Part 1: Take-off
While Jeff had been with the Magic Band Merrell Fankhauser
had carried on forming bands and recording. The Fapadokly project had
metamorphosed into HMS Bounty (with Jack Jordan, Bill Dodd and Larry Meyers).
The band broke up during 1969 due to lack of commercial success but left
behind an album, Things, that included a number
of excellent tracks - Drivin' Sideways (Down A One-Way
Street) and A Visit With Ashiya in
particular stand out.
Whilst together HMS Bounty had set up in a house in Woodland
Hills not far from Beefheart and the Magic Band. Merrell would occasionally
visit and take the opportunity to jam with the band picking up what were
for him some exotic guitar licks. He couldn't help but notice the strange
atmosphere in the house and Jeff almost certainly would have told him
that he wanted to get out. So when Jeff finally left the Magic Band
Merrell was soon on hand to help support and encourage his old friend.
Although keeping Beefheart and his band at arm's length Jeff's father
would have had no qualms entrusting him into Merrell's company, having
known him from the Exiles days and before.
By this time HMS Bounty had folded so Merrell was soon gigging
with Jeff (playing bass) alongside Randy Wimer (on drums) and a guy called
Steve da Luna on guitar. Steve left allowing Jeff to play lead and
the three of them decided to give their old friend and bass player, Larry
Willey, a call. A few years earlier the band would almost certainly have
been called Merrell & the Exiles, but times had changed. Setting
themselves up in a house in Canoga Park they played regularly in clubs,
hotels, bars and coffee houses around LA under a variety of different
names, having fun and beginning to build a reputation for themselves.
Their set consisted of Beatles, Stones and Creedence Clearwater covers,
B.B King and Howlin Wolf songs plus a few of the originals they were writing.
About six months after finally quitting the Magic Band
Jeff felt strong enough to return to the Beefheart house with Merrell.
Unfortunately this was almost the undoing of him. Beefheart had himself
locked in the 'Magic Bathroom' with Jeff and Merrell in a last ditch attempt
to get the young guitarist to return to the fold. Merrell watched
horrified as Beefheart totally demoralised Jeff to such a degree that
he was almost convinced it was his duty to return to the Magic Band.
Eventually the door was unlocked , Merrell saw his chance, grabbed Jeff
and beat a hasty retreat. Beefheart had finally lost the one of the best
guitarists he'd ever had - an incalculable loss to the Magic Band and
one of the great 'what ifs ...' of recent music history.
Merrell's account of
the Magic Bathroom
The toll that his time in the Magic Band took on Jeff cannot
be underestimated. Looking at photographs from this time (see the cover
of the first MU album, for example) compared to the young guitarist in
the Exiles and you can appreciate how the time with the Beefheart band
had effected him.
Merrell's intentions of saving Jeff from the Beefheart band
may not have been entirely altruistic because he didn't want to lose Jeff
now either, just as they were putting together a band that had a unique
sound and the possibility of the commercial success Merrell always strived
for. Despite this, the band, like many others at the end of the
60s, were on a spiritual quest and looking for something other than the
'straight' all-American middle-class life. These times were a huge melting
pot of old-time religions, new psychologies, half-baked philosophies and
crackpot theories heavily laced with pot and LSD. These were the times
when gurus were appearing all over the place. People were looking for
alternative lifestyles - UFO's, mysticism, spirituality, eastern belief
systems, vegetarianism, getting in tune with nature were the order of
Jeff had dabbled in Maharishi-type eastern mysticism with
the Magic Band and along with Randy Wimer developed an interest in the
Rosicrucian religion in the early 70s. Around 1971 or so, Jeff went to
Christian healer and evangelist, Katherine Kuhlman's meeting at the Shrine
Auditorium in L.A. That started him thinking about Christianity.
The final choice of name for the band - MU - came about
due to a piece of fortuitous serendipity (according to Merrell's account
anyway) that fits easily with the band's new outlook. One of the
band found a copy of a James Churchward book about the legendary continent
of Mu in the house they had moved into and they were all amazed at how
the ancient beliefs so closely resembled their own. Although there is
another story about seeing the word Mu formed by clouds in the sky.
James Churchward & the legend
the end of 1970 the band had recorded some demos. The following year they
released a single Ballad of Brother Lew /
Nobody Wants To Shine on the Mantra label
and their first album MU on a small independent
label. The album was financed by producer, Phil Meldman and recorded at
Wally Heiders Studio. Several large labels were approached, including
MGM but with no luck. Although Greg Lewark at Vault Records was interested
and tried to get United Artists to release it the only company willing
to was RTV. Only 1000 copies were pressed, so the following year the album
was re-released but again on another small label, CASS.
Not going with a major record label was a setback to the
band and it's possible that they may have had real commercial success
had they been given the promotional backing they deserved.
Unfortunately the album did not get adequate distribution
which is a pity because it's a superb blend of acoustic folk-rock (Fankhauser
at his songwriting best) cut through with some arresting rhythms and edgy
slide guitar from Jeff. He also plays a wild bass clarinet solo on Eternal
Thirst, one of the albums highlights. They definitely had a unique
sound which subtly insinuates itself into your mind after a number of
The cover of this album is pretty startling too - although
it only shows a conventional posed shot of the band it is Jeff's appearance
that catches the eye and gives cause for concern. He looks like a wraith,
his face thin and hollow-cheeked which is accentuated by the thickness
and length of his hair. Is this what his time in the Magic Band had done
regular gigging, the enjoyment they had playing together and the different
type of music they were beginning to create helped make them a hot live
act. On stage they had taken to wearing all white clothing - an unusual
move as most bands in the psychedelic/underground camp tended towards
everyday or wildly outrageous outfits.
The photograph (courtesy of Merrell Fankhauser) shows
the band (Merrell, Jeff and Randy but no Larry) in full flight at the
Aquarius in 1972, with Jeff looking much healthier in this shot.
part 2: freefall >>