Guitarists Rule the World

I got an email from my friend Lena the other day with the subject line “Guitarists Rule the World.” It included a link to a guitarist I’ve never paid much attention to. I’m not sure whether or not she was teasing me. Her jazz tastes lean more mainstream than mine, and she listens to opera where I’m more inclined toward contry and punk. But she had just accompanied me to photograph Marc Ribot while I interviewed him for Guitar Player magazine, and so was forced to listen to Marc and I talk about guitars for 90 minutes. So there was common ground.

And guitars had been on my mind anyway. The week before the meeting with Ribot, I got to interview another phenom of the outre guitar, James “Blood” Ulmer (this time for the newly christened NYC Jazz Record). I was gearing up to write about the Guitar Heroes luthier show at the Met and the Picasso Guitars show at MoMA for the NY Press. And I was three through a run of four Prince shows (over three months) at Madison Square Garden, which I was covering for the Brooklyn Rail. The night after the fourth of those shows, I went to see another fave guitarist of mine, Andy Gill, with Gang of Four. And I found myself thinking, yes, guitars do rule the world. Whatever Lena meant by that, she was right in the end. And I thought maybe I should write. About guitars. And guitarists. And first encounters.

Guitarists Rule the World, Part I: Kurt Rosenwinkel

I kinda panic when people have the same name as me. It’s rooted, I suppose, in revisiting Kurt Vonnegut’s work as an adult and finding it (I don’t even want to type this) ... adolescent. I don’t understand the attention lauded upon Kurt Elling. Kurt Russell’s OK, I guess, but Kurt Schwitters is the only really good one.

Having watched the clip Lena sent, I’ll say yes. Kurt Rosenwinkel is a good guitarist. That’s not really a question. Way better than me, for sure. And definitely a better player than some of my favorite guitarists, such as Loren Connors and Haino Keiji, who aren’t really relying on “chops.” But I don’t find myself wanting to hear more Rosenwinkel. I’m not interested. And I guess that is something I was thinking about when I was looking at guitars and talking to guitarists and writing about all of it.

The notion of playing an instrument as being a form of storytelling is a well-worn cliché, especially in jazz. And somehow, if I hear someone say a soloist was “really saying something,” I somehow suspect that they weren’t. Storytelling isn’t just reciting an Aesop fable everyone knows, or reading Dickens aloud. It’s more than just conveying information. Storytelling involves convincing a listener to follow you when they don’t know where you’re going, and then having them be pleased, shocked or grateful, but having them understand why they were brought to this place.

I want to be told a story, and I didn’t get the feeling that Mr. Rosenwinkel had anything to tell me. I don’t necessarily have to understand the story. I’m not even sure I have to like it. But if the only adjectives in it are “flatted” or “diminished” or “augmented,” then I’m probably not going to be concerned about the characters. I’m about as interested in how technically proficient a musician is as I am how good a typist a novelist is. Mr. Rosenwinkel, best to you. I wish you no ill will, and there’s plenty of people out there who love arpeggios.

Guitarists Rule the World, Part II: James “Blood” Ulmer and Andy Gill

I first heard James “Blood” in college at my friend Jim’s house. I had known Jim in high school, but fell into a kind of love for him in college. He seemed so genuine. In high school I dressed up like a punk rocker. He listened to Talking Heads, Jimi Hendrix and Syd Barrett and didn’t dress like anything. I fumbled at playing guitar. He played fairly well and painted for crissakes. I used to actually consider, as I worked on repositioning myself from punk to beatnik, if Kerouac felt lucky to have meet Burroughs and Ginsberg the way I felt lucky to get to hang out with Jim and our friend Kevin.

And so it was that one afternoon I was at Jim’s house. We were, along with Kev, cutting up Jim’s roommate’s pornographic magazines to make collages. Jim went and put a new record on the stereo and out from the speakers came a jangle of loose, rubbery strings and a moaning voice. Unable to admit my lack of cool and ask what it was, I glanced at the stack and memorized the white-and-yellow cover with the name “Jazzateers” and a picture of a pistol across the front.

It took a few months, but I found the record and discovered it to be some British post-punk thing on Rough Trade. And so I had to own up and ask — that or never hear the blang of those strings again. I called him up and he said to me: Tales of Captain Black.

A few years later I got to see Ulmer’s blues band play, but the first time I got to hear that electrified warble live was in a matinee garden concert at the Brooklyn Museum of Art where he was playing material from the remarkable 1993 record Harmolodic Guitar With Strings. I sat focused on that huge thumb dragging across the strings of his electrified hollowbody and realized something crucial. While the music wasn’t loud, the guitar was. At times he was barely brushing the strings, and we got to hear every subtle scrape and waver he produced.

I don’t know what I expected before I went over to Ulmer’s SoHo loft to interview him in January of 2011, but I know I didn’t expect to have as much fun as I did. I didn’t expect to laugh so much, and I suppose I didn’t expect him to laugh so much either. At one point during our long and freewheeling conversation, I asked him about Hendrix. Specifically about how he’d been quoted saying no one had done anything to advance the guitar since Hendrix. Ulmer has a way, however, of not answering questions but moving on to something more interesting.

“The way he played the guitar was the same kind of way I’m trying to play guitar,” Ulmer told me. “He wasn’t trying to play it on no old ideas. His guitar playing was more advanced than anyone. He made it possible for people to go out and play with just bass and drums. Before that, we had to go out and play with an organ trio and we was just playing chords. It’s because of Jimi Hendrix really trying to change the texture of the guitar from people like Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery. Jimi Hendrix didn’t have all them pedals. He has a wah-wah and chewing gum and a cigarette. And he took the guitar out of the background and made it possible for people to go out front and play.”

I also asked him about my theory that one technique he used was turning the amp up extremely loud and playing softly. As he did in response to so many of my questions, he just laughed and talked about something else.

I’ve only seen that “speak softly, carry a big stick” approach used by one other guitarist, one from a somewhat different world. Not an entirely different world: Blood did open for PiL and Capt. Beefheart in the ’80s, but that seems more a product of a moment in time than anything deeply stylistic. Either way, though, the other guitarist I’ve seen isolate so much power with so little gesture was Andy Gill.

I was introduced to Gang of Four and Gill’s guitar as a freshman in high school. My junior high art rock (Bowie, Eno, Kate Bush) rammed up against Tom’s Britpunk (The Jam, Wire, Gang of Four) in an effort to find a common stream where the only other one was the main one. We fed off each other, and others in our little clique (Sharon the head cheerleader referred to us as “nons,” which we embraced gleefully), loaning each other albums and negotiating who would buy which of the new releases.

I was devouring hungrily, but Gang of Four I couldn’t quite get to. In hindsight I was intimidated. I liked their music. I loved the harsh, icy guitar. But I didn’t understand the lyrics and I feared how thought-through their post-revolution world seemed. It was easier for me to connect with the post-revolution world of The Clash in which, I assumed, we’d all just hang out.

But as I grew a bit more worldly, I came to appreciate Gang of Four’s paranoia party, and by the time they reunited for a 2005 tour, I was pumped to see them for the first time. Working on a piece for Signal to Noise magazine, I got to sit in for their soundcheck after interviewing singer Jon King. When I walked in, Gill was alone on stage, playing “Paralyzed,” and I was alone on the large floor of Irving Plaza — alone and in awe. His hands, his right one especially, didn’t move any more than necessary. He was hardly bashing along in punk manner. He wasn’t playing hard, the amp did that for him. As with Ulmer, it wasn’t like he was playing loud. It was like his guitar was born loud.

Guitarists Rule the World, Part III: Marc Ribot

The difference — well, one of them— between Gill and Ulmer is that Gill plays with laserlike precision. He might not be a machine (Gang of Four isn’t Kraftwerk), but he’s still a laborer doing a job. Ulmer is a bluesman, playing from the pit of his stomach. One is cerebral, the other is soulful, and the soul doesn’t always work in linear equations. Unlike the brain, the soul knows that things don’t always make sense. Marc Ribot is a deeply soulful player who doesn’t feel the need to always make sense.

There was only one question I really wanted to ask him when I interviewed him for Guitar Player and I struggled over how to word it. What was it about his playing that seemed — sloppy? reckless? I settled on “haphazard.” He knew what I was getting at, although I’m not sure he liked my phrasing.

“When other people are laying down the groove, I can mess with it,” he said in response to my half-formulated question. “But when I’m playing solo, I have to build the building and destroy it. I try to be precise rhythmically in everything I do. Sometimes with Spiritual Unity I go into solos with pulse, but I’m not a fan of rubato. My hero is [James Brown trombonist] Fred Wesley, who’s all about timing. It takes a lot of artifice to create the sensation of haphazardness.”

The first time I saw Ribot play was around 1987 with Elvis Costello. I was down on Costello at the time, but friends were going and I had to see what this guy who wedged notes sideways and backwards all over Tom Waits records was all about. The show was at Poplar Creek, a huge outdoor theater in the Chicago suburbs, and “seeing” Ribot wasn’t really what happened. But several years later on a trip to new York, I discovered a record store called “Downtown Music Gallery” and the manager, an amiable fellow named Bruce Gallanter, told me that Ribot would be playing in the store that evening. I hurried my touring about and got to the small and packed-to-the-walls store just as Ribot was about to begin. With no concern for propriety (this was my New York vacation) I pushed my way through and sat on the floor, my nose inches from Ribot’s shoe as he sat cross-legged on a stool, and revelled.

I was in town for a friend’s wedding. The dinner was the following night at Marion’s in the Village. More lost than I wanted to admit, I kept going into a restaurant named “Mary Anne’s” looking for them, thinking a Mexican restaurant was an unusual choice but still thinking that it had to be the place. Each time I walked in, I made eye contact with Ribot, who was having dinner there and who seemed to be trying to figure out why he recognized me. That or he was trying to ward me off from sitting at his feet again.

Guitarists Rule the World, Part IV: Prince

Sheer talent doesn’t really mean that much to me. But the talent to convey complex ideas and emotions through a wordless and abstract medium means the world to me. What makes me love Derek Bailey’s playing more than just about anything is not his prowess but his expressiveness. Those two qualities aren’t independent of each other, of course: it takes some technique to translate your soul into sound. But with my favorite players, there’s something that comes before instrumental prowess.

There are, however, some things that are so perfect that they transcend personal tastes. Aren’t there? It seems to me that people who doesn’t understand this are aesthetic infants believing that everything is here for them to put in their mouths. Not liking mysteries shouldn’t have anything to do with recognizing the mastery of Alfred Hitchcock. Not liking smooth jazz shouldn’t have anything to do with recognizing the mastery of Ella Fitzgerald or Frank Sinatra. Not liking folk music shouldn’t have anything to do with recognizing the mastery of Joni Mitchell. And liking architecture shouldn’t have anything to do with questioning the mastery of Frank Gehry. You can hate jazz, but you can’t deny “Lush Life.” You can hate Dylan, but you have to own up to “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” And not liking funk, or disco, or dance music, or pop, or jams, or whatever it is you want to call it shouldn’t have anything to do with recognizing the sheer mastery of Prince.

In other words, talent-in-itself doesn’t hold enormous sway over me unless you’re as good as Prince. He can spin Santana into pure honey. He can twist Marc Bolan into a smirk and a grind. He can loosen up James Brown and tighten up P-Funk, and do the reverse as well. He could sweet talk your mama and leave your sister dizzy, all with nothing but his Hohner.

One thing about Prince is he doesn’t have a lot of guitars. Or he does but he likes them to look the same. There’s a couple of colors of Strats, there’s the occasional acoustic, there’s a couple designers that seem to be put to bed (the sweet-ass guitar Apollonia bought him in Purple Rain and the happily retired “symbol” guitar of the ’90s), and there’s his mock Tele. The Hohner Tele, with its bookmatched curly maple, is easily my favorite axe to see slung over his shoulder. Of course they’re reworked and rewired — the man can afford it. But he just looks good with an off-the-rack looking guitar, and his Strats are always stupid colors.

Isolating him as a guitarist, however, is oddly difficult since it’s so much a part of his mythos. Ever since Purple Rain exploded close to 30 years ago, it’s been part of the thumbnail sketch: eccentric, effeminate, great dancer, great guitarist. You didn’t have to think about it, which can lead to not thinking about it. Sure, I marveled at the solos. That was just what you did. But the first time I actually internalized it was in college. While listening to Lovesexy, my roommate pointed out how often there’s a guitar solo going on through the background of a song. There’ll usually be a solo in its proper place, out front and after the second chorus, there’s also one half buried but carrying on throughout. It’s as if he can’t stop playing, like Coltrane going backstage after a solo to keep playing rather than having to stop.

And, of course, it’s not just about the playing. Prince is so about the guitar. The scene in Purple Rain where Apollonia buys him the curly axe he’d been coveting is dead-on geek cool romantic. There’s the scene on the b-side track “Shockadelica” where he is under the sway of a woman named “Camille” (who is also his alter ego, figure that one out) until she does the unthinkable and he yells “Get up! You be layin’ on my guitar!” How could she not know she was laying on a guitar? I used to wonder if maybe she has scales instead of skin. Years later, on the album Planet Earth, he warned a ladyfriend that he loved her, but not like he loved his guitar.

But where he got to me, and where he melts me every time, is on a single he released during the throes of his dispute with Warner Bros. “Pink Cashmere” is a fantastically catchy ballad, dripping with syrup and strings, and with a blistering solo. The distorted guitar against violins (real or fake) is electrifying. I don’t know what guitar he plays on it, but it sounds like the way the one Apollonia bought him looks.

Guitarists Rule the World, Part V: Derek Bailey

Recently I was lured into one of those conversations while waiting in line for a show. This one was “favorite guitarists.” Ribot was mentioned, as was Richard Thompson, for whom I’ve also been known to swoon, and others. But when it came around to me, I said only one word: “Derek.” Even giving a last name would have diluted my message.

There’s plenty of guitarists I like, of course. But only one that I really wanted to be my answer. I’m not really sure when the first time I heard Bailey play was. It may have been the record Yankees with George Lewis and John Zorn. But I know for a long time I didn’t get it and I didn’t like it. The first time I heard him live was with pipa player Min Xiao-Fen, playing inside a pedestal of the Brooklyn Bridge. And that’s when I got it. He wasn’t playing with her, he was playing against her. And suddenly the whole music changed.

Bailey was brilliant, of course, as a player, a listener and provocateur. After his death in December, 2005, I wrote a piece for All About Jazz. In it I talked about how inviting his playing is and quoted Ben Watson, who wrote in his crucial tome Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation that “like a truly interesting conversationalist, Bailey’s guitar-playing does not flatter the musicians he plays with, or attempt to make them sound good in a facile way: he attempts to understand what they are playing by contradicting them. ... The source of his ‘spikiness’ is his interest in repartee; his negations are productive because they are grounded in musical comprehension of his interlocuter’s logic.”

It's that sense of logic, that conversation (even when it’s a monologue) that makes Bailey’s music so exciting to me. I’ve got loads of his recordings, but I still don’t have them all. I’m glad. Once in a while I still get to hear him play something “new.” I get to hear him tell a story I haven’t heard before.


"Up yours, smile, that's right, you're a star!"

Four Prince shows in three months. Bet your bottom dollar I wrote about it. Did a little Hello for Brooklyn Rail, and my main Purple Party Planner David Wilson posted a very nice response.