Forty years ago this month, Miles Davis opened for Neil Young at the Fillmore East. I wrote about their intersection a while back for an EMP Pop Conference, and now the piece has finally been released into the wild, thanks to the intrepid online magazine At Length.
One animating idea in the piece is the power of unknowing. At one point in Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography, by Jimmy McDonough, Young offers probably the single best analysis of Crazy Horse:
It’s not that they fuck up that makes them great. That’s a by-product of the abandon that they play with. They’re not organized. No matter how fuckin’ much we practice the song, Billy can get so into the groove he’ll forget to do the change, y’know? And Ralph may turn the beat around. It happens. Or I can start playin’ the guitar, and Ralph can pick it up on the wrong beat and play it backwards -- that happens all the time. Never happens with real professional groups. With our band this shit happens all the time. But what really happens all the time is that it grooves -- even if it’s not in the groove, it’s in a groove. You hear it and you wanna hear more.
In the piece I attempt to explore what it is about that abandon that appealed to someone like Miles Davis. To some extent it was in the culture, and in his determination to stay relevant. To some extent it must have been in the cause of exploration itself. One thing I’ve always loved about this moment in music is the sense of proceeding blind, of not understanding exactly what’s ahead. The musicians in Miles’s bands of this era would give us Weather Report, Return to Forever and the Mahavishnu Orchestra (and Circle, it should be said). Just a few days before these Fillmore East dates, Mahavishnu Orchestra leader John McLaughlin had been in the studio with Miles, recording a multi-part blues jam called “Go Ahead John.”
And speaking of McLaughlin, there’s a tale you may know about the Silent Way sessions, in which Davis puzzles the British guitar virtuoso by commanding him to play the instrument like he doesn’t know how. Compare that with what Neil Young did to the guitarist Nils Lofgren right around this time, while making After the Gold Rush: he put him on piano, an instrument he really couldn’t play.
In the piece (which, I hope, articulates these issues better than I can here) the word “unthoughtful” plays a meaningful role. Well, when you can’t quite manage unthoughtful, you can still do unknowledgeable. It sounds funny, but given his almost superstitious insistence that Crazy Horse owes its heavy groove to ignorance, Young probably would have approved of another classic Davis admonition. Not long after the teenaged Motown bassist Michael Henderson began working with Miles, he was told: “If you learn any of that old shit, you’re fired!”