By Roy L Hales
His musical roots go back to the McCarthy era, when the United States was purging itself of anything that could be labelled communist. Pete Seeger gave him tips on how to play the guitar. He was a member of the psychedelic rock band Mad River, which released two albums in San Francisco before it disbanded in 1969. On Cortes Island, he is somewhat of a musical icon. In addition to being a songwriter, he is one of the key organizers of Lovefest and the face of CKTZ’s Lip Syncs for the past decade. In this morning’s interview, Rick Bockner talks about paths of beauty.
Keyed into Me at A Genetic Level
“Music is keyed into me at a genetic level. My dad was a social worker and I grew up with the music of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Lead Belly … and lots of the folk movement prior to Dylan. I started busting into my dad’s guitar case at five, to the point where he had to buy me a little guitar to carry around. I’ve got a picture of me at age four with a plastic Maccaferri Ukulele standing on the street and I started to learn to play at age seven,” says Rick.
Big Brother Is Watching
Pete Seeger periodically visited his family. The folk singer was one of the performers blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955, after he refused to testify about his political beliefs or associations. Rick’s father sponsored him at a number of events.
“My dad did house concerts and things at the community centre where he worked. There was a lot of watching in those days and Pete actually had to go on a world tour and do stuff in England in order to be heard at all. I got [guitar] tips from him, but mostly I just felt like he was kind of a teacher for me in the way he lived his life.”
The Bockners were always raising money for people who lost their jobs because of the Un-American Activities Committee. Senator Joe McCarthy’s fall was a big thing for them.
“We were all aware of a kind of big brother thing happening, which unfortunately has stayed with me. Life would be more comfortable if I didn’t have to think about that stuff. Did it end? We got President Nixon (1968-74) after that. He was a lawyer for McCarthy; he was one of the prosecutors.”
Rick was studying at Antioch College in Ohio, which had a reputation for “academic excellence, social relevance, activism and experiential learning,” when he joined the Mad River Blues Band.
“We played on campus for dances … a lot of Paul Butterfield kind of stuff and there was a resurgence of white guys playing the blues … We were kind of drawn to that.”
“Then we got all excited about what was happening in San Francisco. We started to hear the first Airplane album and Big Brother and it was different, real different. We started paying attention. Then Mike Bloomfield recorded the solo “East West” on the last Butterfield album. It just broke all the barriers, the first one to incorporate Indian music, ragas and sitar styles along with psychedelic or bluesy roots. That hooked us … we decided to go to San Francisco.”
The band rented an apartment close to the Haight Ashbury area for a year, then moved into the “Mad River house” in Berkley.
“Most of it was our own music, almost all of it. We cooked it up as a group. [Our lead singer] Lawrence was very brilliant, a little bit obsessive and would hear things in depth. So we would work on a tune for maybe up to three months. Living together, we played for eight hours a day. We were real serious about it because that was why we were there. So we just got better and better and formed our own sound…”
They eventually signed a contract with Capital records for two records.
“It was a wonderful time to be on the scene because it was just flowing … and though bands didn’t all get together, we all knew and respected each other. We shared a practise place with Janis Joplin and Big Brother, and Michael Bloomfield and Electric Flag.”
“We played with everybody. My favourite poster is Santana opening for us. That was one of their first gigs, most of them were still in high school. It was at the Straight Theatre on Haigh Street. We played for big gatherings: 30,000 people in Golden Gate Park and protests and it was just wild; a great time.”
A Smart, Literate, Political Band
“We were a smart, literate political band and hung out with a lot of the poets there. We were at the first Rainbow Gathering with Ken Kesey and his gang. We hung out with Richard Brautigan a lot and recorded with him on our second album, where he read a poem and we did accompaniment. Carl Oglesby, who was the founder of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) – an extremely leftist political organization – he gave us a song we recorded on our second album.”
“ … My experience with Capital records was negative. It isn’t until our second album … when we could have our own producer, that I began to feel that we had the creative space to do what we were doing. And the labels were always trying to tell us how to dress, which really didn’t go down well. You know, you gotta have the suits on – forget it, we’re a bunch of hippies. We’re not doing that.”
Mad River’s second album was more “folky-country-rock stuff” than psychedelic.
“Capital didn’t know what to do with that. It was just too varied an album, they couldn’t peg us. They dropped the contract and about that time the Vietnam War kicked in for us.”
Some of the band returned to university.
Woodshedding In The Kootenays
As he possessed dual citizenship, Rick headed north into Canada. He eventually spent seven years “woodshedding,” without electricity, in the Kootenays.
“I just got into playing and writing, and playing and writing.”
Though playing professionally since he was seventeen, Rick describes his songwriting as more of a compulsion than a career. He recorded five CDs after leaving Mad River.
“If I make a little money for awhile, that’s great. I used to get royalty cheques from Capital Records for awhile and that was fun. I think my last cheque from SOCAN (The Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada) was $4.21, that was for a year. … The way it is set up, I could write songs all day and unless I get them to an artist that is really plugged into the music business, I’m not going to see any royalties.”
“… Digital music has been the death of income for most musicians. You don’t sell CDs anymore. Our music is streamed. It is used in bits and bytes in film and all this stuff. It is really not pretty what has happened to musicians monetarily. I think Apple pays a tenth of a cent for every bleep they get and I don’t know anybody who is making a ton of money off iTunes.”
“Music has become a commodity and for me it was always something people did together. I’m much more interested now in creating musical community, in working with artists to have fun and put on events … ” There are other things I do for income, so that the music can be something I just do as a passion.”
Coming to Cortes
He moved to Cortes in 1982. Brigid Weyler, his partner at that time, grew up in Whaletown before there was a BC Ferry or paved roads.
“Cortes was a much more isolated place then, and she loved it. So we were living in the mountains, which was really beautiful and we had a nice property, but there was something missing for her. We came down to visit. I remember going out to Carrington Bay and Jim Palmer was living in a home on stilts over the water; just above the high tide. The beach was 18 inches deep in oysters. There were a few people squatting. Jean Fontaine was living at Carrington at the time … It was boat access primarily and I just went ‘Wow, what a place. Such abundance; such richness.’ We had two little ones, Rose and Amy, and we thought this would be a good place to raise them.”
Rick met his current partner in the Netherlands around 2000. In addition to being a musician, he is also a Reiki master. Carina was the translator for one of his workshops.
“I liked her a lot. Then I was back again a few years later and we ended up getting together. For five years, we lived six months of the year at her flat in Leyden … because she couldn’t stay in Canada. The rest of the year we were here on Cortes.”
Now that he had a base in the Netherlands, Rick performed in Europe more often. He played at numerous festivals and locations England, Sweden and Germany.
After Carina became a Canadian citizen, in 2008, they settled down on Cortes full time.
“You know, it’s interesting aging, because there is stuff I wrote that I cannot play anymore. I have a touch of arthritis in my hands and I can get around it most days, but sometimes it just slows me down … It is hard on the ego, but that’s okay. It is also a puzzle because … a lot of the Blues guys I listen to were already old when they recorded. At least the second time, in the 70s. I’m thinking of [Mississippi] John Hurt, Sonny Terry …”
“ … I don’t have the chops to play that real intricate stuff anymore, so I am trying to play notes that matter rather than as many notes as possible, which is kind of the young guitarists thing. ‘Look how fast I can play; look at how many notes I can fit in; I’m so dexterous.’ Yet you see some really great old musiciasn and they just pick up the guitar like an old friend and when they play, the notes matter more. They may have a tone that’s really theirs, or they may have a rhythmic sense that they carry with them, that still shines through.”
Paths Of Beauty
“ …. My music is personal and yet what I try to touch with it is some kind of universal longing or feeling that I know I share with people around me. Whether its a longing for understanding, or freedom of some kind or just an expression of how your life is going at any given moment …”
“I’m not a very disciplined songwriter. My songs have always come really fast when they happen. I may have been cogitating about it for sometime, but when it actually happens its like twenty minutes and most of the time without a lot of re-editing. Then it will take me three or four months to learn well enough to perform it. I wait for them. Its kind of like looking for shooting stars in the night sky.”
His good friend Howie Roman was deeply involved, when Cortes Radio launched as a pirate station in 2004.
Rick was immediately attracted, “Wow, you can still do this and get away with it! … It just looked like a lot of fun. The fact it actually happened and we were on air to a small audience was quirky, unusual and very Cortes. It was out of the box and I like that.”
He soon found himself leading the entertainment wing of Cortes Radio, “ … When we settled on the Lip Syncs as a way of raising money, that was my chance to perform in a different kind of way, as MC. So usually before a show Howie and I would sit down and say, ‘What’s going on on the island? What can we make fun of? What are the topics that are current now?’ In a small community there is always some contention about something, or strong opinions expressed or trends we can see. … So the style of the MC’ing became local with humour.”
Rick has performed in front of twenty sold out Lip Sync crowds so far.
He believes the event’s success is rooted in its intergenerational appeal:
“We have four year olds performing, blowing the house away sometimes, and we have eighty-year olds performing. Because it doesn’t require that you be a singer, [Lip Syncs] allow a lot more scope for the theatre aspect; the physical aspect. As long as you can move your mouth at the same time as the song is going, anything else is up to you. So we sing parodies of the songs they are singing. Incredible, humorous, hilarious and some incredibly touching stuff … I’m really glad that the dance element has come into it.”
“… Its the perfect show for Cortes. We made it ourselves, it involves all of us and its always fun. People are really supportive of the radio station and this is the way they can show it.”
“A few years ago I started agitating for the adult cabaret because there is a whole lot of fun humorous stuff that we couldn’t do because Lip Syncs are a whole family show. Some of the old blues songs that are more suggestive came to mind and a couple of years ago we got that going.”
This will also be the second summer he helps put together a Lovefest on Cortes Island.
“The festival started after “Doug Weyler, Rex’s brother, came up to me and said, “Y’now two years from now it gonna be 2017 and its fifty years since 1967 – the Summer of Love in California and, sort of, globally. We should do something, that was our nursery school.”
After a few meetings, “who should move to the island but Loni Taylor, who has a job working for an organization that odes festivals.” She became the dynamic part of a trio, while Rick Bockner and Rex Weyler “are kind of old farts full of inspiration and happy to do whatever.”
More than 600 people attended Cortes Island’s Fifty Summers of Love last year, which is an incredible crowd on such a small island.
“It was great music, great food, a lot of artists and venders. It was just a really nice party, so we decided we have to do it again.”
“This year it is not fifty years since the summer of love … so August 12th at Linnaea farm, Lovefest and the theme this year is loving the future. The first one was about loving our past and the whole hippy ethic and movement. This one is about loving the potential we hold through younger people.
2018 Summer Lip Sync
Two weeks later, on August 25th, Rick will be returning to Manson Hall as the MC of the 2018 Summer Lip Sync.
Top photo credit: View from the sound are at Cortes Island’s 50 Summers of Love – Courtesy Richard Truman from http://www.richardtrueman.com/