I went to London this week to do a couple of days of press and promotion for Ride, Rise, Roar—the concert doc on my last tour that Hillman Curtis directed. One piece I did before I got there, for the Sunday Times Magazine, will come out this weekend, and they have a headline that apparently quotes me saying, “Simon Cowell is the Antichrist.” Ah, the British press, always taking the high road. The Times, lest one forget, is owned by a Mr. Murdoch, and was once a venerable, though incredibly stodgy, paper (WSJ—your days are numbered). They were so reserved, in a British sort of way, that they didn’t run news on the front page—ugh, too garish and unbecoming! How Times have changed. I was sent an advance copy and had a jolt—Did I really say that? It doesn’t sound like something I’d say! Then, hours later, I seemed to remember saying something like “The Sex Pistols are not the antichrist [a reference to one of their lyrics]; Simon Cowell is the antichrist.” By which I meant to convey that the devil will not arrive in an obvious way—as a snarling beast or as an anarchist rebel, that would be too easy—but as a smooth corporate dealmaker. I didn’t read any more of the article, so I have no idea what other mischief they may have stirred up.
After two days of almost non-stop talking, I had a full day off (though in the evening there would be a screening and I would do a Q&A afterwards). I decided to try what are referred to here as Boris Bikes—a bike hire system (the mayor of London’s name is Boris) that was recently installed. It is modeled after the French Velib system. Barclays Bank is a sponsor (Boris sold naming rights of the program for £25 million, officially naming the system Barclays Cycle Hire) so they get prominently placed ads on the mudguards and bag holder. Would a US bank do the same? One Goldman Sachs exec’s bonus would probably cover a whole city’s worth of these things.
Anyway, here’s how they do—and sometimes don’t—work.
They have hundreds of these stations in central London, with most stations only a few blocks from one another. There is an online map, a print map and a downloadable PDF that shows where they all are.
There was a station behind my hotel, so that’s where I went first. If you are a subscriber you have an electronic key, which is sent to you, and you insert it into a docking point and a bike is released. If you are a foreigner or “casual user,” as I am, you go to the touch screen, agree to terms—as you would on any online purchase—swipe your debit or credit card, and you’re given a simple number code, which will unlock the bike from the holder.
£1 for 24 hours, no charge for the first half hour and then charges that ramp up after that. This is to encourage fairly short trips—all of mine were, it turned out, under 30 minutes, so I wasn’t charged for time. Hundreds of pounds if a bike is not returned.
Of course, if you’re riding out of the current coverage area in the central city you’re screwed. But presumably the system will expand to Hackney and Shepherd’s Bush. You soon get the concept—that you are meant to drop your bike near your destination, and then pick up a new one at that station when you make your return trip. If both trips are under 30 minutes there are no charges. That afternoon I made 5 trips—hopping from gallery to museum to lunch joint, and it worked with only a few hitches. All legs of my trip were under 30 minutes.
The bikes themselves are sturdy (as you’d expect), with only 3 gears—London has few hills, so it turns out 3 gears is plenty. There are fenders and mudguards, a bell, and front and rear lights that work automatically—powered by a turbine on the wheel hub. They’re heavy beasts—so carrying them up some stairs to a bridge, as I did, was a thing, but on the roads I kept up with the folks on their own bikes, so didn’t feel at a disadvantage.
Problems—yes, there are some. The first time I tried to rent a bike at the station near my hotel it couldn’t read my card. A local arrived, and it didn’t read his stick either. I called the help line to alert them, and the next day it was working (I walked a few blocks to the next station the first day). Usage patterns generate their own set of problems. One station near an art gallery I went to in the Mayfair district was full—there was nowhere to leave my bike, and the clock was ticking! This happened again at another station (Barbican) and I had to once more seek a station a few blocks further away. Likewise, I’ve heard that some stations are more popular than others, and all the bikes are quickly taken. In Paris and Montreal there are trucks that ferry bikes too and fro to remedy this situation. I heard that in Paris no one rides up to the Sacre Coeur in Montmartre, but once there everyone grabs a bike and rides down the hill, so the station at the top is continually running out of bikes. The bikes have fat tires, so street bumps are cushioned a bit. One bike I had needed some gear adjustment—though it still worked. None had flats and all were clean and in good shape.
I saw lots of locals riding them—it’s becoming an accepted way of getting around here. While I was there the weather stayed dry, so I was spared dealing with the British rain. I have a feeling the locals are always prepared with collapsible nylon rain ponchos always ready in their bags. It was incredibly efficient—London traffic, despite congestion pricing, is still painfully slow at some times of day. The streets wind and meander, so a bike is often as fast as a cab, and way faster than the tube or a bus on shorter trips.
One night while I was here I went to have dinner with some friends in Stoke Newington, a charming village-like neighborhood that hasn’t changed much, as there is no tube station nearby—so it’s not convenient for commuters. On the advice of my friends I took the bus back to my hotel (number 73 all the way). I went upstairs, and sitting in the front, 2 seats ahead of me in the almost empty bus, was a man a little older than me (my estimate) with a big gray beard and a scraggly fringe of gray hair. The minute I took my seat he recognized me, and soon after began to chat, in between swigs of a massive bottle of Pepsi. He volunteered, “I’d like to express my creative thoughts, but I’m mentally ill,” conveniently dispelling any questions or doubts I might have had on the matter. I replied that a piece of paper and pencil is all one needs, to start with anyway. But he wasn’t sure. Then he said he liked “keyboard rock,” and I must have looked a little puzzled as he clarified himself —“Emerson, Lake and Palmer.” I don’t know their music, so I didn’t really have a way to engage on that matter. He seemed like a nice man, not scary in any way, though I’d lay off the massive quantities of Pepsi if I were him.
In the afternoon I rode up by Primrose Hill to The Museum of Everything—which is somewhat what it says it is. On the way I passed what from a distance looked like either a decrepit Disney ride or a massive outdoor opera set.
When I got closer, some folks told me it was an abandoned “mountain range” that used to be the habitat for some mountain goats—it was part of the London Zoo. They said it was “listed,” meaning it’s a landmark, and that I might catch a glimpse of some warthogs around the corner—I didn’t.
The Museum of Everything has only been open a short while. Previous shows focused on “outsider” art, an interest of mine, so I was aware of this place tucked behind a public library. The current show is of the collection of Peter Blake, the pop artist best known for collaborating on the Sgt. Pepper cover. He collected old circus banners and posters, elaborate embroideries by a war veteran (my personal favorites) and old sideshow and funfair paraphernalia—lots of it. Great place.
In another few rooms were displayed amazing dioramas by Walter Potter of posed stuffed animals—not tigers and bears, but squirrels, frogs, mice, dogs and cats—all set up in hilarious domestic scenes: playing badminton, boxing, having a picnic and lounging at a pub. One giant diorama called The Peaceable Kingdom had cats, mice and dogs all hanging out comfortably together.
At a gallery in Mayfair there was a show of Cindy Sherman’s new work—wallpaper with pictures of her on it, of course. The outfits were hilarious—a mish-mosh of oddball costumes and ill-fitting items found in someone’s closet. The scale of the images would have been imposing, and even uncomfortably overwhelming, except that possibility was undercut by the fact that is was, well, wallpaper.
The Serpentine gallery in Hyde Park had a show of videos by Philippe Parreno. One featured a Chinese kid and some imaginary friends made of scratches of the film emulsion that reminded me a little of Donnie Darko (one of the imaginary friends was a human size bunny). Another video recreated Paul Fusco's photos of people who turned out to watch the train bearing Bobby Kennedy’s body go by after he was assassinated. These photos were taken from the train in the mid-sixties, and the video recreated the clothes, hairstyles and cars of that period. It was moving to watch for me—the mixture of black and white folks who turned out, men standing in grassy fields, kids sitting and staring, all watching a slow moving train go by. But there was no wall explanation, so I wondered if I was the only one who knew what this was supposed to be in reference to. One had to know the original photos as well, or so I imagine. The Londoners couldn’t possibly know what it was meant to depict, even if the leaflet at the gallery entrance told them—most folks don’t read those. What’s the thinking here? Were there stories behind the others as well?
At the end of this 10 minute film the window blinds raised on motors, and we saw artificial snow falling outside the windows—a lovely effect, as it looked almost, though not quite, real, but not sure how it relates to the videos.
At the Tate Modern there was a room of Soviet Russian posters. This same room had a show of Soviet avant-garde magazine designs from years earlier. Most of the posters were made in the late ‘20s and ‘30s when Stalin came into power, and they were chilling—though once again, one had to know a little to understand why they were so creepy. These were plastered up everywhere at the time—in every little village—to encourage Stalin’s drive for industrialization and the collectivization of the farms. This latter drive was unbelievable in its cold-blooded ruthlessness. It’s estimated that 30 million died of starvation as a result of this effort, especially in the Ukraine—the farming and breadbasket that fed the rest of the Soviet Union.
Here is a poster encouraging the hounding of Kulaks—roughly middle class farmers who were not wealthy by any means. These folks were driven off their lands, and the state took over and ran things as badly and inefficiently as one can imagine. I’m not entirely opposed to the state narrowing the gap between the very rich and the horribly poor, but this was the gutting of the middle class. The poster, called “Drive the Kulaks off the Kolkhoz!” is attributed to Sergei Ivanov in 1930.
Looks a little anti-Semitic, would you say? Nice shirt though! This was 1930—well before Hitler’s rise.
Then up to the Barbican center where there was a survey of 4 decades of Japanese fashion design. A large exhibition—it occupies 2 floors (but it could be even larger), as some of these folks have done such radical stuff and have left such a radical legacy, that it’s hard to absorb it all in a survey like this—but it gives a taste.
They did point out that Kenzo, Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto—some of the early innovators—brought the Japanese aesthetic of not revealing the body very much to Western fashion—a strange idea at the time. Their clothes weren’t tight or conventionally sexy, rather they were floppy and baggy, with the wearer semi-hidden in a kind of fabric cocoon.
Of course there were other more formal and material innovations as well: clothes made of bamboo, clothes made entirely of one piece of fabric, clothes with extremely subdued color palettes. Sort of conceptual clothes that don’t always flatter the wearer in the normal sense, they were more like artworks in a way. They didn’t reveal their charm or beauty immediately, in fact some looked ugly the first time you see them.
A younger generation—Jun Takahashi, Tao Kurihara, Fumito Ganryo, Matohu, and Akira Naka—have loosened up a little, with some body hugging zones and more bright colors, but the formal and material innovations haven’t stopped. Here’s one made of what looked like a plastic news printed top and shredded documents for a skirt:
It looks like something made from recycled materials in Africa, but I’m sure it cost a fortune!
Another outfit included a matching parasol/hat and large bulbous things around the hips, like Victorian bustles turned slightly to the front.
Some of this younger generation of designers attended St Martins College of Art and Design here in London, but they moved back to Tokyo to begin their practice—an interesting amalgamation of cultures at work.
Last night was the screening of the tour doc Ride Rise Roar, and I did my flogging-the-product-bit by doing an on-stage Q&A with writer Paul Morley after the film ended. It was held at the Ritzy cinema in Brixton—a lovely old converted music hall with a bar/lounge upstairs. There was a satellite truck outside and about 47 cinemas round the UK had simultaneous screenings (projected digitally—not so expensive as it would have been with 35mm) and the Q&A was beamed to them live as well.
Elly (La Roux), whose show I’d seen at Terminal 5 in NY, came by with some of her pals—she lives close by, as is the studio where she’s working on a new record. We chatted about tour disasters. I was flattered.