Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Flânerie and loss on the 43 bus: Jessie Dismorr and Rosemary Tonks

‘It is possible that we are being led by different ways into the same prohibited and doubtful neighbourhood.’

Jessie Dismorr, ‘Promenade’, 1915

Jessie Dismorr by Wyndham Lewis, 1922

Jessie Dismorr by Wyndham Lewis, 1922

The new Flashpoint online magazine has a useful piece by Francesca Brooks on Jessie Dismorr, Vorticist painter, poet and flâneuse, whose artworks and writings can be found extensively on my pages up above. Brooks focuses pretty much entirely on Dismorr’s two urbanist prose poems published in 1915 in Blast 2. Her tie-in of Dismorr with Guy Debord and the dérive is apt and necessary; we can easily overlook the romantic roots of situationist thought, and the dérive is derived from Baudelairean flânerie. Brooks’s bracketing of Dismorr with Virginia Woolf is viable, if a little elastic. A closer relation to Dismorr’s poetic urbanism might be Hope Mirrlees’s explosively modernist poem Paris of 1919;  Mirrlees was well acquainted with the Woolfs (whose Hogarth Press published Paris), so there’s the link to Virginia if you want it.

Rosemary Tonks, 1968

Rosemary Tonks, 1968

But perhaps we can also relate Dismorr to the later British Baudelairean and flâneuse Rosemary Tonks, whose work has been subjected to a rediscovery following her death in 2014. (Not too great a stretch; Tonks was published by the mid ‘fifties, and the distance between Dismorr and Tonks is less than that between Tonks and today.)

To illustrate the relation, here’s a juxtaposition of two journeys by Dismorr and Tonks, each on the upper deck of a London bus. First, from Dismorr’s venture aboard a number 43 with her annoying suitor ‘Roderigo’, in ‘June Night’ of 1915. (This was an inward journey. The 43 route ran from Muswell Hill to London Bridge.) Roderigo is later left on the bus, as Dismorr wanders London on foot, abandoning the romantic, protecting male and pioneering the occupation of metropolitan spaces by the lone emancipated woman.

‘No 43 bus, its advertisements all lit from within, floats towards us like a luminous balloon.  We cling to it and climb to the top. Towards the red glare of the illuminated city we race through interminable suburbs. These are the bare wings and corridors that give on to the stage. Swiftness at least is exquisite. But it makes me too emotional. Amazing, these gymnastic agitations of the heart! Your blindness, my friend Roderigo, is your most intelligent attribute.

Claude Flight, 'Descent from the Bus', 1927

Claude Flight, ‘Descent from the Bus’, 1927

The Park, to our left, glimmers through strips of iron. Its lawns of antique satin are brocaded with elaborate parterres, whose dyes are faded beyond recognition. Dark as onyx with rims of silver are the little pools that suck in the dew. The tea-kiosk of whitened stucco is as remote as a temple shuttered up against the night. My desires loiter about the silent spaces.

We stop for passengers at Regent’s Corner. Here crowds swarm under green electric globes. Now we stop every moment, the little red staircase is besieged. The bus is really too top-heavy. It must look like a great nodding bouquet, made up of absurd flowers and moths and birds with sharp beaks. I want to escape but Roderigo is lazy and will not stop warbling his infuriating lovesongs. Ribbons of silver fire start into the air, and twist themselves into enormous bows with fringes of tiny dropping stars. Everybody stands up and screams. These people are curious, but not very interesting; they lack reticence. Ah, but the woman in the purple pelisse is too beautiful! I refuse to look at her when she stares round.

It is hot for a night in June. “Che, che, la donna.” Roderigo, you have a magnificent tenor voice, but you bore me. Your crime is that I can no longer distinguish you from the rest of the world.’

And here is a bit of Tonks’s comparable solo London bus trip (route number not given) in ‘An Old-fashioned Traveller on the Trade Routes’, published in 1967:

‘I was sitting upstairs in a bus, cursing the waste of time, and pouring my life away on one of those insane journeys across London – while gradually the wavering motion of this precarious glass salon, that flung us about softly like trusses of wheat or Judo Lords, began its medicinal work inside the magnetic landscape of London.

The bus, with its transparent decks of people, trembled. And was as uniquely ceremonious in propelling itself as an eminent jellyfish with an iron will, by expulsions, valves, hisses, steams, and emotional respirations. A militant, elementary, caparisoned Jellyfish, of the feminine sex, systematically eating and drinking the sea.

I began to feel battered as though I had been making love all night! My limbs distilled the same interesting wide-awake weariness.

We went forward at a swimmer’s pace, gazing through the walls that rocked the weather about like a cloudy drink from a chemist’s shop – with the depth and sting of the Baltic. The air-shocks, the sulphur dioxides, the gelatin ignitions!’

But another, quite different point of contact between Dismorr and Tonks is their abrupt and near absolute abandonment of writing. After some vicious comments in The Little Review of 1919 Dismorr‘s poetry underwent a 15 year hiatus and the following year she suffered a nervous breakdown. In the late ‘seventies, after a series of personal and health crises, Rosemary Tonks repudiated her writings entirely and began a largely solitary religious life, sparking literary chatter of a ‘vanishing’.

In Tonks’s poems the urge to ‘escape’ had already motivated her urban wanderings:

‘It is among the bins and dormitories of cities …
That one goes to gormandise upon Escape!’

But this lifestyle was marked by a deep and growing self-disgust –

‘… if you knew the exotic disgust that grips me
After another bestial night
As we come in, broken …’

– and a consequent crisis of the sense of self:

‘And afterwards you’ll live in no man’s land,
You’ll lose your identity, and never get yourself back, diablotin,
It may have happened already, and as you read this …
Ah, it has happened already.’

The urge to escape the existing self – whether through boredom, despair or disgust – can visit any of us. In this Age of Choice we believe that it is our right to be free of it, and are furnished with a variety of means to that end, ranged along the safety spectrum: a new hair style, moving house, body modification, transvestism, multiple personality disorder, dissociative fugue, suicide. While for the writer there is the option to write about something different in a different way, to become a different writer and so a different person. Or even to reject writing itself.

bedouinIn Tonks’s case a double standard seems to operate. With the best will in the world Neil Astley’s introduction to Bloodaxe’s new Tonks Collected, Bedouin of the London Evening, betrays some pejorative assumptions about Tonks’s post-writerly life – ‘self torturing’, ‘socially challenged’ and so on. OK then for Rimbaud, Tonks’s model as a poet, to abandon writing and disappear into an African sunset when gun running or whatever he got up is seen as modishly edgy. Not so acceptable somehow for the elderly Mrs Rosemary Lightband neé Tonks to be handing out translations of the Bible at Speaker’s Corner, or (most unforgiveable of all)  incinerating her priceless collection of Oriental artefacts, which she had come to regard as dangerous and undermining idols. But what do we really want here – a miserable writer or a happier human being?

As Astley reveals, Tonks’s single minded reliance on the love of God freed her from healers and mediums, from sleeping tablets, from depression and from fear. So what if she characterised her bouts of depression as Satan’s attempts to undermine her? Perfectly reasonable, for such they were and are, if the term ‘Satan’ is to have any useful meaning. And birdsong and great music were for her positive influences direct from God? Well, that’s undeniable.

Though if the gain was hers and the loss is entirely ours, it is, to be fair, a real loss. An apposite message about Tonks arrived recently from Robert Worby, of Radio 3’s Hear and Now:

‘Last night I had a powerful, resonant dream about her. I found myself in a disused library that seemed to be part of something like a church institution: a WI meeting place maybe. It was dilapidated with books and papers scattered about the floor. As I wandered around I found copies of Tonks’s books and what seemed to be handwritten manuscripts. I was flabbergasted; I couldn’t believe my luck. I collected them together with the intention of taking them away but an elderly lady politely announced that I wouldn’t be able to do that; all the materials had to stay in that room; they weren’t being thrown away.’

I can’t deny that I very much recognise this dream narrative of recovery. We are all antiquarians these days. In the disused and labyrinthine libraries of our longings lie scattered the many dusty manuscripts of our misplaced desires. But they don’t all bear our handwriting. It is the writer alone who owns the absolute liberty to jettison or burn her own pages, without fear of retrieval.

Veritasse vincit omnia

In the latest Hereford Diocese magazine I came across a full page ad for “Veritasse,” a website offering Christian art, so I took a look. I know I’m a cultural snob, but I do find something deeply disturbing about their insistence on the “positive” and the “uplifting”, especially when that translates into 57 varieties of soft edged but luminescent clouds, doves, sheep, flowers, waterfalls etc., no matter how competently executed. On the other hand, they do invite submissions from Christian artists, and that’s me, sort of, and Veritasse does appear to be a big success. Or a bigge successe, even.

So I emailed over half a dozen graphics I’ve been working on recently (click to enlarge), with a pleasantly worded request for feedback:

A week on, and no response.

Yes, I know I’m being unnecessary, but there is a real issue here. How has the content of much of what passes for contemporary Christian art become so – well, infantilised? This isn’t Catholic kitsch, which is better understood as a form of folk art. (Nor is it analogous to say, modern praise music, often derided, but where the use of worthwhile popular forms has enabled much excellent popular Christian song writing, e.g. Stuart Townend.) I suppose the roots of this sort of imagery were in Victorian populist evangelical pietism, but it’s hard to figure just when “Christian art” got so utterly blanded out.

Aside of the icon revival, which seems in danger of short circuiting into its own form of kitsch, some sort of recapturing is demanded. But what form should it take?

An imperishable inheritance

in parenthesis

While we are still re-living WW1, something apposite for this Easter Day – David Jones’s 1937 frontispiece to his In Parenthesis.

He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

The noble vision of John Currie

A trip to Stoke (up Hanley duck, specifically) has reminded me of the wealth of stuff at the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, not least the jaw dropping collection of British ceramics and a chunk of the Staffordshire Hoard. And currently in pride of place in the art rooms is John Currie’s marvellous The Supper, dated to 1912-14.

the supper

Dollie Henry as 'The Witch'

Dollie Henry as ‘The Witch’

Potteries-born Currie, trained as a ceramics decorator, was a little older than his fellow “new primitive” Slade painters Mark Gertler, Richard Nevinson, Edward Wadsworth, Adrian Allinson and Stanley Spencer. (“Primitive” in the Italianate sense, that is.) His volatile and disturbed relationship with model and mistress Dollie Henry collapsed into nightmare in October 1914 when he shot her dead and turned his gun on himself. Mark Gertler, his close friend and himself a later suicide, was deeply traumatised by this tragedy. No monograph on Currie has yet been done, but his story was covered in Sarah MacDougall’s 2002 biography of Gertler, passing into David Boyd Haycock’s popular A Crisis of Brilliance. Among Currie’s stately female portraits, which are on the whole very close in temperament to Gertler’s, is The Witch, an unmistakable image of flame haired Dollie; superficially, this carries mere sexist charm, but on more careful consideration the attraction-repulsion projected into the face is psychologically troubled.

'Some Later Primitives and Madame Tisceron.' Left to right: Currie, Gertler, Nevinson, Wadsworth, Allinson.

‘Some Later Primitives and Madame Tisceron.’ Left to right: Currie, Gertler, Nevinson, Wadsworth, Allinson.

Over two dozen Curries survive in public collections, mostly at the Potteries, which could furnish a room full, and should, but doesn’t. His work touches the trends of its day: a bit of Brittany, some soft cubism, post-Impressionist colourings, and so on. But the group angularities, diagonals and rhythms of The Supper are aligned with the human abstractions of Bomberg and Roberts, and suggest the way Currie might have travelled had he survived.

Self portrait, 1905

Self portrait, 1905

It is a noble vision of the coming Kingdom. There is a strong hint of the Last Supper in the group around the table at the back, not least the Jesus-ish features of the central figure to the top left of the head of the dark haired woman in the foreground; are she and her blonde companion meant for Mary and Martha? This is society as common-wealth, as table, as agape, but agape here comprehends eros; the embracing couple at lower right seem intended for Dollie and Currie. This is the way things could be, could have been, but were not and are not. We are invited to trust that it is the way they will be.

Bulletins from Nowhere

Predictive spelling on your phone is just low level annoyance, but predictive writing, as Stephen Hawking recently warned the world, will soon drag us all to Cybergeddon. Or will it? Will the technology really take over our thinking, or is Hawking in science fiction mode?

Hawking: the end of the human race?

Hawking: the end of the human race?

I often use my Amazon Kindle Fire to email. As on many devices, its keyboard flashes up the word it thinks I’m typing, along with a few more or less likely alternatives; it then offers the next word in the sequence, again with options – some sensible, others baffling. Generally I ignore the lot, but today I thought I’d try tapping with the flow, to see what the Kindle might have to say for itself. Below are the five short messages that it wrote.

The rules of my experiment are simple: generate a message subject, or the first word in a sentence, by randomly tapping the keyboard and selecting a ‘corrected’ suggestion. Choose subsequent words by their suitability for the syntactical flow, and not for their meaning or prominence. (Not always possible, so syntax is often erratic.) Insert a full stop / exclamation / colon when the grammatical structure touches ground. End the message when things seem to short circuit.

fireThis makes for a rather disquieting form of automatism. My own recent phrasings flow back to taunt me, but mangled up with elements of some sort of alien Kindle in-house uber-content. As a result, names may be familiar: ‘Delancey’ is the evil property empire involved in the Wolverhampton sculpture campaign that occupied too much of my time last year, while ‘Jack November’ is the stage name of German chanteuse Daniela Moos, whose work I much like. Or worryingly not so: ‘Chris Dodd’ and ‘Chuck Schumer’ turn out to be US democratic politicians of whom I’d never heard but whom Amazon obviously thinks I need to reference. But who the hell are ‘Guv’, ‘Tzu’ or ‘Dr Congo’? ‘Guv’ crops up with significant frequency in these messages; I imagine him as primal, slightly threatening, something close to Eliot’s Sweeney character.

Compared with the more exuberant artificially generated texts left on my site by spammers – see an earlier post – these little bulletins are narrow and oddly depressing. The writer appears to be some sort of unsuccessful small time agent. His style is almost telegraphic. He is nervous and his content often repetitive, as if to compensate for having too little to report. He has obviously been sending these bulletins for some years and is now reduced to going through the motions for the sake of his meagre allowance. Most of what he has to say is about who’s not talking to whom about what.

Though occasionally there are incongruous or alarming flashes: ‘Civil war is a real concern.’ Really? A very British Civil War though, judging by his mention of the Church of York volunteer infantry division.

The tone of the messages is curious, but not quite what I expected. I can’t see too much here to worry Hawking, though ‘Children are all the same’ is an interesting assertion, and you have to admit that ‘Fight against terrorism and red hat enterprise’ is one stirring slogan … Hectic fix!

 

Fig leaf and Delancey

No one else has been corrected. Guv and Delancey phoned round the press releases that the sculpture will not be returned. OK with the culture’s move to Wolverhampton archive for now, if you can shed some light on this when I get back. Guv and Delancey sent it, the anarchist and a guy who worked with the illustrations. Guv to me: but I’ve never noticed that vinyl exists. I’ve just moved house temporarily to Ironbridge and red has faded away.

Tzu and Delancey don’t seem to be meaningless. Chris Dodd and Delancey phoned the same thing today anyway. Text file to me. Yet another example of the past few weeks since I enquired and Delancey sent it to me. Dieter and Delancey don’t talk about this.

Guv and red hat enterprise and a few days can’t access the folder.

 

City

It’d be meaningless and a bit like facing death. Text of the letter shows that the legalities and Delancey sent it to me. Rich and Delancey phoned to the line between a few weeks ago and I have been confused by the same thing today. Guv and Delancey don’t talk about this.

City officials said that the same thing as a few days ago when the sculpture will be returned. Dr Congo and Delancey phoned to the technology and a guy who worked with the culture’s move will not be able to reply till Saturday.

Fight against terrorism and red hat enterprise!

 

Juju

Chubb was given a statement by Macbride. Finnegan and Delancey sent it to the verse in the Midlands Today report. Children are all the same. Xavier and Delancey phoned the same time. Dr John Edwards has faded away for the same thing. Jack November and Delancey sent it to me. Cheers!

 

Such a guy

If you can shed some light on this when I get back, hope to be meaningless. Use of the stick – to me that is beyond impressive. DVD availability for the image is interesting: on the image is a bunch of ten modern railway covers.

Chuck Schumer cut off the image of the past. Crude prices for the offer of a guy who is interesting to me. Obviously this is not sure. Civil war is a real concern. Both are all over again in the Midlands. UK’s largest sites are all over the place.

 

Oh!

Rustic to me, true to the technology of electronically capturing and red hat enterprise, the sculpture will not be returned from home. Scientists have been confused by Archer and Delancey. Tzu and Delancey don’t know why. Tzu to me: you may be meaningless. Guv to me: Church of York volunteer infantry division. You can shed some light on the same lot of people who worked with the culture’s move to Wolverhampton.

I fix the problem here. Audio files and folders in the Midlands News first time in the same time. Sufi to me: Guv and Delancey don’t know why we should have been confused by the same thing today.

Hectic fix! Third parties in the Midlands so won’t tell me.

Transport for London demolishes Paolozzi murals

The news has just come through from artlyst that Transport for London and architects Hawkins Brown have gone ahead with the demolition of several of the wonderful Paolozzi murals at the Tottenham Court Road tube re-build, despite massive opposition and the attempted intervention of the 20th Century Society. Beggars belief. When will these clowns realise that art in the public domain is a public asset and not their private toy?

TFL Demolishes £100,000 Eduardo Paolozzi Mosaic Arches At Tottenham Court Station - ArtLyst Article image

Read about it at artlyst here.

pressoffice@tfl.gov.uk

mail@hawkinsbrown.com

eBaying off the life work

A while back, in a post on Alan Wycliffe Wellings, I lamented affectionately all the eBayed leftovers from life drawing classes, most headed, ultimately, for that great gallery at the landfill. I’m not being snobby; I’ve been clearing out folders full of life drawings myself, and it’s nearly all gone in the bin. (A great sheaf of drawings featuring male models went long ago to a gay friend; I’m not sure exactly what purpose they may currently serve.)

Yes, I’ve haunted some life rooms in my time. It’s a valuable discipline; it’s important that we continue to construct images, by observation, out of marks, especially when fine art degree courses now seem to award the photographic image a monopoly of virtue, as if it were somehow more authentic. When the reverse is clearly the case.

But life work can be bloody aggravating. Most classes I attended were cluttered up by annoying geriatrics (and I speak as a pensioner myself) who signed up year after year, but whose work never improved in the least. And who hadn’t the least intention to improve it.

Some, frightened of the scale and verticality of the easel, disdained it, laying flat their A3 pads on unnecessarily massive donkeys plonked right in front of the model. God forbid they should ever have been obliged to wrestle with a side or back view, and heaven strike down any optimistic and tactless tutor who tried to confiscate their HB pencils and get them onto charcoal. Some routinely chattered all session through about where they would be going on holiday this year and what they’d had for tea, making concentration impossible for everyone else, but coming on all victimised if ever asked to pipe down. I stalked out of the last class I ever did, after asking the worst offender if he’d mind shutting the **** up, and that’s not like me. Well, not much, anyway.

The high point of this purgatory involved a donkey codger who huffily refused the most basic guidance on matters of proportion, and whose drawings, as a result, were always hilariously top heavy. Redrawing and re-erasing the model’s legs week after week, he finally solved his problem by sketching her into a pool of water from the mid-thighs down. This lateral thinking was much admired by his mates.

Anyway, here’s pretty much what I’m left with. (Click to enlarge.) The girl pushing out her bum is Natalie from Aldridge, who was the best model ever. The upside down reclining person is a pleasant woman whose name now escapes me, but I did leave out her breast tattoo and nipple ring. (I’ve found that piercings are a distraction when you’re trying to even out your attention across all parts of the body. Male models with a Prince Albert should definitely be banned.) The big canvas with two figures involved a mirror, of course.

Rimg0018Actually, the two single figure images are currently up for grabs if anyone’s interested – go here and here. They start at merely a tenner on – you guessed it – eBay …

Brando and Eliot in shadows

My brush with Brando was gratifyingly bizarre. I was helping to run a college cinema club; shortly before one evening showing, there was a phone call: Marlon Brando was in the area filming (news to us), and would he be able to see our film? Was this a hoax? But no, a couple of minutes before kick off a young man appeared who claimed in a stateside accent to be Mister Brando’s fixer. Passing across a slab of notes he explained that the great actor and his party were outside. Only one thing: the lights should go down just before his entrance; Mister Brando preferred to go incognito.

"Mistah Washizu - he dead."

“Mistah Washizu – he dead.”

Brando (his profile dimly recognisable) and entourage filed in as arranged. They sat in the semi darkness of the front row, speaking little and in low voices, only among themselves. We were showing Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood. At the end, after Washizu, Toshiro Mifune’s Macbeth character, had undergone his spectacular downfall, punctuated by more arrows than a single human frame might seem able to accommodate, the lights were kept down while they left the same way. Later the college porter told me that on his way out  Brando, at the head of the line, had paused before the massy mediaeval oak of the college gate, and had stroked it with his fingertips, in thoughtful veneration. To a man, his entourage had followed suit. The porter had been amused not so much by his original gesture as by their sycophantic mimicry.

The great oaken gate had presented itself to him, perhaps, as a signifier of Albion, of ancient wisdom, of a more authentic, pre-American world, a world maybe not too far from feudal Japan.

This was (I think) in 1969. Brando’s career was in a strange place at that time. What could he have been filming over here? I’ve no idea. (This was too late for Pontecorvo’s under-rated Burn!, I think, which in any case was filmed partly on the continent, and not in the UK.)

Brando in shadow

Brando in shadow

After seven years, Brando was back mumbling in the shadows, this time as the largely invisible Colonel Kurtz on the set of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Millions of words later, we are still not much clearer on quite why the filming went so famously pear shaped (as if we care), but in an interview Dennis Hopper has said that Brando’s refusal to be filmed with him came after he had ranted at Brando in a cinema in the Philippines where cast and crew had gone for a night out. Interestingly, from my viewpoint, they had chosen to see Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, featuring Toshiro Mifune.

As the rows rumbled on, Coppola and Brando abandoned the Apocalypse script and improvised Kurtz’s dialogue. Brando may or may not, as alleged, have prepared himself by reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, on which Apocalypse was based, but he seems to have found his way around T S Eliot. It’s well known that Eliot’s epigraph to The Waste Land, at least in draft, was the death of Heart of Darkness’s Mr Kurtz, prototype for Brando’s Colonel Kurtz:

“… He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision, – he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath – ‘The horror! The horror!’”

In early 1922, Eliot had returned to London from a spell under the shrink in Lausanne – “… an aboulie [aboulia, loss of motivation] and emotional derangement” was his self-diagnosis – clutching a wadge of pages for Ezra Pound to hack and snip into something resembling a coherent poem. “The horror” was the first bit into the bin: “I doubt if Conrad is weighty enough to stand the citation,” grumbled Pound. Eliot sniffed back that “It is much the most appropriate I can find, and somewhat elucidative.” “Do as you like about Conrad,” snarled Pound, but the passage was cut anyway.

Pound also axed 90% of the original “Death by Water” sequence, leaving few hints of Conrad in the finished Waste Land, though there is still a dripping echo in the sweating river and drifting barges on the turning tide in the “Song of the Thames-daughters” in the “Fire Sermon” section. Both The Waste Land and Apocalypse Now were a mess, a mass bubbled up in chaos and derangement, warping out of control, both requiring merciless chopping down into something the shape of poetry.

Eliot got his own back by prefixing his next poem, The Hollow Men, with an equivalent but more cryptic quote from Heart of Darkness – “Mistah Kurtz – he dead.”

Coppola may have allowed the camera to pass knowingly over copies of Eliot’s other sources for The Waste Land – Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance and Frazer’s The Golden Bough – lying around rather posily in Colonel Kurtz’s shadowed den, but it’s The Hollow Men that Brando / Kurtz reads brooding in the shadows, in a sequence largely cut, Pound-wise, from the film as released [link below]. (It has sometimes been noted that this otherwise complete reading of the poem omits only the epigraph “Mistah Kurtz – he dead”, in order to avoid an unfortunate reality loop; as a fictional character about to die, Colonel Kurtz can hardly read about the death of another fictional character on whom he himself is based.)


It seems to me that in this reading Brando strokes the words with his fingertips, in thoughtful veneration. As Anglified American, Eliot has come to represent the man transplanted to the authentic waste land, a discoverer, like the Kurtzes and now like Brando himself, of a far older wisdom, of primal vision. We touch the ancient wood, we feel the immeasurable truth of it, and, with a cry like a whisper, we suspect the horror.

The famous first and last words of Kim Fowley

A respectful nod in his passing to Kim Fowley, animal god of the streets, six foot five inch polio victim, Anglophile “rock Svengali” and so on, who died last Thursday after a long and stubborn battle with cancer that saw him still defiantly promoting other people’s mediocrity from his death bed. Forget The Runaways; what’s not to appreciate about someone who started with Alan Freed in 1959 and kept on till the bitter end, who gave us Nut Rocker, the earliest versions of The Modern Lovers’ Roadrunner, his own stellar Invasion of the Polaroid People, and ten thousand other tunes running the spectrum from genius trash to frankly ignorable trash and everywhere in between?

I wonder where we stand now on his projected three volume autobiography. Part one, Lord of Garbage, appeared in 2012, but shows signs of being written in haste. Part two, Planet Pain, is long overdue, while the third instalment was reputedly scheduled to appear on the day of his death (“good marketing”). In Lord of Garbage Fowley recalls a short spell around 1960 as a teenage poet:

“I remember going to Venice [in Los Angeles] … Back then, it was Beat Poetry, Black Turtlenecks and Bongos. It was a whole lot of post-war angst. Kim Fowley would go there in sports clothes and hustle thirty-three year old women, and people would drink apple juice and smoke reefers and recite long-winded poems about nothing … So anyway, I went to the coffee house in Big Sur and there they were, the Venice guys … I got up there and did my Poetry Duel with whoever was around … and it was one of the Beatnik Hot Shit Gods banked against me, and he couldn’t beat me, so we celebrated that night by going to Jack London’s house …”

He doesn’t say who was the Hot Shit God beat poet; it would be interesting to know. Fowley admitted to being beaten in improvised “poetry duels” only by stand-up comedian Redd Foxx and by Buddy Guy, the blues guitarist. Today it would be called a freestyle rap battle. In a self-penned magazine piece circa 1967 (“Kim Fowley Rides the Flower-Love Movement”) he claimed to have had two books of poetry published: The Earth is Really Flat and The Oblong Tiger. If they existed, these must have been extremely small press and must be now fabulously rare, as they are invisible to Google.

IMG_0001To be honest, the autobiographical “poetry” that frequently punctuates Lord of Garbage is far poorer stuff than many of his song lyrics. If Fowley was a poet, he was a performance poet, and his sardonic-apocalyptic delivery is usually what lifts the words. He had a knack for employing or improvising a form of spoken verse as a musical lyric, often – at least in his own personal output – laid over found “scrap tracks”, abandoned backings recorded by anonymous musicians. All surprisingly post-modern.

I am the goat-man, Gorgo the dog boy, talking about everything he saw when he was stoned in high school, shooting up in the boys’ room at Dog High School, Dorkville, U S Ay-ay-ay-ay-ay …
Behind yellow mountains, there’s thorns among the roses, women in hiding –
Wait, it’s women in hiding! Airheads are going riding. Someone tell me when they start to scream.
It’s no simple expedition, it’s a special red condition – it’s invasion.
It’s the invasion of the Polaroid Peepeepeepeepeepeepeople …

At any rate, he was a talker. But did the infant Kim Fowley really talk at ten months? And were his first words really: “I have a question. Why are you bigger than me?” – an intro that, according to Lord of Garbage, so shocked his mother that she promptly put him into care? Perhaps not, but it’s a good anecdote.

Fowley may not have been entirely the obnoxious, exploitative scumbag he would have had us believe. Among the many YouTube snippets, this is one of my favourites. From his hospital wheelchair a year ago, KF improvises a sentimental little song with a couple of teenagers he has just met. No great song, but it’s very sweet.

“I’m cancer. You’re eternal. You’re immortal. And you’re a friend. Thank you.”

Not quite his last words. But they’ll do.

 

The little Lord Jesus asleep on the cross

William Blake, 'The Christ Child Asleep on the Cross'

William Blake, ‘The Christ Child Asleep on the Cross’

An image to ponder. Perhaps only Blake could get away with “crucifying” Baby Jesus; the astral-plane idealism serves to moderate the shock. (Millais’s realism in Christ in the House of his Parents allows only for some dainty stigmata as a comparable foreshadowing.)

I look at my new grandson and try to foresee the whole life, pain and all, in his baby’s face.

Have a good Christmas!

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