Where creative couples are concerned, breaking up is hard to do.
Where creative couples are concerned, breaking up is hard to do. When a partnership is dissolved, there's no guarantee that the individuals involved will thrive on their own. Why some stay together past the expiration date remains a mystery to all but their bankers and managers. How two people can converge as a fluid, productive entity, able to sustain shared beliefs and goals over a significant period of time is nothing short of remarkable. The risk that a merged identity will overshadow and dominate individual egos, and make one artist or performer subservient to the other, or to the image of their duality, looms constantly overhead, and most likely explains why creative partnerships simply unravel or seismically implode. Where the uncoupled had been romantically involved, shifting from significant other to significant other-fucker, the fall-out is exponentially blown, or, like those fragile and needy egos, overblown. Even in a professionally platonic arrangement, there must be some measure of unrequited love. In a working relationship, how often does one person believe that it's all them? That the genius behind their most glorious ideas—and none of their idiotic missteps—is due to them and them alone? And what does the delusion really represent? This is the egomaniac's kiss, or kiss-off, as the case may be. Against all odds, the show must go on.
The great comedy team Martin & Lewis went on to greater heights apart, as Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. The same wasn't the case for Ike & Tina Turner. Once Ike took a hike, Tina became the mega-million selling star. With bands, the front man almost always takes center stage—but never more so than when he goes out on his own. Rod Stewart & the Faces became Rod Stewart and turned several shades of platinum. Who needs a reason to believe? And what's love got to do with it? But with artists and designers, such an evolution may be trickier. Can a brand simply continue to be marketed despite the end of the chemical interaction that gave birth to a shared creative charge?
The wildly successful artist duo Gilbert & George have been symbiotic for more than 40 years now. Could you have one without the other? Never. "To Be With Art Is All We Ask," they famously proclaimed in 1970, a statement that turns perfectly on the "we," uniting them and their audience. The same sentiment expressed in the first-person would be absolutely ludicrous. At the same time, standing together side-by-side, G & G project not only a joining of forces, but a united "us-against-the-world." As self-proclaimed living sculpture, G & G's art is embodied in their very being. It is an extended performance, and they are inextricably entwined. Always dressed in matching tweed suits, the duo, for all their rude and provocative pictures, embody absolute respectability. While they claim, as few of us cannot, to have never been searched in an airport, it is more than their uniform that keeps (in)security at bay; it is their attachment to one another that makes them, in a sense, utterly impenetrable.
And what of other iconic couples. Can we imagine Siegfried without Roy? Impossible. Even a tiger couldn't come between them. And what about Dolce without Gabbana? How unfashionable would that be? Penn without Teller? No, this simply won't do. There is still something in this world called fidelity. Its definition sounds military, boring, and old fashioned. And it is. Fine if you're the Queen of England, but for the rest of us, a royal pain in the ass. Fidelity is synonymous with loyalty, and loyalty, which seems to be in short supply these days, implies a devoted relationship and demands real commitment. Creative marriage, like its romantic counterpart, is never a simple matter of the optimistically gruesome "Till death do us part." (Imagine Bonnie without Clyde, and not the sanitized Hollywood version of Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, but the real life thrill killers. Did you know that Bonnie Parker, lost on the way to rob a bank, pulled over to ask a cop directions, and after he pointed her in the right direction she smiled, said "thanks," and burst out laughing when she shot him in the face? They didn't film that scene for the movie.) Even if these couples aren't procreative, when creative teams head for Splitsville, the fans are often left behind, raising a more complex and troubling question: How do you break up with yourself? It's not as if mommy and daddy have called it quits and the children get tossed back and forth. There's not much child support for those of us in the audience, and no consolation in the mournful warble of Cher's song, "You Better Sit Down, Kids," the first-ever number one hit single on the subject of divorce—and written by her husband at the time, Sonny Bono. A self-fulfilling pop prophecy.
My favorite band from the late 80s through the 90s was comprised of Neil Haggerty and Jennifer Herrema, better known as Royal Trux. In the beginning it was just the two of them, and with Twin Infinitives, released in 1990, the title not only referred to the fact that it was a double album, but that they themselves amplified one another. At the time, due to their drug use, which they openly admitted to, they could be thought of as constituting a multivalent co-dependancy—as dope fiends and as artists working together. Their admission only burnished an image that would, over the years, be ever more finely honed. With her appearance in the Calvin Klein ads shot by Steven Meisel, who clipped more than a few pages from Richard Avedon's book, Jennifer found herself in the company of none other than Joe Dallesandro, the former Warhol superstar, as fashion basked in the last gasp of "heroin chic." With the 1992 song, "Junkie Nurse," Royal Trux didn't so much glorify bad habits as confound the image of the rock ‘n' roll cliché. In its humble folkiness, the song is practically treated as if it's one of Woody Guthrie's dusty ballads—a far cry from the hazy, on-the-nod sounds found elsewhere in their repertoire, and a sign of things to come. Three short years later, having cleaned up their act and signed to a major label, Jennifer Herrema would insist, "I'm sick of searching around, trying to get hooked on a feeling." This is from the song, "Shadow of the Wasp," that closes out their still staggering album, Thank You, which was produced by David Briggs, famous for his work with Neil Young. It was not by chance that when Royal Trux created a logo for themselves it was a capital RX, as if the band was its own prescription, and ours. Take only as mis-directed.
Maybe because of the label they were signed to, Virgin, along with their own "sinful" history and a healthy dose of humor, when Neil and Jennifer produced records for other musicians they were credited as Adam & Eve. To be cast out of the garden might be the same as being an Exile on Main St., a landmark Rolling Stones album that was covered by Pussy Galore at the suggestion of Neil when he played in the band, prior to Royal Trux being convened. Hovering somewhere between tribute and an act of patricide, the covering of Exile prefigures the irreverently "stoned" Trux. In the dual figures of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the Stones loomed large for Neil and Jennifer, or at least did at one time. In Royal Trux/Adam & Eve, Mick and Keith, the self-proclaimed "Glimmer Twins," had met their match, or their bastard spawn. The Glimmer Twin Infinitives. Neil, of course, was Keith, with that blues-inflected guitar, all swagger and strut and languorous leads. But Jennifer was something else entirely, an impossibly triangulated composite of Mick and Keith and Anita Pallenberg—the original "Sister Morphine." With her raspy perfection and endless reserves of cool, Jennifer could be soulful and detached, often in the same breath. And she was quite a sight, with her cowboy hat and enormous belt buckle, hands on hips, bracelets spread from wrist to elbow, and those plump lips from which that voice emerged, a badass pickup rolling down a gravel road, the visual register of everything Royal Trux might possibly mean—or at least as it appeared from out in the audience on any given night.
Neil and Jennifer would matter-of-factly elaborate on the menacing mob threat: "You put one of ours in the hospital, we'll put one of yours in the morgue." In their version, it was: "We'll put two of yours in the morgue." (And for better or worse, usually worse, this became my own personal credo.) Royal Trux, in their embodiment and in their music exuded the ultimate take-no-prisoners attitude. Their devoted fans admired them for being both hardcore and aloof. At the same time, there was a vulnerability that came through, as if hurt had been wrapped in the armor of cockiness, muscle cars, and full-tilt boogie. Weren't they, after all, perennial truants who were on the run from the straight world? Forever scaling the wall of a psychic reformatory that could neither contain nor break them? (This may sound like mythologizing or romanticizing, but you get the drift.) In one of their most transcendent tunes, "Turn of the Century," when Neil sings, "You won't have to be some useless kid / The only choices so bleak, twisted all upside down," it sounds as if he's reassuring someone who reminds him a whole lot of who he used to be. And then Neil and Jennifer harmonize, poignantly out of synch as always, "So get me my coat little sister and I'll bring the car around." While it's often a mistake to confuse the singer and the song, for these Veterans of Disorder, the promise of escape, of getting lost and finding oneself, was very likely the story of their once fucked up lives, and plenty of misfits just like them. And it's no big stretch to recognize that that's what drew us to them in the first place. One of the central lines in "Turn of the Century" suggests the kind of belief that optimism alone, and usually one person on their own, can never really sustain. "Feel the wheels moving, we know they'll go on perpetually."
When they split, Neil and Jennifer's most ardent fans would have to come to the realization that Royal Trux did not belong to them, that a band—even one that lasts for a dozen or so years—is not much more than a set of circumstances that people agree on until they don't anymore. Possession may be 9/10ths of the law, but that last fraction encompasses an entire universe where human beings are concerned, and humans, especially those onto whom we project ourselves, are essentially unknowable. A band doesn't belong to its fans, just as we have no hold over one another—husbands and wives and lovers. Children aren't the property of their parents, and parents aren't owned by the accidents of birth that filter down from the cosmos. And everyone, as Royal Trux remind us in the song, "(Have You Met) Horror James," gets stamped with an expiration date.
Since they called it quits, Neil has performed with the Howling Hex, with whom he's recorded numerous albums over the years, and Jennifer has subsequently had two bands, RTX, and her new outfit, Black Bananas, who just released their debut, Rad Times Xpress IV. Neil and Jennifer are still making music, just not with one another. Now and then I listen to their old records, and they still sound as rocking and gnarly, and as weirdly compelling, as they did the first time around. When the stars favorably misalign, and the atmospheric conditions are just right, 1 + 1 will = 3.
Did Royal Trux ruin my life? Hardly.