Glass Skull is Born to Boogie

Part 1. Fascination takes a part of me

I was once in a theatre group called the Glass Skull Theatre Company. There wasn’t a direct link between our performances and the name but I had become captivated by a glass skull in the Museum of Mankind (now subsumed by the British Museum) in London’s Bond Street. It didn’t occur then, but I later realised that my interest in the skull was a reflection of a human fascination that has existed for hundreds of years. Skull imagery is as popular in mass culture today e.g. in the world of fashion as it was when Shakespeare’s Hamlet first hit our screens in 1603.

Back in 1985, the crystal cranium was displayed as a genuine Aztec artefact. Now however, it is thought to be one of several 19th century Middle European drawing room objets d’art designed literally as a nod to the mysteries of ancient times. 

As something carved from quartz, the skull is clearly not a real. However, it possesses a mystique. Unlike bone, the glass allows light to shine through refracting rainbow shards that poke out like frozen fingers. Its natural fissures resemble the zigzag cracks in human skulls whose jagged brown bloodless crannies resemble a Mediterranean stone wall in which dozing adders stir during their dreams of Eden. The eye sockets offer an indeterminate depth suggesting infinity yet the observer knows the physical socket has a definite end to it. You can touch this end (if you poke his eye) but cannot gauge its true dimensions just by looking.

Mortality haunts human life. It swirls around and saturates us. We instinctively know the visual language of the grim reaper’s skeletal frame in that dark hooded cape and Jolly Roger’s grinning pirate flag telling onlookers; ‘this is what we’ll do with you’. Our gut tells us to what the skull equates and it’s not eternal happiness. 

Yet not all skulls have the same effect. Those of animals trigger thoughts of ‘oh, well that’s the circle of life in action’ others become a hunter’s trophy pinned upright and ugly on musty walls. They hover expressionless because they are mere bare bone. Photographer Annie Liebowitz has made a skilful attempt to turn an item of scientific data gathering into art and this piece is challenging and interesting even if it’s not a delight to behold.

A pigeon studied by Charles Darwin, photographed at Downe House, Darwin’s former home in Kent (2010) CREDIT: © Annie Leibovitz. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth and hopefully, The Daily Telegraph.

The human skull however, activates a very different reaction that is both visceral and sick making. These skulls too have been used as trophies and the bile in the throat taste they leave runs in a direct flick of disgust towards the human heart.

Whether they are shrunken heads of native southern Americans or murdered victims in mass graves, their empty sockets stare at and judge us with the salient reminder: fui quod es, eris quod sum (I once was what you are, you will be what I am).

Matera Italy

Part 2. The Ever Circling Skeletal Family

On 16th September 1977, Marc Bolan died. I’ve written about him before and how his music and image had a big effect on me. His untimely death, which coincided with me going into Higher Education, marked the end of summer and a descent into autumn in more ways than one.

Every September I read media reports of a new Bolan/T.Rex revival but somehow in this oddly twisted year of 2020, it feels like it could actually be true. Here’s evidence.

I was attracted to Marc because his obscure lyrics somehow made sense to me. I felt ‘clever’ because I could get into his words and poetry that others wouldn’t grasp. His references to writers like Baudelaire and Kahlil Gibran opened up new channels of poetry and I was hypnotised by his ability to juxtapose imagery. In this example he creates something of beauty by adding bling to the Skelton’s head:

Spun in lore from Dagamoor ~ The skull of jade was pearl inlaid ~ The silks, skin spun, repelled the Sun ~ A tusk of boar with dwarfish awe ~ Sobs on the door where stood before (from Cat black the wizard’s hat).

I have been researching the rituals and beliefs of ancient Central America including Dia De Muertos (day of the dead) and how it celebrates, rather than mourns, the lives of the deceased. The human skull is the central image. Yet and like Marc’s lyrics above, the skulls are not deathly dry bones but brightly decorated masks and models all designed to tell death that we humans are not scared but ready to embrace life post life.

One of Marc’s most touching early songs is Frowning Atahuallpa (My Inca Love).

Atahuallpa was a key character in South American history and was to all intents and purposes the last Inca. As the final leader of what had been an ancient civilisation he was killed by the Spanish invaders in 1533. His legacy in death was far reaching. He represented the end of so-called Paganism (The Incas were sun worshipers which the church managed to spin as somehow inferior to their tranche of murderous monotheism) and an effect of his execution was that tales of him resurrecting Christ-like spread across the region thus enhancing his semi-god image. 

I have no idea what Marc knew about central/southern American history but in addition to these Inca and Christians religions his quaint song also mentions Ra (the Egyptian Sun God) and Hare Krishna. That’s four belief systems referenced in one ditty, now that’s creative song writing!

And creativity is where we end. The human brain is a finite mushy object in a delimited bony box. However, the creative person ignores limits. It is as if imaginative people like writers, biologists and the aforementioned Annie, have glassy skulls whose open jaws imbibe flutes of white liquid light then fire them out of their minds like wonderful squibs in bright and infinite directions.

I come from a time where the burning of trees was a crime ~ I lived by a sea where to be was a thing of true joy ~ My people were fair and had sky in their hair ~ But now they’re content to wear stars on their brows ~ Frowning Atahuallpa (My Inca Love).

Creator: Terry O’Neill | Credit: Terry O’Neill / Iconic ImagesCopyright: © Iconic Images Limited.

I know something is very wrong ~
The post returns for prodigal songs ~
With blackout harks with flowered muse ~
With skull designs upon my shoes
~
I Can’t Give Everything Away from Blackstar, David Bowie’s last song.

Blackstar Mercury & Crimson Moon (Part 2 of 3*)

Oh Mother Mercury

Look what they’ve done to me

I cannot run I cannot hide

It was February 1974

Late one Thursday afternoon I was doing my homework while listening to the BBC’s Radio 1. The presenter recommended I spend the evening watching Top Of The Pops as it would be having a royal feel to it and would be hosted by the American DJ Emperor Rosko and was to feature a new English band called Queen.  I cannot remember if the group actually spoke on the radio, but I was suitable impressed by the introduction to make a point of watching them perform their intriguingly named track; Seven Seas of Rhye.

Some two hours later, the TV picture went green, smoky and black, Brian May’s guitar and the Mercury piano boomed in like a stallion stampede and Freddie’s dark painted eyes, black (self-trimmed?) fringe and sallow cheeks glared as if he were Hecate, the lead witch from Macbeth.

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Photos by Mick Rock

By early 1974 it felt like the world had been in a two year eternity of multi coloured clothes, spectrum hair hues and platform boots. Queen broke into view but also remained hidden in the midnight sky. They were dressed in black and white that was so stark it drew an intake of breath. Not only did Queen look sharp, but their sound was too. Even in this, their first broadly cast song the polar contrasts between a thumping rock background and the crystalline voices and sheer searing guitar stood out. Everything about Queen was shiny, clean and fresh. It appealed greatly and was enhanced by the fact that Mercury’s impact was rather scary too.

I became transfixed by Freddie in a very different way from how I had with Marc Bolan and Bowie and a major inspiration was that Queen did not become universally or immediately popular. It’s hard to grasp this idea in 2016 when nearly every TV ad-break features yet another Queen track (currently Flash for floor cleaner and It’s a Kind of Magic for naff furniture) but in the mid 70’s they were portrayed as aloof, rude and pretentious. The Black/White thing clearly marked them as different from other acts and coupled with their look, the music press just couldn’t pin them down or pigeon-hole them. Queen were elusive and this alienated them from journalists and many others. This delighted me. I was getting into a band ahead of the curve and I ‘got’ what others didn’t.

Some three years later at a Queen concert Freddie told me (and the rest of the intruders butting into my private meeting with Queen at Wembley Arena) ‘you may have read about us splitting up, but I can tell you that the music press are talking from here’ … as he pointed at his rear end.

This was in the pre-Punk era yet to my mind Freddie began as and remained the truest maverick. He had mystery and talent and an exotic ‘otherness’ which made me, as a half Italian in England begin to feel that I too could also bring some cultural capital to the table and that it had value. I loved the way he’d tell critics to hang themselves and then rammed home the point by prancing around like My Little Pony in shiny black spray-on slacks. His irony and masks were beautiful and nobody could tell what was what with him.

My other (rock) heroes, including artists from other fields, taught me that individuality is an asset and that it’s good to stand out from the crowd, but it was Mercury who showed that if you follow your instincts you can also develop a thicker skin.  Queen’s rise to fame was the first that I could not just witness but contribute to too and as a nailed-on Queen fan I was honoured to be recipient of bile from detractors and critics who took offence at the band.  Weirdly this inspired me. I loved their music, I loved the infamy and realised that being connected to something that divides opinion helped me to increase my self-belief and self-esteem.

As for Freddie and the band, their journey has been well documented. I guess the higher you raise your head above the parapet, the more of your torso can aimed at but even though they had real ups and downs by the early 1980’s they had built a legacy. Full torso or top of the scalp, it didn’t matter where the missiles landed the their point was proven.

Another tremendous lesson that Freddie taught us was that if you want to prove yourself as a creative person, attention to detail and minutiae are key. In an interview (you can find it on YouTube) Freddie talked about the hours and days it took to produce the backing vocals for Queen’s 1976 song Somebody To Love. He described how the other group members would get bored from constantly repeating short vocal bursts that were being knitted into a highly complex arrangement yet he’d give them a biscuit or some other distraction when they complained too much.

I am convinced that it is detail that sets very successful people apart from the rest. Even if the resulting song, equation, sculpture, tunnel or blog looks simple and refined, it is likely that much detail and deep testing was used on the way. One of the reasons why Queen’s music is so enduring is that they invested so much time on small things that even now if you listen to a song such as The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke from Queen II there are tiny chimes and bells that seem new even after 45 years.

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‘The Ostler stands with his hands on his knees, come on Mr Feller crack it open if you please..’ from Richard Dadd’s painting

It is now 25 years since Freddie died and it’s taken me this long to be able to obtain a perspective on somebody I never met and whose lifestyle, values and talents were so different to my own.  The connection was purely one way; he created it and I bought it. But I also feel there is a more ethereal contact and this is where he was so good, because so many people around the world feel the same as me. They also connect to Fred because they feel different from their peers and know that the man whose professional career was invested in entertaining millions was also invested in hiding his real self.

 

Top performers in most spheres encounter negative criticism and those of us who don’t have a public profile should be grateful for our zero-pain anonymity.   

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Blackstar Mercury & Crimson Moon (Part 1 of 3*)

When our teenage heroes die they cannot be replaced for as we continue to grow the wool lifts from our eyes. We see more clearly now yet pay the price with the coin of fading dreams.

16:09 21:11 11:01

 

“Sad to see them mourning you when you are there

Within the flowers and the trees”

 

When David Bowie died earlier this year the third and final corner of my holy-holy (rock) triangle became complete. His death is a deeply sad thing yet it was easier for me to accept than those of Freddie in 1991 and Marc in 1977.

Perhaps this is because I am 39 years nearer to my own demise than when Bolan died (I was 19) and that during these intervening years many other people, both personally close and public figures have died too.

triangle

I was not used to death then, but am becoming so now.

It could also be however because as each of these three musicians have passed away, what they gave me has slowly worn away too.

I was more impressionable then than I am now.

When I first saw Bolan on television in 1971 his raw rock music, male/female image and ‘crying lamb’ vibrato voice amalgamated to shock me. This shock however was both enticing and intriguing. At the time somebody told me that he was bisexual which, I was also told, meant he had both male and female genitalia (I soon learned this was not the case, but it did introduce the concept of gender being a spectrum thing). The physical sex lives of celebrities has never really interested me (really who cares?) but what ‘got’ me about Marc was that he stood out as someone or even something different.

He was short (like me) in world of the tall.

He had dark curly hair (like me) in a world dominated by those with long straight flowing hair (curls needs years of patience until they reach the shoulder) and

he displayed confidence (unlike me), yet I got the hint that I could be a bit like him if I bought into my own shortfalls and attributes alike.

I know others have written similar words about Bowie, Mercury, Lou Reed and heaven help us even The Beatles (bland is as bland does), but I remember the facts – Marc was the first to twist things around and mix up social perceptions and dare I say; values. In my life at any rate.

What I also hold close about Marc was that for me least, his qualities were something I could strive towards. When I learned rudimentary guitar it was Marc’s songs that were the easiest to play. He was possibly a lesser musician than Freddie or David but I prefer to think he loved simplicity in music and knew that even if he always wrote around the same basic chords and structures, he knew that he could add colour and variety through his lyrics, his voice, his posturing and his passion. He showed that talent can lie in the performance even if it is not ocean deep. There was certainly some substance yet it was style that really enhanced it.

Marc also demonstrated that no matter how much you pout and pose, a cheeky wink and a laugh underlined that you should not take yourself too seriously. He didn’t pretend his lyrics uncovered the mysteries of life or would change the world and he was playful when others were falsely profound.

Proportionally his output (he died at 29) was probably more efficient than many of his longer living peers. The public knows his handful of long enduring rock songs which continue to feature in today’s Media namely in film and TV advertising but what is not widely known is that if you dig deeper into Marc’s early recordings and you’ll find a fantastic array of songs that pre-date pop culture and consumerism. Simple tracks that describe nature, love and interesting people. None of it is cynical or over complex and even now it can still restore the melodic soul. Seek and you shall find.

What I also miss about Marc was his music/performance ability to exclude nobody. Sure he probably upset many parents of the day by looking effeminate whilst talking and singing ‘macho’, but when we look back, people would have been at most confused because there was nothing about him that could promote genuine anger or offence.

He carried the Hippie ethic of peace and love from the late 1960’s into the new decade. He brushed the festival mud off the bell bottoms and added sequins. He kept the long hair but got it washed and cut by a hairdresser. He had earlier hit the London scene as a stylish mod and in fact he was really rather respectable throughout.

So when, a month to the day after Elvis’s passing, Marc died too and I lost the figure who had been the gatekeeper to my new era of awareness. He ushered my mind and opinions from childhood into that grey pre-adult zone and helped me sit up and think. His music, his image and even his personal downs and ups showed me a lot and sent me the clear message that even I should try to be a creative person. It was within reach.

I doubt if any of today’s super groomed, albeit talented performers such as Bieber and Adele can influence youngsters the same way. The message that insulates them is ‘if you have talent we’ll make us both rich’. This is counterbalanced by the grotesque X-factor idea of moulding money from little or zero talent. Either way the 21st Century is creating performers that appear viable on-stage yet vacuous elsewhere. Puppets, rich temporary puppets.

Marc showed how an individual, even without being a rebel or a trouble-maker could break through and use the system with a song, a dance and smile.

As Bowie said about Ziggy “Bye-Bye, we love him”

 

Lyric from the Song Child Star by Marc Bolan

Part 2 will appear on 21 November

Part 3 will appear in 11 January

marc-hooplane