Pull The Strings
Updated: Dec 24, 2019
I'm very honoured to have my first ever international solo show at the HOK Gallery in Den Haag this week. I went over for the opening and had a very enjoyable few days, a huge thanks to Angie and Alfred at HOK for making it all happen.
I was also invited to collaborate with the artist Lula Valletta on a booklet to accompany the show, she would design and RISO print a limited run of 50 copies only. I wanted to write something about both my influences in art and life on the road as a musician in a sleep-deprived stream-of-consciousness style - a state I'm mostly in on tour.
The booklets came out beautifully I think, printed in blue and gold. For those who won't get to see them here are some scans along with the text I wrote.
At the edge of reason live the stories and half-truths wherein we find ourselves.
A distant engine thrum interrupts the sullen evening gloom. Spatters of rain glimmer and dance, caught suddenly in the beam of an approaching hire van. Behind the wheel a haggard figure clicks a sorry looking roll-up to life, draws deeply and cracks his window to exhale the smoke. Groans erupt from the rear as a blast of freezing air invades the vehicle, disturbing it's ragged, inebriate cargo. The driver mutters a silent curse, flicks out the sparking stub and ploughs on through the night.
The hypnotic drift of rolling wheels sweeping along mile after mile of undulating motorway lulls the grumbling crew into semi-comatose calm. Memories and dreams come loose, cut-up fragments that float adrift in the wind like gusting confetti.
Art school days in The North. Surrealists, Dadaists, Situationists, rantings and ravings from history, an ‘ism’ for every occasion. Manifestos probed and pored over, forensically examined for clandestine truths that could reveal new ways of living. Then the snotty proclamations of spiky men with angry young haircuts leering from the pages of old NMEs. The brutal urgency of their gritty guitars grabbed me and their words fired me up, unfashionable though they were at the time. What more was fashion than the suppository of consumerism anyway? Second-hand record stores held hidden seams of gold and shavings of dole were gambled on unknown vinyl pleasures. In those analogue days of highly conservative monoculture you had to learn how to dig for your nourishment.
New York Dolls on the stereo, Guy Debord in the studio. Greil Marcus joined the dots and pulled the strings in Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century, describing a lineage of subversion and anarchy that would rear it's head again and again, differing in form but always at odds with the status quo. There was a hidden battle with normality that had been going on for years - an unending war against conformity, repression and control. Sign me up.
Another day, another town, another show. At what point did the heady thrills of life on the road devolve into box-ticking routine? We’ve been tossed into an unnatural mode of living, weeks of sitting in a cramped metal box zooming from post to post, every day different yet the same. It’s great and it’s terrible. Youthful fantasies about the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle had a vastly different ratio of hedonism to tedium, put it that way. I blame MTV for false advertising but it’s a difficult case to bring to court. For now, we have become sleep-deprived nomadic minstrels who, for a modest fee, will explode into life for ninety action-packed minutes and then get the hell out of town.
Still, it beats getting a proper job.
Joseph Cornell died the same year that I was born, although I claim no connection between the two events. A self-taught artist, Cornell was a chronic introvert who never left his native New York, traversing instead the imaginary spaces he created from other people’s junk. Unwanted objects, bric-a-brac and miscellaneous ephemera were carefully harvested from local thrift stores and filed away in a vast catalogue of discarded nostalgia. Selected items would then be combined and assembled in small wooden boxes, a simple process by which he could open portals to unknowable worlds. I first encountered Cornell’s work at The Whitechapel Gallery in London and was entranced, a seed firmly planted.
Before him were the Dadaists who, reacting to the wanton devastation of The First World War, used collage as a tool to express their disgust. Society had been ripped apart with horrifying crudity and artists such as Hannah Hoch had responded in kind, slashing at magazines and rearranging the pieces to point a satirical finger at those responsible. Works with provocative titles such as 'Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada through the Beer-Belly of the Weimar Republic' foreshadowed the nihilistic rage of punk rock by over half a century.
And then the Surrealists, gathering to play games designed to unlock the unconscious mind. By interrupting normality and embracing the irrational they uncovered whole new imaginative vistas to explore. Once attuned to the semi-conscious world the Surrealists would then attempt to express the indefinable with their art. Of particular interest to myself, a one Max Ernst took to dicing and slicing Victorian periodicals to produce fantastical, unsettling illustrations for impossible narratives.
The nightmarish apparitions of David Lynch would later be informed by this subterranean delving into the psyche and negating of logic.
Here were visionaries whose ideas were contagious. If received with an open mind they could inhabit you and reveal entirely new ways of seeing the world. I gathered their ideas and others, squeezed them for juice and left the mixture to brew for a few years whilst I turned my attentions to musical matters.
Coffee, water, phone.
Beer, piss, phone.
Phone, coffee, phone.
Phone, phone, phone.
At least I’ve given up bloody cigarettes now.
The long, tedious hours spent as a shadow of yourself - needed, not-needed, be here but not there, hurry up and wait. Pacing the room, pacing yourself. Slowly building towards that brief intense moment, the battle to send the music soaring. The opportunity is before you to transcend the banality of self for a few moments, to absorb and reflect the sounds you're creating with others, to energize and invigorate the room. To preach, to convert, to set souls aflame. If you can channel the noise coming through the amplifiers then you might just unleash a sonic hurricane and really make The Connection.
...or else you could flail and fall, brought down by a crap speaker or broken string, the audience left unengaged and bored. Your punishment for failing to set the stars alight another little nagging demon to whisper doubt in your ear when you're trying to get to sleep.
Oh yes, this is a high-stakes operation alright.
The chatter of the departing crowd fades to silence, dying feedback now replaced with a tinnitus whine. Draining adrenaline exposes a dull shoulder ache – another sip of whiskey to medicate. “Living the dream” we say sardonically to each other as we pillage the remaining rider to stretch out our per diems. Yet living the dream we are, with all the attendant triumphs and highs as well as the indignities and lows we love to moan about.
And after all, the alternative doesn’t even bear consideration.
So, charm a bottle of red out of ‘em for the road, get a few glasses as well, in fact grab anything that isn’t nailed down. We have to do this all over again tomorrow.
Blurred tarmac strips snake across the countryside, umbilical cords dragging us towards our next brief flourishing of life. Pull the strings and get us there. The evening is already an unreliable memory, the post-gig high cosseted by appreciative hangers-on and invigorated by alcohol. Bowie comes on the stereo, the bottle goes round again and we slur-sing along. Earlier today we'd been mentally prepared to dig our fingers into our chests and rip our bleeding hearts out, if only to raise a cheer. Thankfully it rarely comes to that.
But our humour is jet black now, we’ve gone feral.
Reintegrating into polite society is going to be a challenge.
It is beyond language and thus untainted by the mechanical failings of words. You feel it deeply precisely because it cannot be fully explained, for it is in those spaces beyond reason and sanity that you truly find yourself. It is that which sparks life in you and elevates your soul. It speaks of mystery, the unknown, the beyond. It rouses yearnings that can never be realised, it is a whispered prayer to an absent god. It celebrates the futility of howling at the moon and applauds the romantic gesture. It is the rage against the dying of the light, it is that transcendent moment when we gain flight and finally, truly leave ourselves behind.