"In my 20s, people were afraid to talk to me because of my attitude," says Stinson. "I've done a lot of work at the Santa Monica Zen Center about this autopilot thing that people go to sometimes -- the survival mechanism that will show up when you're insecure or tired or whatever. Mine was labeled The Thug. And the funny thing is that because of Zen training, nobody sees me that way."
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Glen Moore of the group Oregon gave Stinson Alan Watts' book The Way of Zen a couple of decades ago, "And that was it. I started meditating on my own, and then I found a Zen temple in Chicago. I threw myself into it. There was no therapy going on. I was just sitting there in front of a wall, looking at it, and letting it go. My personality changed incredibly."
"Form is emptiness, emptiness is form." The chant resonates with the Zen side of Stinson you'll find on much of Vapor -- the part where sensual, electronically manipulated sounds float around like lights behind closed eyes. But The Thug pops up sometimes, too: crashes of guitar noise, shrieking layers of feedback.
How these two guys became one musician makes a pretty unlikely story. Born in Oklahoma, as a youth Stinson got dragged from town to town behind his father, a railroad man. New-Kid Syndrome made him tough, and like a lot of outsiders he clutched at music, beginning to bang on a guitar and write songs around age 13. His first hero was Bo Diddley, whose aggro rhythms and freaky guitar sounds synced with Stinson's emotions and kicked him to the next stage.
Stinson settled in Chicago, where he rode the late-'60s blues revival and mingled with such veteran local rootsmen as Cash McCall, Willie Dixon, Hound Dog Taylor and Hubert Sumlin. At the same time, the longhaired, leather-jacketed, combat-booted communist and worshipper of Che Guevara was struck by the way Led Zeppelin and Jeff Beck sometimes used the blues as a launching pad into ã spheres of pure noise. Then he got a load of Miles Davis' Bitches Brew, and the experimental electric Davis records that followed in the early '70s.
"I was suddenly aware of a whole other realm of possibilities. I liked all the stuff that most Miles fans hated, and instantly tried to bring some of that into what I was doing." The live experience of John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra pulled him all the way over. "I was in hot pursuit. I started writing, creating whatever I could, not having any musical-theoretical background, just sort of stumbling into it."
In 1974, Stinson formed Shadowfax, which began as an improvisational fusion band, but gradually lowered its energy and increased its bank balance as a New Age unit. Boredom set in, and Stinson moved to L.A. in 1983, where ex-Chicago hand-drummer Adam Rudolph eventually introduced him to guitar reinventor Nels Cline. Stinson left Shadowfax for the last time in 1990 -- he'd become involved with the new-music cadre that surrounded Richard Grossman, a Zen master of the piano if ever there was one.
In 1993, Cline began booking New Music Mondays at the Alligator Lounge (a task Stinson would shoulder in 1997), often including ad hoc Stinson assemblages like the Metalworkers, or regular lineups that featured Stinson such as Unique Cheerful Events -- not that you'd necessarily know who was in many of the groups, since G.E. changed band names like socks.
"I like the idea of having a band name," says Stinson, then thinks about the consequences of obscuring his own name. "Maybe that's almost self-destructive, careerwise." In a way, by changing handles Stinson was sloughing off the kind of restrictive image he'd been stuck with in Shadowfax. "No form, no identity. You can't pin us down -- we don't exist!"
Though it's only Vapor, Stinson's new CD is solid evidence of his corporeality, collecting seven improvisations recorded over the last couple of years with various lineups. Chief among the collaborators is bassist Steuart Liebig, who brings to every track a hungry funk sensibility and a readiness to dive headlong into electronically altered swamps. Vapor leads off with the hot splatter of the Napalm Quartet (featuring guitarist Andrew Von Ah and drummer Brian Christopherson) and Stinkbug (with Nels Cline and drummer Scott Amendola, who, as described by Stinson, "grooves like a giant dog"). And there's the broken-crystal-on-felt clockwork tinkle of Bone Structure (with Jeff Gauthier on violin and Gregg Bendian on piano). Perhaps most memorable are a couple of tracks by Splinter Group, wherein DJ Chowderhead lays down hydraulic-pump rhythms and déjà vu loops while Kaoru sings snatches of regret, drifting in and out of radio range.
Throughout, Stinson applies hands, feet and head to old electrogear, or new trickboxes, or suffering wah-wah pedals, his guitar alternately arguing sound's meat physicality and its evanescence. Most listeners will want to approach this unexpected music one cut at a time, playing it loud and waiting till the overtones fade from the pancreas before proceeding to the next. After a while, it will be possible to take longer excursions, listening for the way the shocks overlap and blur into flat-line concentration.
AT THE SANTA MONICA ZEN CENTER, STINson strikes a wooden slab with a mallet in accelerating rhythm and diminishing intensity -- it sounds like a Ping-Pong ball dropped on a hard floor. This is the call to Zazen, "sitting" Zen, and Stinson wears the robe that signifies his ceremonial function. At various times, for other purposes, he also hits some gongs, a big bell made by a monk from a metal oxygen tank, and a couple of bowls, one of which, when struck, emits a ringing sound that seems to swirl around the interior of your cranium.
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A dozen or so participants bow and enter the big room. They sit erect on cushions, facing the wall, eyes cast downward, and for half an hour think about nothing but their breath. In. Out. They get up and walk around the periphery, first ultraslow, then fast. They sit for another half-hour. They chant briefly. A few have gone one at a time to another room, where center
sensei Bill Jordan questions them on the meaning of koans. Now and then, you hear a helpless laugh coming from in there.
"Sometimes Bill will say, 'Lay it all out,'" says Stinson. "And I'll say, 'Wow -- that's just like new music.'" And as with new music, laying it all out, for musician and listener, demands an adjustment, one not everyone is prepared to make. For Stinson, it's another koan, like the sound of one hand clapping. "How do you get people involved in being challenged by life? It's easier to be comfortable."
Vapor can be purchased at larger or more discriminating record stores, or ordered from the Ecstatic Peace link at www.smellslikerecords.com.