Scalzi’s Holiday List

Each year I read John Scalzi’s Holiday Shopping List with glee; I’ve purchased half a dozen books, discovered new charities and new artists through his crowd-sourced ideas for giving. This year’s wonderful finds: Big Cat Rescue in Tampa Bay, FL, where I will most definitely take the private, photography oriented tour, and some funky sci-fi themed crochet work on Etsy. There is nothing that says “nerd” more than wrapping your iWhatever in yarn, all the while thinking “I hope I don’t generate static electricity from this combination.”

Five Positions of Tony Levin

Tony Levin is the first bass player I discovered through connection rather than listening. He’s most definitely in the quintet of my favorite bassists (along with Jon Camp, Chris Squire, Geddy Lee, and recent addition Mike Gordon) and quite honestly, while I was a nerdy teen in high school, anything that seemed outside the bounds of 4/4 rock, whether it was strange-looking Chapman Sticks, stranger sounding instrumentation or Yes’ 7/4 time signatures took a bit of acclimation. My first Tony Levin impression was in a glossy picture in a music magazine, looking extraordinarily fierce with his bald head, mustache, and seemingly attacking his bass in a lunging position. I realized, quickly, that while I might not have heard of him, I had most decidedly heard him on various recordings.

Fast forward to my WPRB years, with Peter Gabriel’s solo work, the re-formed King Crimson with Levin on bass, and access to thousands of LPs with liner notes, and I discovered there’s a lot more to Tony Levin than his proficiency on the stick, electric and upright bass. His website is a fun read, as is his (now out of print) book “Beyond The Bass Clef”. With King Crimson, Levin made a brief stop on the Princeton campus in 1982, and then touring with Peter Gabriel, I saw Levin at Great Woods in Mansfield, MA in 1989 or 1990 (Levin provides a lot of the punch on “So,” and “Red Rain” remains one of my favorite Gabriel songs). And finally this year, in the span of a month, I got to see Tony Levin centering the backline of the new King Crimson and then fronting Stickmen in Asbury Park. Seeing him up close and personal brought back waves of memories of my first impressions, and strengthened my appreciation of his musicianship.

Plus, he’s a funny guy. More on that below.

IMG_2766 IMG_2768

One of the biggest “ah ha” moments for me with live rock shows was realizing how much movement there is on stage; it’s not just guys standing in front of microphones as they do on TV appearances. As my cousin phrased it after seeing KISS at Madison Square Garden in the 70s, “They jump around a lot.” I sometimes joke that Tony Levin appears on stage in one of five basic positions, the ballet of the bass starting with his footing foundation: feet at shoulder width, feet spread a bit more and facing the audience, in a semi-lunge position and looking over the neck of his stick/bass, lunge toward the audience and hunched over usually in intense concentration, or relaxed and smiling at his band mates. I have modeled my air bass guitar playing on his style; if you want to see as well as feel the bass driving the bottom of the band, listen to (and watch) Tony Levin. The intensity he brings to a stage performance is something to be seen, and seeing Levin with Stickmen is a treat.

Up close and personal, you notice that his hands are huge. Jaco Pastorious had similarly large hands and laid claim to double jointed thumbs; Levin handles a variety of instruments delicately and at times visually at odds with his otherwise lanky frame. Conversely, at speaking distance, he doesn’t look or sound nearly 70 years old – the rock and roll lifestyle has been gentle on him, and he has remained well grounded for decades. Perhaps my favorite fan-boy observation is that Levin is as comfortable playing to 25,000 fans in support of Peter Gabriel, or 80 people packed into a dingy club in Asbury Park. It’s about his music, and he genuinely appreciates audiences for all of his expressive outlets, to the point where he still drives the van and his own merchandise to Stickmen shows (check out the Stickmen tour photo diary). Online, Levin capture the life of a professional musician well – his long-running (possibly first music oriented) blog is fun, and his book rides shot gun with Rick Wakeman’s musings on studio life as a diary of someone known as much for his own music as for making others sound great.

IMG_2769 IMG_2775

He’s also funny, and not in a “Hello, Cleveland” vein but in his observations and commentary. A few songs into the Stickmen set, he took the mic to say “That was in 4/4, which is an unusal time signature having just come off of tour with King Crimson. Not a lot of 4/4 there.”

Finally, Stickmen are a lot of fun to listen to; they bring the rhythmic complexity and mild dissonance of King Crimson with the technical and polyphonic complexity of Animals as Leaders, Chon or even Ministry and the visual impact of a well-played tennis volley – you have to watch to see which musician is carrying the lead or the bass as they pass parts back and forth. Icing on the cake – after the show Levin and band came out to sign autographs and chat, knowing they had to load out and drive three hours to their next show. Rock and roll has long needed Tony Levin, on the bottom of the band and at the front of the industry.