The Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch

My, my, my… Brian Eno continues to surprise even if you think you’ve figured out his methods. We’ve all heard by now of his oblique strategies; starter packs are available for purchase. Throwing out sounds, ideas and words at random then finding some means of binding them together has served Eno and his collaborators very well. I always presumed that this particular title was a result of just such witchery. There’s no cohesion to those words being together. But, nope, Eno took inspiration from a true tale of a young man named William Underwood – a Negro in the parlance of his time – from a place called Paw Paw, MI who claimed to possess pyrokinetic powers. Being the 1800’s, of course, science had no means to either disprove or explain those claims, but the man was documented by observes breathing fire (though not, to my knowledge, barbecuing kittens.) The nineteenth century was full of such delightfully credulous tales of pseudo scientific quakery, and more of them should be revived in pop culture. The weight of real context lends a whole new meaning to a self-consciously flippant song; suddenly there’s a story that you really want to know more of. This could be the seed of the next AHS.

Over Fire Island

And now, two minutes of ambiance. If you’re so inclined, Brian Eno has hours’ worth of ambient music to nod off to, but I think a few minutes is enough. On Another Green World, Eno transitioned from traditional – if weird – pop based song structures towards the aural wallpaper concept he would thoroughly pioneer over the next few years. The great thing about the instrumental parts here is that they are still recognizably self-contained songs. They’re fun to listen to, whereas the point of the later discreet ambient music for bus stops is that you can’t really listen to it at all. Fire Island, for whatever it’s worth, is a strip of land off the coast of Long Island that has been known since the 1970’s as a vacation destination for the gay community. So this may well be Brian Eno’s big rainbow-flag moment, presented in a characteristically oblique manner.

One Word

Once again, I’m cycling around to one of my all time favorite records – John Cale & Brian Eno’s Wrong Way Up. Cale and Eno, of course, are the ideal mashup, having flown in the same arty circles for decades. This reflects the best of both artists with very little of the usual attendant weirdness. I’m told that one of the songs here was even a minor hit, which is barely conceivable. I guess Eno does have a magic touch for producing great records that sound accessible as pop even when they’re the furthest possible thing. And John Cale hates pop but is secretly really good at it. Therefore, a match made in heaven.

On Some Faraway Beach

On days of stress and frustration, where to turn? Perhaps Brian Eno, in a twilight between pure ambiance and pop, is just the man to relax my frazzled mind. There’s something almost symphonic going on here, a dramatic arc that tells the story, in a song with very few words. I find it relaxing, is what I’m trying to say, and more than that, creatively elevating. It’s not about anything but it makes me feel good.

No One Receiving

It will shine and it will shudder as I guide it with my rudder.

It being, I want to imagine, the boat you’re sailing down the Nile in. Perhaps I dreamed it, but I have a memory of seeing a film that was nothing but the banks of the Nile and the water gliding by, shot from a small craft and accompanied by Brian Eno music. It was not heavy on action, but hypnotic in its monotony. Visual ambiance, to go with Eno’s ambient music experiments. So the boat shines and shudders down the Nile, and the boat is a metaphor for your flimsy mortal carapace that you rudder down the river of life, with only a slight illusion of control, and a radio to keep you company, though you know that no one is out there to hear your SOS.

Needles in the Camel’s Eye

That  was enough with the depressing dead people already. Brian Eno is buoyant and very much alive. The master of ambient dreamscapes is also master of jolting glam rock rebellion. Just the song to kickstart Velvet Goldmine into frantic, sequin-dazzled action. The weirdness is euphoric. Listening to Brian Eno is a lifestyle choice, a secret identity that may or may not come with a taste for purple berets.

Mother Whale Eyeless

Brian Eno, being saddled with the ‘art rock’ label, sometimes gets dismissed as a cold intellectual, more concerned with concepts than with feelings. Obviously, this is a fallacy of a mainstream media culture that considers intellectualism and conceptuality inaccessible and therefore somehow bad. American anti-intellectualism is a powerful force with a long ¬†history that I won’t get into, and it’s not exactly been a boon to Brian Eno’s popularity. However, to anyone who’s ever actually listened to Eno’s seventies pop output, it’s clear that his songs have a great emotional capacity, as well as plenty of wit. I’d like to point to his music’s frequent appearances in movies (not just of the high-camp Velvet Goldmine variety.) I was recently impressed by Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, in which a teenage girl dies of leukemia to a soundtrack that leans heavily on Brian Eno. A few years earlier Eno’s music did a similar degree of emotional heavy lifting in Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones. I suppose filmmakers are drawn to using Eno because his songs are both memorable and not widely familiar. To me they are instantly recognizable and deeply familiar, but for others I imagine an encounter with an Eno song is an “OMG what is this!?” moment. Thanks to these filmmakers for making a minor trend of Eno songs as emotional punctuation. Let’s see if it brings people to Tiger Mountain.