BOB DESPER'S sole album, New Sounds, was released in 1974 in a small run of 500 copies on the Rose City Sound label—a Christian-oriented record label offshoot of the lighting and sound company that still operates in Portland today. Those 500 copies were sold at churches, Christian bookstores, and community meetings. Decades later, a copy was found in a thrift store bin by record collectors Paul Anson and Paul Montone, who were immediately drawn to the album's stark, overcast folk and Desper's lush finger-picking guitar style. After some detective work and a few dead ends (one rumor led them to believe Desper had passed in the '80s) they tracked down the man responsible for the obscure folk gem. Now, Desper's New Sounds has been reissued on Anson and Montone's label, Discourage Records, and Desper is playing his first show in decades.
Desper has been blind since an accident at age 10 damaged his optic nerve. It was then he discovered that he was drawn to music. "I received this talent after my vision went bad," he says over the phone from his home in Albany, Oregon. "In the surgery room as a kid, I was rapping out a little drumbeat with my hands, and I thought, well gosh, I got that talent to be able to play something." Desper picked up his first guitar at 12, and as a young man played in several Christian bands. A pop single ("Dry up Those Tears") came out in 1972, then he followed it up with New Sounds, sung and played solely by Desper with his Martin D-28 acoustic guitar.
Recorded in one take, the album's eight songs examine the spiritual struggle and confusion that accompany early adulthood. New Sounds opens with the lyrics: "Darkness is like a shadow covering our land/Searching for reality, but they're too blind to see." Powered by a rich and fluid guitar, Desper takes on the role of a blind seer, a mystic guide who can see the spiritual truths that are invisible to those even with perfect vision. "Lonely man stands all alone/Lonely man stands in the night," he sings. "Now what is your life and what are you going to do?"
"It's a visionary type record, I call it," Desper says of the record now. "Some things are on the other side, too. It gives it more of a magnetic feel, an energy to it—songs that have more good feeling to 'em, and are not degrading. The stuff today, they're good musicians, but it's all about headbangin' and hurtin' somebody, or just tearing down someone's moral life, you know? I can jam that good, too, but that ain't music. Music is the melody of the heart, it's the tune of the soul, and I think good music touches people's lives, even in love." The songs—message driven though they are—remain open ended and are never judgmental, and they're highlighted by Desper's excellent guitar playing. "I call it folk-classical music," he says. "It's different than your average folk music, because I did the five-finger-style playing. I plucked the notes and played the rhythm too. That's what made it a unique sound, for what it was. I'd like to have done more with it. There's so much more potential there, but it's still lovely the way it was."
Desper can no longer play the guitar due to an accident a few years ago. "I was putting my guitar away, and I jammed my finger into the case," he says. But Desper has been working on new material and will sing at the show with a pair of Portland's finest musicians backing him up: Al James of Dolorean and Jon Neufeld of Black Prairie and Jackstraw. "They just picked up on it so well," says Desper of his bandmates. "We flowed together. It's great how they picked up on the new stuff like that. I can't play it, but they're playing what I know; they're playing my tunes.
"Beethoven's greatest performance was after he was deaf," he continues. "That's the way I kind of look at my life, you know. I'm blind and I've lost the hand, too. So I look at it like, 'Wow, what do I do, Lord?' I can't lie down on my talent. I know I can sing, I know I can perform. And lo and behold, Discourage Records pushed me into it, helped me and encouraged me onward and put it together for me, and said, 'You got it, you can do it!'"