|Harry Kent, Brett Whiteley listens to Bob Dylan I,|
ink on paper, linocut image 20x15 cm
Brett Whiteley described Bob Dylan as ''the most satisfactory voice in pop, I think. There's sort of mango and Courvoisier and the best sort of hissing and low gravel Jewishness on it.'' (here).
But Dylan's importance for Brett Whiteley went beyond a mere appreciation of the voice.
His sister, Frannie, records in her biography [see below, p. 126] of Brett that
"He found an intellectual and spiritual brother in this man, whom he eventually met almost thirty years later. Brett was obsessed with poet-musician Dylan ... He collected his albums and was intimate with every song as though they were speaking to him directly. He listened to Dylan almost daily for most of his life."
I believe that he discovered in the person of Dylan the kind of intuitive artist, gifted genius even, that he himself aspired to be ... a bringer of gifts from the gods. He saw in Dylan a kindred spirit writ large. In short, he idolized the man and the musician.
Brett Whiteley had himself always wanted the gift of music making. He had wanted to be a rock star. If he couldn't have the fame, notoriety and kudos that came with rock stardom, then he would live the life of a rocker as an artist.
Brett Whiteley played Dylan's music full bore as he painted. He hated silence. Couldn't work in silence. He even soundproofed his studio so that working in early hours would not attract complaints from the neighbours.
Back in 1967 Brett Whiteley moved to New York for a couple of years. He made his home in the crazy Chelsea Hotel.
Hilton & Blundell provide a lively description of the setting: "'The Chelsea was not part of America, had no vacuum cleaners, no rules, no taste, no shame,' wrote former resident Arthur Miller, 'It was a ceaseless party.' It was where Dylan Thomas died in a drunken stupor and Sarah Bernhardt slept in a huge coffin in the pyramid-like cottage on the roof. ... Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey in its seedy rooms. It was Andy Warhol made one of his first films, Eugene O'Neill and John Huston wooed lovers and punk rock-master Sid Vicious would kill his girlfriend. It was the alma mater of New York pop culture. ... Rock hell-raiser Janis Joplin became Arkie's (Brett's daughter) occasional baby-sitter ... Brett would talk about how Jimi Hendrix would riff up and down his guitar when they were together."
The Chelsea Hotel was immortalized in song by Leonard Cohen with a song of the same name celebrating his tryst with Janis Joplin. At one time or another, Tennessee Williams, Thomas Wolfe and Gore Vidal had stayed there. The Mamas and the Papas and the Grateful Dead could be seen visiting.
It was also the centre of the Manhattan drug trade for artists, especially musicians.
The Chelsea Hotel was also where Bob Dylan lived in the 60's, where he wrote Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands. Brett kept a huge portrait of Dylan on the wall of his modest penthouse apartment there. It was an acquaintance and adoration that would last the rest of his days.
I sometimes wonder whether Brett Whiteley didn't style his Afro hairdo after Bob Dylan. Yes, Brett had naturally curly red hair that would grow into a mop when long (Donald Friend in his diaries described it as "a great frizzy 'Orphan Annie' halo"). But the shape and tight ringlets, and the comment someone made about how wiry and stark it felt to the touch makes me wonder if he maintained it using product to get 'the look' of his idol. Brett Whiteley's hair has become a motif for me in this series.
Hilton & Blundell describe the occasion of Bob Dylan's 1986 Australia tour press conference. "Brett was frantic about what to ask his his hero. He sweated on it for weeks before the Great man arrived, while friends contrived to have Dylan's press conference held at Brett's 'stude' in Surry Hills."
Brett's circle said that he was thrilled to have Dylan there but also desperate for Dylan to respond and understand what he was on about. When finally it was Brett's turn to ask Dylan some questions, it was as if Brett believed a cosmic collision of personalities was about to take place according to Kate McClymont. She saw Brett as wanting verification from Dylan about his own sources of inspiration and his benediction. But this press conference did not deliver the public affirmation Brett had wished for that he and Dylan were inspired artistes together.
Brett's sister Frannie writes of the time in 1992 when Bob Dylan came to Sydney for a return tour. Brett had bought tickets to every show and carried with him every night a copy of the catalogue from his recent exhibition in case he got the opportunity to present it to Bob. Dylan's minders were under orders not to admit anyone new to his dressing room. But Brett was not new and the opportunity came. Dylan looked at drawings and asked, "How'd you do that man?" Brett was elated over meeting, "Tastic".
But better was to come. The following day Dylan came to the Brett's studio. They spent a couple of hours together looking at Brett's work and discussing painting. All his life Dylan's student, in those sweet hours he now found himself his hero's teacher.
A month later, Brett Whiteley was dead.
And what of Bob Dylan?
On a 1990's recording of Brett Whiteley's favourite music, Dylan is heard to say in an interview,
''say hello to this guy Brett Whiteley. Is he still painting? He gave me some drawings the last time there and they still look good to me.''
|Harry Kent, Brett Whiteley listening to Bob Dylan II, |
ink on paper, linocut image 20x15 cm
In this second version of my linocut i deliberately inked the cuts so that they would show, rather in the style of early German Expressionist woodcuts, while in the top version's printing i had masked out these cuts with paper to obtain clean areas of white. Which is better is a matter of taste.