Tell me, Adrian . . .
This week in the print edition of IT we reran an old Prejudices column of mine about the brief sojourn of rock guitarist Adrian Belew in mid-Illinois. That version of the column had to be edited for length; here's the original, uncut, as it appeared on June 17, 1982.
OCTOBER 15, 1979: I encounter the name "Adrian Belew" for the first time. He is not a jeans designer. He is a rock guitarist. His picture is in the Springfield paper. His pants have cuffs. I wonder, What is he doing in Springfield? I find out later that this is the first question everybody asks. I wonder if he has an answer.
Belew is cutting a demo album at Cwazy Wabbit studio on the north side. Cwazy Wabbit is run by some people I know, Rich Denhart and Christy Bley. They are founding members of a seminal local group called the Tonguesnatcher Revue, which darted across Springfield skies in 1973. Tonguesnatcher's sets ranged from Gershwin to Tammy Wynette to Frank Zappa. I wrote program notes for a concert which featured the All-New Abyssinian Buttercup Dancers, notes which remain arguably my best work to this day. Tonguesnatcher included a sax player named Janssen, who was reputed to have once told a joke at a party attended by Melvin Laird. They are well-known kooky funsters.
"Belew" is recording songs of his own composition. One of them is called "Adidas in Heat." Another ends with peas playing "a sort of funky dirge" for a dead pea-fan. The article in the Springfield paper says that Belew was working in a Nashville lounge band when Frank Zappa saw him and hired him. The article says that he worked with David Bowie after that. Sure he did. This sounds like just the sort of stuff Tonguesnatcher would pull. "I'll believe Belew when I see him," I promise myself.
SUMMER, 1980: I hear — from sources which even the National Enquirer would dismiss as unreliable — that a man using the name Adrian Belew is playing occasionally at Crows Mill School, a club which is situated at the outskirts of Springfield in more ways than one. I suspect that Belew is really Stan Gunn, working under a stage name.
JULY, 1980: I start listening to rock and roll again.
AUGUST, 1980: I start quoting lines from Talking Heads' Fear of Music at parties. My phone stops ringing.
JANUARY, 1981: Robert Palmer, who is a rock critic for the New York Times and Rolling Stone, says that the Talking Heads' Remain in Light is one of the best albums of the year. Palmer is my kind of critic. He writes for The Atlantic, and I'll bet that he owns at least one pair of Hush Puppies. I buy the album. It is good. Very good in fact. The man playing lead guitar on Remain in Light is named Adrian Belew.
Coincidence? I wonder.
Listening to this Belew's work on Light, I am reminded of the first times I heard Jimi Hendrix. "That doesn't even sound like a guitar," I recall a friend saying to me back in 1967. "It does now," I told him.
APRIL 14, 1982: The New York Times publishes an article titled, "Adrian Belew issuing his first solo album." The piece calls him "the hot-shot rock guitarist of the moment." It describes the work he allegedly did with Zappa and Bowie and David Byrne and King Crimson, complimenting him as "today's most highly regarded and in-demand" player.
I feel vindicated. Palmer says that this Belew lives in "a small Middle Western college town." I consult with J.J., who confirms that Springfield is perhaps the least collegiate of all small Middle Western towns. It must be some other guy.
Palmer says, "Sometimes he will play a clean lyrical melodic line, and sometimes his improvisations will be a succession of howls, groans, metallic scraping sounds, and percussive slammed-out rhythms." On a King Crimson cut, Palmer says, Belew imitates a bull elephant. "I just happen to like animals," he quotes Belew as saying, "But I'm interested in doing a lot more things with the guitar than imitating elephants."
I begin to wonder how Tonguesnatcher got to know Robert Palmer.
APRIL 20, 1982: On a hunch, I look up Adrian Belew in the Springfield phone book. He is there. I become confused.
MAY 14, 1982: The State Journal-Register published an article by Bill Gaspard about a local rock band, and calls it, "Food & Money: New wave in a no-wave town." One of Food & Money's members is Tonguesnatcher alum Bill Janssen. Bill Janssen was reported in the Times to appear on Belew's solo album playing rhythm saxophone.
I begin to wonder if Bill Gaspard knows Robert Palmer too. Two days later I mention Adrian Belew to S. "Oh yeah," she said. "I saw him at the library the other day." Rock stars at the library? I become more confused.
JUNE 10, 1982: Rolling Stone publishes a profile calling Belew "rock's most valuable player." He describes how he achieved the rhino sound on his album's title cut, Lone Rhino. "It involves a flanger, an echo unit, a fuzz tone, compression and ambient miking, together with my overhand style of slide playing," he told RS. "I turn the slide to an oblique angle, hit the strings with the volume off, then force the volume on so that what comes out is a kind of dissonant rumble. The flanger gives it that breathy effect."
Well, sure. But what I want to know is, how does Belew know that rhinos sound breathy? I decide that this is why he was in the library.
RS, by the way, describes Springfield as Belew's "adopted hometown." Apparently it is true after all. I am unaccountably excited. I explain to R., who is a baseball fan, that my encountering Adrian Belew at the local library would be like his running into Tom Seaver or George Foster at the Hong Kong Garden. R. informs me that George Foster doesn't like Chinese.
JUNE 8, 1982: I am standing in line at Appletree Records. A customer and the clerk chat. "Adrian will do an in-store promo when his record is released," the clerk says. "Excellent. Excellent," replies the customer. I feel out of it. "Adrian and I read at the same library," I say, hoping to score some cool points. The clerk staples my finger to the sack.
JUNE 10, 1982: L. tells me that her kid brother told her that Belew eats at Steak 'n' Shake all the time. My puzzlement about why Belew stays in Springfield begins to give way to admiration. He is clearly a man with properly ordered priorities. I resolve to ask him when we meet what he thinks of the chilli mac.
JUNE 11, 1982: I am listening to records. "Don't you miss it, don't you miss it. Some-a you people just about missed it," intones David Byrne. In between tunes I muse. How come I didn't pay attention to Belew when he was merely good; instead of waiting until he was big? Didn't I do the same thing with sex years ago?
JUNE 12, 1982: I have a bad dream. I am sitting in Adrian Belew's living room, with my Bic pen and my steno pad and my Redwing shoes while Lone Rhino plays on the box in the background. I open my mouth, and I hear myself say, as if from a place far away, "Tell me, Adrian, what is your favorite color?"