Peter Walker and his exquisite guitar return to Detroit

Rainy day ragas

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Peter Walker's stay in Detroit may have been short-lived, but it was part of a terribly interesting segment of Michigan music history that remains largely unknown to this day.

Walker, a folk guitarist known for his skillful approach to Indian classical and Spanish techniques, as well as fingerpicking methods in the vein of John Fahey, has stubbornly obscure connections to many of the most exciting, exploratory groups of the late '60s/early '70s folk and counterculture worlds; he was a mainstay of the Greenwich Village scene, during which he met and became close to underrated folk blues singer, guitarist, and banjo player Karen Dalton; studied Eastern raga under Indian classical music virtuosos Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan; and served as music director at Timothy Leary's Millbrook estate in 1965.

He recorded two albums in the late '60s, both released by Vanguard Records — Rainy Day Raga in 1966, an introduction to his East-meets-West guitar expeditions, followed by "Second Poem to Karmela" or Gypsies Are Important in 1968, an even more experimental work conveyed mostly via the sarod, an Indian stringed instrument that was Khan's specialty.

A prompt disappearance from the public eye during the early '70s followed — but not before Walker made a pit stop in Detroit to live at the Garwood Mansion, a place which would later serve as the backdrop for the cover photo of his 2013 album Has Anybody Seen Our Freedoms? The album presents a lost studio session from 1970, much closer to the spirit of the folk scene at the time, that was recorded in New York but didn't see the light of day until Mark Linn produced it for his label Delmore Recording Society in 2013. On the cover, Walker is pictured at the Garwood with radical lawyer and civil rights activist William Kunstler. The two actually met there, after Walker had performed at a John Sinclair benefit and Kunstler was giving a lecture on grand jury system abuses for the appeal in that case.

If you've never heard of the Garwood Mansion, you're not alone — and you might be surprised to find out how notable its connection to Detroit music is. As far as I can tell, the story of the Garwood Mansion has only been extensively told online in one place, the Detroit Free Press, in an article by the late Ben Edmonds published two years ago. The name pops up on a handful of forums and some personal blogs, as well as in the extensive liner notes to Walker's 2013 release, but that seems to be about it. A film about the era has been in the works for a few years, but there don't seem to be any recent updates — though I dearly hope it does eventually come to fruition!

The mansion came to exist after Garfield 'Gar' Wood, an inventor (at one point, he held more US patents than any other living American) and entrepreneur, bought some property at the tip of Grayhaven Island on the Detroit River. Due to his many successful business dealings, he had the finances to construct a palatial riverfront estate. Built from Italian stone in 1924, the Garwood featured 46 massive rooms, an Olympic-size swimming pool in the basement, and housed what some have said was the biggest privately owned pipe organ in the world. The home was sold in 1955 and sat empty for many years, until a 19-year-old hippie moved in during the summer of 1969 and eventually started throwing parties to raise money for rent and bills.

For the next three years, the Garwood Mansion goings-on were the stuff of countercultural dreams; the home effectively became a creative commune, complete with their own house band, Stonefront — a rock group/jam band that performed live weekly (and counted Jeep Capone, Al Capone's grandson, among its members) with Walker frequently opening. Grande Ballroom acts and people we now consider Michigan legends would often retire to the Garwood post-show, from Alice Cooper and Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes to Sly and the Family Stone, the Allman Brothers, and Tim Buckley.

The neighbors were, naturally, none too fond of the Garwood's boisterous residents. But it wasn't until later in the '70s that the building was trashed beyond repair by the guests of a party thrown by the Outlaws Motorcycle Club. It was abandoned again for some time, and eventually destroyed in a lightning-bolt-induced fire. But the memories remain, and this opulent experiment in communal living on the Detroit River lives on as a stop on the long, illustrious journey of Walker's musical life.

After pivoting away from public performance and toward family life — although he never stopped playing music and growing his education — Walker was persuaded out of semi-retirement to participate in a tribute album, 2008's A Raga for Peter Walker, released by Tompkins Square Records and featuring modern guitarists like Jack Rose, James Blackshaw, and even Thurston Moore. Prior to this, Walker had dedicated himself to expanding his mastery of Spanish guitar. With the release of the tribute album, however, he decided to try and make a name for himself again in America, and he's been performing and recording ever since.

Two years ago, in fact, Walker played a fantastic set at Third Man Records in Nashville, one that included several songs on piano, a singular occurrence for a man known so well for his guitar skills. The following year, a live album of that very performance was released. Now he's coming back to Third Man — this time to our very own Detroit location — this Thursday, Sept. 8, with another appearance that is sure to be one-of-a-kind.

In honor of the occasion, Metro Times talked with Walker about his many counterculture connections, days spent at the Garwood Mansion, and what drew him to Indian and Spanish music in the first place.

Metro Times: Indian classical and Spanish flamenco are your particular interests, is that correct?

Peter Walker: I would say I play the Spanish guitar. If you say you're a flamenco player, people assume or automatically expect you to play a whole range of pieces in different keys in traditional rhythm forms. Before I put that hat on, I would rather say I'm a Spanish guitar player.

MT: What drew you to the Spanish style of playing guitar?

Walker: It may have been genetic. I had one ancestor who swam ashore from a Spanish ship in Scotland. I don't know, maybe it was just the music I was exposed to as a child. In Cambridge, when I was running the Folklore Center, I had a friend who played steel string, and when people came in the door, [we asked] "You wanna play steel or nylon?" If they wanted to play steel, he would deal with them, and if they wanted to play nylon, I would deal with them. I eventually got access to information about Spanish music, then I got to go to Spain, then I got to live there, then I got to meet gypsy friends and teachers, and it was a wonderful education. My greatest musical moments have been in Spain, for sure.

MT: To flip from Spanish to Indian, I read that you studied with Ravi Shankar.

Walker: Yes, yes I did. It was a Forrest Gump-like experience because I heard Ravi, I went to a Ravi concert in San Francisco, and later the same year, I met John Barrymore [Jr., father to Drew Barrymore] in Mexico, and he had Ravi Shankar tapes. He ripped the sound system out of his car and set it up in my house there. When the car battery would run out of electricity, the tapes would slow down. When the tapes slowed down, you could tell the pitch was lower and you could figure out what he was doing. Later, when I came back to the U.S., I got introduced to Ravi's West Coast manager, and he set it up so I could go to school at Ravi's guitar school. That was after my first record. One thing led to another, and I was studying at Ravi's school when Ali Akbar Khan literally tapped me on the shoulder at a gig and said, "Come on up to my school. I will teach you that which you are seeking."

MT: He said to you, "I will teach you that which you are seeking"?

Walker: He did. And he did! He certainly did. From 7 in the morning to 6 in the evening, it was a traditional Indian school. These instruments go back thousands of years, back to when people got up early in the morning and tuned their instrument all day long to play it in the evening. The work ethic is incredible, and the standards of excellence, too. I'm into tuning the guitar slightly differently than people have tuned before.

MT: How did you come to that?

Walker: The equal tempered tuning of the piano is really a compromise so it can be played in all the different keys. But when you make that compromise, you're losing something. One of the things that Indian music has is that the math works out much better. They dedicate the entire tuning to the key of the tune they're gonna be playing in. Even the sympathetic strings. They're all slightly micro-adjusted. The notes are all mathematic. Harmony is mathematic. The more perfect the math is, the better it sounds to the human brain. And the brain senses that the sound is better to the human ear. So I'm trying to bring that element to guitar playing.

MT: What was life like during your time at the Garwood Mansion?

Walker: I will tell you that at the Garwood Mansion, 2,000 people would come on the weekends, and they would be all wrapped up in the corners. The band would be long gone, the rooms would be dark. At 4 o'clock in the morning, Peter Walker would stroll from room to room, playing violin really badly in a minor key. Forms would unwrap from corners, bodies would start to rise and move, and the entire place would empty out. Music is powerful stuff! [Laughs.]

You want to hear a story on the upbeat end of that same power? On another record, I made at the same time, all the songs were dedicated to one lady. I made it in 1970, and I didn't release it until two and a half years ago [Has Anybody Seen Our Freedoms?]. I'd been looking for this lady all my adult life. I couldn't find her. I released the record in November, and I heard from her in January. The music somehow found her, and she got in touch with me. I asked her if I could send her some more music, so I sent her my Spanish guitar record. I said, "What'd you think of it?" and she said, "I couldn't stop crying."

MT: Have you kept in touch with her?

Walker: Yeah, we're in touch now. And I'm going to play that same music for you in Detroit on the 8th!

MT: How did you end up living at the Garwood?

Walker: I had a friend that I met at the Woodstock festival who was from Detroit, and so at one point I left my house in New York to go live at the Garwood Mansion for a while. I was there not quite a year.

MT: I had read that it didn't last too much longer after that, it ended up burning down.

Walker: [Laughs.] Yeah, I guess donating the place for the annual biker convention didn't help the situation. But the neighbors really did not want 2,000 hippies coming every weekend ... The parties were memorable. Some of them went on for a week or so!

MT: When you were at the Garwood, did you play at will or as part of shows?

Walker: Stonefront was the house band, and they had performances every weekend. It was a party every weekend; they'd charge admission to pay the bills. I was the opening act!

MT: Were you frequently the opening act?

Walker: I was the opening act for just about everybody in the '60s in New York. I worked at a club in the Village; so everybody that came through, I got to play as the opening act. Good way to meet people.

MT: From that era, who stands out in particular for putting on a really wild performance?

Walker: Jimi Hendrix! Yeah, I was standing just a few feet away from him breaking his guitar into pieces and throwing it into the audience. [Laughs.] All the things he did on stage at Monterey, and meanwhile my manager is backstage trying to arrange for me to go on next, with my fragile little Ramírez guitar.

That stands out. Howlin' Wolf stands out, because he was a lovely man. B.B. King is a great guy. Jefferson Airplane, the Mothers of Invention. That was a great time to be in New York. I liked being a house musician because if I was on tour, I wouldn't have been able to hang out, meet all these people, and have all this fun.

MT: Are there any stories from your time with Timothy Leary that you would like to share?

Walker: Yeah, I'll tell you a Timothy Leary story. There was a time in the house in Millbrook when one of the guests was found to have about ¼ oz. piece of hashish. And I was present when that happened. And Timothy took the piece of hashish directly to the toilet and proceeded to flush it down. And he said, "That's the appropriate thing to do when you find strange drugs in your house." And a couple years later, I was working on something for Senator Kennedy, which was embarrassing the Nixon crowd, and an employee of the federal government planted an ounce of heroin in the loft that I was in, which was actually the Kennedy loft. They planted an ounce of heroin in the living room chair, and I found it. Gee, what do I do with this? Ah, what did Timothy do when he found strange drugs in his house? So I went to the toilet, and I flushed it. [Laughs.]

The guy who planted it went nuts; he demanded to know where it went. And then other agents of the government — and there are good guys, there are some good guys in there — they came and apologized to me on behalf of the government. So if Timothy Leary hadn't taught me by example what to do when [you find strange drugs], I might not have done that.

Timothy was a great psychologist. People don't appreciate his education; he was a professor of psychology at Harvard for a reason. If you talked to him for 10 minutes, even five, he would touch something within you. And that's aside from the LSD and everything else. He was such a lovely, intelligent, and warm human being.

MT: Another person I see that you had a relationship with was Karen Dalton. What was she like?

Walker: Karen is what cool was, or was what cool is. She was pretty cool, revered by other musicians and for good reason. A lot of people are wanna-bes, but Karen really was. Karen had a genuine folk background. She genuinely had folk credentials. She was the real thing, on many levels. Karen was a very loving person. I tell this story, amongst her papers I found pictures of me that she had saved, and she had this one of me playing with the old guard of the Grand Ole Opry. Playing harmonica, I'm the guy at the end of the couch. The fact that someone had documented me playing with these people, that someone would save the picture; she must have known how much it would mean to me. You couldn't ask for a sweeter friend. Her talent was obvious.

MT: What made you decide to start performing in public again?

Walker: It was 2000, and I decided to make a bucket list to do the things that were important to me. I didn't have any career whatsoever at the time in the U.S. as a guitar player. So I decided to go back to Spain, renew my education there, and maybe get somewhere in the Spanish guitar playing world. If I were to do that, I figured I might be able to renew interest in my music here in this country.

For five or six years, I was doing pretty good! I was being groomed to be one of the next emerging people. I was getting ready to go over and try to play for a competition. My strategy was that if I could play in a competition, at any level, in Spain, that credential would allow me to get employment in Spain. I could have had a well-paying job playing my music. So that's what I was doing when [Tompkins Square Records] came and knocked on my door and asked to make a record here. Apparently, I had a lot of young fans that wanted to do a tribute record. So I stopped trying to advance myself in Spain. Now I've done a couple U.S. tours and three European tours doing ragas and Spanish music — and that's what I'll be playing in Detroit!

Peter Walker plays on Thursday, Sept. 8 at Third Man Records with Danny Kroha; Doors at 7:30 p.m., 441 W. Canfield St., Detroit;; all ages; $10.

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