Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Crimson Reflections – Part One: Stumbling into the Court

For the next few installments here, I will be working through some reflections on the great musical institution known in rock music circles by the name King Crimson. It's weird, but I don't think of Crimson as a typical band, per se. It isn't exactly a collective either. Crimson is more of a creative landscape under the watchful guidance of Mr. Robert Fripp who, if anyone has taken the time to read some of his fascinating blog posts, seems to have a fairly complicated relationship with his “garden”. Hmmm. That isn't a bad analogy – King Crimson is more like a musical garden than a “band”. Fripp is the master gardener - the gatekeeper. Crimson is a carefully manicured garden where some plots are allowed to grow wild – as long as the carefully controlled chaos suits the aesthetic of the master gardener. Sometimes the undergrowth gets out of hand and the garden goes on lockdown only to be re-opened to the public in a newly remodeled form. Yet, the essence of the garden remains consistently tied to a particular aesthetic which can only be defined as Crim.

As usual, I am grossly ill-suited to be telling this tale. I haven't even heard all of the music from this region. Well, it would be kind of tough to do though not impossible. There have been solo albums and offshoots – many pathways winding through the Crimson Forest. Yet, a curious realization emerges – the lifeblood of the land is tied up with other elemental components – often associated with other landscapes and regions. There is an odd sense of dislocation that permeates through the Crimson Garden. A slightly less romantic analogy for King Crimson might be the family across town who lots of folks are related to though they don't always admit it. There is an element of elite yet outlaw status with this motley assortment Mr. Fripp has presided over since its inception......which goes back to 1969 when it was still just a band – and not even HIS band, initially.

To move this analysis forward, I will be using the above visual to represent the four major time shifts associated with the Historic Crimson Identity. Those familiar with the music will understand what the four compact discs represent. Everybody else will have to keep reading, of course.

NOTE: There is a recent permutation of King Crimson which toured in the fall of 2014. This version of the band has so far been represented with a live CD which I have not yet ordered or heard. True to form for me – I totally missed the opportunity to see this new version of Crimson just like every other time. Sheesh. So this newest edition is not represented quite yet here.
My journey through this region commences not in a chronological manner, but in a geographic one. I will begin in the southwest quadrant of the map since that is where my own journey started. How I wound up there is related to an article I read in Musician Magazine in August 1984. The article is highly entertaining and worth spending the fifteen minutes or so it takes to read. See here: 
The residents of Crim at this time were Fripp (of course), Bill Bruford (who to me was the first Yes drummer), Adrian Belew (who I knew only from Frank Zappa's band at that point) and bassist Tony Levin (who I heard on countless records without knowing who it was – like John Lennon's last album). For some reason I found that article interesting enough to want to just buy some King Crimson without worrying about what the music sounded like. So it was that I wound up at my favorite record joint and purchased the Discipline album on compact disc (new in the blister package!) without having heard a note of the music.
 Never mind that the record was about 4 years old by the time I got to it – this was still “new music” as far as I was concerned. And was it EVER! To this day, I have not heard anything remotely like what the Discipline album was then and still is. It is uncanny to me. Discipline was love at first listen. I was thirsty for a new music and King Crimson delivered in a way no other musical entity could at that time. 

I was so enthused with Discipline I set out later in the summer to bag another Crimson album – the one profiled in the article that, for reasons I don't remember, I initially passed up in favor of Discipline. Good thing too, since Three of a Perfect Pair was not quite the same experience – and one I nearly paid an ultimate price for (had I not been as fortunate as I was). You see, all this pre-dated my ability to drive an automobile. Trips to the record shops were dependent upon a willing parental lift and were therefore infrequent. Until I got it in my brain that I could ride my bicycle to the record shop on a clear, non-rainy day.

Having some LP-spending cash on hand I reasoned I could steer the bike with one hand while holding the LP with the other on the trip back. Of course, certain parts of the return trip involved a few intense downhill maneuvers which might complicate the process. No worries – just go! The trip to the shop was unremarkable except I got the LP this time (would have been smarter to get the CD, no?). The return trip was also fairly unremarkable – even down the really BIG hill which should have been the scarier prospect. It was the second biggest downhill where things went awry. My street was on the left at the bottom of a down-hill dip in the main road – right after going under an overpass built for a train-track elevated above the road. No problem except I was riding into oncoming traffic, one-handed and didn't count on some rather large debris which had accumulated under the bridge which was hard to navigate and............................. holyshitivehitalogwherethefuckdidthatcomefromiamnowfallingoffthebikeintooncomingtraffic! What's the first thought when I realize I am going down off the bike like this? “Oh my God! SAVE THE RECORD!!!!”
See that bend in the LP cover? Well, that was the extent of the damage to the record, thank heavens. My own damage was also mercifully slight. No cars managed to run over me thank goodness. So I arrived home bruised and shaken, yet undeterred. I later would bring Three of a Perfect Pair to parties and put it on when other guys tried to dance with the girls I was interested in. Heh heh! Yet, that LP would be the end of Crimson Mark III and I never got to see that edition live in concert. It would be many years later before I even bothered to purchase the Beat album.Not because I didn't want it, but because I KNEW – I knew it was going to be great and I was holding out for when I needed to hear it. I know – I am such a weirdo I just didn't want to rush into the last LP from that era of the band. I wanted to SAVOR it.

Last summer I got to experience the ultimate re-creation of this era of Crimson when I saw the double trio act of Adrian Belew's and Tony Levin's bands together performing Crimson music up in Woodstock at the Bearsville Theater. I was totally blown away. I cannot wait for the next performance next summer. I was enthralled once again – even though that Fripp guy was not present. I was also semi-yet-not-quite starstruck to discover the great Tony Levin mulling around the bar before the show – standing right next to me! I'm sure I could have blathered on to him about how his contribution to the Discipline album changed and energized my life as a young listener (and still does), but any knucklehead can come off like Waynes World, right? Just being that close in proximity to such an important musical figure was enough of a buzz for me. So enjoyable it was to see him then, I returned to the Bearsville later in the season to see Tony Levin's Stickmen group. I could watch and listen to him play all day long – he's a true musical treasure of our times. It is no surprise that Mr. Fripp let him in the Crimson Garden all those years ago.
          As a postscript and tie-in to the other eras I will be writing about – the Discipline album was released as part of a 40th Anniversary campaign featuring new 5.1 surround sound mixes of all the King Crimson albums. Most of the catalog has been released this way, though so far Discipline is the only album from that era to be given the 5.1 treatment. That said – the new mix is so spectacular I would recommend any fan of this album to get a surround sound system RIGHT AWAY so you can hear this experience as quickly as possible before life gets in the way too much or back copies of this thing become too expensive to afford anymore. Yes – it is THAT GOOD. In fact, as I will profile in the future, it is this 5.1 remix campaign that finally convinced me King Crimson leads the pack of so-called progressive bands. 
Every single release from this 40th Anniversary series is so stellar, they've raised the bar as to what real progressive excellent music is really all about. The 5.1 remixes have breathed so much new life into the back catalog of Crimson albums, they have forced a re-evaluation of even the more marginal records made under less-than-ideal circumstances. Its almost as if the sonic unfolding of those records sheds new light on what those Crim residents were really up to – while everyone thought they were imploding, they were re-defining the potential of the future. What may have baffled listeners in stereo back in the early 70s comes to life in surround sound in the present era. King Crimson has always been a cutting edge ensemble. Technology has made it possible for the music to be re-discovered and re-evaluated for newer generations of listeners.