Monday, 31 August 2015

Magic Mirror: Soundgarden's Photofantasm

I've read a lot of books about music in my time, and I've got the groaning bookshelves to prove it. The worst of them are cold-hearted exercises in corporate PR, or pirated knock-offs thrown together to make a quick buck from fans with little regard for quality or originality.

Then there are the best of them: the labours of love written by people whose love for the music in question goes way beyond profit or logic.  Those who believe in it not simply as a product, but as art. Whatever the format, you can tell one of these creations a mile off.  Merri Cyr's glorious photographic love letter to Jeff Buckley, A Wished For Song, is one.   The vivid orange, 320 page "catalogue" which accompanied the V&A's 'David Bowie Is' retrospective is another. 

Photofantasm deserves to be classed with these.

Jaye & Mike English's massive photobook (I weighed it - just shy of 7lb) is special not only because of its quality, but because of its provenance.  No professional writers or official photographers have been hired here to record Soundgarden's comeback for posterity. There are no interviews with the band, no posed studio shots, no corporate branding.  If Soundgarden ever decide to publish a book about their long career, that point is still some way off in the future.  Instead, Photofantasm draws on the most powerful and positive resource any band can have - its fanbase.  This book is by them, and for them. A magic mirror held up to the band by those who love it, reflecting and projecting. In many ways, it's simply a reply.

Ruairdhri with his copy
And what a reply the fans have put together.  Every show on Soundgarden's world tour since they made their reappearance in 2010 has its own section, bursting with reminiscence in words and images.  People tell their stories about the shows; the often epic travels as they follow the tour across continents, the sacrifices made (one fan sold his entire Soundgarden record collection to afford travel and tickets), the precious autographs and glimpses of the band backstage, the cameraderie of the queue for a place on the rail.

Every setlist is included, every local tour poster has been reproduced in full-page colour.  Fans with creative talent of their own - notably artist Photocoyote, American fan Jeff Becker and young Scottish fan Ruairdhri - have created new, specially commissioned original artwork which appears in the book for the first time.

 Even when a few of Soundgarden's fellow travellers have been coaxed into contributing, they do so as fans of the band rather than industry professionals. Everyone from System of a Down's Serj Tankian and Korn's Jonathan Davis to Chris Cornell's own brother Peter is quoted about what the band has meant to them in the development of their own artistry, and there are some engaging behind-the-scenes anecdotes scattered through the text. Journalist Mark Yarm has written a foreword. A few pro photographers have contributed their own shots, although it's testament to the talent of the fans - most notably Jaye and Mike English themselves - that so many concert shots snatched from the crowd compare so well with work done from the photo pit.

But for all the fantastic photos this book contains (take a quick peek here), my favourite visual is actually verbal, from English fan and musician James Morgan, on 2012's open air show in Milan.   What can I say; I'm a writer.

Noting the full moon that had been providing a fitting backdrop for the concert so far, Chris Cornell looked to the sky, pointed, and addressed the crowd: "Look at the moon.  It understands everything about you. It's still trying to figure me out, but it's got you covered."

Vintage Chris. Do I have any criticisms? Well, yes. I wish every one of the 592 pages was clearly numbered, because I wanted to note down all my favourite bits and find them again quickly. But that's nitpicking. And there are worse ways of spending time than flicking idly through pages like these. 

The limited edition book (1000 copies) is beautifully produced in hardback, printed on high quality photo paper in full colour with a sturdy sewn binding.  Basically, it's an heirloom - a beautiful collector's item that's come straight from the grass-roots and has no absolutely no profit motive. Yes, it's been made by amateurs.  But the word 'amateur' means "one who loves" - and only people with a profound love and understanding of their subject could even begin to make a book like this.

Last word: Photofantasm ends with a valediction and a memorial to Tiffany Patterson-Gross - a long-time fan who became Soundgarden's VIP guest at 2013's Seattle show shortly before she lost her battle with cancer. Proceeds from sale of the book go to help cancer charities in her honour. 

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

On The Edge: Alexander McQueen's Savage Beauty

The lenticular image of the face and skull of Alexander McQueen which now hangs on my living room wall is impossible to adequately reproduce on the internet.  Perhaps that's the point; endlessly morphing according to your viewpoint, catching the light, playing with the borderlines between life and death, one thing and another.

That's the feeling I was left with after visiting the V&A's recent exhibition of his work, Savage Beauty.  Unusually, I read every single word of the weighty £25 catalogue I came home with; lingered over every image, savoured every impression of the many contributors who shared their insights into his visionary collections.

McQueen was much more than a fashion designer.  To describe him that way is almost an insult to an artist whose work touched on elements of sculpture, performance, installation and theatre. Like the shifting skull, he moved between meditating on aspects of death and decay and vivid celebration of life; always on the borderlines, playing with the edges of viewpoint and consciousness, showing us how one thing can be two things, how a moment can morph and mutate into another. 

Savage Beauty showed us women becoming birds; clothed in feathers like the swan princesses of ballet, yet unenslaved, beyond good and evil. Women becoming reptiles or horned goddesses; women becoming aliens.  It showed me a world of pure imagination, of self-actualisation where a face might be masked, but a thought could become visually and vividly real.

Although McQueen was criticised by the myopic who found his extremes misogynistic, the models who worked with him felt liberated and empowered by his visions and the personae they explored through wearing them.  As Erin O'Connor recalls, "He deconstructed the idea of what a woman should look like...the roles that I played, whether they  were dark, or mysterious, or triumphant - they were always empowered...and he was the enabler. I think he had a real love of women in that sense."  In his eyes even martyred figures like Joan of Arc became victors, writhing in ecstatic transformation inside a ring of fire, wearing a crimson beaded dress which flowed like blood.

The pleasant-feather gown from 'The Widows of Culloden' collection breathed subversion; a shimmering genius loci which belied the image of the Highlands as an elaborate game reserve for the wealthy. It is eternal, unsubmissive, a goddess gowned in the substance of flight, crowned with a [literally] winged victory headdress. Although less controversial than his earlier 'Highland Rape' collection, which expressed a visceral disgust at the atrocities of the Clearances, there was still an underlying anger - a sense of continuing resistance to what colonial Scotland had become, "marketed the world over as haggis and bagpipes", as McQueen said.

The sense of a talismanic power beneath the surface, of change waiting to happen, was central to his work. Antlers might sprout from a bride's head, tearing the antique lace of her virginal veil. Human hair was sewn inside the linings of his earliest collections. Worms were pressed like flowers inside a transparent bodice, prefiguring death and decay to come.

In one memorable moment during the disturbing and surreal 'Voss' show, model Erin O'Connor ripped at her gown of razor clam shells, bloodying her hands as she destroyed a dress which had been itself inspired by the transience of landscape.  The models' bandaged heads suggested surgery - to "change the way you are, as McQueen hinted.

Fascinated by water and the sea, for his final collection 'Plato's Atlantis' McQueen  dreamed up hybrid beings made of scales and fins, as though humans were evolving to adapt to a post-apocalyptic waterworld of the imagination.  Far from hobbling his models, the infamous "Armadillo" boots with their massive heels and platforms elongated their legs and made them into towering but graceful alien forms, crowned with intricately braided or lobed hairstyles.

For me, the garments the models wore in this final creation were almost overshadowed by the overarching dream of  transfiguration; a brave new world that had such people in it.

In a society where "extremist" has become a bad word, Savage Beauty showed a whole world of extremes; of edges and borderlines dreamed by a man who was always pulling away from the here and now. On the wall in the exhibitions's final room were McQueen's own resonant words:

'There is no way back for me. I'm going to take you on journeys you've never dreamed were possible.'