Wednesday 16 October 2019

Unforgettable fire of Miles Davis burns

Miles Davis in 1969
Miles Davis in 1969
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

Bono once told me in an interview that Miles Davis listened to The Unforgettable Fire on his deathbed in September 1991. If, years down the line, the U2 singer wants to return the compliment, there are plenty of mind-soothingly beautiful albums for Bono to listen to in his last moments on Earth. Everything from 1959's still timeless Kind Of Blue, to 1960's Iberian magic Sketches Of Spain, to 1958's Relaxin' with the Miles Davis Quintet, to 1972's hip-hop-y On the Corner, to 1950's radical Birth Of Cool.

The latter gives its title to Stanley Nelson's new documentary "which unpacks the man behind the horn", and has a special showing at Movies at Dundrum Cinema on October 16 at 7.30pm.

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Miles's attitude influenced Brando, James Dean and Jackson Pollock; his music influenced Prince, Michael Jackson and Bono. In 1987 at an awards dinner at the Reagan White House, a politician's wife asked Miles about America and jazz.

"Jazz is ignored here because the white man likes to win everything," he replied, coldly. When she hissed back "What have you done that's so important in your life?" Miles answered factually, "I've changed music five or six times."

Musical innovator and jazz icon Miles was more rock 'n' roll than many rock stars put together. He was dubbed The Prince of Darkness.

"From 1975 to early 1980 I didn't pick up my horn," he once said. "Mostly during those four or five years... I just took a lot of cocaine" (about $500 worth a day at one point). He once threw himself out a first storey window in New York to knock himself unconscious because he had been high for days and was desperate to sleep.

He drove a red Ferrari worth $200,000 and was often stopped by the police who didn't believe a black man could have such a car without stealing it. His 1985 album was called You're Under Arrest as a flawed homage to racism. (His father Doc Davis once got a gun and went out on the street in East St Louis looking for a white man who had called young Miles a "n****r".) In his 1989 memoir, he wrote that he had sexual intercourse with "all the women I could get into my house. I was also addicted to pills, like Percodan and Seconal. Mostly I snorted coke, but sometimes I would inject coke and heroin into my leg; it's called a speedball and it was what killed John Belushi".

This was the young middle -class prodigy whose dentist father bought a trumpet for him at the age of 13; who was sent to the Juilliard in New York when he was 18 - only to end up dropping out in 1945 to mingle in Harlem and 52nd Street with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie et al. It wasn't that long before he was shooting heroin and became a smackhead in a zoot suit.

"Sugar Ray Robinson, the boxing champion, inspired me to kick my habit," he said. "I went home, man, and sat up for two weeks and sweated it out. I laid down and stared at the ceiling for 12 days and cursed everybody I didn't like. Then it was over."

Like Miles on his deathbed listening to The Unforgettable Fire. Or Bono on his listening to Kind of Blue.

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