Betsy de Lotbiniere
- I first met Richard Strange in Rajasthan, India. He was wearing the long white collar-less shirt and pajama trousers of the locals. Ambling up to the buttermilk wonder that is Samode Palace, he chatted pleasantly while scribbling notes in his guide book. I asked why. “To pass on to the next traveller.” Mr. Strange is endlessly inclusive.
“The bikini blonde dives noiselessly into the turquoise pool ...” Dumb*
To call Richard Strange an artist — in that he dives into the unknown in order to extract a future vision — is accurate. Don’t think canvases and paint. Think raging rock voice, balladeer, television butler (both in a German soap opera and, in English, to Tony the Tiger)... think poetry, think playing with sound, think dandy, Death Eater, curator, impresario. But don’t ever stop at one definition.
“Do you think of yourself as an impresario?” I asked. He laughed dryly, “God no, that implies some successful executive.”
A head taller than most men, his wiry frame attired as the Cat in the Hat’s uncle, his voice is a melodic baritone pitched to cut through a wild din. He emits a subtle scent of juniper and spices that speaks of long cocktail-drenched afternoons with fascinating women: Guerlain’s Heritage. The arrival of Richard Strange signals the party will swing.
If the Queen could give you the key to any museum, which one would you choose? ”The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. And the first thing I’d do is try on the fish-skin suit.”
How many hours of sleep a night would you call ideal? ”None — with the right person.”
- Growing up in a house with not enough money and too many people plus a genuinely mad father would have squashed a smaller soul. Instead he changed his name to Richard Strange, spread his wings and made going-out one of his many métiers.
Richard Strange left school with no qualifications apart from a directly-experienced knowledge of experimental music, film, literature and culture. Taught himself guitar and formed the protopunk rock band “Doctors of Madness.” He rose to the top but soon hit a ceiling. “I knew we were doomed the night the Sex Pistols supported us. I looked at them and realized, at the age of 25, I was three years too old.”
He humbly refashioned himself as the President of Europe, wrote a one man show called The Phenomenal Rise of Richard Strange and went on the road touring America.
Upon his return to London in the early 80’s Strange started a cabaret club called Cabaret Futura. Thirty years later, he’s still inviting people to experience the lovely and the bizarre on the third Monday of every month at the Paradise (by way of Kensal Green) in Kensal Rise. The billing is deliberately kept a secret. It’s a great potluck adventure in an intimate setting.
Rather like a mini festival with an emphasis on experimentation, you can witness the likes of Aaron Barshack (who crashed Prince William’s 21st birthday party dressed as Osama Bin-Laden) read his epic poem on how everyone, including the Queen, masturbates. An utterly new Icelandic singer Ösp as well as the heartbreakingly charming Jeanne Marine, Bob Geldof’s partner. The beautiful blonde wore an elegant black jumpsuit with diamante buckle, played the ukelele and sang with a thrilling French accent.
- This year, I swear, the winter will be colder and the air will freeze my tears ‘cause you’re not here. — Sleep the Gentle Sleep* tribute to his friend, the late US writer and poet Kathy Acker.
As a character actor, Strange’s range and list of collaborators is impressive. Jack Nicholson called him “Tiger Lips” on the Batman set. Harmony Korine cast him as a President Lincoln look-alike in his film, Mr. Lonely. Martin Scorsese directed him as an undertakerin Gangs of New York. He plays a bookshop-owner in the filmInkheart ... on stage he played the oldest, wisest hunter who everlived in the groundbreaking William Burroughs/Tom Waits/RobertWilson collaboration The Black Rider.
With such a large coterie of famous creative collaborators, Strangewas driven to develop an event he calls, A Mighty Big If, in thechapel of The House of St. Barnabas, Soho. These are eveningsof dialogue with cultural icons such as the actor Brian Cox,experimental theatre director Robert Wilson, the musicians MarcAlmond and Gary Kemp, composer Michael Nyman and celebratedchoreographer Luca Silvestrini of Protein Dance. The latest was Brit Art maverick Gavin Turk.
Language is a Virus from Outer Space is the most recent project Strange production, largely in collaboration with the composer Gavin Bryars (Jesus’ Blood Never Failed me Yet). Recognising that the novelist William S Burroughs was born on February 5th 1914, making 2014 his Centennial year, they’ve set about creating a celebration of the life and work of Burroughs that will feature contributions from Richard Strange, Gavin Bryars, Audrey Riley, Sarah Jane Morris, Jeremy Reed, Gavin Turk, Haroon Mirza, Rupert
Thomson, David Coulter, Seb Rochford, Luca Silvestrini, Anni Hogan, the young musicians ensemble We Are Chidren (We Make Sound) plus a number of surprise special guests.
- With its World Premiere on October 11th at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, it is hoped that the work will be performed elsewhere in the world over the next two years.
How did you first come across William Burroughs? “I was bitten by the Burroughs bug in 1965 when I was 14, maybe 15 years old. My mate Joe Gilbert and I were really into the Beat writers. You couldn’t buy them because they were banned in England. So we hitchhiked to Paris and got ourselves over to Shakespeare and Co.”
Maurice Girodias’s Olympia Press published Naked Lunch in Paris in 1959 (the same press had published Lolita four years earlier) “Olympia Press published banned authors such as Ginsberg and Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Alex Trocchi…, we admired them both temperamentally and pharmaceutically.”
I had this dream a little while back, I was sharing a needle with Cilla Black ... — You Will Die*
I asked him to describe why Burroughs is such an influence. “It’s slightly difficult to sell him to someone who hasn’t read him. Burroughs was a gay, wife-murdering junkie. Not what you’d call a cuddly character. But he was a huge influence on modern culture and still is. What you can do with language, the cutting up of narrative, he lead the way. He represents formalization, deconstructing structure. He said he only truly became an artist after shooting his wife, (Joan Vollmer, 1951).
I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death,’ Burroughs has said, ‘and to the realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from control.
- So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the ugly spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.’’
Did you ever meet Burroughs? “Yes, and I took him to the Burroughs’ Pie, Eels and Mash shop in Coldharbour Lane, Brixton. He was not impressed. Burroughs was born 1914 in St. Louis. Coincidentally, T.S. Eliot left St Louis the same year.”
Where is the weirdest place you have ever woken up? ”A hospital in Bangkok after they’d taken my face off and put it back on again. I’d fallen over in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and the injury was so bad they sent me to Thailand for more expert medical treatment. They don’t put that in the holiday brochures!”
Where did you meet your wife (Kelly Dearsley Strange, Programmes Director, Fashion Communication at London College of Fashion, they married in 2011)? ”Albermarle Street, a private view. Yes, it was a coup de foudre.” What does the Alphabet beside your name mean? ”Richard Strange PFHEA = Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.
I teach a BA Unit at the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance, a module called Creativity in Context. I teach musicians to take risks. The HEA admired my teaching methods and bestowed that qualification on me. Very humbling.”
”The whole paradigm of Rock has changed dramatically. There was a time when a record company would develop an artist, and give him lots of money for three albums. Today’s music lover expects their music to be free. The new media loves music. Things like Soundcloud, Twitter and YouTube are all linked into a very important part of the pop culture that is not sold. You make your money touring.”
- I asked him to remember a quote from his best man: ”The wonderful artist, Brian Clarke, hosted our wedding feast at his amazing studio. He gave a very beautiful speech quoting the galeriste Robert “Groovy Bob” Fraser’s observation about my first Cabaret Futura “He won’t make money but he might just make a difference.”
Which brings us to the question of money. ”Ideas are the real currency. No, strike that. Ideas are the ONLY currency. Music should describe the energy of ideas. If it’s wrong, make it brilliantly wrong and you get it right. When you’re stuck, bang together two existing ideas and you’ll spark something new. Whatever you do, Don’t Whinge!”
By his own rules of accounting, Richard Strange is a billionaire.