With the recent digital-reissue of the long out-of-print Art Jackson’s Atrocity record Live in Europe, we at Bearded Gentlemen Music dug deep into print archive for this piece by Maria Milner, originally published in the former monthly magazine version of Bearded Gentlemen Music in the February 1976 issue. Minor edits have been made to conform this vintage article with current B.G.M. style guidelines.
It’s sometime after 10 p.m., and I’m sitting here at Onkel Po’s in Hamburg, waiting for a band I’ve never seen before, barely even heard in full, to take the stage. I’m three Heineken deep and writing in my notepad when Art Jackson staggers to the club’s tine stage. As he plugs in and the band tunes up, I start wondering: what the fuck am I doing here?
Flash back about a year or so, to a recording studio in Sweden.
Across from me in a reception room is Tony Williams, one-time drummer for the Miles Davis Quintet and currently leader of Lifetime, a swaggering jazz-funk outfit. Notepad and beer in hand, we’re talking about his then-upcoming album – Wildlife, a still unreleased record featuring Jack Bruce and Alan Holdsworth – Williams turns and asks me a question: “What’s the craziest shit you’ve ever heard?”
“The craziest?” I take a moment and think. “You mean like Anthony Braxton, that kind of thing?”
“Ah, that’s nothing, man.’ Williams smiles. “You should hear some of the stuff Miles’ got his hands into these days. Guitars, computers. Shit, sometimes I don’t even know what to make of it.”
He’s got me curious: what kinds of pies does Miles Davis have his fingers in now?
“Ever hear of Art Jackson?” asks Williams with a coy smile.
A few weeks later, back on my home turf of New York, Williams sends me a tape dub in the mail. On the reel-to-reel box is a handwritten scrawl: Art Jackson – Gout. Nothing else: no titles, no names, nothing. I feed it into the machine and cue it up, not knowing what to expect. I could never have guessed what’d it sound like, anyway.
It’s dark, almost amelodic grooves. The funk’s slow and thick, like Sly Stone on downers. A sax honks down at the bottom of the music, the drums pound and move the music forward. But nothing can prepare you for when Jackson’s guitar makes an entrance: it snakes in, weaves back and forth and strikes like a full-on-cobra. The music hits fast and hard, like Davis’ album Jack Johnson, but with enough force to knock out even Joe Frazer. I have to stop the tape and go back: this is too much!
Looking back at the box, I try to figure it’s mystery out.
Who is Art Jackson, what is Gout and where did this all come from?
The only real clue is the box itself: something taken from the Columbia Records studio on 30th street, an old church turned recording studio. I make a few calls and wait to hear back. Finally, I get a hold of a engineer, one who doesn’t want to be named. He’s got a reputation to protect, he says. Can’t be associated with this.
“Yeah, I know Art,” he tells me with a strong New Jersey accent. “What a mess that kid is. Came into our studio with a bunch of Black Panthers, all strung out on smack. Started playing this noise. Nothing I’d call music!”
He tells me Art and a band of maybe a dozen people, most of them in black leather jackets, dark sunglasses, and enough guns to liberate Red China came into the studio some time earlier that year – maybe the summer, maybe early fall. He’s not certain.
But he remembers the session vividly: they strapped into the equipment and began banging and thrashing around. No run through, no charts, just a sonic blast at the microphones, stopping only occasionally for the bass player – another kid named Artis Killins – to announce they’d completed one of their tunes. After a full afternoon of this, the engineer decided he’d had enough. The session was over, and the tapes went to Columbia’s storage facility across the Hudson.
“Buncha punks, that’s what they are,” says the engineer. “Now Sinatra, when he came into the studio…” I hang up. He’d given me enough to keep up the hunt. I hit the stacks and look up Killins in the St. Louis phonebook. After a few false starts, I hit the jackpot: Jackson’s bass player himself. He’s only slightly more forthcoming than the engineer was.
“You write for who? Never heard of it. And you say you’re a magazine?”
After a few prods, he agrees to talk for a little bit: he’s got a meeting to get to later, then a band practice.
“Yeah, yeah, we recorded in New York a while back,” he tells me, “it was something else, man. Did you hear those tapes?” Gout, I ask him? Yeah, I’ve heard it. “Jeez, man you’re lucky. I didn’t think anybody was going to hear that.” I explain how I came across them: Miles Davis’ old drummer. “Ha,” he laughs, “yeah, Miles is a sly one alright. Probably our biggest fan, maybe our only one outside of St. Louis.”
“He really pushed Columbia to get us into the studio,” continues Killins, “told them about our approach to music.”
He explains the method to Art Jackson’s madness.
“No charts, no predetermined progressions, just total musical freedom. Music you’ve never heard before and will never hear again.”
Oh, you mean like Dave Holland, John McLaughlin, that sort of thing?
“John McLaughlin?” Killins bursts out laughing. “That white dude’s got nothing on Jackson, they’re not even in the same room. Sure, John can play the notes like a machine gun, but AJ? He makes his guitar into a machine gun.”
We talk a little more, exchange addresses. He promises to let me know if him and the band get up to anything. In the meantime, Columbia finally gets back to me: yes, they’ve got Gout in the can, but they’re holding off for now. Too abrasive, they tell me.
In the meantime, Art Jackson’s supposed to playing in Europe and a recording truck’s in tow. Before I know it, I’m I am, too, riding on a jet towards West Germany.
As the band walks on stage in Hamburg, I get my first good look at Jackson. He’s young, younger than I imagined. Skinner, too. He wobbles on two legs, then plants them like a linebacker. With a nod and a count, him and the band launch into an explosive instrumental opener; as he shreds, the two reeds weave and blast something close to a mix of Frank Zappa and Albert Ayler’s Impulse records. When Jackson’s up to solo, he turns his back on the audience and emits something, well, electrical from his guitar, getting a tone I’ve never quite heard before.
During the next number, the band slows it down and Eric Gaye plays mellow clarinet lines while Killins talks about the dangers of “angel dust” to a German-speaking audience.
”It’s a chemical,” he says, “designed to kill the minds of our youth.” As the band laughs on behind him, Jackson’s guitar emits spacey, other-worldly sounds. The crowd laps it up. After the gig, Killins tells me “The Continuum,” is going to be their opening number for the rest of the tour; it’s something of an inside joke among the band, he explains.
Their next number’s a blistering, free-form tune: as Jackson shreds and Pharaoh Keyes slams at his piano. The band chugs on, the music almost coming apart at the seams as they plunge headlong into things, by song’s end, Jackson’s scraping along the neck of his guitar and the drums slow to a halt.
There’s a short break as Jackson and crew vanish backstage, coming out 20 minutes later wearing shades and beret’s covering their faces in shadows.
They kick into a two-part number, which Killins later indentifies to me as “Birds On Fire.” It starts off slow, builds into a crescendo of spooky percussion while Jackson’s guitar howls, spitting feedback like a dragon from the Black Forest. Wow!
Fairy tales are evidently on their mind, too, as Killins recites “Humpy Dumpty” for the second part of “Birds on Fire,” as the music grows ominous and edgy. Jackson’s guitar slashes through the music while Joseph Mix turns knobs and dials, creating strange new soundscapes from the corner of the stage. As the tempo slows, the band slowly drops out one by one; by songs end only Jackson’s guitar and Snider’s drums are left.
Just as quietly as they took the stage, Jackson and the Atrocity leave it.
I look away to my still-untouched beer and they’ve departed without my noticing. I slip away backstage and catch up with Killins, who’s waiting for me. We make small talk, a few words about the gig. He tells me there’s a few more stops in Germany, including one in Berlin, then they’re swinging up through Scandinavia and then back here, to do a session for NDR, a public radio broadcaster with a considerable following among avant-garde types. It could be their big break. I make plans to meet them there.
It wasn’t meant to be. Not long after meeting them, Jackson and Killins get busted for smack in Stockholm, ending the tour and scuttling their radio session. They’re unceremoniously dropped by Columbia, with Gout still sitting on a shelf somewhere. I fly back, notes in hand, wondering what’s next for the band. I’m told the gig I attended was taped and a label in Germany is interested. There’s talk Clive Davis’ Arista is interested, now that they’ve signed Anthony Braxton. And I’ve heard Jackson’s out of jail and back in St. Louis, still making sounds and as uninterested in professional labels as ever. I wonder if he plays with his back to the crowd there, too.
Originally published in Bearded Gentlemen Music: Vol. 3, Issue 2, February 1976.
Freelance writer and music fan, whose writing has appeared on The Good Point, The Toronto Review of Books, and CTV.ca, among other places. Favorite albums: Dig Me Out, Live-Evil, Decade.