My first night in New York was spent at (le poisson rouge), a fantastic live arts space in the Village. As soon as I heard the lineup announced last week for a special Japan benefit show, I knew I had to be there. It was my long-awaited chance to see Patti Smith.
Category: writing Page 2 of 3
Finding old photos deemed long-lost is both dizzyingly joyful and weirdly alarming. I found myself experiencing this tailspin recently as I inadvertently came upon photos from more than a decade ago; visions of past lives, selves, dreams, ambitions and moments came flooding back. It made me feel old and young, all at once.
I have little use for nostalgia; I’m not the sort of person to long for a time to return, or to wallow in the tail-chasing uselessness of regret. But I wonder about the effect the internet has on our collective memories. People are quick to throw up albums of their latest outing/party/dinner/etc, without considering that they just might be giving a part of themselves away forever. And while they’re busy photoshopping and uploading and updating and IMing their adventures, there’s a whole world around them that keeps going. I don’t want to live my life online; I want to live it … living.
After the funny, familiar, forgotten feelings passed, I wondered about scanning a few photos to share. Would I? Should I? Is it anyone’s business? How much does sharing my past propel me into the future? or trap me in the past? Does the relentless documentation of the mundane boil down to simple narcissism? the primal urge to connect? a bit of both? Have Warhol’s fifteen minutes been shrunk to mere pixels and megabytes, mp3s and mp4s? I grapple with these questions daily, judiciously weighing what to share, what not to share, how best to do it, and when to walk away entirely, and, you know, live my life somewhere other than online, or in the media at all. I can’t help but wonder how my artwork’s being influenced by all this reflection, however, or its symbiotic relationship with a larger popular culture where exposure and revelation seem to overshadow not just nuance, but the blood-and-guts beauty of day-to-day living.
As such, I’ve being paying a heap of attention to the news around Patti Smith’s memoir of life with Robert Mapplethorpe. ‘Just Kids’ won the U.S. National Book Award for non-fiction in November. Patti was recently interviewed by Stephen Colbert, who, responding to his humorous query about her punk, anti-establishment ethos, said, softly but firmly, “I like my award.” As if there was any question she might throw it back. The award is a testament to Smith’s mastery with words. The book is a hypnotizing blend of moving personal experience and a recollections on life in late 60s/early 70s as a struggling young artist. Famous figures like Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Sam Wagstaff, Andy Warhol, and Lou Reed (among many others) float in and out, but what kept my interest flowing was Patti’s poetic, flowing prose shot through with equal parts youthful zeal and lived-in wisdom. There’s an old-soul quality to her work that in no way lessens her roaring passion or stirring memories of her personal and artistic development on the mean streets of the Big Apple.
Owing to this unique combination of flavours, ‘Just Kids’ has become one of my very-favorite books, ever. I devoured whole chapters across many late evenings when I began reading it, connecting deeply with certain aspects: involvement with artists; finding one’s own artistic voice; sacrificing for vision; growing confidence; growing old; shifting priorities; retaining authenticity. As I noted the end drawing ever nearer, I wound up slowing my voracious, passionate pace, instincts automatically kicking in to postpone the inevitable final page. Time -with anyone, with any place, with any memory, with any project -is always finite. Patti herself acknowledges this as she writes of the last time she met, and spoke with, her longtime … what? Friend? Lover? Mentor? Soulmate? All of the above. ‘Just Kids’ describes a life well-lived indeed, but it also bravely crosses into some personal, painful hinterlands.
That Patti was so baldly, boldly able to share a very, deeply personal part of her life with the public, without being saccharine, sentimental, or sensationalist is awe-inspiring. And yet, it feels natural. Patti honored the beauty of life she’s experienced, in all its gut-wrenching, thrilling, horrifying, glorifying majesty, by writing this book. She also honored Robert’s request. Nothing about ‘Just Kids’ feels forced, cheap, or exploitive. It’s real, it’s raw, it’s deeply moving and desperately personal. I’m a deeply private person myself (despite all my online activities might imply) and I am really not sure I’d ever be able to write something akin to ‘Just Kids’, nor am I sure I’d want to. I don’t be able to make the kind of promise Patti made with Robert before he died about writing a memoir of their lives, partially because I don’t think I could ever do those kinds of relationships justice in written form, and, frankly, I’m not sure certain things are anyone’s business.
I do, however, have photos and old journals; I have memories that flicker in and out, and boxes (and boxes!) of poetry, photographs, drawings, and paintings. This – -my life – – is the foundation of my art, and the art of many, past and present, whom I admire. Translating it all into something I feel comfortable sharing, without it seeming narcissistic, saccharine, or relentlessly navel-gazing, is a challenging, if inevitable, opportunity to open a door into a new world. It’s like trying to get into the best, most dreamy spot in the world, but there’s a guard dog outside, and you only know it’s there by its breath; it might bite you, it might let you pet it, but you have to get past it, blood, treats, cooing, and all.
Ultimately, the best art requires a certain degree of nakedness. And nakedness requires bravery. Patti was brave enough to be naked -in ‘Just Kids’ unquestionably, but also through her thirty-plus years of poetry, art and music. I’m gradually learning to go naked too. Damn it’s cold. But I’m getting used to it… maybe.
2010 began with the death of an artist I admired; so it also ends.
I was shocked and saddened to learn of the death of singer Lhasa de Sela in January. Equally, on this snowy December day, I am deeply upset to learn of the death of David French.
I interviewed both Lhasa and David French, though Lhasa was a phone interview, rendering any sense of the intimacy that comes with eye-to-eye-contact impossible. We chatted about favorite singers, concerts, technology, and those lovely “a-ha!” artistic moments, and it felt like a yack with a longtime gal pal. Interviewing Mr. French was a different experience altogether -more formal, less loose, a bit more scary, but no less intriguing, inspiring, and ultimately rewarding.
One of Canada’s most beloved playwrights, David French was probably best-known for works that feature the faulty, feuding, brooding, bruised and confused Mercer family. Leaving Home, Saltwater Moon, and Leaving Home are works I return to again and again through the years, finding more and more to draw inspiration from, as well as more compassion, more humour, and more humanity. Yet it isn’t familiarity so much as the raw emotional honesty of his characters that draws me back. These are characters who don’t merely propel plot points -they live, breathe, sweat, swear, fight, and bleed, frequently making even the best British kitchen-sink drama seem maudlin. Anger isn’t the driving force behind French’s characters; love is. That love is palpable in the back row as much as the front; it’s present just as much on the page as on a stage. You don’t have to know a lot about theatre, much less even like it, to feel that overpowering sense of love that infuses the work of David French. Maybe that’s what made him not only an accomplished playwright in his own regard but a sought-after translator of works like The Seagull and Three Sisters (classics that, like his own contemporary counterparts, revolve around families and a powerful love) and a popular mentor and teacher to many aspiring writers.
His reputation as an incredible, incredibly accomplished writer was an interesting companion to the smiling, quiet figure I ran into at various theatre openings, most notably at Toronto company Soulpepper, who produced his beautiful, heart-rending works many times in the past decade. It was they who arranged our interview one rainy spring day in 2009, when Of The Fields Lately was set to open.
David arrived ten minutes before interview time, his blue shirt dotted with raindrops.
“Damn rain,” he grumbled, before meeting my smiling gaze and taking my outstretched hand.
We chatted a bit as my crew got mics and lights ready. David seemed a wee bit overwhelmed by the technology, and in truth, I felt bad at his coming through the rain and patiently enduring a last-minute microphone change-up. When the interview began, I was understandably nervous, and I think he was, too. We played off each others’ nerves, as I gently opened the interview, asking a few basic questions around the play. I remember being wildly worried I was making a horrible impression on this Canadian genius playwright. But the minute he smiled at me, a warm, deep smile that lit up his eyes, I relaxed.
Still, like the good writer he was, David chose his words carefully, and was always quite guarded, if equally opinionated. He frequently paused, his answers coming like the best syncopated lines from a Monk solo: when the chords inevitably hit, you knew they meant something, and damn it, you wanted to listen. His sometimes-stern, lion-like demeanor belied the pussycat heart that beat within. He had to trust you to open up to you fully.
A great way to create that trust, I learned, was to ask him about his process of writing, of creating worlds using the power of words -something he knew a thing or two about. David’s love of writing was awe-inspiring. When I shared my visceral reaction to his characters, the very element I feel drives all of his work, he half-smiled, perhaps lost in his memories of their creation, before offering the honest, if deeply insightful observation that “a large part of every character I write comes from myself. I am every one of those characters“.
In a way, David French lives on through “those characters” -through Jacob Mercer, through Mary Mercer, and even (especially?) Jessica, Patrick, and the rest of the jumpy Jitters team. It feels like a special blessing for those who’ve had the pleasure of seeing his work produced -and again, special thanks to Soulpepper, otherwise me, and thousands like me, probably wouldn’t have had that opportunity. We’d be relying on reminiscence, reports, nostalgia. Producing the work of David French was, and is, a reminder of the contemporary feel, and equally, the timelessness, of human, humane creation. He was Canadian, but belonged to the world. His creations are specific to this country; the emotions and situations within are universal. He is ours; he is everyone’s; he is unto himself. David had that special magic to be able to conjure those various parts of himself and translate that into a real, raw, forcefield of human energy and… love. Always love. That quality -a combination of raw skill and deep emotion -never goes out of style, in theatre, or indeed, in any art form. And it never will.
Thank you, David. For everything.
Bottom photo credit:
Noah Reid, Kevin Bundy, Mike Ross, Oliver Dennis, C. David Johnson in Soulpepper Theatre Company’s 2010 production of Jitters.
Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann.
So much seen and done over the past week. Nuit Blanche, the opening of the Canadian Opera Company season, and the Brickworks Picnic within the last few days (to say nothing of the myriad of wonderful people I’ve interviewed on-air recently) … you’d think I’d choose something more timely to write about than a concert that’s still over a month away. But thanks to a fabulous Twitter contact and a bit of online listening (along with a whack of sentimentality), well … sometimes the music chooses us, softly crooning -or in this case, mawkishly shrieking -a chorus of angular ‘musts’ and jagged ‘nows’ -as in, Write Something Now. Sometimes I ignore that call; sometimes I toss away the turgid details of everyday life away and just dance. Then I pour a glass of something wonderful and write.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds was not the first band I saw solo -but the first time I saw Nick Cave et al I did happen to be solo. The difference is fine but important. Special is the artist (or collection of artists) that I’ll merrily throw away social anxiety to become purposely lost in the Enchanted Forest of Noise. But Cave is that special breed of artist. Recently I came across a review I breathlessly typed up many moons ago for an international music zine. In those dot-matrix filled pages, I enthused, admired, mused, and wondered at the sonic noise/poetic genius of the Bad Seeds. At the time Nick Cave had a sizeable troupe with him; not only was he joined by original members Mick Harvey, Martyn Casey, Thomas Wydler, Conway Savage, & the ever-amazing Blixa Bargeld, but he was joined by two musicians who, in retrospect, changed the course of his -and their (and possibly even my) creative output. Warren Ellis and Jim Sclavunos added a creepy, dramatic, other-worldly feel to an already-raucous musical outfit. I remember beeing especially impressed with Ellis’ stomping and passionate embrace of his violin, conjuring evil, twisted spirits, whacking his instrument’s wooden body and plucking its strings, a possessed look on his (then-handsome) face.
I came away from the evening with a wholly new appreciation of musicianship, the art of the band as a concept, and the joy of spontaneously solo-show-going. There was something about being alone that rendered me much more open to everything. It was as if my aural/emotional/spiritual absorbative powers increased twenty-fold. And, as a woman, I was suddenly free to expore -and embrace -the amazing power of my own aggression within a positive context. Even now, more than a decade later, that night lives within me. And re-reading my young and breathless review makes me want to step out of my grown-upish, self-imposed (and kind of boring) safety zone, even just for one night, to jump and dance through that mad forest of sonic mayhem again.
The internet gods seems to be with me. A few nights ago, I engaged in an online conversation about Cave’s other band, Grinderman, and the wonders of their live set. I’d been debating going to Grinderman’s concert here in Toronto in November. There are so many “unlike” factors: I don’t like lines, I don’t like crowds, and I most definitely don’t like being pushed and shoved. My short stature renders me a near-target for boots-in-the-head and obnoxious tall people who can’t dance standing in front of me. That’s to say nothing of the wild, horrific social anxiety I feel when entering a club gig alone -it’s like there’s a sticker on my head reading”Lone Thirty-Something Woman Lacking A Relationship.” I bring little but my opinions and big hair; the heels stay firmly in the closet. But social anxiety and the fear of being judged melt away like butter in a hot frying pan the minute an artist (or group of artists) I love takes to the stage. The magical, and frankly, sexy melange of lights, costumes, body language, sound, and frankly, the knowledge there’s a few hundred (or thousand) sweaty bodies behind me is, all together, deeply, almost dangerously intoxicating. I wind up staying awake long after such experiences, staring out windows, drawing, sipping wines and trying not to leap to easy definitions or categories. Some experiences are too deep for that.
But try my darndest I did back when I first saw the Bad Seeds. That sense of joy, that freedom, that wiping away of time and space and social anxieties … they touch on something profound about the power of art, and the role it plays in shaping identities. I think I’ll go see Grinderman. Maybe I’ll write a breathy blog. Or maybe, this time, I’ll savour the experience like a tasty, sweet bonbon enjoyed in a dark, silent room. Either way, being a part of the magical sound of Nick Cave and (as I put it in 1998) his “band of unmerry men” will always be a treat. I may not be able to come down and write about it for a while, though. And that’s probably a good thing.
Today is Bloomsday.
Not having read Ulysses in over a decade, much less looked through it (ironically, I left my annotated copy in Dublin), I decided it was the perfect day to pick up a copy. As I flipped through page after page of beautiful, confounding prose, I was reminded of the place writing once occupied in my life, and how my perceptions around it have changed.
It’s not a higher calling to me anymore, nor is it some kind of holy act; it simply is, along with any number of other things people have a particular affinity for. I both fought and embraced the monikers of “writer” and “artist” for years, feeling, on the one hand I wasn’t worthy of those titles, and, on the other, I was purely defined by them. Neither, life has shown me, is quite accurate.
And yet there’s the same sense of wonder, joy, and wordless awe when I open Ulysses, just as there was way back when I first read it in the mid 1990s. The mad combination of drama, poetry, geography, and frankly… a jazz-like feeling of improvisation infuse every word in the 700+ page novel with wonder for me. It isn’t polite, tidy, or precise; this is rough, edgy, coarse prose, the kind you might find your brain -much less (eeek) soul -getting cut on (badly) if you’re looking for soothing respite. That’s a big part of its appeal. Who wants soothing? There’s yoga for that. Joyce’s words are real, raw, crude, shrewd, raunchy, sad, infuriating, confusing … and poetic. Like people. Like life.
This, of all days, feels like the right time to offer up a tribute, and I can think of no better way of saluting the book, and all of us still intoxicated by it. Yes, for real:
There’s a beautiful roughness to this, without the 360 frills, that feels right for the poetic (dare I say Joycean) lyrics; the musical rawness here feels (and sounds) like the perfect dance partner for the pitbull-like aggression of the prose, and, conversely, the prose has a wild, unhinged musicality that becomes more muscular with the beefy sonic accompaniment. My first reaction when I heard this song was: Joyce. And it wasn’t just the June 16th reference, either.
Words -they’re not much, but they can get us through some dark times. They, like any art, don’t define -they refine; the silence between syllables and the long yawning vowels become the music we understand. Writing isn’t reformation but sublimation to a higher power: imagination.
“How moving the scene there in the gathering twilight, the last glimpse of Erin, the touching chime of those evening bells and at the same time a bat flew forth from the ivied belfry through the dusk, hither, thither, with a tiny lost cry. And she could see far away the lights of the lighthouses so picturesque she would have loved to do with a box of paints…”
Work work work work work work work.
That’s all I’ve really been up to the last little while. I’m fortunate that I adore what I do, though I’m still navigating the for-work/just-fun bleed-overs that inevitably occur when one loves the arts, and happens to report and write on them.
This past week, I read, with great interest, the increasing rarity of freelancers taking vacations, which was good timing, considering I’d been thinking the exact same thing for months now. The last time I took a real, honest-to-God, non-working vacation, was 2002. Yikes. While I love stay-cations -and lord knows they’re getting to be the norm now -I am hungering to go away. I love what I do, I love the people I get to interact with, but… I just want to turn off the mind (and the computer) for a while and re-connect with the stuff that inspired me to go into arts reporting in the first place.
“We said we should go when it was opening, “she mused, “and now it’s going to be ending!” Yes, ridiculous.
Sp we both agreed to make the time to get together and go art-ying.
Making time -for friends, for art, for life and for one’s self -is so vital these days.
It’s getting harder and harder to do, and yet it as the days and weeks rush by, it becomes more and more important.
I may not be able to up and take off for the month-long break I’m hankering after (but Eastern Europe, I hope to see you in the spring). So, in lieu of that, I’m hoping to make time -for friends, family, art, me -amidst the rush this week. Walking, workouts, lunch, coffee, painting, drawing, and, would you believe, writing -the kind I have been doing now and again, just for me. I want to make time for the things and the people I care about -now, more than ever, crappy summer weather be damned.
For now, back to work.
Oh yeah: featured painting is by favourite artist and mondo-personal inspiration Louis Le Brocquy. I plan on seeing his work in-person someday in the near future, and not merely spread across my laptop’s screen. Yes indeed… I’ll make the time.
The Museum of Modern Art is one of my very-favourite places in the world. You can wander there for hours, and every corner has something that turns your thinking upside down, and makes you look at the world, and your place in it, in a whole new, refreshing light. It currently has two exhibits I want to see.
Second, Tangled Alphabets. I love writing. I love art. I love art about writing. I’ve been staring at Mira Schendel‘s work all week now and her beautiful collection of letters are spelling out something like: C-o-m-e h-e-r-e. N-O-W.