That Allan Holdsworth died this week in relative poverty and obscurity (at least considering his enormous artistic legacy) is a sad but completely predictable sign of the times.
I first encountered Holdsworth as an ambitious young guitar player. Even then, in what in retrospect was his heyday, he was the kind of musician described as “the best guitarist you never heard of.” I immediately loved not only his playing but his music. Even when listening very casually, one could tell that it was incredibly harmonically sophisticated, melodically engaging and amazingly well played. One thing that struck me almost immediately was the sheer beauty and lyricism of his music- qualities not often found in virtuoso electric guitar players. He struck me then as much more of a guitar Debussy than a guitar Shostakovich.
From early days of listening to his music for pleasure I gradually moved on to listening more and more analytically and critically, then, bit by bit, trying to understand what he was doing. Holdsworth may have been music’s greatest iceberg. What you see on first glance is beautiful, massive, impressive and even intimidating, but what lies beneath the surface is simply beyond belief.
I’ll make a confession of my youthful arrogance here. I grew up learning the cello and the guitar more or less in parallel. Compared to the cello, the guitar always came easily to me- on the surface it is a much more straightforward instrument to play, and having a certain amount of technical grounding as a cellist put me way ahead of a lot (by no means all!) of my peers (at least until I met my first real guitar super-virtuoso in person, a chap named David Biller. Dave was in a different league the rest of us back then). Trying to learn to play Holdsworth’s chords and solos quickly humbled the living shit out of me. Chord voicings he would flit through in a few tenths of a second I would have to spend ages trying to stretch and bend and contort my hand to reach. I felt like a complete beginner. Somewhere I have an old demo of my band playing Road Games on cassette- I’ll upload it if i can find it. We did a pretty good job, but Allan would have pretty bemused at how hard we had to work to play it. It’s probably one of his easiest tunes.
Later on, during my years at Indiana University, I went through a period of deep disillusionment with classical music. At that time, I often wished I could be a jazz musician. I was completely immersed then in the 60’s jazz of Miles Davis 2nd quintet, Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane and Herbie Hancock. Working with David Baker in the IU jazz department, I felt like I started to understand the music well and to form solid ideas about improvisation. However, as David Baker knew probably better than anyone, the cello is no instrument for jazz. And for all its pedigree as a jazz instrument, neither is the guitar. When one listens to the solos of people like Trane, Miles, Woody Shaw, Sonny Rollins and Joe Henderson, you realise they were all able to develop single-note improvisation with a kind of agility, ease and expressivity that not even the best guitarists could approach. Even the cream of the crop of 70’s and 80’s fusion guitarists working with Miles or Freddie Hubbard often ended up sounding like amateurs next to their horn-playing colleagues. In their defence, it wasn’t entirely their fault. Saxophones and trumpets are near-ideal instruments for jazz improvisation. The guitar is not. None of the guitar greats of the 60’s, 70’s or 80’s could approach the kind of expressive ingenuity and creative freedom of a John Coltrane.
None of them, that is, except Allan Holdsworth. Holdsworth seemed not to be bound by the same laws of physics that limited every other guitarist from Django Reinhardt to George Benson. For him, picking didn’t seem to exist. Changing strings didn’t seem to exist. Shifting positions didn’t seem to exist. The notes simply flowed out of the guitar as they might from a scat singer possessing Messiaen’s harmonic knowledge with a four octave range on speed. Harmonically, he was simply in a different league to any other jazz guitarist of his generation. He might well have been the first guitarist to really completely escape the blues-box cliché. His improvisatory language was distinctive- one always knew it was him, but largely because it was so easy to recognise the lack of repetition, the lack of pre-planned licks, the lack of fall-back BS. Holdsworth seemed to be happiest playing in the higher extensions of a chord- weaving patterns around the 9th, the sharp 11th and the 13th. The upshot of this approach was that when he did settle melodically on the root or the fifth of the chord, it sounded somehow new, even a bit exotic.
Holdsworth’s chordal approach was even more astounding and unique. I don’t think any guitarist ever understood the fingerboard as well as him, and he seemed to be able to move between chords with a kind of nonchalant ease that simply beggared belief. One could sense incredible logic and musical purpose over decisions about harmonic subtleties that would flit by in less than a beat. Though some of those voicings seemed to defy the mechanical working of the human hand, he made them all seem so natural, elegant and logical. In purely instrumental, technical terms, Holdsworth was as much better than any other guitarist I ever came across than any human in any field of endeavour I can think of. There are human achievements that are so far removed from what anyone else has done, we eventually accept that they’re by and large unapproachable. Shakespeare’s literary output and Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak are obvious examples. DiMaggio’s streak was about 20% longer than the next longest streak before or since. Imagine being 20% faster than the fastest person ever to run the 100 meter dash and you have some idea what a special player Holdsworth was.
Reactions to Holdsworth’s death this week have hammered home yet again that the musical world never really knew what to make of him. In many ways, he embodied the highest ideals of jazz at its best- pioneering, fearless, fiercely original. He also was a remarkably formidable rock musician- Road Games is one of the best rock albums ever made (Holdsworth apparently felt it was a failure). At the end of the day, his astonishing gifts as an instrumentalist were means to a musical end. Nobody else had the technical equipment to play the music Holdsworth heard so vividly in his head so he had to develop that technique to play the music he heard. I don’t think he would have liked the often-used description of him as the “guitarists’ guitartist.” I think he would have preferred “the musician’s guitarist.” Of course, rock and jazz critics are by and large united in their total disdain for music and musicianship. For critics on both sides, calling Holdsworth a “prog rocker” was an easy put down and a way to hide their own lack of perception and taste. Holdsworth was nearly the antithesis of the rock star- he didn’t seem to have a posing bone in his body. In an era in which “attitude” and lyrics were what mattered to critics and looks and showmanship were what mattered to the public, he was always going to struggle.
Holdsworth stuck to his guns, although he struggled financially throughout his life. Being a genius seemed to be a burden for him- over the years he seemed to find playing and composing more and more difficult. The last few clips I saw of him on social media seemed to hint that he was haunted by many demons and that life was not easy for him.
One would have hoped that the age of the internet would have been a boon for an independent musician like Holdsworth. Modern technology meant that an artist like him doesn’t need an expensive studio or access to a pressing plant or all the infrastructure of a label behind him to create and share music. It also means that music, once shared, has very little potential to generate earnings. However, what the Internet has really been a boon for is a generation of imitators and pretenders. Thanks to YouTube, it’s a whole lot easier than it used to be to learn to copy Allan’s stuff and to disseminate second-pressing Holdsworth-isms for a generation of fans who gave up waiting for the next Atavachron. These days music schools are churning out whiz-kid guitarists with the kind of faceless efficiency that would make MacDonalds look like a boutique outfit. Some of them, with enough practice, can probably play Allan’s music cleanly enough to not embarrass themselves. What they lack is the vision to create that music and the courage to promote a completely honest and uncompromising artistic vision as he did. One positive of the internet age is that, in the few bits and pieces of things I was able to pay attention to, Allan’s many fans seemed so grateful for all he had already given, so eager to support him over the last ten years. If any good comes of his death, it will surely be an appreciation that even the most gifted artists need our support and encouragement.