Goin' through them changes

The slow healing of Buddy Miles

Does that mean in his approach to drugs?
"Let me tell you something about drugs, my friend," he says. "You don't use drugs as a pacifier."

He pauses, then adds, "When I went to prison, nobody put me in prison but Buddy Miles, OK? I paid for it; I served my time. Now I chose it that way, so fine and dandy. OK. That's the reason I say I learned something from [being in prison]. Because freedom is the ultimate. Period."

By this point, most of the onlookers have left the room; Nitzinger will shortly be hitting the stage in a prelude set before Miles joins him. Miles' manager checks his watch and suggests, again, that the big man might want to hop in the shower and get ready for the show.

"Just a minute, and I'll be ready," Miles soothes. "I got just a few more things I want to say, and I wanna play this tape."

He thinks for a minute. "Y'see, music has always been about understanding, and it hasn't really changed in that respect. It's also a lot like women; there's lots of goodness and honesty. Or not." He laughs, and while much of what he's said this night--be it about the '60s, the absurdity of radio formats, or his own peculiar theology--has approached sheer ludicrousness, selected moments emerge at the oddest times and coalesce into a compelling profundity.

Miles clearly has some problems: He speaks frankly of his weight and a need to "get in shape and get it together," that there are opportunities at hand and he wants to be ready. And about whether his peculiar conversational tangents this night have anything to do with drugs, Nitzinger will only say that--as a recovering substance abuser himself--he's not about to risk what he's accomplished by hooking up with a junkie of any kind.

As Miles' manager impatiently taps his wristwatch, signifying that it's time to get in the shower, the drummer finally heaves himself up and takes the demo over to the cassette player. He grabs a chair from the dining room table and sits in front of the stereo, waiting intently like a symphony conductor. "I'm playing and singin' everything on this," he says with childlike modesty.

When the music starts, it's wonderful.
First up is a rocking gospel-type number called "At the Dark End of the Street." With a voice at once reminiscent of Al Green and Aaron Neville, Miles soars like an angel. Listening to the tape, he rocks back and forth in the chair like an evangelist, his eyes closed, harmonizing with his own majestic voice.

Next up is "You're My Friend," comprising elements of hip-hop, Stevie Wonder, and Stax/Volt funk--a monster song Prince would give his purple dwarf's scepter to have written. To watch Miles doing a one-man Four Tops pantomime in accompaniment--in a biker's mobile home, set in a scene that could only have been envisioned by Luis Bunuel looking through the eyes of Sonny Barger--is a truly American juxtaposition. It's as though, through the simple act of hearing his own music, Miles has come alive in a manner not possible on any narcotic.

"One more," Miles grins, pointing at the stereo. And finally, in homage to Jimi, perhaps, comes Miles' fresh and staggeringly cool take on "All Along the Watchtower," featuring a Chautauqua sense of vocal passion and a soul-wrenching guitar solo that can surely be sensed in the moist earth on the Renton, Washington, cemetery where Jimi lies.

Shortly thereafter, after playing a lean, fevered set, Nitzinger--whose sobriety has clearly fueled his long-dormant talent--steps to the mike, peers through the glare of the stage lights, and introduces Buddy Miles. The biker throng, clearly oblivious to the irony of cheering for a black man amidst a sea of flags from Dixie, roars its approval--and wait. Where's Buddy?

Nitzinger and band continue to vamp, carrying on professionally even as the two-chord introductory valediction continues past the point of its designed pomp and circumstance.

Finally, from the rear of the crowd, Miles can be seen hobbling along; he's escorted from the side door of the mobile home, helped into the cab of a large pickup truck, and literally driven the hundred feet or so to the front of the stage. The effect is not dramatic.

After he emerges gingerly, wearing his trademark black derby and walking with the aid of a cane, he's helped up the stage stairs and painfully takes his place behind the drum kit. He commandeers a microphone, issues a tremulous but predictable introduction of rock star babble, then settles into an awkward groove with all the precision of a sea lion flopping into a dinghy.

It's as though the demo tape was a cruel hallucination, and this seems a sad but strangely fitting time to leave. Then, as the sluggish jam careens across the night, a remarkable thing happens. Like a Catholic school track nerd who suddenly undergoes a transformation into Michael Johnson, Miles suddenly hits stride. You can hear it. The music gels instantaneously and fairly jumps with the man's magnetism; the snare pops with commando precision, the fills are quick and tasteful, and behind the kit, Miles has taken charge with an instinctual assurance. It becomes obvious Miles could drive a junior high garage band like a limo--and that music is very much a healing property for the man.

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