By The Landlord
"Painting is but another word for feeling." – John Constable
"Every song is like a painting." – Dick Dale
"I dream of painting and then I paint my dream." – Vincent Van Gogh
"I'm a painter in sound." – Brian Eno
"With a painting, you don't have to go back and paint it again." – Joni Mitchell
Glass of champagne? Canapés, anyone? Welcome to the very special VIP private view opening of our unique exhibition. What's happening? The Song Bar is serving you this week as a gallery, but no ordinary one. It is not only full of masses of music stars, but also works by some of them on canvas, and even more so, many more works that inspired them to write songs. And don't worry, there are no fakes here. This is not like the 1998 opening for legendary American Abstract Expressionist artist Nat Tate, who legend had it destroyed most of his work before jumping off the Staten Island Ferry, but was really all a fabrication presented in part by David Bowie, mischievously alongside the writer William Boyd, and fooling most of the pretentious art world at the time. Feel free to talk about fine forgeries, but this is the real deal.
It's all about songs inspired by famous or other painters and painting as well as drawing, everything from Old Masters to Impressionists, Abstract Expressionists to the Pop Art, cartoonists to graffiti artists.
Also, for extra fun, we present a secret gallery of paintings by music artists. For now, they are just going to be numbered only, so in between songs, please name the artist! Answers will be revealed after last orders on Monday. I've named the one at the top, which is obvious, but can you identify the artist, and even better the titles of other nine, starting with this?
And it's no coincidence that many famous musicians and performers have also studied art. Somehow, they fell into music instead, or have carried on with art in parallel. Many are well known, such as David Byrne at Rhode Island School of Design then the Maryland Institute College of Ar, Mick Jones and others from The Clash, Jarvis Cocker attending Central St Martins, Florence Welch went to Camberwell College of Arts, Pete Townshend and Queen-crest designer Freddie Mercury who both went to Ealing Art College, Keith Richards studied fine art at the Sidcup Art College, and Brian Eno who graduated from Winchester School of Art. All found inspiration or fellow band members in these places, where they served as an outlet for their restless egos.
But there are many more who may be less known for their arty education. Public Enemy's Chuck D studied graphic design at Adelphi University in Long Island. Mobb Deep's Havoc and Prodigy were classmates at the High School of Art and Design in New York City. Michael Stipe was at the University of Georgia and majored in painting and photography. Kanye West attended the American Academy of Art. Ice Cube attended Phoenix Institute of Technology to study architectural drafting. But enough of this old boys and girls networking. Let's get on with talking about and looking at the art, in relation to music.
And what a lot of people there are here, with so much to say. But summing up this background, here's Nick Cave: "The work ethic at art school is completely different than the work ethic amongst people who get into music. People who paint, it's an honourable thing to spend all day and all night in front of your canvas – that is the romantic vision of the painter."
Who's this making the opening speech? It's Wassily Kandinsky: "Lend your ears to music, open your eyes to painting, and... stop thinking! Just ask yourself whether the work has enabled you to 'walk about' into a hitherto unknown world. If the answer is yes, what more do you want?" Applause!
Let's just tune in to the conversation. Who's over there? It's Yoko Ono of course. No gallery opening would be complete without her! And she's talking to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. "It's a waste of time to think that if you coloured a painting red what might have happened if you painted it black." Jagger, who is scouting the room for supermodels, suddenly turns round. "Did you say Paint It Black, Yoko?" "Don't be stupid, Mick," says Yoko. "Ooh! Bitch!" says Mick.
The process of writing songs has often been compared to that of painting, and our kitchen boss this week, supplying the nibbles, is American chef, is so excited, he cant help but make this tasty comparison: "Cooking is like painting or writing a song. Just as there are only so many notes or colours, there are only so many flavours - it's how you combine them that sets you apart." Thanks, Wolfie. Now let's have some more of those trays of food.
"Cool," says Pharrell Williams, "so like, when I'm sort of painting a feeling in the air."
"Really?" says the singer and painter Grimes. "I feel like vocals are to music what portraits are to painting. They're the humanity. Landscapes are good and fine, but at the end of the day everyone loves the Mona Lisa." The critic Robert Hughes then marches in when he hears the word landscapes. "Landscape is to American painting what sex and psychoanalysis are to the American novel," he says. The others aren't sure what to say in reply, but then a very well known music artist in a hat, nods sagely, and then points to one of his paintings. How many songs are inspired by landscapes and their paintings, the mountains, or the open road, paintings by songs?
There are also film-makers in the house, all of whom have a huge interest in art as well as music. David Lynch is staring at a sandwich, and then says: "Every viewer is going to get a different thing. That's the thing about painting, photography, cinema." "Yeah really?" says Jackson Pollock, "Well I say that every good painter paints what he is." "Or what SHE is," interjects Frida Kahlo, furrowing her not insignificant brow. "And my painting carries with it the message of pain." Well that's a conversation killer, but how many songs come from a similar place as a way to express it?
So many of our guests at the party can't help but tell us how painting was integral to their upbringing. "As a teenager I started painting and playing guitar," says Buffy Sainte-Marie. "I grew up wanting to be a painter and paint pictures … There was a point after the whole intensity of the Clash finally subsided when I just found that painting grounded me in a way that music didn't." explains Paul Simonon. Cher adds that she got it all from her mum: "My mother was the most creative, fantastic person and would come up with great things for us to do. She'd buy art supplies and all of us would sit around painting. I was lucky." And that old smooth swinger Tony Bennett talks about two greatest loves: "My whole life has been singing and painting. I just do those two things."
So painting seems to offer a creative escape to many music artists, or a way to stimulate them when their are stuck. David Bowie only revealed that he painted much later in his career, but has been doing it all along and during an arid period, especially in the 90s and 2000s he says: "I felt I really wanted to back off from music completely and just work within the visual arts in some way. I started painting quite passionately at that time." Joni Mitchell, meanwhile, has struggled with her muse, and depression all her life, and has depended on painting to help: "At the point where I'm trying to force something and it's not happening, and I'm getting frustrated with, say, writing a poem, I can go and pick up the brushes and start painting. At the point where the painting seems to not be going anywhere, I go and pick up the guitar."
And Frederick Chopin also found solace in moments of publicity glare and despair, but with another kind of painting altogether: "If the newspapers cut me up so much that I shall not venture before the world again, I have resolved to become a house painter; that would be as easy as anything else, and I should, at any rate, still be an artist!"
So there's method in the madness, as well as madness in the method, and songwriters have the same problems in not knowing when their work is finished, as much as how to start. As Buffy Sainte-Marie says: "The key is in remaining just aloof enough from a painting so that you know when to stop."
But can painting be done when touring or doing music? Here's Jefferson Airplane's singer, talking about art and her friend in The Grateful Dead: "Jerry Garcia used to take his paints on the road. I don't do that. Either I'm a singer or a painter. I'm not good at multi-tasking." But some singer-songwriters manage to do art and song simultaneously. Jeffrey Lewis, for example, is as amusing and offbeat a cartoonist as he is as a performer.
Perhaps one difference between music and art is whether you work alone or with others. Lindsey Buckingham is in a grumpy mood, but also wants to be at the party and seems to indicate he prefers writing songs alone: "When I work alone, my process is like painting. With Fleetwood Mac, it's more like movie making." Meanwhile here's Captain Beefheart, who painted wild paintings in large numbers: "I don't like getting out when I could be painting. And when I'm painting, I don't want anybody else around."
And as with any creative art, discipline is key. From perspiration comes inspiration. The prolific film composer John Williams tells us: "Any working composer or painter or sculptor will tell you that inspiration comes at the eighth hour of labour rather than as a bolt out of the blue. We have to get our vanities and our preconceptions out of the way and do the work in the time allotted."
Pablo Picasso didn't exactly mess about either. Here he is, chatting up the ladies, and becoming the focus of attention: "Painting is just another way of keeping a diary," he says, with a shrug, mischievously. The Kills Alison Mosshart can't help but agree, and Pablo is already eyeing her form, up and down, perhaps considering her line and shape: "Painting is almost like a sport. It's like this action thing. When I do it, I'm really not thinking. The paintings are like a diary that I might not want to read again." "I will read them for you," says Pablo, naughtily.
And so the conversation goes on. Some of it is supremely clever, as this from Brian Eno: "Once music ceases to be ephemeral - always disappearing - and becomes instead material... it leaves the condition of traditional music and enters the condition of painting. It becomes a painting, existing as material in space, not immaterial in time."
Some of it airs a romantic sense of escape into the imagination. Here's Conor Oberst: "If the world could remain within a frame like a painting on the wall, I think we'd see the beauty then and stand staring in awe."
And some, such as Patti Smith, who has also painted plenty, says that painting is all about inspiration: "The moment of creative impulse is what an artist gives you. You look at a Pollock, and it can't give you the tools to do a painting like that yourself, but in doing the work, Pollock shares with you the moment of creative impulse that drove him to do that work."
And as the conversation continues, and the wine flows, and the painting and drawing pours forth, I hope that will also give you inspiration to suggest any number of songs about paintings, or paintings, drawings or cartoons, in content, style, detail or movement, from any period.
Brushing up on this subject, and no doubt using a musical palette with consummate skill, we welcome back into the art class our famous old master and friend at the Song Bar, Severin, who will deliberate over the fine lines and the musical colours of your songs suggestions. Place them in comments below for last orders on Monday in time for for playlists adorning our walls on Wednesday. The draw bridge is now officially open!
And don't forget to guess the artists above - either in comments or via the contact page. NB one of them is a trick question …
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Fancy a turn behind the pumps at The Song Bar? Care to choose a playlist from songs nominated and write something about it? Then feel free to contact The Song Bar here, or try the usual email address.