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An Appreciation of Can's 'Future Days'

Drew Millard

Drew Millard

I love 'Future Days' so much that I named this column after it and if I had a kid I’d probably name them after it too.

I've started meditating lately, or at least doing something akin to meditating where I start going to sleep but catch myself right before I get all the way there, focusing on my breathing and allowing my mind to wander until something worth writing about pops into my head. This is kind of crazy, but writer's block makes people crazy and causes them to resort to all kinds of shit––Maya Angelou writes nursery rhymes down to try to reverse-engineer actual writing; Aesop Rock's "Racing Stripes" details how his late friend Camu Tao would overcome creative ruts by shaving the top of his head and making himself look like an old bald guy, effectively shaming himself into staying home and making beats; lots of people drink and drug their way into writing; meanwhile, the legendary New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell spent the last 30 years of his life going into the magazine's office every day, sitting down at his typewriter but producing nothing. Nobody wants to end up like Joseph Mitchell, so I started doing the quasi-meditation thing to jumpstart my creative engines and because booze has never worked for me. The problem, though, is trying to hack the subconscious into a new-age input-output machine is about as imprecise as you'd expect it to be.

For example, after Can's bassist and de facto bandleader Holger Czukay's death earlier this week, I was asked to write something about the group's 1973 album Future Days, which I love so much that I named this column after it and if I had a kid I'd probably name them after it too. So I put the album on, laid down, and concentrated on thinking about nothing until some unknown cosmic force would surely bestow upon me once-forbidden insights about a 45-year-old album that's been written about insighted-upon more times than you can shake a stick at. Around the end of Future Days' opening track, which too is called "Future Days," I began seeing in my mind's eye a pair of ponies, one of which may have been a mini-horse actually, standing almost perfectly still in a paddock. They were staring at me, or maybe my body wasn't actually there. The grass around them was the greenest green that grass can be, the fence was so perfect that Robert Frost would have written a poem about it, and as the song's tropicalia groove billowed into whirs of reverb I swear to God I began to feel a gentle breeze. OK, maybe I'd actually fallen asleep. Either way, it was pastoral as shit and didn't tell me too much about Can.

Let us, for a moment, consider the can as an object. It's a metal cylindrical thing that you jam a bunch of stuff into and then seal, and as long as it stays in there, it'll never go bad. When you pop it open, though, what was once smooth and complete has now produced an edge. Canning was invented by the French aristocrat Phillippe de Girard, who sold his patent to a pair of Brits, and by 1813, the Royal Navy was giving canned foods to its sailors. For a few decades, these cans were sealed with lead (which was an extremely bad idea but hey, whatever, it was the 1800s and they didn't know any better until lots of people got very sick). Today, a can's contents are often under pressure, and explosions are not out of the realm of possibility. And then of course there's can the verb, which is itself only concerned with possibility. That's what inspired Can's original vocalist Malcolm Mooney to bestow the name upon the group in the first place, explaining in an interview, "I'm in Cologne and the band is starting to play every day. I can stand at this mic and I can make up lyrics––I can do it."

But it's the first sense of the word, that of an actual can, that came to serve as a potent metaphor for Can the band. Their music was the product of hours upon hours of serpentine improvisations––seriously, these dudes could noodle the Grateful Dead under the table––distilled into damn near perfect songs at the mixing board after they were subject to the canny (sorry) editing and tape manipulation of Holger Czukay. In their early years, Can gazed into the maw of totality with such unblinking regularity that Mooney ended up going literally––as in "not figuratively"––insane before they could even build up a head of steam, his tenure reaching its apex when he spent exclusively uttered the lyrics "Upstairs! Downstairs!"during a live performance in a castle, its denouement coming soon thereafter after both a mystic and a therapist told Mooney he really ought to find another line of work. In a way, Can hedged their bets when settling on his replacement, Damo Suzuki, who Czukay discovered while he was "making an incantation at the sun or something strange like that." On the spot and without having heard him actually sing, Czukay, ever the judicious curator, invited him to join them onstage that night, where Suzuki proceeded to drive almost the entire audience out of the theater. Obviously, he was best man for the job.

Future Days was the third and final album Suzuki would record with Can, who later explained that it was "the best album I made with Can... I wanted nothing from them after that." The record was a left turn away from its predecessor Ege Bamyase, whose dark funk sounded like the Velvet Underground trying to make a James Brown record, with the H.M.S. Communism Anarchism Nihilism instead setting sale for a Balearic sunset. It's not quite an ambient album, not quite a pop record, definitely not a rock album, maybe an early electronic record, like the type of thing that Air would have traded their French accents for. The record is 40 minutes and four songs long, with the closing track "Bel Air," a four-movement suite stitched together by Czukay, taking up the entire second side of the LP. On the opening the title song, they reinvent themselves as the world's trippiest lounge lizards, with Suzuki––whose improvised lyrics usually ranged from nonsensical English phrases to perfectly rational sentences in a language that he made up on the spot––dishing out chicken soup for the psilocybin-addled soul. "Spray" is a sonic dialectic, first taught and disorienting, then slow and woozy, before Suzuki comes in around the 6:30 mark and somehow turns the thing into a prom song on Mars. Just when you think you've got a handle on it all, Can shifts into a more Motorik gear, serving up the Krautpop of "Moonshake," a three-minute pre-punk-post-punk sugar rush, given all the meandering that comes before it, seems to slip away just as it begins. And though "Bel Air" is the longest and most winding of them all, it's never taxingly so: it's a piece that's so of itself, as if these notes and tones and beats and lyrics were always meant to be in this order, even if it took the band trying every combination and permutation of each to get there. Said Suzuki in that same interview, "It was pure magic."

That's the thing about creation, though. The idealized versions of things that exist only in our heads, jutting out into our psyches just enough so that we see that they're there but not what they actually are, always seem perfect. But in the process of unearthing them and translating them into a form that other people can experience them too, stuff tends to get lost, or we start considering the particulars only to realize they were never there in the first place. If you want people to see what you see, hear what you hear, feel what you feel, you've got to do whatever you can to get something out there, so that you can hack away at it like a block of marble, tweaking and futzing and adding where necessary until you've got something that might be worth showing somebody. And because Can were devotees of this philosophy, starting out from songs that contained everything, they made music that itself could do anything.

Future Days is a weekly column by Drew Millard. If you agree or disagree with what he writes, feel free to text him at 828-675-8574.

Drew Millard used to work at Noisey, but now he doesn't, so now he has this column. He lives in North Carolina with his dog. Follow him on Twitter.