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September 11, 2015

Book Notes - Andrew Wilson "Alexander McQueen: Blood Beneath the Skin"

Alexander McQueen: Blood Beneath the Skin

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Andrew Wilson's book Alexander McQueen: Blood Beneath the Skin is an engaging, insightful, and heartrending biography of the fashion designer.

The Independent wrote of the book:

"[In] Andrew Wilson's magnificent biography...[Alexander McQueen] comes across as a modern-day Mozart, unpredictable, rebellious, kind, witty, clever, scatalogical, but always with the unique talent and creative genius shining through...bounds across the pages and is brought to life by extensive interviews with family and friends...McQueen has got in Wilson the biographer he deserves."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.


In his own words, here is Andrew Wilson's Book Notes music playlist for his book Alexander McQueen: Blood Beneath the Skin:


"Anarchy in the UK," Sex Pistols

McQueen would only have been seven years old when the Sex Pistols released this in 1976. Lee was an anarchist at heart, and I like to think of him thrashing around to this record at his family's house East London, the youngest son of a taxi driver. “Lee was a natural punk, it was inherent in his attitude,” the film-maker John Maybury told me. “Punk wasn't about that later wave of gobbing and spitting plebs, it was really driven by a bunch of art students and old Bowie fans The aggression was more about visual violence, contesting the status quo, and that's what Lee was all about.”

"Love Can't Turn Around," Farley 'Jackmaster' Funk

After leaving school at 16, with one 'O' Level in Art, Lee got a job as an apprentice tailor on Savile Road. Although the staff listened to the rather sedate musical selection of Radio 2, when he was out of work Lee discovered the heady delights of house music. McQueen was also a great romantic and this song captures the allure, as well as the perils, of love. McQueen realised he was gay from an early age, but he came to terms with his sexuality at at time in the 1980s and 1990s when Aids was decimating large swathes of the gay population. As Judith Thurman wrote in the New Yorker, he was "forced to witness a primal scene that haunted the youth of his generation: sex and death in the same bed."

"I Wanna Get High," Cypress Hill

After graduating from St Martins (the famous art and fashion college in London), McQueen launched his own label. He chose this track to open Nihilism, his show at the Bluebird Garage on the King's Road, London, in October 1993. It was here that McQueen introduced the 'bumsters', low-cut trousers that, according to one fashion writer at the time, created 'a cleavage closer to the building-site than the boudoir.' The collection caused a sensation and one newspaper devoted a whole page to it under the headline 'McQueen's Theatre of Cruelty'.

"Common People," Pulp

One of the people I interviewed for the book - I spoke to about 100 - was McQueen's friend, Nicholas Townsend, also known by his drag name Trixie. He told me how he would go clubbing with Lee and his then boyfriend Andrew Groves (aka Jimmy Jumble) in the early 1990s. "Jimmy and Lee loved dancing and at that time we did alcohol - snakebite - and speed. One of my favourite memories is dancing with Lee and Jimmy to Pulp's 'Common People' at Popstars. We were drinking pints of cider and just laughing.That was one of the best times we ever had. That's how I prefer to remember him, as he still had that innocence then. We were like a little family, and we looked after one another. We might only have had ten quid each on us, but we made sure we got home and we were OK. The next day we all chipped in together to have breakfast."

"Things Can Only Get Better," D:Ream

This was the song that New Labour used during its campaign - they went onto win the general election of May 1997. There was a spirit of optimism in the air in Britain at the time - Vanity Fair magazine ran a 25-page report 'London Swings Again', and featured McQueen and his friend and muse/promoter Isabella Blow in its pages. In the autumn of 1996 McQueen had been appointed creative director of Givenchy and, for the first time in his life, Lee started to earn serious money. “I thought, all this time I've been freaking out about not being able to feed myself, and it was just, like, instantaneous,” he said of his new-found wealth. Once his father, Ron, had advised him that if he wanted to sell clothes he should get a job on a market stall; after the news of the Givenchy deal he reportedly turned around to his father and said, “Now, that's the way to sell clothes.”

"I Can't Stand the Rain," Ann Peebles and the theme from Jaws, John Williams

In the book I describe the moment, 17 minutes into Untitled (the Spring/Summer 1998 show for his own label) when McQueen secured his place as a contemporary artist of some note. The setting was a disused bus depot in Victoria, London, a shabby industrial building. The sound of intermittent drops of rain was broadcast over the PA system, together with the soulful refrain from Ann Peebles's 'I Can't Stand the Rain', spliced together with the threatening deep base notes of John Williams's theme from Jaws. The catwalk, a long transparent Perspex box filled with water and lit underneath by ultraviolet light, started to darken with black ink, oozing from an invisible source. By the time the runway had turned black a yellow sheet of rain had started to fall from above and as the models, all wearing white, walked forwards their clothes became soaked with water and their make-up and mascara ran down their faces.

In September 1997, Untitled would not have looked out of place within the hallowed confines of London's Royal Academy. Ten days before McQueen's show, the RA opened the controversial Sensation exhibition and in the book I explore the links between the designer's work and contemporary art.

"Babooshka," Kate Bush

McQueen used this song - as well as the themes from Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Doctor Who - in his show Pantheon as Lecum, held in March 2004. Four years earlier, McQueen had sold 51 per cent of his business to the Gucci group for a huge amount of money (some estimates at the time put it as high as between £54 million and £80 million). But his new-found fame and wealth did not make him happy.

Pantheon As Lecum expressed McQueen's fascination with alternate states of consciousness, aliens and space travel - when he first interviewed Sarah Burton for her job he had asked her whether she believed in UFOs. At the end of the show the lights went down and onto the darkened stage stepped a ghostly figure that drifted across the stage, the woman's silvery, lampshade-like dress a vision of light illuminated by an LED necklace. The music faded and was replaced by the sound of a heart monitor. The heartbeat slowed until it finally flatlined and the model, bathed in a beam of light, raised her palms towards the sky and waited to be transported to the next dimension. The image articulated McQueen's desire for transcendence, for a state beyond his earthly existence.

"Play Me," Neil Young

This song - used in McQueen's show La Dame Bleue, held in October 2007 - contains the line, "You are the sun, I am the moon," a phrase that sums up McQueen's symbiotic relationship with Isabella Blow. He staged La Dame Bleue as an elaborate visual epitaph for Isabella, a woman whom McQueen regarded as a kind of second mother.

In May 2007, Isabella had committed suicide by drinking weedkiller and the death hit McQueen hard. To some extent, McQueen had been created by Isabella, but as he became more confident and successful and her mental state degenerated, he tried to distance himself. Now that she had gone he felt like a planet out of kilter; her death, he said, had left a 'big void' in his life. He resorted to psychics to try and contact her - and started to suffer from what his psychiatrist classified as mixed anxiety and depressive disorder. His drug use (particularly cocaine) also intensified and he started to suffer from paranoia. As one of McQueen's former boyfriends told me, "I got the impression that both Issie and Lee were rushing towards death."

"Gloomy Sunday," Billie Holiday

McQueen committed suicide, age 40, in February 2010. In September of that year, 1,500 people gathered at St Paul's Cathedral in London to celebrate his life. This song - known as 'the Hungarian suicide song' - was performed by Bjork wearing a parchment set of wings. She looked like one of the hybrid creatures that often haunted McQueen's shows, a half-woman, half-bird, a wounded Ariel singing of the dark side of the creative imagination. At the service, Reverend Canon Giles Fraser said of McQueen, "It was a life lived in the public gaze, but it was as vulnerable and retiring as it was glamorous. We give thanks for his creative mind, his showmanship, and for his capacity to shock."


Andrew Wilson and Alexander McQueen: Blood Beneath the Skin links:

excerpt from the book

Boston Globe review
Financial Times review
Independent review
Kirkus review
New Statesman review
Publishers Weekly review
Telegraph review

Women's Wear Daily profile of the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)


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