Tuesday, December 27, 2016
"So why don't we make a little room in my BMW babe?"
How George Michael can help us survive the Trump-Brexit era.
The ribald gloss of "Too Funky", the disco satirical "Outside", that downbeat melancholy which built to a whirl of saxophonic melodrama, in "Careless Whisper", the pavement poetry of "A Different Corner", the rub of perversion and salvation oozing from "Father Figure." From such a slick, stellar catalogue who could pick George Michael's singular artistic achievement? And let's not forget the duets with Aretha, Whitney, and Mary J. Blige (though please DO let's forget the dire duet with Elton - nobody's perfect).
Yet, I can't help feeling that until his sudden death on Christmas Day, that George Michael had in the popular cultural imagination at least, slipped into Norma Desmond territory. A diva in a mansion watching Wham! videos in the home cinema, fenced in by ever more scurrilous gossip. All those ever circuitous stories of upcoming comebacks, drug problems, sex parties, and legal troubles took him out of the zone of pop artist and put him squarely in the Lohan ruled domain of "hot mess". But to my mind, he hadn't lost his way as much as recognised all too plainly that the "wall-to-wall homophobia" (as he once put it) would forever define and confine his artistic efforts, and so, perhaps brattishly perhaps bravely, he simply refused to play. That is not say he just gave up all hope, as all of the now surfacing stories of his charity work and tremendous acts of generosity express. Rather he switched tactic.
After offering 20 years of escapism to '80s pop pickers and (after his "outing" in 1998) to'90s non-conformists from atop his pop star pedestal, he stepped into a quieter, more direct mode, offering anonymous cash donations to strangers in cafes he overheard spilling worries over overdue loans. He worked in homeless shelters, and secretly donated royalties to AIDS organisations, gave free concerts to NHS nurses, and (I find this one strangely amusing) paid for a woman he saw on the TV show "Deal or No Deal" to have IVF treatment. Can it be said then, that in recognising the limitations of even his own mega-rich, mega-famous persona in the face of a homophobic, sex-phobic, scandal driven, sensation fuelled culture such as ours, his decision to withdraw from the all conquering, top-down Olympics of celebrity culture, and move towards an intimate horizontal economy of small but meaningful acts of kindness, that he presaged the kind of interactions which will be necessary for us to survive the Trump-Brexit era?
The homophobia George Michael endured throughout his career, and which peaked to hysterical highs in 1998 after his arrest for lewd conduct, ultimately destroyed his commercial appeal. He and Rupert Everett are the twin patron saints of 90s fags doomed by sexual frankness, their kneecapped careers functioned for a decade or so, as the heads of traitors on pikes might, to deter any one else from such statements of heterodoxy. Thankfully now we have Frank Oceans and Beth Dittos, illuminating our still magnificently less than perfect landscape, but in the 90s being out as gay meant inescapable marginalisation. (Ironically of course now, in our new internet age of fracture cultures and impossibly niche markets, artists can maintain careers almost entirely outside of the mainstream - but 'twas not so in the 90s when a record label with the budget to buy every billboard and crowbar you onto every play list was essential to stardom). George Michael's legacy is the frankness that carried over into his refusal to complain about his lot in life, to recognise how fortunate he was, and to share that good fortune. He made his point clearly, concisely, but didn't become a martyr to it. As he told Oprah, "I'm not interested in selling records to people who are homophobic". If he wasn't what people wanted, too fucking bad for people. Because he refused to be part of the system of, "sexually unthreatening" gay people "comforting the whole of British society", and kept on smoking, drinking, fucking around, making it clear that his long-term relationships were open, non-monogamous.
Speculation runs wild now, was it suicide, was it heroin, or a heart attack? That's not something I'm interested in digging into. Instead I want to celebrate his unabashed and wickedly subtle exercise of sexuality in his lyrics and iconography. Well, the 2nd half his career at least; the George Michael of Wham! happened mercifully before I had, "entered fully into subjectivity" (to quote an old lover). I know the hits of course, but I still don't enjoy them, much less the look. The blond highlights, stubble, crucifix earrings, mirrored sunglasses, and stone-wash jeans is to my taste so reprehensible, so Mumsy and embarrassing, but come mid-90s "Older" era George and I'm in. That blunt, pristine black cut, the graphic goatee, the boxy Versace suits, the leather pants and the wrap-around shades spoke to me. He seemed so urbane, always surrounded by super models, subtly giving "Fony" records (and on tracks like "Star People", his pop contemporaries) the finger. His approach to sex in his songwriting was neither as graphic as Prince nor as quasi-spiritual as Madonna, but there was something that seemed so disconcertingly dirty about prosaic lines like, "Why don't we make a little room in my BMW babe?" ("Fast Love") or "Well I guess it would be nice, if I could touch your body, I know not everybody has got a body like you," ("Faith"), or even the outré outro, "I'm Dancing on the D-Train" from "Outside".
I wonder then why since his '98 fall from grace, he was never again classified alongside Madonna, Jacko, Prince, and Bowie as the superstar he should've been acknowledged as? Or maybe it's self-evident? Outrageous as the aforementioned four were, they all in some way came back to the fold of conventional morality. Prince, the most unstoppable of perverts became a Jehovah's Witness, Bowie the cross-dressing bisexual married a supermodel and fathered her child, Michael Jackson as eccentric as he was presented as a heterosexual family man, and Madonna (whilst still flashing her ass at sexism as she approaches 60) is not only matriarch to an ever growing brood of babies, but also unequivocally an agent of commerce (the world's true religion). What place then for a pop star who is outed in a traumatic, humiliating tabloid set-up (light years away from Bowie's stage managed "I'm Gay" NME interview) and who refuses to counterpoint the situation with a big gay wedding in Hello! magazine. No children either. Asked about fathering or adoption, he replied, "Can you imagine? No, thank God I didn’t. Can you imagine being George Michael’s son at school?” Instead of even flirting with a populist notion of gay fatherhood, he instead professed his love for smoking 20 joints a day, which kept him, "sane and happy." Worse yet, as early as 2004 he said, "I really don't need the public's money," and offered to make his music available online for free, with the option of a voluntary charitable donation. I suppose it's not hard to see why a man so uncareful with morals and business models alike would be only ever referred to as "Former Wham! singer", in spite of his 100m+ record sales.
Rather than getting all bo-hoo-hoo but it's Christmas about it we should recognise George Michael as an artist whom even from inside the insanity of celebrity, saw the world for what it was and spoke truth to power. An artist who was grateful and generous, an artist gone too soon, but not a victim. Let us remember George Michael, for all the fucks he did not give, for the Prince-esque stance he took against his record label, for the inexplicable friendship with Geri Halliwell, and most of all for songs so insatiable that they brought pleasure to even the horrors of abdominal exercises.
Wednesday, November 16, 2016
Alexander Geist's SPECULATIVE tour is well underway, so I have been spending a lot of time being him, and taking care of him lately. Just because he doesn't exist (or rather exists only in short but exuberant outbursts) that doesn't mean he doesn't have needs. The dry cleaning and ironing alone takes up half my life, but he will have his shirts pressed just so! Then of course there's the jewellery to polish and pack (Alexander only wears silver, while I prefer gold) and all the eyeshadows to organise for each gig (who knew a person could own so many shades of green?) The Balenciaga boots need a pre-show buff, and Alex needs his own preparatory cocktail of espresso, Coke, spirulina and a few muscle relaxants, served in his Garfield mug before he can step out into the spotlight. I'm also responsible for liaising with the venue tech staff, whilst he takes his power nap, and for briefing security, and any journalists as to the correct protocol. All in all it's a fairly challenging role.
My sister (who does objectively exist) was at the show at HOME in Manchester last week. She and I watched a movie and ate a salad in the break between soundcheck and showtime, that agonising ever expanding, ever contacting period of rocketing anxiety, which threatens to go on forever (or at least until you have lost yr mind with nerves) and simultaneously to end violently, before you've even finished your kit-kat. My sister and I gossiped like a pair of grandmothers in the dressing room, amidst the warm up vocal trills and stretches. The 5 minute call never came, instead there came a thunderous knock on the door, and the squawk, "They've started!" My sister ran to her seat and I was escorted to the stage, barely buckling Alexander's boots before hitting my first cue.
Afterwards she asked, "How did you go from that to THAT in 20 seconds?"
"It's easier than you might think," I replied, "I just leave for a while and let him take over. Some people call it acting, but it's not me up there."
"No," she acknowledged, "It's really not."
I'm onstage, but just in a the capacity of supervisor, I'm there to make sure things happen as they should, but I'm not doing it. I suppose that's why he's called Geist isn't it? (Incidentally not a name I chose for him). Somebody compared the process to the way Patti Smith channels whatever she's tuned into when she's onstage, somebody else suggested it might just be high functioning schizophrenia, but to me it's something else.
You know how her co-stars have often described working with Sharon Stone, and how she has to wait until the character had possessed her before filming can begin? Well it's like that, just like that. Sharon screams, "She's here!", and cameras roll. Conjuring Alexander is a lot less laborious, but equally mystical, and he has always been (up to this point) good enough to show up. So maybe then there's a touch of Bambi Lake to the proceedings too. The iconic San Francisco torch singer, forever without a phone, a steady home, or an email address, who would reply to fraught promoters' pleas that she give them SOME way to contact her with, "Just put my name on a poster baby, and I'll be there."
Et voila, look in the mirror and say ALEXANDER GEIST five times, or better yet, put his name on the poster, and he will appear.
(PS This wk he's appearing at Hackney Showroom on Thurs Nov 17 and Tom Thumb in Margate on Fri Nov 18)
Saturday, September 17, 2016
Wednesday, July 6, 2016
Garfield was with us and we got GEIST onstage. What a mountain that was to climb! On Friday I did not believe it could be done but by the time we got to our FIRST dress rehearsal at 6pm on Saturday it was clear we had it in the bag. I'm immensely proud of what we achieved and very, very grateful to everyone who was involved in making it happen and to everyone who came to see the performances. Exhausted doesn't cover how I feel right now, so let me share with you a few production stills and a selection of our press coverage. Until next time lover!
Production stills by Marco.
The Wharf, full interview here
East End Advertiser, full interview here
Loverboy, full interview here.
Sunday, June 26, 2016
This is what the show looks like rn.
Monday! So here we are back at the Bethnal Green Working Men's Club (where loyal readers will remember I spent a lot of time performing "Cover Her Face" a few years ago). The carpet is stickier than ever, but the big tinsel heart has never looked better; that's sort of a metaphor for life.
Tuesday! Act 1 was finally blocked and Act 2 became semi-freddo, the feeling emerged that there's a show in there somewhere. Also of note, a very productive production meeting in which we welcomed our new stage manager, Jo, into the fold, and this artfully decorated chair.
Wednesday! Dear director Robert Chevara, and I hit upon a rhythm to the process, we were even visited by Marie Lloyd in the form of her familiar, this cat. Our system has been to unstitch the text and piece it back together, sewn up with cinematic & operatic references, which remain secretly stitched inside the piece, invisible but felt. A bit like McQueen chalking I AM A C*NT inside the Prince of Wales' jkt.
Thursday! Things got real when we started running in the tech (represented here by the screen and hand of Mickey). We went through both acts and suffered from the humidity (in a terribly Tennesse Williams manner).
Also big shout to this y2k coffee (haven't seen one like this for abt 15yrs). Wouldn't DJ Millennial Latte be a great handle?
Friday! Suffering from the Brexit blues, big time mate. If it weren't for the brilliance of Sobranies I doubt anyone would have finished the day off standing.
On week remains! How will it all pan out? Your guess is as good as mine la. Shows are July 2 & 3 at the Arcola, London.
Saturday, June 18, 2016
How have we come to the mid-point of the rehearsal process so swiftly, simultaneously so depleted and energised? Let's review the evidence.
On Monday we were all still reeling from the killings in Orlando, the day was long and the queer content of the piece seemed to resonate in a different way. The week ahead of us seemed an insurmountable mountain, the summit of which could only be more disturbing still. Trying to find reason in an unreasonable tragedy felt futile, so we worked somewhat numb, almost as a distraction.
Tuesday we broke out a new scene and a new set up, and with it came a sense of possibility, not of forgetting but of forward motion however staggered. We spent a lot of time in discussion around soft furnishings, trying to decide which pillows would most likely be found on the sofa of our central femme fatale Kate Peters. (Pictured are a pair which didn't make the grade - sadly they were just a tad too Costa Coffee but we wish them all the best for a long and fruitful career).
Wednesday called for increased fire power in the form of liquid ginseng - it was just like being back in Hong Kong la!
The real star of the week was Fran Lima however, with whom we spent 3 days filming the central scenes for GEIST.
Thursday was all about sound, mainly unwanted. We have been shooting opposite a building site which has slowed down the process by about 20%, an annoyance we had grown used today. However when the skip rolled in to town the camel that is my mind broke her back. We sat around gossiping until their was a moment of quiet and then hurled ourselves into action stations every time there was an audible lull. Somewhow we made it through 15 pages of dialogue, but just imagine what we could have achieved with budget for a sound studio.
So then came Friday as she does, when we had to reel in the biggie, the face off between Kate and Imogen, Frost .v. Nixon style. Food poisoning visited the cinematography dept. and the upstairs neighbour's washing machine harmonised beautifully with the builder's across the street at semi-regular intervals, but somehow we forged on. If I have made this week sound like nothing but a cheerless chore I apologise. Besides the vomiting, the noise bleed, and the spectre of constant violence, it was actually quite a lot of fun.
This is what my head feels like rn.
If you want to see how that translates onstage then BOOK HERE: http://www.arcolatheatre.com/event/geist/2016-07-03/
Saturday, June 11, 2016
Well now lover, as you it's something of a signature of my practice to blog the rehearsal process, so here we are beginning a whole new journey together.
Monday was the first time the cast came together, always a nerve wracking moment. Onboard are Fran Lima, playing Kate Peters, Helen Sheals as Imogen Hampstead, and Alex Theo as Nick Cumin, all of whom are all 'round good eggs and 100% fair-trade. We had the mixed-blessing of reading the show through a couple of times to get a feel for how it sounds when read aloud. This is the true test of a script, if it can leap from the page to the stage. With a few minor adjustments this one seems to have that ability. True Jedi that I am, I slugged through a light sabre full of green tea during the proceedings. You've gotta get those anti-oxidants lover, if you're going to slay the dark side (i.e. rehearsal fatigue).
Tuesday was the day we realized that Agatha Christie was too much of an influence on the script, quite how she crowbarred her way in there idk, since I was aiming for Raymond Chandler really, but such is life. In order to ramp up the unhinged sex appeal of it all (and give the whodunnit angle a rest) we tried to channel Sharon Stone, the patron saint of stone cold foxes. We set fire to a Chanel 2.55 and in the smoke saw the face of Sharon, who revealed all her secrets to us. What did she whisper? Well, you'll have to come and see the show won't you?
Wednesday was a game of two halves. Firstly we recorded the lovely Helen Sheal's lines, during which she revealed several explosive secrets about her time as Mrs Wigan on Downton Abbey. Faves included the one about a certain unnameable lead actor who CLAIMS to be vegan, but insists on eating cartons and cartons of Dairylea Dunkers in between takes! (This is a lie).
Thursday was sponsored by Nairn's gluten free oatcakes, in co-operation with Garfield the cat. Our director Robert Chevara and I ran through the blocking of the first few acts. For the first time, in the process, I got that wonderful feeling that this show was actually possible.
Friday, that meanest of all beasts, roared as she rose, but she was no match for we fair maidens of the footlights. We spent the whole day filming Alex as Nick, no short order, as the script comprises 36 pages of fragmented single take speeches. Head chucklemeister and set-designer David Curtis-Ring was on hand to dress the stage, and make sure everything looked suitably cinematic. He even brought along a special tea that only successful people are allowed to drink, and gave us all a sip to help us on our way. What a gent! Happy to say we made a severe dent in the pages to be filmed, and after a minor slippage with the vol-au-vents set up a very productive rhythm which will carry us over into next week's adventure.
Who knows what awaits us? More migraines and oatcakes I expect, but really, at this stage it's anyone's game. And if you fancy buying tkts, you can do so here: http://www.arcolatheatre.com/event/geist/2016-07-02/