When is a hard-backed book full of photos of a popular musician not quite a coffee-table book? When it is What Else Is in the Teaches of Peaches, by singer, songwriter, performance artist and troublemaker Peaches, with photographs by Berlin-based photographer Holger Talinski.
Coffee tables could do with this sort of thing, though. Talinski approached Peaches in 2008 after the release of her album I Feel Cream and just as she was about to tour with her new band Sweet Machine, and he suggested that he photo-document her and her entourage: the seasons turned, tour led to laser show led to one-woman show led to art project turned into relaxing with her family, with Talinski around for a heck of a lot of it.
Find out who’s cool in your social circle by asking everyone what they think of Peaches, or even if they have heard of her. Here in the UK, she is catching on nicely, although in polite society she is still mainly known for Fuck the Pain Away and That Song With Iggy Pop. Good things to be associated with, but there’s far more to Peaches than that. She thundered onto the music scene in the early ’90s, as part of a folky group called Mermaid Cafe, and in 1995 released an album under her birth name, Merrill Nisker. Everything seemingly dovetailed further for her when she moved to creative hub Berlin in the early ’00s.
She has given us spare electroclash music as well as more delicate electronica, some of it showcasing her amazing vocal range. She gets involved in art projects, films and stage shows — Peaches Christ Superstar was her one-woman and a pianist musical show (long-time collaborator Chilly Gonzales was the pianist), based on the Andrew Lloyd Webber rock opera with the similar name. And then came the pulls-no-punches ‘electrorock opera’ Peaches Does Herself, which saw her get together with old and new collaborators.
Your hip friends might know Peaches best for her fooling around with gender concepts. She’s got an impressive prosthetic penis and fake gold breasts poking out of a kind of leotard on page 55, she shoved ball bearings down her tight pink leggings in the video for Diddle My Skittle, and she has a full beard on the cover of her 2003 album Fatherfucker. Stuff like that.
On receiving my copy of What Else Is in the Teaches of Peaches, I was torn between sitting down with it, and a cup of tea, and reading it through from beginning to end, and dipping into it piecemeal. To start off with, I did both, thundering through the introduction written by Peaches, and then feasting on the photos.
She says that Talinski captures both the ‘magic and the realities’ of life on tour, on stage, in artistic projects, and taking time out. It’s pretty difficult to tell where the magic ends and the reality begins — here she is, posing beside a stage door in gold heels and bleached hair; here, in a bath with two other women, there, crowd-surfing, surfing in the sense of riding the waves standing up. And here she is again, group-hugging outside another stage door with people in shiny costumes. Talinski is great, pretending not to be there when all the reader wants to see is Peaches, and becoming a more obvious presence when it’s appropriate.
Perhaps what hits you most of all, maybe more than the striking costumes and occasional nudity, is how much fun Peaches’ life appears to be. Less than halfway into the book, you start to trust the Peaches/Talinski collaborative union, and you somehow come to realise that it’s all authentic, magic and reality. There’s none of the staginess that you sometimes see in photo books of pop stars, particularly those who are led around by their egos.
Seemingly, everyone wants to be Peaches’ friend; here she is with PJ Harvey, Drew Barrymore appears with a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon in hand, her face buried in Peaches’ neck, and Karen O is elsewhere, getting an impressive selfie, with Peaches in an unholy black glittery outfit and an inverted cross painted on her face (even the bold Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman looks a little bit intimidated).
Michael Stipe, Yoko Ono and Ellen Page turn up, with short think-pieces on what Peaches means to them, and they’re still not the best thing about the book. All three, perhaps surprisingly, mention Peaches’ vulnerability: Yoko Ono acknowledges its display in Peaches’ performance of Ono’s own Cut Piece, in which Peaches sat on a stage at the Meltdown Festival in London in 2013 with a pair of scissors beside her, with audience members invited to get on stage and gradually cut her clothes off. (When Yoko Ono originally performed Cut Piece in the ’60s, it got hairier as it went on, with aggressive cutters acting in quite an intimidating manner).
When Peaches became more famous some time after she appeared on the music scene, the hot favourite catchphrase amongst lazy journalists seemed to be ‘penis envy’. Right-thinking people got tired of this pretty quickly, including Peaches, who has said she prefers the term ‘hermaphrodite envy’, ‘since there is so much male and female in us all.’ Her music, shows and art projects may have shock factor, but perhaps the most subversive thing about Peaches is that she never lost that wholeness which gets chipped away at in women and girls: the thing which tends to get corroded by certain sorts of advertising, retro dating guides, and people telling us how to act. Germaine Greer wrote about it in The Female Eunuch in 1970, and again in 1999 in The Whole Woman, when she observed that we still hadn’t got it right.
It is those who feel straitjacketed by this sort of thing — sometimes, by their given gender, or the way in which society accommodates it — who are still the rebels, and who are still called upon to explain themselves. We live in a world where pictures of cherished female pop singers with rogue spots on their faces cause schaudenfraude and hoo-ha, and where lots of civilized people think that women shouldn’t twerk under any circumstances. It’s practically a lifeline to see photographs of a woman musician who has the couldn’t-give-a-damnism which many men take as their birthright. It might be no bad thing if penis envy were to be replaced with Peaches envy, so us women could get some useful hints and tips on how to operate in the world.