Time Machine - Retro Tracks from Bygone Days - Robbie Basho's "Blue Crystal Fire"

by: Nick Striharchuk

In the Midwest, the last months of winter are the hardest.  The snowy skyline is as relentless as the heating bill and spring seems like a dream.  Sometimes the best antidote to the winter blues is to simply embrace it with a sad winter song.  If poignant music overflowing with emotion is your bag, look no further than the enigmatic folk rock of Robbie Basho.

Basho's spiraling, acoustic tracks might be exactly the sort of music you would expect from a burly man that favored moccasins, had an unruly beard, and haunting eyes. His 1978 track, "Blue Crystal Fire," is a perfect example of his mysterious style.

Left in less talented hands, Basho's romanticism might read like the bad poetry of a teenage girl channeling Edgar Allan Poe:  too bittersweet and earnest for its own good.  A sample of his lyrics: 

Deer with silver antlers,

Deer with silver antlers,

Come and dance with me.

However, Basho manages to pull it off.  His unusual picking style on a lonely steel-string guitar, often saturated in dissonance and strange tuning act as a wintery landscape for his chilling tenor bravado to soar over.

In 1940, entering the world an orphan, he was adopted by a man who named him Daniel Robinson, Jr.  He went to Catholic school, sang in the choir, and eventually left without graduating, although not before he discovered the 17th Century poetry of Matsuo Basho, whose name he would later appropriate.  His interest in eastern culture, particularly the work of Ravi Shankar and Japanese poetry, are readily apparent throughout his work, prompting him to invent a style of music he referred to as "steel-string raga," which to him meant twisty, stream of consciousness records that were intended to take the listener on a spiritual quest of enlightenment and self discovery.     

Forever the outsider, Basho's style was a bit too eccentric (or not maybe not hip enough) to find a place within contemporary or "new age" folk music in the 1970s.  He died at the age of 45 as a footnote rather than a legend--his death was due to a freak accident while visiting a chiropractor of all things.  Blood vessels in his brain ruptured during an experimental treatment that lead to a stroke. 

Since the early 2000s, there's been a renewed interest in his contributions to folk rock, brought on in part by the discovery of some 30 recordings that have begun to be released and reissued.  Folk-lovers everywhere rejoice--and get ready to be blue.