Naomi Yang
They Made Magic

These pen portraits build up into a gallery of special people. These people have made unique contributions to popular culture. Some of the stories will be fairly familiar, and some may seem slightly strange. There are some glaring omissions, and some odd inclusions. A thread of narrative runs through, and it’s all as subjective as hell.
I’ve just been watching a DVD of Damon and Naomi playing live in Tokyo in June 2005. It’s a wonderfully stately performance, with Damon and Naomi and their guests attaining an almost religious calm. As an artefact it perfectly complements the Maple Snow live recordings of Alison Statton and Spike and their guests in Japan a decade or so earlier.

The DVD comes cloaked in an exquisite Naomi Yang design, and was available only through the duo’s website. It sold out long ago. The set that night closes with a rendition of 'Blue Thunder', one of the most loved songs from the duo’s previous group, Galaxie 500, which was one of the great American underground outfits.

At the end of the 1980s I hated American rock with a vengeance. I hated overground and underground American rock. I hated college boys in checked shirts, talking about Neil Young and the metal records they’d grown up on, and the bad punk they adored. I hated Galaxie 500 because they made it that much more difficult to adopt this extreme position. Galaxie 500 did not seem like any other American rock of the late 1980s, and I thought their songs were lovely.

Galaxie 500 were the only American group of the late 1980s that understood about space. They were at odds with all around them, without making a big deal of it. They belonged to a whole other tradition that stretched from the Velvet Underground, through Tim Buckley and Big Star’s third, Jonathan Richman and Television, through the Feelies and Bongos, to David Roback (via Rain Parade) and Kendra Smith (via the Dream Syndicate) in Opal to a place where guitars really do gently weep. A place in the sun for everyone shaped by the pop underground via records made possible by labels like Rough Trade, Postcard, Factory and Cherry Red.

The Boston roots of Galaxie 500 connect perfectly to Jonathan Richman and his unique world view. There remains something remarkable about Jonathan, the out-of-time Velvets fanatic who became a very special performer, oft misunderstood for his childlike simplicity and playfulness, but who was years ahead of his time in the way he adapted folk idioms of the world into r’n’r primitivism. And Jonathan just happened to write the most beautiful songs ever. Galaxie 500 would famously adopt his 'Don’t Let Our Youth Go To Waste' to great effect.
Galaxie 500 have not let their youth go to waste. Their back pages are well preserved, via the Rykodisc reissues which have excellent sleevenotes from Byron Coley, the best American writer of the time. Another act Byron’s penned sleevenotes for are Yo La Tengo, and that group’s James McNew oversaw an interview for the gorgeously comprehensive DVD of Galaxie 500 footage that the Plexifilm label put out. In his interview James refreshingly homes in on what had become iconic features of the Galaxie 500 legacy, like Naomi’s earrings (“the earrings did get kind of out-of-hand ­ but I always identified with the Edie Sedgwick quote about her long earrings. ‘I swish them the way other girls swish their hair’”), her hair (“Odile Gilbert cut my hair. She’s a French stylist who was living in New York at the time and the reason why, no matter what other fashion errors I may have made in those years, my hair always looked great” ­ and wasn’t the Anna Karina character in Bande A Part an Odile?), and their guitars (“I do think we always chose very elegant instruments”).

After Galaxie 500 split, the rhythm section of Damon and Naomi went off to do its own thing. In a nutshell, they took the best bits of Galaxie 500, like the achingly lovely melodies, the spiritual sense of grace, the folkish purity, the space, and steadily refined it all over a wonderful succession of records. Gradually Damon and Naomi seemed to edge closer to the margins, and progressively establish their own sense of community, building up strong ties to kindred spirits around the world like Ghost in Japan and The Clientele in London.

By the time Damon and Naomi released their 2005 set The Earth Is Blue they were practically self-sufficient. It was the first release on their own 20/20/20 label, and a glimpse at their website would show them to be artistic spirits deeply involved in all sorts of media, the sort of thing which has always seemed wonderfully attractive. I even succumbed to a lovely screen printed cloth bag featuring a shot of Damon and Naomi with Kurihara (of Ghost) which looks delightfully Biba-ish and is probably the last thing I needed, but it’s totally pop.

Also available on the site are collections of Damon’s poetry, including a chap book. Now I love chap books. Just about my favourite writer is Jim Dodge, and he’s published much of his poetry in chap books over the years in ridiculously small quantities. And there’s a link to the Exact Change site, which is the small publishing house Damon and Naomi have run for several years. Exact Change has just about the best name ever for a publishing house, and the books look totally brilliant. Specialising in experimental literature, among the books they have made available are Tropicalia icon Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, and Gertrude Stein’s Everybody’s Autobiography. They have also put out the exquisitely sensitive works of Denton Welch, the tragic aesthete who is criminally overlooked from time to time.
At the start of Welch’s Maiden Voyage, Edith Sitwell writes: “In the touching very youthful creature, who is the central character, with his curious young wisdom and his occasional young silliness, his longing for affection and hatred of falsehood, his adventurousness, his enquiring nature, his courage, his fright, his shyness and agonies of mind, his youthful clumsiness, his warm kindness, and his pathos, we live again in our own youth. For we are inside that boy’s heart and mind, and the whole book has a moving and youthful quality.” She could almost be writing about Damon and Naomi.

The second release on Damon and Naomi’s record label is a collection of recordings Galaxie 500 made for the John Peel radio show during their occasional visits to London. Half of these recordings are cover versions, and this is something of an important tradition. The sessions feature adaptations of the Sex Pistols’ 'Submission', Buffy Saint Marie’s 'Moonshot', the Young Marble Giants’ 'Final Day', as well as the 'Don’t Let Our Youth Go To Waste' theme song. Elsewhere Galaxie 500 covered Jonathan Richman’s 'Back In Your Life', the Velvets’ 'Here She Comes Now', New Order’s 'Ceremony', Red Crayola’s 'Victory Garden', the Beatles’ 'Rain' and Yoko’s 'Listen, The Snow Is Falling'.

Damon and Naomi have maintained, often bravely, the tradition of covering important songs, like The Band’s 'Whispering Pines', Pearls Before Swine’s 'Translucent Carriages', Big Star’s 'Blue Moon', Nico’s reading of Tim Hardin’s 'Eulogy to Lenny Bruce', Caetano Veloso’s 'Araca Azul', and the Beatles’ 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps', which really should not work, but succeeds beautifully. The live DVD also features a performance of Tim Buckley’s sacred text 'Song To The Siren', which becomes almost as hallowed as a religious ceremony, which I guess it is.

It’s odd how the sort-of folk and jazz tradition of interpreting standards has become something to shy away from. Maybe it’s just that few are as gifted and brave as Damon and Naomi. Another tradition we run the risk of losing is the contemporaneous cover. Think of something like 'Angel Of The Morning', and the number of versions there were around in next-to-no-time. Think of what Jaguar Wright could do to a Damon and Naomi song. Think what Damon and Naomi could do to a Jill Scott song. Think of what Robert Wyatt did to Chic’s 'At Last I Am Free'. Think of Michael Head in the Pale Fountains singing Deneice Williams’ 'Free', and then in Shack covering 'Faith' by Manicured Noise.

© 2006 John Carney