Jarvis Cocker: you can judge a Richard Brautigan book by its cover

Erik Weber’s photographs are starkly beautiful works in their own right – but they also amplify the reputation of an outstanding American writer neglected for too long

 

“You can’t judge a book by its cover!”

– Really?

– Who says?

I’ve never really understood the above phrase: in my experience you very often can so judge a book (or record) by its cover. If a writer or artist allows his/her work out into the world in an ugly, bland or generic cover then chances are that work will betray some of those very same qualities. Oh, I have been shouted down for this prejudice many times over the years (I agree that it doesn’t apply to people btw – well: not always…) but I feel that, at long last, I have been completely and utterly vindicated in my opinion. By [Seeing Richard by Erik Weber].

Richard Brautigan books are different – we all know that – (and it’s heartening to see so much of his writing back in print at long last, he’s a truly original author) – but all that originality and difference was apparent before you’d even read a single word. Who else appeared on their book covers like Brautigan did? OK – you might get a shot of the author “at work” or something – but I’m talking about specially-posed photos incorporating details that relate to the work within. Trout Fishing in America? Washington Square park with the Ben Franklin memorial (mentioned in the book’s text) in the background. The Abortion: an Historical Romance? Standing on the steps of a library (the novel’s main character runs a library housing unpublished manuscripts). Willard & His Bowling Trophies? Crouched by a rack of bowling balls (of course!). I can’t think of any other author who’s done this. Brautigan book covers are more like album sleeves really: with the artist right there on the front, a part of the concept, drawing you into the work. Each book is a self-contained universe – and (as this book shows) that universe was also extensively art-directed by its own creator. That alone is enough to make Brautigan books unique – andwe haven’t even mentioned the women yet.

Yes – Brautigan book covers feature a lot of women. There’s a woman wearing granny-glasses (this book will tell you she’s called Michaela Blake-Grand) sitting by him on the cover of “Trout Fishing…”, a woman in a short mac & high boots standing with him on the photo of the library steps that adorns The Abortion…, a woman beside him on the cover of In Watermelon Sugar, a woman sheltering under an umbrella with him on the front of A Confederate General From Big Sur, a Japanese woman on the cover of Sombrero Fallout (I learnt that she’s a model hired to stand in for his girlfriend of the time and that the cover shoot was directed by Brautigan himself and executed by Erik Weber). To me this is a big deal: life experiences and relationships often only attain the status of a footnote in literary biographies: wives and lovers reduced to the importance of supporting players in a bigger drama, but aren’t our close personal relationships – the people we choose to share our lives with – a little bit more significant than that? Couldn’t it be more like they are the well-spring from which creativity originates? Yet they very seldom get a credit – Brautigan gives them more than a mere credit: his “muses” are right up there on the front of the books with him, getting equal billing. Again, I can’t think of any other writer who has done that – who has so openly acknowledged the sources of his inspiration. And who is so willing to share the spotlight with them.

So: the insight into the book covers, and how involved Brautigan was in realising them, is worth the price of admission alone – but there’s so much more! For example: on the very first edition of the BBC Radio 6 Music show, Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service, (broadcast on January 9th, 2010) I read out the Richard Brautigan short story, What Are You Going to Do With 390 Pictures of Christmas Trees? – well – here are those Christmas trees! (or 13 of them, at least) and here’s the real-life Confederate General from Big Sur! And Brautigan posing as a Playboy centrefold! And don’t get me started on the pictures of the apartment…

Erik Weber’s photographs are starkly beautiful works in their own right – but the really great thing for me is that they also amplify the reputation of an outstanding American writer who has been neglected for too long and who maybe only now is beginning to be appreciated as the all-round creative artist he truly was.

OK, enough: stop reading – stop… judging.

Start looking.

Jarvis Cocker – Sheffield, September 2015

Selected quotations from William Hjortsberg’s introduction

Erik and Richard met at a birthday party in San Francisco one rainy night near the end of September 1963. Twenty-three-old Weber had just begun a career as a photographer. Brautigan, his senior by five years, believed himself poised on the brink of fame. The Grove Press in New York was considering his novel, A Confederate General from Big Sur, for publication. Anticipating publicity in his immediate future, Richard told Erik he needed a photographer. They exchanged phone numbers. Weber didn’t hear from Brautigan again until after Grove signed him to a three-book deal two months later.

Erik went over to Richard’s newly sublet apartment near Fisherman’s Wharf and posed his subject in front of a large aviary, snapping only eight shots before capturing the image he was after. Brautigan’s first dust jacket photo showed the 28-year-old author looking optimistic and confident. His fine blond hair was still cut short but the trademark mustache and rimless glasses were already in place. Richard stared out at the viewer, eyes alive with intelligence. Subtle determination and just a hint of megalomania burned within. Don’t get in my way, his look declared. Nothing will stop me. It was the portrait of a man at the start of a remarkable career.

Fifteen years later when Weber took his last photographs of Brautigan before their long friendship ended, Richard wore a nearly identical denim work shirt. This traditional uniform of artistic bohemia provided the only visible connection with the inaugural pictures. Brautigan’s shoulder-length hair was thinning on top. His eyes reflected deep inner pain, brimming with grief and defeat. In spite of literary and financial success, Eriks new portraits showed a man doomed by his own demons. Erik Weber captured the tormented soul of Richard Brautigan at the beginning and end of his meteoric rise and fall.

Seeing Richard by Erik Weber, previously unpublished and rare images of Richard Brautigan, with a foreword by Jarvis Cocker and an introduction by William Hjortsberg, is published by Tangerine Press.

Richard Brautigan (1935-84) was one of the most iconic US writers of the 1960s and 70s. A child of the Depression who rose to prominence in the thriving San Francisco literary scene, he was commanding huge advances from the large publishing houses by the late 1960s. But this ascent was matched by an equal and emphatic descent into alcoholism, which eventually led to his suicide at the age of 49. Seeing Richard is a collection of photographs Erik Weber made of Brautigan during their 15-year friendship. The images are of projects they worked on together, formal portraits made for book covers – including, most famously, Trout Fishing in America – and those of a more personal nature.

William Hjortsberg is a novelist and screenwriter. His novel Falling Angel was the basis for the film Angel Heart, which starred Mickey Rourke and Robert De Niro. More recently, Hjortsberg published Jubilee Hitchhiker, a biography of Brautigan.

Jarvis Cocker is a singer-songwriter, best known as frontman for the band Pulp, radio presenter and editor. He made a documentary, Messy, Isn’t It? The Life and Works of Richard Brautigan, for BBC Radio 4.

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