London’s Royal Albert Hall is a spectacular venue for any kind of event. You alight from the underground at South Kensington station just a few streets away from Stanhope Gardens in whose elegant white-washed apartments Messrs Sylvian, Jansen, Barbieri and Karn lived during the height of Japan’s success, and where Steve Jansen photographed the lead singer on the rooftop by night as part of the shoot for the ‘Ghosts’ single. Heading north, past the grandeur of the National History Museum and V&A, you reach the magnificent concert hall opposite the memorial to Prince Albert in Hyde Park. With its rotunda construction, terracotta mosaics and imposing roof of glass and wrought iron it really is like nowhere else.
For me, it’s a location that will always be associated with a Sunday in December 1993; the first of two concerts at the end of The Road to Graceland tour by Sylvian/Fripp. These were the only two shows played in London as part of their ’90s joint project. I can’t remember how, but I’d secured tickets in the stalls, centrally placed and about fifteen rows from the stage. Perfect. People say that the sound quality has not always been great here, and scanning the auditorium, rising through the rows of plush red boxes to the gallery up in “the gods” where you have to stand to watch the performers, it’s easy to believe that the experience can differ depending on your vantage point. I can only say that where I was sat that night the mix was clear and well balanced. On the desk was Dave Kent, a staff recording engineer at Paisley Park where he worked with Prince and many other artists. Kent would be David Sylvian’s trusted sound engineer for a decade.
For the ..Graceland tour the original live trio formation of Sylvian, Fripp and Trey Gunn was supplemented by the drums and percussion of Pat Mastelotto and additional “infinite” guitar work from Michael Brook. The set opened with strident renditions of cuts from The First Day, with ‘Brightness Falls’ and ‘Firepower‘ displaying all the muscular aggression of that record. There was a brief – and surprise – diversion into Rain Tree Crow with the band’s version of ‘Every Colour You Are’, and a familiar and tight performance of ‘Jean the Birdman’. Then the focus drew close in on the original trio for one of three unreleased songs performed that evening, and the only piece debuted on the tour – ‘Damage’.
The world wasn’t as connected then as it is now. I didn’t know the set-list and certainly hadn’t heard anything about this new composition. The contrast with the opening of the set made the plaintive ballad all the more touching and powerful. I remember some people in front of me shuffling out; perhaps they’d come expecting a King Crimson or Japan retrospective… For me, though, it will always be a highlight among concert experiences – what better way to be introduced to a song by a favourite artist than by witnessing it performed in front of you?
We are fortunate that a show a few weeks earlier on 26 October 1993 at the Nakano Sunplaza in Tokyo was professionally shot, so it’s possible to relive the moment.
I really enjoy being able to experience that again. There is a distance between Sylvian and the other players which isolates the singer to one side of the stage. This positioning, and the white light which bathes him, serve to emphasise how private thoughts are being laid bare. The others are more dimly illuminated in blue; Gunn taking more of the spotlight whilst the master guitarist’s features are barely visible.
It’s noticeable how Robert Fripp’s gaze is fixed on David Sylvian as the song begins, exemplifying his discipline of being totally present when on stage. Fripp’s approach made a huge impression on Sylvian: ‘There’s a tremendous amount of commitment brought to a performance each night with Robert. It’s something I hadn’t experienced to that degree before. So that was a wonderful experience.’ (1999)
Fortunately, the fretboard is visible and we can see Robert shaping those solos, stretching the strings to bend the notes, imbuing the song with heart-rending emotion to match the lyrical content and tender vocal delivery. Trey Gunn’s stick part is a gorgeous thick bassline; it’s strange to have a bass solo before the lead guitar, but the impact is to ground the song with a beautiful depth.
Haruki Kaito created the unusual lighting for ..Graceland. Some fans didn’t take too well to the fact that Robert Fripp was in the shadows for large parts of the concert. One was so outraged after the Royal Albert Hall show that he took to the Crimson-dedicated Discipline email forum declaring, ‘At first, we spent most of our time thinking there was a technical problem.. ..Then we battled between straining to see you play your leads and, at the same time, focus on the distraction of the rhythm section who were strongly lit in white light.. ..I think the eyes and ears go to who is playing the lead if no one is singing. Your not being lit knocked us off balance and detracted from the whole purpose of the show which, in my mind, is to perform to your maximum potential.’ The disgruntled concert-goer demanded full reimbursement of the ticket price.
This was an occasion when Robert responded personally and, needless to say, his riposte was both robust and comprehensive, pointing out that ‘anyone with a measure of familiarity with my work (which you claim) might reasonably expect the performance to be not-quite-as-you-might expect.’ (1993)
Haruki’s light setting impacted performers too. Drummer Pat Mastelotto: ‘The Sylvian/Fripp tour was a lesson in restraint. The lighting alone was a challenge. There were pools of white light on stage all the time. In most bands I’d been in, the lights go dark when the songs ended. When the stage doesn’t go dark.. ..I feel exposed all the time. It’s like performing in a fish-bowl. It goes both ways, too. It’s a test of how unobtrusive you can be when you’re not playing. What do you do when you want to use a towel or drink some water? So, the lesson I learned with Sylvian/Fripp, that continues with King Crimson, is to sit still, Guitar Craft-style. It isn’t always so easy If you’re sweating and your eyes are burning, or if it’s a heartfelt lyric and my throat swells and I start to cry. It’s tough to just sit there.’ (2017)
Years later Robert Fripp commented online about the song ‘Damage’: ‘Until the present incarnation of King Crimson, working with David was the happiest undertaking of my professional life; and this song, one of my all-time favouritists. What gorgeous singing, heart-wrenching! A privilege to accompany..’ Pat Mastelotto responded, ‘To sit silently crying, trembling motionless, on stage in a pool of light, night after night, during this song, was one of the hardest privileges of my life.’ (2018)
I shared a draft of this article with Pat before publishing it. Why such a deep response to this particular piece of music? ‘That’s a heavy tune.. ..It just weighs on you emotionally… as your head thinks of all the people you have damaged… And how fragile humanity is.’
The live album recordings of this tour – also released under the song’s name as Damage – were captured at the London shows, and we have both Robert Fripp’s mix from the original 1994 release and David Sylvian’s alternative working from the 2001 re-issue. For the latter Sylvian worked with tour sound engineer, Dave Kent. Both versions push Trey Gunn’s bass-line higher up than Seigen Ono’s mix for the video of the Tokyo show, with the 2001 reworking bringing the vocal right to the fore, matching Sylvian’s approach on the recently released Dead Bees on a Cake.
As to the lyrics, there was an emotional impact on bandmates and audience alike. At the time of the release of the live album, Sylvian said: ‘When I’m writing songs, I very rarely write in a detailed way about the state of my own mind. Instead I try to generalise my experiences. I don’t want people who’re listening to my music to think: “oh, that must be what he is going through.” I prefer that they’re relating to my work because it touches something in themselves. I do use my own experiences as base material, but try to transform them into some kind of archetypal experience that’s also significant to other people.’ (1994)
Maybe this was in part a mechanism to deflect attention from the roots of the writing in personal experience, but there is no doubt that others have closely identified with the sentiment expressed in ‘Damage’. The articulation of loss in the lyric is all the more poignant because the person from whom the protagonist is now estranged mapped meaning into life and acted as a creative muse:
‘I found the way
By the sound of your voice’
‘Did I give you much?
Well you gave me things
You gave me stars to hold
Songs to sing’
And separation means that now only words can be exchanged, rather than the previous intimacy of shared space, body language, touch:
‘So many things to say
But these are only words
Now I’ve only words
Once there was a choice’
Sylvian’s use of the noun-verb composites ‘Earthbound, starblind’ is striking in both meaning and metre, causing us to dwell on their significance. These two words convey succinctly something of the same sense as in ‘Brilliant Trees‘ where despite a desire to ‘raise my hands up to heaven’, ultimately reality is found in earthly experience; ‘leading my life back to the soil.’
There is hope, though, in the anticipation of future reunion:
‘Can I meet you there?
God knows the place
And I’ll touch your hand
Kiss your face’
Interestingly in Hypergraphia the piece is sub-titled ‘Bringing Down the Light’, the name of Fripp’s sublime closing Frippertronics tour de force on The First Day. Sylvian felt this completed their studio album on a note of positive resolution after the tribulation expressed through many of the tracks. Likewise in ‘Damage’ there is affirmation amongst the anguish, both ‘shadow and sun’.
I’ve heard other theories as to what the lyric might reference, but Sylvian’s own words make it clear that this a song about relationship break-up. In a fan Q&A published online he was asked, ‘Is there anything more than a slightly autobiographical trace in the words of ‘Damage’? This song recalls a painful separation of mine, I always wonder whether only as a soundtrack rather than a lucid poetic analysis! When I hear it I still feel at the same time great sorrow and serene surrender. Are we in tune?’
David’s simple response: ‘Yes. Painful to write but necessary.’ (1999)
Radio host Jim Lange talked to Sylvian about the song in a 2005 interview: “Damage’ – to me it could work on Blemish even though its instrumentation is so radically different.’ Sylvian: ‘Funny you should say that. It’s dealing with the break-up of a very important relationship at that point in my life so it’s the same subject matter in a way, dealt with in a slightly different manner.. ..That was a beautiful relationship that came to an end, and had to end, but there was a connection that will never end. ‘Damage’ tries to take a look at what that means.’
Most recently, Sylvian spoke of Yuka Fujii’s photobook Like Planets as portraying ‘two souls that are forever intertwined,’ and that, ‘the songs ‘Brilliant Trees’ and ‘Damage’ were true regarding the same subject from my perspective’ (2019). The words of the latter in Hypergraphia are accompanied by a photograph of Yuka alongside Robert Fripp.
I find it truly fascinating that a song so sorrowful and raw in emotion can be counted as a favourite by so many, perhaps finding truth and consolation in echoes of their own experience or responding to emotion that is conveyed with such integrity. It’s possibly best summed up as follows: ‘Sadness has a mean of penetrating the heart deeply. Piercing the ego’s armour. From that point on the work can effect a healing of sorts.’ (DS, 1999)
‘And I hurt and I hurt
And the damage is done.’
Before commencing work on the Everything & Nothing compilation, Sylvian fuelled hope that a studio version of the song might be included saying that among the out-takes he hoped to bring together, ‘There’s an original version of ‘Damage’ that Robert and I recorded together which has never seen the light of day, which is also very beautiful.’ (1999)
Oddly though, a couple of years later when asked if original versions of Sylvian/Fripp collaborations ‘Damage’, ‘The First Day’ and ‘The House in Which We’ll Live’ might ever be heard, he was definitive in his response that, ‘There are no studio versions of these pieces.’ (2002)
Unfortunately for us, Trey Gunn (again in conversation with Jim Lange), confirmed that as far as ‘Damage’ was concerned, ‘We didn’t have the track when we made the studio record The First Day.’ Gunn went on to explain how the arrangement of the song was developed when Sylvian did share it in preparation for The Road to Graceland tour. ‘David had a song, and then he really encouraged.. ..he left a space in the song where he really encouraged me to basically take a solo – a couple of solos – which is fantastic when somebody of David’s stature says, “Here, I’ve made some space for you, now you run with it.”’ (2015)
‘Damage’ – live
Music by David Sylvian, Robert Fripp and Trey Gunn. Lyrics by David Sylvian.
Produced by Robert Fripp and David Bottrill. From Damage, Virgin, 1994.
Later re-released, remixed and produced by David Sylvian, Virgin, 2001.
lyrics © copyright samadhisound publishing
The video and stills are excerpts from the Sylvian/Fripp laser video disc Live in Japan, VAP, 1995.
Sources and acknowledgements for this article can be found here.
Download links: ‘Damage’ (iTunes)
‘David Sylvian has an amazing voice, and he doesn’t need to sing loudly to make it work – it’s just there. He’s the only person I’ve run across like that.’ Trey Gunn, 1994