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Mort Garson, Mother Earth’s Plantasia
Mother Earth’s Plantasia (1976) by Mort GarsonCourtesy of Sacred Bones Records

The strange story of Mort Garson’s magical album Plantasia

Mort Garson, Mother Earth’s Plantasia

Garson’s warm electronic music was designed to help plants grow – we trace its journey from the legendary Mother Earth Plant Boutique in 1976 to the cult classic it is today

In 1970, Joel Rapp and his wife Lynn, a wise-cracking Hollywood couple, quit the film and television industry and opened up the legendary Mother Earth Plant Boutique on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. Rapp, who had previously written for classic Warner Bros. sitcoms like Gilligan’s Island, spent the next seven years staking out a frontrunner position in the burgeoning indoor plant industry. He worked alongside Lynn, his second wife and a bonafide green thumb, until, at the peak of their success, Lynn informed Joel that she was leaving him to join the Divine Light Mission of teenager Guru Maharaj Ji, a second generation spiritual leader from India with a stadium-sized western audience.

Now aged 85, and long since happily remarried to his third wife, Suzie, Rapp looks back on Mother Earth Plant Boutique with fondness. “You’re talking about 50 years ago,” he laughs, speaking by phone from Los Angeles. “Parts of it are difficult to recall, but there was a never-ending line of people all day, all coming in to enjoy the atmosphere and the plants that were for sale. It was a phenomenon.”

Today, soothing photographs of houseplants are ubiquitous on Instagram, but this hasn’t always been the case. “There were nurseries where you could buy plants for your garden, but there was nothing else like Mother Earth at the time,” Rapp continues. “It was very important in its place and time.” Part of Mother Earth’s mystique came down to it’s patron base. Having grown up in Beverly Hills, and worked in Hollywood, Rapp was very connected. “Every customer who walked in the door was a friend, and as far as celebrity clientele, there were very few celebrities who weren’t customers,” he says with pride. “I had them all, I had them all.”

Mother Earth arrived in an era where yoga, alternative spiritual practises, canyon artist communes and first-wave vegetarian restaurants were on the rise in America. Indoor plants fit perfectly, especially after fringe authors Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird published The Secret Life of Plants in 1973, a best-selling book that made some charming, if rather pseudoscientific suggestions, including the claim that plants have abilities like telepathy, lie detecting, and intergalactic communication. Six years later, American filmmaker Walon Green adapted the book into a documentary, with an experimental soundtrack album composed by Stevie Wonder. Between these, pulp horror moments like DC Comics’ plantae superhero Swamp Thing, and the plant pod replicants of 1978’s Invasion of The Body Snatchers, our lush-leafed, potted friends were firmly intertwined with the 70s counterculture.

Among the numerous off-the-wall claims Tompkins and Bird made in The Secret Life of Plants, their suggestion that plants loved music proved surprisingly enduring. Music, they wrote, had the capacity to help plants grow rapidly and beautifully, if administered correctly. But before their owners were playing them Stevie Wonder’s new age meditations on plants and their secrets, there was another record that was hip with West Hollywood’s leaf lovers.

Mort Garson was a composer, occultist, and early electronic music pioneer. Although he maintained a relatively low profile during his lifetime, much of Garson’s music found its way into the heart of popular culture. In 1976, Garson took Tompkins and Bird’s advice literally, recording an album of plant music as a promotional item for Mother Earth Plant Boutique. He called it Mother Earth’s Plantasia. Subtitled “warm earth music for plants and the people who love them”, in the 43 years since it was released, Plantasia has become an open secret among plant lovers, obscure record collectors, and open-format DJs. Prized for its exquisite music, with alliterated song titles like “Symphony For A Spider Plant” and “A Mellow Mood For Maidenhair”, and its adorable illustrated packaging, the album also came with an indoor plant care booklet, penned by Joel and Lynn Rapp, who were by this stage best-selling plant book authors as well.

“There is a certain vibe on Plantasia that I have been perennially chasing my entire life. It’s a certain way with melody, slightly schmaltz, but deadly serious. Slightly occult, but also heavenly” – James Pants, DJ/producer

Plantasia might have sounded stunningly futuristic in the 70s, its lush techno-naturalistic facsimiles of rhythm and melody all electronically generated on a huge Moog modular synthesiser, the gold standard for analog synthesisers in its era. Listening today, however, as with the compositions of fellow Moog early adopters like Wendy Carlos and the late great Isao Tomita, it carries a warmhearted and touching nostalgia, evoking 8-bit/16-bit video game soundtracks and the deep influence of the Moog on musical modes of expression like disco, boogie, g-funk, ambient, prog rock, and countless other dance music styles.

Garson’s album might not have stood out much at the time, given the physical mass market of the recording industry in the 70s, where novelty-themed records or promotional albums were relatively common. It’s been said that Garson latched onto Tompkins and Bird’s ideas while working on a plant conference in San Francisco, but regarding the details of why and how Plantasia came to be, things remain hazy. Even Rapp isn’t entirely sure. “I think it was done as part of a massive sales campaign,” he says. “Anything we could touch, we could sell, and the record was just another item.” Other accounts suggest that Plantasia was given away with purchases, and most curiously of all, there are anecdotes about it being bundled with Simmons brand mattresses at Sears.

“I don't know how the mattress thing came about – no idea,” says Caleb Braaten, founder of New York’s Sacred Bones Records, who are releasing the first ever official vinyl reissue of Plantasia later this week. While putting together the reissue, Braaten wasn’t ever able to make contact with anyone from Mother Earth Plant Boutique; it was only after coming across Rapp’s daughter, Lisa Stanley, a morning host on Los Angeles’ classic hits radio station K-EARTH 101, that I was able to speak to him for this article. This didn’t stop Braaten forming a special relationship with Garson’s music, however, and he wasn’t alone. “When you hear it, it’s so mysterious, yet so familiar,” Braaten enthuses. “I think that’s part of the reason why people have connected with it.”

After the late 70s, Plantasia spent a couple of decades languishing in record store dollar bins. In the early 2000s, James Singleton AKA James Pants, the Stones Throw Records-affiliated multi-instrumentalist, producer, and DJ, was attending college in Seattle. “I remember being in a store basement and they were playing Music For Sensuous Lovers,” Singleton recalls, referring to an album Garson released under his Z alias in 1971. “It was one of those Moog-and-orgasm-sounds albums, kinda tacky, but it had something a bit beyond and special to it.” Singleton started buying every record he could find with Garson’s name on it, and one night at a party, a friend showed him Plantasia. He didn’t find his own copy until the late 2000s, and by 2010, realised most of his DJ friends had copies. “I feel like the purpose behind the album,” – music to play to your plants – “is what really spread it,” he continues. “It was a novelty of sorts, but as time went on, more and more people began to appreciate the music. There is a certain vibe on Plantasia that I have been perennially chasing my entire life. It’s a certain way with melody, slightly schmaltz, but deadly serious. Slightly occult, but also heavenly.”

Braaten actually discovered Garson and Plantasia around the time Singleton did. He was living in Denver, working at local institution Twist & Shout Records, and at the time, really into “the DJ Shadows of the world”. Fittingly, Shadow had sampled Garson’s composition “Planetary Motivations (Cancer)” for his classic album Endtroducing...... “I'm not sure what I thought of it back then, but I got really into some of Garson’s other stuff,” he continues. “I’ve been a fan of this weird, esoteric electronic music for a long time, and four or five years ago, at least in my view, electronic music started to change in a way that matched what those occult record people were doing. I put the pieces together and thought some of these records would be really cool to reissue.”

The “change” Braaten was registering was that records like Plantasia were finding new audiences online through YouTube, where it was earning hundreds of thousands of streams, and the record collecting website Discogs, where copies of the album sometimes resold for hundreds of dollars. Cindy Li, the Toronto-based producer, DJ, and promoter known as Ciel, came across Plantasia during a late night Discogs digging session, and started including the album in her off-duty listening rotation. “I think it’s a unique and whimsical record,” she writes via email. “I’m a sucker for early synth records that were less focused on ‘songs’ and more about exploring and showing off the infinite possibilities of synthesisers.”

“When you hear it, it's so mysterious, yet so familiar. I think that's part of the reason why people have connected with it” – Caleb Braaten, Sacred Bones Records

Plantasia was becoming more and more of a popular record, so I started my journey to try to find out who owned the rights to all this stuff,” Braaten recalls. “What had happened to Mort Garson, who was Mort Garson?” He got the answers to his questions from Garson’s daughter, Day Darmet. Garson had died in 2008, aged 83, and Darmet had previously spoken to journalist Sophie Weiner for a Red Bull Music Academy retrospective on her father’s work. “I knew the journalist, so I asked her to message Day on my behalf,” Braaten explains. “Day wrote back, and then it was a long process of convincing her to do this.”

Darmet lives in San Francisco, the city where Garson spent his final years, where she runs the boutique Day Darmet Catering company with her business partner, Florence Raynaud. When I call, she’s happy to discuss her father, but admits she’d previously spent years ignoring phone calls and throwing letters about his music from advertising and movie companies in the bin. It was Braaten’s approach and energy that led her to trust him with her father’s music. “Otherwise, it would have just been sitting in a box in the basement,” she says. “My father was all about the music. On his grave, it says, ‘Let the music play on.’ I think it's fair to say the music is playing on, and part of his legacy is still here and living.”

Mort Garson, the son of two Russian Jewish refugees, was born in 1924 in New Brunswick’s Saint John port city in Canada, but raised across the border in New York City, where he met his future wife Maggie. He started playing the piano at age 11, and after pursuing it with unshakable focus during his teens, studied at Juilliard School of Music. During World War II, Garson worked as a pianist and arranger before being called in for military service. After he returned from the war, he became an in-demand session musician. His selling point was his skill range: composer, arranger, orchestrator, conductor, pianist – Garson could do it all. “He was a guy who started off just sitting at a piano and being able to play,” Darmet reflects. “He got seriously trained, went off to Juilliard, and realised that if he wanted to make money, he was going to have to do more than just the strange things that were happening inside his mind creatively.”

By the late 50s, Garson had worked his way into writing or co-writing hits for pop artists like Brenda Lee and Cliff Richard. Then, in 1962, Garson composed “Our Day Will Come” with lyricist Bob Hilliard for American R&B group Ruby & the Romantics. When it was released the following year, it topped the Hot 100 Billboard chart and sold well over a million copies. “It was his biggest moneymaker, and he did some silly things with the royalty rights, but I think it was a learning curve for him,” Darmet says. “You know that saying, is the glass half full or half empty? My dad’s glass was always full, so full that it was overflowing with positiveness. If you lost it, the glass would fill up again. He didn’t have that fear of not being able to create something great again and generate what’s needed. If there are any qualities I’ve gotten from him, that’s one of them.”

Not long after “Our Day Will Come” topped the charts, the Garson family headed west. In Los Angeles, Garson spent the mid-60s working with a who’s who of easy-listening pop stars from the era, including Doris Day and Glen Campbell, until one fateful day in 1967, he attended the Audio Engineering Society's West Coast convention. There, he met the man who invented the Moog modular synthesiser, Robert Moog. Darmet compares her father’s encounter with Moog to the moment French Nouveau Réalisme painter and performance artist Yves Klein made the colour that would become known as ‘International Klein Blue’ the singular focus of his Blue Epoch. It was an instrument that he totally resonated with. “He got to a certain point and was like, ‘Screw it, I’m going to do what I want’,” says Darmet. “Once he got the Moog and put it in his studio at home, he was there all the time. He was 100 per cent stimulated, and he needed to keep going with this until he couldn’t.”

As one of the first Moog users, Garson was often called upon to create advertising jingles, television and movie soundtracks, and even a cycle of concept albums based around the signs of the Zodiac. These allowed him to be heard around the world while retaining a low profile. In 1969, he was commissioned to compose a piece that was played during the Apollo 11 crew’s first moon walk, a legendary moment watched and heard by millions even while Garson remained relatively unsung. “He was a pretty cool guy,” Darmet says. “He was ahead of his time for sure, and it was an adventure to have someone like that in your life. He didn’t need to be known. What he needed was to make music, and have people listen to it.”

“My father was all about the music. On his grave, it says, ‘Let the music play on.’ I think it's fair to say the music is playing on, and part of his legacy is still here and living” – Day Darmet, Mort Garson’s daughter

As his understanding of Moog technology advanced, Garson created some masterful, occult-inspired synthesiser albums under the Lucifer and Ataraxia aliases, most notably 1971’s Black Mass and 1975’s The Unexplained. Despite the enthusiasm for these albums, Darmet thinks the satanic references and spiritualist overtones are somewhat of a red herring. “I was talking to someone recently who told me she heard my father was following Buddhism, and it just made me laugh,” she says. “He had a really good imagination for music, and he was really funny. Nothing blew his skirt up at all. I think it was because he was always in his mind, always in his music.”

The year after The Unexplained, Garson recorded Plantasia, before sliding into increasingly obscure work. In the 80s, the family spent a few years living in France. Upon returning to the US, they relocated to San Francisco, where he continued to write, play, and record for the rest of his life. Much like Joel Rapp, Darmet isn’t that clear on how Plantasia came together. “It’s hard for me to put the pieces back together,” she admits. “I didn’t pay much attention then. I think it’s the way I grew up. I was a young woman, 18 or 20, just beginning my own life. So it wasn’t like, ‘Wow, my father is creating something crazy or wonderful,’ it was more like, ‘He has this weird machine he really likes, and lots of weird people are coming in and out of the house, but whatever, this isn’t any different to what things were like five years before that.’”

Plantasia is both crazy and wonderful. The separate yet intertwined stories that led to Plantasia – the business, the people around it, the way the album turned from a throwaway novelty into a perennial classic – are stranger than fiction. I’m reminded of a comment Darmet made during our interview: “With no religious intention to it, the universe provides. Do what you feel, be passionate, unique, and honest, and the universe provides. It might not provide everything, but it provides quite a bit.” Joel Rapp said something similar, too. Intended as an explanation of Mother Earth, it also serves as a summary for Plantasia’s journey through time: “For me to try to describe something that was so unique – unique is not even the right word. It was a miracle. It started out in this tiny little store down a back walkway – and I mean tiny – and it became an international phenomenon that was one of a kind in a lifetime. I don’t know how else to say it.”

Sacred Bones Records release Mother Earth’s Plantasia on vinyl alongside Plantasia merchandise on June 21