The week before Labor Day may not exactly be the most apt time to make a recommendation for summer reading. What can I say? I’m making my late summer reading pick now because I read it during the late summer.
Regardless of the season, Bill Bruford’s newly published autobiography, ingeniously titled The Autobiography, is a must read for insight into the often de-glamorized life of a serious working musician.
Bruford established his credentials at the onset of the ‘70s as drummer with Yes, leaving the band at its artistic and commercial apex following the release of Close to the Edge in 1972 for the darker, more daring and vastly more turbulent soundscapes of King Crimson – an alliance that would last, on and off, for 25 years. Even with freelance jaunts in Genesis and Gong interspersed among those tenures, Bruford spent much of the last two decades adjourning to jazz with his Earthworks band only to “retire from active service” as a professional musician earlier this year.
One would suppose then that The Autobiography would chronologically approach and dissect those segments of Bruford’s career and, thus, appeal almost exclusively to retro-minded prog rock die-hards and, perhaps, the curious jazzer. In fact, The Autobiography is a welcome curve ball where Bruford structures the telling of his career as if he were giving an interview. Thus the chapters use mundane questions the drummer has subjected himself too countless times as titles.
Among them: “Do You Still See Any of the Old Guys?,” “Yes, But What Do You Really Do?,” “Are You Making This Up?” and, of course, “Do You Like Doing Interviews?”
You can imagine what the answer to the latter is.
Quintessentially British – as in witty, blunt and conversational in an almost elegant manner – Bruford diffuses all Spinal Tap stereotypes from the onset. He has been happily married for 36 years, so forget tales of sordid on-the-road promiscuity. In fact, his view of music making (which is altogether different from his view of the music business) is often intensely personal.
He goes at length to explain philosophies that differentiate the worlds of art and mere entertainment. “The problem with entertainment is that it’s like juggling eggs,” Bruford writes. “The man who can juggle two eggs has an audience until someone comes along who can juggle three eggs. The problem with art is that it’ll probably kill you. So take your pick.”
Similarly, he takes mutual swings at working practices in America as well as in England: “Americans ‘can do,’ or at least could do.’ In 1968, unusual phrases such as ‘Yep,’ ‘Sure’ and ‘No problem’ could be heard under blue American skies as frequently as ‘Not a chance, mate,’ ‘I shouldn’t think so’ or ‘I wouldn’t if I were you, guy’ were heard in the grey mist of a London morning.”
There are, of course, wonderful postscripts – some extremely insightful – from Bruford’s life in music, although the Yes and King Crimson tales pale next to stories of working with notoriously unreliable electronic percussion devices in the 1980s, the largely unexpected underwriting of one of the drummer’s finest recordings (a 1997 trio album with Ralph Towner and Eddie Gomez titled If Summer Had Its Ghosts) and the almost elegiac sadness, seemingly rooted in perfectionist insecurities, that surrounded his retirement (“I now find further progress blocked both by the rocky mountains of inadequate technical ability and the gulf of imaginative shortcomings”).
It’s a splendid if not sobering read – a chronicle with a happy ending (an enduring family life and ownership of his entire catalogue of solo and bandleading recordings) but a somewhat shaken sense of artistic well being.
Curious about the music that made Bruford one of the most heralded and distinctive drummers in or out of rock music over the past 40 years? Then check out the recordings he considers as personal milestones in the book. Namely:
+ Yes: Close to the Edge (1972)
+ King Crimson: Red (1974)
+ Bruford: One of a Kind (1979)
+ King Crimson: Discipline (1981)
+ Earthworks: Bill Bruford’s Earthworks (1986)
But for a sense of proper perspective in how these albums play out in a truly extraordinary prog, rock and jazz career, spend some time with The Autobiography. It’s the best summer music reading you will find this fall.