Mar 22, 2013

Reflections on the Passing of Clive Burr

Although last week was brightened -- and largely dominated  -- by news concerning the election of a new pontiff, something else occurred which saddened me, personally, deeply, for reasons I'm been struggling to make sense of through reflection -- a news item that was not unexpected but, like all obituaries of those whose actions or artistry made some tangible, positive differences, is always in some sense unwelcome to read, untimely at its occurrence. Clive Burr, perhaps best known for his work as a drummer, early on in his career, for Iron Maiden, died on March 12 in his sleep.

Multiple Sclerosis had long ago begun eroding his system, cutting off his livelihood, damming up his talents, and ending his long career.  He was fortunate in having developed many solid friendships over the years -- his former bandmates in Iron Maiden, for example, organized and played benefits to assist him in paying his reportedly quite high medical bills -- and by all reports he is going to be missed, and grieved over, by many who knew him personally.  For my part, I'm just a fan, and didn't know him personally.  I can't say that I wrote him fan mail, or that I even saw him play -- by the time I first got to an Iron Maiden concert, with my leather and longhair burnout friends, several years had passed since he'd left the band, engaging in a series of never-quite-making-it-as-big ventures with bands like Trust, Escape, and Gogmagog

In some sense, as far as our emotional involvements, and arguably even our curiosity goes, most of the deaths we end up learning about are really not much of our business -- it's right, I think, to maintain a sort of decorous distance from them.  There are certain public figures, however -- leaders, writers, musicians, theologians, activists, just to name a few of their trades -- about whom perhaps it does make more sense to feel a kind of attachment born of appreciation, in relation to whom a kind of anonymous analogue to friendship can develop.  Clive Burr was one of those people for me -- which is actually a bit strange, given the direction of my musical tastes, the direction of my listening attentiveness, what I take delight and excitement in.

Music and Memories

As I've mentioned in a few previous blog entries (here and here), over the years, (what's now) classical heavy metal became -- or perhaps provided -- a dimension central to my lifestyle, the play of my developing imagination, a nexus for friendships, something core to my personality.  For a space shorter than a decade, in the 1990s and early 2000s, heavy metal lost its importance and interest for me.  About ten years ago, I stated listening again to some of the bands whose songs, albums, posters, and shows I'd loved, and found myself both appreciating the music in news ways, and recalling my youth --  events, activities, places, persons, schedules, experiences both first-time and commonplace.

For me, textured and distorted soundscapes, solos, lyrics, riffs, lines of bass and drum, when examined attentively, when mused upon, when simply enjoyed once again, evoke and reawaken a past consisting in more than simply data supplied by memory, a lost time of complexly articulated feeling, sensibility, shared enthusiasms.  To understand this -- as well as a paradox of the bridged distance, not only between times decades past and those of the present, but between a youthful self that once was and in some sense still is me, and the nearly middle-aged man I daily recognize in the mirror -- a project still largely unfinished, I've had to marshal resources taken from some of the philosophers, theologians, even novelists and poets I've been fortunate enough to run across in my studies and profession.

I remember chanting AC/DC's "TNT" and "Big Balls" with two of my neighborhood friends in elementary school -- and all of us together drawing crayon pictures of our favorite members of KISS in the living room.  I recall playing my my first Def Leppard tape over and over again -- precisely where we were driving under streetlights the first time I heard Ratt's "Round and Round" -- I could go on and on. . . . And I remember, in spring, before middle school ended, out by a sunny softball field, playing a tape my classmate had made for me (of Van Halen's album 1984), hearing for the very first time that unforgettable riff immortalizing and adapting the doomed charge of the Light Brigade -- Iron Maiden's signature and standard, "The Trooper" -- a decisive moment that I can honestly point to as one when something clicked inside of me, when I sensed in a snap a recognition of a deep lack, yearning, and yet energy inside of me corresponding to what I was now hearing, feeling, responding to.

Iron Maiden became for me -- even against stiff competition from other first-rate metal heavyweights like Judas Priest, Motorhead, the Scorpions, Black Sabbath, Van Halen, Dio, and Accept -- even after the advent of the great thrash triumvirate of Megadeth, Metallica, and Anthrax -- THE band, and after getting my hands on the Piece of Mind Album -- the first on which Clive Burr did not play -- I started "listening back," as one might say, working my way into the earlier, and in some respects, even more musically fertile albums, working my way through The Number of the Beast, to the 5 song, live Maiden Japan, and then to Killers and the self-titled Iron Maiden. 

Once I was in high school, of course, new albums came out -- Powerslave, (the concert) Live After Death, and the strange and at the time less-than satisfying experiment Somewhere In Time -- and Burr was long gone from the ensemble by then, replaced by Nikko McBain (who he in turn replaced in Trust).  But, all told, I'd say that within the music that provided something like a soundscore for my waking teenage life, the songs Clive Burr contributed to assumed central, even paradigmatic place.

Clive Burr's Drumming

If you look through the songwriting credits, you notice that Clive Burr wrote -- or rather co-wrote, with Adrian Smith -- only one of Iron Maiden's LP songs, but one of their best (at least in my view), namely "Gangland."  About the first two albums, Burr observed in a recent interview: "I didn't write anything. I just brought in my style."  One might assume that, regarding all the other songs on the first three albums, he had little impact or involvement in the composition, the progressive and practiced development, and the eventual sound of the finished product -- which is not only the LP (and eventually mp3) track but the musical architecture of patterns providing an armature for the identifiable improvisations that a concert performance actually comprises.

That assumption would be a great mistake, I think.  One needs only to actually listen to those albums -- or to listen to one of the early concerts -- to begin to recognize a distinctive approach which Burr bore towards his drum kit.  The contributions of drummers -- except when they are accorded the space for an extended solo -- often, like those of their fellow members in the rhythm section, bassists, end up with less recognition than those of the frontmen -- the guitarists and singers -- or even (since they tend to stand out by the very fact of being present) keyboardists.  And this makes good sense -- the bass and drums do provide the figurative "glue," not only musically, but temporally, textually, which holds songs, particularly those in metal, together as entirely coherent compositions and performances.

Drumming has in metal works of recent years turned into a sort of precision art, marking perhaps the greatest difference at the stylistic level between classic heavy metal of the 1970s and 1980s and the newer but deliberately retrospective genre of power metal that emerged afterwards as a resuscitation and reworking of classic metal motifs, riffs, song construction by a new generation who had grown up on the classic acts.  I remember even back in the mid-80s a small, but not entirely unnoticed revolution in the low end of drumming, the development of techniques that would allow much faster play of the bass drums.  Perhaps this presaged the more encompassing shift to very fast, constant beats that, like increasingly heavier weapons in an arms race, made their way into new repertoires of even the older bands, sometimes even invading the arrangements of already-long-standard songs.

I understand the impulse to fill the air with sound, to drum up a wall of cacophony, to leave literally no empty space -- there is a sort of raw, youthful, vitality it expresses, as well as a mimesis of the mechanical that has long formed part and parcel of the metal ethos.  But, it's also a tendency marked by what in games theory and in certain schools of ethics we call "marginal utility", a concept easy enough to grasp -- its just this:  there's a fallacy involved in reasoning that if a given quantity of a certain good produces a given amount of pleasure, happiness, joy, whatever you like, doubling that quantity will double the positive payoff.  It may work that way very early on, but quickly, just as junkies become inured to effects of their preferred drugs, we all experience similarly diminished returns.   Drumming too much, a failure not only to leave, but to appreciate, negative acoustic space, eventually becomes boring -- it all sounds the same.

One can't say anything like that about Clive Burr's drumming -- in fact, one can positively place him among the great metal drummers of the earlier, classic age -- he provides what, after the song has come together, one can recognize as just the right sort of play across the kit, a battery of beats long ago become iconic.  He drives songs along, keeping time, crashing cymbals, complementing one of the best metal bassists, Steve Harris, fill for fill, pounding at measured pace, providing musical latticework for Murray's and Smith's distorted, tightly coordinated, double-guitar alchemy. He exemplifies this ethos even when entirely on display, soloing.

I'm not myself a music writer, and my own experience in making music has been confined entirely to amateur efforts as a singer, bassist, and banjo player, so I make no pretense about being able to adequately describe what I hear -- or even feel -- when listening to the first three Iron Maiden albums, and deliberately paying attention to Burr's playing.  There are a few well-spoken pieces out there already on the web -- “Pistol” Pete Kaufmann provides perhaps the best description, reprinted recently by Modern Drummer (also featuring one amazing concert picture of Burr with his set)
Burr played with effortless creativity, high energy, flawless technique, and the ability to transition between the punk-ish sound of original Iron Maiden singer Paul Di’Anno and the powerful, operatic vocal style of Bruce Dickinson.  [His] incredible combination of deep pocket, impeccable time, and streamlined restraint worked hand in hand with the intricate bass-playing style of Maiden’s founder and leader, Steve Harris, making for a Herculean rhythm section.
Revealing though all-too-short testimonials by actual metal musicians -- who presumably not only know more about these matters both by experience and by theory, but are hopefully better at expressing them -- have been posted on Classic Rock and Loudwire, among other places. 

I will just say this -- it seems to me that, for all of the energy, the speed, the dynamism of 1970s-1980s metal drummers like Clive Burr (and I'd say this applies to Bill Ward, Black Sabbath's original drummer as well), there's something like a kind of temperance or moderation, a sort of Apollonian prudence or judiciousness manifest in his playing by comparison to more recent drumming -- a kind of restraint that instead of imposing restrictions, rather expresses or acts as the vehicle for a different kind of excess -- one involving excellence.

Age and Perspective

There are some paradoxical aspects to writing about a genre of music -- as well as invoking its legends and lore, stars and supporting roles -- both retrospectively and in real time -- bringing memories in some sense into the living present, where the vagaries of tastes have moved on and then back again.  It is strange to think that the songs and albums I've been gradually accumulating and curating into an mp3 metal library -- currently, I've roughly 5 days worth of music -- were made by men (and a few women) performers considerably younger than I currently am (check out, for example how boyish they are in this video), and that they first got their hooks into me when I was still younger yet.  And yet, they retain their vitality and brilliance -- they measure up against any of the present day acts, or those of intervening decades. 

Back in my youth, heavy metal was a grand experiment, as well as an unstable fraternity of rebellion, exuberance, imagination. . . Back then, it had everything to prove.  But, it's still around, and being avidly listened to, because in a way, it has made it musically.  It attained a kind of legitimacy which is not a mere effect of tired and idea-poor consumerist nostalgia, but rather a realization of the intrinsic aesthetic value of the ensemble of music, image, performance, participation, association that has been created all those years back.

Time does march on, however, and the generations do, as the verse goes, pass away -- the evidence for that, easy to ignore early on, mounts not only with each passing of one of the iconic figures from the formative years -- one might think of the deaths of Ronnie James Dio (in 2010) or Gary Moore (in 2011) -- as well as with illnesses that incapacitate, hospitalize, shorten sets, reduce movement.  Everyone is getting older -- the generation that produced classic metal in their own youth are mainly boomers who have reached retirement age, and while the spirit of rock may be willing, the flesh in many cases has become weak -- and my own generation, the one that grew up listening to metal in the 80s, is the genX moving into middle age (though to be fair, before the cult of youth took root, the 30s-50s were seen as one's "prime").

It's unfortunate, but if we're being realistic, it's inescapable that many more physical declines and eventual deaths will be coming within the classic metal world.  And while many acts and musicians remain in astonishingly good shape -- physically and mentally -- I think we have to look forward to a time not that far off when we'll no longer still be able to enjoy seeing these acts in concert, to interact with them as an audience, after they have  played their really "final" tours.  Eventually, I suppose, this incredibly rich genre will assume its epochal place in musical history -- the songs will still be performed, as covers, or by tribute bands (or perhaps even younger generations introduced to them by Guitar Hero!).

Clive Burr's death -- like those of Dio or Moore --doesn't cut short a career in which original, unexpected, innovative projects were about to be launched.  All of these great metal musicians left behind indelible marks of their own personalities and performances, and contributed to the catalog of ever-to-be-influential compositions -- but its safe to say that the best new work they did occurred decades ago, in the 1970s and 1980s.  Smith, of course, was prevented from touring -- or even from working -- for a significant portion of his life by his worsening illness.  Dio and Moore continued to tour most of the time allotted to them, and playing before, participating in the enthusiasm of, live audiences is still in some sense doing the productive work of a great musician. 

I hesitate to form and express any definitive judgement on precisely what loss occurred (and will be occurring) with these periods of declines and deaths of people whose practice, whose performance, whose production -- if not universally enriching all of our lives -- certainly enriched my own and those of many who have comprised my circles of friends, family, even colleagues.  Nor, after much reflection carried out over the last week and a half, often listening again to those early albums shaped by Burr's playing, can I say I've attained much illumination about my own feelings of sadness, tied up with nostalgia for a time that seems alternately close as the present and distant as any other finished historical epoch. 

Clearly, there's much more for me to think about -- I can say that this process of reflection has renewed in me a resolve to think these matters through, to talk with others, and to write about them, not just as a philosopher, but as a genuine amateur -- an unprofessional lover -- of classic heavy metal, the genre, the songs, the performers.  For the moment, however,until I extricate myself from other responsibilities and charges that consume my available hours by successfully seeing them through, that exciting prospect has to wait.