Miles Davis was a genius within 20th century music and Betty Mabry was the short-time wife who had been „too wild for Miles“. She is considered funk music´s „deepest secret and most painful truth“. For me personally, she ranks #2 on the list of distinguished phenomena within popular music.
Betty Mabry was born July 26, 1945 in North Carolina into a music-loving family and began to write songs already in childhood (she said, she had always felt that something was inside her that needed to reveal itself and that needed to come out). At age 16, she moved to New York, to enroll at the Fashion Institute of Technology, where she quickly became part of the hip Greenwich Village culture scene. Due to her extravagant taste she successfully worked as a model and became a center of attention also for musicians, including Sly Stone, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix to whom she became especially close. In 1968 she got married to Miles Davis, and although the divorce would come only one year later (with Miles admitting that Betty had been „too young and wild“), she had a considerable influence on his further artistic and stylistic direction. Miles Davis had become outdated in the late 1960s, yet with the help of Betty he managed not only to catch up with the hippie and psychedelic movement but also to become once more avant-gardist in jazz with his album Bitches Brew, where he would introduce electronic instruments into jazz and with which he would initiate jazz fusion. In 1973 Betty Davis released her own and self-titled debut album, a funk album, yet also an album that sounded like nothing anyone had ever heard before. Supported by a phenomenal band, you had an extremely heavy and raw, edgy and intense funk that would come in a strangely originate and primordial way, some kind of music that did not seem to have true or logical predecessors and that did not match up with any expectations. It seemed to be even a comment and some meta thing about how music could sound or could be conceived, i.e. something profoundly intellectual and philosophical, while at the same time being profoundly visceral (i.e. an extreme in both the cultural „highs“ and „lows“ (yet, as it would unfortunately turn out as concerns prospects for mainstream success, nothing in between)). Betty herself would come in as something more independent and originate than any woman´s liberation movement could have conceived at that time (and ever since), touching tricky and „forbidden“ subjects with baffling originality and naturalness. She was no great singer, yet overcompensated it with an extremely powerful vocal performance, which you would attribute rather to some big black mama and not a delicate being like her. This mix added up to something that comes in as heavy and confrontational as, maybe, heavy metal, despite metal would rise to such a level of sonic intrasingence and intensity only a decade later. On top of that, Betty Davis displayed a stage personae that was larger than life and more human than human all the like: a dominant, sexualised and forceful woman who is commanding and perfectly in control of herself (therein also not exactly helping herself in turning her into a sex object (for a larger audience), as she remained profoundly subjective). At the same time, her private persona was described as very different: thoughtful, sober and introverted, and, above all, „very spiritual“ in her own manner. Also, despite cranky anthems like Bar Hoppin` coming from her, she reportedly neither drank nor did she do drugs. Two more albums in the same fashion, They Say I`m Different (1974) and Nasty Gal (1975) would follow, while the fourth (and, as some say, the best), Is It Love or Desire? would only be released more than three decades later, in 2009. Tensions between Betty and the music industry and also between Betty and the band had become unsustainable within the recording process. During her career in the mid-1970s, Betty was a paradoxon: both a star and with great superstar potential, yet effectively a niche phenomenon. Muhammad Ali and other distinguished people would come to her concerts, artists like Prince would later cover her and rave about her as a major influence, while a more general audience would ignore her, radio stations would give her not airplay, and the mainstream media hardly touch upon her. Also the support of Miles did not get her much off the ground, and also not in the black community. „Black people are pretty appropriate“, she said, and at that time, after the end of official segregation in the 1960s, the majority of black people in America struggled to be accepted as „normal“ by the whites, i.e. copying some kind of petty bourgeois attitude that is naturally hostile to the extravagant and the exotic and sees it as a threat to their own integrity (as viewed by others). The (white) music industry tried to shape Betty and make her more mainstream-compatible, while she in turn wanted to remain in control over her artistic vision. Yet, with this stubbornness she has basically „ruined my career“, as she would later admit. The Funk Queen Betty Davis disappeared from the scene in the later 1970s. At the end of that decade she would nevertheless record songs in disco fashion that would only be released in the 1990s (Hangin´Out in Hollywood / Crashin For the Passion) – a failed experiment that is not even mentioned in her „official“ and „canonical“ biography. At the beginning of the 1980s, as her musical and artistic career seemingly had become directionless and she probably realised that there did not exist true outfits and outlets for her specific type of creativity in this world, also her beloved father died, which obviously took away a further fundamental source for her stability. She reportedly had a mental breakdown at that time, and began to vanish from the scene entirely. Somehow resemblant to another exuberant but short-lived genius of popular music, Syd Barret, Betty Davis lives in a small apartment in Pittsburgh ever since, although, unlike Syd, she does not refuse all contact to the outside world. There have been occasional celebrations and reissues of her albums every once in a while, and recently there has also been a documentary about her (Betty – They Say I´m Different, by Phil Cox), yet she remains an insider story until today. One wonders what this once highly flamboyant individual has been doing in such a long time and what has become of her. When she talks, she does so slowly and a bit hesitantly, but also in expressing herself in a precise way, with some warmth and interest for the other, while also keen to keep her privacy. Age and events seem to have taken their toll on her, yet at the same time she seems alert and aware, in control and grounded in herself. As she notes herself, her (though not absolute) silence is a (though not absolute) silence for good: (once a tormented creative), she has finally „found peace“.
The story of Betty Mabry Davis. Is it a story of success or of loss? Is it a story of the triumph of individuality or its perils, eventually causing breakdown? Nothing around the story of Betty Davis and the idiosyncratic appeal of her records seems easy to describe. There always seems to be something that evades such efforts. Betty Davis and her records had actually been a profound cultural phenomenon, one that shatters the earth; you would even think of a metaphysical event, a trembling in the universe. Nietzsche says, the genius wants to carve a trace into being, into the universe, he wants to trench existence. Upon reflection, such a thing you might have with Betty Davis. Yet why is there so little effect, of something so universal? Well, the paradoxon of the universal and the absolute is that it puts the local and the relative under threat, and its impact on the world is both little, but also lasting and profound, as it amalgamates the universal and the local anew. Religious figures are hardly those who found and institute a religion, its their disciples that will do. Filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky remarks that the story of the genius is of universal appeal and significance, as the struggle of the genius illustrates the struggle of any individual to both become oneself and to unite, realign and reconcilliate oneself with society. The genius struggles for happiness; happiness, according to Tarkovsky, would be „complete freedom of the will“. Yet the more complete the freedom of the will, the more one would become detached from society and its norms and traditions and the possibilities to communicate with society; finally, such an individual would become „as lonely as Beelzebub“. The loneliness of the long distance runner (with Betty throwing the race, because it seems all so futile, for good). When you listen to Betty Davis, you are, and remain, under the impression that you are confronted with something distinctly residing above you, above your head and above your soul, a superior, (yet, as you sense, a therefore consequentially tragically) seperated entity. That does not make people feel they can relate, of course. „If you want to be an original, get ready to get copied“, said Coco Chanel. Yet unlike rebellious female icons within popular music, from Debbie Harry to Madonna to Pink, Betty Davis could not be truly copied. She was an almost insular being, composed of too many qualities – and having taken those qualities to their extremes – that may be in perfect harmony within herself but seen as oppositional or as a confusing mix from the perspective of regular people. She is one of the very rare individuals who are not even a part of society and cannot be influenced by society and its norms (for good) but reside above it; therefore, seeemingly, their powers to influence contemporaries a lot seems naturally restricted. Her problem was that she was not only different, but too different from anyone or anything else. Betty Davis´ records, not only her performance but also the music may seem confusing. They seem to transmit many messages. It is a music that is there, and very present, but also elusive. Vibrating, escalating, punching the line, alongside the pathless path. You´re always under the impression that this music has its own meta level inherent, it seems both music playing and music permanently evolving, improvising, creating itself, experiment with itself, and experiencing itself; frustrating expectations and then coming up with more than anyone would ever expect. It is highly interesting, and so she seems to end up with making music for people who are extremely interested in music. Yet, despite music being omnipresent and making the bourgeoisie and the rebel, most people, and mainstream audiences, aren´t truly interested in music. To reach them, you supposedly need to come up with something more uncomplicated (and who would ever think that the raw and terrifying funk of Betty´s records would be something for mainstream audiences in the first place?). Yet the heart of it all seems to be indifferent to such elitist ruminations: Betty was fed up with being a niche phenomenon for insiders. She wanted to become a true star. Yet, in order to become a great star, you have to come up with catchy music. Among her many talents, writing catchy popular music was not among them and her efforts to leave raw funk behind and turn into contemporary disco sounds proved lacklustre at all. She seems to have been – consciously or not – a philosopher of music, and the philosopher needs to stand aloof from society. She saw too many dimensions, and her music and artistic vision had many layers and was not only multidimensional but seemed to display dimensionality itself, and most people cannot truly see these dimensions, only the shadows which get projected into ordinary world. Betty Mabry Davis´ life probably has been a rare life outside Plato´s cave, the realm of shadowiness and obfuscation. She probably directly gazed into the „ideas“. Who ever gives an idea about the „ideas“? Hardly anyone gives an idea about the ideas! Think of an abstract space where music happens, or where anything happens. Near the coordinate origin, in the void, or in a white cube, something, some vibration, violently emerges, originary, primordial, yet already heavily armed and in full clothing: That is If I´m In Luck I Might Get Picked Up. That is like the heartbeat, that seperates being from nothingness. Who has ever done such a thing? It is a most genuine achievement.