Tony Levin in In the Court of the Crimson King (2022)
The legendary musician joined Metrograph to discuss Toby Amies’s new documentary about the legendary British band, In The Court of The Crimson King.
STEVE SMITH: We’d be here all night if I took the time to tell you all the things Tony Levin has done. Most of you already know them anyway. I will say just one thing about myself, and I mentioned this to Tony earlier, but this morning as I was getting my eight-year-old daughter ready for school, we were listening to a November 1981 tape of King Crimson playing in Houston. It was one of those grody bootleg cassettes that got turned into a spiffy download from DGM Live. So here’s my daughter grooving to “Discipline” first thing in the morning. I said, “You know what? The reason this is so special to me is that I’m in that audience, and I’m 15 years old, and I’m freaking out.” Now tonight I’m feeling a bit of the same, because Tony is here. And within a year, 1981, I saw Tony play with King Crimson, with Peter Gabriel on the Security tour—though I actually first saw him onscreen in One-Trick Pony (1980), the Paul Simon film. The short list of people he’s played with would include John Lennon, Lou Reed, Alice Cooper, and so many others, and we all know him as having been in King Crimson for fully 40 years.
So, Tony, thank you for taking the time to do this. Speaking of time, that’s really where I want to start because, present company excepted, King Crimson has become known to us as one of the more camera-averse bands out on the road, in terms of the rules of engagement and not being photographed during the act of music making, etc. How was it brought to the members of the band that Robert Fripp and David Singleton had decided now was the time to make a film, and that you were going to have an embedded camera pretty much all the time?
TONY LEVIN: Wow. Well, first, let me thank everybody for staying. And for me, I’ve been enjoying my third time seeing the film. Still picking up more from it. On your specific question, I think it was presented to us, “Hey, we’re going to do a documentary.” Toby [Amies, the director] is a really cool guy, and he was welcomed by all of us to join us on tour. The surprise was he stayed on tour with us a long time. The point came where he wasn’t so welcome anymore. All of those times backstage asking questions, vastly more than what got used. Did it affect our performance? Not really... But yeah, it was months and months. And then the next year there he was again. A part of us all, I think it’s more obvious it was Robert, was like, “Don’t we have enough yet?” For a good documentary filmmaker, of course, you never have enough. He stayed as long as he could.
SS: Right, exactly. And there’s bonus footage in the deluxe box set, which I have not had a chance to look at. Was this entirely the 2018 and 2019 tours?
TL: Don’t know. You’re going to find a lot of things I don’t know!
SS: No, no, no, no, no.
TL: In case people in the US didn’t realize it, near the end it is all about the Royal Albert Hall performance. It led up to that performance, which was quite special to us.
SS: That’s right. There were also a number of other really remarkable shows on that tour, including the Pompeii one, which we saw fans were flying in for from Seattle.
TL: Right. Pretty special.
As you all know now, it’s one weird ass band
SS: You’ve spoken about the amount of time Toby was embedded, but how many hours a day was he literally following you around? Did it extend beyond your rehearsal and playing time? Was he trailing you?
TL: Well that’s all there is when we’re on the road… At 1:30 or at 2:30, you can go over to the venue. And you get there and there’s Toby. And we’re there until 11:00, 11:30pm at night, after the show, and there’s Toby. He was there the whole day with us.
SS: The bus where he catches Robert sleeping was pretty revealing.
TL: There’s a lot that’s extraordinary in that film. Having seen it a few times, I’m learning more about what’s in there. It’s pretty amazing.
SS: Yeah, I agree. This was my third time. And I have to say, the first couple of times I saw the scene where Robert is remembering his meeting with J.G. Bennett, and there’s that extraordinarily long silence, that silence like nothing I’ve seen in practically any film before—this was the first time I could actually see the tears rolling down his face.
TL: Me too.
SS: It’s also remarkable how much candor is in the film. You really get a sense of Adrian [Belew] and Trey [Gunn], more than I would have imagined, having calluses and pain, still feeling a lot of resentment towards aspects of their experience. Now, we exchanged an email earlier, and this leads me to the question I’ve been wanting to ask since: you said watching Toby’s film made you feel differently about this band that has been a part of your life, and that you’ve been a part of, on and off, for 40 years. How is that?
TL: Well, as you all know now, it’s one weird ass band. You knew that. I sort of knew it. I think you would all agree, the degree of honesty and just putting it right out front of some of the guys who were interviewed, it was extraordinary. For me personally, it made me wonder why, there I was for 40 years, not thinking about that stuff. It’s not that I’m not an intellectual guy. I can be intellectual, but I spent some time thinking, “Why didn’t I have anything to say or to think even about the overall picture of King Crimson?” All those years doing it and I don’t have a complete explanation. But it’s been an interesting experience for me seeing the correct wisdom of the other guys. These guys really got into it, especially the dark side of the band, which exists. I think part of the reason for me is I am really deeply a bass player. It’s deeply embedded. That’s what I am, and that’s what I do. And the bass player in me doesn’t want to know about any of that stuff and doesn’t need to. Maybe that sense comes across in the band, maybe not. But I’m realizing now for the first time that I have my head down in a figurative way, and my intellectual side turned off, and I’m just taken up, 100% of my being, with trying to play the bass the right way. Not because I have to, not to please Robert or anything like that, just because that’s what I do and what I am. So what an interesting awakening for me, especially Bill Bruford’s description of how humorous—and it was always humorous, we always laughed a lot in the band—but also how difficult, and painful in ways it was. I kind of cruised through about 40 years without even realizing. That’s extraordinary to me.
SS: When you mentioned that you had learned a lot from hearing the things Robert had to say and the things Bill had to say, I wondered, because the other extraordinary thing about this film is how deeply, how far in Bill Rieflin invites Toby into his life, something that is clear from the home scenes and the extended candid conversations... There’s no easy way to say this, but was Bill talking in those ways to all of you about what he was going through, or was this saved for the film?
TL: Well, it’s a large band. So each relationship between any two people in it is between the two of them, I don’t know about those. I know that was very poignant for me. And I shed tears the first time I saw that. Bill and I were very good friends. So I’ve been seeing it in the movies, the conversations that I kind of wish I did have with him, because I would give him a chance to share the amazing things about himself, and because I would emotionally learn and grow from doing that... I wish I had had it in me to face that. “Hey, Bill, we all know you’re dying here on the road. Tell me about that.” I just never had that conversation. I had a lot of conversations with him. Bizarre meals. Most nights we weren’t playing I went out to eat with Bill. It was... I don’t know how to describe it, it was fun. But Bill was so passionate about food and where we would go, it was kind of insane, but in a funny way to me. The meal became the Bill adventure, I never tired of it. You know, I could be here all night telling stories of Bill.
SS: My wife watched this film with me—and she is not characteristically one of we Crimsoes; she is glad that I am here, among my people, having a good time tonight. Her response was that she thought it was a remarkable film, but she also thought it is an atypical documentary. There’s no linear chronology to it; it has a lot of different things to say. I wonder what you feel about that? I mean, clearly, you’ve seen your share of films over the years and a number of music documentaries. And reading through the booklet that comes with the box set this morning, I noticed David Singleton said specifically, “We wanted to make a film that was not that documentary we’ve already seen over and over 100 times.”
TL: I agree with that. And, like I’ll bet every person in this room, I feel it was unusual. I didn’t know that was the plan. It’s very like King Crimson, which is not playing normal rock band stuff, in that they come from a different place. When I first saw it, I was in a hotel in Miami for a couple of days on my own; I said, “Take a deep breath, and I’ll watch this film, and I hope I don’t squirm when I see myself.” That’s the fear when you’re going to be in a movie. And when the two minutes of Robert just facing the camera came, after maybe 15 seconds I thought the wifi had frozen. I went offline, and I loaded, waited, downloaded it again, and got to the same place. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I almost still can’t.
Robert Fripp in In the Court of the Crimson King (2022)
SS: We were watching and my wife said, “The DVD is stuck.”
TL: I’m not a film expert but it’s an extraordinary little piece of filmmaking, that alone.
SS: Okay, so this is not about the film, it’s more about your experience—but the final version of the band that you were in, Robert said many, many times, “This is the first one where someone has not disliked or resented me.” Being in that final band, did it feel a lot different to the previous versions you’d been in?
TL: It did feel a lot different, but they all felt different. And it didn’t feel better, it just was different—and as all of you can tell about me by now, I’ve got my head down and I’m playing the bass. And I was extraordinarily challenged as a musician in all of them. I joined in 1981 with—you know, you saw this stuff. I was the stick player and we were writing all the music. And then in the ’90s, the double trio, quote unquote, that had Trey playing Chapman Stick and me playing Chapman Stick was an additional challenge for the two of us. A nice challenge. If I could just back that up a little, Robert gets these ideas—“Yeah, Tony, I like the way you’re playing bass. How about another bass player in the band?” It’s a testament to my respect to him that only with him, maybe a few other musicians, I take a deep breath and I’ll think, “That doesn’t seem right to me, that’s going to be really difficult, but okay. And I don’t know this guy Trey Gunn, by the way. Robert knows him, he thinks he’ll be right. Okay, deep breath. Going to make it work.” And that’s kind of a theme in King Crimson, because then in this incarnation, “Hey, Tony, I think there should be three drummers.”
SS: In front.
TL: In front came later. But yeah, my first thought was but that’s really going to make it difficult for me, musically. I can’t imagine any space being left. I’m going to have to change my sound, and thin it out and stuff, some of which I did. Part of the equation is he didn’t just have three drummers, and he didn’t have three drummers pounding the same thing. He picked the three drummers and indeed let me... I think it’s rarely pointed out what an expert band leader Robert has been, that he gets this vision of what it’s going to be musically. I don’t know what that is, and I don’t know where in his persona that lies, but he then gets the players to enable that… He doesn’t say anything. He just gets the players. And then with subtle approval or disapproval, but not like yelling at you or something, he helps it get directed to what it’s going to be. So that’s an amazing thing to me.
With Trey Gunn and I, it turned out we’re both musical enough to cut in half what we play and to divide up the parts. Great. That was fine. And then in the 2000 era, when I was, quote unquote, the fifth man in a four-man touring band and I wasn’t needed on the tour or on the albums, it ended up being... if I had a favorite incarnation of King Crimson, that would be it. Where Trey played amazing things that I would never have thought of, and where the band went in a direction I had never thought they would go. So even that was a valid part of King Crimson process to me.
SS: Absolutely. There’s no answer to this question, but the other thing about this film, about the anniversary, about the box sets, about everything, is that everything is starting to feel a whole lot like closure. Do you feel like the saga is basically over?
TL: A good question. Because tape’s running, I’m reluctant always to predict the future when there’s a tape running—five years from now, “Wait a minute, he said...”—so I don’t know. But the sense I got from Robert was that it’s over. Maybe King Crimson will speak to him in the future in some way, and will revive its head with who-knows-what line up? Having been in the band all the time, as you can imagine, the last tour, especially the Japan part, when we knew it was ending, I was feeling the ghosts of all the bass players and the drummers who had been in it before. I was feeling they were with us on that tour, and it was very much in the front of my mind during the whole few weeks. Pretty special in my life, the process of finding closure. I didn’t have a miserable time with it, and there wasn’t a day that I said, “Okay, I understand, now it’s over.” It’s a process. I wonder if being in any band is the same, that none of these bands seem to last forever? The fan in me hopes there will be another incarnation of King Crimson. And the bass player in me hopes that I’m in it. I’ll be a fan of it, you know, it’ll be good if there is one. And I’ll be okay, like I was in 2000, even if I’m not the fifth man, even.
SS: You can be the 10th man this time.
TL: Yeah, I can. Let me add, I luckily will be touring in this coming year, 2023, with Peter Gabriel. [Applause] Yeah, I’m clapping more than you. Again, as the fan... Wow! I go way back with Peter, even longer than with King Crimson. Although I met Peter and Robert Fripp on the same day in ’76, because Robert was playing on Peter’s first album—I didn’t know who either of them was, and I didn’t know who Genesis was, and I had not heard King Crimson either. So that was quite a day for me. Anyway, the fan in me is thrilled that Peter’s doing more—it was sure quiet for a long time—and thrilled that there will be a tour, there will be an album. I have been recording on it. The European part of the tour has been announced for the spring, and there will be a Canadian and US part, and a New York City show. But it ain’t announced yet, so I don’t know when it’ll be.
Steve Smith is the Culture & Arts Editor for WNYC and Gothamist, and worked previously with NPR, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Boston Globe, and Time Out New York.
In the Court of the Crimson King (2022)