Dark Magus: The Lost Years

Diode Processing Co.
7″ Single
Lust/Unlust : 1977

Miles Davis, synthesizer; Buddy Rotokowski, processed trumpet; Samuel C. Smalls, keyboards; Lynn Xerox, percussion; Rena Steady, vox.

One of the few perks of working in publishing is getting to read galleys of books months before they’re officially available (nice work coming from Mr. Ross and Mr. Ratliff, e.g.). But when the latest in a seemingly never-ending slew of Miles Davis biographies crossed our desk, we were less than thrilled. After John Szwed’s comprehensive bio and Phil Freeman’s cogent tour of the electric years, not to mention the man’s own bestselling autobiography, what could possibly be left to say?

We might not have cracked open the thing except the author was Tony Herrington, a writer from The Wire whose work we admire. The man has a keen ear and a nose for the unsual detail. So we started thumbing the pages and stumbled across a startling nugget – an amazing story that has never, to our knowledge, at least, been previously told.

The late 1970s were a dire time for Miles. He retired from music after the epic Agharta and Pangea gigs in 1975 and fell into a grim life of unchecked drug addiction and joyless sexcapades. “He was totally out of control,” producer Teo Macero is quoted as saying. “He went to clubs occasionallly, stoned out of his mind. The house was filled with bugs and rats, he was drooling….” Miles himself describes a period of existential boredom, and frequent hallucinations. “I was four different people,” he writes in the autobiography, “two of them people had consciences and two didn’t. I would look into the mirror and see a whole fucking movie, a horror movie.”

Where other biographers have been content to offer a few sordid details from this period and move on to Miles “comeback” in the early 1980s, Herrington digs deeper. He clearly spent significant time tracking down and interviewing some of the shady characters who weaved in and out of Davis’s life at the time. Apart from an unreleased session with Miles on organ taking a crack at Pete Cosey’s “Mother Dearest Mother” in late March 1976, the story has always been that Miles turned his back on music altogether during this period. But now it turns out he recorded something in those lost years after all.

The entire bizarre saga is fascinating; we’ll leave most of it to the book. The short version goes something like this: one of Miles’ main coke dealers had a delivery boy named Buddy Rotokowski, a skinny 19-year-old white kid. Buddy always chatted Miles up. Eventually Buddy got around to mentioning that he had a band that occasionally gigged in a Lower East Side squat. Well, not a band exactly. More like a sound collective. He and some friends made sonic collages from clanging pipes, drum machines, and the like. Miles was intrigued. He asked Buddy if he knew about Stockhausen’s tape collages and they struck up a loose friendship. One day Buddy said the band was recording a single for a friend’s label and Miles said he might like to “sit in.”

Years after the fact, Buddy tells Herrington that Miles didn’t want to play trumpet. He claimed his mouth was too “fucked up for that motherfucking shit.” Instead Miles wanted to dabble with the synthesizer. So the group convened at Davis’s vermin-infested house with their crummy four-track and some mics, set up their instruments in the living room, and jammed. Miles added what Buddy calls “sparse electronic ripples” to the track. Rotokowski himself played some trumpet. Miles apparently helped him tweak and process the sound to disguise the kid’s obvious lack of technique. After they finished a rough version of one five minute track, Miles lost interest. Buddy doesn’t know if he liked the piece or not. He says Davis was too stoned to focus on anything for more than 30 minutes at a time anyway.

That track (drum roll, please) is above. It was released as a single credited to the Doide Processing Co., one of the collective’s several aliases, in the summer of 1977. It was a black label release limited to “less than 400 copies.” The A-side was “Bombay,” the track featuring Davis on synth. It’s a fascinating slab of proto-industrial groove that’s alternately arid and squelchy, the sonic equivalent of a paranoid’s mutterings that only rarely rise above a whisper. The B-side, “Missa,” did not feature Davis and was a pedestrian mix of chanted vocal shards and clanging percussion — a hippie drum circle with a nasty benzedrine edge. Â

Here’s where the story gets a bit murky. Davis was never credited on the track. Rotokowski tells Herrington that Miles was adamant about not using his name for publicity. But why not spill the story immediately after Miles died? Buddy claims that he was never a huge jazz fan and figured that “since Miles didn’t play trumpet, nobody would give a shit. All he did was plonk the keys a few times and add some reverb.” Buddy split ways with Davis shortly afterwards, going straight and giving up both his coke running and musical experiments in favor of a White Castle franchise in Canarsie.

Herrington initially questioned the story but later found several others who could corroborate the episode – or at least parts of it. Eric Engles, who ran errands for Miles during this period, said that he recalled Miles fooling around with some “strung-out hippie kids.” And another, Seventies scenester Sidd Fitz, recalls Buddy Rotokowski and has a vague recollection of some strange instruments set up in the living room one night. But he doesn’t recall the ramshackle session itself, such as it might have been.

So here it is: “Bombay” – a rare glimpse into stank netherworld of Miles Davis in the late 1970s. But be warned: It’s a dark mirror and any reflection is probably your own.

UPDATE, 1 APRIL: Comments will be slow to appear until tomorrow. If you are looking for yours, please check back then.

UPDATE, 2 APRIL: So, yeah, happy belated April Fool’s Day. Embargoed comments have been released. Looks like doug w and tig were the first among the unfooled. The track is, in fact, “20 Jazz Funk Greats,” by Throbbing Gristle. To the best of our knowledge, TG never collaborated with Miles.

Category Miles Davis

22 Responses to Dark Magus: The Lost Years

  1. What a find! A great track to kick off the new month ;-)

  2. Er, happy April Fools Day?

  3. Is it significant that this is posted up on April 1st?

    S, tig

  4. We have april first here in Iceland too…

  5. crazy story… will there be a reissue in the pipeline thanks to the book?

  6. April fool! :-)

  7. April Fool!

  8. That tidbit about the “White Castle franchise in Canarsie” is priceless.

    btw how you guys could reco Phillip’s book on Miles’ electric years over Paul Tingen’s much better researched and written “Miles Beyond” is beyond me.

  9. Incredible – sounds a lot like the great forgotten French player Avril Poisson.

  10. hmm, this sounds a lot like something else…

  11. another reason i love this blog. i had to read the personnel listing four times before i got around to the text. it just didn’t compute. i’ll be on the hunt for Herrington’s book!

  12. you can take it down now, april fools is over

  13. Oh man, that was hilarious â?¦ and yes, you totally got me

  14. Anyways, all this made me think of this quote from John Lydon: “But it was during the recording of this album in New York that Miles Davis came into the studio while I was singing, stood behind me and started playing.”

    Now, that would be a find.

  15. next year, the video of Miles, Goldie Hawn and Stockhausen at a sex party in Mannheim?


  16. Belatedly… Genius. What can I say? The highlight of my, er, ‘career’ to date. But so obviously a wind up. The likelihood of such a track existing is about as high as the prospect of Reggie Lucas producing Madonna. Er…

    Yrs admiringly, Scoop Herrington

  17. …hey, I’m assuming you considered claiming that to be Miles’s drugged-out trumpet playing. This is a failure of – what? – courage? cruelty?

  18. Scoop, welcome, thanks, and thank goodness you have a sense of humor. Looking forward to the finished book.

    godoggo, we did consider it, but dumped that in the interest of believability. For real. Good to see you ’round these parts, btw.

  19. Ledrew, just to confirm, Tony H. is indeed writing a Miles bio? If so, good news! I’m certainly a fan of his perspective and writing style.

  20. Alas, Tony H’s Miles bio is purely our invention. Unless Tony knows something that we don’t… or this gives him some ideas.

    Thanks again to Scoop Herrington for being such a good sport. While many things in the entry were pure fiction, our admiration of his writing is completely genuine.

    And for those intrigued by the Faux Miles jazz funk of that Throbbing Gristle track, ole TG has a new album hitting the shelves any day now called “The Endless Not.” Early word is that it delivers more wonderfully noxious soundscapes.

  21. haha. well, glad to see the reveal. i was hoping for a herrington book though. reminded me of how little i liked throbbing gristle…

  22. Very flattering to have all you kind folks saying nice things about my writing and anticipating a Miles book from me, but I reckon that’s one subject that’s been dealt with, as they say.

    In case anyone’s wondering, the new album from the reformed TG is a good one.