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Marc Ribot: That's the Way I View It From New York

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Marc Ribot AAJ: You've played with a lot of remarkable musicians. But I'm not going to ask you about John Zorn or Tom Waits, great though they are. I want you to tell me about your experience in one of Chuck Berry's pickup bands.

MR: [Laughing] Okay, good call. I was in a band called the Realtones, and we were called a number of times—I don't know, five, six—to back up Chuck Berry when he came to town. I was very honored and nervous because Chuck Berry has a reputation—you know, he gets a lot of, I guess, not-great pickup bands. He leaves it to the local promoter to set up a pickup band, and usually, promoters being what promoters are, they try to save themselves a little bread [laughing]. We took it very seriously; the horn players learned the horn lines, we learned the parts.

There's a reductionist idea that Chuck Berry is this one riff. But in fact, each part is composed; each tune differs in terms of its guitar part, in terms of feel, in terms of a lot of things. It's all about the specifics. Run 'em together and you've got to take it seriously as composition. Chuck Berry's a great guitarist; he has this thing, this absolute rhythmic authority. His solos are magnetic. You can look out at the audience and as he plays a note, you almost see a ripple go out through them. It's really something to see from the stage. He's a great player who invented a lot of what we do.

Having said that, to be the second guitarist when Chuck Berry's the guitarist can be a difficult role. I suspect that a lot of guitarists who jam with Chuck Berry fall into two mistakes. One is that you need to pay tribute without doing an insulting form of imitation and mimicry. He's Chuck Berry, you're not. He doesn't need to hear you play like him. On the other hand, it's his gig and it would be stupid to be on stage with Chuck Berry without giving a nod to the fact that I, and almost every other electric guitarist who ever played rock, have taken a lot from what he does!

The second thing is that I suspect some people don't get it and say, "well, Chuck Berry, he's great but he probably doesn't practice that much. I'm going to cut him. He does his thing, but I'm going to play really good. That's dumb. Playing faster than Chuck Berry will not mean playing better than Chuck Berry. He'll have every right to be pissed off. So I'm very proud to say that Chuck Berry liked my blues playing. I was very proud that I didn't get kicked off the stage and that he could hear what I was doing. You know, there are certain players—Chuck Berry, Arsenio Rodriguez, Grant Green—who have this absolute rhythmic authority and their every note is just the law. I don't know—they don't teach that at Berklee, that's all I can say.


Selected Discography

John Zorn, Filmworks XVIII (Tzadik, 2006)
Marc Ribot, Spiritual Unity (Pi Recordings, 2005)
John Zorn, Best of Filmworks: 20 Years of Soundtrack Music (Tzadik, 2005)
John Zorn/Electric Masada, At the Mountains of Madness (Tzadik, 2005)
Bar Kokhba Sextet, 50th Birthday Celebration, Vol. 11 (Tzadik, 2005)
Tom Waits, Real Gone (Anti, 2004)
Rob Wasserman, Trilogy (Rounder, 2004)
Wadada Leo Smith, Lake Biwa (Tzadik, 2004)
Medeski Martin & Wood, End of the World Party (Just in Case) (Blue Note, 2004)
Marc Ribot, Soundtracks, Vol. 2 (Tzadik, 2003)
John Zorn, Big Gundown: John Zorn Plays the Music of Ennio Morricone (Tzadik, original release 1984, reissue with bonus material 2000)
John Zorn, Masada Guitars (Tzadik, 2003)
Dave Douglas, Freak In (RCA, 2003)
Marc Ribot, Scelsi Morning (Tzadik, 2003)
Elvis Costello, When I Was Cruel (Universal, 2002)
John Zorn, Filmworks XIII: Invitation to a Suicide (Tzadik, 2002)
David Sylvian, Camphor (Virgin, 2002)
Cyro Baptista, Beat the Donkey (Tzadik, 2002)
Marc Ribot, Saints (Atlantic, 2001)
Sam Phillips, Fan Dance (Nonesuch, 2001)
Marc Ribot, Muy Divertido! (Atlantic, 2000)
James Carter, Layin' in the Cut (Atlantic, 2000)
Medeski Martin & Wood, Dropper (Blue Note, 2000)
Marc Ribot, A Yo I Killed Your God (Tzadik, 1999)
Marty Ehrlich's Dark Wood Ensemble, Sojourn (Tzadik, 1999)
John Lurie, Down By Law/Variety (Intuition, 1999)
David Sylvian, Dead Bees on a Cake (Virgin, 1999)
Marc Ribot, The Prosthetic Cubans (Atlantic, 1998)
John Zorn, The Circle Maker (Tzadik, 1998)
Marc Ribot, Shoe String Symphonettes (Tzadik, 1997)
Mike Patton, Pranzo Oltranzista (Tzadik, 1997)
John Zorn, Filmworks IV: S&M (Tzadik, 1997)
Arto Lindsay, Subtle Body (Bar None, 1996)
Jazz Passengers, Individually Twisted (32 Jazz, 1996)
Madeleine Peyroux, Dreamland (Atlantic, 1996)
Marc Ribot, Don't Blame Me (DIW, 1995)
Rough Assemblage, Construction & Demolition (Avant, 1995)
Marc Ribot, Shrek (Avant, 1994)
David Shea, The Prisoner (Sub Rosa, 1994)
John Zorn, Krystalnacht (Tzadik, 1993)
Medeski Martin & Wood, It's a Jungle in Here (Gramavision, 1993)
T-Bone Burnett, (The Criminal Under My Own Hat (Columbia, 1992)
Elvis Costello, Mighty Like a Rose (Warner Bros., 1991)
David Sanborn, Another Hand (Elektra, 1991)
Marianne Faithful, Blazing Away (Island, 1990)
Stan Ridgeway, Mosquitos (Geffen, 1989)
Elvis Costello, Spike (Warner Bros., 1989)
The Lounge Lizards, Voice of Chunk (Agharta, 1989)
Tom Waits, Big Time (Island, 1988)
The Lounge Lizards, Big Heart: Live Tokyo (Antilles, 1986)

Related Article: A Fireside Chat with Marc Ribot (Interview, 2004)

Photo Credits:
Top Photo: Chico De Luigi
Second Photo: Juan-Carlos Hernández
Third Photo: Scott Chernis
Bottom Photo: Luca Buti

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