Trying to make 10 traffic lights bouncing down Park Avenue
South, the taxi driver said he was writing a book about the history of
"The Great American [unprintable act]," which he traces back
to the French influence on American Doughboys during World War I. I
gave him $4 for the ride and $2 for the rap and got out in front of 55
The enthralled audience made the 55 bar
seem more like a tiny temple than a joint. Mike Stern was reconciling
Wes Montgomery, Jimi Hendrix and John Coltrane picking his electric
guitar through a hard-driving neo-bop version of "Meadowlands."
A pair of eager young Japanese men were taping the set with the latest
miniaturized sound hardware. It was many years since I had been in the
place. Like so many places of my youth, it was sinister no longer. Or
maybe it was I that was no longer sinister.
Come to think of
it, before it became a temple, the 55 was more of a hospital than a
joint. Some of New York's creative elite like the poet Delmore
Schwartz and Paul Desmond had been infamous and all too mortal
drinkers in here.
Dealing with this music in this sort of
place in our time it was totally impossible to avoid observing and
even experiencing the desperate act of getting as stoned as humanely
possible, and then, fortunately, as it turned out, the even more
desperate act of kicking. Just why all of this was, is another story.
Stern had been a rocky guitarist on more than one level
during his three years with Miles Davis. In between pressing his
wah-wah pedal to push the volume past distortion point he'd be
sniffing what he called "paragraphs" rather than lines of
I am not too proud to admit that I was right along
there with him, whenever possible. And that most of the time I was too
cheap to offer to pay. What the heck, when it comes to dope there is
no morality at all and the rationalization was that his family owned
an eponymous department store. (Anyway, he didn't seem to mind.) He
also drank whatever was around. We were dirty white boys. Or we hoped
Young jazz players, including the young Davis,
followed Charlie Parker into drugs in the '40s a/nd '50s and then into
the long darkness. The following generation followed the mature Davis
the survivor away from them in the '80s. But first Davis fired Stern
in 1983, saying: "Come back when you cool out."
Now with impressively bright eyes and healthy attitude and
body, Stern looked back and said: "When Miles told me that, I had
to take it seriously. I realize now that I was that close to
checking out." He put his thumb and forefinger a centimeter
apart. "I joined several rehab programs. Eventually I got more
"It may sound corny but reality really is
better. It's helped my playing but it can get complicated. I recently
heard an old record of mine for the first time in years and for a
while I didn't recognize myself. I said, 'Who's that? Sure sounds
good.' Then I remembered it was me and the kind of person I was back
then and then I didn't like it so much any more."
frank, there are times when getting high did indeed make you play
better. Or at least it made you feel better while playing. It's a
certain level of abandon. But afterwards listening again you can also
hear the overwhelming lack of finesse, lack of control. It's dirty,
not the "you" you want to be or hope you are.
he had found himself, he returned to Davis for eight months in 1985.
He has since recorded as a leader and was featured with the hot
Michael Brecker quintet. In a cover story, Guitar Player magazine
called Stern "the jazz guitar voice of the late '80s."
made an appointment for an interview for Sunday morning -
rehabilitated "square" time for an ex-addict - at his
apartment on 23rd Street. When I arrived, he was with Steve Khan the
Steely Dan guitarist, who was producing his second record. They were
discussing whether to orient the album more toward sophisticated rock
or contemporary jazz. When Khan left, Stern brewed two bowls of coffee
so strong it might have just been illegal. He laughed between sips: "Well,
hell, you have to do something." At least he had not, as
so often happens, lost his sense of humor along with his habit.
remembered one cleaned-up old-timer telling me: "These young guys
today are a bit too clean. They could use some more suffering."
This is a fragile hair to split. Stern seemed as though he had split
the difference just fine.
I asked him how he could play the
emotional, energetic, mature straight-ahead jazz I had heard in the 55
the other night and even consider recording anything else. Is it
necessary for absolutely every level of daredevil to be purged at the
same time in order to be considered "healthy?"
tell the truth I'm kind of schizzed out about it," he said. "I'm
not trying to go for any preconceived notion of what the public wants,
but I grew up with the Beatles and then fell in love with jazz. I come
by both honestly. That may be my biggest dilemma, or gift, I'm not
sure which - probably both.
"I'm just going to make the
best record I can - and later when I listen to it I'll probably hate
it." He stopped for a beat. "I'm hard on myself. But bebop
and rock don't mix on the same album. Someday maybe I'd like to do a
kind of suite with all my influences in it, but I'm not ready for that
"Then there's the problem of technology. That can
be a hassle. And you might call me a hasslee. It's confusing, how far
to go. Those electronic toys can sound so slick, people get seduced. I
think it will eventually assume more perspective.
the same fight took place over the piano. Some harpsichordist probably
screamed, 'This isn't music!'"
By noon I was walking
down 23rd Street, shaking like a leaf, high in the lowest possible
sense, from all of that legal coffee.