+ 1, Guest Contributor, Nels Cline, February 2015
IT TAKES JUST ONE
I was planning on writing this piece for ROVA's pages on some recent music memoirs and biographies; there has been quite the avalanche, it seems. Many are excellent, and all that I have read so far are at least fascinating. For the record, my favorite, Galadrielle Allman's "Please Be With Me" and Herbie Hancock's "Possibilities" were to be the most prominently featured, along with Richard Hell's "I Dreamed I was A Very Clean Tramp" and the utterly fascinating collection of Jimi Hendrix's journal entries and interviews called "Starting From Zero". BUT… I just finished a short run of West Coast concerts with guitarist Julian Lage, and every time I return to the west I am assailed by people and places of my past. It was on the left coast that I began my forays into concertizing, playing what I will call improvised music, though much of it was, and still is, composed… But as I ran into certain individuals whom I have known for way longer than I am conscious of - people like Henry Kaiser, Wayne Horvitz, and Larry Ochs - I began to really readdress how we all started to connect. Sometimes the obvious becomes obscured by time, by baggage, by denial, by the blur of present events. It all started for me with a High School friend named Lee Kaplan. Without going into too much backstory and while attempting to resist going down the dozens of side roads possible along this trip, my goal is to show what can happen when one person - a single individual - decides to change things, to try to make things happen, for whatever reason (and there is usually more than one). So here goes…
My twin brother Alex and I started High School in 1971. University High School in West Los Angeles. By the time we started there, we were coming out of an early adolescent obsession with all things rock 'n roll and moving into a new world of jazz/rock (it wasn't called "fusion" yet) and avant-garde jazz/free jazz. Our earliest rock obsession had inevitably caused us to be ostracized by all of our elementary school friends because of my brother's insistence on playing the Mothers Of Invention song "Brown Shoes Don't Make It" for a friend who was so offended and disturbed that he told all of our friends, who then in turn refused to ever speak to us again! Junior High School was far more social as we found many like-minded friends and indulged our musical searching, eventually discovering Coltrane and Miles, which concomitantly initiated a new, more subtle drift from our crowd as we entered High School with a decreasing enthusiasm for certain sounds of our past. This eventually became isolating. But along the way we met a boy with taste similar in many ways to ours, though much closer to that of my brother Alex's than to mine. This rather alien boy was Lee Kaplan, and he routinely wore nightshirts over long-sleeved T-shirts to school - the first person by far to ever sport what was called, years later, "the layered look" - as well as stylish cuffed corduroy bell bottoms. Like Alex, he was really into King Crimson and Pink Floyd. He was also the first person we knew to embrace "Glam Rock", and was really into David Bowie, Roxy Music, and T Rex. We would later learn that he was a total Anglophile when it came to rock music, and owned tons of obscure import records by bands like Caravan, Hatfield and the North, Soft Machine, Patto, Henry Cow, Family, Tempest, Colosseum, as well as records by Yes and Genesis, which we had not heard yet (remember - this was 1971). Lee was also an aspiring bassist and had a super cool Gibson EB-3 bass and a monstrous Acoustic 360 bass amp - the baddest gear we had ever encountered. So it only followed that we would try to play music with Lee.
The ensuing years saw a lot of music making and a lot of sharing, changes, conflicts, and mostly growth in various directions and of various stripes. It wasn't really easy to make music regularly with Lee; he didn't always practice, and he was also an aspiring music writer, eventually writing under the name Leigh Kaplan for Phonograph Record Magazine and hustling amazing amounts of promotional materials from record labels (in an era of crazy and marvelous record company excess): T-shirts, press kits, limited edition promo runs, etc., all meticulously filed and all acquired from hitch-hiking runs into Hollywood, which seemed to us to be 50 miles away from suburban-esque West L.A. This endeavor led Lee to befriend an astonishing number of music writers and label schmos of the day. It also led to what I am about to describe in terms of what one can do armed with sheer will, some sort of focused desire.
As I look back, I am astonished as I attempt to explain what became a profound aesthetic and stylistic change in our alien boy Lee. It somehow happened that, after being exposed to the avant-garde side of jazz improvisation by Alex and me, Lee began to become super-absorbed in music that was, far from being made by weedy UK aesthete rocker conceptualists, made by African Americans, though eventually Lee discovered, sort of accidentally, the British and European avant-garde himself and turned us on to them! But picture this if you can: When we played our only gigs with our band at lunchtime (all-instrumental music drawing on King Crimson, electric Miles Davis, Tony Williams Lifetime, Weather Report, et al, though rather primitively, of course), Lee would wear his platform boots, maybe a fur boa. After all, his style icon was Brian Eno (then only known as Eno). Bowie, too, of course. I was, at first, steadfastly denim, but gradually I drifted into football jerseys to mimic my hero Leon Russell, and I even got some cuffed bell bottoms. But until Lee blew my mind with "The Yes Album" and "Fragile", I was pretty much an Allman Brothers Band/Rory Gallagher/Johnny Winter blues/rock kind of guy. Alex was always far more "out there", embracing not just "Crimso" and "The Floyd", but Zappa and Beefheart early on, and now Eric Dolphy, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Sun Ra… Anyway, our glam rock alien bassist started to become an almost fanatical fan of (I will attempt to list in order of love) Anthony Braxton, Sun Ra, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Oliver Lake, and Gunter Hampel/Jeanne Lee. Lee had skipped a grade at one point, smart alien lad that he was/is, so though only one month younger than Alex and me, he graduated High School a year ahead of us, going to UCLA to study…Egyptology?! By the time Alex and I played our senior lunch period recital out on the field to a mostly apathetic crowd, Lee was starting to embrace the electronic music side of improvised music of that time, acquiring a Random Resonator (just like on Herbie Hancock's "Rain Dance"!) and beginning a friendship with modular synthesizer innovator Serge Tcherepnin. He had become galvanized by Musica Elettronica Viva synthesist Richard Teitelbaum from hearing the Anthony Braxton album "Trio and Duet" (on Sackville), and was now leaning towards more electronics than bass - which I encouraged, since I was never sure whether Lee was all that serious about playing bass, even though he had acquired a decent upright bass and was digging Dave Holland, Barre Phillips, Malachi Favors, Gary Peacock and the like very heavily. But what Alex and I viewed as his lack of commitment really became difficult for us. Plus, Lee was often "difficult", evincing often cutting "humor" and sarcasm, sometimes in a hurtful way. Chalk it up to alienation combined with intelligence or whatever you will. Christ, we were teenagers! But I have digressed enough. Have you pictured the boy in the platform boots and boa? Now flash forward only a couple of years to Lee Kaplan at…20? By the time Lee was working at our favorite local underground record store Rhino Records (where he eventually got me a job), he was almost always shoeless, wearing tattered bell bottom blue jeans, and had a mass of hair that, while not fully Reggie Watts, was going in a similar though more random direction. He also began carrying around a plastic gallon jug of Arrowhead water - ALWAYS - decades before we all trod the Earth with our little plastic bottles of H2O. It was a bit odd, in retrospect, just as now NO ONE in Los Angeles or anywhere walks the city streets consistently barefoot. At the time - this was, remember, the post-hippie era - it just seemed a bit eccentric. Lee not only turned me onto Yes/Steve Howe (life changing), but he had randomly (ever the import fiend) bought the now-legendary and rare "Topography of the Lungs" by Evan Parker/Derek Bailey/Han Bennink (the first Incus record) on sale at Vogue Records in Westwood because "it looked weird", and played it over the phone for Alex and me (it sounded like a cat fight in an industrial drum - we said "we'll be right over!"). He also bought the early Jan Garbarek Quartet record "Afric Pepperbird" - probably at Moby Disc in the distant San Fernando Valley - and played Terje Rypdal's skronks over the phone ("I'm coming right over!"), thus setting us all on the ECM trail for decades hence. We were voracious.
Enough backstory. Besides, those early years are potentially a whole book unto itself. Here's what gradually happened: As Lee and Alex and I became increasingly exposed to this improvised music, one thing became frustratingly clear to us: many of our new musical heroes skipped Los Angeles when they came to the West Coast. It was apparent again and again: Cecil Taylor is at The Great American Music Hall (San Francisco) and not playing Los Angeles! The Art Ensemble, too! Sam Rivers is at The Keystone Korner and not playing L.A.! What?! This must have really started to get under Lee's skin, because he decided one day to find a venue somewhere and start presenting improvised music on the cutting edge, to do something to lure these great artists to Los Angeles. In retrospect, it seems almost insane. And yes - Lee was certainly inexperienced, often evincing a cringe-worthy lack of business acumen. But hell - none of us knew anything! I would NEVER have been able to even start doing what Lee did. I really think it bothered him not just that we - our little coterie - but Angelinos, were missing out. He somehow found The Century City Playhouse, a small black shoebox of a room on Pico Blvd. in West L.A. right next to the somewhat posh area known as Cheviot Hills and befriended a curly-haired, mustachioed young man named Ivan Spiegel. Ivan apparently had Sunday nights open. His little theater was enjoying a seemingly endless run of a play called "Bleacher Bums" and had successfully mounted Jules Pfeiffer's "Little Murders", which Alex and I had actually once seen there with our parents. But along with Lee's Rhino Records connection, thus began not only an amazing run of cutting-edge avant-garde improvised music for Los Angeles, but the combination of these elements also introduced me to so many musicians and future gigs that, as I draw lines of connection, lead straight back to Lee Kaplan. It was at The Century City Playhouse that Alex and I first really tried out our music, our collaborations. Besides the all-ages Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, this was where we got to hear and interact with so many now-legendary musicians. Lee also, in the guise of the writer Leigh Kaplan, befriended musicians like Herbie Hancock and Joe Zawinul, getting us into the gigs and even backstage sometimes (where I usually stood feeling totally ridiculous). Amazingly, Lee went to hear King Crimson once at the Long Beach Auditorium with Herbie Hancock because word had it that Robert Fripp was selling one of his Mellotrons and Herbie was interested. You just read that! Alex and I were also at that concert (and every local visit by the "Larks Tongues" King Crimson) but were not around to hear whatever was discussed about Mellotrons that evening...
I must note, before I write about a few of the concerts I attended from those days that seem to stand out in my now age-compromised memory, that Lee's belief in and promotion of my brother Alex's and my talents was unshakable. I have, a few times, referred in interviews to Lee as a "loud-mouthed friend" because every time he would meet someone notable or sympathetic at the record store or anywhere he would say to him or her, "You should play with my friend Nels" or, "You should hear my friend Alex play drums." He said this to Vinny Golia when he ended up chatting with Lee at Rhino in around 1975. The first record I ever ended up playing on was Vinny's second record "Openhearted", and Alex played with Vinny for over 25 years (!). He said it to Charlie Haden - one of my absolute musical heroes of that time - and eventually I ended up playing in his Liberation Music Orchestra West Coast from 1982-1986, as well as playing a duo concert and trio (with Bobby Bradford) gig. He suggested to Julius Hemphill (among others) that he use Alex in his trio (see below) which indirectly led to my playing with Julius (along with Alex) from 1983-1986. Most crucially, while strolling through the practice rooms at UCLA, he heard a long-haired young man playing Chick Corea's "Song of the Wind" on piano, and told him he should meet Alex and me. That young man was Eric Von Essen, who would become my musical partner and mentor for almost 17 years. But for the record, Lee's voice was anything but loud. I don't think I ever heard him yell - even when Alex and I were yelling at him like insane children at a "rehearsal". And it was because Lee suggested it that we all ended up jamming with Oliver Lake in the back room behind my parents' house in…1977?
So as I hung out last week with Henry Kaiser, Wayne Horvitz, and Larry Ochs, it once again occurred to me that these comrades and so many more were really made possible by Lee Kaplan. In those days I was utterly incapable of even telling someone potentially skilled, let alone legendary, that I even played. An example of my tongue-tied paralysis comes to mind: one bright day in the late 70s Carla Bley strolled into Rhino to check on how things were going with the New Music Distribution Service, which she oversaw and which distributed almost all the free jazz and contemporary composed music of note of that time. I was severely fixated on her and her music in those days, as well as being a fanatical fan of her ex-husband Paul Bley's music. Lee was the "jazz" record buyer back then, and it was his day off, but he was summarily called at home and he came zooming over to chat with her. I had just been standing at the counter slack-jawed for an hour, never saying a word to Carla, who was just so funny and charming and, well, HOT, as she puffed on her little meerschaum pipe (the only person ever allowed to smoke inside Rhino Records, I think). Lee finally turned away from Carla to me and said, "of course you have met Nels. He's a huge fan of yours," and when I looked panicked and said nothing Lee gave me a look I remember so well. It said, "Seriously?! You are totally LAME!" And he was right, of course. Without Lee's tireless and unsolicited proselytizing on my behalf I am not sure I would have ended up doing even half of what I did between 1977 and 1987. Seriously.
Back to The Century City Playhouse we go. I was working the door at most of the concerts that happened on most Sundays in that little black room from the late 70s to early 80s. I would often come after work from Rhino. I still have no idea how Lee found a lot of these people or if they eventually found him, but a lot of up-and-coming younger improvisers played at the series, including Henry Kaiser (with, I think, saxophonist Henry Kuntz of Bells Magazine, the rather doctrinaire Bay Area free jazz printed soapbox), John Oswald (with Henry?), Wayne Horvitz (then going to UC Santa Cruz and playing in a sort of neo-Henry Cow/Curlew type of ensemble called White Noise), Davey Williams and LaDonna Smith, Marty Ehrlich (fresh out of the New England Conservatory, played twice - once in a rather Hemphill-inspired solo-with-tape performance and later in a trio with Alex and John Carter) as well as those you will see mentioned below. Lee's phone bill must have been huge, and he was not rolling in dough, needless to say. But here are some notable moments from the Century City Playhouse concert series, as filtered through my fuzzy/selective memory. These are, mind you, only a handful of events of many, and it must also be mentioned that it was during this series that the collective Quartet Music (Eric Von Essen, Jeff Gauthier, Alex, me) played one of its first concerts, that Vinny Golia got a chance to try out various ensembles, and that a lot of other less famous but no less forward-looking and fabulous musicians such as Wayne Peet and John Rapson did some of their earliest work.
OLIVER LAKE - solo and in duet with Michael Gregory Jackson
JAMES NEWTON QUARTET
JULIUS HEMPHILL TRIO with Baikida Carroll and Alex Cline
EVAN PARKER - solo saxophone
EUGENE CHADBOURNE/JOHN ZORN DUO
LEO SMITH - solo trumpet
KRYSTALL KLEAR AND THE BUELLS
KURT McGETTRICK/MIKE STEPHANS DUO
SONNY SIMMONS/BARBARA DONALD QUARTET
CHARLIE HADEN/BOBBY BRADFORD DUO
What's the point of all this? Simply put, that if Lee Kaplan had not taken it upon himself to bring this music to Los Angeles, I and many others would NEVER have heard these great artists in that time period - a fertile and vital period. Lee even eventually got the Art Ensemble of Chicago to play Los Angeles, but in a bigger venue called Studio Z. Lesson: one person can make a huge difference.
Lee ended up opening up an art book store called Arcana: Books On The Arts in the early 80s and it is still going. I worked there for eight years. He mostly listens to popular music, I think. I hear his large collection of Sun Ra/El Saturn LPs got water damaged. His Serge synthesizer? No clue. Time passes and things change. Lee changed so radically from the alien glam rocker to the barefoot boy into Braxton and then…more changes. We are all ever-evolving. But even through the haze of the past and memories of my petty insecurities and of personality conflicts and the like, I am so grateful to Lee Kaplan for not only bringing powerful and visionary underground music to Los Angeles, but also for believing in me and in my talent, even when I was barely "there". It just takes one!