I was saddened to learn of the death of drummer, singer and songwriter Buddy Miles at the age of only 60.
Buddy Miles was a very, very good singer, and a songwriter who has contributed so true classics to the blues and funk standards, particularly “Them Changes,” which every blues rock band worth their salt knows. However, Buddy Miles earned his permanent place in music history not for his forty years as a versatile bandleader who’s talents ranged from 60’s psychedelia to singing lead for the California Raisins commercials.
No, Miles’ place in history was secured by his efforts on one night- the last night of the 1960’s when he stepped on to the stage of the Filmore in New York with bassist Billy Cox and Jimi Hendrix. The recording of that performance, later released as the album “A Band of Gypsys” will stand forever as the greatest live rock album ever made.
It was a great set all around, and Jimi generously gave Miles a chance to shine as a songwriter and singer. Hendrix had always wanted to play in a proper band rather than simply play the star turn, and the group was introduced simply as “A Band of Gypsies,” rather than “Jimi Hendrix and…” Hendrix was the most communicative and witty of rock singers, but he found singing hard work and loved having a singer with Buddy Miles’ range and flexibility in the band.
However, it is not even for the whole set that Miles is and always will be remembered, but for the band’s performance of a single song- Jimi Hendrix’s great anti-war epic “Machine Gun.” Never before or since has a popular musician captured so completely the spirit of the time, or the sheer terror and pointlessness of war. On top of this, Hendrix solo is quite simply the greatest instrumental performance in the history of amplified music. Virtuosic, evocative, terrifying, searing.
Miles was a talented guy, but his legacy is worth pondering in an age when the word “great” is so painfully overused, and music critics try to tell us that Mahler 2 is no more profound than “Love Me Do.”
The fact is, true greatness is rare, and something far beyond professionalism, talent, even genius. It is so rare that we begin to forget that is is real and unmistakeable, and that the great truly is better than the good, painful as that may be for some to accept. Buddy Miles will be remembered long after even better drummers and singers than he are forgotten because he was a part of the greatest 12 minutes in rock ‘n’ roll history, and though it was a genius who made that 12 minutes happen, Miles was good enough to make it possible for those twelve minutes to happen. He and Billy Cox were the ones who created the space in which Hendrix could take rock, funk, and blues music as far as it would be taken. For the millions of us lucky enough (as Simon Rattle often says) not be geniuses, there is a lesson in this.
YouTube is not really up to the job of delivering Machine Gun as it should be seen and heard (and none of the clips I found were complete… stupid YouTube), but the curious can find a clip of that show here. Actually, since pointless wars and meaningless killing are back in fashion big-time these days, go and listen to the damn song, then buy the album and listen loud.