#95: Miles Davis, "Bitches Brew" (1970)

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That was all I was going to write. Actually, that was all I should have had to write, because I’m just going to sound like an entitled prick from here on out. I cut my teeth working in a pretentious record store in my formative years. My bias was unfiltered and undefined and I kept trying to convince the world that my taste in music was clearly the best and fuck you I was always right.

A pretty accurate description of my youth: Most of my time spent earnestly wanting people to hear something the way I heard it, in the way that I knew and learned it was perfect, and burning the woods down when the girl I was dating bought a Rusted Root album.

I acknowledge that music is subjective in the same way I accept that we just don’t have a better explanation for most human follies except we’re all stupid and doomed. This disposition, which was like if Cobra had made Serpentor out of the difficulty of Henry Rollins, the genius of Richard D. James, the shrewdness of Donald Fagan, the daring of Charles Mingus, and the ruthlessness of Ayn Rand*; was steadfast, unwavering, and entirely based on my own personal experiences and objectivity. It was my truth, but what is true?

I fucking hate that saying, misattributed to Einstein, about the definition of insanity. Trying something over and over again and expecting a different outcome. I hate it, but is it true?

I wanted to talk about this very clinically at first, this kind of verbose description of a perfect infographic tracking each of the players’ rise to perfection, or, in the case of Herbie Hancock, starting out flawless. The fact there was once an artist who, by ignoring that dumb old adage, meticulously and miraculously defied all odds, perfected his craft, compositions, and crew along the way. But I’m not sure that’s true either. There’s a truth to this story that isn’t told by facts. It’s not a history lesson but it’s the tendency for great things to take off and soar, but only before they come crashing back down to earth. That’s the problem with perfection.

This is where I’d tell the complete backstory of the B-52s, another perfect quintet. But the truth of their story isn’t important either. It suffices to say that the B-52s appear out of the blue, they release s/t and then Wild Planet, then what the fuck do you do? The part that matters is done. So you spend the next decade as a ‘90s cartoon parody of your former selves (not that I’m mad about that) because you’ll never make another “Give Me Back My Man.”

So, is it really that hard to believe that after literally creating the quintessential jazz quintet, a perfect bebop Voltron held together and powered by their sheer determination to not only be the fucking smoothest and greatest musicians who ever walked the earth, but also to not be outdone by anyone else, that the only reasonable outcome of being a megabeing greater than the sum of your parts is that you then have to self destruct into a droned-out drug-induced Apocalypse Now version of the worst aspects of your character? What’s going to happen if you try to be something other than perfect? Is the other a lie if the perfection is the truth?

Davis spent almost 15 years prior to Bitches Brew making legendary records.

And I get it, when you feel invisible you never want it to stop, nor can you believe, especially in that moment, it will ever end. Thus, if you make something precious and perfect, naturally you can do it again. I had a handful of ideas that haunted me for years, always sure they were the next big thing. I would add them to every project and to-do list until finally, like the good friend he is, Bo Fahs was like “Dude, you have to let that shit die, otherwise it’s going to be your Eyes Wide Shut.” And Bo, the same Bo who wrote the review for Paul’s Boutique on this very website, best friend Bo, call-me-out-on-my-stupid-shit Bo, was right. What Bo was talking about was an idea cemetery, a necessary feature in any creative city, in which you bury all your half baked ideas in order to really get to the good ones and get on with your life. The idea cemetery is right next door to the Derivative Dump.

The problem with that is no one ever told Davis about this till it was far too late. But to his credit, impossibly, Davis defied all the sound logic of putting things into the idea cemetery. If making revolutionary jazz recordings were a 3-point contest, Miles Davis would clearly win, but instead of simply winning, he tried to make as many consecutive 3-pointers as he could, moving farther and farther away from the goal just to prove what an unstoppable madman he is, impossibly getting slicker and better as he does so. Until he misses.

Bitches Brew isn’t a bad album, but is it great? How did we get here, to a place where the white people’s guide to free jazz is considered the masterwork of possibly the greatest human to ever put a trumpet to their lips? The best I can figure is that that accolade was given by the same person who feels like the sound of Ornette Coleman or Cecil Taylor, in all its wild possibilities and academic precision and sentiment is just not “crunchy” enough for their Fleetwood Mac-informed palettes.

What, by the way, is with the least qualified people talking about music using food terms? Nothing about the garbage you listen to is “yummy.” When you go to music school everyone wants their jazz band to sound like Miles Smiles. When you give up on your dreams because they seem too hard, decide to be worthless and waste your parents’ money on a kayak you never use, you talk about how “earthy” Bitches Brew sounds. But how did Davis go from rescoring Porgy & Bess to scoring Trevor’s Almost Formative First Year in College**?

The story that Ken Burns*** tells in his 8-part “here’s what jaded asses the Marsalis Brothers can be when reflecting on a time in jazz where they probably would have been Davis famous but were born too late and too Berkley****” documentary, is that Miles Davis saw Sly Stone get all the kind of attention and fame he once garnished at the Newport or the Montreal or the Paris Jazz Festivals. From this gnashing of teeth and ego, Davis created Bitches Brew. I feel like this might be true.

Davis probably did this to reclaim some former glory he thought he was owed. And I get it, the addiction to fame is tough. On one hand, being Beatles/Michael Jackson famous makes you a crazy person, but the only thing worse than being mega famous is almost or kind of being famous, especially if you’re an auteur. Since history is written by the victors and the Rolling Stone 500, not the people who think the soundtrack to Elevator to the Gallows is his best work, Davis had to chase fame, lose his mind, and wear tie dye. Also if there's no Elevator to the Gallows then there's no Twin Peaks, so you decide what's more important, the String Cheese Incident playing like a vacuum cleaner or the masterwork of David Lynch.

I wanted to close with something about that analogy where the only way to experience imperfection if you’re perfect is to make yourself forget. The only way to know what everything in existence is like if you made everything is to forget that you’re a god; living an infinite number of lives as a human with all our flaws and imperfections. It’s why we have to deal with life in the present tense and can’t deal with time being an illusion, histories and personal experiences that are all too big for one person to deal with. It’s what we need to get out of bed in the morning, the reason we fight, the struggle for what we think is real and what we already know. The truth about perfection and even just truth is that it’s all just noise, another illusion, which we try to make binary by comparing the present to the past, good versus bad, there and now. All we can really ever hope for is to be remembered for that one fleeting shining moment where we remembered we’re that god, and that others will remember us for it too. What the fuck else do you want out of this world?

Here’s the truth about Bitches Brew:

At the end of the day, Bitches Brew is more than a jam session. It is a jam session done by a practiced and genius musician who spent his previous, legendary career in a pressure cooker full of film scores and breathtaking compositions. Bitches Brew works because Davis did all the work, he surrounded himself by the best musicians and if he wasn’t playing with them they were challenging his throne, which he tirelessly defended until the jazz he knew was nothing more than a memory. Bitches Brew isn’t a bad album. It’s pretty good. But as the sneering teen clerk who’s disgusted that the money you paid for that Dave Matthews sticker pays his minimum wage needs to remind you, if it hadn’t been crafted by a trumpet player who once conjured perfect cinematic and scenic environments with sound, then it would just be the name of another IPA.

 

*Not that I’ve ever read Ayn Rand nor would I, but I did play BioShock about 5000 times so I am something of an Andrew Ryan expert.

**Sorry, for you film buffs out there I wanted to note that I used the shortened title and not it’s original Trevor’s Almost Formative First Year in College Where Instead of Doing Age Appropriate Nonsense like Drinking and Trying Boring Drugs When You Were a Teen, You Went Way Off the Deep End with Your New Found Freedom; Which Isn’t Really that Surprising I Guess in Retrospect Since You Tried to Portray Yourself as Kind of Like a Preppy Hippie Soccer Player who Wasn’t Good Enough at Sports to be a Bully Jock but was Still Kind of an Asshole Lacking any Kind of Real Personality or Uniqueness, Not That We All Should Be Artists or Whatever else that is Just Another Nice Way of Saying “Asshole” but Some People are Just Born to be Middle Management I Guess.

*** Incidentally, Bo and I used to work at this video store where besides making minimum wage when you were in your late 20s and rampant alcoholism, one of the perks was getting to rent all the movies your heart desired for free. In a lot of ways it was just like the previously mentioned record store I worked at as a brash teen. Anyhow, what this has to do with Ken Burns is that since Bo and I clearly didn’t have health insurance from said video store, as way to treat/deal with the rampant anxiety and insomnia that smoking 5,897 cigarettes a day and only consuming coffee and gas station food coupled with the shame spiral our lives were leading us down thanks to, you know being in your late 20s with a college degree making minimum wage at a video store in 2008 which inevitably creeps in the edges of your mind constantly but especially when you try to sleep at night, instead of being able to go to a doctor and get a prescription for Ambien, Bo beat the system by checking out every Ken Burns series that you’ve never heard of to get to sleep. My best guess is that Bo figured out this perfect alchemy regarding something just interesting enough to hold your attention while distracting you from everything in that previous run on sentence, scenic and calming, but also not interesting enough to keep you from falling asleep, ie the National Parks, Jefferson, etc. So, while I make it sound all romantic and fun, using record, video, and “cool” things to justify my position, know that it’s not and I can only do that because we literally had to force ourselves to sleep with constant voiceover narration and slow fades for like 15 years.

**** Wynton, Bradford, I love you guys. You’re true patrons and ambassadors of jazz, you’ll have more talent than I’ll ever understand, you’re understandably a little jaded about the state of jazz when you came along... but you kind of sound like this review reads my dudes. Plus, somebody has to stick up for all the Cecil Taylors of the world. I’m just saying. If it wasn’t me talking shit about you guys I’d be defending you too except it’s all inception now. Also, what are you reading this? If I googled myself and I showed up in the writing of Will Sellari, I probably wouldn’t read it. But again, I love you guys that’s what’s important here.

—Will Sellari