I was at Rock City the other day, queueing to buy tickets for three gigs: the Dears (a great Montreal band with strong hints of the Smiths and Blur), the reformed American Music Club and the mighty Wilco. I had a long wait, for the long haired, mid-30s guy in front of me was buying tickets for lots of gigs and two separate people messed up his order. Mostly, he was going to metal gigs that I would pay money rather than be made to see. But I was taken aback by the last gig he wanted a ticket for: ‘Nick Drake’, he said. I found this disconcerting because Nick Drake has been dead for thirty years. I was a fan when he was sill alive. I even wrote one of the tiny number of music press pieces that appeared in the immediate aftermath of his death. ‘You mean the sound of Nick Drake’, the girl at the computer said, before charging the same price as a Dears ticket to see two guys doing a tribute act of songs by a guy who loathed live performance.
Bands keep reforming, often with original members missing. Last year, I was underwhelmed by the Magic Band without Captain Beefheart. The remaining line-up reproduced the late 60’s sound superbly but it lacked something (one) obvious. The depleted MC5 didn’t do it for me either, but Brian Wilson’s ‘Smile’ tour was a triumph, even though most of the backing band weren’t born when Brian began his 1967 masterpiece. And I won’t talk about Queen reforming with Paul Rodgers replacing Freddie Mercury, because I never liked Queen much (though I have a soft spot for Rodgers’ first band, Free). That said, authenticity interests me. It’s easy to dismiss the Nick Drake gig (and before people send me aggrieved emails, I’m sure it’s all done in the best possible taste), but is a band reforming after ten or twenty years, like AMC or the Gang Of Four, an artistically valid thing to do, or a sad indulgence?
Another act I went to see last year was Damo Suzuki, once of Can. I saw him perform with them at what was, I think, only my third or fourth gig, back in 1973, and even hung out with him before and after the show (he was only a little older than me, and I had no idea he was the singer when we got talking). 2004’s 75 minute improvisation wasn’t a great gig (I went with Martin and there’s a good review on his blog) but it was interesting, reviving my enthusiasm for that period when, for my money, Can were the best band in the world, the most exciting, innovative and plain enjoyable. Around that time, I picked up some Can bootlegs, including a terrific one from Edinburgh in August ’73, and a poor quality one from Hamburg, in October of the same year, titled ‘Damo’s Last Gig’. The gig was as poor as the sound quality. I didn’t play it all.
I’ve recently learned to use Bittorrent (a filesharing system that’s only for live music fanatics, as it really slows down everything else on your computer) and last month I downloaded an expanded version of the Edinburgh ’73 Can concert, which the uploader had titled ‘Damo’s last gig’. I wrote a polite note to him, pointing out that the next gig, in Hamburg two months later, was the last Damo appearance. The uploader pointed me to this site which lists all of Can’s known live performances. It supported his viewpoint. I played the boot again. I listened, trying to imagine the performance, picture the singer, whoever he was. It definitely wasn’t the Damoless Can that I saw in 1974, although Damo’s singing in Hamburg left a lot to be desired. Thomas, who runs the Can Live site linked above, had a request for corrections up, so I emailed him. He replied at once: ‘if your record is the same as mine please listen to it carefully again: the record I have doesn’t sound like Damo’s voice, – to me it is one of the remaining four who is singing.’ We established that we had the same recording, but the voice was too like Damo’s, albeit more buried in the mix than usual, to be one of the others, whose voices I know. I said this to Thomas, who replied with a new theory, that the singer is not a member of Can, but a Damo impersonator. We agreed to differ, with my still thinking the gig was Damo’s last, substandard performance. Maybe it was so bad because he was on the verge of walking out. (If you use bittorrent and register on DIME, the concert can be downloaded here for a while.)
If I’d known about this a couple of months earlier, I could have asked Damo himself. So it went, until I read the February issue of Mojo magazine where, in the ‘hello and goodbye’ section, Damo describes how he walked out of Can, never to return, during rehearsals in September ’73, a month before the Hamburg gig. So Thomas is right. But I’d like to know, who took Damo’s place in Hamburg, and why? (please use the email link at the side if you know). Damo was such an idiosyncratic, unique singer, what possessed the rest of the band to bring in somebody who tried to sound like him, an imitator? Presumably, whoever sang, the band decided the Hamburg gig was a failure (it does sound rather like a Can tribute band, never quite hitting their mesmerising highs, even in the instrumental sections) and decided to continue as a four piece thereafter. Wise decision, as some of their best music was made with the reduced line up.
I’m relieved that the Edinburgh gig was Damo’s last because it’s a really good one, showing all the qualities that wouldn’t really filter through to the mainstream until 90’s dance music (it could be argued that, by then, the prevalent dance drugs suited the rave/trance style that Can originated). But thinking about this stuff leads me back to the issues I began with. Is quality or originality the issue that matters most when it comes to musical authenticity? If the music’s good enough, and some of the right people are involved, should we care if the band playing aren’t quite the real thing? Well, yes. Since guitarist Michael Karoli’s death, I wouldn’t want to see a Can reformation, even if Damo were to rejoin them. Some things are of the moment. You attempt to repeat them at your peril. Go to some of these gigs and, between numbers, you can hear money, talking loudly. It makes me want to heckle.