Most people associate the DIY musical aesthetic and attitude with the early tremors of punk rock, but it goes back much further than that. You could make a case that it stretches back to early folk and gospel, where each artist literally had to do everything themselves; there is certainly precedent for blues, as well. But for the sake of this article, we’re going to look at the early ‘70s—and 1972, to be exact.
By this time, the Summer of Love mentality was waning, and music was no longer a leading source of social protest. In fact, the music of the early ‘70s was mostly characterized by the rise in MOR pop/rock and a renewed focus on making music that just sounded good. AM radio was flooded with bands like Bread, America, and Seals and Croft (all of which I love, by the way); and songs like "Aubrey" and "A Horse with No Name" were pouring out of every rocking hatchback.
It was a far cry from the LSD-fueled psych-pop of the previous decade. And while many artists found success in compromise, there were still isolated segments of the musical populace who were determined to continue doing things their own way.
And one of these musicians was frequent Hawaii resident and psych auteur Bobby Brown.
I first came across Brown through some online forums and the recommendations of a few random users. At the time, I was listening to musicians like Tim Buckley, Jackson C. Frank and The Incredible String Band; and so, based on my appreciation for those artists, I was directed to Brown’s 1972 record, "The Enlightening Beam of Axonda."
As I searched for any information on the album and Brown himself—and precious little was forthcoming—I slowly began to get a relative picture of the man and his music. With echoes of primitive new age, folk and pop, Brown created music that attempted to detail the natural beauty of the landscape around him, which at the time were the pristine shores and verdant forests of Hawaii. This was even evident in the titles to songs like "My Hawaiian Home" and "Oneness with the Forest."
To help facilitate his musical vision, Brown constructed and maintained what he called "the universal one-man orchestra." This elaborate instrument was actually an amalgam of numerous different instruments from around the world, which was meant to be played by hand and foot simultaneously. Irish harp, koto, flute, sitar, dulcimer and thumb piano (among many others) were all represented in some fashion within the machine, which had a total of 311 strings.
"The Enlightening Beam of Axonda" was less about a strict musical formalism and more about the evocation of time and place. The songs tended to run together, as there were only slightly discernible breaks between some tracks. But that’s not to say the record sounded overly homogenous. Within each track were acres of fertile musical landscape, just waiting for some person to come along and dig in. And that’s what Brown wanted—observation of the world around you and an appropriate reaction on the part of the listener, whatever that reaction might be.
There was no exclusivity in his music, only an inherent humbleness and communal inclusiveness. And yes, he did have the requisite hippie lifestyle and wide-eyed ‘60s ideals, but these things never felt out of place in his life and music. If anything, they lent the album a naiveté that paired perfectly with the often-abstract lyricism.
Brown's tendency toward spoken-word, stream-of-conscious soliloquies and overt Middle Eastern instrumentation can occasionally feel a bit more fey and dated than some of his psych peers, but "Axonda" sounds far more complete and wonderfully detailed in its depiction of man and his place within the world than many of his '70s musical cohorts. Each individual song goes through numerous iterations and forms, which present a series of cyclical melodies and atypical rhythms.
And while I was immediately intrigued by Brown's use of harmony and musical didacticism (his views on the conservation of nature are quite evident through his lyrics), the album required repeated listens to completely get its hooks into me. The ways in which he twisted melodies through his homemade instruments required a primer period of adjustment. This wasn't the Bee Gees, after all.
But the album felt honest and open and even seemed to revel in its transparent intentions. Brown signed a good many of the original LPs he sold and included his home address and phone number in case you wanted to get in touch about setting up a performance. These were the actions of a man who honestly felt the need for connection with his audience. There was no musical subterfuge here, only an open invitation to his fans.
Look past the obvious '60s mystical allusions and less-than-subtle views on the environment, and you'll find an album of curiously optimistic insight and impulsive musical creativity. Like his instruments, "The Enlightening Beam of Axonda" helped to define the continued spirit of artists who removed themselves from the artifice of mainstream music. Brown was never going to find acceptance as a radio star or arena headliner. His music was too raw, too unpolished. But that's exactly why this kind of music—and his, in particular—should be cherished for the absence of synthetic emotion and rote sentimentality. Though 40 years removed, this album retains its ability to surprise and inspire and manages to evoke a more genial time, when all someone had to do to be heard was pick up a guitar or possibly a "one-man orchestra" and sing.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.
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