The Quiet Man: John Foxx exhibits in Hudson
While in Hudson last Saturday, I visited the BCB Gallery, which is exhibiting John Foxx’s “The Quiet Man” photographs and films through December 19. Foxx, for those who don’t know, is the former singer with Ultravox (in its pre-Midge Ure days), and considered by many as one of electronic music’s pioneering artists. He is also, however, somewhat stage-shy and reclusive; when he came to BCB to read from “The Quiet Man” stories for the exhibition’s launch, in November (I had my own book launch in Woodstock that day and was unable to attend), it was his first public performance of any kind in the United States in a full thirty years.
Foxx, then, appears to have evolved from the dynamic front man I remember from the Marquee back in 1978, into “The Quiet Man,” the character who dominates his multi-media work. He explains this transformation in a recent posting on his web site, entitled The Suit.
When I found the grey suit in an Oxfam shop in late 1977 I realised I’d found something else – a new identity, which I badly needed.
By then I was depleted by being onstage – being in a band had been a mistake – I just wasn’t cut out for that kind of life. I began to understand I’d done all this mostly because it was necessary to support what really did interest me – writing and recording, using the recording studio. I also realised I was attempting to use the studio like a painter or sculptor uses their studio, because that’s where I came from.
I’d also come to resent the amount of time performing demanded – at least 23 hours for every hour onstage. Touring also depleted nervous energy and left me in serious need of repair. By the beginning of 1978 the need to change had become urgent.
…Not so urgent that Ultravox didn’t release some of its finest work that year, but anyway, in 1979, he quit. Foxx issued two influential solo albums over the following two years, Metamatic and The Garden, after which he seemed to gradually disappear. He finally re-emerged as an artist only in the mid-1990s, using his alter ego of The Quiet Man to flesh out a character who explores desolated (post-apocalyptic?) cities, talking, writing, filming and making music about his experiences as he goes. In an interview with thequietus.com (which, despite its name, is not devoted to Foxx’s work), he explains the formulation of this concept:
“…where I grew up in the north-west, factories were closing down, and we used to play in the factory buildings, enormous buildings, and they became overgrown, and I used to walk into the offices and see all the paperwork. I remember seeing paperwork with brambles growing out of it, because they’d decayed so much that it was able to support another form of life. I remember thinking how, all the accounts were written by hand, and I remember thinking how interesting it was that someone would spend their life on this stuff, and now it is just fodder for a blackberry bush growing out of it.”
The exhibition at BCB concentrates primarily on Foxx’s photographs: grainy, often gothic images not only of cities and ruins, but also of archetypal rural setting as above, typically with more than one image overlaid (in Photoshop), and usually the Quiet Man himself, in his gray/grey suit, depicted from behind, walking through the scene as a motif. Other than these fine prints, there’s also a television screen at BCB which depicts some of the Quiet Man stories read over Foxx’s accompanying movies and music, as follows.
At BCB last Saturday, owner Bruce Bergmann recognized my English accent and asked if I’d been an Ultravox/Foxx fan. He then confessed that he had been representing Foxx for many years before showing the singer a treasured Ultravox concert ticket from the Boston Paradise Club in the late 70s. Apart from loading me up with some mulled wine (and brownies, freshly made by his daughter, for a ravenous Campbell), Bergmann gifted me a copy of Foxx’s recent The Quiet Man CD, on which BBC announcer Justin Barton reads Foxx’s stories (always in the third person) over some hauntingly elegiac piano parts. It’s a beautiful album, flitting delicately between the categories of spoken word and ambient. I was equally thrilled to hear that Foxx recently released an album, Mirrorball, with Robin Guthrie , and that he’s reappeared on the concert stage, too. Talent as strong as this is far too good to waste.
His resurgence may be driven by age. Foxx is now 62 – older, for example, than Suicide’s Alan Vega. After a couple of decades in the commercial wilderness, it’s possible that he sees the need not just to produce his multi-media art, but to distribute it widely, too. I have no doubt that the digital revolution has also had much to do with this. (Be it Photoshop, digital movie-making or the power of You Tube and blogs as a means to announce his work, we live in an extraordinarily different world from that of the early 1980s.) But regardless of the reasons, I’m just happy to see his name back out there and, especially, to feel his presence here in the Hudson Valley.
I went to dig out my copy of the eponymous Ultravox! debut album while writing this piece. I couldn’t find it. The only Ultravox record in the U section, at least where it should have been – in-between Ultra Vivid Scene and the Undertones – was 1978’s 12” single “The Quiet Men.” How apt.
You can see/hear more of John Foxx’s work for yourself through the following web sites: