diving, trash picking and rummaging where I shouldn’t have been rummaging. In my neighborhood, Wednesday was the night-- trash night. I’d sneak off after dinner in search of treasure, check out all the neighbors' garbage cans, boxes of junk curbside, apartment building dumpsters, and I’d be back home an hour or so later, laden with exotic booty from the world over. My mom would usually yell at me to get my latest cache out of the house, “That crap might have bugs in it, for Christ sakes!” But it wasn’t all infested! In fact, I still have some of that ‘crap,' and some of that dumpster swag still decorates my parents' house.
Over the years I’ve lugged home great pieces of furniture, collectible books, pottery, artwork, glass wear, jewelry, you name it … and once I found something that altered and twisted my thinking forever. I found it right there on Franklin Avenue right down the way from the Shakespeare Bridge in the Los Feliz district in Los Angeles. Stuck to the bottom of an empty trash can was an LP from 1963 on Vanguard Records, Fantasias for Guitar and Banjo by Sandy Bull. Back then I was just an innocently corrupt thirteen year old Catholic school boy, but already on the long path I’m still unraveling today-- that of a musician. I had just started taking guitar lessons, and as could be expected, I was struggling with all the important fundamentals: getting the hang of bar chords, finger picking, playing those newbie-guitar standards like “House of The Rising Sun” and “Knocking on Heaven's Door,” and trying to convince my parents to let me grow my hair long. Anyway, I got home, I threw this Sandy Bull record on the turntable, turned it up and it blew my freakin’ pubescent mind.
Sandy Bull came out of New York’s early 1960’s folk revival playing mostly instrumentals. His recordings on Vanguard Records, with Billy Higgins on drums, often merged eastern and modal explorations into extended improvisations on guitar, banjo and oud. Bull touched on "world music" years before any such tag was invented; his playing was also a precursor to what would eventually be called “American primitivism.” I had never heard anything like Sandy Bull before! As far as I knew, I was listening to a fisticuff between a drummer and an acoustic guitarist rolling in the mud, the crud and sheer madness. As I stood there, confused by it all, I thought I could smell the blood pouring from the someone’s nose, I thought I heard a bone snap during the drum solo; I expected to hear old Dick Lane yell “whoa Nellie” like it was Sunday Night Wrestling on channel 5. There was no song, no melody, no order. To my unsophisticated, bubblegum ears this was pure chaos, unbridled eccentricities, godlessness … and I reveled in each note. I heard sound and rhythms and chords I could never have imagined.
This record was my Miracle of Lourdes, my Catcher in the Rye, my John Coltrane, my Velvet Underground, my LSD, my Cure. Of course, you know this Sandy Bull record really doesn’t sound anything like that, not at all. There’s no chaos, no bloodletting. The opening track from Fantasias for Guitar and Banjo, “Blend," carries the entire first side. At over 20 minutes in length, “Blend” is beautifully contemplative, transcendent, oddly spiritual, and boundless. I was naive, profoundly stupid, and terribly perplexed by my tiny, pin-headed world. A record like this just slapped my ears back, made me stand up straight, and forced me to look a little beyond my own dimly lit room. This morning I listened to the same exact copy of Fantasias for Guitar and Banjo I found decades ago, and oh … oh yeah, it’s toast, but I’m not likely to return it from whence it came anytime soon. There you have it, a dumpster diving story.