Where in the world could you see dance-punk libertine Peaches and classic-pop songwriter/producer Van Dyke Parks in the same room on the same night? A place where it often feels like anything can happen: L.A.’s fabled underground/counterculture art gallery La Luz de Jesus. Last Friday night, the two musicians were among a roomful of local art and music luminaries who gathered for the opening of Hudson Marquez’s latest exhibition, “Rhythm & Shoes.”
As the title implies, Marquez’s paintings revolve around the R&B music of a certain era, pulling in other icons of pop-culture history he holds dear: Cadillacs, burlesque, high hair, and higher heels. These elements, sometimes combined with text, tell stories he either knows or lived. While his work is filled with such stars as Ike Turner, Little Richard, or famous stripper Lili St. Cyr, it also features appearances by more personal totems, such as his cats Lucille and Tipitina. (This exhibition, which runs through February 1, is a joint show with “Charles Binger, Illustrator,” the late British-born commercial artist, whose textured, graceful oil paintings adorned film posters, pulp novel covers, and celebrity portraits for half a century until his 1974 death.)
Openings tend to make Hudson (who, full disclosure, is a longtime friend of mine) nervous beforehand and exhausted afterward, partly because of the sheer volume of well-wishers but also, perhaps, because Hudson Marquez is a storyteller nonpareil, and he never holds back when holding forth. Sitting on a bench in the gallery wearing a red shirt, his glasses slung around his neck on a cord, the sixty-seven-year-old artist receives all comers with handshakes, hugs, or smooches, sparkling with the Southern charm that makes him so immediately likable, and talking a blue streak much of the time. An old friend from his fraternity days in New Orleans, where Marquez was born and raised, prompts a barrage of recollections and hints that their insanely raucous frat figured into the contributions Harold Ramis (another friend of Marquez) made to the Animal House screenplay. (“It was based on a lot of fraternities,” Marquez says later, “but he got his first taste with that house.”) Van Dyke Parks leans in for a chat at one point. And a steady stream of high-heeled ladies come up to show him their shoes, which he photographs with his phone.
“I had a really good time,” Marquez says. “I was really happy that Peaches came!”
Although the city of his birth left an indelible imprint on his tastes in music, fetishes, and food, Hudson left New Orleans in the late 1960s, ending up in San Francisco, where he co-founded the arts collective Ant Farm and, later, the video collective TVTV (Top Value Television). In 1974, he and Ant Farm cohorts Chip Lord and Doug Michels created the public art installation Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas: a line of vintage Cadillacs angled nose-down, half-buried in the dirt — a pop-culture icon of his own creation.
Marquez has painted men’s shoes and men’s high hair, as in Conking and Stepping, above, but the high heels and hair he’s most obsessed with are on the wimmens. His passions produce interesting random associations in his paintings, and he says the process is actually “kind of automatic. When I’m doing art, it’s kind of a twenty-four-hour-a-day process. You think about it all the time. The painting is kind of a problem you solve. I work it out in my head before, and then kind of fill in the blanks.”
For example, he will think to himself, “‘I love these women with high hair. High hair is so good. Let me find some high-haired ladies … .’” Viewed through this lens, it makes perfect sense to put Lili St. Cyr and Ronnie Spector in the same painting (High Hair and Higher Heels, below, and detailed above).
As for the rhythm and blues part of the show, Marquez says the stories he painted are “all true, with the exception of Ike Turner [camping out with] the Devil, but that could have happened.” Well, another exception may be the last meal of bluesman Freddie King. He says legend has it King died after eating three bowls of chili at a favorite restaurant, but the truth is less colorful. “I found out [the real story] from his manager at the time and said, ‘Now what?’”
He vented this dilemma to his musician friend Dave Alvin, of roots-rock band The Blasters, who chopped that Gordian knot right in half. Alvin suggested that Hudson make the work’s title a question instead of a statement. Thus, Was This Freddie King’s Last Meal? was born … and in the painting, shown below, Alvin sits at the table with the late guitarist, along with R&B singer-songwriter and guitarist Barbara Lynn, best known for her 1962 hit “You’ll Lose a Good Thing.” “The Left Hand of Sin,” Marquez rhapsodizes. “She plays left-handed in evening gowns. She’s a killer. She’s wonderful. They named a street after her in [her hometown of] Beaumont, Texas.”
So, basically, a Marquez painting is a reflection of how a conversation with the artist goes: Apparently rambling, yet in fact weaving together a tapestry of coherent memories — people’s features and mannerisms, the way a place smelled or felt or looked — that sets a singular, vivid scene. If you happen to be in Los Angeles this Sunday, January 18, you can hear Marquez set some of these scenes in person during his Artist Talk from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. — and you should.
One of the topics will be his early life in New Orleans, where he and his friends started slipping into strip joints and music clubs as adolescents — shenanigans that obviously left a big impression on Marquez. Back then, he says, race-mixing laws prohibited whites from going to black nightclubs and vice-versa, rules he says were strictly enforced by the police and the powers-that-be, as depicted in his Incident at the Dew Drop Inn (see below), in which club owner Mr. Frank gets taken down for allowing white people into his place, which hosted such acts as Little Richard, Ray Charles, and singer/bandleader and female impersonator Bobby Marchan.
“I saw a picture not long ago of Mac Rebennack [aka Dr. John] being taken out of the Dew Drop in that same era,” Marquez says.
Hudson explains that, back then, many citizens of all stripes didn’t agree with race-mixing laws. Confusingly, there were different “rules” for different circumstances. For example, as young teens in the early 1960s, “we started having parties where bands played, and sometimes it would be [black musicians] Earl Palmer and Lee Allen. But that was white people hiring black bands.” And therefore, OK. However, he continues, “white people were not supposed to play with black people. Sometimes, if there was a white singer and the band was black, the band had to play behind a curtain.”
Many black barrooms had “incredible music going on,” he recalls. “The white kids were so crazy for rhythm and blues, and growing up in New Orleans, that’s what you heard. You didn’t think of it as black music or white music; it was just music. It was the white folks and town fathers and people like that saying it was ‘black music, jungle music.’ Though there were also black people who didn’t want white people around. I’ve been asked by some strange, scary people to leave [a bar] at 3 in the morning.”
Institutionalized racism was part of what pushed Marquez to leave town, although another contributing factor for the lifelong maverick was “the whole repression of anything that’s not what your grandfather did. Everybody was supposed to go to law school and get integrated into downtown New Orleans, where the guys still wear the same suits that their grandfathers wore, seersucker suits. I said, ‘These people are nuts, and I’m getting the fuck out.’”
Which doesn’t mean he doesn’t appreciate his hometown. (“I have a theory that people who live by water are a lot smarter,” he says, “and they eat better. New Orleans, Chicago, the whole West Coast.”) Or that he never went back. In fact, not long after he bailed, he began a series of return pilgrimages due to his obsession with finding Professor Longhair, a pioneering R&B musician who had seemingly vanished by the late 1960s. Longhair’s “Tipitina” is Hudson’s “favorite song of all time”; one of his many tattoos is the 78 rpm recording’s label. And remember the cats Lucille and Tipitina? They appear in an older work of Marquez’s, Jayne Mansfield and Professor Longhair Play Chess with Lucille & Tipitina.
His quest started when he idly wondered why Longhair, born Henry Roeland “Roy” Byrd and affectionately known as “Fess,” had never played in a particular venue on Tchoupitoulas Street, where many similar acts had performed. “I buttonholed a promoter, and he said, ‘Nobody knows where he is; he’s disappeared.’” Marquez soon resolved to find him, and so began a circuitous journey from the Tulane University jazz archives to a certain bar in the French Quarter and into neighborhoods where a young, long-haired white guy’s presence meant only one thing to the police: He was after either heroin or sex. Hudson says he mostly eluded them, but actual encounters with the cops often ended in acts of police brutality against him that were fairly routine for the time.
His journey finally led him to “this bar on a corner, called the Big Apple. It was all older gentlemen, with Louis Jordan on the jukebox. I asked if they’d seen Longhair around there, and the bartender said he doesn’t come around here.” But Hudson was sure it was the right place. So he slowly gained their trust over time by putting handfuls of quarters in that jukebox, turning up with a bushel of crabs, that sort of thing.
“The reality was that Byrd was right above our heads, running card games. One day when I was sitting in there, the door opened at these stairs at one end of the bar. This guy stood on the top step, and I went, ‘It’s gotta be him!’ He had a gold tooth, sunglasses on, and his shirt outside his pants. He pulled his shirt up to show me he had a chrome-plated pistol in his waistband. And he said, ‘Are you looking for Roy Byrd?’”
At last, Hudson had found his man. What happened next? “I ended up hanging out upstairs in the card room, making drinks for the guys and watching them play cards. And they gave me tips!”
There’s much more to this tale, involving Marquez paying off Fess’s dues to the Musicians Union, an amount serendipitously equal to all the money in his San Francisco checking account, and then taking advantage of Longhair’s entitlement, as a member in good standing, to use a rehearsal room. When Marquez finally got to see Fess play for the first time, at a club in the 9th Ward, “it was fucking incredible. Everybody in the place was over forty and drunker than skunks, and a little bit dangerous. And a paper sign on the door said ‘Professor Longhair, 50 cents, Friday.’”
Hudson sighs. “I had three smart ideas in my life: Cadillac Ranch, finding Longhair, and copyrighting the Cadillac Ranch.”