Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Features

Michael Karoli 1948-2001

by Julian Cope, 03/12/2001ce
One of the greatest psychedelic guitarists of all time has just died. On November 17th 2001, Michael Karoli, Can’s magical axe-wielder lost his long battle with cancer. He leaves behind a colossal sonic repository for which anyone in the profession of creating mind-manifesting shamanic otherness can only be eternally grateful. As I wrote in my book Krautrocksampler, he was ‘a wizard and a true star.’

I first came upon Michael’s insanely beautiful muse on the John Peel show in 1971. The fifteen minutes of "Mother Sky" was the most mysterious sound I’d ever heard – a furious mantric Turkish "L.A. Woman" with Karoli riffs so catchy that I’m still ripping ‘em off 30 years later. He blasted into the song like some potted history of West Coast Rock, blew our heads off, then sodded off completely. Whole segments of the song were guitar free, leaving us all desperate, until… bango bango! Karoli would surf back in on waves of Turko-phase.

Writers often celebrate the musician with sense enough to leave space in music, but Michael Karoli was one of the very few real masters. Sometimes he would not even appear on a song until halfway through, preferring instead to stand motionless and in silence. When the listener had at last forgotten that guitar was even an option, Karoli would suddenly come crashing in louder than the rest of the track, spindly and emotional as Steve Cropper, clawing out rhythmic leads that broke my heart. His guitar playing on Can’s sensational "Oh Yeah" is tear-jerkingly beautiful soul guitar – stick him in James Brown’s early ‘70s band circa Hell or The Payback and he woulda fitted right in there. Turn this guy right down in the mix and he was still Way Way loud. How?

The opening of Can’s first album Monster Movie begins exactly like the Velvets’ "Sister Ray". But Karoli’s super-strummed one-chord Reedian guitar thrash soon gives way to that familiar proto-Turkish howl that we would all fall more and more in love with over the years. The place of Turkish music in Krautrock has barely been noted, but we’d be foolish to ignore the role of deadly Ottoman fuzz-meisters such as Erkin Koray, who so clearly played a part in the formative years of Michael Karoli’s playing.
Karoli also played a mean John Cale viola. Listen to his dreary death’s-head tone and understand that no-one else in the late ‘60s even thought of playing like that. It was a time of virtuosi violinists such as Jean-Luc Ponty and Jerry Goodman all serving up a jazz-rock storm.

Never a great solo artist, Karoli will instead be forever remembered as the youngest and most physically beautiful of the great Can axis. And though Holger Czukay, Irmin Schmidt, Jaki Liebzeit were, by 1967, all music lecturers in their 30s, it took Czukay’s student, the then 19-year-old Karoli, to show them the missing ingredients. Yet for all his psychedelia, it was not until 1975’s "Full Moon on the Highway" that we were shown Michael Karoli’s true roots. Here at last, his playing admitted every Jorma Kaukonen influence in one three-minute long tour de force.

The easiest way to unlock Karoli’s magic is to listen to Monster Movie, Soundtracks, Tago Mago and Ege Bamyasi in rapid succession. Fucking hell, man, we’re gonna miss this guy.