An exclusive birthday chat with the bass legend about his time with King Crimson, John Lennon, Peter Gabriel and more
The hard news first (prog rock fans get ready to salivate): There will be a King Crimson tour this year!
The 2020 tour was scrapped because of COVID and a 2021 tour had been planned, but then that was COVID-ed off. But, as longtime bassist Tony Levin tells me on June 4th, “I think U.S. shows are about to be announced. There will be two U.S. legs this summer, then Japan in the late fall.” Australia, he says, is possible, “but that’s looking shaky.”
As the Ticketmaster website will tell you, there are five U.S. concerts that currently reside in that mysterious TBA realm right now.
But the prompt for our email exchange was Levin’s 75th birthday June 6th. We thought we’d engage him for a look-back on a storied career that most notably has included steady and continuing work with Peter Gabriel (his initial breakthrough at age 31) and Crimson. Oh, and also concert and studio session work with John Lennon, Paul Simon, Lou Reed, Tom Waits, David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, Joan Armatrading and the Roches and dozens more. As well as those other bands he plays with, the prog-rocking Stick Men and the cool jazz outfit formed with his older brother and keyboardist, Pete, Levin Brothers.
Last year, Rolling Stone ranked Levin, who popularized the Chapman Stick and the NS upright bass, as the 42nd greatest bassist of all time.
I know with many musicians – with all of us really – there’s a tendency to want to live in the present or look ahead into the future. But as time marches on, we look back a little more on where things have gone right and where they’ve gone wrong. So, as a slight variant on that: As you hit 75, what are the things, as a musician and/or as a person, that you’ve gained? And what have you lost?
Tough question. I’d say what I’ve gained is close relationships, musical and personal, with quite a few musicians I’ve been fortunate to do a lot of touring with – you not only learn musically from each other, but going through those other 22 hours each day, for months on end, does form a bond that’s pretty special.
What have I lost… well, one thing that comes to mind is that my retention of music isn’t as fast and flawless as it used to be. For much of my life, if I heard a piece, I almost knew it by heart right away, and then remembered it for years. Now, well, less so. I was especially reminded of that last Summer when I recorded with Liquid Tension Experiment, a band that writes highly complex music, and quickly, with super-fast learners… and I have to adjust to now being the ‘slow’ guy in the band at picking things up. One of life’s curveballs.
Like all of us, you had time on your hands in 2020 and produced Images from a Life on the Road, a 240-page/247-photo soft-cover coffee table book, with mostly black-and-white pictures. There’s a myriad of photographs, visual reminders of four-plus decades of musical and personal memories of a life which has taken you to 54 countries. What made you want to turn this into a book?
For many, many years, I’ve been taking a great deal of pictures on the road, never thinking one day I was going to collate them. It was a huge undertaking and only this year could have provided me with the time to do it. Negatives and digital pictures, thousands of them. My focus on the road was taking the best photos I can and put them up on my web diary so people can see what it’s like. Many of the pictures I found to be most poignant were of the band getting ready to go onstage. A sentimental moment in our day, which I didn’t realize until I saw these pictures.
Sting and Paul Simon are in your book, as are numerous lesser-known lights, but the two most noteworthy subjects are longtime bandmates, Gabriel and Crimson guitarist/leader Robert Fripp – not that either, initially, were particularly eager participants, I believe.
Peter and I have a good way to deal with me doing things he doesn’t love. If I put the camera on a tripod on the stage, he’ll happen to knock it over as he’s driving by on his bicycle. After a few times, I realized it wasn’t completely accidental. But he doesn’t need to let me [shoot photos] and he does tolerate it and we get a big kick out of it.” (Gabriel would do this during “Solsbury Hill”).
VIDEO: Peter Gabriel “Solsbury Hill” live
Fripp was more mercurial?
Robert is very interesting and unique in a number of ways and likewise about photography. 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.
Are you a professional photographer as well?
I think not quite. I have to admit I have made money from taking photos, but I’m a passionate amateur who keeps trying to get better at it. When I spend time with expert professional photographers, I get a glimmer of the many things they know about depth that I don’t have a clue about. Having said that, I’ve been taking more than snapshots; I’ve been trying to take good pictures for many years. Occasionally, even I get lucky and it comes out right. When you take tens of thousands of pictures quite a few of them are going to come out pretty good.
Practical question: You said the King Crimson 2021 tour is back on. But as you’ve long had your hands in various musical projects where else will we find you in 2021? And during the pandemic, aside from putting together the photo book, how did you keep busy from a musical standpoint?
Levin Brothers is about to do a small tour (8 shows in June) and Stick Men has Europe booked in October – so if things don’t fall through, I’m pretty much booked until mid-December – quite a change from 2020. During the last year I did, as you mention, have my photo book to occupy some hours and creative juices – but luckily, I also had plenty of music to play on, from my home studio. And some collaboration projects, just for the fun of it, that wouldn’t have happened in a normal year, with us all out touring. I also ramped up my practicing routine (well, it had been pretty minimal lately,) and aimed to be, if possible, a better player when things returned to normal. Can’t say whether I succeeded in that… well, we’ll see.
You are, I think, the longest-serving member of King Crimson not named Robert Fripp. What keeps you engaged, amused or interested in King Crimson after all these years?
It’s a great challenge for me, being in this band. This is the place where I push myself to try new techniques, to not do what I’ve done before, even if it’s the same pieces I’ve played before. That’s the ethic in the band, for all of us, and it’s what makes it really “progressive,” in my opinion. I can’t say that I always achieve that goal of finding new valid ways to play, but it’s fun moving in that direction, sometimes tossing out ideas that seemed worth trying, and all of us seeing where we’re at after that.
Do you find, at this point in time, King Crimson is regarded as some sort of standard bearer for prog-rock? In my head, as when someone says “punk” my first thought is “Ramones,” when someone says “prog,” my first thought is “Crimson.”
My context for King Crimson is just being part of the band – I’m pretty removed from what people, even the fans, are thinking about the band. It remains a great learning experience, and musical challenge for me, but I don’t give any thought to where we stand in the world of progressive rock or the historic element of what Crimson has accomplished. Have enough on my hands trying to play the music well.
VIDEO: King Crimson Muncih, Germany, 9/29/82
What can you do with the Chapman Stick that you cannot do with a bass guitar? Have you influenced other bassists to pick it up?
Don’t give any thought to whether I’ve influenced others – I was one of the early users of the instrument, so I suppose some players first saw it when I toured with Peter Gabriel and King Crimson. For me, the instrument, with its different tuning and different techniques for playing it, spurs me to come up with bass parts other than the usual ones – perfect for the progressive music I often find myself involved with.
We’ve talked about a lot of things over the years, but I don’t think I’ve asked you about the sessions for John and Yoko’s Double Fantasy. So, I will: What are your memories of working on that record? Of working with Jack Douglas, with John, with Yoko?
Not a lot to report on that, because the time frame was short, just a few weeks. It was an honor, of course, to be involved with the music. Playing with John was very easy – the guitar playing and singing just told you what the right bass part should be. I’d worked before with Jack, and he’s a friend for many years.
Along the same lines, you played on Lou Reed’s Berlin, my favorite Lou album. Obviously, it’s a very dark and disturbing record. Was that the sense you had in making it? What was the mood in the studio? (I know from talking to actors, often times the most joviality on a set comes when they’re working on a particular tense or horrifying film.)
That’s one of those records where, sadly, I had no connection at all with the other players. Just overdubbed bass on a track or two, with the producer. Only met Lou many years later, when, quite ironically, he played the part of a jive record producer, and I the part of the bass player, in Paul Simon’s One Trick Pony.
You were a relatively young man when you were chosen to work with Gabriel and some very high caliber musicians. Can you recall how that felt and was it a feeling of “Oh my god, this is my entry into this world, it may be a springboard!” (Which it became.)
Didn’t have that feeling at all, though it certainly did become the most significant connection of my career. I met Peter and Robert Fripp on that same day, back in 1976, and am still making music with both. I didn’t know, at that time, the music of either Genesis or King Crimson.
And any other ruminations about where you are at this point in your life and where you hope to be going?
Players gotta play… they’ll probably be wrenching the instrument out of my stiff fingers in order to bury me.
VIDEO: Peter Gabriel “Sledgehammer” live in London