A Biography of Sonny Greenwich
The great Ezra Pound, always forthcoming with advice – often unsolicited – to writers and poets aspiring to “make it new” once advised that when approaching an artist his best advice was [and I believe I paraphrase somewhat] to “go directly to the work” before approaching a biography. I believe that what provoked this rather stern missive was the fact that the works themselves almost always told you more about the artist and his art than any biography could with any degree of truth and substance. In the case of some of Canada’s finest musicians – especially contemporary ones – both music and certainly biographies are hard to come by. In the case of music, when you do happen to find something it is usually reasonably well-produced. You might not always be able to say the same about biographies. Nevertheless, it may be easy to be guided by Mr Pound for reasons of quality rather than anything else. This is certainly the case with musicians such as drummer Claude Ranger and composer and guitarist Sonny Greenwich.
Mark Miller’s eleventh and twelfth books were biographies of both musicians respectively. Both artists deserved much by way of recorded work, and yet both have left us wanting much more. In the case of Mr Ranger, he stopped performing rather early and then disappeared from the face of the earth. The case of Sonny Greenwich is infinitely more complex. Although the guitarist has performed fairly regularly – albeit with long breaks in between – since the late 1950’s at least, his recorded output remains sparse by comparison. Mr Greenwich also suffered the effects of ill-health for much of his life and therefore rarely travelled to the US [or anywhere else]. Trouble with his lungs and the effects of seizures meant he could not fly from performances in the US, for instance; something that would have enhanced his burgeoning reputation at a time when the art of music had considerably more value than the commerce of it. Thus, Mr Greenwich acquired something of a mythic status among both musicians and listeners thanks in part to those who had played with him and spread the word, and thanks also to the fact that his recordings were also relatively few and far between.
Mr Greenwich is now in his 85th year. While he is not known to have withdrawn from music [again], he performs and records little to nothing today. Yet he remains a powerful force, for no other reason than the fact that his musical conceptions and the sheer rumour of the intensity of his sound both continue to dominate the landscape of modern music, wherever music may be played. This is not hyperbole although it may have more equity where music is taken more seriously for its art than for its commerce. Mr Miller is nothing if not the epitome of accuracy, down to the last detail even in the discography at the end of the book, which cites – correctly – that his last recording under his own name so far, is Special Angel [CBC, 2002] with Marilyn Lerner, despite the fact that Kleo Records has listed two releases: Portraits and Essence, as being from 2009. The records were, however, made in 1996 and 1999 respectively. Besides there are rumoured to be scores of unreleased recordings lurking in several vaults which are just as likely to remain buried forever as they are to see the light of day at some point in the future. No matter what, Sonny Greenwich has long-since deserved a book. How elusive a subject he has been and remains is something that Mr Miller’s biography Of Stars and Strings sought to discover.
Mr Miller is – like the subjects of his work – in the very top tier of writers and biographers. What sets him apart from his peers is the manner in which his books are crafted. He never misses a detail, explores every single one of those details that are relevant to the story he is telling and then proceeds to unpack each [detail] with precision and a wonderful turn of phrase. Best of all his understanding of music is deep. But more than that, he has obviously always “listened” with large, open ears and so delves into the character of the sound that exemplifies the musician’s voice. His “reading of the artistic works in question” is always inspired – and inspiring. As biographers of Canadians go he is at a certain advantage, having written for over forty years about Canadian music, twenty-five of which he spent writing for The Globe and Mail, one of Canada’s best loved newspapers; this at a time when Canadian newspapers employed critics of his stature.
But best of all Mr Miller zeros in to the heart of what sets his subjects apart and then “paints” his singular portrait with depth of musical knowledge. The subject of this book, however, presents unique challenges for one reason – and one reason alone – setting up a “problem” for Mr Miller which is not of his making at all. Firstly, although Mr Greenwich appears to have given interviews [or at least talked to critics and journalists] he appears to be somewhat terse in his remarks, often coming across as rather stiff-necked – understandably so for like most musicians he probably would have liked his music to do the proverbial talking rather than the other way around. However, that would have proven to be somewhat difficult to say the least. Simply put Mr Greenwich’s music itself is difficult to categorise not only because categories themselves are almost despicably redundant in music [Mr Pound’s words echo loudly at this stage – uncomfortably so…], but because Mr Greenwich’s music is like shifting sands; just when you think you’ve come to terms with it, the music seems to go in a different direction, pulling you along – as great artists and their art does – with an irresistible force.
While this book does not attempt to put Mr Greenwich in a particular niche, it does use conventional wisdom to approach an approximation of where he and his music can find a modicum of definition. Mr Miller does not often fall into the trap that lures most critics who write about music that owes itself to the African-American [in this case, African-Canadian] milieu, but he strays often enough into this territory for it to become distracting at times. Along the way the reader might be frustrated by words like “post-Bop” and “avant-garde”, but fear not for these are not terms of Mr Miller’s making. Most ties that Mr Miller uses them are because he must give historical context to how Mr Greenwich was being described by the clubs that employed him to perform. The words themselves have been coined by the “suits” who decided – back in the day – how Mr Greenwich would be “billed” and by the record labels that were [and often still are] – let’s say – less than musically “educated”. They are also the terms that our ears have become accustomed to hearing on the radio, largely because presenters were – and are – too lazy to care about detail and/or not competent enough to even understand the music, the epistle of which they have been tasked with spreading. So, whether musicians like it or not they are described in the terms that we see above – on air, in performances and in record-store bins [which still exist, probably in an alternate universe] and now online.
But music does not live and grow old and decrepit in record-store bins or – as is sadly the case today – somewhere on a digital highway plundered at will by those who built it. Music is alive in the minds and hearts of the artist who creates it – in Sonny Greenwich’s heart, to be precise – and this is where Mr Miller goes to unpack it, to create – for the reader who may be at the beginning of his journey into the world of Sonny Greenwich – a palimpsest with which to listen to Mr Greenwich’s music and discover it for him or herself. This is, at the end of the day, the best way to learn about Mr Greenwich’s music. However, because the music itself may prove to be rather daunting Mr Miller’s book is probably one of the best places – if not the best place – to start. Mr Miller is meticulous in setting up the background to the story – for this is what he does for readers – of Mr Greenwich’s musical life. He digs deep into family history, which inevitably leads to Mr Greenwich’s coming to discover the instrument – the electric guitar – that would eventually dominate his world. From here Mr Miller plots – again with meticulous detail – a roadmap that the reader would delight in traversing, to discover what shaped Mr Greenwich’s signature sound. Here Mr Miller traverses the most difficult task of his book, which is to find the closest approximation of Mr Greenwich’s music – its harmonic and rhythmic conception, and the nature of its sound – to make the black dots that might have occupied staved paper breathe life into the words that inhabit the chapters of this book and eventually give wing to Mr Greenwich’s sound.
To this end Mr Miller is at pains to arrive at a literary approximation of what “this Greenwich” sound is and it is not until Chapter Seven – appropriately entitled “The space between my hands is God” – on [and from] page 75 onwards that we arrive at something that begins to put Mr Greenwich’s life and music into meaningful words. Far from putting the narrative at a disadvantage by waiting so long to unpack his thesis, the lengths to which Mr Miller would go to make a definitive statement about what he believes Sonny Greenwich’s musical universe to be is, in fact, the best reason why this book is essential to anyone who hopes to find a spot close enough to bask in the force of the musician and his art. Unpacking the ephemera of the music from amid the density of prosaic facts is something Mr Miller excels at. Questions such as: “Where does one put Sonny Greenwich in the universe of music?” or “What does one call his music?” and “How does one describe its sound?” are vexing to both the subject of a biography such as this – the musician, as well as the writer himself. This is especially true of someone such as Mr Greenwich, who is completely self-taught, reads little or no music at all and thus most significantly – has conceived of every note and phrase, melody and harmony by imagining – rather than “hearing” the sound in his head and heart before even a note has been sounded or played. Making sense of that itself is a supreme challenge.
The answers to those vexing questions, of course, lie in Mr Greenwich’s music itself. Taking up the challenge, Mr Miller develops his narrative in short chapters, often going back and forth in time as he follows the start and stop and start again of Mr Greenwich’s musical exploits. He is aided and abetted by painstaking research and he quotes frequently from observations made by the cognoscenti of the day – writers such as John Norris [and others including the often unnecessarily acidic Barry Tepperman] from Coda magazine. Mr Norris was perceptive in his performance reviews and on liner notes, but even he is often at a loss for words to describe the music, and like almost everyone else often referred to Mr Greenwich’s music as having the sound of “the Coltrane quartet” and using other epithet derived from John Coltrane [if not his very name; at worse, calling him “the Coltrane of the guitar”]. Mr Tepperman rarely fares better. The best approximation comes from Jack McCaffrey when he says: “the guitarist exhibits great drive; but the drive is directed, the fires are kept banked, the resulting intensity is searing. Great long, leaping lines full of jagged intervals crescendo into climaxes that leave the listener drained…” and later: “With his ballads, Greenwich creates a lyrical tranquility that is truly romantic and utterly devoid of sentimentality.” The truth of that review is affecting because Mr Greenwich’s playing generates so much heat that it is as if his music from his guitar seems to explode like nuclear blasts from the corona of the sun, with spurts of notes dissipating like vapours and gases that flow from our nearest star.
Mr Greenwich himself offers a number of clues about his music as he answers interviewers’ questions – including Mr Miller’s – but eventually all of them prove difficult to follow even for the musicians – such as Don Thompson – who were likely closer to him [Mr Greenwich] than anyone else. For instance Mr Greenwich often said his inspiration came from the legendary painter-poet Paul Klee. This is said to have sent Mr Thompson haring off to a museum to look at Mr Klee’s work: “As a matter of fact, on account of Sonny talking to me about Paul Klee, I went to an art gallery in New York where there was a Klee exhibition. I didn’t know Klee’s work at all. I figured ‘now I’ll finally understand what Sonny’s talking about.’ But I didn’t. I really couldn’t figure it out.” However, Mr Thompson, probably Mr Greenwich’s most frequent [and loyal] musical partner for decades does admit: “He really does know what he’s doing. Nothing happens by accident with Sonny. He knows exactly what he’s doing.” But if the sometimes linear flow of Mr Klee’s lines, which frequently flow into geometric shapes; the almost raw use of colour all of which meets in a collision of the macabre and gentle, the celestial and the terrestrial is any indication, then Mr Greenwich is begotten to no one more than he is to the great painter-poet.
Mr Miller, however, is right not to pursue any line of thought more than beyond a certain point. The reason is simple: Mr Greenwich’s music itself is an ongoing metamorphosing sonic patina. What the writer does do – something he always does with supreme mastery in all his books – is to pull several threads out from the diaphanous fabric that his subject has meticulously woven, either by chance or by design. In this case, that subject is Mr Greenwich, who is still evolving – and will continue to so until the music stops. Like all artists –great ones like Mr Greenwich – the meaning is in the proverbial madness, and which almost always manifests itself in what is being created on the day of, so to speak. So there is no way that anyone could put a finger on the pulse of Sonny Greenwich – not even Mr Greenwich himself, if it came to that. He may be an artist who taught himself the rudiments of an instrument like every other musician, but then, like the best of them, he opened himself to the universe of the music and allowed it to inhabit his senses, becoming as it did, a medium for the force of sound; a vessel into which it flowed – and continues to flow. And this is also what Mr Miller’s book Of Strings and Stars captures best. But then this is something that you might always expect Mr Miller to do. He is that kind of writer and biographer, worthy of a subject as mysterious, fascinating and timeless as Sonny Greenwich.
Published by – Mark Miller via Tellwell Talent
Pages – 321
Price – $33.46 CDN [hardcover] and $23.02 CDN [paperback]
ISBN – 978-0-2288-2778-8