On the way into The Great Corporate Salt Mine this morning, I was listening to my snazzy new iPod. The Red Box has one of those handy little sockets that allows me to plug the iPod directly into the car’s sound system so I can play it through the car’s speakers. Convenient.
With the iPod set on “shuffle” mode, you never know what will come up next. This is nice, because it’s hard to get bored with a completely random selection of music. Insane, maybe, but never bored.
When “Helen Butte,” an extended cut from On The Corner, Miles Davis’s 1972 electronic funk-fest, came on, it reminded me of a strange concert I had attended in November 1969 – 36 years ago this very month.
Strange, yes. For the concert was a Simon and Garfunkel concert at Madison Square Garden in New York City, and the opening act was Miles Davis, fresh off the creation of his legendary Bitches Brew album. You couldn’t ask for two acts that were more polar opposites.
Simon and Garfunkel were famous for hit songs like “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme,” “I Am A Rock,” and “The Sounds of Silence.” Their most recent album, Bookends, featured the hit song “Mrs. Robinson,” from the film The Graduate, as well as “America,” which would appear decades later in Almost Famous. S&G’s next release, Bridge Over Troubled Water, would take them into softer territory, with the title cut being a prime example. Immensely popular at the time, Simon and Garfunkel wrote literate songs that appealed to the Suburban White Young People Crowd...and made good use of Art Garfunkel’s ethereal voice.
Miles, on the other hand, was something else entirely. With Bitches Brew, Miles and his group rewrote the Rules of Engagement with respect to jazz-rock fusion, creating intricate, layered compositions that shifted and flowed. If you watch the 2004 Tom Cruise movie Collateral, you can get a taste of Bitches Brew: that song you hear in the jazz club is “Spanish Key.” Davis’s appearance as an opener for Simon and Garfunkel was clearly an attempt to see whether his new electrified jazz-rock amalgam would sell with the White Kid Crowd.
All I can tell you is, we listened to that strange music with our jaws hanging open, saliva pooling on the floor. It was as though we had been poleaxed. Nobody knew what to make of it. What the fuck is this? we thought.
Less than three years later, I saw Miles in a much more intimate venue – Alexander Hall at Princeton University. By then, he was deep into the bizarre electro-funk of On The Corner – and I loved it. My ability to appreciate and understand jazz had undergone a sea change in those few years, and it was then that I realized just what it was that we had been privileged to hear back in November of 1969.
Miles was the real star of that 1969 concert, only most of us didn’t know it at the time.