end of play, for Lol Coxhill

Late one night in March of this year I was sitting in an eerie hotel within Tokyo’s Haneda airport being interrogated for a Japanese magazine (see http://onbanjidai.blogspot.co.uk/). The subject of the interview was music and comedy and despite my fear of flying and the knowledge that I was about to board a plane I started talking about “Murder In the Air”, a track by Lol Coxhill and David Bedford. If my memory is correct, I first heard the duo perform this gem of refracted kitsch on John Peel’s radio show in the early 1970s. One of my interlocutors, Minoru Hatanaka, a man who is endlessly well-informed on all things British and experimental, had never heard of it. Perhaps it’s just as well; what would a Japanese person make of this gently absurdist parody of a drawing room melodrama of the 1930s? Even the Noh drama is less opaque.

But as an autonomous piece it had all manner of connective tissues stretched thin enough to touch the edges of trad parodists like The Alberts (for more on this subject see Bruce Lacey’s current show at Camden Arts Centre), the fashion of the time for reviving vernacular musics of the Victorian and Edwardian era as an experimental stance, a comedy legacy that included The Goon Show, Julian and Sandy on Round the Horne, Monty Python, Music Hall monologues, sub-Noel Coward theatricals and Vivian Stanshall, an infernal symbiosis through which the most effete and ephemeral comedies of manners came to represent all that was sick in the British class system and so served as bayonet practice, often by chaps who had undergone National Service and become radicalized (or at least well-equipped for a life of heroic silliness) in the process.

I’d planned lunch today with Rosemin Keshvani, curator of the current Flat Time House exhibition – Better Books: Art, Anarchy and Apostasy – featuring artists who performed or showed work at Better Books in the 1960s, Bruce Lacy, the late John Latham, the late Bob Cobbing, the late Jeff Nuttall, the late Jeff Keen, the late Steve Dwoskin, the late the late the late, and so all of this comes to mind out of early morning thoughts about Bruce Lacey and why it is that these scarecrow figures of the British arts are dragged back from their wasteland exile at the very last moment to perform duties as romantic legends for those too cautious to live anywhere near the same precipice. My questions were interrupted by a text from Steve Beresford: “Lol died last night”. After a certain age you become accustomed to the passing of legends, the chiming of a clock that fades into inaudibility, yet I felt bereft and tearful, not only because I counted Lol as a strange sort of friend and had played with him on and off since 1971, but because he was a person whose way of living, presence, being, conversation, wit and music enriched and challenged your own existence.

In a way I could never get over my awe of him, having seen him for the first time on Ready Steady Go in 1965, a hipster-shaded baldhead tenor player backing up Rufus Thomas’s TV performance of “Walking the Dog” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=acX8d_oLxxU). I was crazy about Thomas at that time and so never quite recovered from the impact of Lol’s evident charisma. He was also a member of Kevin Ayres’ post Soft Machine group, The Whole World, along with Bedford and Mike Oldfield. I heard them live twice in 1970 (a Hyde Park Free concert with Robert Wyatt on drums, and then at The Marquee club); the memory that sticks is from the Marquee, Bedford playing organ wearing a huge pair of industrial gloves. Then in 1971 Lol turned up as an invited musician to the free improvisation workshops John Stevens was running for young acolytes like Paul Burwell, Herman Hauge, Ye Min and myself at Ealing College. Immediately there was the sense that he was actively interested and open to engagement in what others were doing, never mind their relative youth and the fact that they didn’t know the changes to “All the Things You Are” in Bflat.

Two things about that. Lol could be an extraordinarily generous person. There were those he believed to be “duff”, dismissed with pithy anecdote and an underplayed chuckle, and then there were those he genuinely liked and admired, often awkward, marginal figures like Colin Wood or Dave Holland (the pianist) who lacked his breadth of experience but who gained his respect through the tenacity with which they maintained their awkwardness and marginality. He actively sought out tricky situations. To me, this is the measure of an improviser: a player who moves beyond their comfort zone, chips away at their own aesthetic and tics, risks foolishness and failure and yet builds operational spaces in every situation, no matter how rote or ridiculous. The rest are just stylists. I say this knowing that Lol was never graced with the status of true improviser by the commissars of the game; his sidelines were his centre, his rambling ways the shadowing of his bald soprano, its convolutions and folds, its serpentine unfoldings in the inaudible dark. He was dogged by eccentricity, busking, the look of him, his clothes, his baldness, his comedic turn yet never shied away from the heavy responsibility of lightening proceedings. Some people would release an album by three of the greatest improvising soprano players – Evan Parker, Steve Lacy and Lol Coxhill – under a title like Straight Horn Colossi; no doubt at Lol’s suggestion it was called Three Blokes.

Lol absolutely loved music, and so his raptures could shine equally onto Roland Alphonso or the San Lucas Band of Guatemala, onto frogs or sealions, onto the most sublime tenor players in jazz and the most incompetent shambolic amateur punk bands. He backed or sat in (these odd positional terms) with Joe Harriott and Jimi Hendrix, The Damned and Judy Collins; a collaborator in projects and groups so diverse that the list would be improbable were it not Lol. In the early 1980s I worked as writer and interviewer on Jeremy Marre’s Channel 4 music series, Chasing Rainbows. In Whitley Bay we recorded a wonderful violin duo called Minzi and Mina, two elderly ladies who played deliriously marathon Saturday night sets of yesteryear hits, shakily approximate but spirited, to a lively hotel crowd. Lol loved them when he heard a recording and it made me tearful again to open the gatefold of his Frog Dance LP this afternoon to find this letter: “Hello David . . . hope you like some of it as much as I like Minzi and Mina, cheers! Lol”.

One of the reasons we all loved Minzi and Mina was because they seemed to be the belatedly discovered template for our Brighton beach ensemble, The Promenaders (Lol, Steve Beresford, Peter Cusack, Paul Burwell, Terry Day, Max Eastley and myself). Formed in adversity for beach entertainment, as a reaction to poor organization, the group went on to play its peculiar repertoire many times. Did we support Machito at The Venue or am I dreaming? I know we played at Walter Zimmermann’s Beginner Studio in Cologne and had Coventry art students waltzing around to “The Dambuster’s March” as if the Battle of Britain still raged overhead. As with “Murder In the Air”, the group was a descendant of some odd British spirit of self-subversion, a determination to look ridiculous in order to pass through enemy lines. Being of a certain age, we played a Light Programme selection (Google it, I suggest) in a mode, or in the mood, of studied imprecision but without Lol’s inventive fluency there would have been less than half the laughs. For a C4 television appearance matching tight, white, nylon polo necks and cheap medallions were acquired from a shop in Brixton, along with subsequent skin rashes to the neck and a preponderance of man boobs. I suspect that Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer may have studied our appearance with keen interest.

The last time I played with Lol was in a quintet – the three Recedents, Mike Cooper, Roger Turner and Lol – supplemented by Rhodri Davies and myself (coincidentally, perhaps, a full set of recedents). Some anticipation had attached itself to this gig, as if the association of Rhodri and myself with so-called ‘New London Silence’ would reduce the five of us to static automata in a curiosity shop, instruments on our laps and waiting for the man with the key. As it transpired the music exemplified the open work, that wonderfully tensile balance of kinetic urgency and reactive restraint that has been a constant in British improvisation since its origins. Lol had played far less than usual yet afterwards he seemed to be perspiring. “It’s hard work not doing much,” was what I remember him saying, the familiar dry delivery ensuring that you knew he was joking and not joking. He was incessantly self-deprecating but he knew he was good; he was shy but would stand out in the biggest crowd. I remember his quick gait, light on the feet for a big man, and his impersonation of Brando at the end of Apocalypse Now: “The horror, the horror”. In the early 1980s there was hope that he could play Dr Moreau alongside Diamanda Galas in an improvised opera devised by Alterations but it never happened so Charles Laughton’s reputation was saved. He was a remarkable man. In 1976 I took a trip to Amsterdam with Nestor Figueras. On the overnight ferry we bumped into Lol. As usual when traveling he didn’t carry much more than a soprano case. After some hours of drinking with us in the bleaching bright lights of a nautical bar he announced a wish to retire for the night, lay down on the floor on his back and immediately fell asleep. Quite why that seems to sum up his path through life as a unique being I am not sure but it does.

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to rush down

Henri Michaux, Untitled (Mouvements), 1950-51

“Any old wood will do,” wrote Henri Michaux in 1949. The drum needed no skin. Just as long as your whole life could be concentrated into the impact of fingers, hand, fast, faster, less fast, slowly, very slowly. Silence was a great leech lying down within him. “In my music, there is a great deal of silence,” he wrote, but then again spoke of noises, his noise pushing away all others, then night, the self entering further into the sounds, and the pressure to record these sounds, his resistance to the needs of the mechanism, the necessity to watch its functioning and be subdued by its division of time, whereas Michaux was working into the unknown through time, “long boring passages”, or improvising on a drum to auscultate himself, to take his pulse, to make flux in his time, to be against much of civilisation, to break through a dam, “to rush down” . . .

“Since I never went in for playing with sand on the beach as a child – a disastrous deficiency from which I was to suffer all my life – when the age for it had passed, the desire to play came to me, and now to play with sounds.

Oh! what a strange thing at first, that current suddenly revealed, that liquid unexpected, that passage bearing something in itself, always, and which was.

You no longer recognise your surroundings (the hardness has left them).

You have stopped bumping into obstacles. You become the captain of a RIVER . . .

What I want (not yet what I produce) is music to question, to auscultate, to approach the problem of being.”

Henri Michaux, First Impressions, on music (1949)

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mouth of shadows

Andre Masson: Automatic Drawing (1920s)

“she speaks to me a language so soft that at first I do not understand . . .”

(Aimé Césaire, Son of Thunder, 1948)

“I have always wondered why automatic writing has not been invoked more in the ever-multiplying number of discussions and positions taken  on ‘composition vs. improvisation’.” Adam Linson, sleevenotes to integument, Lawrence Casserley/Adam Linson (psi 09.03, 2009).

“. . . the air pauses I hear the grating of poles on their axles the air drones . . .”

(Aimé Césaire, Permit, 1948)

. . . a series of magnetic fields . . . On the 23rd March 1941, Claude Lévi-Strauss and André Breton boarded the SS Capitaine Paul-Lemerle, a steamer sailing from Marseille to Martinique. Both of them hoped to reach New York. Lévi-Strauss, Jewish, and Breton, banned writer, Marxist and surrealist, chose exile rather than risk persecution and internment under Nazi occupation of France and the collaborationist Vichy government. They met by accident, subsequently passing the time by discussing the theoretical texts both were producing during the voyage. According to biographer Patrick Wilcken, Lévi-Strauss “wrote a detailed commentary on Breton’s doctrine of spontaneous creativity, trying to resolve the contradictions between surrealist ‘automatic’ art (in which the artist simply writes, draws or paints with no pre-planned ideas, guided by chance and random events) on the one hand, and the idea of artistic technique or expertise on the other. How could artistic creativity express itself through what was merely a reflex of the subconscious? He concluded with the notion of ‘irrational awareness’ (‘prise de conscience irrationelle’) – a kind of creative inspiration that the true artist smuggles into a spontaneous work of art. In reply, Breton wrote of the ‘para-erotic’ aesthetic pleasure derived from art, which distinguished it from impulsive doodles, and concluded that Lévi-Strauss’s idea of ‘irrational awareness’ might itself be produced at a subconscious or ‘pre-conscious’ level.” (from Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Poet in the Laboratory, 2010)

On Martinique, Breton came across another recently arrived refugee from France, André Masson, painter-explorer of automatism, chance and altered states. A discovery of the literary journal Tropiques, found while browsing in one of Fort-de-France’s shops, led Breton to a meeting with the poet of Negritude, Aimé Césaire. Solar Throat Slashed (Soleil cou coupé), Césaire’s incandescent collection of surrealist-automatist poems published in 1948 wrenched automatism, along with the streams-of-consciousness of Joyce, Woolf and Faulkner, away from their attachment to European and American psychology (Freud, Pierre Janet, William James) into the colonial realities of the tropics.

While the limits of pure automatism became quickly apparent – Césair later made politically directed revisions and cuts to Solar Throat Slashed, while Masson’s work had shifted away from automatic drawing by the late 1920s – music seemed strangely indifferent to its potentialities. Perhaps this was because of its greater emphasis on group performance (in which automatism becomes a far more complex process); perhaps because the technical demands of musical instruments discouraged abandonment (the paradox identified by Lévi-Strauss). With a few exceptions, it was not until the 1960s that music begin to coax messages from what Breton, after the aural hallucinations that preceded his automatic writing collaboration of 1920 with Philippe Soupault, The Magnetic Fields) described as the mouth of shadows.

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spooky drums

There are those who would prefer to uncouple improv from the ties that connect it to jazz. Hearing Han Bennink play solo recently (Night of the Unexpected, Spitalfields Festival, London, 16.6.12) reminded me of a few aspects of Han’s playing:

  1. he hits the drums and rims hard, the biff shot as Baby Dodds called it, but as a continuously fluid opening up of acoustic space, a hail of shrapnel rather than a single gunshot accent.
  2. for his first solo LP – Solo, ICP 011, 1972 – he recorded two tracks called “Spooky Drums”.

The original “Spooky Drums” (also in two versions) was recorded by Warren ‘Baby’ Dodds in 1946 for Folkways Records. Three photographs on the cover of the 10” LP show the physicality of his playing, time-lapse shots that reveal the crossing of arms, the stretching of his upper body, a kinesiology that recalls the kind of photographs collected in Incunabula, the book of source materials that Francis Bacon absorbed into his paintings. Like Bennink, Baby Dodds was a showman who used his whole body to give character and flow to sound (as the film clip shows, Dodds used his foot to muffle the tom tom; Han has done the same for many years and I wonder if he has ever seen this clip). But making a show for dancers merged into involuntary action and pathology. Dodds talked of, and played, what he called “Nerve Beats”, “like a guy got the passels [palsy]”; for his shimmy beat, his stomach was said to wobble up and down in perfect time.

According to Frederic Ramsey Jr., who wrote the notes for the Folkways release, the title, “Spooky Drums” was said to be a whimsical thing, an indication of the pleasure of switching through quick contrasts. Elsewhere I’ve read that it was a reference to the eerie feeling of a drummer finding himself alone in a recording studio. Whatever, it’s clear that these are solo improvisations to be considered alongside Django Reinhardt’s “Improvisations” of 1937, Charles Ives’ “Three Improvisations No. 1” of 1938, Coleman Hawkins’ “Picasso” of 1948 and Lennie Tristano’s “Descent Into the Maelstrom” of 1953. Maybe that was the spooky part, in a studio, alone with an instrument, improvising?

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Into the Maelstrom

A Descent into the Maelstrom
Harry Clarke, 1919

in progress, my next book: Into the Maelstrom: Improvised Music and the Pursuit Of Freedom . . .

to research the history and practice of musical improvisation, notably the post-1960s ‘school’ known as free improvisation; to establish the cultural and political contexts out of which free improvisation emerged in the 1960s; to locate the self-organisation of improvising musicians in the 1960s-70s within a broad spectrum of political and social activism; to analyse the backgrounds and beliefs of those innovative musicians who were among the earliest to develop a practice of group improvisation without composer, notated score, conductor or prearrangement; to map the continuing evolution of the music,  its changing practice.

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Can I get a witness?

my essay for Scanner’s Witness project – David Toop on Witness – can be found online here:


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. . . the hair on the head to hear . . .

“It was as though somewhere in the Sunday afternoon’s quiet and peace the screams of that child still existed, lingered, not as sound now, but as something for the skin to hear, the hair on the head to hear.”
William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom! (1936)

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