West-side story: Fleetwood Mac
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Excess all areas: the pageantry and farce of the Fleetwood Mac story

If you ever thought the laid-back vocals of “Dreams” sounded as if they had been recorded by a naked woman lying between satin sheets, then it’s entirely possible you were right.

Play On: Now, Then and Fleetwood Mac 
Mick Fleetwood and Anthony Bozza
Hodder & Stoughton, 352pp, £20

There’s a moment that perfectly captures the soft-centred and supine mid-1970s that Fleetwood Mac came to epitomise – more than the “love pentagon” of their ­affairs, more than their gossamer stage garb or exotic parties or therapists. It’s the time they roll up at a studio in Sausalito, California, to assemble the all-conquering Rumours.

The idea is that the five members should live together communally in the way the original line-up did seven years earlier and they choose the Record Plant because it has a house attached, overlooking San Francisco Bay. This comes with two limousines and a speedboat. There is also a conference room with a waterbed and tanks of nitrous oxide for those requiring a mood change. The
entire place – walls, ceilings, floors and stairs – is coated with a maroon shagpile carpet. There is even a loft, accessible through a pair of giant red lips, where another capacious bed is available, with audio jacks in its headboard: if you ever thought the laid-back vocals of “Dreams” sounded as if they had been recorded by a naked woman lying between satin sheets, then it’s entirely possible you were right.

The group’s first crack at communal living in the late 1960s had held a mirror to the era in much the same way: the members of what was then a blues band at the peak of their success (“Albatross”, “Black Magic Woman”) had moved into a 20-room mansion with a tennis court in seven acres of forest, a sumptuous Victorian pile they had bought for £23,000 in 1969. Rest and recreation in those days centred around getting “gassed” on booze and smoking hash in the billiard room. In the 1970s, the template is much the same, only times have changed.

And here lies the core fascination of this long-awaited and colourful book. Fleetwood Mac managed something that only the Rolling Stones have also achieved: they produced two distinct types of music that caught the essence of two very different decades, while supplying a living soap opera as an illustration of both. Sometimes there is a rich pageantry about the story, a poise and dignity, but mostly the whole thing feels like a farce: a collection of highly driven eccentrics pursuing their musical vision with a barrelling, single-minded dedication who leave a string of casualties in their wake, the author and his old friend John McVie being the only real constants in the narrative (the enduring “Fleetwood” and “Mac” rhythm section that gave the band its name).

Fleetwood paints himself as the ship’s captain, steering the tattered barque through the tempests of the music business and the band’s supposedly creative but slightly poisonous internal relations, as if constantly assuring himself that he’s the figurehead and not just the rarely composing drummer. And, for the most part, he is attractively self-aware. “Look at me,” he hoots as he reclines in yet another presidential hotel suite. “I’ve got all this money because I can hit things with two bits of wood!”

Entertaining though it all is, some baffled and responsible part of you wonders why the band seemed to learn precisely nothing from the traumas of their early years when a large slice of their woes were amplified by drugs. The lead guitarist and godhead ­Peter Green takes a ton of acid, starts wearing robes and a huge wooden crucifix and has a breakdown and complete personality change, from which he has never fully recovered. He threatens to shoot his manager for sending him royalty cheques. The band’s second guitarist, Jeremy Spencer, flips out and joins a cult called the Children of God, among whom he will “only answer to the name Jonathan”. Its third guitarist, Danny Kirwan, falls for the bottle and ends up “living in a shelter, scratching himself”.

When the reborn, US-based version of the band takes off in 1975 – with Mick, John and his wife, Christine McVie, forming a two-nation alliance with the Americans Stevie Nicks and her boyfriend, Lindsey Buckingham – they run into what Fleetwood calls “a tsunami of white powder”, the quintet embarking on trysts so tangled that you get a headache just thinking about them. Buckingham and Nicks split up, Nicks having a love affair with Fleetwood (whose wife, Jenny Boyd, bunks up with the new guitarist Bob Weston, whom Mick immediately sacks); the McVies split up, Christine going off with the lighting engineer. By the end of the book, Fleetwood and Boyd have married and divorced twice, the long-suffering Boyd’s patience once so sorely tried that she threw several “ramekins of chocolate mousse” at him, making a terrible mess of his Porsche.

Fleetwood’s eye for this level of detail is what sustains the whole enterprise, not least when he attends a fairly typical west coast party to find his ex-wife’s sister, Pattie Boyd, “dressed as Minnie Mouse” and Eric Clapton “in one of Pattie’s see-through dresses with his Y-fronts showing underneath and a sponge on his head”. If this volume occasionally loses focus, it is because the author forgets that he is writing for the people who helped to fund his trajectory and starts publishing a series of apologies – to his three wives for being an arse, to his four daughters for his absence, to luckless band members whose predicaments he might have modified if he hadn’t been so self-absorbed.

At one stage, you feel the book is a love letter to Stevie Nicks, who seems to obsess him in the same way that she has captivated great swaths of the general public. She is like a “living sculpture you couldn’t take your eyes off”, he thinks on meeting her – “otherworldly and in possession of a vibrato as haunting as Edith Piaf filtered through the lens of a cowgirl beatnik poet”. Months later, she is “a seductive songstress in wispy, witchy black dresses”. He affects great embarrassment that their love affair ruffles so many feathers but, boy, does his inner teenager want you to know it happened.

His whole world seems like an endless extension of adolescence: his penchant for pantomime stage wear; his deathless fondness for the early song “Rattlesnake Shake” because it is “an ode to masturbation”; his habit of stopping off at magic shops to buy “fake blood and joke cigars” when band morale is low; his wistful estimation that the cocaine he’s consumed in his lifetime would amount to a single line “seven miles long”. He comes across like some roguish aristocrat capering through a series of stately homes in pursuit of creative new ways to spend his mountain of cash.

So it is fitting that when Fleetwood commissions a 60ft inflatable penguin to float above the band’s stadium shows and it never gets off the ground that it should be his father who takes him aside for some words of wisdom. “Mick,” he says softly, “you do know that penguins don’t fly, don’t you?” 

“Rock Stars Stole My Life!” by Mark Ellen is published by Hodder & Stoughton (£18.99)

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Running out of Time

ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG FOUNDATION, NEW YORK
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"Someone was screwing here": the cryptic art of Robert Rauschenberg

Dense with allusion and synecdoche, Rauschenberg's art work reveals an extraordinary “stream of unconsciousness”.

Before he was established, Robert Rauschenberg had the following jobs. He was a neuropsychiatric technician in the US navy at San Diego. (Unsurprisingly, he preferred the patients when they were insane.) He worked for Ballerina Bathing Suits as a packer and at the Atlas Construction Company in Casablanca, where he conducted inventories of stock for $350 a week. As he made his way in the art world, he was a janitor at the Stable Gallery. He did window displays at Bonwit Teller on Sixth Avenue, as well as Tiffany & Co and Reynolds Metals. (When window-dressing in penurious tandem with Jasper Johns, they used the pseudonym Matson Jones.) Rauschenberg was also stage manager and lighting designer for the Merce Cunningham dance troupe. He was an occasional emergency choreographer (Pelican). You see? Hand-to-mouth, improvised, a “career” made from whatever was ready to hand.

Then, in 1964, he took first prize at the Venice Biennale and arrived. The jobs are, in their way, a perfect emblem of Rauschenberg’s art – unrelated, aleatoric agglomerations of items that happened to stray into the force field of his personality. In Alice Oswald’s long poem Dart, we hear at one point the voice of a stonewaller: “. . . you see I’m a gatherer, an amateur, a scavenger, a comber, my whole style’s a stone wall, just wedging together what happens to be lying about at the time”. This, too, could be Rauschenberg, ransacking the junkyards, with one eye on the gutter, for the found object, the overlooked, the discarded, the down-at-heel detail of daily life. In the Tate catalogue (but not in the exhibition) is a work called Hiccups. One visual burp after another, it consists of separate, one-size, totally heterogeneous items silk-screened and zipped together. Rauschenberg was said by Jasper Johns to have invented more things than anyone except Picasso. A slight exaggeration. Rauschenberg’s central inventive coup was the combine: that notorious stuffed goat with the automobile tyre round its middle will serve as an example.

For the New Yorker critic Calvin Tomkins, this was the legacy of the European surrealists – Breton, Duchamp – who took refuge in America during the Second World War. Rauschenberg’s combines are as arbitrary as the unconscious. His scrolls, his late work The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece, are a kind of stream of unconsciousness, works of instinct and intuition held together by his assumed authority. (He once forgot to make a portrait of the Paris gallery owner Iris Clert, so sent a last-minute telegram: “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so – Robert Rauschenberg.” The French loved it.) The results are a deliberate unconscious chaos, which, like dreams, give off the sensation, but not the substance, of reason.

This important and vibrant show at Tate Modern usefully complicates this accepted narrative – with its implicit emphasis on the artist as magus, performing a kind of magic, of visual hypnosis. To give one example, there is a big billowing work called Glacier (Hoarfrost) (1974). It is an emperor-sized sheet, with solvent transfer of newsprint on satin and chiffon. There is a pillow underneath, more or less invisible, to create the billow. It is a work of straightforward representation, of realism. It is a glacier in which the illegible newsprint serves as shadow, as a great and exact donation of texture. There is an Elizabeth Bishop poem, “Varick Street”, which describes a factory at night: “Pale dirty light,/some captured iceberg/being prevented from melting.” All the grime, all the dereliction and detritus of the glacier is captured in the Rauschenberg.

Leo Steinberg, a shrewd but not uncritical supporter of Rauschenberg, rejected the idea, first mooted by Robert Hughes, that Monogram’s stuffed goat forced through a tyre referred to anal sex. Steinberg preferred to think of the work as “funny”. Indeed, just behind it is a brown tennis ball like a (large) goat dropping. I thought of Alexander Calder’s chariot in his Circus: when Calder started to improvise performances around the work, he would scatter then sweep up droppings behind the horses. Here the tennis ball’s appearance is prompted by the representation of the tennis player Earl Buchholz on the hinged platform supporting the goat: providing an alibi. There is also a rubber shoe heel, which has trodden in something – bright-blue lapis lazuli – another ambiguous allusion to excrement, here transfigured and glorified. Here, too, a man is crossing a gorge on a tightrope (signifying danger), and there is a high-ceilinged room with several pillars (easily read as phallic). “EXTRA HEAVY” is stencilled in one corner, a touch not without ­significance, to nudge us away from frivolity. Goats are a traditional byword for lechery. Two more possible indicators: we have to ask why the tyre isn’t whitewall but painted white on the tread of the tyre, a deviation from the norm. Is it prurient to wonder if this represents sperm? The second touch is a man with his arms akimbo, casting a long shadow – a doubling at once different but identical and therefore perhaps a figure for homosexuality.

We are used to the idea that Rauschenberg was interested in eliminating the artist’s presence and personal touch. At the beginning of this show, we have Automobile Tire Print, the black tyre track on 20 sheets of typing paper that was laid down by John Cage driving his Model A Ford; it is an artwork whose execution is twice removed from Rauschenberg by the driver and his automobile. There are, too, the dirt paintings, as arbitrary as Warhol’s later piss paintings – which produce, in Dirt Painting (for John Cage) (1953), very beautiful, random, blue-grey mould. These are works in which the artist cedes agency to natural process. Nevertheless, it is impossible, I think, to look at the Cage dirt painting and not be forcibly reminded of the marginalised artist and his palette with its attractive, accidental accretions of pigment.

Despite this posture of disavowal, Raus­chenberg’s work isn’t devoid of same-sex iconography. For example, he is drawn, time and again, to Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus and Rubens’s Venus. Both are quoted several times, reproduced in silk-screen. Why? Partly an act of magisterial appropriation and a demonstration of self-confidence. (An act of felony itself stolen from the Picasso who repainted Velázquez’s Las Meninas, part of a sustained campaign of annexing the overbearing classics. No false modesty in Picasso.) Rauschenberg’s Monogram goat is also an attempt to replace Picasso’s signature goat – said by Picasso to be more like a goat than a goat – by a monogram, a sign of ownership, like a pair of monogrammed slippers or shirts.

The other reason for the quotation of Rubens and Velázquez is that both nude women are contemplating and presumably admiring themselves in mirrors, mirrors that in both cases are held up by cupidons. The perfect topos of self-love – and therefore of same-sex eroticism. Originally, the stuffed goat (stuffed!), with its horny horns, was set against a painting called Rhyme (a not insignificant title, suggestive of sameness and difference). Rhyme (1956) has an actual necktie on the left. On the tie are grazing cows and a four-bar corral fence. In the centre of the picture are dense squiggles and squirts of colour – again like an artist’s palette, but which here represent a pallet or bed. Above the bed is a bit of lace and adjacent to the lace a red ball. What we have here is an aubade, dawn through lace curtains, and the tie as an indication of (male, out-of-towner) undress. Of course, nothing is explicit. Yet the self-censorship, the furtive and necessary concealment, is represented – by some kind of structure that has been removed, leaving behind trace elements. And what are they? Angular outlines and screw-holes, a sexual metaphor you can find in Maupassant’s Bel-Ami. Someone was screwing here.

Bed (1955) features the famous stolen (and very beautiful, subtly patterned) quilt. At the point where the sheet turns back and the pillow is on view, both are liberally stained with paint. The paint is both fluids and (deniable) paint – paint as itself and a synecdoche. Leo Steinberg wants to restrict the combine to a self-referential aesthetic statement – the flatbed horizontal as opposed to the vertical hang, which he sees as Rauschenberg’s primary revolutionary innovation. But while Steinberg is right to dismiss ideas of murder and mayhem in Bed, the action painting mimicked here is also surely mimicking action in the sack.

None of this is certain. The illegality of homosexuality in 1955 made explicitness out of the question. But I think it unlikely that something so central to Rauschenberg’s identity – his sexistentialism – should be completely absent from his work. Even aesthetically programmatic work such as the very early 22 The Lily White (1950) has references to homosexuality. It is an off-white painting with outlined sections like a street map, each of them numbered. The numbers are sometimes upside down. Steinberg believes this is a strategy to subvert the accustomed vertical hang, because it is not clear which way up it should go. I think the numbers are upside down because they are inverted, with everything that adjective denotes in the sexual context. And the shapes are revealing, too: it is made up of extended interlocking jigsaw shapes that mirror and fit into each other. The title refers to the lily-white boys of “Green Grow the Rushes-O”.

Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) can be dismissed with Harold Rosenberg’s ­famous quip: “The less there is to see, the more there is to say.” Rauschenberg, the junior artist, persuaded Willem de Kooning to give him a drawing that he would then erase. De Kooning chose a drawing that used oil crayon so that Rauschenberg would have a proper task. It took him a long time. And actually, though no one says this – they are too interested in the sacrilege, in the idea of erasure, in destruction, in the concept – the erasure isn’t complete. It  isn’t the promised blank that you don’t need to see to understand. You have to see it to see the Wunderlay.

What does it mean? Partly, obviously, the picture is Oedipal, an act of aggression against a prior master by a junior. Second, the end product is “poetry”, according to Rauschenberg. You can just make out the ghostly marks so that the surface is like a veronica – or like a romantic fragment. It brings to mind Coleridge’s imitation of fragments of antique poetry, creating an aura of irresolvable suggestiveness. On the surface are extra marks, 12 of them, whose provenance is uncertain, but whose presence is as indisputable as the vague but redolent under-image.

Suggestion is the ground note you take away from this show. In Untitled (1955) there is a sock and a parachute – the combine of paint and actuality, somewhere between painting and sculpture – but also to the left, some crumpled paper, overpainted in white, that reveals an eye, nostrils and a retroussé upper lip with phantom teeth. There is painted cloth, taken from pillow-slips or bedlinen, with a decorative milling effect, which makes this Rauschenberg’s bed scene, a long time before Tracey Emin. Similarly, Short Circuit (1955) incorporates work by Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg’s ex-wife, Susan Weil, hidden behind doors. It is a work all about concealment, reveal and suggestion.

There are many, many beautiful things on show here, exemplary energy, and a few empty failures. Don’t miss Untitled (1958) which hangs, from two tarnished safety pins, a khaki handkerchief, treated and soaked, so that you can make out the pattern in the weave. The humble snot-rag transfigured. Its square is a warp of frail rust, a tuille. Above it is a frame of grey-painted cloth, showing a trouser loop and that milling effect again. It is stunning. And so are his majestic cardboard boxes – Nabisco and Alpo for Dogs – makeshift sculptures that read as solid wood, charismatic brand-name Brancusis.

“Robert Rauschenberg” runs until 2 April 2017. For more details visit: tate.org.uk

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage