'Rock Dreams': Teen Fantasies as Art

Artist Guy Peellaert and 'Rock Dreams,' artwork of rock icons in fantasized situations

Painter and poster artist Guy Peellaert on April 4th, 2002 in Rheims, France. Credit: ALAIN JULIEN/AFP/Getty

Dreamer of dreams, born out of
 my true time
Why shouldn't I strive to set
 the crooked straight —William Morris

Whenever I want you, all I have
 to do is dream —The Everly Brothers

A book called Rock Dreams rippled through the European rock cafe set being touted as... well...the Sgt. Pepper of rock art. The 118 color paintings that make up the book were snapped up by the culture-vultures at $1000-plus each. Naturally enough, one of the first to react was Mick Jagger, who saw pre-publication proofs and immediately invited the Belgian artist, Guy Peellaert, to join the Stones' German recording sessions and get a taste for their next album cover.

There was an instance in Peellaert's meeting with Jagger that has stayed vivid in the artist's mind. The setting was the grounds of a castle near Hamburg, and Jagger, wearing an ankle-length coat, was silhouetted against the sky as he walked away. Standing next to Peellaert was a musician, whom he can only identify as being "jolly and boozy." "You know," said the musician, looking at Jagger's disappearing figure, "it's the end of an era." At that moment, Peellaert recalls, he realized that for himself it was indeed the end of an era, the end of a romance with the fetishes and fantasies of pop that had begun in the Fifties and had been exorcised out of his system by three years of disciplined work exploring the mythology and committing the images to paper.

And it was suitable that Peellaert should have reached his conclusion in a scene that has all the elements of a dream itself, containing the heavy sense of flawed reality which radiate from the pages of his book. In Rock Dreams the Stones are featured in several poses, all with strong overtones of baroque decadence. How did Jagger feel about being portrayed as a corsetted, super-realistic drag queen and a Nazi with a kink for pre-pubescent girls? "He liked it ... of course," says Peellaert, with a sly smile.

Sitting in a bar across the street from the modern block of flats in Paris where Peellaert keeps his cluttered, workman-like studio, he explains that his aim was to capture those frozen private moments of the teen fantasy—to put in visual terms the language of rock's secret society. On the cover of the book, Lennon, Dylan, Jagger and Elvis sit on the counter of a greasy-spoon cafe, four small-town buddies having a coffee and gossiping. Inside the 170-page book, the Beach Boys huddle together under a blanket by the California sea as Dennis Wilson pumps air into a flat tire of their hot rod. Diana Ross cruises through Harlem in a limo, wrapped in fur and oversize rings on her hands, while on the littered sidewalk stands a group of ghetto men, no longer having the will even to look resentful. Brenda Lee poses for a graduation snapshot between her mom and pop. A tear rolls down the cheek of a leather-clad Roy Orbison, as astride his powerful bike he rides alone, Claudette now only a ghostly pillion-seat memory. The Beatles sip afternoon tea with the Queen in Buckingham Palace. Sam Cooke lies dead in his underclothes in a sleazy hotel bedroom.

Like Kafka's Amerika, the strength of Rock Dreams comes from the artist's isolation from the society he is viewing. More than just another bizarro trip down nostalgia lane, Peellaert's impressions are unusually direct because his input was pure fantasy.

Now 39, with longish thinning hair pulled back tight, Peellaert grew up in Belgium, which in the post-war period was flooded with American influence through films and records. "In those days,' Peellaert says, "Antwerp and Brussels were tough places. Crude and sometimes dangerous. For me it all started in the rocker areas, where the whores lived, where people carried knives. For me it all started there, because in a way it was America, especially through the films. That's perhaps why the book has a lot of Howard Hawks in it."

After making the grade as a commercial artist in Brussels, Peellaert moved to Paris in 1966, where he became established as a leading comic-strip artist. "I couldn't show you an example," he explains, "because that is finished for me now and I don't keep old things."Though he's fond of Paris for its cafes and the undercurrent of vulgarity—he enjoys tourist traps like the Pigalle—Peellaert politely scorns the Parisians' obsession with fashion and the prevailing rigid Cartesian way of looking at things. He shakes his head in dismay when recalling how Al Capp, for him the greatest cartoonist, was dropped from the radical French press because of the artist's political mouthings. "In France everybody waves flags and does nothing. They aim to build cathedrals but end up with little houses."

Then, about five years ago, Peellaert decided it was time to "make a statement ... sum up the important feelings from when I was 18 up until now." The concept of placing rock figures in realistically constructed but fantasized situations was originally intended as a vehicle for a television special. Jerry Lee Lewis would play the decrepit wino and Johnny Cash would be the do-gooder come to save him. But the television producers wanted a local pop star to fit in somewhere; and as that wasn't part of Peellaert's dream, the project was aborted. The idea was revitalized four years ago as a book theme when a wealthy young German publisher, casually met on a southern French beach, offered to finance the three-year work.

Peellaert collected thousands of photographs of rock personalities—from Duane Eddy, Buddy Holly and Fabian through Alice Cooper, Lou Reed ("He is America for me today") and Leon Russell—and then began the complex process of imagining vignettes and tableaus for the characters, which he felt must not only convey the essence of their music and mythical personalities but also recall a situation he himself had experienced. Peellaert took Polaroids of friends or himself to provide bodies for the pictures, created the backgrounds by either paintings or photomontage, substituted the heads, re-photographed the layout to remove the hard edges and then air-brushed in the color and flavor.

Now, with the book critically acclaimed in Europe, U.S. publication set for this summer, and a New York exhibition planned for July, Peellaert intends to satisfy his long-felt ambition and take a three-month auto-trip through the land of his dreams. "I want to drive around all those towns in the South, where the people are aggressive and rude. Talk to truck drivers and rednecks. That's my America. The West Coast doesn't interest me so much. I know I'm going to be disappointed but that doesn't matter. For me the dream had finished anyway."