Goin' through them changes

The slow healing of Buddy Miles

Ordinarily the idea of being privy to a rock legend's private home recordings is intriguing, but when that legend is Buddy Miles--singer, songwriter, guitarist, drummer, and notably indulgent wild man--a bit of ambivalence can be forgiven.

Not that Miles lacks rock credentials--far from it. The man was the vocalist, drummer, and writer for Jimi Hendrix's Band of Gypsies and an original member of the legendary Electric Flag (which also included such luminaries as Michael Bloomfield, Barry Goldberg, Nick Gravenites, and Harvey Brooks), as well as a lead vocalist and songwriter for Carlos Santana. He leads his own won't-stay-dead Buddy Miles Express (the band in which he wrote the immortal "Them Changes") and has been the sideman for everyone from Wilson Pickett to Muddy Waters to John McLaughlin. Even if you don't know or care for rock, you probably have heard Miles--as the voice on those endearing California Raisins commercials.

But Miles' eccentricities are almost as legendary as his musical accomplishments. A big, beefy man with a wild, unruly Afro that made him look like a demented troll, Miles was perhaps the first Scary Negro in pop music, an impression that his powerhouse drumming only reinforced. "He looked like Baby Huey," Nick Gravenites of the Electric Flag recalls of their meeting in the liner notes to the Columbia/Legacy retrospective The Best of the Electric Flag: An American Music Band. "We ate a big meal, smoked some reefer, and on the way back Buddy puked all over my truck." A taste for drugs didn't help, and in the late '70s and early '80s his indulgences finally landed him in California's notorious Chino and San Quentin prisons, first on grand theft (stemming from an incident in which he walked out of famed western tailor Nudie's store without paying his bill) and auto theft charges, and then on various parole violations that included drugs.

Now Miles is back, getting himself together with the help of Fort Worth musician John Nitzinger (best known for his '70s-era hits with Fort Worth band Bloodrock and three respected solo albums: Nitzinger, One Foot in History, and Live Better Electrically). While Nitzinger is nowhere near a star of Miles' luminosity, he was a genuine Texas hero during the '70s, working with the likes of Alice Cooper and Carl Palmer for years before vanishing in a miasma of booze and dope.

After a stint in the Betty Ford Center over a year ago, though, he's returned to his Fort Worth home-base, recorded a very nice indie CD called Didja Miss Me and--healthy and sober--hooked up with Miles, with whom he used to jam in the early days when the drummer would pass through town on any of a number of major tours.

As it turns out, it was during one such recent jam at Fort Worth's J&J Blues Bar that Miles, in the area on a publicity junket for Mercury's recently released The Best of Buddy Miles, climbed onstage with Nitzinger for the first time in almost two decades. Both claim that the moment was incendiary, and it wasn't long before Miles decided to relocate to North Texas to join forces on what is being tentatively billed as Nitzinger/Miles.

Still, the ambivalence persists. Our first, accidental, meeting one afternoon a few months ago at the Greenville Bar & Grill (during a lunch of which the most hazardous visible component was the caffeine in the iced tea) found Miles--now 51, his Bobby Seale Afro trimmed a bit--not looking remarkably different than the circus-garbed young man staring out from the cover of the Electric Flag's groundbreaking 1968 debut A Long Time Comin'. His style hadn't changed much, either: He was certainly proffering plenty of outrageous and, well, truly provocative comments.

In the midst of a lengthy discourse on the ghoulish manipulation of the Hendrix estate and Miles' forced ouster from the Band of Gypsies at the hands of Jimi's former business manager Mike Jeffrey, Miles said, "I just happen to know too much about this situation that a lot of people don't know. A lot of people say Jimi took himself out. Well, I beg to differ. There's a lot of people that think he was murdered." Miles' further assertion that Hendrix was killed for financial reasons is not totally unique, though his saying that "Jeffrey was a political assassin hired by the English government" might strike some as paranoiac.

Miles will never strike a listener as shy. That afternoon, upon being asked to elaborate on a comment about players who don't deserve fame, he said, "Buddy Guy, for one. And I hope he hears it loud and clear, because I don't care. I played at his club one time; I went up to talk to him and he looked like he had horns sticking out of his head when I asked him for a drink. Plus, another thing. He made a statement one time when I brought Slash from Guns N' Roses [into Guy's club] to do a benefit, and Buddy says on the stage, 'I'm gonna play for you what I taught Jimi Hendrix.' And I thought to myself, What crawled up you and died?"

Two weeks later, Miles is sprawled out on a couch in a double-wide trailer in a cul-de-sac fortress of mobile homes northwest of Fort Worth, the aforementioned cassette tape of his newest material pulled from a snakeskin briefcase and in his hand. He's in the middle of a rather bizarre and accelerated monologue that easily rivals Jimmy Stewart's protracted filibuster in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. As the diatribe courses through the night in a white-water river of consciousness, it becomes increasingly perturbing to speculate as to exactly what might actually be on the demo: Neo-Chautauqua ravings? The spiritless noodlings of a washed-up former talent? Competent but hopelessly outdated fodder?

To be sure, he's tired. Less than 24 hours ago, he was in Brussels, Belgium, with the latest edition of the Express, on a bill with Earth, Wind & Fire. And after a long flight, he's been driven straight from the airport to this unlikely spot--the site of the Texas Rockin' Blues Concert and Campout, a two day blues-rock festival he's co-headlining with new musical partner Nitzinger.

Outside, in a clearing on a hot August night, several bikers, their old ladies, and their children are gathered in front of tents or on lawn chairs around a Starplex-quality stage draped with Confederate flags. They're cheering a variety of inveterate Fort Worth blues and classic-rock club performers who are cranking out high-volume originals and standards from the time-weary canon of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Led Zeppelin.

Now, just up from a brief nap in his host's bedroom not 20 yards from the stage, Miles immediately launches into a no-introduction-necessary, state-of-the-Buddy address that rolls on for several minutes without benefit of even one question from the visiting journalist who's been ushered in by Nitzinger. It's not entirely clear whether he remembers the previous interview session at the Greenville Bar and Grill. For one thing, his wandering diatribe covers many of the same topics. For another, the cadence and pinballing quality of the speech--from the cruelty of the music business to the stars he's known and the management weasels behind them to his famous obesity--is simply too dusted with that speedy, surreal, jet-lag quality that sets in after much sleep deprivation and global travel.

Still, like some massive Energizer rabbit spawned 20 years ago in the bowels of the Fillmore East and fueled by the magic of the past, Miles--a magnificent, if manic, presence--is absolutely wound up. It's just not quite clear about what.

Although it's true that Miles has put on some weight, he exudes a balletic grace--even sunken into a sofa. "It's a crazy world out here, man, this music business," he says at some point during his speech. "I feel a part of it because of all the work that I've done with Hendrix; of course I do. I haven't gotten my just due; of course I haven't." He laughs. "But I'm not worried about it, because God's gonna give me the will to have it, and I know I worked hard for it. But at the present time, until that happens, it's like till the morning dew. Or Katmandu."

Nitzinger and his girlfriend stand up to head outside and check set preparations. "Before we go on," Miles says, waving the cassette in the air, "I want you to hear this tape."

"I'll be back," Nitzinger smiles. His exit doesn't seem rude; this is, after all, just one of the several times Miles has interrupted his own labyrinthine thoughts to reference the demo. Now, Miles studies the tape as though he might actually pop it in the stereo, then thinks better of it and sets it back down. He yawns.

A biker type comes into the living room, stares in awe at the drummer, helps himself to a beer from a convenient cooler, and asks, "So, you know Johnny Winter?"

Miles, scarcely looking up, says in a tired voice, "I know 'em all, man." The biker, intellectually sated, heads back into the night while Miles shakes his head wearily and excuses himself to go to the restroom.

He seems to feel better when he returns, and without pause jumps back into his flow. "I'm in a state of mind where I've been lucky enough--praise God--but, see, now I got to get back and start pumping. 'Cause all this has just been like I've been a Buddha, you know what I mean? Just sitting around getting fat off the lamb. It's a shame, with what I've done, that I have to go out and ask for work and eulogize people that I've worked with, or answer questions about other people. It's very depressing, and I just wanna make music. And with John [Nitzinger], who's been down this road, too, that's all we ask."

"Buddy is just a monster drummer, man," Nitzinger said enthusiastically earlier that evening in the field in front of the stage. "He's a pure musician. It's so rare to find musicians who just live and breathe it, and that's the only time he's really, fully Buddy Miles, and that's when he's on the stage, you know; when he's behind the drums or a guitar." The two are now recording a CD of new material in Fort Worth's Eagle Studios, and claim to have several major labels interested in the project.

"For me, John is somebody that I've known about for a long, long time," Miles had said earlier at the Greenville Bar & Grill, "and somebody that I've always wanted to work with. The man is definitely one of the state of Texas' best-kept secrets, and it's always nice for me to get together with someone as talented as John."

But though he's clearly excited about working with Nitzinger, and effusive in his praise of the guitarist, Miles is also clearly agitated about the twists of fortune in his own career.

When asked to elaborate on his earlier Hendrix comments, Miles stares menacingly and says, "[Jeffrey] was an assassin. I don't speak with forked tongue, brother." Alluding to 'Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky--the Life of Jimi Hendrix, David Henderson's masterful 1978 biography of the guitarist, Miles adds, "Read the Henderson book. Jeffrey was, uh, a sophisticated cop that got away with a lot of stuff. Even with death, from what I understand."

Miles adds that, aside from Jeffrey's greed--at the time of Hendrix's death, the guitarist was extremely disappointed with management and strongly considering a change, which obviously would have cut Jeffrey out of a lucrative situation--the manager was also a bigot who had Miles dismissed from the Band of Gypsies simply because he was black.

"Look, when the Band of Gypsies formed, I got singled out to be the bad guy because Michael Jeffrey did not want three blacks in the band [bassist Billy Cox, a black bass player, rounded out the Band of Gypsies]."

In a world where much of the population believes in baby-eating Satanists, angels, orifice-probing aliens and the fact that Elvis is still alive, Miles' claims about Jeffrey and his role in Hendrix's death are not so far-fetched. In any case, Jeffrey later perished in a plane crash--a situation Miles describes as a result of "bad karma."

And if the drummer sounds bitter, consider his claim that he's never been compensated for any of the work he did with Hendrix, which would certainly be aggravating. After all, in addition to having an equal partnership in the Band of Gypsies--along with performance and composition credits on the LP The Band of Gypsies--Miles appeared on Electric Ladyland and The Cry of Love without receiving any royalties on millions of units sold.

Miles claims he wasn't even paid as a session man on Electric Ladyland, or for First Rays of the New Rising Sun--the "new" Hendrix CD remastered by inveterate Hendrix engineer Eddie Kramer (First Rays, a selected combination of the material from the patched-together, posthumously released records The Cry of Love, Rainbow Bridge, and War Heroes, is supposed to represent the realization of Hendrix's in-progress plans at the time of his death).

"None of them," he says assertively, punctuating each syllable with a jab of his demo tape. "None. Of. Them." He looks at the cassette and drops it on the couch. "Don't I deserve something? It really saddens me that I'm gonna have to [go to court]. But I'm older, I need it, I deserve it, and I want it.

"When you play on other people's records, you get compensated for that. You get residuals, man. It's a shame it's come to this, because Jimi was one of the most loving men ever."

His experience with Santana was less rosy; the two toured extensively together and recorded two big-selling LPs, 1972's Carlos Santana and Buddy Miles Live and 1987's Freedom. Though Miles speaks highly of Santana as a musician, he has less charitable things to say about him as a person. He describes Santana as "another schmo" who "forgot to bend his tacos right," and says the guitarist was so insecure about Miles' stage presence that he made Miles sing entire two-to-three hour shows standing on an X.

"He once asked me, 'Why are you looking at me funny?' and I told him, 'Cause there's something funny to look at,'" Miles says.

"The dude's a goddamned hypocrite," he continues. "I hate to say that, because Carlos is really a good player, man. But I don't like hypocritical shit. You know: If you get high, you get high; if you don't, you don't. I mean, God ain't gonna punish it. But God don't like ugly, and he damned sure don't give a fuck about pretty, either."

Miles elaborates on Santana's hypocrisy shortly before joining Nitzinger onstage at the rockin' blues fete. "I don't give a damn about somebody telling me, well, that I'm this and I'm that and I'm a drug addict...I'm a lot of goddamned things. But I'm one of God's people. And I consider myself a good man. [Santana] hasn't given me so much as a phone call, and I did not one but two albums with him, and he feels like, 'Hey, my name is Carlos Santana, and fuck you when I don't need you.' That's the impression I get. To me, he bullshitted me--I've never said that, but I'll bring it out now. Why not?"

Miles is referring not only to Santana's one-time predilection for drugs but also to his ignoring Miles since the drummer went to prison, an experience that he claims profoundly changed his life. But he's a bit vague as to exactly how that happened. "My [stretch in prison] gave me dialogue, it gave me format," he says simply.

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.

A month after the rockin' blues festival, as Nitzinger and Miles prepare to go into the studio to work on their first album together, Nitzinger says, "Buddy's been doing really good; he's going to therapy three times a week and getting himself together."

As to what sort of therapy, Nitzinger would only comment that Miles has had leg problems, and that his overall health is much improved. Thinking back on the night of the rockin' blues camp-out, of all the things that poured forth from Buddy Miles, one comment stands out.

"I'll tell you what," Miles said after the demo tape had finished. "You put me on the stage, and I'll show you what God's about. That's all I can tell you. Because I'm a firm believer in the Bible, but my Bible is not something you read out of. It's on that stage, and I thank the world for so many good years of that.

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