“America is waiting for a message of some sort or another” is just a scrap of “found” talk radio—flatly delivered, inflectionless. Nevertheless it looped persistently through my head this fall while reading David Sheppard’s On Some Faraway Beach: The Life and Times of Brian Eno. The line was first repurposed on the opening track of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, the 1981 Eno and David Byrne collaboration. And while the found lyric and resulting tune, “America Is Waiting,” seem especially to resonate with our present political conundrums, the album as a whole encapsulates Eno’s relevance and artistry.
Sheppard’s breezy and generally kind assessment endeavors to follow all aspects of Eno’s diverse 60 years. Given Eno’s generalist tendencies, that’s not an easy task even in a book exceeding 400 pages. How to capture a man who’s made a fortune as a popular music impresario (producing U2, Talking Heads, and Coldplay albums, among others), but who started as a glam rock poseur and evolved into a kind of Anglo-maharishi of culture, deliverer of koan-like nostrums (“luck is being ready,” “repetition is a form of change”), lecturer, journalist, diarist, musical visionary, video auteur, olfactory fetishist, and political activist (if not corporate shill—Eno “composed” the 3.25 sec start-up jingle for Windows 95)? Which is to neglect—and Sheppard does not—Eno’s boudoir swordsmanship, possibly a book in itself for those inclined.
Eno’s cultural contribution, in whatever medium, is difficult to pin down. That fact is everywhere manifest in Faraway Beach, where Sheppard deliberates chronologically through Eno’s life, right up to 2008, only to close with an epilogue of milquetoast quotes from a handful of colleagues and collaborators. To artist Russell Mills, Eno is “one of the most consistently interesting people I’ve ever met.” To Ultravox leader John Foxx, he “brings an idiosyncratic fine-art sensibility… into pop.” Colin Newman, guitarist for the band Wire, finds that “judiciousness is his thing.” Perhaps Eno bears the risk of all generalists, suffering the faint praise that deep down they’re shallow.
Faraway Beach adds further to the idiot-savant mystique of Eno’s well-documented musical shortcomings. Eno has no training in any instrument and dislikes writing lyrics, a fact much heralded in his most recent Byrne collaboration, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (for which Byrne is the lyricist). Sheppard quotes Eno as saying, “You see, the problem is that people, particularly people who write, assume that the meaning of a song is vested in the lyrics. To me, that has never been the case. There are very few songs that I can think of where I even remember the words, actually, let alone think that those are the center of the meaning.”
Even when it comes to electronics, with which Eno is so commonly associated, band members have been “alarmed to find a drawing of a sheep on a minimoog knob…. When interrogated Brian said ‘If you turn that, the sound gets woolly.’” And yet for all that, in the late ’70s, after release of the Eno-produced post-punk compilation No New York, “suddenly the spray-painted legend ‘Eno Is God’ started appearing on downtown walls… evidence that, in the creative cauldron of downtown Manhattan at least, conceptual autodidacticism had finally triumphed over dues-paying virtuosity.”
While Sheppard doesn’t actually say it, Eno’s most lasting contribution is most likely to be as auditory surrealist. His recordings and collaborations exhibit a signature juxtaposition of high and low art, banality and profundity, sacred and secular, African with Western, and situation and sound. Such sonic syncretism, combined with the occasional injection of odd role-playing exercises (“We had to imagine we were on a space station orbiting planet earth”), transforms bands and enables disturbingly potent messages, as evidenced by “Waiting” and “Qu’ran” on My Life.
Sheppard’s biography successfully chronicles the arc of Eno’s career, touching on its numerous facets and offering analysis of at least its musical expression. However, the absence of a summing up is a glaring omission just barely justified by the enormity of the task and the fact that Eno has so much further to go.