Thursday, March 24, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor




An incredible woman died yesterday, and I am missing her already. As a small but very well intended homage I wrote this piece for The Guardian film blog:

"Elizabeth Taylor: the icon's icon: Her tenacity, adventures in immorality and profound talent made Liz Taylor the star other stars wanted to be associated with.

Elizabeth Taylor died on Joan Crawford's birthday: a wholly fitting date. The two leading ladies met on the set of Torch Song in the early 50s, a movie Crawford was filming with Taylor's second husband, Michael Wilding. And they did not hit it off; Crawford could see the future, and it was Taylor. When the younger actor declined to treat Crawford as the movie queen she was, the star branded her "a little bitch" and threatened to teach her some manners. Taylor rebuffed her with typical nonchalance, saying how lucky Wilding was to play a blind man in the movie and therefore be spared the horror of looking at Crawford.

If anything sums up Taylor's personality it's probably this meeting of minds, for it perfectly encapsulates her fierce independence, her rebellious nature, and her complete acceptance of her magnificent good looks. In refusing to kiss Hollywood arse, in throwing caution to the wind and her white-hot sexuality in the face of a public often as aghast as they were thrilled, Taylor bucked and redefined modern movie stardom.

She was a child of the studio system, making her debut at 10 years old in the golden era of Hollywood, but she was by no means ruled by it in the way that a generation of stars who came before her were. She lived through the collapse of the old system of movie-making and came through it as the last bearer of its glory and simultaneously as a gloriously liberated standard-bearer for independence and a newly emerging feminist politic. The first woman to be paid $1m (£618,000) for a movie (Cleopatra, 1963) Taylor was representative of the swinging 60s, of female emancipation, of sexual liberation. Yet at the same time she was the last great movie star, a role that traditionally came with a very different set of values.

While some movie stars (perhaps Garbo or Hayworth) may have rivalled her for glamour and looks, and some for that "don't give a fuck" attitude (Bankhead and Hepburn for starters) no one did it so well and so simultaneously. It was exactly this mixture of glamour and "so what?", this incomparable work ethic combined with her legendary party-girl spirit that made her what she became. Liz Smith, the famed gossip columnist, wrote that what excited people about Taylor was, "her vulgarity and her arrogance [as well as] the money". Taylor was a monarch and a rebel at once, this was her unique streak, she rewrote the rulebook and became an icon to icons.

Most famously perhaps, Taylor's lifelong friend Michael Jackson spent his life changing his own looks in imitation of the Hollywood beauty. He also made her the co-star of his hit 1989 music video Leave Me Alone. The video featured vintage footage of Taylor inside a funfair of tabloid rumours, sending up the insane scrutiny both stars had faced during their careers, and positing her as the avatar of celebrity itself. Likewise, one of the 20th century's key iconographers, Andy Warhol, was an avid Taylor fan, drawing on her persona for one of his most famous silk screens, 1963's Liz, which sold for £11.4m in 2007. Warhol used Taylor just as he used soup cans, as shorthand to re-evaluate popular culture, because she encapsulated it.

Throughout her life, Taylor was the star stars wanted to be associated with. When David Bowie first met her in Beverley Hills, in 1975, he was quick to pose with Taylor for Terry O'Neill in a series of suggestive and deeply charismatic pictures. In doing so Bowie conferred some of Taylor's legendary sex appeal on his own personality, and staked his own claim as a superstar equal to the legend.

Things are no different today, as countless Facebook profile pictures and Twitter tributes prove. Everyone from UK glamour puss Paloma Faith to reality TV star Kim Kardashian is claiming her as an idol of beauty, longevity and strength. Nor is it solely mainstream starlets who pay homage to Taylor today, tributes come from the underground, too (including her first posthumous interview on Max Steele's fagcity blog), from artists who respected her dedication to Aids fundraising and her position as outsider on the inside.

What is truly fascinating about Taylor's persona is that in spite of what seems an endless run of ill health, the image that remains of her is that of a virile, devastating screen siren, not that of the frail, bloated old lady unable to walk she has been for the last two decades. The true strength of her iconic image is exemplified by the fact that even the wheelchair-bound reality of her situation could not undermine it. Attending hospital in sunglasses and diamonds, she remained to the last a glamorous symbol of selfhood, a woman who didn't care for convention, who played it as it came and accepted the consequences. Her tenacity, her adventures in immorality, and her profound talent made Elizabeth Taylor the icon other icons mimic, the test they must pass, the bar they must raise if they are to be acknowledged in the same breath as those who were truly great."

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Joan Crawford at the airport, 1968



I MEAN COME ON! I spend a lot of time in airports and I am never as glamorous as Joan though I strive everyday, I really do. Isn't she just the best? Accompanied by random children, drunk as a skunk in a great big pink hat, gawped at by bubble gum chewing teens and photographed by proto-paparazzi. FULL JOAN. It's her birthday on Wednesday, and may God rest her soul.

Friday, March 18, 2011

House of DJB

There's a nice little bit on this blog today about Alexander with the fantastic pul-quote "reminiscent of pop music's greats, Regina Spektor, Lady Gaga and Pete Burns." I quite like that actually.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Interview

Here's a hit interview I did for So So Gay

Alexander by Cezary Zacharew

For the past few years the musical press has been gurgling about ‘the return of women in pop music,’ heralding the rise of the likes of Florence, Marina and Jessie J as though it’s been one big feminist takeover from a male-dominated music industry. But if you think about it, that’s a load of balderdash. While it’s fantastic that the leading figures in British popular music at the moment are mostly women, there wasn’t exactly a male popstar monopoly to break.

Despite the efforts of Patrick Wolf, Frankmusik and (maybe) Mika, there hasn’t been a really preeminent male solo artist since Robbie Williams and before him, arguably, Morrissey. This is because mainstream society still doesn’t know how to market heart-on-sleeve male sexuality. That’s not even considering anything other than heterosexuality: the fact is record executives find it far easier to package an attractive woman singing about love than a bloke. It’s about time for some style and sex under a male persona. Enter performance artist La John Joseph under his new moniker, Alexander. Promising ‘part Morrissey, part Giorgio Moroder, melodramatic and wry lyrics sung baritone over a late-Seventies disco soundscape’ it sounded like just the kick up the backside that male-fronted music needs today. We decided to give him a ring and find out more.

SSG: What are you up to right now?

La John Joseph: I’m busy in in central London, shooting a deck of Tarot cards for a friend. I’ve been dressed up as all kinds of creatures, my favourite is probably Caesar as he’s the most serious out of all of them.

Do you believe in Tarot?

I believe in everything! If you believe in something, it makes it real.

Tell me about your childhood

I never wanted to be a performer as a child - I wanted to be a priest. Until I left Liverpool aged 16 I seriously considered it. But soon I was dating a guy and moved…a tale of ‘hitch a ride on someone else’s credit card’ if you will.

So were you encouraged to be creative from a young age?

We were definitely encouraged in our reading, there were always lots of stories of dragon princes and ice queens – and Catholicism. My personal favourites were reading Greek tragedy and Shakespeare, and there was pretty much no television. It was all about the lyrical .

What kind of performer would you describe yourself as?

Laurie Anderson says that the best kind of performance can be anything, and to me the definition of performance is a genre that allows you to do anything so long as you contexualise it – and that’s what I’ve done. Until now, with my music project, Alexander, I’d wanted to make music but never played music. I was always fascinated by pop personas rather than movies when I was growing up. I first started performing when I moved to London around the same time as being signed to a modelling agency. I hated modelling so much, it made me feel like a piece of furniture, not a person. I like to be a human being, not a mannequin! Performance casting, on the other hand, gave me kicks.

Gender identity features strongly in your work – what do you have to say that is unique as a performer around this subject matter?

My stance on it is deconstructionism. I don’t think anyone comes into this world as a man or a woman. It’s a fabricated notion about whether you should or shouldn’t wear a dress. You’re not born a man or a woman, you’re made a man or a woman. True performance can show just how much of an experience gender is and if you can construct it, you can deconstruct it. On the new EP (Dandylioness) I feel more like a drag king! I’m wearing suits and ties which feels lot easier than performing in dresses, where you feel like you’re exposing yourself. There’s something more sponanteous, as you’re not worrying about your clothing slipping off or possibly being unflattering. It feels sexy in a different way. When I did more female roles or personas I felt like a demanding Joan Crawford diva, now I feel a bit more sleazy. It’s good.

What music by other people do you enjoy listening to?

I like a bit of old Bowie, Roxy Music and Dusty Springfield. I also enjoy listening to soul music, glam rock and some techno. And of course Morrissey! In terms of newer material I like Paloma Faith, as we’re from the same background, and a fantastic band called Rambunctious.

In what direction can you see the arts evolving?

At the moment it’s definitely going to be about surviving the cuts, which are absolutely ridiculous. I was at the State of the Arts Conference the other day and one of the things I learned was that for every one pound invested, six pounds are returned from our arts. It’s catastrophic and idiotic: arts have been around for as long as humanity has. On the other hand, when times get hard people get more creative. In a time of economic instability, when people are pushed to the limit, it can be more innovative. Look at the Lower East Side of New York in the Seventies and Eighties

Asides from being a performer, what other jobs have you done?

I’ve had many jobs, but never a bad one. Aside from modelling, I was a stripper for a bit. I’ve been mostly lucky. My main job since I was 16 has just been doing what I’ve wanted to do. I’ve been pressed for time and money but I’ve always made the work I wanted to do a priority. If a job doesn’t inspire me I’m happy to starve instead. I’m a bit of a stubborn and determined person!

Which city or venue have you found the best to perform in?

That’s a tough one! At the moment I’m really enjoying Berlin. It’s such a classy city, and although the Germans aren’t known for being great dancers they’ve got minimal techno, which is great as I’m making a dance record. New York also has the most over-the-top people in the world. They’re permanantly over-emotive, which is better than performing to a dead room - something I find soul destroying. But it’s never like that in New York: everyone wants to be entertained. Alexander has been nearly around for 2 years but I’ve been dipping in and out of other projects. But now we’ve mixed the tracks and come up with a feasible live show and done bookings at festivals since September.

With Alexander it’s been entirely different to anything else I’ve done before. Less ‘dictatorial’ than previous projects as it’s an ensemble effort. It started when I met one of the collaborators, Malcolm, in New York who said, ‘Let’s make a disco record.’ So I gave him some lyrics and he programmed it. I then met a friend of a friend in Berlin who was a dancer who got involved. And then I met a friend who was a painter who became involved in our make up. Someone else became a backing singer. It all just came together organically. Everyone fulfils their role and we’re all very invested in it. What’s great is, for every show we do we get to do another. I really enjoy singing baritone as a sort of Morrissey and Georgio Moroder combination.

Who do you like and dislike in mainstream popular culture today?

I don’t pay much attention to contemporary culture. I was in Berlin for a while so tabloid culture was lost on me there. I’m definitely a fan of actresses like Fiona Shaw and Tilda Swinton. I met Tilda at a party held by AnOther Magazine and it was like meeting the Archangel Gabriel. Who else do I like? Vivienne Westwood…Julianne Moore. Basically glamorous redheaded ladies! And my nieces. They range from one to five years old and give me style advice whenever I need it.

What achievements are you most proud of?

I’m proud of still being in one piece. Nobody’s shot me yet! I’ve had so many hair-raising moments. I’m proud to be both still alive and not in jail. I would like to be free to have the time and resources to fulfil myself with the projects I want to do in 10 years. I’d also like Alexander to still be going in 10 years – it’s the archetype of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Posh English boy morose and Edwardian with a touch of melodramatic celebritiy. Being an archetype is something I’d always tried to avoid. I never felt like a quintessential Brit but now I’ve decided that if you can’t beat them, join them.

What upcoming projects do you have planned?

Most importantly I’m concentrating on Alexander. The EP is currently streaming and will be for sale in the spring. It’ll first be available at shows and further bookings. I’m talking to several labels at the moment, but I don’t want to get screwed over by some leviathan. A friend of mine just signed a deal, it was a lousy deal but she signed it anyway. I would like to avoid that. It’s been good to see The Irrepressibles, a 10-piece baroque pop orchestra, do well for themselves on their own terms, so I’d like to be similar to them as all their hard work has paid off. I did the same course as Paloma Faith at Central Saint Martins and look where she is now.

As always, I’m collaborating with other people on their projects. I would like to write a full libretto and I’m talking to a friend about that, hoping it comes to pass. There’s something marvellous about overcoming reality shows. I’m interested in opera as a bombastic genre. Nobody has used it to capture the spirit of the time since Benjamin Britten and there’s definitely a vacuum in the art form. Maybe that’s because over here it’s just for the rich. Over in Germany opera is so much more affordable, which we should definitely adopt.

For more information and to stream the Alexander EP, Dandylioness, visit www.thisisalexander.com Alexander performs at Eastern Bloc in London on March 17.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Review 2

From Cliff Joannou at QX

"LONG BEFORE THE arrival of chav couture and the rise of council chic, La JohnJoseph was unwittingly piecing together his latest theatrical offering through the every day life stories of his family and friends. Once upon a time the ‘council house community’ was flippantly sidelined by the snooty middle and upper classes of England as
the embarrassing underbelly of our Great Nation, deemed as having little or no contribution to UK culture (thank you Mrs Thatcher). Today we are well aware that some of the most influential cultural movements, from fashion to music, have all come out of what would once have been dismissively tagged as the ‘working classes’.

Step up La JohnJoseph, Liverpool's own council house hero with a pink tinge! Possessing masterful use of language and through subtle invocations in his voice and movements, JohnJoseph welcomes us into his early life. One of eight children, with a
mother who married five times, his childhood was expectantly fraught with unsuitable role models, a sexually invasive step father, and a search to find identity in a home life that was neither stable nor at first supportive of a young, effeminate gay man.

It’s through this social environment that La JohnJoseph dissects the most extraordinary
moments of his youth into a curious spotlight on family, friendship and how some of the most seemingly unsuitable scenarios can carry the most poignancy. His acute imitations are the strength of the performance here, from his first experiences
of the Liverpool gay scene and the local drag queen that imparted sage advice on a young JohnJoseph, to the moment he stumbles back home in the early
hours to find his mother sitting on the front door step, locked out of her own home.
The humour here is not always explosively hilarious with every punch line, instead JohnJoseph executes a subtle and sincere observation of the beautiful and bizarre nature of everyday life.

A true star in ascendance, La JohnJoseph has a stratospheric future ahead of him."

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Review

Here's a hit review of last week's show by Martin Perry at Out There.

"In the middle of a small dark theatre space, lit by a single spotlight knelt the androgynous figure of La JohnJoseph, dressed in an electric blue shellsuit, head bowed, hands clutched as if in prayer. The wall in front of him was decorated with reflective shards of mirrored paper resembling a large arched stained glass window, or perhaps the head of a huge penis or is a bishops hat? Shiny silhouettes of rats rush up towards its centre.


Over the next hour we are taken on a journey, beginning with the Pope's first visit to UK in 1982, an event that also marked the date of our Underclass Hero's birth into a life of poverty in a Liverpool housing estate. Punctuated by iconic indie torch songs the formative years of La JohnJoseph are recounted, often surprising, sometimes funny but always poignant and unshrinkingly candid.


La JohnJoseph's studied delivery of his own exacting prose transported the audience into a vivid world of childhood turmoil, multiple house moves, an unending stream of 'stepfathers', of child abuse, a wayward mother, Catholisism and uplifting adolescent sexual explorations in the most ungodly of locations.


La JohnJoseph's haunting singing voice accompanied by violin and harmonium was the perfect tool to convey the mixture of melancholy and pathos. The makeshift screens, hung either side of the stage faintly reflected scenes form Thatcher's Britain subtly adding historical context to La JohnJoseph's monologue. By his own admission part Noel Coward, part Joan Crawford, part Penny Arcade, part Quentin Crisp La JohnJoseph owns the stage and brings vivid light and shade and not a little charm to what must clearly be a painful, yet cathartic story to tell. A story which on paper could sound depressing, but the overall effect of the show created the complete opposite effect. It was both life-affirming and heart-warming and I urge anyone with an interest in contemporary queer performance to seek out the next (as yet unannounced) performance from this most talented of orators.


Underclass Hero is the third of a trilogy of monologues, and I was left wishing I'd seen the other two. I'll certainly be first in the queue as and when La JohnJoseph's next sermon is delivered.


Underclass Hero was written and preformed by La JohnJoseph and directed by Jeffery Gordon, set design was by Stevie Hanley and musical accompaniment by Jordon Hunt on the Violin and Jack Tame on the harmonium."

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Friday

And so we reach closing night, sold out again, and with a very intensely reflective audience. Not so uproarious as Thursday night but listening carefully all the same. For me it was a long slog of a show, but the audience didn't seem to feel that, the feed back has been amazing, the people I've met after the shows or who have emailed me in the last few days have had really wonderful and heartfelt things to say. I'm glad it touched so many people as it has, and I'm glad that we had the tenacity to keep going with the production when it seemed entirely overwhelming.

I am extremely grateful to Jack, Jordan, Stevie and Jeffrey for all of their work on the show, it really has been a group effort and they all went above and beyond the call of duty. Thanks to the Oval House for having us and to everyone who wrote about the show and who came to see it. No shout outs however to slacker hipster drama queens who hassle you for free tickets and then don't show up...thank goodness for box office returns, eh?

Hit set designer Stevie Hanley with his mosaic stain glass rat disco window arch

Hit director Jeffrey Gordon Baker sets the props

Friday, March 4, 2011

Friday

Tonight we changed the last third of the show around, switching scenes and giving it a more definite ending. Of course I tripped over the scenery at the climax, but such is life. The house was totally full again tonight, the audience responded quite differently as is their want, and I felt really quite calm. I'm not drinking before shows anymore which is not full Joan I know, but seems to be working for me. I could even say I enjoyed performing the show, which I never imagined I would since it's so laboriously gruesome. I'm glad I kept the section about Catholic relief workers, as Stevie suggested, because it really does lift the show and forms a nice counterpoint to a lot of the bleaker material. Stevie also took this hit picture of the musicians and I - aren't I lucky to work with such handsome men? Not to mention their talents! Neither of them have any, so let's not.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Thursday


Tonight was opening night and we were pretty much full, a lot of familiar faces abounded and a lot of journos too. Performance wise we were pretty on the money, though poor old Jack had to leave twice to throw up! You can keep your jokes about my rendition of Playboy Mommy being enough to make anyone puke to yourself thanks very much. We had a brief Q&A after the show in which a few interesting points were raised, mainly about my tracksuit. So yes, off to a great start. FULL JOAN.

Stevie Hanley's beautiful set in all of its glory

Jack, Jordan and hit director Jeffrey Gordon Baker sharing a moment.

Exclusive backstage picture

Hit dressing room

Wednesday


Wednesday is ruled by Mercury, my key planet. The show finally felt like it was coming together, and not a moment too soon, we even ran it in entirety. It is now lit, the set is more or less finished, the tech is set and things have calmed down on an interpersonal level between the team. However the script has to be edited again and things are still falling from the ceiling so we aren't finished with preparations quite yet.


Jack and Jordan lend a hand in the making of the mosaic, as Stevie looks on from various vantage points.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Tuesday

There always comes a point in the process when you feel that the wheels have fallen off and that you are headed most definitely into a brick wall. And there is no choice really but to keep going, having faith in the talents of the people you are working with. Today was that day, tomorrow I believe, will be the day in which it all turns around and all of our hard work comes together. Yes, indeed.

Hit musicians Jordan Hunt and Jack Tame


Hit set designer Stevie Hanley

Beginnings of the hit mosaic stained glass archway to parallele universe

The theatre


We're blogging the construction, rehearsal and performance of "Underclass Hero" as it goes up in London this week. I'll post a picture each day, as it all comes together. Watch this space.