Photo (right) by Jason Harrell
The Cologne-based band CAN was a krautrock ur-text and a proud embracer of psychedelic deviancy born of the 1968 Generation, from its early adaptation of the musical methods of the Velvet Underground to its beginnings under the wing of Karlheinz Stockhausen, who would leave the entire European classical tradition in his wake. Its first vocalist was an American sculptor who would suffer a nervous breakdown. Its second, a Japanese street performer who became a Jesus freak. As for the band’s Berlin-born and bred keyboardist Irmin Schmidt? Last month, the French government deemed him a knight.
Yes, we’ve come a long way from Kommune 1 and Baader-Meinhof. Schmidt, current resident of the south of France but found this Tuesday evening at the Institut Français, is now more likely to be writing operas than riffing on reggae. Before him is a silver medal – from the French Order of Arts and Letters – laid out on a red cushion, in front of us a small, grey crowd of 30 or so, expensively dressed. We wait for the chain mail and the tap of the sword. But there is no weaponry, just cellphones, silver trays of champagne glasses and crying babies.
The term for French knighthood – Chevalier – derives from ‘horseman’ (as in ‘cavalier’ or ‘cavalryman’) and rockers do tend to be road warriors. Schmidt saddles up to the stage and is pinned, joining musical brethren such as Dylan, Glass, Bowie, and even a Beatle: Ringo. As a German receiving France’s highest honour, the co-author of the song “Mushroom” naturally thinks of mould. Or, rather, cheese, giving a long anecdote about purchasing some fermented dairy product in France – the seller assures Schmidt that “Le fromage, it is alive,” a concept surely understandable to a survivor of the acid-addled 1960s. And just as the cheese lives, so, as Schmidt assured us, “La vie est belle! It’s the small things that make this life belle. Damned France – I love everything about it.”
Schmidt leaves the podium and we take a lively leap toward the fromage ourselves. “These are way better than the ones at German ceremonies,” notes Valentin, a young friend of Schmidt’s family found standing by the hors d’oeuvres. He’s sorry for not being able to point us toward famous people, but insists we speak with Schmidt. “He’s really nice!” Schmidt approaches, looking to become a Royale with Cheese, himself. Our photographer apologizes for some fumble-fingers which interrupted his speech.
“Shit happens,” responds Schmidt with unconventional cool. “Who are you?”
“We didn’t believe it, actually,” explains Schmidt’s daughter, Sandra Podmore. The family was concerned that many musicians with an anti-establishment image sometimes “feel a bit crap” for accepting awards from a monarchy, even a dead one. Bowie turned down his British Knighthood and Lennon sent his MBE back to the Queen via chauffeur “as a protest against Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam and against ‘Cold Turkey’ slipping down the charts.” But this culturally focused French award? “Oh, that’s cool,” Sandra says.
Plus Schmidt has an excuse to revisit the town of his youth. What’s his favourite thing about Berlin? “That’s too much of a teenaged kind of question to ask,” Schmidt quips, then he pauses, thinking. “My favourite thing about Berlin is my friends. I’m going to look for another glass.” He disappears in the direction of more wine.
From youthful conductor to rock star to composer of soundtracks and operas, Schmidt, now 77, has little to prove. Unlike Can’s biggest hit, he does not want, or at least need, more – wine excepted. Does being a Chevalier come with any special privileges? Schmidt responded dryly, “I don’t have a horse.”