She’s got everything she needs, she’s an artist…

By 1968, we are commonly told, the Summer of Love had ended. The Beatles responded with the fractured, insular and troubled ‘white album’, the Rolling Stones issued sneering, provocative anthems, Street Fighting Man and Sympathy for the Devil, Dylan had almost disappeared completely save for 1967’s sparse, biblical John Wesley Harding and rock groups in general were beginning to favour the dark, the heavy, and flirting with ever-more extreme (and schlocky) satanic and otherwise unsettling imagery.

The approved narrative, of course, brings things to a head in 1969, with Altamont and the Manson killings, the end of the 60s etc. What I’m interested in is the way that the emergence of explicit darkness into popular music seems to correspond with the significant influence of several powerful women artists on their more famous male partners during that time. Arguably, the exploration of dark, chthonic sounds, themes and textures by many leading artists of the time seems to correspond with their relationships with several significant, cultured, powerful and self-determined women for whom the rock spotlight either held no place or no interest.

There were few women in rock in the late 60s, at least no successful or self-determined lead artists fully able to exploit the growing opportunities for musicians to present themselves, however erroneously, as mystics, revolutionaries, even magicians. Most female artists had to settle for being producer-controlled solo acts and vehicles for the work of other songwriters. So the feminine influence on the subterranean turn taken by music at this time had to be indirect, filtered and thus rarely acknowledged or recognised. The liberation of the mid-60s, in which musicians seized more control of their art and direction than ever before, were still focussed almost entirely on the liberation and elevation of the male artist, around whom adoring wives and groupies alike were expected to worship and attend, servicing the young gods as muses, courtesans and housewives.

One such was Marianne Faithfull. A successful singer in her own right, Faithfull had been pursued by Mick Jagger and, upon beginning their relationship, was surprised to discover herself at home on Cheyne Walk much of the time, where Jagger – ever a product of the conservative suburbs – assumed she would cook, clean and maintain the household. But it was through the literate and semi-aristocratic Faithfull that Jagger became exposed to theatre, good wine and Mikahil Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, the source material for arguably his most accomplished lyric, Sympathy for the Devil. But there was more to the song: a huge part of its newness (at least to the Stones and their audience) was the driving, polyrhythmic funk and the chant of ‘woo-woo’ almost mocking Jagger’s supposedly civilised Lucifer like a primate army at his back. The chant was vamped in the studio by Anita Pallenberg, swinging her arms in the background. She was partner to Keith Richards, for whom she had left Brian Jones in 1967. Like Faithfull, whose mother was of the Sacher-Masoch family, Pallenberg came from a continental background that must have seemed romantic and bohemian to the still-suburban Stones (although they never would have let this enchantment show). She left the violent Jones for Richards; it has been suggested that Jones never recovered from losing her – he would, up until his death, find girlfriends who resembled her – and it has been noted that her allegedly unsimuated sex scenes with Jagger for Performance contributed to Richards’ crippling heroin addiction; almost, then, a case of killing two Stones with one bird. The Stones, ever a lads’ gang, wouldn’t flirt with the occult, the untamable unconscious, for long. Faithfull co-wrote Sister Morphine, perhaps the Stones’ most honest portrayal of powerlessness. It would be 1994, following a lawsuit, before Faithfull received a songwriting credit.

Also an artist in her own right, although not in rock, Yoko Ono transformed John Lennon and therefore the Beatles. Through Ono’s encouragement towards experimentation and self-examination, Lennon was able to bring both a new savagery and child-like vulnerability into his music. The radical Revolution 9 was recorded with Ono, Lennon screaming as if in childbirth; and, as Ian Macdonald notes, the overheard voices and drifting snatches of music and dissonance more resemble the hypnogogic memories of childhood that the piece’s professed subject, revolution. The journey into a new, dreamlike world culminates in the near-weightless Julia, wherein Lennon calls to his dead mother, naming her ‘ocean child’ (Yoko, in Japanese). Lennon entered the pre-natal realm offered by Ono – the ‘mother superior’ of Happiness is a Warm Gun – more completely and gratefully than any contemporary. For him, this pre-natal realm was neither devouring or nightmarish but a blissful, if psychologically spurious, return to infancy – itself one logical destination for the ideals of Flower Power.

One-time pimp and inveterate beater of women, Miles Davis’s idea of giving something back was putting his women on the covers of his albums. So how was it that his younger wife, Betty Mabry, was able to turn him onto the new, vital black sounds coming out of America’s inner cities, thereby transforming jazz and the artistic trajectory of a genius? Davis’s mid-60s albums are brilliant but remote, cerebral, and the politically-sensitive Davis sensed he was losing his black audience. Mabry, herself a musician, encouraged him to explore the driving funk of James Brown, Sly Stone’s multi-racial celebrations and the molten explorations of Jimi Hendrix. The result, soon enough, was Bitches Brew ( a telling, begruding title if ever there was one), one of the most radical career overhauls in history and, as Julian Cope might say, a righteous howl from deep within the womb of the great mother. Davis would push this sound harder and harder for the next five years until retiring from music, depressed, toxic and having alienated most of his audience in pursuit of a source that only Lester Bangs and Cope ever seemed interested guessing at. Betty and Miles were married for one year. Betty went on to record some profoundly funky music.

Someone did manage to express this descent into the murky unconscious during the late 60s as an artist on her own terms, in her own words and with her own music. Nico had released one album of covers, Chelsea Girl, and though her appearances on the Velvet Underground’s debut LP, straddled the mainstream and the underground. She had modelled and acted, appearing in La Dolce Vita. Like Pallenberg and Faithfull, Nico’s European roots contrasted the USA-facing pop-culture grounding of most rock artists of the time (VU’s John Cale being a notable exception). But nothing can really explain The Marble Index, Nico’s first album of original songs, written and performed on harmonium with arrangements by Cale – the male artist for once taking the supporting role to the female. Released almost unnoticed in 1968 it is unique, disturbing, unfathomable, an authentic glimpse into the primordial abyss. Individuality is erased by snow and time, Nico’s lyrics are opiated and nightmarish but never fearful. Her delivery has extraordinary clarity. It is the most authentic recorded example of the atavistic derangement, the angling in the lake of darkness that erupted in popular music at this time. Nico doesn’t just angle from the shore, of course, she dives in and keeps swimming downwards.

I’m not sure what I mean to say by all of this, expect that I feel it worthy of note that so many cultured and creatively potent women gained influence – however obliquely – over some of the most alpha-male lords of the day and that, almost without exception, this brief integration between male and female, old Europe and USA, avant garde and poptastic, pushed the music of the late 60s somewhere dark and strange, where the more usual rock preoccupations of casual sex, callow posturing and generalised idealism were swamped by something familiar to pop’s ancient forbears, literature and visual art: Chaos and Old Night.

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10 responses to “She’s got everything she needs, she’s an artist…

  1. Am still convinced that the Beatles ruined Yoko Ono and not the other way round.

    Initially I posted this comment up as a blog one-liner but when I see Yoko’s stuff with Fluxus and compare it to the hippy-dippy all you need is love drivel that her latest exhibitions espouse then I can’t help wondering.

    Perhaps the seeds of that soft idealism were always there and it took a less experimental environment like the Beatles to bring it to the fore. But her all-white chess set where you have to negotiate the rules with your partner seems a far tougher concept than the last exhibition I saw in Liverpool which asked you to write a positive message on a post-it and stick it on a wall. I wrote ” remember to turn the electricity off when you leave the building”. That’s what post-its are for innit?

    Having just written that perhaps neither Fluxus and post-Fluxus idea is much cop.

    But the Beatles were a bad influence.

    Definitely.

  2. mishari

    There is, I think, a perfectly legitimate case to made that women have been in charge all along. From Astarte to Venus to Mary to Bessie Smith, from Coco Chanel to Cher, from St. Teresa of Avila to St. Margaret of Grantham, from Stone Age Venus to Venus In Furs…it never ends. boys: they’ve got us by the balls, literally and figuratively. All art is a response to death and the matriarchy….maybe.

    BTW, XB, I’m sending along the long-promised Texas Blues CDs and Season 1 of Boardwalk Empire, which I think you’ll like. I did.

  3. mishari

    Great post, by the way…

  4. Julian Cope (not that he’s the fount of wisdom, far from it) says much the same about Ono. She certainly had a distinguished career long before meeting Lennon and – as an artist – he certainly gained more from the association than she, albeit briefly. In the long term, Ono’s conceptual conceit that all art should come from personal experience and emotional expression simply legitimised – in Lennon’s mind at least – his suspicion that whatever he thought or felt in every given moment was of supreme artistic significance.

    There’s a sequence in the ‘Bed-in’ film showing the Lennons sparring with an outraged, old-school American interviewer. He challenges Lennon on the line from Ballad of John and Yoko ‘they’re going to cucify me’. We’re meant to laugh at the baffled old prude and marvel and Lennon’s utopianism – but watching him try and twist a lyric where he compares his troubles at UK passport control to the sufferings of Jesus into ‘they’re going to cucify you, me, all of us man…’ makes one side with the clear-headed, if reactionary interviewer.

    Can’t say I get much from Fluxus, I’m afraid. I think there’s a Fluxus room in one of the Berlin museums. I generally leave baffled and feeling like a fogey. Isn’t it the forbear of much modern British art, where the concept – usually a pun, visual or otherwise – once written down, need hardly be turned into an object at all. IMHO etc.

  5. @mishari

    It depends how one defines ‘in charge’ doesn’t it? I think you’re correct in that the archetype of the feminine is the most powerful we have to contend with for men and women(emcompassing as it does birth, death, fertility, compassion etc). I would argue, however, that historically the effect of this generalised power has been a reaction of fear against women (who are people after all, not archetypes)- resulting in a systematic social repression so consistent and ingrained that it’s very hard to see, let alone talk about. From female circumcision to systematic killing of girl babies, the corporate glass ceiling or my highly intelligent and talented grandmother’s entire adult life spent attending to a domineering infant-husband. Feminism is still a dirty word and one which many women refuse to use for fear of appearing un-feminine. I think it’s a shame.

    Looking forward to the music et al, thanks as ever!

  6. Fluxus is just an entertaining detour in recent art. It’s quite funny in a deliberate way which a lot of that stuff isn’t.

    I’m not sure what art is any more so I try and keep an open mind but a lot is crap. I remember seeing the British Art Show in the mid 90’s which had a lot of those conceptual artists and was quite taken with the immediacy of a lot of it. Yes they were one-off gags most of the time or subsequently became the sort of images you see in ads but compared to the really dry conceptualism of the 70’s generation they seemed much more open towards whoever was looking at them. The weakness was they generally didn’t develop on from there and became the province of rich collectors.

  7. Well, I’m all for entertaining detours.

    A lot of contemporary work I love, although I usually forget the names. There’s usually, however, an element of the grotesque and a nod to the past, I must admit. Bill Viola, Tobias Schalken, Ron Mueck, several painters in the Saatchi gallery, even Hirst’s perfectly-titled shark. Just not the works that present one clever-clever idea then roll over dead.

  8. tbh I prefer cartoon art both filmed and drawn. Your Norstein who I keep banging on about ( Cap’n Ned is a fan too ) is well worth a look “tale of Tales” and the still to be finished “The Overcoat”. Plenty of clips on YouTube and really worth looking at. Some of the greatest art ever made IMHO etc. etc.

    Bill Viola is a bit too po-faced for me but I did like his earlier work where he’s not trying to recreate the compositions of Uccello. There is a great recent one where a huge flood of water sweeps the furniture out of a house but I prefer ones like the yucca tree in a desert filmed at night. Very mysterious..

  9. I’ve not seen the yucca tree one. I’ll check out Norstein.

  10. Yuri Norstein NOT Your Norstein ( went a bit Alf Garnett there )

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