If you haven’t heard New Sounds yet, you may have heard something about it. It’s been regarded at the top of its class in the downer/loner folk collector world, with sealed original copies fetching upward of $1000 each on the worldwide market.
As early as 1991 or 1992, the terms downer and loner were used by record dealers and private-press collectors to describe the more moody sounds of the outsider folk scene. The term stuck and downer/loner folk became it’s own sub-category. The mystery surrounding New Sounds – just who was this Bob Desper? -- inspired in the initiated a need to characterize this enigmatic musician from the Pacific Northwest. Going with what little information was out there, the stark vulnerable tone of Desper’s only full length became attributed to a dark inner turmoil related to his blindness – or marked him as visionary who’s blindness led him to see better than others. While the second hypothesis might bear some weight under an aesthetic and spiritual scrutiny, one would be hard pressed to hear Bob admit it.
Bob Desper lost his vision at age ten. Playing with a friend, he fell and hit his forehead on a pole, hemorrhaging his optic nerve. He had an operation, but he was (as he says) an “ambitious child” who played rough. Had he been able to stay still there was a chance he could have retained partial vision. But as Bob explains, “They couldn’t keep me on my back for as long as it would have taken to heal right.”
He was born July 1, 1950, in Shenandoah Valley, Virginia. When he was thirteen, his family moved to Berkeley, California. In 1965, they relocated to Albany, Oregon. He soon began attending (and living on-campus at) the Oregon School for the Blind in Salem. Had it not been for his temper, Bob would have graduated. He was two months from finishing high school before being expelled for fighting. He moved away from home and rented small trailer in Eagle Creek, a woodsy area just outside of Portland where he lived for six years (“His trailer didn’t have any lights inside,” Robin Smith recalls with a snicker.) It was here that his godparents – an “old fashioned” Quaker couple who embraced him on their “church farm” -- helped him get his life together. And perhaps it was here that Bob’s Christianity began to take form in the music he played, anticipating the ministry work New Sounds was meant to be.
Toward the end of his stay in Eagle Creek, Bob met a musician named Dave Lagrow and was invited to his church. Right away Bob started playing music with Dave and his wife, forming the nucleus of what would become the Eleventh Hour Sounds.
It was around this time that Bob met friend and future bandmate Robin Smith. Robin saw Bob perform solo at a gospel music festival in 1971 at “some college” in Eugene, Oregon. Robin was playing drums with a group called First Trust & Company. The early Christian psychedelic group from Spokane, Washington, Wilson Mckinley, was also on the same bill. Bob and Robin became close acquaintances that same year during the Rose Festival in Portland, on a day several young Christian bands converged on Waterfront Park and played to summer audiences from the back of a flatbed truck.
Robin told Bob he was fed up with rock music and inquired as to whether he knew any country or gospel groups he could sit in with. Bob introduced Robin to the Lagrows, and Smith started making regular trips out to Eagle Creek and jamming with both Bob and the Lagrows. Robin ended up spending the summer living in a tent on the Lagrow property honing his gospel style.
With Robin, the Eleventh Hour Sounds finally had the cohesion they were looking for. Robin and Bob shared the stage for a brief period before the LaGrows relocated to Montana, taking the Eleventh Hour Sounds with them. Eleventh Hour Sounds would go on to record three LPs, though all without Bob’s involvement. Bob’s spot in the band was picked up by Chan Romero, author of the 1959 hit Hippy Hippy Shake.
Around this time, Bob made regular trips to Portland, where he and Robin began their own project with a fill-in bass player, Stan Poling. Calling themselves The Vision Trio (the irony was not lost on the young pair), they developed a country gospel sound and played coffeehouses and the church circuit regularly.
Soon thereafter, Bob was invited to move in to Robin’s parents’ house. Robin remembers Bob as “moody” and that he had a temper. He also says the two “never got a long too well,” and tersely sums up their relationship during that time: “When Bob moved in, I moved out.” However, this depiction doesn’t quite match the 3”x3” Instamatic photo of the sibling-like pair together. They look like kids in costume, gleeful in their collegiate Sta-Prest slacks, pastel sweaters and loafers. Bob stands holding an acoustic guitar while Robin sits in the foreground, with bongos between his knees. The photo suggests, that at least in the practice space, their friendship might have been stronger than Robin lets on. Regardless, it’s clear that this period of close involvement influenced each of their directions as musicians. Robin played an instrumental role in Bob’s development as a solo artist – and without Bob’s connections, Robin might not have found his footing as a nationally renowned gospel quartet drummer.
“Dry Up Those Tears” b/w “The World Is Crying Out For Love” 7” (Star Productions ), 1972
Bob’s debut recording, the 1972 single “Dry Up Those Tears,” was written and recorded when he was only twenty-one. Funding for the pressing of the single isn’t clear. Bob remembers paying for it himself, but Robin’s mother insists she picked up the tab. Calling the single “just a little fun thing” that “didn’t work too good,” Desper remembers they “sold some, gave some away”. Although Bob felt that the songs were never fully realized in a way he had hoped them to be, the songs are lush in folk-y production and exhibit a naïve pop charm. There are trace elements of the sparse dark mood that foreshadow New Sounds, yet it’s a single with a more accessible melody reminiscent of George Harrison’s solo work. Indeed, Robin remembers Bob being “really into” George Harrison, and even Bob admits to having been inspired by contemporary popular music, especially Elvis Presley (rumor has it that Bob used to entertain his friends with a spot-on impersonation of The King).
The single managed to make some minor waves locally. Producer Douglas Reese (who played piano and organ on the recording and who released the 7” on his Star Productions imprint) organized the session at a studio near 32nd and Burnside in Southeast Portland. Reese pulled together the instrumentation for the session, filling out the songs with electric guitar, bass, Hammond organ, and piano. Bob remembers the recording being a simple setup: live with one microphone. Reese and Star Promotions worked the single and landed some radio play in Portland, and as far out east as Baker City, Oregon.
In 1973, Bob met and married his first wife, who he met on a Tri-Met bus. Soon after, they got their own apartment, not far from his previous residence in North Portland where he’d been living with Robin Smith’s parents, Wayne and Velma. Robin was best man at the wedding and remembers Bob inquiring whether or not she was good looking. (Robin also remembers helping Bob pick out his clothes when they lived together – Robin would pick out the clothes with the best colors, and Bob would choose what he’d wear by “feel.”) Bob and his wife were married for close to four years and had one daughter. Early in the marriage they moved again, this time to rural Estacada. It was at this point Bob decided to record a full album.
Bob Desper New Sounds LP (Rose City Sound [RCS 740920]), 1974
The day before walking into Rex recording studios, Desper went out and bought a brand new Martin D-28 acoustic guitar. New Sounds was recorded in one take. Some selections, in fact, were improvised on the spot. Wayne Lund, Co-owner of Rose City Sound and Producer of a handful of RCS releases (the label that originally released New Sounds), recalled Bob fondly: “He was a neat, neat guy . . . introspective” with “a marvelous touch on his strings.” “He was beyond playing the notes. . . . a tremendous talent,” an artist who “could communicate.”
Bob bought his first guitar at age twelve. Influenced by a friend at school, Bob’s initial interest was classical playing. But during his time in Eagle Creek, after moving away from home and living on his own, he began working on his unique style of finger picking, a style that characterizes the intricate guitar work on New Sounds.
New Sounds is often described as haunting and introspective. Bob says that the dark introspection evidenced on the album is not about a selfish upheaval. It documents a time where he had found new comfort in his talents, a time when all the self-reflection on the album’s stand-out tracks -- “Darkness is Like a Shadow,” “It’s Too Late,” “Lonely Man,” and “To a Friend of Mine” -- assert an inner-peace and a path to find it. New Sounds was crafted as a sort of ministry; it was an album Bob hoped would be of help to others. With repeated listening, the ministry reveals itself. This isn’t to say Bob Desper didn’t endure his share of suffering; it’s just that he found a way to exercise it well before laying down the tracks on his LP.
The album was released and sold locally at both churches and Christian coffeeshops and music stores. Like “Dry Up Those Tears,” many were given away. Bob continued to play sporadically throughout the 70s and the 80s in clubs and churches around the Willamette Valley, but eventually he found himself pulled in other directions with the music having to take a backseat in his life.
Due to a hand injury and a lack of timely medical care, Bob isn’t able to play much anymore, but when he gets the yen to play -- or see if he can play comfortably -- he crosses the highway from Roger’s Café, his favorite diner, to Albany Music and Sound and makes his best effort on the Breedlove guitar he hopes to buy if he ever heals up.
Today Bob Desper considers himself a scholar of spirituality. He studies ministries and is approved with the International Pentecostal Assembly. He is deeply religious, and at the same time, a staunch believer in other areas of the supernatural. When pressed on those interests Bob confesses it would take a much longer conversation, one that we will surely have someday down the road.
Bob is both surprised and flattered by the resurgence of interest in his music. He credits God for letting his story be told. And who is to say he’s wrong? From Bob’s perspective he had been forgotten, if ever known. He had been contacted only twice between 1975 and 2008 about his album. One person left a message on his answering machine from a recording studio in Milwaukee (he doesn’t know if they were from Oregon or Wisconsin) and he received a letter from Switzerland inquiring about the record.
Bob’s demeanor today contradicts the persona of the downer/loner folk outsider. He’s humored by the supposition that his blindness gave him a deeper spiritual understanding than others. It wasn’t blindness, metaphorically or literally, that he was trying to get across. When asked what, if anything, is the underlying theme of his songs, Bob sums it up with one word: Togetherness.
-- Paul Anson and Paul Montone, Discourage Records Label 2009