Graded on a Curve:
Don Bikoff,
Celestial Explosion

The Tompkins Square label has been doing a dandy job over the last few years in helping to document the vastness of the US of A’s Musical Heritage. They’ve achieved this through a rich program of new recordings and reissues, with their latest recovery project being Celestial Explosion, the sole 1968 LP from guitarist Don Bikoff. Fans of late John Fahey should definitely step right up to the plate, but they should also be prepared to experience a confident and individual entry into the guitar soli field.

For decades now, the instrumental guitar style known as American Primitive, essentially an acoustic fingerpicking mode influenced by the classic country blues yet distinct from the standard folkie revivalism, has been synonymous with a Holy Trinity of sorts, namely John Fahey, Robbie Basho, and Leo Kottke.

Fahey is considered the form’s founder, recording his debut LP Blind Joe Death in 1959 with his own funds and self-releasing it on his fledgling Takoma label in an initial edition of just 100 copies. As the ‘60s progressed his reputation spread and numerous recordings sprang forth for both the prolific Vanguard imprint and through Takoma, which had begun issuing LPs by rediscovered bluesmen like Bukka White alongside an intriguing mix of contemporary artists.

It was Takoma that provided Basho and Kottke with their debut recordings, the former becoming a well-established cult figure and the latter moving on to considerable commercial success via deals with Capitol and Chrysalis. During the mid-‘80s the work of these three artists was often mentioned in relationship with the era’s thriving New Age music movement, but by the dawning of the next decade a restless consumer base sparked a rekindled interest in the early works of American Primitivism, with the prime work of all three guitarists getting celebrated by discerning listeners of the period.

As time marched forward, a new generation of American Primitive players flourished, with names such as Jack Rose, Steffen Basho-Junghans, James Blackshaw, and Glenn Jones extending the tradition into the 21st century. In addition, over the last dozen years or so, a sprinkling of very worthwhile reissues has surfaced to deepen the focus of the original American Primitive impulse, with hungry ears nourished by once obscure recordings from Max Ochs, Harry Taussig, Mark Fosson and the slew of names included on the Numero Group’s highly enlightening 2008 release Wayfaring Strangers: Guitar Soli.

But the label most responsible for keeping the American Primitive torch ablaze is the exceptional Tompkins Square, not only through the reissues of Ochs, Taussig, and Fosson, but additionally via new recordings, many of them included in the Imaginational Anthem series, a simply stellar undertaking that’s currently three volumes strong.

Along with the fantastic music of course, one of the sweeter benefits of the Imaginational Anthem comps is how they keep fans of this unique yet surprisingly fertile style from worrying over exactly when the well of unearthed treasures will dry up. Furthermore, when recordings once lost are given a new lease on life, they aren’t viewed as relics retrieved from a now dormant underground history, but instead as early documentation of a sensibility that is still very much a part of the present day discourse.

That’s the situation that surrounds Tompkins Square’s fresh reissue of Don Bikoff’s Celestial Explosion LP. Original issued on the tiny Keyboard Records label in 1968, it’s a record that’s managed to evade any sort of sizable retrospective renown in the years since its release, appearing out of nowhere to provide further evidence of just how widespread the American Primitive impulse actually was in its early years.

Tompkins Square’s background info regarding the guitarist is short but sweet. Bikoff hailed from Oyster Bay in Long Island, NY and got his start by playing the Greenwich City folk clubs, coming into contact with Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Dave Van Ronk, Mississippi John Hurt, and that beautiful Bay Area one-man-band Jesse Fuller. But the most revelatory piece of information provided is a link to a YouTube clip of Bikoff playing on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour.

Sporting a mustache and hair a bit longer than was the norm for the time, Bikoff is also decked out in a suit, the formality of his attire matching the seriousness of his music, which he describes to Mack as deriving from “the Japanese koto, Eastern classical music and contemporary blues.” The playing that follows, which in addition to Bikoff’s picking finds him enhancing the atmosphere by kicking a string of bells with his left foot, is a splendid abbreviation of the American Primitive style. Nonetheless, it left the host a tad bit perplexed; “that’s unusual to say the least.”

The bio also happily relates that Bikoff is still active, and a web search to uncover further information turned up an archived live performance from May of last year on the invaluable New Jersey-based free-form radio station WFMU. Along with delivering a killer set, Bikoff was also interviewed, the guitarist relating such tasty morsels of background as his beginnings in a teenaged surf-rock group and how Keyboard Records chose to sign him over an upstart named Neil Diamond.

Bikoff also mentions that Celestial Explosion was given a pressing of 5,000, but outside of high-priced record auctions it’s been a scarcity ever since. Thankfully, a few virgin copies survived, allowing for mastering to CD in lieu of the lost master tapes. The record’s full title includes the handy descriptor Composia for 6-String Guitar, and if a connection to the work of Fahey slowly asserts itself, the opening track “Rindler’s Metamorphosis” makes it abundantly clear that Bikoff was far more than a mere copyist. Indeed, he possessed a style that continues to be quite distinctive.

Right off the bat Bikoff plays with a raw intensity that’s in sharp contrast to the nimble-fingered sublimity of Fahey. Before thirty seconds have elapsed the piece has worked up a head of steam with the guitarist almost seeming to attack the strings of his instrument, his flurries of notes and unconventional tunings unique from the contemporaneous work by Fahey. Those tunings accompany a tonal shift late in the song, bringing with them a somewhat “underwater” vibe.

If “My Baby’s Bass” is more recognizably Fahey-like in its extension of a John Hurt-like beauty, it also reveals a bluesy streak in Bikoff’s playing that’s a tad bit earthier in its subtlety. This aspect is retained in “For Ellen,” where the virtuosity that’s become an inherent characteristic of the American Primitive movement is accented with more of that welcome ragged aggressiveness.

It quickly becomes obvious that Bikoff is anything but a second-tier player being dusted off for the benefit of enthusiasts. “Riverside Park Blues” adds some quietly audible foot-tapping to its sparkling atmosphere, and on “Bathing Prohibited in the River” the guitarist’s confidence is palpable, the song gradually building to a gorgeous conclusion. And not to harp on the point, but there is nothing in Fahey’s Takoma-era stuff that shapes up like “The Ellipses of Your Mind,” an Eastern-tinged cut that places Bikoff as closer to the work of Basho and the great Sandy Bull.

During that WFMU interview, Bikoff mentioned that his surf band occasionally threw a Hawaiian tune into the hang-ten mix, and that influence also turns up here on “Earth (Revisited).” That might seem like an odd twist, but as the sounds of the 50th state were quite popular with numerous old-time blues musicians circa the 1920s, it’s a situation that actually fits like a glove. In illustration, “The Formentera Moors are Stomping Tonight” even recalls the lightly island-kissed playing of notable ‘20s country-bluesman, Sylvester Weaver.

Late in the program “Crystal Lakes of Frangipani” begins in a warmly meditative setting only to blossom into more of Bikoff’s first-rate picking. And the closing title-track, a more fully realized version of the tune played on the Ted Mack program, might tip off some observers to the circumstances that eventually caused this mode of six and twelve-string expression to get lumped in with the New Age crowd, but Bikoff’s approach never lacks in vigor.

So, the dozen tracks that comprise Celestial Explosion add up to some excellent listening (the only nagging fault is that some tracks fade out instead of coming to their natural conclusions, but that’s a spilt milk situation as searching for the master tapes turned up bupkis), but the LP also situates itself as the latest installment in a historical corrective of sorts.

For at the beginning of that YouTube clip, Bikoff describes his music to Mack as being all the rage on college campuses. Yes, that means a lot of well-intentioned amateurs knocking out pleasant but pedestrian covers of “Candy Man,” but it also signifies the appearance of the highly talented unknowns that made up that Numero Group set mentioned above, and it leads right to the contents of this album.

Years ago, the American Primitive guitar movement registered as a very specialized zone with only a handful of distinguished practitioners. Again, Fahey, Basho, and Kottke were the Trinity. In plain fact they still are, but these days through dedicated research they’ve become considerably less holy.

Bikoff’s sole record is a terrific snapshot of a young player with a surplus of energy and ideas, and based on that WFMU session (currently available through the Free Music Archive) the man hasn’t lost a thing. So it seems quite sensible to speculate that a recording of fresh material will surface in the not too distant future, very likely through Tompkins Square.

That’s something to look forward to, but until that happens Celestial Explosion’s high quality should easily procure him a strong, well-deserved following.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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