Sunday, October 23, 2005

Enomania, or 23 Years in Six Songs

Part One: Throw the Fiery Baby in the Backwater

I first made Brian Eno's musical acquaintance when I was a freshman in college. The song was "Baby's on Fire" (1974's Here Comes the Warm Jets). Long story short, a fellow student selected it as the background music for some dorm-related skit we were working on. (Okay, it was a sorority skit; please don't hold it against me.) I'll be damned if I can remember what the skit was about, but it involved blue hair and wrap-around shades. I'm guessing they chose that sneery ditty because it sounded so quintessentially "punk" (i.e. "Baby's on fire / Better throw her in the water"). It was 1982 and I didn't care if a song/album was from the 1960s, 1970s, or 1980s--if it had that punk energy, I was there. The fact that it sounded like something off White Light, White Heat didn't hurt as I was just starting to get into the Velvet Underground. Well, whaddaya know, in Kristine McKenna's Book of Changes, Eno states, "When I first heard the Velvet Underground it had an immediate rightness for me." When she interviewed him four years later, in 1984, he went on to say, "I was talking to Lou Reed the other day and he said that the first Velvet Underground record sold 30,000 copies in the first five years...that record was such an important one for so many people! I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band."

Baby's on Fire

Baby's on fire
Better throw her in the water
Look at her laughing
Like a heifer to the slaughter

Baby's on fire
And all the laughing boys are bitching
Waiting for photos
Oh the plot is so bewitching

Rescuers row row
Do your best to change the subject
Blow the wind blow blow
Lend some assistance to the object

Photographers snip snap
Take your time she's only burning
This kind of experience
Is necessary for her learning

If you'll be my flotsam
I could be half the man I used to
They said you were hot stuff
And that's what Baby's been reduced to...

Juanita and Juan
Very clever with maraccas
Making their fortunes
Selling second-hand tobaccoes

Juan dances at Chico's
And when the clients are evicted
He empties the ashtrays
And pockets all that he's collected

But Baby's on fire!
And all the instruments agree that
Her temperature's rising
But any idiot would know that.

I had just started doing a radio show after years of listening to commercial radio and thinking, "I could do that!" Along the way, I discovered 1977's Before and After Science, but I usually only played one song: "Backwater." The rest of that record was too "restful" for my college-era taste, with the exception of "King's Lead Hat" (but more on that later). I think I was attracted to "Backwater," an uncharacteristically jaunty tune, because of the maritime imagery it shared with Split Enz's "Six Months in a Leaky Boat," and I was a big Enz fan at the time. (I'm still fond of those crazy Kiwis; they're pretty underrated, as far as I'm concerned.) But I didn't dig deeper. I knew I liked Eno, but there were so many other artists yet to discover. Another big 1970s revelation, for instance, was Germany's Can. I loved them then and I love them now. And not just a little bit--I love Can dearly. They're what I'd call a "top five" band (along with the Beatles, Big Star, Kinks, and P-Funk). Well, guess what? Can's Jaki Liebezeit plays drums on "Backwater." I didn't realize until I checked the credits. Of course!


We're sailing at the edges of time
We're drifting at the water-line
Oh, we're floating in the coastal waters
You and me and the porter's daughters
Ooh, what to do?
Not a sausage to do.
And the shorter of the porter's daughters
Dips her hand in the deadly waters
Ooh, what to do in a tiny canoe?

Black water!
There were six of us but now we are five
We're all talking
To keep the conversation alive
There was a senator from Ecuador
Who talked about a meteor
That crashed on a hill in the south of Peru
And was found by a conquistador
Who took it to the Emperor
And he passed it on to a Turkish Guru...

His daughter
Was slated for becoming divine
He taught her,
He taught her how to split and define
But if you study the logistics
And heuristics of the mystics
You will find that their minds rarely move in a line
So it's much more realistic
To abandon such ballistics
And resign to be trapped on a leaf in the vine

Then there were the European punk/post-punk bands from the late-1970s/early-1980s that I was just getting to hear for the first time: the Sex Pistols, the Damned, the (early) Clash, Kleenex/LiLiPUT, and Gang of Four--who are finally getting the full acclaim they deserve. (And thanks to the seminal Rough Trade compilation Wanna Buy a Bridge for introducing me to some of these acts.) Of course, I'd heard of a few of these bands in high school, like the infamous Pistols, but I hadn't actually heard much of their music while growing up in Anchorage, AK, where they never came and never got played on the radio. On the other hand, I was already familiar with new wavers like the B-52s, the Police, and the Eno-produced Talking Heads (More Songs About Buildings and Food, etc.). They got airplay. Then there were all the records hitting KWCW's racks at the time. Every time I turned around, there was something new: U2's War! the Violent Femmes' debut! The English Beat's Special Beat Service! But for me, in the fall of 1982, it all came back to War. Every day for weeks, maybe even months, I would return to my dorm after lunch to play that damn thing. It helped to rev me up for the afternoon. Was it Bono's sweeping vocals? The timely anti-war lyrics? The martial sound of Larry Mullen, Jr.'s drums? The very "Irishness" of the entire enterprise? All of the above, I suppose. And, what do you know--U2 would go on to work with Eno (on later recordings like The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby, by which point I was starting to lose interest). Although I couldn't have predicted it at the time. Eno seemed downright "delicate" compared to the anthemic U2.

Note: Part one of four. Lyrics and cover image from enoweb.

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