On Some Faraway Beach
The Life and Times of Brian Eno
By David Sheppard
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2008 David Sheppard
All rights reserved.
Events in Dense Fog
'It is better to have enough ideas for some of them to be wrong than to be always right by having no ideas at all.' (Edward de Bono)
'Rock stars; is there anything they don't know?' (Homer Simpson)
You couldn't make him up. Or at least if you did no one would quite believe you. The polymorphous Brian Eno has been so many things over forty years of creative endeavour that it's sometimes difficult to reconcile this inimitable sexagenarian's disparate enthusiasms and achievements; harder still, these days, to succinctly define exactly what it is he does. Indeed, Eno himself long ago gave up trying to do that. Bored with having to reel off the world's most bafflingly convoluted job description 'record-producer-cum-experimental-musician-cum-visualartist-cum-epistemologist-cum-belle-lettrist-cum-one-man-think-tank-cum-parfumeur', and so on ...), he took to telling interested strangers that he was in fact 'an accountant'; an admission guaranteed to thicken the ice at parties.
A dissection of Eno's life necessarily throws up a portrait in mosaic – a pixellated image glinting with apparent paradoxes. Consider the contradictory Brians: the 1970s rock lust-object with a predilection for logarithm tables; the technophile who never learned to drive; the bon vivant who likes to be at work before sunrise; the 'non-musician' with a sublime gift for melody; the uxorious family man and self-confessed flirt, the visceral sensualist and cerebral conceptualist (and, lest it be forgotten, the avant-garde champion who took a U(2)-turn to refurbish the world's least arty rock band). If you were a method actor asked to 'inhabit' the character of Brian Eno, where would you start? Even his full name – Brian Peter George St. Jean le Baptiste de la Salle Eno – sounds like a case of raging multi-personality syndrome (if not the punch-line to an esoteric, ecumenical gag). That grandiloquent moniker turns out to be a slight affectation (the residue of an otherwise sloughed-off Catholic education), its retention proof that Brian cleaves to the exotic in the everyday. It's perhaps that characteristic above all others which binds his many, seemingly incongruent predispositions.
It was as the very personification of 'exotica' that Brian Eno first parachuted into the wider public consciousness in 1972 – a startling, herm-aphrodite apparition even among the glittering mannequin retinue that was Roxy Music. Resplendent in outlandish couture and framed against his futuristic paraphernalia of synthesizers and whirring tape recorders, from the off, Eno seemed like a figure untethered from musical precedent. He has continued ever since to describe a sinuous career trajectory, the guidelines for which – if there are any – are known to him alone. He remains singular within the realm of music and while 'Eno-esque' is an adjective often appended to aspects of other artists' work, no succeeding generation has produced a 'new Eno' in the way that a 'new Dylan' has been regularly thrown up by the cycling tides of musical fashion.
While Eno may be a happy anachronism, his musical influence remains pervasive – palpable whenever an ambient backdrop, 'plunder-phonic' vocal sample or world music hybrid comes into earshot; or whenever rock dispenses with blues-based worthiness and embraces the bolder tenets of art. Over and above his headline-grabbing work with David Bowie, Talking Heads, U2, Devo, James, Paul Simon, Cold-play et al, traces of the Eno artistic genome continue to suffuse popular music, identifiable in everything from the abstract meta-rock of Radio-head and Moby's dance-pop audio piracy to the glam hauteur of Franz Ferdinand and the micro-processed glitch-scapes of Autechre. Moreover, Eno's overarching ideas about the production, function and dissemination of music have trickled down so effectively that they now inform the sonic vocabulary of our age.
Eno's has been a Zelig-like presence on the musical landscape for well over three decades now, his influence publicly acknowledged by a dizzying panoply of artists from Prince to Public Enemy, Cabaret Voltaire to Aphex Twin. The instigator of ambient and generative musics, Eno was also there or thereabouts when glam rock first preened, prog first lumbered, punk first raged; post-punk first itched, disco first strutted and 'world music' first hybridized. Yet he has always orbited epicentres of change, rarely touched down in them – the looker-on knowing more of the game. Too judicious to be sucked into prog's baronial excesses, too much of a pop connoisseur to wield punk's year-zero bludgeon, he was feted by fans of both genres nonetheless, although he has always been happiest carving a new route through the creative landscape and is by his own admission a better explorer – or more accurately a surveyor – than he is 'a settler'.
His nose for the zeitgeist is demonstrable, however; tenures in London, New York, Berlin and St. Petersburg all pre-empted, or at least coincided, with those cities enjoying a moment of energized artistic pre-eminence. Moreover – and more significantly for the biographer – to trace the arc of Eno's creative career is to follow the forty-year parabola of Western cultural evolution itself. Inspired by post-war avant-gardism, granted licence by the liberated 1960s, embraced by the revolutionary '70s, consecrated by the technocratic, cross-pollinated '80s and '90s, forced to diversify laterally by the ambiguous '00s; you've long been able to set your socio-cultural alarm clock by Brian Eno.
'Renaissance Man' is a label tossed out all too glibly when 'multi-tasker' would be more accurate, but in Brian Eno's case it is, for once, a not entirely spurious description (although his detractors tend to use a more pejorative adjective, dilettante). While none of his innate gifts mark him out as a 'genius' per se ('He wasn't Leonardo da Vinci or anything,' his friend and art school mentor, the painter Tom Phillips, insisted to me, 'but he obviously had an inventive mind, as everybody now knows'), there is nonetheless something of the late medieval polymath about Brian Eno, albeit cut with a very mid-20th-century strain of British 'garden shed' amateurism. Part artist, part scientist, part societal weather forecaster (or 'futurologist' as the trendy neologism has it), labouring over infinitesimal creative detail while simultaneously prescribing any number of grand, socio-technological hypotheses, he is inquisitiveness personified and continues to pack notebooks with theorems, diagrams, observations, formulae, jokes, aphorisms and sketches, and latterly oscillates between art, music, sciences and politics with, whatever Tom Phillips says, an almost Da Vincian versatility. Somehow you imagine that if Eno had been born in 15th-century Tuscany, his prodigious imagination might also have found a way to wow the Florentine and Milanese courts.
As it is, Eno remains' a restlessfuturist', to quote Paul Morley, an insatiable 21st-century interlocutor of radical thought from across the gamut of art, science and cultural ideas; forever posting back bulletins from the esoteric margins and recontextualizing blue-sky thought for more popular consumption – his own, included. Even in his sixtieth year, his tentacles show no sign of retracting as he settles into the role of patrician 'wise elder' – albeit one who has never quite lost the glamorous allure of his youth. He appears enviably well adjusted – the picture of graceful ageing (he was recently likened, accurately, to 'a prosperous vineyard owner') – and his remains an astonishingly hip name to drop in all sorts of circles and among all sorts of age groups. That said, as I write, Eno is embarking on another new and unlikely career strand as youth spokesman for the terminally unhip Liberal Democrat party (whose recently elected leader is twenty years Eno's junior and who may yet hold the balance of power in the hung parliament political soothsayers predict being the result of the next General Election). It's a move whose superficial 'conservatism' has been greeted with severely raised eyebrows in some quarters – the kind of reaction which Eno's apparently counterintuitive decisions have regularly induced over the years.
Despite a stated preference for the backroom, the Eno pate (containing 'the most formidable pair of frontal lobes in the rock world', according to Melody Maker) has rarely dipped completely below the parapet since he first piqued public interest back in 1972. Having rapidly achieved rock star status, he promptly turned in his glitter badge (a process of 'retreat' from the showbiz glare that began, notoriously, after he found himself pondering the whereabouts of his laundry in the middle of a spring 1973 Roxy Music concert), although he was never quite the butterfly who sought the cocoon. Indeed, he has rarely shunned publicity at any stage in his life, nor has he been averse to courting the press, regarding it as a valuable conduit through which to broadcast his ideas even as he has come to loathe the predictability of its questions. Thanks to the prolific column inches he can still command, even the most discreet beat of Eno's wing tends to ripple out across the cultural realm – sometimes with revolutionary effect (although equally often to no palpable effect at all – such is the dilettante's lot).
His colourful, eclectic calling and propinquity to the superstar elite means that Eno lore is legion and he has long been a magnet for culture vultures, sycophants and anoraks, often of the most obsessive and self-righteous kind. I do not necessarily exclude myself from their ranks – how could I? I have, however, attempted to remain a dispassionate, impartial chronicler. In this I was encouraged by Colin Newman, lead singer of the veteran post-punk band Wire and an acquaintance and long-term adherent of Eno's, whose pithy views on all things Brian resonated like a Greek chorus as I wrote the book. Possibly fearing I was another fixated, sanctimonious Enophile, Newman gave me some salutary words of advice: 'I think we need to reclaim Eno from the Eno nerds. There's a lot of nasty train-spotting involved with the Eno fanbase. Brian needs to have his place, sure, but he's not a saint, nor is he a professor. He's a bunch of things, one of which – and I say this in the most friendly and supportive way – is an incredibly adept bull-shitter. He's a brilliant opportunist.'
Eno continues to divide opinion. During my research I encountered expressions of deep affection for him ('Brian Eno is one of the only people I've worked with who I can actually say I love,' his friend and sometime musical collaborator Robert Wyatt confessed to me. Eno's old Roxy Music confrere, and one-time adversary, Bryan Ferry, was no less gushing, admitting, 'I always feel inspired if I'm in the same room as Brian'), but also the odd, unanticipated expression of scepticism. English contemporary classical composer and 1970s Eno associate Gavin Bryars offered a particularly ambiguous assessment of his erstwhile colleague: 'Where Brian is strong is in working with other people – when he's a hands-on enabler ... He can't really play anything, nor can he read music, but he makes a virtue of it; he always has other people to do those things for him. As an artist, he hardly begins to get through the door, for me.' It's an opinion, even Bryars himself acknowledges, seldom volunteered elsewhere.
One thing's for sure, a biography of Brian Eno – a man whose 1995 diary, published the following year as A Year with Swollen Appendices, alone ran to some 444 wittily recorded, theory-stuffed, event-jammed pages – is never going to suffer from a dearth of source material. Indeed, while Eno's frenetic, multi-episodic life can sometimes present a thick miasma of cross-pollinated activity (a good deal of which never reaches the public sphere), it so happens that Eno has been arguably popular music's most willingly loquacious interviewee. He has spent much of the last four decades explaining himself and his ideas to often spellbound, sometimes dumbfounded – but nearly always intrigued – interrogators, representing organizations and publications whose infinite variety bears testament to the elasticity of his intellect and the expansiveness of his field of engagement. What other comparable musical figure could be of equal interest, as Eno has been, to Scientific American and Punk Magazine, the Royal College of Art and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics?
Aside from the influences of a very particular East Anglian upbringing, Eno, in common with a legion of UK musicians, owes his creative impetus to the permissive hothouse that was the British art school of the 1960s. However, while the likes of Pete Townshend, Ray Davies, John Lennon and Bryan Ferry used these stimulating, free-spirited enclaves as a fleeting conduit to rock stardom, art school had a more profound and enduring effect on Eno. He remains guided by many of the principles that formed the basis of his art education and his creative career could be viewed as one extended 'art school project' – bringing the paradigms of conceptual art to bear on the relatively conservative, linear and commercially driven realm of popular music. What's more, since the turn of the 1980s, Eno has simultaneously pursued the bona fide visual art career for which he was ostensibly trained, his musical identity and fine art calling inexorably merging over time. Even at his most 'pop', the distinction between 'low' and 'high' culture is something Eno has been at great pains to blur.
Financially secure since his mid-twenties ('Brian's never had to pay his own rent, or worry about bills or anything like that,' his wife and long-term manager Anthea admitted to me. 'In fact he doesn't even like to know what he's being paid for certain projects, in case it influences his work ...'), Eno has enjoyed the luxury of devoting himself entirely to such analyses – expending his considerable energies in what amounts to a grand, across-the-board aesthetic commission. His creative time has been spent assembling musical pieces for which there is often no ostensible deadline but his own and for investigating all manner of sonic and visual art possibilities, often unburdened by the constraints of economic expediency. Eno is, in a sense, an embodiment of art for art's sake – although as one of his heroes, the American cultural theorist Morse Peckham, would contend, art can be regarded as a 'safe' arena for working out some of the more perilous problems of human existence. Eno remains evangelical about art being a controlled experiment in life.
Questioning the accepted doctrines of art is one of Eno's preoccupations, although he is equally liable to be enmeshed in matters scientific, academic, entrepreneurial and, increasingly, political (he has latterly become an indefatigable lobbyist and congenital faxer – particularly on behalf of the charity War Child and the 'Stop the War' coalition). The famous giant white board wall-planners that adorn his studio wall, on which his frenetic, eclectic schedule is mapped out, are works of art in themselves – swarming, convoluted, felt-tip testimony to what is arguably Britain's most pluralistic life.
His enthusiasm is generally reserved for whatever's next, whether that means some forthcoming artistic experiment or wider impending cultural or technological futures. This is a man whose time is in almost constant demand – so much so that for some years he would rise regularly at 3 a.m. in order to enjoy uninterrupted creativity in his studio. Unsurprisingly, he grows impatient and easily bored with anything that impinges on this kinetic momentum and would rather be contemplating the possibilities of tomorrow than celebrating yesterday's coups.
All of this makes Eno, superficially at least, a less than ideal subject for a biography ('I'm never any good at thinking about "me" in the psychoanalytical sense,' he also admits). When I first addressed him about the idea of this book, he seemed bashful about it, more than anything. At the time he was also being grilled by author Michael Bracewell for a book about the art school background of Roxy Music, and Eno said he'd feel like a 'maiden being courted by two suitors'. Thankfully, Brian, partly through the inestimable auspices of wife Anthea, agreed to submit to my inquisitions and was also gracious enough to answer a tranche of what must have, in places, seemed rather petty enquiries ('When did you have your appendix out?' is not the first question you'd want to ask Brian Eno, is it?), generously filling in all sorts of gaps in the narrative. (Continues...)
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