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God help the artist who won't rebel

Every great musician must risk getting burned

By TD Mischke

Published on May 04, 2009 at 4:01pm

I called them Bop and Punk. They were squared off in a coffee shop, talking music on a Sunday afternoon. One had to be in his 80s, the other in his 50s, both too charged up to notice an eavesdropper in their midst.

"We hated that swing stuff, man. It was for all the white guys who'd gone to war and come back hoping to find a girl and marry. We fought in that war too, but we came home to the same old shit, treated like trash. We weren't fired up about building American suburbs, we were fired up about screaming into a saxophone."

"Well, we were sick over what had happened to rock 'n' roll. That whole freewheeling rant of the mid-'60s was shot by the mid-'70s. This easy-listening California crap was wafting out of Laurel Canyon, and we were looking at each other asking, 'What the hell happened?' We were pissed."

"Yeah, you got mad, man, but you got mad with three chords. It was all volume and speed."

"Oh, bebop wasn't about speed?"

"We were fast, sure, but it was more than that. Leaving 2/4 time for 4/4, playing on the weak beat, keeping people off balance, asking more questions with the sound than ever laying out answers. We were trying to shake things up, but there was no classical musician who could show us up. We were good and we were wild."

"Well now, you sound as bad as those chamber orchestra guys who used to look down on you jazz guys for being too sloppy and undisciplined. They might have admired your hands, but you didn't impress them. You were like children in their eyes, like adolescents."

"Hey, Mister Punk Rocker, you looked down your nose at folks yourself. But it was reverse snobbery. If some cat knew his way around an instrument a little too proficiently, you didn't want anything to do with him."

"Yeah, and you had little respect for the classical guys because they followed rules and form. How's that different? C'mon, we both had to fight to earn a little respect. People said punk was just a drone or a din, nothing more. But there was a method to our madness. We were coming out of these horrible suburbs you mentioned, where our parents thought they could escape to some idealized world, away from the city. We were racing back to that very city, just to feel something again, to grab the sound of a frenetic world seeming more and more mindless. Hippies and flowers and peace signs hadn't done anything. It was the time of Watergate, time to scream 'bullshit' to it all."

"Yeah, but you guys went crazy, throwing yourselves off stages, frying your brains."

"I'm not taking any heat from a bebop-era jazz musician about chemical use or self-destruction. You guys wrote the book."

"Maybe you want to label my stuff 'punk jazz'—that about right?"

"I want to say we weren't all that different. Yeah, you have me with your music theory and virtuosity, but so what? Punk would have died if it went for complexities. It wasn't the point of the sound; it wasn't a worthy goal. It would have taken us in a direction away from our whole purpose...."

I listened intently, drank my coffee, and gave up reading the Sunday paper. It was time to think about what I was taking in. The words in my head sounded old and new. They said God help the artist who doesn't want to rebel. Have mercy on the poor bastard who isn't running away from something pleasant and beelining toward something dangerous. Because that's where the fire flares all night long. And if an artist, a musician, a songwriter, isn't looking for the flames, then he's found himself a deadly little pocket of comfort, as edgy as a new suburban development, as easy as a patio. Then he's no artist at all. Just an entertainer, a different bird entirely. He's taking the path the school kids took, waiting for the crossing guards to give the nod, never noticing the shadows racing through those back yards and dirty alleys, screaming like saxophones from 1949. 

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