Now fully entrenched in the pitiless deep, Dante and his guide Virgil (of Medea fame), awake to find themselves wallowing in mire and filth falling from the sky, like a kind of sludgy rain, while Cerberus, the three-headed beast found in many a Greek myth looms above them, presumably to guard this, the Third Circle of Hell.
I first heard of Cerberus when I was eleven, having read the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus, a musician so talented and preternatural, he was purportedly able to lull wild beasts into submission through his voice, accompanied by the gentle song of his lyre. To wit: during Orpheus’s own ill-fated journey into the underworld to retrieve his wife Eurydice from the clutches of a spiteful Hades, when he himself came upon Cerberus, he pulled out his instrument and sang a song so beautiful it entranced the terrible beast, making him docile and submissive to any demands. The myth even went so far as to point out that when Cerberus was under this spell, he dreamed about when he was still alive, and not a beast at all, but a young dog with a single head, playing merrily in a field with his master. I cry each time I think about him, this incredibly sad animal guarding the path into the Underworld, dreaming longingly of his former life. I resolved to be just like Orpheus, and to remind people that no thing is born a monster, and that it is our unfortunate circumstances that make us so.
The Cerberus who meets Dante and Virgil does not garner as much sympathy, and only after Virgil shoves dirt and sludge into the creature’s mouth, they finally glimpse their surroundings: at Cerberus’s feet lay the damned, shifting ceaselessly to avoid an endless stream of filth that had been falling from his mouth; these souls who lived their lives indulging their selfish, unquenchable appetites: the Gluttons.
Gluttony, you’ll recall, is one of the seven deadly sins, and sports as its unique hallmark the overindulgence in food, drink, and/or possessions of wealth. The punishment for this sin is an eternity being rained on by a putrid mixture that never subsides. But Dante learns an entirely different lesson when he meets the soul of a man he knew in life, one Ciacco (slang for ‘pig’), who tells him of the ruin that will befall Italy:
‘to what shall come the citizens of the divided city;
If any there be just; and the occasion
Tell me why so much discord has assailed it.’
And he to me: ‘They, after long contention,
Will come to bloodshed; and the rustic party
Will drive the other out with much offense…’
‘Envy and Arrogance and Avarice
Are the three sparks that have all hearts enkindled.’
The stanzas comprising the Third Circle are something of an indictment of the much balkanized Italy that Dante lived in, full of political turmoil between those factions supporting the Pope (the Guelphs, who counted Dante among their ranks) and those supporting the Holy Roman Emperor (the Ghibellines). A ridiculous schism, this political cauldron nonetheless resulted in much bloodshed before, during, and after Dante’s lifetime. In fact, Italy was really more of a set of loosely affiliated nation-states, not even bound by any one language or dialect until Dante came along with his epic poetry. Thereupon the bard wrote the preeminent work of Italian literature, and then everyone was on the same page… linguistically, that is.
Along with the other ‘seven deadlies’, Gluttony was, to Dante, a real and present danger in an uncertain world, with finite resources being what they are. I myself have gluttony in my genes, having grown up during the boring, tail end of the Cold War, when Americans were by and large praised for their gluttony; praised for shopping, spending money, taking out outrageous loans; praised for essentially stuffing themselves with the pyritic riches of their vast empire.
We were likewise praised for our overarching lack of fear concerning our place in the word – an aloofness that, to the rest of the world, presented as a lack of respect. Perhaps here more than anywhere the barrier between these two oft-confused concepts is at its thinnest. In a few short decades, having abandoned respect as a motivator, instead opting to living in abject fear, America would find itself paying dearly for its gluttony, reaping what it had sowed in the hapless desert sands of the Middle East.
But before this, you would find me, from the late Seventies, to the late Nineties, from whence my friends and I spilled off the roofs of Fairport NY homes, climbing bravely down into the hills, down again into the mighty Erie, where the sun gave tearful goodbyes and was then aglow at the edge of the gasping earth. Naked and vibrating, here at the brink, we dipped free into the water, a part of me driven by a silly madness to do amazing work, then duck out at the coldest margins of the Universe. And if in those too subtle capsules, would I were an infant space, or some insignificant portion, where life queues and then froths over, foraged and abounded, could I not there finally rest?
After all this time, how do I best remember these early moments of gluttony?
Miles Davis – Bitches Brew, 1970
Freshman year I had a nasty brush with a nervous breakdown, though I shan’t overstate: it wasn’t anything that serious. Just your garden variety existential crisis, gilded with the works of Tom Robbins, with long vignettes seen doing watercolor at the kitchen table, smoking on the roof at night. I broke down, and I was afraid of never having existed. I was aware of Camus and Kafka, and how meaning and order had been imposed on us when in fact there was really was none to be found; aware of Hume and Kant and the essence of being, the critique of pure reason; aware of the Tibetan Book of the Dead and the bardo state. With all this summed together and seething within me, I was afraid to sleep alone.
And so it was that on one of these occasions I heard Bitches Brew for the first time, an album I originally bought solely for the cover art. I was sleeping on my parents floor with a CD player and a pair of headphones, looking to splay out into the universe through sounds, massive tendrils of consciousness flowing into the universe. But instead I was completely transfixed by this album that is like one massive party, both a wicked celebration and a mature dirge of ancient spirits. I can tell you now that I felt my body sinking into the floor, serious and numb.
On the surface, Bitches Brew is an experiment in a new kind of ‘social music,’ as Miles Davis used to call it, picking up on his excellent, albeit controversial, In A Silent Way sessions of 1969. But in hindsight, this album is part of a movement that was dispersed through acts such as Mahavishnu Orchestra, the Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers, Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown, Parliament Funkadelic, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, Babatunde Olatunji, and Santana: a heavy, steady groove undertone, tribal in its complexity, unrelenting in its energy, over which bled the simple yet powerful melodies and improvisation of the instrumental soloist. While sinking there into the floor, I learned quickly that there were no rules in this music, only the inky spillage of new musical spaces, freedom and dancing. Also, I learned that this was unequivocally music for musicians. Consider this piece by Sly and the Family Stone, whom Davis himself credited as being one of the primary influences on his brave push into Fusion:
Consider “Pharoah’s Dance,” a tightly spun arrangement, a spillage of rhythm featuring Joe Zawinul and Chick Correa, John McLaughlin, Jack DeJohnette, Dave Holland, Wayne Shorter, et al. Free form is some locales, in others expertly controlled, and in still other areas, surgically edited in the studio, making it one of the first times a studio was used to remix a song into an entirely new composition – listen to “Pharoah’s Dance” at around the 8:30 mark, after the initial movement, and you will hear repeated samples, expertly made effective by longtime Davis producer Teo Macero.
When you listen at 15:20, as the central theme subsides, and you hear Miles say ‘tighten up,’ lightly in his raspy whisper, everyone in the studio does whatever each feels is right, and a blissful moment unfurls, and you can then hear it build more complex and sensual with each measure.
This is all to say that the musicians rounded up for this recording session had little idea of what they were recording, even as they were in the midst of performing. A few had no idea at all, and their work is clearly all gluttonous improvisation. And when you consider what a shit show the Bitches Brew sessions could have been – little to no rehearsals or direction, competing personalities, Maupin’s doleful bass clarinet, multiple percussion strands, an unclear mix of improvisation, composition, and the aforementioned sampling and remixing – it’s a miracle that the result is not only coherent, but also so beautiful and rich.
So it was with an ever-present, post-high school ennui that I found the titular “Bitches Brew” embodying the anxiety and isolation I felt while sleeping on my parents’ floor, just after the intro, but just before the 3 minute mark, when Bernie Maupin begins the main movement. There begins a futuristic party with tribal undercurrents and cerebral key patterns. I resolved to this insistent theme, there in the breakdown at 7:30 when Miles instructs the group to ‘keep it like that…tight,’ and with my eyes closed thus I saw so many names, so many kings, built upon other kings, on and on endlessly: like wool sweater patterns and endless warmth reaching for me:
Needless to say, the next day I couldn’t speak in full sentences. I had to sit my then-girlfriend down and explain how nothing would ever be the same…
Indeed it wasn’t.
Equally needless to say, I had a lot of difficulty with this post. I’d never had to put into words how I felt about Bitches Brew, or why it was so great, or why I should have been studying it my whole musical life. And now that this is precisely my charge – to provide an in-depth analysis of one of Fusion’s most seminal recordings – I almost resent having to do so.
But hearing Bitches Brew again after so many years made me feel nineteen again: nervous, terrified – fear of the future – but also in awe of the universe’s strangeness and mournful depths – respect for the monumental kings and colorful fabrics that must surely lay at the heart of it all, holding our existence together. Furthermore, through these new sounds and new modes of expression, I began to see a way out of the drudgery of life in upstate New York. For me, Bitches Brew was a pleasant reminder that there was an entire musical universe out there, beyond the hallowed record stores, beyond the Interstates, beyond the Great Lakes; a reminder that we are not born monsters, but that it is our circumstances that make us so.
I’m not prepared to say everything I feel about Davis in just one post, but I will say this: people fill many roles in life. Some of us are dancers, some of us play sports, some of us are musicians, cooks, truck drivers; some of us like to watch, some like to be watched; some of us build shit, some people like to break shit. But only one of us can be Miles Davis.
One more word about gluttony…
In the same semester I gave myself to Miles Davis and his ‘social music,’ in walks the roommate and his own storied music collection. And there, amongst your typical white boy fare – e.g. The Smiths, The Cure, The Stooges, Iggy Pop, Rancid, Meat Puppets, etc – was Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), The Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album (1993), and a master stroke on all types of fucking gluttony (see “C.R.E.A.M.,” i.e. Cash Rules Everything Around Me…) Like all of you, I was immediately smitten, and not just by their mythology, intelligent beats, or classic soul sampling, but by their hilarious skits. One in particular stays with me until this very day, as we used to play it nearly every night for our own amusement, and for anyone stopping by our room. Recite along with me if you know it too:
And with that, let’s raise our glasses to the Gluttons, and drink deep as we celebrate those tortured by their own unending hunger for money, power, and excess, and grime from the mouth of the wholly misunderstood Cerberus. Further into the breach…