Monday, October 22, 2012

Yash Chopra- Intelligent Emotions



Yash Chopra was a curator of cinematic sensibilities, creating an eclectic mélange of memorable moments from available material. He was perceptive about the raging issues in his cultural milieu and more importantly, he was alive to the dramatic possibilities of these sensibilities and undercurrents. It may be discontent of the youth (Deewar and Trishul) or guilt-ridden desire that rage against the social structures (Silsila, Kabhi Kabhi) or self beating penance for existential shame ( Kala Pathar). In all such cases he realized these possibilities in strictly traditional medium and idiom. He was a synthesizer of cozy lyricism of the traditional and blinding rationality of the modern. He was not be mistaken for avant-garde or experimental auteur, which is not a bad thing with him. His packaging (both attire and thinking) of culture was state of the art. He knew what will resonate with his  audience in terms thoughts and behaviour. In depicting  thought and behaviour he was at the frontier of modernity (remember characters, cars, homes, opulence and the attitude in all his films like Chandni, Lamhe, Silsila or even Darr), however in projecting values he remained resolutely traditional. He was a storyteller who could narrate the modern with easy accessibility of the tradition.
He devised a formula of containing the rebellious undercurrents with all their volcanic cinematic possibilities in strictly traditional medium and idiom. He was pitch perfect in creating enjoyable moments, tender moments, intense moments or emotional scenarios. His introduction of conflict and tension was swift and believable (marriage of Rakhi in Kabhi-Kabhi, Death of Shashi Kapur in Silsila, awakening of desire in many tradition bound daughters). His alchemy kept these developments effective and created solid foundation for dénouement that was a traditional resolution, complete with happy ever after ending. 

He is particularly known for his portrayal of romance. Like a true romantic, he made the reactions to the situations of romance a touchstone for overall character. Romance will be based on solace for tortured self  (Amitabh-Rakhi in Kala Pathar) or happy go-lucky (Shashi-Hema Trishul) but ultimately it determined that what sort of person the protagonist was. Furthermore, he often used romance to frame the main theme of his film. Four romances of Trishul- Sanjeev-Waheeda, Amitabh-Rakhi, Shashi-Hema and Sachin- Poonam Dhillon provided a context to the central theme of illegitimacy and betrayal. 

He was an intelligent film-maker well conversant with the dominant themes of his times and was clued in to the zeitgeist. This intelligence was tempered by a heart full of vibrant emotions and a healthy respect for tradition and its ability to provide solace and entertainment. An accomplished film-maker, he will be missed for his enduring success which he made look so effortless.

-Dhiraj Singh

Monday, October 15, 2012

Edvard Munch: Illustrator of Maladies



Much of drama, depth and dance of Edvard Munch’s artistic output is because of sweet spot that he inhabits at the cusp of art, cinema and photography.  He was deeply grounded in lyricism of painting and sufficiently interested in the modern inventions of his time to create an eclectic idiom that could take the best bits of the both the world. He painted cinema and photographs and he was illustrator of many sensibilities and theories that were emerging at that time. Illustrators don’t occupy the high pedestal in the pantheon of modern art.  Photographs and cinemas are also  treated as inadequate to address the exalted cravings of an artist who picks up brush to deal with his or her creativity. Not so with Edvard Munch. His perspective tricks, borrowed heavily from cinema, lent him the urgency needed to sharp-focus the anxious core of his work. His photograph like depiction- ‘Death in Sick Room’ is a case in point, portrait of a stage or cinema screen (‘Dance of Life’ and ‘Ashes’) never degenerate into the lifelessness of camera output. He said "Photography will never compete with painting so long as the camera cannot be used in heaven or in hell." Edvard Munch took it upon himself to take the device in heaven and hell, mostly in hell. With all his modern tools and sensibilities he was ultimately an illustrator of maladies. 
 Dance of Life
Peter Schjeldahl from New Yorker Magazine gets it correct when he writes “His strongest works, dating from about 1890 to the early years of the last century, exalted pictorial functions—narrative and illustration—that were being combed out of modern painting as specialties more proper to literature and the popular arts.” This was aided and reinforced by his ‘ardent theatricality’. He was influenced by ‘French painting (Gauguin and Van Gogh), Scandinavian theatre (Ibsen and Strindberg), and German philosophy (Nietzsche)’. Furthermore, he was bound to be aware of the developments that were taking place in the field of psycho-analysis. These influences provided rich source for his dark repertoire. He was clued in to the deepest anxieties of his times as interpreted by the leading theories of his times. He had artistic wherewithal and imagination to bring them on canvas with stark directness. He was at his best when his canvas was a narrative which is something more than just depiction. One can get more out of his paintings if one sees at least some of them as a screen shot or a moment on the stage. However, camera or stage angle should be taken only as entry points as Munch with is ‘radically impure’ style goes on chiselling newer realities of his themes making them truly timeless. “His disdain for normal technique and finish, his love of long, somewhat slurpy brush strokes that were more stained than painted, made all the difference. They enable him to give new voice to the rawest emotions, to be dramatic without sentimentality, and to fuse process, subject and content” wrote another critic. His artistic eye made him keep on paring the details till the vision is distilled to the emotional core of the issue. He used the perspective given by the vocabulary of cinema and photography but gave his characters intense inner life. It is the amalgamation of direct representation of camera and radical impurity of a supreme artist that creates a melange of raw emotions that transcends limits both camera and canvas impose.  
 
Death in Sickroom

Edvard Munch was born in Norway in 1863, the son of an Army surgeon whose family was stalked by death and illness. When he was 5, his mother died of tuberculosis; nine years later, his sister Sophie succumbed to the disease, giving him potent memories for his Sick Room paintings. Another sister was institutionalized for insanity. Munch committed himself several times for treatment of alcoholism and depression and underwent electric shock therapy. Although he had drawn since childhood, he entered college in Kristiania (as Oslo was called until 1925) to study engineering. Soon after, he transferred to art school and became involved with the Kristiania Bohemians. Munch had a difficult relationship with his father who was severe in his religious beliefs. He had an affair with Millie Thaulow, the wife of his teacher, patron and distant cousin Frits Thaulow. The affair ended badly but gave him raw material for many of angst ridden paintings such as Ashes, Vampire. In 1885 Munch went to Paris and in 1889 enrolled in art school there. For the next two decades he spent most of every year in Germany, with summer trips to France and Scandinavia. He lived a long life and was active till the end that came in 1944. 

Apart from the collision of emerging science with primal art, jarring rush of Munch’s art come from other intersections. Robert Hughes has pointed out that Sigmund Freud’s notion that self is the product of a battle between insatiable desires and unyielding social structures has found expression in Munch.  Similarly he also explored the ‘junction between objective and subjective.’ All this resulted in a fertile arena where ‘personal achieves the velocity of the universal.’ It is this capacity of turning personal into universal that made a critic write that source of Munch’s longitivity is to “do with his extraordinary gift for coining both archetypes and shapes.’ The thrust of his art “took in such existential matters as birth, love, loss, emotional turmoil, the search for one's identity and the inevitable decline into death. In these paintings Munch struggled to render his own emotional and psychological traumas, including the deaths of his mother and older sister, as well as his doomed first real love affair, into universal images that resonated with the outside world. By so doing, he said, he hoped to "understand the meaning of life" and to help others gain similar insights.”

In this he was helped by his ‘self abnegating submission to the emotional truth’. Often his narratives border on melodrama, hence the talk of his ‘ardent theatricality.’ There is an element of hyperbole in painting. His self portrait on operation table is filled with exaggerated details- A nurse is holding a bowl filled with blood and a blood stain is expanding on the sheet. Similarly ‘Scream’ is nothing is an exaggerated expression of horror, anxiety or some kind of primal fear. He has been called ‘exuberant miserabilist’  who indulges in ‘exaggeration in service of truth’. “He has no shame when it comes to self-pity, hypochondria, jealousy or grief, is never too proud to confess to lust or depression. He is the friend who doesn't censor the story as the rest of us might, doesn't pretend to resignation or serenity or forgiveness. His emotions are open and energetically direct. His art is frankly invigorating” wrote Laura Cumming in Guardian. 

In being such a successful illustrator of human maladies, Edvard Munch prepared the ground for anxious sensibilities to be aesthetically pleasing. He taught the generations how to appreciate the beauty of loneliness, melancholia, rejection or other such afflictions. By making them alive on canvas he created an idiom of pain that captured the universal appeal of a highly individual artist. 


-Dhiraj Singh

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Lucien Freud: The Bohemian Monk and His Mounds of Feelings



Lucien Freud was a painfully niche artist. He was a realist portrait painter- perhaps the best in modern times. His realism is unwavering and is defining feature of his artistic output. Realism and portrait painting are the two anathemas of modern day art world. Advent of photography must have played on Freud’s mind when he made the genre of portrait painting his own. He set out to define realism for a realist and even a cursory look at his oeuvre is sufficient to highlight the deficiencies of photo-realism. He made human skin his arena and his weapon of choice was colour- loads of thick throbbing pigments creating fascinating mounds of feeling. If photography was ever a concern, it was not the picture postcard variety; it may well have been the family album. Lucien Freud never painted professional models. His subjects were his friends, relative, wives even daughters. “I work from the people that interest me and that I care about, in rooms that I live in and know,” he is quoted in the


(For credit details of above painting- see comment at 
http://modernartists.blogspot.in/2012/09/lucien-freud-bohemian-monk-and-his.html#comment-form OR http://www.lucadelbaldo.com/art/work/forbidden+pictures/Lucian-Freud.html)
New York Times. From this somewhat incestuous world of indoors and intimates emerged ‘easy to admire, difficult to like’ art of this grandson of Sigmund Freud.  

Arena of skin
He never called his figurative paintings ‘nudes’ he calls them naked portraits. When painting people without any cloths, he was dealing with the whole ethos and feeling ecosystem of nakedness. He was ‘normally’ miles away from sensuality when painting these nudes. His sitters were generally the people he knew, his friends, assistant, daughters and sons. He did not capture them in any airbrushed digestible form that glorifies human body- a tradition that goes a long back to masters of classical period or even to primal cave paintings with exaggerated organs.  In Lucien Freud’s paintings ‘decorum of nudity’ is given a rude go by. His subjects don’t convey splendour of human body or the sensuality of nudity. Here he conveys the everydayness of nudity which is very discomforting to the artistic eyes trained on classical tradition of glorified nudes. He is almost clinical in getting the correct hue of human skin. He was liberal in applying paint-his principal weapon and painstaking in coercing the paint to come out with the spirit of the nakedness of the subject. It is a nakedness that is stark in its completeness, poignant in its vulnerability, almost repulsive in its details.  He is neither photographic nor pornographic. Dead verisimilitude of the photographs and cheap and easy tantalization of   pornographic are the last sensations that come to the mind of the viewers. He creates feelings that are dreary, heavy and above all true about humanity and its vulnerability. Robert Hughes wrote “in his own way Freud has done  what Velazquez did: assimilate the life of the subject to the life of the paint surface and of each gesture held in it. Very few painters can do this. It is not a trick. This is the difference between painting something and merely rendering it -- between Freud's fat woman, which is radical art of the highest intensity, and, say, Fernando Botero's fat women, which are boring essays in the pneumatics of style.”

He was not being sadistic or cruel to his subject when he painted them in such unflattering details. In fact, to a discerning eye it will appear a work of sympathy and attachment. Here comes in his insistence of avoiding professional models. He was intimate with is subjects as lover, friend or father. This intimacy excluded domination and exploitation. In fact, many of his subjects, including his daughters who posed nude for him- have found the arduous experience of sitting- that was normally long stretching to months and sometimes years and physically exacting- the best way of bonding with the artist. His extraordinarily remarkable personality often made these bonding an experience to cherish. 

The Old School Bohemian
Lucien Freud came from an impeccable pedigree. Lucian Michael Freud was born in Berlin on Dec. 8, 1922, and grew up in prosperous circumstances. His father, Ernst L. Freud, an architect was Sigmund Freud’s youngest son. His mother Lucie Brasch, who was painted by him after his father’s death, was the heiress to a timber fortune. In 1933, after Hitler came to power, the Freuds moved to London. He was not a very promising students and was a difficult teenager. “In 1938, he was expelled from Bryanston, in Dorset, after dropping his trousers on a dare on a street in Bournemouth. But his sandstone sculpture of a horse earned him entry into the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London. He left there after a year to enroll in the East Anglian School of Drawing and Painting in Dedham.... In 1941, hoping to make his way to New York, Mr. Freud enlisted in the Merchant Navy, where he served on a convoy ship crossing the Atlantic. He got no nearer to New York than Halifax, Nova Scotia, and after returning to Liverpool developed tonsillitis and was given a medical discharge from the service.” 
 His obituary in New York Times describes him as a bohemian of the old school who set up his studios in squalid neighborhoods, developed a ‘Byronic reputation as a rake and gambled recklessly’. In 1948, he married Kitty Garman, the daughter of the sculptor Jacob Epstein. Kitty was subject of many of his early important works like “Girl With Roses,” “Girl With a Kitten” (1947) and “Girl With a White Dog” (1950-51). That marriage ended in divorce, as did his second marriage, to Lady Caroline Blackwood. He is survived by at least 14 acknowledged children from his first marriage and from a series of romantic relationships. 

His early works were linear and thinly painted. Under the decisive influence of his friend Francis Bacon in mid 50s, Freud abandoned this style and started moving “toward the brushy, searching portrait style of his mature work, with its severely muted palette of browns and yellows.” This style kept on getting ‘refined’ into more coarse and robust style complete with more voluminous application of paint and thicker brushes. Later, he had the luck of having a flush of late renaissance of talent. I will use late Robert Hughes tribute to Freud here “Most artists, one imagines, dream of achieving a great late style -- the uprush and resolution in old age, careless of aesthetic risk, sometimes even a little mad, that carry a life's effort into profundity. Few, obviously, manage anything of the sort. The retrospective of paintings by Lucian Freud, 71 (at that time), which opened last week at New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art, sets before us one who has.” This rush continued till very last when he died in July 2011 at 88. 

Creating art without artifice

Freud’s paintings often flirt with the danger of falling in the caricature trap. Heightened realism can get cartoonish and Freud in his time engaged with obvious caricatures (no I am not talking of queen of England whom he painted). He share with Salvador Dali the penchant of realism and love for details but he rejected Surrealism after initial forays into it. “The Painter’s Room” (1943) has strong Surrealistic traits. He was totally divorced from the weird imagination that was the mainstay of Surrealism. “I could never put anything into a picture that wasn’t actually there in front of me,” he quoted to tell Robert Hughes. “That would be a pointless lie, a mere bit of artfulness.” This is an astounding achievement that he survived caricature trap despite hyper reality and, may be more importantly, created art while abhorring artfulness
.
Artifice is what makes art differ from documentary reality. As poetry is art of ‘sweet excesses’ art also needs sweet excess. Freud achieved the near impossible task of getting this excess by being fanatically rooted in reality. He captured everydayness of his subjects. Anything more would fall in the ambit of ‘mere bit of artfulness’. The traction of artistic appeal is gained by intensity of his feeling of getting to the soul of reality. He keeps on chisel with his hog hair brush till the reality came out. This process made his pursuit of fidelity transcend mere similarity and art was born. 

This load of intensity kept him away from Non European, particularly, American fame. He wasn’t modern enough as he was a realist portrait artist and Warhol infused America was not fine-tuned enough for his dreary realistic works. It later changed. He gained respect of the New World and was made very rich too by insane demand for his paintings in the well heeled connoisseurs. 

He created art by obsessing with his subject. He was brutally slow (though his vast output may indicate otherwise). He was a monk in his studio. He was doggedly unsentimental and unwavering in teasing the soul out of his renderings without resorting to fireworks. He has come to be synonymous with intense art of high calibre and epithet of ‘greatest realist painter of modern times’ has stuck.

-Dhiraj Singh

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Robert Hughes- The consummate curmudgeon


He always had the right words to describe it and his explanation always seemed complete. It was this knack of zooming in to the crux of the appeal of an artwork that made Robert Hughes the formidable force in the world of art-criticism. His charisma was rooted in uber intellectualism nurtured by encyclopaedic knowledge and tempered by street fighter brawn. He was very literate and very contentious. True to his profession he had strong opinions and enough ammunition to defend those opinions against anyone. Many of his obituaries have conveyed the impression that he did not realize his full potential. There was an undercurrent there that may be due to his involvement with media juggernaut he could not contribute in more enduring way.  There was a struggle to convey what he stood for.    On the other hand, there were mentions of the criticism that he was seen as a reactionary critic who failed to fully appreciate later day developments. In an otherwise glowing tribute Benjamin Genocchio wrote in the New York Times “I am not going to venture any views on his critical opinions of art and artists, most of which were shaped in the early 1960s and which, by the 1990s, increasingly seemed out of touch with developments in contemporary art. He found little to like, turning into a kind of reactionary crank.”  Not that he was being criticized- far from it; his death last month brought a surge of undiluted admiration from his fraternity. These negative strands spoken with a combative camaraderie of critics which is not supposed to be dimmed by the funeral shadow do need rebuttal as Robert Hughes is not just famous but he is important too. His contribution should not come under shadow because of the arc lights that he courted with such bruising intensity.
Enduring Appeal

Question of a lasting importance of Hughes often comes from the very narrow interpretation of the notion of importance. Many feel that Hughes could have given a theory or a framework of art appreciation. There is a nagging impression that in the ephemeral world of media he failed to contribute in a durable way. More than anything else many of his admirers fail to identify him with any particular type of art. Hughes was not an academician. Notwithstanding his erudition and vast knowledge, he wasn’t a pedant. He has created enduring and academically sound work in the form of books and monographs but they only partially define his contribution.  He has written definitive treatise on world’s most important cities, art and artists. He has given a true classic in ‘Fatal Shores’ an account of settling of Australia. On account of these only he is an enduring intellectual figure in the fields of history and art. However he is important from a far deeper perspective. Academic tomes are needed and have a place and Hughes has a first rate academic oeuvre. But beyond ivory towers of academia art criticism has a very public purpose -   that of identifying, analyzing,  and most importantly refining public taste. 

 Arbiter of Public Taste

Art critic is not just doing the analysis of present trends but also carries the burden of making art accessible to public. In him or her resides the custodian of aesthetic heritage of mankind. He is able to tell western public what does it mean to be a Hon'ami Koetsu in 16th century Japan or what made Reubens what he was or what torturous demons propelled Goya or Van Gogh. Is there exist, if at all, any redeeming feature in Warhol. The critic is arbiter of public taste, its aggregator its disseminator. He sits on judgement about the public sensibilities and in turn forms them. Many artists need such interpreters to convey their appeal and Robert Hughes had this knack of spotting greatness and intellectual and communicative wherewithal to make this greatness mainstream. He interpreted Lucian Freud for US public. He declared Freud to be the greatest realist painter alive (at that time) and said “... the extraordinary flavor of the nudes and portraits by Lucien Freud, the 52-year-old grandson of Sigmund: more psychic territory is crossed in Freud's scrutiny of a few square inches of worn flesh than one might find in a whole roomful of recent American realism”- America agreed. Lucian Freud will be Freud without Hughes also but with him he is accessible to a larger chunk of humanity and with far deeper intensity- the pleasure increases many times over. The point here is that art needs public arbiters equally or, may be, more than the academic pronouncements. From this perspective, Robert Hughes is a figure of historical importance. 

It is a bit of a surprise that there is very little clarity about what he stood for. He was nothing if not opinionated. It was his trade to have an opinion and clear cut biases. He liked, and liked strongly, Lucian Freud, Picasso, Matisse, Cézanne, and other modern masters. He absolutely adores Goya. He was pretty clear that art is about imagination, colour scheme, symmetry of execution and draftsman ship. He liked his art to break new grounds but for him art was about aesthetics and feeling. It had to conform to basic minimum of aesthetic inventiveness or even ‘beauty’. After watching Matisse exhibition he wrote “Such is our fin-de-siecle. On every side, the idea of quality is ritually attacked, so that many young artists have come to doubt the most basic experience involved in comparing one artwork with another -- namely, that there are differences of intensity, articulateness, radiance, between works of art; that some speak more convincingly than others; and that this is not a political matter.” It was on the grounds of ‘intensity, articulateness, radiance’ he did not like much “wretchedly stylish woods of an already decayed, pulped-out postmodernism.” He was brutal when he found that something that is not ‘art’ for him is being touted as one. One such unfortunate soul was Basquiat, graffiti painter who died in 1988 of a heroin overdose, Hughes' ‘tribute’ ran under the headline, "Requiem for a Featherweight." Basquiat, he wrote, was "a small, untrained talent caught in the buzz saw of art world promotion, absurdly overrated by dealers, collectors, and no doubt to their future embarrassment, by critics." He really disliked the crass commercialization of the art world.  This often propped him up for the attack as a reactionary or a conservative who was not in tune with the new developments. 

Master of Putdown

It is true that his first instinct towards the new trends of installation art and extreme experiments in public tastes was that of anger and contempt. However, he always argued cogently for his contempt and was brutal with his put down. New York Times quotes him describing the work of Jeff Koons as “so overexposed that it loses nothing in reproduction and gains nothing in the original.”  However,  he is not averse to inventiveness. He is not very enthusiastic about Warhol but he recognizes his genius. In fact his evaluation of Warhol puts the artists in proper perspective. He writes “His (Warhol’s)contribution was the image taken from advertising or tabloid journalism: grainy, immediate, a slice of unexplained life half-registered over and over, full of slippages and visual stutters. Marilyn Monroe repeated 50 times, 200 Campbell's soup cans, a canvas filled edge to edge with effigies of Liz, Jackie, dollar bills or Elvis. Absurd though, these pictures looked at first, Warhol's fixation on repetition and glut emerged as the most powerful statement ever made by an American artist on the subject of a consumer economy. The cranking out of designed objects of desire was so faithfully mirrored in Warhol's images and so approvingly mimicked in his sense of culture that no one, in fact, could be sure what he thought.” This makes it clear that Warhol was about presentation rather than representation. While acknowledging the value of Warhol he is very clear “Warhol's early works were the ones that mattered. He began as a commercial artist, became for a time (between about 1962 and 1968) a fine artist with something akin to genius and then lapsed back into a barely disguised form of commercial art.” He is acidic about the rampant commercialization. This sharpness of opinion may have contributed to his image as out of sync curmudgeon. However, this may be noted he had a fine eye, howsoever conservative,  which was always open to the value of art.

Nothing demonstrates his opinionated self than the description in his New York Time obituary- “About artists he admired, like Lucian Freud, he cast the stakes in nothing less than heroic terms. “Every inch of the surface has to be won,” he wrote of Freud’s canvases in The Guardian in 2004, “must be argued through, bears the traces of curiosity and inquisition — above all, takes nothing for granted and demands active engagement from the viewer as its right.” ....“Nothing of this kind happens with Warhol, or Gilbert and George, or any of the other image-scavengers and recyclers who infest the wretchedly stylish woods of an already decayed, pulped-out postmodernism.”

He is arguably the most successful art evangelist in the television era. His forthright manner, his conviction and confrontationist personality shone on the screen. “The Shock of the New,” his eight-part documentary about the development of modernism from the Impressionists through Warhol, was seen by more than 25 million viewers when it ran first on BBC and then on PBS and the book that he spun off from it was a “stunning critical performance” and  hugely popular. 

To conclude-
His comments on the two of the greatest artists are the best way to demonstrate how he made high art accessible to us without pandering to the lowest common denominator. 

On Picasso- “In his work, everything is staked on sensation and desire. His aim was not to argue coherence but to go for the strongest level of feeling. He conveyed it with tremendous plastic force, making you feel the weight of forms and the tension of their relationships mainly by drawing and tonal structure. He was never a great colorist, like Matisse or Pierre Bonnard. But through metaphor, he crammed layers of meaning together to produce flashes of revelation. In the process, he reversed one of the currents of modern art. Modernism had rejected storytelling: what mattered was formal relationships. But Picasso brought it back in a disguised form, as a psychic narrative, told through metaphors, puns and equivalences. The most powerful element in the story--at least after Cubism--was sex.”
On Matisse- “In its thoughtfulness, steady development, benign lucidity, and wide range of historical sources, Matisse's work utterly refutes the notion that the great discoveries of modernism were made by violently rejecting the past. His work was grounded in tradition - and in a much less restless and ironic approach to it than Picasso's.”...... “His studio was a world within the world: a place of equilibrium that, for sixty continuous years, produced images of comfort, refuge, and balanced satisfaction. Nowhere in Matisse's work does one feel a trace of the alienation and conflict which modernism, the mirror of our century, has so often reflected.”

-Dhiraj Singh

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

ROLLING STONES: SO THAT WE CAN ALL GROW OLD DISGRACEFULLY


 
Life and times of Rolling Stone are living, breathing and very vivid representation of Rock & Roll itself.  In Rolling Stone we can see how archetypes are formed.  Something posits itself in public imagination because it mirrors reality of a phenomenon in its all pulsating details.  Rolling Stones are the origin, zenith and mainstreaming (with its unavoidable mellowing) of Rock & Roll.  They embody the influences, main themes and growth path of one of the most exciting chapters of the history of Music-i.e. Rock & Roll.  More than that, they ARE the tradition of Rock & Roll.  Rock & Roll has come of age accumulating influences from fringes becoming a big river.  This collision of many strands like country, blues,  beat  poetry, funk  and R&B created a rich repertoire of new musical idioms which a turbulent generation made its own.   In the process, it  traded bit of its churlish rebelliousness and most of its innocence for maturity of seasoned world weariness and elegant debauchery.  This is Rock & Roll and also pen portrait of Rolling Stone. 
  
 Rock & Roll  couldn’t  find  a more appropriate totem.  Stones’ endurance (they will celebrate 50th anniversary of their first concert next month) remains a key factor.  Rock and Roll has its romance in early deaths of its leading light.  Loss of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and later Kurt Cobain are cases in point.  However, in final analysis, tradition of Rock and Roll needs the consolidation provided by its inexorable albeit slow march towards maturity.  For this, players with enduring presence were needed.  That is why, if the allure of rock mythology got its flashy hooks in the blazing but short lived torrents of talent, their iconography was consolidated by the survivors like Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana and perhaps most representatively by Rolling Stone.  

This is not to overlook Rolling Stone’s   own share of untimely demises. One of the original members and arguably, the most adventures of the lot, Brian Jones was lost to the excesses of the era.  Some credit Jones with the christening the band as Rolling Stones as he took  it from a Muddy Waters song.  Jones was extremely reckless and had a history to prove it.  He had fathered two illegitimate children before he was 16.  He had his moments in notable 1968 album ‘Beggars Banquet’.  Rolling Stone magazine says that Jones had “lent sitar, dulcimer, and, on "Under My Thumb," marimba to the band's sound, and who had been in Morocco recording nomadic Joujouka musicians.”  The Magazine also comments “Brian, never a day at the beach in the human-being department, was increasingly lost as a musical presence, but he has his final great moments on ‘Beggars Banquet’. When Brian plays a ghostly slide guitar on "No Expectations," he sounds like he's playing at his own funeral.”  He was given the boot by the band on June 9, 1969 and was found dead in his swimming pool on July 3, 1969.  Drugs proved to be his undoing.  Coroner called it ‘death by misadventure’ not a very rare occurrance in the era that saw many leading lights succumbing to such misadventures.     Jones also appeared on ‘Let it Bleed’ released a day after his burial.  
   
Notwithstanding the loss of Jones, Rolling Stones is a study in permanence. Their survival in itself is a great achievement. More creditably, they have kept the wheels moving and regeneration by creation had been their motif in their splendid innings of   half a century (still counting). Even in abeyance their creative juices kept flowing and  kept the rolling stone saga lubricated and functioning. Impending doom was always looming but gradually that became a permanent fixture and hovering doom was a reassuring sign the bad boys were at work.  There longevity ensured that they remained “a scandalous symbol of ‘generational independence”, says Peter Conrad in a not so flattering half century review of the band.  He adds   “now that we baby bouncers are too rickety to do much dancing, the stones serve as precious relic of our teenage days.  Encouraged by them we can all grow old disgracefully.” 

One of the reasons for this peerless survival is given by the bands co-frontsman and guitarist Keith Richards. The explanation is in keeping with his reputation for making his body a lab for all sort of substances. Richards was never self-destructive despite all the evidence to the contrary. In his autobiography ‘Life’ he helpfully explains that ‘he never succumbed to the rock star archetype of early death because he used only the “finest, finest cocaine and the purest, purest heroin.” Richard Corliss of Time Magazine was having a great time while reviewing the autobiography- “Keith Richards has been the subject of many lurid rumors; most of them turn out to be understatements…… Life does contain enough drug tales to fill Thomas de Quincy's Confessions of an English Opium Eater — from Richards' description of a 1972 bust in Arkansas, where dope was concealed not just in the folds of his cap but also in his car's side panels, through his helpful delineation of barbiturates ("the sensible drugs in the world are the pure ones"), to his awed evocation of LSD: "There's not much you can say about acid except, God, what a trip!"

One thanks the gods of Rock and Roll for the quality consciousness of Stones. However, on a more serious note, Stones have endured for so long because of their fidelity to their roots. Stripped of all the trappings of hype and fame, Rolling Stones is basically a very solid blues band.  Rhythm & Blues was their initial passion which matured into uncanny mastery. The most instantly recognizable Stones riff has been the wail and gloom of blues.  “The reason the Stones have endured so long as the World's Greatest Rock-and-Roll Band, of course, is their ability to consistently make music that remains true to their blues and R & B roots while at the same time assimilating new musical sounds and stamping them as their own. By now, they have built up such an impressive body of work that they could easily deliver shows made up of nothing but greatest hits, but the band has refused to become a nostalgia act” Write Michiko Kakutani of New York Times. “The Stones' pirate-like swagger, their unsentimental view of sex, their shimmering ballads of longing and loss are all rooted in the blues tradition, as are their gritty, unvarnished meditations on love and death -- qualities that help explain why even the band's earliest work, unlike the more pastel-colored love songs of the Beatles, has so defiantly endured…… iconography that ratifies the music's haunting ambiguities, its ecstatic, Dionysian groove” adds the Chief Book Critic of the Times. 

Blues has life enhancing properties. For many of its practitioners it has been a lifelong profession. Its regenerative powers have kept giants like Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and Howling wolf – all icons for the Stones- active into a very long and fruitful careers. Keith Richards guitar conveys the longings and lyricism of blues tradition with great facility. Jagger told  Kakutani “''My kind of writing has always been blues-influenced because it's the music I grew up with,'' I couldn't really write happy love songs. I was coming from a different standpoint. Lots of double-edged humor and rather dark narratives -- that's all to do with the blues. Compared to 50's pop, the blues always seemed much more grown-up.''
The Stones started with covers of ‘Little Red Rooster’, ‘Love in vain’ and other standard Blues anthems to show their grasp over a powerful musical tradition. With ‘Midnight Rambler’ and ‘Satisfaction’ they owned by redefining it. 
Many critics have decided that Rolling Stone peaked creatively in the mid 1960s and everything since then has been a matter of scrupulous, mercenary, “decline management.”    Magazine Rolling Stone notes almost admiringly “through the 1980s the group became more an institution than an influential force.” 
While the recall for the earlier hits like Satisfaction or Honky Tonk Women or Jumpin’ Jack Flash is far greater, their later work were also cohesive and realized pieces of dynamic  music. Rolling Stone Magazine says “Bridges to Babylon has prime moments, especially Mick's "Might as Well Get Juiced" and Keith's "Thief in the Night." A Bigger Bang was worth the wait, bristling with Mick's snakiest wit, Keith's shrewdest guitar runs, Charlie's loosest drum hooks. From "Rough Justice" to "This Place Is Empty," it's the work of hardened rock & roll dons who don't feel any need to prove a goddamn thing"

Maybe, their fidelity towards blues may be the reason for the accusations of them being creatively stalled in their early hits. However, their longevity is based on their avoiding mindless imitation of their icons.  “Perhaps being English, they were less inclined than their American contemporaries to slavish imitation; perhaps being true blues devotees, they instinctively understood the music's emphasis on personal expression.” They are content with their sound ‘a sound that is classic but it still rocks.’ Their later studio album ‘Bigger Bang’ “does not reinvent the wheel, just rolls it one more time with panache.”  This means that they were managing a bigger feet of performing with great originality in a restricted space. Keith Richards told New York Times ‘‘It’s easy to play a 12-bar blues anybody can do it -- it's whether it hits home or not. That's the hard thing, because you have to dig deep. You can't slouch the blues, you can't toss it off. Musically, it's a very limited form of music -- three, four chords if you're smart. It's where you place them and how you phrase it and how you sound it. It's a very tight frame to work within, but there's something within that framework that can express more than all the wailing away in the world.'' True affirmation of their greatness is in the flexibility of their idiom. Once again Kakutani hits the sweet spot “Somewhere along the line, in spreading the gospel of the blues, the Stones discovered their own voice as artists -- an infinitely flexible voice that somehow managed to accommodate modernist irony and post-modernist humor without losing its soul, a voice adept at everything from the surreal portrait (''Get Off of My Cloud'') to the elegiac story song (''Memory Motel'') to the straight-ahead rock-and-roll anthem (''Jumpin' Jack Flash'').” This flexibility can come only with owning the genre and having the confidence to declare with all the ‘sullen charisma that makes it impossible to take your ear off from it.’ The Ferocious nonchalance of Keith Richards and primal restlessness of Mick Jagger should not be allowed to deflect the attention from the growth and movement in their music. 

However, there is no doubt that they lost their ‘dangerous aura’. Familiarity bred by their long existence has created a companionability that makes us approach them as ‘feel good band’. No wonder they are the most profitable and enduring brand name in the history of Music.   Their tours are complete sell out. The ‘Bigger Bang’ tour of 2005 lasted for two years and grossed $558 million – highest ever for any tour. 

Rolling Stones have definitely cut down on the ‘Sympathy for Devil’ and have become Voodoo Loungers and Men of Wealth and Taste. Their spark has not diminished and they have not stopped enjoying making great music. Their endurance and success is, in very big part, due to the very transparent avidity and ‘soul hunger’ for music. The Alchemy that gets worked up when the musical soul-mates perform on stage is stuff of immortality. Keith Richards captures it too well ““There’s a certain moment when you realize that you’ve actually just left the planet for a bit and that nobody can touch you ……you’re elevated because you’re with a bunch of guys that want to do the same thing as you. And when it works, baby, you’ve got wings. You are flying without a license.”


-Dhiraj Singh