What do you expect when you pick up an autobiography of a rock musician? Sex? Drugs? 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). You don’t have to be a follower of his music or even a drummer to enjoy this book.
I didn’t know what to expect when I first cracked the cover, but then I’m not much of a fan of rock star or music biz bios, my only prior experience being The Real Frank Zappa Book. No, Bill is not Frank, although I have tremendous respect for both men; Zappa being the iconoclast composer/guitarist armed with biting wit and Bruford the pioneering progressive rock (and eventually jazz) drummer with a hunger for exploration and a thirst for improvisation. While Zappa’s book is filled with usually humorous and sometimes outrageous tales along with his own take on socio-political topics of the day, Bruford’s offering is comparatively understated. Nothing tabloid-shocking here. No confessions of drug-rehab, groupie orgies, or snippy gossip of former band-mates or associated rock stars, although there are some nice asides considering people like Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew, Phil Collins, and Tony Levin, to name a few.
To be sure, Bruford is very good at putting pen to paper and knows how to turn a phrase. The book is written in an easy, conversational style, almost stream-of-consciousness in some respects. At one point you’re in the middle 1990s at a King Crimson rehearsal and a few pages later it’s on stage with Yes in 1970. There are humorous moments and several scenes that point up the craziness of the music business, but there is quite a bit of Bill’s inner thoughts on these pages. In fact, the latter chapters tend to be a more focused peek inside Mr. Bruford’s skull, or least his thoughts of what’s going on in there.
Clearly, he is no ordinary “rock star” and I simply cannot imagine him ever being involved in one of those horrendous rock TV reality shows. No, Bruford spins an image of a Clark Kent-ish super musician. If he were your neighbor you might think that he was a university lecturer or perhaps an architect, but at night, he magically trades skins and becomes the poly-rhythmic percussionist of King Crimson or Earthworks fame. In the music industry, this sort of apparent normalcy is perhaps every bit as heretical as Zappa ever was. Blasphemous, even.
In rock musician’s terms, I’m an extremist – practically a terrorist. I occupy a position slightly to the right of Attila the Hun. I look like Marks & Spencer Man. I subscribe to an English middle-class 50s blueprint for lifestyle and morals, and I like to be in bed by 11 o’clock if at all possible. I have one wife and one family, all of whom are entirely functional. I am unable to brandish a broken home, an unhappy childhood, poverty, addiction, malnourishment, or a child-beating father as evidence of my street credibility. I don’t drop my aitches or affect a different social status to the one into which I was born, and yet, I have more in common with Johnny Rotten or Patti Smith than I do with the tattooed and spandex’d ‘alternative’ corporate rockers – Megadeth, Metallica, Motorhead – assiduously peddling their Daily Mail version of the ‘rock’n'roll lifestyle’ from the Jacuzzi-laden shag-carpeted private 747s so beloved of the tabloids. I have a different version. And what is this revolutionary creed to which I subscribe? I practise a musical instrument assiduously in order that I might come to know myself, and I don’t think it’s a joke. I write music and join and lead bands to demonstrate that deployment. I try to get better at all things musical. And I don’t think your opinion on whether I’m successful or not in these modest endeavours is particularly relevant. I mean, c’mon, how anti-establishment is that?
The Clark Kent of drums or not, it is clear that Bruford was first and foremost a jazz drummer who wound up in rock before getting back to his jazz roots. Jazz got his blood pumping. As he says, perhaps he was too jazz for rock and too rock for jazz. But it’s a moot point as he has declared himself “retired from public performance” these days.
If I can find any fault with this autobiography it’s that Bruford’s tendency toward self-deprecation, like the icing on a birthday cake, can sometimes be applied a bit too thick. Indeed, his tendency for self-criticism and self-doubt loom ever-larger as the chapters progress, to the point where he is hardly able to play at all. He ponders the “athleticism” of the new crop of drummers and their blinding technical skill. How can he match it? Bill, no one ever expected you to be omnipotent. You’re not running for president of the universe or even “world’s best drummer”, whatever the heck that’s supposed to mean. You have brought joy to many a listener and inspired a great number of young musicians, and it is only right and proper if some of them surpass their former master for how else does the human enterprise improve? As Sir Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further than other men it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants”.
Perhaps it would have been easier if William Scott Bruford had been born 10 or 15 years earlier. Perhaps then he would have been the UK’s answer to Joe Morello. But if he had, then there wouldn’t have been a Close to the Edge, a Red or Discipline; no If Summer Had Its Ghosts, no Sound of Surprise, and we’d all be the poorer for it.
Those are some shoulders you’ve got there, Bill. Thanks for all the tunes.