Living a Rock and Roll Dream
Back in college, I was the radio station manager, with access to a ton of music I’d never heard before. One particular record I played over and over was the 1982 album Beat by the progressive rock group King Crimson. Formed in London in 1968, King Crimson has been consistently led by guitarist Robert Fripp, who has also collaborated with luminaries like David Bowie, Brian Eno, David Sylvian, and Peter Gabriel on hundreds of tracks and albums.
Beat was the second in a series of three records Fripp called the “rock gamelan.” They featured complex, paired guitar riffs that had an interlocking rhythmic quality that he found similar to Indonesian gamelan ensembles (it sort of sounds like math, if you could listen to math). I fell in love with this post-punk/new wave-influenced incarnation of the band, which featured Fripp, guitarist/vocalist Adrian Belew, bassist/Chapman Stick player Tony Levin, and drummer Bill Bruford.
Fast forward about 25 years, to a summer Friday in our Swarthmore kitchen, as I went down a YouTube rabbit hole that led me to a video of Adrian Belew and Tony Levin, current King Crimson drummer Pat Mastellotto, and German multi-instrumentalist Markus Reuter playing gamelan-era King Crimson music with (not for!) a bunch of prog-rock nerds like me in a barn somewhere. I recall thinking, “Is this some sort of magical wedding they were invited to play?” After watching, mouth agape, for several minutes, it struck me: THIS WAS A MUSIC CAMP! Google confirmed: yes, it was, and they happen every year. I babbled incoherently for a while; my wife Melissa, who somehow understood and calmly replied “You should go.” I bought a ticket for the next camp right then.
The camp, called “Three of a Perfect Pair” after the third album in the gamelan series, is held for a week in mid-August in New York’s Catskill Mountains, at the historic Full Moon Resort, where accommodations range from “glamping” to country-inn style guest rooms and luxury cottages. I towed our Airstream trailer up there and parked in the camping field. The resort also features a wedding-style pavilion for meals, as well as both a roadhouse and barn for live music performances.
After setting up camp, I made my way to the barn — site of musical performances for the week — for a welcome from the band. There they were — musical heroes of mine, mere feet away, sitting in plastic folding chairs, holding microphones. My fellow campers shuffled in; the commentary started with a heartfelt welcome, then led to some stories from the road, followed by Q&A. It only took moments for me to become aware of how normal these guys were. No pretensions, nothing forced; just four guys who genuinely enjoyed being there as much as the attendees.
Adrian Belew told one of the best stories ever, from the tour when he was in Frank Zappa’s band. After one show, David Bowie, loving what he heard in Adrian’s playing, said he wanted Adrian to be HIS guitarist and suggested dinner. Adrian accepted the invitation because you don’t say no to Bowie. When they arrived, there was Zappa, at the same restaurant. Busted but unflustered, Bowie told Zappa he was just interested in chatting with Adrian. Zappa was having none of it. He replied, “F*** you, Captain Tom.” Adrian could barely get the story out through his laughter. “Right there, on the spot, Zappa demoted Bowie from Major to Captain,” he said. We all cracked up.
After the Q&A, it was cocktail hour. It was here that I had my first conversation with Tony Levin. He’s hard to miss — tall, bald head, trademark mustache. Ask anyone (especially my mom) what this guy has meant to me over the years since I first heard his playing with Peter Gabriel. I thanked him for being such an inspiration and influence, then we talked about bass guitars, some records he’d played on, and who knows what else — I was kind of in a daze.
As I met other campers, I realized we shared much in the way of common interests and musical knowledge, which was essential to the collaborative experience of the camp. Later that evening, and for the next several evenings, were the “roadhouse jams” — opportunities to play music with each other and with the hosts themselves. Ahead of the camp, each host selected eight songs for these sessions, songs where the hosts actually played on the original recordings. I played guitar on “Red Rain” by Peter Gabriel with Tony on bass, and sang “Scarecrow People” and “King for a Day” by XTC with Pat on drums, with fellow campers filling out the band for each song.
I don’t know if you’ve ever had the dream of playing onstage with a band you really like, but there I was, living that dream. Looking over and seeing Tony Levin playing on the same stage with me was nothing shy of surreal. And after “Scarecrow People,” Pat, who played drums right behind me, tapped me on the shoulder, and said, “Dude, you nailed it. Nice job!” I’m still on cloud nine.
After the “host” songs, each evening ended with songs performed by the campers themselves. The jams went well into the wee hours. It was inspiring to see people, many who have never met before, play songs together for the first and only time, without rehearsal. Some performances were better than others, but that didn’t matter one bit. Everyone was enthusiastic and supportive.
Daytimes at the camp included private lessons and workshops with each of the hosts. Many would start on topic and then go astray into interesting, unscripted territory. I loved those moments, too.
A personal highlight of the camp was attending the full band rehearsal in preparation for the private show scheduled on the final night of camp. It’s amazing to watch such accomplished musicians struggle with the same issues even kids starting out in any band face: equipment malfunctions, tuning issues, missed cues, forgetting a part, etc. The difference is, once the pros identify the issue, they don’t have that issue again. I also had to keep in mind that while Tony, Pat and Markus tour together quite a bit, Adrian is off doing his own thing during the year. So, being together again was as new for them as it was for us campers.
On the final night, the hosts showed us what they do best in a two-hour performance in the barn from Tony, Adrian, Pat, Markus, Philadelphian Julie Slick on bass, and Johnny Luca, who actually graduated from early camper to full-on collaborator. The performance was simply jaw-dropping, featuring songs by King Crimson, The Adrian Belew Power Trio, and Stick Men (Tony, Pat and Markus’ side project). I feel lucky to have been able to witness it, let alone in such an intimate environment.
To cap it all off, after the show, all of the campers gathered around a campfire for a group singalong of Beatles songs, led by Adrian Belew (a monster Beatles fan). This experience was an unexpected highlight of the week. It was on this final night I learned this group of campers are really good at harmonizing, drinking and smoking, and living the rock and roll dream.
What’s the moral of this story? Don’t be afraid to go down YouTube rabbit holes. That, and step out of your comfort zone and try new things. This experience was something I won’t soon forget.
Who wants to join me for next year’s camp?