A gig 50 years in the making: Harry Taussig meets Max Ochs in Berkeley

Fifty years after appearing on the Takoma album Contemporary Guitar, Harry Taussig and Max Ochs share another release, and play their first gigs together, including Sunday’s performance at the Back Room

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Velvet Underground & Nico, Electric Music for the Mind and Body, Are You Experienced? As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of a succession of epochal albums, let’s take a few moments to mark the quietly enduring legacy of one of 1967’s more obscure landmarks. In the spring of that Aquarian year John Fahey’s Berkeley-based label Takoma Records released Contemporary Guitar, an odd grab-bag anthology featuring his pioneering fingerstyle work alongside fellow American primitive guitar patriarch Robbie Basho, legendary Mississippi bluesman Bukka White, and two unknown and insistently individual players, Max Ochs and Harry Taussig.

Though both men had extensive ties to Berkeley, they never met or performed together, which is part of what makes Sunday’s concert at the Back Room so extraordinary. Via a long and circuitous path and the dogged efforts of Josh Rosenthal, the musical sleuth behind Tompkins Square Records, they’re once again side by side on an album, The Music of Harry Taussig and Max Ochs. And half a century after their fates intertwined the two guitarists are sharing the stage together for the first time on Friday in Los Angeles, then driving to the Bay Area to play a brief in-store set Sunday afternoon at Down Home Music before the Back Room concert (which also features Basho protégé Richard Osborn). Ochs and Taussig finish their run Tuesday night at The Lost Church in San Francisco)

When I caught up with Ochs on the phone last week at his house outside of Baltimore, he sounded pleased about the impending encounter with Taussig.

“We were on this record and never met,” he said. “Now we’re on another record, and I’m about to meet Harry for the first time. We’ve been striking up a little email communication, tentatively getting to know each other and making plans to drive up to San Francisco together for these three little engagements.”


Max Ochs, back in the day. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Though Ochs never settled in Berkeley, he connected to Fahey via his University of Maryland buddy ED Denson (with whom Fahey famously tracked down Bukka White by sending a letter addressed to “Bukka White (Old Blues Singer), c/o General Delivery, Aberdeen, Mississippi,” which somehow found its way to White in Memphis). Ochs had spent time in New York and was part of the incipient folk-raga movement, and Denson tried to get Ochs out to Berkeley to play in a new band (a spot filled by Country Joe McDonald). He came out to visit anyway, and spent several months soaking in the early 1960s folk scene, catching shows by Fahey and Basho and playing at informal gatherings, which led to his inclusion on Contemporary Guitar.

It was another visit to Berkeley a few years later that led to Elisabeth (Betsy) Dubovsky compiling Ochs’ stories about hanging out with country blues artist Mississippi John Hurt, whom he and several blues-loving friends from the DC-area had tracked down in Avalon, Mississippi and coaxed north, relaunching his career. Published as a small chapbook edition in 2005 on Dubovsky’s Arkady Press, the volume can still be found online via the website of her widower, Cal visual arts professor Anthony Dubovsky.

“Tony is a wonderful artist,” Ochs said, “and later when I came out to visit Betsy and Anthony, they had a guitar there, and put it in my hands. ‘Play some John Hurt.’ Tony asked me to tell him about my experiences with Hurt so I sat there playing and raconteuring. He had stayed with me in New York City for five weeks. So told all these stories, and a few days later Betsy presented with this little book called With Mississippi John Hurt by Max Ochs. She had uncanny recall. It was as if she typed a transcript.”

After appearing on Contemporary Guitar Ochs never pursued a career in music. He wrote and published poetry, ran a monthly folk series in Annapolis, and spent his life “working in community organizing, anti-poverty programs and conflict resolution,” he said. “I’ve always been a peace-and-lovey kind of guy. In the evenings and weekends I’d take stolen moments to write a poem or practice the guitar. If I tried to make a living at it, I would have made my wife and children miserable and poverty stricken.”’Taussig was studying physics at Cal when he found his way into the orbit of Takoma Records. He was a little more established than Ochs, having already released limited edition LP Fate Is Only Once in 1965. Interested in anthropology and music history, he studied folk guitar and banjo, gave music lessons and started performing live on Gert Chiarito’s KPFA show “Midnight Special.”

“I was in Bowles Hall, the fairy castle on the hill,” Taussig said on a recent call from his home in Costa Mesa. “I had a banjo lesson on Tuesdays and three students on Thursdays, which gave me some income and a steep learning curve. I remember taking a music history class and sort of listening that evening to Mozart’s Requiem, which starts with this bass part, then listening to Elizabeth Cotton, and her bass played the same line. I started integrating classical ideas from what I was hearing on Library of Congress recordings and the 1965 album was very influenced by Schoenberg and the 12-tone rows. I thought I can really play with this stuff, and bring something new to the tradition, and bring the tradition to something new.”

After he graduated with a physics degree Taussig moved to Orange County and found a job in the defense industry. Troubled by the direction of some of his work, like planning for nuclear warfare in outer space, he went back to school and earned a masters in biochemistry and doctorate in biophysics from UCLA. All the while he studied photography with artists like Robert Heinecken and Robert Fichter, and spent summers working for John Upton, Minor White, Ansel Adams, and Oliver Gagliani. By 1971, he was exhibiting his photography around the world, and teaching photography at Orange Coast College (where he later also taught film). His photos have been included in hundreds of exhibitions and he has also created a series of illuminated books of classics such as The Divine Comedy, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Hamlet.

Neither Ochs nor Taussig would have probably recorded again if Josh Rosenthal hadn’t become a passionate fan of American primitive guitar in college. He stumbled upon a copy of Contemporary Guitar and became obsessed by the two players who seemed to have disappeared after the album’s release. “It always haunted me, who are these guys?” says Rosenthal, who relocated from his Tompkins Square apartment in New York to San Francisco six years ago.

After 15 years of working for Sony Music in a variety of positions, including running the publicity campaign that helped turn the box set of Delta blues legend Robert Johnson into a surprise hit, Rosenthal decided to launch his own label in 2004. He had tracked down Ochs, calling him on the phone and asking if he still played guitar. Imaginational Anthem, the first Tompkins Square album, opened with a new version of Ochs’ title track and closed with a version he’d recorded in 1969 for a film soundtrack.

Rosenthal went on to release another seven Imaginational Anthem volumes, and reissued Fate Is Only Once, which unbeknown to Taussig had become a treasured collector’s item. Some 50 years later the first Fate Rosenthal released Taussig’s second album, Fate Is Only Twice, and Ochs’ first, Hooray for Another Day. He’s turned Tompkins Square into an invaluable vehicle for lost, forgotten and hard-to-find music, from soul-stirring gospel collections like When I Reach That Heavenly Shore: Unearthly Black Gospel, 1926-1936 and striking string band sessions such as Charlie Poole & The Highlanders to classic old-time sessions by the Louvin Brothers and Oakland jazz guitar great Calvin Keys’ debut album Shawn-Neeq. He’s also put out a good deal of new and unissued music, documenting forgotten free jazz saxophonist Giuseppi Logan and locating a previously unheard concert recording by Tim Buckley, Live At The Folklore Center, NYC – March 6,1967. And it all started with Ochs and Taussig.

“They were the impetus for me to find people,” Rosenthal says. “It was so cool to find and talk to them. That was really a high for me, something I wanted to do over and over again.”

Recommended gigs: The Page Turners / Grex and Dan Clucas

Fiddler Carolyn Kendrick and mandolinist Jake Howard met as students in Berklee’s American Roots Music program, and have been attracting attention with their duo The Page Turners. They kick off a West Coast tour celebrating the release of their eponymous debut EP Thursday at the Back Room, joined by East Bay banjo maestro Bill Evans and bassist Max Schwartz, a recent Berkeley High grad who’s already a well-established pro.

Grex reimagines “A Love Supreme” Saturday at the California Jazz Conservatory

Featuring guitarist Karl Evangelista-keyboardist Rei Scampavia and drummer Robert Lopez, the Oakland art-rock trio Grex and LA cornetist Dan Clucas join forces to reimagine John Coltrane’s spiritually charged masterpiece A Love Supreme Saturday at the California Jazz Conservatory via a scrim of noise rock, alternative hip-hop, and other unlikely musical directions. Evangelista’s longstanding Song & Dance Trio with drummer Jordan Glenn and Cory Wright on baritone saxophone, opens the evening.