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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Revisiting the enigmatic Brian Eno’s ‘Diary’ 25 years later

By Bill Forman For The Spokesman-Review

It’s easy to picture Brian Eno as a man of few words.

This is, after all, the enigmatic artist who famously brought instrumental music back in style with ambient albums like “Music for Airports”; the introspective Dadaist who created a pack of Oblique Strategies cards with elliptical prompts like “Ask your body,” “Tape your mouth” and “Gardening not architecture”; and the quiet genius who kept a low profile while producing classic albums like the Talking Heads’ “Remain in Light,” U2’s “The Joshua Tree” and David Bowie’s “Low, Heroes” and “Lodger.”

But there’s nothing minimalist about the 25th anniversary edition of “A Year With Swollen Appendices: Brian Eno’s Diary.” Praised by the Guardian as one of the seminal books about music, the long out-of-print work was recently republished by Faber and Faber in a strikingly beautiful hardcover edition that is just short of 500 pages.

When asked to write an introduction for the anniversary edition, Eno did the sort of thing you’d expect him to do. “I started out by making a list of new words – ideas that either didn’t exist or weren’t in the air when I wrote the diary.”

Those words, arranged in alphabetical order and laid out in a single column, stretch across 12 pages. There’s body shaming, cancel culture, chatlines, Chaturbate, cisgender, Creative Commons license, crowdfund, crowdsource, distance learning, DM, dox, emoji, emoticon, follow/unfollow, friend/unfriend, gaslighting and a few hundred more.

“Looking at this list of words makes me realize that we live in a profoundly different reality now than we did in 1995,” Eno writes. “I assume new language evolves when there are new things that need to be talked about – so the faster those new things are coming at us, the more new language we need for them.”

While many of these words were spawned by the internet and social media, what really intrigues Eno is how few of them relate to art, religion and philosophy. Or maybe they do, but in ways that we have yet to recognize.

“Is QAnon actually an emerging religion?” he wonders. “Is CRISPR gene-editing technology possibly a new form of art? Is decluttering, à la Marie Kondo, a sort of spiritual discipline that operates in the space where religion operated?

“Is TikTok a new mass art form that we aren’t taking seriously? (Will we, in another twenty-five years, reverently scroll through old TikTok videos, recognizing them as the beginnings of a truly universal, democratic art form?) Is binge-watching Netflix the future of art, as galleries and public spaces become more dangerous?”

And then there’s the no-less-real danger, in our post-truth society, of language itself. For Eno, an early warning sign was Republican strategist Karl Rove’s response when asked about the lies that were fabricated to sell the Iraq war: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”

“It’s interesting to watch that kind of hubris crash up against a little strand of RNA – and conspicuously lose the battle,” Eno observes. “As I write this, we’re five months into the COVID pandemic, and it turns out that even an empire can’t change biological reality.

“I wonder if it will make any difference to how we view the role of leadership in the future when we evaluate the various national responses to COVID and notice that the people who dealt with it more successfully were not the macho braggarts, not the ‘we-make-our-own-reality’ brigade, not the ‘man-up’ populists, not the Panglossian libertarians, but the people who had the humility to listen to the science and the humanity to care enough to act upon it.”

So, there are 22 pages right there.

The rest of the book is devoted to Eno’s diary, as well as a compendium of essays (aka swollen appendices) on subjects like Marcel Duchamp’s fountain, generative music, cosmetic psychiatry, pagan fun wear and unthinkable futures.

A few of those themes find their way into the diary, as well. But mostly, it’s about the musicians that Brian Eno worked with, the circles he traveled in and the stuff they talked about. All of which requires a certain amount of name-dropping. A lot, actually. Nearly as much as you’d find in an Andy Warhol diary.

The primary difference, of course, is that the eccentric pop-art icon – a man of few syllables, much less words – prided himself as being a “deeply superficial person.” Warhol’s diary entries read like this:

“At 12:00 I had an appointment to meet Debbie Harry at the office (cab $4). I was early and Debbie and Chris were on time. We worked all afternoon. Debbie was sweet, and every picture came out perfect.”

“Jean-Michel (Basquiat) came by and said he was depressed and was going to kill himself and I laughed and said it was just because he hadn’t slept for four days.”

“I wonder if I’m still having lunch with David Bowie.”

Eno’s diary entries read more like this:

“Working today on ‘Tenterhook’ again. Tried strings in morning before anyone else came in, but the little organ part works best. Song takes shape and Bono does Pavarotti impersonation – very well – and we then called his voice teacher to ask her whether in fact Pav could sing this. She said yes, but the long high Β (I think) would raise his blood pressure a little. Edge thinks more drama needed in the words; I think fewer words needed.”

Or this:

“Princess Di in the dressing-room, a funny little clutch at the door – her, Mo Sacirbey, Bono, Edge’s father and myself. I got Pav and the others (after Bono reminded me of the time – sweet man) to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ for (Eno’s wife) Anthea. Pav was so sweet – held her hand and gazed into her eyes while he sang – and she so gracious. She’s magnificent at accepting compliments or gifts – a great and rare talent. Unexpected reformation of the three tenors: Edge’s dad and Bono’s dad (both tenors themselves) joined in the singing – Bob, Garvin and Luciano – plus all the rest of us, of course. At the enormous formal dinner afterwards, a glitzy and glamorous Sicilian lady came on joke-flirting with me in front of her husband, who told me how much each limb would cost me.”

“A Year With Swollen Appendices” ends with Brian Eno and Elvis Costello in a steam room talking about the ways in which scored music is more “colouristic” and contoured than most pop songs. This is followed by a brief discussion of Anthea’s latest “unthinkable future,” in which small doses of nuclear radiation are found to be good for you.

The entry, just 175 words long, closes with an observation concise enough to fit on an Oblique Strategies card: “Tomorrow I can go to sleep without having to write this diary.”