INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Record NOVEMBER 1985 - by Mark Dery
ROBERT FRIPP: THE 21ST CENTURY MAN SOUNDS OFF
He began, by his own admission, tone deaf and with "no sense of rhythm." He is a spit-shined, manicured man whose "best subjects at school were always English literature and English language." He is guitarist Robert Fripp, and would seem more at home beating the pants off an Oxford dean at Trivial Pursuit than laying down the febrile, ostinato runs that are his sonic signature.
There's always been a bit of Mr. Chips lurking behind the man who brought us 21st Century Schizoid Man, Starless And Bible Black, Larks' Tongues In Aspic and other rock anomalies. In fact, Fripp the pundit seems to have taken the driver's seat these days. Fripp the blistering axemaster, whose brain child King Crimson played mix 'n' match, shake 'n' stir with jazz noodlings, Romantic Classicism, pan-ethnic snippets, and a liberal dose of snarling, unshaven metal guitar from 1969-1974, seems somewhat overshadowed. "What am I actually doing at the moment?" Fripp asks. "Teaching guitar in West Virginia at the American School for Continuous Education, at Claymont, near Charlestown." The Society is an educational charity of which Fripp was elected President after a retreat in the woodland nook during the last three months of '84.
Initially finagled into giving the odd guitar seminar, Fripp has committed himself wholeheartedly. "I've had five seminars so far, ninety-nine students. They come for five-and-a-half or six-and-a-half days; we live and work together intensively on what is called guitarcraft." The course incorporates manual exercises formulated by a thirteen-year-old Fripp, who even then realized that plectrum players, unlike classical violinists or cellists, had no real methodology to guide their first, fumbling steps. "Relaxation, attention and sensitivity" are also stressed, qualities that Fripp has described elsewhere as the "three disciplines: of the hands, the head, and the heart." In cahoots with fellow instructor Bob Gerber, Fripp lectures on "systematics of performance," with forays into yogic theory and visual perception exercises.
Participants have averaged in number from sixteen to twenty-one per course, and ensemble classes alternate with one-on-one daily instruction from Fripp. Graduates are logged in a "League of Crafty Guitarists" Directory which networks them within a geographical grid to aid and abet future collaborations. An added guitarcraft attraction is Fripp's revised standard tuning for the guitar, intended to replace the extant E-A-D-G-B-E tuning. "It's better for beginners, better for advanced players, better for single lines, better for chords, it's better," asserts Fripp. "It wasn't 'a brighter idea from Robert' - it presented itself while I was sweating in the sauna of the Aqua Health Spa on Thompson and Bleecker." Asked to reveal the revolutionary tuning, Fripp flashes a vulpine grin, pauses for an imaginary drumroll, and coyly announces that he'll go public all in good time. Fretboard neophytes who can't wait may want to pack their gig bags and mosey southward, first dropping a line to Robert Fripp/Guitarcraft Seminars, c/o A.S.C.E., Route 1, Box 279, Charlestown, W. Va., 25414, (304) 725-4437.
Although Fripp the academician has stolen the spotlight, Fripp the fretboard banshee is still close at hand in the wings - or more appropriately, in the orchestra pit. Recent vinyl ventures include what a Jem Records release (with tongue tucked firmly in cheek) calls "specially remixed and strategically repackaged" versions of material originally cut for Britain's Polydor and since gone out of print.
Exposure, first released in 1979 after Fripp scuttled King Crimson for the mothballed Ironsides it had become ("When King Crimson finished in '74," Fripp once noted in a New York Times interview, "it was the last possible moment for anything to have stopped."), reappears in a digitally souped-up incarnation. "One or two vocal lines are slightly different," Fripp remarks, adding that the digital remix "... is infinitely better... not so much hiss; it's remarkable how much our expectations of equipment have changed."
God Save The King also resurrects earlier LPs, stripping and refinishing doodads from Under Heavy Manners/God Save The Queen - Fripp's 1980 amalgam of beat-crazy rave-ups and lighter-than-air lead loops - and a later disc, The League Of Gentlemen (1981), which married the unlikely bedfellows of slam-dunk skinhead thrash and Fripp's own brand of oh-so-cybernetic dentist's drill soloing. "I've taken the material which I thought was worth keeping and changed it quite substantially," Fripp points out, "the mixing is vastly different, (and) I added a guitar solo to God Save The Queen (The Zero Of The Signified in former life.)" While re-releasing a record for the sake of some knob-twiddling and a little overdubbed fretwork may seem like much ado about nothing, this is no meat-and-potatoes playing. God Save The King is thirteen minutes and eleven seconds of guitar pyrotechnics so scorching the man must've been wearing a welder's mask and playing with an asbestos pick. Gutsy, gritty, this is music with canines, the kind of soloing that raises hackles and makes Dobermans howl.
A slightly truncated version (6:40) of the same song pops up on Network, the third in this series, a twelve-inch mini-LP that pits Fripp's lyrical, mellifluous side mano a mano against his gnarly, warts-and-all side. Eno lends sighing synth on North Star, Peter Gabriel guest vocals on the Ice Age ballad Here Comes The Flood (both culled from Exposure) and head Head David Byrne contributes knock-kneed, hopped-up vocals to Under Heavy Manners (excerpted from God Save The Queen). Fripp gives this sampler his stamp of approval, calling it, "music that I can personally listen to at any time of day or night." By his own assessment, the material "stands up remarkably well, doesn't sound dated to me."
Other pots on Fripp's many burners include The Noise and Three Of A Perfect Pair, concert videos recorded, respectively, in Frejus, France (1982) and Tokyo, Japan (1984) with the reincarnated Crimson - Adrian Belew (guitar/vocals), Tony Levin (bass/Chapman Stick), Bill Bruford (Kit drums/Electronic' percussion), and, of course, Fripp. Fripp judges the French gig "quite a good show" but admits he "wasn't awfully happy" with the Japanese concert, which lacked the Crimson kineticism that separates the 21st Century Schizoid men from the boys.
Borrowing from a seemingly inexhaustible font of creative juice, Fripp is also slated to hook up again with the vocal group The Roches for a "Roche, Roche, Fripp and Roche" serving of Christmas songs.
Production chores entail overseeing an album of the piano pieces of Gurdjieff and Thomas De Hartmann by New York pianist Elan Sicroff.
Additionally, Fripp sat in on ex-Japan lead singer David Sylvian's recent solo LP, The Holy Blood Of Saints And Sheep, an acid test for the new tuning he now uses exclusively. His rustiness with it, he laughingly recalls, resulted in "flurries of bum notes" in spots, but he found Sylvian's record "beautiful music," and "was very pleased to have the opportunity to play on it."
And as if that weren't enough, Fripp has donated his talents to the worthy cause of a fund-raiser to bail out the ailing Childrens' School in Claymont, near the guitarcraft center. English songstress/actress Toyah has been recruited to read Frank Stockton's The Lady, Or The Tiger? and to co-compose the backing music with Fripp. Likewise, durable crony Brian Eno has agreed to read a Stockton story, and add his two cents to the accompanying soundtrack. Fripp comments enthusiastically: "Eno and I work together well; the old chemistry is still there... fire!"
Taking a critical gander at his recent output, Fripp singles out the E.G. remixes of his solo catalogue for critique. "It's interesting to see how much of it stands up today. Not all of it... some of it's a little dated; so-called art rock from the early '70s... sounds very, very weary now and completely out of place." About-facing, he is quick to add, however, that "because a particular piece of music characterizes the spirit of its time doesn't mean it doesn't stand up; it can still be valid today... furniture from the 1920s, for example, is stylized, but some of it reflects its time and still has a quality which persists through time. The problem is if there isn't that quality present." And what is this quintessential quality? Fripp ponders a minute; the sound of gears grinding and cogs turning is almost audible. "It's where the ordinary punter walks into the club, there's a band playing, and he knows something is going on. It will have a certain specific vocabulary, the sound of particular forms of organization, but the quality will be eternal. Whether Orlando Gibbons excites you, Japanese Koto classics make you foam at the mouth, Hendrix bites your bippy or The Sex Pistols had you on your feet gobbing, whatever it is, you know you're alive for that moment."
It is precisely this evanescent, effervescent quality that Fripp has been pursuing throughout his career, a dangling carrot he is fond of referring to as "the capacity to re-experience one's innocence." In his article "Creativity; Finding The Source," he wistfully imagined it as "the kind of thing that keeps a musician working in poor conditions for years in the hope that whatever magic turned a routine gig into a memorable event might one day return." And in these pages a year ago, Fripp spoke longingly of a significant brush with the same cathartic spark in that "remarkable year" of 1969, when King Crimson was steamrolling all preconceptions of what was pop, razing the icons and salting the ploughed rubble: "After that, it was a question of: magic has just flown by, how does one find conditions in which magic flies by? I'd experienced it - I knew it was real. So where had it gone, how could one entice it back? That's been the process from then till now."
"Now" finds a certain "small, intelligent, highly mobile unit" (Fripp's eponym) at a crossroads of sorts, his solo discography spruced up and refueled, his band idling in the driveway. "King Crimson is a way of doing things," he muses, "I think the band in 1981 - certainly in the second half of the year - was the best performing rock band in the world. After that, it ceased to be a group as much as a collection of individuals." Whither now? "I have no idea. We're all in touch. I have no specific plans - you don't plan King Crimson."
The '85 model is a Fripp in flux. "I view myself as... somehow undefined. What I set out do with intention was to find a way of combining the European tonal harmonic tradition with the Afro-American experience - what would Hendrix sound like playing the Bartok String Quartets? Larks' Tongues In Aspic, 21st Century Schizoid Man were all part of this. Then after about 1977, it all changed; everyone became more aware of so-called ethnic musics. The extent of forms of organization that were available to the practicing musician extended. If your work happens to be in the marketplace, in the field of popular culture, then an archaic vocabulary is of little use. You speak to people in the language which is current. And that's where I've seen my work go."
A close contender for rock's Most Likely To Be Misunderstood slot, Fripp is seen by many as a tin woodsman with a microtonal heart, a professorial presence noted for blasts of bombast, a well-heeled, dapper demeanor, and a thin-lipped insistence on linguistic exactitude.
In some senses, he is a "Schizoid Man" of his own making, confessing that "I see Robert Fripp as a creature that I inhabit." He can toss off poignant tearjerkers like Mary (Exposure) and on the same record, ear-blistering headbangers like Disengage. He is a man of heavy mannerisms and much metaphor, at once serious and profoundly silly. The founding father of progressive rock, he cut the die for punk; his toxic, caustic guitar calisthenics on Eno's Baby's On Fire (Here Come The Warm Jets) remain prototypical. His sinuous, ethereal Frippertronics have graced mainstream tracks by the likes of Daryl Hall, Blondie, Bowie and Andy Summers as well as underground efforts by Eno, Centipede and other artists. He can be archly ascetic, claiming that his momentous discovery of recent memory was the unearthing of "a very, very academic Hungarian music textbook," the name of which "I'm not going to tell you." At the same time, for all his finger-wagging pedantry, Fripp pursues his lone alchemy "...just so life is right, that's all; when you hit a note and it's right, you don't need any more. You're there with the note." He is, like the narrative voice in Under Heavy Manners, "resplendent in divergence," at the least. Trapping the mercuric Fripp in a definition that will stick, even one of his own making, is like trying to drive a thumbtack through a blob of quicksilver:
Q: In your article, "Creativity: Finding The Source," you painted Hendrix and Charlie Parker as part of a metaphorical priesthood. Do you consider yourself a clergyman in that same sense?
A: More of a monk.
Q: In what sense?
A: That's the answer.