Talkhouse Contributing Writer Jonathan Meiburg is the singer for the band Shearwater, whose new album Jet Plane and Oxbow will be released early next year by Sub Pop Records. You can follow Shearwater on Twitter here.
“Shit,” said Brian Eno, to a gust of laughter. “I find saying ‘shit’ helps. Shit. Shit.” It was only a few minutes into his May 7th lecture at the Cooper Union in New York City, and it wasn’t going so well. Eno was there to talk about his 77 Million Paintings installation, and the sold-out audience leaned forward, ready to eat from his hand. But the microphone — of all things, a microphone! — wasn’t cooperating, and Eno seemed genuinely thrown. He tried a hand-held mike, a lavalier clipped to his lapel, and a combination of the two, but his voice sounded thin and hollow, the PA was on the edge of feeding back, and you had the sense that there was an intruder in his panic room. Then, a moment of near-anarchy: tentative suggestions from the audience. One voice boomed, “Try speaking a little closer to the mike.” Eno tried it. It worked, sort of. “That’s Dan Lanois,” Eno said, “a far better producer than me.” It was a surreal moment for Eno fans— it’s been almost 30 years since The Unforgettable Fire, and here they were, collaborating again, right in front of us. But there was still a catch in Eno’s throat and a disjointedness to his talk for the next few minutes, as if he were fighting off a mild anxiety attack, or marking his exits. He winced as the PA shrieked again. “I’m still getting feedback,” he said. “Is it possible to buy a new sound system?”
Eno really likes to talk — he must be one of the most interviewed musicians of the past four decades — and he’s very good at it; some people will pay a lot of money to watch him do it. Early on in his unlikely career, he seems to have intuited that while his reedy, astringent singing voice might remain an acquired taste, as a speaker and writer he has a rare combination of magnetic attributes — he’s charming, intelligent, eloquent, and slightly dangerous, as if he’s always on the verge of proposing something naughty. And he produces big hit records. In short, all the necessary ingredients for a powerful cult of personality. Shortly after leaving Roxy Music in 1973, young Eno leapt the chasm between rock star and cultural theorist, emerging as his own animal: a non-performing pop icon whose instrument is the recording studio, and whose most public face is as a supremely accessible egghead, a bit like a more attractive Glenn Gould, for whom craft (if you take him at his word) has always flowed from an elaborate theoretical framework. “Artists have two jobs,” he once said. “One is to generate work — things — and the other is to generate the context in which they’re placed.”
This stuff is painfully addictive to a certain kind of audience, the kind that’s likely to send a master’s thesis as a piece of fan mail. We were very much in evidence in the line outside Eno’s talk, a line that wrapped all the way around the Union before they opened the doors. Mostly white, mostly male, close-cropped or science-shaggy, greying at the temples or thinning on top, bespectacled and shoulder-bagged, many of us were the schoolyard nerds of the past, all grown up but still febrile and wary, especially with our shoulders against a wall. A kid in a standard-issue gutterpunk outfit, recognizing us, couldn’t resist an easy target: “Brian Eno OD’ed!” he called out as he walked by. “They cancelled it. I’m serious.” And, sure enough — I really don’t think I imagined it — a little shiver ran down the line. Old fears die hard.
By the time Eno got around to demonstrating his famous Oblique Strategies cards drawing “Lost in useless territory” and snapping the box shut in mock horror, he’d found his way back into the saddle, and settled into a relaxed, friendly, vaguely self-congratulatory greatest hits set of his autobiographical and rhetorical moments, with slides. There he was with Bowie, Fripp, Byrne, Bono, Dalí (?!), and the two Revox tape machines he used to record Discreet Music. And there he was with Roxy Music during the show in which he decided to leave the band — because, he said, “I realized I was thinking about my laundry.” He shouted out John Cage, Tony Allen, Jon Hassell, and Arto Lindsay. He even sang a fragment of “Miss Shapiro,” the song he was working on the night he was struck (and nearly killed) by a taxi in 1975.
I liked this casual, didactic version of Professor Eno, but I was glad to have glimpsed the jittery, off-balance guy we’d seen at the beginning of the talk; the two of them together made for a more appealing combination. Some of his stories can be found almost verbatim in interviews from many years ago — it’s amazing how consistent his narrative of his own life is — but he folded in some new gems, too, that didn’t involve any famous names: his well-traveled, mysterious uncle producing a tin of carnelians from beneath a table that “seemed to conceal everything in the universe,” a farmer in Eno’s native Suffolk telling a traveler that the next town is “about 27,000 miles away… if you carry on in that direction” while young Brian hoes potatoes in a field, and a photograph of a tow-headed little boy with a winning smile, holding up a watercolor of a street scene that, at age seven, won him a prize in an art contest. The audience cooed, and Eno, suddenly bashful, couldn’t resist puncturing the moment. “That,” he said, “was before the priests molested me.”
Eno’s occasional flashes of lasciviousness can be jarring. He has, or affects, the manner of one of those charismatic art professors whose office hours you might hesitate (or perhaps hasten) to visit if you’re alone and female. At the Cooper Union, for example, after showing us an image of the Renoir nude he copied for his application to art school, he remarked, parenthetically, that “the size of her ass had nothing – nothing at all – to do with my interest in this picture.”
But this kind of aside, judging by the laughter in the room, has a reassuring effect on Eno’s audience. If I had to guess, I’d wager that many of us struggled quite a bit with the difficulties of our own corporeality and sexuality, and a retreat from the scary demands of Body into the more obedient world of Mind was a comfortable dodge at a sensitive age, and a tempting place to remain. So the intrusions of a clumsy eroticism into Eno’s brainy world seem like a wink and a nod, an affirmation of something we all suspected but had to find out in various painful and hilarious ways: that, like it or not, there’s inevitably more to life than head games, and that there are places where all the intelligence in the world can’t really help us. They’re a welcome, if weird, dash of life and humor in a conversation that’s always at risk, as Eno surely knows, of becoming awfully self-serious. He seems to have preserved, in himself, some of the bravado you feel when you first realize that your mind and your body can do some pretty extraordinary things, when you’re first flexing your physical and critical muscles. And, by example at least, he suggests that that energy is still available for us to use, at any age.
“I decided that I would really like to make things,” Eno continued, referring to his ever-changing and oddly soothing light installations, “that people absolutely loved.” He said this with a hint of defiance, as if deliberately reaching toward other people felt a little like beating against the current. But what rewards. Eno’s delight in the installations’ unexpected effects on audiences was obvious; he showed us images of visitors’ books bulging with essay-length comments, and he pantomimed the reactions of a typical attendee who was at first unimpressed, then intrigued, and then captivated — “unless you’re from the art world, in which case you have to move on to the next opening.” The healing experiences people reported at the installations, which, in their earliest versions, were as simple as colored lights projected through video monitors onto paper or cardboard structures, seemed to have caught him off guard. His pleasure and astonishment would have been a little off-putting if they hadn’t also seemed so genuine.
He seemed especially surprised by the fact that displays of slowly changing colors were somehow able to induce patience — a rare quality these days — in an audience. And when he said that he’d begun to think of these installations as more like a kind of therapy than art, it was clear that this idea — that he had really touched people, in a profound way he hadn’t intended, and couldn’t control — also touched him. Lately he’s designed versions of them for hospitals, for cancer wards and nurseries, where they might be some of the last things you see in your life, or the first.
Near the end of the talk, after a digression on the parasympathetic nervous system which allowed him to linger, with a child’s delight, over the words “spitting, weeping, pissing, and shitting,” Eno drew a long, horizontal line on a piece of paper, and wrote “Control” and “Surrender” on opposite ends of the line. He’d finally warmed up, and I had the sense he could have kept going for another hour or two. “We know a lot about control in our lives,” he said, “but we don’t always know that much about surrender.” But the experiences we love most in life, he added, tend to fall in the “surrender” category — and here he wrote in “Sex,” “Drugs,” and “Rock & Roll.” The audience applauded; it was a direct hit. As I looked around the room, though, it was hard to suppress the thought that it was filled with representatives of the only culture on earth for whom this message might be news. Or, more charitably, an audience who needed to hear it from someone we identified with and believed in, not always daring to believe it ourselves.
But I guess it’s never too late. At least we’d all found each other. After a lifetime of suspecting we were born wrong, stuck between the hope that our nerdiness made us special and the fear that it just meant we were defective, Eno’s games, diagrams, mischief and music feel like good medicine. All of them seem to point toward the same conclusion: that true freedom in art and life —and this is the scariest, most helpful thing you can say to an addict— might depend on escaping from the only place we found safety and comfort in our young loneliness: our own minds. There’s a world waiting outside of them.