Friday, April 3, 2015

Beer and football V — playoffs, week five
Super Bowl XLIX
Part 1: Full-on electric

The game: Patriots vs. Seahawks
The beer: Dogfish Head Miles Davis's Bitches Brew Ale
The result: (To be continued)
The commentary: The most expensive beer of the year cost about fourteen dollars. It's been so long now, with Dr. Jones finally standing in for Major Toht, that the details are fuzzy—a lot has happened in the weeks since Malcolm Butler learned to leave his wallet at home before heading to any New England watering hole. Our family has moved farther along the North Shore and away from the Big City, which the commonwealth requires by law—and enforces with shocking violence—when a head (or co-head) of household enters a fifth decade. If luck holds it will be the last move of my life.

I have put our ex-town behind us and I could not miss it less. I've never named it, or if so I've since gone back and redacted due to overwhelming internet paranoia (from the guy who only just started using his real name on Facebook) (and who still doesn't use his full name on his blog), but the clues are there in the archives. The taxes were too high, the beaches too smelly and the populace too enamored with a century-old middle school they attended as children. Ellie Miller: your lily-white, numb-fuck lot is the enemy of progress. May you achieve all you despise and reap all you deserve.

I won't say to where I've moved but my readers (!) aren't idiots. There's a large independent brewery in town with good distribution whose fine offerings have accompanied several beer-and-football afternoons and evenings since before the town was on our residential radar—the facility even leases space to at least two other brewers I've written about. I'll probably drink a selection during the draft when I pay for a single day's access to ESPN or the NFL Network. Oh, Moses.

And this expensive beer? Its name doesn't formally include the apostrophe S on the label—it's just an apostrophe—but I'm vetoing that shit. People think if a name ends in S then its possessive should automatically exclude a second S and that is goddamn wrong! (Thanks, Larry. Anonymous commenter number one single-handedly demonstrates everything wrong with this country: "George Jones's guitar just looks wrong, pretentious and ostentatious." Because that's valid. Everyone OK trusting someone who defends his ignorance with "…but here in the good old USA"?) It poured a rich, dark color (likely due to "a fusion of three threads imperial stout") nearly as black as Kearse's heart when he caught that ball on his back. Not my favorite beer of the season but it's a close second to the bootleg-scored turning point that was week four's pecan porter.

Bitches Brew. Bitches Brew. Is that a sentence? Bitches probably can brew once they get past their own vanity, loathing and/or inability to have children—I just wouldn't touch the stuff. Or maybe Miles didn't know his apostrophes either. Bitch's Brew? Bitches' Brew? No matter. Let's use our fine ale, "brewed with honey and gesho," as an excuse to discuss the album after which it is named… and then some. Continuing adventures in "I don't really know what I'm talking about when it comes to jazz." Related to ignorance, I had to look it up: "gesho" is an anglicized "gešo," or rhamnus prinoides, which Ethiopia uses "in a manner similar to hops." (Thanks, Wikipedia.)

Years ago, Ivan and I spent an afternoon/evening playing pool and getting hammered in the middle of Allston. Shocker. At the time my jazz collection was probably a bare-bones version of what it is today: heavy on Coltrane (though nothing yet from Ascension on) and a handful of "safe" discs from Charles Mingus and Miles Davis (maybe Miles Smiles by then). I was aware of Bitches Brew like I was aware of vegetarian chili—it exists, but why? And for whom?

In between the blocks of machismo Ivan and I blasted from the jukebox (Sabbath, Public Enemy, Cypress Hill, Foghat) someone slipped in and got the most out of their fifty cents by playing "Bitches Brew," the twenty-seven-minute, side-spanning title track that was used to annoying affect in some movie I can't remember. Probably by Spike Lee.

Daylight remained and we were several beers and appetizers deep. The Sox were on television playing one of their one hundred sixty-two games of the season, which is a ridiculous amount of baseball over the course of thirty months, never mind seven. I do not remember the score. It was neither the place nor the time for someone to choose to enlighten a crowd, as I suspect a spoiled BU egghead was attempting, with JAZZ MUSIC. "For Those About to Rock"? Fire! "Deeez Nuuuts"? Deeeeeez nuuuttzz! "Fer-der fer-der fer-der fer-der fer-der fer-der fer-der fer-der fer-der fer-der fer-der fer-der fer-der fer-der fer-der… FWEEEEEEE"? Um! I appreciate the value he got for his money despite a period of time when I would recreate the closing five minutes of the Abbey Road medley by dumping quarters into individual tracks "Golden Slumbers," "Carry That Weight" and "The End" at Sligo Pub. (Yes, the mechanical hesitation between tracks bothered the hell out of me.) But I'm pretty sure Ivan and I would have murdered the guy if we'd known who in there played it. Ivan, who can't even tolerate the second half of "Can't You Hear Me Knocking," might still be looking for him.

I hope someone did it as a gag on his way out. Who, then, is to blame? How about the staff at the fucking White Horse Tavern for providing the option in the first place? "Zeppelin, check. Clash, check. Sublime, check. Mountain, ch– hey, where's the provocative electric jazz/funk double album with only one song out of six that isn't of epic length? Everyone loves dense, unclassifiable niche music from the late sixties and early seventies. Let's move some pitchers of Redhook!"

Years later it remains an unforgivable act all over. But the music? I'm coming around. Indeed, "I had nowhere to go but full-on electric," and so here is my complete-album Miles Davis discography, chronologically, from sold CDs to fresh Amazon downloads. Those with missing pieces like Sketches of Spain are excluded.

Birth of the Cool (1956; recorded 1949–1950)
'Round About Midnight (1956)
Milestones (1958)
Kind of Blue (1959)
Seven Steps to Heaven (1963)
ESP (1965)
Miles Smiles (1966)
Nefertiti (1967)
Miles in the Sky (1968)
Filles de Kilimanjaro (1968)
In a Silent Way (1969)
Bitches Brew (1970)
Jack Johnson (1971)
On the Corner (1972)
Big Fun (1974; recorded 1969–1972)

I imagine 'Round About Midnight and Milestones were progressive at the time and you can hear that he was making major strides, they just sound a little too be-bop for my Coltrane-favoring ears (I parted with the Birth of the Cool compilation of A- and B-sides pretty quickly for the same reason, times twelve). Everyone owns Kind of Blue. Everyone. And they should. Seven Steps introduces the "second great quintet" era and I settled in nicely (though out of order) with the subsequent ESP, Miles Smiles and Nefertiti (guess I should give 1967's Sorcerer another listen). And then?

And then! A nimble file-sharing leap later I experienced Jack Johnson. (If you need to satisfy an urge to drive a roomful of drunks out of their minds then go with the super-tight stone funk of "Right Off"—it's shorter than "Bitches Brew" by five seconds, which is enough time for you to flush a public toilet with your shoe.) A lot happened in between and I wasn't interested, or at least wasn't required to be interested, because I picked up what the man was laying down in 1971. Skipped years of trial and error and landed at its logical, cohesive two-song conclusion. Maybe I could do this "electric jazz" thing after all… nah. Ascension opened different doors for me anyway. And this Mingus fellow was doing (had done) interesting things.

I'd been a Mingus fan since after college, scooping up and loving the organic energy of the live Mingus at Antibes. 1964's Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus was my first studio strike and as much as I revel in its confident swing, I only realized later while exploring his back catalog that the album was simply remaking, and mainly improving, original songs from his past. I felt Mingus offered more adventure than Davis so I headed west: Mingus Ah Um, Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, Blues and Roots, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, Oh Yeah, The Clown. Still more to hear but it's of the early or in-between vein: Pithecanthropus Erectus, Mingus Dynasty, Reincarnation of a Lovebird. Electric Miles Davis? "Now's the time." Be cool, Johnny Boy.

If step one was 1968's Filles de Kilimanjaro then step zero was the previous year's Nefertiti. The title track hinted at an "anti-jazz" to come with a riff-driven arrangement but otherwise doesn't sound radical today when considering all that came before and all that was happening around it. Kilimanjaro followed (for me) and eased the transition from acoustic to electric. Until recently it was the last Davis album I owned and I understand why—three of its five songs feature an electric rhythm section that doesn't sound much different. The horns all get their solos and only the second half of "Petits Machins" keeps the progression to In a Silent Way from hitting out of nowhere (the sudden fade anticipates Teo Macero's scissors). It's the natural follow-up to "Stuff" from Miles in the Sky, which I picked up in Northampton a few months ago before crushing my daughter's Christmas-lit dreams, which never were fulfilled. There's always 2015.

With Miles in the Sky nestled between Nefertiti and Kilimanjaro on the shelf in water-tight inventory storage, Christmas invited the final push. A generous Amazon gift card (since the nearly-as-generous iTunes card was applied toward an iTunes Match account that allowed me to replace all my annoying DRM M4P files that only played on Apple devices with higher-quality, unlocked M4A ones that can play nice with my Android phone) (also, to hell with Jony Ive for thinking I can't design a better phone than his giant golden turd) (oh, but feel free to officially license its dimensions so your tween/cougar audience can bedazzle—and fully obscure—your entire vision with cases that would embarrass my three-year-old) was first applied toward G-ready classics like Jackie Wilson's "Lonely Teardrops" and Ya Ho Wa 13's "I'm Gonna Take You Home (Part 1)" Dusty Springfield's "He's Got Something" and then, in order, In a Silent Way, Jack Johnson (for the white guilt), Bitches Brew, the era-spanning Big Fun and On the Corner. (On the Corner is a whole other bag that will take awhile for me to digest. In that way I compare it to Ascension. Give me time, though I doubt it will leave as heavy a mark.) Impressions?

In a Silent Way
It's 1969 alright! Marvelous. I love how these songs breathe—Davis and Macero hadn't yet gone so edit-happy that I can notice. Barely in the same area code as anything Davis had produced through '68.

Bitches Brew
The title beer! Overlong but it's really grown on me since Allston's fury. Track by track…

A1. "Pharaoh's Dance"
The first half wouldn't have been out of place on Nefertiti. Pleasantly… expansive? I mean it's a nice use of stereo technology that feels like it took a month to mix just right. Can and Neu! likely listened to a lot of this while touring Europe in their efficient Nazi-designed vans.

B1. "Bitches Brew"
The opening and concluding three minutes test my patience and resemble A's worst nightmare. The meat of the song compensates with what could work as an operetta—possibly the best twenty minutes on the album.

C1. "Spanish Key"
No, "Spanish Key" is the highlight. Its live feel is absent on the rest of the album and as a result it's the only one that doesn't come off feeling assembled: guys taking cues from each other, passing it around the room, single take. Just donating for beers and jamming some Kansas City after-hours shit. It's even got a live fade. Hazy memories coming back to me.

C2. "John McLaughlin"
In the grand tradition of "Pablo Picasso," "Max Ernst" and "Gerard." Deep breaths as we regroup. I hear no edits but then again I'm breaking this album down without requisite Stockhausen familiarity. The internet backlash will be terrific.

D1. "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down"
A frenzied, crude precursor to "Right Off." Loose! It works but I get a sense the band (or the tape operators) were running out of steam. I am too.

D2. "Sanctuary"
The ups and downs balance the free fall of "Voodoo" and close the album nicely. That sustained last note does its job by making you want to hear more—quite an accomplishment after an hour and a half.

Jack Johnson
As far out as Bitches Brew gets I'd still call it jazz. Jack Johnson is not—can you call Hugh Masekela's "Grazing in the Grass" jazz because he plays trumpet?—and that's OK. "Right Off" wouldn't have sounded out of place on a contemporary he-managed-to-vomit-out-his-vomit-and-survive Hendrix jam accompanied by Davis and featuring, I don't know, Levon Helm, Mike Bloomfield, Billy Preston, Country Joe McDonald and Isaac Hayes. For my money, the best "electric Miles." And it is my money because I paid for all of this shit.

Big Fun
Sitar! Skipping On the Corner for a minute since most of Big Fun came first. That one's a stronger concluding paragraph anyway. This collection of outtakes was an impulse purchase I'm surprised to like as much as I do. The Jesus Lizard must also have been killing time on Amazon, pausing between refreshes of Book's availability status to listen to samples before heading to the studio around, oh, September 1990. (It's a space/time thing.) "Go Ahead John" and Get Up With It's "Honky Tonk" convince me that Jack Johnson should have been favored with the double-album treatment over our Super Bowl namesake.

On the Corner
In turn, Davis must have been listening to Can's "Mother Sky" by '72. Right from go. He more or less shut down after this and (presumably) green-lit a bunch of concert recordings and outtake collections so On the Corner formally closed his studio legacy until the eighties. I'm inferring a period of desire to connect with his audience and, maybe, of determining who that audience ought to be—the caricature of black youth on the covers of On the Corner and In Concert offer clues, however desperate or tongue-in-cheek. My man Steve Forceman, who I sincerely hope is still with us, described On the Corner's tension eloquently in few words, which is an admirable skill: "When I listen to the queasy harmonies of the horns, the menacing thud of the bass and those brittle handclaps, I can't help but feel that there's something fevered going on—maybe feverish—and fever means sickness." Sickness. That's what I hear, too, in the start-stop-smash percussion from "Black Satin" through to the end. Sickness of paranoid chaos but also, like, malaria, floating down jungle rivers in untamed parts of the world, pursued by savagery, smothered by unease. Eyeballing all directions at all moments, anticipating danger, the drums, the air, the madness, bouncing from the left channel to the right. Dizziness. Fear. "Mistah Kurtz, he dead." And then six minutes into "Helen Butte" that horn comes clean through the center like a lighted highway: get me the fuck out of here. I want to live. On the Corner is growing on me even as I write this.

There. I have noted my embrace of Davis's late sixties/early seventies electric period without using the word "fusion" except when quoting an unsubtle beer label. Are At Fillmore and Live Evil next? See you at the White Horse in an hour—those twenty-somethings won't know what to think.

Up next: You say there was a game? Cheers!

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