Perfect Sound Forever

Brian Eno: A Sandbox In Alphaville

By Lester Bangs
(from August 2003)

What happens when you have one of the most influential music scribes cover on one of the most influential producer/musician/philosophers? Take a great writer and a great subject and you will easily have a great article. Well, maybe... But in this case, yes.

Expanding on an article he'd written for Musician magazine, Lester Bangs decided to expand and expound on the curious subject that is art-rock legend Brian Eno. Including not just an overview of Eno's life and recording career, Bangs did extensive interviews with Eno also, accompanying him to shows and recording sessions. This work was meant to be a chapter in a book mirroring AB Spellman's Four Lives In the Bebop Business, focusing on other artists such as Marianne Faithful, Danny Fields and Screamin' Jay Hawkins. The tentative title for the book was Beyond the Law: Four Rock 'n' Roll Extremists.

Sadly, the book itself was never completed though the chapter on Eno was finished around 1979/1980. Never published until now (though pieces of it appeared in a Musician article he did in '79), this through examination of Eno's work during the '70's is a (dare I say) lost treasure that shouldn't be buried or lost.

This occasion comes on the heels of the publication of a second anthology of Bang's work: Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader. Enormous thanks to John Morthland for arranging this to happen, not mention making the book itself a reality.

(In addition, as a truly offbeat bonus, a PSF reader sent us a letter from Bangs from 1976 on Creem Magazine stationary where LB apologies for not listening to a demo and describes his harried life at the time.)

The article below is copyright 2003 Ben Catching III. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

The other day I was lying on my bed listening to Brian Eno's Music For Airports. The album consists of a few simple piano or choral figures put on tape loops which then run with variable delays for about ten minutes each, and is the first release on Eno's own Ambient label. Like a lot of Eno's "ambient" stuff, the music has a crystalline, sunlight-through-windowpane quality that makes it somewhat mesmerising even as you only half-listen to it. I had been there for a while, half-listening and half-daydreaming, when something odd happened: I starting thinking about something that didn't exist. I was quite clearly recalling a conversation I'd had with Charles Mingus, the room we were in at the time and the things he'd said to me, except that I had in reality never been there and the conversation had never taken place. I realized immediately that I was dreaming, though I had no memory of falling asleep and had in fact passed over into the dream state as if it were an unrippled extension of conscious reality. So I just lay there for a while, watching myself talk to Mingus while one-handed keyboard bobbins pinged placidly in the background. Suddenly I was jolted out of all of it by the ringing phone. I stumbled in disorientatedly to answer it, and hearing my voice the called asked: "Lester, did I wake you?"

"I'm not sure," I said, and told her what I'd been listening to. She just laughed; she was an Eno fan too.

Brian Eno, one of the emergent giants of contemporary music, can be a truly confounding figure. Everything about him is a contradiction. He's a Serious Composer who doesn't know how to read music. What may be worse, he's a Serious Composer who's also a rock star. But what kind of rock star is it that doesn't have a band and never tours, also enjoying the feat of being allowed by his various record companies (mostly Island) to put out an average of two albums a year since 1973 when none of them has sold more than 50,000 copies? (In the midst of this prolific output, he was quoted in pop papers everywhere, insisting that he was not a musician at all.) A man who (artistically speaking) goes to bed with machines and lets chance processes shape his creation, yet dismisses most other modern experimental composers for the lack of humanity in their work. Everybody's favorite synthesizer player, who says he hates that instrument.

Listing all the projects he's been involved with in his career so far is a bit like trying to enumerate the variegate colors and patterns on a lizard's back. With Bryan Ferry, he was a founding member of Roxy Music, one of the watershed rock bands of the Seventies. He's been part of the Scratch Orchestra and the Portsmouth Sinfonia, two famous experiments in mixing musicians from the entire spectrum of technical facility, from virtuosi to people who couldn't play at all, in the same performing situation. He has engaged in several ambient collaborations with Robert Fripp, co-piloted the last three David Bowie albums, and guested on sessions all over the map, from Matching Mole to a remake of Peter and the Wolf. He has produced Television, Ultravox, Devo and Talking Heads, and his standing with New Wave rockers in general is summed up by the graffiti which recently appeared in several spots around the New York subway system: "Eno is God." And yet, for all his support of musical primitism (he produced Antilles' controversial No New York anthology of Lower Manhattan saw-off-the-limb bands), with his interest in the sociology of mechanical systems he's an avowed cybernetician, which he calls his "secret career."

The first time I interviewed him I had no real plans for doing a story; I had been following his work for years, and just wanted to find out what kind of guy he was. I didn't expect much, really, or rather what I expected was either some narcissistic twit or more likely a character whose head was permanently lodged in the scientific/cybernetic/conceptual art clouds. Somebody who might be nice enough but was just a little too... ethereal.

The person I did meet that day was relaxed, gracious, and, to use his favorite word, one of the most interesting conversationalists I'd run into in some time. Unlike most rock people, he was interesting in lots of things beyond music and kicks; unlike many academic types, he recognized that a lot of the things he was interested in were somewhat arcane or overly theoretical, and that the jargon some of these concerns inevitably arrived in was incredibly dry. "Most of what I do has been thought about rather than talked about," he said at one point, "and my resources of information are kind of quasi-scientific, which means that the language that comes out is really objectionable in a way." He seemed kind of amused by this, when not at pains to make sure he wasn't boring his guests to death. One of his biggest problems seemed to be people who wanted to impress him and acted like they knew what he was talking about when they really didn't, letting him go on and on and on when he knew he had the tendency to get carried away. The clincher came at the end of the interview; it was getting towards dinnertime, and suddenly I had this picture of a Britisher who for all I knew didn't have that many friends here, sitting in his hotel room in Gramercy Park all night, so I asked him if he'd like to get something to eat and then come over and listen to some records. "Sure," he said, and then "Uh, say… um… would you happen to know any nice girls you could introduce me to?"

Which was certainly something Ian Anderson never said when you interview him.

Not long after that he moved to New York and I'd see him around town now and then, at clubs and concerts and such, and he was always friendly, open, curious about others and just plain nice in a way that few rock star types are. I met Robert Fripp, Carla Bley, Phillip Glass and several other Serious Music sorts around the same time; they were similarly easygoing and down-to-earth, and eventually I concluded that (as opposed to those rock stars always trying to flatten you with their hideous old personas) this must be what real artists were like.

About a year later, one summer Saturday afternoon, I was sitting in Washington Square Park with a friend. I had been trying to get in touch with Eno through his press office without much luck, because he would be lecturing and appearing on panels during the weeklong New Music, New York avant-garde noise and conceptual tiddleywinks festival just beginning in Lower Manhattan's Kitchen Center for Music, Video and Dance, and I figured that would be a good place to catch him in action. My friend and I were sitting there discussing the comparative merits of various current purveyors of sonic aggravation, when suddenly I looked up and said, "Hey, isn't that Brian Eno walking this way?"

Sure enough it was: blonde hair already balding at thirty, alert blue eyes, sensual mouth, and functionally simple but expensive clothes. He came and sat down, cheery as ever with that bemused expression whose innocence can make him seem at various moments the seraphic artiste or cherubically childlike. Every time a pretty girl walked by, his head would swivel and he would comment admiringly, like either a kid at a parade or a guy who'd just got out of prison. I mentioned that I was getting ready to do a story on prostitution, interviewing call girls from a midtown agency that advertised in Screw, and he said: "I called for a girl in response to one of those ads once. It said 'Unusual black girls.' So I phoned and said, 'Just what do you mean by unusual?' They said, 'Just what did you have in mind?' I said, 'Well, I'd like one that was bald with an astigmatism.' 'Well, we'll see what we can do,' they said. They found the astigmatism but no the baldness."

"Why astigmatism?" I wondered.

"I'm terribly attracted to women with ocular damage."

I wasn't sure what to say to that, so I changed the subject to music: had he heard the new Joni Mitchell album of songs co-written with Charlie Mingus? "No, I bought it but immediately gave it away. I'd like to record with Joni Mitchell. I like her in that one period: Blue, For the Roses, Court and Spark. Since then, I don't know--Weather Report strike me as all people who are continually promising with no delivery."

We arranged to meet the next day, when he was appearing at the New Music festival panel with Philip Glass, Jerry Casale, Leroy Jenkins, Robert Fripp and New York Times columnist John Rockwell. Subject: "Commerciality, Mystique, Ego and Fame in New Music." It was mildly dreary and mildly titillating, as these things tend to be; things were livened up mainly by Fripp doing a rather theatrical vibe-out on the photographers in the room, and a woman from some relatively arcane socialist sect who asked the last question, a seemingly interminable muddle about the relationship of all this New Music to spiritualism. The reaction of the room ranged from cynical laughter to mild irritation, but Eno quite patiently and politely tried to respond to whatever points she was trying to bring up, by talking about some of his own recent studies in shamanism and certain points of interesting intersection he'd noticed between the roles of the shaman and the rock star. (The next day, of course, the festival's daily newsletter said what everybody else had been saying: "Eno thinks rock stars are shamans." "Shit," he said, "I knew they were gonna take it that way.")

That afternoon as we walked back, I mentioned it myself, and said, "When I hear the word 'shaman' I reach for my revolver."

"I don't think it's a word we should be so afraid of," he replied. "Being afraid of it only imputes to it more of those qualities we disliked in the first place. Lots of people are shamans. As for the conference, it should have begun where it ended. I don't tend to sit and think things through when alone, and I often find that it's when I'm confronted by others with the contradictions and inaccuracies in my own way of going about things that I'm able to think them through and make some sort of change. I do like being put on the spot. Everyone else it seemed wanted to go on and on talking about the economics of the music business, but when that woman, whom everyone else seemed to hate, got up and started asking me about the spirituality involved in all this, I thought 'Ah, now at last we're getting somewhere.' Perhaps precisely because it is such a difficult and delicate topic."

"But," I said, "don't you think one of the things wrong with a lot of experimental music is this emphasis on ersatz 'spirituality?'"

"No. I think the trouble with almost all experimental composers is that they're all head, dead from the neck down. They don't trust their hearts, I think, and tend to take themselves with a solemnity so extreme as to be downright preposterous. I don't see the point, really. I've always abandoned pieces which succeeded theoretically but not sensually."

We walk on a bit, and he comments admiringly on another passing girl. "I've developed a technique recently that works rather well, I think." I expect him to start talking about musical techniques, but then he says: "I lean on a parking meter, and every time a beautiful girl walks by, I smile at her. If she smiles back, I invite her up to my flat for a cup of tea. I moved to New York City because there are so many beautiful girls here, more than anywhere else in the world."

A bit later we're talking about the effect of travel on creativity, and he says, "I've got four apartments. One in London, one in Germany, one in Bangkok and one here. Whenever I'm not in one of them, I let one of my friends stay there. I went to Thailand because I said to myself 'I must get away for six months, away from everything.'"

"What do you do there?" I asked, barely able to fantasize what such a place might be like.

"Met Thai girls. I'm fascinated by them, not just sexually but because they seem to possess an essence of femininity that is awesome. I don't mean in the usual Western sense of passivity or anything like that--more something spiritual."

I ask him, "Are you romantic? Do you fall in love a lot?"

"Well," he says, "I guess I must be romantic because I really enjoy kissing. In fact, I think it is much more intimate than fucking. Then again, there is one girl with whom I have a very close romantic relationship which isn't really particularly sexual at all."

The next day we meet again to attend one of the evening concerts at the Kitchen. This is my first avant-music festival, I have very little idea what to expect, and ask him if he plans to attend the full nine days of nightly shows of five or six separate composer-performers each. "I'm here today doing research, really. Looking for people who might fit into certain parts of my own projects." And then he warns me: "It's good at these kind of things to sit as close to the door as possible, both because of the stuffiness of the room and if the music gets too bad you can sort of duck out for a moment and have a cigarette."

He's right about the room. There's only one fan in an extremely large loft-type space, and as I sit being lulled by its whirrings (Eno having procured two chairs from the management and placed them almost in the door) I realize that in this context, context is everything, that I could be listening to "Fan Piece" by somebody or another. I know that's corny, but then so is a lot of the avant-garde, and I've found fans a mesmerizing rockabye probably since I was dandled on Momma's papoose knee, back in church.

Which, in terms of audience rapt for dronings, was what the Kitchen was like. The first performer (ED NOTE: Charles Amirkhanian) recited a piece containing many, many repetitions of the words "Dutiful, dutiful ducks," and showed slides of a person with a sheet over his or her head wandering through empty football bleachers. The second act (each of them allotted twenty minutes so, as Eno explained, "if one is too excruciating you at least know they won't be up there much longer") was a young woman in leotards who took off her high heeled pumps and used them to prop up the speakers emitting her music, which she tilted and left at a rather precarious angle; I can't remember what the music sounded like. Next was a one-man band singing about how clear the air was in the Colorado Rockies, followed by two guitarists jamming to a tape of random noise. (Eno'd been eyeing the girlfriend of one all evening; about her swain, he said, "He looks like the kind of guy who if you asked him what kind of women he liked, would say 'I'm into gazelles, man,'" and he was right.) We missed most f their set, and got back in time for a young woman who played a tape of herself singing and sang against that: long, slow, oppressively droning pieces with lyrics to the effect that she had been abused all her life by the school system and the New York State Unemployment Bureau but nevertheless she was just a human being who couldn't keep her own house clean. "Boy, you oughta see my apartment," I thought, as Eno got up and went out for a smoke; I stayed behind because she was so dolorously depressing I kind of liked her. He returned in time for someone named David Van Tieghem with something called "A Man and His Toys," which involved the composer winding up all sorts of rackety little thingumybobs and letting them clitterclatter around each other, also unrolling a sheet of that plastic packing paper with all the bubbles in it and walking across it popping bubbles with his toes at odd intervals. I could only stand half of that before I had to take a walk myself, and that was the last act of the evening.

A few minutes later, Eno came walking out. "I quite liked him," he laughed. "By himself it isn't much, but I think all he really needs is a context. I'd like to take him and let him do that stuff in the middle of a whole bunch of other kinds of percussive things. For my next album I'm planning one piece where the performers would be in separate rooms where they either couldn't hear each other, or only slightly. I think you could get something interesting out of that." A few weeks later he would play me a tape of his latest recording session, and there, in that very separate-performer take, in the middle of all sorts of other strange instrumental juxtapositions, was van Tieghem with his toys. And of course Eno had been right: in this context those odd whirrs and rattles added a whole other dimension.

We went to a Thai restaurant where he ordered some food which he was then too embarrassed to eat when he saw that the rest of us had only ordered beer. So he called over our protestations for four small plates and divided up the portions evenly between all of us. While we were eating, a young woman present mentioned the previous day's conference and asked him: "Do you think you have charisma? Do you work on developing your mystique?"

"Let me think a moment so that I can formulate an intelligent answer," he said. "People tend to cluster around me, so in that sense I think it could be said that I have charisma. As for mystique…well, when I was in school... I never thought about any of these things till I was fourteen. I thought I was terribly ugly and that I would never be able to get any girls. So I began cultivating certain eccentricities, or encouraging ones which might have been already present, figuring that perhaps then girls would like me. And I think to an extent that it worked. There was this one girl in school, Alice Norman, that I and everyone else was madly in love with, but she was so beautiful that she seemed untouchable. No one would ever dare approach her, certainly not me, because I was even more shy then than I am now. One day she just walked up and started talking to me; I couldn't believe this was actually happening, but... I guess it worked," he laughed.

"Sounds like the way you write music," I said.

"Yes," he laughed again, "yes, I guess it does."

After that he invited us up for a while, having stopped off en route for cherries and ice cream. His flat itself looks exactly like what you would expect: airily minimalist. But though he travels and lives light (like many musicians, he had about twenty albums in his entire collection, and very few of them were rock), somehow finally it's not the cybernetic oracle or professional roué that you remember but the kind and in some way simple man of such exceptional hospitality, who got excited as a kid when told "Baby's On Fire" was a dancefloor favorite at a local club, who on another occasion went out of his way to buy medicine and take it to a woman who managed to alienate absolutely everyone on the local music scene just before contracting a serious illness. It would, of course, never occur to him to do otherwise. We talked on for a while that night, until I began to notice him drooping a bit. I walked over to one of the other guests, and said, "You know something, I think this guy wants to go to bed, and is too polite to kick us out."

"I think you're right," she said, and we left. This was not the last time this would happen.

See Part 2 of 4 of
"Brian Eno: A Sandbox In Alphaville"

Also see Lester's last interview, a tribute to Bangs and Lester as a role model?

Also see Eno in the '70's

Brian Eno on Robert Quine

Eno and the Star of the Non-Musician

Eno as orchestral music

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER