|Before his incarceration in 1969 Bobby BeauSoleil was a musician who spent much of his late teens traveling the California coast between San Francisco and Los Angeles. During this period, he was on the cutting edge of emerging musical styles and played with several innovative musical ensembles. For all of the 36 years that he has been in prison, he has continued to explore new ways of expressing himself through music, as well as in the visual arts.|
|In the mid 70s, Bobby composed and recorded a soundtrack for a Kenneth Anger film. About this time, he began incorporating electronic instruments into his music, including instruments of his own design. Subsequently, he became a sound designer for the new breed of electronic instruments and began marketing the sounds that he developed to musical instrument manufacturers, including Kauai, Casio, Ensign and Jewel. Bobby's interest and expertise in the field of electronic music has grown and flourished, most of the time against tremendous odds and many seemingly overwhelming obstacles. But he is a man of passion. And in the restricted, confined atmosphere of a prison, his passion for music and artistic expression in general has continued to unfold.|
|In 1994 Bobby became a facilitator for the Los Herman's Youth Intervention Program. Within a couple of years he had become the director for the Los Hermanos video project and has since completed a 9 session series of videos that is being shown to "at risk" youth in public schools. He is currently the director for a16- segment video series, each from 20 to 30 minutes long, called A Framework for Breaking Barriers. This series, presented by Gordon Graham and Company, and produced entirely by prisoners, is a cognitive skills development program designated to provide prisoners with tools that can help them break free of the cycle of recidivism.|
|From the chaos and tumult of the '60s, through almost thirty years in prison, Bobby's story is one of inspiration to people around the world. We will be telling that story in upcoming editions of this page. |
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INTERVIEWS WITH BOBBY BEAUSOLEIL 1998-9
What were the circumstances you came out of?
I was born in Santa Barbara, California in 1947, to a couple who were and still are-at least the one of them who is still living-Catholic. I was the first born son, the first of five children. I have two brothers and two sisters. Not a well-to-do family, but we always got by. My dad worked two jobs sometimes to make that happen with such a large family. For most of the years when I was growing up he worked for Arden Farms Dairy-he was milkman, basically, and he became a manager for the company later on. It was a working class family. On the GI Bill my dad bought a tract home in 1955, and that's where I spent most of my years growing up. We had lived in a couple of other houses before that.
What were your earliest musical recollections?
I've always had a fascination for music. The earliest Christmas present that I remember getting was a drum-one of those little toy drums with paper heads and a pair of drumsticks. I was four or five, but I remember that gift, whereas I don't really remember any of the others. And I remember that I beat it to death, there was nothing left of the skins on either side-which was kind of a shame because then it wouldn't work as a drum anymore! After that as I was growing up I remember building these strange instruments, out of wooden crates, sort of jug band type instruments . . .
No, they were percussive, they had can-lids and things attached. I would build these contraptions and I called them my "jazz bands," and I would play them and just banged the hell out of them. So maybe had I been born one universe over from this one I would have been a drummer. But as it happened I found a guitar in the attic of my grandmother's house when I was about eleven years old.
Do you know who it belonged to?
It was said to have been my mother's, but I think it might have been her brother's, my uncle's, because one day he came over and played a song on it. For some reason I think it was his, although my grandmother told me it belonged to my mother-maybe she just wanted me to believe that, I don't know.
Was there any kind of musical tradition in the family?
My mother could play a couple of songs on the piano, I guess she'd had a few lessons. But other than that there was no real music tradition in my family. My uncle at one point must have played guitar a little bit, since he played me a song that one time. On my father's side, both my grandparents were deaf. Other than singing in the shower, which he did with considerable passion, my father didn't bring any musical ability to my early years, or at least not any musical influence. Most of it was just my listening to the radio.
Do you recall what you heard that got you excited?
Rock and Roll, from "Hound Dog"-that was the first one that caught me. From that point on, it was wherever I could listen to Rock music. Later I branched out into other interests, musically, but early on it was Rock and Roll. I eventually wound up with the family radio. We had one table radio, but eventually my mom got a hi-fi stereo, one of those console things on which she would play Harry Belafonte and Johnny Mathis records. When she got the stereo I was given the family radio, but up until that point I had a crystal radio that I had built and it had a little earphone, and underneath the blankets I would listen to KISS radio all night. Every third or fourth song they played was a rock song, you had to listen through all this other songs . . .
This was before Rock had really come to precedence.
Yes, and Santa Barbara wasn't really a place that was on the cutting edge.
How would you describe where you lived?
At the time I heard one person characterize it as "a town for the newlywed or nearly dead." When I was first growing up there it was a pretty small town, only a couple of stop lights where the highway went through. Very quaint . . . the wealthy people were up in the hills, the less wealthy were on the flats, down at sea-level. There was Haley Street area, which was the black ghetto, and there were the barrio areas and then the upper crust in the Montecito and Hope Ranch areas, and various strata in between. It was a pretty nice town, and the beach was always great. I loved the ocean, and the mountains weren't too far away.
Did you surf?
I never really got into it. I did a lot of body-surfing and swimming. I think probably my life might have gone differently if I had been able to afford a surfboard, but they were kind of spendy back in those days and I never got into it. I wound up in more of a greaser mode-the hair falling down the center of the forehead and the ducktails.
This was when you were fourteen or fifteen?
More like twelve or thirteen.
Did you listen to Rockabilly back then?
I guess some of it was. One of my favorite artists back then was Ray Charles, "What I Say" and that mode . . . I really liked Rhythm & Blues and Rock, and actually I didn't know the difference. If it had a beat, it was Rock.
Did you just begin to figure things out on the guitar by yourself?
To begin with I taught myself. I've never had any lessons or formal training. In fact, the way I found the guitar, it was set up for Hawaiian style playing, intended to be played on the lap with a steel bar. There was a metal nut that actually went over the regular guitar nut, which raises the strings off the fingerboard. I found the guitar and the steel, and my first explorations were with the steel, so I would tune it up to intervals that sounded okay to my ears. I had no idea what I was tuning it to, and basically I was tuning it to a chord that sounded good. And then I would play these impromptu compositions. I've always been an improvisational player, still am, and always will be.
You've always played by ear?
Yes, but I'm not sure I would call it that by now. It's beyond "by ear" . . . it's spontaneous playing, by feel.
Did you start by learning how to play Rock songs?
Eventually, yeah, I realized that was not the normal setup for that guitar with that metal nut on it. So I took that off the guitar, and I found a place to play along with other musicians at Bonnie Langley's Music Store on State street. Bonnie was an older rotund lady, with a big mat of kinky hair, who let kids play the guitars and drums in the afternoons after school. She was deaf in one ear . . .
I was wondering why she would allow such things to go on!
That had something to do with it, because we were playing Rock. Sometimes it would get to be too loud even for her and she'd cut us off for a week or so. Then we'd come back much more timidly and play soft for awhile and gradually over the course of a few days it would come back up to its normal roar and then she'd cut us off again. So that was kind of the exchange that we had there. We helped bring people into the store apparently, it must have been good for business. She sold records, so people who were into buying 45s would come in.
And these were electric instruments . . .
She had electric and acoustic guitars. This was my first exposure to electric guitar. Of course I couldn't afford one at that point. But I did get to play with other musicians who could show me chords, how to tune a guitar, and I picked up things fairly fast. Sometime after I had learned a few chords and could strum a few tunes I was visiting my grandmother during the summer in El Monte, in the Los Angeles County area, and made friends with some, I guess, Rockabilly-oriented people. This was a Mexican barrio and a white ghetto, El Monte, with a lot of people from Arkansas and other places who had migrated to California looking for the economic "Grail," and found themselves in this low-rent district, pretty much a shanty town type of environment. I wound up hanging out at this gas station which a friend of mine helped his parents operate. It was a little run-down 76 station. He was about my age, thirteen or fourteen. His parents would spend most of the day in the bar, and he would for the most part run the gas station and we helped him, me and a couple of other guys. We all played guitar, so we spent much of our time sitting on old car seats behind the gas station playing "What I Say" or some stuff that one of the guys brought from Arkansas like "Under the Double Eagle" or "Wildwood Flower," all those kinds of things. I got into where I was picking notes instead of just strumming and I expanded my repertoire in a sense, or my techniques anyway. I had a blast doing that. Then I refused to return to Santa Barbara when it was time to go back to school-I wanted to stay there with my grandmother and hang out with my friends. That lasted for several months past the time I was supposed to have gone back to school . . . and then I got busted. It was just after Christmas and my friends and I went out in one of our homemade jalopies.
We were building these cars and we usually took them down to this dry riverbed to race them-none of us were old enough to drive. One night we went out and got crazy and just kind of terrorized the neighborhood. One of the things we did was vandalize a lawn of Christmas decorations. We took all the cardboard reindeer and A hammered them up on the side of a truck van that was out behind the gas station, and turned it into a circus van with reindeer flying across the sides. About two hours later the Sheriff's Dept. pulled into the gas station and there the evidence was, in plain view, and we all got busted. I was sent to L.A. Juvenile Hall and then back to Santa Barbara. To make a long story short, I wound up in a kind of a reform school, a fire camp called Los Prietos, up in the mountains above Santa Barbara. My parents basically said that they couldn't control me any longer.
Did you still get along with them?
I got along with them okay. I had loving parents, and I had a good family-still do, my dad's dead now but my mom has hung in there with me through all of these years. It wasn't so much a problem with them as with me. I was just a freedom-bound person from when I was very young. I was very independent and the circumstances enhanced that proclivity-I moved out into the garage when I was nine, which was something I wanted to do, rather than share a bedroom with two other brothers, both considerably younger than me. So I built a little room out in the garage, and that gave me a situation where I could pretty much come and go as I pleased. I used to go down to the beach late at night.
You weren't afraid to go out and do whatever you felt like.
Exactly, and I wasn't doing anything criminal, but in the middle of the night I liked to take my dog and go down to the cliff overlooking the ocean, which was just a couple of blocks from where we lived. I'd spend hours down there. Sometimes I would just walk the neighborhood streets at night, and that kind of oriented me to being very independent.
And you preferred El Monte to Santa Barbara.
My grandmother had cancer, and so when I was visiting her I didn't want to leave her alone-she'd been pretty much discarded by the family-and at least that was part of my rationalization, that I wanted to stay there with her . . .and to be with my friends and learn more about playing guitar, and take the old jalopies down to the riverbed, all those kinds of things. I was having more fun in that little shantytown called El Monte than I was in Santa Barbara, where I really didn't fit because I couldn't afford a surfboard. My parents had four other kids to deal with, and I'd made my own bed so to speak, so my parents let me lay in it and they signed the papers to let me spend some time in Los Prietos Boys School. It actually did a number of things for me. One, I got physically strong-I grew up a lot there. It was a good transition from boyhood to manhood, and it was pretty grueling at times.
As far as work?
Work, and dealing with a bunch of hard-headed kids. They definitely put a guy through his paces. They had a kind of boot camp training, and they really put you through it. One of the things that you did was to go up on the shale hill and break up the shale and then load it onto a flatbed truck, which would go over a tiny bridge and dump it on the other side of the creek. You asked what you were doing this for, and they would tell you, "We're moving this hill over there, to the other side of the creek." This was something you did, and you spent a lot of hours doing it in the heat. It was not that they were trying to kill us. They were trying to make men out of us. And it did serve that purpose for me.
Do you remember what state of mind you were in then?
There was a part of me that resented it-I didn't like being there and I wanted to go home-but at the same time I was getting tougher, and that was good. And I'll tell you the truth though, I didn't really notice it until I got out. I didn't realize how different I had become from other people. It was something that had taken place over a period of ten months or so. There were some changes that took place. I hated having my hair cut short like we had there, and I promptly started growing my hair as soon as I got out. This was pre-Beatles, pre-hippy, it wasn't a fashionable decision at that point.
Were you cut off from music when at the boys camp?
I did have an opportunity to play a little guitar when I was there, but it wasn't something that was normally allowed. The way that worked out was that I got into the glee club-there was this guy who was one of the camp counselors, and he wanted to start a glee club. I joined the glee club and after trying to sing a cappella with these guys for awhile, I convinced him that some musical accompaniment would be needed. He had an old guitar in the cabin where he lived and he brought it out, so I got the opportunity to play a few chords along with the glee club songs. The action was so high on this guitar that it was excruciating to play, especially when I'd already lost my calluses. But at least once a week I could grip the neck of a guitar and do a little bit with it.
When you got out did you still have your guitar?
I lost my guitar in El Monte-it stayed down there after I got busted, and there was no way to retrieve it. So I didn't have a guitar when I got out. But when I'd been in Los Prietos during the summer months there were fires, and this was a fire camp. We didn't actually go out on the fire lines, but we would follow the path of the fire to put out the smoldering stumps, or during the fire we would sometimes load the liquid fire retardant that the fire planes dropped. We would fill the same planes with grass seed after the fire, for re-seeding. They paid us by the hour and I made quite a bit of money-I had almost $300 by the time I got out. So when I got out I had almost enough money to buy a guitar and pay cash for it. I got a little help from my mom . . .
Were guitars that expensive back then?
The one I wanted was, although by today's standards it was extremely inexpensive considering what it was: a Les Paul signature SG Gibson, cream white, 3 gold pickups-just a gorgeous guitar, with a nice hard shell case. I paid $269 for it, plus the case, and today that guitar would be worth probably ten grand! So I had this really cool electric guitar and I started going back to Bonnie Langley's just to have somebody to play with, and because I didn't have my own amplifier yet. I got to play a little bit there, but she wasn't allowing that as openly as she had been before. Also I had evolved and the people I had grown up with had not, I don't know how to describe it any differently than that. I had gone through all this stuff and I didn't fit in.
It doesn't seem like you ever really fit in,in Santa Barbara . . .
No, I guess not. I would not have stayed around as long as I did were it not that I was afraid of getting busted again. So I tried to mind my P's and Q's and hang in there as long as I could, but I just kept getting more and more distant from myself and the kids in town. By the time I was not even sixteen I was pretty much living with a girl in an apartment, she was about four or five years older than I was.
How did you find her?
She was the sister of a friend of mine. We just hit it off. Like I said, I was beyond my years, at least in my attitudes and thinking and how I carried myself. Part of the reason why I left Santa Barbara was that she became too dependent on me, too obsessed with me. So eventually I left and went to stay with my cousin for a little while in Sunland, down on the outskirts of L.A. County. I was headed down a shady path I guess, although not in a criminal sense. My favorite cousin who I had gone to stay with turned out to be kind of a dip. He really didn't take care of his family very well. It's a little embarrassing, but at the same time it's part of the story here-I wound up sleeping with his wife. He left, and I ended up living with her. I got a job at the Travel-Eze Trailer Company, building trailers, supporting his wife and kid, and sleeping in his bed with his wife. And again, she was quite a few years older than I was. I was only sixteen.
And you were supporting this family?
She was working too, we both were. I had no experience doing that, but I grew up in a family where my dad worked two jobs. So as far as understanding a work ethic and supporting a family, I had no problem with that. I just did what came naturally. I've always had the ability to work, to do real work. I kept my job easily enough. Actually I had not quite turned sixteen yet. I had a learner's driving permit, which you're allowed to get at fifteen and I'd doctored it so that I appeared to be sixteen-that had allowed me to get a job at the trailer company, and it also allowed me to drive. I bought a car, a '50 Ford with an Olds engine in it, and a hydromatic transmission. I loved that car! So I was beginning to do adult things. Then my grandmother died, the whole family was notified. Of course I had been very close to my grandmother. I went to the funeral, and it turned into a very ugly situation. My cousin went to my family and told them I was sleeping with his wife. It got really weird. My father was trying to lay down the law all of a sudden and take me home, to make me tow the line. And he'd got one of my uncles backing him up . . .
And this is at the same time you're torn up over losing your grandmother.
Right, and I basically told them all to get fucked, and I took off. I went to Hollywood.
You didn't return to your cousin's wife?
No, I had to get out of Dodge or risk another clash with the juvenile authorities. I went back just long enough to get some clothes. Actually during this time I didn't take my guitar with me, I'd left it underneath my parents' bed at home. But anyway, I didn't know where else to head but L.A. While living in Sunland I used to go on the weekends to a club called the Red Velvet with my fake ID card, and go listen to Rhythm and Blues. By chance I had discovered this club, and there were a lot of bands, not real famous ones, from the East Coast, Motown music. Every once in a while the Righteous Brothers came in and did a little guest thing, particularly Bobby Hatfield. One of the performances that I saw was completely spontaneous-the guy came in, just to have a few drinks with his fellows, and the band got him up on stage. This band was from Baltimore, a black R&B band. He did an impromptu version of "Summertime" that just blew me away. Bobby Hatfield is the high voice in the Righteous Brothers. That was one of my more memorable nights out there.
Did you start to talk to these people?
Not really, I was still too shy. I had a $1.98 sportcoat on. I didn't know how to dress or how to behave around these kinds of people. All I used to do was go into the non-drinking section with a cherry Coke and listen. Every once in awhile I'd get up the courage to ask a girl to dance. That was about it.
Anyway, I moved to L.A., and I fell in with a girl by the name of Bridget. This was a whole new scene. This was right after the release of "Tambourine Man." The Byrds had just been on a fairly successful tour to England, long hair was beginning to emerge, so I fit right in. It was fate, no doubt. Bridget was the seamstress for Sonny and Cher-she made all their fur vests and striped bell-bottoms. So being teamed up with her for a bit, I naturally took on a whole new way of dressing. She introduced me to Pot, and LSD.
Was that all pharmaceutical LSD?
Yes, Sandoz, the going thing at the time. It came from Switzerland, for the most part. This was before Owsley, and nobody has ever made LSD better before or since. It was a shock, the first time I took LSD she and I were alone. It was very eye-opening and a very beautiful experience.
How common was LSD at that point?
It was just beginning to be common, barely. Just the very edge of the expanded consciousness movement.
What had you heard about it?
I knew nothing. I'd heard about Pot, and actually down in El Monte I'd tried it once and got really silly. I think it was just seeds and stems that I'd been smoking anyway, but I didn't know the difference since I didn't know what it was supposed to look like. I remember I went swimming in the pool at some apartment complex and tried to do a bunch of silly things, triple somersaults and stuff like that, but I think I was more amped up on the idea of smoking the notorious Reefer than anything else. The experience in Hollywood with Bridget was a totally new thing for me. That was my first real exposure to any mind--altering substances, and it had a profound effect on me. Also just meeting the types of people that I was meeting, had a profound effect on me. There weren't so many long-haired musicians at that point, the Byrds were about it, and there were a few Folk groups who were beginning to sport long hair. The Byrds were originally Folk artists too, who followed suit when Dylan took up the electric guitar, and "Tambourine Man" was one of his songs . . .
Had you heard much Folk music?
There was a little bit of prior experience for me in the Folk scene. This was in Santa Barbara after I'd gotten out of the Boys Camp and I had my live-in girlfriend and that whole situation. I was going to a club called the Rondo, which had things called hootenannies. So I was getting exposure in the Folk scene, and I was playing on the weekends on hootenanny night. Of course it was a whole different thing when I got to L.A. . .
Did you start playing music with people when you arrived in Hollywood?
I kind of laid back. I was feeling kind of shy, because I was freshly out on my own. I felt like this was a scene where I belonged, but at the same time I didn't really know where I was and I didn't know anybody yet. So I checked things out. I went dancing at Ciro's. The second time I took LSD I went and saw the Byrds for the first time. I really dug them. The whole electric band experience took on new dimensions, under the influence. It brought it to a whole new level. I'd always loved music, but there were parts of it I'd never really heard before. So I became exposed to that. To be on LSD and hear for the first time an electric twelve-string played by Jim McGuinn . . .
I can see how that experience could have changed everything.
It did. One of the bands that opened for the Byrds one night was called The Grass Roots. This wasn't the Grass Roots that most people would be familiar with; this band later became a group called Love. I saw them and it was also the first time that I'd ever seen music of that type played by integrated musicians-a couple of black guys, a couple white guys playing together. Some of the R&B bands were integrated, but none of the California Rock bands had been. So this was a whole new thing in and of itself, and also the talent of the people in the band, I really dug the band.
I'm familiar with the Love records, but how did they sound at this earlier stage?
They were still doing a lot of renditions of Stones songs. Arthur Lee was playing the harp and covering a lot of Stones tunes, but he was beginning to write his own material when I first saw him. I saw a tremendous potential with them. I had tried to tentatively form or join a couple of bands during this time, one of them was called The Weeds. I remember going to places where there were bands forming and trying out as a guitar player. I still hadn't gone back to Santa Barbara to get my guitar, as I was a little bit reluctant to do so. I was using borrowed or rented guitars. One day I went to Arthur Lee and I told him I thought he needed a rhythm guitar player in the band, so I tried out for him. They were getting ready to play a gig at a place called the Brave New World. It was a gay bar, although they didn't know it at the time-or at least I didn't. But it was a gig that was coming up, and one that Arthur didn't expect too much attendance at, so he decided I could get on stage with them. I'd already played impromptu in front of him, but he thought he'd try me out in context, so I could learn the songs as I went along, as we were performing at the Brave New World. I made a rush trip to Santa Barbara to get my guitar. I snuck into my parents' home when I knew they weren't there and my father would be at work. I got my guitar, but my father caught me just as he was coming home for lunch or something, as I was leaving, so I didn't get away scot-free. He was flabbergasted when he saw me-I had long hair, I was wearing very, very strange clothes compared to anything he'd ever been exposed to. He didn't know what to make of me, and the only words he said were: "I don't know you anymore." But I got my guitar, and by that time I had a dog too, a white dog by the name of Snofox-I mention that because he got to be a famous dog, and together he and I got to be fairly well known. So I had my guitar, I had Snofox, and I had a gig in a band. I had everything I needed. I started playing the Brave New World, and it was a good combination-Arthur saw the potential in having some pretty white guy in the band, apart from the musical potential. The first couple of nights we played there, for the first sets anyway, it was all gay people. It was actually a private gay club, so you had to be a member. But obviously we didn't want to be playing gay bars, we weren't oriented for that. By that time I'd been on the street in Hollywood for close to a year, and I'd gotten to be familiar with just about everybody on the street. Everyone knew me and my dog.
Were you still living with Bridget?
Oh no, no. That only lasted a few weeks or a month. I was still friends with her, but we weren't an item or anything. I'd probably had a bunch of girlfriends by that time. I just kind of hopped from one girl's house to another, sometimes I had a little place of my own. It wasn't that hard to live hand-to-mouth in those days. I very rarely worked; there were a couple times when I took up a few odd jobs here and there, but I was determined to make it as a musician. The first few months were spent just exploring this new world.
The Grass Roots had a name for themselves in L.A.then, right?
They began to. When I first saw them they didn't have much of a following. I was probably the most enthusiastic fan they had. Then we got this gig at the Brave New World, where we were playing for this private gay audience, we've got men dancing with each other, which was not what we wanted to do. So after I played a few sets over a few evenings, I went up on the Strip one night on our break. I just got tired of the situation-we were all tired of it, we wanted an audience. So I went out on Sunset Strip and told everybody: this is where it's happening, and I gave out directions to the club. By the time I got back to the club, people were already starting to arrive, and between that set and the next, the place was packed.
With a whole new crowd. . .
A totally, totally different crowd-in fact, that was the last night that it was a gay bar. There was a huge caravan of cars which came down from the Strip. It was just the right time, right place, right people, I guess. It was great, because we had our own place. It wasn't some sleazy club owner taking advantage of the hippy kids-of course at that time they weren't called hippies, this was a couple years before the term was coined. It was the colorful people-or the "freaks" as we were often called. The place was packed from that point on, and Brave New World was a happening thing.
So it was transformed into a straight Rock club.