Friday, May 13, 2022

Stewart Copeland: complete clown

Stewart Copeland's statements about jazz came up on line recently, and I was curious about that, so I dug around and found some things. He dubiously claims to have a jazz background, but as we'll see, I don't think he learned anything from it beyond how to ding on a ride cymbal. 

This video sums up everything that follows. He makes some provocative statements and uses Miles Davis's and John Coltrane's names as punchlines for riling people up and showing how much he doesn't care about that type of music, because it's self-indulgent. And then he non-self-indulgently jumps around and clowns for the audience and plays way too much drums on some music he calls jazz, and then collects a big non-self-indulgent check for his time:  

In case you're in any doubt about what you're hearing with his playing there— it's nothing. He's not playing shit. To be clear. 

Moving forward, he famously said some things in Modern Drummer magazine, that elicited a pretty stern rebuke from Peter Erskine. MD was doing a blindfold test type column, where they would play records for a famous drummer, and have them respond. They talked to Copeland in the March '94 issue. 

They set him up with some pretty weird recordings— Kenwood Dennard playing duo with Marcus Miller, an Alan Holdsworth track with Vinnie Colaiuta going bananas, some bad early King Crimson. I don't know what the idea was. I can see how it would put someone in a bad mood. But then they played him a really good track (It Is, from Motian in Tokyo) from Paul Motian's trio with Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell, about which Copeland said: 

[mocking the melody] Daa-daa-doo-daa-doo, daa-da-do-da-doo... I tell you what here's the problem: All the good melodies have been written, so let's write some bad ones. Any old shitty secquence of notes will do as long as it's screwed up. The drumming's not bad; it's got sort of an anarchic, “Boy, this is a screwed-up melody,” sort of feel. With a melody like this, I'd be playing like that, too. We call this “washing up” at the end of a song— the crescendo before you go out. These guys are washing up— and they haven't even got any dishes. This is completely predictable, right in a very narrow band of what you have to play if you're a jazz musician. Utterly conservative, utterly un-groundbreaking. A better man with a better ear than I would be able to hear something out of this shit. 

In the June '94 issue they printed this letter to the editor from Peter Erskine: 

While I can appreciate the candid and forthright quality of Stewart Copeland's remarks concerning the various recordings he listened to for Ken Micallef's Impressions column, I feel compelled to state my objection to his terming the music performed by Paul Motian, Bill Frisell, and Joe Lovano as “shit.” It takes all kinds of music to make up this world, Mr. Copeland, and mssrs. Motian, Frisell, and Lovano have explored and created more than any musician's fair share of compelling, innovative, enjoyable, exciting, and beautiful music.

Stewart: Music such as what you heard from the Motian In Tokyo recording might be a lot of things to a lot of people, but I can't imagine how you could possibly label it as “Utterly conservative, utterly un-groundbreaking.” I'd be willing to cut you some slack, in that the “blindfold test” / grab-bag nature of listening to randomly (for the listener) selected tracks can possibly skew one's perspective. But, since you make your commentary polemical, and direct it at my colleagues and the art form I care most about, I decided to write.

Your comments about jazz... “This is completely predictable, right in a very narrow band of what you have to play if you're a jazz musician...” show that your arrogance is almost as outstanding as is your being ill-informed. If nothing else, I don't think you're very qualified to judge what a jazz musician can or has to play, in whatever bandwidth— just as I would not presume what a reggae/ska/pop musician should “have to play” in his or her field or style of music. Whether one likes a performance or a particular type of music is another matter. I certainly have enjoyed your drumming over the years, but I think you have a big mouth when it comes to something you don't understand. 

In searching that up I came across some other comments he's made, like in this 2004 MD interview:

MD: Speaking of listening, and Trey [Anastasio, of Phish(!!!)] called you a better listener than any of the jazz drummers he’s played with.

Stewart: Hah! Well, the problem with jazz musicians is that they’re all crap!

MD: Yeah? Can we quote you on that?

Stewart: Oh, yes! It’s an old favorite of mine. And I don’t mean it, of course. I just enjoy saying it. But most jazz players are crap.

MD: Trey said that for a guy who doesn’t listen to jazz?

Stewart: and the reason I don’t listen to jazz is not because jazz people are bad, or because I’m a jazzist, or something, but because I was raised to play jazz. I was brought up to be a jazz drummer. My dad’s trumpet is sitting right there. But to me, jazz was safe, Sunday-lunch-with-the-family music. It was the opposite of rebellion. And my whole musical angst comes from rebelling against jazz. Occasionally I’ll rub elbows with someone who calls themselves a jazz player – stanley Clarke, Tony Williams, Branford Marsalis. But apart from about ten guys who are friends of mine, the rest of them are all shit! With attitudes. That suck. They play music of the mind. Music is not of the mind, music is of the heart.

MD: And the classical music that you’re writing for Orchestralli, is that music of the mind or heart?

Stewart: Ahhhh – you got me. It’s a mental exercise, and my heart is gladdened by non-libidinal things. I was just soaring into a pontification, but you shot me right down there [laughing]. OK. Let me regroup here for a second.

What I’m saying here is that even the philosophy of the music of Stewart the composer is different from the philosophy of Stewart the drummer. The basic credo is different. The composer guy is some other artsy-fartsy intellectual jerk! He’s a jazz musician! [horrified laughter] Wow. What a strange realization.

So he's a Hollywood blabbermouth who has been famous for a long time and is used to being around piles of money, and he believes that makes him the center of the universe. And certainly he's done a million interviews and has his technique down for appearing interesting and “punk” without saying anything. 

In this interview from Drum! Magazine he really shows his ass, in this humble blogger's opinion. He's talking to someone called Brain, who was the drummer for Primus at the time: 

Brain: Remember when we were talking about attitude and you made the comment about Miles? I know you liked the early jazz stuff like big bands …

Copeland: Big bands. As soon as they stopped going “ting, ting-a ting,” that’s when they lost me.

Brain: You didn’t like the attitude that Miles had?

Copeland: I liked Tony Williams, but after that, fusion stuff started getting too cold for me.

Brain: So after the period of Miles in the ’70s, when he was just gone, and it was all about experimenting, and –

Copeland: It did nothing for me.

Brain: You just hated that.

Copeland: I went through a period, in fact when I was moving in here, I went down to [a record store] and bought Thelonius Monk, Miles, all the real icons, and I’m sitting here unpacking boxes, listening to these records. I’ve done these jams. There’s nothing magical. I can just hear five guys stoned out of their brains. They’re on smack. I was on pot. What’s the difference? It’s just totally self-indulgent. “A Love Supreme.” Get the hell out of here! There was some cool Miles stuff, though. The early stuff where he had Tony Williams with him. You get the vibe out of that. Have you ever been through a Mahavishnu thing?

Brain: Yeah, a little bit. But I was never a Billy Cobham fan. He just bugged me.

Copeland: Really?

Brain: Yeah.

Copeland: I liked the first album and the second album. Then I lost it from there. He’s quite stiff. He doesn’t groove at all. If you listen to his albums now they don’t survive well at all. 

I want to take a moment to say how much I appreciate criticisms of jazz musicians from guys who played with Phish and Primus.

Anyway, it's very rock & roll: two bros in LA, at the top of their respective scenes, acting like masters of the universe, talking absolutely vacuous shit about Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Billy Cobham.

I can't help notice they're all black artists— and the only jazz musicians Copeland talks about with any fondness in that first video are white. People can infer from that what they want. At minimum it displays zero respect for Black culture, without which Stewart Copeland would be  N O T H I N G. He can't even pretend to respect it, and is happy to denigrate the greatest Black artists' names in service of his media image. 

It's disappointing, because I do love his drumming with Sting's band from 40 years ago, The Police. I expect good players to have respect for other players, and to respond to music thoughtfully, even music they don't like or understand. Musicians are supposed to care about music more than they care about running around with their pants down to elevate their image as a 75 year old “bad boy.”

And it totally discredits him as an artist. You can't be that bad a listener and have anything to say. If you put on a Monk record and hear nothing, and have no desire to figure it out, you're done. Stop pretending to be an artist. Go score another Charles Schwab commercial, count your money, order somebody to polish the windows on your limo. Go make life hell for your lackeys. 

POSTSCRIPT: In the same MD issue as Erskine's response, Paul Motian was interviewed, and was told what Copeland said. Motian responded:  

[hard laughing] That's great— just too much! 

I doubt Motian was familiar with anything Copeland has written, and don't take his further comments completely at face value:

I can understand Steward Copeland's criticism. He's coming from a totally different way of playing. You have to remember that those are my tunes and my melodies. Some of them may be crappy. I don't have anywhere near the knowledge he has of writing. He's great. But I'd like to see him make a jazz record. Let's see what he can write.  


Unknown said...

I can't remember Motian's response to the MD fracas word for word, but I recall he found Copeland's comments amusing more than anything. In short, Paul Motian was a million times cooler than Copeland ( or anyone else, for that matter) will ever be……..

Todd Bishop said...

I'm sure he did find it amusing-- way too empty headed to take seriously in any way, except as an illustration of who Copeland is.

Todd Bishop said...

I found Motian's reaction-- it starts [hard laughing]

Anonymous said...

So unfortunate. Rock drumming was built on the backs of jazz drummers. You’d hope for a little more respect.

Todd Bishop said...

Mainly I just wish he loved music and musicians more.

Anonymous said...

Would love to see the list of jazz greats who've played with the phish guy.

Unknown said...

Like you, I'm a big fan of his work with the Police and just tried to take his comments as theatre or something, but that example of him playing….ugh… went into OVERJIVE!!!!! And I don't know whose "tune" they were playing, but if it's one of Copeland's, he has a lot of nerve calling out Motian's compositions!!!!!!

Todd Bishop said...

Longest night of that bass player and piano player's life I'm thinking. It's got to be Copeland's work.

Michael Griener said...

Stewart Copeland always struck me as a smug jerk who wanted to be famous first and foremost, no matter what the cost.
He's not uninteresting, but his ego always gets in the way.
His autobiography is quite entertaining, though nowhere near as reflective as Bill Bruford's.
Bruford said of himself that in his younger years he was also "incredibly ambitious and very arrogant," but he grew up.
Copeland, on the other hand, is still a complete jerk.
Just look at his role as a presenter in that BBC documentary about drumming.

Todd Bishop said...

That's some video-- all that jumping around for the camera. It would have been nice for him to include anything at all between Baby Dodds and Ginger Baker. A three-second montage, anything.

adamfr05t said...

I tuned in for the BBC doc when it was first broadcast. Copelands’ presenting made it unwatchable! I think I lasted about 10 minutes before I had to switch off.

Anonymous said...

Not sure if its just me, but the way he talks about Congo Square and Jazz drumming comes off as disrespectful and ignorant too. Guys dad was a CIA agent, so the poor attitude towards Black people isn't surprising - the CIA were knee deep in undermining various anti-colonial struggles in Africa.

Todd Bishop said...

I mean... I found out not long ago that my dad worked for the CIA-- in West Germany in the 60s. The whole family never knew about it until ~50 years after his death. It's a big organization and not everyone who works for it is setting policy or committing the well-known abuses.

I'm only concerned with what Copeland says. The Congo Square stuff was probably written by a copy writer. I don't believe he knows anything about it. But yeah it's BS to reference black culture only as deep background for all the glorious achievements of white rock & rollers.

Anonymous said...

If you want max cringe check out Stewart's 1985 movie The Rhythmatist on youtube

Anonymous said...

Stewart Copeland is such an amazingly, talented drummer, certainly one of the world’s best, and a really engaging speaker. I love that he has such high reverence and regard for jazz and the roots of modern pop. It’s a good thing that this article’s description is just clickbait!

Todd Bishop said...

Thanks for the input. He really is a complete clown, as I've amply documented in the post.

I don't need to do clickbait because I get $0 from clicks. A billion people could read this post and I would make $0 from that.