Most of what we know about the life of Miles Davis is either anecdotal or a matter of official record, and thus not absolutely reliable; but by all accounts, most pertinently his own, Miles Davis was a bad man. Live-Evil. Bitches Brew. Dark Magus. Sorcerer. Black Devil. The titles of those albums tell the story he needed us to hear. They–and the music whose nature they reflect–embody an admission of perfidy, malice and vengefulness, and further convey the prideful glorification of those transgressions. Like all of us, Miles invented himself from the chaos he was given to interpret; unlike many of us, he never bothered with reinvention. He hewed to his original self-conception with unrepentant ferocity, engaging in a type of human alchemy, changing himself into an imaginary creature who lived in place of the ordinary man. The fanfare that opens Bitches Brew was the formal announcement of this change and, thereafter, he inculcated his music with a churlish, occult presence that refined it into something other than music, a brooding and often brutish form of intimacy that gladdened no hearts and lifted no spirits, speaking instead to the body and the backbrain.
Critics like to enthuse about Miles Davis in the 1950s and ’60s and disregard his output during the 1970s, a creative period after which he retired for several years. Some see this electric music as a dissolute phase and some perceive it as tired, evidence of an aging talent attempting to be contemporary. But Miles never had to work at being contemporary. He proclaimed no cosmic evangel, as did Coltrane, and he was neither a Blake-ish visionary like Albert Ayler nor a mad scientist-poet like Ornette Coleman. The information he relayed when playing never seemed dated, as sometimes is the case with poets and preachers. Elegance was a suit he wore, but inside it he was sinewy, funky, raw. Passion was a language he could speak, but passion bored him and he employed it only when it served to pay the bills. Essentially, he was on the lookout and streetcorner, talking about what he saw coming. Not the long view, but the way things looked a few storefronts down, next week, a couple of months from now. He wanted to be the coolest monster on the corner, the one who got raised up yet stayed with the street no matter what marble halls surrounded him. That may not be all he was, just who he wanted to be; but he wanted it with such genius intensity that he became the star of his own personal blaxploitation movie, acting the role of a sinister, magical hustler who when he played was checking things out and reporting back to himself. He included us in the conversation because we gave him the money and attention he had hustled us for, and he bought into his own con so completely, he left behind a standard street hustler’s legacy of embittered ex-friends and maltreated women.
All great artists pander a little–they feel they have to tell us something good about ourselves, offer a connection that’ll make us believe we’re complicit in what they do and that’ll give us something to talk about afterward. Miles outgrew that tendency during the 1970s. He turned his back on the audience and muttered into his horn as if pronouncing a curse he didn’t want anyone to understand. He played mean, he played nasty, he played coolly sneering blurts of sound, and even when he played beautifully, it seemed he was commenting on beauty rather than lending it voice, that at the core of every melody was a disaffection that rendered beauty irrelevant, an attitude increasingly informed by a politics compounded of anger and heroin and egomania. During those years his face shriveled from a griot’s aloof mask to a black wizard’s skull with a Sphinx hairdo. His music was distilled down from innovative melodic phrasings that played like luminous blue branches forking among the rustlings of the rhythm section into something dread and basic, dark oceans. Chords opened over a snaky, slithering cymbal hiss, a cluttered rumble of bass, followed by the sinuous trumpet line, a snake charmer whine rising from a storm of thunderheads and scuttling claws, as plaintive and elusive as a muezzin’s call. It seemed to have the freedom of jazz, yet at the same time it had the feel of heavy, ritual music.
I remember how, after seeing Miles in the 1960s, I walked out of the club thinking about his technique and the particularity of his invention and his ostensibly offhanded yet astonishingly precise enunciation of the notes. His 1970s music–as for instance, the Carnegie Hall recordings released under the title Dark Magus–doesn’t provoke any similar intellectual reaction, which explains why it is dismissed by intellectuals. It breeds images in your mind. Static red flashes and black mountains moving. Mineral moons in granite skies. A thread of fire outlining a distant ridge. Then it washes over you and shuts you down. It’s not art, it’s not beauty, it’s a meter reading on the state of the soul, a registering of creepy fundamentals, a universal alpha wave, God’s EKG, a base electric message crackling across the brain. It suggests that what Miles saw on his immediate horizon was a figure of terrible promise.
That’s what I heard, anyway. A reedy alarm mounted against a crawl of background radiation, a whisper of melody leaking out through a crack in death’s door, filling all the air with its singular disturbance. Miles ultimately wanted less to entertain than to unsettle his audience, and this music was as much a statement of that policy as it was one of blighted conviction.
There was nothing Promethean about Miles. Transfiguration and transcendence were not among his concerns. Like Rimbaud and Bukowski, Céline and Mishima, he was a hero descending, moving ever downward into a spiritual bottomland, never flinching from the experience, wallowing in the stuff that tarred the floor of his soul. His music is a record of that descent, a sonic diary that tagged the walls with an enduring graffiti and, at the same time, a fiction he was telling the street, the environment whose demiurge he sought to be. During the 1970s he seemed to have become an oneiric figure in whom fiction and truth commingled. Dressed in flashy silks, his face grown somewhat wizened, the sort of ancient face you see emerging from the rough textures of tree bark or an avocado pit, he stood still in the noise of the storm he orchestrated. Watching and listening to him, I had the idea that his arrogance and defiance were no longer merely part of a costume but served to deflect fear–that he had seen the shadow of the myth he’d made and it was coming to claim him, an awful conclusion that, if we could see it, big, burly and spitting flame, would frighten us as well.
In the 1980s, when Miles returned after his retirement, his style was slicker and, though some of the music was good, it no longer seemed possessed by that furious entity. He was, for all intents and purposes, done. It’s hard to sum up what a musician leaves behind. Though the recordings remain, the sounds have been vacated to a degree by the death of the player. But when I put on Dark Magus or Pangaea or any of his music from the 1970s, one thing becomes clear: Miles didn’t bring us much good news on his way down to death, but for a time he showed us how the Devil might have sung while he fell through the floor of Heaven.