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Terry Tarnoff


It was a different time in a different world. Terry Tarnoff spent eight years during the 1970s traveling throughout Europe, Africa and Asia. It was the early days of exploring what were to become legendary spots on the traveler’s trail. Whether playing the clubs of Amsterdam, skirting the Yakuza in Japan, surviving the winters of Kathmandu, or forming a band in Goa, India, Terry’s adventures are alternately engrossing, hilarious and deeply moving.

Once Upon a Time in Goa is Tarnoff’s long-awaited follow-up to The Bone Man of Benares, a highly acclaimed book and play that told the first half of the story. Once Upon a Time in Goa continues the tale, adding new meaning as it looks back from the perspective of modern times upon a period that continues to fascinate people of all generations across the globe.


“In the long-awaited sequel to his brilliant The Bone Man of Benares, Terry Tarnoff’s memoir, Once Upon a Time in Goa reminds me of Daguerre’s description of photography as a mirror with a memory, with the significant twist that Tarnoff’s is a circus mirror, revealing psychedelic images and picaresque stories from the fabled traveler’s trail of the now mythic Sixties. Moreover, Tarnoff employs a dazzling writing technique, which is the equivalent of scrying, gazing into a reflective surface to review the past and foretell the future, that allows the reader to watch him watching himself on his pilgrim’s progress through life. A tour-de-force of memoir and travel writing.”
– Phil Cousineau, author of The Art of Pilgrimage and host of the PBS television series, Global Spirit

Once Upon a Time in Goa is a truly original book, a combination travel book and memoir with a smattering of fiction. It vividly recalls Terry Tarnoff’s eight years in the late sixties and seventies spent travelling and making music in Europe, Africa and Asia. The writing is highly inventive as is the narration (one section sees the action through the viewpoint of a blue-headed wagtail). Tarnoff playfully sets off the actions of his earlier self against his present-day reflections, admitting at the beginning that his will be ‘jumble of memories. . . things out of order.’ In search of an answer to things, he ends up asserting that it was the journey that counted, not any discoveries about the meaning of it all. I highly recommend this exceptionally entertaining and wonderfully written book. If you want a break from normality, this is for you.”
– Brian Finney, author of Money Matters: A Novel


I stood on a stage at the far end of Anjuna Beach facing the Arabian Sea on one side and a natural amphitheatre on the other. A full moon glistened in the water like a great beacon from above, a shining light that illuminated the paths of a thousand wanderers who’d made their way to this secluded grove at the edge of the world. There were people as far as the eye could see, groups of them huddled around fires, stretched out on straw mats and wandering along the water’s edge, but most of them were dancing, great masses of people moving with abandon, dancing alone, dancing in couples, dancing in groups, hundreds of them performing a kind of spontaneous ballet in the sand.
That’s when Alexandro, who may or may not have been the cousin of Francisco Franco, came running across the stage with a dagger trying to stab Hollywood Peter, who may or may not have stolen his money. Amsterdam Dave, who wasn’t from Amsterdam, tried to intervene but Bombay Brian, who wasn’t from Bombay, refused to get out of the way. Johnny Cairo, who was just out of jail in London, egged them on while Mexican Mike grabbed the knife before the whole stage collapsed under the weight of the ensuing chaos. Meanwhile, I was playing a harmonica solo, a jazzy interpretation of Sketches of Spain, and when I opened my eyes there were two bulls actually locking horns at the edge of the mountain as if we were on the plains of Andalusia.
We were the last of the beatniks and the first of the hippies. The inhabitants of Goa, a former Portuguese colony in the heart of Hindu India, left us alone since they had absolutely no idea what we were up to and, for the most part, neither did we. It was an off-the-cuff sociological experiment to see what happens when people are granted absolute freedom to do whatever they wish. Let a thousand flowers bloom, let the mind wander and roam, let ideas percolate and philosophies abound, let it all flourish beneath a full moon that lights the path and offers guidance for anyone lucky enough to bask in its glow.


Ira Cohen, the well-known New York poet and photographer, and Petra Vogt, a legendary German actress with the Living Theatre, lived just behind me in a big house that was filled with books, paintings, poetry, photography, bat skulls, raven beaks, and a collection of human toes and fingers that Petra had purchased in India from the Bone Man of Benares. When Ira met Petra, an artistic force was unleashed upon the world. They were two outsized personalities draped in purple, black and silver, two alchemists of the netherworld who poked holes in preconceptions and mutated reality. It was only natural that they would wind up in Nepal, the perfect stage for their surreal explorations.
The day that Ira and Petra found out I had hepatitis they hurried over with sheets of mylar and rolls of film. “You’re magnificently yellow!” cooed Petra. “It’s a wonderful shade, completely inhuman, you must be part of my new collage, please, just lie back, let the shadows sink into your glorious skin, is it too light in here, Ira, do we need to close some windows, oh, this is good, this is really good, you are so wonderfully gaunt, who knew you could project such luscious morbidity!”
“Congratulations,” said Ira, “you’re going into our gallery of rogues, misfits, and international outlaws.”
“I’m honored,” I said.
“You should be,” said Ira, angling one final shot of my jaundiced visage against a sheet of mylar that was twisting in the breeze. “Don’t ever change.”


Angus Maclise was a drummer and poet from Greenwich Village who took it upon himself to study the most esoteric aspects of Buddhism while drumming out rhythms so convoluted they were nearly impossible to decipher. Years earlier Angus had hooked up with Lou Reed, John Cale and Sterling Morrison to form the original Velvet Underground. They first met on a subway in New York where Angus pounded out wild polyrhythms as the train screeched through the tunnels. That’s where Angus was most comfortable, in the subway stations, bus platforms, and train terminals where he could absorb the sounds of the city and add his own particular touch to the surrounding cacophony. Playing with an actual band, unfortunately, was another matter. Angus was famously late to practices, often showing up a day or two behind schedule, if at all. In a documentary called Rock & Roll Heart: Lou Reed, filmed some years later, Reed recounted their collaboration: “One day we got a job and Angus said, ‘You mean, I have to show up at a certain time and then I’m allowed to play and then I have to stop playing?’ and we said ‘yeah, man, it’s a gig, that’s what a gig is,’ and he quit on the spot. What can I say? This was the sixties.” That was Angus in a nutshell. New York was too small for his anarchic spirit and the rules too strict. He left for California in search of a gig that began in the evening, ended in the morning, and never required him to play the same thing twice.
As Roberto Valenza alternated lines of poetry with atonal Indian chants, I filled in on guitar while Angus played a rhythm that was completely beyond comprehension. He’d gone beyond polyrhythms and improvisations into some whole other realm that eclipsed music. Whatever I was playing on guitar and whatever Angus was playing on drums had absolutely nothing in common. He was jamming with an astral quartet in some unknown plane of consciousness while I was left to play mere chords on the guitar, chords that no matter how complex they might have been were chords nonetheless, combinations of actual notes creating a somewhat predictable tonality. Angus wasn’t playing rhythms, he was stealing shapes from a multidimensional universe, little pieces of trapezoids and octahedrons that flickered together for an instant, then flew off into some far gone exosphere, never to return again.


I headed down Chowk Godowlia Road, past the sari shops, tailors and bead merchants, and came upon Varanasi Lassis, which seemed like a good enough place to try out since I was, indeed, in Varanasi. To me it was still Benares, the ancient name of the city, even though it had recently been renamed in reference to the confluence of two rivers, the Varuna and the Asi, plus a third, invisible river that was said to flow either beneath the city, above the city, or in some still-undiscovered dimension.
The juice joint consisted of a counter, a table and a couple of mismatched chairs. I watched as the proprietor wiped a wet spot off the floor, then used the same rag to wipe down the table and dry some glasses. Anywhere else in the world he would’ve be closed down for health violations, but in Benares it would be considered exemplary behavior. “Sahib?” he said as I walked in. “A nice mango lassi?”
“With lots of ice, okay?” I said.
“Best ice in Varanasi,” he responded. “On the double.”
I loved the Indian sense of humor, even if I was never entirely sure that we were sharing the same joke. The proprietor scooped some yogurt into a blender, then added a few slices of freshly-cut mango and a squeeze of lemon. The machine was an ancient-looking thing with Russian lettering that reminded me of an old Hoover vacuum cleaner. He turned on the power switch and waited with a hopeful look. We were in luck. There was enough electricity that day not only to run the blender but also to power a slow-moving fan that periodically made a few revolutions, then paused intermittently as if to gather its resolve to go on. The fan actually seemed like a pretty good metaphor for India itself, except that it, too, was made in Russia.
The blender spun around as if it were grinding the Arctic Ice Shelf. After a terrible shaking and clamor, the contraption ground to a halt and the proprietor poured my lassi into a glass. “One mango lassi,” he said.
Before he could wipe a little smudge off the rim of the glass with his all-purpose rag, I grabbed the lassi and drank it down in one gulp. “Good ice,” I said, winking at him.
He winked back as I headed for the street, happy to have shared a little joke––if that was a joke––or at least a little wink––if that was a wink.


I heard a tapping from the hallway that was so feeble I thought it might’ve been a cat brushing against the door or a slight rustle of wind. It could only be one person. I opened the door of my apartment just off Durbar Square in Kathmandu to find a little button of a man with a long white beard, coke bottle glasses, and a topi propped rakishly on his balding pate. “Namaste,” I said. “Please come in.”
“Yes, yes,” he whispered, “but only for a moment.” Shri Mahant Ganesh Giriji Maharaj entered with no small effort, one foot pushing the other until he arrived at his usual spot on a cushion in the center of the room. He sank into the well-worn grooves and might’ve disappeared between the folds were it not for his keeping his back so straight he actually posed a kind of towering figure, rare in a man not even five-feet tall.
“How was the class tonight?” I asked.
Ganesh Baba, as he was less formally known, slowly shook his head, as if wondering what was the point. “They are slow learners, if they learn anything at all. You Westerners, you come to dig the dust of our civilization and all you find is more dust. I’m trying to teach them Kriya Yoga and they are asking me how to chew their food. ‘With your mouths,’ I tell them, ‘with your mouths!’ And do you know what? They think I’m a genius of digestion!”
Ganesh fell quiet, closing his eyes either in deep meditation or perhaps to catch a couple of winks. He looked tired, not unusual for a man in his late eighties who was still trolling around the streets well past sunset. He looked up at me with half-closed eyes and mumbled something I couldn’t quite understand. “Mmmmmph… mmmmphhhh.”
“What’s that, Baba?”
“Why don’t you… roll up… a nice big fat one,” he said, forcing out the words with such effort I began to wonder if he’d make it through the night. He hardly seemed like the bête noir of the spiritual community, as he was known. He was more of a cuddly grandfather figure, what with his prodigious belly, his skintight orange pants and his pink kurta that reached almost to his knees.
“Okay, Baba, whatever you want,” I said.
I rolled up a Ganesh Baba Special––short, fat and hazardous, just like him––and handed it to him to light. “Bom, Shiva,” he said as he took a long drag from the tightly packed joint. Before he even exhaled, Ganesh began to transform right before my eyes. His cheeks got pinker, his eyebrows rose like little tents, the corners of his mouth began to twitter, and his eyes darted around in delight. “Ha!” he snorted. “Ha! Ha! Ha!”
Ganesh Baba was a legendary teller of tales short and tall, some of which were true, some of which were false, and most of which fell into that broad raconteur’s limbo where all that mattered was that they were entertaining. If there was one consistent theme, it was the necessity of keeping one’s back straight. Whether experimenting with drugs, attempting esoteric meditation practices, or shooting craps on the sidewalk, the back must be kept straight. At least once a night, Ganesh would shoot me a disapproving glance. “You are slouching again!” he’d intone. “If you want to be a psychedelic, you must keep your back straight. Otherwise everything will cave in on you!”
Ganesh was off on a dissertation that might lead anywhere. “We Naga Babas are the oldest monks in the world,” he laughed. “No one can compare with us in our phoniness! We will outshout you all the time. We are not ordinary monks but hipster monks. I am the hippopotomaster!”
“Baba?” I said, pointing to the joint burning down in Ganesh’s fingers. This was entirely predictable as he invariably forgot it was there. “Would you like to pass that on?”
“We Naga babas don’t bother with petty formalities,” he said, staring at the long ash ready to drop on his pants. “Bring your guitar! I want to dance!”
“Right away, Baba, right away.”
“Ha! Ha-ha-ha!” he said, shaking with laughter. “Ha! Ha! Ha!”