mardi 31 mai 2011

I remember you well...

It was inevitable.  Here it is - the obligatory "this time last year I was at the Hotel Chelsea" missive.  I am a Chelsea Hotel bore.  I know it and I don't care.  I am obsessed with the place and, yes, I was there.

So, here is a favourite article, by Ariel Leve and reproduced below, that explains the place as well as one could hope to.  However, the one thing we all agree on is that its magic can't quite be defined and perhaps shouldn't be.

It is a combination of the Leonard Cohen song, burned-at-the-edges photos of Edie Sedgwick, a bit of Dylan (Bob and Thomas), a bit Sid, a bit Valli Myers, a little Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe.

A bit me standing on the balcony under that famous neon sign, pinching myself; staggering down those endless stairs and out into sunshine; pacing the corridors at night, gagging over the grim shared bathroom whilst also sneakily wondering what greats may have used it before me; a handwritten sign on someone's door asking you to keep the noise down, while you can hear Beethoven, the Ramones, an acoustic guitar and a horror film emanating into the cavernous corridors, fluorescent lights buzzing and flickering.

The main impression I was always left with, was that the place is a living, breathing beast.  I could feel the ghosts, even while not being sure that I believed in them.  It has tangible moods, not all of them benign - by day it really feels like the place where Joni Mitchell wrote 'Chelsea Morning' and Leonard Cohen romped with all manner of beautifully damned beauties; at night it feels like the place where Nancy Spungen was murdered.

In further reading, my highest recommendation is 'Chelsea Horror Hotel' by Dee Dee Ramone - always the coolest Ramone and I think that this horrific, surrealist farce is the one thing that comes close to getting under the skin of a beautiful, terrifying and bizarre place.

I'm happy I went when I did - of course, now it's been sold and is in a state of flux yet again.  Then again, every year has always felt like the last chance to see the Hotel Chelsea in her original glory, and every time she has always been just fine...

Inside The Chelsea Hotel

Edie Sedgwick set fire to it, Sid Vicious's girlfriend Nancy was killed there, and Dylan, Kubrick and Joplin all made it their home at The Chelsea Hotel

Ariel Leve

There is a note taped up in the lift. It is written with Magic Marker in a child's handwriting. "Wanted: Gold buttons. My brother Pascal needs gold buttons for a school project. Do you have any to spare? Leave at the front desk." A day later, the note has a running commentary at the bottom. Someone has written in black ink, "Why didn't Pascal write this note?" and underneath that in blue ink someone has responded, "Because his brother rocks", and then underneath that in pencil someone else has added: "Because Pascal is 5 years old!"
It is late in the day on a frigid January afternoon. There is a man checking in at the front desk. His name is Mr Parrot and he is in a long cream-coloured robe with a turban. He is checking in with his falcon. They are frequent guests.
There are 240 apartments in the Chelsea Hotel. Sixty per cent are residential and 40% are hotel rooms. Contradictions play out everywhere. It is a place of permanence and transience. Some who live there enjoy feeling shut off from the world - it is a place where they can disappear from view. Others enjoy feeling part of a community, describing it as a "vertical village". The Chelsea exists as a microcosm of New York - where income levels vary. Those who struggle share the lift with those who don't, it's multi-generational and there are hidden stories behind every door.
Like the city itself, it's a refuge for reinvention. Some people come to the Chelsea Hotel because they can become someone else. And some people come because they know it's a place where they can be themselves. But the one thing, perhaps the only thing, that everyone who lives there agrees on is this: despite everything that's been written or said about it, in all the books and all the movies that have eulogised it, nobody has got it right.
What was missing? Why has it become iconic? Nobody knows. It's got history. So much has been created within its walls. It's a slice of old New York. Parts of it are dark and crummy. Other parts are exquisite. Etched glass and beautiful tiles. It's how New York used to be. The lights are dimmer. It gets under your skin. Stepping inside, it's like stepping off the map. It's running on a different current.
Located on West 23rd Street, the 12-storey red-brick building was erected in 1884, one of the tallest buildings in New York City at the time. Originally intended for 40 wealthy families, at the turn of the century it went bankrupt and became a hotel. The vast, palatial apartments were broken up and no two rooms are alike. The lobby, which feels like my grandmother's sitting room if my grandmother had lived inside an art gallery, has a collection of people as interesting as the art on its walls.
Norman Gosney has been a resident for 22 years and occupies Sarah Bernhardt's former apartment on the top floor. There is a shrine to Charlie Parker in his rooftop garden. Gosney, who is from Bristol, runs a 1930s burlesque and vaudeville cabaret called Guilty Pleasures, which features his vivacious girlfriend, Miss Amelia. He no longer gives interviews - ever since the Japanese tourists knocked on his door asking if he could show them the room where Sid Vicious killed Nancy - but he will, nonetheless, agree to talk to me. And part of what he will explain is the lobby scene.
"Walk through the lobby, they're watching for you. They know all about the Chelsea: the lobby chick - usually an attractive crazy girl, late teens, early twenties, who arrives with enough money for a week. Guys when they're single go down to see if there's one there. There is also the sleeper - there's usually someone asleep down there. Then there are the talented bums who've attached themselves here, and rich idiots who've bought their way in to be hip and bohemian."
There are conflicting versions of what defines the Chelsea Hotel, but that it's indefinable is in its favour. What the hotel isn't is more precise. It isn't the sensationalised stories, the mythology, or the people who have famously lived and died in the rooms. The bronze plaques near the door pay homage to some of those residents - Sir Arthur C Clarke wrote 2001 here, and Brendan Behan binged on a pint of vinegar thinking it was alcohol.
It's known because it's where Dylan Thomas collapsed into a coma after a drinking binge in 1953, where the beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso discussed ideas and philosophy; William S Burroughs, Jimi Hendrix, Tennessee Williams, Mark Twain and Virgil Thomson made it their home, as have James T Farrell, Arthur Miller, Patti Smith and Ethan Hawke.
There have been suicides, murders, fires, drugs, punks, poets, painters, but in the end what does it add up to? The experience of living there is far less eventful than people would suspect. It's a familial environment - not self-consciously cool or hip - where neighbours are kind to each other and children roller-skate in the white marble hallways. But things that might seem extraordinary are part of everyday routine.
Scott Griffin, a former conductor for the New York Philharmonic who is now a theatre producer, and last year produced Arthur Miller's Resurrection Blues at the Old Vic, has lived at the hotel for 13 years and says he associates it with when his life began. "It's like an ecosystem that edits itself. It's not an environment that you adapt to. You either fit in or you don't."
Since 1946, the Bard family has been in charge. Stanley Bard, the managing director, took over from his father in 1955. He rarely takes a holiday. His son, David, 41, works there too.
"This place is his alter ego. It's in his blood, it's in his genes," David says. He paints a picture of his father as a man driven by devotion. "When he leaves here at night, the first thing he does when he gets home is call the hotel - before he changes - and it's the first thing he does when he wakes up in the morning. You can hear him whispering into the phone. He wants to know who's checked in, who's checked out; he knows everything that goes on."
Stanley understands the value of having an environment where artists can create. But he is a businessman too. Today the hotel has corporate ownership with stockholders and he is a stockholder, one of many. Among the residents, there is concern that if there were to be a change in management and the hotel were sold, it would have tragic consequences. There is a collective sentiment that Stanley Bard is the Chelsea Hotel. Without him, it could become another dime-a-dozen, flat-screened, antiseptic franchise.
"It makes me feel good that my tenants feel I respect them," Stanley says. We are sitting in his cavernous oak-panelled office just off the lobby. From the moment he sits down, he seems eager to get up and get back to work behind the front desk. Now 72, he tells me he hopes he has another 50 years left at the hotel.
Landlords are not generally regarded as paternal figures or patrons of the arts. In keeping the spirit and the heart of the Chelsea intact, he slackens the rope on occasion with some of the tenants and, he admits, sometimes feels taken advantage of. "I'm here to help them and protect them as much as I can - but I'm not their father. They have to carry their weight in society."
In his piece The Chelsea Affect, Arthur Miller lionised life in the 1960s at the hotel: "… it was thrilling to know that Virgil Thomson was writing his nasty music reviews on the top floor, and that those canvases hanging over the lobby were by Larry Rivers, no doubt as rent, and that the hollow-cheeked girl on the elevator was Viva and the hollow-eyed man with her was Warhol and that scent you caught was marijuana".
But drug-taking freedom and cheap rent seem to be a thing of the past. One tenant told me he pays $4,000 a month, which for a small two-bedroom rental in Manhattan is hardly a bargain. Rents now at the Chelsea are for people like Ethan Hawke: bohemians at heart, with a movie star's bank account.
Over the years, Stanley has dealt with a drunken Hendrix, a psychotic Joplin and every other scene imaginable. So what would make him throw someone out? He thinks for a few seconds. "A barking dog. It bothers people. You have to control your pet."
All of the market forces say the Chelsea should be condos. Twenty-third Street is an expensive area. A few doors away there was once a bait-and-tackle fishing store that has now shut down and the dusty health-food store has been edged out by the mega-chain Whole Foods. In this respect, the hotel seems like a relic. The grittiness, which is part of its heritage, has not been sanitised and the red-and-white-striped canopy over the entrance remains faded.
Physically the building is indestructible. The body of the hotel is fireproof and has survived numerous tests of fate. When Andy Warhol's muse Edie Sedgwick set fire to her room, the blaze was so fierce that the inside was destroyed, but the people in the room next door didn't even know it was going on. There is a saying from the 1960s that if you turned the Chelsea Hotel upside down, nobody would notice. It partly applies to how stoned everyone was, and partly to how solidly built it is.
It is soundproof - in theory. A former resident tells me he lived next door to New York's premier submissive, and every afternoon he would hear her getting spanked. "She was a nice girl, quiet and shy, and these guys who looked like schoolteachers from the suburbs used to stand at her door. Then you'd hear a faint 'whack!'"
The building is divided into two sections. The back is sunny, quiet, birds singing, doves, ivy around the windows. There is no obstruction of the view and the light is golden. The front of the building has more street noise, bus fumes; these rooms look out over 23rd Street and have cast-iron balconies.
It smells old: a combination of bricks and marble mixed with paint fumes and cigarette smoke. And one of the most distinctive elements of the Chelsea is the aesthetic. The spine of the hotel is the wrought-iron staircase that runs from the lobby to the 12th floor. There is art work hanging on every wall as you climb the stairs. And in the hallways too. It's even hanging from the skylight at the top - Arthur Weinstein's brightly coloured plastic discs spin and catch the light, projecting images onto the wall.
Most of the art is from residents, past and present. The painter Joe Andoe lived and worked at the Chelsea for 10 years. At one time he kept three apartments - a one-bedroom, a studio and an office - all on different floors. One of his paintings hangs in the lobby. It is 7ft high and nearly 6ft wide and it covers an entire wall. "Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week in New York City, that painting is on display. You can see it from a car at 60mph. Thousands and thousands of people have seen it. You can't buy that kind of exposure." He says of the Chelsea: "It's like a ghost that can't be photographed."
Artists have always been drawn to the Chelsea. David Remfry, born in Sussex, brought up in Hull and awarded an MBE in 2001 for services to British art in the United States, moved into the hotel 12 years ago with his wife. I visit him one morning in his studio on the 10th floor, where northern sunlight fills the room. It's the most constant light, ideal for painting, he says.
Remfry never answers his door unless he knows who it is. Every day he arrives at his studio at 9.30am and paints until 7.30pm. Then he returns home to his apartment across the hall. Initially Remfry came to New York because of a commission to do a portrait and he knew someone who had lived at the hotel in the 1980s. He rang Stanley, who said, "Come and see me when you get in," and he and his wife, Caroline, arrived late one night from London with 17 pieces of luggage, no reservation and no idea if they were staying. The next day, Stanley showed them a room with a little kitchen and they took it. When an apartment became available down the hall, they jumped at it, and that room has become his studio.
Aside from the light, and the creative spirit, one reason the Chelsea attracts so many artists is the simplicity of having to write only one cheque. It is notoriously difficult in Manhattan to get an apartment and, whether you're buying or renting, there are always credit checks. The life of an artist doesn't always provide an acceptable credit rating and the hassle of proving to be a suitable tenant is eliminated.
Stanley decides who lives at the Chelsea with an uncanny instinct for who will adapt and survive and enhance its environment. Raymond Foye is a longtime resident who arrived at the hotel in 1976 just after he finished high school, hoping to bump into Allen Ginsberg. "I think of this place as a museum of living people and Stanley is the curator," he says.
Foye's apartment is a tidy one-room space with no traditional furniture. Everything is on the floor - books, candles and cushions. The walls are covered with art by Francesco Clemente, an illustrated poem by Ginsberg, and a painting by the poet and artist Rene Ricard, who lives upstairs. "Rene's a very important poet. He's held a reign of terror over New York for the past 40 years now," Foye says with a smile. "It's remarkable. He's mellowed a lot but his productivity is very high. It's nice being close to him here. He writes something and brings it downstairs. I type it up - he likes to revise. It's a very rewarding relationship."
Foye had a similar relationship with the late poet James Schuyler, who won the Pulitzer prize for a book of poems he wrote while at the hotel.There is a plaque in his honour out the front, next to the one for Sir Arthur C Clarke. Foye tells stories, including his own of befriending his heroes. He tells of how there used to be salons - to eat and drink and socialise - but then there was more time back then to hang out. Artists and writers didn't have to worry about money and rent as much as they do today, as the commercial pressures weren't as high. "It's still a creative place, but it's not as underground as it used to be.
"I once spent the day with Rene where he picked up $10,000 in the morning for a text he wrote, and we went around the city and in the course of the day he spent all the money and I left him at a men's shelter on the Bowery that evening." What did he spend the money on? "We went to the Russian Tea Room and he ordered champagne, blinis and caviar, he bought some expensive Jean Paul Gaultier underwear and a pair of shoes. The rest of the money he spent on gifts for people. I thought, 'This is the true poet - la vie bohème.'"
When the topic turns to Stanley, he speaks of him with genuine admiration. "There are a lot of people in this hotel who would be out on the street if it weren't for him. I was with Rene the other day, and we were walking out of the lobby and Stanley asked if Rene had any money for him, and Rene said, 'Oh, Stanley, you should be paying me to live here!'"
Rene Ricard was one of the stars of Warhol's Chelsea Girls, and the only one actually living in the hotel in 1966. Since then he has come and gone. He is authentic, vibrant, with a sense of humour and an urgency about him too - every time we meet, he is on the go. Once again he is living at the hotel but he doesn't answer his house phone and is difficult to contact. When he agrees to talk to me, I'm told to knock on his door. "But don't call out 'Rene! Rene!'" he instructs, "because I know who I am. You have to knock and say, 'It's Ariel' so I know it's you!"
He has one room, a shared bathroom ("which I love because I don't have to clean it!") and no kitchen, which means most nights he goes out to dinner. Taped to the outside of his door are notes from people who have come by to see him to no avail, and an eviction notice.
We sit on a bench in the hallway near the staircase. Rene is elegantly dressed in a blue cable-knit cashmere sweater that matches his eyes. "Stanley is an old friend. I was homeless a few years ago. I was walking by the Chelsea, I had $3,000 in my pocket and, well…"
When he's asked the best part of living here he doesn't hesitate. "Stanley! He puts up with a lot. He throws me out and then we work backwards from there. I don't own anything. I always manage to come up with the rent, knock wood. 'Poet' is not a salaried occupation. And anyone reading this who's in need of a poem… we can talk."
At any time on any given day, there are people creating, writing, painting, composing, in their one-room or their art studio or their four-bedroom palace. Several people mention that I should speak to Sally Singer, a Vogue journalist, who lives at the hotel with her husband, the Irish novelist Joseph O'Neill, and their three children. She left the hotel, moved with her family to Brooklyn, and then famously moved back.
Sally and her husband first moved to the hotel in the spring of 1998, where they had a seventh-floor one-bedroom for a year and a half. When her first son was born they moved to a bigger place upstairs. Then, after having two more children, they purchased a house in Brooklyn for more room, renovated, and moved. But they were miserable. "We would 'ship out' our friends from the hotel - get a car service to bring them to Brooklyn. Our baby-sitters - it was a continuation of the community."
After 18 months they sold the house and moved back to the hotel. What was it that she missed so much? "It surprised me how attached I am and how much it matters to me to live here. It's a village that I feel at home in. I like that there are transient people coming in every night. The fact that it is a hotel is key to its character. There is a continual stream of people to look at. I don't want to live in my own closed-off space. People just drop by. They knock on your door. I want to open my door and let the world in and let my kids out. You have to want to live in the shtetl. That's in my DNA."
The hotel has such a storied past and she is happy to be part of the story. "It defines my existence in New York probably more than any other element. It's a grounding place. It's the truth of my life."
A few days have passed before I see Rene again, and he has some succinct words to share about Stanley: "Culture isn't something in the past. Culture is happening and it is caused by people. Stanley Bard believes in an idea of the Chelsea Hotel and he is still creating this culture in this hotel and, the pressures of the marketplace notwithstanding, he is still trying to find room for a poet in this building. Poetry isn't just the bronze plaques on the facade for Stanley."
When Stanley and I resume talking, I tell him I've spoken to Rene and ask about the eviction note. There is a sensitivity to this subject but clearly a combination of warmth and frustration emerges when he speaks of Rene.
"I give him every opportunity and sometimes more than I feel I should, but because he comes through and has come through in the past…" He pauses. "And I think he's a bloomin' genius. He's a genius. I've very rarely met a person who knows so much about so many things as this guy. I like the man very much."
The previous night, the Chelsea Hotel hosted the premiere party for Factory Girl, the movie in which Sienna Miller plays Edie Sedgwick, and along with the movie stars, many of the people associated with that period turned up. "So many people came over to me that I knew 25 years ago. It was a very exciting period of my life. Nat Finkelstein, he worked for Warhol at the Factory and he worked on the movie, he's now in his seventies. He came over to thank me for what I did for him and introduced me to his wife and said, 'This guy saved my life!' I don't even remember what I did for him. I said, 'Okay, I'm happy.'" He has a pride about the hotel that makes it seem as though he is talking about a child. "It might not be the Waldorf or the Plaza, but it's my Waldorf, my Plaza."
And his answer as to why so much great work has been, and is still being, created under this roof? "This place affords that. There is a happy spirit. There's nothing more important to a creative person than to be in a good place, a happy place, a creative space. All the elements have to be in place."
Since there is nobody who knows more about the Chelsea than Stanley, I suggest he is the one to tell the truth. He nods. "I know. It's important. Before I get senile. It will be a good book."
A few days later, the sun is setting as I sit with Norman Gosney in his jewel-box apartment and discover how an Englishman came to end up on the top floor of the Chelsea Hotel.
"In 1975 I'd been in Santa Monica, California, dressed by Vivienne Westwood, and couldn't get served in restaurants, but I had a good time. I looked so weird the skate kids came up to me and said, 'Dude, what's your deal?' - and I ended up taking the boards back to England. For six months I tried to find a backer. You know Bristol is a merchant-banker town - you should have seen it. I'd go in and say, 'This is the next big thing,' and they'd say, 'What, a piece of wood with four wheels? F*** off!' And then I finally found a rich crazy guy…"
From bringing the skateboard to England to managing punk bands, to designing nightclubs, and now running a burlesque cabaret, the discussion bleeds into his extensive knowledge about the history of the hotel: the architects and the terracotta panels and the white limestone, and the solid columns of masonry and cement and steel and the girders that anchor onto those, until it becomes clear - the lines are blurred. The histories are intertwined. There has been a great deal of attention paid to the former Sex Pistol Sid Vicious and his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, who was stabbed to death here. The room they once lived in no longer exists. The door has been sealed up and it's become part of another apartment.
"Most people don't have the official story straight," Norman says. "The actual murder never went to trial. There were too many people who saw Sid pass out at around midnight, in a real state, unlikely to awaken for several hours (which is how he was found later), and that notorious douche bag and heroin dealer Rockets Redglare (now deceased) was the last person seen in the room." For those who live at the hotel, this topic has been exhausted. "The truly interesting story here is the fascination with it and why it continues," he says.
As the days go by, the more time I spend there, I begin to understand the invisible boundaries; everyone seems to know when you can knock on a door and when it's okay to enter.
Gerald Busby was a child-prodigy pianist. He composes theatrical chamber music, has written operas, and his compositions were celebrated on his 70th birthday at Carnegie Hall. He has been at the hotel for 30 years. We are sitting in his apartment with its 11ft-high ceilings. He doesn't know the square-footage, so we estimate 300. His upright piano is against one wall, his sofa against another, and sheets of music are stacked vertically. "The parameters of sanity here are quite undefined," Busby says. "Which is very realistic. Because the world is basically chaos.
"Twenty years ago there was a married couple down the hall who were always yelling and screaming at each other and slamming doors, and one day I came out and the husband was standing in the hall drinking beer out of a can. He looked rather strange, but then he always looked strange, so I said hello, and as I was going to the elevator, suddenly the doors open up and 20 policemen rush in and grab him and run into the apartment. He had just shot and killed his wife. He was standing there drinking a beer, waiting for the police to come.
"In the first few years I lived here, there used to be a fire and/or a suicide every year. People would jump down the stairwell. I would come out of my apartment and there would be a policeman directing me to take the elevator - I'd see a shoe. Then there was Tex - the folk singer whose girlfriend poured kerosene over all his fancy shirts. He had emphysema anyway and was asphyxiated." He pauses. "This building has two huge firewalls with sand in them, so fires don't spread easily."
But in the past few years, he says, there's been a lot less drama. "I think of this place as a cross between an artists' colony and a college dorm," he says, smiling.
One of the most trenchant qualities of the Chelsea is that there is in equal measure a feeling of safety and uncertainty. You can be crazy and there will always be someone crazier. And in a world where imitation is celebrated, the lack of sameness and predictability is a comfort. Did Rene ever come up with the money? Did Pascal receive any gold buttons? Not everything needs to be known. And such is life at the Chelsea Hotel.

vendredi 27 mai 2011

The Witch of Positano (and Chelsea)

I think we all know by now that I am a total sucker for anyone who can give me a good lesson in Living Life On Your Own Terms.  One of my favourites is Vali Myers – artist, witch, dancer, shaman, godstar.

I discovered Vali late, only last year when I found out that two of my favourite pieces of artwork in the Chelsea Hotel – intricate drawings of a rabbit and a horse – had been made by her.

She was also at the centre of one of my favourite Hotel Chelsea legends – the time that she tattooed a lightning bolt onto the kneecap of a starstruck Patti Smith, the latter considering this her official initiation into the world of art and bohemia therein.

Vali herself was an unmistakeable sight at the Chelsea – intricate facial tattoos, a mane of bright red hair.

She was written about by Tennessee Williams, had a pet fox, smoked opium with Jean Genet; she lived a double life between rural Italy and hipster New York; each of her drawings took six months to two years to complete, and she refused to sell them for less than she thought they were worth, even when she was broke.

You have got to be filled with admiration for a woman who, when she was dying, said:

"I've had 72 absolutely flaming years. It doesn't bother me at all because, you know, love – when you've lived like I have, you've done it all.  I put all my effort into living; any dope can drop dead.  I'm in the hospital now, and I guess I'll kick the bucket here.  Every beetle does it, every bird, everybody.  You come into the world and then you go."

jeudi 26 mai 2011

30s Look.

I will be 30 in June.  I am extremely excited about this, on all levels.

Not least of which, because I am rethinking My Look.  Grown up, sophisticated, expensive.  Maybe.  A bit.  This will mainly involve wearing more black, a more tailored silhouette and attempting not to spend my money on cheap rubbish.  Also, two very important words are involved: Bella Freud.

Isn’t it funny the things that start to seem unacceptable, or at the very least unseemly, at different ages?  When I was 22, I was obsessed with being completely over-dressed at all times – 60s eyes, capes, heels and massive hair whatever the occasion, my motto was “laugh in the face of daywear!”, my role model Jacqueline Susann.  I’ve had to wean myself off it – not that difficult, as I have felt less inclined to bother with every passing year – to avoid looking like an Eccentric Art Teacher.  Which would be No Good.  (NB – I am planning to resurrect that image from the age of 60 onwards, at which point I hope to have more time on my hands and to emulate the magnificent ladies of Grey Gardens.)  You know, it’s like all those things – dancing on the table, taking your top off at a gig, doing a wee behind a tree late at night – that are probably ill-advised to start with but can be kind of charming in the early twenties, but less so in the thirties.

I am a fan of anyone who commits to a strong look, whatever that may be.  I once read, many years ago, that in order to develop one’s signature style, a good trick is to think up three keywords or phrases and apply them in some way to every garment bought or outfit assembled, even if it’s only the tiniest dab of each.  I decided that mine were: French, 60s, rock n roll.  It generally works.

So, I shall of course be sticking to this but hopefully in a more grown up way.  With reference to Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alison Mosshart and, as ever, the Sainted Edies (Segwick and Beale).

I am also, however, planning on a new tattoo to commemorate the occasion, so not completely grown up.

What are your three Signature Look Keywords?

mercredi 25 mai 2011

Favourite Thing #222

Vincent Gallo and ‘Buffalo 66’

I like anyone who has a strong, personal vision.  This is probably why I like Vincent Gallo so much.  That and his brilliant brain, perfect looks and razor-sharp wit.  I once wrote an article (for my own little fanzine) entitled ‘Boys Hate Vincent Gallo Because They Are Jealous Of Him’.  It’s so true.  You know in ‘Friends’, when they compiled lists of the five celebrities they wanted to sleep with?  Well, Vincent Gallo is always at the top of my own personal list.

Letching aside, his film ‘Buffalo 66’ is one of the most perfect pieces of work in existence, in my humble opinion.  It is visually beautiful, with a great story, not a word or a shot out of place.  What I love most about it, is how much it is one man’s singular vision – Gallo wrote, directed, scored and starred.  It’s his masterpiece and it is a marvel by any standards.

Gallo plays the excellently named Billy Brown, who has just got out of prison and needs a girl to take home to his parents’ house for lunch – judging by his letters, they think that he has been out of the country due to his high-powered job, complete with perfect wife in tow.  Enter Christina Ricci as Layla, an almost obscenely beautiful waif in a tap dancing costume.

Hilarity ensues, along with heartbreaking pathos.

OK, I’ll admit it’s not for everyone.  When I made my mum and Louise watch it – it was my birthday, my pick – they both whinged and fidgeted and asked me when something was going to happen.  The thing was, whilst disagreeing entirely, I could totally see their point.

If it is your thing, it is an incomparable work of genius.

As, in my opinion, is everything that Vincent Gallo does.  Even when he starts to stray into self-indulgent and impenetrable territory (which, occasionally, he does), I love how much he means it.  I adore ‘The Brown Bunny’.  I cannot wait for ‘Promises Written on the Water’.

As for his acting (in things he has not written/directed – which according to him are two entirely different beasts: ‘either give me full control or pay me up the wazoo’, as the man explains himself, sensibly), his performance as the title character in Coppola’s ‘Tetro’ is possibly the sexiest thing I have ever witnessed in my life, just as his turn in Claire Denis’s ‘Trouble Every Day’ is disturbingly brilliant, and he is simply appealing in bucketloads in ‘Palookaville’.  Even in the things he’s clearly just done for the money – the ridiculous horror of ‘Moscow Zero’ or romantic comedy with Courtney Cox in ‘Get Well Soon’ – he radiates an impossible charisma that elevates it above the sum of its parts.

I love his artwork, his music (from rapping back in the day as ‘Prince Vince’ to the gorgeously painstaking ‘When’, etc.) – basically, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, ‘his body and his spirit and his clothes’.

Thanks, Mr Gallo.

mardi 24 mai 2011


I know it’s probably not a healthy way in which to live one’s life, but occasionally I find myself asking the question: What Would Courtney Love Do?  If I need to feel brave, it helps.  If I need to behave myself, not so much.

My love for C Lo is long-haul and well-documented.  Obviously.  So here are some more little love poems to Ms Love Cobain, and how I can basically measure my life in Courtney.

When I was 13, I saw ‘Doll Parts’ on the TV and I fell in love.  It was genuinely like a lifeline when one was kind of needed.

When I was 15, I started going out to gigs at the Shepherds Bush Empire and finally putting my privately-honed Courtney persona into action – I dyed my hair blonde (mistake), bought a white fur from the charity shop, and started wearing unflattering make-up.  I have never felt so cool in my life.

From 17 to 21, the rock n roll drama caught up with the intent.  I took up chain-smoking and bad boyfriends, just like my idol.  My most-read book (along with Plath, Sexton and Genet, obvs) was probably Poppy Z. Brite’s biography of the great lady – to this day I still prefer a biography that’s written like a novel and perpetuates rather than debunks rock n roll myth.  I was so disappointed when I read a Keith Moon documentary that explained how he had never really driven a car into a swimming pool at all – I never want to feel like that about Courtney and luckily will probably never have to.  Louise and I planned to follow in her footsteps and move to Japan to become strippers.  Wrote reams and reams of notebooks that mainly centred around imagery of glass coffins and lockets and dying swans and blood-filled shoes.

22 – thankfully, I entered what I like to call the ‘People Versus Larry Flynt’ stage, where you learn how to cherry-pick and sit at the grown-ups table when you need to, preferably in couture.  My life was, and remains, the (infinitely more boring) equivalent of being best friends with Michael Stipe.

At 28, I finally saw her live – was in the same room as Courtney Love, breathed her air and touched her ankle and cried and basically had a weird communal experience that was the fulfillment of a long-held dream.

Which brings us to the present day, and the newest strand of my ongoing C Lo obsession.  This is:

It’s amazing.  Despite many ups and downs and changes not for the better, I (predictably) think that Courtney is one of the most stylish women in the world.  She has that brilliant thing where she can change from California Goddess to New York Hispter to English Lady in the blink of an eyelash, without – most crucially – losing any of the elements that make her essentially Courtney Love.

Obviously I am biased, because her style has had such a bearing on my own wardrobe over the years.  I may have grown out of the babydoll dresses that I didn’t fully understand and my mum wouldn’t let me leave the house in, but I am and will forever be someone who thinks that a Peter Pan collar and a strong lip will always be the epitome of style.  I also still covet her incredible legs.  Most of all, these days, I wonder if copying her Tudor Rose tattoos would be a tasteful tribute or a big fat effing mistake?  Also, could I justify the expense of buying one of her dresses, much in the spirit of the Frances Farmer frock that she hunted down and wore to her own wedding?

Whatever your views on the above, it’s a fascinating insight into a fashion chameleon and a weird old international life.

lundi 23 mai 2011

You remind me of the babe.

Favourite Thing #132 – The Labyrinth

I am often struck by the fact that many of the seminal films of my early childhood (i.e. – The 80s) were really, really dark and probably completely unsuitable for the children for whom they were intended.  This not only seemed normal at the time, but we were all engrossed in a way I’m not sure I would be in today’s children’s films.  Some of those early favourites are still my favourites today.

The film I loved above all others as a child was ‘The Labyrinth’.  On paper, this sounds like the worst premise for a film ever – “I know, we’ll get David Bowie to wear a unitard and codpiece, and call him the evil Goblin King; he will torment a pretty young girl with an imaginary world in which she has to find her kidnapped baby brother, but then in the end it will all turn into an Escher painting and the Goblin King will confess that he did it all because he is inappropriately in love with her.  Yeah, kids’ll love it.”

And they did!  I wanted to be Sarah in her pretty white dress and dance with Jareth at the masked ball and hang out with lovely Ludo at the Bog of Eternal Stench!  I’d totally have stayed in the labyrinth, though – I knew that much even when I was seven…

The Labyrinth was only one in a whole spate of inappropriate films in such a dark vein, just when I was lucky enough to be the right age to enjoy them all on home video.  ‘Krull’ and ‘The Dark Crystal’ were of course other classics.

However, my other absolute favourite was the genuinely terrifying ‘Return to Oz’.  If you have not seen this film, I cannot overstate just how dark and frightening it is compared to the original Oz.  It gave me nightmares for YEARS but still holds up today.  Starring the amazing Fairuza Balk as Dorothy Gale (in one of a hat-trick of her great spooky films – the other two being the best adaptation of The Worst Witch and, of course, The Craft).

Dorothy Gale’s telling of her previous experiences in Oz have led to her being diagnosed as mentally ill and prescribed electro-shock therapy – yep, that’s a child-friendly start right there – and ends up back in a desolate wasteland that was once Oz but has now gone wrong.  Mombi and The Wheelers are possibly the most frightening characters in a film ever, and even the ‘goodies’ like Tick-Tock and Jack Pumpkinhead are a tiny bit sinister.

Still, this didn’t stop my sister and me from watching them repeatedly, transfixed every time.  Still am, actually.

vendredi 20 mai 2011

Favourite Thing #745

Frida Hyvönen

I am a big fan of a grown-up pop star.  A proper, proper pop star who is properly womanly and sexy and smart.  For this very reason, Deborah Harry, Cher, Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Gwen Stefani can all pretty much do no wrong in my book.

This is also why I have developed such a fond love for Frida Hyvönen.  I happened upon her by chance when I first heard her song ‘Dirty Dancing’ on the radio – a pitch-perfect little tribute – and was thus inspired to rush out and buy her long-player ‘Silence Is Wild’.

I’m glad I did.  Frida writes songs that make me wish she was in my gang of best friends.  Piano- and voice-led, they are basically all like poppy show-tunes, with clever lyrics that veer from heart-wrenching to hilarious.

The aforementioned ‘Dirty Dancing’ will make you feel wistful and nostalgic, even if you didn’t grow up dancing “the afternoons away to Kylie, back when the 90s were dawning”.  ‘December’ is the catchiest and most sensible song about abortion that you will probably ever hear.

Frida, I adore you.

My absolute top-favourite of her songs is ‘London!’, which is the first thing to be played on my iPod when it's a depressing morning and I’m in need of a bit of cheering up.  It will also have  you nodding in recognition if you’ve ever been a newcomer to a city or tried to make someone fall in love with you.  It's even better complete with the jaunty music and soaring singing - which I implore you to investigate for yourself.  Here is why:

‘London!’ by Frida Hyvönen

Upside down to Italy
and then again England.
London, you're not my friend
but you can be…

Springtime, but no trace of it
here in London.
I wear my cloak like Sherlock Holmes,
if you remember him?
"Don't you worry, love"
"Let me have you, love"
"There you go, love!"

All this "Brilliant, love!"
"Will you excuse me, love?"
There you go again...


The way you hate me is better than love
and I'm head over heels.


The way you wanna get rid of me
makes me weak in the knees.

Do you think you don't care about me?
You're wrong!
If I disturb you what about it?
You keep me hanging on

to life...

You showed me a book
about the new British dandy.
Beautiful boys
in exquisite fabrics
I ate it like candy
and brushed my teeth
in whitening bleach.

Oh, I wanna be like them,
I don't care if they are men!
I wanna be rich, I wanna be
fine and dandy!
In a townhouse in London
with art on the walls
and memberships in clubs
for gentlemen.

Listen to the pipes
They're singing in the night
It's raining all the time
Listen to, listen to,
listen to the pipes


The way you hate me is better than love
and I'm head over heels.


The way you wanna get rid of me
makes me weak in the knees.

mercredi 18 mai 2011

Everything I learned from En Vogue.

It’s been the best rediscovery ever.  My friend Ruth gave me a copy of ‘The Very Best of En Vogue’ – the fiercest girl group of the 90s.  Seriously, immense – my iTunes calls it ‘R & B’ but they’re really that crossed with a power ballad and a 90s dance hit.  I know everyone probably thinks this about the decade in which they primarily grew up, but I really cannot get enough of that 90s production sound – from Nirvana down to crappy pop, basically.

Since receiving this amazing gift, and subsequently listening to such classics as ‘My Loving (Never Gonna Get It)’ (I also love parentheses in song titles) on my work to work every morning this week, it made me think about how En Vogue really were a much sassier and all-round cooler version of a girl group they were than anything that exists today.

Then, when I really thought about it, I realised that the messages I had absorbed from the work of En Vogue were as follows:

·         Free your mind – and the rest will follow
·         Be colour blind
·         Don’t be so shallow
·         That my boyfriend is nice because ‘he knows that my name is not Susan’ (that one came with the help of Salt n Pepa, and can probably be ignored if your name actually is Susan – like Sarandon, or my stepmum).

Finally, here is what in my opinion is their absolute best song, and one of the best songs of all time by anyone ever.  It reminds me of my friend Rachael and going on a school French trip, lovelorn and unwanted and warbling into hairbrushes.  It also contains a line with which I have always been absolutely fascinated – ‘if I could wear your clothes/I’d pretend I was you’.  In all my years (many) of extreme crushes and stalking tendencies, this is not an impulse I have ever personally encountered.

mardi 17 mai 2011

Best of the best.

I am a great believer in the ‘best of its genre’ theory.  Different, and some often-maligned, genres do not create a pecking order of artistic worth.  Something that is at the top of its own game is at the top of its game on its merits, regardless of what it is being judged against.

Ergo, ‘Love, Actually’ is as great an artistic achievement as ‘The Godfather’ – both being absolute ‘best of their genre’ movies.  Paul McCartney is as good at writing catchy pop songs as Beethoven was at writing a grand symphony.

This is where Jilly Cooper comes in.  When it comes to romantic comedy she is the best of the best, and the cleverest of the witty.  I cannot sing her praises loudly enough.  Every piece of work she has ever done – from the gorgeous gems of short story in ‘Lisa and Co.’ to the epic blockbusters of the 80s and beyond – is a crafted work of art.

I think my personal favourites have to be the early ‘name’ books – slim slices of retro perfection, if you aks me (which you probably didn’t).  I first read them when I was barely grazing my teens and have come back to them regularly over the years.

My top fave is ‘Prudence’.  This is obviously because she is the most like me, but the beauty of Jilly is that you can always find a girl like you to which you can perfectly relate (see also: recurring character Flora Seymour and Rivals’ Caitlin O’Hara).  For the same reason, my cousin’s favourite is ‘Imogen’.  The fact that Prudence is a wisecracking bag of neuroses who isn’t as grown up as she likes to pretend to be and basically just effs-up  in a variety of unsuitable outfits, and that Imogen is a busty librarian who is a bit shy but still manages to get pissed and fall into bed with the wrong men – well, it kind of tells you all you need to know about Niki and me, really.

And Jilly.  Which is just that she is up there with the greats, as far as I’m concerned.

vendredi 13 mai 2011

Don’t ever, ever call me that.

So, the SlutWalk is coming to the UK – on the 4th of June.  This is a cause with which I could not agree more – women marching to draw attention to the disgustingly wrong culture of blame that surrounds the issue of rape.  The original ‘SlutWalk’ was sparked off by a Canadian police officer who suggested that women avoid ‘dressing like sluts’ if they did not want to be victimised.  This is only the tiny tip of the iceberg when it comes to the horrific truth – the shockingly low conviction rate when it comes to rape, the huge percentage of victims who do not report attacks due to fear and shame; the fact that, as a culture, I believe we seem to be taking retrograde steps rather than rectifying these wrongs (e.g., porn becoming more rather than less acceptable, the lads’ mag culture that just won’t go away, the fact that it suddenly seems to be OK to use the word ‘rape’ as a casual joke).

The facts are as basic as this.  Rapists cause rape.  Women’s style of dress or behaviour – do not.  Rape happened way before the miniskirt was invented.

For these reasons, the SlutWalk is a brilliant thing.

However – and I hate for such an important issue to be internally divisive – I do have a problem with the name.  I see the relevance, and that the shock factor gives it that bit of extra punch that’s sometimes necessary. But it makes me uncomfortable.

There is also talk that the purpose of this is to ‘reclaim’ the word – to give it positive attributes, to make it mean a confident and sexually liberated person.  I’m not even sure that I like the idea of this, either.  ‘Claiming it back’ is a dubious rationale – need I say, see the genius ‘Clerks 2’ for evidence of this (I’m not kidding!)?  Kathleen Hanna tried it back in the early 90s – provoking rather than titillating by daubing ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ in red lipstick on her naked stomach.  The intention was good, but it became yet another weapon to chuck at the riot grrl backlash.

I do not want to be called a slut, much less put the label on myself.  I do not want the word or the concept to exist.  I do not want it to become another word that it’s acceptable to chuck around because the meaning has become blurred.  It’s like that great film says (OK, Tina Fey in ‘Mean Girls’) – ‘if you call each other sluts and whores, it just makes it OK for guys to call you sluts and whores’.

Mostly, I’m just happy that a march for an important cause is happening.  I won’t be joining in, but if you want to I will applaud you.

jeudi 12 mai 2011

Baking for slothful show-offs.

That would be me, then.  This recipe is all over the internet, but its discovery has changed my life and so I wanted to share.

They only require four ingredients, which you probably already have lying about the kitchen, and were In My Mouth within twenty minutes.  Win.  And yum.

The recipe is American, therefore in “cups” rather than grams or pounds – I have some cute diner-style measuring cups that my mum bought me, but apparently you can work on the very vague maths that 1 Cup = 110 grams.

So, the recipe is:

·         1 cup of sugar (any kind at all will do; I used demerara, which was nice)
·         1 cup of crunchy peanut butter
·         1 egg
·         1 dash of vanilla essence
·         You could also add anything else you happen to have kicking around – I chucked in a few chocolate chunks, raisins would be good, or nothing else at all is just fine.

·         Mix it all together
·         Divide it into 12 blobs on a baking tray
·         Stick in the oven for 15 minutes on 180/Gas Mark 4
·         Put on some 80s pop while you wait for them to cook (I especially enjoy Blondie or Culture Club for baking purposes)
·         Transfer cookies from oven to mouth.

That.  Is.  Literally.  It.