The Journey of a Man
Peaches En Randalia #51
Having recently finished a short story (for now) titled “The Journey of a Man,” my focus returned to music, specifically improvised music, and the brief period in the mid-60s when The Pink Floyd (as they were then billed) ruled the Acid Interstellar Highway. For whatever reason, I was reviewing some old British music magazines from 2006 around the time of former Floyd co-founder/frontman/guitarist/singer/songwriter/Earth dropout Roger Keith “Syd” Barrett’s passing at the age of 60. From those sources, I came upon an incident in Barrett’s life in the early 1980s, and that planted the seed in my fertile imagination (“gifted daydreaming” as the optimist calls it; “metaphysical thief,” the pessimist) about a story of a man documenting an experience for posterity.
This may have been partially due to the fact that Roger Waters is touring later this year with a production of The Wall, a little delightful vacation with an Isolationist in Hell, which he wrote the lyrics and much of the music for back in the late 1970s. Waters, Pink Floyd’s post-Barrett eventual de facto leader/dictator/bassist/co-lead vocalist/songwriter, recorded demos for two projects, one being the seeds of The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking, which would become his first solo album in 1984, and, of course, The Wall. The former touched upon societal issues close to the Waters’ muse, and had a fascinating framework with some rather uninspired music. Hence, The Wall, with its overtones of 1970s rich rock stars far removed from their audiences, and a sadly accurate undercurrent of Barrett’s mental breakdown via acid and an alleged predisposition for schizophrenia.
The Wall double album was immensely successful, not so much because of its downbeat subject matter, which was very familiar to both its mainly teenaged audience and ex-hippies looking to the future for some sort of positive release, and finding only dark cynicism, but also due to the fact that the sound of the music was so laden with strong riffs, intoxicating melodies, strange effects, and the general feeling that the Floyd had made a very well-constructed piece of music, which grouped and catalogued all of their weirdness from the first strands of Barrett’s hypnotic guitar on Piper at the Gates of Dawn’s “Interstellar Overdrive” up through the triumphant victory lap of guitarist David Gilmour’s guitar on Animals’ “Sheep,” which was but a mere prelude to his spectacularly succinct work on various passages, whether it was a simple riff, a repetitive trance-like hook, or the colossal solo which ended “Comfortably Numb,” The Wall’s best tune.
Writing for Jambands.com for over five years has given me the opportunity to listen to many, many acts and solo artists who seek the sounds at the edge of the universe, primarily via live sets on the stage, to varied transcendent success, but also, occasionally, through experimentation in the studio, to limited artistic success. What is interesting is that whereas my roots are in (chronologically-speaking as the genres were passed on to me from family or friends or my own stumbling about in a slipshod way in my own little existential metaphysical adventure) structured music: classical, folk, and what is now considered classic rock, my time at home and on the road has been consumed with the organized chaos called improvisational music. Jamband music isn’t just improvisational. The best jambands are able to absorb the sonic highlights from many genres and create their own unique music. Jambands just felt right to me because a) music is made up on the spot within a carefully-honed structure, b) musicians are well-versed in their instruments, and c) things happen naturally or, they don’t, and one tries again the next day, hoping to find the pearl so everyone can enjoy the moment before it passes again.
Listening to the Allman Brothers gave me a glimmer of that moment, that scenic heaven. The Grateful Dead offered an epic two-, sometimes three-set, voyage (hello, 8/27/72) where one could ride through a wormhole and out the other side into another dimension. But it was Phish who seemed to gather all of the tragic beauty of heaven and hell, and spin it into something entirely new—combining vaudeville, barbershop quartets, dazzling trips into the Great Unknown, hard rock, pop, lounge, trance, disco, funk, and, of course, some of the most beautiful passages of improvisational magic ever created.
So, when I think of the Floyd, I still think of how a band rooted firmly in improvisational chaos was able to create studio albums which were so carefully constructed and filled with spontaneous moments of what-the-fuck?-weirdness. And then I think of the legions of jambands who have also held that opportunity in their collective hands, and let the moment pass without creating their own combination of the bizarre and the sublime. Yeah, I’m still waiting, several decades and counting, for that one monumental studio album, which ties it all together, so the band can return to the stage, and continue to melt faces close (live, and in person!), and faraway (from the comforts of the home).
As the 21st century drags on and lumbers towards some sort of inevitable Apocalypse, or transition period where mankind must learn to live with less or perish, the studio album appears to be a relic of the distant past, and live music is still very much a career option for the journeyman musician. However, not to get all Nostradamus on the reader, it is felt that the…well, the Journey of Man, will soon be put into neutral as we all sit in an idle position, determining what is our next group step, and one envisions the album experience, albeit transmitted over a computer, or a computer/television/radio download machine, will be the way one gets art. Do I envision a time when we are paralyzed, unable to move, and only able to get entertainment at home, or in one’s local village, i.e. the coffee shop, or some sort of internet programmed-entertainment? Sure. Maybe. But I also look upon a time when creating something unique and teleportational requires one to gather all of the disparate strands of one’s imagination to document that experience. I’m not sure for whom, or what, or when, but just sitting down and creating something now, while we all still have the opportunity, wouldn’t be such a bad idea. You never know—cave drawings are great fun when accompanied by a nifty iPod playlist, but I distress…