Part I of a discussion of Dave Weigel’s new book The Show That Never Ends, a history of Progressive Rock, which is getting all sorts of discussion on social media. The chat ended breaking down into two broad topics. This week? Career Planning: Robert Fripp vs. Keith Emerson. Filet Mignon with Ketchup.
Roger CortonWhere you been, man? We gotta discuss this book.
JCHSick. And you know I haven’t actually read the thing.
RCBut surely you’ve heard about it?
JCHThat guy has like the best PR agent of all time. I expect to see a review in Juggs Monthly (laughs). Nobody gets that reference. Dude, where did you get that?
RCWikipedia. I didn’t get the reference.
JCHWow. I gotta stop doing jokes like that. I haven’t seen a for realz skin mag in twenty years. Anyhoo, nothing but interviews. Probably the biggest thing to happen to ‘Prog’ in a decade. And I have to admit, from the The New Yorker it sounds like maybe the only serious book on the genre. I was fascinated by his teasers on Keith Emerson. You have it, I take it?
RCI do. I’ll send it to you.
JCHYou da man. So now I feel one hundred percent qualified to comment on this thing (laughs).
RCI wanted to get your take on it now because even though you haven’t read it, it touches on so many things you and I have discussed over the years that I couldn’t resist. Also, since you’ve met Fripp and Emerson and I think you’ll find his read on them surprising and I want to focus on those two.
JCHOh I’m sure. I only met Fripp in passing at one of his guitar classes. A guy I knew was taking a class and I got to poke my head in for free to see what it was all about and see the great man himself.
RCWhat did you think?
JCHI thought he was pretentious as all get out. At the time I was enamoured of the whole extended tuning business he was teaching. I was even gonna get a Stick; because I was so intrigued with extending the range. Or maybe I was just getting sick of switching back and forth between guitar and bass (laughs).
JCHBut frankly I was disappointed with the results.
RCResults? What of the Stick?
JCHNo, I mean Fripp’s whole ‘method’. The Stick is great. That was just a tangent. But that’s video is emblematic, in large part of what’s wrong with ‘prog’. The guy’s playing is super cool, but he’s drowning in this ocean of reverb surrounded by a sea of CGI and he’s constantly swooning, right? It’s never enough to just let the notes speak for themselves–as a proper musician would. It’s fucking Beethoven, right? It’s a filet mignon and ketchup. You go into 3 Star Chez Franz, order the Chef’s Prix Fixe and then demand EXTRA KETCHUP! (laughs) You see what I mean?
RCThat is so hard for ‘prog’ people to swallow. Without ketchup. (laughs). Back to Fripp.
JCHSo I was watching his students using his techniques and they just kept making the same loopy nonsense. I figured if his ‘theories’ had been any good, they would’ve made for good improvisers. Nope. They made for one good Fripp. And that’s often the case. A guy comes up with something that works for him…
JCH…Or her… And then figures it’s gotta work for everybody. That’s how lots of religions get started (laughs). Anyhoo my theory then, as now is that he was like Miles Davis; not an terribly original thought but there it is. Some guys are ultra charismatic and pretentious. They occasionally play something really cool like 21st Century Schizoid Man, but their true gift is to draw the real talent to themselves. For some reason, I can’t stand to be around people like that for more than ten minutes (laughs). I have an intense curiosity as to what is the attraction. I know that sounds odd, but I would want to hang out with Fripp just to find out why other people want to hang out with him. Because I just do not get it. Man, this is why we never stay within eight hundred words!
RCRight. But you have to give him his due. He’s the one guy who successfully did what you’ve tried to do, right?
JCHYes. As I said, he’s like Miles. I think of him more as an impresario than as an actual creator but regardless, he took his career and his music seriously. He wasn’t an ‘entertainer’, He thought of himself as an actual artist, right? And it escapes me why that seems so odd these days. Musicians are apparently not real artists anymore. So he reinvented himself periodically when he felt things were getting stale. But like a lot of big time visual artists he came across as pompous, pretentious and arrogant. Oh well. So are many opera Divas and conductors and soloists so I guess I can’t get too upset about that either come to think of it. So fuck me, you’re absolutely right. In the game of life? Fripp wins.
RCConversely, you’ve said some harsh things about Keith Emerson that may have been based on a lack of understanding of facts on the ground.
RCYou’ve previously ranted how you wished that he had taken up a second career as a professor at a music college and as a serious film composer, but instead would keep making comebacks in second-rate action film scores or the umpteenth reunion of ELP. According to the book, he was absolutely desperate to do exactly as you had suggested!
RCYes. Apparently he did want to move away from being a ‘rock star’. But kept getting pulled back into it by any number of factors; money, depression, record labels, insecurity. He would swing back and forth between really believing in himself as a composer and then not.
JCHI get that.
RCAnd then his hands would fail him.
JCHI get that.
RCAnd real depression would kick in.
JCHI get that.
RCAnd the easy way out would be to go back and do some crappy ELP deal–which he was not happy about. And you can see it in the photos. That’s what is so great about the book. Weigel is a serious reporter. You get the perspective of someone who knows how to cover it like real news.
JCHIt’s now starting to make more sense. You just get worn out. You get so far off course, you realize, “Wow, I’m never getting back to where I wanted to go in the first place. It’s probably too late. Even with all this talent. I’ve run out of time.”
RCMaybe. There are some scenes with Fripp and Greg Lake where Fripp treats Lake with complete disrespect like, “With all your money, you’ve done nothing of value.”
JCHI think you’ve nailed what I dislike about Fripp–the sheer pompous snobbery. The audacity of criticizing Lake or Emerson like that. ELP was truly great. As much as I enjoy albums by Yes and Genesis and so on I gotta say, as a writer, the core ELP albums are probably the best compositions in all of Progressive Rock. I’m not saying they’re more ‘enjoyable’ but when you really listen to Close To The Edge or The Lamb you start to hear how edited they are; they sound pieced together; albums by committee. Sergeant Pepper is like that too, right? A grand and glorious collage. There’s an arc to those pieces, but it got edited and beat into them over untold hours. But Karn Evil 9? That sounds like a for realz composition–worked out from the git go. Fans, critics still don’t get how important that is.
JCHBecause… (deep breath) at the end of the day your ear hears, wants, craves structure in any long form. That was the whole point of the LP for Christ’s Sake, man! What makes Sergeant Pepper work is long form structure. What makes Close To The Edge work is structure. What makes a great dance mix at a club work over thirty minutes, whether the dancers realize it or not, is STRUCTURE. A beginning. A middle. An end. An arc. It’s a fuckin’ story. All my banging on about ‘structure’ is because that is what makes for great long form anything. And that is why most progressive rock BLOWS because whether it’s epic or shreddy there’s no ‘there’ there. Now all those examples I just gave were edited together. But again, Keith? He composed. He had the training to plan Karn Evil 9. There’s more juice in that thirty minutes than in like five Dream Theater records.
RCNo argument there. But Fripp is protesting against the excess, right?
JCHAll the Spinal Tap bullshit? Sure. But the ketchup was ON THE ROAD, not on the album. To dismiss an entire body of work? Just listen to the music. The ketchup is not on the record.
And Greg’s contribution wasn’t just some humour or a voice, it was completely organic. In addition to the chops and the whole compositional portion, you need a ‘soft’ aspect that is truly unique. All the great bands have at least two (or more) sides to make them work. Greg was a peerless producer. They could’ve easily sounded just like three guys wanking away. I understand Fripp being turned off by all the ‘ketchup’ but to not hear anything of value in ELP goes beyond snobbery. I dunno. Maybe we file that under, “Some people say some cruel shit they didn’t mean when they were in their twenties.” I know I did.
Next week, Part II where we wonder how we got where we are today and we ask the question: art or entertainment?