Holger Czukay- The Merry Prankster
Today marks the 67th birthday of a great German composer. Not Beethoven, Bach or Brahms. Not even Stockhausen but it is one of his students.
Most know him for his contributions to krautrock legends Can but even as the band was starting up, Holger Czukay was making his own innovative solo record, Canaxis (1969) where he was blending tapes of unknown Vietnamese singers into a dreamy, surreal aural landscape- this is rightfully noted as a precursor to sampling, some 15-20 years before it became ubiquitous. Other than editing the mammoth band jams into the Can records we know, he was also abandoning his bass to use radio and tapes as his instruments.
Though pioneers like composer Edgard Varese and pop icon John Lennon ("I Am The Walrus") preceded him here, it was Czukay who turned radio collages into a complete art form. It wasn't just important that this allowed pieces of pop culture to be appropriated and reimagined much the same way that Warhol and Rauschenberg did. It was also that instead of remaining as a passive medium that we casually receive, radio could now become an active part of our musical landscape- I don't know if Marshall McLuhan knew about Czukay's work but if he did, he definitely would have been fascinated.
How many IDM and electronica artists would name Czukay as a source of inspiration? Too many to name here (most recently, Sun City Girls' Sublime Frequencies series) but also to his credit, he embraced the movement back (i.e. his collaborations with techno producer Dr. Walker), finding kindred spirits there and still making fascinating music, even today.
Years before web broadcasts were the rage, he was already toying with this technology on his website. After I give him some tips on creating a good online presence, he called me early one morning to wake me up, insisting that I look at his website. It listed my name as webmaster there. Even before I had a chance to ask him what this was about, he announced that I was going to run his website and gave me a list of instructions of what kind of interactive things he wanted to have there to interface with musicians and fans. I was honored to help but had to soon pass the duties onto a less harried programmer to meet his ambitious needs.
Other than being a supreme gadget freak, there's another, more mischievous side of Czukay. Shortly after a 1997 New York concert, I interviewed him about his career and he mentioned an idea he had about some kind of musical competitions that he wanted to stage where bands and performers who were polar opposites would engage in heated debates against each other. Out of curiosity, I wondered who he himself would take on. He thought for moment and said "Peter Gabriel!" Why him? "He's much too SERIOUS!"
Later, I quizzed him on some second-hand stories I heard about pranks that he pulled. He gleefully recounted the details. At one point, he was driving the Can van to a gig and had to go through a Soviet Eastern block checkpoint. A guard made him get out to search the vehicle. Czukay looked on bemused and let him finish his work. As the guard returned to tell him to move on, Czukay smiled and playfully asked him what he was looking for. The guard shrugged so Czukay responded, "You were looking for something illegal perhaps?" He then dug into his pocket a produced a huge marijuana joint. He proudly told the guard, "THIS is what you were looking for!" He then slapped the joint into the guard's hand and told him "You take this home to your wife and you both enjoy it and you will thank me!" With that, he climbed back into the van and drove away as the guard stood there frozen in amazement.
Another time, he was in a cafe with a friend, speaking rather boisterously when the management came by to ask them to leave. Though they complied, they later returned wearing dark glasses and using walking sticks. As they stumbled through the restaurant with their canes, they knocked over carts and relieved the tables of the meals sitting on top of them, thus earning another hastened exit from the restaurant.
Yet another time, he and a friend prepared a ketchup marinade which they used to lightly coat a red phone in a public booth. As they hid to watch, a woman entered the booth and struggled to find the right change. Bracing the receiver between her shoulder and jaw as she dug through her purse, she unknowingly smeared some of the red marinade on her cheek. Another phone user in the next booth saw this and panicked- thinking she was bleeding, he called for assistance. An ambulance soon arrived as two attendants dragged the women out of the booth and strapped her to a stretcher. She was in hysterics, demanding to know what they were doing but it was too late as they drove off. Czukay and his friend enjoyed the fruits of their labor as they stood back to observe this.
"You were a pretty precocious teenager," I remarked.
"No," he shrugged. "I did that last year!"