42. The Conundrum

Published on 21 May 2023 at 10:10

Kenneth Bakeman 1954-2021

© 2023 Robert Sickles

Ken Bakeman and I were friends and partners in musical instrument making, a business that lasted for about 10 years starting in 1972. During that time, we designed and built classical keyboard instruments such as harpsichords and early pianos. Each was based on a historic instrument from measurements and data Ken uncovered in his travels and research. At our brief peak, the Bakeman Company was producing four instruments per year. We succeeded in getting good reviews from renowned performers and music critics. We sold many to private individuals, as well as chamber music groups and university schools of music. As a sideline, we also designed and built a variety of furniture pieces and custom cabinetry.

Our large workshop was a magnificent find. It was owned by a retired cabinet maker, an old friend of Ken’s uncle. Sitting on a 2-acre suburban lot with an old orchard and woods, it came complete with every pro-grade tool for woodworking and an office with a large drafting table, all for a monthly rent of $100!  After we bought a lathe and acquired a stock of supplies, production began and orders came in.

For a brief time, we considered buying property and building a home and shop on one of the Puget Sound islands where his family owned a beach home. But my girlfriend and I instead rented a house across the street from the shop, and Ken boarded with us.

That was our heyday. How Ken and I got started and how we ended up is the main story.

 

Our first fortepiano, 1983, after the Viennese maker Anton Walter, 1752-1826. Lightweight all-wood construction; outer case inlaid with rosewood, walnut burl and holly veneer; scrimshawed ivory name plate; ivory and ebony keyboard.

The Classical Period

Ken was 17 when I met him, four years younger than I. He was a high school senior living with his parents, and was building a harpsichord from a plan he had drawn. His workshop was his mother’s small garden shed. I started a sort of apprenticeship at the Seattle musical instrument workshop of Jack Peters. Ken and he had already met and they worked together occasionally, shared ideas and learned from each other. Things were busy but a little scattered at Jack's shop, and projects kept getting side-tracked with all of Jack's many interests. Ken and I seemed in agreement that there must be a better way. 

After Ken finished high school, he defied his family's expectations, skipped college and traveled to Europe. He gained access to instruments in museums and castles. He made detailed measurements and came up with an explanation of why modern harpsichords lacked the brilliant range of sound compared to the antique ones. His research was published and it became a standard reference for makers of all kinds of musical instruments.

The unwritten wisdom of old craftsmen was handed from master to apprentice in strict secret. But the secrets could be uncovered at museum workshops when some instruments were disassembled for repair! Ken’s measurements of soundboard thicknesses and music wire gauges gave him big ideas of how to build better instruments. Almost intuitively, he found a way to "tune" soundboards for the best resonance. Upon his return to Seattle, we started talking enthusiastically about going into business together. Within a couple of months we were at work at our incredible shop.

Our instruments were being borrowed or rented for use in concerts. [At one such event, I met my future wife, Linda. I was present as technician and she a newcomer to early music.]  We also started building fortepianos—the early lightweight pianos that Mozart and Haydn would have played. For several years, everything seemed to be going well for us.

But Ken’s mood was volatile. He had temperamental flareups. He grew frustrated with our clients, as much as shooing them away; he burned relationships with our suppliers; and he was cross with me over the terms of our partnership and the division of our labor. I was concerned that he was already burning out.

 

Labyrinth on the floor of Chartres Cathedral

The Age of Giants

By our eighth year in business, Ken’s interest in music and instrument building was gradually being replaced by a fascination or obsession with ancient monumental architecture—pyramids, temples, cathedrals—and the seeming supernatural or extraterrestrial explanation for their construction and purpose. Our workshop walls were covered with Ken’s huge drawings and overlay blueprints of the Cambodian temple Angkor Wat, Chartres Cathedral, Stonehenge; and the big kahuna, the Great Pyramid. He was devouring writings about Egyptian myths, the Mayan calendar, Easter Island, the Book of Ezekiel, mythic giants and ancient aliens. He became obsessed with radical interpretations of cave paintings, petroglyphs and megalithic monuments. I tried to understand, but his mind was skipping through so much information and making links I couldn’t follow. We behaved badly toward each other; I thought he was reiterating tediously, he treated me like I was unwilling to delve into "the truth."

This came to a head rather dramatically when Ken drove off in his van and didn’t return for two months. Since we hadn’t worked on a new instrument in a while, the only business for me to manage in his absence was to arrange a delivery. I also did some tuning and service work for instruments nearby. I took phone calls from clients, his friends and family. I could tell them nothing about Ken’s whereabouts or when to expect his return.

When Ken did return, it was obvious he was not coming back to our business to a level that would support us. Instead, he retooled the workshop and started crafting little life-like slugs, spiders, snakes and beetles out of wood under the “My Pet Slug” trade name. He was delighted to be doing something that wasn't so technical, involving inexpensive materials, and for such a low-end market. He even hired some helpers—among them my nephew, Bill. I married Linda, bought a house on the other side of town and took up other creative endeavors. Ken and I dropped out of contact for a couple of years.

 

My Pet Slug

The Empire

Around 1986, Ken resurfaced one day and announced that his Slug business had been bought out by a Japanese conglomerate that was just wild about his American creative genius. He was made CEO and his My Pet Slug operation had been moved to a big facility in a new business park. He took me for a tour and I saw the show room, production room, the packing and shipping area. I met his staff of workers, and we were served coffee by Ken’s secretary in the executive office suite. I was stunned that he’d developed this little nutty idea of his into such a thriving enterprise!

We stayed in contact for a few months, but again went our separate ways. The next thing I heard was that he’d freaked out with all the pressure and expectations of running a big business and he quit. At this point, he left the Northwest on another of his his lengthy vision-quest walkabouts and I lost contact with him for several more years.

 

Ken's reimagined Southwestern U.S. petroglyph design

The Renaissance

One day in 2008, I received a call from Ken. He had been back in the area for a while, and now needed temporary housing because his rental house had been sold from under him. We invited him to stay with us for a few months.

He had found very simple and satisfying work as a laborer in home construction. It was hard and dirty work, but he loved having no pressing responsibilities or decisions beyond getting his daily tasks done. No employees or sales force to hire and manage, no meetings with investors, no financial reports. I think he was the happiest I’d seen since our earliest days. His only struggle was that he was too brainy for the rest of the construction crew—he got poked in the chest and berated for using the word conundrum to describe a tricky matter with an upcoming concrete pour! The guy said, "Don't be using fancy words like that around us!"

After Ken had saved up enough to find his own place, he moved to a shared house nearby. I visited his new place and found him now intensely at work on his computer, creating very amazing renditions of ancient designs and having them printed on garments and home goods for sale online. He was also designing geometric fabric patterns for a clothing firm that made neckties, scarves and pocket squares! His old favorite topics became means of earning money: Egyptian art, Southwest desert petroglyphs, pre-Columbian deities and more. I bought a couple of t-shirts from his webstore, which is still going, by the way: 

www.zazzle.com/store/ken_bakeman/products

 

Ken's drawing of his encounter with the "Grays"

The End of Times

I skipped over a part about Ken, something that came to light when he was living with us. During those months, he told us of repressed memories that had re-emerged... of dark things in his past. He claimed he’d had numerous extraterrestrial abductions—both awful and wondrous. He also remembered suffering emotional abuse from his family, and he’d had an awakening of psychic ability. I wanted to remain supportive and objective, and take my friend’s stories as he told them. But it was hard not to believe, as many already did, that Ken was becoming mentally ill. I don't doubt that the things he said happened could be true, but when I offered reasonable alternative explanations, I could sense that he grew cooler toward me. I had stopped short of outright belief in his every word, and with that, he felt I'd failed him.

He wrote and illustrated a book, Verges of the Weird, about UFO's and his abductions. He became a well-known interviewee and blogger in that area. But the psychic ability he said he'd acquired was not a pleasant or useful addition to his repertoire of talents. Sensing “jagged” energy from people near him caused Ken constant distress, and the only way he found to cope with that and his other demons was with large quantities of alcohol. 

Ken quit the construction job, moved further away, and found work in the garden center of a big hardware store. We lost contact again.

Thirteen years later, in 2021, I heard from Ken’s sister that he had died at age 67. He wound up worn out, penniless, living in a Seattle homeless camp, and receiving care for liver disease, alcoholism, and schizophrenia. I did some research and found that his followers in the UFO-Alien field had been wondering about him for years, assuming he was in deep hiding, or permanently abducted. In a way, they were right!

The man was a tormented genius. With every phase and chapter of his life, Ken Bakeman inspired, entertained, frustrated, depressed and terrified anyone who was near him. I’m better for having known him, but also have regrets and scars. For better or worse, he never married or had children—how would someone have fared with Ken as a husband or father?

Really, aside from his dark moods, Ken was generally outwardly cheerful, well-mannered and amusing. He was a considerate and helpful house guest, and who could come up with the idea of a pet slug who didn't see the beauty and silliness in the world? 

To keep it brief, I have skipped over or simplified parts of his story. To include everything that I remember about Ken would take many more pages.

In his way of burning bridges, long-term relationships were very rare. I am among the very few, maybe even the only one, who witnessed so many chapters of his life, albeit in disjointed segments. It’s incredible that I get to be the one who records it here.

Ken's Photoshop creation, a curious view of himself as though a split person. A scowling child inside a grinning man.

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Comments

Dave
a year ago

So many things I never knew about you. Wow. Can't wait for the next episode.

Carol Christiansen
a year ago

I feel very quiet over this chapter, Robert. Such angst for him.

Kathy M
a year ago

What an insightful eulogy to your friend. Like many great minds, he burned out way too soon. You are/were a great friend to him. And, you are a man of many talents!

Linda
10 months ago

Oh how I wish I could have a conversation with Ken today. He was a man before his time, feeling the energies surrounding him and the power within him and not knowing what to do with all that. This was his path!

Tanya
17 days ago

I really enjoyed reading this post. I recently came across a "pet slug" at a thrift store when I was in Wisconsin. I drove away and something made me go back and get it. It's on my fireplace mantel. I thought it so cool that someone would actually make something like that. Who was this interesting human? As you said - "who could come up with the idea of a pet slug who didn't see the beauty and silliness in the world?". The slug came with a Care and Feeding Manual that just cracks me up. I was so thrilled to read your post and learn more about Ken. It's sad to hear how much he struggled. You were a good friend. Thank you so much for sharing. ; )