First of all, don’t get nervous. This is NOT a posthumous tribute. Alive and well, Adrian Belew is regarded as one of the foremost innovative guitarists, singers, songwriters and sidemen in the history of rock. Mostly influenced by Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles, he slowly carved his way into the music world. Born in Covington, Kentucky in 1949, Robert Steven Belew changed his name at age 21 to Adrian, one he had always liked. I was born Alan Peter Kuperschmidt and my Dad changed our last name to Kooper the year after I was born. I discarded the Peter in junior high school. That is where my resemblance to Adrian Belew ends.
In 1970, Frank Zappa discovered Adrian in a club called Fanny’s in Nashville, and scooped him into his backup band. While touring with Zappa, Adrian met David Bowie, who was so knocked out with him he grabbed Belew after Zappa’s tour ended and took him into his backup band. Adrian graced Bowie’s albums Stage and Lodger. That would have been enough for most people. While touring with Bowie, he dazzled Talking Heads and played on their albums Remain In Light and The Name of This Band Is By 1981, Adrian was asked by Robert Fripp to join the newly reformed King Crimson.
His solo career began in 1982 with his debut album The Lone Rhino. In 1982 his second album Twang Bar King was released to sparkling reviews. He also performed on recordings by Laurie Anderson and Paul Simon. Okay...that’s enough. All during this time, I became a big fan. When we both moved to Nashville around the same time, we got to spend more time together. I would now like to present my fifteen favorite tracks featuring Adrian, as well as a live cover of his song “Heartbeat” that I recorded in 1994 at my 50th birthday show.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Tracks 6, 7 and 8 have their own individual players in-line with the text. Don't miss them!
1. “Figure It Out” — The Bears (2:41)
This was a band Adrian was in prior to his early successes. They re-formed and put two albums out. This is from the second one and shows some of Adrian’s ‘60s roots.
2. “The Lone Rhinoceros” — Adrian Belew (2:32)
This is the title song from his debut album in 1982. The lyric was the first of many that chided mankind for its behavior toward animals throughout time.
3. “I Wonder” — Adrian Belew (2:52)
This is a big fave in MY house. A great song, arrangement, and production all wrapped together in under three minutes. I should also point out the totally tasty guitar parts. Too bad Leo Fender never got to hear this.
4. “Postcard From Holland” — Adrian Belew (1:24)
I think there are a total of three Adrian “postcard” songs. This is my favorite one because he got everything covered in less than a minute and a half. It’s always refreshing when a lyricist has and exercises a vibrant sense of humor.
5. “Another Time, Another Place” — Adrian Belew (2:44)
This one has some Beatle-esque touches and always makes me wonder what George Martin and Adrian could have created together all those years ago.
6. “Frame By Frame” — King Crimson (3:03)
On paper, the combo of Robert Fripp and Adrian armed with uber-brains and guitars was an excellent idea. But this shows how even beyond that it was in fruition. This puts the prog in progressive rock. Kind of an unbridled masterpiece to enjoy if you’re a progger; and perhaps even if you’re not. Both guitars do be blazin’!
7. “Matte Kudasai” — King Crimson (2:52)
This is the second of three fruitful results of Adrian’s stay in King Crimson, a rare ballad dripping with Adrian’s touches and less Fripp than usual. Robert probably took the advice of the song’s title, which means “please wait” in Japanese. Over the years Adrian has toured frequently in Japan and musically that influence is apparent in many aspects here.
8. “I’m a Dinosaur” — King Crimson (3:58)
Perhaps the most Lennon-like of all Adrian tracks compositionally and vocally from the second chorus on. I could EASILY have heard John sing this or maybe thought that he had written it. This is in my top five Adrian creations. Originally, there was an acoustic version on one of his solo albums prior to this recording. This is Killer Crimson.
9. “May 1, 1990” — Adrian Belew (3:01)
I remember seeing this live and being amazed that he played the piano part on a guitar synth. Adrian’s first marriage happened early in his career and lasted a while, including a few offspring. This song and the previous “I Wonder” (and probably still others) tell the story of that marriage’s eventual dissolution. I put this also in Beatle-land, especially the chorus. This is another self-contained Belew masterwork with all instruments played on guitars and guitar synths. But step back and this is initially a great piece of songwriting.
10. “Men in Helicopters” — Adrian Belew (3:16)
Another John Lennon-influenced jaunt wherein Adrian scolds the human race for its wholesale killing of animals for profit. “Why do we always assume the planet is ours to ruin?” The lyric could stand on its own; the music once again Beatle-esque. Great melody and vocal performance. John is smiling down on Adrian.
11. “The War in the Gulf Between Us” — Adrian Belew (3:06)
A very clever play-on-words song title. This is yet another composition about the failure of his first marriage. I have been married unsuccessfully three times and correctly once — for the last twenty years. I hardly wrote about the failures compared to Adrian. But I wrote about how great I thought the first three were way too early in the relationship. I hope some of you fledglings out there can learn a lesson from Adrian lyrically about self-control from some of these songs. As they say in Japanese, matte kudasai.
12. “The Ideal Woman” — Adrian Belew (3:06)
Who knows how long Belew spent walking the streets interviewing passersby to achieve this? The editing is masterful and the guitar synthing more uninhibited than usual. A tasty, humorous adventure.
13. “Heartbeat” — Adrian Belew (3:27)
This is my favorite Belew composition and there are quite a few renditions available (one with King Crimson as well). But this solo album version is the one I usually concentrate on. Following it is a cover I did on my solo live album from 1994 recorded at my 50th birthday show at the now defunked Bottom Line in New York City. If you had to hear one song to get you into the Adrian thang, this should be the one. I hear various Hendrixian subtle tributes in there as well the intro, for example.
14. “Heartbeat” (Live) — Al Kooper (5:01)
I couldn’t have done this without the sidemen I had at the time or the actual song itself. I had an arrangement idea in my head and didn’t want to try and compete with Mr. Guitar. If your speakers/headphones are plugged in correctly or worn properly, I am playing rhythm guitar on the left side with Jimmy Vivino over on the right side being the balanced, comparative Mister Louder. Harvey Brooks is on bass and Anton Fig on drums. John Simon on piano. The Uptown Horns join the melee featuring the star of the track Crispin Cioe (pronounced See-Oh) playing a few improvised dazzling soprano sax solos. I sheepishly admit to overdubbing an organ part later. Catherine Russell and Sheryl Marshall were on board for live backup vocals and I hope Adrian enjoyed the results. We have never discussed it.
15. “Six-String” — Adrian Belew (2:52)
A clever, passionate, and humorous love song to a nameless guitar and nobody better to compose, sing, and play it.
16. “I Am What I Am” — Adrian Belew feat. Prophet Omega (3:03)
Here is the story behind this one.
One of the reasons I moved to Nashville back in 1989 was to exile myself from the music business for awhile. Not being that much of a fan of modern country music, I felt I could live there and NOT work — a vacation as it were. My friend Sam Bush, the brilliant mandolinist, let me stay at his place until I got on my feet. I found a house I liked and moved in pretty quickly. While I was staying at Sam’s, he played me a tape of this local radio preacher named Prophet Omega. It was quite humorous. In those days, every Christmas I would compile an LP’s worth of inside music biz comedy and send it out for Christmas. It was called “The Kapusta Kristmas Album.” So in 1989 one of the stars on that album was the Prophet Omega. I would press up 300 LPs and send them out to my closest and furthest friends. So when Adrian got a hold of it (and he might have had a copy before he got my version), he recorded background music with a very Jimi Hendrix thang goin’ on and accompanied The Prophet on a track on his latest album back then. And that’s what this is. And it seems like a great closing track for this tribute, because we all are what we are and with the inspiration of Jimi and The Prophet, Adrian whips out a great version of “I Am What I Am.” I sure hope you have enjoyed this sashay out of the normal column and I hope I opened some eyes and ears to the genius of Adrian Belew. See ya next week with the usual unusual music.
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