The resurrected experimental rock duo reflects back on Indian gurus, The Bouncing Souls, influencing Madonna, and playing for the Viet Cong.
“You wanna go for a ride?”
It was the late 60s, so a young guy offering two girls a spin on his motorcycle in the parking lot of what’s now known as the “Rock-n-Roll Ralph’s” grocery store in Los Angeles wasn’t that weird. “My girlfriend’s boyfriend had a motorcycle and usually picked her up after work, so we heard a motorcycle behind the market and both ran out, but instead it was him,” laughs Kalassu, gesturing to Johnima, her now lifelong bandmate and husband of almost 50 years.
Johnima, who’d enjoyed some success as a 50s-era Canadian crooner under the name Peter Kelch, had just ditched a corporate record deal for the budding flower-child scene of LA. Kalassu was a local who’d grown up singing at bat mitzahs and dabbling in keyboards. After the fortuitous meeting at Ralph’s, placing an ad in the local paper lead them to Sui San (on keys) and Silver (drums), and the magic of Lightstorm began. The four regularly rocked the stages of the Troubador, Ghazzari’s and the Whisky with contemporaries like The Go-Gos, The B-52s, Blue Cheer and Three Dog Night. They recorded extensively in various incarnations, and somewhere along the way, got their mojo rising with the discovery of Indian guru Sri Satya Sai Baba, which Johnima describes as “a long forgotten memory connection, an instant recognition.” Johnima and Kalassu took a pilgrimage to Sai Baba’s ashram in 1968 and with a handful of others helped launch the first Sai Baba Center in LA, all of which is documented in their book, Ten Steps to Kesava.
After seeing them at the Troubador, a USO scout invited Lightstorm to tour Vietnam in 1970, but it was no surprise to them because, as Johnima says, “Sai Baba had talked about us going to help out the soldiers, so when this happened it was just perfect.” Six months turned into just over a year of playing music there when their replacement band bailed after its equipment was blown up.
“When we landed in Vietnam, the heat, the sweat, the smell… we couldn’t believe we were really there,” says Kalassu. They trudged on, playing their own unique brand of cultish experimental rock wherever they were sent, from Officers’ Clubs to bunkers and remote outposts along the DMZ. While protestors rioted in the streets back in the US, “we were just sharing love and light with our brothers and sisters,” says Johnima.
“We could see the lie that we were being fed,” says Kalassu. “The guys didn’t know why they were there. You could buy booze, grass, opium. Many of the GIs coming back were addicted to something.”
They tell one story of singing to a thousand GIs in the jungle. “We opened the set with ‘om.’ They thought we were singing ‘home’—which is the same,” laughs Johnima.
“Om is the sound of happiness… Om is the sound of love,’” he sings.
“Then the feedback and drums come in, and you could see the vibrations just change,” adds Kalassu. “We could see faces popping up in the jungle. Think of a beautiful cathedral in blue and purples and pinks and yellows, coming out of this grey, muddy energy space. It was quite beautiful.”
“A couple of times we played for the Viet Cong, They came out of the jungle and put their rifles down and listened,” says Johnima.
Johnima and Kalassu returned to the US and continued as Lightstorm with a rotating back-up band, earning some late-night radio airplay but always feeling like they were “a little too way out and crazy,” even for the era. Managers came and went, label interest waxed and waned. They followed their hearts instead of the trends. Johnima shares a story of Madonna’s manager approaching them once at the Troubador. “On stage Kalassu was so sensuous and sexy—the first female artist who really did that. Madonna’s manager brought Madonna to come see us perform and told her ‘I want you to move just like her’ [pointing at Kalassu].”
By the mid-70s, the couple’s focus turned to raising children and filmmaking, resulting in the 1982 schlock flick, Boardinghouse, the first shot-on-video feature-length horror movie that was shown in theaters in 35 mm (a recent revival screening at Cinefamily in Los Angeles pulled a full house; avant-garde filmmaker Vincent Gallo was there among its fans). On the advice of their spiritual master, they packed up their family and built a house in the mountains of Idaho, mainly performing and recording bhajans for select religious events.
Enter Douglas McGowan, music aficionado and founder of Yoga Records. Much like Jello Biafra stumbling upon ’s “Politicians in My Eyes” single or Stephen "Sugar" Segerman and Craig Bartholomew-Strydom tracking down Detroit musician , McGowan excavated Lightstorm from the depths of a record crate.
“I found the 33 1/3 record at Amoeba [Records] LA circa 2005, got immediately hooked, and spent many hours listening with my girlfriend at the time and speculating on the question of who these people were,” he says. “We cooked up a pretty elaborate, comic backstory about John coming to California from New Jersey to escape mafia trouble, and meeting Kalassu and getting deep into this valley swinger scene. A few years later I realized they had this spiritual background and albums under other names, and this other chapter as filmmakers. When I heard the Creation Earth record I knew there needed to be some sort of best of collection, and made a track list. And then basically I waited for the world to get weirder.”
McGowan found the couple living a semi-retired life on Maui, where they still perform and speak to spiritual groups (though mostly via Skype these days). Their musical genes were passed on to daughter Shanti, who performs as one half of award-winning kindie-rock group with her husband Greg Attonito, singer of popular New Jersey punk band, The Bouncing Souls. Their son Codey “has a beautiful voice as well” and works as a professional carpenter.
Hopefully the world is ready now, because on Feb 19, Yoga Records and Drag City Records co-release , an 11-song discography of chosen tracks from Lightstorm’s wildly diverse LPs. The collection will be available on vinyl and digital download.
And what do they make of this newfound interest in their old work? “It’s very interesting,” laughs Johnima. Is now perhaps the right time for Lightstorm’s music, since we’re a country still at war, with so much unrest in our own backyards? “Now is always the right time, whatever it is,” he says with confidence in that truth.
And will they be touring to promote the discography? “We don’t make plans. Whatever happens will be fine,” he says with a beatific smile. “The minute we desire and want and become attached, that moment is when life goes to crap. Buddha taught us that.” Kalassu shrugs and giggles at this latest twist in their wild journey. “We didn’t do it. It just happened.”
Shawna Kenney is astral projecting on Twitter.