From Peellaert to Kubrick, remembering Michael Herr (1940-2016)

With the passing of author Michael Herr on June 23rd at age 76, the handful of key surviving Peellaert contributors is dwindling fast. 

Herr was best known for Dispatches, the seminal account of the Vietnam War which he gathered from his notes as an Esquire correspondent, sent to cover the front lines between 1967 and 1969. It would take years of gestation and a nervous breakdown before Herr was able to revisit the terrors he had witnessed, but his inspired fusion of visceral prose with the literary outbursts of "New Journalism" produced arguably the most original and vivid depiction of the Vietnam experience. Dispatches, which finally came out in 1977, would become an instant classic, unanimously praised for its poetic approach to conveying the feeling of war, cutting through the conventions of the more mundane historical accounts and helping Americans understand the conflict from a unique subjective perspective. It was hailed by John Le Carré as "the best book I have ever read on men and war in our time", while Hunter S. Thompson tipped off his hat to a new hero of gonzo journalism : "We have all spent 10 years trying to explain what happened to our heads and our lives in the decade we finally survived - but Michael Herr's Dispatches puts the rest of us in the shade." 

The success of Dispatches came about as the "New Hollywood" was ready to tackle the subject of Vietnam, and the cinematic potential of Herr's hallucinated prose was not lost on its most prominent directors. Francis Ford Coppola famously based Apocalypse Now on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, but it was Herr's testimony which was adapted specifically for the narration sequences of the 1979 classic. In the following decade, Stanley Kubrick—who since 1980 had developed a close intellectual friendship with Herr—enlisted the author to co-write the screenplay for 1987's Full Metal Jacket. In 2001, two years after Kubrick's death, the reclusive Herr would briefly come out of a writing hiatus to publish Kubrick, an intimate account of his friendship and collaboration with the legendary director. 

In the early 1980s, when Peellaert hit a roadblock in his collaboration with an erratic Tom Waits and was desperately seeking a new writing partner who might put words to his tragic portraits of show-biz legends defeated by the great emptiness of a metaphoric Las Vegas, Sonny Mehta suggested Herr and played matchmaker. Mehta, who as editor of Picador in London presided over a stable of writing luminaries such as Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and Brett Easton Ellis, had published Dispatches in the UK, as well as Peellaert's Rock Dreams. There were interesting parallels to be drawn between the two men, who both concealed tempestuous inner lives and haunting wartime experiences behind a quiet, self-effacing demeanor. They hit it off instantly, and Herr provided a remarkable new preface to the 1982 reissue of Rock Dreams. "We couldn't have fought Vietnam without rock music", Herr would remark. His text, highlighting the religious, iconic nature of the Dreams series, would remain unsurpassed. The author officially teamed up with Peellaert on the Vegas project, by then over 7 years in the making and threatening to send the artist over the edge. “We went for a weekend in my ramshackle house in the dunes in Normandy, wheeled around our babies, who were the same age, and talked out the ’50s and the ’60s and the ’70s, Peellaert recounted in a International Herald Tribune interview. On the way to the airport, we just said, ‘Well, we’ll just do this together.’ ”

After Peellaert had thrown away years of work in frustration and discouragement, he would credit Herr's contribution with finally providing a way out of the impasse. "Michael's commitment had a liberating effect on me. I wasn't the only wacko anymore." Herr rolled up his sleeves and dug as deep as Peellaert had before him. While investigating the history of the formation of Las Vegas, he came up with the title The Big Room, invoking the sprawling main stage of the casinos where top-billed entertainers get to perform. With Herr's involvement, the Big Room and all of Las Vegas became a metaphoric placeholder for the peculiar emptiness lurking underneath the gaudy surface of the American cult of success. "Everybody wants the big room, and they say if you really want it badly enough, you can have it", Herr wrote in his opening text, before moving on to the meditative vignettes accompanying Peellaert's individual portraits. 

Like Nik Cohn's enlightened haikus from Rock Dreams a few years before, Herr's written contributions—in some instances just a short piercing excerpt borrowed from another writer, other times an extended contemplation sparkling with literary energy—allowed for a stunning experiment in the interplay between words and images.

Despite its status as the ill-fated project that would engulf the artist's post-Rock Dreams success, alienate key partners and cement Peellaert's reputation as an artiste maudit, The Big Room displayed the two men's uncompromising talents to the full. It shines today as an immaculate, unknown masterpiece long overdue for a thorough reappraisal. 

For more on Michael Herr, read the obituaries from The New York Times and The Guardian.

Guy Peellaert, A Face in the Crowd (Bobby Darin), from The Big Room (1976-1986).

In 1984, Michael Herr and Guy Peellaert were photographed together in the artist's Paris studio for  Libération , two years before the release of their collaboration on  Las Vegas, The Big Room . Photographed by Olivier Descamps.

In 1984, Michael Herr and Guy Peellaert were photographed together in the artist's Paris studio for Libération, two years before the release of their collaboration on Las Vegas, The Big Room. Photographed by Olivier Descamps.