Damage

‘a healing of sorts’

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.

Damage RF TG

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’.

Damage rear

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

David Sylvian – keyboards, vocals; Robert Fripp – guitar, frippertronics; Trey Gunn – chapman stick

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)

Physical media links: Damage (David Sylvian remix) (burningshed) (Amazon)

‘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

22 thoughts on “Damage”

  1. That song is truly, breathtakingly beautiful.
    I am jealous that you managed to see Fripp and Sylvian live, it was not possible for me at the time. Fripp is my absolute musical hero.
    I much prefer the “Damage” album to “The First Day”.
    Thanks for sharing your memories.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. What a piece! The song & your article. I’m touched & moved by both. And it’s lovely to know about the commitment&deep feeling by the Musicians involved. I still remember how much I cried in front of all this beauty: it enters deep and becomes part of you (diventare parte di te).
    How many wonderful memories inside those two magic tours…Two for all: seeing&listening to David Sylvian for the very first time in my life, seeing baby Ameera Daya in her dad’s arms.
    Heartfelt thanks💖🙏

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Always fresh reveals on your posts, I have a copy of original? release (24 carat gold CD) from ‘94. It mentions in accompanying booklet that the recording is live but no mention of where that live performance took place. So now all these years later.. thank you again for great posts.
    No chance of seeing performances such as this one as I reside on the other side of the planet.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. It is and always will be my all time favourite song by Sylvian. I got to hear it for the first time thanks to a bootleg I bought in Camden Town in August 1994. Little did I know that it would sum up what I was going to go through only a week later. It was almost like an omen. I was suffocated by an overwhelming sadness that continued for the next 2 years. The song is inextricably linked to that period of my life. And while it serves as a painful reminder of that difficult time, it also helped me deal with it. An example of Art/Music as therapy.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Wow. Thanks again for another great piece of writing which is especially welcome in these ‘lockdown’ times. You always send me back to the material with fresh ears.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I think the number of comments seem closely related to the popularity of the period from which they come. It’s absolutely nothing to do with the quality of your writing, which is always extremely high. I certainly hope you keep on with the blog.

      Let’s face it, many people have a lot of love for Sylvian’s work from the 80’s and 90’s but far less his work from the last 10-15 years. I count myself among them. Accordingly, reading about such tracks as Damage brings back very many strong emotions and feelings, and inspires me to contribute a comment.

      On the other hand reading about tracks which leave me cold such as Linoleum or Uncommon Deities, doesn’t prompt any comment, and I find the articles more “interesting” than evocative.

      I’m not trying to suggest you should write more about the well-loved material, but simply that it is to be expected that lesser-loved work will attract a lesser response. Please continue!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I like both Linoleum and Uncommon deities too, I love his spoken word projects, to me they’re just a different example of David’s work. I don’t think there’s anything he’s done than I dislike, it just depends what mood I’m in. This song though is very special.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Also, there is the beautiful poignant poem ‘Damage’ which I believe is on his website. Written about the time of David’s divorce when he was travelling each weekend to see his daughter and living in ‘part furnished rooms’.

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    1. Thanks for mentioning this. I have seen this poem, although it’s not on David’s website or in any published collection of his. My personal theory is that the poem was written by someone who was going through a relationship break-up and found comfort in the song ‘Damage’. I don’t think it was written by David. I could be wrong. The scan I’ve seen is from a book, so if anyone knows the book perhaps they can confirm for us.

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      1. Thank you I have also only seen it as a scan from a book, would be very interested to find out. Must confess some details don’t seem like him, but just thought he was distancing himself as per the comment in the article, which is very interested always, thank you. 🙏🏻😔

        Liked by 1 person

  7. This time I feel deeply and personally involved by this reading, and unbelievably intrigued by what once told an old schoolmate of mine (nowadays essayist and professor of philosophy): “the murky plot of coincidences always carries out a mighty attraction for mankind imagination”…
    Why am I telling this? Simply because I do remember that online Q&A with DS, the time and the emotion it took to me to put down my question – considering I am a non-english-speaking person – and the revelation I got once that simple answer was published.
    Yes, that fan question about the meaning of “Damage” was mine. And finding such a precious memory of my past as part of your article has been absolutely amazing. I could only say after this experience that “I see the shining of things” … Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A coincidence indeed! Thanks for sharing that – and for asking the question of David in the first place. I think the way you asked it gives a real sense of the ‘shadow and sun’ that is woven into the song.

      I guess this also shows that those who have been moved by this music continue to hold it dear.

      Thanks for being here.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank to your as usual detailed “Sources and acknowledgements” information, I could spend one passionate hour in watching the YouTube video synthesis of that Q&A session between DS and Robert Sandall, whose existence until yesterday I did not know.
        This to say that what you are doing is really worthy.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Paul. I try to list everything on the ‘sources and acknowledgments’ page linked at the end of the article, and putting together the years of the references & articles hopefully it’s possible to work most things out. To my knowledge, this particular Q&A isn’t online any longer. Fortunately I was in the habit of printing interviews off and keeping them with previous printed music press interviews.

        At the time of the release of ‘Dead Bees on a Cake’, Virgin’s ‘Eden’ site invited questions from fans which then received written responses from David. I printed it off in August 1999.

        I hope sometime to add unpublished material to the wonderful archive at davidsylvian.net. I’m very grateful for the work of original interviewers and publishers which adds so much to our insight.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Very strangely enough, during this CV horror, I’ve revisited all my cd’s and I listened to this in full. It’s as wonderful as it was on day one, so your musings & insights help to unpack it. Complex as always from DS. The only way I want it.
    Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Thanks for this, like others here I was at the Albert Hall and think it was one of the best concerts I have been to. I never quite understood why Sylvian felt the need to remix and reissue the live CD though after Fripps’ version. There is a superb video of the piece here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gPxvtYOITvg which I sometimes play to my university students before a lecture about how writers turn personal experience into good writing.

    I was slightly surprised you didn’t note that there is a track called ‘Earthbound Starblind’ on the CD doublepack single of ‘Jean the Birdman’.

    Liked by 1 person

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