INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Age NOVEMBER 25, 2009 - by Stephen Walker
ON SOME FARAWAY BEACH
The Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno biography.
Brian Eno is an enigma in popular music, a ubiquitous figure over the past couple of decades whilst also being relatively invisible. We know what he does, but not who he is; a Zelig-like being who by accident or design, or a bit of both, has placed himself proximate to significant figures and developments in music culture over the past couple of decades. A professional amateur who has not mastered any instrument, nor has any formal musical training, an anti-virtuoso knob-twiddler who has been behind, or next to many of our favourite records including his own. He is a catalyser, able to place people, concepts, media or sounds in motion together with unknown outcomes triggering new narratives and meanings as a result of that amalgamation of disparate elements. He also straddles high art and popular culture, the gallery and the dance club, the lecture theatre and the pop charts with apparent ease, moving from project to project, a restless dabbler, a hungry mind. Both in appearance and demeanour a bland figure, he does not physically draw attention to himself (aside from Roxy Music) and even though his name appears often in many record collections, not necessarily on the front cover,little is known about the man behind the name. So a biography of the man is both overdue and intriguing.
David Sheppard's On Some Faraway Beach: The Life And Times Of Brian Eno is a four-hundred-and-seventy-page tome that is not labelled authorized, but Brian did give the author extensive interviews and direction. Thankfully the author is a fan but not a sycophant and manages to cram the details of his subject's creative life between the covers although he concedes that a multi-volume edition would be needed to do justice to all the projects Eno has undertaken. I was aware of much of Eno 's work but reading about it all assembled together in one place would make even the most cynical anti-Eno reader awe-struck at the sheer volume and variety of his works.
Sheppard's meticulously researched entertainingly written volume moves chronologically through Brian's life, from his childhood rural and sleepy background, growing up in a council house in Woodbridge in Suffolk, influenced musically by the American soldiers based nearby that engendered his life- long love of doo-wop, the eccentric amateur musicians in his family and then the life- changing experience of art college where threw himself into conceptualising and promoting all manner of marginal activity, providing a template for his future endeavours in pop.
Falling into Roxy Music by accident rather design begins his pop career and it is here that Sheppard's book reveals some amusing details including the rivalry between Bryan Ferry and Eno, vying for attention and also groupies ( the priapic Eno won both), the creative angst of Eno's first solo albums, his collaborations with Fripp, Cluster and Bowie and production work with Talking Heads. In fact, Sheppard devotes more than three-quarters of the book to Eno's pre-1982 life and work, shoehorning the next twenty-six years into the remaining quarter (the '90s are polished off in about thirty pages). However, Sheppard is clear on the reasons for the book's biases, noting that "the last decade [...] has offered little to truly match the luminous originality of [Eno's] benchmark 1970s solo albums." And it is these early pages where the book is at its strongest, the latter quarter more a "then he did this and then that" litany of his undiminished work rate than an insightful glimpse into the man at its core. The twenty-five years of installations, lectures, charity work and political activism less interesting than his early career.
But perhaps because Eno was involved in the books creation we get very little insight into the man himself and his private life, other than eccentricities like erecting garden shed in his home studio and speaking of erections, his obsession with sex, photographing his sexual conquests, an interest in S&M, an unsubstantiated claim to appearing in porno movies and his penchant for bald-headed , black buxom women. Other than that he does come across as bit of cold fish, although that may be part of his ability to meld with a variety of musicians and creative situations. Even after four hundred and seventy pages you may admire his work ethic but not warm to him as a person.
Sheppard has succeeded in "folding down a skyscraper into a suitcase" as he describes his task, surveying the creative life of one of our most productive artists and giving us a non-nerd book on one of the most successful nerds of our era.