You Had To Be There

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.


5 thoughts on “You Had To Be There

  1. bodyoftheory

    Enjoyed the post very much – I felt like I was ‘almost’ there.. Great point about embodied experience – it seems ironic that digital file-sharing is apparently ‘killing’ recorded music, while at the same time inspiring a resurgence of live performance. You could call it the ‘digital displacement’ – a new version of the slippage between experience and representation, where the memory is always both less and more than the moment as you live it.


  2. Pingback: The menu and the meal | Dial M for Musicology

  3. Daniel (Dan) Hackbarth

    The continuum between primal roars and expressive musical phrases that Suzuki has explored post Can is truly remarkable. I’ve been trying to describe these passages ever since I heard him with the band Cul de Sac in Chicago in 2002 or 2003. (Sadly these sounds are not in evidence on the live album they recorded on that tour.)

    Thank you, Graham, for finding the words.


    1. grahamlarkin Post author

      Dan do you mean that the tracks recorded *with Damo* lacked the kinds of sounds you experienced? If so it would reinforce my sense that the Damo experience cannot be transcribed / recorded / represented.

      Anyway its nice to find a fellow enthusiast. Not to prosthelytize but if you dig DS you might try Zazen–i.e. sitting and staring at a wall for 20 minutes a day. It won’t get us closer to “finding the words” but it can take you to a very similar place!


      1. Daniel (Dan) Hackbarth

        Indeed, at no point does the album Abhayamudra, each track of which features Damo Suzuki, capture what made that performance so incredible. Until reading your post I had assumed that it was a matter song selection. But now I’m inclined to agree with you that it has something to do with transcription getting in the way.

        Standing near the back of the room during the concert, I distinctly remember a sense that the band’s dense, unrelenting sound was a cord steadily twisting its way into and through each onlooker’s head, with individual strands modulating as they spiraled around a constant, throbbing central pulse. In retrospect, I recognize this image of continuous and direct connection as a figure of translation (to continue with the Kittler).

        I’m now wondering how and under what conditions a few bands manage to re-establish this sense of connection in the concert space. Perhaps all (or at least all the successful ones) do. But there is something really startling about how Suzuki and Co. manage this without hackneyed guitar solos or the “stoner ‘poetry'” you mention. It feels free of nostalgia and for that reason all the more authentic, I suppose.

        My Bloody Valentine is the one band I can think of that achieves similar effects through their recordings. Significantly, as Mike McGonigal notes in his book on their album Loveless, that record sounds very different depending on the apparatus one uses to listen to it. Speakers and amps in listeners’ homes become yet another instrument for the band, rather than a means of sound reproduction.

        Perhaps the salient feature of the musicians in question is their attention to specific transmission mediums — specific concert halls, bars, and sound systems — in addition to their fidelity to a song, a preconceived feeling, etc. I suppose we’re now on the terrain of the psychedelic environment, from the Merry Prankster’s feedback experiments through the Grateful Dead’s Wall of Sound. Even so, it’s still remarkable that a kind of vocal phrasing central to Suzuki’s performance — and his whole animalistic cartoon bluesman persona — would become inaudible in a recording.

        (As I type, I look over the edge of my desk at a sadly unused Zabuton in the corner of my office. I have had the pleasure of sitting Zazen with some regularity for a while. But it’s difficult to keep up with neither much spare time to speak of nor a zendo in the area. But thanks for the nudge back in the direction of the mat.)


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