Sunday, May 30, 2004


I'm on the brink of completing the first draft of the manuscript. Either tonight or tomorrow night, I'll be done. (I have to be - I've slated the whole month of June for revisions.)

This past Thursday, I went and saw Burnt Sugar perform at the Vision Festival. Met up with Greg Tate beforehand, and we talked briefly about some unreleased live stuff (the material taped at the Cellar Door club in Washington, DC in December 1970, some of which was edited down for Live-Evil) I'd sent him. (I got it from a guy who downloaded it off the web.)

It's killer stuff - six CDs' worth, only two of which feature John McLaughlin on guest guitar. The other four are just the regular touring band of that time - Miles, Gary Bartz, Keith Jarrett, Michael Henderson, Jack DeJohnette and Airto Moreira. Listening to Discs 5 and 6 (the ones with McLaughlin), it's almost impossible to pick out where Miles and Teo Macero decided to slice out a chunk for Live-Evil. There are many moments when I find myself thinking, "Oh my God, that wasn't an edit - they did that live!"

Anyhow, Burnt Sugar's set was really good. It was live funk with a guitarist, two drummers, three bassists (two upright, one electric), a cellist, a violinist, a pianist, a keyboardist, and a percussionist. And two vocalists, a man and a woman. The man was great; he sounded sort of like Mos Def, and scat-sang along with the band in a very cool way. If you've ever heard the Leftfield track "Afro-Left," from Leftism, his vocals sounded something like that, only more hip-hop-oriented. The female rapper, though, was annoying. She was freestyling, but her subject matter was clichéd braggadocio, and didn't mesh well with the band's groove at all. I was wondering why Greg (who was conducting) didn't shut her down, but I guess his tactic is more to indicate where someone should come in; what they do once they are in is up to them. In the liner notes to Burnt Sugar's first CD, Blood On The Leaf, he compares himself to Mickey Mouse in the "Sorcerer's Apprentice" section of Fantasia, and that's somewhat accurate, if excessively self-deprecating.

I'm sure that next month is going to bring many shameful realizations, and many mad scrambles for the dictionary and/or thesaurus as I realize how very, very many clichés and half-baked ideas I've relied upon in the last 14 months or so. I can't wait. Writing this thing has been a thrill-ride. It's opened my ears, and my mind, a little wider just about every day. I've been forced to re-think ideas I held onto for years, and to think about entirely new things. I've had to teach myself not to be a knee-jerk naysayer, but not to be a yes-man for received wisdom and dogma, either. That's a balancing act that has made me wonder, more than a few times, whether, if I agree with so much of what everyone else has already said, I should have bothered writing a book at all. But I guess that's for someone else to judge. I've gotta finish the aforementioned revisions, and then figure out what I'm gonna do for my next trick book...

Wednesday, May 19, 2004


I'd always envisioned the cover art for RTVD looking similar, in both style and color, to On The Corner. Not only because it's probably my favorite Miles record (it's definitely the one that made the biggest single impact on my developing musical psyche when I first heard it, at about age 18), but because it's so garish and bright, it would make a fantastic book cover. Most books on Miles Davis either have a boring sepiatone portrait, or some other hideous photo, on the cover. They don't invite casual browsers to check 'em out; they certainly don't leap off the bookstore shelf, which in this market is more important than ever. It seems to me that publishers still don't put enough thought into what's on the outside of their books. Shit, half of them can barely be concerned with what's on the inside...if I started counting the typos, spelling errors, etc. that I've encountered in major publishing house releases, I'd never stop.

Anyway, I dug around and found an illustrator I thought would be perfect for the job - Scott Ruhl. (Warning: vulgarity lurks at that link.) But when I tossed the idea to the publisher, they came back saying a) he wanted too much money, and b) they didn't think On The Corner was a recognizable/iconic enough image to sell the book...they wanted to go, maybe, with something Bitches Brew-inspired, and no matter what they wound up doing, it would be generated in-house.

I'm not 1000% sold on the idea of a BB-esque cover. It could be good, but I don't think it'll have the leap-off-the-shelf quality that a bright yellow book would have. Maybe I'll be able to get them to do something with a photo of the 1970s band, set against a blazing psychedelic sunburst pattern...something like this, only more garish. But for now, I've got to stay focused on what's gonna be inside the cover. I'm only a few pages from finishing the first draft. After that, it's a month of revisions and clerical stuff (putting together the discography, bibliography, acknowledgements, etc.), and then at the end of June, off it goes to my editor at Backbeat. I just hope he doesn't ask me to hack out too much; I contracted for 300 pages, and I just crossed the 400-page mark the other night. As with so many other things related to this project, we'll soon find out.

Sunday, May 16, 2004


One of the great/terrible things about writing a book is all the other books you wind up reading, as research and as inspiration. The nature of Running The Voodoo Down is such that I'm going to wind up with a bibliography that's heavy on books about Miles Davis, of course, but is also stuffed with books on heavy metal, Jimi Hendrix, the political and social trends of the 1970s, religion, the corporate machinations of music-biz executives, science fiction, art history, aesthetics, Afrocentrism, and damn near every other thing you can think of. Where and how it became necessary to read some of this stuff will be obvious (there are quotes in the manuscript-as-it-currently-stands from Joe Carducci, Lester Bangs, Fredric Dannen and Arthur Schopenhauer, among others), but others are gonna seem tossed in there almost at random. Trust me, they're not. It's all connected, in my head anyway. I certainly hope it'll all be connected for the reader, even if he or she hasn't read all the stuff I've had to absorb to understand the electric music of Miles Davis to my own satisfaction.

Today I bought David Toop's Ocean Of Sound, and as I'm starting to dip a toe into it (sorry) I'm a little torn between wishing I'd read it sooner and being relieved that I haven't. It already feels like one of those books that could be hugely influential on an impressionable brain, up there with Rock & The Pop Narcotic and Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas and Crosstown Traffic, and believe me, those three and lots of others have already done plenty of damage. (The two Thompsons - Hunter and Jim - are among the worst writers a young writer can read. It takes years to get them out of your system, so your own voice can grow. Believe me. They're both brilliant, but if you're just starting out, your copies of Fear And Loathing... and The Killer Inside Me should come with bookmarks that have "Don't Try This At Home" printed on them in huge red letters.)

At the same time, though, I'm getting the feeling that I'm gonna wind up disagreeing with a lot of Toop's ideas, so it's good that mine are pretty fixed already (and have been for some time). Nothing worse than finding, in the re-read/revise stage, that you've been overtaken/seduced by a theory you actually disagree with, and it's wormed its way into your text to such a degree that only hacking out 5-10 pages, and rewriting from scratch, will do the trick. It's almost as bad as re-reading a feature-length record review, the night before it's due to the editor, and realizing you let it devolve into a political screed that would embarrass a college freshman and that, once you slash out all the ridiculous, self-evident, smug anti-Bush sloganeering, you've got about three paragraphs of solid musical analysis on which to build your whole second draft.

Anyway, my point is, I'm about 10 pages away from being finished with the first draft of RTVD, and I think it may be time to stop reading potential source material. I can always go back to the bookstores once I've mailed the thing to the publisher, and get that kick in the guts that comes from opening a random book I've never heard of, seeing a paragraph or a page or a chapter that totally contradicts every idea I've spent a year and a half thinking about and hammering into shape. Right?

Wednesday, May 12, 2004


Today I’m listening to Yo Miles! and Yo Miles – Sky Garden, by Henry Kaiser and Wadada Leo Smith. Four CDs, just over five hours of music, most of it versions of Miles Davis stuff from 1969-70 (Sky Garden) and 1972-75 (Yo Miles!). There are some originals, too, mostly by Wadada Leo Smith, that attempt to capture that heady early-’70s-Miles flavor. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they don’t. The worst one can say about “Who’s Targeted?” is that it sounds more like Mwandishi than Miles. Since I like Mwandishi too (much more than the wildly overrated Headhunters), I’m fine with that.

Anyway, I’m listening to this stuff, and thinking about it, because it features in the final chapter of the book, which I’m currently writing. Chapter 13 is called “Post-Miles,” and it’s all about the way his music and concepts have spread through the soundworld we all live in. Everything from hearing that ominous keyboard hook from “Honky Tonk” sampled on a hip-hop record to things like Yo Miles! and Tim Hagans’s twin CDs Animation/Imagination and Re-Animation Live! and, possibly more than any of the others, Greg Tate’s Burnt Sugar.

I interviewed Tate for the book (the saga of who I interviewed, who I didn’t, and how being turned down for various interviews shaped what Running The Voodoo Down became, to my mind for the better, will be dealt with in a later post), not only to ask him about Burnt Sugar but to get some feedback from a guy who’d been grappling with electric Miles for about 15 years longer than me, had in fact seen him play live in the early 1970s in Washington, D.C.

It was a long, interesting conversation. Very little of it will make the book, which makes me want to find someplace to put the remainder. Maybe here. I don’t know.

Monday, May 10, 2004


Like it says above, this blog is all about my book Running The Voodoo Down: The Electric Music Of Miles Davis, which is currently scheduled to be published by Backbeat Books in Spring 2005. (I expect to complete the manuscript, and turn it in, in mid-summer.)

Running The Voodoo Down is not a biography. Nor is it a stale recitation of who played on what session on what day. I'm more interested in a theoretical analysis of Miles Davis's music from 1968 (Miles In The Sky) to 1991 (Doo-Bop). Basically, RTVD is intended to be a Miles book the way Crosstown Traffic was a Hendrix book. I'm filtering Miles through a series of screens—racial/political, hip-hop, funk, Hendrix & Sly Stone, the larger world of early-70s fusion, and more besides. I'm talking about who was doing what around him, what that did to his music, and where his influence, viral as it is, has spread/metastasized to since his death.

A few things worth noting: I'm 32. I started listening to Miles Davis in 1985, and my path through his catalog started like this—Kind Of Blue, Bitches Brew, You're Under Arrest, Agharta, On The Corner...and on and on. I've been influenced, on this project and as a writer generally, by Greg Tate, Joe Carducci, Lester Bangs, Charles Shaar Murray, and Gary Giddins. (I've only met two of those guys, though, so don't think the responsibility for anything I write lies with anybody but me.) I like death metal just as much, and often more, than jazz. I hope Running The Voodoo Down, coming as it does from a rock-friendly perspective, to expand the range of permissible analysis vis-a-vis Miles. We'll see. Stay tuned.