The Wire's Rob Young, author of the forthcoming biography of the legendary German rockers Can, remembers their late founder member
I first met Jaki Liebezeit in the Can studio itself while researching my cover story on Can for The Wire 158 (April 1997). He was friendly but reserved in conversation, with minimal recall of events more than 25 years ago. The bags under his eyes spoke of countless long nights, but the eyes themselves were wide and fully alert. He grew enthusiastic when he spoke of his current projects: a collaboration with the Cologne experimental musician Pluramon (aka Markus Schmickler), his Drums Off Chaos percussion collective, and his plans to write a book detailing his ongoing research into the mysteries of rhythm. It was the now, and the way ahead, that held Jaki’s fascination. Like everyone associated with Can, he was entirely unsentimental about the past. Though they have periodically revitalised their recorded catalogue and promoted the group in various ways, their surviving members never took the heritage route. No group called Can ever played live after May 1977; but they have remained on reasonably good terms with each other ever since they ceased to be a regularly functioning outfit.
Over the years I interviewed him several times and ran into him here and there – an electronic music festival in Istanbul where he was playing in Burnt Friedman’s band; a strange late night dinner at the Groucho Club with other Can members; and finally in Cologne in May last year while I was doing a final round of interviews for my forthcoming Can biography. He always had a friendly welcome and a wide, mischievous smile. He seemed to take longer to think in English and conversations could be stumbling at times; although, just when he had lapsed into uncomfortable silence and you felt he would really rather wrap this up, that smile would suddenly erupt on his face and he would burst out with a joke or a funny recollection – the live date in Taunton where the whole venue was on some collective cider-fuelled rampage, or the ‘Bradford crackle’ that plagued the PA system like a ghost in the machine.
While he would dutifully trot out his various war stories of studio struggles and scuzzy live venues, there was clearly a certain discomfort, and even impatience, with the mental task of looking back. When I spent a long afternoon with him in his rehearsal space/percussion workshop in Cologne in May last year, the memory seemed to be failing him even further about many details relating to Can itself. What he did rhapsodise about was the idyllic life he spent in the early 1960s in Barcelona and the Balearics, jobbing as a jazz drummer for blind Catalonian pianist Tete Montoliu and touring musicians passing through, living a simple but sunkissed life, taking each day as it came. Under the quietness lurked an iron will. All his colleagues remembered the stubborn studio conflicts, the dug-in heels over a mix or an edit, the impatience with multiple takes and multi-tracks. But whenever they talked about this, it was always with affection. They knew and trusted Jaki’s instincts and knew it as a vital check and balance.
Can was an anarchic democracy and everyone who joined it had sacrificed another, surer path to be there. Jaki spent the 60s in Manfred Schoof’s Quintet, a sleek modernist freedom unit which toured all over Europe. The group even recorded an avant garde composition by Bernd Alois Zimmermann. When Can keyboardist Irmin Schmidt called him up in 1968, asking if he could recommend a drummer for a new contemporary music group he was assembling, Jaki surely heard the sound of a new gate opening. After all, as Zimmermann had said: “If there has ever been an auspicious time for the meeting between jazz and art music as it has been understood till now, that time is now.” His drumming was monotonous but not mindless. His skins were tuned and his wrists tuned even finer. The patterns he span with his more recent groups such as Club Off Chaos, Burnt Friedman’s Secret Rhythms project and his duo with Faust’s Hans-Joachim Irmler were intricate and intriguing, sensuous and sidereal. Just when you thought you’d latched on to the one, the one seemed to slide a click to the right on the grid, and you’d have to reconstruct the pulse afresh in your head. Jaki heard rhythms no one else could. Were four limbs enough?
After a long chat in May last year he kindly drove me back to my hotel behind Cologne train station, and pointed out the building where he and Can’s first vocalist Malcolm Mooney shared a flat back in 1969. I genuinely think he achieved a kind of inner peace and happiness in these last years, glad and yet slightly bewildered to be listed among the world's greatest drummers in various international polls and magazine surveys, and to be passing his knowledge and skills on to others. Apparently he had been looking forward to performing with Mooney and Thurston Moore at London’s Barbican this April, and had been urging Can’s management to book him in for any other gigs that came up, only not the USA “as long as they have that idiot up there”.
I will miss you Jaki, but I will walk to your rhythms for the rest of my life.