High on a hill, one mile from the west entrance to Joshua Tree National Park, the sparkling "city" lights of a small village below glitter in the blackness, like tiny pinpoint diamonds. Parked cars line the dark, dirt road leading to this place of light, mirth and merriment. You know you've arrived at Furst World by the giant peace sign standing tall at the entrance to a towering, gleaming steel Quonset hut. The arch of the structure mimics the curve of the starry night sky above.
"Horny Gods and Raging Harlots" are invited to the feast: a costume ball, with long tails, furry vests, big hats and bigger hearts. With one wandering Odin and a few scantily clad Goddesses with twigs in their hair, the Pagan Fancy Dress Ball and Benefit is mostly a family-friendly affair -- that is, if you belong to the family of artists, musicians, eccentrics and oddballs who populate the close-knit community of Joshua Tree. And pretty much anyone who finds their way into this particular circle is welcomed with a warm embrace. Hugging is common here, where these renegades from the modern world are building their own renaissance, high in the desert.
One of the prime architects of this altered reality is the artist Bobby Furst, whose home -- and it's adjacent silver spaceship -- is the venue for the ball. At the entrance, Victoria takes donations from the people lined up, like their cars outside. Bobby is the primary recipient of this outpouring of love but the way it works around here, everyone benefits from this benefit.
Bobby makes art from the things he finds in his travels. Between the large steel hut and two smaller ones -- both of which are filled to the roof with objects culled from Bobby's years of roadside scouring, estate sale hunting, junkyard diving, classified-section poring and swap meet exploring -- are rows of seats from a demolished theatre. Bobby's artwork, the word -- "Peace," spelled entirely out of bullets -- is missing a big chunk on one end. "This represents all of the waste of lives... all that money, all those bullets, and still, 'peace' isn't happening," explains the artist. Books, filled with the names of fallen soldiers from the recent wars, accompany the piece.
As I sample one of the Joshua Treets (Lime-Indy-Coconut), a natural, locally-made ice cream, a young woman beams past, covered in tattoos, before stopping to explain, "I became homeless last night, in Hollywood... so I decided to go to the desert and eat some mushrooms. And this is where I wound up. It's perfect!" True, she has found a safe place for her mind and spirit to roam the cosmos. Mad 'M', as she introduces herself, feels karmically connected to this place after finding a friend who died in Iraq in Bobby's massive log of casualties.
As a teen in the 1970s, Bobby accompanied his stepdad as he documented the visionary art of the Huichol Indians in Tepic, Mexico. From their home in Laurel Canyon, Bobby roamed the Hollywood Hills, collecting stones, bones and other artifacts; he photographed the homeless of Venice Beach and Hollywood.
On another, long-ago, trippy night, Bobby's explorations led him, as a teenager, high on mushrooms, to the Integratron in nearby Landers, where he met its legendary designer, George Van Tassell.
"I've never danced so hard in my life," says Jenny. "...And in high-heeled boots!"
Jenny Q -- herbalist, registered nurse and proprietor of the Grateful Desert Herb Shoppe and Ecomarket, with long, black henna waves and shining, dark chocolate eyes -- is serving her potions at the Smart Bar, assisted by Piper and by Amber, who is dressed in the (free) spirit of the occasion, baring those life-giving body parts which are not allowed to be posted on Facebook. Guests are welcome to add to Jenny's tonics at the more traditional bar nearby, in a room filled with art donated for a silent auction.
"Stevia ginger ale... and it's got that concoction, which is fresh-squeezed orange juice, orange blossom, lavender and holy basil tea and a little bit of agave nectar," the overflowing, cherub-faced Amber tantalizingly describes the drink, "Orange You Glad You Came," in her cup. "Cheers," she smiles, drawing Piper's perch-lipped face to her own.
The ball -- conceived by musician Robbi Robb, a bonafide South African guitar-god, transplanted to Joshua Tree, after battling apartheid with his tribal acid-rock -- is a stop-gap fund-raiser for Bobby, who has been spending much of his time in recent months, caring for his ailing stepfather -- the documentary film-maker/archaeologist, Peter Furst -- taking him away on repeated trips to New Mexico, and away from his work, even as his home continues to host events to help members of his community. The goal is to help Bobby catch up on an overdue mortgage. The community has pooled its resources to help Bobby keep Furst World afloat. The sounds from inside the dome are being made by Robbi, his wife, Amritakripa, in their third performance in less than 12 hours, having just played twice at Bhakti Fest, just down the road.
"Kripa," as she is called, has a dreamy, ethereal voice, that sounds, anachronistically, like a 1,000-year-old child, as her call-and-response kirtans float over heavy, trance-inducing rhythms accented by horns, numerous percussionists, and a long-haired, veteran bluesman, Rojer on flute. The band Robbi has assembled, from Machin, a self-described, "Spanglish" ska ensemble, has merged with Amritakripa into the Chon Chons.
Eva Soltes performs traditional Indian dance, as she has done for 40-plus years. "Each hand gesture and rhythmic pattern of the feet represents years of study," she later explains to a small group in a breezeway, outside the dome, beside an Airstream Trailer. Her audience includes Billy Shire -- the owner of Wacko and La Luz de Jesus, the "best shops in the best parts of L.A." -- and journalist-turned-alchemist Art Kunkin, founder of the original radical weekly, the Los Angeles Free Press.
Pilings from a disassembled pier have been reassembled by Bobby inside the giant hut; a stainless steel submarine door snaps shut at the entrance to the bathroom. Mannequins in various stages of undress are decorated with gas masks, beads and wigs. Walls of drawers are filled with oddities, mannequin fingers, buttons, knobs and other categories of well-organized chaos.
I take a sip from my Emerald Seduction, a refreshing mix of chlorophyll and fresh mint, and enter the steamy room where the Chon Chons are backing up Connie King, an elegant, drunken, platinum blonde, drag queen, belting her way through a tragic, riches-to-rags tale, peppered with punch lines and rim-shots from the drummer.
The performers and a Quonset hut filled with revelers sweat the night away in a glorious, end-of-summer variety show of goodwill. Sometime in the wee hours, Robbi holds back his tears as he hands over a pile of cash to Bobby.
"Bobby and I couldn't speak. As I was building the tower of money before him, I was welling up, my heart stuck in my throat. ... At that moment the money transformed into a symbol of love and caring with a value higher than gold and rubies, and the quality of our dear community became, as it were, the real and true value, manifested... Bobby, holding back from crying, muttering, 'thank you.'"
As Robbi walked outside, "David, my musical partner from Machin, said to me 'Mission accomplished,' and I burst into tears..."
Already giving back, three nights later, Bobby's Furst World welcomes another event; A screening and discussion for the Mil-Tree group, which serves returning veterans and soldiers in and around Joshua Tree.
Top image: Bobby Furst, Tammy Sioux Parkhouse, Robert Warner | Photo: Thomas Fjallstam.
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