I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
“The quest was always on. Inside, never out.”
I first discovered Lightstorm about five years ago, via the 1982 movie Boardinghouse, which enjoys well-deserved cult status as one of the strangest horror movies ever made, and happens to be the first feature-length film ever recorded on video and transferred to 35mm for a theatrical run. On that initial viewing there was something about the film’s spirit and texture that resonated with me. I’m not sure if it was the balls-to-the-wall yet playful DIY approach, the strange suggestive New Age subtexts, or both. It was immediately clear that there was a lot more to the film than the average horror fan would ever notice or want to know.
Before long, I learned of the filmmakers Johnima and Kalassu Wintergate’s connection to the Sai Baba religious movement, their roots in the late 1960s Los Angeles counterculture, and their prolific rock and roll band—Lightstorm. I found out the group spent a year and a half touring in Vietnam for the USO, delivering their deep spiritual message, which is not unlike that of the Bhagavat. They were people who walked the walk during a time when many only talked the talk.
Personally, I find that these kinds of movements are endlessly valuable to me as an artist. The spirit of Lightstorm, as I perceive it, is of a collective nature—one that was ahead of its time. The Lightstorm concept has been a singular vision with many iterations and lasted for close to fifty years now. The manner and consistency with which the band has pursued their project is largely unparalleled. I had the opportunity to sit down with them recently to discuss how and why this has worked so well, for so long.
Jason Gillis Can we talk a little bit about the band’s pre-history, in terms of Johnima’s recording career in Canada in the 1950s, and what led to your decision to leave that career and travel to Los Angeles in the 1960s? I’m curious as to what your thoughts are, also, on the rise of spiritual consciousness in the counterculture during that time.
Johnima Wintergate Rock music itself opened up the door for all the energies, for sex and connection and communication of the universe. It opened all that up, because before it was all in the closet. The generation before us kept it in the closet because they were ashamed. No one talked about anything because of religion. So, rock and roll basically opened that door completely, from the 1950s on: by the ’60s it had evolved into a spiritual quest, rather than a sensual quest. In the ‘50s it was all sensually oriented.
JG I ask because a lot of the ideas you later incorporated into Lightstorm date back to your days in Canada, where you were an early rock star.
JW That was basically the idea behind doing the music in the first place. Personally, as an ego personification, I didn’t really enjoy that much attention, you know? Having your clothes ripped off (laughter), everybody yelling and screaming. It wasn’t my scene. I didn’t really enjoy that, and I saw the fallacy in all these made-up ideas: this “icon” idea. That’s why I wanted to meet some other people to make this music with, because the basis of all of the music that flowed through this body, and Kalassu’s body, was based on love and the spiritual quest of The Absolute Truth. It reflected even in our most playful, sensual music. It doesn’t hit you in the groin area, it hits you in the chest and the head.
JG I find it fascinating that the impetus for Lightstorm was this early refusal of the “success” that pop stardom had to offer and a deep desire to help others. I think that shows a real degree of authenticity. It’s visionary thinking behind visionary art. My knowledge of Sai Baba is cursory at best, but the idea of the individual experience, which you just alluded to, is something that is very much central to his teachings, no?
JW You should never be a follower of anything or anybody!
Kalassu Wintergate The first day we met him [Sai Baba]… I had never felt love like the love I felt in his presence. It was completely unselfish. He looked at me, and he was looking deeper into my eyes than I’ve ever seen anybody look, and it was so selfless. He took me in a room, held my hand, looked deep into my eyes and… my body was really rattling. Just vibrating. My body’s molecules were just… it felt like they were coming apart! And, so he goes, “What took you so long to come and find me?” And I was like, “Oh God! What took you so long to find you?” He said, “You’ve been listening to the wrong voice for hundreds and thousands of reincarnations, you’ve been listening to this (points towards head) and it told you that you weren’t beautiful, that you weren’t all powerful, all loving, that you weren’t me. It’s a tool. Only a tool. It is not your friend.” At that moment, streams of tears were coming down my face. All I could think was: Hundreds of thousands of lifetimes? I’ve listened to this, when this was in front of me? And this is who I really am? I just straightened out.
JW The quest was always on. Inside, never out.
JG This glorification of the ego, which you were both retreating from…
JW It’s the Mahabharata.
KW First, the mind—the ego self—will want to make your quest for “self realization” so difficult, so hard, such a “struggle.”
JW “Impossible to reach.”
KW It’s not! It’s just a joke. It’s really a joke. The hardest thing is remembering to do something about it. Just recognize, who’s doing the talking, who’s doing the doing, and do something about it! We had to figure this out on our own. It’s simple! But it isn’t easy, because you have to constantly remember, because life is constantly saying, “No! That’s not who you are! You’re this! You’re that!”And you have to compete and check yourself to know who you really are and who’s really in charge.
JW “You’re separated, you’re not connected, you’re different…”
KW It gets to the point where you just have to say stop! And we decided to incorporate all of this into our music—to share it. You might say that when we got the band together, we began sharing our understanding and our beliefs through the music.
JW It only has to be a vibration. It doesn’t have to be words.
JG You mention the potency of that specific spiritual vibration. The notion of a spiritually injected form of rock and roll, I’m assuming, was something that came to you after meeting Sai Baba? You got connected to him in, what, 1967?
JW It was the end of ’67, the beginning of ’68. Indra Devi, she was a famous yoga teacher, had just come back from being taught by one of the gurus in India. She’d met Sai Baba and Richard Bach, a friend of ours who owned World Pacific Records, who brought Ravi Shankar to the West… He was a friend of Indra’s and we were friends with Richard. He was asked to pick Indra up at the airport. So, he picked her up at the airport, and she was all aglow—
KW Ranting and raving, “I’ve met God! I’ve met God!”
JW She gave Richard a small picture, a black and white photograph, of Sai Baba. So, he went home, put it on his desk, and we were just visiting him. As we walked in, we looked and saw the picture and instantly there was recognition. It was, to this body, it was like, Where have you been? I wanted to wrestle him, I wanted to play with him, I wanted to… actually hit him. (laughter)
KW It was like, “Wait, I know you.” There was a kinship. We don’t know what it was, but there was something we recognized. And, Richard, who had a mouthful of granola that he had just finished making, says, “Well, they’re doing this thing at the East West Cultural Center, why don’t you come with me?”
JW That’s how we sort of found him.
JG It’s interesting to hear that perspective because I think what stops a lot of people from pursuing this kind of thing is the implication that you have to be so serious in order to understand it.
JW In 1967 we got the group together—Kalassu, Sui-San, Silver, and myself. We decided that we were going to make an album. We decided that we were going do this in order to build a village and deliver our spirituality through this music.
KW We understood that certain sounds, certain tones, hit certain energies in our bodies, and we wanted to focus on those vibrations. We put out the first album, Warning, ourselves in ’69. In ’72, Beverly Hills Records released it on a much wider scale. So, the first album was a conglomerate between some of the spiritual sounds convoluted into rock and roll, but giving the message more of the rock and roll style so that more people would be interested in listening. At the same time, we did these other songs bhajan style—the traditional Indian form of devotional song, but in English.
We were actually the first in India to sing English bhajans. We were over there and Johnima was doing this, singing these songs in English, and someone came over and said, “We don’t allow this! We only allow these songs to be sung in… this, this, and this. Tell your friend to be quiet!” That evening, Sai Baba called us in to sing.
JW He’s just laughing and goes, “Sing fast!”
KW “Sing English bhajans!” And we did! We looked at these other people there and their jaws are on the floor! Like, “You accept this, Sai Baba?!” And that’s what Swami gave us that night: in any language, in any rhythm, you sing from the heart. And, just like that… it completely changed the whole atmosphere in the ashram.
JW So, by doing both sides of the music that way, we had a nice bridge, so to speak. In the beginning, we did the bhajans for Swami. We did the first India/America bhajans.
KW On Polydor Records!
JW Then Sai Baba asked us… he said, “Listen. The human mind likes songs a lot. Start making songs of The Absolute Truth. The Highest Truth.” And, so, that’s what we did later on, with the following albums. Since ’67 we started putting together Creation Earth, but it took a while. We built our own custom instruments, did everything. The idea was to put it together as a stage play, a Broadway production deal. By being active on both fronts, it was easy for us not to be logistically involved with making money, or being famous, or wanting to be rock and roll stars.
KW I mean, believe me, we had managers coming and going. They’d always say, “It’s not hitting me here! It’s not hitting me in the groin! It’s hitting me here (points to head). I want it to hit me here (points to groin).” (laughter)
JG It’s funny to me because there’s been some press on this Drag City/Yoga Records release that really focuses on this “Missionary Is Impossible” track. And, of course, with Boardinghouse there’s this subtext of sexuality, but when you guys deal with that it’s so playful and silly and sort of thumbing your nose at the whole notion of that being a subject that’s worth any kind of serious consideration. It’s great because you’re not afraid of it at all. You’re just having fun with it.
JW Isn’t that what life is supposed to be? Joyful, playful, laughing?
JG You did an extensive USO tour of Vietnam with Lightstorm in 1970. I’m assuming that this initiative was led by a desire to push this kind of good energy into some really bad places?
JW Metaphysically, for us, it was just: Go share in Vietnam. Go share. They need help. We wanted to share with our brothers and sisters.
KW We were playing at the Troubadour, and someone from the USO approached us after the gig. So, after Swami’s dream and all this other stuff happening, it was like, “Okay, let’s go!”
JG Simple as that?
JW Well, if it’s meant to be… When I got off the plane? The smell, the humidity, the heat… My first thought of the mind was, “Are we really here?!”
KW (laughter) And we decided to go to the furthest points of the DMZ!
JW We did this on purpose. We talked to them about Swami’s teachings, about how they are not the body. We helped them get some perspective of The Truth for their consciousness. Before they went out to battle, we’d tell them, “There is no death. Don’t worry.” We held the dying ones. We filled body bags…
KW We started our set with a song that started out with OM OM OM… and, slowly the guitar player would come on, the bass player would walk out on stage, and we got everyone singing! Everyone! Now, they thought we were saying, “Home.” And we were singing OMMMMM! And, we look out and see all these tears, all these GIs… It’s like a major vibrational shift was happening! We were going OM through huge Marshall speakers… in the jungle… in the darkest part of Vietnam… singing OM… with all the GIs singing with us, “Home.” That created a real force there that helped them tremendously. And, that’s how we started every set.
JW Keep in mind, we never carried any weapons at all, because the vibration of those weapons cause the wrong energies to come to us. The Viet Cong always followed us.
KW We played on top of a bunker, in the jungle. It happened a couple of times, where people would come out of the jungle and put their weapons down.
JW The Viet Cong like this, and the GIs like this… and we would just play our music for as long as we could. Until three in the morning!
KW When it first happened, we didn’t want to stop playing because we didn’t know what would happen, because literally the VC and the GIs were all right there! So, we would just sing these songs about the oneness, to just help lift the vibration.
JG How long were you there?
JW A little more than a year. But then, we went to the Philippines, and then to Europe, to play some more concerts.
JG What was it like coming back to Los Angeles after such an intense experience? I mean, it doesn’t really get any heavier that.
JW Playing for the American public after that? It was different; there wasn’t as much satisfaction in it. I mean, sure, everyone was gung ho, but it was the same thing that I had experienced in Canada as a solo artist. There was this self-glorification. So, what we were trying to do was walk off the stage while we were singing and just go into the audience so they wouldn’t feel so separate. We were kind of the first artists to really break down that barrier.
KW We just continued on. When we got back, we continued doing Creation Earth. We became Creation Earth. We made all the instruments. We found semi like-minded people: musicians that wanted to do it with us. So, we finally got it done in ’76. The record came out in ’77.
JG Okay, so that sort of brings us up to this stylistic shift of the 33 1/3 LP. You really shifted into more of a hard rock/pop sound. Was that a real conscious move, or would you say that it was something that happened more organically after the Creation Earth process?
JW It was on purpose. That was why we got Lanny Williamson, our producer, because his input helped us to create this vibratory response of the voices and the vocals. Before, we didn’t go into that. We wanted to take that harder pop sound and make it more ethereal in a way.
JG So, what was the path for you looking like, coming out of the 1970s and into the 1980s? You had undergone a major stylistic shift, you had begun production on a film, Boardinghouse, which we haven’t really talked about…
JW Well, our lives changed because we had kids. So, we needed to structure something to be more “at home” because they needed us.
KW That’s when the books started coming out. I mean, we still recorded, but we stayed home.
JW We did Boardinghouse to maybe find another avenue of expression.
JG So, the idea of living in faith of a greater process, as an artist, has clearly informed both how you live and work as artists. The decision to truly and fully commit to the lifestyle of being an artist is, essentially, a complete denial of the nine-to-five paradigm that we’re indoctrinated into, in this country, from birth. You have managed to, seemingly, pull it off. Perhaps there’s no one answer to this, but I was wondering if you could maybe share some insight into this.
JW We are not the doers. Let me clarify, so as to make it reasonably acceptable: on the physical—the strictly physical level—once you reach the space and know that you are connected to everything, you no longer have an aversion to anything. You don’t have an attraction or a need or a desire or an attachment, or the opposite of that. You no longer care if you clean toilets. You no longer care if you’re painting houses. You no longer care what it is that the moment brings to you. You’re open for it, and you’re ready to be there for it, in the moment, because Creation is asking it of you. That’s the process that worked for Lightstorm. Sometimes we did different things as we went along, or were asked to do this or that.
KW In the ’60s, we called it “the flow.” We’re in flow. It is real!
JW You have to understand, I didn’t take this concept at face value. I tested it! I said, “Okay! Let’s play this game! I am going to walk up the coast and you take care of me, Creation. You said you’d take care of everything, so show me!” I left LA, took a bus just to outside the city and within twenty minutes I was fed. Within an hour or two, somebody gave me a bed to sleep in.
KW John’s walk was his leap into the abyss.
JW Here I am!
Jason Gillis is a multimedia artist and musician living in Los Angeles.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee