I’m Buddy Rich when I fly off the handle

Phil Ford

It’s Dial M’s birthday today. It’s been exactly one year since I put up the first post. 

The Onion AV Club has a great feature this week: fifteen clips of crazy musician-audience banter. In some, like the one with Venom’s Cronos raving at an appreciative New Jersey audience, the musicians are funny (if unintentionally) and endearing; in others, they come off like total jerks. Keith Jarrett swearing at an Italian jazz festival audience falls into the latter camp. My favorite moment, though, comes from the band Fugazi, which stops playing to rebuke two inconsiderate moshers. (Note: lotsa profanity, not safe for work)

Now, taunting someone by calling him an “ice-cream-eating motherf?@#$&” is a pretty inventive way for a musician to cut someone down to size. But the musician best known for his obscenity-laced tirades has got to be Buddy Rich, who was famous for tearing into his touring bands back in the 1970s. Here he is on the tour bus between sets, losing it completely. (Do I have to tell you it’s not safe for work?) And here’s a transcript. Interestingly, one of Rich’s former employees wrote in to the site where I found this stuff and defended him:

Hi, I have been looking at your site and I wanted you to know that Buddy Rich wasn’t at all the way you have him portrayed, as a “prick”. I played trumpet and stood next to him every night for almost three years from 1975-1977. We had a great band that loved and respected him and he was 95% a sweetheart the whole time. The only time I saw him as he sounds on the tapes is when he had a bad back, or a band full of young guys who couldn’t play well but thought they could, who showed disrespect towards him and thought they were too good to be there. I went back later for a few weeks and the band was like that. He and I were both miserable. Steve Marcus and Buddy and I sat together on the bus one night and he asked what he could do to get the band back to a high level. He was frustrated that yelling didn’t help. It only made the lousy players band together and feel persecuted while continuing to suck.

I know that tape sounds funny to most people, but to the people who knew him to be unbelievably generous, (I could tell you stories) funny, loving and a whole different kind of drummer than any other on Earth, that tape hurts because we hear his pain and confusion as to how guys can suck and not know it.

I’ve written before about how music seems to bring out a certain strain of savagery in some people; maybe it’s that, for musicians, music is so incomparably important that failure — failure of attention in an audience, or failure of execution in a student or ensemble member — is not just wrong but offensive, even indecent. But it doesn’t do to romanticize this sort of behavior. A lot of musical tyrants seem to command slavish devotion because of, rather than despite, their viciousness — a kind of musical Stockholm Syndrome, I suspect. But I’ve always had contempt for musicians who exult in their own power and use it to exploit those who are in no position to fight back.

In classical music Arturo Toscanini has the most fearsome reputation
for brutalizing his musicians. (Does anyone have an audio recording of any of his legendary tantrums?) Weirdly, and unfairly, Maria Callas is remembered in much the same way, thanks to Terrence McNally’s Master Class, a fictionalization of Maria Callas’s famous Juilliard master classes in which Callas is portrayed as a monster. When you actually listen to the tapes of her Juilliard master classes, you realize that she was actually very nice, in a professional and no-nonsense sort of way. The one bit that’s most famous is probably where she advises a young woman to wear longer skirts. (I think this is the only bit from Callas’s actual master classes that made it into Master Class.)  But it was the 1970s, and she probably had a point. At least she was good-humored about it.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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