Charles Bukowski – “to the whore who took my poems”

February 10, 2010 at 10:42 pm (Charles Bukowski, Poetry & Literature)

some say we should keep personal remorse from the
stay abstract, and there is some reason in this,
but jezus;
twelve poems gone and I don’t keep carbons and you have
paintings too, my best ones; its stifling:
are you trying to crush me out like the rest of them?
why didn’t you take my money? they usually do
from the sleeping drunken pants sick in the corner.
next time take my left arm or a fifty
but not my poems:
I’m not Shakespeare
but sometime simply
there won’t be any more, abstract or otherwise;
there’ll always be mony and whores and drunkards
down to the last bomb,
but as God said,
crossing his legs,
I see where I have made plenty of poets
but not so very much

Charles Bukowski

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James Maycock – “Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson: Brothers in Arms” (2003)

February 10, 2010 at 8:55 am (Music, Reviews & Articles)

A Dec. 2003 Mojo article about Gil Scott-Heron and his longtime musical partner Brian Jackson. A very good retrospective that poignantly talks about Gil’s drug problems…


In the late afternoon of 4th April, 1968, Martin Luther King was shot through the neck on the balcony of Memphis’ Lorraine Motel. Pronounced dead at 7.05 PM, news of his death ricocheted out of Memphis, horrifying the world.

Gil Scott-Heron, who celebrated his 19th birthday three days earlier, was studying English literature at Lincoln University. Today, he recalls, “It was a tremendous blow to what people’s optimism had been.” He adds, “The day that John Kennedy was killed is the day I’ve pinpointed as the day that started the Winter In America. The deaths of Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were all part of that.”

Brian Jackson, a couple of years younger than Gil, was at home with his mother in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighbourhood. “It was just a long series of assassinations” he explains. “So, by the time Martin’s came around, it was like, ‘Come on, man!’ I think that’s probably what they needed to do to convince people that they really should shut the hell up.” Brian believes, “It became obvious that if you were going to be vocal about something, you were going to pay — probably with your life.”

In the mid-’60s, both Gil and Brian were directly affected by the very changes Dr. King was implementing. Before reuniting with his mother in New York City, Gil lived with Grandma Lily in Jackson, Tennessee. There, he was one of the first black teenagers to integrate a white school. He experienced, “smaller classes, better equipment, more books in the library, better circumstances.” In New York, Brian was bussed from the black area of Crown Heights to a white school in Flatbush: “I had a couple of racial run-ins, but it didn’t affect me as much as watching the news.” Each day on television he witnessed, “People who look like me, look like my uncle and my cousin getting sprayed by fire hoses up against the wall, then beaten and sent to jail. Dr. King was being held responsible for all of that.”

Although Gil and Brian were oblivious to each other’s existence at the time of the Memphis murder, one year later in 1969 at Lincoln University, their paths intertwined, and they embarked upon an extraordinary partnership. For the length of the following decade — the dark, paranoid ’70s — their “storm music” chronicled the more cynical post-civil rights era which started the moment Dr. King fell to that motel balcony’s concrete floor in a pool of blood. Gil and Brian certainly didn’t “shut the hell up.” In their recordings, they sought to agitate and amuse, enlighten and edify. Together, from 1971’s Pieces of a Man to 1980, they documented the state of the nation – whether exposing racial bigotry or satirizing political crooks — with breathtaking acuity.

They were certainly more explicit than either Stevie or Curtis, two other musical combatants who didn’t stop fighting the Afro-American fight in the ’70’s. Gil and Brian’s critiques on Watergate, the Panthers, the destructiveness of drugs, Vietnam, illegal aliens, monstrous medical experiments, nuclear power — as well as their inspirational apolitical songs — were filtered through sounds steeped in the riches of soul, funk and jazz. Then, at the dawn of the ’80s, after recording nine albums together, this deep, personal and professional alliance cracked. Brian hit civvy street, Gil hit very tough times. Describing their separation, Brian concedes, “I felt the loss.”

Today, Gil and Brian’s contrasting physical demeanour reflects the very different paths they’ve travelled since the split. Gil, who’s battled with chronic cocaine addiction, creative stalemate and two stretches in jail, exudes a weathered disposition. His frame is cigarette-thin, his hair and beard a charcoal-gray. He’s been round the block so often, he’s lapped most of his contemporaries. Brian’s physique is fuller, healthier and he sports shoulder-length dreadlocks. Like Gil, he’s also cultivated a goatee. But if it wasn’t for the few wisps of silver in Brian’s beard, he’d look half Gil’s age.

Back in funky ol’ 1969, Lincoln, Pennsylvania’s black university was teeming with Afros – and pianos. “Everywhere you went there was a piano,” recalls Brian. “So I used to find all these places to play piano — as did Gil.” Both Gil and Brian were attracted to Lincoln because their literary champion, Langston Hughes, was a former student. Although they didn’t meet in the library wrestling over a weighty tome of Langston’s poetry, but in one of a multitude of padded practice rooms. Gil remembers, “Brian was a pretty private person — was and still is. He was all about playing the piano.” In fact, Gil spied him a number of times performing in the music school — but they didn’t speak.

Another student, aspiring vocalist and friend of Gil’s, Victor Brown, wanted to enter a talent show with some original material. Gil suggested Victor introduce himself to this quiet, enigmatic student who wowed him with his performances in the music centre. Gil: “I said to Victor, ‘This guy will play anything you want! Why don’t you talk to him?'”

Victor complied and was equally delighted with Brian’s piano expertise. He also thought Brian and Gil should meet. So, Victor ushered Brian into Gil’s practice room. They entered with Gil in mid-performance. Brian was immediately struck. “I really liked the lyrics. I was listening to his lyrics – man! And not only that, but he sings!” Victor suggested, “Maybe you guys can get together?” Brian then knocked out something rather brilliant on the piano. He remembers Gil admitting, “That’s pretty cool! I can’t play like that! Maybe you can play the shit I’m trying to play?” Gil was also “very impressed” with Brian’s melodic intuition.

This first encounter undoubtedly signaled a coupling of 2 compatible spirits. Brian: “We started hanging out. We hit it off immediately.” In fact, for Brian, it verged on epiphany. “I thought, ‘What a way this man has with words!’ All of a sudden I knew what my mission was in life. It was like, people have to hear this stuff! This kept on going through my mind.” He realized, “What I had to offer was the music. I figured if we can do the music right, we can draw enough people in to hear this.”

Gil and Brian soon forged an outlet to express themselves, forming a nine-piece band at Lincoln, the Black & Blues. Malcolm Cecil, the producer and engineer who worked with Brian and Gil from 1977, remembers hearing how the duo sometimes broke into practice rooms at Lincoln at night. “They would go to those sort of lengths — break into a building to get to a piano to work – that’s dedication, my friend! That’s ‘I really want to do this!'” But Gil also wanted to complete his book of poetry and debut novel, The Vulture. Deferring university for a year, he relocated two miles off campus to concentrate on writing.

Both The Vulture and his collection of poetry, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, were printed by World Publishing in 1970. They were received, by those who read and reviewed them, with approbation. Crucially though, Gil spied an entrée into the recording world: his publishing house was allied to Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman Records, the label Thiele established in 1969 after departing from ABC/Impulse! “I went by and introduced myself,” he explains. “I told him [Thiele] I was a songwriter and had a few songs I felt some of his singers might be able use.” Gil also presented Thiele with his poetry book. A couple of days later, the producer phoned, explaining he didn’t have enough money to finance a musical recording but, “was interested in doing some spoken word stuff.” If this generated the dollars, Thiele promised to record the songs.

Small Talk at 125th and Lenox hailed Gil as “A New Black Poet” on its cover. Cut in 1970 at the height of the Black Power era, Gil’s sleeve notes declared: “I am a Black man dedicated to expression; expression of the joy and pride of Blackness.” Recorded in front of an intimate crowd, his raw, lacerating rhymes, spiked with the rhythms of three percussionists, focused on the grotesque contradictions of American life. He also alluded to a multitude of black movers and shakers of the age. The Black Panthers, Mingus, Mongo Santamaria, H.Rap Brown, Coltrane, Malcolm X, Nina Simone, Dr. King and Pharaoh Sanders were all name-checked.

Apart from three tracks, where Gil accompanied himself on piano, the style of the LP – proto-raps backed by conga hits — was somewhat indebted to the Last Poets’ debut on Douglas a year earlier. Today, he admits, “I had seen them. It was very exciting. The interplay between them and the drummers, and each other, was very theatrical.” But the hardcore street verse of the Last Poets was humour deficient. Gil, though, was often a laugh. In cuts like ‘Whitey on the Moon’ and the first version of ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’, he skillfully switched from sparkling satire to deadly solemnity in the blink of an eye. This was extremely compelling. Indeed, sales spawned the requisite cash to now record Gil and Brian’s music.

During the recording of Small Talk…, Brian was absent, back in Lincoln. But he got kicked out – protesting against the Eurocentric focus of his liberal arts degree – just in time for Pieces of a Man. Interestingly, the duo initially imagined themselves as a song-writing team, composing for other artists. But as Brian points out, exactly which singers were qualified to deliver such socio-political, satirical masterpieces like ‘The Get Out of the Ghetto Blues’? — “Who the hell are we going to get to do this?” he chuckles, “The Stylistics? The Chi-lites? Teddy Pendergrass?”

Although still just credited to Gil, Pieces of a Man was really Brian and Gil’s debut recording, with Brian co-writing 7 of the tracks. The LP kicked off with the seminal version of ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’. Boasting a magnificently muscular bassline, Gil fired off a flood of invectives, hitting a host of targets, including media pollution, political idleness, poseurs, hypocrites and frauds. Is ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ now something of an albatross for the duo? Gil laughs. “No more than Taxi Driver is for Robert De Niro!” Brian explains: “You get branded by the things that people know about you the most.”

The gritty funk of the first track didn’t actually mirror the mood of the rest of the album. What followed were ten gorgeous, reflective soul-jazz pieces, including ‘Lady Day And John Coltrane’. They were all highlighted by Gil’s distinct, ripe baritone emanating from his rangy frame. There was an extraordinary musical jump forwards from Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. Gil attributes this to one man. “You know, on the first one I was playing piano,” he explains, “And on the second one Brian was! There’s your leap right there!” Brian was also the arranger. According to Gil, it was his partner’s idea to incorporate the flute, which endowed their music with so much atmosphere. “That was something Brian was very definite about.” Brian, admits, laughing, “Who would think a flute could be that funky!” Today, Pieces of a Man is still rightly regarded as a stone classic. It’s an album of staggering maturity. Gil was 22, Brian just 19.

Brian remembers Pieces of a Man selling “20-30,000 copies easily.” Although he acknowledges, “Nobody really knew about us. But the people that did, they were very interested to hear more.” Their next album, Free Will, released in 1972, the same year Gil’s second novel, The Nigger Factory, emerged, was split — very effectively — into two distinct sides. The first emphasized their lyrical soul-jazz compositions, like ‘Did You Hear What They Said?’, the second side, the direct, confrontational raps that characterized Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. According to Brian, this balance — half music, half Gil’s street poetry — was reflected in their live shows.

Gil dubbed his raps, “survival kits on wax.” He explains: “The whole idea behind those sort of things at the time was to put some information in front of people that they couldn’t get any other way.” In ‘No Knock’, ‘Ain’t No New Thing’ and ‘The King Alfred Plan’, backed just by congas, jangling bells and the febrile whir of the flute, Gil debunked police power, J. Edgar Hoover’s Black Panther-obliterating COINTELPRO, white cultural theft — “We declare WAR on Eric Burdon!” — and the threat of racist detention camps. He was, in effect, exhorting his audience: “No, you’re not paranoid, this is really happening!”

Interestingly, Brian divulges, “I sometimes thought he was a little too blunt, he kinda beat people over the head with it. But you know what? Sometimes that’s good for you!” Gil’s approach just wasn’t Brian’s style. Although, when he wrote verses to augment Brian’s music, Gil acknowledges, “I rarely wrote lyrics for Brian Jackson melodies without Brian giving me a point of reference for direction.” When Gil created the initial chordal structure of a song, Brian often teased out a fuller, more complex orchestration. Gil also appreciated being vocally stretched by Brian’s compositions. “It would take work for anybody to sing Brian’s stuff. I think that my understanding of Brian gave me an opportunity that most vocalists don’t have.” Malcolm Cecil admits, “Brian’s got an incredible way of thinking about music and playing that I find totally unique.” He adds, “Gil is primarily a poet, secondarily a vocalist, thirdly a composer and fourthly a musician. That’s why he and Brian worked so well.” A robust sense of confidence undoubtedly existed between the two friends, as Brian recalls, “If I had some doubt whether something would work or not, I would just let him go with it, and vice versa.”

With Gil’s three-album contract at Flying Dutchman consummated, the duo departed for another classic early ’70s progressive jazz label — Strata East. Gil maintains their exit was, in part, provoked by Bob Thiele who “wouldn’t add Brian’s name to the album’s flag.” Brian admits he was actually quite happy with the credits he was receiving and, until today, was unaware of Gil’s plotting to include Brian’s name next to his. This is typical of Gil’s largesse – and modesty. Producer Malcolm Cecil agrees: “He’s always been a ‘we’ person, a team player, even though he’s the leader of the team – and he does know how to keep a team together.” Subsequently, the duo’s Strata East album, Winter in America, was credited to Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson.

1974’s Winter in America is a subdued, tender, melancholic masterpiece. Its songs often just feature Gil and Brian together. Gil: “‘A Very Precious Time’, ‘Peace Go With You Brother’, ‘Your Daddy Loves You’, those things were just Brian and I. They were put together that way to give people the further idea of what Brian’s songs were really about. I think they were really beautiful and we wanted to make sure his name was out front so that people could understand how much influence he had, not only on that one, but on Pieces of a Man.”

The album was also the high point of their love affair with the Fender Rhodes electric piano. Gil: “Brian and I, we couldn’t really afford a Fender Rhodes when we first started. We had a Farfisa, a Wurlitzer, we were just putting together whatever we could.” Brian first encountered the instrument – played by Herbie Hancock — on Miles Davis’ Miles in the Sky. But he didn’t embrace the Fender Rhodes immediately, thinking he might be labeled a Hancock manqué. Luckily, though, he was soon “totally hooked — everybody was buying them!” Gil also remembers, “By the time we did Winter In America, Brian was a very good flute player.” Indeed, it’s Brian performance on this instrument which added such piquancy to the underground hit single from the album — ‘The Bottle’.

The lyrics to ‘The Bottle’ were actually inspired by a clique of alcoholics who congregated early each morning outside Gil and Brian’s communal house in Washington DC. Gil: “I went out and met these folks and found out that none of them had the ambition to be alcoholics when they grew up.” He realized they were victims of circumstance. “It was like, things along the way had arrived and turned them in that direction.”

Intriguingly, Gil and Brian originally planned the LP as a concept album called Supernatural Corner, which documented an Afro-American GI returning from Vietnam to an indifferent, prejudiced USA. Gil was to narrate the man’s experiences in the first person. But they sensed the initial recording was too lugubrious and it evolved into Winter in America.

There was certainly nothing lugubrious about the album’s penultimate track, ‘H2O Gate Blues’, one of Gil’s most famous and mischievous political satires — sometimes alluded to by hip American History professors. With his musicians encouraging him onwards, Gil chronicled a number of US atrocities in the last five years, mocking, “the economics of warfare,” “that cesspool Watergate” and the CIA in Chile. The song also included Gil’s first mention of his future bête noire — Ronald Reagan. The LP closed with the gentle coda, ‘Peace Go With You Brother’, a reprise of the first song. Ultimately, Winter in America is an album of extraordinary beauty, a balm for the black nation, struggling with the disintegration of the civil rights movement and the post-Watergate recession.

At the time of the album’s release, Clive Davis was industriously establishing a new label — Arista. Impressed with ‘The Bottle’, Davis recalls today, “I did see Gil in concert before we sat down to meet.” He remembers him as, “A striking, charismatic figure with unbelievable writing and rhyming skills. Gil Scott-Heron was an original — is an original.” He also sensed commercial potential: “I always felt that Gil could have hits that would really open up his career.” Lou Reed, the Grateful Dead and Patti Smith were amongst the first artists signed to Arista — so were Gil and Brian. They were certainly the first black act on the roster. Again, Gil was adamant he and Brian were billed as a twosome. Malcolm Cecil: “Even though Arista didn’t want to have a duo, Gil said, ‘Brian’s with me!'”

At Arista, Gil and Brian’s style of spiritual soul-jazz became fuller and more percussive. They were ably assisted by the Midnight Band, mostly friends from Lincoln University days, which included Victor Brown, Bilal Sunni Ali, a saxophonist up in the fiery Pharaoh Sanders class, and Barnett Williams, from the Society For The Preservation Of African Percussion. Their critical sweep also shifted a gear or two, concentrating on more global issues. Gil: “The black community was ‘I’-orientated. We weren’t really taking part in what was happening as far as the Third World was concerned, because we were always talking about ourselves.” The classic track, ‘Johannesburg’, a minor hit, epitomized this adjustment of focus. The dangers of nuclear power also surfaced on their agenda.

Brian remembers, “We always kind of lived communally, from college almost to the late ’70s.” In the mid-’70s, they bought a house together in Virginia. “We spent a lot of time hanging out, watching the news and checking out what was going on.” Their mission to educate through music and incite cultural insurrection was bolstered by their friends who all contributed to the pot of ideas. Brian: “It definitely wasn’t a vacuum. We had our sessions, we would sit up and talk.” He adds, “Gil would take all of that stuff we talked about and filter it through his incredibly literary machine and come out with these brilliant poems and songs.” They both sensed the creeping apathy and accepting political atmosphere of the age. Indeed, Gil sang, “What ever happened to the protest and the rage?” In the second half of the ’70s though, Gil and Brian never stopped protesting and raging. Tracks like ‘Guerilla,’ ‘Third World Revolution,’ ‘South Carolina (Barnwell),’ ‘We Almost Lost Detroit,’ ‘Shah-Mot,’ ‘Tuskegee #626’ and ‘Angola, Louisiana’ testify to that.

Their Arista albums were selling between 100-200,000, considerably more than their earlier works. But this heightened visibility provoked some unwanted attention. Brian, “We’d read enough issues of High Times and Mother Jones to realize that everyone was being bugged.” But were they under surveillance? Gil laughs. “I felt I ought to be!” At their Virginia home, Brian remembers, “You picked up the phone, it clicked once and then it clicks twice. I mean how many times can that happen?” He adds, “The idea is to create fear so we never dealt with it.” Nonetheless, Brian admits, “We weren’t actually saying the things that would make us friends of the state, but we certainly didn’t consider ourselves enemies either.” Although the news of the duo’s forthcoming performance at the massive No Nukes concert at Madison Square Garden in 1979 probably didn’t thrill the eavesdropping G-men.

Malcolm Cecil, of TONTO fame, produced the duo’s last 3 albums for Arista, Bridges, Secrets and 1980, which focused increasingly on the synthesizer and away from the organic qualities that characterized their first three Arista LPs. Gil remembers, “Malcolm was someone who had worked with Stevie [Wonder] when Stevie was doing 80-90% of his own music. Since Brian and I played a lot of our own things, put a lot of our own stuff together, he seemed like a good choice.” Another hit, ‘Angel Dust’, helped them survive the decadent disco era whose insatiable appetite for the fluffy mangled most of their contemporaries’ careers. On the cover of 1980, the duo were photographed inside TONTO, Malcolm’s huge synthesizer podule, sporting bright jumpsuits and grinning at the camera. But for his next album, Real Eyes, Gil was billed as a solo act. This wasn’t because he had finally crumpled under the label’s coercion to exclude Brian’s name. Brian simply wasn’t there.

Of his exit, Gil states, “Brian had been drifting in a direction of doing things independently for quite a while. I thought that was good — to get to the point where you can do what you wanna do.” Malcolm recalls, “As far as I know it was fairly amicable.” But he adds, “There seemed some sort of stress there.” Brian, himself, admits, “I had been trying to move in a more progressive way.” Yet, after a decade of perpetual recording and touring – up to 200 gigs a year — he initially just wanted to stop and recharge. He suggested a six-month break. Gil agreed. A couple of months later, Brian was engaging in some California chilling. Then, “Gil called me and asked if I would do a rehearsal. I said, ‘Man! What about our agreement?’ He said, ‘Oh no. We really need to get back out there.’ I just felt burnt out. He just kept pushing, he never really looked up.”

In the following months, Brian remembers, “I saw him do a lot of things without me, like doing gigs and not mentioning it to me. I guess resentment started to build up. Then he went on and did another deal with Arista and I didn’t know about that either. I figured I needed to take that as some kind of signal.” Today, though, Brian now believes Gil was experiencing a lot of pressure from the label to pump out the records. And it was always Gil, not Brian, who dealt with the suits.

In the early 1980s, after freelancing for Kool and the Gang and Phyllis Hyman, Brian withdrew totally from the music biz, starting a career in computers. Today, he concedes, “I carried a lot of bitterness about how Gil and I parted.” Gil’s career, though, continued to evolve. He was part of Stevie Wonder’s huge Hotter Than July tour, which effectively campaigned for Martin Luther King’s birth date to be celebrated as a national holiday. His critically acclaimed Reflections was highlighted by the 12-minute hit single and quintessential President Ray-Gun lampoon — ‘B-Movie’. This LP also included ‘Gun’, where, with typical prescience, Gil’s gun law diatribe beat Michael Moore’s by two decades. Director Robert Mugge also filmed an impressive Channel 4 documentary on Gil, Black Wax. In 1982, another album, Moving Target, followed Reflections. The sun, it seemed, was shining. But in retrospect, Brian split just at the right time.

Since the release of Moving Target, — over 20 years — Gil has recorded just one studio album, 1994’s Spirits. By the mid-1990’s, Gil looked a haunted man, his face, gaunt and angular, his hair, a bushy shock of gray. It now seems that somewhere in the 1980’s, Gil tripped, then fell deep into the drug well. In the early 1990s, reports surfaced that he was struggling with chronic cocaine addiction. Arrests validated this. Then Gil started doin’ the ol’ Sly Stone — he just didn’t show up to some gigs. Indeed, the very length of his predicament certainly suggested, as Gil himself once sang, “down some dead-end streets there ain’t no turning back.” In 2000, he was arrested on New York’s Amsterdam Avenue for possession of 1.2 grams of powder cocaine and two crack pipes. In October, 2002, he emerged from a 12-month prison sentence which some thought he wouldn’t survive. One of the few positive aspects of this period was the approbation he received from a multitude of rappers, who anointed him the god-pop of hip-hop.

Over these last, tough 15 years, journalists have accused him of suffering from creative paralysis. Others were aghast that the very man who preached so poignantly against the destructiveness of hard drugs and their capacity to impede that very cultural liberation he and Brian anticipated, had succumbed to them so thoroughly. Brian: “I hadn’t really seen him until the ’90s. I was shocked when I did see him.” He adds, “I’ve never really asked him, ‘What the hell happened?'”

So what exactly debilitated Gil’s protest and rage? In retrospect, the early ’80’s weren’t quite as rose-tinted as they seemed. As the ’70’s became the ’80s, Gil’s marriage to Brenda Sykes broke up, the Midnight Band dissolved and Brian departed. Also, when RCA bought Arista, Gil fell out with the new proprietors. Gil: “I didn’t have any problems with Arista until Arista was sold to RCA. That was like in ’83, and I didn’t want to work in that way.” He adds, “I did some things that they didn’t appreciate, and they did the same.” Malcolm Cecil, who continued producing Gil’s solo albums, is more explicit: “We got funds cut off but not dropped from the label. So you’re not free to go to another label but you’ve got no budget to work — it’s freezing you.” This sticky impasse between artist and label certainly clarifies some of the “creative paralysis” gossip.

There was also another cause of artistic frustration for Gil. He wanted to focus more on poetry and prose. Gil: “You have to try to find a way to balance yourself between doing things that bring in some money and things that give you the opportunity to do what you wanna do, which is write. I tried to do that and it wasn’t easy. To keep musicians happy and with you, you have to play. And to keep time to do the writing you have not to play.” Indeed, his principal source of income over the last decade is from touring. Although in the mid-’90s, Malcolm Cecil helped procure him some voice-over work. Yes, it was Gil’s baritone that boomed: “YOU KNOW WHEN YOU’VE BEEN TANGO’D!” Malcolm recalls, “He was a little bit worried about that one because it was somewhat violently interpreted. Kids were going ’round bonking other kids on the head and going, ‘Ha! You know when you’ve been Tango’d!’ He did not like that.” Another voice-over followed to advertise a popular tire manufacturer.

Malcolm Cecil thinks Gil “feels somewhat victimized by circumstance,” just like the alcoholic down and outs who inspired ‘The Bottle’. Certainly, one imagines Gil must be excruciatingly conscious of the irony of preaching against hard drugs in the 1970’s and then emerging publicly as an addict in the ’80’s and ’90s. Even in the sleeve notes to his very first album, he wrote, “For the young to keep on searching, they’ve got to rid themselves of heroin and some of those other drugs.” But has his immersion in cocaine/crack undermined his earlier anti-drug messages, or simply made him a more tangible individual? In retrospect, in songs like ‘The Bottle’ and ‘Home Is Where the Hatred Is’ Gil actually attempted to write about the catastrophic situations from which addiction might arise or the hell of coping with a drug habit, rather than offer a patronizing anti-drugs tirade. In ‘Home Is Where The Hatred Is’ he’s preaching from a junkie’s desperate perspective. “You say ‘Kick it quit it, kick it quit it’,” he sings, before exclaiming, “But have you ever tried to turn your sick soul inside out?” The message is — beating addiction’s a bitch. It’s just tragic that circumstances in Gil’s life conspired to show him that what he wrote really was true.

Gil’s own attitude to his drug dilemma, though, is pretty ambiguous. After years of disputing it even existed — despite the arrests — he’s now almost nonchalant about the situation. He’s certainly still evasive. When asked about overcoming personal predicaments, Gil replies, “You know somebody who didn’t [have to], we’ll follow them.”

But perhaps his “white powder dreams” weren’t just an emotional analgesic for personal and professional anguish. Malcolm Cecil also implies Gil’s engagement with cocaine was partly an experiment in method-writing. He recounts an extraordinary episode from 1993: “Gil is into the concept, which is not necessarily unreal, which is how can he really write about things unless he’s experienced them? He’s expressed that to me a number of times. I said to him, ‘You talk about homeless people but you, as far as I know, have never actually been homeless?'” The very next night Gil telephoned him, asking Malcolm to meet him in Greenwich Village.

“So, I’m standing on the corner of 4th and 6th Avenue waiting for this cab I’m expecting Gil to show up in. I’m waiting and I’m waiting — half an hour, 45 minutes, almost an hour! Then I think, ‘I don’t get this, what is going on?’ Well, on the corner of 4th and 6th Avenue is 4th Street subway station. I thought, ‘No, he wouldn’t have meant down in the subway, surely? Well, it wouldn’t hurt to go down and look.’ So I go down the stairs into the subway station and there, sitting on the far side, on the inside of the cage before you come out, is what appears to be this disheveled homeless guy, right, sitting there with a Coke can, appearing to be asleep, with a hat out — a few quarters have been thrown in — and this pool of what looks to me like he’s peed himself. Then this one eye opens, he looks at me and says, ‘Took your time, didn’t you!'” Malcolm: “Gil said, ‘Well, I figured I’d find out what it was like to be a homeless person.’ And that night we did the vocal about the junkie – he was just getting into character!”

Sometimes Gil’s sweet, impish nature is unfortunately sabotaged by a pretty cantankerous element, as a number of journalists, radio and television producers and concert promoters will attest. Although quite how much of this moodiness is caused by the monkey on his back is debatable. Nonetheless, he’s never stopped praising the merits of his former partner, Brian Jackson. Gil was interviewed, somewhat incongruously, on BBC Breakfast News at the end of the 1990s, to promote Now and Then, his book of poetry. The interviewer obviously didn’t know who Gil was nor did she care. Yet 20 years after they stopped working together, as Gil talked, he was still bringing Brian into the narrative.

In the mid-’90s the frostiness between the two melted. Brian: “We’ve had our ups and downs, as friends do.” He adds, “I consider him my brother, he’s like a member of the family.” Although Brian still works full-time in the computer field, he accompanied Gil on his tour of South Africa in 1998. In January, 2003, Brian played two shows as a solo artist at London’s Jazz Café. Gil was released from prison in 2002, but he served a further three months in 2003 for violating a stipulation of his parole. His magnum opus, the autobiographical The Last Holiday, is approaching completion and a lot of people are hoping, praying Gil’s desperate hours are over.

4th October, 2003. At SOB’s, on the corner of Varick and West Houston in Manhattan, Gil is performing two shows tonight. Walking out onto the stage at 8.30pm, he sits down at the battered Fender Rhodes. Chatting amiably to the audience, Gil teases shimmering chords from the piano, before introducing Brian. Then just the two of them, with Brian on flute, perform ‘Your Daddy Loves You’ from Winter in America. It’s a sweet, intimate moment that precedes the rest of the band’s entrance.

Tonight, Gil’s vocals are extraordinary. His voice was always acutely emotive, even when he was just in his early twenties, but now it resonates with a deep, melancholic worldliness. It’s particularly poignant when Gil, hunched over his piano with eyes squeezed shut, sings for ‘Better Days Ahead’ or cries out repeatedly, “There ain’t no place that I ain’t be down.” Some members of this affectionate audience undoubtedly feel the sting of approaching tears.

After these rough few years, does Gil feel invigorated now? “I feel invigorated still. I’ve always been blessed. Blessings don’t stop because you run into obstacles, they just become more profound.” Brian believes that as a twosome in the ’70s they actually “sheltered each other” from the tricks and temptations of the music biz. Today, he acknowledges, “If I can get him in one place long enough, I want to do some more writing. I think it’s time for that.” He adds, “I think it would do us both good.”

James Maycock

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Brian Eno – “The Studio as Compositional Tool” (1983)

February 10, 2010 at 12:57 am (Brian Eno, Music, Reviews & Articles)

Brian Eno’s famous essay, first given as a lecture in 1979, and then printed in Down Beat magazine in July and August of 1983…


Brian Eno delivered the following lecture during New Music New York, the first New Music America Festival sponsored in 1979 by the Kitchen. His remarks were amplified by demonstrations from his own recordings; here we’ve attempted to excerpt the general sense of his more specific points.

The first thing about recording is that it makes repeatable what was otherwise transient and ephemeral. Music, until about 1900, was an event that was perceived in a particular situation, and that disappeared when it was finished. There was no way of actually hearing that piece again, identically, and there was no way of knowing whether your perception was telling you it was different or whether it was different the second time you heard it. The piece disappeared when it was finished, so it was something that only existed in time.

The effect of recording is that it takes music out of the time dimension and puts it in the space dimension. As soon as you do that, you’re in a position of being able to listen again and again to a performance, to become familiar with details you most certainly had missed the first time through, and to become very fond of details that weren’t intended by the composer or the musicians.

The effect of this on the composer is that he can think in terms of supplying material that would actually be too subtle for a first listening. Around about the 1920s — or maybe that’s too early, perhaps around the ’30s — composers started thinking that their work was recordable, and they started making use of the special liberty of being recorded.

I think the first place this had a real effect was in jazz. Jazz is an improvised form, primarily, and the interesting thing about improvisations is that they become more interesting as you listen to them more times. What seemed like an almost arbitrary collision of events comes to seem very meaningful on relistening. Actually, almost any arbitrary collision of events listened to enough times comes to seem very meaningful. (There’s an interesting and useful bit of information for a composer, I can tell you.) I think recording created the jazz idiom, in a sense; jazz was, from 1925 onwards, a recorded medium, and from’35 onwards I guess — I’m not a jazz expert by any means — it was a medium that most people received via records. So they were listening to things that were once only improvisations for many hundreds of times, and they were hearing these details as being compositionally significant.

Now, let’s talk about another aspect of recording, which I call the detachable aspect. As soon as you record something, you make it available for any situation that has a record player. You take it out of the ambience and locale in which it was made, and it can be transposed into any situation. This morning I was listening to a Thai lady singing; I can hear the sound of the St. Sophia Church in Belgrade or Max’s Kansas City in my own apartment, and I can listen with a fair degree of conviction about what these sounds mean. As Marshall McLuhan said, it makes all music all present. So not only is the whole history of our music with us now, in some sense, on record, but the whole global musical culture is also available. That means that a composer is really in the position, if he listens to records a lot, of having a culture unbounded, both temporally and geographically, and therefore it’s not at all surprising that composers should have ceased writing in a European classical tradition, and have branched out into all sorts of other experiments. Of course, that’s not the only reason that they did, either.

So, to tape recording: till about the late ’40s, recording was simply regarded as a device for transmitting a performance to an unknown audience, and the whole accent of recording technique was on making what was called a “more faithful” transmission of that experience. It began very simply, because the only control over the relative levels of sounds that went onto the machine was how far they were from the microphone — like device. The accent was on the performance, and the recording was a more or less perfect transmitter of that, through the cylinder and wax disc recording stages, until tape became the medium by which people were recording things.

The move to tape was very important, because as soon as something’s on tape, it becomes a substance which is malleable and mutable and cuttable and reversible in ways that discs aren’t. It’s hard to do anything very interesting with a disc — all you can do is play it at a different speed, probably; you can’t actually cut a groove out and make a little loop of it. The effect of tape was that it really put music in a spatial dimension, making it possible to squeeze the music, or expand it.

Initially tape recording was a single track, all the information contained and already mixed together on that one track. Then in the mid-’50s experiments were starting with stereo, which was not significantly different. The only difference was that you had two microphones pointing to your ensemble, and you had some impression of a real acousticsound came to you from two different sources as you listened. Then came threetrack recording; it allowed the option of adding another voice or putting a string section on, or something like that. Now this is a significant step, I think; it’s the first time it was acknowledged that the performance isn’t the finished item, and that the work can be added to in the control room, or in the studio itself. For the first time composers – almost always pop composers, as very few classical composers were thinking in this form — were thinking, “Well, this is the music. What can I do with it? I’ve got this extra facility of one track.” Tricky things start getting added. Then it went to four-track after that, and the usual layout for recording a band on four track at that time.

You should remember that everything, including the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, was done on four-track until 1968. Normally engineers would do something like this: the drums on one track, the voices spread on two tracks with the guitars and the piano, say, on one of those tracks, and then the strings and additional effects on the fourth track. This was because they were thinking in terms of mono output; eventually, it would be mixed down to one signal again, to be played on radio or whatever. When stereo came in big, it gave them a problem. When they converted to stereo, things were put in either the middle, or dramatically to one side, or you’d hear some very idiosyncratic panning.

Anyway, after four-track it moved to eight track – this was in ’68, I guess — then very quickly escalated: eight-track till ’70, 16-track from’70 to’ 74, 24-track to now when you can easily work on 48-track, for instance, and there are such things as 64-track machines. The interesting thing is that after 16-track, I would say, the differences are differences of degree, not differences of kind. Because after you get to 16-track, you have far more tracks than you need to record a conventional rock band. Even if you spread the drums across six tracks, have the basson two, have the vocals, have the guitars, you’ve still got six tracks left. People started to think, “What shall we do with those six tracks?”

From that impulse two things happened: you got an additive approach to recording, the idea that composition is the process of adding more, which was very common in early ’70s rock (this gave rise to the well known and gladly departed orchestral rock tradition, and it also gave rise to heavy metal music — that sound can’t be got on simpler equipment); it also gave rise to the particular area that I’m involved in: in-studio composition, where you no longer come to the studio with a conception of the finished piece. Instead, you come with actually rather a bare skeleton of the piece, or perhaps with nothing at all. I often start working with no starting point. Once you become familiar with studio facilities, or even if you’re not, actually, you can begin to compose in relation to those facilities. You can begin to think in terms of putting something on, putting something else on, trying this on top of it, and so on, then taking some of the original things off, or taking a mixture of things off, and seeing what you’re left with — actually constructing a piece in the studio.

In a compositional sense this takes the making of music away from any traditional way that composers worked, as far as I’m concerned, and one becomes empirical in a way that the classical composer never was. You’re working directly with sound, and there’s no transmission loss between you and the sound — you handle it. It puts the composer in the identical position of the painter — he’s working directly with a material, working directly onto a substance, and he always retains the options to chop and change, to paint a bit out, add a piece, etc.

Compare that to the transmission intervals in a classical sequence: the composer writes a piece of music in a language that might not be adequate to his ideas — he has to say this note or this one, when he might mean this one just in between, or nearly this one here. He has to specify things in terms of a number of available instruments. He has to, in fact, use a language that, like all languages, will shape what he wants to do. Of course, any good composer understands that and works within that framework of limitations. Finally he has something on the page, and by a process this arrives at a conductor. The conductor looks at that, and if he isn’t in contact with the composer, his job is to make an interpretation of it on the basis of what he thinks the composer meant, or whatever it is he’d like to do. There’s very likely another transmission loss here — there won’t be an identity between what he supposes and what the composer supposes. Then the conductor has the job of getting a group of probably intransigent musicians to follow his instructions, to realize this image of the music he has. Those of you who work with classical musicians know what a dreadful task this is, not to be wished on anyone.

So they come up with something. One can see there’s not necessarily an identity between what the composer — or the conductor — thought, and what they did, so that’s three transmission losses. I’d argue there is another one in the performance of the piece: since you’re not making a record, you’re not working in terms of a controlled acoustic, and you’re not working in a medium that is quite so predictable as a record. If I make a record, I assume it’s going to be the same every time it’s played. So I think there is a difference in kind between the kind of composition I do and the kind a classical composer does. This is evidenced by the fact that I can neither read nor write music, and I can’t play any instruments really well, either. You can’t imagine a situation prior to this where anyone like me could have been a composer. It couldn’t have happened. How could I do it without tape and without technology?

One thing I said about the traditional composer was that he worked with a finite set of possibilities; that is, he knew what an orchestra was composed of, and what those things sounded like, within a range. If you carry on the painting analogy, it’s like he was working with a palette, with a number of colors which were and weren’t mixable. Of course, you can mix clarinets and strings to get different sounds, but you’re still dealing with a range that extends from here to here. It’s nothing like the range of sounds that’s possible once electronics enter the picture. The composer was also dealing with a finite set of relationships between sounds; the instruments are only so loud, and that’s what you’re dealing with, unless you stick one out in a field and one up close to your ear. It was out of the question that he could use something, for example, as the Beach Boys once did — making the sound of someone chewing celery the loudest thing on a track.

Of course, everyone is constrained in one way or another, and you work within your constraints. It doesn’t mean that suddenly the world is open, and we’re going to do much better music, because we’re not constrained in certain ways. We’re going to do different music because we’re not constrained in certain ways we operate under a different set of constraints. I want to explain how multitrack technology works, not electronically, but how it works in spirit. On a 24-track tape recorder you have two-inch tape — it’s that wide — on two big, heavy reels. You have 24 record heads, 24 playback heads. If you want to record a band, you can put one microphone on the bass drum, one microphone on the snare drum, one microphone — on the drummer’s knee-joint if you like — you can separate things very carefully. You can end up with this two-inch piece of tape with 24 distinct signals, and once you’re in this position, you have considerable freedom as to what you can do with each of these sounds.

You can do what the classical composer couldn’t: you can infinitely extend the timbre of any instrument. You are also in the position of being able to subtract or add with discrimination: you can put an echo on the bass drum and not on anything else. The 24-track tape works to separate things off, and keeps them separate until you feed the whole thing back through a mixing head, and you mix it all in some manner of your choice. The mixer is really the central part of the studio.

Most people see a large mixer, and they’re completely bewildered because there are something like 800 or 900 knobs on it. Actually it’s not so complex as it looks – it’s the same thing repeated many times. Since you’re dealing with 24 tracks, everything has to be multiplied by 24; it’s not a very complex system. Each track from the tape recorder plays back on one channel of the mixer. Each individual channel has a whole set of controls that duplicate the other channels; that’s all.

Each channel on the mixer is a long strip. Generally at the bottom is a level control, for how loud you want that channel to play back. Next up, normally, there’s a pan control, for where you want the sound object in the stereo/quad image. Next up is an echo control, and echo is really a separate issue, which has to do with something very unique to recording: briefly, it enables you to locate something in an artifical acoustic space. There’s also equalization — a device by which you can create a timbral change in an instrument, which in rock music is especially important, because many different rock records, in my opinion, are predicated not on a structure, or a melodic line, or a rhythm, but on a sound; this is why studios and producers keep putting their names on records, because they have a lot to do with that aspect of the work. Apart from equalization, there are other facilities which are widely used, such as limiting, compression — which has the effect of altering the envelope of a note or an instrument, so you can do something I’ve been interested in, creating hybrid instruments.

Compression is quite interesting over a whole track; if you’re using severe compression and limiting at the same time, when you push one instrument up, the track is governed so that the overall level will never change. Pushing one instrument up effectively pushes the others down, so all you do is alter the ratio between the instruments where you make a move. I started to use this as a deliberate, compositional, sound-type device; it’s generally been ignored or regarded as a misuse of the equipment before, but I’ll let you judge for yourself. On “Helen Thormdale” from the No New York album (Antilles), I put an echo on the guitar part’s click, and used that to trigger the compression on the whole track, so it sounds like helicopter blades.

Naturally, all of these things are variable throughout the entire course of the music. These are the kinds of things that you, as a listener, don’t generally notice; some of them operate almost subliminally — they are the ambiance of a track, not the obvious aspects of the track. Those are very much the things that traditional production is concerned with. And they allow you to rearrange the priorities of the music in a large number of ways.

We’ve spoken of the transition from the ’50s concept of music to the contemporary concept of mixing. If you listen to records from the ’50s, you’ll find that all the melodic information is mixed very loud — your first impression of the piece is of melody — and the rhythmic information is mixed rather quietly. The bass is indistinct, and the bass is only playing the root note of the chord in most cases, adding some resonance. As time goes on you’ll find this spectrum, which was very wide, with vocals way up there and the bass drum way down there, beginning to compress, until at the beginning of funk it is very narrow, indeed. Things are all about equally loud.

Then, from the time of Sly and the Family Stone’s Fresh album, there’s a flip over, where the rhythm instruments, particularly the bass drum and bass, suddenly become the important instruments in the mix. A timbral change also takes place. The bass becomes a very defined instrument; by the use of amplitude control filters, the bass actually begins to take on a very vocal attack. The bass drum gains a more physical sound, and also has a click to it; generally you’ll find that bass drums are equalized very heavily, something like 1000-1500 cycles, to give a real sharp click. It becomes the loudest instrument in disco — watch the vu meter while a disco track is playing, and you’ll see the needle peak each time the bass drum hits.

Okay. I’ve been talking about some of the possibilities of multi-track recording, which is almost completely what I do. I don’t really have a musical identity outside of studios. Now I’m going to discuss some pieces of mine, because I know how they were made, production-wise, and I can say with confidence how they were built.

Starting with R.A.F, a very obscure B-side of an even more obscure single that came out in ’78 — it’s an interesting piece on a lot of levels. It’s by me and a band called Snatch. This piece started off many years ago; it was just a tatty little tape left over from a mess – around we’d had in the studio which lasted 35 seconds. But that 35 seconds was quite interesting — after that it deteriorated into jamming — but I always kept in mind that I was going to do something with that piece, sometime. I have about 700 pieces like that. Judy Nieland of Snatch suggested doing a reportage piece on the Baader Meinhoff terrorists, and I remembered this piece and pulled it out.

The first thing I had to do was extend it somehow, so I copied the 24-track onto another 24-track machine, four or five times, and I pieced them together, so I had the thing song-length by then. And you’ll hear, in a cleverly disguised fashion, exactly the same parts repeated. Which makes you think that Percy Jones of Brand X is an incredible bass player, because he does every complex, idiosyncratic thing three our four times in a row. That’s a trick I like using.

We had a recording Judy made in Germany of the telephone announcement you could call, where a lady would say, “Good evening, blah blah blah, we’re trying to apprehend the Baader Meinhoff terrorists, this is a recording of one of their voices,” and then the terrorist’s voice would come on, which had been recorded off another telephone when they were making ransom demands. The scenario of this piece was interesting, production-wise, because some of the record is set outside, on the streets, then it suddenly cuts to an airplane which is being hijacked. I wanted to get the effect of going from a very hectic, open space into a very tight, air-conditioned airplane. What I did to achieve that was take all the echo off of everything, and put a very peculiar, tunnel-type echo on things. To me, it works: I get this sense of a contraction of space, and the soft voices working over it. After that it’goes back outside, into the wide world again.

There are two pieces of mine, “Skysaw” from Another Green World, and “A Major Groove” from Music for Films (both Editions EG), which are exactly the same track, mixed differently, slowed down, and fiddled about with a bit. I also gave it to Ultravox for one of the songs on their first album. It’s been a long way, this backing track. Listen to all three, and you hear what kind of range of difference usage is possible. “M386” on Music for Films is another one that’s had four different lives. This is actually quite similar to what reggae producers have been doing for a while. Once you’re on tape, there are so many variations you can make that you don’t really.need to spend all that money hiring musicians; you can do a great deal with one piece of work. So when you buy a reggae record, there’s a 90 percent chance the drummer is Sly Dunbar. You get the impression that Sly Dunbar is chained to a studio seat somewhere in Jamaica, but in fact what happens is that his drum tracks are so interesting, they get used again and again.

This takes us to reggae, which is a very interesting music in that it’s the first that didn’t base itself around the standard approach of making work by addition. Earlier I said the contemporary studio composer is like a painter who puts things on, puts things together, tries things out, and erases them. The condition of the reggae composer is like that of the sculptor, I think. Five or six musicians play; they’re well isolated from one another. Then the thing they played, which you can regard as a kind of cube of music, is hacked away at — things are taken out, for long periods.

A guitar will appear for two strums, then never appear again; the bass will suddenly drop out, and an interesting space is created. Reggae composers have created a sense of dimension in the music, by very clever, unconventional use of echo, by leaving out instruments, and by the very open rhythmic structure of the music. Then, too, someone like Lee Perry, a producer who’s always been very intelligent as far as using the constraints of the situation goes, might find there’s hiss building up on tracks he’s used over and over. A Western engineer might get frightened by this, and use all sorts of noise reduction and filtration. Perry says, “Okay, that’s part of the sound, so we’ll just add something else to it and use it’ ” This adds an ambiance of weirdness behind what was straightforward reggae.

Which puts me in mind of the first piece on Music for Airports (Editions EG). I had four musicians in the studio, and we were doing some improvising exercises that I’d suggested. I couldn’t hear the musicians very well at the time, and I’m sure they couldn’t hear each other, but listening back, later, I found this very short section of tape where two pianos, unbeknownst to each other, played melodic lines that interlocked in an interesting way. To make a piece of music out of it, I cut that part out, made a stereo loop on the 24-track, then I discovered I liked it best at half speed, so the instruments sounded very soft, and the whole movement was very slow. I didn’t want the bass and guitar — they weren’t necessary for the piece — but there was a bit of Fred Frith’s guitar breaking through the acoustic piano mic, a kind of scrape I couldn’t get rid of. Usually I like Fred’s scrapes a lot, but this wasn’t in keeping, so I had to find a way of dealing with that scrape, and I had the idea of putting in variable orchestration each time the loop repeated. You only hear Fred’s scrape the first time the loop goes around.

There are other examples of things I do with loops and editing based on fairly simple material, to get singular, very rare events I couldn’t have forseen. But perhaps I should mention that you only have control of your studio composition to the pressing plant — then the reproduction is completely arbitrary. So when I mix a record, I mix on at least two speaker systems — and often more than two — so I’m not mixing just for optimum conditions. Most of my records don’t sound good in optimum conditions, where there are very large speakers which are extremely well balanced and have lots of high and low frequencies. I mix, really, for what I imagine most people have medium-priced hi-fi — and for radio a bit as well. It’s the very naive producer who works only on optimum systems.

Brian Eno

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