I met Adrian Belew some time in the mid-’90s. He was in Woodstock recording the King Crimson album Thrak, and he came to see my band (yes, I have my subjects and objects and possessives in the right order here) at the now-defunct Tinker Street Café.
Although I was a fan and had been for more than a decade, I did not recognize Belew as Belew when a not-unrockstarlike gentlemen approached me after our set and had all sorts of kind and perceptive things to say about Wormwood’s music: “I can tell you write the songs, because the arrangements are all implicit in your guitar parts,” he said. (I’ve been chewing on that observation for 20 years now, and I have decided that it was not a compliment, precisely.) Soon my giddy bandmate Seth Ullian brought me up to speed on whom I was talking with, and I joined Seth in a barely concealed celebrity-aura giddiness.
Belew spoke with me for a good half-hour at least, sharing more insights into our band and listening patiently as I told him all about how good he was, about why his solo albums – not just his high-profile session work with Bowie, Zappa and Talking Heads, or his integral involvement in those amazing and singular King Crimson records of the early ’80s, but also his charming, childlike and beautiful solo albums like Lone Rhino and Mr. Music Head – were essential music to me, and how I had used his song “Adidas in Heat” in a Freshman Composition class to illustrate the idea of the audio collage.
Our talk hit a stumbling block when that evening’s headliner – Ken McGloin’s wonderful hard rock/performance art project Lunch Meat – began to play. Damn it Kenny, yours was my favorite local band of the ’90s, but I couldn’t hear what Belew was yelling into my ear because you guys were so good and loud. I swear to this day that it sounded like he was offering to produce Wormwood. (Adrian, I’ve got a new band these days working around here, and we’re playing a day after your upcoming Woodstock show down in the town of New Paltz. Seek me out for more details, please.)
It is kind of hard to describe to someone who wasn’t there why Adrian Belew – the guitarist, not the songwriter – made the impact that he did when he came on the scene in the late ’70s. Andy Summers had already been intelligently redefining the role of the guitar in the rock band, and Belew shared Summers’ sense of anti-machismo, textural, impressionistic action painting and the harmonic colors imported from 20th-century serious music. But Belew brought us something else – something that had more to do with Coltrane and Hendrix. It was animalistic but utterly free of expressive cliché and classic rock manners. It was new, but new alone never made anything good. It was new, and it was deep, natural and real.
King Crimson’s 1981 album Discipline – the first with the Belew, Levin, Bruford and Fripp lineup – saved prog/rock or at least staved off its demise for a few years. And it was all because of Belew: the most human, warm and quirky presence as guitarist, lyricist and vocalist that the genre has known. The band’s music of that time was stringent, cerebral, ungenerous and difficult in some ways (also quite brilliant). Belew did more than give it a human face; he turned math into song – beautiful, alien song. Listen to “Frame by Frame” or “Matte Kudasai” from Discipline if you want to know what I mean.
His solo albums are not prog in the least, and are seldom littered with squalling guitar solos and animal impersonations. They’re pop – idiosyncratic, bedroom pop high on its own sense of unfettered discovery, full of wonder and good will, an insular one-person world that is both alien and also entirely in love with McCartney. “Mr. Music Head,” I said to Adrian that night, speaking of the lovely 1989 album that might have been a 100-percent-solo album but for his daughter’s vocal part on the single “Oh Daddy – “sounds like it was an awful lot of fun to make.” He smiled and said, “It was a lot of fun to make.”
Now, Tony Levin, I’ve met him too, at a wedding. I didn’t want to take up much of his social time, especially since a couple of other music geeks had been draped over him all the way through the soup and salad, so I had rehearsed my line: “You’ve been a key part of two of the three albums that most changed the way I hear ensemble music: Discipline and Peter Gabriel’s third album” (the other being Tom Waits’s Rain Dogs). I finally decided not to mention Rain Dogs after all and just accentuate the positive. Then I went home and checked Levin’s credits. He played on Rain Dogs, too. He played on everything.
I’ve never met the great, imaginative drummer Pat Mastelotto (Mr. Mister, King Crimson, Thomas Dolby, the Rembrandts and many more), but if I ever do, I will race up to him, shake his shoulders and say, “Dude, ‘Mayor of Simpleton’ was my wedding song. What was it like to work with XTC?”
Adrian Belew, Tony Levin, Pat Mastelotto & Friends, Friday, August 15, 9 p.m., $25 advance/$30 door, Bearsville Theater, 291 Tinker Street, Woodstock; (845) 679-4406, www.bearsvilletheater.com.