Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Last Non-festive Post of 2016

As it's December tomorrow even the reluctant Christmassers like myself will probably have to succumb to gluwein, advent calendars, Best of the Year lists etc.


Which means there's been plenty else going on, with no baubles attached. Manchester has two fascinating large art shows, (and one fascinating small one) at the moment. The small one, Miniature World at Castlefield Gallery looks at the idea of the scientific amateur, running from Lubetkin's London Zoo penguin pool, to the recreation of a black hole, to recreated battles using models from Games Workshop, its playful, subversive and a full gallery group show to return to. Artist's Rooms - Andy Warhol at the Whitworth and a curated photography show, Strange and Familiar - Britain through the eyes of international photographers, at Manchester Art Gallery, bring two things - Warhol and photography - that are relatively scarcely seen in Manchester's main galleries.

I'm pleased that after my "fallow year" where I've not managed to get much published at all, I'm in a new anthology, "Not a Drop", which contains poems in tribute to the world's seas. Its not yet available to buy, but hopefully will be on the Beautiful Dragons website soon. The recent launch at the Portico was well attended and excellent.

I've recently been part of a collaborative process of "spontaneous writing", l'Harmonie Process, curated by Zoe at Confingo Magazine, the first anonymised parts of this work are now up online. The latest issue contains a new story by the excellent David Rose, whose "Posthumous Stories" was a highlight a few years ago, and is, I think, his first new story since that collection. I read a draft of the story and I'll be pleased to see it in print. Issue 6 is now available to purchase online (a bargain £5) or in selected stockists. Serious writers and readers should take note.

Beyond such things, there's been a usual mix of literary nights, tonight is Bad Language for those in town (its my week off, so staying local), and next Wednesday is the Other Room - both at the Castle.

Non-fiction for once, but my friend Nigel Barlow has been working on a book about Manchester's history for the last few years, "Around Manchester" and I saw a copy this week. It's an  impressive size book, beautifully produced, and from the bits I read of it, a compelling read - it takes the various areas of Manchester and walks (literally) through their hidden histories. Psychogeography is perhaps part of it, but I think Nigel's take on the city is less over-philosophical, and more in a tradition of social and cultural observation - think Henry James' "English Hours", or even Sebald's "The Rings of Saturn." Its peppered with contemporary photographs of a Manchester that is changing at speed. And since it is nearly December, it would make a perfect Christmas present!

I think I forgot to mention it on this blog - but last week I released, under my Bonbon Experiment alias, the 2nd of my "Test Pressing" E.Ps - five Post-Trump minimalistic electronic songs to download or stream.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Punk's Not Just Smells Funny

The news that Joe Corré , the son of Malcolm Maclaren and Vivienne Westwood has "celebrated" 40 years since the release of "Anarchy in the UK" by burning his inherited punk memorabilia, as a protest against punk becoming celebrated by the establishment, is a reminder, if we needed one that Malcolm Maclaren was always more a Situationist than a punk. He got lucky with the Sex Pistols, having previously managed a later incarnation of the New York Dolls, in that his manufactured band turned out to be the real thing in more ways than one. After Johnny Rotten left the band, Maclaren kept it on the road as a music hall act, with travesties like the "Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle" and "Sid Sings", before moving onto the next big thing. It's fascinating that he abandoned the genuine pop star that was Adam Ant to create his own one in Annabella Lwin of Bow Wow Wow, to much less success; then onto a number of trend-hopping albums, catching the tail of early hip hop with "Buffalo Girls", but then failing to do much with micro-trends on his subsequent albums.

Corré is of course at liberty to burn whatever he wants of his own, but it seems a particularly soulless gesture. Punk was never about artefacts of course, and yet at the same time, it so was. By the late 1970s the London punk was as ubiquitous an image of the city as the Beefeater or the red bus. Real punk music and attitude decamped from Maclaren's King's Road fashion emporium, from the moment "Anarchy in the UK" had made it - on its 3rd attempt - onto vinyl. Corré is, like his mother, in the fashion industry, and though fashion has always been quick to exploit high street trends, Maclaren was at least savvy enough to know that it was music that led fashion not the other way round. It does seem strange than a man whose career has been in fashion, could suddenly get so angry about punk being commodified. His old man was the first to do that, and quickly showed very little interest in the music side of it. Johnny Rotten, of course, became John Lydon, and transformed rock music for a second time with PiL, whose post-punk excursions sound stranger and more relevant the further away we get from the source.

It seems that indeed, those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it, and nostalgic or not, the museum-ifying of punk rock seems a better way for someone to find out about the movement than through listening to latter day "punks" like Green Day, or through wearing hip retro clothing. See any photographs or videos of punks in the provinces from the late 1970s onwards, and you see this was not outsider chic, it was just outsiders. There was, I'm sure, a fashion element to it, and the art sensibility of managers like Maclaren and Anthony H. Wilson certainly helped clothe angry working class music in a suitably alluring mythology, in a way that the American punk wave - from Ramones, to Talking Heads, to Patti Smith - understood implicitly from the start.

This week, the eighties styled pop dilletantes, the 1975 had the NME album of the year, with a sound that is about as far away from punk attitude as you can imagine.  Perhaps a few young, budding pop stars might be just a little inspired by the actual footage and iconography of a punk rock aesthetic that was never intended to last. As I said, Maclaren and Westwood's son can do what he wants, but burning punk memorabilia in a set piece on the Thames, is Situationist, it's a media stunt, it's many things, but it's not in the least bit punk.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Art in a Post-Truth World

The "word" of the year is "Post-Truth". We are truly immersed in the Age of Meta- as I wrote a while back. Post-Trump (only, not coincidentally, two letters different) what has changed?  I guess we're all in some kind of post-truth daze.

Art can be both canary in the coalmine of contemporary thought and, more often, a delayed reaction. The rush to publish that comes after a major event - especially in the West - means that we sometimes get some immediate bad art. Yet, the other thing that happens: some political or social cataclysm makes us look around for the evidence in plain sight. But is there an art of the disaffected? Those left behind by globalisation? The tyranny of the mediated mainstream means that there sometimes seems just one trajectory these days, rather than a series of alternatives. Growing up in the eighties there was a definite alternative to the mainstream, in music especially, which wasn't just a commentary of the times but a rejection of the values of the times. Though it was good that pop stars of that era addressed social issues in their music, I still can't help but think that the plush wine-bar sophistication of the Blow Monkeys or the Style Council wasn't as effective a critique as the more abrasive underground. Social commentary smuggled into clean pop music can end up just being a lost message. If we've seen one thing this dark summer, its that dog whistles have been replaced by just whistles, for all to hear, and clearly.

Pointlessly, perhaps, I'm sure my next musical E.P. will be obliquely or directly in response to our new right wing world. May as well say something whilst we still can.

Elsewhere, art goes on. There's a new show "Miniature World" at Castlefield Gallery which broadens our sense of wonder to embrace the "scientific amateur" - a showed packed with little wonders, its on throughout the rest of the year and into January. It's also Kwong Lee, the director's, last show there as he takes a break and moves on to other things. Tonight there's a celebratory party for his many years of contribution to the Manchester art scene. Its a reminder of the strength of a particular community.

The week's other new show, Artist Rooms: Andy Warhol, at the Whitworth opened yesterday and I missed as I was at a poetry reading myself, as a participant in a new anthology from Beautiful Dragons, "Not a drop", celebrating the world's seas. The "sea" I got to write about is a small strait between Estonia and Finland, and not surprisingly, though written before the Brexit vote, it talks a little about the idea of "Home", and nationalism in a different context. 

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Just Kids by Patti Smith

For some reason I didn't get round to reading Patti Smith's compelling memoir "Just Kids" when it came out, but sometimes you realise you're reading a book just at the right time, and that's what it felt like picking it up last week. For "Just Kids" is an autobiography of an artist's life - it skips over childhood and family, and stops just before Smith became famous with "Horses." Yet, it's not just an autobiography, but also a biography, of her close friend, lover and artistic other half Robert Mapplethorpe, the radically inventive photographer who's iconic picture of Patti adorns the cover of "Horses."

But all of that is to come. For Smith moves to New York, nearly penniless, but rich in dreams, in the late sixties, having already given up her unexpected baby for adoption - a pregnancy that, still a scandal in those days, put paid to her teaching career. Brought up in a poor, but loving home, her entrance into New York life was at a time when the city was at one of its perennial high points. With Woodstock about to happen up state, and with protests against the Vietnam war dominating the news, it was a city both exciting and impenetrable, and Smith's arrival there was a tough one - until one day she bumped into Mapplethorpe, from a similar background to her, albeit a much stricter Catholic one, and as determined as she was to live an artistic life. Smith's exemplars were poets - Blake, Rimbaud, Verlaine. Whilst Mapplethorpe was more obsessed with the contemporary - particularly Andy Warhol and his real-life artistic Camelot of the Factory. They were lovers, before he realised his own sexuality. Perhaps Smith's own unusual androgyny helped here (Ginsberg would later try and pick her up, thinking her at first to be a very pretty boy.) Yet in Smith's semi-mythic telling, their sexual liaison was only a small part of their love for each other - a love that would continue through their mutual successes, right up to Mapplethorpe's AIDS-related death.

It's a fascinating portrait of a self-willed artistic life. Moving from sleeping on the street and on friends' floors, until they can afford a tiny room, this is a story that only the two of them were privy too. He is an artist making Joseph Cornell-like installations whilst she is both artist and poet. Her poetry heroes are mostly the dead - most of all Rimbaud - though she finds herself surprised to discover Jim Morrison who is channelling the same ghosts. Her musical hero is Dylan, who makes the words important. After a trip to Paris with her sister (her family are clearly supportive of her, but she hardly lets mention of them intrude on the myth-making) she returns to find Mapplethorpe ill and in a bad state. On an impulse she drags him to the legendary Chelsea Hotel where they are given the smallest room. It is of no matter, however, as here they are suddenly amongst their peers, or those they want to make their peers.

Despite little or no money, this is recounted as a golden time. Surrounded by artistic heroes both Patti and Robert have the time to explore their own art. He is yet to be a photographer, she is yet to be a singer, but in this exquisite telling of that time, you see how the different aspects of both their arts are allowed to chrysalise and grow. After Mapplethorpe finds a boyfriend, they still remain incredibly close, symbiotic in their love and need for each other, even as his darker side draws him to the S&M scenes which will eventually percolate his iconic photography. This is no rags to riches story - they both take longer to make it than either of them thinks - but they are also single minded in their pursuit of art. Her occasional jobs and his hustling are both means to an end. In the febrile environment of early 1970s New York they feel that it is their time, their age - they seem a different timbre from the sixties hippies, harder in some ways, but also more independent. Patti rarely does drugs, whilst Robert will try anything. Their contrasts are part of their symbiosis. Fascinatingly neither of them yet realises what they will become. Rarely have two young people so willed themselves to be artists. He is drawn to the gay demi monde of Warhol's Factory, whilst she finds herself offered opportunities as an actor particularly after she turns her haircut into a Keith Richard's styled mop. Cast as a lesbian in her final play, her director despairs that she isn't really the part that she looks. Smith is indeed something new, as is Mapplethorpe.

Around the Chelsea Hotel, and Max's Kansas City they both get more and more drawn into the world they have looked at from outside. Smith meets Hendrix, Grace Slick, Janis Joplin (for whom she writes a poem), but it is the great poet Gregory Corso who leaves the biggest impression on her. Meanwhile Mapplethorpe becomes closer to the art scene, both in awe of Warhol and jealous of him. As they stop being lovers, they remain friends and confidantes - though Smith worries that the duality of Robert's nature - Catholic boy flirting with the devil - is taking him into places she doesn't understand or want to go. It's fascinating, given her most famous line is "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine." No longer his lover, she meets other men - Jim Carroll, also a hustler, and who she appears to be in love with, Sam Shepherd, who writes a play with her then returns to his wife, and Allen Lanier, singer with Blue Oyster Cult, who she meets through Sandy Pearlman - he's their manager, and him and Smith are both writing rock reviews for similar publications. When she finally does a performance its supporting Corso at St. Mark's poetry project and she shocks the place by being accompanied by Lenny Kaye's guitar. It's a sensation - that leads to her first poetry collection - but it's also planned to be. Patti and Robert have been observing fame for so long that they understand its mechanics and when the right moment comes are ready to pounce on it. In a rare moment of self-criticism Smith admonishes herself for not thanking Corso and Robert who helped her put the night on.

Smith is a wonderful guide through these times, detailed, mesmeric, and she writes like an angel. But its a compelling story. Only now and then do you reflect how much of a story it is - the details of the life blur what might have actually happened - this is Smith's telling of it, a mythic tale to join the mythic tales of her heroes. It is this sense of an artistic destiny, and the importance of creating a framework in which her and Robert have willed themselves into being artists, which is so great about the book. You put the book down wanting to time travel to NYC in 1970. Like many good writers Smith is a clever observer of the world she was walking through - of course, more than many others, she became a participant in something bigger - her debut album in 1975 was proclaimed as a masterpiece, but it wouldn't be until "Because the Night" three years later that she'd have a hit. Lanier - her longest relationship after Robert - and Fred Sonic Smith, her later true love and husband, are hardly mentioned as if the importance is to the primal relationship with Robert. It's therefore a partial memoir, I guess, but none the worse for that. At the end she says that only her and Robert knew this part of the story and with him gone it's her job to tell it.

I'm reminded of other artists, writers and musicians I've known, particularly female ones, who've worked so hard to construct a viable artistic world in which they can thrive, even before success has come. It's as if the first work of the artist is to draw the world that they want to exist - for Smith in 1970 it didn't exist, there were no poet-rock stars, certainly no female ones. She had to create that role, that world. For Mapplethorpe it was the same. His work, once shocking America with its bullwhips and its S&M, is now seen as utterly iconic, a mastering of a unique and highly influential photographic style. I first saw Smith play live in the 1990s, where she hardly touched on her 1970s albums, concentrating on the records that had come out from "Dream of Life" onwards. Similarly I saw a Mapplethorpe show in London, where alongside the pictures of Patti Smith, and the S&M, there were some of his glorious still lifes of flowers. 

"Just Kids" is a brilliant dual biography of two equally important artists, who, not finding a template that would fit their own vision of the world, made something new. This memoir is the story of how they got there.