The name Throbbing Gristle came up recently, via Lawrence Burton’s blog. I always admired their audacity; their mission to ape the form of a punk band, but then in terms of content confront the audience with sheer anti-music. (Then dodge the resulting cans as they were chucked.)
But, since resuming music-making, ex-Can singer Damo Suzuki has embarked upon almost the opposite endeavour – which for me appeals equally. He’s on a never-ending world tour, playing without rehearsal or set-list with musicians he finds in each town where he stops. It’s a democratising desire to prove anyone can do it, anywhere, anywhen – they’ve just got to open themselves to the spirit.
If Damo is the name of the act, it’s not because he acts as musical director. He never so much as touches an instrument, nor seems to signal to the other players. His role is more the travelling shaman, putting all involved into the necessary trance state, his chanting the lightning rod which draws down all the spirits. And, despite what I say above, the musicians are never referred to as players – they’re “sound carriers”, as if themselves portals onto something.
At times this shaman status makes him come over like a hippy Prince Charles. He expresses pleasure at seeing “all your faces”, despite the fact that this is what he does every night. When he came off stage, he looks at first like he intends shaking hands with every single person present. It should be absurd... it is absurd, but the right sort of absurd. He carries it with such conviction and absence of guile you can’t help but be carried along.
Now there’s no point comparing Damo gigs to anything except each other, so we may as well get started. We get an early clue what we might be in for when two of tonight’s “sound carriers” act as the support act. Each armed with both drums and keyboards, which they swap between with alacrity, they channel Neu more than Can. (It’s funny how that boiling down of instrumentation has become such a signifier of a Neu influence.)
Now we old hands like to think of Krautrock as something you get or not, like a more positive alternative to mumps or measels. You either intuit right into it, or else you’re a hopeless chancer who’s heard it’s got trendy again. But this set proved the lie to such simplifications, spluttering into life but only firing fitfully. (Watching them, I did at points wonder at an alternate explanation. I see dance music through the prism of Neu, as for me Neu came first, but for them things are most likely the opposite - putting our perspectives are at odds.)
Next they are back augmented by two more mates on bass and violin... and by Damo. Having seen him a few times, I concede things can take their time to get going. Just as regular set-list gigs are like recited speeches, impro gigs are conversations. Think of meeting a mate for a drink. At first things are all generalities (How’s it going?”, “What you been up to?”), cast in the hope of hooking something. But soon you glean a sense of what this evening is all about, it’s own character and flavour, and you start to home in on it as the rest of the night flies by. Once you get there, the sense of something new and spontaneous happening right before you, the waiting seems worthwhile.
However... they did hit the precious moments that night, in fact they hit them many times. But they rose and fell and rose again, rather than breaking on through to the other side. The gig was noticeably shorter than Damo’s sessions, like they were riding something they could only partially steer.
The finale perhaps summed this up, working up to something great, but peaking all too soon. It was like being in the embrace of an enthusiastic but inexperienced lover. (Okay, okay, what would a nerdy comic fan know about any other kind?) As with Patti Smith, this may have been the least good time I’ve seen him. Given the tightrope that is improvised music, it was far indeed from crashing and burning. The audience took it to their hearts; it was assured enough that at least one attendee was surprised to be told it was all improvised. I might have taken it myself for the limits of the possible, had I not at other times seen more.
Particularly given the opening act, the most likely explanation was that the night’s sound was being carried by younger and less experienced bearers than before. It is of course cool that he really will play with anyone, anywhere, anytime. But does this not start to undermine his generous notion that spirit conquers all?
Maybe to some extent. Starting with Can themselves, Damo’s bands have had a zen approach to musicianship. Can all exuded proficiency, with careers in the classical or jazz worlds. But each reached the point where the only thing that still interested them was to play the same two metronomic chords all night long. It’s like the Picasso story. He could draw like a master while still a child, so all that was left to him as a master was to draw like a child. (This story may or may not be apocryphal. It doesn’t really matter.)
So do you need to have everything else down before you can really play the two metronomic chords? Certainly that gave the Can sound its unique character. But (given that this night was put on by ‘Yeah Yeah Industrial Estate’) think of a band like the Fall, where Mark E Smith would sack anyone who started sounding too proficient. What he wanted, I have always imagined, was the sound of someone who could just about play those two remorseless chords, and would put all their heart and soul into it. Once they had it down pat their attention would inevitably wander, they’d think of fitting something else in just to see if they could, player and music would no longer be as one.
And (relative) amateurishness does empower. First, because you can’t revert to the standard licks if you don’t even know how they go. But more to the point, you surrender to the spirits precisely to get beyond what you know. Because this band weren’t in control, because they blundered along not knowing where they were going, they would stumble down a lot more byways. Some of these turned out to be cul-de-sacs, others hidden gardens. Alas, more accomplishment might have let us linger in the gardens longer. But it is hard to uncouple accomplishment from simple skill. And skill is the very thing which would have sped us past them, undiscovered, as it knew where we were going and how to get there.
In short, there were times when the session’s weaknesses yielded hidden strengths. As I say, you can only compare Damo gigs to each other.. .
I took to this description of Damo’s music from his website, written by Mark Spybey, to such a degree that I found I couldn’t quote from it for fear of reposting the whole thing! (If the link doesn’t take you straight there, go for the red.) I especially like the comparisons of his gigs to the opening credits of ‘Stingray’ and to the stone age.
I’d also highly recommend the Dead Man Has No 2nd Chance’ CD, recorded live (as ever) in Melbourne with the Holy Soul, which I purchased after the gig from the man himself!
NB: More on the new Green Door Store venue to come...