Equally at ease brainstorming in New York lofts and barhopping with Tom Waits, guitarist Marc Ribot's new group has turned well-heeled Cuban. This article originally appeared in The Wire 178 (December 1998).
Since he first stamped his guitar signature on the music of John Lurie's mid-80s Lounge Lizards, Marc Ribot has been pursued by all manner of celebrity autograph hunters. As an avant guitar for hire, he has made distinctive contributions to records by Tom Waits, John Zorn, Allen Ginsberg, Marianne Faithfull, Elvis Costello, Tricky and David Sylvian, among others. Though he is in constant demand as a guitarist able to infuse a dose of red-blooded corporeality into the most abstract structures, he has nevertheless made time to develop his own projects, such as Rootless Cosmopolitans, the Albert Ayler-influenced Shrek and now Los Cubanos Postizos. He was all set to blood his Cubans at London's Barbican on Halloween, when he was laid low by a recurring back problem, which left him confined to a hotel bed in Switzerland. From his prone position, he must regret tempting fate with the medical implications of a name translating as Prosthetic Cubans. "Right now I'm strategising about how I can get all the way back to New York without sitting up," he winces, during a telephone interview from his sickbed.
The Cuban project the UK missed out on is Ribot's respectful, yet frankly inauthentic appropriation of the sound of bandleader Arsenio Rodriguez, who died in 1972. Ribot was introduced to Rodriguez's suave, funky music by organist Anthony Coleman. Meanwhile, something Tom Waits once said about Ribot's playing suggested the future shape of his Cuban project. During the recording of Rain Dogs in 1984, Waits described Ribot's guitar sound as a character in the album's drama.
"The role of the character on Rain Dogs came out of compressing several different types of music," explains Ribot. "There's some Django Reinhardt, some Chuck Berry, and some Cuban music. With this new project I wanted to go back and pick apart what I had compressed together." Separating out the strands is Ribot's way of demystifying his own creativity. He elaborates: "A lot of musicians,when they hear something that's interesting, swim back up the river to see where it comes from, and where they got it from."
Following this line of thinking back to its source, it's tempting to root his current work in his earliest musical experiences. His first teacher was composer Frantz Casseus, a family friend who had left his native Haiti in the 1940s. "He became a sort of honorary member of my family," Ribot recalls. "He'd be there at all the family dinners, and he would do little recitals. It made a fairly big dent on me when I was seven to hear somebody playing an instrument live. Frantz had a very clear sense of mission in his work. He wanted to create a sort of national music on classical guitar for Haiti, in the same way that Villa-Lobos had for Brazil.He was the first, I believe, out of the Haitian composers to stop imitating what was happening in France and start using Haitian folk melodies as a source."
But if his family's Caribbean connection had affected him at all, it was only subconsciously, Ribot claims. Casseus, who died about six years ago, was unable to play in his later years. However, the Folkways label has begun to reissue his early albums. Meanwhile, out of respect for his former teacher, Ribot has recorded some of his compositions for Les Disques Du Crepuscule, and also plans to publish a book of Casseus's sheet music. "This has nothing to do with the rest of what I'm doing," he points out. "It wasn't the next logical step in my progression."
The avant garde would dearly love to claim Ribot as one of its
own, but the guitarist prefers to describe himself as a soul
musician. At any rate, soul was the soundtrack to his New Jersey
adolescence. His first garage group played Wilson Pickett's
"Midnight Hour" and Booker T's "Green Onions". Around 1981, he
crossed the tunnel to New York to play with The Realtones, who
later became The Uptown Horns. "The club Tramps was doing a soul
revival thing, and we became the house band," Ribot remembers. "We
backed Solomon Burke, Carla Thomas, Rufus Thomas. It was a really
great experience, you didn't have to pay in blood for it by going
on the road on that circuit. You got the musical experience, minus
some of the hardships which might otherwise have accrued."
The Realtones played alongside a number of New York's No Wave musicians, and Ribot readily absorbed key aspects of what he heard. By now he was stretching out, playing with trombonist Peter Zummo and other SoHo experimentalists. With such a background, it was a natural next step for him to combine New Music approaches with elements of the R&B he had grown up with. In the mid-80s, the various streams running through his music flowed together in The Lounge Lizards. Yet their Voice Of Chunk album, recorded in 1989and only just released, offered little scope for exploring anything outside its narrow jazz brief. But the Lizards were very different when he joined in 1984. "In the beginning John Lurie didn't know as much about composing," Ribot explains. "He'd bring in a riff, but whatever we did was pretty much up to us. It was more of a free-for-all. The control was pretty loose at the beginning of the band, and then the more he learned about composing, the more we used to have to play what he came up with, and the more tightly controlled it became as a project."
Already trained in blues, rock and soul, Ribot now found himself in a group where "you could do extended soloing in a sort of free jazz context. There weren't chord changes flying at you. You had to create other events than the harmonic changes to make a solo work."
Ribot's characteristic guitar stylings distinguished The Lounge Lizards music. In turn, the group's popularity, as much contingent on leader John Lurie's high cheekboned arthouse profile as the music, brought him to the attention of the world outside Manhattan and New Jersey. Tom Waits, with whom Lurie was then working on a Jim Jarmusch movie, Down By Law, was fast off the mark poaching him to play on Rain Dogs and in his touring group. Other invitations quickly followed. Soon he found himself the guitar player of choice among more discerning musicians in New York and farther afield.
The range of contexts he has worked in since then suggests that Ribot is a musical chameleon, albeit one with an immediately identifiable sound, even if he is reluctant to acknowledge it himself. He says, "This whole question of style is for other people to say. I'm conscious that I have certain limitations as a player. I'm conscious of the wall I come up against when I try to play faster than I am able. I guess at some point I started to use my limitations to advantage instead of just kicking myself. A certain inability to be a bebop player, for example, can be used to advantage if you learn how to play with economy. Start listening to players like Chuck Berry kick ass with one note."
He has drawn further inspiration from the expressive technique of Howlin' Wolf's great accomplice Hubert Sumlin. The blues proved a useful vehicle for turning limitation to advantage. "It was one of the things that I could play," he states. "Even if you can't play a million miles an hour, if you have a certain amount of passion and a sense of space then you can develop some kind of take on blues playing."
Other guitarists who have influenced Ribot include Django
Reinhardt, Grant Green, Fred Frith, Arto Lindsay, and especially
Robert Quine. He cites Quine's soloing on "Waves Of Fear", from Lou
Reed's The Blue Mask (1982), as a revelation.
"Swimming backwards up the historical stream, Quine's a pretty central figure," Ribot enthuses. "He also played with Richard Hell And The Voidoids. You listen to those records now and other people have played that way, but look at the dates on them. Think about how many people played that way at that time. As far as I can tell, nobody. He and Arto Lindsay were big influences. Another person that Quine actually turned me on to was Ike Turner. I think you can draw pretty much a direct line from Ike Turner to Robert Quine. I know it sounds strange, but Ike Turner's guitar soloing was very punk. There's a couple of recordings of "Matchbox" that were made around 1955, where his soloing is just insane."
Guitarists aside, his playing has drawn inspiration from R&B saxophonists, "from the Houston Person end of the jazz scene through King Curtis", and the more challenging players of post-bebop jazz. "At the time I was in the Lizards I went through a pretty heavy Eric Dolphy phase," he admits. "I think John Lurie's aesthetic, and that of No Wave sax players like James Chance, were pretty Dolphy influenced. I listened to a lot of Dolphy at that time, and also Albert Ayler. I was already doing my band Shrek, and Anthony Coleman told me to check out some more Ayler. I'd heard it a little bit, but I started to listen to it in a lot more depth. Shrek wound up being a very Ayler-influenced band."
Coleman's impact on the guitarist's development goes deeper than introducing him to key figures of 20th century music: Coleman's compositions are a challenge to perform. "But it was one of those cases where it was worth the work," he adds. John Zorn's The Book Of Heads for solo guitar was just as taxing. The piece takes Eugene Chadbourne's techniques and gestures from the late 70s and early 80s and composes with them. "It's amazing," exclaims Ribot. "With guitar, there aren't that many composers who have got deeply inside it, unless they're guitarists themselves. So it was pretty surprising to be reading something where, on almost every piece, I was learning something about playing. There's tons of extended technique stuff that I learned from playing that. The bigger lesson beyond this trick or that trick was that if you live with a technique for long enough, and you have to make music out of it, then you will. It's not just a question of, 'Oh great! I'll blow up a balloon, and I'll jam it against the strings and make a funny noise'. If you spend several weeks doing that, something will come out of it."
Ribot admires Zorn's resourcefulness as a creator of musical
systems. He explains, "All of us who were interested in the No Wave
music scene wondered how come composed music never sounds as good
as freeprov, and it's a good question. I don't know the answer, but
I know that a lot of Zorn's work has tried to answer that. Cobra is
the best-known example. Cobra takes the things that improvisors do,
and systematises them; The Book Of Heads takes the things that
Eugene Chadbourne was doing and makes pieces out of them, which can
then be cut back apart, and be improvised on. The pieces teach you
the language, and then you can use the language to improvise."
Of his encounters with other free improvising guitarists, Fred Frith has made the greatest impact. At the end of the 80s, they made a record together - Sound Of A Distant Episode - contributing half each. For Ribot, it was not so much a collaboration as an important declaration of allegiance. "Listening to Fred Frith do solo freeprov is something that every living person should do," he rules. "Let it be a lesson to us that you can, in fact, make music from anything. I used to listen to his duo recordings with Henry Kaiser. With Friends Like These was one I particularly liked. It was really helpful for someone who was trained playing R&B and playing rock solos to listen to that, and then sort of go into battle realising you could do whatever the fuck you wanted to. Those records gave me courage at a time when I needed it."
Suddenly aware of all the names he has checked in the course of the conversation, Ribot declares, laughing, "I don't want to give the impression in this interview that I've exercised any good taste anywhere along the line". Yet he takes evident pleasure in his musical encounters, each one leading on to the next. "Waits heard me playing with the Lizards, and called me for Rain Dogs," he recounts. "Elvis Costello heard me playing with Waits, and he called me for Spike. . ." He is particularly proud to have contributed to Allen Ginsberg's The Lion For Real, produced by Hal Willner. Working alongside Bill Frisell and Arto Lindsay, the session had a special magic. He made further performances and recordings with Ginsberg, which are still awaiting release.
Ribot's current contract with Atlantic allows him to continue his musically promiscuous behaviour. When asked who he'd most like to hear from, he responded without hesitation. "James Brown," he says, laughing, "but it might be a little late on that score, for both of us."
Anyone who can't see any affinity in such a dream encounter evidently hasn't been listening properly to Los Cubanos Postizos, who were effortlessly getting audiences onto their feet all across Europe - until Ribot's back problems caused the tour's cancellation. Normally the most mobile of musicians, Ribot, immobilised, concludes wistfully, "It makes me happy as an idiot when people dance".