Off Piste: Turntable revolution

For the young Robert Appelbaum, music was his guide, teaching him the language of life and leading him ever further away from the musicals of his parents to John Coltrane - and back

January 7, 2010

Once upon a time, music was revolution. I don't know what it is any more; I have been out of touch with the musical world for years. I know that my perception is coloured by nostalgia, but I still hold to my premise: once upon a time, in the Sixties and early Seventies, music was revolution.

We waited for the release of a new single or album by the Beatles or the Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan or Jimi Hendrix with the expectation not only of music worth hearing, but of new language unfolding. For a good while the music did not disappoint. No one of my generation can forget hearing A Day in the Life for the first time, or Brown Sugar, or Hendrix remaking the Dylan song All Along the Watchtower, which was itself already in the avant-garde. Every new song was a new way of stabbing at the dark. When Dylan sang "'There must be some way out of here,' said the joker to the thief", popular music acquired a new world of reference, sadly, spookily evocative of the New Testament and its lost promises. When Hendrix remade the song, the New Testament went psychedelic, and the lyrics burst into flames. "So let us not talk softly," Hendrix yelled into the mike, with a guitar ringing like a harp behind him. "The hour is getting late."

We agreed. The hour was getting late. And so we moved on to the next new group, and the next new song, trying to learn what we and the world we knew were capable of before it was too late, and we weren't able to find our ways out of "here" any more.

I say "we", but each of us, of course, experienced this revolution in our own way. I came from a family that was indifferent to music, and musically illiterate to boot. For a while there were albums of show tunes in the house - South Pacific, The King and I, The Sound of Music; Broadway music that seemed to be part of our heritage as displaced New Yorkers - but eventually they disappeared, along with our hi-fi, as did the sound of music generally in our household. I came to learn about music on my own, in the privacy of my bedroom. I had a small radio, on which I listened to Top Ten countdowns while I pretended to go to sleep, and eventually acquired a portable record player. As my allowance or working income permitted, I bought a few discs, which I listened to sitting on the floor, legs crossed like a yogi, with the sound turned low. I had several Four Seasons albums, and Bobby Vee and Lesley Gore. "Big girls don't cry," the Four Seasons sang. "It's my party, and I'll cry if I want to," Lesley Gore replied.

Then the British Invasion hit the States. Before long I was combing my hair over my forehead and buying British rock'n'roll and I knew all of the songs on the Beatles' first three American albums by heart. But the first album I remember buying and listening to studiously on the floor of my bedroom - it was 1965 and I was 13 years old - was Wilson Pickett, doing In the Midnight Hour. I remember being fascinated with how the music made my little record player pop like a percussion instrument, and not just in the drums but in the horns and the guitar and the grain of Pickett's voice, and above all the way Pickett would suddenly stop and start, where no lyrics were left, and come out with a syncopated burst of "Huh!"

The way forward was also an embrace of more and more things. It was from the white British rockers that I learnt about black American rhythm and blues; and rhythm and blues became part of the way forward for me too. I fell in love with Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Sam and Dave. In Chicago, to which my family moved in 1966, rhythm and blues was being married to acid rock, and made more urgent, if not more soulful. I learnt to listen to saxophones and trumpets and even, by way of a local band called the Flock, the electric violin, all revved up with high-volume distortion. And then I became aware of the blues, the Mississippi Delta and Texas blues, and its electronic reincarnation in Chicago by the Chess Records corral of musicians, led by Muddy Waters. The first time I heard Lightnin' Hopkins on the radio, singing Lonesome Road, alone with his guitar, I was startled; I felt that I was listening to something that was more honest than my own private thoughts, expressing emotions that were more authentic, and more profound, than my own worst night sweats. The first time I saw Howlin' Wolf on stage, singing numbers like Smokestack Lightning with his South Side band, I felt like I was riding an express train to heaven.

The musical way forward wasn't just about music. It wasn't just about a way of life. It was a way of coming to terms with existence. And that was revolutionary too.

Living in America in those days, it seemed to me, was all about not coming to terms with existence. Our official, adult culture was all about acquiring material goods, gadgets and status. And it was all about not feeling and thinking. At the same time that Wilson Pickett was going "Huh!" for all of us young people, the adult world was putting out idiotic films like The Sound of Music, based on the Broadway play - the one whose soundtrack we had at home - which exhorted us good boys and girls of America that, as far as music was concerned, "do" was "a deer, a female deer" and "re" was "a drop of golden sun".

It got even worse. "When the dog bites", the musical told us, or "when the bee stings", or when one was "feeling sad", the thing to do was ... forget about it! Not go down the road with it like Lightnin' Hopkins, or go up the train tracks with it like Howlin' Wolf, but put it out of your mind. Instead of feeling what you felt, and learning to live with it, you should think of "your favourite things", like "cream-coloured ponies", "sleigh bells" and "schnitzel with noodles" ... and then you "don't feel so bad"!

Naturally when I saw the movie, I was not entirely invulnerable to its charms: the melodrama of war and Nazism beneath the celebration of innocence; the angelic sensuality of Julie Andrews. And I understood that this Broadway-Hollywood confection, as all-American in its appeal as a chocolate-chip cookie, was at bottom a product of the particularities of my own ethnic background. Rodgers and Hammerstein, the composers, were just like us: New York Jews (or at least, in Hammerstein's case, a half-Jew). But still, I very much resented what the movie was doing, even at the age of 13: in the face of the advent of Nazism, the thing to do, and the thing to celebrate, was ... escape. The hills were alive with schnitzel and noodles.

I didn't want to have any part of it. I wanted that something more, that something harder. I wanted to go on with the revolution. So eventually, at the age of 18, I joined a blues band. I was a middling guitar picker, but soulful (or so I thought), and our band played in a few clubs in Chicago and on the road in Iowa. Like most groups, we didn't last long, and eventually I gave up my musical ambitions, but for about nine months, egged on by my buddies, I played and played and listened and listened with manic intensity. We delved into Robert Johnson, Sonny Terry, Little Walter. We imitated them all the best we could. And then we found ourselves confronting different kinds of music. I started listening to Beethoven; I bought a copy of the Appassionata Sonata (what else?) played by Wilhelm Kempff, and listened to it, alone and impassioned, just as I used to listen to Wilson Pickett.

And then there was jazz, an art form I had avoided partly out of ignorance and partly out of its association in my mind with the music of adults, the music of my parents' generation. No Benny Goodman for me, thank you very much. But one of my band mates started bringing in recordings of Miles Davis. Miles' music was all right, especially when seasoned with marijuana. We got the cool of it. Eventually we got the harmonics and the rhythm of it. This was something none of us in the band could play; we didn't have the tools. But it was more of what I had been looking for, new language. And it was radical. Slowly, softly and methodically - for that was Miles' way - it bore into you down to the roots.

From Miles we went on to other jazzmen of his era - Thelonius Monk, Charles Mingus, Max Roach. And then there was John Coltrane, a former sideman of Miles and Monk.

Coltrane was extraordinary. The sound of his saxophone, hot and high and raspy much of the time, came at you like acid. But at the same time the sound had a roundness to it, deep and breathy, so that it came at you like a crazy lullaby too. It was music that was in control of itself, that was finding new things and seeing new things with manly knowingness even when it was going out of control. Sometimes a series of arpeggios would unwind and dive and sail for minutes, one chord group cutting into and emerging out of another, until the sax would burst into sighs and sobs, and it seemed like not just Coltrane's sax but the whole world was bereaved. With Coltrane you got the sense that you get with the late Beethoven quartets, that music is going beyond music; only with Coltrane, you got it rough.

What did we listen to first? I don't remember. I only remember finding myself waking up when I first heard Coltrane the same way I had woken up when I first heard Lightnin' Hopkins. There was another way of existing, Coltrane's music said. It was almost like religion, listening to him play.

Or maybe it was religion. Before very long we discovered Coltrane's masterpiece, A Love Supreme, played in a quartet along with pianist McCoy Tyner, bass player Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones. A Love Supreme was a prayer. I was not then and never have been religious, but I was interested in spirituality, and A Love Supreme was a cry, a psalm, a meditation and a bluesy four-man symphony on behalf of spirit. What I got from A Love Supreme was that it was possible to feel and be to the point of the extremes of anguish and fear, and still hope and want to be alive.

But I never fully understood Coltrane, if ever I did, or the musical revolution I had embarked upon, until I turned to one of his live recordings from 1963. In the middle of a compilation of several other sides of Coltrane, the swinging of Bessie's Blues, the sadness of Alabama, came a long, loud driving piece with Coltrane on the soprano sax backed by a trio. The music was modal and mostly in minor. It was vaguely Middle Eastern and Indian but also American urban, swinging and intense and at times nearly desperate in its speed and its reach. Roy Haynes on the drums seemed to be playing in several different time signatures at once, driving and smashing. McCoy Tyner on the piano was pounding and pawing, but polyphonically, like Debussy looking for a tune. Jimmy Garrison's bass was hypnotic, thump-thump-thump, but it was also like a thundercloud coming towards you. And Coltrane was all over the place: fast, slow, deep, shrill. He was waltzing, he was bopping, he was running down the street. He was bursting like a machine gun, screaming at an enemy. He was bursting like a bomb, screaming at himself. He was fluttering like a hungry, lonely bird. And then he was cool, swinging, sidestepping, back to a major key, having fun, at once respectful and ironic, with a tune that everybody knew. He was playing his 17-minute version of My Favourite Things.

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