Far Cry

a column by
Brian Morton

Only the very naïve put much faith in coincidence, so I do. I met an old friend last week who I hadn’t seen for thirty years. We’ve remained aware of each other and our doings but despite a strong fraternal bond, many shared interests and some common sorrow, we hadn’t done much about keeping up contact. Inevitably, there was a good deal of haphazard reminiscence, about mutual friends, the casualty list and battle scars, but above all about music. We agreed fundamentally that music qua music seemed to matter more back then than it seemed to now, to have a higher and more secure cultural value with the young. One of us has, against the odds, managed to “keep up” with current developments, albeit sometimes for purely professional reasons; the other admits to having drawn a line somewhere round the middle 1980s and doesn’t listen to much after that.

Which brings us to the coincidence part, for the last time I saw my friend in slightly inebriated person was on a trip I’d made to interview, of all people, Carmen McRae. This was in 1983, when Britain wobbled with Orwellian anxiety, but was probably still closer in spirit to the dippy but intriguingly chastened hedonism of Hendrix’s “1983 (A Merman I Should Turn To Be),” which in certain moods is still very much Our Song, darling, than to the grimness of Airstrip One. I found Carmen in reflective and self-admittedly sombre mood, musing on a raft of current issues from gang violence, Britain’s Northern Irish Vietnam, the first overground whispers about AIDS (which she, in common with everyone else at the time, called “gay flu”), and the business of growing old in a business that doesn’t “do” old. She talked about Billie Holiday – “my idol; always was; always will be” – and how scarily good Billie was when she was younger and how scary she was when she got older. A little later, I ventured the observation that there was always something fraught, freighted, a little anguished in Carmen’s own singing. She admitted that for most singers of her generation Holiday was an Upas-tree. “I believed when I was younger that it wasn’t possible to be better than her”. And then, heartbreakingly, “I think you can hear that in my singing, that fear of anti-climax.”

At one, rather obvious level, this is familiar anxiety-of-influence stuff, the dead weight of a giant reputation across an art form, the apparent inability to get past a Shakespeare or a Milton, a Parker or a Coltrane, or Lady Day. But it seemed to me then and seems to me ever more strongly now that the fear of anticlimax is a powerful driver in jazz and improvised music, and that it was one of the motor forces of the 1970s, a decade I’ve been thinking a lot about in recent months.

It was a decade that, like an ugly, underachieving younger child, has a painful awareness of its own shortcomings. The myth of the 1960s, with all its liberationist guff and carefully insulated revolutionism, was still very powerful and very pervasive when I began, as a teenager, to dabble, then paddle, then swim, then pretty much turn into a merman, in the widening sea of improvised music. The decade began with Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington still living, with Coltrane still wandering the road to Emmaus and with a “revolution” in jazz still ongoing in the work of Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus and more problematically, but just as significantly, Miles Davis. Britain was still playing host to vast quantities of US ordinance in its role as Airstrip One and 51st state, but with surprisingly little symptom of “cultural cringe.” Out of National Service, a unique native entertainment industry and a perfectly natural insularity – we are an island, after all – British musicians were engaged in a creative enterprise that owed surprisingly little to American models, and often least debt when the debt was acknowledged, as in the case of someone like Evan Parker, who dutifully nodded to Coltrane, Ayler and Rollins but in doing so seemed only to point up his essential difference.

However, Parker’s work of that period does seem driven by what Carmen McRae identified as a fear of anti-climax or what Hendrix acutely identified as the “killing noise / of the out of style / the out of style, out of style.” That noise was a crescendo in the ‘70s, which was the last decade which felt both in touch with the fons et origo of jazz as a documented music and a music largely defined by documentation and also capable of thinking of itself in futuristic and possibly utopian forms. This was the decade, rather than the 1960s of the New Thing, in which scorched-earth experimentalism was dominant, in which Laputan critics scoured each new recording for any heretical vestiges of groove or melody. But it was also the decade that saw the beginnings of the curatorial urge that leads directly to today’s back-loaded reissue programme, which is not simply (surely?) a matter of lifted copyright restriction and low-cost merchandising but something of a sign that we sense the musical past might have been greater than its present.

There was a hysteric edge to a lot of the 1970s music that I remember, an attitude to the past that had less to do with parricide and more to do with an Oedipal dependence on nurture and support. Its tantrums – and the toys rarely stayed in the stroller long in those days – now look like a desperate bid for affection and a symptom of acute self-consciousness. No decade was so acutely aware of itself, of its legacy of “failed” political promise, deutero-fascism, slumping economic energy, and at the same time so strongly aware of the past. It is that double awareness that, for me, makes the ‘70s such a powerful and still exciting period in music: Janus-faced, retro- and avant- in equal and equally stretched measure, “optimistic” and “tragic” in historically unique combinations.

I’m a great fan of the “long 19th century” view of modern history, or any that plays games with easy divisions of time. The “long 19th century” is supposed to have begun with the French, or possibly the American, revolution, and to have extended till the outbreak of war in 1914 (though I’d favour the sinking of the Titanic, two years before, as a better terminus ad quem). The “long ‘70s” isn’t quite of the same order. It arguably began, not with Neil Armstrong’s boot-print, which already had some component of anti-climax about it, but with the image of earthrise sent back by Apollo 8. The first time humans passed out of sight of the home planet and then, as the saying goes, gave the planet back to us, was far more profound than stirring the moon dust itself, and it’s that great image – Susan Sontag was probably wrong about there being no “final” photograph: that was it – that fixed forever the chastened self-image of the age.

If the ‘70s seemed dominated by hectic fusion and by a turn to electrical technology that was almost Victorian in its messianic urgency, by the radical experimentalism of Free Music Production and the aesthetic secessionism of ECM, both in Germany, and hat HUT in Switzerland, by the secession of “free music” from jazz in Britain, cross-fertilised with South African influences, by the full emergence of nativist strands of jazz across Europe and elsewhere, it was also a time in which older styles of jazz reasserted their staying power. If I were to pick a “representative” label of the time, it wouldn’t necessarily be FMP or Black Saint or hat ART but Joe Fields’ (later joined by Don Schlitten) Muse and Schlitten’s later Xanadu, two imprints which are only slowly returned to wider consciousness having been nipped quite suddenly out of music history by the habitat-destruction of the CD. Their commitment to bop and to other more established forms in jazz, and the complementary activity of imprints like Black & Blue in France, which was another kind of drop-in set-up for exiles and visitors gave the music of the period its faintly schizoid personality.

The splendid Cosey Fanni Tutti described the 1970s as a truly “dirty” time. She was speaking of her own shift in the sex industry, before her translation to Industrial music, but the point stands on its own and less pruriently. The 1970s were a mess, as Hendrix said: “every inch of earth a fighting nest,” riven with contention but somehow energised as a result. Politically and economically, the world was in a hole every bit as consuming as the one that still contains us more than 30 years later, but it was an astonishingly creative time for all that, and perhaps because of all that. The culture clashes of the period led to some of the most unseemly squabbling and pointless position-taking in the whole of musical history but the apparent ossification of genre is belied, as any form of creationist ideology is belied, by the fossil record. What was left behind by the ‘70s is as rich a shale as any and as richly various. The reason genre seemed to matter is that music still seemed to matter, as the most immediate and unmediated expression of who we were, what we dreamed of, and where we wanted to go. The ‘70s followed the ‘60s with the awkward sense that following wasn’t just succession but carried some attribution of the abject as well. And in that effortful awareness, the ‘70s became somehow grand, somehow grander than their reputation allows, by no means an anticlimax.

Brian Morton©2014

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