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Schnabel: a portrait of the artist as a singer

"Juan Belmonte / The greatest bullfighter in Spain / He used to sit in his room and complain," sings painter Julian Schnabel over a backing of dramatic flamenco guitar and spunky pop beats. Schnabel's fall from grace has long been a totem of the art world's new-found sobriety after the hysteria of the Eighties, but by nowit's hard to resist some vague admiration for his shameless resilience. Anyway, whether his debut album, Every Silver Lining has a Cloud [Island], is artistic expression, a severe case of the emperor's new clothes, or some other kind of grand delusion, he delivers some spectacular couplets:"When I was young/ I had some fun/ I thought I'd live to 102/ And now I'm old/ And the wind is cold."

This is a concept-defying record inspired, apparently, by Lou Reed's Berlin and written with his friend Gary Oldman during a lovelorn spell at his summer estate in Montauk, New York. "I was very isolated when I did it, drinking and taking sedatives."

The result is like Sasha Distel having a mid-life crisis. "Open your mouth when we make love," he says on "Gary's Song", before falling victim to some kind of biological misapprehension. "I'm gonna give you a brand new son."

According to Schnabel, who listens to the soundtrack from Last Tango in Paris while painting, the songs have conventional themes. "It took me 42 years and five minutes to make this record," he says. "After you get divorced, lose your family, and find them again, the lyrics get more interesting."

And Schnabel is not without friends in music's high places; David Bowie, who will play Andy Warhol in Schnabel's upcoming movie on the life of John-Michel Basquiat, Build a Fort, Set it on Fire, has congratulated the singer on his voice, which is a bit like Leonard Cohen's. "I don't try to sing like a singer," he concedes, finding some vocal similarities of his own with Johnny Cash. "It's a little idiosyncratic, but that's a part of my sensibility - sometimes I sang the music and then said the words, sometimes I said the music and then sang the words - the way Frank Sinatra does it."

Schnabel may eventually tour the record. "There's a spontaneous moment when I like to sing in public," he says, turning concern to panic. He won't be alone, either: Mark Kostabi recently announced that he would be making a record of orchestral music. "People are so set on thinking 'Oh well, this person does that and they shouldn't do something else' - I don't have that problem," he states. "This is the kind of record that grows on you. I think it will have a life of its own. My wife likes it, anyway."

Edward Helmore

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