Don't knock the rock'n'roll lifestyle, says Neil Davenport. Sex, drugs and celebrity is still a cool combination
'I've gone out of my way not to have famous friends, and to cultivate those people I have met who have jobs for which getting drunk isn't compulsory. There is something euphorically tranquilising about putting one weary foot back into the lukewarm footbath of everyday life.' Julie Burchill is a recovering celebrity. After a decade as queen of the Groucho, she has wised up to the shallowness of fame and the misery of money. As a Guardian columnist (there's 'everyday life' for you - we're all columnists now, aren't we?) she sets about naming the rich and shaming the famous.
Top of the A-list of offenders is rock aristocrat Noel Gallagher and his shop-'til-you-drop wife and sometime gossip columnist Meg Matthews. 'I've never had a drearier time than I've had with famous people', says Burchill, 'so I identified with the dj Sasha who said recently that a night at Supernova Heights just felt seedy. I don't think I'd much go for a night on the Tizer and Twiglets at chez Gallagher, either.'
I am not personally familiar with the menu at the Gallaghers', but at some celebrity homes Tizer and Twiglets might be all that you are offered nowadays. Jarvis Cocker sings about doing the dishes instead of coke, and on the Manic Street Preachers' track 'My little universe', Nicky Wire finds fulfilment in hoovering (I am worried he might be turning into Mrs Merton's Malcolm). The passion for anti-celebrity drabness is such that posing with the Big Issue seller outside London's Met Bar is cool, while standing with Kate Moss (despite her spell in rehab) is not. All this sobriety makes the Rolling Stones' 'Sister morphine' sound more blissful than ever.
In the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s the key to success was excess. The likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, Keith Richards, David Bowie, and the two Marcs (Bolan and Almond) were greedy for good times and entirely unapologetic about their appetites. Today the way to improve your status is to return to ordinariness via the confessional. Julie Burchill is following the journo's path of penitence previously trod by rockscribes Nick Kent and Ian Penman. For the pop stars, the latest and largest prodigal is Robbie Williams, the hip Michael Barrymore.
Besides winning three Brit awards in February, Williams is 'the man of the year' (the Face) and 'the most loved man in the world?' (Company). His approval ratings rest on his well-publicised struggle to give up the life of excess and become ordinary again. Williams has battled with the bottle and the bulge, and lost the love of his girlfriend Nicole Appleton. He has tried, and sometimes failed - and his failings prove that he is 'just as vulnerable as the rest of us'. These characteristics would once have barred his entry from the rock'n'roll hall of fame. Now they are his qualifications, his badge as a man of qualities.
Undoubtedly, gossip columns like the one Meg Matthews has written for the Sunday Times are an abuse of print technology. But the newfound desire for 'normality' is far sillier. 'I remember being immensely impressed by an interview I read with Kim Wilde', says Julie Burchill, 'in which she said "my best friend is a telephonist"'. Of all the things to admire about Kim Wilde, her best friend's tedious occupation is not one of them.
This is not to sneer at 'ordinary' lives. It is normal to be ordinary (believe it or not). But to aspire to it is perverse - and those who tub-thump about 'the lukewarm footbath of everyday life' should bear in mind that the most 'everyday' element in human history is the desire to be extraordinary and exceptional.
Neil Davenport (plus one) is reviews editor for Jockey Slut magazine
Signs of the times
'I'm thrilled he is to be a member of the club. He has always added a much-needed joie de vivre to the Tory Party and I'm sure he'll also cheer up the old boys around the club table - as long as they can hear him, of course'
John Carlisle, former Tory MP for Luton, welcomes Jim 'Nick Nick' Davidson's arrival at the Carlton Club. As yet there are no women members, and Jeffrey Archer's lapsed membership has not been re-proposed. But then, one can't let just anybody in, can one?
'This is the worst day in Frinton since the Luftwaffe beat up the town in 1944'
Retired headmaster Roy Caddick on the news that Frinton is to have its first pub
'I took the fire axe with me and explained in basic terms the consequences of any further unruly behaviour, which had a sobering effect on the passenger'
Lord Tebbit remembers how, as an airline officer, he dealt with 'air rage'. Surely the effect would have been the same without the axe?
Bradford University is to open a 'love book' in which students can disclose if they are having an affair with a tutor
'I was sitting there watching all these films and I suddenly thought, "Hey, I could make a much better porno than that myself"'
Former Australian deputy chief censor David Haines, whose first effort, Buffy Goes Down Under, is doing a brisk trade
'He must be allowed to experience life....Unless he is allowed freedom, he'll be a vegetable'
Jackie Kennedy speaking to bodyguards after her 13-year old son John F Kennedy junior was mugged in Central Park. She thought the experience would do him good. The remarks were revealed recently in FBI files
'Japan can no longer be relied upon. They were always shifty, now they're disappointing'
Javier Perez, principal at McKinsey, choosing his words carefully when describing the knock-on effect of the Asian crisis on the luxury goods market
The smuggler excised
Former lifestyle journalist Steve Beard says he 'likes to think of himself as a smuggler of intellectual contraband'. Matthew Collin, his former editor at i-D, would describe him as a 'blagger' - somebody who 'tries it on just to see how much they can get away with'. Since 1987, when he abandoned his PhD thesis at Cambridge, Beard has been trying it on with the editors of the Face, Arena, i-D, RAY guN, Skin Two, Wired, Sight and Sound and Artscribe. In the early days, he says, style magazines were in an exploratory mode; but things are different now.
'In the early 1980s, before my time, the Face was a laboratory for consumer capitalism. In the late 1980s there was an interesting moment of fluidity. Rave culture was coalescing, the old Face was winding down and the new version had not established itself.' Alongside the Face, publisher Nick Logan launched men's magazine Arena in 1986, and that too had its 'exploratory moment' in the late 1980s and early 90s, when it sent out 'ideological probes' and 'modelled itself as a Vogue for men'. It was a time when the advertising industry was 'wanting to capture the young male market but not quite knowing how to do it - before New Lad, a regressive model of masculinity which came in as a form of "ironic play"'.
Beard believes that the exploratory moments in magazine publishing now last for a shorter time: 'the whole machine has picked up speed. Especially in the UK, with its fixation on short-term profit. The exploration is over almost before it's begun.' As a case in point he cites Deluxe, Logan's 'post-dad, pre-lad' magazine, which was launched and then withdrawn in the space of a few months. Meanwhile Logan's original enterprise, the Face, has turned into 'Life magazine for a pop culture-dominated world'. The Situationists, Beard recalls, projected that 'culture would take over from heavy industry', and Blair's project (Cool Britannia, Creative Britain) bears this out. In this context the Face is no longer a publication about marginal subcultures, but simply 'a mainstream magazine about modern middle class Britain'.
By the late 1990s, says Beard, the exploratory mode had come to an end and he experienced 'the horizon shutting down around me'. He thinks the one exception has been i-D, published by Terry Jones ('an old hippie who got fired up by punk, who designed the PiL logo'), which still exhibits the punk scene's 'incendiary sense of utopian possibility': 'But this is all quite precarious.' And all this identifying with i-D might just be because Beard still has some kind of job there as a contributing editor.
Beard says he felt 'cornered and I had to stage a disappearing trick' in order to re-emerge as a fiction writer. While acknowledging that the route from politics to cultural criticism to fiction ('non-non-fiction') is a form of retreat, he is nevertheless upbeat about his developing role as a writer of 'post-cyberpunk' sci-fi. 'The science fictional way of writing comes out of the gnostic tradition that can be political and would include the likes of John Milton, William Blake and JG Ballard. It is possible to remain determined and optimistic.'
Steve Beard's collected journalism, Logic Bomb: transmissions from the edge of style culture, is published by Serpent's Tail. His novels to date are Perfumed Head and Digital Leatherette
King of the roads
'Many roads and bridges are infinitely more beautiful than cottages set in the "natural" environment', says Alex de Rijke. On the Road: The Art of Engineering in the Car Age, his series of photographs of transport engineering structures, is currently touring Britain. De Rijke has made a strangely serene study of a brutal subject. From the Dartford Tunnel to Spaghetti Junction, his photos prompt us to admire the feats of engineering which we usually take for granted, and to observe the architectural shapes which we never have time to register. There is a compelling shot of the Westway (the elevated section of the M40), described by Will Self as 'an embodiment of all the science fictions I had ever read'. A bumper-to-bumper commuter route, this road is usually experienced as a test of accelerated concentration. It is a weird sensation to allow your eyes to wander from the road and reflect on its dated, futuristic glory.
Reviewers have suggested that the exhibition holds up a mirror to society's double standards. At a time of increased concern, even guilt, about driving, we still do it. De Rijke is untroubled by this. 'Life's full of contradictions', he says. 'They add a certain frisson.'
On the Road: The Art of Engineering in the Car Age is a national touring exhibition sponsored by the Architecture Foundation and the Hayward Gallery for the Arts Council
Stockwell bus garage, Lansdowne way, Binfield road, London SW8
Photo; Alex de Rijke
Reproduced from LM issue 119, April 1999