Bill Bruford: The Autobiography
By Bill Bruford

Jawbone Press 2009, $19.95/14.95, pp352

If I remember correctly, it was the first week of 2010, and I was placidly leafing through the most recent issue (December, 2009) of US monthly Down Beat, when I happened to see an article titled: "Bill Bruford Announces Retirement, Releases Autobiography". The piece, by Robert Kaye, started saying that "In early 2009, Bill Bruford announced his formal retirement from public performance and recording. The drummer's official statement coincided with the release of his first book, Bill Bruford: The Autobiography." When it came to the actual reasons that had provoked the artist's decision, the article chose to direct readers to the just-printed volume: "Bruford's reasons for retiring are spelled out in the book".

It was all quite bizarre. Of course, it's entirely possible that the tone, and logic, of the article had been sacrificed for reasons of space, but the end result possessed such a bureaucratic tone that I doubt it managed to convince many readers that what had happened was, indeed, very dramatic. It didn't convince me. And so, after I spent a minute or two thinking about Bruford's drumming, which I had especially liked in the very old days of "British" King Crimson, I turned the page, leaving the whole thing behind.

Until the day, that is, when a dear friend of mine sent me a link to an article titled "Bill Bruford: The Autobiography - A comment by Dave Stewart". This was real news, Dave Stewart being, of course, the keyboard player and composer in groups such as Hatfield And The North, National Health, and Stewart & Gaskin. But also the one who shared many stages, and quite some time in recording studios, with Bill Bruford: first, in an embryonic version of National Health; then, in the group Bruford, the electric quartet of which the drummer was the leader. It was a long, and quite profound, review, with multiple interesting topics, many questions asked... A very nice review! So I got my credit card out, went online, bought the book.

And the book is good. It's very well written, with a precise prose whose aim is obviously to clearly tell it the way it is. Refined language, just like one would expect from somebody like Bruford. The narration moves on different, parallel, planes, through time and space, dealing with things such as music, the actual playing, the organization of work in the life of a musician, the economic side, managers audience and the media, the critics, those interpersonal relationships that occur in the life of a group, and so on.

Those who already know the story will find here all the various chapters: beginnings, the Yes adventure, the triumphs of Fragile and Close To The Edge, the jump into the unknown that was King Crimson, the various sessions and the live playing with Genesis, the group Bruford, then UK, King Crimson again, Yes again, and King Crimson once again, Bruford's decision to dedicate himself to jazz, the group Earthworks, and those drum clinics. It goes without saying that here we can read many anecdotes and descriptions that have as their main characters very well-known people such as Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew, Allan Holdsworth, Tony Levin, John Wetton, Jeff Berlin, Jon Anderson, Phil Collins, Chris Squire, and so on. There are no real revelations about those figures, but we can see things from a different perspective.

A caveat that Bruford puts almost at the end of the volume (it's on page 343) that readers will have to remember in order to avoid being disappointed by their own unrealistic expectations reads thus: "There are readers of this memoir who are probably lamenting the absence of a track-by-track breakdown of my recorded efforts - which cymbal was played where and when, who produced what track, and why did the Japanese version contain three fewer edits than the European standard version? I can't remember most of it - detail on that level fills me with ennui. Only the bigger picture holds any interest now." (It goes without saying that those who've read the book up to page 343 will already be past the point of expecting that kind of approach from the book's author...)

But thinking that this book could be regarded as being interesting, and a fun read, only by those who like(d) at least some of the aforementioned names would be really, really wrong, given the embarrassment of riches one can find here. (The only weak point of the book for this reader being that, once in a while, one gets a kind of "macro" perspective with more than a nod to works by people like Simon Frith and Richard Middleton, with their banal smell of "Academia". Bruford's first-hand observations, acquired while working "in the field", don't really need those weak crutches. It's just a couple of pages every once in a while, so the book does not get any serious damage from this.)

The first group of readers who will regard this book as being of much interest comprises those who for reasons of age (let's say, forty-somethings - and beyond) will consider this book like a "history book" that will talk about the long journey from, say, "post-Beatles" rock to today's music, but according to a perspective that's "internal" to the profession - which is something that can make all the difference. A good example of this being the discussion about being a professional musician inside today's Web framework, which dramatically changes the relationship between musicians and their audience (see pp247-250). There are also moments when a first sketch of economy/politics nature appears, as a possible explanation of today's irrelevance when it comes to objects (curiously, Bob Dylan had already talked about something quite similar in a classic interview by Paul Zollo), as readers can see from this brief excerpt: "It's hard to escape the implication that there is already enough music in Western society, and Western society tends to point out to the musician through the market - sometimes quite brutally, because the stupid musician doesn't get it - that it doesn't really want any more new music, that it's stuffed with the music it's got."

The second group of readers who I'm sure will find this book interesting are those who are interested in reading about the (internal, and also situational) logic of the artistic creation. And this is a quite complex topic.

At the time of the aforementioned Down Beat piece, I wondered about the reasons that had been the cause of Bruford's decision to quit, and given the fact that Bruford was born in 1949 and that drumming is (was?) his profession, I had thought of health reasons (which don't necessarily have to be grave, but let's remember that bones and muscles are more important for a drummer than for the average citizen). Reading the book I learned that things are not, in a way, as dramatic as I had feared (his health's OK), while being much more dramatic than I feared, in a different way. There is more than a grain of truth in Pete Townshend's motto that goes "Hope I die before I get old", but here it's apparent that factors concerning the personality of the individual, and the situational logic, are important items. Those factors have, in time, made the gap between "inhabiting art" and "seeing art from the outside" wider and wider, until it reached a point where process itself was made impossible. I'm afraid this side of Bruford's book will make things difficult for many readers, and not because its tone is excessively dark and heavy (the opposite actually being true), but because it shows the mundane, ordinary implications of this.

It's at this point that every one of us (including Bruford) has to decide if dying in one's sleep in Las Vegas after sniffing some coke in the company of a hooker is really the better choice.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2010 | Apr. 5, 2010