All I have to do is dream...

'Rock Dreams' is not just a strange fantasy picture book about rock'n'roll, says Nick Coleman. It is rock'n'roll
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The Independent Culture

Aquick game of Guess the Year. Your only clue, the following passage: The End. By and large, rock had grown self-important, predictable, flat. Much of the inner propulsion was gone, and so was the sense of kinship - the notion that performer and audience somehow formed a oneness. Its new images were mostly old images, resurrected...

All right, pop-pickers, what year was that? 2003? 1991? 1982? 1976? Another clue. The final page of the book from which the above passage was lifted consists of a blotchy chiaroscuro of the ageing Frank Sinatra, raising a glass. The caption: "Hope I die before I get old."

Give up yet? OK. The book was written and illustrated in 1971; at least, the process of writing and illustrating it began then, in a chicken shed in France. It was published in 1974. By 1975 a sizeable number of its pages had been carefully razored out of their spine and stuck with Blu-tak on to my bedroom wall to form an iconostasis in the apse between the bottom of my bed and the wardrobe. I was 14 when I first read it, supine on my continental quilt in a fug of hormonal dissipation, righteous and sinful as Joe Tex, listening to "You Can't Always Get What You Want" and the rattle of conkers in the horse chestnuts outside my window.

Rock Dreams by Nik Cohn and Guy Peellaert was only the second publication ever to make narrative sense to me out of Elvis, the Rolling Stones, Joe Tex and company. I'd already read Cohn's rock 'n' roll epiphany Awopbopaloobopalopbamboom (1969) and understood it as one understood Biblical narratives - as a collection of important, morally resonant tales of implausible magic, violence and retribution taking place long ago and in a country far away. But Rock Dreams had pictures. It was an art book. It took the ideas of rock, pop, soul, country and Tina Turner and re-presented them as stills from a vivid - and grimly echt - movie version of pop culture, shot in vigorously materialist saturated neon shades. Elvis as street fighter. Phil Spector in a kimono with a Campari on a pink bed in headphones bigger than his head. Joe Tex on filthy blankets in a flophouse, clutching a shot of rotgut, his eyes on the landlady's behind. The Rolling Stones as S&M queens, as Nazi paedophiles, as hysterical, jelly-spattered squealers at a children's party. Tina Turner not pretending to but actually fellating a microphone. Elvis as Leonardo's Jesus. It was almost as thrilling as the music itself, but obviously not the same thing. It was the pornography of rock. It was also its stained glass window.

Peellaert, the artist, is unavailable for interview and is said to be highly miffed at the way the book has been republished for the second time in three decades. Cohn, the writer, is a bit sniffy about it too. A number of the images are distorted, inaccurately cropped and the colour values aren't up to scratch, he says. Plus, the format has been enlarged, with the effect that Cohn's text has been proportionately diminished (as well as translated into French and German). I'd be sniffy too, if I'd put into it what he and Peellaert had. But I only ever took out. I hacked it to shreds, in fact, which seemed like a rock 'n' roll thing to do at the time. The new version, though obviously flawed as a technical product, still hits like a digitised Billy Lee Riley singing "My Gal is Red Hot", which is to say hard and with great joy (though not with the analogue warmth and colour of a Sun 45 spinning in a jukebox, obviously).

Cohn is currently in New Orleans working on a hip-hop project ("I listen to classical music and hip-hop these days - there's nothing worse than an old rocker"). He doesn't see Peellaert any more; didn't see him much at the time.

Rock Dreams had been the Belgian's idea, some time in 1969/70. "I'd just written Awopbop as my valedictory to the music business," says Cohn. "I was off to raise pigs in Hertfordshire, I said, and never look back. The phone rings and it's Guy ...." Cohn got the impression that the man with the dense French accent on the other end was a cool film producer after some sort of script work. "Would I come to Paris? Oh, sure, book me into the Paris Hilton. And he comes to meet me at the airport in this incredibly beat-up old Renault. I looked at him and he looked at me - and I said, 'Do you have a sofa?'"

The idea was to take the mood of Awopbop, "the cinematic way each character was visually identified in that book, and do it with artwork in this book. My immediate thought was, you mean the stills from the movies they didn't make."

Cohn found himself in the basement of a farmhouse in the country. "I was this hotshot, cooler-than-cool, 24-year-old swinging Londoner and I had to spend the first night in a haywain while they cleared out the chickens. But they didn't clear out the chicken shit. So I wrote the first bits of the book sitting in a café in town, took 'em back to Guy, who then spent three years labouring on them, round the clock. He was kept alive by handouts from his publisher. There were times when it seemed he would never finish." But he did and the book was a bestseller in Europe and a cult hit in the States.

Rock's relationship with visual art is a long-standing and rather thin one. The initial purpose of the relationship - at least until the advent of video - was commercial, to supply a basic visual lexicon for rock, the better that we might understand where it was coming from (which is so much more interesting, one has to say, than our aspirational 21st-century version of the same thing, which serves chiefly to tell us where pop is going). In formal terms this meant advertising iconography - record sleeve design, poster art, photography - and illustrative iconography, perhaps best exemplified by the fond portraiture of such art-school rockers as David Oxtoby, Ian Dury and dear old Ron Wood. Lurid, cheap, nasty, dark, thrilling, but iconography nonetheless.

Would the i-word have crossed Cohn and Peellaert's lips as they messed with the chickens in 1971?

"No," splutters Cohn. "If you'd used the word 'iconic' you'd have got another word people didn't use in 1971 as a reply: 'wanker!' You didn't even dare think about such pretensions in those days. After all, you'd seen a number of perfectly reasonable bands, like the Beatles, disappear up their own arses with exactly that kind of thinking."

Still, the language of icons drives the language of Rock Dreams. It's worth remembering at this point what defines an icon. An icon isn't just a picture of an attractive thing or person. It's an image that does a job. Its job is not merely to represent the subject but to stand for it, as if the essence of the subject were somehow ingrained in the very wood, pigment and lacquer of the image itself. The image is indivisible from its subject and is venerated as a manifestation by other means of actual saint or real-life R&B god. In such a way are unbridgeable distances - both metaphysical and material - bridged. Fourteenth-century Russian peasants had this much at least in common with 1970s schoolboys.

Cohn doesn't buy any of this theoretical nonsense, of course, although he does characterise himself as a writer stimulated above all by the visual. And what he saw in 1971 was the creeping industrialisation of rock.

"There was plenty I didn't see," he says. "But I did see coming the complete subordination of the music to the visual. I felt the cycles beginning to repeat themselves. And that each person's involvement in pop culture was a moment and no more." He saw pop as "a machine for taking beautiful, gilded youth and turning it into clapped out old wrecks. And having witnessed the Sixties up close I came to the conclusion that this was an intrinsic part of the pop process."

And that is why Rock Dreams tells us more about pre-industrial rock 'n' roll than just about anything you can't play on a jukebox. It admits not just the possibility but the actuality of death, nastiness, corruption and decay - and not for the sake of melodrama but as a matter of principle. It's bolshie, prurient, loving, young, dumb, full of cum and it's over in about three minutes. Here's to you too, Frank.

'Rock Dreams' is published by Taschen