I arrived at the Pressed Cafe in Ottawa as the summer sun descended at the far end of Gladstone St. As I neared my destination so did a compact, long-haired man pulling a silver rolling suitcase. Emerging out of a side street as if at random, the man crossed the street, smiled and nodded at the small gathering of people smoking and chatting, and went straight inside. This is the place.
For the next half hour I stood outside the door, watching the crowd file in. By the time my friend arrived with the tickets the music was underway, and the house was packed with about eighty people ranging in age from 20ish to 60ish. We had all come to see the man with the silver suitcase–the inimitable krautrock legend Damo Suzuki–in his second-ever jam with local psych rockers The Band Whose Name is a Symbol. The former Can frontman earns his living playing hundreds of gigs a year with members of the global consortium of “sound carriers” comprising The Damo Suzuki Network.
We bought some beers and settled in at the back near the bar, where I stood contentedly wedged between a friendly, elegantly-tattooed young woman and a tunnel of mostly-male heads framing the lithe and preposterously energetic 63-year-old singer. Whether sitting, standing or dancing, everyone in the place seemed palpably engaged in the throes of a dense, variegated sonic surround that emanated for a couple of hours. A short break in the middle didn’t hurt the flow.
By the time we got inside Damo was already deep into a beguiling wail that was half Jim Morrison, half Islamic call-to-prayer. He would soon adopt other guises including hilarious, growly bluesman ranting à la Don van Vliet and some curveball channelling of eighties emo-pop. But his deadpan and parodically distinctive weird-scenes-inside-the-goldmine cadences were the default mode on this night.
Still, this was not your grandmother’s Doors. The sounds were more exotic and diversified. And, crucially, there was no stoner “poetry” coming between listener and music.
Let me explain. McLuhan loved to say that rock music can only exist in English. One could get more specific, saying it has to be a blues-rooted American English, which certainly describes Damo’s highly distinctive dialect. His language is clearly enunciated, it is prone to repetitive invocation, and (in case you don’t already know) it’s pure Jabberwocky. To hear one’s native tongue intoned in a way that is perfectly clear yet entirely unrecognizable is to be taken right out of one’s head–not least if the singing is carried on an ocean of kaleidoscopic space/psych/stoner-rock.
On the 1971 Can album Tago Mago (currently available here) this private/universal language still has traces of actual English phrases, albeit as interpreted by a far-out Japanese hippie found busking on the streets of Munich. Forty-two years later the anglo sound and syntax persist, but the vocabulary has long since been out of reach.
From the start of the performance Damo was in the driver’s seat, transporting us to whatever planet he felt like visiting. He’d stay there for some time (maybe five minutes, maybe twenty) before stepping into a surprising new register, to which the sizable band would then have to adjust itself with slapstick velocity. However limited and rocky the landing-space, the musicians would remain committed to that precise groove, hard-selling it to the room until the silver suitcase man took us to the next destination.
Towards the end of the show I went up near the stage, where I stood behind the mixing board and finally caught a glimpse of the band. Haphazardly they stopped playing and started packing up a variety of instruments (guitars, bass, drum kit, triangle, weird-looking electric violin, &c) while Damo wound down his plaintive vocalizations. In a funny way, as I had suspected, there was really nothing to see.
The whole situation is purely musical, and peculiarly involving in ways that are not easy to account for. Suffice it to say it was amazing how few people felt the need to capture the experience on their damn smartphones. Most of us were happy just to be there.
Noticing how few bobbing screens there were, and how out-of-place they seemed, I recalled Douglas Rushkoff’s recent observation that for a while in the 90s cyberspace was the new counter-cultural frontier, but now that that’s all gotten so canned and corporatized the future hangouts of choice will be resolutely real-time and non-virtual. At their most real such experiences may be strangely resistant to any form of representation.