Robert Fripp At 75

From King Crimson to singing Prodigy in his kitchen, the legendary guitarist still keeps us surprised at every turn

Robert Fripp (Art: Ron Hart)

Robert Fripp, who turns 75 on May 16, is a curious and complicated man. Often perceived (correctly, for the most part I think) as austere and disciplined, the guitarist also has a wicked, albeit dry, sense of humor. 

In 1979, he was on leave from King Crimson, promoting his solo debut album Exposure and pushing the concept that the best model was not being part of the dinosaur-populated big rock world but being a “small, mobile, intelligent unit.” DIY was the phrase of the day.

We had a long interview over cocktails at an upscale Boston hotel lounge. Every bit the gentleman, Fripp proposed a toast to our “new friendship.”  He eagerly tackled many subjects with the intellectual intensity one would expect. Ye, as he watched the same woman totter toward the ladies’ room for the fourth time, he wondered if she might have “a small, mobile intelligent bladder.”

I asked him if he was amazed that so many people – writers like me, fans – were interested in him. “Yes, of course. It fascinates me,” he answered.

Then rhetorically he asks me, “Why are you interested? Are you wasting your time?”

Before I get to respond, he answers it himself, “I don’t think this is a waste of time. This is lots of fun. We look up and we wave to people and they bring us drinks.”

Later that night, he would play a Frippertronics set – guitar, pedals and tape loops – to the packed tiny folk music club, Passim. Toughest ticket in town, people lined up deep outside the windows peering in the underground space, mesmerized, as those of us inside were as well.

 

VIDEO: Frippertronics Demonstration 1979

At that afternoon interview, we spoke about Crimson, about working with the Roches, Peter Gabriel, David Bowie, Brian Eno and Talking Heads. “I’m very happy to drop names of famous people,” he said. “I know it makes me seem to be infinitely more important than in reality I am. It makes me seem to be a lot more interesting than I am. I’m actually a rather boring person; there’s very little exciting about my life other than the famous people I know, who in turn are equally boring.”

Perhaps. Or perhaps he was just taking the piss. During the pandemic year, Fripp and his wife Toyah Wilcox released a fantastic series of videos- Toyah & Robert’s Sunday Lockdown Lunch – with him sitting and playing electric guitar, her singing, shaking and going nuts. Among the choices: The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” Joan Jett and the Blackhearts’ “I Love Rock and Roll,” Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog,” Heart’s “Barracuda,” Hawkwind’s “Silver Machine,” and my favorite, Judas Priest’s “Breaking the Law” – Fripp “singing’ the “breaking the law” part and Toyah going berserk dressed as a cop whacking him over the head with a baton.

 

 

VIDEO: Fripp and Toyah perform “Breaking The Law” by Judas Priest 

Fripp is a philosopher-King. As with his music, he’s an intense man exuding contradictions and paradoxes. Somewhere in the late ‘80s or ‘90s, when I was at the Boston Globe, I was profiling him and whatever group he was bringing to town and ran up against this: He would do a phone interview, but with these ground rules: It was all off the record, on background only. This made it a rather frustrating journalistic experience.

Like many of us, I presume, my first encounter with Fripp’s music came via King Crimson, doubling as my first exposure to the then-new world of prog rock. I bought “In the Court of the Crimson King,” and, though it took some time and work, I loved it. It was dazzling stuff, way outside and beyond my young teenage pop and rock-centered universe. My favorite Crimson song was the relatively short and catchy – silly and humorous – “Cat Food,” with lyrics by frequent contributor Pete Sinfield.

I could relate. See, I had a cat and it always had to be fed; thus, we always had to shop for more cat food. In the choppy song, it’s punctuated by frequent cries of “Cat food! Cat food! Again!” It was funny, but true. Not the most complicated of Crimson pieces but … In  later years, I realized it was also about the horribleness of processed food, no better than cat food. Hmm, deeper meaning. OK. 

A few years back, I was talking to Tony Levin – longtime Crimson bassist though a 23-year-old budding American musician in 1969 – and he said, “It is interesting. You could make the point that for all the complexity of classical music and some rock and King Crimson, for sure, sometimes it’s a musical phrase or a vocal phrase captures you. Something that brings you in and the rest becomes simpler and that makes you understand the rest and you start to listen. It’s as my wife used to say: ‘This is not a one-listen record’ and this is not a one-listen band. Our fans are kind enough to really involve themselves in it the way you need to, and, as with classical music and maybe they get a reward that’s a little bigger than that that is more accessible.”

Fripp, by the way, is one of the featured players in Levin’s new photo book, Images from a Life on the Road, a 240-page/247-photo soft-cover coffee table book, with mostly black-and-white pictures. 

Fripp was – and this may shock you – a mercurial subject. “Robert is very interesting and unique in a number of ways and likewise about photography,” Levin told me earlier this year. “So, he really detests it when anyone takes his picture. Except me. He made an exception many years ago: ‘Ok, Tony, you can take pictures, it’s fine.’ He’d run away from anybody else with a camera, but we’ve never had a problem.”

My interest in King Crimson maintained itself but had lessened by the mid-‘70s, as my interest in prog was waning. These things do come and go, for Fripp and for me. And it did come around again. When I heard “In the Court of the Crimson King” and “21st Century Schizoid Man” at the last Crimson show I saw (January 2019, Boston’s Wang Theater), I saw I was over-the-moon ecstatic. 

But back to the stripped-down late- ‘70s. I’d shed Genesis, but really dug Peter Gabriel solo. Less was more. I guess it had been that way for Fripp, too. And I was re-introduced to him as a much different kind of guitar presence through Eno.  

Me: “Your solo on Eno’s “Baby’s On Fire” is perhaps my favorite guitar solo ever.”

Fripp: (pauses, smiles) “Yes, that was a good one, wasn’t it?”

 

VIDEO: Eno “Baby’s On Fire”

More Fripp (on Eno) from 1979: “Now, 1979 is the year of the Eno,” Fripp said. Originally Eno acquired a credibility through working with Robert Fripp and now, ironically, Robert Fripp is acquiring a credibility having worked with Brian Eno.

“This is one of those ironies of life I observe with interest and amusement,” he told me. “I work incredibly well with Brian because basically we’re both funky English blokes. I think we’re genuinely fond of each other. The fame thing which has intruded from time to time, doesn’t hurt our relationship. There was a time when Eno was very concerned to be successful. In 1975 he became less interesting. Now, he’s not so interesting; he’s more, if you like, laid back. Very happy to be what he is. Now that I’m concerned to be successful, I have lost my interest as a human being that I had three or four years ago. But in 1981, when I can abandon this particular approach, I will revert to being once again quite interesting and intriguing.”

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That led to a discussion of the ambient world he and Eno had been sound-scaping. “Ambience is a very important movement,” he said, “and I am prepared to support it myself with my own ambient albums. Frippertronics falls into two sections. Applied Frippertronics is a question of where it’s used to replace the orchestra; the examples are all over Exposure and [Daryl Hall’s] Sacred Songs. Frippertronics can be demanding in which case it isn’t by definition, ambient. Some of it is ambient. Once in Paris, I went to this restaurant for supper and asked the manager if he would let me play there and he said yes. So I went back the next two nights and played for supper and because people were eating. I accepted the responsibility of not interfering with their digestion. It was definitely ambient music. It actually put one of the record company people to sleep and he was rather embarrassed to say to me ‘I went to sleep’ but in fact, I considered it the ultimate compliment.”

Fripp has this theory about rock music, as played by professional musicians: The more experienced the musician, the less likely you’ll find anything worthwhile.  In 1998, he played a solo at a now defunct Boston club called Mama Kin Music Hall (yes, Aerosmith owned it). It was an evening of instrumental soundscapes, just Fripp, a guitar, a guitar-synth, and foot pedals, all run through a delay and manipulated. The sounds he creates may or may not be repeated. Layers are laid upon layers, calm juxtaposed with turbulence, ambience with a hint of dissonance, an ebb-and-flow celestial squall.

How does the music move through Fripp, the self-described “small, mobile intelligent unit existing in a world of rock dinosaurs?”

“It works when you really know what you’re doing,” he said, “and you abandon that. Your technique is available, but it’s not controlled by the rational part. There’s the assumption of innocence within the context of experience put aside.”

 

VIDEO: Robert Fripp performs an introductory soundscape during a Frippertronics performance in Warsaw on June 10, 2000

Fripp played for an hour and 13 minutes — he looked at his watch and announced the set length after it was over. Then, during a subsequent Q & A period he noted a USA Today poll determined most Americans have an attention span of 23 minutes and “most responsible, good-hearted people will put up with 45 minutes of something they don’t like.”

To the uninitiated, Fripp’s guitar explorations might have seemed like sonic wallpaper. He acknowledged as much when he joked from the stage about reluctant girlfriends being dragged to the show by nerdy, fanatical boyfriends. To the cognoscenti, Fripp’s music is both a balm and a challenge, or, as one appreciative fan said from the Mama Kin floor, “bizarre and difficult to digest.”

In King Crimson, with its innumerable lineups (dubbed “projekts”), Fripp said the other players “know what they’re doing, so {my job} is `How do I unfix them?’ “

As a dimly lit solo performer, swiveling on a stool, twiddling knobs, and massaging the guitar strings, Fripp was an enigma. He said he may start with an idea — and then abandon it or develop it. You can’t lose the backbeat because there is none. Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space. 

This was not Fripp as Capt. Speedfingers, Guitar Hero. It was Fripp executing a slow dazzle. It was Fripp working without a net, but capable of mesmerizing. “Every time you play,” he said, “it’s terrifying. . .. like embracing my wife, it becomes more and more mysterious to me, embracing the impossible. Whether I’m afraid of it or don’t know, I will trust the event.” 

Did he enjoy the performance? a fan inquired. 

Fripp thought for a moment and said, “I enjoyed it enough to make me do it again tomorrow night.”

 

 

 

 

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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

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