Michael Karoli, the guitarist who insured the pioneering German space-rock band Can kept one foot on terra firma, died at his home near Nice, France on Friday morning at the age of fifty-three. No details have been divulged as to the cause of death, but former band mate and longtime collaborator Holger Czukay posted a note to Can’s official Web site stating that Karoli died “unexpectedly, while playing his favorite instrument.”
Karoli, who was a decade or so younger than his band mates, was coaxed into joining Can by Holger Czukay, under whom he was studying music theory. As the only member of the band with roots in rock & roll — in a 1999 interview, he alluded to several years of playing “beat music, very simple, very primal” — Karoli brought a decidedly visceral edge to the mercurial “instant composition” practiced by his more cerebral band mates.
Ever mercurial, Can went through several incarnations before solidifying — behind charismatic American-born vocalist Malcolm Mooney — enough to record the seminal 1968 album Monster Movie. While both Mooney and his replacement — the peripatetic, Japanese-bred Damo Suzuki — cut imposing figures onstage, the focus of Can’s music always fell upon the dazzling, largely unstructured pieces woven together by Karoli, Czukay, Irmin Schmidt and Jaki Leibezeit.
“There was something unconscious about the music we made together, but it wasn’t just ‘improvisation,'” Schmidt insisted. “The music was composed, but it was composed on the spot, and it was composed by each of us. Each of us brought in different ideas, and Micki (the diminutive nickname bestowed upon Karoli) had some of the most interesting thoughts.”
That opinion, as applied to such classic Can albums as Ege Bamyasi, Tago Mago and Future Days, won over a slew of latter-day devotees — as varied as Sex Pistols frontman John Lydon, Monster Magnet frontman Dave Wyndorf, and Stereolab founders Tim Gane and Laetitia Sadier.
“People always point to the more heavy rock elements in Monster Magnet’s songs, but I’d say that bands like Can had as much to do with the way I approach music as anything did,” says Wyndorf. “Michael Karoli’s guitar-playing was so far out there, but it always made some sense. He never made you think he was being weird for the sake of being weird.”
Karoli, who says he’d grown “bored and burned out” by the mid-Seventies, wasn’t as forceful a presence on Can’s later albums (which saw an inexorable move towards fusion and more conventional formats) and retreated from the music business altogether for years, returning from sabbatical with the largely overlooked 1983 solo album, Deluge.
While Can never officially split up — Karoli played on nearly a dozen albums credited to Czukay and Schmidt — they avoided recording under the band’s moniker after the less-than-successful 1989 album Rite Time. Karoli, who was said to have been in ill health of late, last played in public two years ago, joining his former band mates for performances at Dublin’s Transmissions Festival and the Crossing Border fest in The Hague.
“I’ve never liked to be forced to describe the kind of music I create,” Karoli said at the time. “Is it rock & roll? I suppose that depends on how you define that term. If you consider Captain Beefheart to be rock & roll, or Miles Davis, OK, I play rock & roll. I don’t like to be bothered with categorizations, though.”