“So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.” So says Hunter S. Thompson, memorably summing up the demise of the spirit of the ‘60s in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. What Thompson couldn’t have known in the early ‘70s, though, was the way that broken wave of hippie aesthetics would distribute its flotsam and jetsam to unexpected places and times. Enter Bobby Brown (not formerly of New Edition, not Mr. Whitney Houston), an erstwhile utopian California mystic whose complete discography, three records recorded in Hawaii in the ‘70s and ‘80s, is both a perfect snapshot of the dimming sunlight of the hippie era’s psychedelic folk influence on pop and a deeply personal expression; his albums were mostly self-released. Austin Leonard Jones, fellow folk oddity and spiritual seeker, launched his new imprint Del Rio Records and Tapes, partly with the goal of seeing Brown’s cracked pop masterpiece, Prayers of a One Man Band, back in print.
Brown himself is a reclusive figure, living in a house he inherited from his father in Reno, Nevada (that breaking hippie wave washed that far), and we weren’t able to reach him directly for this writing. But, fortunately, Jones was forthcoming as to how he found Prayers in the first place and his quest to see it re-released, tracking down a figure that even the most informed obscurantist musical obsessives had assumed was unreachable.
“I discovered the album crate digging in Los Angeles,” says Jones. “I was intrigued by his handwritten instructions on where to find him in Laguna Beach, as well as his apparent friendships with Carl Wilson and Fleetwood Mac. He seemed to be straight out of a Thomas Pynchon novel, a new age yodeling cowboy drifter sailing into the heart of the sun. I also really loved his percussion.”
Prayers of a One Man Band is the third and final of Brown’s self-released albums, and is the poppiest and most accessible of his works—if by accessible you mean “sounds like Harry Partch remaking Burt Bacharach’s soundtrack to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”
Brown’s first album, 1972’s The Enlightening Beam of Axonda, was an extension of his dissertation work at UCLA, and also coincided with a time when he was in personal contact with Philip K. Dick. As Jones relates, “Apparently the two used to meet and exchange ideas. Shortly after Axonda was released, Dick also began to have visions of an “information-rich beam of pink light” that eventually led to his spiritual awakening (or mental breakdown) and the publication of his classic novel VALIS in 1982. There are indeed many similarities to Axonda and VALIS, though I suspect a lot of Californians were experiencing beams of spiritual light at that particular point in time. Perhaps they know something we don’t.
Brown’s 1978 release Bobby Brown—Live was recorded in Brown’s van for an audience of one: his dog. The deep connection to dogs runs through Prayers as well, and is one of the aspects that resonated with Jones. “The record spoke to me on a deeply spiritual level. It was the perfect album, a futuristic mystical ode to the dominant forces in my life; the ocean, traveling, dogs.”
A DIY musician himself, Jones adds, “I identified with his multi-track recording technique as well as his fiercely independent approach to just about everything, from the instruments to the album design. His emphasis on the homemade struck me as true folk art. At the time, I was living a similar Bobby Brown lifestyle—drifting up and down the Pacific Coast, operating out of my camper shell and staring at the sea. At some point driving the 101 from Arcata, CA to Olympia, WA it became clear I was going to start a record label and Prayers would be my first release.”
After moving back to Austin, Texas, Jones set about the process of making the re-release a reality. “I spent some time on the internet scrolling through various blogs and message boards until I found someone from Hawaii who had his email address. I wrote him about my idea and he called me from a Burger King the next day. We spoke regularly for over a year. I drove out to Reno to meet him and the deal was sealed.” About Brown’s Reno life, Jones says, “It is a very nice suburban home with waving neighbors mowing the lawn and quiet streets. He lives there with some friends. We went to Circus Circus for dinner.”
Jones has no plans to re-release Brown’s first two albums on Del Rio: “As much as I like his other two albums my focus was and always has been strictly on Prayers.” And so the wave Thompson thought was dead still rushes down through the years, as if the re-release of Prayers were a conch shell you could hold to your ear—and if, to riff on Thompson’s words, you have the right kinds of eyes, and the right kind of ears.