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Almost Famous

After influencing two generations of musical outsiders, Can man and Krautrock pioneer Damo Suzuki makes a rare local appearance.

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Two time-honored rock-and-roll maxims for you: 1) Bands or artists of the groundbreaking and influential variety usually last about four years, and 2) Even though only a relative handful of people experienced the Velvet Underground (or insert any number of similarly legendary and short-lived bands here) live, every single one of them went on to start a band of his or her own. Now, for you nit-picking fact-checkers out there, there may be exceptions aplenty to both of those statements, but I do not question their validity when used to describe the German band Can.

Can was an active band with four core members from 1968 until 1980, though only four of those years (1970 to 1974) were spent backing Japanese-born vocalist/street poet Kenji "Damo" Suzuki. Band founders Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit stumbled across Suzuki in May 1970 when he decided to busk in front of a Munich café where Czukay and Liebezeit were dining. The pair were, coincidentally, having serious problems with their current vocalist -- the mentally unstable New York-based sculptor Malcolm Mooney -- so they asked Damo to join them onstage that night. Walking papers were soon served to Mooney, leaving the new guy to fulfill the remaining vocal duties on Soundtracks, a work-in-progress that would see Damo steering the epic "Mother Sky" into the realm of what would become Can's signature sound.

Presaging much of the next 30 years in underground rock, Can made a lasting statement with 1971's double-album watershed Tago Mago. Damo's one-of-a-kind vocal chops are already at full force with this album. Best described as a weird amalgamation of Beat-influenced chanting and scat singing, Damo struck an uncanny balance between palatable pop song and nonlinear improvisation.

Tago Mago drew a loose blueprint of what the next two years and as many albums would offer the world. Ege Bamyasi (1972) and, my personal fave, Future Days (1973) would show Can following a distinct antiformula until Damo's departure in late '73 to become a Jehovah's Witness. Damo was fronting a sonic orphan in the world of early '70s rock, as the band combined the disparate influences of ska, musique concrete composers, garage rock, free jazz, psychedelic pop, and reggae without beating you over the head with showmanship or quirkiness. It was deftness nothing short of idiot-savantism, and it could be fully flexed within the course of a five-minute song.

Can are best remembered as the greatest and most important of the Krautrock bands. While the oft-used term could technically define Nena of "99 Luft Balloons" fame, it's primarily used to reference a handful of German trailblazers who came to creative fruition in the early '70s. Kraftwerk progressed from an abrasive band-oriented tribute to John Cage to a very famous preface to dance music when they hit internationally in 1975 with Autobahn. Guru Guru, Ash Ra Temple, and Amon Duul II took a bombastic acid-rock route into their collective irrelevant years, and Tangerine Dream are defying logic by even being mentioned here. Neu! were a tumultuous class all their own but a class slightly more one-dimensional nonetheless. When they weren't displaying an impenetrable nuttiness or just screwing around making noise, Faust were most likely Can's closest cousin in pure innovation. But it's Damo-era Can that's usually on the minds of writers, name-droppers, or musicians whenever Krautrock enters the picture.

For several years after Damo's departure, the band's impact was omnipresent. All of Brian Eno's pop records of the '70s -- an output that in and of itself deserves a thousand-word spew -- owe a great deal to Can. Johnny Rotten left the Sex Pistols to become John Lydon -- a man whose professed love for Can was evident all over the first two Public Image Limited albums. Mark E. Smith penned the tribute "I Am Damo Suzuki" while he was fronting a good version of the Fall. The Pop Group, Cabaret Voltaire, Gang of Four, Liquid Liquid, and the Police would all eagerly admit the presence of Can in their rhythmically acrobatic post-punk musings.

But 10 years ago, unless you were talking to a record-geek lifer, the mention of Krautrock or Can would have been met with a blank stare. This situation was remedied when bands such as Tortoise, the Orb, Add N to X, Trans Am, Pavement, and especially Stereolab and (more recently) Clinic started borrowing heavily and unapologetically from the early '70s German bands. Another subgenre was upon us in the mid-'90s, one that, for all of the boring rehashes (some of the above), helped to spawn reissues, books, and boxed sets documenting the original movement.

But Damo himself hasn't exactly been silent all this time. Back in Germany -- in the mid-'80s to be precise -- Damo, not content to be his scene's Syd Barrett, reemerged. Damo reunited with Can drummer Liebezeit to lead the rotating cast of Damo Suzuki and Friends. They morphed into Damo Suzuki's Network, which eventually showered the world with multi-CD live sets. All four are housed in elaborate packaging, with the longest being a seven-disc musical miniseries called P.R.O.M.I.S.E. (1998). The sound of post-exile Damo is, unsurprisingly, a mixture. I've gathered pleasurable wah-wah bombast, wiry drumming, and mostly indecipherable lyrics from my evening with Seattle -- a two-CD excursion recorded in 1998 and released in 2000.

This Thursday at the Hi-Tone Café, Damo will appear backed up by Cul de Sac, a band that I purposely excluded from my prior rundown of '90s Krautrock fetishists. Virtuoso outsiders who dropped instrumental bombshells throughout the decade, Cul de Sac made an intimidating impression in 1992 with Ecim, a debut notable not only for its unique nods to German forebears but for helping reignite interest in the late John Fahey (they covered his "Portland Cement Factory in Monolith, California"), who would later collaborate with the band on their 1996 China Gate album. The show will include a set by Cul de Sac proper before they present us with the headlining perfect fit.

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