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Saturday, May 2, 2009

Understanding Eno

Mysterious Universes of Music

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Brian Eno would be one of rock's most fascinating figures if the already broad definition of rock were wide enough to contain him. While a member of one of the '70s most venturesome bands, Roxy Music, Eno was spotted eagerly working with pencil and notebook while his bandmates remixed a track in the studio. "I woke up this morning with a theory about prime numbers," Eno explained, covering his sheets with columns of figures.

And yet he was never a geek but one of glam rock's most outrageous showboats before withdrawing into an image of mysterioso black or bohemian beret chic. For Eno, glam was never a way of life but a game less interesting to play than spinning tape loops with Robert Fripp or working out the theory of ambient music, which set the template for all tomorrow's chill rooms. He was more concerned with the process of creativity, systems in which ideas could be generated, than in playing music. And yet, through his prolific if oblique solo career and his producer's role with U2, Talking Heads and David Bowie, Eno influenced the shape of music as much as anyone of his generation.

An artist so protean, and a futurist from the past, might be a slippery topic for any biographer. With On Some FarawayBeach: The Life and Times of Brian Eno (Chicago Review Press), British rock critic-musician David Sheppard has penned an engagingly plausible account. On Some FarawayBeach is fun to read and illuminating, even if Sheppard neither entirely comprehends nor approves of his subject.

Sheppard is only the latest in a 35-year line of rockers who were a little lost when faced by the underlying depth of Eno's music and the multiple universes he inhabited. Eno's full name alone was enough to lift eyebrows. Brian Peter George St. Jean le Baptiste de la Salle Eno suggested some hopelessly cosmopolitan scion of aristocracy from a Nabokov novel, its polysyllables enhancing an elusive sense of identity. Actually, Eno was a Catholic boy from provincial England who slipped the confines of his parochial education while retaining a Roman Catholic scholastic's love of systems and order.

As an art student in London during the heady '60s, Eno absorbed ideas from all over while maintaining an aloof lack of commitment. Unlike some graduates of that open-ended epoch, he applied himself with rigorous discipline to whatever interested him. He'd rather have poured over a philosophical tome than a book of guitar chords, argue aesthetics than share a joint. In younger years his sexual proclivities were voracious-perhaps the one thing he shared with most '70s rock stars. He became more comfortable in the company of the smarter musicians who emerged from punk such as Bono and David Byrne.

On Some Faraway Beach aptly defines the impossibility of defining Eno's music. In Roxy he straddled pop and prog. He became the coolly detached uncle of punk and the mysterious grey eminence of post punk. Eno anticipated new age, and could have been its most interesting practitioner had he wanted. He was at the vanguard of remixing, electronica and world music but lingered long in none of those fields, preferring to discuss psychology and art history than music. He could be called a Renaissance Man but (as the author points out) Eno dislikes the Renaissance for, as he explains, "ignoring part of our psyche-the part that's a bit messy and barbarian."