The Age APRIL 24, 2006 - by Michael Dwyer


Rhino King Adrian Belew is a proud graduate of Zappa University, and a rare animal in the art-rock jungle.

It's lunchtime in Melbourne, but Adrian Belew has just stepped off a plane from Europe, so we're walking Swanston Street looking for a very particular vodka refreshment. We're also chatting breezily about David Bowie like we both know him.

"He must live on his computer," Belew says. "If I send David an email, guaranteed he'll reply within ten minutes. It's like he's just happily sitting there in... What does he call his place again? 'The bunker', that's it."

In reality, of course, only one of us enjoys regular cyber banter from the Duke's bunker. And only one can cc. Trent Reznor, David Byrne, Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, Laurie Anderson, Paul Simon, Tori Amos or Ryuichi Sakamoto when the repartee turns especially droll.

At the Flinders Lane crossing, he might be mistaken for a sight-seeing literature professor, but this quiet American is one of the greatest rock guitar stylists this side of Jimi Hendrix. His approach to the instrument has worked sonic wonders for all of the above and many more since Frank Zappa admired his pluck one evening in the mid-'70s.

That's a funny story, by the way. Belew was playing in a covers band at Fanny's Bar in Nashville when halfway through Gimme Shelter, Zappa walked up to the stage, shook his hand and said he'd be in touch. The twenty-five year old guitarist had to wait by the phone for six months, but it did happen. He went on to play stunt guitar with the maestro for a life-altering year.

It's often love at first sight with Belew. If you happen to like the way he plays, it's not like some other guy will do.

"The thing I like doing is making unusual sounds, he explains, seated at last behind his lemon-drop martini. My style was always more driven by sound than by notes or technique. Backward sounds, making it sound like animals, that's the stuff that seems to separate me from the pack."

Music by King Crimson, elephantosity by Belew, reads the fine print on Discipline, one cult-rock classic from 1981. English guitar boffin Robert Fripp's eternally evolving prog-rock ensemble was one of Belew's favourite bands in the '70s. He's now its second-longest-serving member.

"My career always seems backwards to me, he says. When I started playing at age sixteen, I devoted so much of my life to developing my writing and singing and playing other instruments, and I naturally thought, some day, I'll make my own records.

"What happened instead was I walked in the back door. I got discovered by Frank and then David and then Talking Heads and then Robert Fripp... and then Peter Gabriel and Herbie Hancock and Mike Oldfield and Primus and Tool and Spinal Tap."

Meetings with remarkable men, he chortles into his martini.

Belew started as a drummer in a high-school band called The Denams, British invasion copyists renowned in Ohio in the mid-'60s as Cincinatti's own Beatles.

Confined to bed for two months with mononucleosis, he shifted to guitar and began writing songs in that style, but the emergence of guitar virtuosos Hendrix and Jeff Beck inspired another change of course.

"I'm very fortunate in that the flowering of musical technology has exactly paralleled my career," he says.

"When I started out, you had an amplifier, maybe a fuzz-tone (pedal) if you were lucky. I think Robert Fripp and I were the first two guys who ever experimented with a guitar synthesizer, which was an entirely new realm of sound, and I drew inspiration from that."

One of his more startling experiments resulted in Belew's nickname, the Rhino King, in 1981. The Lone Rhino was his first solo album, and an aural approximation of the beast grazes and snorts through its title track.

"Guitar is an orchestration to me," he says. "It's a way I can make songs speak any way I want to (that's how it's credited) on Tori Amos's track of that name." It ranges across various African dialects on Paul Simon's Graceland, and sounds like something from hell on Nine Inch Nails' Downward Spiral.

On Talking Heads' landmark Remain In Light album of 1980, Belew's guitar speaks in tongues that still sound foreign twenty-five years later.

"I guess the reason I've been able to float through so many incongruous circumstances is that all these artists are innovators," he reflects. "For the most part, I end up working with people who are different."

Of all Belew's A-list war stories, there's none better than the night that Zappa and Bowie fought over him in a Berlin restaurant in 1977.

"David was trying to be very secretive," he recalls with amusement. "Brian Eno knew he was looking for a new guitarist, so he told him to come see the Zappa show in Berlin. There was a part of the show where I would leave the stage while Frank played a long solo for fifteen or twenty minutes. I looked over at the monitor mixer and saw David Bowie and Iggy Pop. So what do you do?"

Belew strolled over to say hello, and Bowie responded by offering him a job on the spot. As Zappa noodled on, they made clandestine arrangements to meet afterwards.

"So we're sneaking around the hotel foyer, and it's all very James Bond-ish. Then, of all things to happen, we go off to this restaurant, and who's sitting there but Frank! So it was very obvious that David was trying to steal me away from him, and it was very embarrassing. David was trying to be personable - 'Frank, let's be adult about this' - but Frank just kept saying, 'Fuck you, Captain Tom'."

Zappa's proprietorial attitude was understandable. The renowned musical perfectionist had virtually made Belew a member of the family when he first brought him to Los Angeles.

"I was the only one in Frank's band that couldn't read music, he says. The band rehearsed in a film studio five days a week for three months, and on Friday nights I'd go home with Frank, and over the weekend he'd teach me what we'd be learning the next week.

"For me, that one year with Frank was the schooling I never had. I'm a proud graduate of Zappa University, and there's no better music school that I can think of."

Apart from his copious guest appearances, Belew has now released seventeen solo albums and roughly as many with King Crimson. With an Australian rhythm section, he'll draw on a mixture of that material at his Melbourne show tomorrow night, his first gig here since Bowie's debut Australian tour of 1978.

"It's kind of in the mould of, 'What would Hendrix and Cream be doing now, with this technology?'," he says.

"It's aggressive music, but it's songs. I get to stretch out and play a lot of guitar. People say it's like a different version of King Crimson. It's not for the faint-hearted."

Uncle Frank would have been proud.