by Jacob Sunderlin
I love winter because winter is a free pass to sleep and read another book about serial killers and listen to Miles Davis and (almost) lose my shit. Seasonal affective disorder is some kind of conspiracy (Illuminati). Winter makes me feel like some kind of psychic spelunker. It’s great. Like that John Prine song I tried to stare my bowl of oatmeal down, and won. It’s maybe not the healthiest thing, but only if you count misanthropy and eating lots of soup as unhealthy things. When it’s nice outside, I feel like a guilty scumbag. Like I should be doing something important. When it’s shitty, it’s a great excuse to drink a bunch of…coffee…and listen to the Bitches Brew bootlegs.
One winter during college I worked in this coffee shop kitchen that I had to open at 5:30 in the morning. I lived twenty minutes away, and this was Indianapolis, so I was slamming the alarm at 4:55 every morning and jumping straight into my gnarly work shirt that smelled like onions and pancake batter and driving to work with a bunch of Christians in a town called Zionsville. Zionsville is like whatever the opposite of a hippie town is, ironically. Everyone was stressed out and lived in giant houses and watched a lot of reality television.
When my shift slinging breakfast burritos ended, the sun would be up and I would scrape the ice off my car for the second time that morning, smoke a couple cigarettes, and drive to 20th Century French Philosophy where we talked about deconstruction. One morning, the girl next to me said, “This room always smells weird, like a restaurant bathroom.” I made a concerned face and shrugged. “Huh,” I said. And when THAT bullshit was over, I went to my other job tutoring people at the Writing Center on campus. “Tutoring” means that booze-sweating frat boys would come to me and complain about how their “bitch of an English teacher” gave their racist paper about immigration a C- and I was supposed to help them fix it.
Anyway, this was the time in my life that I got super-heavy into electric-era Miles Davis. On the Corner is the only record that made any sense for me to listen to while driving down W. 10th St. toward the trailer parks in the Speedway neighborhood of Indianapolis where my apartment was. It’s all frog-leg chicken shacks and burnt-out gas stations. This era of Miles, from the complete session boxes of Tribute to Jack Johnson, Bitches Brew, and On the Corner, is like battery acid jazz. It goes hard and stays raunchy. It’s all right there in the exchange at the beginning of “Corrado”—an unreleased jam from the Bitches sessions—when the engineer interrupts the song to ask what they’re playing: “This is gonna be part nine—what difference does it make, motherfucker?” Miles spits back, with his couch syrup voice.
Forget Stagger Lee and that dude from Braveheart—Miles Davis is the baddest dude to ever walk the face of the earth. I’ve heard one story about him kidnapping a drummer during one of the Jack Johnson sessions and driving him around in his Ferrari, going ninety everywhere, with Axis: Bold as Love by Hendrix turned up to eleven on the speakers. Drummer shouts, “So…you want me to play more like that?” Miles turns and stares at him through his alien caterpillar shades, and says nothing.
And that’s what you hear when you listen to these tracks. Miles plays and arranges like the kind of dude who, given the choice between “getting to know someone” and “not” would choose “not” ninety-eight percent of the time, and would tell you to your face, unless you either knew how to blow or had some.
Lester Bangs calls On the Corner a record of place—that the inhuman-sounding squerks and bloops that tweak in and out of the channels, that disappear only to return eight or nine minutes later, are like characters you’d see after getting blasted and walking around a shitty neighborhood in search of a cheap bar. It’s Taxi Driver jazz. It’s half-repulsive, it’s nauseated, it’s human.
Still unconvinced? Consider this: Of the tasty slab I’ve presented below, four of the six jams were unreleased until Columbia decided to do some archival box-set exploitation in the last ten years. That means that Miles organized a band, went into the studio, arranged the music (most of which were little more than a half-scribbled theme or some triad clusters written on the back of a paper bag), then plays his horn like he’s trying to blast off the face of the planet and kick Shiva in the scrote, listened back to the rough mix and said, “Eh.”
AND THEN IT WENT INTO THE GARBAGE FOR THIRTY YEARS.
And it’s the best stuff I’ve ever heard. Desert island good. Winter got you down? Feeling antisocial? Turn this up and close out.
1. “Corrado” from The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions
2. “Ali (Take 3)” from The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions
3. “Guinnevere” from the Complete Bitches Brew Sessions
4. “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” from Bitches Brew
5. “Honky Tonk (Take 5)” from The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions
6. “Helen Butte/Mr. Freedom X” from On the Corner