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Richey Edwards: The Illusion of Individuality – Letter April 1993

7 Apr

“THE ILLUSION OF INDIVIDUALITY – THE RIGHT TO EXPRESS OUR THOUGHTS ONLY MEANS SOMETHING IF WE ARE ABLE TO HAVE THOUGHTS OF OUR OWN.”

Whilst browing through my folder I stumbled upon this letter written by Richey Edwards, the lyricist and officially also the guitarist though not really of the Welsh band Manic Street Preachers whose sharp intellect and edgy, provocative statements and acts have made the Manics stand out from the other band even if their first album wasn’t as great as they bragged it would be. In their case it’s the thought that counts because Richey’s thoughts, imbued in all the songs’ lyrics co-written by Nicky Jones, have made their music so powerful. This letter or maybe I should call it a manifesto, written in April 1993 so around the time they were recording their second album “Gold Against the Soul”, shows Richey’s brilliant mind and is full of thought-provoking lines, almost slogans, and some of them seem very appropriate in these post-truth, post-freedom days. We don’t know whether Richey is alive or death; he disappeared on 1st February 1995, but he certainly isn’t in the public arena to comment on the things that are going on today and still, some of the lines that he wrote in this letter and in his songs resonate so well with our time; “Fascism is not a political problem. It is a psychological one. A hidden need to submit freedom. Be told what to do.” In the past year we’ve seen many people gleefully giving their freedom away for safety, not realising that in the end they will lose both. I can’t help but wonder what Richey would think of all that, he was never the one to apologise, censor himself or bow down to the mainstream opinion. This also seems very relevant now especially: “Science is stupid. It needs proof for the obvious and accepts the ridiculous.” I also like this line: “You go on day after day and make plans even though there is no point. This is the price of intelligence. All school wants is that you be uncritical and smile.” and “Everyone is silently disatisfied with democracy’s rewards.”

Circus Scenes in Art – A Tightrope Between Vibrancy and Melancholy

20 Sep

Der Himmel über Berlin

Wim Wenders’ film “Wings of Desire” (Der Himmel über Berlin, 1987) perfectly encapsulated my vision of circus. It is a beautiful film, one of my all time favourites, and even though the circus is not its main theme, it is the most poignant to me. What’s not to like about this film; slow tempo, alienating mood, greyness of Berlin streets and buildings, everyday sadness that seems poetic seen through the eyes of the Angel, old man vainly looking for Potsdamer Platz but finding only the wall covered in graffiti, depressed people in U-Bahns, a sad young man who commits suicide by jumping from the top of the Europa Centar at Kudamm thinking to himself “The East is everywhere”, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds having a gig at a smoky club, also The Crime and the City Solution, and finally – the lonely trapeze artist Marion who “waited an eternity to hear a loving word”. The most beautiful scene in the film, for me (you can see it on YouTube) is when Marion sits on top of the car, wistful and lonely, with her angel wings, thinking about past and future because the circus, an elephant sadly trumpets, and the guy starts playing a sad melody on accordion. So beautiful, dreamy and nostalgic.

Der Himmel über Berlin

There’s this duality of circus that intoxicates me. Everything is an illusion, just like in cabarets, theatres, nightclubs, parties, Moulin Rouge etc. On one hand, there’s the cheerful vibrancy; striped red-white tent, trapeze artist in shiny pink costume, wide smiled doing acrobatics, laughter and clapping, clowns, tightrope walkers, jugglers, dancers, magicians, animals, lions, crocodiles, elephants, trained to do tricks against their will. On the other hand, there’s the grey reality after the performance. These artists seem to live for the show, but about life after it? Exhausted people returning to their trailors, doing the same thing every night to a different crowd, from one town to the next. When the audience finally leaves, when the candy-floss and popcorn have been sold, when silent night descends, what remains – solitude and melancholy.

There’s such sadness and transience in seeing posters all over the town for an event that has passed becoming paler, chipped and torn as each day passes until one day, a new set of shiny bright posters replace them. Circus theme is present in the film Coralina (2009) where the old Russian guy in the attic perseveres in teaching mice to do tricks; in reality he fails to do so, but in the “other world” his circus is the stuff that dreams are made of. In Milan Kundera’s novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, Sabina is a painter and the scenes she paints always have a duality about them; red velvet curtains that reveal a different whimsical world. There’s always this duality about circus and theatre; glitter and sadness, tears and laughter, ecstasy and melancholy, all tangled together, inseparable.

Pierre-Auguste-Renoir, Acrobats at the Cirque Fernando (Francisca and Angelina Wartenberg), 1879

It is easy to understand why all those painters were drawn to the fanciful world of circus, theatre and the clowns, from Antoine Watteau who portrayed the sad, melancholy Pierrot in the most humane, poignant way, to Goya, Picasso, Renoir, Seurat, Federico Beltran Masses, Marc Chagall, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Laura Knight and many others. Firstly, the circus was a visually fascinating place, all the vibrant colours, interesting faces and shining costumes, dynamic and the movement are so easy to capture on paper, you needn’t search for a particular motif, it is right there in front of your eyes, paint a clown or a trapeze artist. Secondly, circus performers were people alienated from the rest of the “normal” society and that makes them similar to painters from Montmarte and Montparnasse. They both had the outsider appeal which drew them together, they both felt all too well the fragility and beauty of living on the margins of society. And thirdly, a painter paints a world of his own on his canvases and a circus is already a world of its own; Marc Chagall’s art is really unique in how playful and imaginative it is, we can really call it “Chagall’s world” because it doesn’t exist anywhere else but on his canvases (and first in his mind, naturally) and likewise, the world of circus only exists under the striped red and white tent, only on specific days, in certain evening hours, so it is like a dream, and dreams always end. I will not comment specifically about each painting, but I hope you enjoy this little selection of circus scenes in art which I love.

Georges Seurat, English Circus Sideshow, 1887-88

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Rider On A White Horse, 1888, pastel and gouache

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, At the Circus Fernando, the rider, 1888

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, At the circus work in the ring, 1899

Georges Seurat, The Circus, 1891

Laura Knight, The Fair, 1919

Federico Beltran Massess, Circus (El Circo), c. 1920s

Laura Knight, Circus Matinee, 1938

Marc Chagall, The Blue Circus, 1950

Marc Chagall, The Dance and the Circus, 1950

Marc Chagall, Couple au cirque 1981

Book Review: Torn Apart: Life of Ian Curtis

7 Aug

“As for John Peel, although he went on to famously support The Fall, on his 1987 retrospective Peeling Back The Years, he noted: “I always think of them [Joy Division] in a rather romantic way, as being introspective and rather Russian… listening to them always makes me feel slightly central European.”

(Torn Apart)

Scene from the film Control (2007)

Is it like this
In death’s other kingdom
Waking alone
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone
(T. S. ELIOT – 1925; Ian quoted these lines in a postcard for Annik)

I have been a massive fan of Joy Division for a long time, but it wasn’t until July this year (a few weeks ago really) that I picked up the book “Torn Apart: Life of Ian Curtis” by Mick Meddles and Lindsey Read and I enjoyed it tremendously, more than I imagined I would. I picked it up in the library eager to read an interesting and amusing book, but I ended up enjoying it in a more profound and poignant way. I had already read Deborah Curtis’s (Ian Curtis’s widow) “Touching from the Distance” and while it was interesting, I wasn’t breathless when I closed the last page, and I got the sense that she was a bit bitter about some things and she also wasn’t the most objective person to write about Ian, and not the most informed one to write about the band when it came to things such as tours, recording and what when on backstage because she wasn’t there. “Torn Apart” gave a better broader view of Ian’s mind and the life of the band. It was great to hear Annik’s side of the story, see the letters Ian had written to her, at times very poetic and melancholy, at times very warm and humane, like when he writes about the love he feels for his dog Candy.

“Reflects a moment in time,
A special moment in time,
Yeah we wasted our time,
We didn’t really have time,
But we remember when we were young.”

(Joy Division, Insight)

Pic found here.

A short-lived band that sprung in the dark and dreary Manchester scene and ended with the suicide of the singer and lyricist Ian Curtis, leaving only two albums behind whose haunting beauty captivates till this day. A motif of transience and time lingers throughout “Torn Apart” and it is often indicates that Ian felt very old even when he was very young (he died two months shy of his twenty-fourth birthday) and he often felt he had to rush things in life; rush the marriage and family life, rush the band and albums, for there would be no time left for him. It is eerie to know that he felt that way, but also ironic because in the end it was he himself who stopped the clock of his time and no one else.

Laura Makabresku, Care.

“Ian and I were certainly very close emotionally and felt a lot for each other. I think I just came at the right time when he was in need of comfort, affection, tenderness and that my presence was soothing to him. He was very gentle and very soft and very caring. I think the fact that I was a foreigner was part of the attraction and also the fact that I was very kind and maybe more kind of refined than girls he had met before. Our relationship was very platonic and very pure and romantic but also quite abstract. He felt quite diminished by his disease and quite frightened of how it would evolve.” (Annik’s words)

In short, here are some things which I loved about the book and which I think every Joy Division fan would love to read about; I loved that (finally!) we get to hear Annik’s side of the story! Annik was a girl from Belgium who moved to London at one point and she was a fan of Joy Division and that is how she got to meet Ian. I really love Annik’s personality from what I’ve read and some of the things she said about Ian and their relationship and the letters that he wrote to her were so heartbreakingly beautiful; their gentle, ethereal and nearly platonic love touched the strings of my heart. I feel like Annik had a gift of truly understanding him and being there for him when he needed warmth and affection, like she says herself. Then, Ian’s personality and his interests. From Deborah’s book, he comes off as a real asshole sometimes, but in this book, from various sources, I got the image of a very polite, nice, gentle, introverted person. Here is what Annik says: “He was truly the nicest and kindest man I ever met in my life. He had a whole world inside him, a true understanding of mankind. You know how compassionate he felt, especially for the weakest. He opened my eyes on being compassionate; he really opened my heart to others, even to people very different from me. He felt a lot for others, for people who were poor or who didn’t have a very interesting life or interesting job. He really felt for them. He was a very kind man, very polite, very soft spoken.

Control (2007)

The book really got deep into the nature of Ian’s struggles with depression and epilepsy and it was both fascinating and sad to read about it, but is helpful in understanding his sadness and eventual suicide. Along with depressions and epilepsy, a major trouble was the conflict of a failing marriage on one side and a blossoming relationship with Annik on the other side. He had responsibilities towards his family on one side, and Annik’s warm nurturing embrace on the other. Ian had no desire to hurt anyone, but enduring this conflict certainly added to his depression. Quoting the book again: “He was a gentle soul with genuine humility who really didn’t want to hurt anyone. And here he was in a position where he seemed to be hurting everyone close to him – his wife, his daughter, his girlfriend, his group, his friends, and even his fans.” Had he lived, I think he would have been happy with Annik. I loved hearing what Tony Wilson had to say about many things, and also his then wife Linsey Reade who co-wrote the book. I didn’t know that Ian spent a week at their house and listened to records with her in the living room just prior to his suicide. And lastly, I enjoyed reading about the sound effects and the method in which the maverick Martin Hannett worked on the albums.

Indeed, the first bleak seconds of ‘Atmosphere’ convey an unparalleled intimacy through the close-up timbre of Ian’s voice. Lyrics that are awash in ambiguity – “Walk in silence… don’t walk away, in silence…” – suggest the head-in-hands desperation as a lover leaves for the last time; hollow moments of realisation, of a life lost, a killed passion, the final embers of dream. Ian’s voice might be the loneliest in the world as it hovers above Hannett’s simplistic mix, a flickering candle of truth, of grim realisation. Pop music was never meant to be like this: the fire of youth vanquished and an emotive power so effortlessly believable flowing through the lyrics. And then, slicing through the pitch black like a shard of glass, there’s the blinding white light of sound that cuts straight to the heart. The darkness of’ ‘Atmosphere’ rippled out across post punk Britain, a clash of light and dark which filtered slowly into the consciousness of others, not least The Cure’s 1989 masterpiece, Disintegration, which offers a reflection of ‘Atmosphere’ in varying degrees of grey on practically every sweet song. Faith, The Cure’s morose 1981 epic, would arguably side even closer.

All in all, a very interesting and thorough book, but also very sad.

Ian and Annik in Control (2007)

Pulvis et umbra sumus

(We are dust and shadows)

Horace

John Fowles’s The Collector and The Smiths: What Difference Does It Make? It makes none

27 Jul

“Oh, the devil will find work for idle hands to do”

(The Smiths)

The original cover featuring Terence Stamp

This is my third and final post (well at least final for now) in relation to John Fowles’ novel “The Collector”; I already wrote a book review, a post about the theme of art in the novel because Miranda was an art student, and now this post which connects the film with the song by The Smiths. Allow me to first open the Bible of misery, melancholy and self-pity: Morrissey’s Autobiography that is, and let us go to the page one hundred and sixty three and see what is there to be said about the song What Difference Does it Make? and the Terence Stamp cover picture incident:

I nominate Pretty girls make graves as the third single, but a bastion of bearded Rough Trade battleaxes drop on me like a ton of beansprouts and argue against a song with a title that would have made Mary Wollstonecraft throw in the tea-towel. Rough Trade wheel out “What Difference Does It Make?” as the next single. I had loved the song until its defilement on “The Smiths” album; the loose swain’s saunter now sounded stiff and inflexible, the drums sounding too frightened to move, the voice sounding like something gone to its reward – or, at least, resting in peace. I use a photograph of Terence Stamp as the sleeve image partly because I am assured that clearance can be gained from Stamp through Geoff’s mutual friendship with Sandie Shaw. Once the single is issued, Terence Stamp objects and will say (years later) that ‘Morrissey did not ask for approval.’ A new shot is panicked together, wherein I imitate the Stamp shot, although I choose to hold a glass of milk in place of Stamp’s strychnine-soaked muslin cloth. I am ugly against Stamp’s glamor-handsomeness, but it will have to do, since the single has already risen to number 12. Evidently Rough Trade are quite pleased about the sudden censoring of the original sleeve, because it might mean that collectors buy the single with the new sleeve also, thus bumping up sales.

I really adore the song Pretty girls make graves, so I agree with Morrissey. In the novel, Frederick (played in the film by Terence Stamp) drugs the beautiful art student Miranda with chloroform not with strychnine, but oh well Morrissey, I forgive you a lousy little mistake. It seems that in both covers the devil did find work for idle hands to do because they are both holding something. Even though the song and the film have nothing in common really, the cover picture was Morrissey’s homage to the films and film stars of the 1950s and 1960s that he loved. The aesthetic of the kitchen sink dramas appealed to his grim view of the world around him.

The cover with Morrissey and a glass of milk

All men have secrets and here is mine
So let it be known
For we have been through hell and high tide
I think I can rely on you
And yet you start to recoil
Heavy words are so lightly thrown
But still I’d leap in front of a flying bullet for you
So, what difference does it make?
So, what difference does it make?
It makes none
But now you have gone
And you must be looking very old tonight
The devil will find work for idle hands to do
I stole and I lied, and why?
Because you asked me to!
But now you make me feel so ashamed
Because I’ve only got two hands
Well, I’m still fond of you, oh-ho-oh
So, what difference does it make?
Oh, what difference does it make?
Oh, it makes none
But now you have gone
And your prejudice won’t keep you warm tonight
Oh, the devil will find work for idle hands to do
I stole, and then I lied
Just because you asked me to
But now you know the truth about me
You won’t see me anymore
Well, I’m still fond of you, oh-ho-oh
But no more apologies
No more, no more apologies
Oh, I’m too tired
I’m so sick and tired
And I’m feeling very sick and ill today
But I’m still fond of you, oh-ho-oh
Oh, my sacred one
Oh

Sepulchral Cover of Joy Division’s Closer (1980)

18 May

Ian Curtis, the singer, songwriter and the front man of British post-punk band Joy Division took his life on the 18th May 1980, two months shy of his twenty-forth birthday. The second and last album of Joy Division, conveniently named “Closer” because it truly brought a sense of closure, an ending, was released on 18 July 1980; three days after Ian Curtis would have usually celebrate his birthday. In a way, for Curtis at least (other band members were still alive), this album was release posthumously. Since today is the 40th anniversary of Curtis’ death, I decided the explore the art behind the album cover of “Closer”.

Joy Division, Closer, 1980, album cover designed by Peter Saville (Factory Records)

Existence well what does it matter?
I exist on the best terms I can
The past is now part of my future,
The present is well out of hand
The present is well out of hand…

(Heart and Soul)

Life goes on, music scene goes on, even the other band members went on with their music and formed a new band, New Order, but for Joy Division the “Closer” marks an ending and the album cover is eerily appropriate. The black and white design of the album features the title “Closer” and under it there’s a sombre and gloomy photograph of a tomb. The photograph of the tomb used for the album cover was taken in 1978 by Bernard Pierre Wolff. The tomb was sculpted by Demetrio Paernio in 1910 for the Appiani family tomb in the Monumental Cemetery of Staglieno in Genoa, Italy. Paernio (1851-1914) was an Italian sculptor who designed and carved a plethora of tombs for the Staglieno cemetery, but the Appiani family tomb seems especially eerie and gloomy, and therefore fitting for the album of “Closer”.

The tomb shows a man lying on a catafalque, surrounded by his grieving family members. The gestures of the figures presented truly bring the mood of melancholy and anguish; one woman has thrown herself on the ground, from agony and pain of the loss, while the other two are kneeling down, the one in the middle covered her face in her hand, unable to face sad reality of the situation. Looking at the actual, less-artistic photograph of the tomb bellow, it seems to me that the person deceased could be Giovanni who died in 1907. The tomb was designed in 1910, but I am sure that the artist’s commission takes time, especially if it’s a sculpture which requires time and effort. Paernio beautifully depicted the tragedy of the grieving family through the gestures and poses, but also through the clothes; the creases and fluid lines of their robes appear so vivid and alive. This is definitely not a stiff looking tomb, it’s full of emotions, tragedy and passion. I can imagine how morbidly beautiful and magical it would look surrounded by candles and flowers, in autumnal dusk when distant sky is a greyish with a tinge of pink.

Appiani family tomb. Picture found here.

This is a crisis I knew had to come,
Destroying the balance I’d kept.
Doubting, unsettling and turning around,
Wondering what will come next.
Is this the role that you wanted to live?
I was foolish to ask for so much.
Without the protection and infancy’s guard,
It all falls apart at first touch.

(Passover)

This is what the designer Peter Saville had to say about the process of choosing a picture for the cover: “(Saville) revealed that the photos came from a very trendy art magazine called Zoom that had been lying around his studio in London. He later told Mojo magazine: “Bernard Pierre Wolff had done a series of photographs in a cemetery in Italy. I don’t know to this day whether they were real or not – some of them you thought, he’s set that up – that’s just models, covered in dust.” Well, the image wasn’t staged, it was in fact a beautifully carved tombstone, situated in the Staglieno cemetery in Genova, Northern Italy. The tomb belongs to the Appiani family and the incredible marble work was created by sculptor Demetrio Paernio in 1910. Saville explained that Joy Division manager Rob Gretton brought the band to see him to discuss the artwork while they were making the LP: “I hadn’t heard anything they’d recorded so I said ‘I’ll show you what I’ve seen recently that has thrilled me’.” He then showed the band the spread of photos by Wolff that covered several pages in the magazine: “I thought the band would laugh, but they were enthralled. They said ‘We’ – that’s ‘we’ – ‘like that one’.” (quote found here)

All in all, I think the choice of the black and white photograph of this beautiful Appiani tomb was perfect for the album cover, sepulchral, melancholy and Gothic it fits the mood of the music, the lyrics and the overall mood surrounding the band, not to mention the coincidence that the front man of the band also committed suicide two months after the album was recorded and two months prior to its release. It’s almost like the veil of death and gloom lay over the making of “Closer”, like the fingers from another world, the ghostly world, participated in its making. Bernard Sumner, the guitarist of Joy Division and later New Order, spoke in October 2007 about the mindset of Ian Curtis during the recording sessions for “Closer”: “While we were working on Closer, Ian said to me that doing this album felt very strange, because he felt that all his words were writing themselves. He also said that he had this terrible claustrophobic feeling that he was in a whirlpool and being pulled down, drowning.

So this is permanent, love’s shattered pride.
What once was innocence, turned on its side.
A cloud hangs over me, marks every move,
Deep in the memory, of what once was love.
Oh how I realized how I wanted time,
Put into perspective, tried so hard to find,
Just for one moment, thought I’d found my way.
Destiny unfolded, I watched it slip away…
(Twenty Four Hours)

Another Invented Disease – Manic Street Preachers

11 Apr

For some strange reason, this song from the debut album “Generation Terrorists” (1992) by the British rather political (at least in their early phase) band Manic Street Preachers seems to be on my mind these days… I really wouldn’t know why is that 😉

Drugs come out of boredom babe
U.N. exports it everyday
Their armies feed the ghetto lame
Government approve it just the same

Daylight bores the sunshine out of me
I need to feel alone amongst the weeds
Daylight bores the sunshine out of me
I need to feel, I need to feel,
I need to feel, I need to feel

We need and we will always need
Another invented disease
We need and we are taught to need
Another invented disease

Left alone in corporate slums
Where germs are free not amex fun
Healthy bodies in empty minds
Only exist in advert time

Daylight bores the sunshine out of me
I need to feel alone amongst the weeds
Daylight bores the sunshine out of me
I need to feel, I need to feel,
I need to feel, I need to feel

We need and we will always need
Another invented disease
We need and we are taught to need
Another invented disease

Sunk deep in my T.V.
Maybe sucked the soul from within me

We need and we will always need
Another invented disease
We need and we are taught to need
Another invented disease

David Bowie’s Moss Garden and Ukiyo-e Ladies Playing Koto

15 Mar

Chikanobu Toyohara (1838-1912), Koto Player – Azuma

David Bowie’s instrumental piece “Moss Garden”, the second of the three instrumentals on side two of album “Heroes” released in 1977, is a serene, tranquil oasis of light in the desert of darkness which makes the majority of the album’s sound. Situated between the fellow two instrumentals, dark and foreboding “Sense of Doubt” and equally grim “Neuköln”, the “Moss Garden”, strange and serene, is like a ray of sun on a moody, cloudy spring day that appears for a moment and disappears quickly behind the clouds. Bowie plays the traditional Japanese string instrument koto on the track and Brian Eno plays the synthesizer. “Moss Garden” is a delightful five minutes and three seconds of lightness and meditative, ambient ethereal sounds. So, one cannot refer to “Heroes” as to a dark album, why, one eighth of the album is uplifting. And then there’s the song “Heroes” as well.

It’s been quite some time since I discovered Bowie’s Berlin era songs, but this song lingered in my memory, and I think the reason for that is the eastern sound of the koto. I mean, how many rock songs are coloured by far-east sounds like that? Listening to this instrumental piece made me think of all the Ukiyo-e prints where beautiful Japanese ladies dressed in vibrant clothes are playing koto and I found a few lovely examples which I am sharing in this post. A lot of these Japanese woodcut prints (or Ukiyo-e prints) were made by Chikanobu, an artist who worked mostly in the 1880s and 1890s, the last fruitful decades for the art of woodcuts and in his work he mostly focused on beautiful women doing everyday things. I really enjoy the elegant simplicity of the woodcut above; how the background is clear but the lady’s purple kimono stands out and the focus is solely on her and her koto; back to bare essentials. I also really love Hasegawa Settei’s portrayal of lady playing kimono.

Toyohara Chikanobu, Preparing to Play the Koto, from the series Ladies of the Tokugawa Period, 1895

Toshikata Mizuno (1866-1914), Thirty-six Selected Beauties – Playing Koto

Hasegawa Settei, A Japanese woman playing the koto, December 1878

Toyohara Chikanobu (1838-1912), Playing Koto, c 1890s

Toyohara Chikanobu (1838-1912), Koto Player at 11 a.m. – Scenes of the Twenty-four Hours, c 1890s

Moss gardens are a special variety of Japanese gardens, the continuous flow of unending moss coated ground lets the person slowly fall into the dreamy and meditative state, and allows the eye to wander from one variety of moss to the other, the nostrils to inhale the rich, green, primeval scent of this old and grateful plant. I imagine it rich with water after a rainy summer afternoon. “A moss garden presents the opportunity to observe differentiations of colour that have never been seen before. The tactile and optical characteristics of the moss gardens are softness, sponginess, submarine wateriness and unfathomability. They are the exact opposite of the pebble gardens with their appointed paths, boundaries and stone islands.” (Siegfried Wichmann; Japonism)

When life gets overwhelming, one can sit for hours in such a garden and easily sink into a meditative state, thoughts drifting and problems fading. In a similar way, Bowie’s move to Berlin with Iggy Pop in 1976 was his way of finding clarity, anonymity and inspiration: “I had approached the brink of drug induced calamity one too many times and it was essential to take some kind of positive action. For many years Berlin had appealed to me as a sort of sanctuary like situation. It was one of the few cities where I could move around in virtual anonymity.“(Bowie with Rob Hughes and Stephen Dalton for Uncut Magazine) After the very depressing album “Low” released earlier the same year, 1977, album “Heroes” is the first step in the path of Bowie’s search for clarity and perhaps the song “Moss Garden” is the best expression of this new found quite, introspective feeling of serenity.

Keiko Yurimoto (1906-2000), Koto Player, c 1950

Berlin in the seventies was a grey, isolated and divided city with a world-weary self-regard. The youth suffered and junkies filled the subway stations, but a lot of bohemians, artists and musicians were drawn to that bleak, alienated and experimental atmosphere and relished in what the city had to offer. As Bowie said himself: “For many years Berlin had appealed to me as a sort of sanctuary-like situation. It was one of the few cities where I could move around in virtual anonymity. I was going broke; it was cheap to live. For some reason, Berliners just didn’t care. Well, not about an English rock singer, anyway.” He was just another weirdo in the city and everyone left him alone. The product of his fascination with the city were three albums; Low, Heroes and Lodger – today known as Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy”, by far my favourite era of Bowie’s music. Bowie said himself about the Berlin Trilogy: “My complete being is within those three albums.” (Uncut magazine) Enough said. I don’t really understand or share the wild enthusiasm for Bowie’s glam rock Ziggy Stardust era, I mean those are some great songs, but the Berlin era is the real thing, it sounds as if the mood of the times and the city with its bleakness and political division is woven into the music, to me it sounds like Berlin breathing and living.

Serge Gainsbourg’s L’Hôtel Particulier and Art of Paul Delvaux

24 Feb

“All my life I’ve tried to transcribe reality to make it into a kind of dream.”

(Paul Delvaux)

Paul Delvaux, Sleeping Venus (La Venus Endormie), 1944

Serge Gainsbourg’s acclaimed concept album “Historie de Melody Nelson” released on 24 March 1971 has a Lolitaesque theme and in seven unique yet connected songs tells a tale of an older gentleman (Serge) who, by accident, collides his car into the red bicycle of a sweet and pretty schoolgirl called Melody Nelson (Jane Birkin). This chance seemingly unhappy encounter blossoms into a flower of seduction and romance as the gentleman takes Melody to a hotel. This part of the musical story is told in the fifth song “L’hôtel particulier“. Needless to say, I very much enjoy the variety of different musical styles on the album’s songs, and I love the innocently-sexy Jane Birkin in the videos, but it is the video for this song “L’hôtel particulier” that fascinates me in particular because it features the wondrous paintings of the Belgian Surrealist painter Paul Delvaux (1897-1994) who was actually still alive during the time the album was made. Not only alive, but also very prolific. Even though he was the last surviving Surrealist during his life, he was a wanderer and an individualist in the Surrealist crowd who created a unique dream-like world on his canvases which feature repetitive motifs; Classical architecture, nocturnal setting, nude women whose bodies are white as snow and appear smooth as marble, skeletons, crescent moon, trains, boudoirs.

The shaping of Delvaux’s art career was a slow and steady process because at first his parents pressured him into studying architecture, it was something he didn’t enjoy but it did serve him greatly later in creating the strange, accurately depicted yet eerie spaces in his paintings. In 1934 Delvaux saw the Surrealist exhibition “Minotaure” and this inspired him to start working in the direction of Surrealism because it led him back to the imaginative state of childhood. Delvaux’s art also shows the influence of Giorgio de Chirico’s cold and enigmatic worlds where architecture is drawn with precision yet the overall effect is unsettling. In 1937 and 1939 he visited Italy and the architecture inspired him to serve as a setting for the world of his languid dead-eyed hypnotised nudes. Delvaux painted some wonderful eerie paintings even in the late 1960s and 1970s, but the paintings chosen for Gainsbourg’s video were mostly painted in the 1940s. The World War II period was a harsh one for Delvaux as it was for everyone, but it only inspired him to paint more and to retreat into the world of his imagination. The artist stated “I would like to create a fabulous painting in which I would live, in which I could live.”

As a child he was afraid of skeletons but later in life he found a way to incorporate them into his nocturnal worlds, bones glistening in moonlight, death opposing the sensuality of the women’s nude flesh. One such skeleton pops up in the painting “Sleeping Venus” painted in 1944, and unlike skeletons in James Ensor’s art (a fellow Belgian painter), Delvaux’s skeleton is unashamed of himself, he doesn’t put on a mask or hide under some garish carnival clothes. Nude Venus is sweetly asleep on a divan in front of the temple-like building while the skeleton is having a fascinating conversation with a Belle Epoque woman with a large brimmed hat and a dark red dress. The conversation is so fascinating that not even the passing couple, Serge and Jane, can interrupt it. Even though Delvaux’s paintings aren’t directly connected to the music and the song, I think they create a striking background visually which really leaves the viewer interested.

Bellow I’ve compared Delvaux’s paintings to stills from the video:

Paul Delvaux, The Echo, 1943

Paul Delvaux, Night Train, 1947

Paul Delvaux, The Great Sirens, 1947

Paul Delvaux, Le nu et le mannequin (Le nu au mannequin), signed and dated ‘P.Delvaux 12-47’, December 1947

Syd Barrett and The Madcap Laughs: Madness, Solitude and Striped Floors

3 Jan

Syd Barrett’s debut album as a solo artist, “The Madcap Laughs” was released on the 3rd January 1970. The music has a bittersweet feel to it; the melodies are childlike and innocent while others take on darker sounds. The album is in many ways a musical portrayal of Syd’s state of mind at the time.

“We are all mad here.”

(Lewis Caroll, Alice in Wonderland)

It was love at first sound with me and Pink Floyd’s early hits such as Arnold Layne, See Emily Play and Scarecrow; I intuitively felt that something very imaginative and strange was hiding underneath the exterior of your average great pop-song. Those were more than just pop songs that will be forgotten in a few years. They had the magic, the wittiness, the dreaminess that made them linger on in my mind. “Who writes stuff like this?”, I thought to myself. The genius behind the lyrics was Syd Barrett; at the time a drop-out art student from Cambridge who overnight found himself in the centre of the psychedelic underground culture. Music and art were fun for Syd, and coming up with witty lyrics and simple catchy tunes was easy for him because he seemed to have approached things in a childlike way, full of curiosity and wonder at the world around him, but the stress of the band’s success, the interviews, the popularity proved to be too much for him. The increasing consummation of the drug of the moment, LSD, did not help matters. His creative period with the Pink Floyd was short but strong, like an explosion, or a shooting star. Let me provide you with a few dates to show you just how fast it all happened; their first single “Arnold Layne” was released on 10th March 1967. And already, on 15th January 1968 Syd played his last gig with Pink Floyd.

Gustave Caillebotte, Wood Floor Planers, 1875

A new chapter in Syd’s life and musical career began. Alone in the loneliness of his Victorian pad in Wetherby Mansion in Earl’s Court Square, the Psychedelic Mad Hatter was slowly descending into a haunting state of introspection, melancholy and illusions. Into his new bohemian abode, he brought the stuff that remained after many moves around London; a small table, a mattress and a striped blanket, some scratched LPs, Penguin edition books by Shakespeare and Chaucer, barely touched canvases stacked against the wall. His room was his little imaginary world. The outside world did not matter anymore. The cheerful, fun-loving, chatty and friendly Syd was gone. The handsome young Englishman with messy black hair and velvet trousers was slowly going mad…. One morning, after having spent some time meditatively staring at his blanket, a painting by Gustave Caillebotte called “The Wood Floor Planners” suddenly came to his mind and he decided to paint the bare wooden floors of his room in stripes of orange and blue. The album cover shows Syd crouching in his room, a vase of daffodils next to him. He is sad and alone, yet his darkness intimidates me. Angry outbursts and fragmented conversation. Loneliness is seeping through the cracks on the striped floor.

Syd Barrett first entered the studio as a solo artist on 30th January 1968; just ten days after his last show with Pink Floyd, for what would be an unfruitful session. Sessions resumed in June and July produced songs Late Night, Octopus and Golden Hair; all featured on The Madcap Laughs. Peter Jenner, who had worked on these sessions claimed that they had not gone smoothly although he got on well with the singer. Shortly after July sessions Syd suddenly stopped recording, breaking up with his then girlfriend Lindsey Corner and then going off a drive around Britain in his Mini only to end up in psychiatric care in Cambridge. By the start of 1969 Barrett, somewhat recovered, resumed his music career and started working with another engineer Malcolm Jones, after both Jenner and Norman Smith (Pink Floyd’s producer at the time) had declined his request to work on the album. Over four sessions beginning on April 10th 1969. Syd had recorded songs Opel (a beautiful misty ballad that would not see the light of day until 1988), No good trying, No man’s land, Here I go and Love you. The sessions all together were not very productive because in those days recording four or five songs on just guitar in four or five hours wasn’t considered very productive. It was something the engineers tried to avoid.

“You feel me
Away far too empty, oh so alone
I want to go home
Oh find me inside of a nocturne, the blonde
How I love you to be by my side”

(Syd Barrett – Feel)

During the recording of the album Syd was also on Mandrax and he’d sit on a stool and then fall off it. Barrett and his friends were taking the infamous LSD-25, a powerful psychiatric drug still legal in UK those days. It was almost a religious-like experience for Syd, and many others who indulged. Syd really did believe the psychedelic revolution was flowing through him. The world was changing and he thought we should all be perfect beings, cool and groovy. Syd began taking acid regularly with enthusiasm many found alarming. It was in May 1967. that his eyes crazed.  At the time of The Madcap Laughs Syd had already completely surrendered.

The Madcap Laughs is an album filled with long forgotten symbolism. The songs are a mirror of Syd’s mental state of the time and in them he expressed, perhaps deliberately perhaps not, his loneliness and growing alienation. Though some of them have a cheerful rhythm like Love you, one can feel a spark of melancholy. In song Terrapin for example Syd shows his love of the blues while some of the songs sound more like a concept rather than a finished and polished song. This album features some almost child-like songs with optimistic melodies and ostensibly cute themes (Love you and Here I go) through darker and deeper subjects (Dark globe, Golden Hair and No man’s land) to melancholic cries for rescue from his loneliness and ever increasing alienation. Song Golden Hair is actually based on a poem by James Joyce.

This album and the following Barrett reflect not just his state of mind but also the atmosphere at the time, sorrowful end of the sixties whose optimism, innocence and mind-expanding ideas had faded away. By that time the hedonistic atmosphere of the Swinging London was long lost. Perhaps albums The Madcap Laughs and Barrett are a remembrance of the sixties for they were created at the dusk of this beautiful era; era which Syd belonged to and sadly died with.

The striped floors are aesthetically such a fun and exciting things. Syd chose to paint his floors in vibrant contrasting colours which gives the entire room a psychedelic touch, but I noticed the motif of wooden floor in many canvases painted by nineteenth century artists. Seeing the striped wooden floor stretching vertically or horizontally on the canvas is so exciting to me. Here are a few examples by Vincent van Gogh and Degas:

Vincent van Gogh, Bedroom in Arles, 1888

Edgar Degas, Deux Danseuses, 1879

Edgar Degas, The Dance Lesson, 1879

Edgar Degas, Dancers Practicing at the Barre, 1877

William Ratcliffe, Attic Room, 1918

The photo session for the album cover took place in the spring 1969. Most likely in March when daffodils were blooming and Syd had just finished painting his floor in orange and purple stripes. Proud of what he had done, Syd invited his friend Mick Rock to come over and take some photos. At that time Syd was living with Iggy The Eskimo who was a friend of Syd’s ex-girlfriend Jenny Spires. Iggy and Syd weren’t lovers but she was a good company. She answered the doors that day and welcomed Mick completely naked (not an unusual thing for hippies and free-spirited creatures of the time). When Mick arrived he found Syd in bed, still in his underpants; a moment he captured with his new camera Pentax he had just recently bought. After he’d got up, Syd donned a pair of trousers with colour stains on them; from the floor paint. Iggy, the groovy companion to this Mad Hatter of Psychedelia, added some kohl to his eyes to achieve that elegantly wasted look of a Poete Maudite.

The photos were created naturally, with no staging and posing. Mick worked with elements he had: a painted floor, a vase of daffodils, nude Iggy in the background and a huge Canadian car parked just in front of Wetherby Mansion for some outside shots. None of it was planned. Later that day, Storm Thorgerson arrived and his solo focus was the wonderful striped floor. He shoot photos in fading light placing a wide angled lens millimeters of the ground to achieve an Alice in Wonderland effect, giving the floor elastic quality. Syd just crouched by the fireplace and he looked natural; he spontaneously adapted to the background. His pose suggests defiant exhaustion and a dark edge of ‘knowing’. There was only one corner of the room that Syd hadn’t painted and that was the only clean angle if you didn’t want to expose this ‘set’ for what it was; a drab living room with a nasty electric fireplace. As long as he occupied his island-mattress surrounded by striped painted floor, reality and a world of possibilities remained outside his door. The photo that would eventually be the cover photo was also taken by Thorgerson.

I cannot put it in words how much I adore this album and the album cover and the striped floor. All of it has inspired me beyond words. I listen to “The Madcap Laughs” every time I paint my watercolours; it is such a pleasant, soothing, melancholy and dreamy music to provide background for dipping my brush in water, then in the paint… Syd’s fragile voice, his strange and witty lyrics, his yearnings for help and cries of loneliness that come out in some songs, all of it draws me into this strange ethereal world which I always occupy with one part of my mind. When I listen to this album, and also his follow-up “Barrett”, I truly feel like Alice when she found herself in the Wonderland; Syd is the psychedelic Mad Hatter and I follow him blindly, over the striped floor, crossing the yellow glow of the waning sun, to the spaces where only music remains, and I am free, free, free…

Also, grainy quality of the photo brings nostalgia and serves as a barrier between psychedelic vivid colours of the ’60s to more drab and sad reality that came with the seventies. Long gone is the multicoloured glamour of the ’60s Swinging London psychedelia and instead the cover of The Madcap Laughs suggests the ’60s decadence exposed and photos have that sad “party’s over” feel.

I have to take a moment in the end to give praise where praise is due and recommend you all the wonderful, amazing, fun and detailed book about Syd Barret called “Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd: Dark Globe” by Julius Palacios.

Francoise Hardy – Waiting for the Muse

16 May

I recently stumbled upon these photographs of Francoise Hardy taken by Jean-Marie Périer in 1964 and I wanted to share them because they are interesting. I love the sixties, I love some of her music that I’ve listened to, but also these five pictures on their own are fascinating because they show a creative process that an artist goes through; from feeling bored and uninspired, to writing and trying and being disappointed and giving up, and trying again, until that something you are working on feels right. I am sure anyone reading this and seeing these pics who is also an artist in one way or another can relate.