Remembering Sandy Bull -- Fantasias and Inventions

09.19.2004 | David Walley | Music, Unfairly Forgotten | 10 Comments

The late blues guitarist Mike Bloomfield used to say that music was the soundtrack of your life. To which I’d add that like Proust’s madeleine music is a mnemonic device and a prism through which to remember moments and spaces set to that soundtrack. I’ve got boxes of vinyl from my days as a rock and roll critic, starting out in the late Sixties and going forward for about a decade, to when Bowie came out with “Ziggy Stardust” and the glam-rockers and punk fashionistas took over, leaving There was no room for old heads like myself. I bridled as rock and roll fast became background music for pushing products —sneakers, soda, automobiles. But I can’t complain about those years when publicists (even back then, there were publicists) allowed me to forage through their vaults and assemble a library of vinyl, much of it now out of print and never issued on CD. Though I’ve adapted to modern times and even mastered the CD player, I still have problems downloading mp3’s. Which is fine by me, it’s my vinyl that I treasure, some of the stuff I saved from my critic days, rather but mostly the albums I bought back in mid-Sixties when I was in college and rock was evolving at a furious pace.

Some of you might remember, this was a time before designer drugs and raves, when you didn’t need DJs or designer drugs to get off, just a little weed, a few good friends, and a couple of good albums to put you there, wherever there happened to be: “Revolver”, “Bringing It All Back Home”, “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Blonde on Blonde” were always personally relevant no matter my state of mind. There was also “Electric Music for the Mind and Body” by Country Joe and the Fish — the cut “Porpoise Mouth” stands out —and the Butterfield Blues Band’s “East/West,” with Michael Bloomfield’s truly transcendental sitar-inspired solo on the title cut. Yes, I’m talking about the early acid phase of rock, just before the head culture was slipped into the media’s mass-cult fold with the invention of the hippie, beginning the slippery slope from doper to yuppie culture. My own personal madeleines (and apparently Bloomfield’s as well) from that era were Sandy Bull’s Vanguard recordings “Inventions” and “Fantasias for Guitar and Banjo”.

Vanguard Records really did live up to its name, practicing multi-culturalism in their products long before it became a buzzword for the politically correct of the New World Order. Their output epitomized cultural ecclecticism, the idea that folk music in all its forms was a lens through which to examine and understand the world outside the bellybutton window of American culture. Their releases covered a wide range of politics and music: delta blues, jug band and bluegrass, Irish and English ballad revivalists, folkies ranging from The Weavers, Pete Seeger and Eric Darling to Dylan contemporaries Joan Baez, Phil Ochs and  John Hammond. Sandy Bull, a quintessential example of Vanguard’s philosophy, was intrigued not only by all forms of American folk (he came out of the Boston-Cambridge folk scene of the early Sixties) but also by classical, jazz, and Hindu and Arabic drone music. All these elements would be incorporated into the more transcendent popular music of the late Sixties, the psychedelic folk that the Byrds and the Beatles expanded upon… but let’s go to the “crux of the biscuit,” as Frank Zappa might put it.

Performing live, Sandy Bull either worked solo, with a series of electric and acoustic guitars, or with the late, lamented jazz drummer Billy Higgins, who had played with, among others, Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, Dexter Gordon and Jackie McLean. I never saw Bull perform live, but his records were the next best thing, maybe even better because, unlike in concert, in the studio he could overdub himself on bass, oud, electric or acoustic while Higgins, a man of prodigious chops, laid out the backbeats, shuffles and curlicues. Both “Inventions and Fantasies” featured what Bull called blends, where Bull and Higgins improvised freeform call and response musical discussions, heading way out there but always rooted to the tune they started with and the call and repsonse form, they never left you stranded, always brought you safely back home again.

Bull’s take on Chuck Berry’s “Memphis” was a brain-opener, a swirling rhythmic colloquy cum kaleidoscope between electric guitar, bass and drums, the notes coalescing into a brightly embroidered Persian rug. Equally powerful is his acoustic guitar/ electric bass over-dubbed take on “Manha de Carnival,” the Luiz Bonfa samba featured in the movie “Black Orpheus” that helped begin the jazz samba and bossa nova craze. His juxtaposition of Bach’s “Gavotte #2” which he carved out of an angular electric space wasn’t such a jarring transition, no shock value to it, just a musical door spanning a few centuries over a few seconds of sound pressed into a quarter inch of vinyl.

A few years back, I tried to find Bull albums on CD, since my copy of “Inventions” had hisses and pops, of course, but, most maddeningly, a skip in the early section of one song “Inventions” and I wanted a clean copy. As I have been writing this essay, I’ve been playing both albums, just to take another bite out that Madeleine, though its really more like a Mallomar, the two albums as one flavor in my mind. And a few minutes ago, I played “Re-Inventions”, Bull’s “best of” CD. It’s a different format, and the cuts are re-sequenced. Though the CD has a crisper sound, I prefer the vinyl. It’s not as if I sit around and pine for the old days when I was a fresh and enthusiastic folkie, an apprentice pothead, or earnest acidhead who was hopeful about the world, though come to think it inside I still am at 59.  On the other hand, maybe it’s my memories that have the hisses and pops, and that’s the way I still prefer to hear Bull’s twinned masterpieces, after all those years on constant rotation in that jukebox inside my head that still plays the soundtrack of my life.

Sorrowful and elegant.

Also absolutely accurate about Vinyl. The only thing more horrific than a CD is an MP3. For those who have never experience the warmth, separation, and fullness of vinyl, get a turntable and hit the garage sales.
09.20.2004 | J.E. D'Ulisse
Ahh <sigh!>, though a little younger than you, I had similar sensibilities growing up two blocks from Haight and Masonic. Sandy Bull, Ramblin' Jack, Fahey, and Phil Ochs - beautiful souls that wormed into my heart.
09.5.2006 | Carlo Milono
After an absence of too many years my mind wandered back into the Cobwebs and [re]found Sandy Bull and his guitar still playing after all these years. I had been asked recently to name some of the all time great guitar players and Sandy came to mind right after Jeff Beck. Sandy's albums were absconded with by a friend of mine back in the early 70's with the excuse that he could appreciate them more than I could, never mind that I was the one to introduce him to them and was also probably the only one in town that had them; he was just too cheap to buy his own then again he probably couldn't find a copy. In fact I have never met another who owned any of them to this day. I did a quick search just minutes ago and was most happy to find them listed for sale, in CD form, now after reading this page I have to hope it is the same as it was, E Pluribus Unum is now on the way. I was sad to read of his passing only a few years ago. He was truly one of the greats. Thanks to the web I find a lot of others remember his as I do, for being one of the great guitar players of all time.
09.18.2007 | Jon
I well remember first hearing Sandy Bull's "Inventions" LP. At a friend's house in an altered state, this mystical, Eastern, yet jazzy raga. It nearly hypnotized me. I asked, "Who is this?", thinking I would surely know of this musician. My friend said "Sandy Bull!" Having a pretty extensive knowledge of music (this was 1969 as I recall) I could not believe this genius had slipped by me. I never could find any of his albums. It is heartening to hear that his memory is being kept alive.
12.23.2007 | RandallT
i have all of Sandy Bulls albums in MINT CONDITION. am i glad no one but me handles my records. in my opinion Sandy was/is one of the greats. Larry
05.20.2009 | Larry
I spoke with Sandy, as it turned out, within a few months before his passing. I had somehow figured out how to get his number in
Nashville (don't even ask). A woman---his wife, I would suppose, was very guarded as to his availability or willingness to speak. I told her that I was a lifelong fan. She reluctantly handed the phone over---Sandy was very accomodating and seemed happy to speak. I told him
that enjoying his music was an important part of my adolescent life in the 60's. In his soft, southern drawl he thanked me with a
chuckle. I had no idea that he was in the final stage of lung cancer and was quite sad to learn of his passing shortly thereafter.
While enjoying a recent return to playing myself, a younger musician complemented me on what he called my "relaxed" style
that seemed to have roots in "earlier" times. " I told him that I owe my approach to Mike (Bloomfield), Wes (Montgomery), and Sandy!
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I never could find any of his albums. It is heartening to hear that his memory is being kept alive.
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