Diode Processing Co.
Lust/Unlust : 1977
Miles Davis, synthesizer; Buddy Rotokowski, processed trumpet;Â Samuel C. Smalls, keyboards; LynnÂ 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.).Â 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 –Â an amazingÂ story that has never, to our knowledge, at least,Â 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 ofÂ unchecked drug addiction and joylessÂ sexcapades. “He was totally out of control,” producer Teo Macero is quoted as saying. “He went to clubsÂ occasionallly, stoned out of his mind. The house was filled with bugs and rats, he was drooling….” Miles himself describes a period of existentialÂ boredom, and frequentÂ hallucinations. “I was four differentÂ people,” he writes in the autobiography, “two of themÂ 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, HerringtonÂ digsÂ 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 unreleasedÂ 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 somethingÂ like this:Â one of Miles’ main coke dealers had aÂ delivery boy named Buddy Rotokowski, a skinny 19-year-old white kid. Buddy always chatted MilesÂ 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 aÂ sound collective. He and some friends madeÂ sonic collages from clanging pipes, drum machines, and the like. MilesÂ was intrigued. He askedÂ 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.Â 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,Â 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.Â 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,” didÂ not feature Davis and was a pedestrian mix of chanted vocal shards and clanging percussion — a hippie drum circle with aÂ 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.Â But why not spill the story immediately after Miles died? Buddy claims that he was never a huge jazzÂ 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.”Â Buddy split ways with Davis shortly afterwards, going straight and giving up both his coke running and musical experiments in favor of a White CastleÂ 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 SiddÂ 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” – aÂ rare glimpse into stank netherworld of Miles Davis in the late 1970s. But beÂ warned:Â 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.