Posts Tagged ‘Ed Kuepper’
There’s drama and even great beauty in the juxtaposition of opposites. Good and evil. Light and dark. Tragedy and comedy. Sacred and profane. Digital and analogue.
The pairing of Ed Kuepper and Chris Bailey performing songs from the three albums they made together as The Saints, and selections from their subsequent solo careers is a conceptually profound juxtaposition of opposites. There are obvious differences in character and style: Chris’s powerful soulful voice and his deadpan goofy theatricality. Ed’s evenness and calm within the electrical storms of sound he generates with his guitar. At times over the past few years they’ve both performed pared-down versions of their songs and at these shows it’s just the two of them, each playing guitar and singing.
I bought two practically acoustic recent records by Chris, and I’ve gulped down twenty years of Ed’s solo albums in the last couple of years, after returning to Australia from living in America. What I’ve gleaned is superficial, without context, but the extremes of the differences in their solo work are riveting. Chris’s traditional Delta blues readings of Saints songs and ballads with bright flourishes of acoustic guitar and Ed’s abstract, phenomenally beautiful washes of sound in the spare new arrangements for Laughing Clowns songs.
By chance I called into the Customs House library on my way to see Ed and Chris perform at the Vanguard in Sydney and borrowed Robert Forster’s collection of music criticism, which was among the display of books from writers featured at this year ‘s Sydney Writer’s Festival. I re-read Robert’s review of the first Saints show in thirty years, in 2007 in Brisbane.
“Punk hit Brisbane like no other city in Australia,” Robert writes. “The tentacles that grew out of New York and London from the musical explosion of 1976 affected the receptive waiting enclaves in each major city around the globe in various ways. As the music and images of the Ramones, Patti Smith, early Pere Ubu, Television and the Sex Pistols were heard and seen, bands formed, systems started and the word spread. Brisbane was different, for two main reasons: we had Bjelke-Petersen and The Saints. Bjelke-Petersen represented the crypto-fascist bird-brained conservatism that every punk lead singer in the world could only dream of railing against. His use of a blatantly corrupt police force, and it’s heavy-handed response to punk, gave the scene a political edge largely absent in other states. And The Saints were musical revolutionaries in the city’s evil heart.”
The timeline is clouded but it’s possible that The Saints single “(I’m) Stranded” might have been the first punk rock single, and it gave them enough momentum to move immediately to London where they compressed an entire geological epoch into a couple of years: going from wild primitive rawness to remarkable refinement and complexity, without sacrificing any of the brute strength of the sound, in just three albums. Then they stopped and Ed and Chris went in opposite directions.
The only time I ever saw The Saints perform was at the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival on Cockatoo Island in 2008. I only ever owned the third and last Saints album, Prehistoric Sounds, and I never listened to it properly until I was already completely in thrall to Ed’s next band the Laughing Clowns, who were a wonderful, incredible shock to my system. Until then I’d listened almost entirely to silky, sensual jazz: Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie with Lester Young, Miles Davis when Gil Evans was his arranger and Bill Evans was his piano player, and the electrifying funk groove of Weather Report. Any of the Laughing Clowns songs might have produced the shock that profoundly altered my appreciation of music, but “Holy Joe” is a good example. There’s dissonant piano, an almost painfully wailing saxophone, the precise, powdery thunder of the drums, a morse code kind of bass line but with the addition of a driving guitar rhythm and catchy lyrics it seems like a potential rock hit. I quite simply never heard music the same way again after hearing the Laughing Clowns. The Laughing Clowns of the 21st century are a polished and mature evocation of the 20th century lineups. They’re experimental in a sharper, more cerebral way and the old songs have new sonic textures of singular beauty.
I’ve gained some appreciation of the breadth and intricacies of Chris’s music indirectly. He sang on “Bring It On” from the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album Nocturama. It’s the most moving and inspiring love song of our time from an album that deals unflinchingly but with tremendous warmth with the challenges of our generation. In a ruined world where we can have no hope that things will get better, we must face reality but still create joy and live meaningful lives with humility about our place in the natural world. Nick’s songs have multiple perspectives: In “Bring It On” God is telling humankind He will not abandon us though we are in the process of destroying the earth. And Nick is encouraging the woman he loves to tell him her faults, the mistakes she’s made, and he will accept them and love her even more. Chris’s performance is grandly romantic, not with sweet words and hypberbole – the lyrics are in no way sweet – but the sheer soulfulness of his singing, which makes one gladly swoon at the prospect of facing up to bad news with courage.
Mick Harvey’s talent for intelligent appreciation doesn’t re-make the songs he covers in his own style but removes the clutter and distractions of style from the originals. His version of Chris’s song “Photograph” uncovers a tenderness and vulnerability at its heart. Mick’s cover versions are generous of spirit, he sends one back to the originals with a more nuanced appreciation of their qualities.
My disappointment with Ed and Chris’s show at the Vanguard had nothing to with the musicians or the music or the performance and everything to do with a lack of imagination in the support systems: the staging, the merchandising and the absence of a vibrant independent media with critics whose insights might give us a context for a repertoire that includes Saints songs that Ed and Chris created together as well as songs from their markedly different solo careers that they play now together. It’s a show that deserves a thoughtful appraisal.
Chris made an ironic reference to himself and Ed being part of string quartet playing to an aged audience in a dusty conservatory. There was a creaky, ramshackle quality to the atmosphere and dinner/theatre format that did them a disservice. I wished for a sense of occasion, that the show had been staged at an arty, classy joint, the side room at the Museum of Contemporary Art, perhaps, where the Creative Sydney forums are held, which has the atmosphere of a speakeasy for eggheads. They deserve a sexier, more elegant setting, with well designed chairs and good lighting, and seriously good martini’s at the bar. It’s a show that can and should have a polished, coherent structure. The new Laughing Clowns shows have seemed spontaneous but planned. The Laughing Clowns show at the Forum in Melbourne during the jazz festival last year was flawlessly plotted: opening with a slow instrument by instrument tuning up that becomes a collective dirge which had the quality of a prologue and a crisp, upbeat clearly defined finish, the sonic equivalent of a “the end” title card.
One of the many joys in seeing the shows played by the Laughing Clowns Mark II is how the arrangements change and that each show has a different repertoire. With these performances Ed and Chris deserve to have the show augmented by an online playbill, which lists the pool of songs they’ll be drawing from and links to buying them through iTunes, and the playlists for each show in each city, as they happen.
Music downloads strip the music of context: dates, musician credits on the tracks, liner notes. Some albums have pdf booklets, but they’re generally unsatisfying, seemingly just scanned from regular cd-inserts. With Ed and Chris’s performances there’s an opportunity to invent a new kind of boxed set, spending the t-shirt and stubby cup budget on commissioning intelligent liner notes for their solo music, which could be brochures with or without redemption codes for the music, or viewed online, in a format that makes it easy to follow.
Ed’s solo records are impressively varied and unusual but I have almost no frame of reference for them. I yearn for the kind of liner notes that Bill Evans wrote for MIles Davis’s Kind of Blue album, where he likened their intuitive, spontaneous development of tunes from mere fragments, to a form of painting practised by Zen buddhists in Japan.
And augmented by the kinds of technical appreciations of musicians that Bad Plus piano player Ethan Iverson writes on his blog, for example his appreciation of Lester Young:
“Lester Young was born 100 years ago today. He died just over 50 years ago, in March 1959. Young is the most important link in the chain between early jazz and modern jazz. He sounded good playing with both New Orleans-style musicians and beboppers. If he were around now he could probably go to Smalls tonight and sit in with whoever was on the bandstand without any problem. While few other jazz musicians from the pre-1950 era continuously invented new phrases, serious Young lovers get every record he’s ever made because they know that there’s always the possibility that he will play something they haven’t heard before. In addition, Young had one of the most swinging beats in the history of the music. And though he could deliver a honking, stomping tenor, even his most frantic outbursts sound curiously relaxed. He never tried too hard or worked for the impossible. He just was: Cool. In fact, he may have literally invented the word “cool” and given it to the English language, for his verbal jousting and pre-beatnik beatnik behavior gave him a iconic mystique almost inseparable from the sounds coming out of his horn. The improvisation, the beat, the cool, and the mystique has made him one of the most well-loved musicians of the 20th century. These posts document my attempt to learn from Lester Young in the 21st.”
It’s hard to find a way to evaluate Ed’s skills and the way he thinks about music: I’ve always considered him a masterful arranger as well as a musician and admired him the way I admire Gil Evans. Ed surrounds himself with musicians of dazzling virtuosity – the piano players Chris Abrahams and Alister Spence, and drummer Jeffrey Wegener – and his arrangements for them are a kind of cartography, a landscape drawn for them to inhabit. Gil Evans’s arrangements for Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain are sonic landscapes, for example, and the new arrangements for the Laughing Clowns are panoramic in this way. Gil Evans had an expansive definition of brilliance and wrote arrangements for Jimi Hendrix’s songs that Hendrix himself would have played if he hadn’t died. Jazz can relate to the Laughing Clowns rock songs in a similar way.
Ed’s curiosity and ideas can’t be explained by observing trends. In the liner notes for the Laughing Clowns three volume retrospective – which I don’t have to hand, so I can’t check the reference – it’s suggested that his unusual perspective might have its origins in perversity. When he was recording the Saints albums in London, and the Sex Pistols were at the centre of a savage media and fashion storm, Ed mentions he was listening to the Tony Bennet and Art Blakey album, Beat of My Heart, which features cool, Cary Grant suave renderings of high society songs. But it’s perverse in itself for wholesome renderings of decadent subjects. Tony Bennett doesn’t acknowledge the dark, haunted Southern charm of Johnny Mercer’s songs, or that Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You” is a hymn to intoxication. The drumming however, at the centre of the arrangements, is crisp, intricate, sophisticated, full of personality and with that relaxed cool that Ethan Iverson attributes to Lester Young, and has the qualities that Jeffrey Wegener would later bring to the Laughing Clowns.
Ed appears, like Gil Evans, to see what’s going around him from a sharply different angle than everybody else. When Gil Evans started his orchestra his points of reference were the dapper orchestras led by the likes of Duke Ellington, but he encouraged his reed players to play oboes, flutes and English horns. “His use of woodwinds in a dance band context was almost unheard of at the time,” the Gil Evans biography Out of the Cool observes. “Twenty years later, Gil’s scoring for these instruments in a jazz setting was still considered unique.”
There are threads running through Ed’s solo albums I wish I could follow: for example, he’s remade the Laughing Clowns dirge thriller, “Collapseboard” with its trapdoors and false-endings into the surf guitar “Diving Board”. His music has clearly defined cues and clues – Indian ragas, Civil war era drummer boys marching with soldiers, Euro-disco – and I want to be able to intelligently evaluate these references.
Ed and Chris are two different substances balanced on a set of set of scales. The worst of rock criticism reduces them to a pantomime: wicked Mr Punch ridiculing and bludgeoning the nearly silent authority figure. Chris Bailey deserves a portrait drawn with a finer granularity. I’ve seen him perform exactly twice, but it’s enough to sense that his bizarre wit is drawn from some deep well of cultural references. His lyrics allude to literature. He’s recorded a slow version of W C Handy’s jaunty “Careless Love” suggests a knowledge of early jazz. Maybe it’s an homage.
There are a lot of reasons for the renewed interest in Chris Bailey and Ed Kuepper: Ed’s inclusion in the Bad Seeds at a time Nick Cave’s fame is growing is provoking an interest in the origins of these musicians, the middle-aged existential dread of their original audience, the interest of a whole new generation sparked by performances of The Saints and the Laughing Clowns. And the fact that Ed and Chris still have new ideas and confound expectations.
“The Saints strode the stage like giants,” Robert Forster wrote in the conclusion to his review of The Saints first reunion performance. “This is a band that still breathes fire. If they do no more, ever, then this one-off show has burnished the myth rather than tarnished it. More shows in the future, or a tour, would be most welcome, and if the rebirth of The Saints as a live band turned out to have occurred in Brisbane, it would be a lovely touch. And finally, if there is recording to be done with this line-up, then, based on the sparks on display an album to join the glory of the first three would not be beyond them.”
That fourth album may be a recording from these duets between Ed and Chris.
For a couple of weeks after the poster for the Sonny Rollins concert went up at the Sydney Opera House last year I’d stand in front of it debating whether to buy a ticket or not. Roughly 4.2 of the 7.7 days worth of music on iTunes on my computer is jazz. Much of the rest is taken up by the complete catalogues of Nick Cave and Nitin Sawhney and Bruce Springsteen (since The Ghost of Tom Joad). But I only have one Sonny Rollins record, the corny Way Out West, which I bought for his version of Johnny Mercer’s Hollywood cowboy song “I’m An Old Cowhand”. At 79 Sonny Rollins was still playing at the top of his game. “Perhaps hidden in his attic is a magical reel of tape, aging into a lump of flaking iron oxide, while he defies time’s gravity in life as in music,” wrote Gary Giddins.
But I had the sneaking feeling that I was mostly wanting to go to the concert to cross his name off the list of ’1001 jazz musicians we must see before they die’. Whatever appreciation I have of the experimental genius of Sonny Rollins comes from Gary Giddins’s jazz criticism and conversations with Laughing Clowns drummer Jeffrey Wegener. The same with Ornette Coleman, another one of the 1001 guys on the list, who also performed at the Opera House last year. I didn’t go and see Sonny or Ornette. What I really wanted was to see the Laughing Clowns again. But they hadn’t played for about twenty five years, so how likely was that to happen? Inevitable as it turned out. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds asked them to perform in the All Tomorrows Parties festival that they curated last month. The Laughing Clowns were sublime. “I loved that band,” Nick told Toby Creswell.
All Tomorrow’s Parties was a slice of time come to life again. Seeing the Boys Next Door and the Go Betweens and the Laughing Clowns on the same bill was remarkable in the early 1980′s. But that time was just a springboard and what these musicians are creating now is exponentially more remarkable.
I remember the excitement of seeing Grinderman perform in Sydney in 2007. Much had been made in the press of Nick turning fifty. This side-band of his was a brave blast of energy from people grabbing life by the throat and storming into the future. All of that rude energy acts as a Trojan Horse, cloaking smart, provocative lyrics. The Grinderman song “Go Tell The Women” is a folk song for our era; our problems, our delusions, our mistakes are described but at the end we’re encouraged to “come on back to the fray”. When Michael Almereyda explained his motivation for filming an adaptation of Hamlet in 2000 he quoted Emily Dickinson’s response to Shakespeare’s writing: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head is being taken off I know this is poetry.” This electrifying sense is what I always feel at performances by any of Nick’s bands and the Laughing Clowns, then and now.
I loved the Laughing Clowns on first sight twenty five years ago. The instrumental complexity was familiar to me, from jazz, and Jeffrey Wegener has always provided for me the equivalent of the sharp liner notes that were printed on jazz record sleeves. But what Ed’s songs and musical arrangements introduced me to, that has deepened slowly over the years, is an appreciation of the heart-lifting qualities of soul music. The sexy groove of the brass arrangements is exhilarating but the Laughing Clowns have a vast dynamic and emotional range and what was most moving for me was the sweetness in their quieter moments.
Saxophonist Wayne Shorter delivered me to the Laughing Clowns. And Duke Ellington delivered me to Wayne Shorter.
Duke Ellington guided me through life. He had a reverent curiosity so he kept evolving and progressing and expanding the boundaries of his music, and he brought into his orbit younger musicians who had the same inquisitiveness. I discovered Charles Mingus when he made The Money Jungle with Duke Ellington. I discovered John Coltrane through his duet with Duke Ellington on “In a Sentimental Way”, which remains one of the most elegant pieces of music I’ve ever heard. They make sound feel richly soft, as if it were cashmere or velvet. In his autobiography Duke Ellington called John Coltrane “a beautiful cat” and rhapsodized about how smooth their recording session had been.
When Duke Ellington died in 1974 I was looking for another mentor. I read somewhere that John Coltrane had suggested Wayne Shorter as a replacement when he wanted to leave Miles’s band. Wayne Shorter is a Nirichen Buddhist. His musical portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi, who has never wavered from Buddhist principles of non-violence and compassion in her struggles with the brutal dictatorship that prevented her from governing after she won an election in Burma in 1990, was constantly referred to in news features about the riots there a couple of years ago.
He has Duke Ellington’s reverent curiosity: “I need to find out more about other people’s cultures with the time I have left,” Wayne Shorter told Ben Ratliff, the music editor of the New York Times, in 2004. “Because when I’m writing something that sounds like my music – well, not my music. I don’t possess music – but when they say ‘Wayne Shorter’s playing those snake lines,’ I should take that willingness to do that, and extend it to the desire to find out more about what is not easy to follow, what is difficult to follow in someone else’s life.” He supports the endeavours of new generations of musicians. Long before the pop world could accept the seriousness and strength of Joni Mitchell’s jazz impulses, Wayne Shorter played on her records. And last year he appeared on Herbie Hancock’s tribute to Joni Mitchell, River. Amongst new arrangements of her songs they played Wayne Shorter’s composition, “Nefertiti”, made famous by Miles Davis, and Herbie Hancock played Duke Ellington’s “Solitude”.
When I was a teenage journalist Wayne Shorter was the first person I conducted a long radio interview with. He was touring Australia with Weather Report. It was a great late line-up of the band with Joe Zawinul on piano, Peter Erskine on drums and the explosively soulful Jaco Pastorious on bass. It was thrilling to see a jazz band walk onto a concert hall stage lined to the rafters with stacks of speaker boxes. A heavy metal band might have emerged from the wings. Or Parliament might have walked onstage, plugged in their instruments, and stirred up some incendiary funk. Later the same night I saw Weather Report play an acoustic set at a small jazz club and what they played had a profound, painfully tender beauty.
A couple of weeks ago Ben Ratliff was taking questions from New York Times readers. He was asked which of the musicians he’s interviewed he found the most opaque or confounding. “Would be Ornette Coleman and Wayne Shorter, who are ninjas of the opaque,” he replied. “But I think there’s a reason we like them opaque: around the fifth time you read what they have to say – about harmony or memory or life and death or what happens when we name things – you see that underneath the oracular statements are some strong and simple ideas and a lot of humour.” It’s with that spirit I approached the Laughing Clowns.
There were long stretches where I saw them perform every week. They struck me as something highly original. In speaking with Jeffrey and Ed it became clear that there was little overlap between the jazz I was familiar with and what they listened to. I had practically no frame of reference for anything from popular music. It was obvious they were drawing from a wide range of inspirations but there was something about them that was entirely themselves. They inspired trust. I was less interested in trying to reduce them to something familiar than waiting for what was entirely new about them to become familiar on its own terms.
The bizarre thing that Ed has to deal with is that one of the legends he’s constantly being compared to is himself. Technically, the Saints independent single “(I’m) Stranded” is the big bang, an explosion of energy out of nowhere that brought the punk rock movement to life. There was magic and danger in the combination of Ed’s guitar and Chris Bailey’s voice. Punk rock was a global phenomenon, a response to a time not an artistic movement, and it now seems inevitable, but the Saints were first.
I was curious and grateful to see the Saints perform at All Tomorrow’s Parties. They hadn’t been a part of my world. It was probably Clinton Walker who played for me the records that Ed made with Chris Bailey, and I responded most to their third and last record together, Prehistoric Sounds, which is moving along the path Ed would take with the Laughing Clowns. Robert Forster wrote about the first time in thirty years that the Ed and Chris Bailey and original drummer Ivor Hay played together as the Saints, a year and a half ago in Brisbane: “The set is a dream run through the band’s early catalogue. Helped by a brass section that trots on and off the stage, the songs visit two camps. There are the big, driving ballads from Prehistoric Sounds: “Chameleon”, “The Prisoner” and “All Times Through Paradise”. And there are the very best of the short, sharp tunes scattered across the first two records: “(I’m) Stranded”, “No Time”, “Know Your Product” and “This Perfect Day”. The total effect is unrelenting quality and depth of vision. This is no punk ram-a-lam but a full showing of the original breadth and beauty The Saints were able to put out in an era and in a town (London) which demanded that punk bands play by punk rules. The Saints’ wilful bucking of the trends then allows the music to storm now. There is wonder here, and the brass section, with its stabs and swing, is no ‘soul music’ affectation or quote, but welded into the rock form like few other bands have ever managed … And then there’s Ed Kuepper … It’s a master class in electric-guitar playing which has you realising that he’s one of the very few Australian guitar geniuses. Obvious comparisons are with Neil Young or Kurt Cobain, sonic adventurers who can take sheets of electric noise and get songs out of them, while also being able to solo a hurricane of notes that mean something to the song.”
I had no obvious comparisons for Ed’s guitar playing when I first saw the Laughing Clowns. The wonder of seeing the band now is that I have no comparisons at all. Although the Laughing Clowns have been dormant Ed and Jeffrey have been performing together for many years, recently as a duo touring Europe with the Bad Seeds. Experience and maturity suits them, they’re radiant and relaxed. I was reminded of something that Duke Ellington said to someone who remarked of his band: “They’re all so relaxed! How can they look so casual and play such moving music?” “They’re free, that’s why,” he replied. “A natural man is a free man. If they were tense they would only pour out noise. Because they’re relaxed, they play music. It comes from inside them. How could jazz be otherwise?”
Jeffrey’s doing with his drumming has the power to knock you off your feet but there are many quieter moments that are spellbinding. There’s a lot going on, his style is complex, but there’s clarity. The usual metaphors we apply to drummers don’t seem to apply to him. He’s not a backbone or an anchor, there’s something more organic about his role in creating the sound, he’s more like a central nervous system.
What I sense in Ed and Jeffrey are qualities I admired in both Duke Ellington and Wayne Shorter: they’re still points in a shifting universe. They’re agents of change but have great composure. Rock writers tend to interpret music as literal autobiography and musical style as an extension of personality, so their brains overheat trying to link the powerful electric force of Ed’s guitar with his calm demeanour. But viewing the music symbolically, as poetry rather than prose, that coolness is the whole point, energy contained and directed rather than an erratic force. There’s a dazzling drama to some of Laughing Clowns songs, the trapdoors and false endings within “Collapseboard”, for instance, but also an abiding peacefulness, heard in “Eternally Yours”.
When the lineup that Nick and the Bad Seeds had selected for the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival was announced I was fascinated to see that they’d presented history as the future. With Nick’s success in particular there’s been a growing interest in the creation myth of that time. All Tomorrow’s Parties showed that it was a social history: the cumulative effect of so many different bands and people that created a whole world. Names of clubs, city landmarks, anecdotes about escapades, and trying to place a society by noting the credits on record sleeves won’t bring that world to life.
But Robert Forster’s song “Darlinghurst Nights” does. He captures the yearning at the heart of this time, that all of the big ideas and grand sonic experiments were trying to fill up an emptiness. The rich, soul stirring experiences of life always seemed to be somewhere else. They’d have to be willed into existence through music.
“I’m gonna change my appearance every day
I’m gonna write a movie and then I’m going to star in a play
And then I’m going to go to Caracas
’cause you know I’m just going to have to get away…”
“Darlinghurst Nights” The Go Betweens
The song reminds me of standing under the Coca Cola sign in Kings Cross looking at the traffic going up and down the ski-slope of William Street, feeling a little as if I were floating, and wondering just what was out there in the world. The song is an exquisite portrait of a group of people at a particular time. It fades out on a brass arrangement, hazy and magical that reminds me of the Laughing Clowns, who were part of the world of Robert’s song.
When I bought that Go Betweens record and heard that song, I remembered that there was something enchanted about the Laughing Clowns and yearned to see them again. There were always silk-screened posters of old-fashioned white-faced clowns stuck up on the walls of boarded-up buildings around Darlinghurst as if they were summoning people to roll up for a circus. And there was always a sense of occasion in going to see them, no matter how dingy the club was. A set of multi-coloured lightbulbs was strung up across the front of the stage, and the band had a theme song. If I’d known anything about mythology at the time I might have been able to quantify that sense of magic. Maybe a circus is where we “face the irrational savage beast within” as Joseph Campbell suggested we need to do if we’re to live without fear. People putting their heads between the jaws of lions, doing death defying feats on high wires, and clowns, taking the role of their ancestors, the court jesters, being the only ones who could tell the truth about life and not lose their heads. There’s a vague sense, in the lyrics to the Laughing Clowns theme song, that this might be the case. It’s a hopeful song.
After living in America for so many years I had a lot of Ed’s records to catch up with, and I’ve been gradually buying them through iTunes. The diversity and range of his music is awe-inspiring. There was the thrill of finding Chris Abrahams playing piano on “King of Vice”. I was a child when I first heard Duke Ellington’s music and loved it with a child’s intensity, listening for the piano because it was his instrument. As I grew into a more critical appreciation of music, piano continued to be special, and there’s no piano player more special than Chris Abrahams: lyrical, peaceful and quietly joyous. One of the many treasured experiences of the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival for me was seeing Chris’s band the Necks for the first time. And on Ed’s Starstruck record the meditative Indian beats over a layer of electronic sounds locked into sounds I was mesmerised by in India. I’ve been buying the music directly onto my iPhone and the mobile version of iTunes provides even less information than the full program on a regular computer. Without a context I felt as if I was being distracted by exotic surfaces and not getting to the heart of the music.
I’m on surer ground with the pop standards he’s recorded and I’ve concentrated on buying and listening to songs whose histories are known to me. Ed’s version of “Ring of Fire” is simply phenomenal. He’s taken a song that chronicles lightning striking in two people’s lives, that seems to suggest complete destruction, and in his arrangement moves forward in time to show that far from ruining their lives, this was a turning point that led to eventual happiness. Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” is part of his legend, the driving rhythm of the song was his musical signature. Wild, out-of-control Johnny Cash impulsively falls for June Carter, tearing his family to pieces. He has a wife and four young daughters. On the record his eldest daughter Rosanne wrote after her mother, Johnny Cash and June Carter died within eighteen months of each other, she has a song, “Burn Down This Town”, about him storming in and out of her life when she was a child. The song which describes Johnny Cash’s casket being carried in a black Cadillac is underpinned by the Doors song “Riders On The Storm”. Ed’s arrangement reflects what we know with a lifetime’s hindsight. That Johnny repaired his relationship with his daughters, that June Carter became a deeply loved stepmother, and that reaching out to her was the smartest most life-affirming thing he ever did. Ed captures the whole life of the song. He slows Johnny Cash’s beat, sweetens the song with Mariachi horns, and sings it in a conversational tone. He takes it out on soft, solemn marching drums.
The reborn Laughing Clowns have limitless opportunities. It would be fascinating to hear them re-record their old repertoire as standards, reinvented and moved through time as Ed has done with standards on his solo records. On Cockatoo Island he said to the large, enthralled crowd, we’re an arthouse ensemble and you’re asking us to turn it up? But that’s the unique character of the Laughing Clowns. They have strong, dependable songs that can reel you in and hold you, at any volume, and skilled musicians who can, especially with the ease and intuitive understanding between Ed and Jeffrey, take those songs anywhere in performance. Unlike jazz bands who can fail to summon the magic between the musicians without an audience and the dynamic of a concert, the Laughing Clowns will be able to record new songs that are equally and differently alive in the studio.
The first time around the lyrics suffered. The small clubs often had inadequate sound equipment and the vocals could be lost. And it was a time between formats, analogue was dying and digital wasn’t yet ascendant. I never taped the Laughing Clowns records and listened to them on my Sony Walkman. I’m discovering now that Ed’s songs unfurl when listened to on my iPhone and I now realize just how much I’ve missed. Jazz was my default musical setting and to me was something almost entirely instrumental. Most of the jazz I liked had titles I considered to be punchlines from songs I didn’t get, yet! Perhaps I’d subconsciously linked the Laughing Clowns to a form of jazz, composed by Charles Mingus, that made me feel seasick and unsettled as a child that I grew to find exquisitely, unconventionally cerebrally, beautiful and love to distraction.
The titles of Laughing Clowns songs: “Mr Uddich Smuddich Goes To Town”, “Theme From Mad Flies, Mad Flies”, “Holy Joe”, “Ghlst Beat”, I found darkly, charmingly witty and pleasingly odd: more punchlines I didn’t get, yet! But there’s something else in Ed’s lyrics themselves, the quality of an interior monologue, that’s compelling and seems prescoiently invented for the way the Walkman made music part of our own interior monologues. He doesn’t seem to be telling a story but capturing a thought at a particular transformative moment: a single, unthinking gesture that changes the course of a relationship or a moment dramatic and deathly in the present that seems banal when thought back upon. Ed’s rearrangements and rerecordings of particular songs seem less about musical styles and sonic reinterpretations than memories, the way that perception changes with the passage of time, or considering something from another’s viewpoint. The angle of thought shifts and so does the way the song sounds.
“How do we produce work that touches the heart?” Leonard Cohen asked rhetorically in an interview with the New York Times in 1992. “We don’t want to live a superficial life. We want to be serious with each other, with our friends, with our work. That doesn’t necessarily mean gloomy or grim, but seriousness has a kind of voluptuous aspect to it. It is something that we are deeply hungry for, to take ourselves seriously and to be able to enjoy the nourishment of seriousness, that gravity, that weight.”