Thank You, Robert Fripp
Musical paths are meandering. The point is never the arrival, always the journey. And every musician can point to at least one event, and frequently several events, that spurred that journey onward.
My first big push came from Robert Fripp. Or more accurately, his band King Crimson–whose first album I bought just because the cover looked interesting. Certainly not due to the band’s name, since there was no lettering of any sort on the album cover, front or back. Instead, it was a wraparound piece of art that looked like this when opened outward:
OK, thought my 13-year-old self, this is definitely worth taking a chance on. And I plunked down my $4.37, brought it home, and queued up Track #1 on my stereo with the green fuzzy speakers. (Shag carpeting, don’t you know.) My virgin ears were about to be treated to a little ditty called “21st Century Schizoid Man”.
Oh. Mah. GAWD.
Seven and a half minutes later, my life was forever changed. Track #2 had started, but I instantly seized the tone arm and dropped it back at the beginning. And again, after another 7:24. And again.
Temporarily sated, I allowed the record to play through the fourth time. And by the time the entire album had elapsed, I was on my way, a journey that continues to this day.
It wasn’t so much the distorted vocals and nightmarish lyrics, although that certainly played a part. It was the middle section of the tune, the section called ‘Mirrors’–an open mono-chord jam, bristling with double-tracked saxophone and guitar solos, leading into an intricate stop-time line played in octaves by drums, guitar, and saxophone simultaneously. Suddenly, a whole world of possibility opened inside my head.
Later, I played this track for some of my friends with the fervor of the newly converted. Strangely, nobody seemed to get it. They liked the distortion at the beginning OK, but they got lost in the stop-time.
“What is this, music to stop by?” was one comment. Another was, “Man, this music just won’t leave you alone!”
That’s when I realized that I didn’t want music to leave me alone, I wanted it to transport me to someplace new. I didn’t need ‘background music’. I had been listening to that all my life, I suddenly realized. Enough, already.
I didn’t know at the time what ‘progressive rock’ was, or that it was being invented by this band. I just knew that, even though the Beatles were cool and all, this was a level of musicianship and composition they never aspired to.
I was too young to realize that Prog Rock was the gateway drug to Jazz, but too late. The trap had been sprung.
It doesn’t matter that the music I play today bears very little resemblance to King Crimson. It’s more that King Crimson opened my ears to virtuoso playing and composition that led me to Soft Machine, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever, Frank Zappa, and Jean-Luc Ponty. And from there, a short skip sideways to Thelonious Monk.
Monk was the second big push. It became apparent that you could move mountains with a minimum of strain, just by playing the right note in the right place and sculpting the sound with silence. Suddenly, all those electric guitar and drum fills on my fusion records began to sound overwrought and desperate. Monk said what needed to be said, no more and no less. And it was clear that you could take it or leave it, because he wasn’t releasing a Christmas album anytime soon.
Then I discovered Miles, and the floodgates opened.
This all occurred to me when I read a recent ‘review’ of a late John Coltrane recording called “Offering: Live at Temple University”, appearing in the New York Review of Books. The author seems to be grappling with Trane’s free playing at this late stage of his career, recorded just nine months before his death. And indeed, it is an adventurous outing, with a large assemblage of players.
The article is not helped by using the title “Catastrophic Coltrane”–probably just to get attention, but of an unfortunate sort. There is nothing ‘catastrophic’ about Coltrane’s playing. He knew what he was doing, even if the audience didn’t always. ‘Catastrophe’ conjures up the aural image of someone dropping a tray of dishes onto a marble floor. That wasn’t Trane.
For me, it comes down to this: if an artist is talented enough to have something to say, then the listener is obligated to take them on their own terms and take from the experience what you will. Some of it may move you and some of it may leave you cold, but if you wait for something to be pleasing all the time, you might as well tune in Lawrence Welk. Coltrane could sing, swing, wail, and rage, and he was known for taking 20-minute solos that could wring you out with exhaustion just by listening to them. It wasn’t always ‘pretty’, but it was always real–and intentional.
I guess it’s up to you whether the journey is worth it. I’m never going to play my tenor like John Coltrane played his, but that’s not the point. The fact that this ever happened is astounding enough. It doesn’t require replication for validation.
No really, Mostly Other People Do The Killing. There’s no need. Make your own statement, why dontcha?