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Dass man Cds auch als Ohrenschmuck verwenden könne, darüber klärte mich der Gitarrero aus Minneapolis, am Beispiel seiner Kids, vor Jahren auf. Anlässlich der Veröffentlichung von „The Hellbound Train.“ Ich schrieb Steve Tibbetts vor ein paar Tagen eine Mail, auch darüber, wie zauberhaft ich Daniel Lanois‘ Pianoalbum fände, und wieviele interessante Zugänge der gebürtige Kanadier zum  Sound des Klaviers fände, dabei aber jeder Art von Klangrealismus über Bord werfe. Das knüpfte an frühere Unterhaltungen an, im denen mir Steve berichtete, wie hart er stets daran werkelte, die Mikrofone so zu positionieren, dass die bestmögliche Piano-Aufzeichnung möglich sei. Hier seine Antwort, die nach kurzer Zeit eine erstaunliche Wendung nimmt.





Piano: Yes, I called up 3-4 „name“ producers I knew to ask about microphone placement for a beautiful piano I had just purchased in 2004. Nothing they suggested worked very well. I called Willie Murphy, a local music legend who had produced Bonnie Raitt’s first album.  Willie said in his gravely voice, „Tibbs, pull off the bottom plate of the piano, just over the pedals. Then find the best spot for the high end, in mono, with your first microphone. Do the same for the bottom end with your second microphone. Then pan the mics in stereo. Then ask Gordy Johnson to come over and tune the piano. Have your session ready to go when he arrives, with your tracks and the mixing board all set up, headphone levels, everything. If you’re mostly working in one or two keys, ask him to flatten the major or minor thirds by 5 cents.  When he’s done, go to work. Right away. Start recording immediately. Gordy sometimes likes to sit down and chat after tuning a piano, so you have to tell him you need to get right to work. The piano will sound perfect for about 3 hours.“  Willie was right.

Some years before that Willie called me at my studio and said (same rough voice), „Tibbs, what’s a ‚ZZ Top‘?  Any relation to ‚ZZ Hill?'“ I said, „Well Willie, ZZ Top happens to be one of the biggest bands in the world right now (this was in the mid-1990s). He said, „I got a call, and the ZZ guitarist is in town and wants to meet me and I don’t want to go alone, can you come with me to the concert?“ (Ummm … yes.) He said, „Ok, I’ll be at your studio in 10 minutes.“

He picked me up, we drove to the St. Paul Civic Center, knocked on the stage door and it opened.  The giant bearded security guard put his hand up and looked me up and down.  Willie said, „He’s ok, he’s with me.“ We stood by the stage and watched the show.  Afterwards we were escorted to Billy’s dressing room. Billy walked right over to Willie and said, „I always wanted to meet you, man.“

Billy’s wardrobe road case had a recently discovered picture of Robert Johnson taped to the inner part of the door. I pointed to it and said, „Robert Johnson’s fingers look webbed „Those were about the last words I was able to get into the conversation all night. Billy and Willie started their two-hour dialogue right there and then.

The three of us walked across the park from the St. Paul Civic Center and spent the night drinking at the St. Paul Hotel bar. I sat between Billy Gibbons and Willie. I didn’t say a word and tried to stay unmoving and invisible. I didn’t want to break the spell. I slowly, very slowly, drank a single gin and tonic for 2 hours while they talked about blues, Wittgenstein, Tarkovsky, Bukowski, Hendrix, Charlie Patton, Nabokov, and botany.

The bar closed about 2AM. The bar staff was standing at the bar in a perfect line, left to right, arms folded, half-smiles on their faces, elegant white shirts and black vests. They wanted to go home, but nobody wanted to be the one to ask the great Billy Gibbons to leave their establishment.

Finally the maître d’hotel came over and and said gently, „We would like to invite you to take your conversation into the lobby.“ Billy leaned back, stretched, and said, „I gotta go anyway.“ Billy and Willy continued talking all the way to the front door of the St. Paul Hotel, having a spirited discussion about Vittorio De Sic, as I recall. At the door, Billy shook Willie’s hand for a full minute and said, „It was great to finally meet you, man.“ Willie extracted his hand and we turned to go. Then Billy remembered me, looked kindly in my direction and said, „And it was good to meet you too.“

I was satisfied.


P.S. So far, so funny. Anyone who wants to enter the world of ZZ Top now, can not go wrong by starting with „Tres Hombres“ and „Eliminator“.

Steve Tibbetts „The Hellbound Train“ ist 2022 erschienen, eine fantastische Compilation seiner ECM-Jahre. Es war das letzte Jahr meiner 32 Jahre Klanghorizonte im Deutschlandfunk, da erzählte mir Steve Tibbetts diese Story über Manfred Eichers Begegnung mit japanischen Tonspezialisten während Keith Jarretts legendärer „Sun Bear Concerts“ …





jazz on the verge of falling apart…highly experimental, not relying on well-trodden paths…to start this hour with the latest works of Barre, Ashley  and Moor Mother signals a decent research in unpredictability, and, poetically speaking, an ocean of sound…the book on jazz echoes from the 60‘s is another look at unforeseen changes of parameters in improvised music …and then, steve tibbetts‘ breathtaking anthology, a fine entry for beginners, and deep listening for all… a freewheelin’, floating hour looking for a final chord with a whisper, or a bang…ashley paul and steve tibbetts were kindly asked to participate. erlend apneseth (hardanger fiddle) and the hurdy gurdy man (matthias loibner) join the party, too.




/ 1 / Barre Phillips & Gyorgy Kurtág Jr.: Face à Face (ECM) / 2 / Ashley Paul: I am Fog (bandcamp – digital – cassette) / 3 /  Moor Mother: Jazz Codes / 4 / Feature – Michael Rüsenberg (book review – „Jazz Echos“) / 5 /   Steve Tibbetts: Hellbound Train / 6 / Erlend Apneseth: Nova (Hubro) / 7 / Lucas Niggli  & Matthias Loibner: Still Storm (Intakt Rec.)  


Oga-Oga, Bali 1991. Die Männer beginnen eine Art Gesang: „Sada sada sada sada sada sada sada sada„. Zwei Männer setzen die Hähne ab, lassen sie laufen. Sie fliegen gegeneinander, ein Gestöber von Flügeln und Federn, übereinander, senkrecht gegeneinander, ihr Nackengefieder aufgerichtet, sie fliegen wieder und wieder ineinander ineinander,schliesslich hat einer eine Klinge in seiner Gurgel. Blut spritzt, Wetten gewonnen, Bhutakalas, böse Dämonen steigen aus der Erde. Der Dinosaurier, der verloren hat, wird von seinem traurigen Besitzer aufgelesen und einem alten Mann am Rande der Menge überreicht. Er nimmt ein Messer und den Hahn, legt den Hahn auf ein Stück Bambus, schneidet den Fuss mit der Klinge ab, anschliessend durchbohrt die Klinge das Herz des Hahns. Der Hahn gurgelt und blutet. Blut ist verspritzt worden, die Dämonen kommen heraus, sie werden später in der Nacht wieder verscheucht, wenn die Jungs ihre Töpfe schlagen. (S. T., 1991)

The best way to listen to „The Fall Of Us All“: You’ve got a fine new driveaway car with a top-notch stereo system. You’re traveling cross-country from Ohio to California. It’s 1:30 am and you’ve just finished your greasy dinner at a truck stop in Council Bluffs, Iowa. You drive off. You’ve got a large, weak, and extremely hot coffee positioned between your legs, and you listen to the album between Kearney, Nebraska, and Sterling, Colorado. It needs that kind of captive audience. (S.T., 1994)


2021 5 Feb

Story with „Cello“

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In December of 1992 I came back from 6 months of working in Nepal gratuitously wallowing in heartbreak. A love affair doomed from the start was, well, doomed and died. In January of 1993 I’d take breaks from recording „The Fall of Us All“ to stand in the open doorway of my studio and smoke. In order to feel properly sad and in order to smoke Camel Straights with credibility I made myself sadder by playing David Darling’s „Cello“ album, especially the first selection. Also „Toward the Night“ by Someh Satoh – I alternated between Satoh and Darling depending on the level of misery required. Just seeing the cover of either CD made me feel sad. Very satisfying.  

This combination of CD, nicotine, and sadness worked best when it was snowing hard. Minnesota blizzards.

we feel righteously sad, why do we feel the need to make ourselves sadder by choosing exactly the right music to accompany our sad sadness? Darwin wants to know.


Album goes well, but slow. Like physics: you have decided to melt through a glacier but can only use body heat. It will take as long as it takes.




November 1992, Taksang, Bhutan





Quiet life on Sylt. Not always quiet though. Yesterday the longest walk, about 15 miles starting with some industrial noise made by rattling machines (I have no English names for) and construction workers on the seaside of Westerland. Then it went very still, down Rantum beach, to the nowhere land of Hörnum with those „walking dunes“. All prospects of sunny moments replaced by gritty grey in countless shades. Like in one of those merciless, melancholic black and white movies from early Italian neo-realism (but without people).

And then, while working on a special sequence of tracks for two long radio nights in December, changing mails with some Manafonistas (on things like „Normal People“ (season 1), the reasons for playing a song from Willie Nelson’s „Stardust“ in one of those nights, etc., and the lost jukebox culture of Keitum), waiting for audio files from two of your musical „heroes“ to give further insights in their soundtrack works (Eno, from  Norfolk or London) and recent musical revelations (Tibbetts from Minneapolis) – I mean that’s a special way to spend your time, between the sea and the sounds, on a remote island at the most northern point of Germany (tourism just a memory). This is what Steve  wrote:


„I’ll improvise into a microphone tomorrow or Friday, send you the results this weekend, and you can be Teo Macero and chop it up any way you want. Like, „Rated X“ where you can hear Teo punching in tracks using the subgroup buttons on the recording console during the mix. (Teo described in the liner notes to the re-issue of „Get Up With It.“). I‘ll try to be intelligent.“

Es kann ja immer etwas dazwischen kommen, aber momentan sieht es so aus, dass meine nächste Ausgabe der der Radionacht Klanghorizonte im Deutschlandfunk eine spezielle wird: „Produced by Manfred Eicher – fünf Jahrzehnte ECM in fünf Stunden“. Das Tempo dieser Reise durch die Dekaden wird trotz der „mission impossible“ kein eiliges sein. Ob ich Manfred Eicher noch treffen werde im Vorfeld, ist unklar. Auf jeden Fall konnte ich zwei Musiker für die Sendung gewinnen, die seit ziemlich früher Zeit auf unterschiedliche Art mit dem Label verbunden sind. Steve Tibbetts wählt jeweils eine seiner Lieblingsplatten aus den „Siebzigern“, „Achtzigern“ und „Neunzigern“ aus, Jon Balke macht das mit den „Neunzigern“, „Nullern“, und „Zehnern“. Beide werden etwas zu diesen Werken erzählen, Steve wird sich dazu wohl in seinem Studio in St. Paul ein paar ruhige Minuten nehmen, Jon ist derzeit in Kompositionsarbeiten versunken, wird aber spätestens in Venedig, wo er demnächst auftritt, morgens auf einem Hotelbalkon, genug Musse haben, seine kleinen Stories beizusteuern. Das alles in der Nacht von Freitag auf Samstag, im Deutschlandfunk, am 17. August. Vielleicht kommt auch noch der eineoder andere Überraschungsgast hinzu. Natürlich wird von beiden auch etwas zu hören sein, spätestens in der letzten Stunde – Jon Balkes „WARP“ (2016) und Steve Tibbetts‘ „LIFE OF“ (2018) sind zwei fantastische Alben.

The Guitar (1) – I have a Martin 12-string that my father gave to me. (…) It’s an old guitar, now. It has a peculiar internal resonance, as though it has a small concert hall inside of it. I try to bring that quality out by stringing the guitar in double courses. In other words, instead of stringing the 4 lower strings with octave courses, I string them in unison. It makes it a lot harder to play, but with double courses I can draw out overtones if I’m willing to really physically engage the strings.


The favourite guitarists? It’s not a discovery often made, no matter how much guitar music hits your ears. Neil Young, wizard – electric. Ralph Towner, wizard – acoustic. Yes. And when I heard Steve Tibbetts for the first time, it was a revelation: Northern Song (1981) followed by Safe Journey (1984). All those singular albums, among them Big Map Idea (1989) and The Fall Of Us All (1994). 

I’ve been returning ever since. Always returning.

Tibbetts‘ albums only appear sporadically. You wait in anticipation for the next one. Some very interesting side projects pop up on other labels along the way, while in the meantime ECM always offer a kind of constant companionship. (It’s worth noting here that Northern Song was the only album produced by Manfred Eicher – no introduction necessary.)

A unique sound-world created from St. Paul, Minnesota. A guitar sound you recognise after seconds, never formula. The thrill comes from just listening, and letting  go. And now, LIFE OF. Steve Tibbetts, Marc Anderson, Michelle Kinney, the inner circle. What made me quite so addicted to this music? Honestly I’ll never really know. This confession of not-knowing puts a bigger smile on my face than evocative pictures of distant worlds. 



Michael Engelbrecht: Steve, at first, this photo with the turkeys … a walk through the woods?


Steve Tibbetts: This is my back yard in Minnesota.The turkeys arrive around 9 in the morning and cluster outside, gobbling. They are out there right now, talking to each other. There is a bird feeder above them, hanging off of a balcony, so they scratch around in the snow and leaves looking for bird food. The turkeys are quite tame, and they associate our bipedal primate family with food, so they sometimes come running and making sounds when they hear the back door open. Sometimes rival gangs of turkeys go to war in our back yard. It is really something to see and hear. At those time their raptor past is revealed. 


Michael Engelbrecht: LIFE OF is vintage Tibbetts, all compositions are credited to you, I think, for the first time ever. It is more on the quiet side, like NATURAL CAUSES, but with its own darknesses and edges.


Steve Tibbetts: Yes, it’s of a piece with the last album. They’re relatives. 


The Guitar (2) – The frets on my guitar are worn almost flat. There are some tiny intonation issues and places where strings buzz against frets. I took the twelve-string to Ron at St. Paul Guitar repair. He looked the guitar over. He picked up the guitar and sighted down the fretboard. He said, “The frets are flat. There might be some buzzing or intonation issues. Do you like the way it sounds?” I said, “I love the way it sounds.” He handed the guitar back over the counter to me and said, “Then I won’t fix it for you.”


Michael Engelbrecht: Looking at the titles, they seem like a collection of people from your life and times. What made you combine the pieces with certain names?


Steve Tibbetts: A lot of the songs have a similar feeling to them. I let them cross-pollinate. In order to more easily distinguish them I gave them names a few years ago, and I used the names of friends and family.  Some of those names started influencing the music.  It was a little spooky, but I played along with the process. Some names have more than one reference in my family. For instance, there are several women named „Alice,“ two named „Joel,“ and so on. One of the Joels died last year, another is still living. This sort of thing can give the music a peculiar resonance. „Half of ‚Joel‘ died,“ I might think to myself. This is typical of the managed insanity inherent in the artistic process. It is good to use any upwelling of meaning and emotion you can find, but you have to maintain due diligence and stay sane. 


Michael Engelbrecht: „Life of Carol“ – is there a story?


Steve Tibbetts: No story, I’m afraid. It’s just another guitar circling, circling.  


The Guitar (3) – I try to play the guitar for one or two hours before recording. Something needs warming up. Maybe the back of the twelve-string needs to be physically warmed up, or my fingertips need a certain pliability. At some point the guitar settles down and the little concert hall inside opens for business. I like the physicality of playing 12-string. I don’t use a pick. If I’m drifting off to sleep at night and feel my fingertips throbbing I know I had a good day.


Michael Engelbrecht: There‘s a kind of discreet tension between some more introspective moods, carefully developed dynamics – and the haunting picture on the cover with the „army of cats“. 


Steve Tibbetts: Yes, just open up the back door at the right time of day and you’ll see turkeys and ghosts waiting and staring. 



Michael Engelbrecht: Are you making use of meditation or other tools to stimulate creativity?


Steve Tibbetts: The process of creativity is really hard to talk about: where does creativity come from? How does artistic vision and inspiration arise? It is a nearly tangible experience when inspiration finally does come to visit, but it’s still very ephemeral and vapor-like.  To go one step further and talk about a meditative influence on the creative process would be a bridge too far, I think. One can only speculate. An interesting thing however: sometimes an apparent spiritual or creative awakening is not at all meditative or serene in its manifestation. Look at „A Love Supreme“ or, especially, „The Inner Mounting Flame.“ There’s a kind of violence there that seems exactly right. Be leery of anyone who speaks with authority about practices of meditation and their impact on the creative process. Be afraid, be very afraid.  


Michael Engelbrecht: The music seems to be more centered around sound and texture than around melodies, for example. It seems to circle around an invisible center …


Steve Tibbetts: Part of that is my being easily satisfied with circular musical logic. When I worked in Southeast Asia I got used to music that didn’t really go anywhere. It always folded back on itself and it seemed right that it did so. I wish I could compose a piece of music with real changes and progression but I don’t really know how to.  


Michael Engelbrecht: Your love for your acoustic 12-string guitar is a life long affair. It is a familiar sound that never gets too familiar …


Steve Tibbetts: I remember an interview many years ago with Nana Vasconcelos where he talked about the berimbau which is, as you know, a 1-stringed instrument – a bow, a wire, a stick and a shaker. He said he found new sounds every day on the instrument. I feel the same way about this 12-string. There’s always something new, or something old that refines itself. I can’t take credit for a good sounding instrument.  


Michael Engelbrecht: There‘ s such a special balance between the rhythmic parts of the music and the drone fields (of sampled sounds, Michelle‘s cello sounds etc.) Remember Miles Davis, in his electric period 69-75, also had, inside the whirlpool of energy, those stop-and-go passages inside the music. Of course it is a very distant parallel, but in your pieces here, one can also observe a lot of moments where the music seems to hold its breath, stand still, before moving on, and back again …


Steve Tibbetts: Yes, I have a copy of „Get Up With It“ at the studio; „Rated X.“ Badal Roy plays tabla. I think that may have been more Teo Maceo than Miles. It’s always special when a great artist works with a visionary producer.  


Mixing – The small concert hall in the guitar encouraged me to seek out a large concert hall to mix the album in. The Macalaster College music department kindly let me bivouac in their concert hall for an evening. I set up two pairs of mics: one in the center of the hall, and one pair in back. It worked well to allow a room’s ambience to settle around the piano and percussion. The natural acoustics of the hall helped the guitar settle into the piano.



Michael Engelbrecht: Apropos piano, you have played that instrument on „Natural Causes“ for the first time. Was the reason for that to keep the spirit of the beginner awake who has, according to Zen teaching, at times more fresh choices than the highly virtuoso & professional „approach“?


Steve Tibbetts: I just wanted to be able to read music a little bit. I read a review of a book about Bach’s „Musical Offering.“ As I recall, the book titled „Evening In The Palace Of Reason“ concerns a challenge from the King of Prussia to Bach. The King presented Bach a theme, a melody, and tasked him with improvising a fugue from it. Bach took up the challenge and played a 3-voiced fugue. The King’s request to create a six-part fugue ex tempore could not be fulfilled by Bach, because the Royal Theme was too difficult for that. The „Musical Offering“ contains a 6-part fugue, elaborated on desk. When I read that, I thought, „Even if I saw the music I wouldn’t be able to understand what Bach had done.“ I wanted to understand. So I began studying with Susana Pinto and she taught me Bartok‘s „Mikrokosmos“ and Bach’s „Inventions.“


Michael Engelbrecht: I keep circling, too, a bit. Listening to „Life Of“ you can easily feel something brooding, some darkness, a certain twilight zone. Is the origin for these sensations unknown – or somehow graspable? Echoes from all those „stranger things“ you experienced in Asia?


Steve Tibbetts: There is sometimes a sort of credulous enthusiasm to believe in „stranger things“, as you say, especially in Asia. Nonetheless there does seem to be a certain permeability to the fabric of reality in some places in the world. A friend of mine called it „thinness.“ You can look for that in music and art as well. You listen and there is a quiet collapse of duality, self and other. This might sound terribly exotic or over-thought, but if you watch your mind when you listen to music you might witness a kind of melting.



Michael Engelbrecht: After all these years, you and the percussionist at your side, Marc Anderson, did develop a kind of „secret language“ in the studio, not always easy to understand for people you start working with. But Michele Kinney is long enough part of your „inner circle“, I think.


Steve Tibbetts: No secret codes. Michelle can make her cello sound like a distant electric guitar feeding back through a Marshall amp. Tony Iommi-style.


Michael Engelbrecht: Haha, echoes from Bach and Black Sabbath within a minute. Now, Steve, living in Minnesota: did you follow those cold winter chills that were part of the three seasons of „Fargo“ (I love them!), and the original movie by the Coen brothers? Do you have a favourite TV series at the moment?


Steve Tibbetts: Yes, there is definitely a Minnesota way of being that I have grown to love. Very Norwegian, taciturn, reserved. I moved here from Wisconsin in 1972 and this is my home now. I like the way people are here, and I like the devotion to arts, education, and the liberal politics of this state. Some great political figures have come from Minnesota: Al Franken, Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, Eugene McCarthy, and especially Paul Wellstone. And, mhmm, Favorite TV series: politics and the Scandinavia mindset probably figure into my enjoyment of „Okkupert.“


Michael Engelbrecht: I know you have quite a big ECM collection. What was the last discovery or re-discovery inside the new or old ECM releases? I personally re-discovered that wonderful Shankar album „Vision“ with Jan Garbarek and Palle Mikkelborg. When I played it on air, the needle died a slow death and added weird distortions to Garbarek‘s high notes.


Steve Tibbetts: I don’t have to re-discover the first 300 albums in the ECM catalog; I’ve never really left them! I have „Dis“ on now, as I write this. Brooding, dark, just the way we like it.


Michael Engelbrecht: Wow – this is a lovely synchronicity. Yesterday, on the day you wrote this, I felt the urgent need to listen to an ancient ECM recording, I haven’t heard in years and that didn’t leave my turntable for weeks when it had been released deep in the last century. „Witchi-Tai-To“ from the Jan Garbarek-Bobo Stenson quartet. On the opening track, the Carla Bley-composition „Air“, his sopranino sounds sharp like a tool for cracking ice. Listening to that record now, I‘m still stunned, and not so much on memory lane. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Steve!


The End – I still think in terms of albums, even in terms of album sides. I lined up the songs, left to right, and worked with the running order until it seemed to hang together or make some sort of story. I played the ending of every song with the beginning of every other song until a plot started to reveal itself (this is what happens when you work alone—musical plots reveal themselves). Here’s how it ends: The kids went to college. Their parents were sad for a little while, then fine. Ellen lived and is in remission. Grandma died. Grandpa was sad. Everyone else lived as happily ever after as could be expected.


The End (2) – The texts about the guitar, the mixing process, and „the end“ were taken from Steve Tibbetts’ Life Of-page. Steve’s landscape photo belongs to the „thin places of the world“ he’s talking about, and is from Ramagrama, near Lumbini, 2015. This assembly is a truely manafonistic work: thanks to „Joey“ Siemer for fighting the devil in the details, and his sensitive, delicate and tactful design that allows linear and non-linear reading. Thanks to Ian McCartney for giving my small introduction the right groove and sharpness. Thanks to my late English teacher Dr. Egon Werlich who inspired my love for English language and culture (I still have in mind what he told us about the Beatles song „When I’m Sixty-Four“ – and I never got a better introduction to the works of Samuel Beckett (on an existential level, no smart-ass knowledge). Thanks to Hans-Dieter Klinger for cross-checking the Bach anecdote – Steve asked for this. Hans Dieter, former music teacher, once invited Keith Jarrett to play a solo concert in his school in Kronach (German hinterland), and still remembers well how carefully Manfred Eicher had placed the microphones. A week later music history was in the making – The Köln Concert happened! And, to be circling one more time: thank you for LIFE OF, Steve – „Where-am-I-music“ of a rare kind!

To read them, you have to click on the photo! The record leads back to 1982. i always loved the cover of Steve Tibbetts‘ NORTHERN SONG, the rainy street, the blackness, the damaged paper. It was the only Tibbetts record Manfred Eicher has ever produced, in Oslo, during a long weekend. Doing something in real time, and using no overdubs, was a unique experience for the duo of Steve (with acoustic guitar, a kalimba, some tapes only), and Marc Anderson’s percussion instruments. NORTHERN SONG is a music full of holes, silences, pulses, and breath. Though you can call it meditative, it didn’t interfere with the terrible sweetness of that era’s „new age“ garbage. I never got bored by the breathtakingly concentrated execution of a silent state of mind. Hearing this, you have no Maharishi-disciple in mind, no hippies, who desparately want to share their spiritual messages. Nevertheless, it’s pure and simple and profound, on the ambient side of life. P.S.: There’s a subtle, nearly ethereal connection between NORTHERN SONG, MUSIC FOR AIRPORTS, and Dennis Johnson’s NOVEMBER.

The link is a person – Bill Tilton.

In 1976 I got a job working the overnight shift at Minnesota Public Radio. I worked from 10pm until 6am. My job was to monitor the broadcast feed in the St. Paul studio, dub tapes, make cassettes of news programs, and do some tape editing. All the nighttime classical music programming came from a different station in the Minnesota Public Radio network, located in Collegeville, Minnesota. I worked alone and had the station in downtown St. Paul to myself. It was a wonderful time, and I enjoyed being up all night listening to classical music while I did my various tasks. The solitude of the station seemed to be an appropriate place to listen to the overnight classical music programming; the music having been created in the solitude of a composer’s mind. I remember well one early morning at 3AM being struck by the sound of Debussy’s „Nocturnes“ echoing through the empty radio station. I just had to stop what I was doing and listen. It was beautiful to be awake and and alone and working at that hour, right in the center of a major metropolitan city.

Just about the only visitors to the station at night were the station engineer and Bill Tilton.

Bill had been convicted and imprisoned for destroying draft records during the famous „Minnesota Eight“ trial, and had spent some time in a federal penitentiary. When Bill got out of prison he worked painting houses, and then volunteered for the Wounded Knee Defense Committee. The Wounded Knee Defense Committee was a group of lawyers and volunteers who banded together to defend the American Indians connected with the uprising at Wounded Knee in South Dakota. Bill worked as a driver for the famous lawyer William Kunstler and watched the trial unfold. He became smitten by the possibilities of being a lawyer. He decided to study law at the University of Minnesota. Eventually he became the only convicted felon in the state of Minnesota to have a license to practice law. (Bill is now the head of a very successful law firm.)

When I met him he was producing a series of public policy programs at Minnesota Public Radio. Bill found it most relaxing to work during the night at the radio station. It was very quiet at the station, and he had easy access to the big Ampex tape recorders he liked to edit on. He could edit away to his heart’s content. He would come in around 2AM, and we’d talk occasionally during the night. I learned a lot from talking to him; about his time in prison, his politics, and the things he wanted to do with his life.

We would usually sit and talk during my „lunch“ hour, between 3 and 4AM. One night Bill told me that when he was in prison and very depressed he made the firm decision that when he got out, he would travel everywhere and meet as many women as possible. I nodded my head in agreement. I wanted to do the same thing. He said, „Women and traveling is all you think about when you can’t go anywhere and never see a woman.“

(He actually said he wanted to „go everywhere and fuck as many women as possible“, but you might not be able to phrase it that way in your program.)

I asked him for stories about where he’d been, and he started bringing photos to the station he’d taken in his travels. He told me story after story of the places he had been since he’d been released from prison. He showed me one picture he had taken at a border crossing between Ghana and Upper Volta. There was a sign at the border crossing that said, „No photo“, so naturally Bill got out of the taxi he was in, crouched down, and snapped one shot. I looked at the photo and said, „I’m going to use this picture on an album cover someday.“ As I was flipping through his photos I told him that I was going to start sending him postcards from places he’d never been. He challenged me, saying, „Well, good. Good luck. I’ll look for your postcards. Where are you going to go first that I haven’t been?“ I said „Nepal,“ without thinking. (The drummer from my high-school band went there in 1972. Nepal was the only place I could think of on short notice.) I decided later I would indeed go there first, and that I’d go many other places, and send him postcards from everywhere.

So that’s what I did. I used the picture he took at the border crossing for the cover of „Safe Journey.“ I went to Nepal in 1985, sent him postcards, and my Nepal experience ended up as the storyline behind the music that makes up „Big Map.“ From my job working for The Naropa Institute’s Study Abroad Program in Nepal I got another job with their program in Bali, and that ended up being the basis for the drumming and gong cycles in „The Fall of Us All.“ During the years between 1985 and 1992 I didn’t really live anywhere. All my belongings fit in two small boxes that I left at my studio or at a friend’s house. I traveled through Europe, Nepal, Sikkim, all over India, Tibet, and many places in in Southeast Asia. I took every travel opportunity I could. There were girlfriends, there was marriage, divorce, pregnancy, miscarriage, death, humiliation, redemption, spiritual ecstasy, sickness, hell, heaven, thousands of miles of travel, and many postcards addressed to Bill.





Here we are, drinking beer on his porch just two nights ago, May 13, 2013.

Here’s the end of the Tibet epistle. Part 9.

You may remember the cliff-hanger ending to the last episode. We were heading into the mountains above Tsetang for our last hike, the dreaded 6-hour slog to the famous Crystal Cave. Would we make it?

We started at about 6AM, using our headlamps to light what passed for a trail. I had read that there was a village about a quarter of the way up where you could hire a guy and his tractor and ride in the wagon behind it. I suggested we try to do that if the opportunity arose. We were all very tired at this point in the trip, and feeling our age. After about an hour of hiking we heard „vroom-vroom“ up ahead of us. From the little bit of sun at that hour we could see that a group of Tibetans ahead of us had found the guy, rented the tractor, and were riding up the rutted trail. They weren’t going that fast, and at a certain point when the trail got too steep and narrow the tractor stopped and dropped them off. We walked up past them and saw that they were unloading something wrapped in burlap that looked vaguely familiar. Trish nudged me and said, „Corpse.“ I realized I’d seen a picture somewhere of this.

When someone dies and they decide to carry the corpse to a sky-burial site they bind the corpse so its arms are wrapped around itself, hands on shoulders, with the legs up against the torso. Then they wrap the body in burlap and rope it to someone who carries it up into the mountains. That’s what was happening. As we passed the wagon a big Tibetan man swung the burlap-wrapped corpse out of the wagon and up onto his shoulders just like some 20-year-old Madison Hut crew member swings one of those 100-pound packs onto their backs. We passed by without comment and continued on. They stopped what they were doing to watch us walk by. It was a complete funeral party: family, a monk, and two butchers wearing leather aprons. More on that later.

The sun ascended and the path got steeper. In the first picture you can see a small white dot to the right of my left shoulder. That’s the stupa where the sky burial would take place. To the right of that, underneath the prayer flags farther back you can see a small rectangular building. That’s where we rested before making the final ascent to the cave. The cave is up and to the right where the white building is. In the second photo you can see the white building just below the cave and the trail up to it.





After another hour or so we got to the stupa. We took a break and watched the funeral party approach from behind us. They came to the area in front of the stupa and started unwrapping the corpse. Two men, probably relatives, walked towards us and made shooing motions with their hands. Shoo! Shoo! They didn’t want us there. We got up and walked away slowly, turning back frequently to see what they were doing. When we crested a ridge we lost sight of them.

After a few more hours we got to a small building that housed a shrine, a cat, and a caretaker. We made offerings to the shrine and Trish and I sat on the steps of the building to wait for Joanne and Miki. A cat jumped on my lap. The caretaker laughed and said (I think), „A nice home in the human realm.“






And then … and then … surprise, surprise, we made it. The last part of the climb was tough, but we did it. We hung out in the cave, and enjoyed our time there. We did some practice, read a few things out loud, and generally felt pretty good.

Here’s an aerial view of where I was sitting with the cat. In The cave is up and to the right, festooned with prayer flags.

In my mind there was still a bit of confusion concerning the various caves in the area. The cave I’d really wanted to get to was the „Lotus Crystal Cave.“ That was the cave where the great Indian / Pakistani saint Padmasambhava had hidden his life story as a „revealed“ text (a „terma“). According to my research, there were caves called „Pema Shelphuk“, „Sheldrake“ and „Shelphuk.“ All three have the Tibetan words for „lotus“ or „crystal“ in them. The three guidebooks we had with us weren’t much help. On the way out I had a short conversation with three monks who had just walked up. I asked if this was the location of the actual Crystal Cave, Pema Shelphuk. One monk said, „No, that one is a long walk from here.“ I asked, „How long?“ and he paused and said, „For us, one day. For you, two days.“ His friend said, „No, this is the real Crystal Cave. The floor is black crystal. Didn’t you see it?“ (We had noticed the black, glossy, crystal-like floor. You can see a bit of it in the picture with the four of us.) The third monk waved his hand and said, „It doesn’t matter.“ I went with the third monk’s assessment.

On the way down we stopped at the sky burial site. It was deserted. There were tools jammed in the ground and an area where tsampa (roasted barley) had been sprinkled. Apparently the sky burial itself had happened while were were over the ridge and in the cave. In a sky burial ceremony the corpse is carefully cut up and separated into piles of bones, muscle, and organs. Everything is chopped up. While this is happening vultures circle lazily overhead. When the humans withdraw a bit they drop down like a big black sheet and quickly clean the area of anything edible. Then they fly away. Thus: „sky burial.“ Our guide told us that since this burial site was somewhat close to a large Chinese city (Tsetang), a group of Chinese soldiers had come up to the site several years ago, set out meat, and then shot all the vultures. Since that time the remaining vultures do not land if there are humans in sight, anywhere. That might be why some of the men in the funeral party were shooing us away.





I couldn’t believe that we’d missed the vultures, and wondered if anything had actually happened there. Maybe there weren’t any vultures. Tendzin, our guide, helpfully pointed to some axes and knives and the bits of flesh stuck to them. I’ll spare you those photos, but I have them, if you want them. In the photos enclosed you can see an axe stuck in a log next to the stupa, and a bunch of other knives, saws, and axes that are used and then left at the site. The beige powder is the barley flour that’s sprinkled over everything when the vultures have left and the humans come back out of hiding to bless the area before leaving.





We continued down and rolled into town at sunset. It had been a long day. The next morning we headed back to Lhasa, stopping at Mindroling Monastery on the way. It was nice to get back to a hot shower. Lhamo found us, and we all went shopping. I saw four westerners standing around a motorcycle with a sidecar and took a picture of it for a friend in Minneapolis who collects odd motorcycles. He told me later what it was (a British Enfield, I think).





Lhamo and I wandered around the market buying little trinkets for the kids and Joanie. We walked past the Potala, and happened on a photo shoot for a Chinese couple getting married. Tibet is like the wild west for the Chinese, and if they want to do something totally crazy and unhinged (in their world) they take the train to Lhasa, get married, and have pictures taken of themselves in full wedding regalia in front of the Potala. It would be as though Joanie and I had gone to the Black Hills, dressed up in Lakota Garb, and had our picture taken under Mt. Rushmore. Something like that. Anyway, the Tibetans don’t look too kindly on this, and there was a knot of cackling old Tibetan ladies behind us hurling curses and hooting with laughter while spinning prayer wheels held in their right hands. I asked Lhamo what they were saying and she said, „Quiet Steve, quiet, too hard to translate.“ After some prodding, she told me they were shouting variations on „A dog wouldn’t eat your corpse because then he would have to shit you out.“ Something like that. The photographers and the newly betrothed remained nonplussed.





We walked back to the hotel and found Miki, Joanne, and Trish. We all went out and ate at a wonderful vegetarian restaurant for hours. A feast. We were tired, but satisfied. We ate and ate. We went back to our rooms and packed, and then took a last stroll down to the plaza in front of the Potala Palace. The plaza was in full swing, with people milling about, patriotic anthems blasting, and the ever-popular dancing waters dancing. See movie, enclosed. I wouldn’t be surprised if some day Tibet’s Chinese overlords choreograph a laser light show to Pink Floyd’s „Dark Side of the Moon“ and project it on the side of the Potala Palace.

The End.

All for now,


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