Storm Thorgerson 1944 – 2013

Storm Thorgerson 1944 – 2013

Storm Thorgerson, whom I had known since my early teens, died three weeks ago after a long struggle with cancer. Storm was a legendary graphic designer specialising in album sleeves. He is responsible for the artwork on all the Pink Floyd albums and, with the Hipgnosis and StormStudios team, has produced memorable imagery for Led Zeppelin, Peter Gabriel, 10cc, Black Sabbath, Muse, Biffy Clyro and many other groups and artistes. I was asked by Storm’s wife Barbie to deliver a eulogy at the funeral. I have reproduced it below.

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Storm was the rudest person I have ever met. I have come across ruder people but they were not of my acquaintance and were not generally likeable. Storm was actually very loveable, despite being very rude.

He was a kind and generous rude man, an unfailingly engaged man. By this I mean that even when rudeness was in the air, Storm was paying close attention to you. At times it may have felt like a little indifference wouldn’t hurt but the fact is whenever I spoke with Storm, over the 55 years we knew each other, he always listened, always had an answer or another opinion, always told you very much what was on his mind. When we met socially, rather than in pursuit of projects, we would talk nonstop and laugh a great deal. When we were teenagers we discussed girls then rocknroll then alcohol then Jack Kerouac then drugs then Timothy Leary then spiritual matters, sharing a considerable scepticism for the latter topic, then madness and psychoanalysis then wives and sons and daughters. At Film School at the Royal College of Art we talked about movies and directors. Storm and Po posed as photography students at the college – Po wasn’t even enrolled there – and using the department’s equipment put together their first album sleeve for ‘Piper at the Gates of Dawn’. The rest is internationally renowned design history, as Po has so colourfully demonstrated.

When we talked we shared an elaborate vocabulary of jokes, catch phrases, nicknames, insults, silly voices, a Tourettish ease with foul language and an unnecessarily erratic volume control. Storm designed beautiful and peculiar posters for Lumiere & Son Theatre Company, sat on our board and watched our shows. As a critic of plays, films, books and works in progress he was exceptionally astute and seemed to cut to the flaws in a piece of work almost effortlessly.

But what about the rudeness?

When you’re a child, people, such as your parents, will, when you’re rude, say things like “Don’t be so rude!” I’m sure Storm’s remarkable mother Vanji, and his father, the late Elvin, when the parents were still together, said things like this. And I’m sure that Storm, who was very clever, completely understood what they were referring to and what was intended. But did he care? Did he take them seriously? Did he think that Mister Manners was a pleasant enough chap but ultimately rather superficial?

When he was four and a half years old Storm went to the legendary progressive school Summerhill, founded by the radical educator A.S.Neill. Neill’s view was that “the function of a child is to live his own life — not the life that his anxious parents think he should live, not a life according to the purpose of an educator who thinks he knows best.” The democratic nature of the school was most notoriously expressed in the principle that pupils were given the freedom to choose which lessons, if any, they would attend.

Storm stayed at Summerhill until he was nine then, missing his parents somewhat, told them that he was not progressing academically at a satisfactory rate and wished to be relocated to an ordinary day school. He had, it seems, already acquired low cunning.

But he’d also, I’m convinced, had an experience that changed him for ever.
A couple of years later this cheeky, noisy mini-bohemian was at the County School for Boys in Hills Road. I met him when we were both thirteen and, as I’ve said, we became firm friends. He had a loud, piercing, nasal voice – the result, he claimed, of falling nostril first onto a raspberry cane. At school he shone in all subjects and was exceptionally gifted in almost all the sports on offer. But he seemed unable to accept that while his teachers were allowed to criticise him he was not allowed to criticise them. While more than satisfactory scholastically his general demeanour was problematic. It was not that he was truculent or rebellious, it wasn’t the cheerful insolence, it wasn’t quite that he didn’t give a damn – he was just marching to a different drummer.

It may be fruitful to flesh this out by offering a small sample of Storm’s offences against common decency.

Back in 60s Cambridge it was the thing to have big cars. I had a Daimler I got for £30 and Storm had a huge blue 40s Studebaker saloon. We would playfully ram each other’s cars from time to time and were quietly proud of their tank-like strength. On one occasion we all piled into the Student Baker, as we called it, and Storm drove down Regent Street, the main shopping drag. We passed a stationary police car. Storm leaned out and skilfully broke an egg on its roof. As we whooped with delight, Storm drove round the park, came back down Regent Street and did it again. And then again. On another occasion he came to visit me in a house I was caretaking in South Kensington and at the end of the evening stepped into the street, jumped onto the roof of a parked car and ran along the street from roof to bonnet to boot to roof to bonnet, trebly denting six expensive vehicles whilst shouting incoherently. Was he a thoughtless vandal, a socialist revolutionary or a budding live artist? Yes to all of the above.

At the beginning of a long video shoot that would comprise every song on Barry Gibb’s album ‘Now Voyager’, Storm insisted that Barry shave off his beard so that Storm would have more facial expression from the star. Barry refused, understandably, given that the beard was as iconic as Madonna’s pointed bra or Elton’s colourful glasses. Storm said he would not shoot unless the beard came off. The crew languished on the beach in Florida, tanning and reading magazines while the contestants slugged it out. In the end Barry caved in but only on condition that he start growing the beard again from day one. The ensuing video is of special interest in that facial hair continuity is completely deranged, sprouting and receding over Barry’s chin at random moments throughout. When Bill Cosby invited Storm to L.A. to discuss shooting his Christmas show, he showed Storm the script and asked his opinion. Storm told Bill that it wasn’t very good. Bill thanked him and Storm left the office. As he was passing through the outer office Bill’s producer approached Storm and unceremoniously sacked him.

When my mother told me off in front of Storm when we were in our mid teens he turned to her and said “Mrs Gale, I really think you should consider bringing up your son differently.’ He received a lifelong ban from the well kept household. Never especially self-conscious about bodily functions Storm had to mend his ways when, at the studios in Belsize Park, one of his female assistants told him she was not prepared to discuss the day’s work with him while he was in the toilet with the door open. On holiday with Trudy and Del he caused something of a stir one night by wandering through the sitting room of the villa clad only in a short tee shirt, no underpants. Seamus O’Connell, a fellow pupil at the County School, recalls that when the boys were in the second form they were required to wear short trousers, a particular handicap if you wanted to go promenading down town after school. Storm however, showing characteristic resourcefulness in Seamus’s view, would frequently turn the shaming garment to his advantage by hiking up one trouser leg then thrusting the free arm up that leg in order to scratch his balls in the high street. On set, in the course of numerous pop video shoots, he would argue with his producers, insult the record label functionaries, berate the artistes and harangue his assistants. He was, to quote the sound designer Steve Wald, ‘a man who would never take ‘yes’ for an answer’. He was a perfectionist who made Stanley Kubrick look poorly motivated.

But we loved him for it. Eleanor Church, who used to work in Pip Printing, next to the studios, said that every morning, without fail, she would hear a tap on the window of the shop. Storm would be out in the street, giving her a V sign. Elly and her colleagues looked forward to this daily salute, it made the workaday grind bearable.

Lee Baker from Storm Studios sums all this up in a tribute he wrote recently:
‘There were times he would get us to do things that made us all feel like a bunch of foolish twats, but hey, we did these things all the same. I think this was because Storm was never embarrassed or ashamed of what he said or what he did and I think he needed his working people around him to be the same. He would often, though not maliciously, embarrass us or make us feel uncomfortable in public, so we no longer felt shame or cared about what other people thought.
“Good grief!” he would exclaim, “Honestly Lee, are you a man or a mouse? Just get it done, I don’t care how, just do it and do it quickly!”
We had a job to do, and we got it done, no matter what.
That was one of his bizarre qualities, making you do things you might otherwise think twice about doing and making you achieve near impossible tasks in half the time it should have normally taken. And these things, these sometimes ridiculous things, these sometimes seemingly pointless things – nearly always had a higher purpose of some kind that we weren’t often privy to at that moment in time, but would become crystal clear after the event.’

I’ve suggested that Storm’s experience at Summerhill was exceptionally formative but this over simplifies him. Storm was a one-off, a unique type, a rare psychological creature. A person without boundaries. Somehow he escaped the profound forces that shape most of us and tend to keep us in shape for the rest of our lives. Storm’s early schooling, and the loving tolerance of his mother Vanji, ensured that he would never accept conventional hierarchies and he would always argue his corner. Those of us who grew up with him or who worked closely with him know well that he was warm-hearted, insightful and bounteous in addition to what we will call his ‘difficult’ qualities. He barked but did not bite. He lifted our spirits even while insulting us.

Storm’s death brings with it a special sadness because as well as losing a friend, a colleague, a collaborator, a father, a husband, we will no longer have among us the product of an era that predates the age of the mass production of personalities, the hollowing out of psychology and the narrowing of possibility. Storm was vintage stock, a Tricksterish testament to the richness of being that can flourish when the full force of socialisation is somehow sidestepped or rejected.

The truth is: they don’t make them like that any more.

13.05.2013

Stage & Screen 4

This post is part of a series. Please start reading at ‘Stage & Screen 1’ below.

In the ‘Essays’ section of Strength Weekly is a piece titled ‘What We Talk About’ in which I write about a series of experiences I had at the Anti-University of London (see the ‘1968’ entry here) in the late 60s. I supply a link to the essay here in order to develop the idea, raised in the previous post, of the schizogenic society – one which makes some of its denizens schizophrenic. The essay is largely concerned with an article that Patrick Schofield – a ‘schizophrenic’ inmate of a British mental hospital – wrote for the hospital magazine. The article was the product of a fierce and lucid intelligence focused on an analysis of hospital life. Patrick was mad therefore whatever he wrote was worthless. This handy rule of thumb fell apart so spectacularly that Patrick was abruptly ejected from the hospital in order to preserve the sanity of its staff.

I invite you to read the essay before considering some extracts from Patrick’s article.

06.08.2009

Continued in ‘Stage & Screen 5’…

Getting into Pictures

Getting into Pictures

It’s a shock when you go to the pictures to see ‘The Reader’ because there, on the screen, albeit heavily disguised, is Kate Winslet doing her day job. So ubiquitous is she in the prints and matrices that it is easy to equate her with those whose day job is simply being seen, at night, entering and leaving clubs, unbaggaged by any previous history of achievement. In a banal inversion her work as an actress in movies becomes a way of getting her photographs in newspapers. If, therefore, you want to get into newspapers, all you have to do is become a successful actress. How hard can that be?

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Kate, as I like to think of her, is an actress of substance yet, as a denizen of the least important pages of any print publication currently in existence, becomes readily interchangeable with Peaches and Kelly and is thereby strongly associated with the fascination (I use the word guardedly) of pure presence. This isn’t something clever: it involves being without doing ( i.e. breathing) and is the product of a process of deracination launched in the Thatcherist 80s when ideas about the nature of individualism, borrowed in part from 60s notions of ‘the beautiful person’ (i.e. one whose (imagined) essence is more apparent than their personality) were hystericised to the point that distinctiveness was valued more than value.

This baldness of being was the cynical complement to the process of asset stripping the employment future that young people had previously assumed was theirs to negotiate. In the absence of conventional markers for identity it became important to provide an economy version that licensed the user to ‘be somebody’ merely by stating that they were somebody. In one sense, of course, we are all somebody. In the hypnotised version that isn’t enough: we must feel that we are special despite the fact that we might just be disposable. It isn’t just that you become somebody by telling people that you are somebody – you must believe that they believe you. A deal can be struck: I will believe that you are somebody if you will believe that I am somebody.

25.02.2009

Trying to Situate Syd

I gave a talk at ‘The City Wakes‘ the other day. This is the week of events in tribute to Syd Barrett currently underway in Cambridge. Syd was a founding member of the Pink Floyd who lost his mind, probably due to an excessive intake of LSD, then spent the rest of his life in seclusion in his home town until his death in July 2006. I’ve written here and there about what Syd was like and some of the circumstances of his demise. For this occasion I decided to go wide and try to place him in a context of social aspects of the 60s that might have destabilised him. It’s titled ‘Roger, Syd & the Batman – the Dark Night of Cool‘.

02.11.2008

The City Wakes

The City Wakes

is the title of a Cambridge-based festival celebrating, from October 22nd to November 1st, the pre-London years of Syd Barrett, one of the founder members of Pink Floyd. Syd died in 2006 after many years of reclusiveness that followed his withdrawal from the band as a result of a slow but irreversible breakdown that was probably precipitated by an excess of LSD.


I grew up in Cambridge with Syd from about the age of 14 and went on to share flats with him in London in the Swinging and Delirious ’60s. A number of his friends, including myself, will contribute to the city-wide programme of tributes, exhibitions and events in his home town. I’m doing something I’ve always wanted to do in a parallel universe, namely conduct guided tours of something. In this case and universe I shall be guiding enthusiasts around ‘Syd’s Cambridge’ – an excellent opportunity to revisit the Hallowed Hippy Havens that mapped out the angel-headed youth that many of us were sure we were navigating. I’m doing a talk at Borders and also presenting an Especial Cooch. The latter is an extension of what has rather rapidly become a London must-have occasion: David Gale’s Peachy Coochy Nites, details of which can be found here.

If I were pressed to make one useful comment about Syd it would be that before the surly craziness came he was a delightful, delighted, sunny, beautiful and amusing man. This photo from The City Wakes site finds him in typical shape at the age of 19.

23.08.2008