Thursday, January 29, 2009

GUY PEELAERT: Rock Dreams & The Big Room

GP rock dreams385 The Belgian artist Guy Peelaert died in 17th November last year and it has taken The Guardian until today to run his obituary, which carries a quote from an interview I did with him in 1986.

Without doubt Guy's masterwork 'Rock Dreams' will be the work he is best remembered by and with good reason. The iconic images he created seemed to reach psychological depths and capture some strange voodoo truths about the extraordinary musicians he depicted. His hypersurrealistic collage style, combining paint and photography, stimulated the imagination. No wonder he attracted great writers to his work. Nik Cohn wrote the caption text and Michael Herr the Introduction. The latter described as an icon painter which hit it on the button. The book is a unique and will stand for all time.

He told me: 'For me the right picture is when you have the technique and the idea. In between is where my happiness is.'

I asked him where he got the idea for Rock Dreams: 'I worked before in theatre and movies and tv and I thought I could do small frames  - in that time they didn't call them clips - for movies and tv, as short stories about the singers. But I couldn't do exactly what I wanted so with Nik I made a book about it.'

I well remember going to the exhibition of the paintings which was held when the book first came out in 1974, on the top floor of Biba's department store in Kensington High Street in London, remember being awestruck by the images and then turning the corner and there was David Bowie, who was likewise inspired enough to subsequently commission Guy to produce the cover for his album 'Diamond Dogs.'

GP big room386 Herr went on to collaborate with Guy on his next epic work 'The Big Room' - portraits of the key figures that came to Las Vegas and created the tawdry fabulosity in their own image. It was the place where the gangsters and the stars, the politicians and the sports icons assembled, gambled and gambolled. The figures are largely seen alone, caught in moments that seem to speak of their isolation. Michael Herr's text is much more extensive than before and adds depth and dimension to the images.

When this second book was published I interviewed both Michael Herr (in person) and Guy (on the phone) for a piece in The Guardian (October 22nd 1986) which is reproduced below. Later that year, I met Guy and Herr together at a party at Sonny Mehta's house.


The Writer

BORN and brought up in Syracuse, Michael Herr went to Vietnam for Esquire magazine in 1967 to write a book about the war. Ten years later Dis­patches was published to widespread acclaim. It led him to write the narration for Apocalypse Now and, more recently, to collabo­rate on the script of Stan­ley Kubrick's forthcoming Vietnam film, Full Metal Jacket. He has been work­ing on a book about rock and roll and on a script based on the life of Walter Winchell.

John May: You start the book by quoting from the great showman P. T. Barnum. He seems to be an important character in your view.

Michael Herr: Barnum's memoirs is one of the great American books. It should really be taught on any course of American history. It's up there with the Feder­alist Papers and the autobiography of Henry Adams. It's a major testament to a very powerful force in Ameri­can life which is all about distraction, entertainment, diversion, image. The whole 20th century way of doing things is foreshadowed in Barnum's memoirs.

You say that Las Vegas is now in decline and this idea seems linked to the decline of the American empire.

It's certainly the decline of the American empire as we've always known it It's also the death of image and celebrity and showbusiness as we've known it.

How many of the people in the book have you met?

I was in a helicopter with Bob Hope on one of his Christmas tours of Vietnam in late 1967 with Raquel Welch. I once spent a little time with Sammy Davis Jr. when I was a kid of 17 or 18.1 met him in a television studio in Los Angeles where he had come to do a guest appear­ance on a celebrity chat show run by a cousin of mine, who'd got him his first recording contract

Have you ever been to Las Vegas?

I've been to Vegas once in my life for a 36-hour period when I was 18 years old. That's a long time ago. I remember this one guy that had been at the tables for something like 72 hours straight who was just main­taining enough margin to keep playing. Looked like some kind of advanced mas­turbation, like he'd been jerking off 50 times, so hag­gard, weakened and enfee­bled. He made a great impression on me.

The Big Room is the place where the big stars play?

Yeah. A lot of those figures in the book certainly have some horrible traits and characteristics but it takes courage discipline, will and even talent to make the Big Room. You have to be someone inspired.

Say what you want about Richard Nixon or Jimmy Hoffa or Bugsy Siegel but they certainly were inspired. Meyer Lansky was really inspired. I mean he was like a visionary and he saw it with such clarity and cleanliness. He happened to be a criminal but he was no ordinary criminal. He was sort of Napoleonic, some kind of genius. Evil genius maybe, But certainly a genius. You've got to take your hat off to him.

All these people had nothing to do with the Sixties but with an era before that. Were they people you'd grown up with?

They're people who I feel like I've always known. Many of them were the entertainers of my parents' generation. The sixties were a reaction against that old stale showbiz crapola.

So what does this book mean to you — a reconciliation?

I never thought of it like that but I do feel a lot of love for the pageant, the players. I feel a lot of love for all that action.

Are there people of similar stature in the current scene?

I'm sure there probable are but we will never quite feel that way about them again because we know too much. We do love them. Maybe we love them as much but there's a different space between us now. It's not very glamorous.

Mind you, there are a lot of people in the book who are not glamorous. It's like the old music hall thing when, with one hand, the guy's motioning for the audience to stop applauding and, with the other, he's motioning to increase the applause. I do that in the book. I try to run a scalpel through the glamour and then try to bring it back again just because that's how I feel about them.

I feel sorry for anybody who buys The Big Room for reasons of nostalgia because I think that both Guy's paintings and my text are implacably anti-nostalgic. Nostalgia's one of the great wastes of time.


GUY PEELLAERT was drawing comics in the Six­ties in his native Belgium when he was invited to Paris to work on a film for two months. He is still there. Best known for his book. Rock Dreams, first published in 1974, he has worked in many media. The Big Room, which has taken him 11 years to com­plete, is illustrated in pas­tels and acrylic.

John May: How did the Big Room begin?

Guy Peellaert: When Rock Dreams went very well the publisher asked me what I wanted to do and I said I wanted to spend a few months in the States to do something about Vegas. So I worked there with a profes­sional newspaperman to learn the city but later I threw everything away. Started to read more about the inside story rather than just the outside story, about the people.

Who was the first character?

I think it was Bugsy Siegel, not because he was a mobster but, as you have seen maybe about the book, it's mainly about people who are dying for their dreams or some­thing. That guy, he didn't interest me as a mobster or whatever, blood and hood­lums and things, but he interested me because he was one of those poor kids who sud­denly has a dream about happiness and the dream is not true.

Did he lead on to the other characters, because they're all connected?

That was a happy surprise. Because in Vegas I made a list of about 300 people who made a city and finally there's no miracle because it's like a big hotel lounge where everybody comes in, out, with their luggage. their problems, their dreams. They all went there and so they are somehow tied to each other.

What does the Big Room mean to you?

That's a brilliant title Michael found because it was mainly about people with their problems or hidden problems. It's a double mean­ing. Trying to play in the Big Room in Vegas but the Big Room is also an empty room.

Do you do much research for the paintings?

Oh yes. I wanted to do a kind of false portrait with two or three levels. One portrait is like a parody of the classic portrait but there are many little secrets in every painting. My influence was to know very well the lives of every­body and the dream of every­body and then not to be too vulgar when you know some­thing, trying to hide it but there's always something left of it.

Can you let me in on one of the secrets?

Di Maggio. I remember I read a sentence from a sport newspaperman when he left the New York Giants. He wanted to go back to San Francisco; that's why he had the little portrait in the hotel room of the Bridge and it can be taken as three different moments. The sentence of the journa­list was: "It's a long time from Fisherman's Wharf to New York City" and so it's the moment he quit baseball playing.

He was rich enough now to buy the house of his father in San Francisco so, because he's Italian, he decided to marry. I'm rich enough now, I'm not gonna take a dark-haired Italian girl. I'm gonna take a blonde one. I can afford that. Unfortunately, she didn't want to cook spaghetti. That's maybe a dream he has look­ing through the window. And it can also be taken as, the second time he left New York, when he couldn't stand to have his wife showing her panties in a movie. So there's always a trick.

How long did each picture take?

Sometimes it goes in two weeks, sometimes in two months. It's very strange because the last one went very quick and the first also.

Who gave you the most trouble?

Liberace maybe. It's very hard for me because a lot of people inside the book were not precisely my cup of tea and that's maybe why it was not so good at the beginning because when you want to be too clever or maybe naughty it's always bad. So it took me a long time to approach them like human beings and to try and find something human in their behaviour, something touching. A lot of people inside that book were not sympathetic.

The paintings are reminiscent of Edward Hopper.

Of course, because I take lots of bits and pieces from people I like. Also because you have the three approaches of solitude, empty places and colours in that time. Hopper helps me to get into that kind of solitude. 'm using the material to get more inside the person. I hope to help people get quicker in the mood.

Eleven years is an awfully long time to work on one project

If I do two more (like this) I'm going to be dead.

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