The Silk-Upholstered Chair: Art, Death and Media in Classic Rock

by on Mar.20, 2011

I don’t particularly like the Rolling Stones (young or aged), but over the past couple of weeks I’ve listened incessantly to their song “Dead Flowers.” It’s a great song and it seems play into some of our discussions about Art as Media as Death:

I’m fascinated by the first three lines: “When you’re sitting there/ in your silk-upholstered chair/talking to some rich folks that you know.” Especially the “silk-upholstered chair.” Yes, the aestheticism of that idea – the humble chair upholstered into something over-the-top fashionable with orientalist “silk.” But more just the word “upholstered.” Such an unmusical word, such an odd word, calling attention to itself as signifier – an excessive, luxurious word. Ridiculous. Has it ever been used in a pop song before or after?

Of course she’s talking to some rich folk that she knows. She is Art and art is always seen as somehow luxurious, somehow like extreme wealth. But she only knows the rich folks, she’s not actually rich herself!

There is this connection between the addressee and wealth: She imagines herself a “Queen of the underground” (the velvet underground, the silk underground), she’s got a pink cadillac, and of course she sends the speaker the “dead flowers” of the title, and he of course puts some roses on her grave.

She’s also associated with death throughout the song: the way those roses kept getting placed on her grave, it’s almost as if he’s digging her up and burying her over and over! But she’s also Media: she sends the flowers through the mail, the original Media. Death, Art, Media. She’s replaced by other women; she’s duplicatable.

I keep thinking about: What is the spatial relationship between the singer and the addressee? “I hope you don’t see me,” he sings, as he sits there doing drugs with his “ragged company.” She’s both distant from him (has to send him flowers in the mail afterall) and so close that she can see him. This for me conjures some kind of otherworldly realm, “black lodge” in Lynchian terms, a kind of otherworld of Art, the world of doubles, the world of crime, staged world, cinematic world.

The art-death-dimension is brought out even more by the late Townes Van Zandt’s version:

TVZ always sounds both sentimental and dead; he’s singing the song from beyond the grave, something the maker of this home-made video appears to have gotten as well since the video begins with the late singer’s gravestone.

If you permit me to go totally classic rock, I could compare this song to Bob Dylan’s famous “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”:

One way to read this song is the way that lame movie about Edie Sedgwick from the other year read it: In that movie Sedgwick is manipulated by the deathy and pervy Andy Warhol, who kills her with his deathy druggy scene, while the virile young heterosexual Bob Dylan tries to save her with his motorcycle and his authenticity. Just a horrendously stupid interpretation.

Dylan of the mid-60s was aesthete to the hilt – with his gothy clothes and his shades, he was as interested in appearances as Warhol was. And as fascinated by death.

I think rather than the virile young man trying to save “baby blue” (or Edie Sedgewick or whatever lost girl), he’s a harbringer of Art as Death. The speaker is turning the addressee’s life into art, he’s painting crazy patterns on her sheets; Dylan was the most famous orphan since Annie and he is now painting his gun at the young lady. And then it goes all “reindeer armies” and such: a dizzying swirl of Art.

So this is my way of saying that Joyce Carol Oates’ certainly got it right in “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?” where she casts Dylan as a gentleman rapist, part Emily Dickinson and part horror movie, and who brings the innocent girl Connie that sublime moment at the end where the sunshine washes out everything.

7 comments for this entry:
  1. Amish

    No credit on the Stones link? There’s something so perfect when Mick sings it, though it takes on this sad tone for TVZ. If you listen to modern live versions, Mick “countrifies” his voice- deepening it and adding a twang. There’s an essay there, I think.

    Also I’m obsessed with the “heroin line” in the second verse, though I’d argue the whole song is about addiction and use. Just a thought.

  2. Johannes

    One might say that heroin makes a medium of the body (I wrote an essay for elsewhere on the web on VU’s “Heroin”, I might post that here as well).


  3. Amish

    I just want to add too that the “over the top” nature of the upholstery is something that band really is in the middle of. Sticky Fingers, Exile, and Goat’s Head are three of the must indulgent albums ever, especially the latter.

  4. megan

    i love your reading of the oates story.
    because there’s an extended dialogue ft chris rock and i dunno, some girl, on kanye’s “blame game” which includes the line “yeezy reupholstered my pussy” i had kanye’s album on my mind while reading this post. his video for Monster has generated a lot of talk, and i wonder how you might read its production of dead women’s bodies. or lines like ‘i’ll put your pussy in a sarcophagus.’ kanye casts himself as (racialized) monster/devil and aesthetic master, another harbinger of Art as Death (after Dylan/Warhol) of course marking himself as such over the the corpses of (white) women’s bodies which i gotta say is fucked up even if we all already knew that.

  5. Johannes

    Ugh, that metaphor does perhaps bring out something that I hadn’t thought about in the Rolling Stones line… Yes, it does tend to pile up dead women (Ophelia drowning in a creek etc), but I think that the Rolling Stones speaker is also in a sense dead, and that’s certainly true of Warhol, who plays with the necro dimensions of the image (his own, others’). So men also die.
    I love the Oates story. She definitely got that song for me.

  6. Carina Finn

    I want to know more about this heroin/medium-body business…please post that essay! also heroin is kind of like fame or at least glamour. maybe Art is just looking for glamour but realized the objective too late so they can only be beautiful after having failed as a living organism? like dead flowers. also perhaps like heroin-dead rock stars.

  7. Michael Peverett

    Yes it was an unusual word in a song-lyric. This is the same album which has the lyric “Destroyed your notion of circular time”.