Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Roxy Music, Cuban Revolution, Kanye & More

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Revolución to Roxy – the wildly entertaining new memoir from Roxy Music’s lead guitarist, Phil Manzanera – is out now U.S. — and as befits an art-rock pioneer of his caliber, it’s far from your typical rock n’ roll autobiography. From rubbing elbows with musical deities to surviving tumultuous moments in political history, the 73-year-old musician’s life recalls the groundbreaking guitar work he delivered as a member of Roxy: Loaded with left-field twists, out-of-the-blue delights and the occasional hint of danger.



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In this book (and while speaking to Billboard from his spacious, bright recording studio in England), Manzanera likens himself to Forrest Gump – and he’s not just referring to the pinch-me musical moments he’s been party to. Born to a Colombian mother and English father in London, Manzanera was just six years old when his family moved to Cuba for his father’s job; less than two years later, they were dodging bullets on New Year’s Eve 1958 as the Cuban Revolution reached their doorstep.

Escaping Cuba brought him from New York to Hawaii to Venezuela and back to London, where he befriended David Gilmour during the Syd Barrett era of Pink Floyd. While his first band, Quiet Sun, failed to rise, he soon became part of the British rock vanguard as a member of Roxy Music, the stylish, influential and experimental band who clinched a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2019. Along the way, he’s had hairy run-ins with Columbian cartels, baffling moments with Bob Dylan and cashed in big time when Kanye West and Jay-Z sampled one of his guitar licks for the 2012 single “No Church in the Wild.” Oh, and later in life, he found out that his father was the product of a secret love affair his grandmother had with a touring Italian musician while estranged from her abusive husband (the two eventually reconciled, so he grew up knowing a non-biological grandfather).

“One of the things about writing the book is trying to make sense of what happened,” Manzanera says, sounding a bit incredulous about his own life even now. While thinking of the night his family hid in a bathroom while a gun battle raged outside during the Cuban Revolution, he says, “You do start to think, ‘Oh, did I have’ – they hadn’t invented post-traumatic stress. I’m trying to go back there and think, ‘Sh-t, I must be really scared and my mother’s screaming and all this.’ I seem to have just refocused – maybe it’s the music that took me away. Thank you, music.”

Music arrived in Manzanera’s life in a way that marks another curious coincidence. As a child in Havana before Castro’s takeover, his mother’s friend – an Italian woman named Franca – began playing guitar at their house, piquing his interest in playing the instrument. When I point out that it was an Italian woman who got him started on the guitar decades before he learned the truth about his biological grandfather being Italian, he rubs his forehead. “I’ve never made that connection until you mentioned it,” Manzanera says. “I’m going to have to try and process it.”

Learning Spanish songs in Havana as a kid certainly paid off for Manzanera. A 1972 audition in front of Bryan Ferry, Brian Eno, Andy MacKay and Paul Thompson turned him into a full-time member of Roxy Music, where he’s remained a constant through the band’s on-and-off half-century.

The band’s first period resulted in five classic albums (Manzanera cites their second, For Your Pleasure, as his favorite), numerous top 10 U.K. hits and an eventual American breakthrough when “Love Is the Drug” hit the Billboard Hot 100 top 30. Roxy Music’s 1979 return, Manifesto, became their highest charting American LP (No. 23 on the Billboard 200), while their studio swan song, 1982’s Avalon – a lush, atmospheric piece of sophisticated pop – is frequently listed as one of the greatest albums of all time. Even so, Avalon isn’t exactly Manzanera’s favorite – he prefers the weirder side of Roxy, and was delighted when they performed an ode to a blow-up sex doll, “In Every Dream Home a Heartache,” at their Rock Hall induction.

While Eno, who left Roxy after its first two albums, wasn’t present for the induction, he and Manzanera have continued to keep in touch and work together over the years. The ambient godfather contributed vocals and instruments to Manzanera’s solo debut, 1975’s Diamond Head, a knockout album that found Manzanera imbuing his heady, playful art rock with his Latin roots for the first time on wax.

The following year, Manzanera brought together a group of profession and non-professional musicians for a project called 801, which produced the cult classic LP 801 Live. While Manzanera says that Eno “prided himself on being a non-musician” in the 801 equation, he admits that his bandmate is “fudging it a little bit” with that self-assessment. “Let’s face it: he writes songs, he sings songs, he does lovely melodies. Well, what else do you have to do to qualify as a musician?”

Manzanera’s memoir offers plenty of beautifully written insights about his music with Roxy, 801, Quiet Sun and more, but Manzanera really soars when sharing some of the madcap anecdotes that a globe-trotting life has afforded him. There’s his story of playing a charity gig in Colombia alongside lifelong pal David Gilmour and Roger Daltrey only to be accused of being entangled in a drug cartel’s alleged money-laundering (cousins in Colombia helped him navigate that one). Plus, there’s an amazing Bob Dylan story. When he met the notoriously inscrutable icon at a 1991 festival in Seville, Spain, Dylan asked him to identify a Tex-Mex song from 1947 that he wanted to play onstage with Manzanera – and then proceeded to play five wildly different songs in succession.

“Let me just start by saying I love Bob Dylan,” Manzanera says. “He can do anything he likes. But it was baffling and confused. And I’ve often thought about it. Did he think that I was Mexican?” Long after the gig, Manzanera asked Phil Ramone, the legendary producer of Blood on the Tracks, about Dylan’s modus operandi. “He said, ‘Well, you just patiently let him come and he does whatever he wants to do. And then he goes, and then you get whatever you can.’” As for his Dylan encounter, Manzanera concludes that he was “probably too British and too polite” to wrangle the iconoclast at that concert, but says the experience had one lasting benefit. “I wasn’t intimated working with anyone else ever again. I’ve been there, done that and bring it on.”

Two decades later, another confounding musical artist came into his orbit when Kanye West, via producer 88-Keys, decided he needed to sample a guitar lick from Manzanera’s “K-Scope,” the title track to his 1978 solo album. Manzanera gave it his blessing, and the song morphed into “No Church in the Wild,” a Hot 100 hit from the acclaimed Kanye West & Jay-Z collab album Watch the Throne.

“It was huge,” says Manzanera, who opines he probably made more money off that sample than he ever did as a member of Roxy Music. “It was the first proper album that Jay-Z and Kanye had done together; it was No. 1; it won a Grammy; it was used in The Great Gatsby trailer as well as the film; in the Denzel Washington film Safe House; and in a Super Bowl commercial. And if you get played in a trailer, it’s much more (money) than just being in the film.”

Manzanera sees song syncs as something “everybody is chasing” in the industry right now. “It’s just like, oh, so that’s where the money is,” he says. “Syncs, synchronization rights, are worth a fortune.”

Beyond his brush with a smashing sync success, it’s clear that Manzanera is keeping tabs on the ever-shifting music industry. “The whole paradigm has changed over the years. Forget about looking at streaming — we know all the problems with that. It’s a changing world and particularly difficult for young artists. That’s why (I support) what Taylor Swift and RAYE, who just won a load of Brit Awards, are doing: independent, keeping their rights, doing it for themselves. I’m right there.”

Just as the “No Church In the Wild” windfall fell into his lap, Forrest Gump-esque opportunities continue to come his way. Not long ago, he was asked to produce some big band-styled sessions for Rod Stewart and Jools Holland. The resulting album, Swing Fever, features seven songs he produced and recently topped the U.K. album chart. And Manzanera continues to make his own music; his memoir comes with a musical component (including a track dedicated to his mother), and when we speak, he’s about to start rehearsals for AM/PM concerts with Roxy bandmates MacKay and Thompson. “It’s going to be experimental — I hope in a good way,” he adds with a chuckle.

“You don’t expect to be able to do this 50 years after you start,” Manzanera muses. “But rock n’ roll has grown up, and there’s a lot of us still here. Music is what we do. We just want to be happy. And we want to be free.”

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