Saturday, June 5, 2010

We Are Not Amused

Published in an edition of 100 to accompany the Curt McDowell exhibition, an uneven dozen broken hearts at 2nd Floor Projects, San Francisco, February 15, 2009 – March 29, 2009.


I hate The Beatles. As Futurama’s mock-cuddly monopoly capitalist Mom would put it, they make me want to puke my face off. I suspect this has some connection with “Love Me Do,” the first single by the Liverpudlian mop-tops, released in the land of my Mom’s people (England) on the day I was born. Astrologers may impute cosmic significance to this coincidence, but as I know less than nothing about such matters, I attribute my perpetual resentment to years of brainwashing.

My earliest memories of commercial radio broadcasts are of The Beatles. They were truly unavoidable during their existence as a recording entity, and instead of fading away after their dissolution, they only seemed to loom larger in the public mind. There were the solo careers, the publicity surrounding various lawsuits, and with a crushing inevitability, the continued broadcast of their music out of a sense of mourning. Around this time, popular music began to look back on itself — always a bad sign — with various nostalgia crazes, revivals, and worst of all, the enshrining of the “greatest” in monstrous social Darwinist play lists and anthologies. For a moment in the mid-to-late 1970s, Punk would dissipate some of this fatuous piety, but the disturbance of business as usual was only temporary. I mention piety, and that is precisely what it was. The Beatles, their music, their images, their achievements, their chart positions, ad infinitum, became a new catechism for people who really could have been doing better things with their time, like making Molotov cocktails or teaching their children how to read.

In strictly practical terms, brainwashing was an impossibility, as the CIA (and the various North American psychology departments it funded) eventually discovered. The Communists were never capable of foisting Manchurian candidates upon us. Pure coercion did not lead to pure obedience. Pleasure was a far more effective tool of domination, as the great figures of public relations had known since the 1920s. The Eastern Europeans came around to this position some decades late. The Slovenian rock band Laibach released their version of The Beatles’ Let It Be in 1988, just before the definitive collapse of state socialism in the East. Laibach’s previous efforts embodied an un-ironic worship of authority taken to such an extreme that it became — so their fans claimed — something else. But there were no clues that it was all a send up, no moment of respite from the numbing seriousness, nothing to make timid westerners feel smart and superior. When Laibach chose The Beatles as the heroic figures at the center of their English language debut, it came as a surprise to those expecting Stalin or Hitler, but it shouldn’t have. Compared to the greatest (i. e., biggest selling) popular music group in history, authoritarian leaders were mere amateurs in matters of transforming human consciousness.

Twenty years before Laibach exuberantly “murdered” The Beatles’ songs, Curt McDowell presented the Fab Four dead on the slab. In his painting, all four Beatles have their chests cut open for an autopsy. Their remains are expressive and do not have the look of morgue meat. Paul clutches his abdomen, as though he felt the coroner’s incision. (Or perhaps Linda’s vegetarian cuisine did him in.) John has his arm around Paul, who inclines his head toward John’s. Ringo seems to be sniffing Paul’s armpit, or perhaps he is getting closer so as to be included in John’s embrace. Only George strains to get away, as though the prospect of a group hug was too much for him. McDowell painted this post mortem tribute to The Beatles during his first semester at San Francisco Art Institute, around the time he realized that his true métier was filmmaking.

We know the approximate date of the work because of a pendant painting of a calendar page reading November 1968. During this month, McDowell saw a copy of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s album Two Virgins, which had recently been released in the U. S. The cover featured a photograph of John and Yoko in the nude. Within the mass of John’s untrimmed pubic hair, one can clearly discern his untrimmed penis. McDowell noticed this and revised his painting accordingly. He added a foreskin to John’s penis, but not having seen the other Beatle members, he left them alone. In the painting they appear circumcised.

Born in the region of the United States where circumcision is most common, McDowell may have been unaware that English baby boys are not routinely circumcised unless religious parents insist upon it. He used his own penis as a model for The Beatles’ penises, as can been seen in the photographic studies that McDowell and a friend made in preparation for the painting. This localized gesture of self-portraiture accounts for the curious uniformity of length and width — something extremely unlikely for any four unrelated men — in the painting’s four penises. It hardly seems possible that McDowell, who first came to San Francisco from Indiana in 1965, had not seen or touched a whole variety of foreskins before making this painting. Perhaps he had simply never had sex with Englishmen.

By performing a painterly mutilation of The Beatles’ genitalia, McDowell has unwittingly transformed three of them into Jews. He thus calls attention to the circumcised man closest to the boys, Brian Epstein. Manager, owner of a chain of record shops, master manipulator and mother hen, Epstein is widely regarded as one of the two chief architects of The Beatles’ success, along with George Martin, who produced their records. A depressive, frustrated homosexual with a weakness for rough trade and a mother with the exquisitely improbable name of Queenie, Epstein was a product of his age. Until the last month of his life, he lived the criminalized homosexuality that had been bequeathed to England by that vicious old Queenie herself, Victoria. Reputedly madly in love with John — a love that some say was once consummated unhappily — Epstein experienced a closeness with The Beatles that was necessarily platonic. He could never lounge around naked with “the boys,” feeling John’s arm around him, casually enjoying physical intimacy. In a sense, McDowell’s painting corrects this slight and dispels the homosexual panic by presenting three circumcised men, three Epsteins, who lie with John, each waiting his turn for a hug from him. With open chests, they have exposed their hearts completely to each other in a utopian if lifeless fourgy.

In 1967, Brian Epstein asked an English homosexual of another stripe, Joe Orton, whose plays Entertaining Mr. Sloane and Loot had recently scandalized London theatergoers, to write a film vehicle for The Beatles. Orton seemed like a properly subversive choice to sustain the film career of a pop group that had quickly become an institution. A working class kid from Leicester, Orton escaped from provincial council flat hell with a scholarship to RADA, then escaped from school with an older man named Kenneth Halliwell. Not content with the domestic joys to be had in an Islington bed-sit, Orton constantly prowled for sexual hookups around London. Never in the closet, always on the make, Orton was the model for a generation of gay men who would leave homosexuals like Epstein in the dust. That is the myth, anyway. In fact, Orton lied about his age, and was a year older than Epstein. The two of them might even have frequented the same cottages, or public rest rooms, in search of sex. Unfortunately, neither lived to see what followed the decriminalization of homosexuality. The two died within a week of each other in 1967, Epstein by accidental barbiturate overdose, and Orton famously at Halliwell’s hands.

Like the penises in McDowell’s painting, The Beatles in Orton’s screenplay, Up Against It, are almost indistinguishable. Orton didn’t even bother to give them separate names. They act as a team, and at one point, they end up in bed together. Brian Epstein was not amused. To give Orton “notes,” Epstein called him on holiday, while in bed with Halliwell and a couple of Tangiers’ handsomest boys.

Epstein: As I understand it… [The Beatles] are all in bed with each other. No no no no no no.

Orton: Why?

Epstein: Why? Because these are normal, healthy boys.

Orton: I take it they all sleep together.

Epstein: They do not.

Orton: Ooh, but they’re all very pretty. I imagined they just had a good time. Sang, smoked, fucked everything in sight, including each other. I thought that was what success meant.

Epstein: Mr. Orton, success means… well, it means respect for the public. Besides, one of the boys is happily married.

No one could possibly know what, if anything, actually transpired between Orton and Epstein. The dialogue above is from the film Prick Up Your Ears, based upon Alan Bennett’s script, an adaptation of John Lahr’s Orton biography, which was based in turn upon literary agent Margaret Ramsay’s Orton diary typescript, which derived ultimately from the original diary of Joe Orton. The scene as it was imagined for cinema might contain not even one iota of truth. The version that can be substantiated by historical research is blandly prosaic: the Up Against It script was returned without comment. Orton’s response to The Beatles and their manager: “Fuck them.”

The fictionalized scene may be untrue in detail but not in spirit. Paul McCartney once talked about the aborted Orton film project in an interview with Roy Carr:

The reason why we didn’t do Up Against It wasn’t because it was too far out or anything. We didn’t do it because it was gay. We weren’t gay and really that was all there was to it. It was quite simple, really. Brian was gay... and so he and the gay crowd could appreciate it. Now, it wasn’t that we were anti-gay — just that we, The Beatles, weren’t gay.

Paul, who may well hold the record for number of instances of the word “gay” in a single utterance, could simply not stop making himself perfectly clear. Brian Epstein, it seems, was not the villain of the piece after all.

In one of his few large-scale paintings, Curt McDowell managed to accomplish what a modern English dramatist, buckets of Hollywood money, and sadly, the man who loved them most could not accomplish: he got The Beatles to lie down naked together for all the world to see. And he had to kill them to do it.