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On Adrian Belew and Defying Expectations

For the last year, I’ve been working on a manuscript. Its working title: Letters to Adrian Belew.

“That’s unexpected” is the usual response I receive when I share this with people––that is, if they know who Adrian Belew is at all. The byline on Belew’s Twitter profile notes him as “one of the world’s guitar players.” While this is both accurate and an understatement, he is also known for his work with Frank Zappa, David Bowie, and Talking Heads––and, most importantly to me, for being the voice and innovative guitarist of King Crimson.

I didn’t always appreciate Belew’s musical prowess. For years, I had been a devoted fan of King Crimson––a band that has undergone many lineup changes since its inception in the late sixties––but particularly to the incarnations pre-1974. I couldn’t bring myself to like the version of the band after this era, which featured Belew in the lineup, because I was unable to digest the eighties-guitar tone and production so unlike early-Crimson.

However, I finally “saw the light” and began to appreciate the Belew-years of King Crimson. It came via hearing the 1995 King Crimson song Dinosaur, with its Beatle-like pop sensibilities mixed with moments of 7/8 timing, and clever lyrics that boasted a dose of humility. Watching live performances of the song with and without Crimson revealed Belew’s sincerity and overflowing talent. From there, I threw myself down the Belew well. I fell hard. And like any good love, the falling was unexpected.

Since then, I’ve been thinking about why “the unexpected” means so much to me, attempting to distill what makes something surprising. Of course, any prescription to make a work unexpected usually defeats the purpose, but I found it useful to remind myself of what elements I appreciate in unconventional art.

I value unanticipated perspective. The work of songwriter Randy Newman, who writes tunes from the point of view of narrators other than him, has caused constant confusion to listeners over the decades (he doesn’t really hate short people, believe America is the most superior country in the world, or want to take off his pants in public), yet the approach has liberated his craft. Admittedly, I don’t always understand the irony in a Newman song, but it’s the examination, my curiosity to understand, that compels me to listen to his catalogue.

While writing To Love the Coming End––a book that touches on global, geological, and personal trauma––I intentionally made the book’s narrator an unspecified gender. Still, most people think the narrator is female because they think it’s me, similar to how many listeners mistake Newman as the narrator of his songs. Despite that, I did find the experience of writing outside of myself freeing. Like Newman, I could use the voice of another to speak to bigger truths.

TLTCE isn’t easily categorized. The pages have minimal text, leading some to classify it as poetry, but the narrative threads work the text like prose. Essay-like passages and an imagined film script are also integrated throughout the book.

Defying the expectations of form exhilarates me, as I’m sure it does others, too. When executed well, challenging the norm provokes both my mind and heart. It’s refreshing, inspiring. It has its drawbacks though. Where does the book get shelved at the bookstore? I’m paying $18 for so few pages?

Rewardingly, it has encouraged other writers to experiment with the form of their manuscripts, and it has sparked interesting dialogues, including several panels exploring the boundaries of genre.

My forthcoming album is based on a short story I wrote. Each work enhances the other, combining paper and vinyl into one (hopefully) exciting package. The first side of the album includes spoken word and a handful of pop/rock songs. Side two is a nineteen-minute-long movement. People will hate it. Or love it. Or both.

The short story came from a dream. I awoke and immediately wrote the draft in its entirety. I write much of my work from my subconscious––from dreams. Some of the best lyrics I’ve written were penned in the dream world. To receive stories, poems, and songs from this hidden part of me is a gift, and I never know when it’s coming.

In one of my dreams it was suggested that I read my book TLTCE starting from the last page, working backwards. I had a reading the next day, so I asked the crowd to bear with me as I followed the instructions bestowed by my dream. It had a fascinating effect and is now something I do at my readings from time to time.

It was thrilling to have discovered this unusual way to present my book. The unexpected is what I live for––in the art of others and in my own. It seems that so much of the unexpected that appears in my work comes from within.

Being a multi-disciplinary artist, I don’t see borders between art forms. The media I work in flow into each other. Form presents possibilities. And possibilities can come from materials. When it comes to generating new pieces, I try to vary the materials I use. Whether it’s using a different pen, or writing a poem on the back of a receipt (or the front), I find changing materials inspires new perspectives and approaches, and with positive results. I wrote half of the new album while isolated on a mountain in Japan, where I only had a piano, which I didn’t know how to play. Still, the album’s second side was written on that piano and the instrument inspired the orchestral-like movements of the songs, and was a departure from the songs I’ve written on guitar.

This is the same album I had the audacity to ask Adrian Belew to sing on. Of course, he politely said “no,” but I was thrilled that he even responded.

A passage in TLTCE indirectly admonishes Belew, stating that the only iterations of King Crimson that “mattered” were the versions that predate him. I suppose Letters to Adrian Belew is a kind of amendment. In fact, the letters are ones of admiration. The epistolary document follows my transformation as a creator, and my conversion to the church of Belew, while also chronicling a few of my Crimson-related escapades.

In New York State, there’s a weeklong camp called Three of a Perfect Pair Music Camp (“Three of a Perfect Pair” being a Belew-era Crimson song) that takes place in August. I’m mere months away from attending, along with a hundred other campers, and several members of King Crimson, including Mr. Belew.

I didn’t imagine that something like this could exist, and that I would have the good fortune to be able to attend. These nights, I dream about my upcoming adventure with Belew and company. I have no idea what to expect, and that’s just what Letters to Adrian Belew needs.

 

Mixed Tape

As King Crimson hasn’t given in to the ways of online streaming, this playlist unfortunately doesn’t feature any original Crimson recordings. However, I’ve put together some solo Adrian Belew versions of a couple of Crimson songs, as well as what may be my favourite solo song by him.

Dinosaur

Three of a Perfect Pair

Men in Helicopters

Of course we need to hear some Randy Newman. Political Science is coming up to it’s fiftieth birthday, but I don’t think there’s ever been a time that it has lost it’s relevancy, and is certainly apt today. Although Newman’s version of Living Without You is great, Nilsson’s version is magical. Incidentally, one of the songs I wrote for my next album had the working title Putin. The following year (2017), Randy Newman released a song with the same name, even winning a Grammy for best arrangement.

Political Science

Living Without You (Harry Nilsson’s version)

Putin

Here are some songs by my band, The Deep Cove, from our album To Love the coming End of the World––a soundtrack for my book.

To Love the Coming End of the World

Panoramic

Biting Ones

Capricorn*

*Adrian Belew is a Capricorn


Leanne Dunic is a multidisciplinary artist, musician, and writer. Her work has won several honours, including the Ema Saiko Poetry Fellowship and Alice Munro Short Story Contest. Based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Leanne is the Artistic Director of the Powell Street Festival Society and is the singer/guitarist of The Deep Cove. To Love the Coming End is her first book, and was named one of the best poetry books of 2017 by Entropy Magazine. Learn more at leannedunic.com & thedeepcove.com.

Photo credit: Ronnie Lee Hill 

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