Miles, From the Eyes of a Friend
Thunder's Mouth Press
A new book on Miles Davis has hit the stands and it’s bound to garner some reaction because of its subject matter: another take on the Price of Darkness, or whatever moniker one wants to stick on the musical and mystical icon from East St. Louis.
This one is a fast, breezy read about life on the road, written by Chris Murphy. It’s called Miles to Go: Remembering Miles Davis and carries the subhead “The Lost Years; An Intimate Memoir of Life on the Road with Miles Davis 1973-1983 (Thunder’s Mouth Press). Murphy was a roadie and sometimes road manager for Miles during the prescribed years. He was also a close friend. So, while brief (250 pages) and fast, gives a perspective very different from the other books on Davis. Even different than Miles and Me, Quincy Troupe’s he-was-my-friend-type book that followed the well known, some might say infamous, autobiography. And unlike the writings of Eric Nisenson, another friend with an insider’s look.
Among the reactions the book might get is that it’s merely an attempt to capitalize on someone who was around Miles. That is isn’t scholarly and doesn’t take on the music in any great manner. That’s what’s good about it. This isn’t going to go down as a great treatise on The Man and Music. Others have done that, with varying degrees of success. Most people won’t call this a must-read book for those wanting to examine the enigmatic one. Fine. To use what Murphy says was one of Miles’ two favorite pointed comments: “So What?” (The other, if you must know, was “fuck you”.)
It’s a collection of stories about things that happened on the road. Some funny. Some crazy. Some sad. Some poignant. Often entertaining insider stuff, though some of the stories are just ordinary. It’s direct and forthright and has it’s own charm. Breezing along through the pages the stories seem like patchwork, but by the end it’s created a warm quilt that shows things about Miles Davis that a lot of other books don’t do. Specifically, that he was warm, funny and desirous of friends. That he was a musical genius has already been established. Some essay authors have touched on how Miles was warm and good to friends and put up a rough veneer to cover shyness. This book shows that even deeper.
“Miles was the most astounding individual I’ve ever known,” writes Murphy. “He was sort of living magic, and was the strongest evidence I have ever seen for the existence of good that knows what it’s doing”
Strong words. Hero worship? No. Murphy was very close to Davis, but he is quick to point out foibles. There just weren’t as many as some writers or lecturers like to say. He’s honest about Miles’ depression and periods where he had difficulty. But his battle through that, Murphy contends, was heroic to say the least. With similar honesty, for example, he talks about Cicely Tyson, the actress who was wife to Davis for a time during these years. Murphy did not get along with Tyson, and illustrates — as others have — her wish to control Davis and her penchant for blowing his money left and right. But he is strong in the stance that when she came on the scene she did a lot to get Miles to quit smoking, to get away from cocaine, and to eventually get into a healthier lifestyle — no small task.
Murphy took no such healthy road, enjoying the cocaine so available to musicians; the partying; and the women. He doesn’t hide it, but it’s not scandalous. Just fact. Few among us would not have enjoyed many, if not all, of those opportunities.
Murphy stresses the leadership, charisma and musical value of Miles, while illustrating the warm and human — even father-figure — side in his series of anecdotes. Being Miles Davis in general had to be tough, but through physical ailment and critical assaults, he not only survived, but shined like a beacon.
Murphy doesn’t dissect the music, but praises it and notes how great the various bands could sound, led through a maze nightly by Miles, particularly before the five-year hiatus. Afterward, he admits, the music was more planned out, but still valid and many times brilliant. (For more of musical dissection of the electric Miles, go with Paul Tingen’s outstanding Miles Beyond; The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967-1991). His stories about how difficult some venues could be to deal with, and how great others could be, is fun inside stuff. He speaks about the many musicians too, and has good stories about them. A few come in for high praise as “highly evolved humans,” among them Al Foster, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter.