In the Court of the Twang Bar King

Sometime in the spring of 1982 I bought a copy of Guitar World Magazine. I was interested in an article about my musical hero, Randy Rhoads, who had just been killed in a plane crash while on tour with Ozzy Osbourne. On the front of this particular issue was a geeky looking dude with a buzz cut and a pink jacket. "The World's Premier Electric Guitarist" the cover proclaimed. How could that be? The guy didn't wear any leather at all and he looked like a villain from an episode of Simon & Simon. The burnt Strat was cool but everything else about this so-called "premier guitarist" screamed "weirdo" to me.

In the article, Belew said that what was important was creating your own unique sound with the tools you had, even if what you had was a Strat with a broken neck pickup. No minimalist, Adrian, a serious devotee of Hendrix as electronics pioneer, embraced technology, especially compressors, fuzz tones, flangers and synthesizers. It sounded exciting and exotic to me so the next time I was at Wally's Music in Espanola I bought a copy of Lone Rhino, Adrian's first solo record.* All of a sudden my perception of what it meant to be a guitar player changed. It wasn't about looking cool, it was about being creative. It didn't matter what kind of guitar you owned, what mattered was what you did with it. Through Adrian Belew I came to the pure artistry of David Bowie, King Crimson and Frank Zappa, and I started to take seriously the pop music of anti-rock stars like Talking Heads.

Belew's music is about exploration within a tradition, in his case, 60s pop and rock & roll. Adrian's songs are constructed like Beatles songs but it seems like every time he comes to a cliche or a convention he asks himself, "What else can I do here? Where else can I take this?" Songs like "Life Without A Cage" and "The Rail Song" sound like they could be B-sides to Beatles singles from the Revolver era. But even though the canvas is the same, the palette is radically different. Instead of guitar hero flash or urban blues noodling, Adrian made his guitar shriek and roar, warble like a burning bagpiper, purr like a cybernetic panther, and stagger and groan like Robby the Robot on a bender. In a strange way, too, Adrian Belew became my benchmark for friendship; If you didn't get "Elephant Talk" we couldn't hang out.

Belew is still my main inspiration even though I don't write or perform music anything like his. What I hold to is Adrian's ethic of pure originality. You don't have to be a blonde Adonis with miraculous chops, a Marshall stack and a polka dot Flying V. You can make magic with a pawn shop Fender Mustang, a Big Muff and a bit of creativity. Discovering the genius of Adrian Belew was like finding out about a new continent or life on other planets. Suddenly there were infinite possibilities where before there were only dead ends. Of course, the electric guitar has always been a symbol as well as a musical tool but Adrian reminded us that an instrument could make you creative as well as sexy.

Adrian Belew continues to be far ahead of everyone when it comes to exploring the possibilities of electric guitar music. Sadly, the world has become more conservative and corporate, making Belew's feral muse seem not so much an outlier as anti-social; weird for weird's sake. But maybe weird will come around again. Revolutionaries are usually ahead of their time and things that seem exotic and strange may only be the new normal waiting for us to catch up. Adrian always related to the romance of the endangered animal, the lone rhinoceros, misunderstood and mistreated. But I believe what he represents is the first of a new species rather than the last of a dying breed. Rock & roll has certainly had its day and then some. But electronic music has only just begun to be explored. The king is indeed dead; long live the king!

* I'm sure if it had been today I never would have found Adrian at Walmart. Thank you Wally!

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