Born to be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey

dery.jpg

Cover design by Jim Tierney; photo by Richard Corman.

When so many current biographies are recounting the lives of those about whom we’ve already heard a great deal (see the new biography of Oscar Wilde by Matthew Sturgis), a book exploring the career of a previously undocumented yet worthwhile figure is especially welcome. Such is the case with Born to Be Posthumous, Mark Dery’s life of the elusive Edward Gorey: artist, writer, illustrator, book designer, book creator, bibliophile, theatre designer, cat lover and balletomane.

gorey5.jpg

The Gashlycrumb Tinies (1963).

Gorey’s small books have long been one of the more curious fixtures of American culture: many of them look like children’s books but aren’t (unless the child is Wednesday Addams); others look like comic books but they aren’t comics either. The books are sometimes (but not always) Surrealist fables; or brief accounts of irreducible mystery; or sombre inexplicabilities; or camp ripostes to the pieties of Victorian morality; infrequently spiced with black humour and with lurches into outright horror. Gorey delivered his miniature tales in an idiosyncratic drawing style that combines a cartoon-like stylisation with the density of shading found in old wood engravings, a blend that would prove influential as his popularity grew. As Dery notes in his book’s introduction, without Edward Gorey’s work there would be no Lemony Snicket, while Tim Burton would be a skeletal shadow of his present self. (Given the latter’s current output, this might do him some good. But I digress.)

gorey4.jpg

The Doubtful Guest (1957).

In Britain, however, Gorey remains a cult rather than cultural figure, still overshadowed by better-known contemporaries such as Maurice Sendak and Charles Addams. Until the publication of the Amphigorey story collections Gorey’s books were produced in small editions with such a limited availability you were more likely to encounter his art on the cover of another author’s book than within the pages of his own. I became aware of Gorey’s work by gradual osmosis. The first substantial piece I read about him was his entry in Philip Core’s Camp: The Lie that Tells the Truth (1984), in which Core’s mention of an art style “recollecting Victorian engravings” marked Gorey as an artist to be investigated. Two years later he received a longer entry in The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural edited by Jack Sullivan. (Camp and horror: how many other artists sit so easily in both worlds?) But Gorey is absent from many books about 20th-century illustrators, and despite the sequential nature of his work you won’t find him in histories of comic art.

gorey6.jpg

Edward Gorey’s Dracula: A Toy Theatre (1979).

In a way it’s fitting that the work of a man who was adamant in his determination to avoid being pinned down should be so difficult to find. But it’s also a shame that the work of an ardent Anglophile should be hard to find in the country that fuelled his imagination. Among Gorey’s literary favourites Dery lists Jane Austen and Agatha Christie together with Ronald Firbank, Saki, and EF Benson’s Mapp and Lucia novels. (The latter trio are all present in Core’s book on camp, which no doubt makes Gorey camp to the core. Whether he would have approved of being labelled as such is another matter.) I wasn’t surprised by the mention of Saki when so many of Saki’s story titles (The Secret Sin of Septimus Brope) sound like Gorey books, while many of the stories themselves are like Gorey scenarios in prose. Not all Gorey’s work is camp or comic, however; the 32 drawings that comprise the wordless masterpiece of The West Wing (1963) are closer to David Lynch or the “strange stories” of Robert Aickman, the latter an author that Gorey illustrated on several occasions. Dery emphasises how Gorey’s love of silent cinema contributed to The West Wing and other pieces, especially the serials of the Surrealists’ favourite filmmaker, Louis Feuillade.

Continue reading “Born to be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey”

Peter Christopherson Photography & The Art of John Balance Collected

coil1.jpg

Look at it this way / In ten years’ time / Who’ll care? / Who’ll even remember?

Coil, The Dreamer Is Still Asleep

Coil’s John Balance died ten years ago today, bringing an end to two decades of a project that, in its earliest stages, was his own solo musical venture. Ten years on, Coil and Balance have hardly been forgotten: in addition to Coil’s continuing influence in the music world, Jeremy Reed & Karolina Urbaniak recently announced Altered Balance: A Tribute to Coil, a memorial volume whose publication is followed this week by two Coil-related art books from Timeless Editions:

Peter Christopherson: Photography

The legendary unpublished photographic work of Peter Christopherson. The b/w photos featured in the book run the gamut from personal fetishes to social commentary on 1970s UK, portraits of bands, friends and strangers. There are both snapshots and highly staged scenarios. Approximately 95% of this material is published here for the first time ever. Foreword by Claus Laufenburg and a short personal reminiscence by Thighpaulsandra. B/W hardbound, 27 x 33.5 cm, 284 pages.

Bright Lights And Cats With No Mouths: The Art of John Balance Collected

The first ever extensive overview of art (drawings, paintings and sketches) created by John Balance. The artworks featured in the book are both finished elaborate hallucinatory pieces as well as quick sketches with a good sprinkling of Balance’s often underestimated humour. Homages to idols and inspirations next to idiosyncratic magical dreamscapes executed in a wide variety of styles and mediums Compiled by Liam Thomas and Thighpaulsandra. With text by Val Denham and Jeremy Reed. Full colour throughout. 29 x 29 cm, 248 pages.

Both books are limited editions, and given the obsessive nature of Coil collectors they’ll probably sell out very quickly. Both volumes are significant, albeit for very different reasons. Peter Christopherson had a long career as a photographer, famously as one-third of the Hipgnosis design partnership, but outside his professional work, and publicity shots for Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV and Coil, his personal work was always more alluded to than seen. One of the Hipgnosis books mentions his involvement with a group who staged realistic accident and trauma scenes for medical workers but little of this material has been seen until now. Elsewhere in the collection there are shots that resemble some of those that did surface occasionally, also some recurrent obsessions: thuggish youths, violent death, urban dereliction and male bodies. Still no sign of the photos of the Sex Pistols that (we’re told) Malcolm McLaren deemed too heavy.

The John Balance book fascinates simply for showing work that was even more hidden, and hardly alluded to at all. John and I did talk about his artistic endeavours once during our sporadic communications—the 3D scenes on the Musick To Play In The Dark albums were his creations using some PC program whose name I forget—but there was never a hint that he’d produced so much. The publisher sent me a link to their preview pages (here & here) so a few samples follow.

pc1.jpg

Continue reading “Peter Christopherson Photography & The Art of John Balance Collected”

Subterranean Modern: The Residents, Chrome, MX-80 Sound and Tuxedomoon

submod0.jpg

Subterranean Modern (1979). Sleeve art by Gary Panter.

As often happens, one post leads to another, and the next thing you know there’s a themed week happening, so here’s something more about Tuxedomoon. Subterranean Modern was a compilation album released by The Residents on their Ralph Records label in 1979. The idea was to showcase The Residents along with three other groups from contemporary San Francisco, all of whom were underground acts, hence the “subterranean” title. Three of those groups—Chrome, Tuxedomoon, The Residents themselves—have since developed cult followings; hard-rock outfit MX-80 Sound seem a little ordinary and out-of-place in this unique company but then that’s the nature of the compilation album. The Residents wanted each group to provide an interpretation of I Left My Heart In San Francisco but none of the others were very interested; Chrome’s offering, which lasts all of 27 seconds, is hilariously contemptuous of the idea, a squall of riff and vocals that fades in then quickly fades away. Cartoonist Gary Panter illustrated the cover which is also given the Rozz Tox seal of approval. For more about Rozz Tox, whose enigmatic presence can be found on other Ralph Records releases, see this.

I’d already heard Chrome and The Residents when I bought Subterranean Modern but this was first place I encountered Tuxedomoon’s music. Chrome, who appear on the back cover wearing their Clockwork Orange droog outfits, contribute two tracks that are as good as anything on their early records, Anti-Fade and the chugging Meet You In The Subway for which they made a video filmed on the city’s BART platforms. I listened to those tracks, and the Tuxedomoon ones, much more than the rest of the album. With the exception of the pieces by MX-80 Sound, everything on the album has since been reissued on other compilations (Tuxedomoon’s tracks are on the Pinheads On The Move collection).

The following is a two-page feature about the album and the four bands from the NME for 17th November, 1979. I don’t know whether this was Tuxedomoon’s first UK interview but it says it’s the first interview given by Chrome which gives it some vague contemporary relevance. Helios Creed recently re-formed Chrome, and played a show in London earlier this month. There’s also a new Chrome album, although for me Chrome proper requires Damon Edge, and he died in 1995. (Thanks to Gav for saving the pages!)

* * *

submod5.jpg

submod6.jpg

I LEFT MY ART IN SAN FRANCISCO

Checking out the West Coast’s Avant Garde by Michael Goldberg

ralph.jpgSAN FRANCISCO—The true avant-garde is never accepted, barely tolerated. The public has no use for ideas which challenge society’s preconceptions.

Certainly the outright hatred which was heaped on The New York Dolls and, later, The Ramones and Sex Pistols—all groups who spat on the status quo of their times—attests to the difficulty of pushing a radical concept on the public. And those groups were merely returning to the basic, raw values which great rock and roll has always maintained.

So imagine the difficulty of developing and maintaining a style of music which has little, if any, solid tradition to fall back on. In San Francisco, a city where the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Starship and Steve Miller can sell out the largest of stadiums, an avant-garde underground has been hanging on, etching out the meagrest of niches so that it can continue a dogged pursuit of rock experimentation.

Carrying the torch for “outre” music is San Francisco’s Residents and their parent companies, Ralph Records and the nebulous Cryptic Corporation. For nine long years, the Residents have relentlessly persisted, bowing to no one as they explore a sonic universe of their own devising.

In the wake of The Residents’ relative success—though the group is still practically unknown in their hometown, they have been received by a rather large cult spread out across the U.S. and Europe—other equally unique and esoteric groups have been attracted to San Francisco.

Realising that there is strength in numbers, Ralph Records gathered together three of the most uncompromising bands in San Francisco (and possibly on the West Coast): Chrome (with roots in L.A.), MX-80 Sound (who migrated from Bloomington, Indiana, last year), and Tuxedomoon (whose core members came from Denver, Colorado and Chicago, Illinois), and convinced them to join The Residents (originally from Shreveport, Louisiana) in a joint project. The project is a compilation album, Subterranean Modern (Ralph).

Continue reading “Subterranean Modern: The Residents, Chrome, MX-80 Sound and Tuxedomoon”

Newspaper record covers

paper06.jpg

Gazette Vol. 2 (1961) by Pete Seeger.

More elaborate record sleeve design. Was Pete Seeger the first artist to have a fake newspaper as a cover design? Gazette Vol. 2 is the earliest example I can find. Some of these examples were suggested by this earlier overview. If anyone knows of any omissions then please leave a comment.

Newspaper covers offered understandable attractions to a musician: a vinyl sleeve is almost the same width as a newspaper, and, for the more verbose artist, they give an opportunity to wax satirical at the expense of print media and newspaper readers. Disadvantages would include increased production costs, more design and copywriting, and sleeves that don’t always last very long, especially if actual newsprint is used for the paper. Given the recent resurgence of vinyl I wouldn’t be surprised if we soon see a further examples of this kind of design.

paper05.jpg

The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette (1968) by The 4 Seasons. Design: Desmond Strobel.

The 4 Seasons album is a surprise since it’s not so well-known yet features a very detailed newspaper sleeve. An 8-page insert continues the theme, and even includes a colour comic strip.

paper07.jpg

Volunteers (1969) by Jefferson Airplane. Design: Gut (Allen Turk).

Did Jefferson Airplane copy the 4 Seasons album? Seeing the progression of these designs you have to wonder who was imitating who. The Airplane album also had an insert with more newspaper pages.

paper03.jpg

Thick As A Brick (1972) by Jethro Tull.

Jethro Tull went further than everyone by making their album a 12-page newspaper which wraps around the vinyl. The content of the pages is filled with a satirical jab at concept albums and numerous in-jokes. Even if you don’t like the band’s music very much (I’ve never been keen) you have to admire the amount of work that went into this.

Continue reading “Newspaper record covers”

Weekend links 85

farmanfarmaian.jpg

Group I (Convertible Series, 2010) by Monir Farmanfarmaian.

The four albums recorded by Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis under the name Dome are being reissued by Editions Mego together with Gilbert & Lewis’s Yclept album. I always preferred Gilbert & Lewis in their Dome incarnation (and Colin Newman solo) to the punk and post-punk stylings of their former band, Wire. Dome were (among other things) eccentric, awkward, noisy, hypnotic and experimental. Their recordings seemed to go largely unnoticed in the early 1980s so it’s good to see them being reissued.

A Children’s Treasury of American Cops Brutally Attacking Citizens: “…it takes quite a lot of tax money to keep a bunch of vicious thugs overfed and dressed like junior Darth Vaders with their portable hard-ons, on the off-chance some college kids might one day peacefully sit outside to protest this nation’s revolting descent.”

• “Stevenson, as has been said, was disarmingly candid about the material he borrowed for Treasure Island. One name, however, is missing from the extensive catalogue of self-confessed ‘plagiarisms’.” John Sutherland at the TLS.

• “Messiaen’s advice was revelatory. ‘You have the good fortune of being an architect and having studied special mathematics’, he told Xenakis. ‘Take advantage of these things. Do them in your music.'”

• “They always said punk was an influence. Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, what a load of old shit that was. It’s Thatcherite art care of Saatchi & Saatchi.” And don’t ask Jamie Reid about the Sex Pistols.

Dennis Cooper is interviewed at Lambda Literary. I was surprised last week to find my recent post about William Burroughs’ The Wild Boys linked on a feature about the novel at Cooper’s blog.

Cosmic Geometry: The art of Monir Farmanfarmaian at The Paris Review. Related: Monir Farmanfarmaian at the Haines Gallery, San Francisco.

• Paleolithic phallic art suggests that many early European men scarred, pierced and tattooed their penises.

FACT mix 301 is a selection of dub tracks, dubstep pieces and Middle Eastern songs compiled by Kahn.

Who left a tree, then a coffin in the library?

The Little Journal of Rejections (1896).

Clive finished another painting.

The Great Salt Desert of Iran.

Keep Drawing.

• Troisième (1980) by Colin Newman | And Then… (1980) by Dome | The Red Tent pts I & II (1980) by Dome) | Jasz (1981) by Dome.