Roots of Madness

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History of The Roots of Madness: Yes, San Jose really did have an avant-garde scene...

Listen to Réalisation II and the entire recording of 'The Girl in the Chair' by the Roots of Madness, free on the Internet Archive.

(L) Cover of 'The Girl in the Chair'  by Pete Blind    
(R) Don, Chris, Geoff, 1971: a parody of the photo on rear cover of Santana's 'Love, Devotion, Surrender' LP

The avant-garde musical group The Roots of Madness was formed in San Jose, California in 1969 by Geoff Alexander and Don Campau, and included Joe Morrow, Jim Kulczynski, and David “Dave Dolphin” Leskovsky. This core group was joined frequently by Gary and Chris Campau, Patrick Evans, and Vickie Leskovsky.  Geoff, who was influenced by the likes of John Coltrane, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Japanese ichi-genkin music, was unaware of the rock musical revolution taking place 60 miles to the north in San Francisco.  Don, influenced by British blues and San Francisco psychedelic rock, was unaware of avant-garde jazz.  The melding of these influences became the framework for the group’s eclectic compositions and arrangements.  

The Roots existed from 1969 to 1973, and played in unconventional venues, such as laundromats and freeway overpasses, arriving unannounced, setting up instruments, and performing sets of up to two hours.  Their only scheduled performance was at Forbes Mill in the town of Los Gatos, where they were joined by pianist Russ Ferrante (who later would form the jazz-fusion band Yellowjackets), and local avant-garde musician and artist John Hayden.   

Their phonograph record, ‘The Girl in the Chair,’ was pressed in 1971, in a run of 500 copies, 100 of which were distributed by the legendary Norm Pierce of San Francisco’s Jack’s Record Cellar.  Norm also distributed ESP-Disk recordings, and felt that The Roots would appeal to the same listener (he later noted that it was one of the few times he was wrong).  The record was funded by KTAO radio owner Lorenzo Milam, who wrote compelling liner notes detailing the physical disabilities of the group, and on whose Los Gatos FM station The Roots had performed on many live occasions (somewhat incredibly, upon hearing the finished album, Lorenzo said the recording wasn’t avant-garde enough for his taste).  Listen to Lorenzo's version of 'You Are My Sunshine,' also on the disc.

By the time the group recorded its last session in 1973, a total of 10 records had been sold.  Read Justin F. Farrar's review of The Girl in the Chair in SF Weekly.


(L) Don, live performance at laundromat, 1971
(R) Dave Dolphin

The back story of the Roots of Madness

Geoff and Don met each other while enrolled in Leigh High School’s journalism class in 1968, neither having anything in common with 98% of the student body’s zest for football, cheerleading, and Christian social clubs.  Geoff had a radio program on KTAO, an FM station in nearby Los Gatos owned by former Random House editor Bill Ryan, and journalist Lorenzo Milam, and Don soon started hanging out there with Geoff.  Eventually, Lorenzo bought out Bill’s share of the station, Don got his own program as well, and he and Geoff took on the lion’s share of the responsibility of placing records in the station’s library.  The KTAO library was unlike any other in the world.  Milam, a millionaire who eschewed financial success in radio, was determined to be uncompromising in bringing eclectic music to the listeners of Northern California.  He would routinely order the entire catalogue of any record label in the world engaged in ethnic, baroque, old-timey, avant-garde, or just plain weird. 

By the time The Roots of Madness were formed in 1969, Geoff and Don had heard hundreds of musical forms from around the world, and had begun acquiring musical instruments.  In the same time period, high school friend Joe Morrow and Geoff’s brother David Leskovsky had joined the on-air staff at KTAO as well.  There, they met artists Pete Blind (who designer the cover art for ‘The Girl in the Chair’), and John Hayden.  Hayden, who hosted informal avant-garde musical sessions in his home, had been involved with the San Francisco ‘Beat’ generation, and a friend of Neal Cassady.  Geoff, Don, Joe, Dave, and Jim Kulczynski (who has been in Geoff and Don’s journalism class) began playing regularly at John’s.

The recordings 

The Roots had nine formal recording sessions from 1969 through 1973.  Most were recorded in the kitchen-dining room of Geoff’s parents’ house, and household “found” sounds (including his barking dogs, the Kirby vacuum cleaner, and the Volkswagen keys) were liberally incorporated into the musical sessions.  Recordings were done mostly on Don’s reel-to-reel Sony tape recorder, with only two mics.  VUs were set for every instrument, which was placed in a distance that would slightly put the needle into the red, when played at full volume.  When a fade-out was desired, the player simply walked out of mic range.  In ‘Réalisation II,’ the shortwave radio piece which introduces ‘The Girl in the Chair,’ the volume on the radios is controlled by volume knobs, whereas music box volume is enhanced or decreased by moving them toward or away from the mics.  Most of the Roots recordings were done in this suburban kitchen, with a large family and friends coming, going, and walking through the recording sessions. 

Other recordings by various Roots members were made during this era, including "The Geoffrey 3” and several recordings by Don & Chris Campau. All of these recordings are available in CD format at Don Campau’s Lonely Whistle website.

Music after the Roots era 

KTAO went off the air in 1974, and Geoff and Don formed Dogmouth Records, a used-record store, that year.  At least one of the Roots’ last recordings was made at the store, a converted house (the shower was located inside the store, and showers were sold to customers at 50 cents each).  In 1976, Dogmouth went out of business, a victim of Los Gatos town planners, who felt that an anti-trendy store like Dogmouth wasn’t--- like KTAO ---  in keeping with the image the town wanted to portray. 

Geoff soon attended Boston’s Berklee College of Music, and played salsa for a year with Louie Romero’s ‘Los Reyes del Ritmo’ in East San Jose.  In the late 1980s, he made two cassettes of his own compositions and arrangements, ‘Canódromo’ and ‘San Jose Confidential.  His ‘New Directions for Farfisa Organ’ CD, consisting of his avant-garde pieces for organ performed in 1987, was released in 2004. 

Don never stopped playing and recording, having made dozens of tapes of his own music, and collaborating with others. His Lonely Whistle label highlights the breadth of his innovative and collaborative musical career. Don’s ‘No Pigeonholes’ radio show, running for more than 20 years on Cupertino, California's KKUP-FM, the longest running program of home tapers, collaborative mnusicians, and small studio productions in the world, is also now broadcast on shortwave in Europe on Radio Marabu.  

The name: what goes around… 

Don named the group after an academic film he saw in high school in 1968 called “China: The Roots of Madness.”  The film was part of the film library of the Santa Clara County Office of Education.  That film library was bought --- by Geoff --- in 1995, and became the beginning of what was to become the Academic Film Archive of North America. 

‘The Girl in the Chair’ was named for a disabled girl in school who, confined to a wheelchair, wheeled around the high school parking lot, busting fellow students for necking and smoking cigarettes.  Somehow, neither her advisors, family, nor fiends were able to fathom that this duty would make her one of the most ridiculed people in school.  ‘The Girl’ became a metaphor for all the forces which combined to turn places of education into mini-prisons, where questioning, creativity, and freedom to be oneself were routinely repressed.   


On the rear cover of ‘The Girl in the Chair,’ just under the liner notes, some will recognize the half-tone of legendary murderess Ruth Snyder in the electric chair, photographed just as the switch was thrown. She’s ‘The Girl’ too.  The Roots'  dark sense of humor was not for everyone.  In an old magazine, Geoff found an old photo of Mussolini hanging by his heels, with a crowd standing around.  He flipped the shot vertically, so Benito appeared to be standing up, with his arms raised high.  “Action at recent Roots of Madness Concert” read the caption, and was used in Roots publicity fliers. 

The Roots of Madness album ‘The Girl in The Chair’ was reissued (2005) by Destijl records of Minneapolis with witty, revisionist liner notes, jointly re-issued by the Child Of Microtones label from Vermont.  A few copies of Roots of Madness original recordings, and individual recordings by Don and Geoff can be found at Don’s Lonely Whistle website.


Some online reviews of the The Girl in the Chair:

"realisation II. All I can say. It gives me the creep. I need beat." :D (2007)

"It is a very valuable original press, but special because of the stain as you can see at the boobs!" sheyeye

"The moment I heard the first track “Realisation II” then I knew I’d fallen in love with this music. It’s not a perfect theory but sometimes a certain kind of music is so cool is probably because it covers certain ranges of genres and were combined coolly. They thrill and stimulate you." Moka, 2007

"rip that mutha. i got to hear it." el sabor, 2004

"There are collage-sound, kitchen sink-concrète albums that sound as mysterious and appealing as The Girl In The Chair, but you can bet none of the groups that made them were from San Jose, and none of them had the sense of silliness and fun so valued by Roots of Madness.The sounds that compose The Girl In The Chair include fragments of transistor radio frequencies, frantic piano tinkling, music boxes, spoken word recitation, tape-recorded messages, Ayleresque horn flares, and sonic booms of all shapes and degrees." Sam Sweet, 2005

"The recordings breathed with a total musty basement air vibe, and were a defining bridge in many ways between the lost minds of the 60's and the high weirdness of the 70s that was yet to peak." Brian Turner, WFMU, 2005

"A refreshing lost artifact of pure American fizz resurrected from the iconoclasm void... an essential LP for anyone concerned with the paramount energy fields of all the above ground sound subterrains." Matthew Valentine

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