Rambling shambolic thoughts.
You know. The usual….
The recent death of Robin Gibb has led me to consider the Bee Gees (they were the Brothers Gibb to you youngsters in our audience), Patrick Nagel, and… Papyrus.
What do these three have in common? Why, mad skills, catastrophic success, and my impressionable youth, of course.
I didn’t know that until Robin’s death, but it makes perfect sense.
I did know the older Bee Gees of 1967 who were quite successful in Australia and England.
On this ancient LP, Side A found geeky, adenoidal brother Robin singing his heart out on what are to me curiously American themes: Massachusetts and New York Mining Disaster 1941.
If I could explain what I love so much about Robin’s voice, I would be a professional rock critic. Suffice it to say I, like most people, found Robin more Tiny Tim than Tom Jones, and I found him all the more captivating for it – whether singing lead or harmonizing with his siblings.
If they’d stopped at Side A, most of us would never have heard Robin at all. Side B would change that forever.
Success flowed when Barry took his voice higher than Robin’s (a notion so absurd that it forms Disco Inferno version of a Robert Johnson Crossroads mythology, with Robert Stigwood filling in for Lucifer). Barry’s gaudier falsetto was the soundtrack of 1979, and the tall handsome hirsute brother more or less took over his band of brothers. And other bands as well: The Rolling Stone’s Emotional Rescue anyone? Hell, they were tapped to play The Beatles on film – they were bigger than Jesus’ body double!
If Arthur Fonzarelli had never “jumped the shark”, the Bee Gees’ “Sgt. Pepper” might have become a catch phrase for “so-big-it-MUST-fail” today. Their success was a musical and cultural Tsunami, and when the waves receded, no one wanted to be seen with them. And their Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack would be featured at numberless yard sales for years to come. Ah, success!
His freelance career began in 1971, but it was 1976 that brought him his most important client – Playboy Magazine.
His work and the work of his numberless naked imitators still adorns unfashionable beauty salons and dress shops from Hoboken to Oxnard. And why? Because he was damned good. He had a simple stylized approach of strong design, tapered lines, and an addiction to Payne’s Grey that was instantly identifiable – a brand. And that brand meant sex and sophistication. As with Side A of the Bee Gees, I’m a big fan, and as with Side B admitting this on the permanent record that is the internet may not be such a good idea.
I sometimes wonder, if Nagel hadn’t come along at the same time as cheap backlit mini-mall signage and fading mass-market decorative poster art, would he be remembered today? If he was remembered, would it be with fondness? Or will these constant reminders of outmoded style be like the poor: always with us.
Has this sort of backlash happened with other artists and illustrators of the past? My guess is no – not to the extent the global media allows. Yes, Alma Tadema paintings were considered completely passe and going for peanuts (Candid Camera’s Alan Funt held the mass of them at one point), but except for an especially garish slice of hell in Nevada called the Peppermill, few people today even know his work. And those that know it through the nightmare looking-glass probably think the imperfectly painted and endlessly repeated Alma Tadema paintings (probably painted en masse by an entire Chinese village) are simply part of their Fear and Loathing in Reno hallucination. I think few artists have had a big enough platform to become so thoroughly declassé to the public.
I wonder what Nagel would be painting today if he had lived long enough to see Lady Gaga And Katie Perry. Would he be a retro relic? Forever trapped by his ancient style? Or would he have grown and changed? Too bad we’ll never know….
“But why not Comic Sans?” I hear you cry. “Why Papyrus?”
And the easy answer is that Comic Sans is the Rob Liefeld of fonts, while Papyrus is an astonishingly good and beautiful one (Michael Kaluta? Dave Stevens? No, Neal Adams. Definitely Neal).
I have strong feelings on this subject because back in the Letraset days, I bought sheets of the stuff (the scan above was taken tonight from the old Letraset sheets that I still own) and their cost was pretty dear to a starving artist like me. My friend Dawn Wilson had been the first person I’d seen to use it and it had all the hallmarks of her work ~ elegance, grace, sophistication. I remember our early business cards and program covers. Turns out they were fifteen years ahead of their time and that eventually the world would learn that Papyrus had a million and one household uses. These days as I travel the world, I am saddened by Papyrus’ overuse even as I wonder whether it’s creators feel similarly. I hope they love their creation still, even as everyone I know rolls their eyes over it.
This year is a year of long-gestating projects. Of doing the things I’ve wanted to do for decades in some cases. Doom and 13th Age and Literary Pin-Ups to name but three. I will never have the astonishingly epochal successes of the Brothers Gibb, or Patrick Nagel, their appreciation and their opprobrium, but I wish I could have spoken to the talented super-successes of my lifetime; they deserved their success as I hope to deserve my own.
And I’m going to keep using Papyrus, just to show ’em.