Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Last Wave Good-Bye

8 September 2008

Seven nights or so ago, Gregory Poe left our company. My beloved Gregory Poe – I’m not sure if he ever made an appearance in this blog, under his own name or under some made-up monicker (something I occasionally do here). He was not ‘officially’ of the ‘art world’, though he certainly had an abiding interest, indeed a passion for it. And a great eye for it – or just about anything that touched the aesthetic realm. Or out of that ‘realm’ – meaning life. Gregory was one of those people, who for all their immersion in the world of art and the aesthetic (including design and style, generally), understood the difference between the two and was wise enough to choose life every time. Yes, wise – in spite of his own flaws and some foolish decisions, which he usually managed to see clearly amid many, many problems, difficulties, adversities enough to challenge anyone’s faith in life or art. Wise almost in spite of himself – he seemed to vanquish cynicism with his own cynical sensibility. Even in the fog of physical pain, depression, and (yes) drug dependency, he had a certain clarity that could cut through it all. He had no patience for anything less – from himself as much as anyone else.

Our ‘company’ – you were always on your best with Gregory – or you certainly tried to be. I make it sound a bit as if he were leaving a small party; and maybe that applies. You knew a party had already peaked when Gregory was about to leave. It was more or less, “Okay – yeah.” (Done this, seen that, made my point – the ‘point’, however subtle, however nuanced, always trenchant, even emphatic.) For someone who understood the social context as well and as deeply as Jane Austen and Joan Didion – especially L.A.’s – it’s hardly surprising that he knew how to navigate it. Gregory was famous for his own parties – some of them pretty big. (Gregory’s natural working environment might be the couture studio or the fashion runway, but I always thought the most natural habitat for him, at least here in L.A., was the rooftop of the Chateau Marmont.) And with Gregory you always felt as if you were at the hip center of the best, hippest party in town.

I should add that being on your best was less about how you looked (though, given Greg’s acute and encompassing gaze, it could hardly be overlooked) than what you presented – an idea, a story, an original voice, a line (in any sense), even a riff. It was all about the improvisation, the dance, the conversation. Greg loved jazz and jazz singers; and I think that was far from coincidental. Start anywhere (a blues line – or just a blue line – would be just fine) and see where it took you; see where and with what (or in what) you might end up. At the same time, the sensualist in Greg could not help but be aware of ‘key’, ‘choreography’, shape, texture and tactility, composition, architecture. He consumed it all voraciously and returned it back in full as story, performance (yes – even over the phone – a kind of performance; no one who knew him, especially in L.A., will forget some of those telephone conversations), his work. You could almost say that Greg’s working method involved a similar aesthetic immersion. His genius was an uncanny blend of the cerebral and the tactile or sensual.

Genius. It’s not a word I use lightly; and I would be hard pressed to give an example of one of his creations that represented a crystallization or culmination of that genius. (I have no doubt, though – especially if I went back through archives of his years designing in Japan – that I would find something worthy of this description. There was so much that was amazing on its own terms.) Nevertheless, there was an audacity to Greg’s creativity, his vision that at its strongest, at its best, was akin to genius.

Some years ago I began to notice a type of street fashion that I described to one editor as a kind of bricolage – something that might have evolved out of grunge or similar tendencies, but far more individual, refined and with a far broader range of affect; and it occurs to me that Greg was a kind of bricoleur of couture and style long before the term even had much currency in the art world, much less the world of fashion and style-making. I wouldn’t exactly call what Greg did couture povera (though as I write this, I’m thinking Greg would find this worth a giggle); but, just as there was nothing in the aesthetic realm that escaped his notice, there was nothing in the world at large, however humble or luxurious, that he might not seize upon as material. Greg was the perpetual ‘daft – and deft – punk.’ It was no accident that his star emerged as punk began to crest. The aesthetic he created – at first in accessories that were seen at that hip mecca of the time, Fiorucci – was both one version of it and a retort to it that could have only originated in L.A. or southern California. (It was a viewpoint or aesthetic that began to be consolidated for a time in the magazine Wet. I remember going to the Opening Ceremony store here in L.A. for the first time, and, seeing the old Wet magazines scattered about the décor, having a sense of homecoming. I knew I had to bring Greg there. Once upon a time, Gregory would have sold his fashion lines there.) Our friend, Carla Weber, put her finger on Gregory’s working method brilliantly, I thought, at his wake just yesterday afternoon, drawing a bead on days spent working, watching movies hanging out, and all but losing (or finding) oneself in the hilarity of his conversation. “His output was massive, and fun and silly and naïve and glorious and absolutely sophisticated.”

It would be impossible to put one’s finger on Gregory’s particular creative spark, but somehow, out of this cocktail of conceptual guile and naiveté, he managed to synthesize something entirely original, provocative and on the pulse. It had to do with being open to inspiration from anything and anywhere – movies, music, the endless conversation, the moment. Carla says it far better than I can: “He kept you laughing, entertaining you with his beautiful, ludicrous vision and yet creating an intimacy that was highly intoxicating.” Yes. (I’m thinking of Gregory as the close friend he was now – that moment when, having disarmed you utterly with some amazing story – a ‘fractured flicker’ of the real and surreal in one sublimely told anecdote – he would touch down to earth and quietly elicit our own dark secrets and intimacies.) Carla again: “[H]e was excellent at not just dissecting people, but human nature in all its glorious vulnerability.”

Gregory’s talent as a raconteur partook, yet almost stood apart from his design gifts. I’m not sure I would go as far as Carla, who said the other day, “His capacity to create a new language from the English language was hilarious.” But I know what she means. It was that volatile synthesis of verbal and visual. Greg had the story-telling talent of a film-maker, and by that I mean a great film-maker. (The comparison that comes to mind most readily is Billy Wilder – especially in his Paramount collaborations with Charles Brackett. Greg could have written Foreign Affair – or maybe his own updated version. Another is Preston Sturges. I think of conversations I had with Greg – at bars, openings, after-parties, even on the phone – that could have been entire scenes out of Sturges movies.) No coincidence either that his knowledge of film was exhaustive. And, though he designed costumes for several films, it was a pity he didn't do more. He had an almost innate sense of story arc; and his comic timing was sui generis. (Move over – WAAAAYYY over – Andy Kaufman – and a million others. Greg as a newly minted angel: “Hey, YOU – all hundred of you – get off of MY cloud.”) He knew how to build the story, the moment, then throw it away. At his best it was almost breath-taking. (Maybe you’re right, Carla.)

And of course there’s the musical side to that gifted timing – and I think a bit of Oscar Levant. We were both fans; and I think somewhere at the surly, cynical edge of Greg’s wit was something that descends from the Levantine line. I remember my first encounter with Gregory (at the old Studio Grill on Santa Monica Boulevard across from Trader Joe’s), followed not long thereafter by a telephone conversation – a rundown (in every sense) of local design talent, each thumbnail sketch more scathing and hilarious than the last. (I was co-editing a special issue of L.A. Weekly at the time.) Greg’s telephone narrative could almost have been published verbatim (and probably should have, now that I think of the problems we had putting that issue together). By the time we put the issue to bed, Greg was on his way back to Japan; but I made a mental note to stay in touch, and somehow we did.

Gregory was formidable then. I can’t imagine what kind of impression I could have made at the time. My VERY brief jag of dressing in boutique or designer threads had long since passed and I felt lucky to have a nice pair of shoes on my feet. (Maybe it was the shoes.) But then, as Carla has noted many times, there was beneath that edge, that temperament (and boy did Greg have a temper) and genius, a fundamental humanity in touch with an entire spectrum of human nature. I was always amazed at how well Gregory – haut-bourgeois, Beverly Hills boy that he was to his core – could relate to everyone and anyone. Over the years, that surf samurai stance began to give way to something not quite so hard-edged and perhaps a bit vulnerable. Gregory was vulnerable. He stood up to the corporate Establishment as it was then arrayed in his industry and was tsunamied right back down. He picked himself up, of course, and took his surfboard back to L.A. But L.A., a city he loved and knew better than anyone I know, could also be the fabled City of Nets to its native son – something that Greg in his infinite cynicism could undoubtedly see through; yet he was repeatedly stymied by its upsets and betrayals. To look at the profusion of surf- and skate-wear lines here, to say nothing of elements seen in contemporary design everywhere from New York to Milan, is to see the remnants of a hundred design careers Greg might have had.

Greg and I never really discussed that local brand of shmatte – the kind of surf- and skate-wear that’s a drug on the market these days – at any length, though it’s impossible to ignore his enormous influence. Regardless of its ‘artistic’ embellishments, it would seem so passé, almost irrelevant in the context of Gregory’s own work and overall perspective. I can just imagine his withering assessment: e.g., ‘How THIRTY years ago – which was, fortunately, NOT the Sixties.’

He could still look fierce (he was fierce). Every once in a while, especially when it rained, he would wear a leatherette hood that looked like the sort of headgear a Roman Catholic prelate of the Late Renaissance or the Baroque might wear – on the battlefield or in the torture chambers of the Inquisition. He made one think of a Medici or Barberini cardinal or pope (in or out of the Bacon-esque blur). About a year ago, after undergoing a long (and long overdue) rehabilitation for his long-standing chemical dependencies, he emerged healthier than he’d been for more than a decade, but nevertheless delicate, still clearly in recovery. It would be a long road back to full health. Now his look took on something gentler, almost saintly (especially in those quiet moments that, to those of us who knew him well, signaled something more alarming, perhaps deadly, than it looked – the absolute exhaustion of his patience: ‘I’m going to suffer your idiocy for another 15 seconds and then I’m going to have to blow your head off, darling.’). How would Bacon have rendered Saint Jerome? I wonder.

It is almost too ironic that Greg’s latest design line was to be a line of urns and funerary objects (the designs I saw before his death were fantastic) – an irony Greg would of course have been the first to appreciate. But the cruelty of Greg being cut down on the eve of his third act is almost too much to bear at the moment. One season ends and another begins and it almost feels unseemly that Greg’s passing should be lost in this tumult (to say nothing of the distractions of politics). Or perhaps we’re just trying to find his voice, hear it again clearly in that confusion of sights and sounds. Only a few evenings ago, I was chatting with Mary Woronov, another close mutual friend, and we were trying to locate, recapture something of that voice, wit, that way of telling a story – something that between the two of us (or maybe three or four) we might, in theory, be able to do. We couldn’t come close.

Another mutual friend rang up to say, "Wow -- this is really going to blow a hole in your life." He wasn't kidding; but I'm in -- well, good company: Mary, Carla, Pat Loud, Robbie Cavolina, among others; and, it goes without saying, his brother, Jeff -- the Poe of Blum and Poe -- as formidable as a sibling as he is in that global province we call the art world. No one loved his brother as well as Jeff.

There was laughter as well as tears at Greg’s wake; but – you couldn’t help but think – not as much as there would have been if Greg had been there. It’s a cliché to mourn the passing of youth and laughter in the wake of an untimely passing; but there was a kind of joie and verve, spontaneity and effervescence that seemed to pass before us and into the shadows, despite the afternoon’s lambent sunlight. I thought of the end of a book I had recently finished in a jag of research for a pitch – Nancy Mitford’s biography of the Marquise de Pompadour. Mitford’s description of Pompadour’s final recessional goes as follows:

“[The King] watched the Marquise as she went back up the long Avenue de Paris; in the bitter wind he stood there without coat or hat until she was out of sight. Then he turned away, tears pouring down his cheeks. ‘That is the only tribute I can pay her.’

“After this a great dullness fell upon the Château of Versailles.”

After Gregory’s passing, a great dullness seemed to fall upon the aquamarine skies of Los Angeles.

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