Issue #54 / August 2019
I recently received a pair of ‘Bad Seed’ tube socks as a birthday present. A thoughtful gift from a dear friend, but they have left me somewhat confused. The almost spiritual connection I feel to you and The Bad Seeds’ work seems at odds with what is essentially banal (though very nicely designed) merchandise. I love the socks, I’ve worn the socks, but I feel they might be a representation of everything your work isn’t.
I wonder what your thoughts are on the merchandising of art, and whether or not you’d wear tube socks with the name of an artist you greatly admired on?
PIERS, LONDON, UK
As I write, I am wearing an ancient Sonic Youth Goo T-shirt from 1990, back when I was in Thurston Moore’s good books. I also own a very beautiful Flatbush Zombies T-shirt, bought around the release of their first album. A few years ago the Zombies and I attempted a collaboration and I sent them my version of the T. Rex classic, Cosmic Dancer. They said they “could not relate to it” but they radically pitch-shifted my voice, sampled it and used it anyway, as the percussive heartbeat to an extraordinarily wild and fucked-up piece of hip-hop that neither of us released. I have a series of very lovely Current 93/David Tibet T-shirts, and a tote bag and some weird little esoteric Tibet pin things, all based on his visionary artwork. When I first came to London, David gave me an education in Christian mysticism, as we bonded over Spanish wine and our love of the artist Louis Wain. I also possess several ruined Dirty Three T-shirts featuring Mick Turner’s lovely mythic paintings – and a silver plastic Dirty Three sheriff’s badge, which I treasure because it is arguably the crappiest piece of merchandise ever made, but is a powerful emblem of the bad old days. I have an unused Dirty Three Ocean Songs tea towel – oh wow! a goldfinch just landed on my windowsill! – and Warren’s favourite AC/DC T-shirt, which I borrowed from him about twenty-five years ago and have still not returned. I also have an amazing T-shirt which Susie gave to me that says “Beyoncé Wasn’t Built in a Day”, although I suspect this is a bootleg. My favourite and most treasured piece of merchandise, though, is an original Elvis Aloha from Hawaii via Satellite T-shirt, sent to me by someone who claimed to have actually been at the concert in 1973. These items, Piers, are just the tip of a terrifying and deeply nostalgic iceberg – but a T-shirt, a pair of socks, a tea towel, a badge, it’s all essentially banal merchandise.
However, banal and as exploitative as these things may be, I value some of them hugely, and if there were a fire in my house they could quite possibly be the first things I would grab after the dogs. They have immense sentimental value, they are attached to certain times, people, places and things I love, and are enormously meaningful. I have a feeling that, similarly, many other music lovers have a T-shirt, a pair of socks or a hoodie that they value, and wear with a kind of reverence, not just for the artist, but for their own past – a past that, like their T-shirt, is old, faded, full of holes and beloved memories.
So, Piers, to answer your question would I wear a pair of merch socks myself? The answer is well, yeah, I do – when I do Jane Fonda’s Workout with my wife, I wear a pair of Radiohead compression socks, RiRi sweatpants, a Leather Nun T-shirt and a Dire Straits headband. I am a star jumping, butt clenching dervish of banality and exploitation. Look at me now!
P.S. Piers, I just got your very sweet follow-up letter. No offence taken!