He is the Resurrection: The Story of Peter Walker
A soft drone is layered under rapid-fire notes that swell and recede like sudden gusts of wind. The thud of hand on wooden guitar makes a sort of drum line; the interplay of shape-shifting tones, sudden chords and rapid picking gives the illusion of density and orchestration. Yet the tune is played with melancholy, solitary eccentricity on a single nylon-string guitar.
That's "Rainy Day Raga," perhaps the best known work of Peter Walker, a 1960s raga master who studied with Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan, befriended Karen Dalton and Sandy Bull, traveled to Franco Spain to learn flamenco, provided musical accompaniment to Timothy Leary's LSD explorations and inspired contemporary artists like Jack Rose and Ben Chasny.
Though long removed from the limelight, with his two Vanguard records out of print for decades, Walker has nonetheless continued to study and play and extend his skills. When Joshua Rosenthal (whose Tompkins Square label has made a niche out of rediscovering 1960s guitarists) finally found Walker at his Woodstock home, he was confronted with an artist who was still pushing himself. "Josh said that of all the people they'd found from the 1960s that they'd researched and looked up, that I was the most functional," Walker remembers. "And it's true. I'm in the white heat of study."
"Part of what I seek in finding older players isn't just music, but some life lessons," Rosenthal says.."I'm interested in what a person decides to do with the 37 years since their last recorded output. Peter decided to expand his horizons, move into difficult and unfamiliar musical territory. Flamenco is his passion. He will not stop talking about it."
A new album called A Raga for Peter Walker, out in November on Tompkins Square, marks the end of nearly 40 years of silence for Walker. It contains four newly recorded cuts in his signature raga style, as well as six additional pieces by admirers like Rose, James Blackshaw, Steffen Basho-Junghans, Thurston Moore and Greg Davis. "It's not a tribute album in the way of artists performing someone's tunes," Rosenthal says. "It's four new original tunes by Peter and original compositions by artists who are inspired by Peter, and pay tribute in that way. I reached out to players who have raga in their musical vocabulary."
Jack Rose, who contributes a live version of "Cathedral et Chartes" to the disc, says he first encountered Walker's music through a borrowed copy of Rainy Day Raga. "I was struck by the relaxed feeling of the record and nothing felt rushed," he said. His own cut on A Raga for Peter Walker came about almost by accident. Touring with Glenn Jones in 2004, he broke a string just before he was supposed to play a duet with the Cul de Sac guitarist. "I borrowed Glenn's guitar and then went with it," he says. "I like it because it sounds like Robbie Basho copping Peter Walker."
Still, ask Walker what he's really excited about, and he'll tell you it's the next album, Eco de Mi Alma, which showcases the flamenco skills he's been working on since the early 1960s. "Rainy Day Raga was nice, and I was a nice young man, and it was a nice idea and I played it very well with a lot of passion, but there were missing pieces to it," he says. "Now with the new record, I feel like I've finally put together those missing pieces."
Folk, raga and flamenco
Walker was born in Boston in 1938 into a musical family. His father played folk guitar, his mother a classical pianist. One of his earliest musical memories, Walker says, is turning the pages as his mother and her teacher played four-handed Mozart pieces, an experience that shaped his own style and aspirations. "Now when I play, I realize, when I'm composing myself and going full blast, I'm really trying to recreate that four-handed Mozart," he says. "It was imprinted on my mind when I was so young, the multiple lines, inverting and weaving, and the nice, tight, logical endings."
Although he picked up the guitar early on, Walker says that he didn't play in public until about 1959, when he traveled to San Francisco. "I remember teaching chords to Jim Gurley in the 'Bagel Shop' at Grant and Green," he recalls. "Jim developed into a monster player later became guitarist for my dear friend Janis Joplin, and Big Brother and the Holding Company."
It was in San Francisco, at a concert, where Walker first heard Ravi Shankar play and became fascinated with raga. Later, while traveling to Mexico to import guitars and study the music there, Walker says he became even more interested in the style. "John Barrymore ripped the sound system out of a car and gave it to me and ran it on a car battery, and we played Ravi Shankar tapes in Mexico in the early 1960s," he remembers. Later he studied with Ravi Shankar in Los Angeles, playing alongside George Harrison, and with Ali Akbar Khan in San Francisco, in a sort of 12-hour-day boot camp for raga guitarists.
At the same time, Walker was discovering flamenco. As early as 1963, he traveled to Spain to learn the style from its masters. In Granada, the epicenter for the flamenco, he played in the gypsy caves of Sacromonte, finding unexpected links between Spanish and Indian styles.
"In both raga and flamenco, the music creates an effect. If you play a predetermined series of notes, it will have a predetermined effect. So it was the process of creating that effect that fascinated me," he says. "You get a drone, you get a wall of sound going, and then you play melodies into it, which are entertaining or rhythmically changing."
Walker says that he later learned the links were not accidental, but rooted in Spain and India's shared history of Islamic conquest. Muslim conquerors in Delhi shipped captives back to their outposts in Granada in the eighth century, choosing beautiful women, artisans and musicians as prizes of war. As a result, the music of southern Spain is closely related to that of India. "There are some flamenco pieces that exactly match up to the Indian ragas," says Walker. "The flamenco system is a vestigial version of the Indian Carnatic system."
Walker's knowledge of both styles won him friends in the sometimes threatening gypsy neighborhoods of Granada. "I got kind of popular with the gypsies, because I could take their flamenco piece and trace it back to the raga, and then play the raga and come up with the flamenco," he says. "And than infuse it with jazz, which is also what they like."
Back in the U.S., Walker began working on his first album, Rainy Day Raga, which was released on the Vanguard label in 1966. Second Poem, the follow-up, came out in 1968. He also became involved in the Greenwich Village folk scene developing a lifelong friendship with Sandy Bull and Karen Dalton. (Walker was with Dalton when she died of AIDS in 1993; in fact, he says he stayed with her for several hours after she died, thinking she was just asleep and not wanting to disturb her.) But while Bull began experimenting with Eastern drones via the electric guitar and oud, Walker continued to pursue the sounds of the nylon-string guitar.
"At the Village at Café A Go Go in the 1960s, I played opening acts for just about everybody, and once in a while I would bring out an electric guitar," he remembers. "The kids from NYU would boo and hiss. They'd be like, 'No, no, don't do it, sell-out. Not you.'" Walker found out soon enough that the electric guitar didn't suit his style of playing. "It's hard to get the subtle nuances through an electric guitar," he explains. "I keep referring to the decay rate, the length of time before the strings stop vibrating as you go to put another note in. With those long strings of the electric guitar, it's hard to control that factor.
"You want a clean note to come out, because then people will hear it and it will have the desired effect. And I can't do that with an electric guitar. I can play lots of notes, but I can't make them resonate within your soul."
It was also during this early 1960s period that Walker first met Timothy Leary, the Harvard psychologist whose research into psilocybin and LSD spawned the phrase "Turn on, tune in, drop out." Walker was buying and selling guitars when he met Leary through friends at Harvard. "I liked Tim immensely. He was a dear man. He never had a conversation with somebody when he didn't reach out and touch their minds in a positive way. He was an instinctive psychologist. So he could see at a point of initially meeting someone some need they had, whatever it was, and he would stroke it, or he would be perceptive," he said.
In 1962, Leary was running a project called "The Newton House" where he and like-minded adherents conducted experiments on themselves and consenting others. When Harvard dismissed Leary in 1963, the scene moved out to a private estate in Milbrook, New York. Walker became Leary's "Musical Director" in 1965, just before Rainy Day Raga was released, and his music soon became the soundtrack for psychic exploration. "They liked the way I played," he says. "The way I played, in its own particular way, was carrying people away...that was the point of it. Take someone out of themselves for a while, give them a nice experience and bring them back."
Visualisation and mastery
After the release of his Second Poem in 1968, Walker more or less dropped out of the public eye - marrying, having three kids and taking a variety of jobs to support his family. Yet he continued to stretch himself musically, studying flamenco technique and theory with a series of teachers. When I spoke to Walker, he had only recently passed a test with one of his teachers after many years of failing.
The teacher, Walker explained, would describe a certain guitar figure, say a triad in the third position and the fourth mode of G. Then Walker would have to draw the fingering on paper, without access to a guitar. In past years, Walker refused to bring his son along to these tests, knowing he would fail and knowing that the teacher would yell at him afterwards. A couple of years ago, though, he finally aced the exam.
"It makes me freer. Completely free. It opens doors left and right," Walker says of his new grasp of fretboard theory. "You can shift from mode to mode almost effortlessly. Some of it's reflected on the new record. That's why I was so excited to get the new one out, the one that's coming out next year. I'm glad we did this raga album and that was a great chance to have those four ragas be heard, but what's exciting in my life is the Spanish-influenced pieces I'm doing now."
The technical skill is important, not in and of itself, but as a means to achieving mood and feeling. "If you're really, really in tune, you'll find that you're getting overtones to help you along. The instrument will produce little sympathetic notes by itself, but you've got to be perfectly in tune. The math is wonderful. I'm not a mathematician, but I can see it, the perfection of the notes...the notes are all frequencies, and as these frequencies merge, it becomes beautiful. Like the resolution of a long piece on a final notes. It all comes together."
He concludes, "So much of music is an expression of feeling. You tell a story with the music but you really, unless it's an empty character study, it's more about your feelings. Some guy in Mexico told me, 'You make me feel the way you do when you play.' Well, that's part of the magic of it. That's what makes it so worthy of pursuit, to be able to do that."
By Jennifer Kelly