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- October 11, 1982
- Vol. 18
- No. 15
At the Outer Limits of Popular Music, the Ex-Glitter-Rocker Experiments with a Quiet New Sound
Convalescing over the next month from head injuries and a strained back, Eno thought frequently about his career. Almost by accident, he had become a British cult figure as the outlandishly dressed synthesizer player of the group Roxy Music; then, after quitting the band, he had succeeded as a quirky singer-songwriter and rock producer. Yet his achievements had left him dispirited. Lying immobile in bed, grateful for the enforced sabbatical, he would listen to records played by visiting friends. One day it was harp music, with the volume turned so low that the plucked strings were almost inaudible. "At first I thought, 'Oh God, I wish I could turn it up,' " Eno remembers. "But then I started to think how beautiful it was. It was raining heavily outside and I could just hear the loudest notes of the harp coming above the level of the rain." As he listened, Eno decided that this "melted-into-the-environment quality" was what he wanted in his music and his life.
He scrapped the rouge, the glitter, the long dyed hair, to celebrate his new anonymity. The man who emerged was slight and balding with a shy smile—someone who blended easily into the background. Three years ago Eno moved to New York. Now 34, he lives with his girlfriend, Alex Blair, 24, in a penthouse in the warehouse district of lower Manhattan. The loft affords him spectacular views of the New York skyline, but the room Eno prefers is a small soundproof studio with a taped-over window. Insulated there from the hubbub of the city, he fiddles with tape recordings of everything from guitar riffs to traffic noises. By combining different tracks and allowing them to drift in and out, he recreates in music the thought process that he recognized in his near-fatal epiphany. "Ambient music," Eno calls it. It is surprisingly beautiful.
The music's beauty, however, doesn't entirely account for the "Eno is God" graffiti on the walls of lower Manhattan. In the trendy art world that centers on downtown New York, the dream is to sell without selling out. Eno is a supreme artist on that tightrope. "He manages to make music that is sort of popular but still has a lot of things that the downtown community is interested in," explains David Byrne, whose band, Talking Heads, chose Eno to produce three of its albums. "It's experimental, but a little bit commercial at the same time." Eno's most successful ambient album, Music for Airports, has sold more than 100,000 copies worldwide.
A typical day for Eno is both self-indulgent and monastic. With monomaniacal energy, he pursues whatever excites his curiosity. "He'll discover one track off a record of African music and play it incessantly for weeks," observes guitarist Robert Quine. Another day, in his totally darkened studio, he may place a droplet of spikenard or cassia oil on a homemade perfume diffuses focusing on the feelings evoked by the fragrance. Some afternoons he simply visits the Museum of Natural History, gazing at the dioramas of stuffed animals in natural poses.
Most of these activities are solitary. "He's got social claustrophobia," says Alex. "He doesn't like sitting around gabbing. He wants to hear something he can think about, so he can go off and think about it alone." Yet occasionally he goes to parties, where he can be slapstick and raucous. "He's a great dancer," says photographer William Murray. "He invented the Static. You dance violently for 30 seconds or so and then freeze for two or three minutes. I once went to a party and he started it, and soon there were 40 people doing the Static. It was surreal."
Eno's core contradiction is that he has made his career in music without ever becoming a musician. "He doesn't approach music in the conventional way—'We need a hook line here and eight bars there,' " says David Byrne. "He takes concepts often expressed in nonmusical terms and applies them to music." Although Eno has acquired some technique on the synthesizer keyboard, his primary instrument is the tape recorder. "Tape makes music into a plastic material, which is why someone like me can make music," he says. "Once it's on tape, I can rearrange things, and I can make sounds that aren't available from any instrument."
For his latest album, On Land, Eno spent much of his time experimenting with sounds like tree frogs croaking and stones being rubbed on metal. Musicians can find him maddening to work with. "He spent three days twirling hoses," recalls one disenchanted instrumentalist. "One day everyone was playing with gravel in little boxes, and he would say, That's a lovely sound.' Another time he brought back a set of slides from the Museum of Natural History which he projected on a sheet as we were playing, so we'd really feel like part of the environment. Everyone would stand around in the dark watching a slide of a monkey."
Even in childhood, says his Belgian-born mother, Brian "was always looking for something different." The son of a postman in a small town in Suffolk, England, he loved as a boy to visit an eccentric grandfather, who lived in a deconsecrated chapel crammed with stuffed animal heads, African spears, Japanese armor and a dozen cats. Brian spent some of his most enjoyable hours alone, hunting for fossils in a nearby woods. "My great debt to my parents is that they showed little interest in what I was doing," he says. "So many middle-class parents, when the kid comes home with a little painting, they put it up on the fridge. If your parents don't pay attention, you're not tempted to repeat the same drawing six times to get the same buzz."
At art school in the late '60s, Eno rarely repeated himself and was too impatient even to finish many of his paintings. "I found that I was considering the paintings more like performance pieces," he explains. "I did a whole series of them that involved more than one person doing the painting. In one, I gave four people identical instructions of the type, 'Make the canvas such-and-such square, make a mark 14 inches from the top right-hand corner, and then measure a line down at 83 degrees and find a point here...' and so on. Each instruction built on the one before. If there was any error, it would be compounded throughout the picture. I ended up with four canvases that were clearly related but different from each other, and they were stuck together to make one picture." In another work, which he called Scene of the Crime, he had one person paint a picture in a studio and remove it. After examining drip marks on the floor, questioning bystanders and doing other detective work, Eno attempted to reconstruct the picture. The original and replica were displayed together.
It struck Eno that the sort of art he liked had much in common with avant-garde music. "But with the paintings, there was a tremendous amount of preparation and then you were left with this thing lying about," he says. "With music, it lasted for as long as the act of doing it, and when it was finished, that was it." Eno experimented with musical "happenings," including one in which he placed loudspeakers in trees, each playing a different musical sequence. The mix of the "piece" would change as the listener walked through the park. "But it took me a long while to think that I was going to make a career from music," he recalls, "because I didn't play anything."
Then, in 1971, he ran into a musician acquaintance, Andy Mackay, who invited him to tape-record a few songs by a band led by singer-songwriter Bryan Ferry. That group became Roxy Music, and Eno, borrowing Mackay's synthesizer to make electronic distortions of the sound, soon became part of it. At first he would sit in the audience with a mixer, synthesizer and microphone. "I would be fiddling with the whole sound of the group, and sometimes putting in backing vocals," he recalls. "It was very bizarre. People in the audience would wheel around when I started singing." As the group's audiences grew, that became impractical, so Eno—reluctantly, he says—moved onto the stage.
From the start, Roxy was a flamboyant band with a post-Carnaby Street flair for fashion. Standing at a control panel, Eno felt out of place alongside the instrumentalists who could sway and arch their bodies dramatically. "What I was doing involved such small movements, it was like putting a screw in a watch," he says. "So my only solution was to develop clothes that would amplify small movements." Before long he was wearing ostrich-feather jackets that rippled in the breeze, and flowing dyed hair. Though he shed the feathers offstage ("very inconvenient for catching buses"), he remained an exotic bird in checked lame cowboy shirts and gold lame pants.
Photogenic and articulate, Eno began attracting as much attention as Ferry and disagreed with him over the group's musical direction. Their friendship became frayed, and Eno finally quit the group in July 1973. Two days later he wrote his first professional pop song (Baby's on Fire) and his solo career was launched. Given the grueling tour schedule that followed, including sexual marathons with obliging and energetic groupies, Eno lasted six months as an up-and-coming rock star before he wound up in the hospital with a collapsed lung. "The momentum of my career had been toward becoming a sub-David Bowie," he says, "but what I like is sitting in little rooms and fiddling with things—until they suddenly hit a chord." Disenchanted, he canceled a European tour, and eventually stopped all live performances. "Jumping around the stage is the most self-conscious activity for me," he explains. "I knew it was the wrong decision from the first night of the tour. I was happy when my lung collapsed."
Eno spent much of the next year running in and out of studios, recording his own work and producing other artists at a manic pace, until the near-fatal taxi accident once again put him on hold. "The things I was doing were more and more like the things I had done," he recalls. "I needed to stop myself." Since then, his studio output has been more selective. He has collaborated with David Bowie and David Byrne, produced records by Talking Heads, Devo and Harold Budd, and cut several solo albums. Although he continues to produce New Wave bands, the music he writes has drifted away from what he calls "an idiot glee" in his early songs to a quiet, contemplative sound reflecting "an Arcadian kind of yearning." For the last three years he has been videotaping the New York skyline as seen from his windows. Far above the dirt and noise of the street, the city becomes an overlay of rooftops on an opalescent sky. Like his music, the videos are Eno's construction of an alternate world, a sort of intellectual park where hypertense city dwellers can take refreshment. Music for Airports, accompanied by his videos, was installed temporarily at La Guardia Airport in New York.
Last month Eno returned to the recording studio to construct more of his musical environments. "The idea is to recreate the feeling of being in a landscape," he explains. "It's as though there would be this chaos of events going on, and suddenly they would knot together and compose themselves in a beautiful way. Something ecstatic happens, and then it all drifts apart again." He likens it to his childhood experience of walking through a forest that had, on his first visit, been an undifferentiated group of trees, but later came to contain familiar places that trembled with emotional resonance. Treated as Muzak, Eno's musical environments remain pleasant clumps of sound, but listened to attentively, they become recognizable, providing the quiet thrill that Eno seeks.
November 23, 2015
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