A collection of tributes to the late former editor of The Wire, who died August 2007
Richard Cook 1957-2007
Richard Cook Tributes
from Bitstream The Wire #284 October 2007
Richard Cook, the former editor of The Wire, has died aged 50. Richard was diagnosed with bowel and liver cancer in 2006, and finally succumbed to the illness in the early hours of 25 August. Richard edited The Wire between 1985Ð92. During that period the magazine developed from a little-known journal mapping the hermetic worlds of avant jazz, improvised music and modern composition into an internationally read monthly title that attempted to cover the entirety of jazz's 100 year history, while still leaving space for discussion of all manner of other non-mainstream sounds, from noise and Industrial culture to African and Latin music and beyond. Towards the end of his editorship the magazine began to expand its remit once again, introducing in-depth articles on more familiar names such as Prince, Frank Zappa, Van Morrison and, most notoriously, Michael Jackson.
Richard left The Wire to head the jazz department at PolyGram UK, where he produced new CDs by the UK trumpeter Guy Barker, and reissued the pioneering but largely unheard early 60s free jazz recordings of the UK-Jamaican saxophonist Joe Harriott. Thanks to his co-authorship with Brian Morton of the monumental Penguin Guide To Jazz Recordings (now in its eighth edition), books on Miles Davis and Blue Note and the recent Richard Cook's Jazz Encyclopedia, as well as his editorship of Jazz Review, which he founded in October 1999, Richard was best known as one of the most perceptive, provocative and accessible jazz critics of his generation. But he started out on the NME in the early 80s, writing brilliantly about all manner of music, from The Fall to Orchestra Makossa; parallel to his subsequent career writing about jazz, he continued to cover other musics for a wide range of publications, including Sounds, New Statesman, Mojo, The Sunday Times and Punch.
Occasionally, he even returned to the pages of The Wire, and his continuing influence on the magazine was underlined by the fact that three of its subsequent editors, Mark Sinker, Tony Herrington and Chris Bohn, were all first recruited as writers during his time as editor. All of Richard's work was driven by an unequivocal love of music that had been with him all his life (he began collecting records when he was five or six years old and never stopped), and a desire to understand and illuminate music that was facilitated by a unique, quicksilver writing style. His advice to aspiring music journalists was typically pithy: "Describing a piece of music in a way which isn't either cliche-ridden or merely fanciful is desperately difficult. I suppose if I have any advice to offer, it's the simple truth that you have to listen properly, and hard, and ask yourself what's going on and why."
You certainly don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, but without Richard it's going to be much harder to follow the seasons of the music, its fair patches, its coming storms. The analogy might seem random, because there might be a few regular readers of The Wire who might not yet know that Richard was also 'Mike Fish', who regularly appeared on these pages so that Richard's byline wasn't too dominant. (It also meant he got two votes in the end-of-year poll.) The homage to TV's favourite - and most notorious - weatherman was a typical Richard gesture, wry, funny, very English. He was himself a tad obsessed with the weather: loathed the heat of a London summer, but equally disliked the rain and slush of its winters. When I told him I was returning to live in Scotland, he reacted as if the other half of the Penguin Guide To Jazz team was relocating to Murmansk. Invariably, our telephone conversations got round to how cold and wet it must be "up there": spring, summer, autumn, winter, actual meteorological conditions, it made no difference.
Our phone conversations always began with an impromptu blindfold test. "Hang on, just let me turn this down... OK, what was that? Oh, come on! Surely..." As if five seconds of heavily distorted noise down a rural phone line could possibly reveal whatever he was listening to, and that could have been anything from Ladd's Black Aces to Nurse With Wound. Richard wasn't merely a collector. He was an avid and attentive listener, whose first reaction to a disc was always considered, contextualised and utterly on the money. He never read a liner note until he had listened first. His reviews were crisply detailed, his judgements uncluttered by editorial noises elsewhere. Fashion meant nothing to him.
Some of his views were argued past reason, but that, too, was a measure of his integrity. He stood up for unfashionable musicians, particularly singers, and was singularly perceptive when it came to picking real stars out of the latest 'movement', whether one of the 'British Jazz Booms' that came along like those increasingly rare good summers, Nu-Jazz, the New Quiet, or whatever.
Like his namesake, he failed to forecast the hurricane that was coming, but when Richard was first diagnosed with cancer, a lifelong hypochondriac turned into a stoic overnight. Some people thought Richard walked round with his own personal rain cloud. There was a theory that the middle initial in RD Cook stood for Despondent. True, he was often dismayed by the vicissitudes of an industry he'd seen from the inside and understood better than any of us, but I never found Richard to be anything other than optimistic, upbeat, funny and eternally curious about what the next batch of discs might hold. His departure is in itself a climate change within British jazz.
I was a school friend of Richard Cook's, and a couple of years had passed when I ran into him again at a David Murray gig at the 606 Club in London's Oxford Street - this was when Murray's trio included Sunny Murray, and he was the rising star of the avant garde with Flowers For Albert and other classics. Shortly after, Richard became editor of The Wire, and asked me to write for it - probably a unique instance of old school tie at the organisation. What he saw in my immature, semi-literate but securely opinionated reviews, I don't know, but we were all young then. Like many other writers, I owe my career to him. He was a great and wholly benign influence on my life.
Richard had a deserved reputation for gruffness but his English reserve concealed a great warmth and generosity of spirit. I suspect I'm not the only one to fully realise the extent of that warmth and generosity, only after being deprived of it by his tragic early death. He encouraged the gruff persona, and The Wire once ran a small picture of him in the news column, unsmiling and staring into the middle distance, with the caption, "Cook shares a joke" - itself a joke as dry as they come, and Richard's were some of the driest.
He had a huge passion for music of all kinds, good and bad - from free Improv (though maybe not quite its furthest avant garde reaches) to music hall, trad jazz and early recorded opera. In writing about it, he understood that a true critic will inevitably both encourage and offend, and he wrote, as the clichŽ has it, without fear or favour. He was much too self-deprecating about his own work. When I said I'd buy his new book about Blue Note records, his characteristic reply was, "Wait till it's remaindered, Andy - don't waste your money!" Somehow his writing about jazz perfectly matched the aspirations of the medium - serious but never solemn. His presence in the world of music was huge and irreplaceable, and his death leaves a void. I haven't noticed it getting smaller as the days and weeks pass.
Unusually for someone from The Wire fraternity, I met Richard Cook only after he'd left the magazine. He'd gone to work for Universal Jazz, although his next project would demonstrate that Richard was too independent of mind to last long in a world where CDs are described as 'units'. Jazz Review magazine was the jazz scene as seen through the eyes of RD Cook, as his byline became. I started writing for the magazine in its second issue as a wet-behind-the-ears music writer in 1999 and Richard became my mentor. Much to the frustration of those major-label suits he'd left behind he much preferred running features on Johnny Dodds and Jelly Roll Morton than, say, about Herbie Hancock's latest album or Jamie Cullum. The readers loved it - and when rival magazine Jazzwisebegan a mean spirited campaign against the magazine in its gossip column, moaning about its alleged old-school attitudes, Richard was resolute: we continue our work and ignore the petty criticism.
Looking through back issues of the magazine in the days after Richard's death, I was struck by the broad sympathies its Editor encouraged. It was quite possible to finish a piece on King Oliver, turn the page and be in the middle of a long interview with Maggie Nicols. Humphrey Lyttelton was the cover one issue, and a few months later John Butcher. Richard commissioned me to write a massive retrospective on Charles Mingus that ran over three issues and took no prisoners in terms of technical detail and aesthetic outlook - one part began with a comparison of Mingus's compositional techniques with those of Helmut Lachenmann. With Jazz Review, Richard gathered a team of writers whom he trusted and licensed them to do good work, happy to run a cosy anecdotal piece about his beloved British Trad scene alongside note picking analysis of Derek Bailey.He himself wrote an astonishing amount of copy - anarticle on Sarah Vaughan was so perceptive that it completely changed my viewpoint on jazz singing. And now I wish I'd told him that. His last feature was an interview with Barry Guy. Richard's own writing style had a knack of evoking jazz's spontaneity and creativity. He was never short of the right word to describe a sound, and putting a droll spin on a common usage phrase was a Cook trademark. Early on in the Jazz Review days Richard took me for coffee and gave me an insightful analysis of the strengths and weakness of my writing, and his encouragement was unfailing even when I pushed the limits, indulging my enthusiasm for Paul Dunmall and Tony Bevan, or delivering 10,000 words on Fletcher Henderson when we'd agreed 2000.
But there were times when he dug his heels in. One feature suggestion was batted back with "On our list of one to ten, he's at number 73", another with, "He's hardly top of the hit parade, mate."
I first wrote for Richard when we were both hard-nosed bureaucrats at the Charity Commission in the late 70s/early 80s. During his editorship of the union branch magazine he gradually insinuated more and more articles about the arts, so that many people who used to cast the journal aside unread started to open it for the film and music pieces and began to take in some of the core stuff, too. Richard's stance as a union rep was much like his critical one: he never toed the party line for form's sake, and his arguments were logical and edifying.
For a couple of years we jointly ran a weekly jazz-record recital in the lunch-hour, during which the extent of Richard's taste and erudition became clear: not many people had an equal appreciation for both Annette Henshaw and Norma Winstone at her most abstract. Richard's knowledge and enjoyment wasn't confined to jazz, though. I remember that he saw the depth in Scott Walker's work long before it was fashionable, and also championed the merits of The Beach Boys' Surf's Up. I bought this LP on the strength of his review in the union magazine and found it a huge disappointment until, many years later, dusting it off when preparing an article on Charles Lloyd, light began to dawn.
Soon, Richard went off to NME while I continued to dessicate in my civil servility. We'd bump into each other from time to time at gigs --- he instantly recognisable by his white raincoat and supermarket carrier-bag among trendily-dressed hordes, few of whom would have been likely to match his commitment to, deep knowledge of, or perceptive response to the music --- and I noticed some of his pieces appearing in The Wire in its early, quarterly issues. By that time various jazz fanzines I edited or contributed to had gone the way of most such ventures, and I was suffering mild withdrawal symptoms. Then I met Richard at a party shortly after he had been invited to edit The Wire, and he asked me to become a regular contributor.
I reckoned my taste was pretty eclectic and my mind quite receptive to new musical experiences already, but writing for Richard and reading his own contributions to The Wire during this period helped open my ears to much more: for example, I had always respected the work of Derek Bailey and Evan Parker, but it was Richard's commentaries on their music that helped me to admire it more, and enjoy it. He never managed to convince me about Anthony Braxton, though, but then I never managed to convince him about Jackie McLean.
His reputation as something of a curmudgeon was reinforced by his headmasterly interjections into writers' copy. These could be as terse as 'Rubbish' (when I referred to the later work of Sam Peckinpah as pornography of violence) or the traditional 'You're fired', but would just as often be an economical reminder of another point of view which the writer might have overlooked, or a shaft of light when they got too involved in an arcane point. If a question of fact was at issue Richard would always, at draft stage, be able to advise and inform you on the correct information; if his indispensable reference books (The Penguin Guide To Jazz On CD, co-authored with Brian Morton, and Richard Cook's Jazz Encyclopaedia) did not provide the answer. a quick phone call or email to him would. Moreover, if there were recordings you hadn't got and couldn't get to help with your research, Richard's collection would invariably supply the deficiency, and he was generous in lending out not only albums you had asked to borrow but others that he felt you might need to complete the picture. I have no idea of the total number of 78s, LPs, tapes and CDs he had, but the shelving problems must have been immense. Only a few months ago, when I was packing up some CDs to return to him, he said, with characteristic dry humour, that his wife preferred him to store his CDs in other people's house.
Not everyone, I think, tuned in to the sense of humour which usually informed the curmudgeonliness, and he enjoyed a good or, better still, bad play on words. During my early days with The Wire he sent me to review a gig by Vincent Herring. I packed the review with a series of increasingly awful fish-related puns, and from then on it was something of a game between me and Richard (who used 'Mike Fish' as an alternative byline) as to how dreadful the puns could get before he would object. Later, at Jazz Review, variations developed, where I would see how far I could go with parodying different styles before provoking a '[Get on with it! - Ed]' or '[Steady on! - Ed]'.
Richard was the best kind of editor to work for. He let contributors say what they meant, only tampering with their precious prose if it was gratuitously offensive, actionable or just factually wrong. Those of us who have had embarrassing, misleading statements appear over our names as a result of sub-editing 'improvements' know how invaluable that was. Richard's own writing was elegant, clear and illuminating, and he had his own impeccable standards, but he never tried to force his writers into a house style, and he recognised that if readers are to trust the opinions expressed in reviews they need to establish a relationship with critics based on the writers' personalities and idiosyncrasies as much as on their knowledge. Nevertheless, Richard's own preferences often had to be read between the lines; he saw his job as providing a key to the music, not a celebration of his own tastes. There was a clear distinction between music which was incompetent or dishonest - which he would lambast - and music which he didn't especially like for other reasons; that would be assessed fairly and logically and would be given such credit as was its due. That is why the two books mentioned above are, and will remain, such valuable and trustworthy resources.
His other books (Blue Note Records: The Biography and It's About That Time: Miles Davis On And Off The Record) were equally informative and entertaining. Reviewing the Miles book for BBC Music magazine I commented that Richard "characteristically shines a light into unconsidered corners and magnifies details to reveal the key importance of what might otherwise seem minor gestures ... This book will not only make tyros want to hear the records, but will send antediluvian Davis admirers rushing to remind ourselves of forgotten minutiae, weigh our assessments against Cook's, or just savour favourite moments again". I think this pretty much sums up all his work, not just his writing but the radio shows he presented. His overviews were invaluable in placing musicians and genres in context, and he was skilful at identifying telling elements which brought a piece alive. For me, he belongs alongside that elite group (Charles Fox, Peter Clayton, Max Harrison) who first fostered and informed my love and understanding of jazz four decades ago.
Without undervaluing the hard work put in by his successors as editors and publishers of The Wire, I think it is fair to say that they stand on Richard's shoulders, while Jazz Review stands as an ongoing expression of his personal values in music criticism. It is hard to imagine the scene without fresh examples of his elegant phrasing, his illuminating yet economical descriptions, his sound judgment and his receptiveness to good music.
As this September's Croydon record fair looms it feels very strange and sad to know that Richard Cook will not be attending. For me, Richard's regular stall, with its boxes of salvaged jazz vinyl and dusty 78s, was the main attraction of the event. The stock had been lovingly hand picked and sorted by Richard from his own collection in the hope that some of them would eventually find a new home with a similar minded record collector and music lover whose taste mirrored his. Trawling through those boxes was always a thrill as you could never anticipate what had been selected. Sometimes I went away empty handed (mainly because the records Richard had chosen were either out of my sphere of interest or titles that I already owned), but occasionally a gem would surface. One that immediately springs to mind is Black Fire, jazz pianist Andrew Hill's 1963 debut for Blue Note. "That's a good one," he advised me at the time, nodding appreciatively at my choice. Because this recommendation came from Richard, it was like being given a 24-carat guarantee that this record (as its title suggested) was hot, and indeed it was. The reasonable sum I paid for Black Fire at the time (knocked down still further by Richard as a kind of in-the-trade discount) now seems paltry compared to the many hours of listening pleasure it has since given me.
As a writer Richard's work guided me to new areas of jazz that I would probably never have explored if it hadn't been for his enthusiasm for the music. His powerful and passionately written early 80s essay on Albert Ayler in NME steered me into a life long obsession with Ayler and free jazz, while his recent book on Miles Davis (It's About That Time) urged me to look beyond the great man's electric period (where I was contentedly stuck) and discover his earlier work. This eventually led me to splashing out for a copy of the Complete Live At The Plugged Nickel box set, an investment that gave me a clearer insight into Davis and his astonishing music. Everything that Richard wrote in his book about this set and the rest of Davis's oeuvre was completely true and trustworthy.
I will miss Richard very much, if only to talk to him about areas of music that I still have yet to discover. He was a guiding light, a gentleman and a scholar, an original human being, and to have known him was both a privilege and a pleasure.
I got to know Richard Cook through visits to the Wire office in the mid-80s when I was writing about the London Musicians Collective scene and, occasionally, international music before it was World and I became a full-time evangelist. From first sight, Richard always reminded of Egon Scheile's self-portraits: the long, angular limbs and knife-sharp jaw-bone close to the surface of his skin which Schiele would have daubed with orangey smudges to suggest awkwardness and his (the painter's) angst. Richard was just thin: serious and sometimes gloomy about the world, for sure, and particularly about people who didn't understand music or take jazz as seriously as he did. He did carry a degree of existential angst but his faith was like his back-up singer, always there, and music was his sacrament - he listened so closely and talked so passionately about it (I learned a lot in conversations, and his radio programmes were like seminars.) Through editing The Wire, he found his milieu and gathered a diverse web of friends from many points along the music spectrum. The fact that he didn't go to university and was entirely self-taught led Richard onto a very singular and free-thinking route through music which I think heightened his passionately held opinions. Jazz is bedevilled by its orthodoxy and the maleness of it all, the insistence on 'rightness', and those elements never failed to raise arguments between us, particularly during my most rampant feminist days. But I didn't give up on him because, in the end, his jokes and teases made it pointless and I think were his way of conceding, but also because his argument also made me listen more closely to his table-banging line. And of course, the humour was a weapon too: the lopsided smile and eye rolling targeted some critic's oafish remark or review, but would ultimately be directed towards himself - and his old-fashioned ideals (and even his old fogie clothes before his wife, Lee Ellen, guided him into the stylish suits).
Richard was my editor when I was at my most unconfident as a writer and intimidated by the male club which I had entered, and he always offered huge encouragement and a surprising generosity towards the free improv LMC music I wrote about and which interested him little (too far from his notion of improvisation through the jazz language he spoke so fluently). The salsa and Latin jazz that I was by then beginning to write about elicited terrible mockery - but also led to his suggestion that I write a monthly column on Latin music for The Wire, and the offer of regular space for interviews with salsa's celebrities. When he put the singer/songwriter Ruben Blades and the creator of modern Afro-Cuban jazz, Chucho Valdes, on covers in the late 80s, he cannily introduced the magazine to a whole new community of readers. And he was amused when I would return from forays to New York, Miami, Cuba or Puerto Rico, and tell him how these superstar musicians directing sophisticated orchestral dance music would sing the praises of "your English magazine" (and sometimes even whip out a copy to show other musicians). Richard predictably made jokes about it, but he understood that there was more to its rhythmic sophistication that he would never get his feet around, and he could respect another's passion - if they lived up to his standards. And that's the mark of a brilliant editor.
I don't think it's going too far to say that he did more for Latin Music in the UK than any editor at that time, and I love that irony. He didn't need to find a way into it because he was absolutely satisfied with what he did understand and love. And when we met on shared ground - discussing Kind Of Blue or Marie Lloyd or an occasional rock singer-songwriter whose poetry struck his soul - he always planted a new way of hearing. Angus McKinnon said in his moving tribute at the funeral that Richard didn't fit among today's fools and knaves because he wasn't one of them. He did belong to a different era and his retreat to write and listen in his home led to the precious legacy of the crucial jazz guides written so meticulously with Brian Morton, his magnificent biography of Miles, which followed on from the acres of published articles and singular thoughts, and that I hope will lead to a collected works for younger listeners to be inspired by. He leaves a large gap in Britain's music world, and an echoing laugh.
"The Wire," wrote Richard Cook in his first-ever editorial for it, "will speak out against the crusty battlements of hidebound jazz strongholds. It will not shrink from exposing the meanness of spirit that has left all of us fatigued. It will stand for joy, intellect, enthusiasm and wisdom. It will attempt to banish ignorance and failure."
The statement could hardly be more compact - just 139 words, issue 18, August 1985, Sonny Rollins sternly professorial on the cover - but there it was, for me at least, our manifesto and our methodology: "We have to embrace, question, involve and extrapolate. If we accept that we are exiles to start with, then we imply there are no borders to keep us in." Who exactly was 'we'? I didn't know then - maybe no one did yet - but boy I wanted in. More than anything I wanted that 'we' to include me: that was the spell he cast with those words - well, not just those words, but those on top of all the words he'd written before, elsewhere.
The dismaying, disorienting news of Richard's death came just as I was leaving for two weeks in Southern France, two weeks more or less by myself. And because this was to be a break from stress and impasse back in London, the purpose very much not to think about what was being left behind, the first thing I had to wrestle with was feeling awful about missing his funeral, and thus any chance of fitting public farewell to my mentor, to this man who so shaped my working life and a fair deal of my critical mind, any chance properly to share that farewell with his colleagues and friends down the years, not to mention many of mine, the loving company of those mourning him.
What followed me though, what I couldn't escape, and had no wish to, were thoughts of Richard himself: not Richard ill, certainly not Richard gone - a fact that I find actually incomprehensible still - but rather memories of Richard as I'd known him 15 years before, writing, judging, joking, very warm, very fond memories. I'd barely seen him in ten years, probably more; I'd spoken on the phone a handful of times at most since I'd left the job he'd passed on to me. The images flooded back to me from a long time past, a time I hadn't dwelt on much, a time that had been buried - because isn't what's just gone always buried, at newspapers and magazines, by the sheer frantic piled-up rush of getting out the next issue, and the next and the next? And because to look back is to be confronted by everything we're running away from...
I remember: how consistently startling those first few years of The Wire were, after Richard arrived, to turn Anthony Wood's great but unfocused idea into something that would survive and stand, that made its mark despite impossibly limited resources. Its severity; the quality of its look, the look of its quality; at the time - callow and contrary and not very foresightful - I was often frustrated, I loved it, but I wanted MORE, more HERE, more NOW, I wanted it to jump out of its austere pacing and CHARGE, I wanted it to shake and rattle the music more freely, more often, more (as I felt) in the spirit of the sound. Reactionaries also craft excellent sentences - if we mimic them we risk becoming them; if we mock them, we risk handing them victory; and so we must learn to best them. To see what they are good at, and do it better. 20 years on and I know all too well what a care and what a vision the long-distance race demands, how quickly instant gratification can use you up, for all its liberating energy - and see, as I leaf back through those pages, how much got said, in that measured, reserved, amused-stern voice.
I remember: asking him once HAD he actually listened to all the records he seemed to have done? Because he was after all only three years older than me (and we both knew how little I'd heard then). Authority - this was the gist of his tremendous deadpan reply - is more a tone than a fact. Which to me was a way of saying, "Don't sweat it, Mark" - and I went away comfy in my lesser knowledge. I thin - mysteriously, amazingly - he really HAD listened to all the records ever. What's amazing to me is that he really was a better critic for this hinterland of learning: anyone else it would have hobbled and deadened.
I remember: the way he wrote about The Fall in NME, and loving the implications it had in every direction. How to put this? Not only was Mark E Smith's project fit to be judged in the company of Cecil Taylor's, Miles Davis's, Duke Ellington's... but they in turn were fit to be judged in his. This was a vast idea.
I remember: how ruthlessly funny his one-line summaries of bad music could be: "Toffee-brain piffle from a woman of no importance". OK, it's probably unkind to remind you whose record that was, if anyone but me still knows or cares (and maybe I don't agree with the judgment!), but the vigour of the dismissal was grounded in and amplified by the sheer extent of his fairness, how well and how generously he cared to listen to mainstream figures that pop consensus mocked or bypassed or misheard or nervously rejected, and to fluff and to trivia and to silly daft dazzle, and to different-drummer cranks or hermits and truculent self-caged misanthropes. To, you know, everything. He was absolutely clear about what he felt; he was absolutely not dogmatic about taste. What mattered wasn't who you wrote about, but how: his ear for a sound, and a dialogue of sounds, was also his ear for a well-formed sentence, and the conversation it could become part of. He always heard music in its social dimensions, and writing too: for Richard it wasn't who you chose to encounter, so much as how you allowed that encounter to unfold, at the time and after. This was the mark of a peerless editor, and I think of a great jazz mind.
I remember: how when everything was cut and pasted and hot-waxed down and bagged up in a giant cardboard parcel to be red-starred to the printers, and he was about to sally off into the night to deliver it to King's Cross by hand, he'd always say, "Well done everyone, good issue." Maybe it always was a good issue, but I loved that he formally closed the editorial process by saying that it was. He was simply a pleasure to work for, and with; I never felt so free, so encouraged, in such good hands.
When I first learned of his illness, I dropped him a brief line to say I was thinking of him, to hint how much he meant to me - but I was frankly frightened by the situation, and the expression was certainly inadequate to the fact, to how very very much his approach, to the familiar and the strange, to the shifting tensions within music and film, had fashioned and guided mine; had opened up my mind and my practice. I didn't want to write something like I'm writing now - something clear but valedictory, some open and personal - because I didn't want to imagine that his illness wasn't something he would stride through and beat; because it seemed to accept and admit too much. My own time at The Wire (far shorter and less demanding than his) had been exhilarating and revelatory and - it took me years to realise - very traumatic in how it ended for me, and not long after I left I dropped out of professional music writing almost entirely for a long space. I never saw Richard, or anyone else from the old days. And when I lately returned to this territory crabwise, and on my own stubborn terms, I still didn't think to hook up with him, to talk things through, about where I'd got to, and where I hadn't. Which is a rather self-involved way of coming round to say how enormously - with long, embarrassed, regretful hindsight - I have come to admire, to be limitlessly astonished by his own commitment, his discipline, his energy and his unwavering focus.
I remember: his three-fold plan. To change the way music was written about; which would change the way it was thought about; so as to change the way it was played. Was that it? The last bit is right, anyway. I loved the vastness of the ambition, as we sat in that ugly office in Cleveland Street, a nowhere place of pipes and whitewashed concrete, industrial carpeting and headache-buzzy strip lighting, loved it and utterly believed in it. Maybe - as if the ambition is any less! - he actually said "to change the way jazz was played", a little-yet-huge difference in our perspectives which I paid no mind to at the time (and now wonder a lot about).
I remember: laughing out loud at the sheer effrontery of those posters up all over Hackney in June 1991, for the relaunch. "The Wire, therefore, will be accepting danger from now on," he'd written in 1985, and here the peril came, the notorious Michael Jackson cover! And shortly after, sacks and sacks and SACKS AND SACKS of angry letters from readers still there under the office desks (parenthetically I remember: what a fabulously inexhaustible amount of desk-space that office had), when I arrived fully on-staff and gingerly paged through a few, to discover that aging jazz fans react to perceived cultural threat exactly as incoherently and as foolishly and as childishly as rock-insecure teens. This was an education, as well as an affirmation: of course it was a shock tactic and a stunt, and of course it was dangerous, in half a dozen ways. But he was right - that the intricacy of the mad corporate palaces of sound Jackson was building WERE full of crafted detail and energy and ideas and possibilities that less funded, more 'serious' musicians risked shutting themselves away from. As he notes in the making of the argument - and perhaps actually NOT quite making the argument, or rather, assuming a little too much about the bighearted persuadable goodwill of the reader, that they are as generous and as unbigoted as he was - the Lester Bowie's Brass Fantasy version of "Thriller", satirical or celebratory, whichever it is, is feeble indeed compared to the original. The most important things are sometimes to be discovered in the most unlikely places - this is what Richard wanted us to know. How and where to look for surprise; and how easy for your habits of enquiry to get complacent, to settle for the received signs of fresh intelligence at the expense of anything like the reality.
I remember: my frisson of excited pleasure when I asked him one day in the office the music HE'D loved best as a kid, and he said Louis Armstrong. I'd imagined - well, I don't even know, I can't now get back to the naivity his answer dispelled, I'm guessing Beatles, or something proto-psychedelic and semi-known, or maybe, somehow he'd always been there in the front row of the Derek Bailey shows. Armstrong: well, of course, who else? Who else was this big, this daring, this subtle, this generous, this pioneering, this omnipresent?
I remember: his essays in The Wire on Don Cherry (issue 4): "the musician who has most clearly embodied the many ambiguities of this music is still historically regarded as a sidekick and a dabbler..." On Coltrane (issue 22): "While the inflections of Bird were so acidly brilliant, brilliant enough to burn his personality unmistakeably on our memories, Coltrane's search without end for his inner self seemed to hide his own emotions. There is - again - just the sound." On Bix (issue 46/47): "Even when he plays poorly, or hardly at all, the spell abides - perhaps even more so, because sometimes one almost wills him to do better, to be more like the great Bix." Relationships, layers of relationship, layers and layers and layers of interwoven conversation, improvisation-as-argument; not just of musician with musician - the chemical inter-reaction of each constituent element in the music, every twist, every line, every pre-cast arrangement, every blurt, some as anciently unavoidable as the hills, some new-minted, traded, stolen, mimicked - but of musician with the world, and musician's world with YOURS.
I remember: asking my friend Cath Carroll, at the time recording artist for Factory Records, what it was like to be interviewed by him. No blabbermouth herself, she told me that (Lady-One-Question style) his method was to keep gently mum until the victim couldn't help but speak, to fill the space he was leaving.
I remember: believing then what I still believe, that he served jazz so well precisely because he never underestimated or undervalued or distorted what other musics might have that jazz didn't, and maybe (sometimes) needed; that genre alone is never a guide; that to live inside a sect is - possibly, if you're lucky with the sect - to grasp the importance of one small thing with pitiless clarity, at the cost of everything else, including very likely this thing's real meaning; and that - and this was what he seemed to be insisting, in his fascination of all the shimmer and yatter of the world's music, as it collided and squabbled and flirted and pouted and pranced together - that there are more ways than one to skin a hepcat.
I remember: standing gawping at Adele, uncomprehending and flabbergasted on the balcony of the strange wedge-shaped building, in the shadow of the Post Office Tower, when Richard had just handed us, two untried kids, the keys of the entire jet fighter squadron. No warning, no hint - we were in charge of his magazine now, he was off. "Be strong," he said, and we all trooped back indoors. (Why did we go outside to be told? There wasn't anyone in the office except us! The improvised ritual of it - ever-so-slightly over-formal and self-mocking - was perfect, of course: and unforgettable...)
I remember: his big grin, the unobtrusive skew-whiff exactness of his handwriting, the way he walked - head down, a tall ship slanted forward, slicing purposefully through fair weather and storm alike - and of course his impossibly dry impish humour.
His choosing me as his successor - of all The Wire's core contributors, possibly the least reliably versed in the music dearest to him, after all - was surely in some ways a perverse, wayward joke: on me, to punish me for not quite having the gumption or the spiritual seriousness to embrace jazz; on the readers, for not quite ever gathering in the numbers required to keep the magazine afloat; on the world of music; on the world of magazines. It was also - as I never said to him and wish I had said - the single biggest compliment I ever received in all my professional life. A compliment I am by no means sure I deserved at the time, and am less sure still that I justified afterwards. I am not especially modest about myself as a writer or an editor - but I know all too well that I faltered and flinched and slipped aside from the field. And it seems to me that he really never did that, that along with everything else he had a gift for committed workhorse power which didn't quit.
Perhaps not the place where it's politic to say it, but The Wire, for Richard, was in the end only a part of the project, a way-station - there will be many who see the Penguin Guides, or the Encyclopedia, as the goal, the 'work', and fair enough. There, after all, he was (presumably) less interrupted and scattered by all the urgent last-minute panics and pressures and compromises of magazine work, where everyone's pulling in a different direction, and money's always tight - and let's not even think about the frustrations of running a specialist label in a very large corporation. Not to let this become a smother of virtues, but he compromised only in irrelevancies, and kept clear, rigorous and uncluttered that central purpose. His flaws as I saw them back in the day now seem all of a piece with strengths I completely envy: yes he did spread himself a bit thin as a writer in the late 80s, in the service of keeping The Wire going, and yes he did read a little jaded in those years, but never where it mattered.
Interestingly, I don't exactly remember when I first encountered the clarity and authority of his voice - so sure from the first it was if I'd always been reading him. Far sadder to me now, I don't exactly know when I last heard it - a phone call, I suspect, asking where my book had got to. In all the times after he'd handed over to me, he never once second-guessed my judgments or mistakes, or allowed disappointment or annoyance to reach my ears, though I can't believe I didn't make decisions and changes that distressed or irritated him. The path he'd put The Wire on with the Jackson cover WAS perilous, and I think DID blunt its ability to do right by jazz - and if it didn't, maybe I did. But I never heard a word of complaint from him.
And now suddenly he was gone, so shockingly, and it was too late to tell this kind, shy, quiet, clever, irreplaceable man everything I now realised I wanted to tell him, the scale of my debt to him. I left it for later, because he'd always been there, and so he'd always be there. And he was a private man, and our friendship had been an office-hours kind of game, a deep unspoken sharing of goals in a tussle of amiable differences. Maybe. Certainly I had adored working with him, playing the diligent, naughty kid, but we never went so far as to discuss principles or intentions or ideals - so I don't know if he knew how passionately I admired and aspired to his openness and generosity and patience and curiosity, before all the world's behaviour, his complex and subtle insights into how things talk to one another; and how we - sometimes, when we get the courage - do the same. And here I was driving alone through unfamiliar, often breathtaking, sun-drenched landscapes; or struggling, absurdly, with a language I hadn't used since school, trying to commune with strangers friendly and sometimes otherwise, or to decode an alien roadsign or guess a term for a food I can't actually identify, unable now forever to pass on my thanks to the writer to who had so vividly inspired me to love negotiating and appreciating the very strange, the seemingly over-known, the unexpected in the familiar. It wasn't the right way to be saying goodbye - but it did sort of gibe, in its wonky way, with how things had always been between us.
So what about the rest of that 'we'? Because for all the monumentality of his achievement - the wisdom and the detail of the resource he's left behind, the unmatched tirelessness, the range of his knowledge, the crackle of his intuition - I don't think the project he set out on is complete, or even hardly started. He wasn't one to push - he commissioned, coaxed, he allowed, he provided space for - and, well, we all went our own ways, and that was only part of the plan.
Jazz writing is once more settled off in its little PC niche - tended well enough by its learned shepherds against the return of a time attentive to it, but meanwhile not really given a second thought outside that niche; elsewhere scurry all the greying avant-gardes, self-important and driven and insecure and unhappy, more than ever parasitic on everything they denounce; and meanwhile the mainstream is the mainstream, a score of sluggish half-integrated flows as oblivious to subtle unconscious strengths as to ghastly faults, always able to cultivate worthlessness in the heart of value, and sometimes - now and the - the other way about. The 'we' Richard invoked two decades ago, the 'we' I wanted so badly to belong to, feels more scattered than ever; by choice as much as market demand or the passing of the years and the shifting of priorities; and - let's face it - we were a fractious bunch in the first place, mellow perhaps about a time-polished THEN when anything seemed possible, likely less whenever 'accepting danger' means jabbing at our current habits, interests, complacencies, confusions of competence and security with values, ideals, futures...
I look back across a quarter century and find him writing presciently and witheringly about matters that dog us still. For example noting (in 1982) that it had not been punk but ABBA and "Waterloo" that blew the whistle on rock's pretensions to progressive grandeur, who first contrasted the "simpering environs of art" and laboured pseudo-intellect with the bright flash of the three minute single; and noting too how uneasy it made us all to acknowledge this, the depths of the bad faith of our evasions, about where seriousness lies, and what it even is. Or a year later, demolishing PiL's Live in Tokyo in the light of Evan Parker's Incus LP Tracks: a very necessary intervention, contrasting the former's prancing theatre of noise-radicalism with something that actually achieved what Lydon only manipulatively gestured at, then shrank from: "Tracks is no product of an 'art' background either. Parker is considered and exacting where his opposites are aggressive and indiscriminate because his approach is empirical: he has worked it through, every rigour and inflection."
You could call this the politics of form versus the politics of symbol, if you like - but that's my kind of shorthand, not Richard's. He would have been concrete. He would surely simply rather have noted that here was an older, more abiding debate than our enjoyably parochial little squabbles really grasped, in the 80s or today. Thus, anyway, his pitch for jazz as a story in pop we should all know better - its emergence, dominance and retreat over 120 odd years, as both example and map, of a universe of actual or potential encounters and transformations, the clash and hug, the face-off and kiss-up, of voices urgent, engaged, tranquil, chatty, scatty, grumpy or devotional; artist with artist, artist with audience, writer with writer, writer with reader, work with world, and what the world said. A story at once huge and humanised. In which a cat can always look at a king. Which brings us at last to those wicked treasures of recollection and derogation that Richard gentled out of Miles for NME in 1985 ("Coltrane was a very greedy man") and how that encounter ended: "He's waving to me. The Prince of Darkness is waving at me. I wave back."
So how to wave back today? As exiles, as he put it, what we also have to live with is that the 'we' no longer includes Richard - except as a guide in our memories - to chivvy and joke and blast and combine and edit us back onto the path, as he understood it, as 'we' (if there was a 'we', which there was) yearned to understand it alongside him. We're on our own this time. Let's not let him down.