sing swan song / remembering Damo Suzuki

Word came over the wire yesterday that Damo Suzuki, best known as the frontman of krautrockers Can at their creative peak, had passed away. (Ten years after a colon cancer diagnosis, apparently, which puts the guy into the Wilko Johnson league of unexpected and defiant longevity.)

It reminded me that I had the fortune to see the man in person, as part of the perpetual final tour in which he drifted from town to town across the world and performed at the front of some local outfit or other. A few years previously, he’d rolled through Southsea and done his thing with my erstwhile scene-mates You’re Smiling Now But We’ll All Turn Into Demons, pretty much making their creative lives in the process.

By March of 2013, however, I’d been in Sheffield for maybe half a year or so, and was trying to integrate myself into (yet another) new town in the only way I knew: find someone to write reviews for, and get free entry to gigs in the process. The following piece was written for Now Then Magazine, a fully independent organ for arts and culture—and, increasingly, politics—available in both print and online forms.

Damo Suzuki with Orchestra of the Upper Atmosphere

  • Bar Abbey (Sheffield, UK), Sunday 17th March
  • reviewed by Paul Graham Raven

In a basement bar beneath an old cinema, a chap straight out of a BBC4 documentary about the history of bookbinding shouts to inform us that “This one is a collection of colloquial British bird names”, before coaxing a cacophony of vocal chirps, squeaks, mumbles and roars from a gaggle of performers who resemble a hyperreal infographic for explaining the demography of Guardian readers. It’s hard to see Juxtavoices, the “antichoir” in question, as the stage is too full of kit for them to use, and the venue too full of audience, leaving them squeezed up at the front, fighting with the chatter.

But the smiles I see suggest they’re not taking it too seriously—and when you’re doing material that sounds like Stockhausen remixing Samuel Beckett plays at the bottom of the K-hole, that’s maybe for the best. For optimal results, deploy somewhere with ecclesiastical acoustics—and a more respectful audience.

Legend has it that Can discovered Damo Suzuki by dint of him just wandering down the street in front of them one day, clearly in a state of advanced chemical refreshment; nowadays Suzuki recapitulates his role of wand’ring minstrel across the globe, rolling into town after town to perform with local kraut-noise-drone-ambient outfits. Tonight’s lucky lot are Orchestra of the Upper Atmosphere; I have no idea whether there’s any standard procedure for these shows, but I imagine their approach—mount stage, grab instruments, improvise wildly without interruption—is probably it. Suzuki just lowers his head and does his thing, chattering out mutant riffs of broken phonemes in tones that range from Louis Armstrong to the Samurai Pizza Kats and back again. The Orchestra are heavy on thick synth sounds and deconstructed motorik drumming, and the net effect is that of standing around at the back of the Glastonbury chill-out tent circa 1998, trying to shake off a hash-cake haze while a glossolalic old Japanese guy tries to buy your shoes.

It’s easy to forget that Can’s recordings weren’t pure improvisation; they were edited down from hour after hour of unstructured noodling. Indeed, Can’s approach predates the contemporary art world’s enthusiasm for curation-as-process; mirroring neoliberal capitalism itself, the method is to produce masses of material, then cherrypick the best bits, leaving the rest on the cutting-room floor. But one can’t curate a live set on the fly, and so for every minute of wonderful weirdness or sublime groove, we wade through five of melodic chaos, if not outright cacophony. That said, improvisation at least retains the capacity to surprise, albeit in a limited set of ways, and surprising music is in short supply in these postmodern times. That a musical mode developed decades ago is a last bastion of novelty should perhaps be taken as a caution… but when Suzuki puts his serene smile back on at the end of the night, it’s hard to worry.

About anything.

The wordcounts for Now Then were always incredibly short, which (as regular readers here can surely imagine) was a challenge to my verbose nature… but I think it actually did me good to be forced to be brief, and to have an active editorial hand in play. The resulting reviews were crammed, condensed, vibrant… and digging through the archives in order to retrieve this one has made me remember that I was pretty good at it.

Maybe I should put a greatest hits compilation together? I wrote around three reviews a week for my own (long since defunct) reviews website, The Dreaded Press, back when I still thought I’d be able to write my way into paying work by just putting stuff out there. And, well, spoiler warning: that didn’t work out quite as planned, did it? Though it kept me in free shows and albums for what were surely the five most financially desperate years of my life.

Futhermore, writing at that speed and volume—not just there but for Futurismic, too, where at peak I would probably crank another 500 to 1,500 words a day, responding to the previous day’s RSS haul—is how I clocked up my 10,000 hours, not just figuratively but literally. On my darker days, I look back on that period, 2006 through 2010, as a kind of wasteland, and not without good reason: I was desperately poor, frequently miserable, underfed and unwell, and rarely not stoned out of my mind.

But it was also my apprenticeship, albeit one without any master to guide me; without it, I would not be the person, not be the writer, that I am today. As such, and with a nod of acknowledgement to ol’ Friedrich, I will take this opportunity to affirm it—to say “yes” to it, this time and every time, now and forever.

I have no idea whether Damo Suzuki ever read Nietzsche, but I’m willing to guess that he’d have had some sympathy for that way of looking at one’s life.

Travel well, man.



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