They Came from Cleveland: X_X Pays Homage to Albert Ayler
Punk rock and free jazz have always had, if not a kinship, then at least some shared core sensibilities — a sense of urgency, defiance, confrontational radicalism, a disregard for musical tradition, and a willingness to shock. So it makes a kind of sense that the noise-punk garage band X_X has recorded a sort of tribute to keening free jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler. The record, “Albert Ayler’s Ghosts,” came out in 2014. X_X (pronounced “Ex Blank Ex”) play The Garage in Winston-Salem on Sunday, Jan. 10. The band is experiencing something of a revival, having originally only existed for about half a year back in 1978, and now with a recent album and its first significant tour. I spoke with John D. Morton, the founder and leader of the group, along with his bandmate Craig Bell by phone from Ontario, Canada, where they were rehearsing for the string of shows.
Both Morton and Bell have significant Buckeye State proto-punk pedigrees. Before forming X_X in the ’70s, Morton led the Electric Eels, a provocative artpunk band from Cleveland. And Bell was a member of Rocket From The Tombs, whose members went on to play in Pere Ubu and the Dead Boys. Long before it became the home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an institution that these bands would have surely mocked and desecrated, Cleveland gave birth to a music scene that was raw and unabashedly arty, with some groups articulating the slashing and angular riffs of postpunk before punk even emerged.
Cleveland, with its industrial rust-belt city-in-decline vibe, presented a kind of post-apocalyptic backdrop, a semi-incinerated urban scene, with a flaming river.
“To us it was just normal,” says Bell.
“Cleveland was where we grew up, It was what we knew — the flats, the steel mills, the factories. When it comes to Cleveland, I always tell people it’s in the water. It’s Lake Eerie; there’s something in that water that made us all weird.”
As with American presidents, Ohio has produced a disproportionate number of indie/garage rock innovators, with groups and artists like Guided By Voices, Bill Fox and Devo all coming from the state.
Also from Ohio — from Cleveland, in fact — was Albert Ayler, the iconoclastic saxophonist, improviser and composer who inspired the most recent X_X recording. Ayler died in 1970 at the age of 34, but his music explored a kind of spiritual catharsis, like a second-line trance band. Morton says he’s been listening to Ayler’s music for decades, trying to make sense of it, to create music in the same mode — a mix of ecstatic, defiant and inscrutable. Burton says he recalls hearing a snippet of Ayler’s music on an influential ESP-Disk sampler that also included fellow radicals Sun Ra, the Fugs and William H. Burroughs, among many others.
“I remember listening to it and just not understanding it,” says Morton. “I couldn’t comprehend it. I knew it was funny. I knew that it was maybe dangerous. I didn’t know that he was from Cleveland. I didn’t know anything about it. The music was always in my head.”
The way the music came out of his head is peculiar. The X_X version of Ayler’s tune “Ghosts” is a shrill, lurching, lacerating blast of noise, one that doesn’t necessarily call to mind the strange funereal music of Ayler, but still retains the kind of groping searchlight quality of the original. The fact that Morton heard humor in Ayler’s work reveals something about how he envisioned his tribute to the saxophonist.
“I didn’t want to be influenced by rules,” says Morton. “For better or worse — that’s what I did. It makes perfect sense to me — it was audacious for a punk band to do free jazz.”
Morton’s aesthetic approach is one that embraces abrasiveness — his groups have played power tools on stage at times. He’s made explosive, twitchy, noisy, idiosyncratic music that sits nicely next to artists like the Red Crayola, Captain Beefheart, the MC5 and the Stooges.
“I’ve always been interested in agitation,” he says. “The tension is still there.”
Despite X_X’s general willingness to do away with pre-existing models, the music on the recent record is fairly allusive, quoting, if that’s the word, in one way or another, Simon and Garfunkel, Neil Young, the Rolling Stones, Dylan, Sun Ra and others.
Morton is 62, and, like some of his free jazz idols, he’s lived and made music at the fringes, facing health problems, dealing with run-ins with the law, the demise of a marriage, a home in foreclosure and other hardships. He’s been living, close to homeless recently, in upstate New York. The man has his priorities though: he may be borderline destitute, but he still has a really nice espresso machine. The tour brings X_X to many points in the South for the first time, and the renewed attention to the band make a significant difference in Morton’s mode of living.
“Hey, I’m not homeless if I’m on tour,” says Morton.
Morton demonstrates what you might call a punk-rock attitude in his commitment to a life in music. “My friends are dead or not doing it,” he says, by way of contrast.
His bandmate Bell, at 63, has a similarly in-it-for-the-long-haul perspective.
“I tried not to play music, but I couldn’t do it,” says Bell. “I tried to forget about the whole thing, but I couldn’t do it. It dragged me back in.”
The free-jazz avant-noise aesthetic of the 2016 iteration of X_X can be viewed as a semi mystical return to foundational principles.
“This has always been where we were coming from, even if in a lot of ways I didn’t know it,” says Bell.
For Morton, the Ayler-inspired record represents the natural arrival at a destination.
“I am absolutely proud of what we did,” says Morton, when asked to consider hypothetical objections to the abrasiveness of the work and its evocation of Ayler’s legacy. “I don’t care if you don’t like it. I don’t care if you think it’s wrong. I know it’s right. We’re following the dream, even though we don’t know what the dream is.” !
JOHN ADAMIAN lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
X_X play on a bill with Obnox and Cucumbers, Sunday, Jan. 10, 9 p.m., at The Garage, 110 West 7th St., Winston-Salem, 336-777-1127, the-garage.ws.