In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. This week: great songs by unsavory characters.
Miles Davis was a genius. There’s no question in my mind. Kind Of Blue is a masterpiece; “All Blues” is timeless song, one for the history books. Bitches’ Brew is probably one of the most important albums of its era, combining jazz and rock influences into something entirely new. Davis had the ability to produce tracks that are mellow and tranquil, like “Blue In Green,” and tracks that are jarring and galvanizing, like “Bitches Brew.” His range of mastery is astonishing. Every note feels intentional, even at its most uncontrolled. He came of age in an era of incredible racism, and he somehow managed to claw out surpassing success in his chosen profession. In every respect, he is a remarkable.
He was a jerk, though. And I don’t mean just in an egotistical way—though there was a lot of narcissism as well. He beat his wives with regularity, by his own admission. Davis’ reputation as an artist is such that I didn’t know anything about this until well after I’d already fallen in love with his music. Even his Wikipedia page is suspiciously clean of any mention of tension with his partners. But the evidence is there, if scattered. The women in his life rarely brought it up—perhaps to salvage their own dignity, or maybe because of fear of reprisals. But in a rare interview with The New York Times, his first wife, Frances Davis, recalled, “I actually left running for my life—more than once.” And in his memoir, Miles, he owns up to it himself—though the book review from The Atlantic seems less convinced by his apologies:
His treatment of women is contemptible: he isn’t averse to slugging them to keep them in line. It isn’t bad enough that he talks with unconvincing remorse of hitting his own women; the story intended to illustrate Billy Eckstine’s tough-guy credentials has Eckstine slapping a would-be girlfriend while Davis looks on approvingly.
These days, his history of abusive behavior has been largely forgotten or rationalized. While acknowledging an artist’s humanity is understandable, I can’t condone rose-colored glasses. Davis was a man with demons, and those demons fueled his music into being an expression of love, rage, and ego. He had the potential to be a cruel, brutal man, and he knew it.
The mass media of his era didn’t rise up in outrage over incidents of spousal abuse; they were, sadly, all too common. Even now, we don’t rise up with outrage nearly enough. When I listen Kind Of Blue or Bitches Brew (whose title now makes me cringe, even though it’s supposed to be a complimentary nod to his wife Betty Davis), I don’t know how much it matters to me that he abused his partners. I can’t help loving the music, even as his violence makes me recoil in horror. But I hope that the music was the humane side of Miles, his way of dealing with a rage that at times consumed him. He was an angry, terrible man at times—and there are reasons for that. Can I hold that in my mind, while listening to “All Blues”? Can both versions of Miles Davis exist side-by-side?