Register Sunday | June 16 | 2019

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Fan

Duran Duran lives on in the most unlikely places

The junior high I entered in grade eight—a low-rise stucco slab set in a gravel field surrounded by chain-link fence—was the roughest in my Vancouver suburb. Every day in gym class, a short, busty blonde leaned against the wall beside me and mocked my glasses, my braces and the Persian cat on my T-shirt. At lunch, leather-jacketed masses in Def Leppard T-shirts hunched outside the school’s entrance, smoking and sneering.

If I could’ve dropped out, citing social failure, I would have. To cope, I read S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, listened to a stubbled, defiant John Cougar on American Fool and wrote “novels” narrated by sensitive rebels who looked like Matt Dillon.

Then, at the Valentine’s Dance in 1983, I heard a song called “Hungry Like the Wolf,” and in the wall of the school gym—which I seemed always to be leaning against—a new metaphorical door opened. On the other side were five young Brits called Duran Duran. The cover of their Rio album (which I quickly sought out) featured a raven-haired, burgundy-draped woman with a seductive smile. On the glossy inner sleeve, the band stood on a darkened roof against the blurred night lights of London. They wore sleek pastel suits and heavy makeup, their faces angular, their gazes challenging or askance—I couldn’t tell.

The music was elemental, often darkly sexual; the themes, adult. I knew nothing of sex beyond Judy Blume’s Forever, nothing of fashion beyond leg warmers and nothing of art beyond unicorn prints and my elementary-school love of haiku and E. E. Cummings. Yet my favourite song on the album was the five-minute, largely instrumental, utterly baffling final track “The Chauffeur”:

 

Out on the tar plains, the glides are moving

All looking for a new place to drive

You sit beside me so newly charming

Sweating dewdrops glisten freshing your side

“Fresh” as a verb? “Glide” as a noun? The three-word chorus—“Sing blue silver”—made no sense. And yet I understood it. It had nothing to do with my life and everything to do with possibility.

I first heard the word “aesthetic” in the light Brummie drawl of keyboardist Nick Rhodes. Nick was the band’s brain, the witty, analytical one who cited “ideas” as his favourite currency. On the stage, he kept to the rear—rarely smiling and barely moving. He soon became my most beloved Duran, the type who, between the sold-out show and the party, would arrange for a private viewing of a Duchamp exhibition. Adorable, with an ingenue’s smile and a steady hand for applying eyeliner, he’d have been terrorized by my school’s thugs too.

As much as we insisted that we loved the band for their songs, no true Duranie was created from the band’s music and words alone. Russell Mulcahy, the Australian director of most of the early videos, cannily established the perfect “look” for a band whose musical influences ranged from the lush, atmospheric Roxy Music to the funky Chic to the furious Clash to the shape-shifting David Bowie. Until this point, the few videos that existed depicted live shows or staged performances against bland backdrops. Building on the fact that Duran Duran was comprised of young men of modest upbringings (most hailed from industrial Birmingham) who liked to wear blouses, Mulcahy’s imagination went a step further. He had them parade around the ruins of a Sri Lankan temple, encounter face-painted acrobats in an underground labyrinth, ride on the back of an elephant. How white their skin, how white their cotton and linen. How delicate and Western they seemed and, yet, how worldly.

“Poseurs,” sneered detractors of the band. As a fan, I took this as a compliment. Duran Duran was all about looking and being looked at. Soon, I donned only grey and pink and black and wore a vest with a DD decal on the back and dozens of clanking pins on the front. The vest rattled against desks; the weight, like that of military honours, dragged it forward. Fellow Duranies, with whom I now ate lunch, opted for other Duran gear. “Freaks” was hissed through the hallways. This suffering felt noble, exciting, creative.

In Nick Rhodes I believed I had found a soulmate. The more I learned about him, the more obsessed I became. Nick breakfasted on strawberries and champagne, adored Andy Warhol’s quirky book From A to B and Back Again, didn’t (and doesn’t) drive. Friends described his London house as “rough-edged and glamorous, like a St. Petersburg palace” and “turn-of-the-century Parisian with Tintoretto-style ceilings.” He professed to favour a “gently decaying, Venetian” style. By the fall of 1983, I began writing the first of many novels in which I married him in some exotic setting. I printed in capital letters, my Es denoted simply by three horizontal lines à la Nick. I signed my name RIO RHODES.

Back then, the promise was the concert—and after that the next video, article, album. Somehow I believed that the concert would culminate in my meeting Nick and the rest of the band. Even today, Duran’s song “New Moon on Monday” conjures in me an extravagant, palpable hope. There is a sense in the chorus of jubilation for an impending triumph, a transformation (and the video, in which the band members giddily lip-synch while fireworks celebrate a revolution, corroborates this). This promise engaged my imagination so intimately that to see Duran Duran live in February 1984, surrounded by thousands of screaming interlopers who each believed that they too had a private experience with the band, was devastating.

Six months later, Nick got married. At the wedding, he wore a lavender velvet suit and top hat and surrounded himself with six living pink flamingos. His big-lipped wife, a department-store heiress from Des Moines, Iowa, towered over him in a bulging mermaid dress. Who would I be now?

By 1985, I’d moved on to the synth pop of Vancouver’s Images in Vogue (who’d opened for Duran Duran the previous year), the molten goth rock of Bauhaus (featured in the film The Hunger, a spectacle of vampires, leather, cellos and sheer, blowing curtains), the shimmering fury of Echo and the Bunnymen, the jazzy art stylings of Japan, the brooding anguish of the Cure and the poppy misery of the Smiths. By 1986, I’d shed the spandex pants and the crimping iron. Flirt, the burgundy hair dye, washed out after a couple of weeks. Now the jangling guitars of REM and the Velvet Underground emanated from my earphones. I wore suede desert boots, honey-coloured. I read Sylvia Plath.

The Plath obsession is one that, years later, I realized I shared with thousands of aspiring poets. To my knowledge, no artists of my generation have outed themselves as former Duranies. Yet I’m sure I’m not the only one. I’m sure there are others for whom the Duran Effect, which took me from kittens to tigers, couldn’t have been more transformative. John Cougar’s “Jack and Diane” may have been a good song about Middle America—clear-eyed, socially astute, memorable—but it was essentially a documentary work, not a creative one. Duran Duran’s invocation to “Shake up the picture the lizard mixture / With your dance on the eventide” took me into far more potent and unsettling places. “Tiger Tiger” I now understand was a nod to William Blake, who knew the confused distinction between innocence and experience.

William Blake is an easier inspiration to confess than a boy band. But Nick Rhodes was my muse before any other, someone whose look, like mine, sought what wasn’t there. (“You could meet him twenty times,” someone once said, “and still not get the measure of him.”) My favourite photograph shows him in black and white, reclining sideways across a hotel bed, his hand propping up his head. He wears leather pants with buckles near the ankles and a sweater that’s slipped up to reveal his navel, my only glimpse of it. Like that of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, his was a gaze that entreated and withdrew. I realize now that I had my Nick and others had theirs, and as long as we didn’t think about it too much, our thing for Nick was exquisitely absorbing in the way that only unfulfilled desire can be.

Beyond the gleanings from a few interviews and fact sheets, we knew nothing about the men whose faces we taped to our walls and ceilings or wore on our swelling or meagre chests. Instead, we worshipped our conceptions of these “idols”—a startlingly accurate term. And what drove millions of us to scream and many to faint wasn’t merely the beautiful faces and fine clothes. Having become attuned, through singer Simon LeBon’s cryptic lyrics, to the dam between the conscious and the subconscious mind, we believed that if we screamed loud and long enough, we would break through.

 

Some find comic books, some rap music, some Jane Austen and the Brontës, some video games, some the vodka in the cabinet. Because my school scared me, because it was 1983, because the guys were freaks, because they were stars, because they were cute, because they chose art, because I thought the kids around me crude and stupid, I found Duran Duran.

Sometimes it felt that that they had found me. My most vivid memory of their 1984 concert is of Nick gazing out of a massive video screen. They toured with these screens not only to boost their egos when we went wild at the close-ups, but because they knew we wanted to believe we were being seen by each of them. Like so many of Duran Duran’s sincere contrivances—their T-shirts, their pins, their carefully chosen typefaces, their album covers, their cosmetics—the screen was a trick; but for a while it worked. These five serious, charming, foppish boys created an experience that was, for all their actual remoteness from fans, profoundly interactive; and we considered ourselves, in that moment, chosen.

During the past two decades, I’ve thought only intermittently of the band. Nick’s collection of abstract Polaroids, Interference, was my first art book, but I now see that the titles of his photographs (“She Was Niagara,” “Beauty Without Tears,” “For Those Who May Not Know, No. 15”) and his art-speak introduction reflect the cryptic evasions of a self-absorbed undergraduate. I’ve seen a photograph of him on a beach with his new girlfriend, a young actress/model; he looks just a little chubby, a little old, a little ordinary.

Last summer, I was visiting a high school friend in London, England. He told me and my husband about a dinner after the premiere of a film his wife had distributed. It was a large group, he said, and a friend had asked if he could bring someone along. The guest turned out to be Nick. My friend didn’t know at first who he was. He was a nice guy, who occasionally sent chatty e-mails. “I should give you his address,” my friend’s wife offered.

By that point, I had moved across the country, found a wide circle of friends, published three books of poetry, fallen in love with and married a playwright, who has as few clothes as Nick has many, and secured a tenure-track job. But the moment I didn’t jot down Nick Rhodes’s e-mail address may have been the moment I became an adult. In an upscale London pizzeria, drinking bottled water with friends who worked in museums, in publishing, in film, in theatre, I had all the aesthetic accoutrements I needed. More than that, I had a life, I had a self, I was enough.