I was young once. And prone, as youth is, to surfaces and misconceptions, I once labored under the erroneous opinion that the drummer doesn't matter much. Imagine! Such insouciance! I took it for granted that a beat – any beat – would suffice, so long as the song was good, the singer was expressive, and the guitars were inventive.
Somewhere along the way, I came to my wits. It might have been upon hearing Jaki Liebezeit of Can (probably not the first time I heard Can – I’m not that quick a study – I’m sure it took a number of listens), on Tago Mago, I imagine. “Mushroom” is practically all drums. Just a little repetitive chanting from Damo and the extreme economy of Holger Czukay’s bass. There’s already something going on when the song starts in the middle, unpacking itself like a defiant bloom on a cactus. We hear the sound of the end of something that just happened, something we don't have access to and never will. There’s a little keyboard whine, just a beep, like the tone your microwave makes when your burrito’s done. Then Jaki rolls a slender fill to usher us into the song (or vice versa). It’s all shuffling on top, a cascade of echoes lashing into and out of the caldera. Beneath, way down, the bass drum carves out its own geography. There is nothing to suggest that these two topographies are of the same world. But together they create a world as inevitable as the earth.
Jaki’s worlds are all commotion and tectonics: the shambolic intentionality of human activity scuffling assuredly across the heavings of a planet forever belching itself into shape. There is a naturalness to Liebezeit’s layers. Not in the sense of ease or rightness, but in the sense of nature, as imagined by Jaki’s countryman, Werner Herzog: persistent and punitive. Early, Jaki played with Mafred Schoof’s free jazz quintet. Later, he spoke of having an epiphany that directed him to play monotonously, and he joined Can.
All great music is monotonous. Even if that is not the music’s primary attribute, not the first adjective the critic would employ in its description, there must be a monotonous component to any music we would call great. Lester Bangs repeatedly (monotonously) intoned the necessity of monotony. It’s there in the Velvets and in the Stooges. But it’s also in Ornette and Ligeti and Dylan. It wouldn’t have been in Can had it not been for Jaki. True to the name he was born with, he forced the band and every one of its listeners to confront the step-by-step construction of time, which is also, of course, its deconstruction. We must embrace this time; reconcile ourselves to it. We must find a way to love (liebe) time (zeit) and be loved by it.
From 1965 until 1971, Clyde Stubblefield played drums in James Brown’s band, playing alongside John “Jabo” Starks. The two drummers provided the relentless motor for most of Brown’s best work. Jaki gets credit as a pioneer of the “motorik” rhythms of krautrock. But if you go back to Clyde’s work with James Brown, you will hear the origin and the distillation of the notion. Robert Palmer, to my knowledge, is the first critic to have noted that, starting in 1965 with “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag,” Brown’s bands began to treat every instrument as a drum. The drummers, Clyde and Jabo, are the foundation of this. But in order to function as both architecture and engine, they had to reimagine their role and their playing.
If every instrument is a drum, then how much territory and responsibility is left for the actual drums? And what if there are two drum kits? In response, Clyde and Jabo tap into the most fundamental understanding of rhythm – that it is a binary code: ones and zeroes, on and off, snap and silence. As much as they create music, they create space. Wicked absences at the upstroke. Targets for the other instruments to hit. Bait set in the bear trap. The band builds itself in these spaces, its form defined by what Clyde and Jabo allow. What made Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley, JB’s two great band leaders, so intrinsic to James Brown’s sound, was their ability to tap into this particular evolutionary turn in Brown's music - the one that is the spawning of funk. Maceo and Wesley know what Brown means when he says "don't give me no trash, just give me some popcorn." No excess. Just the moment the kernel pops. Just the singularity of mutation: an impenetrable surface releasing and becoming energy. The Collins boys introduced something else to the mix, a little butter, a little salt. Their playing suggests a libidinal freedom that Brown never allows to surface. But at the core of all of James Brown’s best tracks from the late 60s (“Mother Popcorn,” “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud,” and Stubblefield’s signature number, “Funky Drummer”) is Clyde’s stringency. His playing is an exercise in repression; as if something is always being held in reserve. This something never comes truly to fruition because what counts is tension, anticipation; not more, but the possibility of more. The repression is ultimately more powerful than its lifting could ever be. The power of the internal combustion engine is predicated on pressure and intermittent release. While the conditions for a climactic explosion are all present, the engine is designed to repress it. Clyde understood this and made of his drumming a motor.
It is cruel (amidst the cascade of current cruelties) that these two great forces should leave us within one month of each other. In the pits of our stomachs, in our asses, in our spatial and temporal imaginations, suddenly there is a lot less possibility of more.