miles davis and tommy ramone

I wade hesitantly and maybe foolishly into the crowded waters of jazz commentary, as lightly armored with knowledge as I am, but I've been in the Miles mindzone all week, while preparing for my show last Monday. I of course welcome any correction or added insight from readers who are skilled jazz players or critics; I'm only, or should I say mainly, a fan, who occasionally dips a toe in as a practitioner.

For the date, the trumpeter Anna, the drummer Gerald, and I picked these tunes: Milestones, So What, Someday My Prince Will Come, E.S.P., U&I, Stablemates, Freddy Freeloader, and In A Silent Way. All but two of those are from 1956 to 1965, a pretty brief segment of an amazingly long and fruitful run; partly that reflects the fact that I'm best acquainted with Miles from the nonet to the Plugged Nickel, and the selection is partly random chance as well.

So I sat down and started to look at how best to accompany these heads on the guitar. I decided that I'd use only the acoustic; my limits are more pronounced on the electric and that instrument instantly evokes some grandiose and unsustainable comparisons, where an acoustic flattop is stranger and open and perhaps puzzling, sitting there alonside the horns and drums. The first snag I hit was: what is the chord on the 12th bar of the head of Freddy Freeloader? The tune is in Bb, the note is an F#, against which the sax plays a C and the other instruments seem to me half-suggesting an Ab (flat seventh) chord with a suspension -- but it still also sounds grounded in Bb. At the 24th bar it is a Bb. But the 12th bar was a little mysterious to me.

For readers who aren't jazz or chord-theory nerds, I want to make a point about chord interpretation that is broadly interesting, outside the nerd circus: though it's often taken as a fact of life by amateurs, as well as skilled players in certain styles, that "what is the chord at this point in the tune?" has an exact answer, it's not always the case. Reducing a piece of music from a performance on multiple tonal instruments to a six-note, four-finger guitar chord, or a ten-finger piano chord, is an interpretive act, in which you almost always revoice the performed tones and land the bottom, defining tone where you hear the bass (if there was a bass in the performance) placing it, or where the whole group suggests to your ear it should land (sometimes the bass is playing a note not the root), or in other cases simply where it's convenient and easy to lay your finger. Along the interpretive route, your ear makes mistakes; and you decide to do one thing and not another; and recordings bury things. In interpreting for guitar a recorded performance that features guitars prominently, and was composed by someone on a guitar, you're reading the mind of a like-minded person, someone who thinks in guitar chords. But many writers and players don't think in guitar chords, and here and there you get music where writers just aren't thinking in chords at all -- either the background of the style lacks chord baggage (Irish fiddle music) or they're consciously sidestepping. Interesting tidbit from a Miles interview: "We don't play chords, we play sound."

Besides all that, there's the fact that when you're accompanying you probably don't want to be thinking about moving chords around, you want to be listening to what's going on and adding what needs added. However, as a practical matter, naming the chords is a near-necessary step in the process of getting a song into your head. I looked on Amazon for a book of Miles music with guitar-chord interpretation, and the one that looked most promising was called Miles Davis for Solo Guitar by a fellow called Jamie Findlay. When the book came in the mail, I opened it to "Freddy Freeloader" and found five dense pages of music, with fancy changes galore. What?! It's a blues in Bb, but this interpretation made it look like the Adding Machine soundtrack. It subdivided the song into eight segments, A to H, and rekeyed it in A. The chord at the 12th bar was written B9sus4. I was flummoxed by this book. The introduction is a bit heavy on Jamie information -- what techniques he likes, how he improvises, his mother -- and so I take it the project was more of a joyous creative labor for him than a way to name chords in Miles Davis songs.

I went to my teacher, Don, and played him "Freddy Freeloader." He found the 12th-bar chord ambiguous as well. He was accustomed to playing it, or perhaps conceiving it, as a C#9. That added obvious logic to the progression of bars 10 through 12 -- F9, D#9, C#9, keep moving the shape down step by step -- but it sounded clearly unlike the recording. He produced a couple of sheet-music books with "Freddy Freeloader." One said this and one said that. "Let's hear what the piano is playing under the trumpet solo," Don said. After listening, we goofed around on our fretboards a little, then he said, "Let's hear what happens on the sax solo, maybe it'll tell us more." I like Don's investigatory manner. I find that most people with his amount of theory knowledge tend to short-cut to a solid authoritative answer, but Don is always careful to let the ear take the driver's seat, and never says an answer just to say it -- a good teacher. "It's a lot more open than I thought," he concluded. I decided I would, to accompany horn soloists, take notes from the Absus4 chord without stressing the root, and add in some other notes as we went along -- that might keep true to the spirit and actuality of the song. Also, the horn guys at the gig were positive that that was the change.

Isn't it great, that what is probably the best-known tune from the most popular of all jazz records contains, still, and presumably always, such delicately, thoughtfully embedded ambiguity? Interestingly, a little of this spirit carried over into the Merle Travis music that we were also playing that night, as the bassist and pianist and I discussed our differing takes on the nomenclature of chords within progressions that our memories of the songs had deemed routine. It may be a fruitful principle for songwriters to consider: avoid easy capture. And the yet-greater thing is that simplicity is so prized in these compositions. It's one thing to achieve chordal blurriness through unhinged anarchic wailing -- the easy way -- another to sneak it into a nursery-rhyme hummable Bb blues, or a tune about good country eating with rhythm changes. The head of "Milestones" is so insanely simple, but who can write like that? I had a hell of a good time this last week, wrestling with and trying to play these tunes.

Now to Tommy Erdelyi. Born in Budapest, he emigrated to the U.S. at age 6 with his family in 1957, in the wake of the brutal Soviet repression of the Hungarian uprising. He liked to point out that the rebellions in Hungarian society and American music were almost simultaneous. 1956 was a banner year for freedom. Once in America, his major musical touchstones were the rock-n-rollers and the Weavers, whose Carnegie Hall record he devoured. He played guitar, hung out in his Queens neighborhood, and started a band with some locals. Remarkably, at the time he started drumming for the Ramones, he had never sat behind a drumkit. He did it because that's what they needed and no one else was working out. His inexperience served him well. He said that in trying to figure out the instrument, he did some things exactly backward from the way a schooled drummer would do them. Freedom.

Besides playing and writing, he produced or co-produced all the great Ramones records, and six of them in total. He produced good records for the Replacements and Redd Kross as well.

I liked the Ramones upon first hearing them, but surely never imagined that our musical or social spheres would intersect, because they seemed so apart in style and stratum. But in 2006 I learned that Tommy had started an acoustic country duo, called Uncle Monk. I bought the record, was intrigued by it, and contacted him to see if he might come to Chicago to be on my XM performance/interview series, Secret Country. He emailed back promptly, accepting the offer and adding that he was a fan of my music, which delighted me. When I met him the day of the show, he turned out to be a rather reticent, markedly polite, affably disheveled man with a speaking voice that was husky, lilting, and Hungarian-accented, a little reminiscent of Christopher Walken. He was not the performer that gets to the venue and wants to dispense with soundcheck as quickly as possibly, find the green room and the meal and sit in solitude to practice and think through the show ahead. That's me! Instead, it was Tommy's style to scope out the environment, converse a bit, hang out, take in.

We talked about jamming at the encore, but Tommy was self-effacing about his instrumental skills, or such was my impression. During the show, which featured two acts, he sat next to me in the audience, along with Claudia, his Uncle Monk (and, one suspected, romantic) partner and watched Butch Hancock play. Tommy had stood earlier in the doorway of Butch's dressing room chatting about Texas people they both knew. They seemed to like each other very well, and certainly shared a common bond in their distaste for slickly professional music and their embodiment of an opposing ideal. I believe the punk-rock ethos -- the part of it that is humane, anti-hierarchical, individualistic, kindly -- was reflected not merely in the unadornedness of Tommy's music but in his offstage social style.

When I came to live for a spell in Brooklyn, a few years later, I was looking for people to play with and groove on, living-room style, and sent Tommy a short note. He replied in his characteristically affable way, but in the absence of a definite eagerness on his part I let it drop and went on to find some others, and so that was the end of my extremely slender acquaintance with him. Shortly after hearing that he had died, I went back to listen to the recording of my interview with him (from which I took the information four paragraphs up). His view of his time with the Ramones was notably philosophical and, though inflected with sentiment, clarified by detachment. I would generalize that the average person who spends his prime years in an immersive and grueling subculture, like an army or rock band or religious cult, spends much of the rest of his life in uneasy reference to it -- sentimentalizing or polishing it on one hand, putting distance from or denying it on the other, in any case ordering the wild details into a narrative more sensible than it possibly could have been. Tommy, it seems, pulled out of the maelstrom in time. Though it wasn't completely free of grandeur and occasional overstatement, his perspective on the experience of being a Ramone was considered, sober, healthy, and even grateful. You can see that in this excerpt from my interview with him (and please overlook my awkward Farleyesque interviewer persona!):

RF "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend" is one of yours. That's an amazing song, because it's got, like, three lines in it, expanded into one-and-a-half minutes, or whatever it is.

TE Yeah, we were going for, uh...brevity, at a time when everyone else was going for ten-minute songs, because that was the style. So we wanted to be different. We wanted pare things down to as simple as possible, but still have it be something of substance. Yeah, "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend," that was our positive song. A lot of our other songs were I-Don't-Wannas. I don't wanna do this and I don't wanna do that. I wanted to put a more positive light on it!

RF Tell me a little bit about the players in that band. You have sort of the caricatures of them -- Johnny the militaristic guy, Joey the sensitive Jewish kid, Dee Dee the lovable dysfunctional that pretty accurate, or...?

TE Well, they were...very intense...(sigh)...characters, which is one of the reasons I -- I -- grew up with these guys, in the neighborhood. They all had their individual strange brilliance. And yes, they did have parts of their personalities, Johnny was kind of militaristic and all that, but that was just one aspect of him. He was multifaceted, depending on what mood he was in and stuff like that. Very intelligent, very witty, very sharp, but at the same time, kind of restricted in certain ways because of whatever baggage he might have been carrying from his childhood, or whatever. Dee Dee was very poetic and very romantic. But he was very troubled, had major feelings of insecurity which troubled him, and he too had demons.

RF What were some of the beautiful songs that he wrote? He wrote some really dynamic songs.

TE Yeah, all kinds of beautiful songs. "Next Time I'll Listen To My Heart" was a very beautiful song that he wrote; yes, he could write all kinds of songs -- and he loved all kinds of music, and was very prolific, was always working, was always writing songs, and took it very seriously. Joey, he basically just loved pop music very much, and was totally enamored of that. He was a brilliant pop songwriter. He would write songs on a two-string guitar, using just the fifths, and came up with brilliant chord changes. He would just hear them in his head. He was one of those kids that would just listen to the radio, when he was a child, all day, fall asleep with the radio by his ear.

RF There's a moment in the video [the End of the Century documentary] that I really loved, that exemplifies what I think many of us think of as the manic, ferocious energy that you guys had. Apparently you fought a lot, onstage, in the early days anyway. There's a great moment where Joey calls out the next song, which I think is "I Don't Wanna Go Down To The Basement," and then you say, "No! Let's do 'Loudmouth'!" Then Dee Dee says, "No, I wanna do 'Basement' too!" And then Johnny turns to you and says, "See? That's two against one!" And then you say, "Fuck you all!" And then you do...whichever one, I can't remember. But was that a typical moment? Were you always at each others' throats like that, or...?

TE (pause) Yes. One of the things that made the Ramones great was the intensity of the feeling and passion. Being in the Ramones was a very intense experience. It was one of the reasons that cut short my experience with them, 'cause...I had to preserve my sanity. But -- what made them so good is what also made them very hard to deal with. There were a lot of turf wars. Everybody was insecure in their own way, sort of at each others' throats. But, you know, that happens in a lot of bands; but with people like the Ramones it's probably just a little more intense.

RF Did you guys think of yourselves as part of a community, with punkers in New York, London, west coast? Or was that something that the observers thought of themselves more as?

TE No, we felt as part of a community. When we went to England, all the English punk bands came to see us. They were forming, really, we played there early, and they were all in the parking lot after our soundcheck (laughs) and we all met them. And we felt , sort of...brotherly towards them.

RF You guys were really brave. Even though you came out of a kind of tradition -- the Stooges and the Dolls and a lot of stuff before that -- as you said, the model of music at the time was just the polar opposite of what you were doing. And especially when you went out of New York and travelled to Richmond, New Haven, a lot of people hated you, right?

TE A lot people didn't understand what we were doing --

RF Or just get it.

TE They didn't get it. And interestingly, some of those people became some of our biggest fans. People who were first shocked by it, confused by it, became some of our biggest fans. But we were fortunate. When we opened for other acts, we would get bottles thrown at us. So, right away, we started headlining at small clubs. So we avoided that. And after that, pretty much anybody who wanted to pay liked us.

RF So you look back on those days fondly, it sounds like.

TE Oh, yes, I feel very fortunate to have been involved in something like that. I'm always happy to steer people towards it. Because a lot of people misunderstand what the Ramones were. They just hear things maybe on the radio, or they have preconceived notions of what they're about, and a lot of people don't understand the multidimensionality of the group, and really, how profoundly original and innovative they were, and how influential they were...As we travelled from city to city, we'd leave town and half the audience would form bands!