“Perfectly wrong.” The words didn’t occur to me as such, but that’s what my gut said the first time I heard Marc Ribot’s guitar-playing. As it was for most people, the occasion of this disruptive revelation was Tom Waits’s 1985 record Rain Dogs. That album turned me on my ear immediately; but culturally, it was a time-release genetic bomb: Took a while to assert itself, but it you were to hip to it then, you could trace its agency replicating through the decades into the present.
Amidst all of Rain Dogs’ surreal challenges and affronts, Ribot stood out. Perfectly wrong: the primitive, chromatic plunking on “Singapore” and “Cemetery Polka”; the impeccably dissonant, stinging blues-playing on “Clap Hands”; the needling, banjoistic pluck on “Diamonds & Gold”; and most prophetically, the oblique, tremolo noir line-playing on “Jockey Full of Bourbon.”
Perfectly wrong, perfectly out: the sour notes with their own otro-world harmonic logic; the brutal, ham-fisted attack; a sustain-free and importunately pointy tone that was utterly out of phase with the times. You just had to laugh at the completely wrong rightness of it all. At the same time, you knew that it was no joke, no postmodern New York positioning statement on guitar. From go, it felt bottomless – a voice that would never run dry because it had struck a vein of something like musical truth. Then there was the mystery of his name.
Sorry to fix on his first great moment, because his great moments have been many: his key role in the contrapuntal cacophony of John Zorn’s Masada; his ace work providing just the right edge to Elvis Costello in the early Warner Brothers years; his listenable, stylishly Minimalist Afro-Cuban records with Marc Ribot y los Cubanos Postizos, the chaotic, culture-jamming avant-rock of his trio Ceramic Dog and much more.
Years along, I now hear antecedents and a concept that I wouldn’t have been able to articulate back then: the homely, aggressive strike of Django, as well as the vast mastery of the harmonic minor; the in-and-out-of-key eccentricity of the Chicago blues legend Hubert Sumlin; all of the bossa and Afro-Cuban colors that have blossomed over the years, enriching his playing and balancing all its perfectly wrong paradoxes – tender and contentious, totally wrenched but touched with a lucid harmonic prettiness; rooted in Latin jazz, but with a wild sense of jazz as folk music, loosed from the prison of chops.
This is why Ribot is so beloved by those who can’t abide Metheny or Scofield and who even eye Frisell with suspicion, and why his imitators are legion: He rarely plays anything that you couldn’t; and yet you never would – at least if you hadn’t heard Marc Ribot. His voice seems to come from somewhere outside the realm of what’s likely, passable and possible.
Marc Ribot performs solo at Quinn’s on Sunday, March 6 at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $15 and are available at Quinn’s, located at 330 Main Street in Beacon, or by calling (845) 202-7447.
Marc Ribot, Sunday, March 6, 8 p.m., Quinn’s, 330 Main Street, Beacon; (845) 202-7447.