Jarvis Cocker – 'It's an archeological dig in a way. But with music'
- Arusa Qureshi
- 12 July 2017
Room 29 got Jarvis Cocker thinking about Hollywood myths and fantasy. He sat Arusa Qureshi down for a spine-tingling tale of illusion, excess and tragedy
Have you ever wondered about the history of a hotel room? What of the characters that inhabited the four walls you find yourself in and the conversations which took place over the mini-bar? For Jarvis Cocker and Chilly Gonzales, these questions lie at the heart of Room 29, an elaborate album and stage show in which the pair invite you to join them in their ruminations on a notorious Hollywood hotel room's past.
'I stayed in the Chateau Marmont when Pulp did some concerts about five years ago and I just randomly got upgraded to room 29, which has a baby grand piano in it,' Cocker recalls. 'Seeing the piano there made me think about all those stories and all that history. That piano has seen all of it, so wouldn't it be great to get the piano to tell you its story?'
This 16-track song-cycle album discloses many illusions of Hollywood through vignettes of shifty characters and superstars like Howard Hughes and Jean Harlow. One song, 'Bombshell', tells the story of Harlow's honeymoon in room 29 with second husband Paul Bern. Whether for mental or physical reasons, Bern was unable to consummate the marriage and was supposedly so mortified by the situation that he killed himself about a month later.
'It's a sad story but what was interesting is the idea that Hollywood created characters like Jean Harlow, who people would see in the cinema and fantasise about. Paul Bern had what maybe all the other guys in America would have liked but he just got too close to the screen, as if it was better to leave things in that fantasy world than have them in the real world.'
This disparity between reality and fantasy is a familiar area for Cocker, whose wry lyrical musings have previously included references to the screen's power and how we're affected by what we consume. But rather than merely warning us of the dangers within celebrity culture, Room 29 exposes the attraction of such a world, where life is represented with allure and extravagance.
'One of the central myths of our culture is that getting famous could solve all your problems,' Cocker notes. 'It's like going to heaven early. The Chateau Marmont opened in 1929 and that's coincidentally around the same time that sound came to pictures. What interested us in the hotel was that this was maybe the start of the pop culture we're still living in.'
The parallels between classic Hollywood glamour and contemporary celebrity culture are easy to recognise. But Cocker and Gonzales were careful not to air any grievances relating to the internet and its power over modern-day consumption, instead choosing to focus on the silver screen's early days. 'Every single show or book you read nowadays somehow gets round to blaming the internet for what's going wrong with humanity. And there's probably some truth in that. But this was an attempt to go the other way, almost like trying to trace things back to the moment of the Big Bang: it's an archeological dig in a way. But with music.'
For Cocker, there was no one better to join him on this journey than Gonzales, whose music features an air of old Hollywood akin to the Marmont's atmosphere. Their partnership allowed Cocker to depart from his usual way of working, with Gonzales taking on all the musical duties and Cocker providing vocal melodies and lyrics. 'I'd never really worked like that before on Pulp records or on my solo records. With this, I didn't have a hand in the music at all which was interesting. We could practice in a room, just me stood by the side of the piano without a microphone and that was really nice. It made me perform in a different way.'
Despite the seemingly simple and reserved combination of voice and piano, Room 29 is anything but. Like the album itself, the stage show is a fully immersive experience, with clips from old Hollywood movies, film footage shot in the hotel, a bell boy, dancer, string quartet and more.
'I get to fulfil a lifetime's ambition by having a bed on stage,' Cocker muses. 'So if everything gets a bit too much, I can just go and have a lie down. The basic idea is that you're checking in to the hotel room for this one night, joining in to see what the room can tell us.'
For both Cocker and Gonzales, this room and Chateau Marmont itself is representative of a life full of lavishness and excess. But beneath the showbiz facade are stories full of sad truths and forgotten deviances, where reality collides with fantasy to reveal something dark and unexpected. Room 29 is an invitation to temporarily escape into this world of wonder, all while remaining mindful of the illusory nature of perfection and idealism.
Jarvis Cocker & Chilly Gonzales: Room 29, King's Theatre, Tue 22–Thu 24 Aug.