My Back Pages: Thirty Years Ago in Guitar Player Magazine (June 1987)
Welcome back to “30 Years Ago…” My personal collection of Guitar Player magazines goes back to the fall of 1986, which is around the time I started playing. Each month I write a new post looking at the issue that was published exactly 30 years ago; the goal is to try to remember what I learned from the issue at the time, but also what someone reading the issue for the first time today might notice. Each post features a Spotify playlist with some of the music from the issue.
Well without further ado, let’s go back in time. In June, 1987 I was finishing up 11th grade and starting my job as a stock assistant at Jules Pilch Menswear in nearby Hatboro, PA. Guitar wise, I was still picking on an old classical (nylon-string) acoustic of my aunt’s, and a Peavey T-15 electric guitar (with Peavey Audition 110 amp) that my parents had got me for my 16th birthday the summer before at The Music Barn, a really nice little music store in town. I was getting lessons from Jim McCarthy, a recent GIT graduate who was a good teacher and a great player. As far as what ELSE was going on in June of 1987, Ken Griffey, Jr. was the #1 overall pick in the Major League Baseball draft (I saw him play the next season, the first in a Hall of Fame career) and Tom Seaver retired. In geopolitics, Margaret Thatcher was re-elected Prime Minister of Great Britain, and the next day, Ronald Reagan famously urged Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down” the Berlin Wall (Germans saved him the trouble three years later). And in music/comestibles, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream introduced Cherry Garcia to the world.
The cover of Guitar Player promised a typically eclectic mix of subjects, from cover artist John Scofield (who had just begun a career as a bandleader after playing with Miles Davis), a 20th anniversary look back at Monterey Pop, a feature on the “guitars of “Graceland” (the latest from Paul Simon, who had, of course, played at Monterey) and a featurette on quirky husband and wife duo “Timbuk 3”. The cover also promised something called “In Color! Vintage Beauties”, which may or may not have drawn my adolescent attention (it turned out to be about old guitars). Elsewhere in the issue are articles about steel guitarist Steve Fishell, bassist Neil Jason and classical guitarist Jorge Morel (including a soundpage I have never listened to). There are also some interesting product reviews and even a guitar focused review of “The Joshua Tree” the latest album from Irish rockers U2 which is now being celebrated for its 30th anniversary with a world tour (“youthful fire meets the wisdom of age on U2s most fully-realized studio album. The Edge reprises the propulsive rhythms that have made him one of the most imitated guitarists of the 1980s”).
I was somewhat familiar with John Scofield at the time, as I used to listen to “Fusion Fridays” on WRTI, the jazz station out of nearby Temple University. I can’t remember if I ALREADY had his album “Blue Matter”, or if I got the cassette after reading this article, but I know that I found him and his music quite interesting, and the article had a lot to chew on. The title was “Miles Beyond” (get it?) and the crux was that Scofield was starting his solo career with the endorsement of jazz legend Miles Davis (“the legendary trumpeter’s eye for talent is unquestionable”).
While I didn’t notice this at the time, it is clear on revisiting these old issues that the editors of GP were eager to engage with their interviewees on a level much deeper than just “tell us about your latest release”. In the previous month, editor Dan Forte tried to push bluesman Robert Cray about race, and in this cover story, the subtext was about jazz and whether or not it is “superior” to other kinds of music. One of the first questions asked Scofield to categorize different types of music, and his answer was very thoughtful:
“Music can’t accurately be described with words, but categories do exist, because people play out of certain idioms. When you categorize music, there’s a danger of placing one form over the other. For instance, you can’t say that jazz is better than rock, because there’s always going to be some jazz that you don’t like and some rock that you don’t like.
But don’t get me wrong; I’m not trying to compare the Kingsmen with John Coltrane. For decades people have gone around and put down jazz on the basis that classical music is a higher art form. Musicians speak in terms of categories as much as writers do, but I try to be open to all kinds of stuff, although just because I like one thing doesn’t mean I like all of it. For instance, I like Billy Idol, but I hate a lot of other groups. I’ve seen Billy Idol a couple of times and when I close my eyes and listen to what he’s singing, I think that his phrasing is pretty good. I also sort of like his guitar player [Steve Stevens]. On the other hand, Twisted Sister has never moved me in any kind of musical way.”
When you say that the Kingsmen can’t be compared to John Coltrane, aren’t you implying that only the best rock is better than the worst jazz?
“I’m not even going to get into it, because beautiful, poignant music–regardless of type–is all the same things. There have been periods where I’ve listened to lots of Ray Charles and Ornette Coleman, but I never thought “This is good, but it’s not as serious as Bach”. I love Duke Ellington, and his music has infinite mysteries to me, but I cant say that it’s better than Howlin’ Wolf, because I love both things in different ways. When you compare music, you lose the joy of listening to it.”
I’ve always found Scofield to be a deeply thoughtful person and his music is widely varied; it’s neat to see that he’s always been like this.
One of the most interesting articles, both at the time and now was “The South African Guitars of Graceland” which profiled guitarist Ray Phiri and bassist Bahiti Khumalo, who added such wonderful African rhythms to Paul Simon’s Grammy winning album. I heard the hits on the radio (and saw the video with Simon and Chevy Chase for “You Can Call Me Al” (one is short, one is tall, and that was funny in 1987) so I was quite interested in learning more. I also was a budding liberal teenager in the mid-80’s which meant I was totally opposed to apartheid, without quite knowing what it was all about.
The article never alluded to the controversy surrounding Simon’s decision to record in South Africa; I just thought it was a cool thing, and this article might have contributed to the reason why. Writer Jon Sievert says that when Simon won the Grammy for Album of the Year “he put the credit right where it belonged–in the hands of the South African musicians who helped create it.” Sievert notes that “Simon drew upon some of that troubled nation’s finest black musicians to create an artistic success that, uncharacteristically, also translated into commercial success.” It was very interesting to learn about Khumalo and Phiri, and about the mbaqanga music they brought to Simon’s attention. The article notes that Simon was well-known in South Africa for “Mother and Child Reunion” (another world music tune recorded with Jamaican musicians) and that Khumalo’s trademark basslines in songs like “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” were his own (“for the most part, Khumalo was given complete freedom to create his own lines”). Bahiti Khumalo was 30 at the time, and said that his hope was that “Graceland’s” success would let him bring his band to the US “I think they will like our music. And back home it’s not good, not good.”
Guitarist Ray Phiri was 40 years old, and an established star in his home country; in fact, the article noted “at the time we spoke to Ray during Simon’s US tour, ‘Graceland’ was the #2 album on the South African pop charts, topped only by Stimela [Phiri’s band].” Phiri’s father was a musician until a work accident disabled him, and the article hints at the poverty experienced by black South Africans:
“By working after school as a gardener for white families at the equivalent of $1.50 per month, he was able to save enough money to buy a copy of Alfred’s Guitar Chords. “I learned to play chords, but I had a problem because I didn’t know how to tune the guitar,” says Ray. “So I had to work another three months to buy the little tuner that sounds like a harmonica.”
I would like to think that I had enough of a social conscience to be appalled that it took three months of hard labor to afford a pitch pipe, but who knows what 17 year old me missed in the obliviousness of youth? That said, what a difference technology makes–now if a young person has access to the World Wide Web, they can get all kinds of guitar instruction for free.
The article gave quite a bit of interesting insights into the music of “Graceland”. Ray Phiri, who was a co-arranger on the album, says:
“I believe that Paul was looking for a tap that he could open and have ideas pour out. I was that kind of tap. He asked me to give him riffs and grooves, and that’s what I did. From there, we started making songs….The album was done and mixed when we went to New York for the Saturday Night Live show. But when we started jamming around, out came “You Can Call Me Al” and “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” and we went into the studio and recorded them….The album, to me, is the music we used to play in the late ’60s and early ’70s. “
Sievert says that “For the most part, Simon relied on the rich variety of traditional South African musical styles to build the songs on. To explain them, Phiri compares them with the ‘juju’ music of Nigerian King Sunny Ade, which has gained a certain amount of popularity in the United States in the past few years”:
“Juju is very close to mbaqanga, but it’s a little more monotonous. Once you’ve heard one artist playing juju, it’s like you’ve heard them all. You’ll find our music is quite different. We have mbaqanga, which is our township jazz. We also have our “jive” and Soweto soul music. It’s all different. It never gets boring, because it’s very much like jazz that relies very heavily on improvisation. Juju depends very much on drums and the drum patterns all end up sounding the same. I don’t say that juju music isn’t good, but I believe our music is much richer. It’s more soul music coming from the heart. It’s not easy to write mbaqanga licks. If you try to make a technique out of it, you lose the rawness. It’s so syncopated, and you can play up to five guitars at the same time without getting into each other’s way.”
What an interesting counterpoint to the quote from Scofield in the same magazine! Of course, that could also be due to Phiri needing to differentiate his music to try to get sales. The article noted that it was hard for them to sell their music outside of South Africa:
“Every time we get a chance to have our records distributed in the States, politics gets in the way,” Ray laments. “It’s very sad because I would really like my music to be heard around here. Perhaps there is a chance that Paul’s album will help change that. But I’m still searching for the missing chord that will combine the Western influence and our traditional music. Maybe we can come up with a sound that will hit the world, and people will say “Wow! This is fresh.”
As always, here is a playlist featuring music referred to in the issue. Whether in an article, or a review, or an advertisement, this was some of the sound of June 1987. Enjoy!