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Holger Czukay 1938–2017: Playing The Fool

Jason Gross recalls his madcap encounters with Holger Czukay and U-She through the 1990s and 2000s

The character of Holger Czukay, who died this week, informed his music both solo and as part of Can. Author and band associate Andrew Hall summed him up well: "A crazy genius who walked the tightrope between this state and what others saw as ludicrous insanity."

I met him several times over the years, both as friends and in connection with my zine Perfect Sound Forever. The first time was when he gleefully took up techno, collaborating with German producer Dr Walker for 1997's appropriately titled Clash. The album was followed by his first US shows, and after the New York gig, where he performed with a small keyboard, I cornered him for an interview. He spoke of Can's proudly amateurish nature and literally hiring Damo Suzuki off the street, and how multitrack recording led to the band's break-up, leading to finger-pointing about mistakes. When I asked him how he put songs together, he replied "Just by logic. You must have a vision, even with the roughest idea where this could lead to."

We talked about his favourite music, and he mentioned Eno, PiL, Bach, Schubert, Hendrix, James Brown, Stockhausen (of course), The Beatles, Philip Glass and The Velvet Underground ("my heroes"). Holger mentioned an idea he’d had, staging musical competitions, where performers who were polar opposites would engage in heated debates. Who would he take on, I asked? "Peter Gabriel! He's much too serious!"

Following our interview, I encouraged him to put up a website. Months later, I received an early morning long distance call. Holger told me to go to his new site, and I saw my own name, listed as webmaster. “You're doing my webpage!” he announced, and started throwing ideas at me about how to connect with musicians and fans. He never asked me if I was game, but I obliged, though after a few grueling months, I handed the responsibilities onto someone else. Soon after, he returned the favour, writing articles for Perfect Sound Forever about Can's history, detailing the secret between-song pauses recorded for Tago Mago, and Stockhausen's influence on his music.

I visited Germany in 1998 to meet Holger and his wife Ursula aka U-She on their home turf. We met in a Cologne hotel, went to get some Asian food (which he loved), and were whisked to his home for a tour of his studio and gadgets. He was tired, but gave U-She his blessing to go out clubbing, so we piled into a cab to see Ken Ishii perform (she danced much better than me). I hosted him in return when Holger came back to NYC around 1999 with his former bandmates to promote a major edition of Can reissues. We checked out the Anchorage club, at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge to see DJ Spooky, who didn't impress him much, but the venue piqued his fancy: "I must do my next New York show here". When he returned in 2004, he eventually played at Knitting Factory. "Hello girls and boys!" he announced when he took to the stage with a big smile.

Writing to me later, he made some interesting observations about what he saw as his role as a musician. "My function is between a DJ and an active musician,” he said. “I love to present new material and also from the past, transforming them into something different than before. I like to listen with the audience and if something turns out inadequate, I know my schoolwork still has to be done. On the other hand, when all waves are not extinguishing each other, the result can be received amazingly positive to all our satisfaction."

We never met face to face again, but continued to correspond online. Knowing that he loved "I Am The Walrus", I shared the source of radio material included at the end (a BBC King Lear broadcast). As a child of the Second World War, he fretted about the rise of the far right, insisting that neo-Nazis should be stamped out. In his last email to me, he rewrote the pop classic "Singin' in the Rain" to include alligators.

After his death I'd recall some of the stories of prankish encounters to try and comfort myself. There was an early 70s show with Amon Düül II where they were dosed up with cough syrup, and someone from Can was suspected. Holger denied it, but an associate commented: "we all know who it was…". Around the same era, Holger drove the Can van on tour through a Soviet Bloc checkpoint. When a guard searched the van, Holger asked: "You're looking for something illegal?" He then produced a huge marijuana joint. "This is what you were looking for!" He slapped the joint into the guard’s hand, insisting "Take this home to your wife – you both enjoy it and thank me!" They drove off in the van as the guard stood frozen in amazement.

After Can split up, he was in a cafe with a friend, and the management asked them to leave for making noise. They returned with dark glasses and walking sticks, pretending to be blind, and stumbled around, knocking over carts and tables – earning another hastened exit from the establishment.

But the favourite Holger story that he told me involved a phone. Acting alongside an accomplice, he applied a ketchup marinade to a handset in a public booth. While they hid watching, a man entered, struggling to find coins for his call. When he balanced the receiver on his shoulder, the marinade smeared on his face. Someone in the next booth panicked, thinking it was blood, and called for help. An ambulance arrived and the attendants dragged the reddened men onto a stretcher – he was furious at their manhandling, but they drove off with him regardless. Holger and his accomplice were hysterical. “You were a precocious teenager,” I remarked. The impish Holger, who was in his sixties when he told me the story, gleefully replied: "Actually, I did that last year!"