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The ‘Spontaneous Power’ of Damo Suzuki

It is tempting to paint Damo Suzuki, the singer for legendary krautrock band Can, as some sort of musical shaman. And frankly, the video footage that exists of him makes it easy to do so. There is a film by Peter Pryzgodda that captures the German group at Cologne’s Sporthalle in 1972. At one point, a man arrives on stage to juggle three umbrellas — each a different color — and while a spotlight shines on the entertainer, Suzuki has the most magnetic presence in the room. Dressed in all red, he grips the microphone with both hands, sways his body, and sings as his long black hair obscures his face. It doesn’t look like he can see anything at all; this is a moment between him, the rest of the band, and the hypnotic music they conjure with immense synchronicity.

Suzuki, who died on Feb. 9 at the age of 74, lived fearlessly in pursuit of such musical magic. To mythologize him is to discredit the steadfast life he led to create it. Born in 1950 in the small Japanese coastal town of Ōiso, Suzuki spent his adolescence uninterested in academic study, and was instead taken by the arts. He started two clubs at his school — one for general music lovers, and one for fans of the Kinks. Even as a teenager, he knew he was different from his peers and longed to leave Japan. “If you wish to find the truth,” he explained in his 2019 book, I Am Damo Suzuki, “you must break from tradition.”

At 18, he left for Sweden and traveled across Europe. He made money while busking, and while he didn’t consider himself an accomplished guitar player, he later understood that he was essentially engaging in improvisation. He once called his style “the sound of the Stone Age.” His elemental playing proved critical when, famously, bassist Holger Czukay saw him busking in Munich and asked him to join the band in 1970; the group needed a new vocalist, as Malcolm Mooney — a Black American expat who was their first singer — had left. Can auditioned other singers, too, but found them all too professional. Suzuki, though, could be “integrated into the group” such that “there was no boss,” the late drummer Jaki Leibezeit once noted. Suzuki wouldn’t take on the role of a traditional frontman; he would be another crucial instrument in their collective pursuit of cosmic jamming.

Can’s longest, most electrifying pieces demonstrate this clearly. On a track like “Halleluwah,” a highlight from their groundbreaking 1971 album Tago Mago, Suzuki warbles, sputters, and croons across its 19-minute runtime, and there’s a certain verve that Suzuki brings when he intermittently arrives on the track. Each instrumentalist occupies their own space in a Can song, as if allotted the opportunity to freely experiment, and as the rhythm section remains locked, there is a moment of clarity when Suzuki sings in the track’s final seconds: This ecstasy can be achieved by you, too. He made the otherworldly feel attainable by sheer force of will.

In a phone call earlier today, Can’s keyboardist, Irmin Schmidt, recalled performing with Suzuki. “He had a uniqueness that I hadn’t seen before,” Schmidt told me. “A spontaneous power.” This remained true even after Suzuki left the band in 1973. Throughout much of his life, he would perform with “sound carriers” — local musicians he largely hadn’t met before, and with whom he played on the spot. Guitarist Glenn Jones, who played on three tours with Suzuki from 2002-2004, relayed to me over email the rules that Suzuki had for their concerts: “No covers, no rehearsals, no improvisation.” Jones didn’t know what else could possibly exist, but he soon realized that Suzuki wanted the band to “create structured songs in the moment; songs that would exist once and then disappear back in the ether.” In a 2018 interview with Red Bull Music Academy, Suzuki called this practice “instant composing.”

Over the past two days, I corresponded with 25 musicians who shared the stage with Suzuki. In talking about their performances, the overwhelming response was that the shows had an immense energy. Guitarist Vincent Cauwels put it succinctly: “[Suzuki] elevated the musicians to an unprecedented level.” Mitsuru Tabata, a member of the Japanese experimental rock band Acid Mothers Temple & the Cosmic Inferno, explained that he felt “free to play anything” alongside Suzuki, and that when the legendary singer joined his group on stage one year, they ended up sounding like Can.

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Despite Suzuki’s no-rehearsal policy, he often did something else with the sound carriers prior to a show: share a meal. Many of the artists I talked with highlighted his generosity and exquisite cooking. One mentioned his “really good stir-fry” and his eagerness to cook over fire while in the mountains, another praised his “delicious roast beef dinner” that came with ample leftovers packed in Tupperware. Multi-instrumentalist Joshua Abrams told me that, before one performance, Suzuki cooked for a group of 12 people. “Not the easiest feat for someone on the road in an unknown kitchen,” he said. “I remember being impressed that nothing was wasted. Even the liquids released while cooking the fish and vegetables were saved and used to prepare the rice.” Notably, shortly before Suzuki left Japan as a teenager, his mother had him make a promise: “Wherever you go, you have to eat good things.”

Suzuki was an artist par excellence because his philosophy towards art was the same as his philosophy towards life. Everywhere he went, and with whoever he was with, he seized every opportunity to make the most of what was present. “Instant composing” shouldn’t be understood, then, as something that was only in his artistry. When you hear a song like “Bel Air,” the 20-minute closer on Can’s 1973 masterwork Future Days, he sings in such an airy and unconcerned manner that it sounds effortless and natural. Creativity was not a switch he turned on or off, but a mode of perpetual existence.

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