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Saturday, September 20, 2014

Court Appointment; Reflections on a Crimson King

I was twelve, in my thirteenth year, when the most majestic sound I’d ever heard issued from a radio that I’d hooked up to a stereo my brother had left behind. No, that’s not quite right.

I was fourteen, not yet fifteen, when the song "In the Court of the Crimson King" played on KPFT, the Pacifica station in Houston, Texas. There was nothing quite like it to my mind. I had grown up (because we are most certainly, in our minds, at least, "grown up" once we’re in our teens) listening to classical music and show tunes with my mom, folk music from my brother, and pop and rock from my sister. Outside their realms, though, I’d educated myself in more obscure areas of music; jazz and some of the more eccentric rock compositions. Although, come to think of it, I seem to remember my sister had a copy of the Mothers of Invention’s "Freak Out".

In any event, there was no escaping music in Houston in the seventies, particularly if you were an artistic kid with access to FM radio.

Music made me awake and opened up a world of dreams simultaneously. I could recall every note and nuance of a song, a bridge in a symphony or a percussive fill from Gene Krupa. So when King Crimson’s opus came a-calling, I was absorbed in a way I don’t think any piece had ever taken me.

I started a drawing of the Crimson King. He looked a lot like John Buscema’s rendering of Mephisto in Marvel Comics’ Silver Surfer (the very first issue, if I recall). He looked like the winged demon in the "Night on Bald Mountain" sequence in "Fantasia". But in the final analysis, there was no drawing or painting that could do the king justice. He was thunder and delicate. He was brooding and poetic. He was a mellotron, but not a Moody Blues mellotron. Oh, no, this was the first time I’d ever heard that instrument used like a sonic wave or an oceanic cudgel. There were no images of something concrete; only a sense of dread and majesty. It would, however, be some time before I heard the rest of the album.

Maybe a year had passed. Maybe it was only a few months. The beauty of FM radio in that era, though, was that you could hear everything and anything. Not as readily and without as many choice as today; but if you heard a thing, you could talk to someone else who had heard it. Perhaps they worked in a library or even better, a record store. However, information began with the DJs on the radio, who more often than not, would talk a little about the song, the band, the album. Until 1974, though, King Crimson remained for me a closed book.

Before 1974, I did hear all of that first album. Several times. Radio stations would play whole sides of albums; it was a special event when you heard the entire LP and often touted beforehand. Then, too, you could phone in your requests. I remember calling KLOL, K101 FM late at night and talking to Crash, one of Houston’s legendary DJs and requested "Epitaph" off "In the Court of the Crimson King"; he sounded pretty stoked at this request (well, as stoked as Crash was capable of sounding; he tended to the stoner-on-quaaludes delivery, a little more awake than dead, say).

Now, before it starts to sound as though I was obsessive about this album and this group, let me interject that while I appreciated and loved this work, I was just as much in love with Yes, Jethro Tull, the Who, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer who got a special pass since Greg Lake came from King Crimson. I was fascinated by Townshend’s tales and Ian Anderson’s wit (honestly, if you listen to those early albums - and even the later 70s stuff - Anderson had his tongue firmly in cheek); Yes and ELP seemed to represent this amazing hybrid of classically-trained musicians playing what was, if not exactly, rock and roll.

Led Zeppelin took us down other by-ways and Clapton’s work was something altogether else. Each group I heard seemed to lead down a different rabbit hole to a different Wonderland. None, though, seemed to quite be doing what Fripp and company had been doing in this King Crimson context. So 1974.

I stayed with my sister, brother-in-law and niece in Gloucester and made four album purchases at the Toad Hall bookstore in Rockport. Miles Davis’ "Kind of Blue", Genesis’ "Nursery Crimes", Ralph Vaughn-Williams’ "Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis" and Schoenberg’s "Transfigured Night", and, oh, King Crimson’s "Starless and Bible Black". Dear merciful Christ on toast.

I could write at great length what each of these meant to me and still does; but obviously, the band of the moment is KC and I don’t mean the one with the Sunshine Band. "Starless and Bible Black" is one of the most consummate works of found sound, avant-garde percussion and some of the finest, most plaintive song-writing and singing John Wetton ever committed to record. While I was more than happy to play the other three works aloud, "Starless…" was reserved for headphones. I think it might have driven others mad.

I also can’t adequately convey what this did to me. I hadn’t heard any King Crimson in the interim, except that first album, which I considered as great as any piece of music could be. Then I heard "Starless" with a different line-up, excepting Robert Fripp and with a more experimental attack, but no less elegiac at times, symphonic at others, and again, anxiety-inducing at yet others. This was love. And I’m not writing that satirically nor with any sense of exaggeration.

By this point in my musical meanderings, I’d picked up music theory, had learned considerably more about what was happening in academia and the concert hall and the avant-garde and my ears were more sophisticated at sixteen than they had been at fourteen. When I got back to Houston at summer’s end, I picked up "Lark’s Tongue in Aspic" with the same crew. This actually preceded "Starless…" and I found it even more demanding and equally rewarding. I also understood why King Crimson wasn’t well-known; it was that very word: "demanding". They demanded full attention, the music wasn’t easy, not always tuneful, and far from "pop". It also wasn’t possessed of the flash and flair of an ELP or a Yes, though it shared a former member with Yes in the form of Bill Bruford (and John Wetton would eventually play with Steve Howe in Asia) and frankly, that trio (which would eventually produce "Red", what some consider the summit of those three albums they composed) could choose to be as bombastic as any "prog" group, but rarely did.

If the Crimson composed of Fripp, Bruford, and Wetton at the core is often considered the apex of 70s Crimson, it’s owing in no small part to the discipline with which they approached each of these works. I’m using the word "discipline" with as much meaning loaded as possible. However, it's this quality that produced the strongest moments of these albums (full disclosure, I only recently came to warm up to "Red"; for decades I found it over-hyped and too much of a kind of greatest hits of Crimson composition and playing without the depth; sadly, upon listening at great length to it in India, I realized I should have fallen in love with this work years ago.) Still, they could hold their own and then some, against the better known acts of the day.

And then, the band broke up and Fripp vanished after declaring the end of the world, or so I was led to believe. He had, in fact, gone on retreat and studied for almost year under John G. Bennett, one of Gurdjieff’s students. By the time Fripp resurfaced, I’d fallen for minimalism, for his work with Eno, for even more diverse types of music, including what became known as world music. Naturally, I fell for punk and later, new wave.

Thankfully, Andrew Libby had introduced me to Roxy Music and I think we were all sucked into the E.G. Records land of connections.

But Fripp had vanished. Then he reappeared in New York and was playing on everyone’s records: Blondie, Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel, David Bowie. Fripp was ubiquitous but the question that must have been on everyone’s mind was if he was going to get Humpty Dumpty, uh, King Crimson back together again.

Eventually, yes. "Discipline" remains one of the greatest works of the 80s. It is lyrical, angular, new wave in places, but not in a hackneyed sense. It also led to "Three of a Perfect Pair" which was fine and "Beat", which was not. The number of critical misfires in Crimson's oeuvre is small. "In the Wake of Poseidon", "Lizards" and "Islands" all received so-so assessments from people I knew who loved Crimson. In retrospect, I should have ignored them. As with "Red", it’s only recently, I’ve come to realize what I was missing by not following my own compass.

This time with Tony Levin on bass and Chapman stick, Adrian Belew on second guitar, Fripp and Bruford couldn’t have found more talented co-players. I had seen both Belew and Tony with Bowie in 1978 and was aware of what they were capable. "Discipline" exceeded all expectations.

Then that was it for almost another decade, as the rest of the band pursued their projects and explored working out their own lives and music. Fripp continued to carry the torch; later, in the 90s, he would go public with exposing E.G.’s Sam Adler to a harsh light of scrutiny for unfair business practices (to say the least); but it’s telling that it is Fripp who calls the shots; King Crimson is a way of doing things and only arises when music presents itself that only the musicians can interpret and channel.

Through the early nineties, watching the various artists pursue different avenues spoke to the kind of workshop of ideas Crimson is. While the members retained their own styles and unique vocabularies, the work produced as Crimson seemed to utilize those vocabularies for a different type or order of speech.

By the time of "Thrack", pundits had noted that the band was less innovative but nonetheless a monster of musicianship. I think they missed the point. Innovation is often overrated and musicianship is more than technique; I don’t think Fripp and the various incarnations were necessarily concerned about innovation (though they did want to create something new) nor has the band simply been a conduit for playing for virtuosity’s sake (though more virtuosi in one band would be hard to find). No, the nineties Crimson was a tsunami that set a new standard for bands like Tool to continue to work with. It also produced some of the group’s most melodic songs ("Walking on Air" is as Beatlesy as anything they ever did and arguably, in another era for anyone else, might have charted...or not; it’s too good for Top 40…)

The band regrouped in 2008 (I think) and toured through Boston, but I begged off. I was a huge fan of what Fripp was doing at the time (still am) with the soundscapes and the acoustic work with the Guitar Crafties and for whatever reasons, I didn’t feel compelled to go see them. A couple of years later (again, I think; my memory is hazy), Fripp announced his retirement from road service and I was heartened that I did get to see him with the League of Crafty Guitarists (or some such) at the Somerville Theater and the Guitar Circle in Cambridge in 2013.

Here’s the thing: I’m not one for sentiment of nostalgia. I don’t think of Crimson as a nostalgia act ("Hey kids! Here’s some Golden Oldies from Bobby Fripp and the Gang!") and while their work can be lyrical, plaintive, and poignant, it’s surely not sentimental. So this was not a concert wherein I was out to recapture some sense of my youth, but rather to very much hear something new. Was I, then, disappointed when the set list performed was composed of all old (very, in some instances) works?

Not by a long shot. Starting with "Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part One", Fripp’s admonition that Crimson is best understood when heard live was fully supported by the entire show. Many of the pieces I was very familiar with. The ones from the earlier albums after "Court" were new to me (I only heard the odd song here and there and this over thirty years ago, until the Boston show; I’ll be interested to revisit these earlier albums, particularly after what I heard of them live).

The temptation is to reprise the show song by song, but this feels almost as much a breach of etiquette as recording the concert. As with most genuinely great performances, it’s pointless to say, "oh this was great; but that was even better". There was much, much more going on than a catalog or retrospective of sounds. Let’s see if I can make that make sense.

With someone on the order of a Sonny Rollins, a Steve Reich, or a great orchestra or band, or any performer, the music fills the musician and the musician within his or her skills and degree of mastery acts as a conduit to bring this to the audience. To shift from performing to visual art, as Paul Klee wrote: the artist is the medium. Additionally, as rock bands go, Crimson is not one for one visual pyrotechnics or flashy showmanship (apparently, they used to be in the early days, though; the visual components of the shows that lyricist Peter Sinfield composed were supposed to be amazing); in this case, you had a stage filled out with three drum kits in front and on risers behind them, two guitarists, one bassist, and a one-man horn section. Each of these players was completely tied into what the others were doing and it was the percussionists that drove the show.

There was also a sense of presence. Not in the sense of stage presence, but in the sense that each of these musicians was present to and for the music. There weren’t any blissed-out expressions, no big super-mystical stances struck, but they were there as fully as any group I’ve ever witnessed. Was this Fripp’s doing? Well, let's take a look to consider for a minute what the man brings to the group.

Prior to the break-up of the band after the tour supporting "Red", Fripp was known as reclusive, distant, and altogether enigmatic personality. After his period of retreat and study with John G. Bennett, he seriously considered not returning to "active service" as he might put it. However, when he did, he was even more accomplished a player, more innovative, and more, well vocal. There are interviews a-plenty on YouTube and I read his column in Musician Magazine avidly. From Fripp, I was introduced to E.F. Schumacher and economic theory in general, for example. His interviews with Joe Strummer and John McLaughlin were revealing, sometimes more about Fripp than his subjects!

However, even with the later iteration of Crimson, Fripp’s personality was regarded as demanding, if not prickly, if not infuriating. However, none of this should be surprising and tells us more about the dynamics of the group and the others who have reported this. I’m not surprised that, say, Bill Bruford has some scathing reflections on his times with Fripp; but I was taken aback to hear that Adrian Belew mentioned he’d had some issues with the guitarist. Does it matter? No, not really, but I consider it worth remarking because there’s usually a damned good reason why some people are prickly, irritable, and irritating in a group setting. Usually, this is in proportion to how deeply they care about the reason they’ve come together. In the long run, no harm, no foul.

Moreover, just because we go on retreat and work on ourselves doesn’t necessarily mean that our outward expressions are going to change so very much. Internal change is almost imperceptible in outward manifestation, until it’s not. By this I mean that maturation comes slowly for many (most?) of us, and what we work on within the crucible called the self, often is not what we think we are working on. This has come to me through alogether too many arduous years of half-assed practice.

Back to the man, though. I’ve seen Fripp live in three different contexts now and he has been a consistent presence in each, though the venue and contexts have been different. I was about to write "strikingly different", but I’m not so sure. With the guitar orchestra that I saw him with, he was the center of a system of guitarists; a quiet anchor. With the smaller guitar craft performance, I’d say the same, with one small, very noticable difference. At the Somerville Theater performance, it was great to see his students playing deeply, sometimes fiercely, and Fripp would sit by his bank of bank of processors on a stool with his guitar coming in only at the right time, the right place. Then, at one point, during an encore, he strode from his stoole and played opposite his group with a calmness that seemed to embody the utter confidence in his mastery of his craft, his instrument, and his ability to play well with others. And I meant that last bit just the way it sounds.

Similarly, in the context of King Crimson where he’s matched skillset for skillset, the dynamic is different and you’d have to be dead or an idiot not to notice that while each of the performers is at the top of their class, they weren’t prone to sitting on a stool and playing calmly. And yet, and yet, there was something in their movements that told me that if this wasn’t calm (King Crimson’s music is often at the opposite end of the spectrum), it was, well, joyful. I did expect to see these guys working hard - it ain’t easy or simple music - but I didn’t expect them to be so, well, happy.

Tony Levin, I did kind of expect to see enjoying himself. I’ve been watching him onstage with a variety of people from 1978 on and I he's a joy to watch. A bigger joy to hear! But a joy to watch, too. Jakko Jaszyk and Mel Collins filled out the back and were arguably the main focus of my curiosity. Jakko had performed with Fripp fifteen years ago, has a storied history as a session player and producer and while I had no doubts about his inclusion in the group, I wasn’t familiar with his work to come to this with any preconceived notions. Mel Collins I had no doubts about either, especially since I’ve heard him throughout my life (as one of the horns on "Red", his work with Bryan Ferry and a varied array of other musicians too long to recap here.)

As for the percussionists, I had not a doubt that they’d be amazing, so I wasn't too surprised but I was super happy watching their interplay and bringing a range of attack to compositions that foster improvisation. Each drummer played with disctinct, unique technique; and then, they’d play in concert as ferociously and disciplined as a dozen Taiko drummers. Thunderously ebullient and earth-shaking on the one hand; delicately - I don’t think I want to use the term "tinkling" but something like that, on the other.


And behind it all, anchoring the band with his 45 year (plus) history, was Fripp. I would like to think that this tour with this band has afforded him the happiness, if not the joy that he has expressed as having escaped him for his entire career as a professional musician. In a recent interview in Wire Magazine, he opined that he had been happy two out of sixty-eight years. My suspicion is that he probably knows that happiness is variable under the best of circumstances, but I don’t know that this is necessarily a complaint; more of an observation.

Fripp is a lineal descendent, one could say, of George Ivanovich Gurdjieff. As such, Fripp encountered the idea of conscious suffering; that we should opt to choose our struggles consciously or with at least as much awareness, as we can. To many, this is anathema; to Gurdjieff, it was a means - the means, perhaps - of staying more awake than asleep. Gurdjieff had pulled together a collection of exercises that were meant to be uncomfortable to push people to a state of awareness, with the aim of waking them out of their mechanical slumber. Additionally, he would compose work teams such that people who couldn’t stand one another would have to work side by side; I personally find this to be the most valuable exercise. The upshot isn’t that you’re working with another person to figure them out or to somehow make them "acceptable" to you, but to find out what in your make-up is impatient, non-accepting, self-protective, or threatened. Our attitudes toward others tell us much more about ourselves than the other.

From these and other approaches or something similar, we can assume that Fripp - already a disciplined player before his time with Bennett - came out of retreat and re-entered the music world with a considerably wider view of himself and others. I would hazard the guess that over the years, his abilty to navigate the nastiness of his industry was greatly enhanced by his training. Certainly, the little I’ve read of his Guitar Craft courses very greatly show a kind of Gurdjieffian influence (as well as how he conducted the proceedings of the guitar orchestra concert in Cambridge a couple of years ago).

Thus, it’s my assumption that this is the discipline that Fripp brings to Crimson and that, absent the issues of the pain of the industry, he is able to play more freely. It’s telling that he’s stated that playing with Bowie was the only time (or one of the few times?) where he was given the freedom to be the guitarist he knew he could be. I hope that with this version of Crimson, he feels that way now.

You might ask, why would I care? Well, aside from the feeling that I wish all beings to be happy and liberated, I feel a certain kinship with Fripp in his training and how he has faced challenges over the past few years that I’ve been reading his online diary. The man is clearly not an idiot and is far more an inspiration than the press would understand or be able to convey.

I’m not big on celebrity, though I’d be fibbing if I said I didn’t like pop culture. It's difficult to make a case that King Crimson is popular, but they are an influential part of the culture in terms of the direction music has taken in the past forty-five years. In terms of celebrity, how we feel about public figures tells us more about ourselves than about the performers. I don’t particularly feel a burning need to meet any of the people whose work I admire; however, there are a handful with whom I feel a certain sympathy. Fripp is one; few have articulated so well what informs the creative midwifery it takes to bring a work into this world and few have given voice to the day-to-day challenges one encounters and how they have dealt with them.

The last observation is that Robert Fripp isn’t King Crimson. Crimson is everyone from Greg Lake, Sinfield, the Giles brothers up to and including Tony Levin, Jakko Jaszyk, Pat Mastelatto, Bill Rieflin, and Gavin Harrison. Naturally, Collins and Fripp, too. It occurs to me that before he encountered Bennett, Fripp may well have grasped that for a group to evolve, it must have an aim. He has said repeatedly, over the course of decades, that when the need for King Crimson’s music arises, the group comes together, in whatever configuration. I would agree with him, too, that Crimson has always been less about the pomp(osity) of prog than the workshop-improv freedom of the various groups Miles Davis generated. These are groups in the service of something much larger than the individuals comprising them (even a Miles or a Fripp). Similarly, in our lives, we may find ourselves - and yes, that’s a pregnant phrase intentionally used here - in the context of a larger group or a movement-toward. Toward what? Wherever we find ourselves.

Tony Levin took my picture. If you open this up and enlarge it, I'm on the far right hand side of the photo wearing a pretty obvious white neck-tie (I went to the concert after work).



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