Bob Dylan, Ronnie Wood and Grace Slick are best known for their music, but they’ve also pursued the visual arts. Here are 10 rockers who dared to share their artwork.
In the 1990s, I was hired to write the text for a coffee table book about the artist Charles Bragg, the Los Angeles-based painter, magazine illustrator, satirist, raconteur and man about town. During the course of my extended stay with Charlie at his Beverly Hills bungalow/studio, he would occasionally regale me with tales about some rock star or celebrity he met who’d told him they’d taken up painting. They seemed to be waiting expectantly for some fraternal artist-to-artist interchange, which Charlie failed to provide them. Laughing at the pretense of it all, he’d say, “That’s cute…they need a hobby to keep them away from the coke…”
Still, there are and were some rock stars, or musical artists of note, who did carry on with the brushes, oils, easels and palettes, despite derision from pros like Charles Bragg. Here are ten who did not get Charlie’s memo:
Like many British rockers (including Ray Davies and Pete Townshend), Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones was a product of art school. Ever since his days at Ealing College (Townshend and Freddie Mercury were fellow alums), when he could squeeze in the work between gigs and rock star excess, Wood turned his hand to drawing and painting. Curiously, his most interesting work was the pen-and-ink drawings he did in the 1970s, from a series called “A Variety of Annoyances”. These are as weird, witty and inspired as the doodles by John Lennon (who also attended art college). Ironically, they have nothing to do with rock ‘n’ roll, despite the fact that, during those years, Wood was a member of the Small Faces, the only rock ‘n’ roll band in the world that gave the Stones a run for their money.
“Woody” has continued making visual art since that time, mostly oil paintings of rock ‘n’ roll scenes. Even though he plays second fiddle to Keith Richards in the Stones, Wood has always looked the part of a rock star: the pineapple thatch of hair, sunken cheeks, bracelets, spangles, spiffily-tailored scruffiness and ever-present cancer stick. His cheeks are freakishly hollow and skull-like, as if he’s trying to look like Richards. In fact, as they move deeper into their 70s, the two guitarists appear to be morphing into the same person. And that’s sort of how Woody portrays the two of them in his portraits. For example, “Electric Horses” is a huge, gaudy oil painting of the band. There they all are—Mick, Keith, Charlie and Ronnie, a veritable Mount Rock-more—wowing another crowd of easily pleased fans. In the background, what looks like the Four Horses of the Apocalypse kick up clouds of dust. It’s a catchy image and displays a talent for composition and color, but it also gallops close to kitsch. Wood’s “Blue Smoke Suite” comprises individual portraits of his bandmates, but his self-portrait is the best of the lot. In it, he’s wearing a CBGB T-shirt (oh, the irony of a millionaire rock star dressing down to the punk level!) and looking to be conjuring magic from his guitar.
We’ve all seen, and heard Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait album and, of course, thought it must be some kind of joke. But it was not a joke; Bob had also convinced himself that he was a visual artist, as witnessed by the cover art. Random House was convinced enough, apparently, to publish a book of Dylan’s sketches and drawings in 1994, Drawn Blank. The $30 hardcover was quickly remaindered (I bought a copy for $2.99 at Buck-A-Book within months of its release). In his foreword to Drawn Blank, Dylan rambles about his motivation for the sketches, closing with this completely contradictory statement: “Rather than fantasize, be real and draw it only if it is in front of you and if it’s not there, put it there and by making the lines connect, we can vaguely get at something other than the world we know.” Say wot?
SYD BARRETT (1946-2006)
After he left Pink Floyd and his solo recording career ended—due mainly to his deteriorating mental condition—Syd Barrett encamped at a house in his hometown of Cambridge, England, and spent the remaining decades of his life painting and riding his bicycle around town. His paintings are child-like without being childish—naïve but colorful, evocative images that kept this once great musical genius afloat creatively. He reportedly destroyed or painted over many of the large canvases (say it ain’t so, Syd!) but many more survive. Here are some examples:
The former lead singer for Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship has devoted her “second life” to creating some fairly, uh, “slick” commercial art. You can see some of it at this link, for her official U.S. art dealer. Have your credit card handy: https://www.areaarts.com/
We all know about In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works, those compendiums of Lennon’s squiggly sketches, puns and witticisms (e.g., “I’m moldy till my eyeballs / I’m moldy til my toe / I will not dance I shyballs / I’m such a humble Joe”). Half a century later, the words and the drawings both hold up well. It could be argued—though I won’t do it—that the Beatles ruined a perfectly good art and literature career. And, of course, we know about the art of Yoko Ono, an internationally recognized figure even before she met Lennon. Her website has the details of her current exhibited works: http://imaginepeace.com/#events
DON VAN VLIET (aka Captain Beefheart)
As brilliant a visual artist as he was a poet and bandleader, Van Vliet splashed his paintings on the front and back covers of his band’s albums. And, at some concerts (including one I attended at the Bayou in Washington, D.C.), he would bring out his large sketch book and show his art to the audience. The Captain was one of a kind.
The original drummer for the Replacements (1979-1990) has carved out an impressive second career as an artist and illustrator. His three solo albums feature his artwork on the covers. Here’s a bizarre but engaging animated film made by Mars that features some of the grotesque images that he paints, has made about his art. The film is called Severed Stream:
PKM published an excellent interview and profile of the former Lounge Lizard and cult film star, featuring many examples of John Lurie’s art, late last year:
Kim Gordon, bassist and vocalist for Sonic Youth, was an artist before she was a rock star. She studied at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles in the late 1970s before moving to New York to pursue an art career, meeting Thurston Moore and, with him, forming Sonic Youth. Her first solo exhibition presented under the name ‘Design Office’ took place at New York’s White Columns in 1981.
The former Soft Boy and longtime solo recording artist has called his songs “paintings you can listen to.” Indeed, nearly every one of his songs has a lyrical twist that is so surreal and unexpected the only way to take it in is with visual imagery (e.g., “Sinister but she was happy / Like a chandelier festooned with leeches…”). But then, occasionally a line will pop out of the verbal stew with such clarity it stops you short, such as this one from “The Devil’s Radio”: “The flowers of intolerance and hatred / Are blooming kind of early / This year/ Someone’s been watering them.” Likewise, Hitchcock’s visual art drifts between dreamy surrealism and sudden clarity, like a cross between Marc Chagall and di Chirico.