Archive for April, 2012|Monthly archive page

Marley’s Ghost

My favourite picture of Bob

I was lucky enough to get a last-minute ticket from Kevin Macdonald this week for his new documentary on Bob Marley. It was a coming home for me of sorts as it was playing at The Tricycle in Kilburn, whose cinema entrance is on Buckley Road where my other half used to live (No. 16) in the wake of a string of Irish sisters in exile. London was the place Bob headed for in the wake of an attempt on his life in December 1976 when he made the mistake of getting too mixed up in Jamaican politics – it was a place he had some special affinity with and  where he recorded some of his best work. I’ve written about the making of Exodus in punk London in 1977 here. There’s a good story in the film about how he and the Wailers crossed the Thames to Battersea Park on a regular basis to indulge his love of soccer, on occasion taking on a National Front team and whupping their arses at the beautiful English game. Questions of racial identity and Tough Gong’s status as a mixed race boy is brought to the fore in ‘Marley’, highlighting his rejection by black and white alike. One of the most moving moments of the film is when the song Cornerstone is played to two same-generation relatives on his despicable white father’s side, each listening intently on their ipods.

The stone that the builder refuse
Will always be the head cornerstone
(Sing it brother)
The stone that the builder refuse
Will always be the head cornerstone.

You’re a builder, baby
Here I am, a stone.
Don’t you pick and refuse me,
‘Cause the things people refuse
Are the things they should use.
Do you hear me? Hear what I say!

Don’t refuse me, don’t you refuse…

We hear how he went to visit his father’s brother, a prosperous white builder on the island, and, well aware of who he was, he refused to see him. The fecker only got in touch again years later when Bob was famous and playing a US stadium. Bob knew he was destined to be the Marley who would be remembered – the Cornerstone of the family. Macdonald attributes the rejection from both sides as a major driver for a singer who of course drew together back and white. Ironically for a fair while his US audiences were white dominated. That’s why he took a gig supporting The Commodores. His management told The Commodores’ people that the group should have been opening for Bob but Bob took the gig because he wanted to tap into their black soul audience. Coming on after Bob Marley – gotta be the toughest support act to follow – ever.

The amount of music contained in the story is very well judged – in no way a concert film, it gives insight into the music (especially live) but sends you off in search of more. The documentary captures a number of moments when Bob is clearly immersed in his music to a transcendental degree. At the Smile Jamaica concert, designed to reunite a politically riven country, just two days after the shooting (and the very reason for the assassination attempt), he shows up, a few hours late, the track of a bullet across his arm and chest, shows off his bandages and then launches into song oblivious of the hurt. We see this again as he performs Exodus at the famous Lyceum concert which sealed his reputation. And most notably at the gig he did on Zimbabwean Independence Day (April 1980, part of his homecoming to Mother Africa) when a tear gas canister clears the stage and much of the auditorium, people weeping and a’wailing, but he is left alone singing away, away, beyond the power of the throat burning eye stinging fumes. His power is again evident in the way he, towered above by the opposing politicians, evidently not a tall man, brings about the handshake between Prime Minister Michael Manley (People’s National Party) and opposition leader Edward Seaga (Jamaican Labour Party) at the One Love peace concert in Kingston in April 1978 after the year of exile in West London (not a million miles from Buckley Road).

The way he tours the States and beyond with cancer secretly worming its way through every part of his body is testament to his amazing energy. Those moments when he loses himself in the music and reaches a place beyond the trials and tribulations of the every day, beyond the petty rude boy politics, the heartless rejection, the shadowy disease, the loneliness, the black and the white are the high points of ‘Marley’ – naturally mystical moments where we see him coming home to peace, love and oneness.

It’s a film made with love and patience and is best enjoyed in that spirit, settle back in front of a big, loud screen for a carefully paced circular journey from his birthplace in the hills of Nine Mile, Saint Ann to a mausoleum just a stone’s throw from his childhood home there.

Here I am, a stone.

Stoned immaculate: a unique energy


Son of a Beach – Picture of the Month: Joie de Vivre – Picasso (1946)

I’m writing this post on a Mediterranean beach in Greek Cyprus as that is the essence of this painting: Mediterranean light and sensuality, Classical culture, family fun and frolics. It is the beating heart of the Picasso Museum in old Antibes, the single work which captures the spirit of the collection based in a beautiful grand old house overlooking the sparkling sea.

The Musee Picasso in the Marais of Paris is a wonderful collection cutting across the great man’s lifetime of work (I consider Picasso alongside Bacon as the greatest of 20th Century artists). This collection is far more specific, capturing a brief period after the war when Picasso was in effect artist in residence on a floor of the Chateau Grimaldi, which in 1966 was renamed the Musee Picasso, Antibes. This month was my third visit – I was hooked by the vibe of the place when I first visited about a decade ago with my other half. I was back again last year when I walked over the hill from Juan Les Pins whilst over for the International Digital Emmys. I was back again for those and a speaking sesh at MIP this year and spent a marvellous Sunday there. As I walked up the hill from the old covered market I coincided with the Palm Sunday congregation exiting the resonant ochre church opposite the museum, carrying a variety of symbolic, palm-related plants including woven crosses of palm. I sat myself down on the stone bench in the square separating the church and the Chateau Grimaldi, a stoney canyon giving on to the sea between high walls and blocks of shadow, and sketched the view from the sail-boats flowing across the waves to the students sitting looking out to them, bathed in the bright Mediterranean light.

Without having done any biographical research, I get the impression Picasso was recharging his batteries here after the war, delighting in the Simple Pleasures, from fish to music, from sea urchins to women in all their complexity, from good food and wine to friendship. The photos beside his studio floor by Michel Sima show him with Francoise Gilot, mother of his children, with Paul Eluard (Surrealist poet) and Nusch Eluard (his wife, Surrealist muse), in local restaurants along this bit of coast, working away in the cool shadows of the top floor of this building in sandals, bare torso, bullish like his Minotaur characters who seem confounded, in the line drawn illustrations on display, by the naked women in their lives and their own hairy nature.

The painting depicts a scene from the Classical age of the Mediterranean. It is part of a process Picasso seems to have been going through to extract the essence of the Classical past for his modernist age, to reinvent it for a world post A-bomb, post-Holocaust, post-Guernica, post-mechanisation and industrialisation, to use it to reconnect with the Simple Pleasures and the world of light.

The scene is centred on the family, with a nuclear family of the average 2 point whatever kids cavorting on the beach. The colours are the muted earth colours of Mediterranean pottery, a not too distant relation of the five earthy colours of ancient Egyptian tomb art which were picked up by Bridget Riley in the late 80s (I was fortunate to attend a lecture by her in Cambridge in about 1986 when she talked through her process of adopting that ancient palette, then I saw them for real in tombs along the Nile to Aswan the following decade).

At the centre of the picture is a woman with big knockers. So far, so Picasso. She’s suitably distorted/multi-angled though well beyond the Cubism – she’s Cubist plus 1920s Classical phase plus a sprinkle of Blue Period, all simplified towards Klee territory. Not only are those big bazookas symmetrical but so are her legs and locks so she is very much the centre line of the composition. To her left are the kids (literally – half goat) and a musician with ancient Greek pipe thingies – again, child-like in Klee style, fat fingers and circle head. To her right is a musical centaur, perhaps the Great Man himself in his combination of animal passion and artistic sensitivity. With his bestial four legs he’s that bit smaller than the woman. But it’s all pretty tension free, music, dancing, Mediterranean fun and frolics at the seaside. Those two vertical halves are divided into thirds horizontally – land / sea / sky – dominated by blues which are the hues of peace and infinity. The earth and ocean are a collagy style of painting, direct descendants of his Cubism. The sky is dominated by a classic sail boat in Vermeer blue and yellow. It’s pretty big in the greater scheme of things and for me represents Picasso’s escape route and back-of-the-mind sense that fun and family, luxury and high life by the Med are all well and good, but he has other stuff to go out and explore…

I’m finishing writing this post a couple of weeks later back in London with a print of Guernica as reimagined by Pure Evil on the wall behind me. As far as that Paphos beach is from this North London suburb, so is this Joie de Vivre from the explosive hell of Guernica – separated by a monstrous war and yet in the forms and techniques, the animal imagery, the faceted design, they are not that far apart. Under a decade separates the two (9 years) – by road 9 hours or 900 kilometres (an almost straight line through San Sebastian, Bayonne, Toulouse, Montpelier, Nimes, Cannes; a gently undulating line like the horizon of the ocean in the painting). The son of a beach would really have had the feeling that time heals all wounds.

Guernica to Antibes

Previous Picture of the Month: Portrait surrounded by Artistic Devices – David Hockney (a huge Picasso fan)

Heddonism

copyright: Brian Ward, courtesy of Des Shaw

It’s 08:45. I’m dripping wet, just out the shower, drying off by Whitey (our trusty old iMac) with Twitter open. I notice a tweet flow by: ‘Ziggy Stardust plaque being unveiled at 9:45 just off Regent St, if you’re in West End come by’. I’d heard about the plaque earlier in the week from Des Shaw at Ten Alps, the TV indie set up by Bob Geldof. He’s making a radio programme about Bowie and we’re working together on a couple of multiplatform developments – one to do with music, the other about waste – so we’d been chatting on the phone a few days before about Bowie and he mentioned the impending event. 60 minutes – just doable if I didn’t mind venturing forth a bit moist. I took off, kept up a decent pace, the Northern Line behaved and I walked into Heddon Street, powered by Ziggy on the iPhone, with a minute to spare. I positioned myself behind a TV crew and texted Des to check he was there. The ceremonies were opened bang on time by a fella from the Crown Estate who gave us a brief history of this backwater behind Regent Street, personalised by his own memories of the record. He handed over to Gary Kemp, formerly of Spandau Ballet, who was the prime mover behind the project, much inspired in his music career by the album. He spoke with great enthusiasm about the record and tipped the hat to the two Spiders from Mars who were among the small but perfectly formed crowd, bass player Trevor Bolder and drummer Mick Woodmansey. Then the little curtain was drawn back to reveal the elegant black plaque – one of only two in London to a fictional person (the other being Sherlock Holmes at 221b Baker Street). It reads: Ziggy Stardust 1972 This marks the location of the cover photograph for the iconic David Bowie album ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’.

40 years before, outside the office of Bowie’s management which was located for a while at that time on Heddon Street W1, Brian Ward took the iconic photo of the newly created Ziggy character outside the warehouse-looking entrance of K. West. It was a black and white shot subsequently hand coloured by Terry Pastor, who switched on the light and pulled out that resonant name. So Brian Ward’s original photograph was black and white, one of twelve 10 x 8s submitted to Bowie’s artist pal, George Underwood. George passed the one selected for the front cover to his colleague Terry Pastor. It was Terry who airbrushed the cover – he decided on the colouring of Ziggy’s hair, his costume, the lights and so on – very much a joint effort taking it to icon status. Des Shaw has a print of one of the other original 10x8s [above] which gives a good insight into the shoot and what the street looked like back then. Des brought me in to the special reception area where a six foot square print of the cover hung [below]. At 12″ x 12″ its magic and mystery are even more powerful through concentration.

The doorway in question has changed over the years and the whole street is far more salubrious and tamed through pedestrianisation. Less clean cut and tamed than when I first saw him perform To Cut A Long Story Short on telly when I was still immersed in punk and new wave was Gary Kemp who Des introduced me to – he was all a-flutter with the event and went off after a few moments to do another radio interview.

I think the original record was recorded at Trident Studios across Regent Street in Soho (certainly some of Bowie’s 70s classics were recorded there) – I recorded a voice-over a few years ago at Trident and was suitably impressed with the trophy album covers on their wall. Des told me a really interesting story he’d uncovered in the making of his radio programme: at one point around this time Bowie was rehearsing in an innocuous basement in Greenwich with his Spiders from Mars and was joined by Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. The basement studio space was called Underhill and was chosen because it was within walking distance of Haddon Hall where Bowie was living in Bromley, his old manor. After Bowie met Iggy Pop and Lou Reed in the States he invited them to England where he then produced Iggy’s Raw Power album (after he’d produced Lou’s Transformer). So at one point in the tiny basement rehearsal space there were David Bowie and The Spiders from Mars, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, and Lou Reed and his post-Velvets band, three of the most influential groups of the early 70s – all playing in a tiny subterranean space under what is now a pharmacist on the corner of Lewisham Road and Blackheath Road. This city, beneath the surface, behind out back, has a music goldmine rich like no other.

Ziggy Stardust impressed me when I first heard it but was never an absolute favourite. Although I remember Starman in the pop background as a little kid – and V2 Schneider (B-side of Heroes) entered my life briefly on board the SS Uganda on an educational cruise to the Baltic sharing a dorm with a bunch of skinheads from Romford – Stage was the first Bowie album that crossed my path in full consciousness.

Probably the three most significant Bowie records for me were:

* Aladdin Sane – I got totally bored by the monotony of school in the 6th Form and retired to a room at my dad’s house for a few months with Aladdin Sane and a pile of Jane Austens – it just chimed in perfectly with that most fucked up of teenage times

* Lodger – Bowie did a radio programme/interview about it during which he mentioned the Austrian painter Egon Schiele, who I’d never heard of and who was much less well known at that time – within a couple of years I found myself in Neulengbach on the outskirts of Vienna on the trail of Schiele (thanks to the Morrison Travel Scholarship from Girton College, fair play to them, it was one of the things at university I probably learnt most from)

* Let’s Dance – the soundtrack for my year living in France, culminating in seeing a very smooth Mediterranean Bowie (he’d been at the Cannes Film Festival that year with Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence – the tanned, light suits, dyed blonde floppy English hair era) at Grenoble, from the front of the auditorium with all the energy of a young man who had just cut the umbilical chord from home.

The other records over the years have pretty much all come to win their places in my heart and life, and one of the key endearing aspects of them is that resolute voicing of the Anthony Newley style London accent. You can take the boy out of London but you can’t take London out of the boy, however much you swing him.

Fanboy Gary Kemp showing off his Ziggy badge

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