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Off the Beaten Tracks – Prime Ribot

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IN a recent column about Tom Waits, I mentioned the crucial role that guitarist Marc Ribot played in the creation of the classic 1985 album Rain Dogs. It was Marc’s first major session and among the instructions Tom gave him was: ‘Play it like a midget’s bar mitzvah’, whatever that meant. Ribot’s percussive, discordant, brilliant playing takes Waits’s music into new territory and ever since, in genres from rock to jazz to world to classical, he has been expanding the boundaries of guitar on countless albums under his own name as well as by many other artists including Wilson Pickett, Elvis Costello, Sam Phillips, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss and Elton John.

A hospital doctor’s son, Marc Ribot was born in Newark, New Jersey on May 21, 1954. As a boy he was given music lessons by a family friend, Frantz Casseus, who is known as the father of Haitian classical guitar. Young Marc would have preferred to play rock and roll but listened dutifully to Casseus and his record collection, which included several by the jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt.

‘Frantz realised very early on that I wasn’t serious about classical music and didn’t make much of an effort to teach me any kind of technique, which was very wise,’ Ribot told the website musicradar.com. Moving on to electric guitar, he soon developed a sound of his own. ‘I sound different for a number of reasons, many of which are accidental,’ he said. ‘I’m left-handed but I play right-handed, so I couldn’t play nearly as fast as anyone else, which meant I had to develop a certain amount of economy and therefore I gravitated towards players that had a lot of economy, like Chuck Berry. Blues players like BB King – master of economy. People who get a lot out of a few notes, y’know? And later on to guitarists like Hubert Sumlin. And Keith Richards – a very economical player.

‘I’m also a big believer in being literate. If you’re gonna call yourself a rock guitarist, you really should have spent some time memorising some of Chuck Berry’s solos, and it wouldn’t hurt to have learned some Ike Turner solos. In other words, be aware of the instrument that you’re playing.’

By the late 1970s Ribot was part of the New York improvisational jazz and rock scene while also backing R & B stars including Brother Jack McDuff, Wilson Pickett and, to his great joy, Chuck Berry. After joining a comedy jazz group, John Lurie’s Lounge Lizards, he was hired for the Rain Dogs sessions.

‘That whole period I remember as being super-creative,’ he said. ‘One of the most interesting directions was when I started to play in the style that I had used previously and Waits said, “The minute that people know what something is they stop listening.” In other words, play what the song needs.

‘The way he works is he calls people who are capable of getting an understanding of his project – what he’s trying to do on each different tune. Open-mindedness is important and also a willingness to make the lyric be first. Not “man, I gotta do a bitchin’ solo”, you know what I mean? Because sometimes it calls for a moronic solo!’

Ribot worked with Waits on his subsequent albums Frank’s Wild Years and Big Time before in 1990 making a record of his own under the title Rootless Cosmopolitans. This is an interesting if erratic collection including two original cuts which call to mind his Rain Dogs contributions, The Cocktail Party and Beak Lunch Manifesto. There are idiosyncratic covers of Hendrix’s The Wind Cries Mary and Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps plus a chaotic track with the neat title Nature Abhors a Vacuum Cleaner

In 1992 came Requiem for What’s His Name. This is far more of a jazz album with much noodling based on the Balkan music Ribot was listening to at the time. He has admitted that the record, on the Belgian label Les Disques du Crepuscule, is ‘almost impossible to get hold of’ – in my view, justifiably so. The only track I can be bothered with is a version of the Duke Ellington tune Caravan. 

In 1993 Ribot paid his dues to his old classical guitar teacher with Solo Works of Frantz Casseus. A few fairly wonky efforts followed but in 1998 came the superb Marc Ribot and the Prosthetic Cubans, mainly featuring the music of the Havana composer and bandleader Arsenio Rodriguez. I bought this after reading an interview in which Ry Cooder said it was his favourite album. By far Ribot’s most accessible record to date, it begins with the delicate Aurora en Pekin, one of only two tracks not written by Arsenio. Next comes the jazzy Aqui Como Alla, then the temperature rises a little for Como Se Goza en el Barrio. 

Ribot’s own composition Postizo is more frantic and then we have the lovely, hypnotic No Me Llores Mas

A particular favourite of mine is the penultimate song, Esclavo Triste. Throughout the playing is outstanding and the musicians are clearly having a blast. As Guitar magazine’s reviewer put it, ‘at every turn, Ribot dazzles with both his urbanity and his radical streak, creating a wonder of otherworldly Cuban soul’. Marc himself told the website All About Jazz: ‘Basically, we have fun. We play. We jam. We like to make people dance whenever possible. In fact, if I could make people dance every night, I wouldn’t care if I ever played to a sit-down jazz audience again for the rest of my life. I’d happily prefer to play gay discos.’

Two years later came another from the Prosthetics, Muy Divertido, which almost but not quite matches its predecessor. Recommended tracks include Dame Un Cachito Pa’ Huele, the Ribot original El Gaucho Rojo and the Rodriguez song Il Divorcio. Here is a live version from a decade later.

The solo guitar album Saints (2001) features mainly cover versions including the Beatles’ Happiness is a Warm Gun. 

One of Ribot’s side projects is the rock band Ceramic Dog. Here is the ten-minute track Digital Handshake, from their 2008 debut album Party Intellectuals, and here is over an hour of their performance at a French jazz festival. He also performs with the avant-garde group Secret Chiefs3 and The Young Philadelphians, who play cover versions of 1970s soul songs.

In 2010 came the solo album Silent Movies, a haunting collection of songs written for film, including this piece which accompanied a reissue of Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid. In his sleeve notes Ribot writes: ‘I was surprised at how the silent film which, when I saw it as a teenager, seemed walled off in a past so safely distant as to be automatically funny, seemed 40 years later to be absolutely contemporary. The Chaplin character’s poverty-stricken attempts to create a family life with his abandoned “kid” strike me now as more sad than funny, not distant at all.’

There is an excellent documentary film about Ribot which you can see here and which contains lots of good live footage. He is such a prolific artist that I have barely scratched the surface of his career and I hope some of you might wish to investigate further. When he hits the spot, as on The Prosthetic Cubans, that spot stays firmly hit.

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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