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Tripping the Light Fantastic

He’s worked with rock icons The Who, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, The Grateful Dead and more. Today, Richard Borders continues living a life of music, technology and undeniable spirit

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As we speak, water is being pulled from the air. It seems fitting that Richard Borders asked to be interviewed at a sensory deprivation tank center. For a half-century-plus, he’s been a countercultural seeker. In the ’60s, Borders pioneered the creation of rock concert light shows. Using elements such as colored oils and lighting and overhead slide and film projectors, Borders and his cohorts provided a live visual dialogue between themselves and the performers at marathon rock shows by The Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers Band, Jimi Hendrix and The Who. So sitting in the lobby of a place that ultimately offers a kind of “out of body” experience, albeit one created by floating aloft in an enclosed tank filled with salinized water, is right on point. Wearing a shirt, jeans and ball cap, a trimmed gray beard offsetting his collar-length hair, Borders looks something like a hip English professor on sabbatical. In truth, he’s more akin to a mad scientist.

Float the Idea has been in operation for a few months and is already enjoying the patronage of a devoted clientele. Located a stone’s throw from a midwifery, the center is helping create a somewhat-humorous alt-health-lifestyle block in Lakewood. Borders helped co-owners Jigna Shah and Ken Tucker create the lighting-audio aspects of the center.

“My cousin and I built a sensory deprivation tank in New Jersey in 1967 when I was 20,” says Borders. While studying psychology at the University of Massachusetts, he was invited by Timothy Leary to visit the legendary acid guru’s Hitchcock Estate home in Millbrook, New York. Borders brought his homemade floating tank up to the hippie enclave. “Naturally, we used to take LSD and float in the tank.”

Behind the two couches in the lobby whirs a large, plastic, robot-like box with a simple control panel and digital screen. It’s an Atmospheric Water Generator (AWG). Here at Float the Idea, this is the de facto water cooler, slowly absorbing water from the air and then dispensing it from a small plastic spigot. Tucker walks over from the front desk and offers a demonstration of the machine in action, filling a coffee cup with water. “It’s really amazing, but it takes like 24 hours to fill
back up,” he laughs.

“Pretty trippy, huh?” laughs Borders. “Totally pure water.”

Over the course of his life, Borders has stayed tuned in to the side stream. Whether it’s designing pioneering multimedia productions for rock shows or traveling a spiritual path, he’s allowed life’s frequencies to carry him along.

“I have always thought beyond ‘the physical.’ That’s what I have always done, whether through visuals or whatnot. I’m always trying to deal in consciousness.”

 

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Borders’ first experiments with exploring consciousness occurred when he was a child. He’d cut out images from the pages of horror magazine Famous Monsters of Hollywood and paste them on a wall. On top of these collages, he’d slather Day-Glo paint, hang blinking holiday lights, and then screen 16mm films over this phantasmagoric collage. “I made these lighting boxes I would manipulate and listen to Spike Jones records or the 1812 Overture or really whatever weird music I could find.”

He cites his stepfather Bert Borders as a crucial influence on his scientific and artistic leanings. “He was a research-and-development scientist and had worked on things like creating Tang for NASA.” Along with buying the seven-year-old Borders a drum kit, he encouraged the boy to think technically. “I never wanted to study things like geometry and calculus but he made me learn it.”

Edmund Scientifics was an early-20th-century mail-order company based in New Jersey that sold educational projects geared toward kids. Ads on the backs of comic books boasted everything from telescopes to Tesla coil kits. The catalog became a kind of electrical grimoire for Borders, inviting him and thousands of other ’50s kids to directly participate in the Space Age. He’d assemble projects and then experiment with building and “hacking” the original schematics.

“When I was in my late teens, I designed a liquid light show for [Edmund Scientifics]. So in return, they’d give me all of this equipment to play with.” It was through the educational lab company that Borders acquired his first advanced lighting gadget: a helium-neon laser. “I took it home, glued a mirror on a speaker, aimed the laser into the mirror, and watched the light dance around to the music.”

Borders explains that in the years following his stepdad’s insistence on his mastering complex mathematics, it became crucial knowledge to design the seminal laser-light shows for rock concerts.

“When the government first started to regulate lasers, everyone was concerned. So I just called that government department up, and since I’d already been making these light shows, and knew physics and those types of things, I wound up helping them create the guidelines and ease their concerns.”

Only years later did Borders realize what drew him to those lasers and protean light-and-music projects. “All throughout my childhood, I was having out-of-body experiences. I could see colors glowing around people. And I did not understand it.”

When Borders was 12, his teacher told her students to pick a book from the public library and write a biography on a person they admired. “I was thinking I’d write about Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle. Instead, I discovered this book, The Story of Edgar Cayce (There is a River).” After reading the book, Borders realized that these halos of light he saw around people, something that Cayce had much experience with, were called “auras.” He became a student of Cayce’s life and message. An anomaly even in the world of New Age and spirituality, Edgar Cayce (1877-1945), known as the “sleeping prophet,” had the ability to sink into trances and transmit messages from the beyond and—some claim—heal the sick. While Cayce was initially reluctant to have this “gift” and the followers it attracted, he became a paragon of 20th-century spirituality. “I went down to Virginia Beach for a surfing contest and that’s where the A.R.E., the Cayce Center is located. I wound up staying there for a year-and-a-half.”

 

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The music scene is inhabited with inveterate bullshitters. If the number of people claiming to be at Woodstock had actually attended that storied three-day event of brown acid and even browner mud, Max Yasgur’s farm would have collapsed into the earth from the sheer weight of red-eyed hippies. The oft-quoted saying, “If you can remember the ’60s, you weren’t really there,” doesn’t apply to Borders. His memory is sharp, specific and detailed. While he speaks in a non-linear, circular way, with side alleys and new roads showing up and fading from view as he describes his life, the anecdotes are thoroughly mapped out. He’s as likely to name-drop some lighting designer as he is any legendary rocker. His stories all line up. Sixties rock bands became Richard Borders’ peers, patrons, partying cohorts and compadres. His life’s happenstances play out like a Tom Robbins story. As a kid, he encountered wrestler Haystacks Calhoun; as a young man, he was wildcatting with a different kind of wrestler in the form of Keith Moon. Water seeks its own level.

While still in his teens, Borders had his first pro lighting gig at Symphony Hall in Newark, New Jersey: a second set performance by Little Stevie Wonder. “I wound up doing lights for B.B. King, James Brown, etc. all of these incredible performers.” An avid surfer, Borders requested that the promoter bring in the Beach Boys. That show immediately sold out. Borders ran lights. “The opening band was the then-unknown Buffalo Springfield and they were just incredible.”

These Newark shows involved the use of then-standard stage lighting. Some 20 miles north, music promoter Bill Graham began hosting concerts at his venue Fillmore East. These concerts would stretch out for hours, the audiences receptive to, if not demanding, that bands twist and turn their songs into extended improvisations. “I talked to some of the guys from Jefferson Airplane’s crew. At the time, the Fillmore had started stretching these large screens behind the bands.” Borders began using overhead projectors to blast images onto these giant backdrops, mixing colored oils and water in Pyrex dishes, along with screening bits of 8mm and 16mm film, creating a visual commentary to the electric music flowing from the bands standing on the stage. He’d heard of others doing similar light-productions experiments at California rock venues. He eventually connected with the light-show collective Joshua Light Show in Philadelphia. “You had to buy the liquid colors in these 50-gallon drums of the stuff and it’d take you years to use it all,” he laughs. “So all of the lighting people would share the expense since there was plenty to go ’round.” The oils came in primary colors of red, blue and yellow. Those in turn could be mixed in real time to create secondary and tertiary hues.

“At one point, I had 12 slide projectors with 3,000-watt bulbs and Techmation slides and polarized disks where the slides could move in layers. Since the slides could move, you could have faces and the cosmos moving behind the band and it really felt like you were traveling through the stars.”

Borders could project images up to a size of 16 feet by 24 feet. When combined with his ability to project lights and graphics from behind the stage, Borders could invoke a kind of ever-shifting, visual spell on audiences already hypnotized by the Grateful Dead tearing into a half-hour version of “Dark Star.” Borders was no longer just seeing auras around people. He was now engulfing them in his own pulsars of light. Meanwhile, rock fans were peeling themselves off the ceiling after four-hour excursions into improvised music and unpredictable visuals.

Borders called his company Gemini, a fitting title for his dualistic dance of sound and sight that ultimately merged as one.

“One of my favorite places to work was Ungano’s Ritz Theater in Staten Island.” Borders became the de facto production and stage manager. At Ungano’s, he had the whistles-and-bells of overhead projectors and lights, but he also had an arsenal of film projectors looping movies, some of which he’d made. “I made these cut-ups of scenes from It Came from Outer Space.”

One of his savvier tricks at that time surely dazzled a few tripping brains at each night’s performance. Borders would shoot photographs of the bands during soundchecks. Then he’d race to an express photo-developing place in the city, and have those images turned into slides. During that night’s performance, he’d project images of the bands, many times wearing the same outfits from the earlier soundcheck, onto the band as they performed. “That was a huge hit,” he laughs.

This synergy occurring among band, audience and this nascent scene of “light artists” was a wholly new thing; not only entertainment, but also culture at large. It was the precedent that led to now-routine multimedia Super Bowl halftime blowouts and Jumbotron screens at sporting events.

The black-and-white hive mind of the ’50s had been fractalized into dazzling Technicolor and Borders was doing his part for the revolution, mixing up his wizardry from the shadows of the balcony. The boundaries of what was once show biz were being torn down. A new egalitarianism was at play. Much of this unilateral freedom was delivered in the shared sacrament of drugs. Narcotics had yet to decimate the scene. For many, the sinuous experience of pot and LSD created a vibe of empathy, if not unity. Acid seemed conducive in creating an audience of self-experimenters, ready for an even greater sensory experience. Borders is somewhat demur about his own chemical inclinations from those days. “Let’s keep it off the record,” he says, laughing. But as he recounts his days in the Age of Aquarius swirl, it’s apparent he was probably never early for choir practice.

Like countless others of the ’60s, Borders’ quest was based on the mystical as much as musical. He desired a purity of consciousness unavailable through any drug. Shying from artificial enlightenment, he delved deeper into his studies of Cayce, as well as the teachings of gurus Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Meher Baba and, eventually, Amrit Desai, who would play an even greater role in Borders’ life.

 

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As most bands played multiple-night runs of shows, Borders formed a bond with them, becoming a kind of co-performer of their music. One particular gig sticks out in his memory, when his lights and oils were in absolute sync with both band and audience.

“The Allman Brothers Band were doing a run of shows at the Fillmore East. One night they were playing a long, extended version of ‘Whipping Post’ and Duane was really laying into his solo. I began really following what he was playing with my lights and oils, kind of mirroring what he was playing. At one point, he looks up behind him and just stops dead in his tracks. He was mesmerized by what I was doing,” he laughs. “Then he turned around, jabbed his finger in the air at me, threw his head back and laughed, and started soloing again.”

 

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As the late ’60s rolled into the next decade, the demand for high-octane music began to explode. Concerts increasingly began to move from clubs and halls to stadiums and arenas. Borders had already established himself as a force to be reckoned with, by that time having toured with acts like The Doors, Jimi Hendrix and the first U.S. tour of the post-Syd Barrett lineup of Pink Floyd. Borders was involved in the lighting design and production end of festivals including Woodstock, the Atlanta Pop Festival and festivals in Atlantic City and Toronto. But the real game-changer in his career occurred when The Who asked Borders to go on the road with them in support of their groundbreaking album, Tommy.

“It was like a traveling family,” he says of touring with The Who. “There was me, my assistant, the sound guy, the band manager and the band. Now it seems inconceivable that it could be that small, but it was. The band would usually fly and we’d drive the van with our gear to the next gig.”

Borders recalls one particular show in San Diego that was a glimmer into the direction and magnitude of where rock music was heading. “The place held 16,000 people. After the soundcheck, everyone’s in the dressing room stoned and hanging out. I walked out from backstage to turn on my gear and the entire place is packed and they just roar when they see me walk onstage. I kind of ran back into the dressing room and the entire band seemed almost pale. It was nuts. And I think that’s when we all knew there was no turning back. Festivals had died off. The shows only grew from there.”

Tommy was a radical album and the band felt the need to continually “legitimize” it by performing the entire two-album collection live. By this time, production technology was finally catching up with Borders’s ideas and venues would supply stage lighting. Borders augmented that with a new three-channel video mixer and, most important, a development in multimedia production that he claims he invented: laser lights for concerts.

“Earlier, I had done some experiments by gluing mirrors onto these motors and I learned to position them so I could shoot the beam into two places, and eventually learned to form these mandalas.”

For the Tommy tour, Borders now had massive venues to use as his canvas, blasting what he calls a “$30,000 light beam” from the stage, throughout the venue, and back toward the band. Eventually, he acquired nascent technology that used a calculator keyboard to precisely graph the grids and patterns; all generated from one continuous laser line. “Unlike the ’60s shows which were so free-form, the lasers need to be precise. So that was a whole different experience, but I really learned to make it work.”

 

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During the mid-’70s onward, Borders worked as a lighting and production designer for an impressive roster of artists. Leaning forward from where he sits on a loveseat, he opens a photo album and hands it over. It’s full of production stage passes; a compendium of big-selling acts of the last 40 years. Paul McCartney, U2 and The Rolling Stones are just three of the acts printed on these tactile memories of a life in lighting up some of the most famous musicians of the 20th century.

Borders eventually stepped back from a life touring to raise a family. He still worked but devoted himself to fatherhood.

But that didn’t stop him from experiencing a few more odd gigs. “I once did a show in the afternoon with Joan Baez, and that night I did a GG Allin show,” he laughs, describing his evening of working around the late scum-punk rocker. “The stage crew locked us in the sound booth and they gave us these sticks to use in case GG tried to storm the sound booth and attack us!”

 

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Locally, his Gemini company is alive and well. Borders routinely presents light shows at various venues in the area. He also remains plugged into the music scene, in particular singing the praises of local teenage, roots-soul singer-songwriter Madi Carr. “I’ve seen so many great performers play and Madi is the real deal.” Borders has also been working on a memoir. As no other extant members of that ’60s light show scene have penned an autobiography, it would be the first of its kind. True to form, Borders plans on creating a hi-tech book. “I’ve applied for a patent where you would have a USB thumb-drive possibly in the spine of the book. That way, you could have these audio/visual interactions on a laptop or tablet that coincide with the story you’re reading.”

On the TV production side of things, Borders has also worked with WJCT 89.9’s First Coast Connect. Melissa Ross, the host-producer of the popular morning news and commentary show, sings Borders’ praises.

“Richard is an amazing person. I am so grateful to have his friendship and professional support. He’s very humble, but he has worked with some of the biggest names in music,” she says. “I could listen to his stories all day. He’s also a truly spiritual person. I’ve learned a lot from my discussions with him and always benefit from his positive energy.”

 

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After his accounts of lighting up hundreds of concerts and traveling with some of the biggest names in rock and pop music fade, Borders becomes emphatic about his true purpose. Borders’ knowledge of, and passion for, the esoteric rivals, if not surpasses, his experience with lighting production. One particular interest is in Kirlian photography, a parapsychology technique that believers claim captures an image of energy fields, photos that can help prevent and cure illness. Along with his ongoing devotion to Cayce, for 47 years Borders has also been an adherent to Amrit Desai’s Kripalu Yoga and I AM Yoga teachings. Borders spent a year at the Amrit Yoga Institute in Salt Springs, Florida. While there he hooked up their audio-visual system, naturally. It was Border’s spiritual quest that ultimately led him to Jacksonville. While at the Amrit Yoga Institute, he met fellow Desai follower Jim Alabiso, the amiable Jacksonville waterways-environmentalist and activist. At the time, Alabiso was producing his cultural talk show, Tonight with Jim Alabiso. “Jim invited me to come up and work on his show, so I did.”

Borders remains excited about the possibilities of multimedia presentations for music and various events. “One thing I’d love to do is create a laser-drawn Jacksonville Jaguars logo in the sky.” The days of lugging around giant WWII-era projects and rolling metal drums of liquid colors into clubs are far behind him. Now he’s perfecting a modular system that he can easily carry into venues. If there’s one certain thing that Richard Borders has done throughout his storied life, it’s honoring the energy that has carried him along. In the context of the Vedanta teachings of gurus like Amrit Desai, it has been called “The God Within.”

“I call it the Creative Divine Guidance,” explains Borders. “I try to surrender to that force and my life seems to have direction and purpose. You always have that inner voice and every time that voice says ‘Don’t do that!’ I wind up in trouble.” Borders says that when he was young, he thought he’d probably be a lawyer or a psychologist. “I never planned for the life I’ve had. I’ve listened to that force and voice and am amazed that I’ve had such a life uncommon. And what’s really remarkable is that if you follow that voice, you’ll discover that it’s speaking to and guiding others.”

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