For Tony Levin, July 1976 doesn’t conjure up memories of the American Bicentennial or the raid on Entebbe.
The celebrated bass player for the stars recalls that historic time as the month that he met his two main collaborators for the following 40 years – Peter Gabriel and Robert Fripp.
“I met them both on the same day, in the studio at work on Peter’s first album. It was a lucky day for me, since I’m still working with and being inspired by both of them after all these years,” said the 70-year-old Levin earlier this month in a phone conversation with The Jerusalem Post.
After a summer spent touring with Gabriel, he was ensconced in a small British town four hours from London, rehearsing for a King Crimson tour with Fripp that was beginning in two days.
Life on the road and in the studio has become second nature for the Boston native, who has appeared on every Gabriel record and tour, every King Crimson album and tour since 1981 and classic albums including John Lennon’s Double Fantasy, Paul Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years and Lou Reed’s Berlin. That’s him on songs like “Solsbury Hill,” “Sledgehammer,” “Watching the Wheels” and “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.”
In between, Levin has played on hundreds of other albums and still managed to find the time to play his own music with his progressive rock trio Stick Men, that will be touring next month including a show in Israel on October 19 at the Barby Club in Tel Aviv.
“I’ve played in Israel three times – with Peter Gabriel [in 1994], in the 1970s with Paul Simon in Caesarea and most recently with the Crimson Project [a King Crimson spinoff, in 2014],” said Levin, who offered that he used to subscribe to the International Jerusalem Post. “It’s a special place. I look forward to the day I can spend some more time there instead of just coming in and out for a show.”
Levin grew up in a Reform Jewish household in Brookline, and even though Judaism has not played an active role in his life, he realized recently that an undercurrent of Jewish values has provided a compass throughout his career.
“The older I get, the more I see that the cultural values I grew up with that were passed down to me by my parents were very Jewish,” Levin said. “Being a musician and playing an instrument was an honored part of my family. Both my older brother Pete and I ended up with musical careers and part of it was because our parents were supportive and accepting. Not every musician had that lucky break. I know, from speaking to many of them over the years. So I’m lucky in that sense, and I think some of it comes from the strong family values based in the Jewish tradition.”
Levin, who now lives in Kingston, New York near Woodstock, studied classical music on double bass at 10 years old and moved on to learn the tuba and play with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra after studying at the Eastman School of Music, along with soon-to-be famous drummer Steve Gadd. Both musicians appeared on their first album in 1968, by Gap Mangione. After moving to New York City, Levin immersed himself in the music world as a session musician and eventually shifted toward rock.
Producer Bob Ezrin, after using Levin on Alice Cooper’s Welcome to My Nightmare and Reed’s Berlin in the mid-1970s, made the fateful introduction to Gabriel, who was launching his solo career after leaving Genesis.
In the studio for that first album, Levin was just trying to do what he was told.
“It was very much Peter and Bob’s project,” said Levin. “Bob Ezrin is the kind of producer that likes to take charge of things – not to the point of telling musicians what notes to play, but he is kind of like a movie director in the studio. And Peter pretty much knows what he wants with his songs, so there was probably less asked of the musicians to come up with parts than usual.”
Whatever Levin did must have been pleasing, because the session and tour offers kept on coming – from Gabriel and Ezrin and from other prominent acts like James Taylor, Dire Straits and Tracy Chapman. For Levin, playing other people’s music means first liking it.
“I don’t try to analyze my role too much, I see myself as a musician, so I’m thinking about the music,” he said. “When I come into a recording session, I listen to the songs we’re going to record and I become a fan of them. Then I try to come up with a bass part that maybe makes it a little better, or at least doesn’t ruin it. If I sense that a busy bass part will be good, I’ll try that, but if a simple part moves it along, I’ll do that.”
“Sometimes the artist will tell me ‘you decide’ or ‘just play what you want’ and other times, they have specific ideas. More often, they ask me to play like me, so I have to figure out what they mean by that and what song they heard that they have in mind,” he added with a chuckle.
Levin has no such quandary when playing with Stick Men, the trio he formed in 2007 that currently includes guitarist Markus Reuter and fellow King Crimson member Pat Mastelotto on drums. The band’s complex repertoire, built on his own and Reuters’ compositions, as well as a fair share of Crimson classics, is enhanced by both Levin’s and Reuter’s performing on Chapman sticks instead of conventional guitars and bass, thus the band name.
Devised by Emmett Chapman in the early 1970s, the stringed electric instrument has 10 or 12 strings that can play bass or guitar lines by tapping instead of plucking and greatly increases polyphonic possibilities of a note or chord. Levin acquired his first Chapman Stick in 1975, but he didn’t receive much encouragement from his fellow musicians.
“It really appealed to me because in the progressive bands I play in, it provides an unusual approach to bass playing that let me step outside the usual four string method, even in a subtle way,” said Levin.
“I brought it to the first Gabriel session and Bob Ezrin said, ‘put that thing away, I don’t even want to see it – it’s so weird.’ The funny thing is that many years later, he asked me to play it on an album.”
Levin used the Chapman stick extensively in the early 1980s after he joined King Crimson, and that helped spread the word about the instrument to a wider audience.
And when he and Reuter founded Stick Men, with Reuter playing a variation called the tap guitar, Levin’s stick became one of the main attractions of the band who are about to release their seventh album, Prog Noir.
“It’s a super challenge to go out with three guys and do a valid show that doesn’t just present one simple kind of music,” he said.
“Our fans like progressive music and we like to challenge ourselves – once we did our own arrangement of Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird’ – and the music we write is also challenging. But the audience likes it, and we bring an open quality to our music that you don’t see much in progressive rock – we establish a relationship, talk to the audience and make fun of ourselves. It’s sort of intellectual but with a fun slant to it.”
Weird instruments, fun and intellect – what more could one look for in a night out?