Out Of Reach: Appreciating the percussive mastery of late Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit


Why do we listen to music, and why is it important to us?

In the final analysis, it is down to the way that music makes us feel, and the gift of liberation that music bestows upon us, the listener. Music, as a representation of symbols that appear to us in our real lives, uses repetition to show us the constrictions we must conform to, but then introduces chaotic elements that spar with that repetition; amidst this struggle, a third entity is conjured within the mind of the listener: liberation, freedom. The friction between opposites produces a euphoric sense of hope — the function of great music is to instill in the listener the sense that the struggle for human existence is not in vain, that through struggle something of intrinsically limitless value can be the final product. Music is a symbol for life, and a metaphor for our struggles and our aspirations.

Life, struggle, hope, and liberation flowed endlessly from the music made by drummer Jaki Liebezeit, especially within his work with the band Can; his death on Sunday, at the age of 78, marks the culmination and fulfillment of a life-long journey to the center of sound and energy through percussive mastery.

Liebezeit was, simply put, one of the most distinctive and notable human beings to have ever sat behind a drum kit. Put your needle down on pretty much any point of any Can album, particularly anything from their 1970 to 1974 heydey, and you will be instantly transported by Liebezeit’s unique style. It’s no secret that the music world of the early 1970s was lousy with an endless array of staggeringly great drummers — and yet, Liebezeit’s approach stood out, in many ways due to his superhuman restraint and finesse. While so much of the rock sound of the time involved pure bombastic frenzy, Liebezeit kept it tight and filled with bounce; there was a constant interplay between his own notes, as he provided both beats and counterbeats in an ever-flowing river of groove. So many drummers of the early ’70s used their kits to pummel a song into crunching submission, Liebezeit used a steady insistence that grew more and more powerful as a tune went on, until it would reach staggering propulsive proportions by the midway point, like a small snowball rolling down a mountain and demolishing a whole village with its acquired enormity. In many instances, the music of Can, when listened to studiously, was and remains a pathway to sheer bloody madness.

Liebezeit forged his style in the furnace of 1960s German free-jazz, but fell into the band-as-commune world of Can during a time of perceived liberation, of starting over. Liebezeit’s playing is often lumped in with other leading lights of the so-called “krautrock” world, such as Klaus Dinger of Neu, or whoever hit play on the drum machines of Kraftwerk. But Liebezeit’s approach is in some ways diametrical to the orthodoxy of “motorik” consistency favored those other groups; although Liebezeit played with a stunning focus that stayed within the lines of the beat, he also added, with his crisp tom flurries and super-tight snare smacks, a constant backbeat that was anathema to the forced minimalism of the krautrock ideal. If a track like Kraftwerk’s magnum opus “Autobahn” was a representation of the endless hum of a well-tuned efficiently-crafted automobile purring along a straight well-paved highway forever, Liebezeit’s funky bounce as found in side-long epics like “Halleluwah” is the aural embodiment of taking that car, filling it with your friends, driving off the road deep into the Black Forest, torching the car, and spending the rest of the evening dancing around the car on a circle until madness is achieved or the sun comes up, whichever is first.

Liebezeit had an endless curiosity for the craft of percussion; in his later career he was dead-set on reconfiguring the standard drum kit, tired of its centered kick drum footpedal thud and the general monotonized groupthink that forced all percussionists to play with the same elements in the same order forever. Up until the end of his life he was continuously tinkering with a combination of a standing kit, electronic drums and an unorthodox arrangement of cymbals and toms to create the perfect sound.

This curiosity is on display in every note of his playing; the music of Can embodies his perspective so well because he was given so much bandwidth, soundwise, in the group to expand his sound and let his percussive muse go where it wanted to. Ultimately his vision of percussion fit with the group’s collectivist credo, its organizational structure bleeding themes of liberation and freedom into the aural grooves of their songs.

Liebezeit will be missed, but the gift he has given us with his music, its blueprint for democratic solutions encoded into sounds and beats, can forever be transmitted to a world that so desperately needs its message of hope.

Follow Daniel Brockman on Twitter @thebizhaslanded.