His name is Bill Frisell, and he's messing with the sound track in your head
By Tom Junod
The songs that come into your head - they are your fate, and so they always come unbidden. They never knock. They just show up - and then they don't go away. You're stuck with them, until... well, until they're not there anymore. So you hope that when they call - and they will call - they're appropriate. I mean, I don't know about you, but I've always lived in the clammy fear that the last thing I ever hear, the last sound, the harmony that will hump me into my grave, will be not the breath of my beloved or the conference of the birds but "A Horse With No Name." Good Christ, how I hate that song - but it's a catchy little tune, isn't it? - and I've only heard it, oh, maybe 3,237 times, even if you don't count all the occasions I've turned it off, and so I figure that by virtue of its sheer accumulation between my unwilling ears, it will be my sonic send-off. That's how you know you're going straight to hell, I guess: when the unctuous padre is delivering the rites of extreme unction and you're trying to pay attention, Lord knows, but inside your head there's that endless radio, and it's going on adenoidally about how "In the desert, / You can remember your name, / 'Cause there ain't no one / For to give you no pain," and that fucker is loud, and this time, friend, you can't turn it off, because, as the blessed Sinatra said, "the song is you," and you are, as the accursed Eagles once put it, "already gone."
It can happen. Hell, it will happen, because it has happened. No, I'm not going to tell you about a near-death experience or anything - just about the moment when I realized that we are at the mercy of the music we've heard, the shit we've shoveled into our ears, which happened to be the moment, about four years ago, when as old Jerry Jeff Walker sang, my dog up and died. Willie. A great dog, a rottweiler, but a dog nonetheless and therefore some-what challenged, reasonwise, and. oh, inexplicable. One second she's sitting on the front lawn, all chilled out and dog buzzed, and the next she's leaping out in front of a red Ford Probe, and me, I'm standing in the middle of the street, and I'm roaring - I'm bawling, bellowing, hollering, howling, as though to fill the skies, five minutes straight, I don't know. I just know that when I stop and carry Willie back to her place on the lawn, I've emptied the world of sound. I mean, there is nothing; it's like I've gone deaf or something. And the sounds, when they come back, come back one by one - first the wind, and then the birds, and then the traffic and the lawn mowers and the airplanes and some cursed Esperanto of distant chatter - but now sound itself is unbearable. Until something breathes itself between my ears, and it's a pop song, and it takes over, and I can't hear anything else. No, not "A Horse With No Name" - for the endless radio can be merciful even if it's judgements are always final - but rather "The End of the World" by Skeeter Davis. You know, one of those lovesick acne arias from the pre-Beatles, pre-assassination 60's, with a corny, spoken-word interlude and a verse that goes, "Why do the birds go on singing?/Why do the stars glow above?. Don't they know it's the iiind of the world?/It ended when I lost your love." Pure fluff, of course, pure cotton candy - useless, trifling, little, a song swallowed up forever in the tectonic shifts of musical fashion... but it got in the way, and for that I was grateful. It came between me and naked grief, and never again could I hear "The End of the World" without thinking of, well, the end of the world, for the song had been transformed forever from a minor and forgotten tick on the hit parade into an anthem of minor and everyday apocalypse.
Not that I heard the song very often, mind you. I mean, who plays "The End of the World," by Skeeter Davis, anymore? Nobody, that's who - not even the radio stations with the "Good Times, Great Oldies" formats, because the song is such a royal bummer. It's one of the lost songs, you see - the only place it plays is in your skull. In fact, after my dog died, I'm not so sure I ever heard "The End of the World" again until last year, when I needed to hear it and a musician named Bill Frisell played it for me. Now, please understand: I didn't go to see Bill Frisell with any sort of awareness that I needed to hear "The End of the World" or that he would play it. I went to see him because. well, because I'm, like, this fan, OK, this Billhead, as my wife calls
Nevertheless, here I am - a Billhead. I am 38 years old, and I am a Bill Frisell fan, and Bill Frisell, for want of a better term, is a jazz guitarist, although in Bill's case the language of jazz is just the starting point for an assault - albeit a very polite assault, for Bill Frisell is nothing but polite - on the very idea of genre in music, and the sound you hear when you listen to Bill Frisell play guitar is not the sound of jazz but its trailing echo, the sound of jazz in a dying fall. I started listening to him about six years ago, when I bought an album called Paul Motian on Broadway, Volume 1, which is a collection of standards performed by the drummer Paul Motian, the saxophonist Joe Lovano, the bassist Charlie Haden and the guitarist Bill Frisell. Ah, yes-we're listening to jazz now, aren't we, so we must learn to put up with that deadly old warhorse, that respectable old snoozer, the collection of standards. except that what Motian and company did on Volume 1 was not so much play the standards as love them to death, by dispensing with just about everything but their shimmer of melody and feeling. It's easy to hate jazz - all you have to do is listen to records where everybody solos on every song, where the bass solo always follows the sax solo, and the drum solo always follows the bass solo and each solo is played on top of the music: Face it - it sucks. On Volume 1, however, there was, like, no playing, or at least no playing for playing's sake, because the album was not so much about fluency in an old language as it was about the space between memory and loss-as it was about the vestigiality of a song like "Someone to Watch Over Me" - and edging around its shuddery, shifting center there was this sound, and it was the sound not only of jazz but of music itself melting into an expression of universal longing, and it was the sound of Bill Frisell on guitar. That sound-was it, as other writers have said, "bleary," "gnarled," "cinematic," "echoey" and "air- brushed"? Was it "oozing," "cloudy," "enveloping," "billowing," "mysterious," "melancholy," "giddy," "earthy," "frail," "pastoral," "metallic," "lilting" and "drizzly"? Well, sure - it was all those things, for if Bill's sound is anything, it's encompassing. But it was something else, too - something else nobody else knew about. It was mine. It was the sound in my head, and since then I have bought not only fifteen Bill Frisell albums but also another fifty-nine albums that feature Bill Frisell as a sideman in order to have it, in order to hear it over again. It was the sound in my head, and so, like love, I'm stuck with it.
Still. jazz guitarists. Don't they bother you, especially the white ones, like Pat Metheny? Don't they drive you crazy, with their incessant chops, their bloodless speedball noodling, their smug Kama Sutra-oil smiles, their ecstatic mugging? But that's what I like about Bill. He never plays for speed, and he spares you the glimpses of his ecstasy. In fact, he never looks ecstatic onstage. Instead, he looks...concerned. Or befuddled. Or - if he's smiling - really, genuinely pleased. He's a big man, Bill is, sort of doughy, with a big, round face and thin lips and glasses. He's 45 years old, and his brown hair is graying - "starting to do really weird things," he says. He wears flannel shirts and lumpy, shapeless dungarees and black sneakers with white rubber toe caps, and when he smiles, his upper lip disappears completely, and he looks incredibly childlike, sort of like that kid in A Christmas Story when he finally gets his BB gun. The rest of the time he looks sort of put-upon - he's a worrywart. See, Bill has chops, all right, but he never falls back on them. He plays with such halting reverence for the awful power of silence that it's like he has to earn every note he plays. So he sweats. Indeed, when you watch him, he doesn't seem to play so much as listen, and that's what gives his music its singular reverence and beauty - it is wide-open, and it incorporates everything in a single gesture, from the sweetest nostalgia to the harshest dissonance, from desert twang to urban squawk, from fairground Americana to speed-metal, from the Beach Boys to Burt Bacharach to Neil Young to Sonny Rollins to Charles Ives to Henry Mancini to Aretha Franklin to Skeeter Davis to...well, like I said, everything and everybody. His music, at its best, is not about Bill Frisell taking guitar solos. He's not a wanker, and he doesn't have the usual axman's ego. Hell, it's hardly even guitar music at all, except insofar as Bill Frisell is inventing a new use for the guitar, not as a rhythm instrument or as a solo instrument but as the universal solvent of all American music - as a home for every sound he's ever heard.
Has he listened to a lot of music? Sure - when he was a kid, plenty of Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Wes Montgomery and Hendrix...the usual suspects...and now plenty of radio. That's right, good old American radio - because it's democratic, because it offers him the bounty of convergence, because it makes decisions for him, because it's fate, or at least shows how closely music and fate are aligned. "The stuff I write," Bill says, "it's not really even mine. It's just stuff that's floating around. Not too many years ago, if some kind of music I'd heard as a kid had come up, in my writing, I would have pushed it aside and thought maybe it was stupid. 'But now I'm trying not to be afraid of letting all that come in there and using everything I can get my hands on, and if it's Mickey Mouse Club music or whatever - well, there's some good music in there too." In fact, on his second solo album, Rambler, he has a song called "Music l Heard" and, although it's not much of a tune - a guitar drone, followed by a martial drumbeat, followed by the march of chubby tuba; followed by the fanfare of a trumpet, followed by a guitar drone, into which everything else eventually recedes and dissolves - it serves as a sort of skeleton key for the rest of his work, because, really, when you think about it, just about every song he's ever written could have the same title. There is a parade; and it's passing by; there is a sound, and it is the nature of sound to give way to silence;
Frisellian - is that a word? Well it is now, and may God and Lester Bangs forgive me. It refers to a world of odd musical conjunctions, of sonic splats and squiggles and spills and pratfalls, of farce fading into fear and fear fading into hope, all in an alien landscape that would be just about unbearable without the description of sound.
The morning I meet Bill, for instance - definitely Frisellian. For starters, I have to wake up at five o'clock in order to catch a plane to New York, and when I'm standing in the shower a song starts playing in the scrambled circuits of my brain, on the endless radio, and not only is it a song I haven't heard in fifteen years, not only is it inexplicable - it's the worst song ever: "Convoy," that knuckleheaded ode to the CB-radio craze and the cultural moment of Burt Reynolds, and now it's infesting me with revoltingly pristine digital clarity, and I find, to my horror, that I know all the words. Then I can't get it out of my head, and when I'm on the plane, I start singing along. Then I'm waiting for Bill, at LaGuardia, and a guy comes off the plane lugging a guitar, except it's not Bill but an old black gentleman in a homburg, and it turns out he's, like, some old blues giant, like Big Bill Broonzy or something. Then comes Bill, wearing his flannel shirt and shapeless jeans and black canvas sneakers, and he has a little kid's bobbing, splayfooted walk, and the poor guy, he's sweating and ghost white - because he's flown twice in the last two days, and on both freaking flights they had problems with the landing gear, and a pilot had to walk down the aisle and peer out the windows because he couldn't see whether the wheels were down. Then we go down to the baggage carousel, and there Bill Frisell stands next to the Big Bill Broonzy guy and tells me that all he could think about on the plane was that he was going to die on a trip that he didn't even want to take, and I listen to him with a song about truckers and CB radios yammering between my ears, and the whole scene is a tableau of terror, absurdity and rich musical heritage, backed up by the hee-hawing ghost echo of a tune from hell's soundtrack, and it's definitely, positively Frisellian.
I don't use the word with Bill, though - because it would embarrass him, as I suppose it should embarrass me. I mean, I'd always heard that he is modest and shy, but, really, once you meet him, you realize that saying Bill Frisell is "modest" and "shy" is like saying that Stephen Hawking is "smart" and "gimpy" - the words might be accurate, but they don't take into account matters of degree. In fact, Bill is so modest, so shy and so gentle in demeanor that for years the line among Manhattan's avant-noise wise guys was that "Bill Frisell was raised by deer," and indeed, in conversation, he has that quality of a non-carnivorous woodland creature stepping blinkingly out of the trees to take food from your hand. His voice is high and soft - the voice, say, of a man who makes his living talking consolingly to children on television, dressed in a clown suit - and his speech is full of stops and starts, of pauses and halts, of words and phrases trailing off into silence. of endless reconsideration, It is his sounds, spliced into words and breath - his sound, in the medium of speech. See, for all his harmonic prowess, for all his Berklee College of Music chops, there is tentative quality to Bill Frisell's playing - an underpinning of difficulty. Like Monk, like Miles, he makes music that arises from a profound contemplation of silence - he attacks silence while acknowledging his inability to fill it, much less beat it, much less relieve us or himself of its weight. It is not until you talk to him, however, that you understand where that shadow of difficulty comes from - that you understand whenever he plays he is reclaiming not only music he's heard but also the words he has and hasn't said. His music is explicitly verbal, and although wrought from his hands, it is as infused with breath as any horn player's and might as well come from his mouth; it is full of shattered speech, and the best way to give you a sense of what Bill Frisell sounds like or his guitar is to give you a sense of what he sounds like in his talk, in true transcription, with each ellipsis standing for a pause and each italicized word standing for a rising inflection, a sustained note: "Like, when I talk I have difficulty...um...that's a typical - people always say that in interviews, you know, I'm, waiting for me to finish my sentence or this... whatever... I mean for me playing is sort of a more... That's kind of how I... I don't know if it's the same as speaking, but it's definitely... there's that. vocal expression that, that's how I get it out. I don't sing, but it's... it feels like it's coming from...like if I were to sing something out, it's coming from the same point in my body...you know, I breathe into what I play. It's really physically coming from the same kind of place... I guess it's more singing than talking or something... but then sometimes I even...there's sort of... that's another thing; I'm not very... good. good with words, or I haven't, I've never written... words But sometimes there's sort of some kind of... It's almost just the sound of... words...or...there's no sense to it... that kind of rhythm or logic is somehow connected to what I'm gonna play, a little bit...it's hard to talk about - it's just a kind of feeling I have..."
What's it like, meeting the man who put his sound into your head? What's it like, sharing a cab from LaGuardia to Manhattan with the guy who, in some subtle but permanent way, rewired your brain or at least made you hear every other sound - including the sound of your own writing - in a different context and with a different sense of possibility and expectation? Well, for one thing, I found that I couldn't resist trying to return the favor - I couldn't resist trying to jimmy "Convoy" between Bill Frisell's ears, in the hope that when I saw him play later that night, at the Knitting Factory, he would start playing "Convoy" licks without even knowing where they had come from. I hummed it; I sang a verse; I told him about how it had come upon me, at five in the morning. and Bill said, "Oh, wow." No, that's not quite right - that's not quite sufficient. What he really said was, "Oh, woooooooow"; what he really said was, "Oh, maaaaaaaan," in a moan that started as a plea and ended as a deep, clicking chuckle; what he really said was, "Oh, noooooooo I " sort of like a beatific cartoon character whose most desperate plights are doomed to be comic. See, that's what's Frisellian about Frisell - he's Mr. Bill. He is so unthreatening, he's always threatened. He's always in a fix, even in his music; he creates bleak, blasted landscapes of sound and writes song after song about dislocation and the fear of arrival - Is That you? is the name of one of his albums; Where in the World? is the name of another-and yet he's a cutup, and he refuses the consolation of tragedy, and even when you ask him where all the darkness comes from, he cracks you up, because he takes fear so far: "Well, I think overall I'm pretty, you know...positive, but it's just, you know, I'm terrified of just being in this world. It's like...a horrifying place. Most of the time I'm on the airplane that's got the fucking landing gear that doesn't come down, and I'm, like, Shit, I didn't want to go on this trip anyway. ..and that's happening all the time. I mean, the night before last, I arrived in Boston, and I used to live in Boston, and the cabdriver from the airport took me in this direction I never. Well, I had no idea where he was going, and I was just certain he was going to take me out in this alley and dump me ina ditchsome- where and take all my...my guitars."
Well...did any song come into his head when he was certain the cabbie was planning to kill him? Did Bill hear anything when the landing gear didn't come down? Well, no -he was just scared...and the sound; that sound, his sound, it usually finds him later, when he plays, and he can't stop it, when it's his song, and it just comes out of.him, because it's who he is. There was this one time though - this one time, when Bill was riding his bicycle around Seattle, and he was scared, and he started singing. And he can't sing at all. He's embarrassed by his voice, Bill is - he's embarrassed by utterance, but he wishes that he could just open his mouth the way his grandfather did, back when Bill was growing up in Denver, when Grandpa went to church and embarrassed the whole family by singing hymns at the top of his lungs... because, you see, he was a quiet man, grandpa was, just like Bill and Bill's dad, and yet every time he stepped inside the church, he just started wailing... and now here is Bill, on his bicycle in Seattle, and he doesn't know where in the world he is, and all of a sudden he's in traffic... and it's like he's on the highway or something, and
At the end of the tape of my interview with Bill Frisell, a song comes on. Not one of Bill's songs either -one of mine, from my personal top five. "I'll Be Around," by the Spinners. Damned thing has those opening guitar chords that know everything there is to know about heartbreak, and it cuts me in half every time. It's weird, though, because there is no other music on the tape. Bill and I were sitting in a restaurant, and he was talking about the transformations wrought upon him by middle age - "I just keep getting fatter and fatter" - and then, out of nowhere, came "I'll Be Around," and though it paralyzed me, like it always does, it made me feel lucky and blessed; it made me feel, once again, that the endless radio, in the right hands, could be an instrument of mercy, rather than just judgement.
So then - the last song you ever hear: What's it going to be? Will it be a good song or a bad song? Will it be something hellish like "A Horse With No Name" or "Convoy." Or something holy, like "I'll Be Around" or "The End of the World" or Lefty Frizzell's "The Long Black Veil" or Jo Stafford's "I'll Be Seeing You"? It's important, you know - it's your karma. It's your fate, because between love and death there is only music, and if fate has a hand in the first two - which it definitely does - it has a hand in the third, so you'd better choose wisely... unless you have no choice at all; unless the last song you hear will simply be an echo of the first song you heard; and you go back to the beginning.That's how Bill found "The End of the World," by the way. He was playing in San Francisco, and a guy who works for the Dead suggested it to him (I've always thought that Bill would be the perfect replacement for Jerry Garcia-for he is becoming, like Jerry, Buddhistic in both girth and mien), and Bill remembered that when he was 10 years old, he was given a transistor radio and "The End of the World" was, like, the first song he heard, or the first song that he heard that he really dug. So he started playing it, and on his forthcoming album, Nashville - his so-called country album, which he recorded with members of bluegrass songbird Alison Krauss's band-he performs it in a duet with Robin Holcomb, along with "Will Jesus Wash the Bloodstains From Your Hands?"
See? Fate is always humming your tune, and it either takes you back to the beginning or straight to the end. A couple of years ago, I thought that fate was going to fuck me over in regard to Bill Frisell. He was about to release Go West and The High Sign/One Week, the albums he recorded as sound tracks to Buster Keaton silent films (Keaton is definitely Frisellian, as is the work of Bill's buddy, Gary Larson, of "Far Side" fame), and I really wanted to hear them, but I had to fly somewhere, so I was certain that fate, just to have its way with me, was going to dump me in a cornfield somewhere in a flaming heap of airplane; and that my wife was going to have to play the Paul MotianTrio's version of "Look to the Rainbow" at my funeral, as I've instructed her to do. Pretty sick, I know - but it's such a gallant song, "Look to the Rainbow," and Bill plays so beautifully on it, and it's at once resigned and forward looking, and I thought it would be perfect for the occasion. But that's the thing with Bill Frisell - whatever he plays is perfect, especially if it's the last thing. He could play " A Horse With No Name," and it would be perfect. He could play freaking "Convoy," and it would be perfect, although he didn't play even a vestige of "Convoy" when I saw him at the Knitting Factory but played, instead, his lovely ode to his daughter, "Monica Jane," and then, as a closer, "When You Wish Upon a Star," which he expressed as a single sign of longing, and which moved a lovely girl in the audience to say, "That's the first time I ever understood that song." I have been thinking, all along, about how to describe Bill Frisell's music, his sound; I have been thinking that I would describe it as watery, as windblown, as pale, as the music of last light, as the last music you'll ever hear. But it's simpler than all that. He's not just the guy who always plays the perfect song; he's the guy whose music makes you understand that every song had better be perfect, because it's being played just for you.