Deep Into Steve Tibbetts’ Life Of

Aquarium Drunkard’s exploration of the catalog of Manfred Eicher’s ECM Records has yielded three guides to the wide-ranging catalog of the legendary jazz, classical, and experimental label. But this? It’s a more personal piece regarding guitarist Steve Tibbett’s Life Of, released in 2018 by ECM Records. The record had a profound effect on Josh Rosenthal of Tompkins Square Records, who’s penned the following personal essay, which comes with a required caveat that listening to healing music should not serve as a substitute for regular checkups with medical professionals.  

In the autumn of 2018, I began thinking about taking a road trip to follow Bob Dylan around on his Southern tour. I had a funny feeling about this tour. Not to be morbid, but Bob is getting on in years. I’d grand designs on following this leg of his Never Ending Tour and writing another book about the experience, detailing Dylan’s past musical connections to all his specific tour stops in the South. I may do it yet. When you go see Bob now, you don’t go solely for the music. You’re there to commune with and reflect upon this force of nature, a person who altered popular culture forever. There he is over there, you’re breathing the same rarified air as him for 90 minutes or so. I wanted to document the experience; I had this nagging gut feeling I’d never get to do it again.

Mortality was on my mind. And it lingered in my head as I headed to my doctor’s for a routine checkup last August. The doctor suggested I go get an optional CT scan to check for coronary calcium blockage, a common enough test. I figured it sounded good. If I scored well, I’d have license to eat all the fried chicken, potato chips, and ice cream I wanted. Not that I eat much of that stuff anyway, but it’s good to have options. I scored well, but the tests revealed something out of the ordinary: numerous enlarged lymph nodes.

I went in for a needle biopsy, where they extracted tissue from one of the nodes. My doctor called me on September 11, 2018 and said, “You have Hodgkins Lymphoma.”

This made some sense to me. My dad’s brother, Seymour, had died of that disease in the early 1960s. He was in his twenties at the time. Back then, there was no cure, and doctors didn’t even tell patients they had cancer. Today, Hodgkins is one of the more treatable cancers. From what I understand, having a close family member with Hodgkins increases your risk, but only slightly. It was a disease that killed a family member, so it made some logical sense.

They needed more tissue to stage the cancer, so they performed a surgical biopsy on the same node where they gave me the needle (behind my left shoulder). I was awake for the surgery. I’ll spare you the gory details. The lab (one of the best in the US) would spend the next ten weeks trying to stage my lymphoma. They were calling in lymphoma “gurus” to figure my thing out.

That day in September, when the doctor called and told me, I didn’t know what to do with myself. The idea heavy in my head, I walked in the direction of Union Square in San Francisco–a couple of miles from my house–and bought four button-down dress shirts at H&M. I thought it would be smart to do something “normal,” and, as my nearest will tell you, I like a nice new button-down shirt. Being out and about made me feel better. And buying those shirts felt a little like buying more time to wear them.

As I waited on the checkout line, I noticed a skull ring, like the one Keith Richards wears, on display. I’d been looking for the perfect Keith-like skull ring in head shops, novelty stores, and online for a while, but could never find one with the right design. (Later, I discovered you can buy a sterling silver Deaths Head Skull Ring direct from the original designers of Keith’s ring, Courts and Hackett, for about $500). All the knock-off skulls were too skinny, or they had really long teeth, or the eyes were all wrong. They lacked detail. But this one was perfect. And it was only $9.99. So I bought the ring too, and took this as some sort of sign, some measure of encouragement. “Why am I finding this here…today?”

The ten weeks in which I waited for the staging was a period of odd woodshedding. I played guitar, worked on some records, took on some vaguely psychosomatic symptoms (a vague listlessness), and got reinforcement from a small circle of in-the-know friends. The doctors were fairly certain I’d need chemo. They asked me to take a hearing test, because chemo can wreck one’s hearing. My baseline hearing is excellent, despite all the live music I’ve subjected myself to. That I could suffer hearing loss was disturbing news given my vocation, as was the prospect of losing my hair. I have a lot of it, and with very little grey. I began to mentally grapple with the idea of being diminished in various ways, or to potentially die at some point in the not-so-distant future. I revised my will. I didn’t have any classic lymphoma symptoms (fever, night sweats, sudden weight loss) which probably meant they had caught this early. I didn’t tell my daughters, because there was no point scaring them until I had a prognosis and treatment plan.

I had crossed the transom from the land of the healthy people to over there with the sick people. Being sick requires new levels of patience. Appointments, tests, and protocol—you’re on someone else’s clock now. You walk out of the hospital onto the street surrounded by healthy people milling about. At least they look healthy and carefree. The “why me?” sets in. But you know self-pity is terrible, and you don’t want to be remembered as having fought a “cowardly” battle with cancer. You’re expected to be “strong.” It’s difficult to define what that even means. I resigned myself to taking each day as it comes, girding myself for chemo, and just letting things play out. What else can you do?

Throughout the two months I walked around with “cancer”, Steve Tibbetts’ album Life Of was my soundtrack. Despite being a devout guitar listener, I had never heard his music before this album. Life Of became my base of operation after I was diagnosed. It provided an aural cocoon, a sonic world in which I felt safe, protected, and understood—every day. I read about how Tibbetts had provided his sister with a life-saving immune-system transplant after her ovarian cancer diagnosis. The album opens with “Bloodwork”, followed by ten tracks named “Life Of __” for people in his orbit, living and dead (plus the open-ended “Life of Someone”), followed by “End Again,” and “Start Again”. Even if there were no cancer connection in the creation of this album, it still would have had a deep impact on me.

I think I was predisposed to Life Of because it’s akin to the two instrumental albums by A Broken Consort I released on Tompkins Square that I love dearly: Crow Autumn and Box Of Birch. Those albums, by prolific British composer and visual artist Richard Skelton, have a clattering, harrowing atonality, driven by nature field recordings, strings, and other acoustic instrumentation. The overall effect is dark, ancient and primal—unsettling, icy English “ragas” inspired by the complex landscapes and histories of places like Cumbria, composed in memory of Skelton’s deceased young wife, Louise. The common thread with Life Of (other than loss) is its stubborn insistence on meandering—meandering as its own means of discovery—compositions finding their way forward on albums programmed with conspicuous disregard for pace, deviation, variation—instead consumed with creating a deep emotional soundscape, a maelstrom of sound, escorting you deeper and deeper into the woods as it’s getting darker and darker.

I was also predisposed to Life Of, as I’d been listening all year to my favorite record of 2017, In My Arms, Many Flowers by Daniel Schmidt and the Berkeley Gamelan. These mostly ’70s and ’80s recordings by the American Gamelan musician, composer, and Mills College professor had me doggedly seeking out Javanese and Balinese gamelan recordings, many of which have their roots in music that’s 1000 years old. This is part of the “operating system” behind Life Of.

There’s a blueprint for the direction of Life Of on Tibbetts’ 2010 album Natural Causes–dappled piano and percussion bobbing in and out of unconventional guitar phrases with those signature sinewy, sarangi-sounding bends (Indian musician Sultan Kahn is a major influence). It meanders, too, wonderfully. But still, there’s something a bit too antiseptic about the overall presentation, and the accompaniment and production are too generically “world” for me to fully embrace. This is an issue for me on several of his previous albums. But you’re there for the playing, and his is instantly recognizable, in a similar way that you might identify, say, Jaco Pastorius or Charlie Parker upon hearing their first few opening notes.

When taken in the context of his other works leading up to Life Of, the astute listener knows she is witnessing an artist perfecting a craft, creating a (here it comes…) masterpiece, realizing a “best self,” and doing so decades into a career. The new age trappings are gone, the subtle accompaniment of piano, “gong cycles,” gamelan influences (based on his travels and study in Bali and Nepal), the still-in-there-someplace Midwestern Kottke vibes, all synthesized so exquisitely. The secret sauce in his playing is partly due to his instrument; an old Martin D-12-20 12-string with worn down frets and dead strings. He describes it as having a “peculiar internal resonance, as though it has a small concert hall inside of it.” The other magic is in the recording process. Tibbetts recorded the album, then played it back in an empty concert hall at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and recorded that. (The only other album I know of that’s produced like this is Jordan De La Sierra’s Gymnosphere: Song of the Rose, recorded at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco). In Steve’s words: “It’s a more labor-intensive process, and the effect is perhaps subtle to most ears. But it feels more organic to me, adding some reality to the sound. I suppose it’s like a bay leaf in a soup – it has an intangible effect that adds to the experience.”

I have a feeling Steve Tibbetts’ Life Of will henceforth be viewed as a towering achievement, the one that put him in the pantheon for good. It may not happen this week, next year, or even this century. But it will sit comfortably in my house right next to the late Mark Hollis’ work with Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden, Laurie Spiegel’s The Expanding Universe, La Monte Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano, Terry Riley’s A Rainbow in Curved Air, Radiohead’s OK Computer, and Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way, alongside any number of defining works that established the artist as a stealth maverick, a creative genius, a singular voice.

On November 7th, I went to see the oncologist. He told me the biopsy results were still inconclusive, but that the “gurus” were leaning toward a diagnosis of T-Cell lymphoma and had ruled out Hodgkins. I had developed my first real “symptom”: a newly-enlarged node in my neck.

A couple of days before Thanksgiving, the oncologist called and said they had determined that I didn’t have Hodgkins, or T-Cell, or any cancer at all. I had an “atypical lymphoid proliferation.” The lump might go away; it might not.

I haven’t had any great epiphanies since the doctor gave me my cancer hall pass. I’m grateful for the support of my friends, and feel for the people I know who have close friends or family battling cancer, who have lost someone they love to cancer. I am genuinely grateful to Steve Tibbetts for making Life Of, a source of great comfort and strength to me through my comparatively “nothing” experience. I wear my skull ring every day now, and wonder if it really has magical powers.

Maybe listening to Life Of healed, cured or protected me. I’m wondering if it’s OK for me to believe so. Meanwhile, the Never Ending Tour keeps never ending. See you out there, Bob.

Josh Rosenthal is owner of Tompkins Square label, based in San Francisco, and author of ‘The Record Store of The Mind’. His label has received eight Grammy nominations, most recently for Sonny Clark Trio: The 1960 Time Sessions.