Strange fascination


Another single sleeve (and missing the “?” in the title). Released 22nd June, 1973.

Music reinforces memory, and an enduring memory is of discussing the lyrics to Life On Mars? with a friend in the blissful summer of 1973, when the song was in the charts after being released to capitalise on Bowie’s success with his Ziggy Stardust persona. “Blissful” here isn’t rose-tinted nostalgia, that summer gave us two months of heat and sunshine, something British summers don’t always manage; you can see the evidence in the sunlit evening shots of DA Pennebaker’s film of the final Ziggy Stardust concert, and in the field scenes in Penda’s Fen which was being filmed at the time for broadcast the following year. (And while we’re forging links, Penda director Alan Clarke later directed Bowie in the TV production of Bertolt Brecht’s Baal.)

Weather aside, the summer of 1973 was particularly enjoyable for being the one that separated my last year at junior school (which I enjoyed) with my first year at secondary school (which I loathed); in that respect it was the last perfect summer of childhood after which my home and school life went down in flames. I spent most of July and August with friends: climbing trees, playing on bits of waste ground, and going on long bike rides. I don’t remember much about the bike excursions apart from the one I made with Martin C to Skippool Creek, a tributary of the River Wyre outside Blackpool where old boats are moored. This was the occasion of the Life On Mars? discussion, and it was the discussion that lodges the event so persistently in the memory, an unresolved puzzling over the strangest lyrics we’d ever heard. I mark this moment as the first time I began to regard music as a vehicle for a quality of strangeness that I’ve been pursuing ever since. And I still think of that afternoon when we went to look at the boats every time I hear the song.

Some links:
50 David Bowie moments
Some thoughts by Momus
The Magic and Mystery of David Bowie by Peter Bebergal

Weekend links 93


One of a series of tremendous designs by Malika Favre for a new Penguin edition of the Kama Sutra.

• New interviews: “…Americans — mired in individualism — prefer to think in terms of identity than in terms of roles and masks. An American would never have called a novel Confessions of a Mask.” Nicholas Currie, better known via his Momus mask. | “The horror in music comes from the silence,” says John Carpenter. | “It’s dangerous to be an artist. That’s what we talk about in Naked Lunch — and it’s dangerous on many different levels. Politically it can be dangerous, but psychologically it can be quite dangerous too. You make yourself very vulnerable. You put yourself out there and of course you open yourself up to criticism and attack.” David Cronenberg at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

• New books: Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes, a Joycean memoir by Mary M Talbot and Bryan Talbot. | A stack of new works from Strange Attractor including a collection of Savage Pencil‘s Trip or Squeek comic strips. | Robert Irwin’s Visions of the Jinn: Illustrators of the Arabian Nights. A shame about the high price on the latter but I’m sure it looks wonderful.

• The Blu-ray release of Wings (1927), William A. Wellman’s silent drama about air aces during the First World War, has prompted renewed attention for the passionate relationship between its two male leads, especially this deathbed scene which is tagged as the first same-sex kiss in cinema. That’s arguable, of course, but it’s certainly a touching moment.

• From 2009: Searching the Library of Babel, a list of all the stories in all 33 volumes of The Library of Babel, a 1979 Spanish language anthology of fantastic literature edited by Jorge Luis Borges.

• Lots of newpaper attention in the past week for the not-so-fresh news that magic mushrooms could help fight depression. Nature went into the detail of the latest studies.

French group Air have written the score for a rare colour print of Le voyage dans la lune (1902) by Georges Méliès. Air’s YouTube channel has extracts.

• From 1989: The Merchant of Shadows by Angela Carter.

Will Hunt on the Ghost River of Manhattan.

Selected Letters of William S. Burroughs

Sexy Boy (1998) by Air | Surfing On A Rocket (2003) by Air | Mer Du Japon (2007) by Air.

Wroblewski covers Burroughs


Picador, 1982.

Being an occasional cover designer I naturally have a more than passing interest in how the books of favourite writers are packaged. I’ve mentioned a couple of times how much I liked the covers that Thomi Wroblewski produced in the 1980s for UK editions published by Picador and John Calder. Wroblewski is a designer who also creates his own artwork using a variety of media, with some form of collage being a common technique. Burroughs has had a number of decent designs over the years but Wroblewski is one of the few people loosed on his books who seemed to fully appreciate the tenor of the writing, and was able to convey something essential without ever being too abstract or too illustrative. I’d have been happy to see him design a complete range of the titles.


Picador, 1982.

Most of the covers here have been swiped from the excellent Burroughs page at Beat Book Covers where you can judge Wroblewski’s work against other editions. An exception below is the art for an unknown edition of The Wild Boys, a picture described as being from 1988 so it may have been on a Picador cover I’ve never seen. The only cover at Beat Book Covers using that art is a later Russian edition. If anyone can say when and where Wroblewski’s picture was first used, please leave a comment.


Calder, 1984.

Also below is an album cover from Wroblewski’s parallel career as a music designer. Minutes was an audio magazine released in 1987 on the LTM label, and is included here since two of the tracks were Burroughs readings. The album has never been reissued but a copy from the vinyl can be downloaded here. Worthwhile mainly for WSB and Winston Tong of Tuxedomoon.

For more about the elusive Thomi Wroblewski, Momus wrote something about him a couple of years ago. There’ll be more about The Wild Boys, and Winston Tong, tomorrow.

Continue reading “Wroblewski covers Burroughs”

Renaissance Man


Ask anyone for a definition of this term and most people would immediately mention Leonardo Da Vinci (can his reputation survive Dan Brown?) or Michelangelo, the two most highly-regarded geniuses of the Italian Renaissance. While Leonardo’s numerous achievments are well-documented, Michelangelo’s work as a painter and sculptor tends to overshadow his other talents as an architect (most notably for the dome of St. Peter’s basilica in Rome) and writer of over three hundred homoerotic sonnets and madrigals dedicated to Tommaso dei Cavalieri.

A lesser known figure of the period who perhaps exemplifies the full range of the polymathic Renaissance ideal is Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472). In an era over-stuffed with geniuses, Alberti tends to be overlooked but his achievements in a variety of fields still seem staggering today.

One of Alberti’s earliest works was Philodoxeus (‘Lover of Glory’, 1424), written when he was 20, a Latin comedy that was convincing enough as a parody of Classical style to pass for an original work of the Roman era. Other works followed, among them De commodis litterarum atque incommodis (‘On the Advantages and Disadvantages of Literary Studies’, 1429), Intercoenales (‘Table Talk’, ca. 1429), Della famiglia (‘On the Family’, begun 1432), Vita S. Potiti (‘Life of St. Potitus’, 1433), De iure (‘On Law’, 1437), Theogenius (‘The Origin of the Gods’, ca. 1440), Profugorium ab aerumna (‘Refuge from Mental Anguish’, 1442-43), Momus (another Classical comedy, 1450) and De Iciarchia (‘On the Prince’, 1468). More significant than all of these was Della Pittura from 1436, the first ever study of perspective construction. Alberti’s friend Filippo Brunelleschi had earlier devised his own system of perspective but Alberti was the first to set the principles in book form for other artists.


Brunelleschi was an architect and Alberti also produced his own architectural designs, including the Rucellai Palace in Florence, the first Renaissance building using a system of Classical pilasters, and the facade of the Santa Maria Novella church. His monumental study De re aedificatoria (‘On the Art of Building’) was begun in 1450 and occupied him for the rest of his life, a ten-volume work and the first of its kind to address modern architecture based on Classical principles. This was also the first work of architecture to be printed in 1485 and remained an essential working text up to the 18th century. The book’s recommendations for fortification and siege defence were in use for hundreds of years.

Alberti’s restless talents also encompassed music (he was an accomplished organist), map-making and cryptography. The polyalphabetic cypher he created in 1467 was the first significant cypher of its kind since Julius Caesar’s and has since earned him the title “Father of Western Cryptography.” Alberti has also been proposed as the author of the enigmatic Hypnerotomachia Poliphili of 1499. The jury is still out on this but this is a book whose creation would certainly require someone of Alberti’s breadth of knowledge.

The Renaissance ideal rather fell out of favour in the 20th century, even though there were more than enough polymaths to go around (Harry Smith comes to mind). No one in Quattrocento Italy would accuse any of the great men of the period of being a “jack of all trades, master of none”, the familiar dismissal of a culture that makes a virtue of aiming low. Artists today have to compete in an art market saturated with mediocre work which means they need to find a single gimmick that distinguishes them from the crowd then plug it for all it’s worth. As Robert Hughes memorably says in The Shock of the New, “More artists came out of American art schools in a single year in the 1980s than there were people living in Florence during the Renaissance.” Artists like Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp and Tom Phillips let their curiosity and creativity carry them forward, producing work that ranges over a variety of styles and media. Phillips is a good example of the contemporary Renaissance man, a painter, sculptor, writer, composer and creator of the extraordinary artwork/experimental novel A Humument. The fact that most people are unfamiliar with his name says more about our world than it does about the value of Phillips’ work. Robert Heinlein isn’t a writer I usually have much time for but he had the perfect riposte to this situation, and to the philistine assertion of “jack of all trades, master of none”. “Specialisation,” Heinlein said, “is for insects.”

The Drift by Scott Walker


Coming to cast a giant shadow across your fuzzy warbles on the May 8th. The progression that runs from Scott 4 to Nite Flights to Climate of Hunter to Tilt is here continued in a quite extraordinary manner, leaving Scott looking down on the rest of the music world from very rarefied heights indeed. Impossible to describe although Momus does his best here. Think of Coil jamming with Penderecki or something. The cover art is very apt, this is a journey across a rusted landscape into darkness.