A lost San Francisco saga

arts@sfbg.com

Part one of “A lost San Francisco saga” ran in the March 17, 2010 issue of the Guardian. It can be found at www.sfbg.com/2010/03/16/lost-san-francisco-saga.

MUSIC In 1971, Herman Eberitzsch Jr. III decided it was time to record and somehow save his organic experiences of playing at clubs and avant-garde cafes in the city. He assembled a quartet from his “grapevine of connections” — including good friend Joe West, a Rasputin-looking guitarist, whom Eberitzsch originally met at the Post Office — and booked sessions at Roy Chen’s recording studio in Chinatown. With no previous studio background, Eberitzsch rehearsed the musicians, taught them the arrangements, and guided their inspiration in a quest for abysmal funk and thunderous jazz. These sessions produced an enchanting trip into “Rapture of the Deep,” a left-field meditation on rebellious passion, “Funk Punk,” and the ethereal moral fable “Dark Angels.” The unrestrained songs pull you head over heels into their internal worlds; their oceanic tides carry you great distances. Still, Atlantic Records saw no commercial success in the tapes, finding them much too experimental, and shelved the project.

Undaunted, Eberitzsch invested in a new quintet, Motion, “to bring some bread to the table.” He met Coke Escovedo along the way and joined his frenetic Latin outfit Azteca in 1973. During the first rehearsal, Eberitzsch called out “I got a tune!” as soon as a silence held the conversation. He taught them heavy joints that “came from outer space” — including “Life is a Tortured Love Affair,” “Make It Sweet,” and “Rebirth.” These songs would help land the contract for Coke’s seminal solo debut. They demonstrated Eberitzsch’s gift for concise, soulful lyricism, a quality he would cultivate over the course of his songwriting ventures.

Feeling reassured of his own talents and industry potential after such a success, Eberitzsch moved on to spearhead a new project with his close friend and lead singer, Johnny Lovett. He herded the grapevine once again, including songstress Linda Tillery, and brought Motion to Wally Heider studios in 1974. Always one to incorporate past experiences, Eberitzsch fused the propulsive pathos of Latin funk into his broad-flowing musical direction. The verdant, multilayered arrangements and groove-laden percussion were augmented by surging horn riffs and a lush string section.

These songs by Motion were tighter in form, shaped in part by Eberitizsch’s focus on concise lyrical narratives: testaments of joy and calls for solidarity in the face of injustice. It was the wake of the civil rights era, although America’s failed political experiment of dreaming national unity did not so much destroy idealism as redirect its boundless strength to a more grassroots level. “Our music was simply a product of people coming together in a community and expressing ourselves,” says Eberitzsch. “It was a groundswell of inspiration.” But Columbia also “didn’t hear it at the time,” and another set of tapes found their way to Eberitzsch’s basement.

These setbacks still didn’t disillusion Eberitzsch. He recorded at Different Fur Studios in 1976 and established the loose framework for an adventurous modern soul sound he would continue to develop and transform for the next five years. He worked extensively on Lee Oskar’s solo effort and collaborated once again with Greg Errico. He would record more challenging work in the late 1970s and early ’80s, fragmenting and experimenting with untapped techniques of musicality. (In 1984, he made “Morons,” a confessional tale about rude, party-crashers who eat all the furniture — something of a coarse minimal-wave racket destined to go viral on tomorrow’s blogosphere.)

 

A WISE INNOCENCE

“The music was very innocent,” Eberitzsch says. “We worked from a standpoint not so much of knowledge but of an ignorance of where we were going. We really were crawling to stand, to walk, to run. It was pure.” But by forsaking formula and conventional pop structures, Eberitzsch was able to craft a unique outsider sound hinged on his restless yet determinate spirit to create new dimensions of possibility in his music.

Eberitzsch brought that explorer’s ethos to the studio, where he played around with recording techniques. With a child’s amusement, he used an old- fashioned Fender Echoplex in “Rapture,” and applied a screwdriver to his Hammond keyboard to create wobbling noises. He then manipulated the tape loop, searching loosely for “weird sounds” that would produce warped textures. Those strange, idiosyncratic effects helped to shape the psychedelic, expanding quality of the music without smothering it in abstraction.

“It’s still earthy because it was manipulated not by machines, but by the hands of the monkey man,” Eberitzsch says with a laugh when discussing such techniques. He claims inspiration for his hands-on approach to technical play came in part from the infamous introductory scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the protohuman chimpanzee throws a bone into the air and it turns, in a twist of editing magic, into a spaceship.

Eberitzsch’s creative hunger also guided his poignant lyrical ability. He wrote ebullient songs that rejoice in the sweeter tastes of life, with invigorating messages about overcoming life’s struggles. In “Life is a Tortured Love Affair,” singer Johnny Lovett laces his words with an incisive despair, yet still gathers the vigor to belt out, “You’ve got to keep improving.” The mood is matched in “Dark Angels,” where fluttering keys charge an uplifting groove contrasted by a mournful guitar riff.

Soulful compositions such as “Life is a Tortured Love Affair” and “Dark Angels” possess different shades of tension, suspending aggressive and nurturing forces in a dynamic balance of sound and energy. While reaching to empower and gathering the courage to hope, the songs returned to sober realizations about “the nonresolvable conflicts of civilization.” Yet even today, Eberitzsch exudes a wise innocence, remaining simply and impossibly idealistic. “I wrote songs that have great messages about how it could be better,” he says.

Ecstatic that the world finally wants to hear his earthy psychedelia, Eberitzsch searches for some reason behind the new twist in his fate. “There’s a need for music that was from an era with a lot of vibrancy, wonderful messages, incredible originality, and spiritual feeling,” he says. Eberitzsch is right. His music not only embodies that iconic era of the Bay Area, but also, like a prism, distorts and enriches it from a new angle. It reminds us that much of this particular history has yet to be heard — let alone written. “That’s why the tapes ended up in the garage,” he reflects. “I thought somebody, some day, is going to end up in the garage and blow the sand off this cryptic message.”

Part one of “A lost San Francisco saga” ran in the March 17, 2010 issue of the Guardian. It can be found online at www.sfbg.com/2010/03/16/lost-san-francisco-saga.

Family Groove Records is releasing the HE3 Project: Chapter One on March 30. For more information, go to www.familygrooverecords.com.