Essay: The Legacy of Leigh Bowery
Part diary, part gossip column, artist and Bowery contemporary Donald Urquhart documents the posthumous events - from exhibitions to panel discussions - that celebrated and commemorated the work of Leigh Bowery after his death.
Part diary, part gossip column, artist and Bowery contemporary Donald Urquhart documents the posthumous events - from exhibitions to panel discussions - that celebrated and commemorated the work of Leigh Bowery after his death.
Last year I helped Nicola Bowery to catalogue Leigh's costumes in preparation for Take a Bowery: The Art and (larger than) Life of Leigh Bowery, the exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, Australia. This involved carefully going through all of Leigh's costumes, listing and describing them, and then photographing them with Gary Carsley, the exhibition's curator. It was exhausting work, especially as the weather was bizarrely hot; lugging bulky and heavy costumes from Nicola's attic and arranging them with their correct accessories, then checking we had managed to photograph them all. 'What shoes did he wear with that? Shall we check the Fergus Greer? Which way up does this go?' Often the costumes looked sad and deflated when we put them on the wooden stand, so we would have to pad them out as best we could, and we had to find a wig block to photograph the hoods and headwear on. I managed to charm the man in the local charity shop into lending us one from his window display - a slightly grubby but male polystyrene wig block. Perfect.
You should see some of the costumes, they really are beautifully made, and gorgeously, painstakingly (and otherwise) beaded. I adore the linings he chose; chartreuse, acid green, watermelon, salmon pink, butter-cream, electric blue. And of course even the stains on the clothes provide delight. Some hems are stiff with 'disco mud', that impossible-to-remove filth that you only get on a nightclub floor. I reckon it's a mixture of shoe polish, booze, puke, and chewing gum, but try though you may, you can never completely wash it out of anything. Even Leigh's tatty old 'daywear' perv looks are here: grey shorts with a really worn crotch; caramel Crimplene slacks (the label even says 'A Jaymar slack'); a beige gabardine anorak with a big beige zip; a half-sleeved collarless olive green zip-up jacket with dusky rose satin lining. The cavalcade of costumes seems to go on forever: an off-white 'le smoking' with padded breasts; orange-and-pink satin leggings with elastic braces, a toffee corduroy coat with loops to hang hair grips from; a ghoulish green clown hood with a red rhinestone-studded nose; high-cut silver lurex disco pants with a black zip fly and labeled 'Leigh Bowery, London'; a red velvet cloak with gold braid rope at the collar... You can imagine how exhausting it was seeing all these exciting pieces one after another, we were overwhelmed at times. Thankfully, we were often surprised and amused: in the pocket of his mint green dress with a lime ostrich feather hooped puffball skirt, we found two tickets to a club run by Rusty Egan in Mayfair, and in the pocket of his red 'Raw Sewage' jacket an old half-empty bottle of poppers.
Poppers. Now that takes me way back. Pre-drugs, by which I mean pre-ecstasy, every gay club stank of stale poppers. You'd be dancing and there would be bottles of poppers being passed around, and it was a rarity to be passed a fresh bottle. Believe me, there is nothing more disgusting than a whiff of gone-off old poppers. There's many an outfit I've had ruined by poppers via disco spillages. I remember I had a parachute silk shirt that the poppers burned right through - and the amount of people, myself included, who had to go around with scabby facial burns caused by poppers. Still, one sniff and whoosh! You were all over the place, falling over, and the next thing you'd be scrabbling around on the floor looking for the lid. Gone are those days now. Well, of course people still dance sniffing poppers, but you don't see poppers-taking on such a scale, and you don't see people dressing up beyond the nines so often now. Oh what do I know? I very seldom venture into a nightclub these days. I am 40, and there is such a thing as staying too long at the fair.
When I met Leigh
Without too much autobiography (because you want to be reading about Leigh Bowery), I will tell you a bit of my story to show you where I'm coming from. I grew up in Dumfries, and when I left home lived in Glasgow for a couple of years. There I met Angela Farley who was a dancer with Frankie Goes To Hollywood, and after staying at her flat in London for a holiday in 1983, and going to all these wild clubs and drunken parties in absolute dives, decided to move to London. I can't remember whether I met Leigh in 1983 or 1984, but we hit it off straight away. I was very mouthy in those days, and had a very cruel tongue. I remember bumping in to Fat Tony and Phillip Salon on the stairs in 'Heaven' one night.
They were applying liberal dustings of face powder, and Fat Tony asked me if I thought they were wearing too much make-up? 'No,' I said sweetly, 'You're not wearing enough. I can still see blemishes. I can still see dark rings under your eyes and lines. Put more on.' Leigh loved this sort of thing, and always enjoyed my highly exaggerated way of gossiping. I have always loved being lavish with detail. Leigh would get enormously excited if you had a piece of gossip that he hadn't yet heard, and if you could provide him with plenty of spicy details (true or made-up) he would be absolutely euphoric. Then of course he would be right round the club like a hurricane passing on the dirt, and then straight home to his telephone with a very much distorted and embellished version of the original story.
Bowery as Art
I was asked recently by a Hoxton-type woman what Leigh Bowery did? 'Nobody knew what he did,' she said, perplexed. 'He dressed up and went to clubs and parties and enjoyed himself. He lived his life as he had to live it,' was my answer. Of course that was an easy-way-out answer, but if she couldn't work out what Leigh did, maybe after watching the Charles Atlas documentary, or reading one of the books, or even seeing Taboo - The Musical, then what was I going to say that would enlighten her? But then, what do you say about Leigh? I am glad that people have finally decided that Leigh was an artist. I was getting heavily bored with people asking me 'Was he an artist? Was what Leigh did art?' I would answer that Leigh had been exhibited in an art gallery (Anthony D'Offay), and that although he himself was not for sale, his exhibit was art. A lot of people cannot fathom art that is not for sale. Art is a commodity to such people, and if you can't bid for it, get rid of it.
The thing is, you don't have to show in galleries or auction things on the international art market to be an artist. This has always been the case, but so many people live in their own abstracted version of the present. So many people do not interpret their own vision of the scheme of things as the rubbish that it is.
In 2002 the whole Leigh Bowery legacy was putting on quite a circus. Here follows a few things I wrote for QX magazine at the time:
Part 1: In Bed with Boy George
Draped deliciously over the curving incline of George's grandiose headboard in his elegant boudoir, I wondered for a second how the hell I had got there. There I was perched on his plump pillows in a black silk gown and pink bon-bon-sized pearls, watching two beautiful teenaged schoolboys taking their uniforms off. Before me reclined Boy George, although he was made-up and costumed to look like Leigh Bowery in a checkerboard bustle dress with black-on-white 'paint-drips' running down his head, attended by an array of surreal exotics. Nicola Bowery in the simple, blue, home-made dress she wore to marry Leigh, with a blue Perspex tubular hood; her sister Christine looking sultry in hot orange.
Gazing from her cheap Boots hessian-backed frame, Tretchikoff's Chinese Girl come-to-life watched the goings on with an impervious gaze. It was really costumier and performance mime artist David Cabaret, and also on this bed (it's a massive, massive bed) were artistes Tim Perkins with a 'Warhol' mouth, and Dean Bright (ex-Dead Or Alive pianist) wearing stylish fantasy club-wear looks that could kill. How did the bed stand the weight of all the MAKE-UP, never mind the people on it? A couple of innocent young girls who had natural beauty completed the scene, skilfully teasing the boys. What on earth was happening?
My stockinged legs slid beneath the stiff tulle of my frothy underskirt, and I kicked off my heels. Was I undressing? I fingered my pearls, my coiffure, my sunglasses; the lights blazed white hot, and I took my hand and whacked it hard against my face. My sunglasses flew off. Were they on the floor? Was I really here in Boy George's bed? The lights flared again then began to dim. A breeze billowed from behind the drawn blinds; I shivered slightly and the director said, 'cut'. Devotion to the Arts? Mike Nichols is directing a film starring Boy George, in which George appears in a variety of Leigh Bowery's extreme fashion looks. Last Sunday they were filming scenes in Boy George's home in Hampstead in which George performs the song 'Ich Bin Kunst' from his musical Taboo. If you haven't seen the show, it is a song sung by the Leigh Bowery character (it means 'I am Art', not 'I'm a cunt').
The Taboo cast album came out later in the year, and Taboo as DVD, with Mike Nichols footage, came out the following year. So, when I was invited by Mr. Nichols to appear in a cameo, of course I instantly agreed, driven by nosiness, my devotion to the arts, and, well I wasn't doing anything that weekend. Wouldn't you jump at the chance to peek through Boy George's keyhole? The Boy George house stands at the edge of Hampstead Heath, and is in Victorian Gothic style, but of course you've probably seen many pictures of it by now. I'd seen plenty of spreads of 'At Home with Boy George' over the years in magazines, so had a rough idea of what it would look like. I was really taken aback when I walked in though. It wasn't imposing, it hadn't the feel of a stylised set-piece, or pop star mansion: it feels like a home. I thought it was going to be like a feng-shui version of a crack den, or at least as dramatic the house in Sunset Boulevard, but I'd plainly been tainted by untrue rumours. Oh, and there was no evidence of drugs. And NO BOOZE!
George was in fine relaxed fettle, and didn't seem to mind having make-up applied to his entire head and neck for over two hours. He must be well used to going through that by now though, as must be make-up artist Christine Bateman, who has been applying Leigh Bowery make-up every night and also matinees for the run of the show. Nicola was amazed at how many of Leigh's mannerisms George was able to copy once in full costume. He said he had watched videos of Leigh endlessly for months while he was preparing for the role. To me, he looked very much like Leigh, and confusingly not at all like Boy George -which of course is the intended effect. The arresting visual impact of Leigh's design adds yet another element. I kept looking at George in the outfit, and imagining Leigh's response. I think he would have been delighted. He would certainly have revelled in all the exposure he's receiving in 2002, with the Lucien Freud paintings on show at the Tate, Fergus Greer's photographs at the ICA, and Charles Atlas' film The Legend of Leigh Bowery coming out in August. This year the legacy of Leigh Bowery is not only being re-examined, it is being cultivated and enjoyed. Next week I'll tell you what was said at the Tate Britain, when Sue Tilley, Les Child, PP Hartnett, and Matt Lucas (first actor to play Leigh in TABOO) get up to discuss Leigh.
Part 2: Talk of the Tate
Leigh Bowery was the subject of a talk at Tate Britain, chaired by Michael Bracewell, and titled 'Big Time'. The speakers were Sue Tilley, Bowery's close friend and biographer, Les Child, dancer/choreographer who worked with Leigh, Peter Paul Hartnett, writer and photographer who chronicled the club Taboo, and Matt Lucas who played Bowery in Boy George's musical, Taboo. It was a frustrating evening, in that few questions about the man were satisfactorily answered, nor much of real value said; although as Sue Tilley pointed out, Leigh would have been 'thrilled' with the attention and the high-profile art establishment venue, but would rather not have been over-analysed.
Mr. Bracewell did his best to steer his talkers towards academic debate, but they all side-tracked, and rambled away from whatever point was in hand. Sue was the most informative, and kept the whole evening afloat with her spontaneous comments and well-recollected anecdotes. Years of gossiping for untold hours every day on the telephone has made her an accomplished raconteur. She remembers Leigh affectionately, without delusions, or pretensions, and tells his story straight and simple. This is quite a feat, as Leigh was without doubt one of the most complex and indefinable people. Sue and Les Child brought much-needed humour to the occasion, remembering many of Leigh's often-ridiculous outfits.
Sue: 'To make himself look taller [in daywear] he'd wear a pair of stilettos inside a pair of trainers. How could he possibly walk like that? He'd wear these tatty old clothes, with his extra height hidden under the length of his trousers.'
Les: 'He used to hide the fact that his hair was receding by shaving his head, and that was the reason for the wigs.'
Bracewell: 'Did Leigh ever go too far?'
Les: (deadpan) 'That Minstrel look, you know? With the black face, Afro wig, gingham and swastikas?'
Many photos of Leigh's club-wear from Taboo were shown as part of PP Hartnett's slideshow. Hartnett took hundreds of Polaroids at Taboo (he was sponsored by Polaroid), and discussed the fashions of that era while showing a small selection. He was also promoting his new book on DIY fashion. However, there had always been a suspicion that this particular chronicler was bitter towards Leigh and the society he kept, because he himself felt like an 'outsider'. This was somewhat in evidence to me in his grudging appraisal of some of Leigh's 'Taboo' contemporaries (who aren't dead) like Princess Julia 'she became a sort of DJ'. Surely he is aware of the extent of her international acclaim? Couldn't he have been a little more gracious? He also noted that some of Taboo's regulars have been 'left out', naming David Cabaret and myself (we were front row, right in front of him). Left out of WHAT I'd like to know? Spared his sour contempt? But what really irritated me was when he tried to imply that Leigh's stylistic journey from wearing 'make-up to masks to fabric' was some sort of expression of his HIV status, and that his polka dot face look was supposed to resemble kaposi's sarcoma. Leigh was doing nothing of the sort. He didn't want people to know he was HIV because he didn't want to be seen as some kind of AIDS artist. What he was doing with his appearance wasn't about AIDS or anything else happening in the world. Bowery simply rose above his times to enjoy a better life, a more glamorous and rewarding life, and his determination and effort certainly gave him that. What he has given us is inspiration, and cause for deep contemplation.
Part 3: The Legend Explored
I ran into Tony Gordon last weekend when I was out looking for orchids in Columbia Road Market. Tony was behind the club Taboo, although Bowery has always got all the credit for that legendary phenomenon. 'From the start I didn't want to be in any of the photos,' he says 'I left all that side to Leigh.' Tony had his hands more than full, working with people like Leigh, Camp Mark, Jeffrey Hinton, and their boozed-up, high-on-poppers coterie. 'Taboo did get very druggy. It was actually the first ecstasy club in Britain,' he said, with a slightly naughty smile. He has not seen Boy George's musical version yet, and is not all that interested in seeing it. Like many people who have their own memories of Taboo, he prefers to remember it as it was. Since Taboo - The Musical went into production, countless people who were Leigh's contemporaries and friends have been shrieking with horror at this outrage; many reckon Bowery must be turning in his grave at George stepping into Leigh's shoes.
I was quite taken aback myself when I found out what Boy George was planning, and when I went to see a preview of the show I didn't expect to like it much. I found it all jolly watchable, though, and found the portrayal of Leigh was quite true to character, if rather cutesified. I see now what Boy George is doing: he is trying to resurrect the spirit of the era, and hopes to inspire people through showing them a way of life that might seem impossible today. And whatever you might think, it is far better that people like Leigh are promoted, exhibited, and re-examined, albeit posthumously, than forgotten entirely.
At the big time Bowery round-table at Tate Britain the chairman, Michael Bracewell, said that Leigh had inspired a 'cultural industry', referring to the musical as well as the film and books that have recently come out. Of the books, Sue Tilley's The Life And Times Of An Icon is the most informative, and is packed with amusing tales, and Sue's witty observations. The book is short on pictures, though, and the illustrated monograph (coffee table book in other words) by Violette Editions more than satisfies in that department, but sadly lacks much commentary or information on the pictures. Violette Editions have just published the 'definitive guide' to Leigh's outlandish fashion 'looks'; a series of photographs by Fergus Greer taken between 1988 and 1994, in which Leigh models his creations in his own definitive way. Leigh's modelling poses, attitudes, and poise are often as interesting as the garments themselves, and some are downright hilarious.
My only complaint about the book is that it is too small. It is just over half the size of an A4 page - it should have been at least twice as big, though it is beautifully bound, and features 175 pages of lustrous, glossy glamour. There are many costumes that I have never seen before, and seeing all these fantastic strong fashions together conveys Leigh's megalomania, determination and energy, his fine talent for flamboyant design, and exquisite sense of style. It costs 16.95, which is no snip, but it is a nice book to have around, and what does 16.95 get you these days? A couple of bottles of wine? Three packets of fags? Again, this is a picture book, and the costumes are simply shown, and not detailed or described. No mention is given to the fabrics used, or what effect Leigh was trying to achieve; there are no names, dates, or places he wore them to, which is a shame really. I hope it gets reprinted with an appendix.
The Legend Of Leigh Bowery is Charles Atlas' film documentary in which various people who knew Leigh talk about him and his work, and there is of course a lot of Charlie's footage of Leigh. It is currently showing at the ICA gallery on the Mall, and apparently the BBC want to show it, but no date has been fixed. Next week I'll let you know what I think of it, but prepare for a biased review: I'M IN IT!
Part 4: Posthumous fame at last!
Charles Atlas' movie documentary, The Legend of Leigh Bowery opened at the ICA last week for an all too brief run. Mr Atlas' has created a wonderful portrait of the artist by fusing archive footage, quotes, photographs, and comments from people who knew him. Here we see the many, many faces of Leigh, his revolutionary creations, and are reminded of his wit and talent for showing-off. If you didn't get to see the film don't worry as there are plans to show it on television soon, and no doubt it will surface at other film festivals. It is surely the best tribute to Leigh so far, and is going to be a must-have if it gets released as a video. AND I'M IN IT!
Yes, I grace the screen, and let me tell you there is no shock greater than seeing your face the size of a double-decker bus on a 'silver' screen. Every line -however tiny and unnoticeable even in unkind light- comes off looking like a bit of railway track flung on the pitted gravel texture of your skin. I really should have worn a bit more make-up, or brought an extra arc light along. A couple of nights in might have helped too, but there I am for posterity, looking frazzled. Oh couldn't the camera have lied just this once?
The film traces Leigh's life from his childhood in Sunshine, Australia, through his early experimental fashions and TV appearances to his later performances with Minty and Raw Sewage. It's all here: the South of Watford scenes with Rachel Auburn and Trojan; The Last Resort with Jonathan Ross; The Clothes Show; his fashion collection in Japan; Taboo; dance with Michael Clark; the Anthony D'Offay Gallery installation; Kinky Gerlinky and his 'giving birth' to Nicola. Speakers include Michael Kostiff, Sue Tilley, Rachel Auburn, Alan Peelay, Nicola Bowery, David/Lola Holah, Les Child, Cerith Wyn Evans, Leigh's dad and sister, and Bella Freud. A picture of Leigh is revealed gradually through the many faceted fragments, quotes, clips, and edits. The film made me feel Leigh's loss in a way that nothing else has - not even touring with Minty in the years immediately after his death or looking at his old costumes. Not even Fergus Greer and Lucian Freud's portraits. It didn't make me feel grief, or sadness, or personal loss; I didn't run out crying, or sniff back salty tears. I felt like something great and good has gone from the world. This film puts something back, and that is no small thing.
When I first met Leigh eighteen years ago, either at The Wag, Mary's, Bolts, or Do-Do's, I'll never remember now, he struck me as a very nice, though incredibly gossipy person. He didn't show signs of the malicious streak that would come to the fore later, although I later learned that at the time he was crank calling the girl I shared a squat in Finsbury Park with. He could be a real cunt. Charles Atlas' film displays Leigh's less attractive qualities as well as celebrating his genius, and is stronger for this. It would be hard to sit through a documentary about Leigh in which everyone gushed about how fabulous he was, or pontificated straight-faced on his art, and Atlas has achieved a good-humoured balance. Atlas' editing of what must run into dozens of hours of footage is remarkable (the version shown at the ICA is an extended version of a cut he first showed in France); he must have had a hell of a time selecting which clips best captured Leigh, and then sorting them into an order. His selection and juxtapositions are perfect, and I can only urge you to go out of your way to see this film. It is truly great.
The legacy that Leigh Bowery has left; the great works of art, the funny film clips, the 'cultural industry', the fashions, his style, is like a surrealist garden of surprising delights. He was a dandy and a great eccentric in the tradition of Curricle Coates, Bunny Rodgers, Barbara Cartland, Dame Edith Sitwell, and Quentin Crisp. His posthumous fame deserves to flourish. There is talk of a film of Sue Tilley's biography in the pipeline, now THAT is a film I can't wait to see.
Appendage: The Musical Legacy of Leigh Bowery
Having heard some unreleased Bowery in my time with The Off Set and Minty (I supported them), his tracks are not hit parade material, but rather colourful and textured works in which Leigh's highly theatrical intonations and emphatic delivery enliven even the most monotonous backing track. After Leigh died, Minty had enough trouble getting record company backing to put out their album, and they only released his studio-quality material. It's a shame really, that Leigh's cassette-taped demos have never been aired publicly till now. Nicola Bowery, Leigh's widow, had the unfortunate experience of being told about the planned release whilst being interviewed by a glossy, rather fashionable magazine. She was only moderately surprised, she told me when I saw her in Brighton last week; 'I was quite angry at first, but then I remembered what Richard [Torry] and Matthew [Glamorre] can be like.'
Richard and Matthew, and I can vouch for this having been on tour with Minty (post-Leigh), are great guys but they can be impossible at times. And flaky. The Minty tours and assorted performances following Leigh's death were highly eventful affairs. Nicola and I shared a few laughs over all the shockingly bad behaviour (hotel rooms smashed, people going utterly insane), and disastrous gigs we went through. The tour was a strange relief for Nicola. After Leigh died, she was encouraged to keep busy by the Freuds (Lucian and Bella), both of whom were deeply concerned for her, and who kept her occupied with sewing work and modelling. When it was suggested that Minty should keep performing, and The Off Set be formed, she was all for it, perhaps wanting more to occupy her thoughts. I joined The Off Set (the details are hazy) I think because the Beautiful Bend had just finished and I was doing performances for Jibby Beane and needed to build up my repertoire. None of us could have foreseen what the resulting ensemble would eventually produce, or turn into. It was certainly an invigorating and provocative experience, and very much in the spirit of the departed.
Now Nicola finds herself increasingly involved in the organisation and presentation of exhibitions, and various talks on Leigh. The last couple of months have been particularly hectic, but she has enjoyed them. Nicola has donated one of Leigh's jackets to Brighton Pride so that they can auction it to raise funds. This is the first (and maybe only) of Bowery's pieces to be publicly auctioned. That international museums such as The Warhol Foundation and the V&A have expressed such keen interest in Leigh indicates that the smart money are waking up to his commercial potential.
Brighton Pride was, by the way, marvellous, even if it was very muddy in a Woodstock way. The sun shone all afternoon, and even if I ruined my best shoes beyond repair I still liked it better than London 3 for-a-Carling Mardi Gras. Why can't we have free festivals again in London? Are we so different (as Julie Burchill is fond of telling us) to the Brightonians?
This is the tip of the iceberg. I have, you will be frustrated to learn, much more on the legacy of Leigh Bowery to report, but you will have to wait.