In most other cultures, the beard is a sign of maturity, wisdom, an indicator of “yang” energy; but in America, the bearded are pushed to the fringe, to the brambled outskirts of a well-groomed, highly manicured society. The beard has come to be the marker of the unwashed, the degenerate, the dangerous. Think of the striking portraits of Abraham Lincoln or Ulysses S. Grant: is it possible in this day and age that we will have a woman president sooner than a bearded one? (And, while we’re on the subject, do you think we will ever have a bearded lady as president?)
And yet despite waxing, laser technology and Mach 3 shaving razors, the beard persists, not just as symbol of a Luddite or simply a lazy, perhaps unemployed dude but as a symbol of stark defiance. Note the revolutionaries who double as cults of personalities, due (surely in no small part) to their facial hair, like Fidel Castro, Nikolai Lenin, Malcolm X, Hailie Selassie and the Smith Brothers. Or more to date, 2004 World Series champs the Boston Red Sox, who struck back against the Evil Empire typified by George Steinbrenner’s clean-cut Yankees. Remember: When beards are outlawed, only outlaws will grow beards.
But can there really be a musical genre based solely on a secondary sex characteristic? Well, as we’ve seen, the decision by an adult Western male to grow out his facial hair has profound societal repercussions, so it makes sense that it has musical ones as well. Sure enough, the hirsute artists listed here do indeed work along the margins. Such unshaven gents appear throughout the world of music — be it in the fields of jazz, folk, rock, blues, or reggae, their music renders such genre tags obsolete, as their individualistic art regards few boundaries.
Scruffy, nonconformist, symbolic, idiosyncratic, survivors or survivalists, that is what a beard implies in these nicked-up and razor-burned times, suggesting persons that trailblaze and follow paths less traveled. This is what truly characterizes and unites these artists, even more than their imperials, goatees, van dykes, soul patches, fu-manchus, handlebar moustaches and straight-up thick, verdant beards.
Bushy Black Imperial
His curly thatch of hair and beard an instant identifier on nearly every record cover over his four-decade career, Frank Zappa has been that rare breed: an outsider to the music biz grind that has been able to pursue any and all avenues (snark rock, orchestral mayhem, tape jumble, absurdist doo-wop, goofy prog opera, oft times within a three-minute span) while keeping a rabid fanbase foaming. Hot Rats, his second album under his own name (after the experimental Lumpy Gravy), Zappa gets grease from goateed musical ally Captain Beefheart crowing on the sleazy "Willie the Pimp" and multi-instrumentalist Ian Underwood on the "The Gumbo Variations," warping jazz and rock (and classical and funk and...) in his own image.
Hep, Modified Van Dyke
Multi-reedsman Dolphy is one of the rare jazz players to serve as sideman to three giants of modern jazz, working with Charles Mingus, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman on their groundbreaking works. Dolphy mastered not just alto sax but the far more obstinate bass clarinet and flute and made their tonalities work in the post-bop vernacular. Culled and collected after his untimely death in 1964 from an untreated diabetic condition, Here and There draws from three different sessions, though there's no reason to consider them shavings. Opener "Status Seeking" comes from a stand at the Five Spot with the similarly doomed Booker Little and second-line timekeeping whiz Ed Blackwell, and it remains lightning-quick and ferocious for its 13-minute duration. At the other end of the spectrum, Dolphy's solo bass clarinet reading of Billie Holiday's "God Bless the Child" stops the earth spinning on most days.
Striking, White-Blemished Tuft On Otherwise Jet-Black Goatee
There will come a day when Albert Ayler's visage will become as prevalent and defiant an image as that of Che. Call him a freedom fighter, a revolutionary, a fire brand, seeking the ecstatic essence at the core of all music, not just jazz. Through the '60s, Ayler's fervent breathing and circular huffing through the simplest of children songs and New Orleans marches revealed the ecstatic and cathartic beneath the song's surface, and he brought forth such energy so that each phrase flared like a comet through the cosmos. His fellow spacemen, drummer Sunny Murray and bassist Gary Peacock, provided a foundation that both tethered Ayler's mungo vibrato and launched him further into the stratosphere. On "Spirits" and the two versions of "Ghosts," such ethereal entities can be felt coursing through Ayler's music.
Alternating Soul Patch & Goatee, Dyed Pink/Purple/Maroon
How to encapsulate the sonic universe of extraterrestrial jazz pianist and arranger Sun Ra? It's as impossible as to calculate his exact trajectory through this terrestrial life. From polyrhythmic space chants to all out skronk and blat, from Ellingtonian swing to experimental electronic noise, from Africa to Saturn, Sun Ra and his disciples rocketed through it all. Rare was the man's solo outings though, and this one stands out in the vast discography. While already employing ARPs and Moogs in his live set-up, Monorails and Satellites finds Ra focusing on his piano straight-up. Whether it's a standard like "Easy Street," playing the blues or boogie-woogie, Ra reveals that despite the foil-wrapped solar crown, sequined gown and cosmic dogma, he was first and foremost a working-stiff swing pianist from Alabama that knew his roots enough to eschew them for outer space.
Dreader Than Dread
Randy rude boy (and pretty boy) Max Romeo started off spouting X-rated skanks before growing out both his dreads and beard, putting down the lad mags for Marx's Das Kapital. Righteous Rastafarianism aside, Iron Gate encompasses the two Romeo records that bookend his outright classic, War Ina Babylon, but are fantastic in their own right. Communist dogma ("Revelation Time"), cries for repatriation and an outlook that's both F*#$ tha Police and f*$# the Pope ("Fire Fe the Vatican") brunt up against a Romeo obsessed not just with Marley and Marx but also with Manson. Hear how he prophesizes the blood of the rich flowing freely down the hill on the violent "Warning Warning" and shiver at its smoothly crooned cry for Helter Skelter.
Scottish guitarist John Martyn deftly melded American blues to British folk with his wife Beverly early on in his career. He then veered off the road taken by his more pensive and poppy contemporaries like Nick Drake and Al Stewart in favor of something more vague and disquieting. With the nimble shadow play that longtime upright bassist Danny Thompson brings to the table, the two utilized jazz's improvised openness on this live outing at Leeds University to plunge down into the netherworlds implicit in songs like "Solid Air," "Outside In" and Skip James' menacing "I'd Rather Be the Devil," doubling (or even tripling!) their album lengths. Out at the edges, with Martyn's heavily echoplexed guitar thickening the snaking lines, the two players writhe and worm into very dark areas of the psyche here, something the record label wasn't too keen on loosing. Hence Martyn pressed the first 10,000 of these himself.
Jet Back, With Optional Whiskey Slobber
Waylon Jennings is not the Man in Black, unless it means he's swimming in black label Jack with a mind humming from a handful of Black Beauties. Too miscreant for Nashville's countrypolitan scene in the late '60s, Waylon rode off on his own, growing out a beard as greasy, grungy and black as his raven tresses. He spearheaded the "Outlaw" movement in country along with drinking buddies Willie Nelson and Billy Joe Shaver in the early '70s, emphasizing hard loving, living and substances (not necessarily in that order). Making a comeback in the grunge era, Waylon casually creaks about such times and cronies on "Best Friends of Mine." His throat fissured, every bit the grizzled elder, Waylon still wades deep into the swamp of the title track and the Stones' "No Expectations" to stare down the blackness.
Neatly trimmed, manicured, blonde
A fiery-locked, guitar-prodigy lad back in his days with British folk-rock luminaries Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson left the classic group to make music with wife Linda in the early '70s. As both delved deeper into their newfound Sufi Muslim faith, Richard's long hair was replaced by a beard and headwrap. While the turban (and the missus) would be left behind in the early '80s, the beard stayed. His first album after the couple's demise, Hand of Kindness veers from piercing bleakness (a quality of Thompson's pen, no matter how content) to jaunty. "Devonshire" and the title track are sullen and rueful in heavy doses, but get cut by the accompanying fiddle and button accordion on careening, Acadian-flavored tunes like "Both Ends Burning" and "Tear Stained Letter."
Woolly, salt and pepper, matched w/ever-present shades
Whether punching out director Michelangelo Antonioni or being grateful for the death of Jerry Garcia, John Fahey seemed less like the grandfather of new age music and more like a cantankerous grouch. Which he is, aside from being the most stunning and beatific of steel-string guitarists, connecting country blues to classical music structure, creating what would could be called "American cosmic folk" (though Fahey would contend with the last two words). Gone missing most of the '80s, Fahey returned as grandfather to alternative music, finding his kin among Sonic Youth, Sun City Girls and Tortoise (named after his publishing company). This album from the early '90s found Fahey in a subliminal mode, intertwining traditional hymns with his own songbook to create epic medleys both entrancing and meandering, and as always, sublime.
What does it speak of Wyatt's paternal stature in the UK prog/ art-rock scene to have Brian Eno in his employ only as a backup singer on "Heaps of Sheep"? Or for asking free music master Evan Parker to honk a dizzying soprano sax solo on the already off-kilter "The Duchess"? Throughout his sixth solo album, Shleep, Wyatt has guitarists from Roxy Music and the Jam at his disposal, each and every gent gratefully repaying their debt to Wyatt by adding gossamer leads and discreet layers to the man's ambient washes and pensive songcraft. The culminating effect is equal parts whimsy and wistfulness, mirroring the subconscious as well as the stream-of-consciousness (see his "Blues in Bob Minor"). As dreamy as such a name would suggest for that sleep-walking state.
Curly, black, slightly speckled and long at chin
While he would've always been a post-bop guitarist of some regard, James ‘Blood' Ulmer took his craft further by bringing Ornette Coleman's revolutionary Harmolodic ideas to his instrument, imbuing labyrinthine funk and frenzied rock to his jazz chops. An influence not just on jazzmen like John Zorn and Bill Frisell but post-punks like Public Image, Ltd., Ulmer returned to his roots in the new century with a stop off at Sun Studios for Memphis Blood. Here, with Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid in the producer's chair, Ulmer dives into the muddy Mississippi to play blues like "Dimples" and "Little Red Rooster." Of course, all distinctions melt in Ulmer's hands, the variants —be it gutbucket, barrelhouse, or Chicagoan electric-juke— played sloppy or clean-toned, all have their primordial root dug out by the guitarist.
Bushy, thick, soft
Devendra Banhart, the barely-legal baby-faced wunderkind that babbled his surreal song slivers onto answering machines for 2002's lo-fi Oh Me Oh My… grew up quickly in a two year period. Banhart spearheaded America's free-folk resurgence that also uplifted his hippie cohorts Joanna Newsom, Vetiver and Coco Rosie. He released two stunning albums in that calendar year, Rejoicing in the Hands and its follow-up, Nino Rojo. For these 16 songs, Devendra re-pays his debt to Ella Jenkins with her "Little Sparrow" and other furry creatures in the woodland. Yes, there are some capricious songs ("We All Know" and "Little Yellow Spider") but also a serious attention to craft. Banhart can fingerpick and sing with the best of them, and he touches on everything from American blues to campfire jamborees to South American tristes to the stark sound of UK folk, yet nimbly evades being pinned down in the end.