It's tempting paint Damo Suzuki, the lead singer of the legendary krautrock band Can, as a kind of musical shaman. And, frankly, the video that exists of him makes it easier. 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 as a spotlight shines on the artist, Suzuki has more of a magnetic presence in the room. Dressed all in red, he holds the microphone with both hands, swings his body and sings while his long black hair obscures his face. It seems like he can't 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 February 9 at age 74, lived fearlessly in pursuit of that musical magic. To mythologize him is to discredit the firm life he led to create him. Born in 1950 in the small Japanese coastal town of Ōiso, Suzuki spent his teenage years uninterested in academic studies and was instead drawn to the arts. He founded two clubs at his school – one for general music lovers and the other for Kinks fans. Even as a teenager, he knew he was different from his peers and wanted to leave Japan. “If you want to find the truth,” he explained in his 2019 book, I am Damo Suzuki“you must break with tradition”.
At the age of 18 he left for Sweden and traveled around Europe. He earned money while playing, and although he did not consider himself a talented guitarist, he later realized that he was essentially engaged in improvisation. He once called his style “the sound of the Stone Age.” His elementary playing proved critical when, famously, bassist Holger Czukay saw him playing in Munich and invited him to join the band in 1970; the group needed a new lead singer, as Malcolm Mooney – a black American expatriate who was their first lead singer – had left. Can auditioned other singers too, but found them all very professional. Suzuki, however, could be “integrated into the group” in such a way that “there would be no boss”, the late drummer Jaki Leibezeit once observed. Suzuki would not take on the traditional frontman role; he would be another crucial instrument in their collective quest for cosmic interference.
Can's longest and most electrifying pieces clearly demonstrate this. On a track like “Halleluwah,” a highlight from the groundbreaking 1971 album Tago Mago, Suzuki warbles, snaps, and sings throughout its 19-minute running time, and there's a certain liveliness that Suzuki brings when he intermittently hits the track. Each instrumentalist occupies their own space in a Can song, as if given the opportunity to experiment freely, and as the rhythm section remains locked in, there is a moment of clarity when Suzuki sings in the track's final seconds: This ecstasy can be achieved by you , also. He made the other world seem attainable by sheer force of will.
In a phone call earlier today, Can keyboardist Irmin Schmidt recalled playing with Suzuki. “He had a uniqueness that I had never seen before,” Schmidt told me. “A spontaneous power.” This remained true even after Suzuki left the band in 1973. For much of his life, he played with “sound carriers” – local musicians he had never met before and with whom he played locally. Guitarist Glenn Jones, who played on three tours with Suzuki between 2002 and 2004, emailed me the rules that Suzuki had for its shows: “No covers, no rehearsals, no improvisation”. Jones didn’t know what else there might be, but he soon realized that Suzuki wanted the band “to create songs that are structured in the moment; songs that would exist once and then disappear into the ether.” In a 2018 interview with Red Bull Music AcademySuzuki called this practice “instant composition.”
Over the last two days, I corresponded with 25 musicians who shared the stage with Suzuki. When talking about their performances, the overwhelming response was that the shows had immense energy. Guitarist Vincent Cauwels put it succinctly: “(Suzuki) elevated musicians to an unprecedented level.” Mitsuru Tabata, a member of 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 as good as possible.
Despite Suzuki's no-rehearsal policy, he often did something else with the sound bearers before the show: share a meal. Many of the artists I spoke to highlighted their generosity and exquisite cuisine. One mentioned his “really good braise” and his desire to cook over a fire while in the mountains, another raved about his “delicious roast beef dinner” that came with lots of leftovers packed in Tupperware. Multi-instrumentalist Joshua Abrams told me that, before a performance, Suzuki would cook for a group of 12 people. “It’s not the easiest task for someone on the road in an unfamiliar kitchen,” he said. “I remember being amazed that nothing went to waste. Even the liquids released during the cooking of fish and vegetables were saved and used to prepare rice.” Remarkably, shortly before Suzuki left Japan as a teenager, his mother made him make a promise: “Wherever you go, you have to eat good things.”
Suzuki was an artist par excellence because his philosophy regarding art was the same as his philosophy regarding life. Wherever he went, and whoever he was with, he took every opportunity to make the most of what was present. The “instant composition” should not be understood, then, as something that was only in his art. When you hear a song like “Bel Air,” the 20-minute closer to Can’s 1973 masterpiece Future Days, he sings in such an airy, carefree way that it sounds natural and effortless. Creativity was not a switch he turned on or off, but a mode of perpetual existence.