In the opening pages of Scottish novelist Alan Warner’s 33 ⅓ book on Can’s classic 1971 album Tago Mago, the author performs a stylistic bait-and-switch. Through monotonous purple prose, Warner describes the sound of Tago Mago, an album still regarded as impenetrably abstract and indefinable four decades removed. The descriptions amount to insufficient summary.
All is not as it seems, however; Warner breaks from this initial approach to analyze the classic plight of the music writer. “We must resort to image, simile, and metaphor,” he says. “We resort to common poetry to describe the impossible.” This is Can’s music: impossible. Music fans have been trying to wrap their head around songs like “Mushroom” and “Aumgn” for generations, but in the end they’re satisfied to be merely captivated by the mystery of it.
Once Warner abandons the figurative imagery, he’s faced with the task of telling the story of Tago Mago without resorting to music journalism clichés. He decides to tell his own story about growing up, discovery and maturation. This is, of course, another pervasive music writer trope, but Warner’s introspective approach is oddly befitting of its inscrutable subject.
At this point in the 33 ⅓ series, readers should expect to learn more about the authors than the music that the books are ostensibly meant to discuss. Warner’s entry is particularly egregious in this regard; several of the book’s chapters fail to even reference either Can or Tago Mago. Depending on one’s experience with the series, that may be either a dealbreaker or wholly unsurprising, but Warner’s approach is broad and contextual, meant to serve a greater audience than Can superfans.
Truthfully, it would be entirely impossible to explore the music of Can, an underground, deeply experimental German rock band, in a vacuum. This may not be enticing to the avid Tago Mago devotee, aching to crack the mysteries of a notoriously enigmatic band, but the 33 ⅓ series has a reputation for authors who build their books from indirect premises, and Tago Mago is one of the most befitting albums of this technique.
Warner’s story is not a particularly unique one, and he admits as such, but he tells it with gentle humor and warmth characteristic of a seasoned writer. He reminisces about his small Scottish town and how, as a young boy, he broke out of that limited mindset. He recounts struggling to decipher and understand international music and the people behind it, labeling Can as “European”, and being obsessed with the names of places and people he’s never heard, photos and words he reads from international newspapers and the backs of record sleeves, all symbols of the outside world.
As such, Warner recalls being drawn to the exotic superficial qualities of Can first — the cryptic album art and the almost absurdly foreign names of the band members — while the otherworldly music contained within the album only amplified that initial impression. It’s the story of one man’s personal cultural awakening at the hands of a world he barely understood, absorbed through the pages of NME and the crackling grooves of Weather Report albums.
Even today this is how most listeners encounter Can for the first time, as a remnant of a vague, distant, barely-remembered sub-sub-culture, something remarkably foreign and exotic. In his personal and nostalgic account, Warner actually manages to tap into the universalities of music discovery. He recounts a youthful epiphany: “Most people go to a record shop to buy music they approve of or know… Yet you can also go to a record shop and buy music you don’t know anything at all about… There seemed something tremendously risqué and daring about that, almost blasphemous.”
Indeed, this is how Can is discovered and understood by all, whether in 1971, 1979 or 2014: from the shroud of individual curiosity and uncertainty, almost by accident. Tago Mago is not the type of album that’s passed down between generations or shared with like-minded friends like Abbey Road or Dark Side of the Moon; it’s an oddity, an album that needs to be actively sought out by interested parties, something private and personal. This is Warner’s primary insight.
Whether this is worthwhile to someone looking for an analysis of Can’s music is up for debate, but the question that Warner poses in the first pages still persists: how does one properly analyze something that abstract? What could Warner possibly say about Tago Mago that would reveal more than the music already does? Surely there are unexplored depths to the album’s quiet but ever-present legacy, but Warner adeptly attributes its lasting power to its impenetrable mystery, and he decides to follow that lead, instead. As a piece of rock criticism, that may hold little value, and as one of the few books on Can, it does feel like a bit of a missed opportunity, but as an observation of how audiences consume art, it’s a concept worth exploring.
Only in the final chapters does Warner interview the members of Can, but the information derived from these discussions is superficial and bland. Was a particular transition between sections a tape edit or part of the live performance? Where did a certain string of lyrics originate? The answers to these questions would make sense in a book specifically about the studio production of the album (as shallow as they are), but Warner spends 90 percent of the book discussing his own experience with the music only to pull the reader away at the end, offering brief glimpses at cursory interviews conducted almost as an afterthought. These pages are tedious, but what’s worse is that they seem to betray Warner’s overlying thesis about the mysteries of Can.
When Warner inevitably transports the narrative of his experience with Can to the present, he’s faced with the reality of the band versus the fantasies that he saw through them as a child, coming to terms with the fact that there was nothing magical about the people or circumstances behind the music. Yet, despite the destruction of years of imaginative dreams about German castles and hip, transcendental performances, Warner still sees something otherworldly and mystical in the music itself.
Tago Mago endures as a masterpiece of modern music because its many idiosyncrasies never dilute or fade. Even if artists themselves can never live up to unrealistic expectations of their fans, the music itself, miraculously, can. Warner’s book is not an evaluation of the inner-workings of Tago Mago, because he isn’t qualified for that kind of analysis (who is?); it’s instead an evaluation of Can’s legacy and their effect on individuals. That’s a story he can tell.