Irmin Schmidt Tells His Story of Can

If All Gates Open isn't the full picture of Irmin Schmidt and Can, then the real McCoy must give one a hernia.

All Gates Open: The Story of Can
Rob Young & Irmin Schmidt
Faber & Faber
May 2018

A portion of All Gates Open: The Story of Can is set aside for what its authors refer to as a “Can Kiosk”. This half of the book begins with interviews held between Can keyboardist Irmin Schmidt and other notable musical personalities, then moves on to selections from Schmidt’s notebooks and journals from recent years. The first interview transcribed is between Schmidt and the late Mark E. Smith, singer for The Fall. Early on is the following exchange:

MES: What is this interview good for?
IS: We’re doing a book.
MES: About what?
IS: It’s about Can. Actually it’s less about Can and more a book about music and being an artist.
MES: So it’s a book floating between Can and music. I like it when it’s floating and when everything suddenly changes. ( All Gates Open, p. 368)

For some reason, Irmin Schmidt sells short the Can aspect of All Gates Open. Of the book’s 572 pages, the first 339 are devoted to telling the story of one of Germany’s most revered cult rock bands and, quite possibly, the most celebrated underdogs since the Velvet Underground. Schmidt co-authored the book with music journalist Rob Young, so naturally much of this two-pound hardback was dictated from Schmidt’s perspective. However, it’s still odd to hear him tell a loyal old fan — Smith assures Schmidt that he purchased Can’s 1974 album Soon Over Babaluma — that All Gates Open isn’t really about Can. But Mark E. Smith was hoping for a book that floated, so it’s too bad that he never got a chance to read All Gates Open, because these interviews serve as pivotal moment from Young telling the story of Can to Irmin Schmidt giving the reader an inside glimpse into his day-to-day existence as a working artist.

Young holds the reader’s hand through a prologue detailing his visit to Can’s studio in 1997. He uses his interaction with the band as a way to succinctly introduce the cast of characters. There’s bassist/recording engineer Holger Czukay as the weirdo, drummer Jaki Liebezeit as the serious one, guitarist Michael Karoli as the “young” one, and keyboardist Irmin Schmidt as “solidly grounded”. Can’s two singers are profiled much further along, treating them as a final pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that would become Can’s sound. And what sound is that, exactly?

If you’re unfamiliar with Can, this is where things can get tricky. Imagine taking the instrumental interplay of free-jazz, the rhythmic complexities of non-western music, deconstructing them in a manner befitting a 20th century avant-garde composer, and applying it all to a rock ensemble. Throw in some post-WWII jitters and Vietnam-era nerves, and you’ve got yourself just a slight impression of what Can can do for you as a music consumer. I’m sure there are plenty of readers who think you’re better off ignoring this paragraph’s second sentence and instead listening to either Tago Mago or Ege Bamyasi. But the sooner a Can novice realizes just how rich the band’s musical background is, the easier they’ll be able to digest the chapters that mention Karlheinz Stockhausen so much.

After the prologue, Young dives into the Can story from the beginning, when a very young Schmidt serendipitously met his future wife on a train. From there the narrative thread takes the reader through post-war Cologne where young people shoulder resentments against the Nazi takeover while the western world is barreling towards the Summer of Love. All Gates Open spends so much time sifting through the formative years when Schmidt and Czukay where meeting under the academia umbrella, that you might find yourself forgetting that you’re reading a book about a rock band. The passages mentioning mentorship from Stockhausen will probably earn the avant-garde composer a few extra detractors — not that he didn’t have them coming. Holger and Schmidt were mentors of Stockhausen, and the book’s passages mentioning the avant-garde composer are not likely to change the reader’s opinion of him, be it good or bad. Schmidt relays a particular story of being stuck in one of the composer’s classes where the discussions were their teacher was, for lack of a better term, protecting his genius from constructive criticism. Young also briefly mentions how Stockhausen rankled some of his peers, like Cornelius Cardew who went so far as to title one of his essays Stockhausen Serves Imperialism. But on the other hand, Stockhausen can take some of the credit for the beginnings of Can, giving his willingness to look the other way when the band needed a place to practice or recording tapes to steal.

Can’s early years under the 1979 Inner Space guise are well-documented, as they lead up to the recruitment of wandering minstrel Malcolm Mooney and his eventual replacement, Damo Suzuki. Since Can is not your ordinary rock band — not by a long shot — All Gates Open doesn’t read like your typical rock ‘n’ roll biography where everyone comes from similar backgrounds and listens to the same music. Young has spared no amount of effort to bring readers the complete picture of Can’s highs, lows, and underwhelming middles where they were that they wanted to do something different but did not know how to pull it off yet.

When Young hands the book over to the roundtable discussion format, that’s when thing become less humble. In chapters named “This Record Does Not Contain Interfering Noise” and “He Wanted to Make Stone Age Music” (referring to remarks made by Schmidt), notable musical personalities like Daniel Miller, Bobby Gillespie, and Geoff Barrow will take turns patting Schmidt on the back, assuring him that his band played a significant role in their musical development. This isn’t to say that these extended interviews aren’t without their revelations, like Schmidt admitting that “Not Playing Was My Contribution to the Song” while chatting with Peter Saville about his graphic work for New Order.

The selected passages from Schmidt’s personal notebook have less to do with Can than anything else in the book. Hence, fans may find their interest fading by this point. But Schmidt is the last surviving member of Can’s original vocal-free lineup, so there’s probably a bit of a rush to capture what he says and thinks in the spirit of posterity. If the notebook portions didn’t feel so disconnected from the biography, I’d say that All Gates Open is a perfect book to capture an imperfect band. But there’s something to be said for risk taking, even if it’s in the form of a symposium stapled to the end of a rock story. So take it all at its intended best and you’ll find that it’s still wholly worth it.

RATING 8 / 10