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They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes. Given how hard I worship Patti Smith this means I probably shouldn’t even be in the same room with her. The thought sticks in my head like gum on the sole of an expensive shoe as my best friend and I scuttle through raindrops into Cardiff’s Coal Exchange. The lights are low and security minimal. An unobtrusive table covered in tee-shirts suffices for merchandising. “When is the support act on?” my friend asks. Security shakes his head: no support act. My heart hippity-hops. I hate the farce of standing around while two guys in black take an hour to plug in the headliner’s guitar. Tonight is already exceeding expectations.
The stage is small, low, close; we could hop over and perch on the edge. No fanfare, no lights-up-lights-down, just a sudden soft landing of feet onstage. Patti smiles at our delayed whoops of recognition. She opens her mouth and the world breaks open. There is no discernible relationship between that slight torso, overhung with an Electric Lady Studios tee-shirt and a too-big black blazer (red marker pen hooked in the left pocket, as if she’d just been labelling boxes) and the voice that envelops the air. It’s like being run over by a Rolls-Royce.
I’m dancing barefoot
Heading for a spin
Some strange music draws me in
“The look on your face,” my friend says (later). I wonder if the look matched my thought: that I am finally looking at a flesh-and-blood human after a lifetime of watching holograms.
She extends her arms in blessing, evocation, incantation. Girl is washed up on Redondo beach by the waves her throat makes. The mike is a token gesture; a puff of smoke to screen the dark art of her voice. There is a peace sign inked on the left knee of her jeans, like kids did back in high school. It matches the girlishness of her grin. “I went looking for a Welsh rarebit today,” she tells us, “rarebit” drawling out like rabbit in flat American vowels. A man in the crowd calls out an offer – he makes a great Welsh rarebit. She chuckles, flashing un-American teeth: “I’ll see you after the show.”
I want to freeze every instant, turn each note to ice then taste it melt. Lenny Kaye, her musical compatriot for over 40 years, is tucked in the corner, making magic with his guitar. The rest of the band moves in orbit; Patti is the centre of the universe. Dedicating a song to the people of Japan Patti says gently: “We’ve been very cruel to Mother Nature and she can be very cruel back… we honour you, Mother.” It should be a platitude, but it isn’t.
None of the words tumbling through my head are strong enough to hold up to her light: sincerity, energy, androgyny, and the one that comes closest yet falls most infuriatingly short: integrity. Patti Smith is the most complete human being I have ever seen. This is not performance, it is revelation.
She tells a little story about her friend, Johnny, before playing (for the first time, live) his birthday song: ‘Nine.’ “We were sitting at the bar and I said, ‘You’re a pretty handsome guy.’” she recounts. “I’d never noticed before because he’s so radiant that even if he were the ugliest man on earth he’d still be beautiful.” If anyone else told this story I’d think: “Lucky cow, hanging out with Johnny Depp” but I’m thinking: “Lucky son of a bitch, Patti Smith wrote a song for you!” Together, they must gleam like stars.
She is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. Her face should be carved in granite, Rushmore-size. I strain to memorise the slant of her cheekbones, the swoop of her nose, the triumphal lines that mark her as an elder. “I have Welsh, English and Irish blood,” she says. Someone boos the word “English” and she scolds: “What do you want me to do? I can’t divide myself.”
If only time would slow down. She dedicates a sweet, sad song to Amy Winehouse; whisks us to CBGBs with ‘We Three’; then lulls us with the affectionate rollick of ‘April Fool’. Between gripping my friend’s hand and shrieking myself hoarse I try to grab as many details as I can: the black and silver ring on the middle finger of her right hand; the band on her wedding finger; a charm bracelet on her left wrist; the unbuttoned cuffs of her jacket; the jeans stuffed carelessly into cheap-looking gilt biker boots. Her cloud of brownish-grey hair carelessly plaited at the ends.
Then, sudden as she soft-footed on, Patti slips off stage. The band continues. She’s right there – a handful of feet away, next to the mixing desk. She looks over, smiles and waves. Jaw slack, I wave back, willing, praying, desperate to transmit some of my love and awe. You’re more than a hero. Faces around me begin to take note and bodies eddy towards the slender barrier. She blows a pair of kisses then drifts back to perch onstage between the monitors, heels swinging like a kid on the edge of a dock, un-self-consciously singing along as her band mates whirl through snippets of old standards.
Everything is easy. When she’s ready, Patti gets up and sings again, as natural as a cat rising from a patch of sun and stretching. She joins the band in a fierce guitar jam, notes racing, her free breasts moving beneath that baggy tee. I am transfixed. It is almost unbearable.
Desire is hunger is the fire I breathe.
A man with a pink-and-purple Mohawk grabs his partner and they dance as we throw our voices back to her because the night belongs to lovers. I’m sweating; hot and cold as my last first kiss. When the opening chords of ‘Gloria’ reverberate my heart melts into my stomach and fizzes like popping candy. G-l-o-r-i-a she spells and we’re spellbound. My sins my own/they belong to me.
I refuse to contemplate the end. A girl in a black spaghetti-strap vest with cropped blonde hair dances beside me, golden arms twirling in tribute. The band slips quietly offstage. We stomp, whistle, and holler; please come back, please.
Patti shed the blazer a long time ago, stopped once to wipe her mouth on her tee-shirt. She is at once huge, luminous, a warrior king/queen (beyond sex, beyond gender, beyond binary) and a slip of a woman, sinewy, and not young. Anticipation clenches my heart like a fist. “You don’t need their shit!” Patti cries, raising her arms (prophet, priestess, the voice of one crying in the wilderness) “Be free!” The air crackles and atoms smash as the band launches into the driving riff of ‘Rock’n’Roll Nigger’. The blonde and I scream like schoolgirls. Baby got a hand; got a finger on the trigger. Baby, baby, baby is a rock-and-roll nigger. My blood rushes like it’s late for an appointment.
We wobble out: dazed, high, jelly-legged and dry-mouthed. The engine of compulsion is revving: I must write, have to. But anything I muster will be inadequate to the point of dishonesty. There is so much I want to say: thank you Patti, I love you, hallelujah, how?, you’re beautiful, you’re an artist, you’re a blessing. Thank you.
She is benediction
A couple of my favourite smoothie recipes:
A crazy concoction but incredibly tasty: this cool, slightly sweet, fresh tasting with just a hint of chilli heat. The ingredients list might look like a dog’s dinner but trust me, it’s the cat’s pyjamas.
- 1/2 ripe mango
- 1/3 cucumber
- 1 ripe medium pear
- 1 large handful fresh spinach
- 1/2 chunk fresh ginger
- 1 fresh bird’s eye chilli
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- 2-3 ice cubes
- water as desired
This is my favorite breakfast at the moment. Simple, healthful and delicious. I make mine extra thick so it’s basically ice cream. Yum.
- 1 banana, frozen
- 1 ripe pear
- Small chunk of fresh ginger, peeled
- Handful spinach or other dark leafy greens
- Small handful raisins or 2-3 prunes
- 3/4 – 1cup soy or regular milk
- 3/4tsp ground cinnamon
Not least my nearly-award-winning Un-beet-able Breakfast Smoothie
A fabulously thick, creamy, bright pink, gently sweet drink chock full of goodness. Try it at home!
1 medium apple
1 medium banana
1/2 small avocado
1/2 small raw beet
8-9oz unsweetened non-dairy milk
1tsp maple syrup
Sweet-tart Cacao Smoothie
1 medium banana, frozen
2 small purple plums
1 medium ripe bear
1/2 inch chunk fresh ginger
1tsp maca powder
1 1/2tsp cacao powder
Water and/or non-dairy milk
Melon, Pear & Orange Refresher
1/2 Galia melon
1 ripe pear
1/2 beetroot (cooked)
large handful round head lettuce
1 orange, juiced
1/2 inch chunk fresh ginger
200ml almond or rice milk
The continuing adventures of the Family on Bikes. For the story so far read Week 1 – One Revolution at a Time, Week 2 – Sticking Together? and Week 3 – Decisions, decisions and Week 4 – Semi-Charmed Life
Nancy moved back to Boise with the boys in February 2005; John followed at the end of the school year. She knew in her bones it was the right thing to do. For the first time in years they could spend time with family without casting one eye ahead to goodbye. Davy and Daryl could revel in Fourth of July firecrackers, Thanksgiving turkey and a white Christmas. It felt odd to put the boys on a school bus and not see them till the end of the day, but after the emotional and physical strain of the Vogel’s final months in Malaysia Nancy was prepared to accept daily separation as the price of much-needed stability.
So when John came home after his bad day and suggested taking the boys on the road Nancy’s response was reflexive. It was an absurd idea. “That’s not what parents do,” she reiterated when John kept talking about it. A week passed, then two. They stopped by to visit her mom and John, to Nancy’s surprise, talked about the mooted trip as if it were a solid plan. His determination was infectious and she found herself wrestling with two diametrically opposed value systems.
On one side everything cautious, conservative and conventional argued against the idea. She rationalised that it was normal for families to lead separate lives – mom and dad at work and the kids at school – and that it was normal for husbands and wives to communicate in hurried conversations between carpooling and ticking off the to-do list. Every time Nancy sat in a school meeting, or chatted with other parents on the sidelines at soccer practice, she heard the same thing: separation is normal, this is how people live.
Weighed against social expectations was Nancy’s long-cultivated habit of considering the options and choosing based on the merits of the situation. Though she struggled to reconcile her notions of responsibility and freedom, the more she thought about John’s plan the more Nancy felt like she was the crazy one for clinging to staid ideas about what parents do. “My boys were never going to be eight years old again. If I didn’t spend this time with them I was going to lose the opportunity,” she says. “Life is short. You have one chance and you have to grab on to it.”
Once the decision was made Nancy and John acted swiftly. Within weeks they commissioned a custom-built bicycle for three, recruited family members to housesit and packed their panniers. In June, when school let out, the Vogels strapped on their helmets, mounted up and became the Family On Bikes.
What was their biggest worry as they faced the unknown? Nancy chuckles: “Our only real concern was that the boys enjoy themselves. We were afraid they wouldn’t like it.” It didn’t take long for more pressing issues to arise. From Idaho they peddled into the tawny expanse of the Oregon desert, which stretches for hundreds of thinly-populated miles. “I’d driven through it numerous times but I had no concept,” Nancy admits. “I didn’t understand how remote it was.” They soon discovered that just because a town was on the map was no guarantee it would provide anything as useful as food and shelter. Early on, they found themselves working through a string of hamlets too tiny to even have a grocery store. After one leg of the journey fuelled by potato chips and candy from a tavern they began to quiz the locals as they planned their route. Other challenges included waking up to find their water-bottles frozen solid and, once, leaving their gear out only to have it drenched in a midnight downpour. Each minor catastrophe added up to another piece of wisdom: no matter how tired you are, always repack the panniers and cover everything in a tarp before you turn in; keep a water bottle close so you can at least clean your teeth on an icy morning. “It felt like every time we figured out the rules the whole game changed,” says Nancy. “There were so many things we hadn’t thought about – that we didn’t even know to think about.”
The one thing they needn’t have fretted about was the boys: Davy and Daryl were too young to worry, or second-guess their parent’s decisions. They took life on the road at face value. It was Nancy who was the family worrier during that first, year-long tour of the states. Each day a knot of tension would clench her stomach as the afternoon waned and they needed to find a camp site. John had a knack for spotting a good pitch, though, and gradually she grew confident he would find them a safe home for the night. Touring together was a daily lesson in trust: trust in herself, her husband, her children, their physical strength, their relationships, and in the kindness of strangers.
Relying on others runs counter to America’s superstitious belief in self-reliance and at first Nancy wasn’t comfortable with the idea of relying on anyone else. “We felt we shouldn’t ask for help,” she recalls. Over time and distance, though, they encountered warm hospitality, freely offered. One time a farmer pulled up alongside and asked if they’d like some dates from his orchard. They followed him to his farm and wound up camping on his land and the boys got to help run the irrigation system. Generous residents offered food, water, directions, advice, sometimes even a place to stay. The graciousness they encountered helped Nancy develop a new perspective on self-sufficiency. She and John tried to be prepared but plainly they couldn’t control everything. Nancy began to embrace spontaneous kindnesses as a “huge source of comfort.”
“We led a charmed life,” Nancy says of the dozen years that passed between leaving Albuquerque and returning to Boise in 2005. The couple’s first international teaching post was in Alexandra, Egypt, for two years. Then they moved to Ethiopia, fell in love with the country and chose to have children there. Twins Davy and Daryl were born in the United States but they made the thirty-five hour flight to Africa aged just six weeks. It was the just the first of many excursions. Before the boys were born John and Nancy spent school holidays cycling in countries like Mali, Zimbabwe, Israel, and Yemen; afterwards, little changed. Davy and Daryl celebrated birthdays in Thailand and Vietnam. They crawled up Mount Sinai before they could walk. “Travelling with them was easy. We never worried about what we couldn’t do.”
In 2002 they took another post, teaching in Taiwan. After two years Nancy’s doctor told her she had “smoker’s lungs”. Concerned about the “horrendous” pollution’s impact on the boys, Nancy and John talked about moving back to the US. Reversing out of the life they’d chosen was harder than getting in, however. Due to hiring schedules going Stateside would mean several months of being unsettled and unemployed. “It is easy to move out of a country,” Nancy says. “But very hard to move back. Emotionally, there is that aspect of ‘we’re jet-setting around the world.’ We were living a life that so many people envied. It was glamorous and exotic. Did we really want to leave that?”
Despite nagging unease they decided to cling to continue on to Malaysia. What Nancy calls “the worst six months of my life,” followed. From the moment they landed everything that could go wrong did. Shortly before the school year began Nancy’s mother was diagnosed with cancer. Nancy wanted desperately to be in Boise but felt bound by her commitment to the school. Guilt-stricken and unhappy, she struggled to cope with a litany of troubles. Their household goods didn’t arrive as expected. Her classroom assignment came through late, leaving her no time to prepare. Daryl fell on the playground and broke his arm then came down with a mystery illness that took weeks to diagnose. “It was chaos at school and chaos at home.” Not surprisingly, Nancy fell ill with a virus that kept her out of the classroom till Christmas. Over the holiday the family took off for a much-needed break in Burma. It was there they got news of a catastrophic tsunami. Though physically safe, they had friends across the tsunami zone; it felt very close to home.
All the optimism and guts that carried Nancy and her family across years and continents seemed to evaporate: “We had lived a charmed existence for so long. The world was our oyster. Everything was good. Everything worked. Then all of a sudden it came crashing down. Our personal lives were in chaos; the world was in chaos. I wanted stability. I needed to come home.”
This week’s installment of the Family on Bikes saga. For last week’s click here.
This wasn’t the first time the Nancy and John had come to the edge of a major decision and found themselves looking from opposite viewpoints. Before the boys were born their relationship had hit an impasse. Nancy felt she had two options: “I could go and get a divorce, or we could change our situation.”
Their situation was a common enough one among working couples: they just didn’t see each other. Nancy taught at an Albuquerque elementary school, waking up at 5AM to ride her bicycle to work and returning in the late afternoon after John left to teach evening classes. By the time he got home she was asleep. With no time to talk or plan, weekends drifted past. Months turned into two years. Nancy made a decision: if they were to stay married they needed to be together.
Being together was the whole basis of their relationship. They had met when Nancy was on the verge of a year-long solo bike tour of India. Her parents, perhaps regretting certain holiday decisions, begged her to find a travel buddy. As a gesture, Nancy put a ‘companion wanted’ ad in a travel magazine. Meanwhile, a young man in Albuquerque was placing a near-identical ad in the same issue, on behalf of his roommate. So John and Nancy got in touch and, after an hour of conversation, arranged to fly to Pakistan together. Six months into their two-wheeler tour of South Asia they were engaged. At the end of the year they flew back to the United States, married, and moved to Albuquerque.
After two routine-bitten years, it looked like the storybook romance wasn’t going to survive the prosaic facts of married life. Nancy was down to one idea: apply for work as a couple, teaching at an international school.
John thought she was nuts: “We’re Americans. That means we live in America.”
This was not a line of argument to faze Nancy, who spent two years straight out of college working for the Peace Corps in Honduras. “I’m going to look for an international job,” Nancy said. “You can come with me, or you can stay.”
Sometimes words appear when you need them most. Kelcey of PhD in Creative Writing posted the latest in her excellent series of writer interviews today and interviewee author Frances Hwang has some pithy words for the panickers and procrastinators, of whom I am one.
You can only progress as a writer if you write, and the more you write the more you understand and trust the process of writing. I’d urge you to get into the habit of finishing work. The temptation to abandon a piece can be great (and no doubt there are times when you do need to let something go), but you learn more and feel a real sense of accomplishment when you complete something. If you get stuck and are overwhelmed by the ambitious plans you have for your work, I suggest taking a less grandiose approach. Try to write the story in a way that comes naturally and that is most accessible to you. Otherwise, there’s a real danger of never writing the story at all.
One beautiful thing about a long commute is having time to read. This week’s early-morning train companion was Mrs. Astor Regrets. I randomly picked it off the shelf at Powell’s a couple of months ago knowing nothing about the Astors apart from the name. Now I do, I don’t envy them their millions. There doesn’t seem to be much joy in being that kind of rich, even with the sweetener of fabulous jewels and $25,000 worth of couture every season.
Engrossing, fast-paced, fiercely human story, though, and a delicious chance to peek into a bygone world of American aristocracy.
Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times is my new literary crush. She writes acerbic, funny, insightful things about language and its (mis)-uses. Think George Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language’ for the 21st century.
A brief excerpt from one of her recent FT columns on the troublesome issue of bios…
The other day I was invited to a dinner for non-executive directors to talk about women on boards. Even though I would much rather watch MasterChef on the television than go out and discuss this most worn-out of subjects, I said yes because I liked the person arranging it.
Before the event I had to send in a “brief bio”, so I dashed off something like: “Lucy Kellaway is a journalist at the FT, on the board of Admiral and has written various books.” It was short, to the point and based on a model favoured by Ronald Reagan. A friend told me he had seen his delightfully succinct bio at a grand do in the 1980s: “Ronald Reagan is President of the United States”.
In due course I received a list of the other guests’ bios and saw how outlandish my single sentence looked among the short essays they had submitted. I now see that there is a problem with the Reagan model: it doesn’t work quite as well if you aren’t president of the US. Indeed, the less important you are, the more words it seems you need. But looking at these bios – containing facts like “x played intercollegiate basketball three decades ago” or “y serves on the boards of 17 charities” – made me wonder about this trickiest of literary genres. How long should they be? What should they contain? It seems that the bio is trying to do two things: to say who you are and to show you are different from (and more interesting than) other people. Most overdo the first by being too long, and underdo the second.