Friday, 22 December 2017

The Maze 2017 . . . from Vietnam to Van Halen

As a classic metal fan still firmly entrenched in the 1980s, what started off as a bit of light reading on holiday became a crazy little tale that ended up in my own back yard..... 

Whilst recently in the wonderful Vietnam in March 2017, I took with me Greg Renoff's superb Van Halen Rising and decided to wrap up the last couple of chapters over a couple of quiet afternoons, and mighty fine it was too. Filling in so many gaps, it adds much texture and extra detail to the epic story of how four punks from Pasadena changed the face of rock and metal forever. Chilling by the hotel pool in peaceful Hoi An was the perfect place to revisit the Roth VH albums along with cups of fine strongly brewed tea. A teetotaller's paradise baby. VHND's album reviews made a perfect accompaniment as each album soothed my soul on warm tranquil afternoons.

We got to Fair Warning and I stumbled across the piece on how it got it's cover taken from a painting (The Maze) discovered by all accounts by Alex Van Halen. It's a fascinating story detailing the history of how the sleeve came about. I knew the artwork was dark and deep, fitting the album's mood perfectly but not much else. The artist William Kurelek was a Ukranian immigrant to Canada who suffered from depression and schizophrenia, and who finally found solace and an escape from his troubles through painting. He spent time at the Maudsley Mental Hospital in London where The Maze was painted in 1953 and it set me thinking. Whatever happened to the original painting?

I have music industry contacts in Toronto through work and thought of maybe asking them, but after a bit off googling it turned out that Kurelek passed away in 1977 and the painting was listed under the care of Peter Naham at the Leicester Galleries in central London. They were kind enough to reply and tell me that they did not have the painting but they were aware of it and I should contact Kurelek's estate, or the Bethlem Royal Hospital who now own it for more info.

Bethlem NHS Trust were kind enough to give me contacts for their Museum of the Mind who in turn gave me another contact for Kurelek's estate. Headway at last! Tell us how you do. . .

Or so I thought. Whilst very helpful, the manager of the estate replied promptly only to tell me he had only managed the estate from the early 90s and there's nothing in the records giving any details of how VH got in contact and any fees / contracts involved for the album jacket. Dead end on the background info as no one else from the estate have been willing or able to give me any other info. At this point I'm thinking we're done, but then another twist and we're back on track and away from Mean Street. The Museum of the Mind came back to me. Come on Dave, give me a break.

The Maze itself was actually in their museum, on display to the public and open three days a week for public entry with FREE ADMISSION just 3 miles from Petts Wood in Kent, where I live. Kidding right? Hey-hey-hey-hey, one break coming up.

A quick drive out from work one lunchtime and I roll up outside Bethlem (the original Bedlam) NHS Trust Hospital. Situated in a leafy affluent suburb of Kent, this sprawling psychiatric hospital has been the subject of various TV documentaries on its residents and patients, some of who are detained indefinitely for the good of themselves and the general public. In the centre of the hospital grounds is a grandiose standalone building, The Bethlem Gallery and Museum of the Mind. The helpful lady at the reception guided me upstairs past all manner of exhibits about mental health, the history of, the cure of, and everything in between and displayed in a corner, gazing out there it was, The Maze. Take a look at this.....!
Bethlem Museum of the Mind

Painted "Gouache on board", it's a graphic insight into Kurelek's tormented soul with various compartments, some of which included the iconic snippets that became Fair Warning's cover. A perfect fit with the dark and gritty album, the lady didn't know the history that brought me here. "My son listens to Van Halen, I'll tell him tonight. If you want to buy posters or postcards of The Maze we have them for sale downstairs". So this is Love . . . my little journey was complete.

I have your picture, yes I know it well
There's a sequal painting they also have on display "Out of the Maze" which portrays his vision of feeling cured of his mental issues which is very striking too. I'm told a Canadian gentleman visiting London came to the the museum to see this one, completely unaware of the original Maze artwork; evidently he was not of our persuasion!

I guess the bizarre thing in all this is that the Wiki page of the Maze tells everyone exactly where the painting is, but hey, hindsight is a beautiful thing. I'm sure many of you reading this can correct me on any bits here that are not quite accurate, but I hope you can gimme a break, I'm just a fan.

For sure it places that album a little closer to my heart and possibly creeping into my top ten desert island discs, but that's for another day. A journey that was started I suppose in Pasadena, which crystallized in Vietnam ends up just about right on my doorstep.

Essential reading