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Tony Levin, and King Crimson’s complex world

Tony Levin is honored at the Rochester Music Hall of Fame in 2018.
Jim Dolan
Tony Levin is honored at the Rochester Music Hall of Fame in 2018.
Tony Levin is honored at the Rochester Music Hall of Fame in 2018.
Credit Jim Dolan
Tony Levin is honored at the Rochester Music Hall of Fame in 2018.

The poet composes a daily haiku:

Miles fly like eighth notes

Legato arpeggios

A big state, Texas

The photographer selects his favorite photo:

Peter Gabriel invents crowd surfing.

The musician considers what happens after he’s been on the road for more than six weeks:

“Home life becomes a theoretical thing.”

The poet. The photographer. The musician. They are all one man: Tony Levin. 

He's an Eastman School of Music product, one of the most visible bassists in rock music and a member of the Rochester Music Hall of Fame. It’s loosely estimated that he’s played on 500 albums. He’s toured with the biggest names. Levin has been in the company of Gabriel, John Lennon, Pink Floyd, Paul Simon and James Taylor.

On Thursday at Constellation Brands-Marvin Sands Performing Arts Center, he’ll be among one of his more frequent musical partners, the prog-rockers King Crimson. Waxing poetically on those legato arpeggios.

“I’m guessing, I’m going out on a limb, but there’s probably not another road diary of a rock band on the road which has a haiku of the day,” Levin says. “Every show. So I feel glad about that. I don’t think anybody much cares, the King Crimson fans, that I’m putting up a haiku every day about the tour. But I’m doing it.”

The photographer shares his vision with you.

“Mostly I appreciated how I have this unique vantage point onstage,” he says. “I’ve been taking pictures onstage of Peter Gabriel floating in the audience and things like that for many years, and so even if only one out of 20 of my photos is decent and worth seeing, that still ends up being a lot of photos with, again, this unique vantage point. So I’m glad I was able to take advantage, and still am, of being a musician on stage who’s got a pretty good camera on hand, that I can just pick up and shoot pictures.”

Except King Crimson now decrees: No photography at the shows. Levin complies as well. Except just before the show starts.

And just as it ends.

“Instead of people clapping, you see a sea -- that’s S-E-A -- of cellphones held up, and the applause dies way down,” he says. “Because you can’t applaud with one hand.”

Besides bass, Levin plays what’s called the Chapman stick. It has both guitar and bass strings. And he created “funk fingers,” sawed-off drumsticks that he uses to tap on the strings of his instruments.

Despite such creativity, Levin claims he’s “not good at predicting the future of music or technology.” Yet he was using email in the early ’80s. “My screen name was ’49,’” he says. He launched his websitein 1993. Right at the top of his site is the proclamation, “Welcome to one of the web’s longest-running blogs.”

In those early days, Levin figured this new technology would be a good way to sell his solo CDs. Fans could send a letter to the address on his website. All Levin would have to do is tear open the envelope and cash the checks.

Except, “What I found is, when I occasionally mentioned what life is like on the road,” he says, “people were much more interested in that than buying my CD.”

But that’s old news.

“I don’t spend much time looking forward to the future, and even less time looking back.”

Unless he’s asked about the past during interviews…

“I think musicians are generally, we’re pretty good at focusing very hard on the moment…”

Unless the musicians are Styx or The Doobie Brothers, trapped in their past.

Levin’s job begins before noon, when an email from band founder and guitarist Robert Fripp arrives. It’s the set list for that night’s show. Levin looks at it and immediately senses how that night’s gig will go.

“There are some pieces that are very complex, and we know we will have to run through a couple of times at sound check,” he says. “And if there are many of these, or they’re back-to-back in the show, it’s more of a challenge and very interesting and, ‘OK it’ll be one of those shows.’ And we’re on the edge of our seats, virtually, to try and play it correctly, the very difficult material we have. Others kind of go more smoothly, and there’s not so much worry about mistakes.”

But one wrong note, and all hell breaks loose onstage. If you know what to look for.

Tony Levin, with drummer Steve Gadd and Paul Simon on vocals, at the Rochester Music Hall of Fame concert in 2018 in Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre.
Credit Jim Dolan
Tony Levin, with drummer Steve Gadd and Paul Simon on vocals, at the Rochester Music Hall of Fame concert in 2018 in Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre.

“I don’t want to spend an hour on it, but it’s so complex that if one guy makes a little bit of a mistake -- we’re not all playing in the same time signatures -- so the correction factor is not the same as with other bands. There’s no way someone else can go, ‘1, 2, 3, 4,’ and get back into it. We’re all thinking in different time signatures.

“And so this can get very, the train can go very far off the tracks. And one does not want that to happen in the show. And one does not want to be the one to cause that to happen in the show.”

If one of the band’s musicians makes what Levin calls “a considerable flub,” his best recourse is to turn and glare at who’s next to him. Like it was the other guy’s fault.

“I’m the bass player in the band,” Levin says. “The guy next to me is Mel Collins, playing flute, so I don’t know who I’m fooling if I make a bass mistake and glare at the flute player, who may not even have the instrument up to his lips. But I still do it, that’s a tradition in the band, and we enjoy it, when somebody makes a mistake and six other guys look at him. And he tries to pass it on to the next guy. I won’t say it happens a lot.

“But it certainly happens. A lot.”

King Crimson is serious about what’s happening onstage.

“I think it’s interesting that a band that’s playing by and large very serious music, in a serious context, our concert is kind of like a classical concert playing rock music,” Levin says. “We’re wearing suits and such, it’s an interesting thing that people might not realize that we’re having, in some sense, aside from the tension of the music, we’re having fun onstage. And we have fun on tour and there’s a lot of sense of humor for us, even within that music.”

So if the band is serious, maybe the band members don’t take themselves too seriously.

“It’s a big challenge always to be in the band,” Levin says. “It’s not always easy, it’s not even, always, comfortable. But it’s always creative, and I would describe the band as a band that challenges itself musically, constantly, and we each challenge ourselves individually as musicians. The way it sounds when I hear myself saying this is weird. I think that’s the way the band is, it’s a creative endeavor that keeps challenging us, and very much worth the ride.”

Levin used his pandemic downtime well, publishing a coffee-table sized collection of his tour photos, “Images From a Life on the Road.” This tour was booked eight months ago, when the band’s management figured it was safe to venture out into the pandemic. King Crimson has just completed the first leg of that tour. Through Florida and Texas. Two of the states that, unarguably, have been among the worst in dealing with the pandemic.

“These were the states that would allow, at that time, concerts to be booked,” Levin says. “Now it’s turning out that these are maybe the states you least want to be in, and who knew?”

King Crimson knows enough that the band and its road crew are fully vaccinated and ensconced in a figurative bubble, confined to the safety of their bus and hotel rooms, with no visitors allowed backstage.

We’re going backward. Levin thinks back to early June. When he was touring with his brother Pete in another Levin incarnation, a jazz band called The Levin Brothers.

“And at that time, the feeling in the audience was entirely different than now,” Levin says. “Because, if you can remember back to early June, we all felt like, ‘OK I can go to a concert now, and things are opening up, and this is the beginning of the return to the way it used to be.’

“So that unfortunately, in the last few weeks, has changed with the news of the spread of the virus. And I have no insight or wisdom to predict how it is going to be in the future. Will there be many tours, the way it used to be? Or will there be less tours? Will it be like this forever, with the doubt and a little bit of paranoia in every airport, about what’s going to happen, and looking at other people with distrust?

“It’s a sad thing that this has come upon us. And one would have thought that it wouldn’t influence our music and our playing and our experience of playing live concerts and sharing.

“But indeed it has.”

Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts & Life editor. He can be reached at jspevak@wxxi.org.

Copyright 2021 WXXI News

Jeff Spevak has been a Rochester arts reporter for nearly three decades, with seven first-place finishes in the Associated Press New York State Features Writing Awards while working for the Democrat and Chronicle. He has also been published in Musician and High Times magazines, contributed to WXXI, City newspaper and Post magazine, and occasionally performs spoken-word pieces around town. Some of his haikus written during the Rochester jazz festival were self-published in a book of sketches done by Scott Regan, the host of WRUR’s Open Tunings show. Spevak founded an award-winning barbecue team, The Smokin’ Dopes, and believes Bigfoot is real. His book on the life of a Lake Ontario sailor who survived the sinking of his ship during World War II will be published in April of 2019 by Lyons Press.