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)

Category Archives: music

A Messiaenic gizmo

Flagging a bit on this blog lately, especially on the poetry front. Well, especially on every front. Apologies for the slacking. Meanwhile, three snaps taken after last night’s gobsmacking performance in Birmingham of Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie. (This was premiered the year I was born, though I’m afraid I can’t pretend it was the music I heard in the womb, which was more likely something from Workers’ Playtime.)

For the eighty minutes of multi-layered, modernist, breath-crunching crash-bang-wallop, alternating with fragile, stellar ecstasy, the BBC Symphony Orchestra was fronted by piano, celeste, keyboard glockenspiel, and, not least, the ondes Martenot, played for this occasion by Cynthia Millar, who very decently descended after the performance in her giant flowered frock, to give the small crowd who had gathered to stare at the vintage electronic instrument a mini-tutorial in its peculiarities. [Click images to enlarge.]


Among the mix of five speakers ranged across the stage, chief object of curiosity was the lyre-shaped diffuseur palme, whose twelve tuned strings resonate subtly with the electronic note. This piece of singing sculpture strikes me as an orphic-electronic device containing both classical past and SF future, embodying the present of its own invention while also managing to sit defiantly outside time itself – appropriately enough for a Messiaenic gizmo.


First half of the programme was the original orchestral setting of Messiaen’s L’Ascension. As the returning Christ floated up, up and away, heading for reunion with the Father, the strings somehow sounded as if they were playing in reversed time, like a tape run backwards, and in a mini-light bulb moment it occurred to me that the parable of the Prodigal Son is, in part, an image of the Ascension. The boy’s coming home.

Outside, in the foyer, two other boys, in blue and carrying light machine guns, were there to guard my insight from any untoward interruption. I tend to fight shy of any talk of spiritual warfare, but I guess it’s time to stake a claim to our understanding of the numinous.

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A tale of two Stanleys: Stanley Jackson and Stanley Jackson

I’m long overdue settling my confused account of the oddly varied work of painter and illustrator Stanley Jackson, as promised back here. Apologies to all involved. For previous episodes, see here and here, but rather than add bibs and bobs at this point, it seems better to lay out the whole thing afresh and refer back sparingly. Mainly because, as previously noted in passing, it turns out that there were two Stanley Jacksons, whose stories show some striking coincidences. To the extent, in fact, that at one stage in our investigations the descendants of one Stanley were pretty much convinced that both might have been the same person. But it wasn’t so … Let’s call them Stanley One and Stanley Two. As we retrace their lives, in many ways quite different, some strange points of convergence may emerge.

Stanley One

Self portrait [Courtesy Jackie & Eloise Hendrick]

Stanley Arthur Jackson, painter, commercial artist, newspaperman and advertiser, was born in 1910, though he was later to claim that his birth year was 1917. Vanity? Perhaps. An undated self portrait, apparently done in the ‘thirties, shows a confident, almost raffish, young man in a dark overcoat and white polo neck, gazing out steadily at the viewer. [Click all images to enlarge.]

We tend to assume that, war service excepted, the lives of our twentieth century forebears were pretty static, but in fact, for those with the need or the inclination to wander, the British Empire provided an early form of globalisation, with ready opportunities to uproot and begin again. And Stanley Jackson, a man clearly with both drive and charm, was never one who was afraid to begin again.


In the ‘thirties he worked in India, and from 1937 was General Manager of the Madras Mail, overhauling and expanding its advertising. In 1942 he was appointed Director of Public Relations to the Joint War Organisation in India, creating publicity campaigns employing press, radio and film. His surviving paintings of Indian subjects were done during this time: the National Army Museum has a cheerful 1943 painting of a Madras infantryman, while Nuneaton Museum & Art Gallery has an undated oil of Madras boat builders, attributed to an E Jackson, but in my humble opinion by our man. (The identity of this painting has been the subject of an extremely protracted discussion on the Art Detective site, here.) These works are highly competent, the style chunky, with a warm, almost romantic feel.


At the close of the war in 1945 Jackson moved to London, working at Lintas advertising agency creating campaigns for soap brands, but two years later moved to South Africa and with his first wife set up his own business, the S & J Jackson advertising agency, Johannesburg. His commercial art of the period is fluent, highly styled, very much of its time. (Celrose, a Durban clothing manufacturer, is still in business today, incidentally.) Following his wife’s unexpected death Stanley Jackson remarried in 1950, sold up and returned to the UK, but before long was separated and on the move again, this time to Hong Kong.

 

From here the trail gets more than a bit hazy, but there are glimpses, albeit in different continents: we know that Jackson created murals at the Hong Kong Club and at some point was commissioned to paint a portrait of Chiang Kai Shek. Later in the ‘fifties he was in Kenya, and later still in Bangkok, where he married for a third time and raised a new family. In the ‘seventies he worked for a newspaper in Canberra, Australia.  He died at some point in the ‘eighties. An attractive painting from the Bangkok period, a lively, golden Thai dancer, turned up for sale recently in New Zealand. It has a touch of the psychedelic.

[Courtesy Jim Rowe]


There’s certainly a great deal more that we don’t know about Stanley One, a man of the world whose restless self-reinventions would make, as his granddaughter Eloise says, a great movie. I’m most grateful to her and to Stanley’s daughter Jackie for their help in pinning him down at least a little.

Stanley Two

Stanley Jackson, painter, commercial artist and writer, was born in 1917. (My thanks to Oliver Perry for unearthing a brief Who’s Who in Art entry for him.) He was schooled in Ongar and studied art at St Martin’s. His paintings – many apparently landscapes and townscapes – were exhibited quite widely in the late ‘thirties and early ‘forties, including at the RA.


Two watercolours with gouache, views of Edinburgh and Canterbury, sold at Toovey’s, the Sussex auction house, a few years back, fetching just £20 the pair. Jackson’s style is analytical but crisply confident; despite the mundanely picturesque subjects, the strong tonal planes owe much to post-cubism – there is a modernist lurking in here. On a rather different note, but recognisably by the same hand, is a painting of wartime refugees, the single Jackson item to show up on auction value sites.

Jackson also had an income as a commercial illustrator, including for children’s books; his cover for May Wynne’s Little Brown Tala Stories suggests a strong yearning for imaginary worlds. From 1944 this found a sudden and startling flowering in his covers for jazz publications written or edited by Albert (AJ) McCarthy of the “Jazz Sociological Society” – Jazz Forum, Jazz Review, Piano Jazz and publications by Jazz Music Books. The ambience of McCarthy’s jazz coterie was strongly literary and experimental, and in these images Jackson lurches abruptly into surrealist semi-abstractions, which found their ultimate bongoid flowering in his “Pattern of Frustration” series reproduced in black and white in George Woodcock’s anarchist literary review Now in 1944.


McCarthy’s write-up for “Pattern of Frustration” announced Jackson’s “withdrawal from the academic field towards a personal maturity which can only be expressed in less rigid forms.” That puts it mildly. I’ve re-gathered the images here, but McCarthy’s full text can be read in my first Stanley post, while Jackson’s own feverish artistic credo – “Everlasting layers of ideas, feelings, images, images which madden, which terrify, which intoxicate, images which sob” – can be read in full here, in my follow-up post.


Clearly, Jackson had toppled headlong into Bohemia and avant-gardism. However, at this point the bonkers abstractions suddenly disappear as his career veers off at right angles. In 1946 he married Ruth Pearl, a professional musician of real standing, the first woman to be a concertmaster of a professional orchestra in Britain and, until 1949, the leader of her own English String Quartet, a favourite of Vaughan Williams. That year she and Stanley moved to New Zealand where their son was born and where she thrived as a concert soloist, while Stanley did – what?

One of Ruth’s obituaries describes him as “a musician and artist who made a living as a commercial artist and music teacher”. Despite his jazz connections, I’m unsure about the music bit, as a quite different Stanley Jackson, organist and music teacher, was active in New Zealand then and beyond our Stanley’s death, which suggests a possible confusion. Three landscapes by Stanley Two are noted on Australian auction record sites, where he is down as “working 1950s” but unlisted in the standard sources; beyond that, I’ve found nothing. Stanley Jackson died in 1961 in New Zealand. His wife Ruth remarried, continued her career and died in 2008; her obituaries can be found here and here.

The Stanley convergences

At one point in this enquiry, I suspected that the apparent level of coincidence between the Stanley stories might be no more than my way of lending dignity to my own confusion, but then again …

To summarise: both Stanley Jacksons were born, or claimed to have been born, in 1917. Both were fine artists, commercial artists and writers. Both were in or around London during 1945 to 1947, and for all I know might have brushed shoulders on the Tube. Both then left the UK for new lives and new families in distant parts. Postwar, both lived and painted in the Antipodes. (The late emergence of a painting by Stanley One in New Zealand, where Stanley Two relocated, flung a particular spanner in the works!)


Observant readers will have spotted that the chunky lettering of Stanley One’s signature is quite different to the usual sharp italics of Stanley Two’s. However, they may also have noticed that it’s not totally incompatible with the “Jackson”, “Jaxon” or “Jxn” signatures of Stanley Two’s loopy period, a  resemblance that threw me for a bit. (One distinguishing oddity is that Stanley Two seems to have signed his full name, at least on occasions, minus the “e” in “Stanley”, though in print he is always referred to as “Stanley”.)

Common to both their stories is the theme of repeated renewal, removal and reappearance, the reinvention of self. What creatively extraordinary lives some people have lived!


Finally, I’m still uncertain as to which of our two Stanleys may have been the author of An Indiscreet Guide to Soho, an obscure but racy little volume of 1946 that today is a bit of a cult buy. The blurb describes the author as “a master of the art of reportage” who “knows his Soho intimately and has lived in this colourful area”. Stanley One, newspaperman and advertising copywriter, seems at first glance the likely candidate, but then again Stanley Two’s Bohemian-jazz connections might suggest a deeper acquaintance with the pulsing wartime nightlife of the quarter, and he certainly could write. Both were in the right area at the right time, so it must have been one of them, surely?

Unless, of course, there was a third Stanley Jackson prowling the alleyways of Soho, perhaps alternating his masterful reportage with the occasional painting or illustration … If there was, please let me know!

Jazz and the undulating see-fields of Stanley Jackson

After five years’ blogging, you’d think I’d have learned to exhaust leads before rushing to post, but I haven’t, so here’s a second instalment on the marvellous but mysterious Stanley Jackson (see previous post).

The A J McCarthy who penned the text to Jackson’s images in George Woodcock’s Now 4 was indeed jazz writer Albert McCarthy, and the next issue of Now ran an advert for a new review, Jazz Forum, edited by McCarthy and due out in September 1945. In the event, with rather modified contents, it appeared in June 1946 and lasted for just five issues, spanning a little over a year. Interestingly, McCarthy’s policy was to blend jazz content with a wider literary flavour, taking jazz out of the specialist box and making it an element in a broader modern movement. Accordingly, contributors were pulled from the philosophical anarchists and neo-romantic poets networked around Now, plus pukka British surrealists such as Ithell Colquhoun and Toni del Renzio, with some transatlantic contributions.


From issue three the weight shifted, purer jazz writing dominating, but all five issues sported a front cover by Stanley Jackson. Fortunately, every issue is digitised here on the National Jazz Archive site, from where I’ve borrowed images (discreetly “watermarked”) of the covers. I find his designs remarkable. Not only have they an assured virtuosity, but they are bang on the cusp of the cultural moment, or a lurch beyond it; it’s hard to believe, for instance, that the fifth cover was done in 1947, so perfectly does it gel with 21st century cartoonoid mini-character design. The carved characters there and in number 3 (the oddest of the bunch) are maybe chosen for their supposed African qualities; otherwise, the covers keep to morphing, musical abstractions. They are signed “jaxon”, “jxn” or “stanly[sic] jackson”; apart from the reduced spelling, the latter is perfectly compatible with the signature on the National Army Museum painting mentioned last time, proving that both are indeed by the same hand.


The ad for issue 1 of Jazz Forum indicates that it incorporated Conception, previously advertised as the “experimental jazz literary review” of McCarthy’s “Jazz Sociological Society”. It’s unlikely that issue 1 of this ever made it into print; if it had, it would have included more “reproductions” of Jackson’s work, but I can’t find any trace of it. A couple of other covers for Jazz Sociological Society publications are clearly by Jackson, but are considerably less edgy in style.

However, Jazz Forum 1 does contain a book review by Jackson, which seems to have been created by tacking some very brief afterthoughts onto an existing personal credo. (The “review” is of number 5 of George Leite’s US literary review, Circle, to which McCarthy was a contributor, available from Jazz Forum.) This feverish piece of writing reveals a descent into oneiric worlds that might even hint at some hallucinogenic input, as well as a fondness for italics and for neo-Joycean hyphenated compounds such as “tumult-foam” or “pure-truth”. It may not be the most cogent artistic manifesto ever but it’s well worth a read, so here it is. (Jazz Forum has its share of typo’s; the three bracketed corrections are mine.)

CIRCLE 5.

The object in writing, painting, music, is to reveal something of the grandeur which belongs [brings ?] potential to man.

*           *           *

The music of the laughter of sound as thrown off from undulating see-fields, the multitudinous laughter of the ocean billows-love addressing the ear and the eye-mustering tumult-foam weaving garlands of translucent radiance for one poised moment in the eddies of gleaming abysses, sea-cradel’d[sic] flowers to the eye raise phantoms of gaiety rising as far as the eye can reach ….

*           *           *

Painting … sinking into night depths, blazing into day-heights, now skimming the shimmering surface, now sinking heavily into darkness, rising buoyantly into light. The layer upon layer of pigment extorting the torments; winging the dream-imagery to lofty brilliance – this tumult of images! Everlasting layers of ideas, feelings, images, images which madden, which terrify, which intoxicate, images which sob, have fallen – softly as light, as light upon light, upon the artist’s perception, conception.

Each successive image has seemed to bury all that had ever happened before, and yet, in its sur-reality, not one has been extinguished, They are all predetermined, gathered, waiting … ignoring whatever heterogeneous elements life may have accumulated from without. The pall of present, the pall of future, deep as oblivion, has been thrown over every trace of these vrai-experiences, they, so long, have slept in the dust of memory-past, there waiting for the bright steel tube of memory-future to probe and shatter them into a thousand multi-coloured fragments of human grandeur …

Suddenly a signal, a word, a note, a colour from the artist who can dream splendidly, the pall lifts, the fantastic, incredible, yet pure-truth theatre is revealed.

*           *           *

Whatever may be the number of those in whom this faculty of dreaming splendidly-sleeps, there are not many in whom it is developed – and far more rare is it for a man, who possesses this ability, to awaken the sleep – and to capture the instant. For unfortunately, the condition of living which burdens the vast majority to a daily existence incompatible with much elevated dream-thinking, undoubtedly sullies the colour of grandeur in the capturing-faculty of phantasy, even for those whose minds are filled with imagery. To dream splendidly, a man must have an incredible determination for imagery, and a continual obsession to awaken his sleeping dream-phantasy.

“Circle” have published two such men in their issue number five.

Frederick [Frederic] Ramsey Jr., his story of Vanicilio Meban, and Dane Ruhdyar, his Neptune, evocator extraordinary. It is also very pleasant to see Klee’s provocative thought-sketches again.

STANLEY JACKSON.

After 1947, the Jackson trail goes cold for me. What happened to him? Do his illustrations crop up elsewhere? Where is all the rest of his artwork? If anyone reading this has access to Buckman’s Artists in Britain since 1945 (sadly no longer online at issuu.com) or any similar directory, could you scan me Jackson’s entry, if he has one? I’d be very grateful. Otherwise, the hunt for more of Stanley Jackson is most well and truly on, over the undulating see-fields of billows-love to the bright steel tube of memory-future …

conception ad

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.

 

Nico, the moving target

cible mouvanteAn earlier post on the poetic status of the heroic and heroin-riddled chanteuse Nico was made in shameful ignorance of this – Cible Mouvante, her collected writings as scrounged together by her son Ari Boulogne, and published by Pauvert in 2001. Translations into French are by Daniel Bismuth and the whole thing is organised by Serge Féray, with a brief preface by Ari, le petit chevalier himself.

The collected lyrics are useful, but the main interest has to be the previously unpublished stuff, a mélange of poems, drafts and fragments, together with the surviving pages of the “journal” that was to make her fortune; these latter drift between diary entries, thoughts for the day and stream of (un)consciousness meanderings. Much else must have been lost or discarded along the way. It’s maybe not the “Collected” we would have wanted, but it’s a long way better than nothing at all. Much (the journal included) was written in English, and is set alongside the French translations, making it considerably accessible for the English reader.

What’s intended as poetry is not extensive. Some pieces are clearly first drafts, offhand jottings. Others are more resolved. Some are rather good:

Neutrino

Give me my stage the only territory
That belongs to me alone
There are a few other examples
They might be in a house
A theatre in a country that has deceased
My stage belongs to a country
That has not yet been born
On a planet not yet named
It is the biggest stage of the universe
I had to leave some time ago
You cannot see it
90 million miles away from here
Neutrino is

The Model Millionaire

Do not look at him as he appears
His guises they are rags like mine
And do not think that his rags are poor
A model millionaire has a choice of rags
To suit his soul to wear
Better than an overcrowded sphere
A man that hides between the crowd
Of faces crying for some fun …

It’s also interesting to see the thin remains of evidence that Nico did in fact re-draft and hack quite hard in the transition from a “poem” to a song lyric, as Féray notes:

Reading the first drafts of the poems sung in Fata Morgana, and collected here, we can appreciate the work of pruning achieved by the author before making “public” her “intimacy.” (My translation)

This goes against the conventional wisdom. “As usual, Nico only had a few sketches,” comments her keyboard player James Young in his account of the preparations for her last concert, at the Berlin Planetarium. But Young often seems gratuitously waspish for the sake of a good yarn. Biographer Richard Witts makes the same assumption, asserting that “she’d written next to nothing. One song comprised two lines.” It’s true that I Will be Seven, as played at the concert and released on the (official) Fata Morgana CD and the (rip off) Hanging Gardens does indeed contain just two lines of lyrics:

I I will be seven
When we meet in heaven

But these have to be set against the extremely rough draft from which they were refined:

On a Cross-Road in Shanghai

There was grace
nicoAt other a time there was a face
What I see (at the present time) today
Is so different and does not
Make me smile at what makes me sight
Can you ask me to be blind
It (there) will be a day perhaps in December
for everybody to remember
on a crossroad in Shanghai
you can be the story of my life
and I I will be seven
when we shall meet in heaven
You can be a crocodile
And I I will be seven
on a crossroad in Shanghai
you stand as one (stands) in a dream.

As her ability to write receded, she was absolutely correct to trim away all the obvious dross, leaving herself with the two decent lines remaining. It shows commendable integrity. Likewise, the three surviving sung lines of Your Voice must have been boiled down from something considerably longer, but the sacrificed text no longer exists.

While this –

A hazy horizon is closing
The curtain to a perfect stage
I stumble twisted slightly
Atrociously the world
Is landing at my feet
Who of all the faces would it be
Where of all the places should it be
(Late as always you enter
wondering who is standing in center)
Laughing and coughing
Coughing and laughing
In the hanging gardens of Semiramis

– is judiciously reshaped to this:

The Hanging Gardens of Semiramis

A hazy horizon is closing
The curtain to a perfect stage
How I stumbled twisted slightly
Atrociously
The world is landing at my feet

Who of all the faces could it be
Where of all the places should it be
Laughing and coughing
Coughing and laughing
In the hanging gardens
Of Semiramis

Incidentally, there is something of a Nico-spotting industry these days, her countless early anonymous appearances in fashion pages, knitting patterns and so on being assiduously clocked and posted on Nico sites or flogged off on eBay. This can throw up some telling juxtapositions.

der stern

popular

 

 

 

Nico, Beckett, Keaton and the not-self

Curious sometimes how people and things one has put in quite discrete boxes seem to slide into unexpected overlap. Or at least approach each other, moving into relation:

Nico does some mod modelling in Times Square, autumn 1964. Photo by Steve Schapiro.

“I do not read biographs. They are full of lies, in fact, because they say life has a beginning, a middle and an end. I do not believe in the middle.

You can only say one thing at the end – Nico has survived these indignities. Biographs tell you that somebody moves through life. I am saying that my life moves after me. Do you follow me?

Well, I would like a novel about me because it will come from the imagination and so it will explain my mind, not my life. My mind and my life are two different things. My mind is called Christa. My life is Nico. Christa had made Nico, and now she is bored with Nico because Nico is bored with herself. Nico has been to the top of life and to the bottom. Both places are empty; she has discovered this. But Nico does not want to be in the middle either, where people turn their back on each other. To avoid these places of unhappiness it is better to be nowhere, and drift.”

Nico, c 1981.

Buster Keaton as "O" on the set of Samuel Beckett's 'Film', near Brooklyn Bridge,  July 1964. Photo by Steve Schapiro.

Buster Keaton as “O” on the set of Samuel Beckett’s ‘Film’, near Brooklyn Bridge, July 1964. Photo by Steve Schapiro.

 

“After the fiasco, the solace, the repose, I began again, to try and live, cause to live, be another, in myself, in another. How false all this is. No time now to explain. I began again. But little by little with a different aim, no longer in order to succeed, but in order to fail.

My concern is not with me, but with another, far beneath me and whom I try to envy, of whose crass adventures I can now tell at last, I don’t know how. Of myself I could never tell …

To show myself now, on the point of vanishing, at the same time as the stranger, and by the same grace, that would be no ordinary last straw. Then live, long enough to feel behind my closed eyes, other eyes close. What an end.”

Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies, 1951.

(For previous – unrelated – posts on both Nico and Beckett, use the tabs below.)

Closing in on death

Goodbye then, Lewis Reed. It’s been a long walk on the wild side. First recording with the Jades, ex-Shades, in September 1958. First solo recordings in 1962: “Our Love” and “Merry Go ‘Round”, preceding even the Pickwick period – check the top name here:

shad

lou 1959

 

 

 

 

 

 

We owe the late Lou a lot. Though as the blogosphere clogs with tear-choked tributes, we might want to bear in mind the conceit, the petulance, the paranoia. Victor Bockris’s 1994 biography helps put the man in a balanced perspective. Meanwhile, for a tribute, let’s try something different …

 

Nico’s stare

An arrangement of poets: Nico and Clarke

An arrangement of poets: Nico and Clarke

The recent media re-emergence of the worthy John Cooper Clarke (website here) reminds me of his ‘eighties “domestic arrangement” with the late lamented and incomparable Nico (Christa Päffgen – encyclopaedic website here), she of the harmonium and the frozen angst. Though by all accounts it was an arrangement arranged entirely around heroin, which must have left little room to share much else, least of all writing. Song lyrics don’t often survive as poetry on the bare page, stripped of their music (Lou Reed is not Delmore Schwartz, nor even Edgar Allen Poe), but some of Nico’s do. Agreed, her efforts in the years preceding her death are understandably slighter (though musically the later years are by no means a decline). But much else stands. It’s hard to account for the compelling feel of, say:

Friar hermit stumbles over the cloudy borderline

– but it does compel, at least for me.

Friar hermit stumbles over
The cloudy borderline
Frozen warnings close to mine
Close to the frozen borderline
Frozen warnings close to mine
Close to the frozen borderline

Over railroad station tracks
Faintly flickers a modest cry
From without a thousand cycles
A thousand cycles to come
A thousand times to win
A thousand ways to run the world
In a similar reply

An interesting question is: where did all this spring from in the first place? In the very readable chronicle of his Nico years, Songs they never play on the radio, James Young, her keyboard player and arranger in the ‘eighties, wrote that, with her own material, the pop princess and model had “revert[ed] to her real singing style – dark, European and deeply melancholic”. But what had there been to revert to? Elsewhere, certain tags are far too easy and sniffy, and obscure rather than explain, e.g. “girlish Gothic … spacey romanticism” (John Rockwell, New York Times). Nothing like The Marble Index had yet been heard in 1969, though lieder is at least a point of comparison. All admit that Nico’s art was “unsuspected”, to put it mildly; it’s as if it landed from somewhere else. But from where?

The rump of Throbbing Gristle, as X-TG, has recently “reimagined” Nico’s Desertshore, their guest vocalists struggling against the relentless industrial loops. (Marc Almond, sounding oddly like Anthony Newley, being the best of the bunch.) Their album’s Amazon blurb speaks of “a repurposing of Nico’s maudlin, scraping sorrow”. Sorrow, yes. Scraping, possibly. Maudlin? Meaning foolishly sentimental? Don’t think so. TG were developing their “industrial” aesthetic at precisely the point where Thatcher was about to abolish British industry. Their own work is certainly nostalgic, romantic, Wagnerian – sentimental, even. Nico’s songs (with one or two exceptions, such as the much covered “Afraid”) are not sentimental. Neither do they call for any “repurposing”.

If her trappings were sometimes romantic-symbolist (watching her in Philippe Garrel’s La Cicatrice Interieure is like watching animated Puvis de Chavannes), it was at least a Symbolism without referents. But the words and the music are never soft. It is a Northern aesthetic, hard, cold, isolated, speaking of a genuine emptiness.

Much written on Nico (though I’m no completist) seems self-indulgent rock “journalism” (e.g. Lester Bangs), or is clearly not to be trusted. (For instance, Peter Hogan’s Rough Guide to the Velvet Underground judges the cover for her last album Camera Obscura to be “possibly Nico’s most enigmatic … redolent of angst and unseen threat”; unfortunately, neither image nor angst here are Nico’s, the album illustrated being by indie pop duo Camera Obscura.) In his account, James Young bigs up the sordid side waspishly. But one feels that he must have Nico about right – a selfish monster whose rare gratitude “was so transparently insincere that it was almost endearing”.

Discographia Obscura

Discographia Obscura

There is nothing good about heroin. At all. As anyone who has witnessed its impact on users and their families knows. But there is something extraordinary, heroic in some sense of the word, about Nico’s demolition and reinvention of herself, her loathing and repudiation of her own beauty. Young again:

“In photographs the light seemed to carve and recreate her … Close up it was a different picture. The long blonde hair of the Chelsea Girl was now a greying brown, her facial skin puffed and slack, her hands and arms scabbed and scarred by needletracks, and her eyes like a broken mirror. It wasn’t necessarily the years that had been unkind to her … but the woman herself. She had simply traded in her previous glamorous image for something altogether more unappealing. Yet she didn’t seem to care …”

In the 1995 Nico Icon documentary, Young goes a step further:

“She was almost proud of the fact that her teeth were rotten, that her hair was grey, that her skin was bad, that she had needletracks all over …”

Suffering in itself doesn’t guarantee authenticity. But bloody hell, it must go some way towards it. We should take Nico’s writing seriously. The thousand yard stare from behind the microphone requires us to.

nicoAcross from behind my window screen
Demon is dancing down the scene
In a crucial parody
Demon is dancing down the scene
He is calling and throwing
His arms up in the air
And no one is there

All of them are missing as the game
Comes to a start
No one is there

Babylon is fallen, to rise no more!

Easter Day! Yay! Wooo! Babylon is fallen, and He is risen!

There has to be a Greater Narrative, and the Christian narrative of Redemption is the greatest. So we construct our own small narratives, and at a certain point they break through, make contact with the reality of the Thing Itself. What starts in a garden ends in a city, and the City of God is Babylon recreated, made new.

In the car I’ve been listening obsessively to Babylon’s Fallen by The Trumpeteers, which turned up on a cheapo golden age gospel compilation in the wreckage of the HMV Blue Cross sale. It’s on YouTube, here. After about 30 seconds it takes over your brain completely.

Seems to me that this is essentially a survival of the chorus of Babylon is Fallen, a Shaker hymn that went into the four-part shape note (Sacred Harp) repertoire, as revived here:

Tune your harps ye heavenly choirs, shout ye followers of the Lamb.
See the city all on fire, clap your hands and swell the flame.
Now’s the day of compensation, hope of mercy now is o’er.
Babylon is fallen, is fallen, is fallen.
Babylon is fallen, to rise no more.

Though in a ‘seventies beardy folk version by Swan Arcade, it’s claimed that the song originated with the Parliamentarian armies and passed across the Atlantic. Apparently it used to be sung at Sealed Knot re-enactments. If so, it’s impressive that something first sung by the Levellers eventually found its way into the context of deliverance from slavery. Interesting though that while the white version is triumphant, the black version is simply joyful.

The modern Sacred Harp revivals are wonderful, but somehow don’t quite touch the Alan Lomax archive recordings, like this. (Though the image here is out of period, and not of the singers.)  Listen and tremble!