Interview with Robert Fripp and Joe Strummer in Musician
Date Submitted: 26-Nov-1995
Submitted By: Jim Price (JPRICE at TrentU dot ca)
An Interview with Joe Strummer and Robert Fripp
by Vic Garbarini
Musician Magazine, June 1981
The basic idea was fairly simple: you get the two foremost proponents of the idea of music as a force for personal and social change, sit 'em down together for a few beers, and see what happens. Now let's look at the potential problems: on the surface, polite, articulate Robert Fripp and acerbic, street-wise Joe Strummer don't appear to be the most compatible duo in rock history. I mean, you wouldn't expect them to bunk together at summer camp, would you? As musicians they seem to follow widely divergent paths, with the classically trained Fripp exploring the oceanic textures and laser-like solos of Frippertronics, or the fractured, geometric etudes of -The league of Gentlemen-, while Strummer the street poet and musical innocent bashes out three chord symphonies, or heads further up the river into the dark, sensual heartland of reggae and dub. But I had a strong feeling that things were not what they seemed on the surface, and that these two had more in common than might be apparent at first glance. What links them goes far deeper than style, personality, musical taste, or social background. It's a question of sharing a sense of commitment, both to their music and society at large, and having the courage and integrity to back up their ideals with action. It involves a willingness to risk everything- including career, financial security, and public approval- to pursue their visions without compromise. In short, I believed that Robert Fripp and Joe Strummer were tapping the same wellspring and aiming for the same goal.
Originally, I had wanted the two of them to meet by themselves. When I sprang the idea on Fripp while waiting for a Manhattan subway (real men of the people, eh?) he readily agreed, provided I come along as moderator. We planned to meet in London, where Robert was going to begin rehearsal with his new band -Discipline-, a dream aggregation consisting, besides Fripp, of ex-Crimson mate Bill Bruford on drums, former Bowie and Talking Heads sideman Adrian Belew on guitar, and session ace Tony Levin (Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon, John Lennon, among others) on bass. Strummer wasn't so easy to pin down. It took us two weeks to locate him in the small London studio, where he was rehearsing with his band for their upcoming U.S. tour, and he was hesitant at first when I mentioned bringing Fripp along. "Okay, fine," I said, "If you'd rather not I can just come over and do a straight interview." "No," answered Strummer, "I guess we can try it. After all, Fripp's probably closer to what we're trying to do than anybody I can think of."
Within a week Fripp and I were standing in a funky, garage-like London studio, watching the world's greatest garage band work through some decidedly funky rhythms. (Actually, Fripp insisted on going downstairs first to watch Top of the Pops and get his hair cut by the lovely Mary Lou Green. Foreigners are like that.) Strummer seemed polite but reserved, and suggested we retire to the friendly neighborhood pub for refreshments. Once there, we positioned ourselves strategically in front of some massive stereo speakers that were connected via some cleverly concealed wires to ohmygodno! a massive turntable which in turn was connected to a massive disc jockey. THATWASABBAWITHDANCINGQUEENAND NOWTHENEWESTSINGLEFORMDIRESTRAITS!!! Swell.Strummer ordered beers all around, one of which he shoved in my direction. As I pushed it away he smiled and asked, "what's the matter, too -big- for 'ya?" I decided not to explain about my gallstones and how I'm not supposed to drink, especially on an empty stomach...oh, oh, what the hell, why not? It'll probably loosen me up. It was a decision that I would later regret, to say nothing of the chap whose shoes I would barf all over in the 'loo and the transcriptionist who would type up the tape. ("here's your money back. -Please- do it yourself... and who the hell is that drunk guy and why didn't they turn down the music!?") In any case, I liked Strummer. He had a no-nonsense air about him, but also a considerable sense of warmth and humanity. And I was genuinely impressed by how he went out of his way to put me at ease as we started the tapes rolling.
Musician: One of the reasons I wanted to get the two of you together is...
Strummer: You're a bully, you know.
S: I bet you had to bully him (pointing to Fripp) as much as you had to bully me to get him here.
M: How did I bully you?
S: Well, you know, you bend my ear and give me an earache, and then you probably forced him to come here and get it just as well. You don't think he'd -want- to be here, do you? Only -you- could come up with such dumb ideas!
M: (Smiles and nods vigorously.)
S: Not that I'm saying they're dumb completely, mind you. They might have something in them.
M: Look, he loved the idea. When I mentioned it to him as an aside, he immediately said he'd love to do it, Right, Robert?...Robert?
Fripp: I wonder if we can get something to eat here. Maybe a ploughman's lunch, just some cheese and bread...
S: (Conspiratorially to Fripp) He bullies people, this one.
M: Okay, let's start again. One of the main things you two have in common is the belief that music can actually change society. How can this happen?
S: Because music goes directly to the head and heart of a human being. More directly and in more dimensions than the written word. And if -that- can't change anybody, then there's not a lot else that will. Music can hit as hard as if I hit you with a baseball bat, you know? But it's not an overnight thing; you can't expect everything to change quickly. I figure it's an organic process. Insidious. Look how listening to all those hippie records has affected everybody in general: everybody feels looser about things now.
F: I did a radio show in New York with Bob Geldorf of the Boomtown Rats recently, and he said he didn't believe rock and roll could change anything. And I said to him, I disagree. So he said, well, if you build up hope in Joe Bloggs in some slum in Northern Ireland, he's just going to wind up disappointed. And I said, look, if there's Joe Bloggs in his appalling social conditions in Northern Ireland with no hope, and that becomes Joe Bloggs at No. 8 in his appalling social conditions but -with- hope, you have two entirely different situations.
S: That's right. Good point that.
F: Then it's possible for the geezer at No. 10 to get some hope, too. And then it spreads up the street, and you have a community. Then you have a community. Then you're talking about something which isn't dramatic and exciting, but which contains the possibility of -real- change. It's easy to miss because it's essentially personal, and it's very quiet. And like Joe says, it takes time.
M: Is it the music itself that can do this, or does it merely serve as a rallying point?
F: Both, really. It serves as a rallying point, but it can work more directly too. I think sometimes at a really good gig when there's a certain quality in the music, a kind of liberation can take place, and you don't go home and take quite as crap from the news as you did before, because you've actually tasted a different quality of experience which changes how you think about things. So to a degree you've been liberated.
M: How did you both wind up choosing music as your means of expression? How were you feeling about things in general, or what made you decide it had to be a band? That there was something you needed or could accomplish through rock?
S: Well, I started playing music around '73. I'd tried everything else, and I couldn't find anything I wanted to do or anywhere to be. So I got into music because it seemed like the best thing around. You could say it was the thing that had the least laws and restrictions about it.
F: I was trained as a guitarist. So I took lessons and I suppose I eventually could have become a classical guitarist. But it seemed that I was spending years and years working incredibly hard to have the opportunity to play other people's music. In terms of even serious music, the guitar repertoire is pretty second rate. And it's anachronistic. Hearing Hendrix hit one chord said infinitely more to me than the entire classical guitar repertoire. And I realized rock was very malleable - that within it you can play classical music or jazz or blues or whatever you cared to, and it was still rock. If you went outside the form in jazz or classical you were selling out. But if you did it in rock music you were gifted!
M: What about you, Joe? If you had to point to your major source of inspiration, who or what would it be?
S: Bo Didley.
M: Anybody else?
S: -Bo Didley.-
M: Right. Incidentally, the stuff I heard you playing at rehearsal tonight sounded a lot closer to George Clinton than to "White Riot."
S: That's one of the most important things I've come to over the last few years - feeling more into funky music. In the beginning I just couldn't take it at all. I thought it was a waste of time. Putting people to sleep.
M: Do you find something in funk and reggae that rock and roll doesn't have? On "Sandinista!" you did "Police on My Back" and a few...
S: But rock and roll doesn't exist now!
M: What do you mean by that?
S: That was heavy metal - that was something to do with other people and has nothing to do with me. I don't even understand what it's all about.
M: Alright, what do you call what you were doing on your first two albums?
S: That was punk rock. Which still exists, but I'm not interested in that either.
M: Why not? Because it's lost it's creative impetus?
S: Yeah, the fans killed it. They wanted it to stay the same, and that ended our interest in it. Now they got what they deserved: a lot of rubbish, basically.
M: Were you surprised by the reception you got in Jamaica, Joe? I heard things didn't go entirely smoothly down there.
S: If you're a white band and you want to use Channel 1 Studio, they think you're rich, which you are, really, compared to them hanging about there. And you've got to 'bounce up' the local population, you know? We didn't have anything to give them, so we had to leave. It's really tough down there now. There's not really a lot of money about.
M: Speaking of evolving musical forms and working in different style
I got the new Ellen Foley record recently and I noticed that you and
Mick wrote most of the tunes, and that you all (the Clash) back her
up on the record. I played it for a few people and asked "now, who
do you think this is?" Most people thought it was Abba...
S: That's a compliment!
F: Abba are very, very good.
M: I agree, but I'm surprised to hear you both say that. What do you like about them?
S: They hardly ever lay a turkey on you. They've kind of hit a rut these days, but they were in there just blammin' 'em onto the charts for ages, which is admirable... also the girls are nice looking!
M: Since "London Calling" there's been a marked change in your musical approach: more emphasis on melody, increasingly sophisticated song structures, even a few ballads. Is this something you guys felt capable of all along? How did it come about that at that point in time you blossomed musically?
S: It's a bit like weight lifting, in a way. If we met every day and did some weight training, in a year we'd be the heroes of the beach. We were just flexing our muscles in a musical sense. Obviously, if you absorb yourself in music and practice every day, you become more capable.
M: And you feel that you don't have to stick to that three chord screaming punk intensity in order to keep your creative spark alive?
S: Yeah, that's how we see it. But will the audience accept it?
M: Well, that's the question. What do you think? How long will it take your audience to understand what you're doing?
F: Two to five years, right? (general laughter) Seriously! It takes about that long to disseminate. It's like throwing rocks in the middle of a lake and waiting for the ripples to get to shore. And in our industry, I've noticed it takes two to five years for an idea to be accepted.
S: God, that's depressing. Our records will be deleted by then!
M: It seems that during the punk era there was a tremendous release of energy, and it doesn't matter how the music came out because everybody could feel the intensity.
S: Correction. It -used- to not matter.
M: Alright, now it does. So you come to a point where you want to refine and develop your music, but you don't want to lose that energy. How do you do that? How do you keep it alive? How do you avoid becoming like those 70s bands, just going through the motions?
S: Well, that's where everybody winds up, isn't it?
M: Are you going to end up like that?
S: Someone would give you odds on that.
F: With the early Crimson, we were all desperate geezers.
S: (To Fripp) Do you remember a tent in Plumpton?
F: Yes! And do you know why we played there?
S: I was in that tent, Robert.
F: Really? What was it like?
S: It was terrific... -really- terrific.
F: Can I tell why we played there? The agency that booked it hadn't been completely straight with us, so we said, you're no longer our agents. So instead of putting us on front stage -where we'd wipe out anything they had- they stuck us in the tent, so we wouldn't touch anyone. It was a deliberate agency move to fuck up our careers.
S: And the Who were dead boring that night.
F: I remember there was a girl still there an hour after we packed up. She was still there, and suddenly she says "Is it finished?" An hour after it was over.
S: Yeah, it was like that in that tent.
M: Speaking of live gigs, I was just telling Mick before I that saw you the second time you came to New York, and to tell the truth I wasn't very impressed with the show.
S: That's not illegal.
M: But I kept hearing fantastic reports about you in concert, so I came to the Palladium the third time you played there and suddenly...
S: ...A GIANT BOUNCER GRABBED YOU AND DASHED YOUR HEAD AGAINST THE WALL!! and then it all made sense. No, go on...
M: Actually, it was something like that. Suddenly it all came into focus - it was like a hole opened up and you guys were a channel for a high quality energy. I was literally stunned.
F: It was the best rock and roll show I've seen in six years.
S: Sometimes I think it's equally shitty every night and it's the audience that changes in their perception of it. I remember once Devo got a hold of Sany Pearlman when he was mixing our sound at the Santa Monica Civic. They didn't come around and say hello to us, right? They snuck around back and got a hold of Sandy at the mixer and said "How do you get that sound? Tell us how it's done!" And they didn't realize it was just the way we were going like this (hunches and strums intensely) on the guitars, you know what I mean? It wasn't particularly what -slave- amps you had in the P.A. or the equalizers or whatever. It was the way we were going at it.
M: Do you ever feel that an audience is just sucking you dry of energy, and not really participating in the experience?
S: Yeah, I feel that sometimes. And I get angry and tell them about it when I do.
F: Do you feel sometimes that people want you to be up there doing what they expect, and if you go off on another course - like if you do a record which isn't what they think you should do - you're going to get clobbered for it? Do you feel misinterpreted at times?
S: Yeah, sure. There was this one journalist who described us as "the best amphetamine rush in town", right? And so I went to the press reception to see what it was all about, because I felt like we were being discovered as some new kind of -drug-. I found it a bit offensive.
M: If you had to put into 25 words or less what it is you're to say when you get up on stage, what would it be?
S: LOOK AT ME!
M: (Laughs) Yeah, but lots of bands do that and they don't get the same response you do. What's the difference?
F: Anything a performer does on a public platform is significant, even just scratching your ass. When I go on stage as 'Robert Fripp' it's more real, more alive. I can do stuff I can't do as 'Bob Fripp from Wimbourne, Dorset' and it has a significance quite apart from me. When I was with the Crimson team, and even now, as soon as ego gets involved in it or when the audience are dumping their egos on me, and saying "you have to be our ideal of what we think you should be", it becomes masturbation rather than consummation. It feels dirty. But when you do a gig, and maybe it's not even a good gig, but somehow there's a relationship between the audience and performers that's right, then no one's ripped off. And it feels good. It feels clean. It feels like an honorable way of working. Now, both the musicians and the audience have responsibilities to each other. For instance, sometimes you don't want to get up and play, but you said you would so you do it. You have a part of you that makes that commitment and the rest of you follows. It's like this: I don't have to do this for a living, but because I decided to do it for another three years...
S: This is interesting to me. What would you do for a living if not music?
F: I'd probably still do it, but in a non-public context.
S: You mean just for your mates?
F: Yes. And some guitar teaching. Actually, I'd like to be able to go out and play 250 seaters with other musicians. At the moment, I can only afford to do it on my own. I don't want to play 3,000 seaters because I feel I can't make contact with the people I'm playing to. I told my management that today and they said "you can't do it your way; you can't pay the bills that way."
M: Isn't this similar to what you're doing with "Sandanista!"; keeping the price down to the point where you're not going to make any money off it unless it sells 200,000 units?
S: Yeah, that's the specific deal for the U.K., which is going really badly now. It's a big flop. The thing I like about making a stand on prices is that it's -here and now-, and not just a promise. It's dealing with reality: how many bucks you're going to have to part with at the counter to get it. It's one of the few opportunities we have to manifest our ideals, to make them exist in a real plane. To do it in Thatcher's Britain during a recession was a kind of flamboyant gesture.
F: Can you make money just from doing gigs?
S: No. A -big- no! It's like throwing our money away. That's our ultimate aim, to be able to break even on tour. No matter how carefully you do it, you always come out in the red.
M: Robert, you were saying yesterday that if you went out alone and did Frippertronics on the road, you could make money. Is there any way of doing that in a group context?
F: Well, the traditional answer is yes, providing you play 3,000 seaters. But my response is that if you play 3,000 seaters, your expenses will rise accordingly. And so you say you'll play 1,000 seaters, and your expenses match that. But even so, to break even - working with four musicians- is a work of art. If you go out and play with one guy driving me around and two green boxes, I can make more money in one month flat than for all the work I've done in the last twelve years.
S: I believe you!
F: King Crimson only made money -after we broke up.- After six years of hard work we had a deficit of $125,000. When we disbanded, the records went on selling, and that's how we finally made some money. Nowadays, I spend more time working at approaches to business than I do to music. I reckon I spend 1% of my professional life actually playing guitar. And that's not an exaggeration - that's literal!
M: While we're on the subject of the marketplace I wanted to ask you both about success and recognition. In terms of the deeper values of the music, does it mean anything to break into a Top Forty? Is that any kind of victory?
S: I'll tell you when it all went sour for me: when I realizes that the chart was only compiled in the straight record shops, not in the specialist shops where the real fans go. It's the housewife market, really. It's a cross section of grannies and teenyboppers and mummies buying it, you know? When I saw that I lost interest in it completely. But before that, I was quite keen to make the charts. I mean, why should Bob Geldorf be Top of the fucking Pops?
F: But getting back to this thing about live gigs, Joe, do you do anything to build up energy before you go on?
S: Yeah, I like to get into a mental panic before the show - to really wind myself up before I go on-stage.
M: Anything else?
S: I drink a lot of orange juice.
M: When the punk thing started a lot of groups were espousing a new set of ideals, but in many cases it was just words, or they couldn't sustain it. What keeps you guys honest?
S: The horror of becoming the new Rolling Stones. We stood there in 1976 and thought, "this whole place is -lousy-. The Stones started here - what are they doing about it?" We felt like they'd caught a buzz off London and it had made them. And they could have come back and done... I don't know what... but I just felt they weren't there. And we didn't want to become that. We saw that as the way -not- to turn out.
M: There's a lot of leftist ideology in your lyrics, but you're obviously not doctrinaire Marxists.
S: Toeing any line is obviously a dodgy situation, because I'm just not into a policy or I'd have joined the Communist Party years ago. I've done my time selling "The Morning Star" at pit heads in Wales, and it's just not happening.
M: In the song "The Equalizer" you talk about everyone having equal income...
S: I'm not saying that. I read this thing in Marx that really hit me about why is the person who owns the factory allowed to take more of the profits than the person who does all the work? It's an equal input - you own the factory and I do the work - so we should split the profits.
M: And yet on both "London Calling" and "Sandanista!" you admit that just money alone isn't the answer.
S: Well, the Beatles said it years ago, money can't buy ya love.
M: Have you ever read E.F. Schumacher? He says that obviously income should be more equal, but we have to go beyond that. In America we have more wealth than anyone else and we're still miserable, because the work we do stifles our natural creativity and provides us with no sense of purpose or inner satisfaction. Reading it reminded me of the feeling I get from what you're doing: giving hope to people who are trapped in these situations and are looking for an alternative.
S: Yeah, it's horrible to think that people spend their whole lives in a rubber factory, pulling the rubber along the belt because the machine doesn't work. I couldn't have done it. The hell with it! Is that what we have to have? I just can't believe it, and yet it seems irreversible. Maybe it's too late to say, small is beautiful, and all that.
M: Maybe it's too late to save the system as we know it, but maybe that's the point - that if things fall apart, there'll be a chance to build something better. That's the kind of hope I hear in your music.
F: If I can address some of these question<p>S: Marx was something of an old fart. He was an authoritarian and a centralist, and what he proposed was essentially the same as capitalism, except with a different set of people in charge. In any kind of realistic political change you have to start on the inside, by changing the central value system. You can't start by changing the structure, change has to be a personal choice.
M: Meaning you can't have a just and equitable structure if the individuals that comprise it are still operating from greed and egocentricity. So no matter how well you design a house it won't stand if the individual bricks are defective.
F: Right, so change therefore has to be a personal choice. And it's got to be gradual, because normal political life has to do with changing externals by force, and any kind of force is going to breed it's opposite reaction. So, if you force a welfare society on people, but their personal values and way of life haven't changed for the better, they're going to wind up disliking each other even more than they did before. Another important thing is that if you have an aim in mind, you have to work as if it's already achieved. You can't create a democracy by imposing a dictatorship on people until they're ready for democracy. You have to be democratic yourself. Your way of going there is where you're going.
M: I wanted to ask Joe about his attitude towards violence. You use the imagery of violence, but I don't think you really believe it's the answer. Am I right or wrong?
S: Of course not! Violence isn't an answer to anything. Do I want some jackoff to jump on my back right now? Of course I don't. It's so -sordid-.
M: What about the case of "Sandanista!"? Obviously, Somoza was overthrown by force.
S: Sure, but that's practical violence. Somoza ain't going to go unless you shoot a few hundred of his guards. I'm not saying that I could get into that here in Britain, but I think in Nicaragua the situation certainly demanded it. Think of how many campesinos were slaughtered there since 1919. It must run into the -millions-! In that situation, I condone picking up a gun.
F: I've found that American bands aren't politically aware.
S: Yeah, why is that? There's only one I know, called Prarie Fire, and they're so heavily Communist it turns you off.
F: I think English musicians are more politically acute because our social system is so crazy over here that you feel you have to explore it and find out why. America's a commercial culture, and I suppose it's nearer a pure democracy than we are, 'cause if you want to vote you just put your dollar in and it counts, and there's a great deal of social mobility as a result. Over here, if you open your mouth and you come from the East End of London, or Wales, or Dorset, you're immediately stuck in a social caste. My dad would let me know that if I did anything that prejudiced his position in the town, I would really get it. I realized later it was because he's made the transition from the working class to the lower middle class...
S: ...and that's the most important thing in the world to people in that situation.
F: Exactly. I think the main difference between my generation and yours is that in the 60s it was "everything seems mad, therefore I question my sense." Now it's "everything seems mad, therefore I -approve- my senses because everything -is- crazy." So my lot are a bit more schizophrenic than your lot, who are a bit more down to earth and politically directed.
M: Is it really necessary to suffer in order to produce something worthwhile?
S: A great man wrote about "the lips of a poet being strangely formed, so that when he uttered cries of help people gathered around him saying, 'More, more, say it again!'" (general laughter) So there must be something in the soul that makes you want to make that sound.
F: Do you have to suffer for that?
S: Happy people don't create anything. I find creation hinges on being well-fucked-up.
F: I think we're dealing with two different things here. If you suffer it does create friction and that gives you energy, but there are some kinds of suffering that are not necessary. Like the geezer who gets into coke and it gives him trouble, or he's used to having his picture in the paper so he's paranoid at the end of the week when it isn't there.
S: Yeah, pride and vanity get you nowhere.
F: But then there's a kind of suffering where you put all you've got into a record, and you believe in it, but no one like it. Then you still say I'm sorry, my name's on it , this is my work. And that creates a good energy.
M: Isn't there a kind of inner joy if you're suffering for the right reason?
F: If you know it's worth doing. If people are booing but you -know- it's a fuck of a set, you don't give a shit who boos. But when you know you're not playing well, if you know you've copped an egg, you can't face it...
S: Yeah ,there are times when I haven't played well that I ran back to the dressing room and I wanted to... just...
F: ... say I apologise. I'm sorry!
M: Okay, the right kind of suffering can produce something transcendent. What about anger? Joe, you wrote in "Clampdown" that anger can be power...
S: ... Because you can either destroy things with anger, or it can motivate you to learn about your situation and follow things through. A lot of people just thought the whole punk movement was negative, but that was just a superficial reading.
F: When I first heard about punk back in '77 I'd been waiting for six years to hear that kind of commitment: to hear some geezer hit a drum as if -all he wanted to do in his life was hit a drum.- And to me it was all a great political statement. Because the movement that I'd been a part of went off course.
M: What went wrong?
F: It went off because a bunch of working class guys tried to move up to a middle class level of income by aping middle class traditions. Supposedly technique was important, but it became a facile technique- it wasn't real. People weren't in charge of all those endless displays of notes. They were becoming programmed, playing charts and licks, and it wasn't human.
M: And yet both of you get criticized by people who don't believe you can maintain commitment and still evolve into different musical styles.
S: Maybe they're right, but how do they arrive at that conclusion?
M: Well, they can feel the energy and intensity from things like "Schizoid Man" and "White Riot," but not necessarily from subtler mediums like dub or Frippertronics.
F: Yes, but when you lose your virginity there's an innocence that you're never going to recapture. But that doesn't mean you're going to give up screwing! You learn to experience your innocence in a different kind of way.
S: Great point. Listen to what he's saying...
F: When you lose your virginity it doesn't matter that you don't know what you're doing, because it has to do with innocence. So for me, art is the capacity to re-experience your innocence. How do you lose your virginity every time you make love? How do you do that musically every time you go on stage?
M: Okay, you asked the question. How do you?
F: You have to know what you want, and you have to have the wish. One night at the Marquee in 1969 King Crimson went out on a tangent, -maybe just for five minutes- and you never knew where the hell it was , but I was telepathic- I knew everything that was going on, and what people were thinking. Because there was that energy in the room, and... I became a human being in such a way that... if that's what it means to be a human being. then -I want to become a human being!- Once you've had it, you -have- to find a way of living like that again. Otherwise there's no point in anything. And so you go for it! You have go on till you a way to do it. And if you want it enough you get nearer. There are a lot of techniques, disciplines, and inner and outer practices that can help make you open to that quality of experience. I think that mastery of a technique or subject for a musician means being both a virgin and an accomplished lover at the same time.
M: What's the role of technique in all this?
F: Technique is part of what you do in order to get there. But when you're there, you really don't give a shit about technique.
S: Right, it's a combination of innocence and expertise.
F: ...and the more technique you have the more you throw away, and that gives you more authority. If you can only play one chord, and you play it with all you've got, that's pure. If you can play 10,000 chords, but you play one that's pure, it has an authority which the others don't.
S: As Kierkegaard says, "Don't fall in the cup of wisdom that you drink from." What he's saying applies to music, too. All those flurries of notes and runs are like falling in, when all you have to do is drink.
M: (To Strummer) That reminds me of that great line in "The Sounds of The Sinners": "Waiting for that jazz note...
S: ...Right, looking for the great jazz note that destroyed the walls of Jericho. You hit it. That's what we're after.
M: In a way, that's what I felt happened that night I saw your show at the Palladium. There was this extraordinary energy coming through - a real feeling of oneness and unity. Is that what music is capable of? Is this what you're aiming for?
S: Well, gosh, (laughs) maybe it has something to do with the price of the hot dogs that night. I don't know, maybe you're asking the wrong people.
F: About finding that great jazz note: I think the Western tradition of teaching music is pretty screwed up. Because you learn all the externals, the laws of harmony, the laws of counterpoint, the laws of rhythm, but nothing about music. On the other hand, there's a tradition among the Sufis where you play only one note on the bass end of the flute for 1000 days. You can think about as many notes as you want, but you can't play them. Just that one note for 1000 days. Then there was that Sufi drummer you introduced me to...
M: Yeah, from Istanbul. Nezih Uzel.
F: That's the guy. He told me he had to prepare himself for three years before he could even start to learn his instrument.
M: If you had to put into words what it is you'd like to give people through your music, what would it be?
S: That they feel they could start to play, too. When I was a teenager I felt that musicians were a world apart - a secret society I could never join. So I didn't bother to try until I was almost too old. I hope it doesn't seem so impossible like it did for me watching Eric Clapton at Wembley and thinking -I could never do that.- It's not that hard, really. Now, I'm not a born musician like maybe Robert is...
F: Not at all! I was tone deaf and had no sense of rhythm...
S: ... I got kicked out of the choir...
F: ...they wouldn't even let me -join- the choir!
S: Well, that's quite an achievement, Robert. I really enjoy and appreciate what you've done.
F: Sometimes - and this is only a theory - I think that music needs a musician to play it. That the music is alive, but you have to be out there to know it. And at that point it may be possible that the music is waiting to be played. So it needs a musician.
S: I've been thinking about this recently. I find that when I write a really good song. it's a blur in my mind when I actually wrote it. I know the song exists, 'cause I can play it for my friends, but I just can't remember what happened between thinking of the idea of the song and finally playing it for my friend. Something happened that I can't remember.
M: That's a classic description of the creative process. The ordinary faculties are suspended in a way while something greater comes through. Is there anything you do to be more open to those moments?
S: Every man has his own rituals to get you into the right state of consciousness. I like to have four typewriters in a row and then I feel everything is prepared.
F: I think you have to learn to listen to the music. I don't know many musicians who even listen to what they're playing - it's never automatic, you always have to make an effort to use your ears. A funny thing happened in Philadelphia a few weeks ago during my Frippertronics tour. I was listening and I heard the next note I had to play. And I played it. Then I heard the next note, and I played that one. I'd been waiting 23 years for that to happen..
S: That's -real- music...
F: ...and it was the first time it ever happened to me. And I started to cry while I was playing...
S: That's it. To know where one has to go...
F: ...and it's funny, but I had to trust it. I heard the next note, and I thought well, I'll try it. Then I heard the next one and thought well, this is shit, but I thought I should trust it. So I did. And it's a question of trusting the music to play itself.
S: It's like that feeling when you're just sitting there and playing, and you're not conscious of it. You start doodling and your hands just take over, and your conscious mind is no longer saying you must practice, or you must play this. Then something else tunes in and I'm playing something special. My mind's not involved, and I know I've been playing real music.
M: One last question: What's the most important thing you've learned about playing music over the last five years?
S: That unless you're prepared to give your heart and soul to it completely, -forget it!-
M: That seems like a good place to stop.
F: I'm up for some pinball. Do you play, Joe?
S: Are you kidding? From Shoh down to Brighton, I must have played them all...