INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Trouser Press OCTOBER 1978 - by John Paige
FUTURE GAZING WITH ROBERT FRIPP
Fripp was not pleased. He'd spent the last hour-and-a-quarter standing around in a small, steamy, Spanish-flavored laundromat in the West 50s where, much to his annoyance, his clothes were being held captive by a front-loading washer stuck somehow in its "wash" cycle. Every once in a while the machine would slow to a halt and Fripp would move forward hopefully, only to retreat when the washer jolted back into action, suds and clothes swirling around maddeningly. Finally, perspiring and impatient, unable to generate much more than mild perplexity on the part of the proprietress, Fripp figured he had no other recourse: he sprung the door, and out flooded the suds, water and clothes. We exchanged some tentative pleasantries while wringing out an assortment of soapy T-shirts, towels, and the like, and then we were off, crossing hydrant-flooded streets and heading over to Robert Fripp's apartment to record an interview.
I must admit it seemed a pretty inauspicious beginning to an afternoon interview with a man who, during his tenure with King Crimson, had gained a reputation for being cold, imperious, and difficult to interview. Then, too, I had met Fripp once before, during Crimson's 1974 Starless And Bible Black US tour, and had felt very uneasy talking with him. Very inscrutable - it was impossible to tell whether he found the conversation interesting, amusing, or utterly asinine. Very quietly intense. The Fripp pictured on the cover of Red.
Not to worry, though. Once we reached the apartment, got the clothes out of the way, and cooled off, Robert projected little of his previous unsettling intensity; rather, he revealed himself to be relaxed, ever polite, and eager to talk about (some of) the events which have occurred since his disappearance from public view shortly after the demise of King Crimson in September 1974.
The first public resurfacing of R. Fripp - if one discounts the 1977 Peter Gabriel tour, for which Fripp was physically stage curtain, invisible to the audience - was not until some three-and-a-half years later, in February of this year, when, under the billing of "Frippertronics and Mooncowisms," he played the three-hundred-seat Kitchen Center in New York. The concert was as remarkable for the way it was planned and managed (mostly by Fripp, as it turns out) as it was for the music: all seats were $2.00, no press or complimentary tickets were made available, free coffee, tea, and cookies were provided in the lobby, and all attending were treated courteously by the Kitchen staff - in stark contrast to the majority of rock concerts, where audiences are customarily pushed around like cattle. Fripp's appearance, too, was quite different from that of his previous musical incarnation, with neatly-trimmed, short hair and no moustache, beard or spectacles. Seated on a stool, armed with a Les Paul guitar, a pedal board and two Revoxes hooked together to create a tape-loop effect, Fripp administered four sets of "Frippertronics," the music he'd explored with Eno on the The Heavenly Music Corporation side of No Pussyfooting and on Evening Star. With the occasional high-gain Crimsonoid lead jolting through, Fripp spun patterns and textures, sometimes letting the tape effects play and permutate themselves, sometimes abruptly breaking the patterns off, and, twice, actually cutting the tape and playing it back. Some very high moments occurred as these textures mingled with the sunlight filtering through the windows and as Fripp's eyes and smile burned into the audience. The rapport established between performer and audience was strengthened when, after the performance, Fripp stayed around to chat with admirers.
I asked Fripp why he had chosen this venue for his public reappearance.
"It was a deliberate attempt to try and construct a performance in a different way than normally goes on in the rock and roll world," he explained. "I had become very distressed with the relationship between the performer and the audience, which struck me as vampiric: the performer sucked up to the audience, who sucked off the performer. It was a very unhealthy relationship. The audience is always passive and needs to be excited by various ruses, shocks, and ploys, which you can learn and use to manipulate the audience so that everyone goes home happy and feeling that they've had their money's worth... except it leaves a rather empty feeling that nothing really worthwhile has been achieved. And nothing really worthwhile will be achieved until the audience gets involved in an active sense. They have to get over the hurdle of initial boredom or disinterest, purely on the strength of their own effort and attention. So, for that reason, I reserved the right to be boring and unintelligent as part of the process that was going on that afternoon. It was up to the audience to get me, to a degree - and them - over the hurdle until something else could take place. And, because it was an attempt to enter into a different kind of experience, I was laying myself very much on the line. There was nothing I could hide behind. Had the equipment not worked very well, I would have been completely stuck. I mean, it was all improvised. And it was the first time I'd played on my own for sixteen years, and the very first time I'd ever played on my own professionally.
"It was one of the highest days of my life," he added.
In light of the spirit of the Kitchen concert and the fact that it wasn't intended to be "specifically a musical experience," Fripp felt burned when he learned that a couple of people had made surreptitious recordings, despite repeated pleas from Fripp and Kitchen staffers that they not do so. Fripp regarded these recordings as a violation of trust and a form of thievery. So, when he spotted an ad in the Trouser Press offering to trade a Kitchen cassette for a copy of Eno's Music For Films, Fripp contacted the culprit, "spent a very nice afternoon with him," and persuaded him to turn over the cassette.
Following a series of collaborative projects, Fripp is now in the process of preparing music for his own records. After a pattern which seems to have emerged in the latter part of this decade, his music is developing along two different lines:
"First, there's my outward-going work, which has more to do with what I'm thinking about and what I'm doing - my reactions to things - and which takes place within roughly a rock genre, with other musicians. The other is the more inward-going - the Frippertronics pieces, such as the Kitchen, which is a more meditative music. I'm hoping to release a double album of guitar meditations to complement the more outward-going album, which I'll be releasing around September or October."
Although Fripp views his "outward-going" work in terms of what is primarily his own and what is collaborative, he admits that even his supposedly solo album will reflect a great deal of collaboration.
"I mean, there's collaboration to different degrees," he explained, "producing Peter Gabriel, producing Daryl Hall, or working with Eno, and the kind of collaboration where I go and play with Blondie."
Different degrees indeed! Improbably enough, the heretofore reclusive Robert Fripp had joined Blondie for a set at CBGB's Johnny Blitz benefit this past May. Among the numbers they performed were Iggy's Sister Midnight, The Dolls' Jet Boy, and Donna Summer's disco smash, I Feel Love. Clearly, the collaborations Fripp has entered into have exposed him to some new areas, some of which will be reflected on his forthcoming "outward"-oriented album. One of the first such projects Fripp took part in after his three years of "retirement" was the recording of David Bowie's "Heroes" in 1977. I asked how he'd gotten involved.
"Basically," he replied, "Brian and David called on the Saturday night and said, 'Could you come out and play?' I said, 'Look - I haven't played for three years. If you want me to play on your record, David, then you'll have to be prepared that it might not work out, because I don't know what it will sound like.' And he said, 'Well, do you think you can play some rock'n'roll, hairy rock'n'roll?'" Fripp figured he could try, so he flew out to join them within a couple of days. Fripp arrived in the Berlin studio around 11 p.m., fresh off the plane, and, without having previously heard the material, began recording his parts as the tapes were played for him.
"When I arrived, I went to the studio mainly to say, 'Hello, I'm here,' and be friendly. I was out of my brain because I'd just been jet-lagging; I'd lost a night's sleep, and I was not in a normal state. But they said, 'Since you're here, why don't you play?' So I played. It was all quick stuff - no rehearsals, no plans, no chord sheets. I had to cop for the tonality, for the key changes. When I played on "Heroes", the material wasn't written; David had some ideas but they weren't pinned down. Basically, David just put up the tapes and said, 'Do what you like.' It was all done off the top of my head."
How was working with Bowie in that situation?
"Oh, we had a great time! Lots of fun all the time, and lots of laughs and chuckles with the three of us in the studio. And then Eno left, and David took me through Checkpoint Charlie for tea in East Berlin, and to a very interesting club in a very old part of Berlin - on a dark street with no lighting, with just black windows and doors - and then a knock on the door; and a little peephole appears, and, if they know you, you can come in. A frighteningly expensive place, but remarkable entertainment. So I had a lovely time.
"David's album was not a collaboration in the strict sense," Fripp continued, "but it was in the sense that I wasn't holding myself back in terms of anything I was doing. It was pure Fripp."
After the "Heroes" sessions, Fripp returned to the States and produced an album by Hall & Oates' Daryl Hall. Actually, he began as a guitarist, but was promoted to producer on the first day. Fripp's considerable enthusiasm for the album was offset by some bitterness over the album's uncertain fate: for the time being, at least, it appeared to have been shelved.
"My feeling is that it's being shelved because it's a little too interesting and that, if one's imagination is rather restricted - and the conventional wisdom of the record industry in America is very restricted - that the ideas present some kind of threat. There was an interesting quote to a friend of mine by one of the people involved that the album was shelved 'because the material was below par,' which I know is not so."
Fripp later indicated that the results of his collaboration with Hall will be released overseas in January, but not as a Daryl Hall solo LP. Instead, it will be released as a Fripp and Hall effort, and the balance of the material will be shifted slightly to include a bit more Fripp-oriented material. On the other hand, the feeling is that RCA will hold off on a US release of the LP until its Hall & Oates material has gone double-platinum or something, fearing that an earlier release of the Fripp-Hall LP would prove too disturbing to potential Hall & Oates buyers. This sort of tunnel-vision on the part of the recording industry is well recognized by Fripp: "It's the same reason that led EG Management and Island Records to try and prevent the release of the first Fripp and Eno album, No Pussyfooting, and then do all they could to prevent us from doing another album together, and even working together."
One begins to wonder what it is about Fripp's ideas and playing that seems to induce such defensive behavior on the part of the music machine. Fear of his tampering with a potentially commercial commodity, perhaps?
When Peter Gabriel, a personal friend of Fripp's (Genesis, incidentally, bought their first mellotron from King Crimson), asked Fripp to play guitar on his first solo effort, being produced by Bob Ezrin for his My Own Production Company, Ezrin resented it.
"He wanted Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner, whom he'd used on Alice Cooper. He tried to get me to play like Dick Wagner, in effect, and, of course, I couldn't. Bob substantially didn't like my guitar playing or the approach I took. For him, as a producer, it was completely wrong. And I can sympathize with him - he had a problem. But so did I.
"I liked a lot of the material on that album, but I have severe reservations about the way it was recorded and the kind of pressures Peter worked under. Basically, it was the producer's album, with Peter as an excuse for the producer to make his solo album. That was how I read it. Peter maintains that choosing Bob was the right decision, that it was what he needed at the time. Bob gave him a lot of confidence, push, and support. But I have other considerations. I wasn't really allowed to be myself on that album and, if I'd had the courage of my convictions, I would have left on the second day. In fact, when I agreed to do the album, I said I reserved the right to leave if it doesn't work out. But, in fact, when you turn up, and you're booked there for two or three weeks, and you're doing a friend's album, you don't actually turn around and leave.
"I originally agreed to play on the album pseudonymously - and that was a number in itself. I had a lot of pressure put on me to have my name on the album - which I was unhappy about, because I didn't feel that Robert Fripp played on the album. Which is why, since Robert Fripp didn't play on the album, he didn't play on the tour. Dusty Rhodes did the tour."
Although playing from behind a stage curtain was his own touch, the prescribed guitar parts weren't, and Fripp found the whole experience difficult and frustrating. After the tour, Fripp agreed to produce the second Gabriel album, only to find that undertaking, too, was not without its frustrations.
"I think this album is infinitely more Peter Gabriel than the first album," Fripp said. "But Peter's difficult to work with because he knows exactly what he wants but he can't make his mind up. I couldn't make the decisions for Peter and, generally, he couldn't either. So we took longer than we needed to. But you have the choice: you can either be the producer who takes the act and exploits the act, or you can try and help the artist to find himself - and, hopefully, that means you get an album which is nearer to who or what the performer is. The only thing is, Peter is trying to make himself something he's not - and I'm trying to help him do that, if that's really what he wants. But that's probably the price you pay. If the artist is going to try and find himself - that process of discovery of himself in terms of making a record - the disadvantage is that he will often try to re-invent himself - in a sense, write parts for himself which he doesn't like very much. That's the disadvantage.
"For example, a lot of performers tend to be a trifle gauche, which is their appealing quality for the audience, and if they become sophisticated and remove all the unprofessionalisms or slight awkwardness from themselves, they feel happier. But the audience sees something too polished... sees a puppet... sees the performer instead of a person. I don't mind blemishes, personally. In fact, it's often the blemishes which determine the quality of the performance."
Fripp's sentiments seem to be borne out by the whole impact of the new wave: that polishing and perfecting a song frequently removes all of its "edge" and most of its spirit and energy, whereas the same song, caught on a first take with more of a rough feel, will transmit much more energy. Not coincidentally, this approach, which is one of Fripp's governing principles, provided the name of the first Fripp and Eno LP:
"I didn't want any tapping about when we were mixing that album, so I wrote up this instruction on a piece of paper and put it up on the board to remind us both. It was "no pussyfooting." I don't like to tap about, so that means that most of the takes I do are first takes. If I'm producing anyone and they don't have a take in the first three takes, then we'll do another tune."
No Pussyfooting marked the beginning of the Fripp-Eno partnership, which not only produced some of the strongest instrumental experimentations of the middle-period '70s, when other avant-rock music was running into blind alleys, but also provided functionally operative examples of alternative musical systems and relationships - Eno with his oblique strategies and systems approach, Fripp with his sharp focus and enough technical knowledge to be able to move beyond technique to personalize the concepts and infuse them with spiritual and emotional content. The relationship has succeeded, Fripp feels, because each gives the other the room he needs.
Fripp, as producer, first worked with Eno (billed as "Guest Superstar") in the summer of 1972, on the second Robert Wyatt/Matching Mole album, Little Red Record but their musical partnership was spawned a month or so later during a casual visit:
"I simply went 'round to Eno's house with a girlfriend and plugged into his tape machines. It was just a social evening, but I took my guitar and pedal board 'round just in case we did anything."
The visit produced The Heavenly Music Corporation, which Eno liked but Fripp didn't. Later, though, after Eno persuaded him to give it another listen, Fripp changed his opinion. A B-side, Swastika Girls, was recorded about a year later and, despite furious resistance from EG and Island, No Pussyfooting was released in 1973. A largely spontaneous tour followed:
"First concert, we poured each other a scotch and said, 'Right, what shall we do?' five minutes before we walked onstage. Our first set was ten minutes - we thought it was half an hour. That was the planning that was involved in that."
To the surprise, and sometimes disappointment, of their audiences, the two played their sets in total darkness, with film loops projected behind them.
"Neither of us likes lights on us a lot," Fripp explained, "and I don't like being stared at when I'm playing. I find it very difficult. I really can't handle the rapacious kind of attention you get at rock concerts."
Fripp shares with Eno an enthusiasm for the New York new wave bands, which he admires for their vigor, their grassroots-level vitality, and their decided lack of pussyfooting. Fripp views his own current output as falling within the bounds of this new musical order, although the reader should be forewarned against expecting any ersatz punk-rock on Fripp's forthcoming LP, The Last Of The Great New York Heartthrobs, due out overseas on Polydor in October, with a possible single to be released in September. (No US contract had been confirmed as of this writing.)
In order to play me some of the tracks being considered for inclusion on the record, Fripp disappeared into an area between his kitchen and sleeping quarters which had originally been a pantry but had since been transformed into a miniature Fripp workplace, with Revoxes on a bench, other tape recorders and miscellaneous gadgets cluttered on the floor, various versions of the Fripp Pedal Board lying around, and shelves of tapes of every persuasion. After a variety of whirrings and clickings, Fripp reappeared with two little box speakers and a remote control device for one of the tape recorders. We listened to an assortment of rough mixes, only two of which, it turns out, are to be included on the record: a strikingly powerful, Fripperfied version of Peter Gabriel's Here Comes the Flood, pared down to its apocalyptic essence, and a Crimsonoid heavy-metal piece entitled Breathless, which is reminiscent of the areas Fripp explored on the title track of the Red album and which has, as Fripp puts it, "a terrifying intelligence." (Listening to tracks like Red, this phrase sinks in: the sense of imminent danger connected with breaking out beyond the established limits.)
Nevertheless, listeners who imagine the record to be a sort of King Crimson Revisited are apt to be caught off-guard; I got the impression, in fact, that Fripp rather relishes the idea of tweaking listeners' expectations. As he puts it, the record will display Fripp working in different contexts, each of which, he believes, will be convincing in its own area.
"People always thought that the music of Robert Fripp was the music of King Crimson," he commented. "In fact, I wrote that music for that particular band. Now that I don't have the same type of boundaries to work within, I can make a record of considerably expanded emotional range."
The entire album embraces the concept of hazard, according to Fripp - hazard not in the sense of peril or danger, but in the sense of chance. All the material has been constructed in a purposely non-formulaic, non-preconceived manner so that the element of hazard can enter in and, in combination with the inherent significance of the endeavor, create something of a higher artistic nature.
"I imagine it will take people a while to catch up with the subtlety and immediacy of the record," Fripp remarked.
Fripp preferred to remain mum on the identities of the various musicians involved in the project, so as not to appear to be "climbing up on the backs of others" (although, if anything, I should think the reverse would be true). One hoped-for artist who didn't make it onto the LP, though, was Blondie's Debbie Harry, who had agreed to sing on a version of Peter Gabriel's Exposure. These plans were vetoed by her Chrysalis management, who told Fripp the deal was off because "her voice is one in a million."
Throughout the interview, Fripp made repeated references to "Fripp" in the third person: "Frippertronics," "Fripp's solo album," "pure Fripp," "the music of Robert Fripp," and so on. I wondered whether this third-person Fripp might be a public Fripp - one who provided a cover for the operations of a more secret Fripp - or whether it was simply a style of expression. When I repeated this observation to Fripp, he referred to a quote from Gurdjieff, Caucasian-Greek mystic and philosopher, to the effect that once you see that you don't exist, something changes and you don't perceive things in the same way as before. Hmm? It later became clear that the teachings of Gurdjieff have been a profound influence on Fripp. Serious Fripperphiles might recall that some years back - around 1972, while he was still with Crimson - Fripp had met Walli Emlark, a New York practitioner of white magic, and had developed a strong interest in the occult. In 1974, somewhere in the course of his dabblings, Fripp had "a very strong personal experience" which was enough to take him out of King Crimson, out of the highly-seductive rock'n'roll business altogether, and to convince him of the inevitability of a period of major transition toward the end of this century.
Asked to expand on his reasons for disbanding Crimson instead of modifying it, Fripp referred me to an article entitled Why I Killed the King in the October 5, 1974 Melody Maker, in which he gave three reasons for the split: the coming of the aforementioned world transition period; Fripp's desire for a specific, related education which was incompatible with his Crimson commitments and lifestyle; and, finally, his belief that the energies provided by Crimson were no longer sufficiently sustaining to warrant keeping the band together. So Fripp disbanded the group and, after a year's preparatory work, entered the International Academy for Continuous Education - the Sherborne House in England, which offered teachings based on Gurdjieff's "System for the Harmonious Development of Man." There, while almost totally refraining from guitar playing, he studied under J.G. Bennett, a former pupil of Gurdjieff and P.D. Ouspensky, among others. In fact, a forty-five-minute lecture by Bennett will appear on the new Fripp album, somehow encoded into twelve seconds' time by the use of four hundred octaves - the reverse of the process used by radio astronomers to decode radio signals from the stars. Fripp promises that the lecture will be decipherable, too.
When pressed for specifics on his year at Sherborne, Fripp hesitated, explaining that he felt that such an exposition in the medium of an interview would lead only to titillation, with Fripp "rattling and prattling" and giving the impression that he possessed an authority which he, in fact, didn't.
"If anyone is at all interested in these ideas," he explained, "you have to start somewhere. My approach was to go to Sherborne; someone else's might be to go to Claymont (Sherborne's sister school in Charles Town, West Virginia). And it might even be the wrong thing. It doesn't matter. You just have to start somewhere.
"For me it was, if you like, magic - working in that area for three years, which led me through Gurdjieff into Bennett. But it doesn't matter who the teacher is or what the background is. After a point, everything becomes the same - but only after a point. And it's really getting everyone to that point. All the different thrusts of the different schools of information and learnings, which are becoming very available - I mean, you can find instructions on magical rituals which work in airports! - all the stuff is there; it's only important to start."
In line with this education, Fripp's extramusical interests are focused on what my loosely be called "new-age communities," like the Claymont and Sherborne experiments, which are preparing for the changes which lie ahead and for the implementation of existing but as yet unavailable technological means of dealing with food and energy problems.
"And you can bet your bippy (!)," said Fripp, "that none of the vested interests are going to make that technology available."
Fripp's musical approaches have been substantially shaped by his education and disciplines. While he is not interested in forming another band - because of its probable unwieldiness, among other reasons - he indicated he might consider performing a series of Frippertronics concerts if he could somehow set up situations which would ensure active audience participation, so that something more than playing and listening to music would be accomplished.
It's encouraging to see a musician of Fripp's considerable talents directing his energies, in addition to his invariably ground-breaking recorded efforts, toward expanding and enriching the roles of both performer and audience in a concert situation. Moreover, considering how easily Fripp could win acceptance by reverting to earlier styles and modes - by invoking the ghost of the King - his willingness to take chances with his music at this crucial time, when he is attempting to re-establish contact with an audience after an extended absence, requires more than a fair degree of conviction and intelligence. Fripp is lacking in neither. So, while he won't be appearing at your local coliseum at time soon, Fripp's innovative and extraordinarily influential musical contributions will continue to be found at the cutting edge of forward-looking rock... under "F," wherever better records are sold.