INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Rolling Stone SEPTEMBER 12, 1974 - by Cynthia Dagnal
ENO AND THE JETS: CONTROLLED CHAOS
CHICAGO - The legend of ex-Roxy synthesizer player Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno is, we were told, as formidable as the name. It preceded him in press releases from England which proclaimed him "this surrealist rock superstar", a "sylph-like electronics guru", and "a cadaver we've all come to love and recognise... the scaramouche of the synthesizer." His sexual exploits, we were also told, would apparently make both Don Juan and de Sade seem grossly overrated, and promotion women called ahead with breathless descriptions of his magnetism and his "intellect". He was purportedly beautiful, hermaphroditic, sensual and seductive. "The man that groupies of three continents have come to know as The Refreshing Experience" was coming to devastate our town with his presence and we were never to be the same again.
His new solo album, Here Come The Warm Jets, also preceded him into town - a very compelling experiment in controlled chaos and by his own self-dictated standards a near success. Until then there had been only descriptions of his music, promo-supplied outbursts like "inspired mayhem".
And there was the well-documented European success of Roxy Music, Bryan Ferry's moviola vision of rock oldies that jumped the British charts and captured the continent's imagination, so they say. The group failed to move anything on an introductory U.S. tour last fall - a promotional failure, Eno says: They had us opening shows for Savoy Brown and Steve Miller, straight boogie bands, and it just didn't work - and by the time Ferry was ready with a solo album this summer, Roxy was Eno-less too. "I was easily the most photogenic person in Roxy," Eno says. "I don't say that I was therefore the most attractive, but if they ever wanted to print an article about Roxy, they'd always have a photograph of me. My face became very well known, and people always think you must be the leader of the band, which is what Bryan got so uptight about."
Eno also turned his preoccupation with knobs and switches onto production, working with the Pan-Am Steel Band, the itinerant troubadour Magic Michael, and The Portsmouth Sinfonia (described by Eno's publicists as "an orchestra of non-musicians who give public performances of popular items from the classical repertoire and with whom Eno plays clarinet"). And he began trading studio credits and a couple of appearances with ex-Velvet Underground members John Cale and Nico, and with Kevin Ayers, who has an underground of his own.
But the description that convinced at least this reporter that Eno might indeed be something unique was supplied by Chrissie Hynde of The New Musical Express: "His singing is not unlike the shriek of a hare that's just caught an air pellet up the ass." This I had to hear.
However, arriving in Chicago during a relentless heat and humidity spell, The Refreshing Experience was reduced to a somewhat limp and miserable little stringbean. He was pallid, what there is left of his thinning hair clinging to his neck: and a half-hearted smudge of rouge on either cheek only made his pallor more alarming. Any emotions on my part at that time would have to be classified as strictly maternal. He was hot, flu-stricken and angry with himself, almost seriously toying with the idea of locking himself in the fridge for relief. Eno does not tolerate "thickness", and the very fact that he could not concentrate made his already unstable temperature skyrocket.
"Usually my focus is very sharp. I did an interview in L.A. which was very good. It lasted for nine and a half hours and it got to where he was just saying a word like 'indeterminacy' and I'd just talk. I mean I'm quite used to talking. I lecture a lot in England. I lecture in fine arts at the art schools in England... But I just feel so..." He crumpled over rather like a neglected Raggedy Andy.
His health had been described as chronically perilous in all of the articles supplied. One physical breakdown had reportedly occurred after some thirty hours of sexual activities involving no fewer than six women. It seemed, therefore, that he should be quite accustomed to performing in mid-collapse. He agreed. "My health has always been bad. But you see, usually it doesn't affect my brain. In fact usually I find it quite stimulating. When I'm really physically inoperative I think very fast. I'll give you an example. Yesterday I was in San Francisco and I was working on this new project which is a piece of music called Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy. It's a revolutionary/military battle seen as a form of contemporary dance. And I was really getting along very well with it, thinking very clean. And as soon as I got here I picked up my notebook and I thought, Great! I'll get back to Taking Tiger. But I started looking at my notes and I said," he continued, running a hand through his receding hair, "'What does this mean?' I realised that my IQ has dropped sixty points since I've been here in Chicago! I tell you... God! I so much want to get out of this town. I mean we got off this lovely air-conditioned plane and into a car and I rolled down the window and this great rush of humidity came in. I thought there was a vapor leakage or something. I could not imagine that this was a condition people actually live in!"
After this outburst a tape recorder failure developed, and perhaps this opportunity to get back to his forte, electronics, temporarily sharpened his concentration. Asked to explain his description of himself as a "non-musician", Eno proved himself worthy of at least half of his reputation. Shifting languidly but with a strange feline grace from one supine position to another on the velvet sofa, the man gave out with ideas, sketches. Stockhausen-like music plans. Completely unaccustomed to this artist/intellectual approach, I settled back and let The Refreshing Experience wash over me almost without interruption.
"I can't play any instruments in any technically viable sense at all. And it's one of my strengths, I think, actually. Simply because I believe technique is as much a barrier as a way of opening something up... I was teaching before I got into rock music, actually. I went from art into avant-garde music. The concepts that were happening in the fine arts and aesthetics in the late '60s in England were very, very close to the kinds of ideas people were dealing with in avant-garde music, so English art schools became the important centers for avant-garde music. There was nowhere else to develop, English music colleges are hopelessly academic. So the avant-garde composers, a great number of them, got jobs in art schools. I was in an art school [Winchester College of Art] which was particularly good for this, and at the time I found music more immediate and less cumbersome for certain ideas, like systems and processes in time, than painting. So I went into music gradually.
"When I left college I did some teaching and I became more and more interested in trying to evolve some of these ideas into rock music. Avant-garde music is fiercely intellectual, fiercely anti-physical. Whereas rock is fiercely physical and fiercely anti-intellectual. I wanted to try to find a meeting of the two which would actually not be frightened of either force. Rock musicians are frightened of any kind of discussion of what they do. But I mean I deal with these kinds of ideas and that's my forte, so I don't intend not to do it.
"I do think that rock music is the most important art form right now. And that's corroborated by the amount of attention it gets. It wouldn't get that kind of attention unless it were important."
He shifted again and handed over a notebook full of plans for lectures and projects. They were unique to say the least - and the least, at this point, was all I intended to offer. Operating at a tenth of his normal capacities Eno had already proved himself undeniably ahead of his competition. His studio strategies were further proof.
"One of the things I do on the albums is assemble groups of musicians because they're incompatible and not because they're compatible. I'm only interested in working, really, with people I don't agree with or who have a different direction. Particularly on Here Come The Warm Jets - I assembled musicians who normally wouldn't work together in any real-life situation. And I got them together merely because I wanted to see what happens when you combine different identities like that and you allow them to compete. My role is to coordinate them, synthesise them, furnish the central issue which they all will revolve around, producing a hybrid.
"It's very dangerous at times. It almost sometimes goes over the edge into chaos and I'm not interested in that. Well, I'm interested in chaotic situations if I've established the parameters for the chaos sufficiently. But I'm not interested in loose situations. But it is organised with the knowledge that there might well be accidents, accidents which will be more interesting than what I intended."
Jumping up suddenly, to his own surprise, he rummaged through a nest of papers and found a colourful packet of Maoist postcards titled Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy. The sight of it started him off again. "I nearly always work from ideas rather than sounds, Titles. It's that title that just fascinates me. It's fabulous. I mean, I'm interested in strategy, the idea of it. I'm not Maoist or any of that: if anything I'm anti-Maoist. Strategy interests me because it deals with the interaction of systems, which is what my interest in music is really, and not so much the interaction of sounds.
"One of the recurrent themes of rock music is a preoccupation with new dances. And it's taken by intellectuals as the lowest form of rock music, the most base and crude. So I was interested in combining that very naïve and crude form of basic expression with an extremely complex concept like 'Tiger Mountain.' Which would be sort of like a double joke. First of all the joke of me doing a dance number and secondly the fact that it also has a complete symbology that discusses another question... These notes look so interesting! And I know that as soon as I get out of this fucking city..."
Although he repeatedly insisted that the city had him totally befuddled, he went on with a barrage of philosophies and ideas which suggest that Eno unbefuddled might be more than the average mind can stand.
"The idea is paraphrasing the dance as a dance between two technologies. One of McLuhan's contentions is that conflict, international conflict, is always conflict between two technologies, not two moralities. Moralities are dictated by those technologies. I've taken the conflict between the regular-type soldiers and guerrilla-type activities. I've called the regular soldier-type ones, since they're mechanically oriented, clockwork ones. The guerilla-tactic ones are electronic." And he quoted from his notes:
The soldier seeks, the sniper waits,
The soldier is directed, clockwork, continuous.
The guerrilla is pervasive, environmental...
"I'm not subscribing to any political point of view. It's to do with this technological rift. Technological rifts have always produced hybrid art forms. I mean the reason that England is such an interesting place artistically is because it's an incredibly diverse place with opportunities for several kinds of rifts. There's an electronical society, a mechanical society and a rural society."
Somehow it didn't make sense that this man should be on a tour, following absurd promotional brouhaha from town to town. I wondered what had convinced him: a vision of universal acceptance? "I'm not an evangelist. It's a personal investigation. I would be doing this regardless. The good fortune of making it in rock music is that you have enough money to continue to experiment and to do what you want. And of course there's the immediacy."
For Eno the important thing is getting it out. He has two million feet of tape that hasn't become music yet in his eyes because it is still at home on shelves.
Just about then the sparkle was fading again. Eno began to ramble to no avail. The flu was closing in, he was afraid he might have been prescribed something dreadful that was affecting his brain and it was killing him to feel so sluggish. He rang up the house doctor, only to find that he would have to go to the office, which meant of course going out into the steaming. Exhaust-fumed streets of downtown Chicago. And another reporter had arrived.
"Of course it seems reasonable to you!" Eno snapped. "You don't have to fucking do it!"
I had been thinking that very thing. He had gotten to me after all.