Stephen Gaskin and the Farm Band: A Missing Piece of San Francisco’s Musical Counterculture
Written by Gabe Meline Thu., Jul. 3 2014
Stephen Gaskin, pioneering San Francisco hippie and founder of the celebrated Tennessee commune the Farm, died this week at the age of 79. And though Gaskin’s life story includes hosting Monday Night Classes in San Francisco, leading a caravan of school buses across the country to found the Farm, and spending time in jail for marijuana cultivation, few obituaries have mentioned the Farm Band.
Formed as rock ‘n’ roll mission to spread the word of Gaskin’s sometimes outlandish spiritual beliefs beyond the commune’s borders, the Farm Band managed to tour extensively around the country while releasing four full-length albums — now highly sought by psych collectors (three of which were finally reissued by Akarma Records in 2004). The band remains, however tangentially, a missing piece in San Francisco’s musical history.
You could say the Farm Band were accidentally prescient in their DIY manner, and you’d be right, except for the “accidental” part. In keeping with the independent spirit of their country home, the band had its own label, Farm Records. Jackets for LPs and 45s were produced at the Farm’s own printing facility on the commune. Shows were scheduled not by a booking agency but by band members and Farm residents.
And the music? Well, it was hit-and-miss. The Farm Band, the group’s debut double-album from 1972, is clearly the band’s highlight — a scorching blend of Jerry Garcia-tinged ballads, long guitar freakouts and solos on flute and French horn. About four minutes in, album opener “Loving You” slowly morphs into a dense, Dick’s Picks-worthy jam that typifies the rest of the album:
Gaskin wasn’t an integral musician in the band (the 1973 LP Up In Your Thing credits him with “Hollers, Kwatz, Drums and Spiritual Teachings”), but he viewed rock concerts as a way for the Farm to temporarily reintegrate back into society; a local show at Vanderbilt University was described by one band member as a way “to improve the group’s image.” Perhaps in that spirit, the Farm Band’s next two releases would ditch the John Cippolina-style excursions for more accessible folk, blues and — since this was Tennessee, after all — a country-and-western feel. Witness the barstool honky-tonk of “Tennessee Scrap Iron Man,” from the 1975 album On the Rim of the Nashville Basin, replete with hot pickin’ solos and a “Convoy”-esque CB-Radio break:
What’s impressive is how the Farm Band changed stylistically with the times despite living in the middle of nowhere. By the time of 1977’s final album Communion, they’d begun to write distortion-heavy songs that wouldn’t be out of place on a Thin Lizzy album–like “Fried Chunks” from the “Hot Tofu Medley,” which starts at 16:42 below:
Today, the Farm Band remains an overlooked part of San Francisco’s musical counterculture history, one whose story remains to be fully told.