Thursday, 4 January 2018

The In Crowd

I was reading a review of a new translation of Federico García Lorca, and was struck, not for the first time, by the way household names in the arts seem to cluster together. Not only had Lorca known Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel at university in Madrid – what are the chances of that? – but his first performance of Poema del cante jondo in Granada was accompanied by none other than Andrés Segovia, destined to become the most famous exponent of the guitar in the days before it became the instrument of choice of every wannabe musician. Wherever you look, it seems, premier league artists and writers are hanging out exclusively together, bedding each other, falling out with each other, and boosting or putting down their famous friends and enemies. I recently saw the big Jasper Johns exhibition at the RA, and – quite apart from his intimate relationship with Robert Rauschenberg – it seems he couldn't turn a corner in New York without bumping into some other Famous Dude coming the other way, hoping to borrow a tube of Afghan Black.

We tend to mock films and TV programmes where the entire cast is made up of notables, of whose identity or significance the audience may nonetheless be uncertain, and who therefore must be given constant little nudges, along the lines of, "I say, Virginia Woolf! Stop writing that famous novel for a minute! Have you met Mr. Maynard Keynes, the economist? We were introduced by Vita Sackville-West, your best friend the poet and celebrity gardener, at Mr. Lytton Strachey's house party last week... I honestly can't remember what Lytton is going to be famous for, but it's bound to be something splendid!" But, in fact, I suspect this is an accurate reflection of celebrity reality – let's call it CR – an alternative universe where everybody is famous, talented, notorious, or about to be discovered. The only other people in the room are civilian nobodies: servants and hangers-on, candidates for nothing more than diary-keeping duties, designated-driver status and a little light sexual harassment.

Tina Brown's recently-published diaries have rightly been much mocked for this CR name-dropping tendency. As it happens, I did once find myself at a party hosted (I think) by Tina Brown. I have no reliable memories of it, or of how, or why I was there, other than that I had briefly attained some notoriety as the artist behind some mildly scandalous student magazine covers and a couple of theatre posters. I imagine I had probably been bigged-up by the same friends who got me the poster commissions, with the result that, for about ten minutes in 1973, I was pre-famous, which is what gets you temporarily turbocharged into CR orbit. At which point you have to decide: do I really want to trade sharp elbows with all the Tinas, Virginias, and Federicos competing for attention, and risk being reduced to celebrity space-debris, or would I rather fall back to earth and resume normal [in]visibility? A normal person will always choose normality, of course, and that's what I did – despite never having being entirely normal – and immediately became transparent again in CR, like some trick of the light.

One of the worst things that ever happened to pop and rock was when it went meta in the 1970s, and it seemed that every other song was about how hard it is to deal with fame and the trappings of success, and how sweet it was when you were still just a nobody strumming a guitar. I think we were supposed to admire singer-songwriters for their acuity and honesty in blaming us for what we had done to them by buying their records, and inflating their self-esteem to unmanageably messianic proportions. Self-pitying references to crucifixion became alarmingly common. John Lennon's "The Ballad of John and Yoko" is just one obvious example.

It's what finally killed off my teen loyalty to Jethro Tull; in the end, Ian Anderson just couldn't get over himself and – if you really listened to his lyrics – despised his fans, his fellow musicians, the industry that had made him a fortune, and pretty much everything else. It's one thing to attack the Church of England, but Chrysalis Records? Steady on now, man...  Joni Mitchell herself went into a fairly terminal sulk over "industry issues", although it had always been a bit of theme, from "Real Good for Free" on Ladies of the Canyon to "Free Man in Paris" on Court and Spark. I think it's why I can never understand why people love that latter album so much – what do you care about CR parties where everybody wears "passport smiles"? How much of your perception has been distorted by living inside the entertainment industry bubble? It simply didn't read across into my life back then, even as a metaphor, and still doesn't. It seems the sanity of many celebrated individuals may have been permanently disrupted by the push-pull of a contradictory craving for maximum recognition and for maximum privacy from its consequences. The exclusivity of CR may perhaps best be seen as a defensive, virtual asylum for the fame-impaired.

It must be bizarre, though, living inside this gated CR world where everyone else is also a character in the soap opera of Fame, although it probably seems the most natural thing in the world to its inmates. It must also be very inconvenient. For you, there's no popping down to the takeaway for a biriani late at night when your face is never off TV and your best friends are a Booker Prize-winning novelist, and an actor instantly recognisable at 100 yards. The audience is not quite so agreeably invisible when you're off-stage, either, I'd guess, especially when it demands, "Oi, aren't you that bloke off the telly?" But, at the same time, it must gratify every craving of your needy, greedy soul, like a puff of crack, to have the world perpetually tugging at your sleeve, or to look around a room and think, "Yep, I'm in with the In Crowd..."
Fame, fame, fame, fame, fame, fame, fame, fame, fame, fame, fame, fame, fame, fame, fame, fame, fame, fame, fame, fame, fame, fame, fame
What's your name?

David Bowie, Fame
I wear what the In Crowd wears...


amolitor said...

It has become clear to me in the last few years that the history of Art is as much a history of who knew whom, and who was sleeping with whom, as it is anything else.

Good Art is common as dirt, just being Good isn't anything like enough. So fame and fortune tends to follow social lines. Not only do artists tend to hang around with artists, but they give one another legs up.

I keep an eye on a handful of bit players. In this age of social media, you can actually watch them alternately sucking up and grumbling, desperately trying for that right mix of amiability and cool to get accepted into the big leagues. It's not clear that they KNOW they're doing it, but it's crystal clear that they ARE doing it.

Mike C. said...

All true. Of course, it was all so much easier when anyone who wanted to be someone was already friends with or related to someone who was already somebody... The pool of talent was small, private, and closed on Wednesdays.

Even so, it has always seemed peculiar to me that, for example, Joni Mitchell should have had relationships with Leonard Cohen, James Taylor, Graham Nash, David Crosby, and goodness knows who else. I expect the same pattern repeats in many fields (except probably chess). It's the "Alma Mahler" syndrome...


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure even Chess is exempt:

Mike C. said...


Wow... I stand corrected. And they call the 70s the Decade That Style Forgot!


Paul Mc Cann said...

Hmmm. Forgetting for a moment the "Alma Mahler" (groan) I'm amused to see two of the most erudite photo bloggers are cross posting . Your own little in crowd ?

Who knows, in years to come they might inscribe Amolitor's tomb stone " He consorted with Idiotic Hat "

I always liked the comment about one of the pop stars, that he was a legend in his own mind.

Mike C. said...


Well, if two's an in-crowd, then guilty as charged, though I emphatically deny that I have ever had relations with that Molitor bloke. I prefer to think of this as synchronicity...