Miles Davis – Ascenseur Pour L’échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows)- 1957

Our moods can be ripe for certain music and music has the power to put us in certain moods.  Oh how the lugubrious can be salubrious.  We spent this past weekend in Perdido for mom’s annual family beach trip.  As night fell on Friday, I sought solace and asylum from the mad party of 26.  Though my struggles pale in comparison to Ivan Denisovich, I felt the urge to enjoy a cigar and watch the moon light up the clear sky and Gulf of Mexico below.  Insatiable greed always wants for more.  I called upon Miles Davis to further aid my relaxed state.  The darkness and temporary solitude were the perfect setting for this album.  I allowed the tobacco and trumpet to cascade throughout my…“DAD, you cosseted twit! Get on with it!”  Yes yes. Duly noted. Please pardon my uncontrollable pretentiousness.  I can’t do anything about it.  I’ve tried.  Moving on!

Kind of Blue is the ubiquitous pick for Best Miles Davis Album and even Best Jazz Album ever.  It was, in fact, my first jazz record and it’s perfect for getting acclimated to jazz because of its accessibility.  However, I will strongly debate, and often do with the many voices in my head, that Davis’ best album is either Ascenseur or In A Silent Way. It just depends on which mood we, the voices, are in.  Ascenseur is actually a soundtrack for a pretty good black and white French film noir from 1957. PLOT:  The wife of an unscrupulous businessman is in love with her husband’s emotionless, sociopathic employee and he, her.  The two plot to kill the nefarious husband and stage it as suicide. Easy peasy.  What could go wrong?  As the murderous employee is preparing to flee the scene, he realizes he left his GRAPPLING HOOK at the scene of the crime (always be mindful of those easily forgotten, pesky grappling hooks).  With his car running, he rushes back into the building to retrieve said hook.  The security guard thinking everyone has left the office for the weekend cuts off all the power and locks up the building.  Our forlorn murderer is trapped in the elevator (the Ascenseur) with only a lighter and a pack of cigarettes.  Sadly for him, no spare grappling hook (always carry a spare grappling hook.  That and a center hole punch).  While trapped in the elevator, a young couple steal the murderer’s running car.  The newly widowed wife sees the car drive by with only the young girl in the passenger seat.  She feels that her side piece has chickened out and left with some young lass leaving her distraught.  In reality, loverboy killed the old man and is just sitting there stuck in an elevator, smoking heaters.  No cell phone.  No fire alarm.  No spare grappling hook.  Well, the young lovers decide to drag race some German couple in a Mercedes because that’s a good idea when you steal a car.  They follow these Teutons into a hotel and enjoy some Champagne apparently Hitler had forbidden during the war.  They take a bunch of photos together using Elevator guy’s camera, turn the film over to the hotel to develop and then the young man promptly murders the two Germans with a gun (Elevator guy’s gun).  Chaos ensues.  Young couple goes back to the girlfriends to hide and decide to commit suicide by impaling themselves with grappling hooks.  Kidding.  Pills.  Police go on a manhunt for Elevator guy because his car, his gun, his rain jacket are all at the hotel murder scene.  They have no idea the cock of the walk CEO husband is dead as well.  (Also, at some point, a random little 4 year old girl walks away with the grappling hook.  Everyone remembers their first grappling hook.)  The wife walks all over Paris looking for her lover.  She has forgiven him for anything he has done and must find him.  Love conquers all, right?  The morning newspaper comes out with the manhunt for her lover.  She must save him, this is her manhunt not theirs!  Somehow she finds out where the young girl lives and finds the young couple (not her elevator loverboy.  He didn’t cheat!  He isn’t a murderer!) awake in bed.  Pills didn’t work.  Grappling hooks probably would have.  She locks them in the room and calls the cops.  Young guy breaks out and sets off to the hotel to retrieve the pictures and cover his tracks.  The young man walks in and sees the film developer producing a photo of the young couple with the Germans.  From behind the curtain, the police enter as well as the wife.  Busted young pup!  All is well in the world again!  They haul the young man away.  But wait! More pictures start to develop in the water.  THEY ARE ALL GRAPPLING HOOKS!  Again, kidding, they are all photos of the wife with her loverboy.  BUSTED TOO as the bossman had been found dead by now as well.  Loverboy finally gets out of the elevator and is arrested.  Wife is arrested too.  Detective admonishes the wife, “never leave photos lying around.”  She retorts that she has no regrets and would kill for love (also the title of a great Chromatics song).  To the gallows for you both!

That’s a lot to digest.  Now imagine, some director pitching that to Miles Davis and saying, “build me a soundtrack around that!”  “I need more Grappling Hook Miles!  I got a fever and it can only be cured with MORE GRAPPLING HOOK!”  Credit to his genius, Miles nails it. What actually happened was the director called Miles in for a screening of the film and Miles improvised as he watched each scene.  Truly remarkable. The album is perfectly dirgy and thought provoking yet also stirs up curiosity, reflection and anxiety.  Miles Davis is unrivaled when producing tone and mood.

So back to that night at the beach.  The family was spread out over 5 different condos.  However, your 15 year old Aunt Av had brought her 15 year old boyfriend (strikingly ironic given my last Matthew Sweet post).  Having to protect them from themselves meant you were sleeping in the bed with mom and me.  Always a disaster.  We will go into Hall and my sleep issues in later posts but, for now, just know the night did not go well.  You have a tendency to yell (or “coyote” as we call it), talk and move like a disco dancer in your sleep.  It leaves zero chance for others that may occupy the same space.  At 3am, I decided a new plan was necessary.  I had brought an air mattress knowing something like this was likely.  So your mom and I blew the damn thing up and realized very quickly the queen mattress was not going to fit the space.  Also, the mattress broke the closet doors off the hinges as it expanded.  That wasn’t good either.  So I was left with one option: sleeping on the hardwood floor in an alley of space about the width of my whole body.  Snug supine in between the foot of the bed and the chest of drawers, I uncomfortably tried to drift off and snag a few hours.  I needed the grappling hook of repose to take hold of me.  At about 4 am, I had a hilarious morbid moment.  I realized what my current position must look like to the outside observer: me on my back, eyes closed upwards, hands clasped on my chest.  Hopefully, on a spiritual elevator heading upwards.  I laughed out loud.  Very similar to our female protagonist at the end of the film.  I would kill for love.  For you.  Even if it’s myself.  DARK huh.  Now read that with track 4 of this album.  How the tone changes from humorous to macabre.  And that is the power of Miles Davis.

I’ve prattled on so much I can’t even remember the point I was trying to make.  But one message is clear from 1957 to the current age of social media: “never leave photos lying around.”  Be mindful of what you put outward to the public.  You never know what could come back to haunt you.  Also, was the grappling hook a MacGuffin, the Proustian macaron, perhaps even Orson Welles’ Rosebud?  Sorry, I digress again!  Next album!

You can also find this full album on Side A of Miles Davis’ Frantic.

Favorite Tracks: Listen as a whole

Pressing: Sam Records SR 13/1 Fontana 660.213 MR. 10” RP. UK.