One weekend afternoon c. 1984, when I was in eighth grade and pop music had supplanted almost every other source of potential meaning in my life, some DJ at WBCN 104.1 FM Boston—which I received in my bedroom forty miles west via a five-foot T-shaped gray plastic antenna I’d thumbtacked to my bedroom wall, only partly disguised by the early U2 posters I’d also hung there to cover the dark wallpaper and faux wood paneling—played the title track from Brian Eno’s second LP, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy). My stereo then served as the primary conduit through which the external world reached me, but that external world—as represented by music, anyway—had yet to confound me so deeply. I can recall few first-time-I-heard moments as well as this one: my spruce-shaded bedroom in the upstairs corner of our house, the door shut against anything that might disturb the haphazardly rigorous self-education underway; my walnut desk with built-in bookcase and fluorescent light that my father had brought home from a yard sale; my mattress and boxspring on the floor beneath the window because I thought it looked cooler than having a bedframe; and these familiar quarters dismantled by what I understood as the willful strangeness of Eno’s song. At that point, I’d heard some of the odd, sometimes artsy whimsy of the Sixties—which I despised with a zeal appropriate to my age—and the artsy gestures of the new wave and post-punk I was discovering with an equal intensity—but I had no template whatsoever for this ballad’s plaintive lead guitar, mellow piano, and chorus singing about oh, how they’d climbed. I laughed at how absurd the song sounded, as the facts that much of Eno’s music deliberately entertains absurdity and irrationality, and that the bands I was learning to love owed overt and covert debts to his records, whooshed right over my unschooled head like the wind noises punctuating the song.
As much as I wanted to dismiss the song—it was old; it was weird, but not in a cool way; it was quiet and slow; it was unsettling and unfamiliar in ways I wasn’t ready for—I couldn’t. “Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)” bothered and beguiled me for years, even as my tastes got weirder and older and quieter and slower and more unsettling, and though I didn’t buy that LP, or any other Eno LP, for even more years, I never forgot that song, either.
“I was talking to David Bowie about…the records that first affected us and I said that the first one that I can really remember being awestruck by was Get A Job, by the Silhouettes, because I’d never heard doo-wop or anything like it, so it was a mystery, and really thrilling as well. He said it was either Eight Miles High or Mr. Tambourine Man for him, that sound just made him shiver.
“As you get older, you get fewer and fewer of those kind of thrills because you learn what the context of things is, so I can listen to the Silhouettes now and say ‘Oh yes that’s New York doo-wop,’ or whatever… and just being able to place it like that immediately reduces it, knowing that it’s one of many similar things, rather than being this strange singularity. I said to avoid that I suppose one of the reasons one becomes a composer is that you want to recreate that thrill for yourself. You want to do something that makes you say ‘God, where did that come from?’”
—Brian Eno, Melody Maker, “Energy Fails the Magician,” January 12, 1980, interviewed by Richard Williams
I heard Eno’s name invoked with respect (and occasional disdain) in the context of U2’s The Unforgettable Fire, which he produced the same year I first heard his own music. I learned he’d been involved with some of the early Roxy Music tracks on the cassette my mother kept in the car (though I hadn’t yet seen his fantastic feathers-and-bell-bottoms glam shot inside the gatefold of For Your Pleasure)—and that he’d produced a bunch of the Talking Heads records I knew well. Eno reappeared when a friend dubbed Bauhaus’ cover version of “Third Uncle” on a mixtape. And when I discovered that there was much more to David Bowie than “Space Oddity” and “Suffragette City.” And when Eno said that My Bloody Valentine’s song “Soon” was the “vaguest piece of music ever to get into the charts.” By college in the early ’90s, I’d heard most of his solo recordings, and by the end of the decade I’d finally accumulated all the LPs, but still, it took middle age for me to appreciate Eno’s work as fully as I might, and once again it was a slow burner of a piano-led ballad that arrested me—“On Some Faraway Beach,” from his first LP, Here Come the Warm Jets:
Given the chance / I’ll die like a baby / On some faraway beach / When the season’s over / Unlikely I’ll be remembered / As the tide brushes sand in my eyes / I’ll drift away / Cast up on a plateau / With only one memory: / A single syllable / Oh, lie low, lie low…
Though Eno never wanted his lyrics to mean much—“Essentially all these songs have no meaning that I invested in them. Meanings can be generated within their own framework,” he once said, or “the words on the first album are just there to give the voice something to do. Just arbitrary sets of words which didn't add a dimension to the music”—sometimes even in middle age a pop song feels mere mirror to the same way it did at fourteen, and I see myself more in them than elsewhere (Borges: “I recognize myself less in [Borges’s] books than in many others or in the laborious strumming of a guitar”), and I don’t want to write about the title of Eno’s first solo LP or his famed sexual exploits or his tiff with Bryan Ferry: I want to talk about myself and that mirror, and two days: one circa 1984 in my boyhood bedroom, and one I can pin to June 17, 2009, thanks to a date written in a notebook, an evening I walked along Poughkeepsie’s Hooker Avenue just past South Grand Street, watching boys standing outside a 7-Eleven and composing in my head some lines in a poem while I listened to Here Come the Warm Jets on my iPod and thought about how even my plans to leave the town I hated depressed me, and maybe tried to make that feeling substantial by giving it the language of a poem and the soundtrack of a song that suddenly collapsed that fourteen-year-old self letting music make meaning for me and the middle-aged self who felt a growing awareness of just how precisely any of the meanings I try to make for myself are unlikely to be remembered amid a life that so often, even when I’ve learned the contexts for things, feels mysterious in my efforts to understand it—
Or, as Lester Bangs wrote about Here Come the Warm Jets in his review for Creem, “Don’t miss it; it’ll drive you crazy.”