Though the original members of the Cologne-based band Can were steeped in the musical avant garde, with the keyboard player Irmin Schmidt and the bass player Holger Czukay both students of the experimental composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, they were convinced that “contemporary music” could also contain rock, funk and free jazz.
Damo Suzuki, Can’s vocalist from 1970 until 1973, who has died aged 74, helped stretch their musical ambitions further still with his idiosyncratic and inimitable performances.
Suzuki’s first recordings with Can appeared on the album Can Soundtracks (1970), a compilation of pieces they recorded for various film soundtracks. Several of them were from the 1970 West German “spaghetti western” Deadlock, which enjoyed cult status. But this was just an appetiser for the following trio of albums, which have become the most highly regarded works in the Can catalogue.
The first of these was the double album Tago Mago (1971), a mesmerising brew of jazz drumming, instrumental improvisations, inventive tape-editing techniques and Suzuki’s enigmatic vocal acrobatics.
What words he was singing, or what language they were in, were secondary considerations to the impact they made at any particular moment. In his book Japrocksampler (2007), Julian Cope described the Japanese fondness for bilingual “Japanglish” phrases “as evidenced by the singing style of Damo Suzuki … who successfully inspired a whole generation of punk and post-punk singers to follow him, myself included”.
Can’s music was never chartbusting material, though their albums are frequently appraised as among the most influential in rock. Their legacy has echoed through numerous bands who came after them, including Radiohead, Public Image Ltd, Happy Mondays and The Fall (who included I Am Damo Suzuki on their 1985 album This Nation’s Saving Grace).
However, Can’s next album Ege Bamyasi (1972) did produce a hit single with Spoon, a faintly sinister piece that reached No 6 in Germany, thanks to its inclusion in the German TV thriller Das Messer (The Knife). Suzuki’s final Can album was Future Days (1973), a more ambient and atmospheric production through which his vocals are seamlessly woven.
He was born Kenji Suzuki in Oiso, in Japan’s Kanagawa prefecture. His father was an architect and his mother a housewife, who was left to bring up her four children after her husband died when Damo was five. “She is the most respected person in my life, because I learned from her so many things,” he told Mojo magazine.
He was an unenthusiastic student at school, but argued that keeping the brain uncluttered helped boost his creativity – “if you don’t have any information you can make many things”. As a teenager in the 1960s he soaked up Anglo-American pop music, from soul and Motown to the British invasion bands, though he found the Kinks more interesting than the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
He left Japan the day after his 18th birthday in 1968 and, after spending time in Sweden, London and Wexford in Ireland, he arrived in Germany in 1970. He was not clear about how he acquired the name “Damo”.
He was scraping a living by doing pavement paintings and busking on the streets of Munich, and he caught the eye, or ear, of Czukay and Can’s drummer Jaki Liebezeit. Can’s original vocalist, the American singer and sculptor Malcolm Mooney, had recently quit the band after appearing on their debut album, Monster Movie (1969). Evidently intrigued by his improvisational style, the pair asked Suzuki to perform on stage with them that night.
Despite his successful work with Can, Suzuki was unsentimental about leaving them in 1973. “I’m not interested in hanging on to the past,” he told the Guardian in 2022. “I like to spend time in the now because there I can create something new, but in the past I cannot.”
He became a Jehovah’s Witness and stayed out of music for a decade, doing a variety of jobs, including working as a hotel receptionist and exporting vintage cars. “It was a really amazing time,” he said. “I had no contact with musicians. I lived together with my family. For me, music is not that important (as other musicians think). Music is simply a thing which I can immerse my imagination in, my fantasy, my art.”
In 1983 he was diagnosed with colon cancer – the disease that had killed his father – and underwent surgery. He subsequently resumed his musical career. An inveterate traveller, he performed live improvised music with local musicians whom he described as “sound carriers”, forming what was dubbed Damo Suzuki’s Network or the Damo Suzuki Band.
The disease was kept at bay until 2014. Despite undergoing numerous surgeries, Suzuki continued to tour and perform until the arrival of the Covid-19 epidemic, when he took himself off the road and turned his attention to painting. His experiences were recorded in Michelle Heighway’s documentary Energy: A Film About Damo Suzuki (2022). In 2019 he published the memoir I Am Damo Suzuki, co-written with Paul Woods.
He is survived by his wife, Elke Morsbach.
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