i don't know if i have mentioned this, but i am friends with a guy who was a student of basho's and who shared the stage with him in the 70s, and this past december have met with and taken a lesson with him. he's as big an expert on basho's playing and songs as anyone, but he is continuing to develop and promote the style basho started, and is working on his first solo album now.
he did an interview recently for a website, the full transcript is here: http://workandworry.com/?p=1378
First of all, meeting and studying with Robbie came at a perfect time in my life, when I was going wild (in college, it was the 60’s with lots of radical politics, drugs and booze), and had gotten way off-base. For me, all this was almost certainly a mask over a severe deep depression. I had heard his albums, but it was when I first heard him in person that the force of his personality really opened up the inner meaning of his music for me. I called him up the next day and asked if he took on students. We agreed to meet, and I would show him what I was up to (mostly playing Fahey tunes, and a lot of folk and bluegrass). As an afterthought, he asked if I did any kind of drugs, “because I don’t teach anybody who is doing any kind of dope.” To my dying day, I will remember looking down at the second hand of my watch sweep through the next minute, and answering truthfully, “No, I don’t.” God clearly knew what the perfect carrot was to entice me back to a proper path! This may actually have saved my life. It certainly restored me to something like sobriety, and helped me get my feet back on to the spiritual path.
Robbie was not a good teacher. The basics of his techniques are relatively simple, and he never spoke of his own process or gave any ideas of how to develop one’s own ideas. I think I only studied with him for about 6-8 months. I was already a very competent guitarist when I came to him, and I shared his passion for world music (I had been a passionate fan of Ali Akbar Khan since 1964) and the spiritual journey as well. Maybe if you were already there and understood the process of improvising, he would be good to jam with.
But he had an extreme “gravitas” about him. If you have never been around someone who is obsessed with their art, or their ideas, or whatever, it is hard to get a sense of how far beyond the pale that can take one. Robbie was like that. He was so incredibly focused on the vision within, to the exclusion of all else. One day, he started talking about how it was necessary to conserve your energy, so as to stay focused on the vision within. He said, “For instance, you’ll notice I hardly every look at you directly,” (I had not really thought of it until he said it, but it was true), “because your energy goes out to whatever you are looking at.” He then did shift his gaze slightly until he was looking directly into my eyes, and it felt like someone had taken the palm of their hand and rammed me in the chest with it. Perhaps the story can be somewhat discounted because I was younger, clearly smitten with Robbie’s spiritual vision and musical talent, and predisposed by my own inner journey. But it still may stand as a metaphor for how he conducted his life, and what set him apart from other people.
He told me once, laughing, about the last ordinary job he had tried, working as a stock clerk. He thought it was hilarious that he would always end up just sitting down in the back whenever a musical idea came to him, and trying to write it out. I don’t think he even had a driver’s license: this is how far off the ordinary grid he was. So as a consequence of his absorption in his vision, and his lack of ordinary world skills, he tended to use the people around him as vehicles, stringing together rides and help where he could get it. Robbie was “eccentric” in the extreme; anyone who knew him will admit it. But that eccentricity was grounded in a spiritual passion and joy that really sets him apart.