T he autobiographies of musicians do not usually abound with scholarly analysis and fascinating philosophical insights, and autobiographies of drummers do not abound, period. Which makes Bill Bruford's erudite, humorous and sometimes painfully confessional account of his life a rarity, if not unique. Bruford began at the top, playing drums on million-selling albums and the world's biggest stages with Yes, King Crimson and Genesis during the s. Then he moved into jazz, where he enjoyed success with his own group, Earthworks, but on a necessarily reduced scale. Having turned his back on a lucrative position at the heart of the rock machine, he has since found himself, like nearly all jazz musicians, operating as a cottage industry on the sidelines of the marketplace. This move, from major to minor if you will, introduces a layer of unresolved tension to Bruford's life story which makes the narrative arc quite unlike that of the standard celebrity biography.
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T he autobiographies of musicians do not usually abound with scholarly analysis and fascinating philosophical insights, and autobiographies of drummers do not abound, period.
Which makes Bill Bruford's erudite, humorous and sometimes painfully confessional account of his life a rarity, if not unique. Bruford began at the top, playing drums on million-selling albums and the world's biggest stages with Yes, King Crimson and Genesis during the s.
Then he moved into jazz, where he enjoyed success with his own group, Earthworks, but on a necessarily reduced scale. Having turned his back on a lucrative position at the heart of the rock machine, he has since found himself, like nearly all jazz musicians, operating as a cottage industry on the sidelines of the marketplace.
This move, from major to minor if you will, introduces a layer of unresolved tension to Bruford's life story which makes the narrative arc quite unlike that of the standard celebrity biography. He has found it a slog, to put it mildly, and at the age of 59 has now announced his retirement, with an almost audible sigh of relief. As well as allowing him to tell his side of the story, his book serves as an extended resignation letter to the industry that has fed, fascinated and frustrated him for more than 40 years.
The most surprising feature of these memoirs is the lack of self-belief to which Bruford candidly admits.
Although revered as a master percussionist, who is a regular attraction at drum clinics specialist forums where the most acclaimed drummers are paid handsomely to show off their skills , he confesses to a lack of technical confidence that has become little short of disabling.
Then, every note was perfect, polished, wreathed, garlanded and bedecked with self-confidence; now every note is riddled with the maggots of self-doubt I don't doubt that others accept my efforts as valuable: it's just that I don't.
How has it come to this? In his search for an answer, Bruford muses in engrossing detail on the myriad compromises and pacts that the working musician must make: with his family, with other musicians, with the record industry, the media, promoters, managers, producers, equipment manufacturers. He considers the vexed relationship between creativity and commerce, drawing on a range of outside reading material - sometimes a little self-consciously - to add theoretical weight to his anecdotal experience.
Considering the fate of his friend and neighbour Phil Collins, another supremely talented drummer who steered his career in precisely the opposite direction, Bruford believes that the responsibility for managing vast riches "weighs heavy" on Collins's shoulders, although he stops short of saying that he would reject such a responsibility himself were it to have been thrust upon him. Like all musicians, Bruford has a distinctly ambivalent view of the audience on whose continued goodwill his livelihood depends, but who never fully succeed in "getting" what he is doing.
Coming to the end of a four-night residency amid the "tawdry glamour" of the Hollywood entertainment district in , he notes that "tonight is the last night I shall have to sign autographs for the earnest, pleasant, balding, upright middle-aged men who have flown from Kansas City or El Paso because I once played on [the Yes album] Fragile. Their comprehension of the newer Earthworks material is minimal, but it sure doesn't matter to them Born in in south-east England and brought up in a stable, well-to-do family, Bruford is the quintessential Englishman - which seems to be part of the problem.
His outward stoicism, inbred courtesy and disciplined work ethic were not conspicuous advantages when coming into a music world steeped in the drugs and debauchery of the s and early s. His account of life on the road and in the studio as part of the chaotic, malfunctioning organisation of Yes leaves you wondering not why he left them at the height of their success, but how he managed to stay in the group for as long as he did.
His relationship with the eccentric guitarist and bandleader Robert Fripp over several stints in King Crimson was even more bizarre. This was going to be more than three chords and a pint of Guinness. Published by Jawbone, an energetic new imprint specialising in books about music, Bruford's autobiography not only provides a humorous insight into the daily detail of a successful musician's life but also grapples with the big existential issues of what it takes to be an artist of any sort in the modern world.
The account is loosely organised around a string of questions that Bruford has found himself parrying for most of his life: why did you leave Yes? Is it difficult, with a family? Do you like doing interviews? The latter receives a resounding "No! But the perennial question that irks him most is: yes, but what do you really do?
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A different beat
The book is an exploration of the creativity involved in the way drummers make things work, make things matter, and make sense of both. What do expert drummers do? Why do they do it? Is there anything creative about it? If so, how might that creativity inform their practice and that of others in related artistic spheres? Applying ideas from cultural psychology to findings from original research into the creative behaviors of a specific subset of popular music instrumentalists, the author demonstrates the ways in which expert drummers experience creativity in performance and offers fresh insights into in-the-moment interactional processes in music. And get a copy for yourself, so you know what drummers are for!
Bill Bruford: The Autobiography: Yes, King Crimson, Earthworks and More (2009)
What do you expect when you pick up an autobiography of a rock musician? Rock-n-roll exploits with a chainsaw and a gallon of baby oil at the Ramada? Scandalous stories of band-mates and sundry hangers-on? You get virtually none of that in Bill Bruford The Autobiography. It's much better. Insightful, entertaining, and well-written, Bruford gives the reader a unique view into his 40 year career as a drummer to see just how he got to where he is and precisely how this business works or doesn't, as the case may be.
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