The Orkustra (first psychedelic electric symphony orchestra)

Part of a tribal historian’s role is collecting and preserving that history in all its formats — oral histories, street posters, miscellaneous ephemera, accounts of the moment, etc. There are many sources for this material. Here is a recent acquisition of the Digger archive.

The Orkustra poster

This is a poster I’ve seen reprinted in various places but never in person until last week. It’s the main poster that has come to be associated with The Orkustra, a musical group that fashioned themselves the “first psychedelic electric symphony orchestra” and performed in San Francisco from the fall of 1966 to mid-summer, 1967. After a process of soliciting musicians, holding auditions and rehearsals, the group forged a “comprehensible form of improvisational music” and began performing in local venues, offering what the founder of The Orkustra called a “counter-culture musical adventure.” The group performed at the Love Pageant Rally, one of the defining events of the Haight-Ashbury on Oct 6, 1966 (commemorating the outlawing of LSD on that day). They performed at the New Year’s Wail in the Panhandle on Jan 1, 1967, the event that the Hell’s Angels threw in appreciation of the Diggers and the inspiration for the Communication Company instant news service. The Orkustra (the shortened form of their original name “The Electric Chamber Orchestra”) played at the Invisible Circus on Feb 24, 1967. One of the (many) interesting things about this event was the life-changing moments that took place for many of the participants. I’ve written about Cecil Williams and his epiphany about the Church that the Invisible Circus provided. Another person whose life was affected was Bobby Beausoleil, the young musician who had formed The Orkustra as a result of a vision he had in Golden Gate Park. Kenneth Anger, the underground filmmaker, approached Beausoleil after the group performed the opening set at the Invisible Circus, and offered Beausoleil the lead role in his film “Lucifer Rising.” Beausoleil accepted and moved into a different orbit. The Orkustra would continue as a group until mid-summer.

Here’s an account by Beausoleil of the band’s involvement with the Diggers:

Our first significant performance, and a defining one for the band, took place on a Sunday afternoon in the Panhandle section of Golden Gate Park. It was the very first in a series of free concerts that would take place in that location, organized by the notorious Diggers. By this time, hundreds of young people had already migrated to the Haight community, and more were arriving every day. Many of them had but recently left the homes of their parents on a wing and a prayer, arriving in the Haight with little or no money, no street experience, and ill-prepared to provide themselves with the necessities of basic survival. The Diggers had declared it their mission to coordinate relief efforts, finding and providing essential food, clothing, communal housing, and medical treatment to the migrants, all free of charge. The free Sunday concerts in the park were urban guerrilla theater events staged by the Diggers, all in the spirit of fun and good times, to bring a sense of harmony and unity to the growing throngs of erstwhile hippies. In addition to live music, huge pots of savory vegetable stew were on hand for anyone who might be hungry. The Orkustra’s association with the Diggers was initially an outgrowth of simple proximity to one another. The old warehouse on Page Street that we used for a rehearsal studio was located directly across the street from a row of derelict wooden garages that the Diggers had procured and made into their headquarters. Above the doors of the garages was a whimsical sign proclaiming them to be “The Free Frame of Reference,” the Diggers’ free store, where second-hand clothing, blankets, kitchen utensils, and sundry household items could be had for the asking. As members of The Orkustra and some of the Diggers encountered one another on a daily basis, a casual relationship was formed. Emmett Grogan, one of the Diggers’ founding members and chief instigators, took a particular shine to The Orkustra. He liked our free-form musical style and devil-may-care attitude, being so much like his own nature, and invited us to play the first of the free concerts in the Panhandle. A makeshift stage was set up under the trees and a generator was brought in to provide electricity to power the amplifiers. As we began to play, a crowd grew quickly around us. Our performance was very well received by everyone save for the cops who showed up to inform us that the crowd exceeded the number of people who could lawfully be gathered in a public park without a permit. We were allowed to play one more song before we had to shut it down. We made it a long one. Thereafter, the Diggers made prior arrangements with city officials to obtain permits, and with a flatbed truck to serve as a stage and power source, the weekend concerts in the Panhandle became a regular feature of life in the Haight for some time. The Orkustra played that venue several times, along with The Grateful Dead, The Charlatans, Big Brother, and other San Francisco rock band luminaries of the period. We played so many of the Diggers’ events, in fact, that we became known in some circles as The Diggers’ band. One of the most memorable of those events was the inaugural ceremonies that launched the infamous Invisible Circus festivities at Glide Memorial Church, wherein The Orkustra performed musical accompaniment for a troupe of half-naked female belly dancers who had been brought in for the expressed purpose of kick-starting the event. Our collective efforts were a rollicking success from my point of view, but the church fathers and city officials saw it from another perspective.

The Orkustra’s outlook fit neatly with the Diggers emphasis on autonomous group spaces. Beausoleil explained why the group preferred nightclubs to the Fillmore auditoriums. “Smaller venues are more intimate, increasing the likelihood that the energies of the audience and the performers will become commingled in a transcendent experience.” Just as happened at the Invisible Circus.

P.S. There’s another connection to the Diggers. The image of Emmett Grogan appears in the poster. Anyone find it?

Source of Beausoleil memoir: (it has appeared elsewhere but this one is dated June 2003). After his involvement with Kenneth Anger, Beausoleil ended up in Los Angeles where he became involved in the  Charles Manson coterie and was subsequently arrested and convicted for the group’s first murder ordered by Manson. He is currently serving a life sentence in the Oregon prison system.



2 thoughts on “The Orkustra (first psychedelic electric symphony orchestra)”

  1. Nice, really cool. Far right group. Looks added in last minute.

    On Mon, Sep 9, 2019 at 1:03 PM digger feed: dinosaurs are dancing wrote:

    > Eric posted: “Part of a tribal historian’s role is collecting and > preserving that history in all its formats — oral histories, street > posters, miscellaneous ephemera, accounts of the moment, etc. There are > many sources for this material. Here is a recent acquisition of” >

  2. Do you recognize anyone in the poster, Harvey? What about the police officer? I’ve always wondered what Officer Gerrans looked like.

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