Perfect Sound Forever

John French's Limb Independence


By W. C. Bamberger
(December 2009)

Limb independence is a must for a drummer. Just as it sounds, the term means that all four limbs can go their own way, can act independently, carry and keep a particular rhythm while the others connected to the same nerve mainline go their own way. This is the pat your head and rub your stomach test raised to a higher power. John French has this quality, seemingly has it impressed into every cell in his body. Even those of us who have a long acquaintance with French's work at times have trouble believing one man is playing so many different rhythmic lines at once.

You may know something of French's history: in the late-1960s he was drafted from the Lancaster, California blues band that he co-lead to become the drummer for Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band. French played drums on the astonishingly original and hard-to-grasp Trout Mask Replica. Captain Beefheart himself, Don Van Vliet, drove his musicians so hard and treated them with such crushing violence that French soon left the band, though others remained for years. This much of the tale is known to many serious rock fans, especially those drawn in to the Magic Band's music by an interest in the music of Van Vliet's friend and nemesis Frank Zappa.

But what has come out slowly over the years is that French was more than the drummer for the Magic Band. It was he, with some help from others in the band, who took the fragments of music and rhythm that Van Vliet would toss off and shaped them into playable arrangements. French has always been adamant in saying that he didn't write the material, but in a very real sense the sound of the classic Magic Band (there were later incarnations with other musicians, and French himself even guested a few times) was the sound of French's ability to assemble music. What I want to do here is to dedicate a few words--and a whole lot of listening--to John French's compositions since that time. In the Magic Band, French assumed the nom de percussion "Drumbo," a name he still puts on now and then for some of his albums. In what follows, "Drumbo" will be my shorthand for music that might fit within the wobbly circle of the style of music first heard on Trout Mask. This is not all there is to John French--this is very much my point here--but when it applies, "Drumbo" is the only word that will do.


When the core of that classic Magic Band were finally fed up, when they split from Van Vliet, they naturally called on French to help them start a new band, called Mallard. Ultimately, French didn't join the band, but he did help write some of the material issued on their first album, titled simply Mallard.1 "One Day Once," with lyrics by French and music by guitarist Bill Harkleroad (aka Zoot Horn Rollo) is a happy, modestly optimistic song about experiencing life as it comes. Some of the words are obscured by Sam Galpin's gargling vocal, but he seems to be declaring that "Hope is like a big parade, coming down a crooked street." The world is a bright synaesthetic soak: "When you got a minute just take a look around / You'll hear a lot of happy sounds." The final push is for the listener to get out and experience everything.

One day once inside a dream
I watched a rain drop fall
I looked to where I'd never been before
I wanted to see it all
French shares lyric credit with Harkleroad on "A Piece of Me." Déjà vu as Hoo-Doo, a riffling dossier of the kind of uncanny moments that make us wonder if we and the world we think we live in are really in sync, if we know just what shares our moments: "I've got the strangest feeling that all this has happened before," Galpin sings. And later, "I've been hearing stories, about things that you wouldn't believe..." But the song knows the center that holds: "There's a place in time where every thought unwinds. / I'm trying to find a piece of me." The good example provided this time is setting your mind free. On the next track, "Reign of Pain," French is credited with co-writing the music, and it's a quirky, Rube Goldberg percolator, full of changes and cloppings and rhythm turns as jagged as a cracked porcelain glaze. Even without French's actual presence on drums, the layered percussion evokes his hands-all-around sound.

"South of the Valley," which follows this is the only sole writing credit here for French (arrangement by Harkleroad). An impressionist, emotional ballad, with glimpses of beggars and soldiers, about clearing the way on a quest for self-realization in a dark world: "We gave what we could now / The starving made us think / How can eyes in the dark see more than you and me?" The dropping, world-battered melody fits Galpin's worn buckskin voice perfectly above the bright clatter of Harkleroad's layered guitars, and the athletic resolve of Mark Boston's bass.

What would Mallard have become had French become a member of the band? How would his songwriting have developed? We can't know, but these few songs, these pieces and hints have a few things in common, a first sketch of John French as songsmith. Here, as was not the case with the Magic Band music, melody is as important rhythm; conviction is as important as guitars in counterpoint, and the words have to have an emotional weight.

Guitarist Henry Kaiser, always as alert as an astronomer for any distant points of musical light, had come to know Van Vliet and the Magic Band a few years earlier, and at some point, Kaiser and French began a musical association.

French, Frith, Kaiser, Thompson--John, that is, and Fred, Henry and Richard-- is the title of an album recorded in 1987 by this super group of semi-obscure geniuses. French contributes only two songs here, though he also leads the players through some interesting, highly Drumbo-esque instrumentals, as well. The first of the two song, "Wings a la Mode," written with guitarist/bass player Bob Adams, has a nice stop and start rhythm, and offers a parable-like tale of birds and trees trying to reach an interspecies agreement. The words come off as nicely convoluted rather than corny, and the music is as friendly and segmented as the furriest of caterpillars. "Second Time," written with Frith, has a wiry sound, a mutant rockabilly twang below a melody that is by turns sing-song then strident: "First things first, last things last / What's now will soon be past / But tell me where that leads us to." Aside from the instrumentalsm the album is only so-so, and French's two pieces should definitely be spatulaed out and put into a solo anthology of his work.

Their next substantial result was the 1990 album French Frith Kaiser Thompson: Invisible Means.2 Folkie legend Richard Thompson and avant-rocker Fred Frith (Henry Cow) joined with Kaiser and French for an album meant to combine straight ahead music with humor and deliberate oddity (Thompson contributes "March of the Cosmetic Surgeons," for example; and the version of "Loch Lomond" here evokes the Bobby Fuller Four's "I Fought the Law"), as well as forceful experimentation. French plays drum and sings, and contributes five songs. Here as on other dates, the other musicians seem to have pressed French for Drumbo-as-we-know-him-stylings on his drums, even when he might have done otherwise, but the songs are wholly his own vision. The first of French's contributions is the ballad "To the Rain." Duane Eddy meets Link Wray guitar twang lay down the rails the song runs along, but French's voice provides the power. "Take time to listen," he advises, listen to lonely voices, to long distance calls, to the rain, listen to everything... French's next contribution, "Suzanne," has a somewhat overly-crowded melody, riffs as obsessively folded as origami, very Drumbo drums and some distracting background vocals by French himself. Like most name-titled songs, it's in praise of the power of its subject. It's shifting layers of guitars and drums fit together in surprising, interesting ways, but as a song it is unengaging, a case of trying just a touch too hard. "Invisible Means," is a bent shuffle, co-authored with Bob Adams, a guitar player who also appears on French's 1994 Waiting On the Flame. Here French plays blues-drenched harmonica and sings with relaxed power. This is a blues, but it has little to do with 12-bar, and everything to do with spirit. One of the ways French was able to survive his time as a member of the besieged Magic Band was by keeping himself grounded in his Christian faith. For French, this is clearly a powerful force, but in his music it is never overpowering. Though there is nothing preachy here, "Invisible Means" is, I believe, a song about being helped by God. "There ain't no proof, you can't touch it, it can't even be seen. But everyone who's dark that comes up against it, is crumpled by invisible means."

You can't believe your eyes
There's nothing there to be seen
When I ran out of ways of trying
I got help by invisible means...
This features French's most convincing vocal on the album. "The Evening News" features some transmuted funk guitar chunking, and bubbling bass. French's supple melody carries lyrics about the invasion of privacy so many suffer from the media: "Well did you see me, mud on my shoes / Looking like a fool, on the evening news. . . ." The lyrics don't bring much originality to the subject, but French sings it like he's lived it, and Kaiser's incendiary guitar solo sounds like it's taking definite aim.

French's last song on the album, "Now that I am Dead," written with his wife, is about the Ultimate Career Move. It's something of a companion piece to "Evening News" in how it mocks morbid curiosity. Joining in the comic spirit of titles by the others here, "Boris" French here sings in a zombie voice over creepy-crawly music. With lyrics like "Now that I'm deceased my record sales have increased," this is likely "an occasional piece," a song that French sang once and never returned to. The things we do in the name of friendship...

Kaiser and French joined forces again in 1986 to record the first tracks for what would become Crazy Backward Alphabet, which was not issued until 1992.3 French contributes to "Lobster on the Rocks," a throw-away collective composition with four others, but there are four songs here either wholly by French or co-authored with a guitarist. "The Blood and the Ink," is a lyric marvel, jumping from one subject, one register of seriousness, one level of vocabulary to another and back again. A woman has "painted a diary on her face," and she appears in "a darker shade of mystery."

And the blood and the ink
Made the pedestrian shrink
From view
And the lady in lace
Had a tear on her face,
Didn't come from her eye
The music is in the classic "Drumbo" style, but carries itself with a fierce independence. "Get to You" is a rocker with a keel of Morse code guitar (French plays one of the three guitars here), harmonica, and straight ahead drumming. The title pretty much sums up the subject. Catchy and powerfully played. The instrumental that follows up, "The Welfare Elite," by French and Kaiser, is again Drumbo style, with more than few hints of Beefheart instrumentals like "Golden Birdies" and "Suction Prints."

These best of these early songs offer glimpses of French's ideal life: don't back down from life, experience it as it comes, and have faith that even as you make yourself stronger there is something stronger than you behind it all. On 1995's Waiting On the Flame, his first album under his own name, these ideals come more insistently to the fore.4 The first track, "It's Not Over Yet," urges us to resist letting fear make us hole up, glue ourselves to door frame in fear of earthquakes, to not be afraid to speak our minds. The final verse adds that when we fear we no longer have the energy to fight the good fight we should "look to the one that tore the curtain down / You'll find the problem's already been fixed." There's nothing of the dour village prophet about the song either: French's harmonica and the return of Harkleroad to play a fierce lead guitar that hangs across the bars like an electric garland make this danceable song into smiling friendly advice with no hints of a scowl of doom.

"Don't Back Down," reiterates French's call to find our strength. A mid-tempo rocker, it breaks in the middle for a shimmering modal stretch, then returns with nice slide guitar and soprano sax solos. "Waiting on the Flame," about the trivialities of life that try to trip us up in an imperfect world, is another of French's tightly sprung melodies. This one moves more naturally then "Suzanne" even as French and a wiry popping guitar (most likely played by producer Henry Kaiser) adds some nice, Drumbo-esque giant steps. The riff breaks capture the listener's shoulders and raise the eyebrows. Irresistable.

A nice glow of soul sophistication surrounds the rock core of "Goin' Through the Motions" with syncopated flow. The singer's been troubled, has been just plodding through his days, but a better time is in sight:

I'm being driven like a man whose given
Something that the world won't receive.
But this day of trouble ain't troublin' me
It feels like a new life's been conceived.
The lyrics here a bit more lackluster than the best of French's work, but the backup singers keep us company at the chorus and Harkleroad plays with a loopy melodic sunlight. A song that hints this strongly at the Apocalypse shouldn't be this smooth and beguiling. But it is.

The one song here not by French is "The Madness of Love," by Richard Thompson. Its tale of the misery of lost love seems trivial when set among French's originals. Otherwise, "Standin' in your Way" seems to be addressed to Jesus. The words aren't very strong here, but the layered music and off-accents of the chorus keep the song from sinking. "Anything New" injects freshness into the idea that the deity knows every moment of the past and the future. We are gently admonished not to think there is anything new under the sun--and, for the most part, this is a good thing. There are, however, subtle touches to remind us about the dialectic of living:

Before the wheel was found
The world was already round
Before the drum played a beat
The rhythms danced within our feet
Before a man as set free
There was a freedom to set him in.
Before the shade of a tree
There was no root to let darkness in.
"My girl Jesse" proceeds as a simple, tearjerker of a song about a girl the singer misses. Then the last lines bring the twist: "Little Jesse, Why am I so forlorn? Maybe because you were never born." This should be corny, but French's voice and the simple gentleness of the music keep the heart from hardening. "Back from the Dead," despite the emotion of the guitar lines, never rises above its genre: I was (in some way) dead and You brought me back. "Heavy Load" is about the struggle we all face to do right: "I got love/ And I got greed / And I can't decide / Which mouth to feed / Both bite indeed."

"Teamster" is a long ballad, a sea story that's just beyond my reach. The words are compelling--"Starched and sprayed, the glacier was capped. / Aural minglings frozen and snapped"--but French's private allegory defeats me. All I can do is to listen to the fierce emotion in French's voice, and wonder... "Through a Glass Darkly" is one of two instrumentals on the album. It has a nice melodic heart, and the soprano player seems to enjoy blowing over its changes. A fusion diversion. "Crowfeed Gulch" is another story-song, sung in the voice of a homeless man: "Life Ain't no Prize / Death ain't no wish / When its only disguise / Is an empty dish." The clash of two slide guitars trouble the music like rough wind over water, and once again French really puts his heart into singing this song. His voice carries the conviction of someone who has perhaps seen this possibility orbit too close.

The last track on the CD is "Burundo Drumbi," a six-minute drum solo. French's playing is amazing, supple, and much of the time sounds like multiple drummers playing together. His habitual use of an extended drum kit--he often uses extra toms to extend his tonal range--allow him to play the drum kit as a melodic instrument, to play solos that sing chrome and wood melodies, or unfold like small concertos. French's second solo album was in fact a solo drum recording, O Solo Drumbo. (See the December 2007/January 2008 PSF for my review of several solo percussion recordings, including French's).

In the early 21st century, French did time in a Magic Band regrouping. With Gary Lucas and others he played some of the material the various Magic Bands had played with Don Van Vliet. Booking agents were skittish, seeing the group as a "tribute band" because there was no new material. French four songs that returned to the Drumbo Magic Band style, to help the band sustain itself. Instead, these and eight more became--after a (very) long 3 ½ years of effort on French's part--his most recent solo album, City of Refuge.5 Once again Harkleroad is on board, and Mark Boston plays bass on one track. The songs featured layers of riffs and raspy harmonies, quick changes of rhythm and French even takes on something of Van Vliet's vocal style--throaty baritone with spoken interjections. French sings, plays drums and harmonics, and plays soprano saxophone here, though decidedly not in Van Vliet's "Any squawk is better than none" style. For those with a good grasp of Magic Band bearings the music here is much less "Pachuco Cadaver" than "Bellerin' Plain," or "Sheriff of Hong Kong." The first track, "Bogeyman" opens the CD with a muscular blast of Drumbo style: stops and starts, ringing slide guitar, vocals deep in the throat, all warning about the legendary getter we all once believed in (and maybe still do?)--with the hovering suggestion that it may well be inside all of us. For Magic Band fans, this is a 4:52 slice of perfection. "Bus Ticket Out of Town," has some nice lyrics ("It's so dark I'm afraid of myself"), and because French's drums alternate between Drumbo style and straight ahead time keeping, it's all the more obvious how central his style was and is to this kind of music. The guitar solos suffer here because French plays it so straight under them--an essential dimension is missing. Once "Blood on a Porcupine Quill" gets rolling after a slow start, it's a fascinating sub-species of the Drumbo style: not quite as stop and start, with the substitution of some nice center-line rock riffing. Harkleroad's solo is the proverbial something-else: twisting lines, then half-step clashes and bent-string commentary. Some uncharacteristic drum rolls end the song.

By the fourth song, French's steadiest convictions begin to show through. After a tinkling, baroque-torqued keyboard intro by French, "City of Refuge" is a rock drill of force and conviction. The band plays full out every moment, the guitars becoming not walls of sound, but catapults. In the Bible, cities of refuge were designated places where the accused could run and gain some breathing space before being judged. And French is determined to find such a space for himself: "I wanna go where the rain is light / Where there ain't no pain and there ain't no fright / . . . City of Refuge!" Joshua's trumpet got nothing on French's drums on this track. "Abandon" rejects pretty, deceptive surfaces, in hopes of finding a truer world:

I don't want a world that I've wrapped inside my head
With pretty paper...
I don't want a life that's lived inside
A hard shell of conceit
The music here is straight ahead except for a skein of arpeggios Harkleroad plays with machine precision, and the songs ends with a brief a capella. The next song, "Get So Mean" asks, "How did you ever get so mean?" and wonders if the devil can be blamed or just man. It lurches on busy drums and syncopated guitars (Harkleroad here sounds much like he did on the Beefheart song "I'm Gonna Booglarize You, Baby"). The song rocks and jumps irresistibly; a highlight. "Maybe That'll Teach You," is a story song about pistol-toting confrontation--Jay and the Americans on steroids. Toward the end, splintered chords back a trade-off between French's soprano and his harmonica. "To the Loft of Ravenscroft" is a nice mid-tempo instrumental that offers as much space to John Thomas' keyboard bass as to the guitars and French's Coltrane-at-Newport-toned soprano. "The Shirt off My Back" thrashes and twists, and features French's fiercest vocal--at times he sings "duets" between his two ranges. Here as on many of the songs, the music obscures the words and with no lyric sheet, the listener is left with following the emotional contour of the music. "The Wicked Witch of War" is a little more open, at times just utilizing the drums and bass to back the singing. When the guitars add their comments, their riffs arrive in dizzying counterpoints to the rhythm section. War is embodied as a witch, and acts like one: "A broom sweeps life away / Like the waves that top the shore / She's a lusty old whore / The wicked witch of war." The apocalyptic warning of "Whose Side Ya On" lingers in the lower range of the instruments as French spins out his ear-catching verbal inventions: "When your mind is spinning round and round, in dyslexic clouds / Whose side ya on?" The structure here is wondrous, crisp melody layered over melody in clashes that fit together like a 3-D jigsaw.

"The Withered Hand of Time" ends the CD on the high side, with clash, melody, rhythmic invention, and poetry in winding streamers. The first guitar solo is its own little cell of ideas that grows through the song like one of those discrete habitats in a high forest where strange creatures thrive. And with a last punch, the CD ends. At just short of 50 minutes, this is a substantial sampling of the Drumbo style.

The music on this CD is fresh, compelling and beautifully put together. But, for me, there is something cramped feeling about it. The fault is largely mine, I know. It's because I'm a long-time fan of French's efforts. I came a little late to Trout Mask, not buying my first copy until 1973, but I was instantly converted. I played all four sides until the dust sank into the hot vinyl in off-white pinwheels. I bought every album, nearly memorized every note, and even believed every legend Van Vliet told about himself as a genius: writing an entire album during a single car trip, etc.

But when I began to learn the truth about French's role I wasn't disappointed, I was elated: this wasn't the result of someone being genetically of a superior musical race, but of a damn good drummer applying his skills in a brilliantly original way. So as Van Vliet sank into self-imposed invisibility, I continued to follow French--and to be impressed by what he could do. O Solo Drumbo isn't a favorite of mine because many of the tracks are rearranged Magic Band music, but because in their solo state, every lick, every cross-hatch, every stutter can be so clearly heard. There is something about the double-depth of his roles here--French arranged the music original, rearranged and played it himself--that opens the music and lets the listener enter into it, barebones as it is, instrument-wise, to a depth that few other albums have allowed. It took some effort to secure a copy of Waiting On the Flame, and I was initially surprised by its almost complete brushing off of the Drumbo style. But I listened to the music and heard, in another dialect, the same mind and limbs at work, and I enjoy the album very much. And that fact that it's very difference from what I'd known--even expected--is what put me in mind of limb independence. John French can play blues, he can play straight ahead rock, he can play solo drums that will wrap your ears around your skull, and he can create Drumbo-style music.

But now, I want it all. And City of Refuge, for all its power and invention, only offers me one or two aspects of John French. Some limbs are missing. And this is what makes it feel cramped. A fan's mind is a devious place, and mine can't help but go toward the speculation that there is about this album a little too much of the intent to recreate the--and how strange it is to say this!--commercially viable Drumbo style at the expense of all the other things French can do. And my mind has a contrary kind of limb independence of its own: I am at once pleased and disappointed by City of Refuge. As I noted above, such cities were places the persecuted could go to await justice. I wouldn't care to speculate about how much the spiritual dimension of the term means to John French the man, but for my part (remember, I'm the one who wants it all), I still await the day when John French the musician can leave such cities behind and celebrate his own Independence Day.


FOOTNOTES

1. Mallard/In a Different Climate (two albums on one CD) Virgin Compact Disc CDOVD 442.
2.Windham Hill CD WD-1094.
3. SST Records SST CD 110.
4. Demon Records FIENDCD 759.
5. Proper Records PRPCD 024.


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