Swinging with The Ax: David Axelrod

“LET ME straighten something out first,” rasps living Los Angeles legend David Axelrod; crooking a bony finger at the heavy sunglasses he wears even though there is no direct sunlight in his London hotel room. “I’m not a hipster: I only wear these because my right eye is really bad”.

It’s not natural wear and tear that’s taken its toll on the ocular health of this wiry 67-year old, but a boxing injury sustained half a century ago during the twelfth of his fifteen fights (and the only one he lost). To some people, having to wear sunglasses indoors on account of a teenage boxing injury might seem like the acme of hipster-dom, but I suppose what Axelrod wants us to know is that he’s not wearing the shades for effect.

When you’ve lived the sort of life David Axelrod has lived, you don’t have to do anything for effect. From a blood and thunder apprenticeship on the mean streets of South Central LA, through the creative inferno of post-war 52nd Street jazz clubs, to the unparallelled freedoms and indulgences of the West Coast music industry in the late 1960s, Axelrod’s career as musician, producer, composer and arranger contained more than its fair share of drama in its first three acts.

Along the way there were three marriages and a brace of drug problems. (A year-long affair with heroin in tandem with beat artist Wally Berman, and a more enduring association with cocaine from 1964 to 1981 – though Axelrod recently told Mojo magazine that he “never abused” the drug, explaining helpfully, “We never did anything but sniff it”.) By the late ‘80s, his career was in seemingly terminal decline, with Axelrod and his wife Terri reduced to living in a condemned one-room shack.

But this brush with dereliction turned out to be no more than the unhappy prelude to an extraordinary Indian summer. In the early nineties, his music’s combination of symphonic opulence and street-smart swagger began to strike a chord with a new generation of listeners. Sampled by – among others – Dr Dre and Lauryn Hill, Axelrod found himself a name to drop again, and as the royalty cheques began to roll in, the old records (whose few surviving copies were attracting ever more exorbitant prices from collectors) started to be reissued.

This two-pronged reanimation of Axelrod’s back catalogue became even more exciting when he got the chance to participate in it himself. When long-time Axelrod fans DJ Shadow and James Lavelle – sharp-eared boss of prestigious UK dance label Mo’ Wax – were looking for someone to re-orchestrate ‘Rabbit In Your Headlights’, Thom Yorke’s contribution to their 1999 U.N.K.L.E project, the chance to call him up was too good to resist.

At about this time, an old acetate recording came to light of some rhythm tracks Axelrod had laid down in 1968 for a concept album based on Goethe’s Faust. (Well, it was the ‘60s, and two of Axelrod’s best-loved albums – Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience – were tone poems based on the work of William Blake). Almost before he knew it, Axelrod found himself – at Lavelle’s behest – back in the same famous Capitol B studio that had been his home from home three decades earlier, with the same stellar set of string and horn players, sprucing up those drum and bass patterns into a new album with a dauntingly contemporary sound.

Alongside the tumescent strings, uproarious rhythm section and rigorously-drilled horn-playing for which his earlier work is justly celebrated, the record in question – called, simply, David Axelrod – can also boast two stunning new songs. Opening with a gripping, apocalyptic lament by 21st century rapper Ras Kass, and closing with a raw, moving elegy to the early death of one of Axelrod’s three sons, featuring the mesmerisingly wracked voice of another old campadre – soul singer Lou Rawls – it leaves the listener with a thrilling sense of continuity between past and present.

Comfortably ensconced at the very chichi Charlotte Street Hotel, David Axelrod seems to be enjoying his first ever promotional visit to London. (George Harrison wanted to sign him to The Beatles’ Apple label in the late ‘60s, but despite innumerable requests for him to come to England, he never quite got around to it.) Cigarette hanging from his lower lip at an insouciant right-angle, the man whose admirers know him as “The Ax” is every inch the battle-hardened reprobate. Behind those shades he could be Michael Douglas playing Coronation Street‘s Jack Duckworth, or vice versa.

“People keep coming round to check the fridge,” he growls affably. “They have to know that the bottle of Stolichnoya in there belongs to me”.

On being told by his publicist that Stella McCartney is downstairs in the bar, having a quiet drink with Kate Moss, Axelrod wonders whether to go down and hand the internationally celebrated fashion designer a note for her even more famous father, who by a strange quirk of fate owns his publishing. Perhaps wisely, he opts not to, and after a healing infusion of Listerine mouthwash, settles happily into a story-telling mode which seems to come naturally to him.

“Norman Mailer put it very well,” Axelrod explains. “He said, ‘If you want to know why I talk so much and so fast, you should realise how much of my life I’ve spent on my own’… In his case it was writing books, in my case it was writing music… which is an even more solitary business” – he shakes his head – “how many people can read a score? At least if you’re a writer you can read aloud to people. What am I gonna do: play one line at a time?”

It’s no surprise to find Axelrod quoting Norman Mailer, as his earliest ambition was to be an author-adventurer in the mould of Ernest Hemingway, or White Fang author Jack London, whose tales of derring-do and international socialism were required reading in the Axelrod household. “We were very poor,” he remembers, “but we were never bored.” Axelrod’s father was a garment cutter and trade union organiser with the radical IWW. “Being a union man in LA in the thirties was not a joke,” Axelrod maintains gravely, “the beatings he took were ridiculous”.

Violence never seems to be too far from the surface in the Axelrod story: from alarming tales of his handiness with a tire-iron as a budding teenage delinquent, to the undercurrent of brutality others have detected in his supple and muscular orchestrations. (“No matter how pretty his music is,” the great alto-sax player Cannonball Adderley once said of him, “there’s always a layer of violence in it.”) I wonder if this might have had its roots in his father’s experiences at the sharp end of American labour discipline.

“He never hit me more than once,” Axelrod recalls tenderly, “and then I deserved it….He used to get these terrible headaches that he ended up drinking a bottle of bromo-selzer a day for, and once he sent me out to the store for some and I bought myself some gum instead. He whacked me on the ass and I went running down that hall…”.

It wasn’t all trade unionism and headache remedies in the Axelrod household. Music was everpresent too: David’s elder brother Sonny used to practice all day on a drum pad before he was killed in World War 2 (“I always say had he come back from Iwo Jima, he could have been the greatest drummer that ever lived, and no-one can tell me I’m wrong.”)

However it wasn’t until David Axelrod was forced to temporarily relocate to New York, having “got into trouble” on the streets of his own tough, largely black, neighbourhood (“When people ask, ‘What kind of trouble?’, I always say, ‘Big enough that I had to leave'”) that he swapped literary for musical ambitions. “52nd street”, he whistles appreciatively, “Oh man, that turned everything around…”

With the help of a series of mentors – old schoolmates from Dorsey High, the jazz pianist Gerald Wiggins – the late-starting Axelrod applied himself with phenomenal self-discipline to learning musical practice and theory. “Every great musician I’ve ever known, from Miles Davis to Charlie Mingus, will tell you that you have to know the rules in order to break them properly” he insists. “If you break the rules and you don’t know them, you’re just riding your luck”.

After producing Harold Land’s seminal LA jazz landmark The Fox in 1959, Axelrod did his fair share of both breaking the rules and riding his luck throughout the next turbulent decade. Between long hours of solitary creative endeavour and endless excess-fuelled recording sessions, he also found time to hang out at Marlon Brando’s parties and go drag-racing on the streets of LA in a fully-modified stick-shift ’65 Mustang with two giant carburettors. “It was so much fun wiping everybody out,” Axelrod remembers fondly; “you see, I never washed it – my kids called it ‘The Crap-mobile”.

How did that add to the fun exactly?

Axelrod beams: “Because it would stun people in gas stations. They would open the bonnet and go “Oh my God!”.

The musical fruits of Axelrod’s golden era might have withered on the vine without the attention of sample-hungry beat-farmers like DJ Shadow. “He knows more about my career than I do” says Axelrod admiringly, “he calls me up about these records that I don’t remember doing. He tells me ‘Your name’s on them’ and I say, ‘I don’t give a damn, I didn’t do that’, then he sends them to me and I remember everything”.

Caught up in his enthusiasm for the hip-hop generation which has embraced him so warmly, Axelrod is on the point of saying something critical about US government moves to censor rap records when he pulls himself up short. “I swore an oath,” he mutters, shaking his head regretfully.

What kind of oath?

“When I got my passport,” Axelrod explains, “I had to swear an oath that while I was out of the country I wouldn’t say or do anything to embarrass the United States, and I take that kind of thing very seriously….”.

There’s no pressure on him to be any more seditious than he feels comfortable being, but wouldn’t that generally be regarded as more of a formality?

Axelrod furrows his brow: “If I was at home I could say anything I wanted, but I gave my word, and where I come from there are three rules you don’t break – don’t be a fink, don’t Welsh on a bet and don’t go back on your word”.

It’s impossible to be anything other than heartened by the possibility that anyone might have maintained such an old-fashioned code of honour through half a century in show-business. Still, there has been a flexibility about Axelrod’s own personal dealings that suggests an oath isn’t always the final word.

“You’re asking why have I been married three times?” He demands with a gruffly outraged twinkle… “A marriage vow is more like a promise, and a promise is different to an oath: a promise is something that when you say it you mean it, like if you owe someone money and you promise to repay them, but if someone threatens to turn your electricity off in the meantime, they can’t be absolutely sure of getting their money back”.

It’s hard to be sure which prospect this illustration renders less appealing: lending David Axelrod money, or being married to him. Terri, Axelrod’s third wife of 23 years, would testify otherwise. After she suffered a horrific car accident in 1986, he nursed her full time for some years before the intervention of his old friend Quincy Jones’ superstar neurologist bought her back from the brink. “Poor baby,” says Axelrod, with fearsome intensity “she was so brave”.

Now this “dynamite lady” is up and running again. “We can sit and read together and not say anything,” Axelrod observes contentedly; “that’s very cool.” That a man so routinely hailed as ahead of his time should still be around to enjoy it when the times finally catch up with him: that’s very cool too.

© Ben ThompsonDaily Telegraph, June 2001

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