One of the many things Miles Davis and Bob Dylan have in common is all the books written about each of them.
Two good new ones – “The Last Miles – The Music of Miles Davis, 1980-1991" by George Cole (University of Michigan Press), and Greil Marcus’s “Like A Rolling Stone – Bob Dylan at the Crossroads" (PublicAffairs) – lead to reflections on other parallels.
“I have to keep changing, it’s like a curse," Miles famously said, and of course Dylan wrote: “He not busy being born is busy dying." Davis led in the formation of at least four styles – bebop, cool, modal, and jazz-rock fusion. Dylan combined traditional acoustic folk music with rock, and country music, and he wrote gospel songs. Each time, faithful fans were furious.
They both made music that was full of originality, intelligence, and rage; and both of them knew how to swing. They both had a reputation as being acerbic, and prone to bad humor. Both of them loved to provoke. “Hitler should have left the Jews alone and killed all the piano players," Miles once said. (The following day, it might be drummers, or he might pour a beer on the head of his saxophone player.) The provocative ending of Dylan’s “Masters Of War" goes: “And I’ll stand o’er your grave/’Til I’m sure that you’re dead."
“If somebody is playing, and you don’t hear what they’re playing, you play louder," Miles told one of his musicians. While being booed for his heavily amplified “Like A Rolling Stone," getting madder and madder, Dylan shouted at his band: “Play fucking [JIM?] loud!" Both books quote a succession of musicians saying, while watching the parking meters, how much they loved to follow their leaders. Neither one of them suffered fools easily.
Dylan had a bad motorcycle accident; Miles broke his ankles cracking up his Lamborghini. They were both famous for knowing how to disappear – stopping and starting their careers several times, losing their chops, finding them again. In the late seventies, Dylan was performing on a backlit stage without a spotlight. A backlit Dylan is not unlike Davis (who pointed out that nobody objects when white conductors conduct symphony orchestras with their backs to the audience) playing with his back to the audience. Both of them continued to perform on more or less endless tours into their sixties.
It was said that Davis had sold-out when he began to play rock; that the money and stardom counted more than the curse of change. He rarely did anything he didn’t want to do, even for money. His last reincarnation has been taken seriously only recently. Miles had earned the right to coast by the time he hit 54 in 1980. Having grown weary from others leaning on his complexity, he would play pretty much the same as before - though leaner and shakier after all the accidents, the chemicals, and the operations - while slipstreaming in the lee of the heavy grooves of his young rock musicians.
The Dylan book concentrates on the eponymous song, and the switch from acoustic folk to electric rock, which it headlined in the mid-1960s. (Dylan liked to call it “rowk and rowl.") Marcus says that “wails of hate" accompanied his new rock band, there were bomb threats, and unison slow clapping to throw the musicians off their timing; there were group walkouts. British Communists objected to the ripping-off of the music of the folk. During a concert in Manchester, a member of the audience shouted “Judas," and, after quoting Dylan’s lines: “You’ll have to decide/Whether Judas Iscariot/had God on his side," Marcus asks: “Who stands up in a crowded theater and shouts ‘Judas’ at a Jew?"
The album “Gotta Serve Somebody – The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan" (Columbia) is a collection of gospel singers performing the best covers of Dylan songs by African Americans since Jim Hendrix. You listen to it, and to the original versions of the songs on “Slow Train Coming" (“You got gangsters in power/And lawbreakers making the rules") with much the same shock and awe as to the Last Miles’s Grammy-winning “Tutu," which is a soundtrack to a movie about our urban life in the late 20th century. Davis’s last bands tended to sound better live than on record, and perhaps the defining album of that period is the 20-CD box “The Complete Miles Davis at Montreux, 1973-1991" (Warner Music/Switzerland).
Marcus writes that after “Like A Rolling Stone," Dylan was “carried by his own legend, an oddly crepuscular figure who many believed still carried within himself the secrets of an epoch when Desolation Row was just across the street…It seemed [that he] was ready to start over, not as a private individual with money to make and children to raise but as a legendary figure of many parts, cool and reflective, drunk and mad, a pathfinder, someone who had been from one end of the land to the other and returned to tell the tale."
“Crepuscular," “legendary," “cool," “a pathfinder" – Davis’s drummer Tony Williams said: “Miles was the last point man." And the entire passage could describe post-“Bitches Brew" Davis, who carried similar secrets, who also returned to tell the tale, and who said, replying to an interviewer who asked him why he did not play ballads any more: “Because I love them so much."