Sunday, June 10, 2018

GOING FOR THE ONE Part 3 - Shine On You Crazy Diamond

Storm Thorgerson, whom I met in October 1994, cared little about gorillas, though he liked me. After seeing a science documentary he produced for Equinox on TV, an examination of the Hubble constant called The Rubber Universe, I contacted him. I was a huge fan of his work, had been since his days with Hipgnosis, an art design group that created surrealistic album cover art for some of my favourite bands in the 1970s, including Genesis, Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd. No doubt, he could make a compelling film about the convergence of space technology and gorilla conservation.

Storm's seminal design for Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon
“Never encountered a Hipgnosis groupie before,” said Storm when we met. It was a bright, brisk Autumn day. Close to my office and his studio, Primates Restaurant in Chalk Farm, with its subtle jungle theme, posters of great apes on the walls, and menus illustrated with primate species, was the perfect venue. We were seated at a window-side table bathed in sunlight.

“You opened the door to great music for me,” I said, unfolding my napkin on my lap. “Back when I was building my record collection, ‘Designed by Hipgnosis’ was a hallmark for eclectic vinyl.”

“Quite a stroke of luck,” said Storm as he studied the menu, “having a restaurant in the neighbourhood that promotes your cause.”

“Try the lamb shank, it’s their speciality.”

“Do they serve monkey?” asked Storm. 

“No,” I laughed, “but the gorillas do get a cut of the profits. The owner’s a big supporter of the charity.”

“I should warn you, I don’t believe in charity,” sniffed Storm. “If the gorillas need saving then it’s up to governments to pay for it. That’s why I pay taxes.” 

Storm Thorgerson at DFGF's London office, 1998
“I understand, but this has been a grim year for us. No one was prepared for what happened in Rwanda. What if I told you that when the genocide began, the space shuttle Endeavour was orbiting overhead, scanning the gorilla habit with an imaging radar?”

“Is this the film you want me to make?” asked Storm.

“Absolutely! I think the spectrum of hope and despair embodied in that epic moment should somehow be documented.”

I told him how Arthur C. Clarke had persuaded NASA to include the gorilla habitat in not one but two space shuttle missions, and then, journeying outside Sri Lanka for the first time in years, he joined me at Spaceport USA in Florida for the second shuttle launch, which was scrubbed at the very last second. “I’m a big fan of Clarke’s,” said Storm, digging into his lamb shank. “The cover for Zeppelin’s ‘Presence’ was inspired by his monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. But how do you propose we film an event that’s already happened?”

“Good point,” I said. “I’m working on that…”

The following Saturday, at around six o’clock in the evening, my home phone rang. It was Storm. “Is it true you’ve never seen the Floyd in concert?” 

“Never,” I said.

“Well, there’s an access all areas pass waiting for you at the stage door. If you hurry, you might just make the opening number.” 

The Pink Floyd were giving their final performance of The Division Bell tour at Earl’s Court, where they had so far performed 13 nights straight. The gig was mind-blowing, even without drugs. Backstage at the band party after the show, I felt like I was in the high-fidelity first-class traveling set. 

“What’s the point of having a dream team if you’re not prepared to fucking listen to them?” snapped Storm over the phone to me. It was five months later and we were making a short film together, a message from Arthur C. Clarke to be shown at the London premiere of Congo. It wasn’t the Gorillas From Space film I’d envisioned us making, but there wasn’t money for that.

With Clarke’s greeting from Sri Lanka in the can, Storm now wanted to shoot closeups of his books and I was objecting to the additional cost. But he refused to back down. He’d been mansplaining his artistic visions to music industry morons for decades, he was hardly going to yield to a neophyte like me. Besides, Storm was my hero. “Alright!” I said, “we’ll do it your way.”

The next morning, I hauled a stack of Arthur’s science fiction paperbacks down to King Studios in Soho, found him at the controls of a 35 millimetre rostrum camera, which had been designed to animate the inanimate. Quietly, between sips of tea, he arranged the books side by side on a table beneath the camera, then slowly panned the lens diagonally over them, capturing every tear and dog-eared corner. He told a different story than what was written in those books.

His studio in Belsize Park was just a short walk from my office, and I often visited. I spent as much time watching him work as I had studying his album covers when I was a teenager. His rock and roll stories and mordant sense of humour were an antidote to the terrible things happening in my world.

Apologies to Yes for stealing both the title and artwork of their album 'Going For The One', which Storm Thorgerson designed

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