This is a meditation on two songs by the band King Crimson – Exiles and Starless, both dating from circa 1973-4. As a performing unit, KC has migrated through a dozen or so iterations, each with different personnel and musical style. While opinions differ as to their respective merits, from my perspective, each is wonderful, unique and beautiful in its own way. The consistent presence in all of them has been the astonishingly brilliant guitarist/synthesist, Robert Fripp.
By my count, Exiles and Starless come from the fourth version of the band. These lines of demarcation, if you will, make it easy for me to associate each of the different ensembles with specific times in my own life. And, for various reasons, 1973-4 was one of chaos and turmoil. Due to this binding effect, I have to be careful when listening to old KC songs, because I will instantly be transported back in time with a level of clarity and detail that can be difficult to cope with. Often it leaves me in tears, not of sadness, but more a feeling of wistfulness, a vague melancholy, the residue of memories of events long past.
This was before the age of video, so only a few performances by the band, typically from TV shows, are available. There are, however, a large number of sound recordings, of varying quality, many of which now are on YouTube. Some time ago, Fripp established a company, Discipline Global Mobile, to cull through and release them.
One of the dubious advantages of having cycled through so many band members is that most of them went on to have their own careers as musicians, sometimes reforming in various aggregations. One that comes to mind is the 21st Century Schizoid Band, a play on words of a song from the first KC album. It mainly specializes in third version KC. DGM has become a kind of clearing house for most of the sound recordings issued by these sub-units.
One has to approach spin-offs with an attitude of caution. For example, in principle, there’s no reason why solo records by band members shouldn’t be interesting. Often, however, this falters. For example, I am a huge fan of the band The Church. I assiduously went through their various solo records, but didn’t get much out of them; they lacked the power and force of the original group. Their recent reunion, however, is amazing. For some reason, this is different with KC. Often times the reformations actually sound much better than the originals. I’m not quite sure why this is; I think it has something to do with members getting wiser, more mature, more graceful, recognizing this is their heritage, and sinking deeper into the music. They also are precipitative of conflict resolution and resolving old feuds. For example, Mr. Fripp appears on many of these recordings, seemingly reconciling (at least musically) with band members from decades ago.
Which brings us to Exiles and Starless. For some time the violinist David Cross has been playing these two songs in the eponymously named David Cross Band. I think it fair to say these are two songs with which he is uniquely associated, due to the prominence of his part in the originals. Several different versions of Exile and Starless, again of varying quality, are available on YouTube and through DGM. They are, however, consistently remarkable. Cross has improved considerably as an instrumentalist. He also has reconceptualized each song from the inside out, essentially using it as a platform for further improvisation and exploration. What particularly resonates for me is how well he has captured the imaginative value and essential pathos underlying them. I put it to you plainly; what other medium could possibly result in this form of teleportation to another place, another time?
I end this reverie by quoting briefly from another song of the same period, which is “Night Watch,” after the Rembrandt painting – surely, one of the greatest from this transient era of the planet earth known as Western culture. Quoting one of the anonymous members of the troupe, or perhaps a narrator, who says:
“So many years we’ve suffered here, Our country wracked by Spanish wars; Now comes a chance to find ourselves, And quiet reigns behind our doors. We think about posterity again.”
I feel that at many times during my life, I either have been at war, or on a heavily defensive footing. Now those days seemingly are past, I am looking forward confidently into the future. I am sure it will not be trouble-free, but I sense a change in the sea winds, it bodes well for a safe journey throughout the cosmos to the next planet of my destination.