December 30, 2009
Nephew of philosopher W.V.O. Quine, and cousin to the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, ROBERT QUINE (1942-2004) spent the peak of his musical career in the penumbra of such innovators as Richard Hell and Lou Reed, but there wasn’t much spotlight left to land on the tonsured, blazer-sporting guitar player. In interviews with Quine and (mostly ex-)friends, he comes off as an uncompromising (almost autistic) musical obsessive: “Part of being a guitar player — ninety-nine percent of it — is being obsessive enough to spend thousands of hours listening to records and practicing.” And he did, for years and by himself, even after his time playing with Hell, Reed, Tom Waits, Matthew Sweet and others, when he had driven off all potential collaborators. But his absorption of all that early rock and roll, blues, experimental jazz and Velvet Underground reemerged, reconfigured in crystalline solos. Just like the jazz soloists he so admired — Miles Davis, Cecil Taylor — he could lay down a lyrical masterpiece when the song required it (see “Betrayal Takes Two”), but Quine was at his most innovative and his playing its most singular when he focused on the negative space of the solo, his notes irrupting the silence and disappearing, defying any expectations of pattern and tempo. Like Monk, Quine would play “wrong” notes repeatedly, or fail to resolve disharmonies, until these “mistakes” were the central element. Hell described him as a man of “delicate rage” and you can hear it all over his playing — as dynamic and ferocious as are the chords and notes, every one begins and ends: it defines itself in space. Let Quine have the last word: “By many peoples’ standards, my playing is very primitive, but by punk standards, I’m a virtuoso.”
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