Taylor Pfaff, the son of founders Bob E Pfaff and Suzanne Larson, is CEO and general manager; his landscape architect sister Cali (for whom the marvelous Cali’s Cuvee is named) is the winery’s creative director. Joe Wright remains head wine maker. One thing that hasn’t changed is Wright’s chronic self-effacement: “Taylor tells me what [wine] they need, by when and I make sure it’s grown, produced and available.”
When asked if it isn’t more complicated than that, he doubles down: “I have spread sheets: vines per acre, shoots per vine, clusters per shoot.” He pauses: “We get pretty close every year, barring gnarly weather.”
Barring, say, freak wildfires?
Left Coast Cellars, like so many Willamette Valley wineries, fell under a funereal smoke shroud in September 2020. “It was disgusting. There was nowhere to go. The fire was from central California to British Columbia, inland all the way to the Rockies. Really gross.”
Wright and the team opted to make wine regardless.“The fires affected how we made them, trying to mediate smoke taint,” Wright says. “The wines are not my usual style, so they feel a little alien but, smoke aside, it was an incredible vintage.” An early crop contributed to “low yields, wonderful concentration; stunning, electric wines.”
Still, 30% less volume than in 2019, plus the minor matter of Covid. “In March, April  we had no idea what was happening,” Taylor Pfaff says. “We had throw our budget out the window. It’s been triage planning.”
Two catastrophes in a 12 months is beyond the reach of planning. But Left Coast has two long-term projects propelling it forward. First, restoring 40 acres of old oak savanna; second, purchasing and planting a new vineyard.
I recall the sentinel oaks around the tasting room, a deer grazing between them, pretty as a Disney scene. “We always appreciated the trees but didn’t understand how ecologically important they are,” says Pfaff. “Only three percent of the Willamette Valley’s historic oak forest remains, and we have a big section of it.”
These acres had been overrun by “a 16-foot tall wall”, as Wright puts it, of invasive species like hawthorn, blackberries, Scotch broom and poison oak. “The Natives would burn, let things burn,” he adds. “The trees would survive but the under-story would get cleared out. That’s the regenerative effect of fire.”
These days, people are more concerned with fire’s destructive effect and indigenous-style land management is prohibited. Clearing the savanna was a slog of cutting, digging and hauling followed by seeding native grasses and flowers to create a “gorgeous, open, wild space.”
It was to this space Left Coast turned when Covid restrictions hit indoor operations. The tasting room became reservation-only and the oak savanna bloomed as a picnic spot. Guests could roll up with chairs, blankets, snacks and glasses, buy a bottle of wine and retreat to the leaf-dappled grass. “We wanted people to go out and enjoy the beautiful, quiet corners of the property and Covid kind of forced that,” Pfaff says. “Customers started to spread out and utilize the land. We are excited to see people enjoy the outdoor spaces.”
Picture a quiet Friday night in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Most of its 60,000 citizens are unwinding in familiar ways: having a drink with friends, going on a date, playing with their kids, or catching a movie. They’ll gossip, kiss, laugh, or maybe get tipsy before they fall into bed and when they wake up on Saturday life will continue as it always has. Tonight, though, 99 people have set aside their usual end-of-the-week rituals to go to the Comedy & Magic Society’s monthly show at the Gaithersburg Arts Barn.
Founded in 2005 the Comedy & Magic Society is the joint project of four hard-working professionals: Mark Phillips, Bob Sheets, Brian Curry and Barry Wood. They have over 100 years of cumulative magic experience and each of them could (if he weren’t too modest) justifiably claim to be one of the world’s finest magicians. But this is only part of the reason why one Friday of every month 99 people turn up at the Arts Barn, eyes popping with anticipation.
Many of them have been before because live magic performed at this level is strangely addictive. You get hooked on the thrill of anticipation and the little adrenaline bursts of surprise. It isn’t something you can DVR, download or Google, so people come back – and bring their friends. First time visitors to the sturdy red-brick former stable building enter a little more cautiously. Some are excited, others are skeptical; some of them want to be entertained, others have notebooks tucked in their pockets. All are curious.
The magic begins as the audience mingles and makes its way to the alternating bright purple and lime green seats. Nick DeCuites and George Woo, the Comedy & Magic Society’s resident close-up men, circulate through the theater picking pockets, popping cards or conjuring the unexpected. Grown-ups laugh and gasp. Kids crane their necks to follow the flying fingers but their eyes can’t move fast enough. Then the lights dim, the curtain rises and the Producer arrives on stage. CMS’s four co-producers take it in turn to host and emcee the shows. Tonight let’s say it is Bob Sheets, the avuncular comedian with a grin as big as the Ritz.
If you want to know anything about magic or, indeed, the history of American popular entertainment in the 20th century, Bob is your man. He was born in California, the land of prospectors, dreamers, and professional make-believers. One of these was Paul Winchell, a ventriloquist who also patented the first artificial heart. Inspired by Winchell’s TV show, Bob taught himself ventriloquism. But when his dad bought him a magic kit he gave up voice-throwing because, at the ripe old age of 10, he thought it was “kid stuff”. Magic, on the other hand, merited study.
The wisecracking schoolboy (“I always had to have the last word,” he chuckles) used to rush home after class to practice new tricks. Unlike most kids, he didn’t mind getting sent to his room because it meant more time to perfect his craft. Bob joined the San Diego Junior Magic Society. At 13 he was performing at parties and clubs; at 15 he was a seasoned performer – as well as being America’s youngest Fuller Brush Man. Door-to-door sales and magic require many similar skills: you have to engage with strangers, win them over, put them at ease, and convince them you have something they need. Bob, with his effervescent enthusiasm, was darn good at it. Academics were a different matter. “I was a D+ student,” he says. “They only let me graduate because they knew there was no point in keeping me.”
Bob finished high school in 1968 when the military was snapping up men to send to Vietnam. He joined the Navy but was discharged 17 days later when they found he was allergic to the regulation wool blankets. Instead, he went down a path trod by many legendary entertainers: he joined the circus. Between pounding tent stakes, driving trucks, and packing down, he polished his performance skills in the main ring and his close-up skills as a sideshow act. Working with the circus was more than a chance to perfect tricks. It was Bob’s initiation into a centuries-old fraternity of itinerant entertainers whose heritage runs from medieval minstrels and court jesters to vaudevillians and, of course, illusionists.
All four of the Comedy & Magic Society co-producers are enmeshed in the traditions and history of magic. This enthusiasm shapes and spurs their careers, and is integral to the CMS ethos. Brian Curry, the youngest member (Mark describes him the D’Artengean of their troupe of magic musketeers) began his education at the renowned Denny & Lee Studio in Baltimore, and was tutored by card wizard Peter Galinskis. “He’d make me rehearse one little move over and over,” Brian says. “He wouldn’t let me start a new one till I learned the last one.” Brian was a young teenager at the time, but magic was already more than a hobby. “It helped me break out of my shell,” he says. “I wasn’t very good at talking to people and it was a way for me to communicate.”
The son of an IBM executive, Brian spent most of his childhood in Tokyo and Paris. Moving between countries on a regular basis fostered independence and resilience – traits that stand him in good stead as a professional magician. As soon as he learned his first trick in sixth grade he was hooked, and regularly spent two or three hours a day practicing. “It was luck,” Brian says of his career. “So much luck.” But, like his co-producers, Brian works ferociously hard for his good luck. When he was 15 he contacted Mark Phillips at a magic convention and asked if he could show him a competition routine. It was a memorable meeting. Mark turned up with a handful of other famous magicians and the youngster promptly bombed. “His act was a disaster,” Mark laughs. “He had problems you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.” Still, they took him to dinner afterwards.
Years later that friendship would help form the Comedy & Magic Society but first Brian had to perfect his craft. Luckily (this time it really was luck) Clyde’s, a local restaurant, booked a magician who also happened to be a conman. The conman/magician got busted and his prison sentence was Brian’s big break. The shy 15- year-old went to work doing close-up magic for diners waiting to eat. Seventeen years later Brian still works there, delighting Clyde’s hungry customers. He credits the gig with helping pay his way through college – and honing his skills so he’d never have to use his degree.
None of the Comedy & Magic Society men took for granted that they would be successful as professional magicians. Mark Phillips, a corporate magician who spends most of his time performing at industry trade shows and events, holds a degree in microbiology. “My parents wanted me to have something to fall back on,” he explains. By the time Mark went to university, though, he’d already laid the foundation for a future far from microscopes and laboratories. His father was a career Army officer and Mark was raised in military outposts like Fort Hood, TX; Fort Leavenworth, KS and Fort Huachuca, AZ. As the smallest kid in the class, Mark was a self-professed class clown and discovered that doing magic was a way to get noticed and make people laugh.
Also, you had to make your own entertainment on remote military bases. Fort Huachuca, where they moved when Mark was in eighth grade, is in arid high-plains country 15 miles north of the Mexican border. There isn’t much to do there, or in neighboring Sierra Vista where Mark went to high school. One of his activities was playing trumpet and trombone in the school band, which often performed on base. Mark, ever the over-achiever, would perform magic on stage while the band was taking its break, thus earning his stripes in front of a tough military audience.
By the time he earned his degree Mark knew he wanted to pursue magic full-time and moved to New York to make his way as a corporate entertainer. It was the boom years of Wall Street and Mark dove into his profession with the same gusto as the traders and bankers around him. The dizzy world of high finance has long since spun itself out while Mark, by contrast, has honed his craft and career with discipline that must make his dad proud. He attributes his perfectionism to a lifetime of playing classical and orchestral music (he now plays the French horn, which has a reputation for being fiendishly difficult to master). “I have very high expectations of skill level,” he says. “A performance has to be well-rehearsed.”
These expectations infuse every Comedy & Magic Society show. Ask any of the coproducers what their biggest challenge is, as a magician, and they’ll tell you it is trying to change an audience’s expectations. Most people’s experience of live magic is limited a performer at a kid’s birthday or a friend showing off card tricks. “People don’t see much good magic so winning them over can be an uphill battle,” Bob says. As a result, CMS is incredibly protective of its audience’s experience: “We don’t lower the bar. Our guests are professional magicians and they have to hit a certain level before we let them in front of our audience,” he adds. The Gaithersburg Arts Barn shows usually feature one or two guest performers, in addition to Mark, Barry, Brian or Bob, and these guests are culled from the co-producers extensive contact books.
“Bob’s been a big name in the magic world for a long time and has a lot of friends,” Mark says. “If anyone is passing through he’ll buttonhole them and say ‘come do our show, it’s a lot of fun’.” Fun is one word to describe the CMS shows. Others are: exciting, social, electric, family-friendly and, above all, funny. Most magic shows are about highlighting the dexterity and skill the magicians. Add comedy, though, and the whole dynamic changes. The relationship between audience and performer shifts. Barriers melt away. As a magician, it is tempting to treat the audience like the enemy: you want to fool them, put them on the wrong foot. Mixing comedy and magic, however, requires a different mind-set. “It’s easier when the audience goes with you willingly,” Mark explains. “You need charm and personality. You need to be a good communicator.”
Communication skills don’t come naturally to everyone, though – not even magicians. Barry Wood, the group’s resident actor and improv expert, says he was “kind of a loner at school. Magic was a hobby I could retreat into.” He’d go off to the library and read about the history of magic and the lives of famous performers. “I was fascinated by every aspect of the art,” he recalls. This fascination drew him out of his shell and into Barry Taylor’s legendary magic shop. The elder Barry became his mentor, and Wood credits him with taking an introverted kid and putting him on the path to being a world-class performer. Young Barry learned that communication could help smooth out a less-than-perfect trick. “At first, I was just trying to fool people, but once I learned about presentation the challenge was to weave a story and connect with my audience.”
The best magic is about making connections and a gifted performer with enough tricks up his or her sleeve can weave a spell anywhere. After an apprenticeship that included working weekends at Barry Taylor’s shop, Barry Wood filled in for a friend doing magic at a pizza restaurant. He left his first paying gig “on cloud nine,” with a bellyful of pizza and cash in his pocket. The die was cast. Barry went to college and majored in marketing but he funded his degree by performing magic. “I always enjoyed giving class presentations – maybe in the back of my mind I knew I wanted to do magic,” he recalls. Still, the penny didn’t drop until Barry began looking for a marketing job after graduation. When interviewers found out he did magic they were intrigued; they wanted to talk about shows they’d seen, or tricks they knew. Many asked why he wasn’t doing magic, since it was clearly his passion. “I thought, ‘maybe they’re right.’” To his relief his parents were supportive, and Barry began his professional career in earnest.
One of his formative experiences was working with Bob Sheets at the Brook Farm Inn of Magic, a restaurant/magic haunt in Maryland run by Bob Sheets and partner Steve Spills. At first, Bob and Barry seem like polar opposites: Bob is the bluff, ebullient journeyman firmly rooted in the great American tradition of life on the road. Barry is reserved, thoughtful and precise; he likes bookstores and wineries with nice views. But they have a lot in common when it comes to magic. Both cite street magic as the ultimate challenge. “If people don’t like you, they walk away,” says Bob. “It doesn’t get any tougher, or more honest, than that.” Barry, who taught himself fire-juggling to avoid dead time while doing street performances at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, agrees. Always eager to develop his skills, Barry began to study acting and improv. He joined an improv group then helped found comedy sketch troupe Dropping The Cow.
“Barry can do anything,” Brian says. “You would never pick him out in a crowd as a professional entertainer. He’s so quiet and humble. Then he gets on stage and destroys. It’s awesome.” Brian jokes that he’d like for Barry to suck at something “because it would make me feel better” but they are more alike than different. Both have a passion for working with kids – which is probably only slightly less demanding than street performing. Brian does school assembly shows, including a magical mathematics review and a book club, while Barry works with a professional counselor doing an anti-bullying show that tours schools in the greater Washington DC region. He is also a long-standing member of the Big Apple Circus Clown Care program. To Barry, cheering up sick children is the apotheosis of his magical art: “I’ve found an audience for all the skills I learned that were inner-focused, that I learned for myself. I don’t know if it’s destiny or what, but now I have an opportunity to use my abilities in a positive way, whether it’s helping school kids dealing with tough situations, or making a child laugh in his hospital bed and seeing the relief on his parents’ faces. I’m lucky to be able to use my abilities in a positive way.”
Ask any of Barry’s colleagues and you’ll hear similar sentiments, in different terms. Brian, along with Mark and Bob, does regular gigs on cruise ships, and delights in the way magic transcends culture and nationality, helping him unify a room full of strangers who don’t even speak the same language. Mark gets a buzz out of magic’s ability to transform the ordinary: “When an audience sees magic, they think about things they don’t usually think about. They have a chance to think about the everyday things they take for granted.”
This passion for making the impossible real fuels all of the Comedy & Magic Society members. Make no mistake: magic is hard work. They travel a lot and pulling together their beloved Arts Barn shows requires commitment and sacrifice. “We work so much we’re rarely in town at the same time,” Bob says. “But when we are it’s a killer show.” In addition to long stints on the road they face the physical and mental rigor of regular performance. One of Mark’s corporate trade-shows, for example, involves eight-hour days of repeat performances to an ice-cold audience that has to be won over; over and over again. And anyone who knows kids can imagine how tough it is to convince school kids to take an interest in math.
In addition to the challenges of the work itself, is the challenge of finding or creating work. “You have to be really self-motivated,” says Brian. “There is no manual telling you how to make a living. You have to constantly evaluate how you run your business, your show, your website….” They each have their own way of thriving: Mark taught himself German so he could work trade shows there; Brian has a crop of entrepreneurial side projects; Bob spent 15 years mixing drinks and conjuring surprises as a bar-tending magician; Barry does everything from one-man shows, to toddler’s birthdays to Presidential inaugurations.
To some it might seem like a hard way to earn a living but Barry, Mark, Bob and Brian brim with joy and enthusiasm for what they do. “I’m grateful to be getting paid to do something I love,” says Barry. “I’m blessed.” This gratitude and energy flows through their work both as individual magicians, and as the Comedy & Magic Society collective. That is what lends the air inside the Arts Barn its sprinkle of magic dust one Friday a month. Magic, as performed by the CMS and friends, is the art of celebrating what’s possible. “Magic can lift people’s feet off the ground, if only for a moment,” says Bob. “You never know what the result will be. You get a kid in front of an audience and he realizes it’s okay to get in front of people, it’s okay for people to laugh at – and with – you. It gives him confidence.”
Children and adults alike leave the Arts Barn wide-eyed and flushed with laughter not just because of the flawless routines and peerless patter, but because Brian, Bob, Barry and Mark are walking, talking, juggling proof that you can fulfill your dreams and that the world is alive with possibilities. “Magic reminds us there are a lot of things in the world we take for granted,” Mark says. “If we experience a moment of magic and wonder in a performance we start paying attention to the wonder in other parts of our lives.”
A short story originally published on Medium. Atropos is one of the three Fates in Greek mythology, the one whose decision is final — her name means ‘inflexible’.
“First, I want to thank you for the invitation. All the invitations. Thank you for asking until I said yes.
“The first year, I was too angry. The second year, I was too angry. Last year, I was afraid of what I might say. My gratitude to the faculty and administration — especially Dr. Harnett and Dr. Walsh — who persisted in asking without expectation. They were close friends of my father, meshed in their own grief, but they reached out again and again.
“I didn’t appreciate it to begin with — and by that I mean, for years. I was angry with this school, with them, with the students who survived, even — a little — with the ones who didn’t. I wanted my father. If I couldn’t have him, I wanted to hoard all the grief in the world.
“But the world is adept at delivering low blows. Even in my depths of my deepest wallows, it was hard not to know how easy it is to be sucker-punched by fate.
“It has taken four years since that day, which some of you remember all too-vividly, for me to be able to stand here and hope to say something that is not untrue. Many of you, mercifully, only know what happened second-hand — as do I.
“You didn’t see the gun. You didn’t hear the shots. Didn’t smell — as I’m told they would have — the propellant. It wasn’t your hair that stood on end, or your body that shook with the adrenaline rush. You didn’t have to make a life-or-death decision, without knowing which was which.
“Dammit. I’m still angry. At everybody, everything, every minute that added up to the moment my Dad died because some warped asshole had a bad day.
“Forgive me, fellow family members, survivors. I mean no disrespect. But let’s not give what happened more credit that it deserves. We lost our loved ones to an act of madness. I don’t want to credit their killer with reasons.
“Sorry — I should stick to my notes.
“I thought hard before saying ‘yes’. I didn’t want to come here and pretend to have reached a resolution. Yet, it was time. Those of you who were lucky enough to know my Dad, to study with him, know the only thing he loved more than making wine was teaching future winemakers.
“He treasured education and when he retired from his first career as research scientist to start the winery, it was the teaching he missed. This program gave him a chance to combine the two great loves of his life. I wanted to honor that. It’s what he would have wanted.
“So I said ‘yes’, not knowing what came next. Knowing what to say was one of Dad’s gifts. It’s not one of mine. But my mind kept turning back to one story — one pivotal moment.
“Most of you know the winery, or will have at least driven past and seen the acres of vineyards spread across the hills. If you can, erase all that. Picture those hills with nothing but brambles and stones. Picture a decrepit clapboard house with clothes on a line out front, and a tractor parked next to a beat pick-up truck. Picture my Dad, humping that rusty machine along those hills ten hours a day. My Mom tending hundreds of tiny scraps of vine nestled in cardboard milk cartons. After school, my brother and I put to work planting, watering, propping, tying.
“It takes about four years to get a crop, as you know. I was 15 by then, sick of the dirt, convinced nothing was going to come of this stupid experiment. That first year changed my mind. We didn’t get a lot of grapes but they were good. And the wine Dad made was great — award-winning, in fact. Suddenly, my pea-sized teenage brain saw the potential.
“I was almost excited for the second harvest. A handful of friends from schol were coming to help pick at the weekend. The Friday night was warm and hazy. Sunset hung on forever — the sky turning from fuchsia to rose to powder pink. Mom and Dad were on the porch, drinking wine. Toby and I were playing checkers, which is this weird old thing that was invented before the internet. I was completely content — a rare emotion for me at 16 — everything was right.
“The next morning I woke up to Dad shouting, crying really, roaring. I was terrified, I’d never heard anything like it. There was something else, this sort of whirring, rustling noise in the background. Running out of my room, I collided with Toby, and we both staggered into the living room.
“That house overlooked the main, the only, vineyard. Through the open front door I saw this dark thing — this moving mass. Dad was running towards the vines, arms flailing like a Laurel & Hardy skit. Mom on his heels. After a confused minute we realized it was birds.
“Hundreds, thousands, who knows. More birds than we’d ever imagined. Hitchcockian levels, swarming our ripe grapes.
“That was break point for Dad. He had an academic job on offer. He had no harvest. We were broke. You’re familiar with the taut economy of wine-making so you can imagine…. I, in my adolescent wisdom, was convinced, determined this was a sign. Like, “Dad, we tried, we failed, now can we please go back to the city and a job where you can afford to buy me a car?”
“Instead, he remortgaged the property on terrifying terms, and went back to planting and pruning. I was furious, livid. What was going to stop it happening again? What were we going to do then?
“‘We can always start again,’ Dad said.
“It was a few years before I forgave him. My last two years of high school I wore clothes from Salvation Army and ate packed lunches. If a person could die of embarrassment, I wouldn’t be here.
“By the time I went to college, though, things were on an upswing, and just kept swinging. Suddenly, it was the coolest thing in the world to bring friends and boyfriends to visit. Mom and Dad built the new house and I had this huge, beautiful room and studio space overlooking the vineyards. They were winning awards, hosting dinners, giving lectures, appearing in magazines.
“They threw me a 21st birthday dinner at the newly built winery. I sat at the head of the long oak table in the library, surrounded by my friends, drinking amazing vintages Dad had saved especially for the day. I remember hugging him and saying, ‘Daddy, I was wrong when I told you to quit. I’m so glad you didn’t listen to me.’
“Rightfully, that should be where the story ends. The triumph of courage over cowardice, optimism over pessimism, fortitude over adversity.
“I lived with that smug, comfortable morality tale for my whole adult life — until four years ago. When I heard the news, I literally fell over. My legs gave out. Lying there, howling, I thought, ‘Why didn’t he just quit?’
“Once again, I was furious with Dad. If only he’d heeded the warning, if only he weren’t so stubborn, if only he’d given up. I didn’t give a shit about the winery, his accomplishments, his pleasure in it, I just wanted him back.
“I still want him back. But I’m no longer sure he should have quit after the birds. However, I’m also not sure he shouldn’t have.
“God knows, I’ve tried to weigh it up. Tried to find some scale to balance my Dad’s pride, joy and satisfaction in the winery against the fact of his absence. Increasingly, I don’t think such a scale exists. His life was infinitely precious. Missing him is wound that doesn’t heal. But his life was inextricable from what he loved, and how he chose to live.
“Would he do things differently, if he could have seen the future? I don’t know.
“Not knowing, I can’t offer you a comfortable morality tale. Doing what you love can save your life. It can also cost your life. Every day, you make life-and-death decisions without knowing which is which.
“So you may as well follow the deepest, truest impulse of your heart. You don’t know when or where the journey will end, but you can choose your path…”
This originally appeared on Medium. It’s a subject close to my heart.
There are two kinds of people who give advice to writers: those who want better writing, and those who want payment.
Teachers, from the unsung heroes singing the ABCs with snotty toddlers to college professors hacking through forests of sophomoric prose, are mostly the former.
Once you venture beyond formal education, though, the search for guidance can lead straight into the slough of despond where some self-proclaimed guru will offer you the keys to the kingdom, on an installment plan. There are also wonderful writing teachers who ought to be paid for their time and expertise.
These five questions will help you to avoid hyenas and find legitimate guides —
1. Do non-writers read their books?
This is important because, if you’re going to take writing advice from someone, it might as well be an actual writer. Not someone who has set him/herself up as an expert on the basis of figuring out MailChimp.
When a writer who is read and loved by millions, like Ray Bradbury, E.B. White or Stephen King dispenses writing advice, I’m happy to pay.
2. Do they tell you how much they earn?
The above mentioned writers never, to my knowledge, sent emails to their readers bragging about their income. If a so-called writing guru leads by telling you how much they earn, it’s a con.
Writers can and do earn great salaries as writers. But if a person’s primary income stream is other writers s/he is a huckster, not a writer.
3. Do they promise you a secret formula?
Writers are wishful thinkers, in the best possible way. We wish to understand, report, illuminate, entertain, and above all connect. This fundamental optimism keeps us at the keyboard. It also makes us susceptible to slicks who claim to have discovered a secret to striking rich as a writer.
This prospect is pure mirage — and enticing as an oasis.
If someone really had the secret to endless, effortless cash from freelance writing clients s/he would simply enjoy the income. If the technique were valid and replicable, teaching it would create competition.
4. Do they try to up-sell you?
A writer who earns a comfortable primary income from writing shouldn’t be hustling. I’ve encountered sales pitches ranging from $199 for an online journalism course to $10,000 for one year of “mentoring”.
The give away, whether at the low or high end of the price scale, is the guru’s insistence that this is great value. Two online courses for the price of one! Access to a “community” (as if there aren’t a gazillion free writers forums and Facebook groups)! Cheaper than college! Cheaper than a weekend in Vegas! Only 20 percent of your annual income!
The people most likely to be tempted by dubious expertise are those worst-placed to pay these rates, which makes fake gurus opportunistic dickwads.
5. Do they tell you it’s all in your head?
Without fail, every single fake writing guru will preach some version of “failure is a mindset”.
PayScale data show only 10 percent of all writers earn more than $83,000 per year, meaning even fewer earn above the much-hyped six figure mark.
Failing to earn scads of money as a writer is not a mindset — it’s a reality.
The only people who tell you it’s all in your head are the ones who are ass-covering for the inevitable moment when you realize that over-priced bottle of secret sauce isn’t going to make you a millionaire.
Where to find the real thing
Don’t despair of getting sound, disinterested writing guidance— and don’t pay through the nose for it.
Sites like Funds for Writers and Freedom with Writing are a great way to learn about contests, publishers and grants.If you want advice on the craft of writing, hit the library or bookshop.
My favorite books on writing include:
Zen and the Art of Writing — Ray Bradbury
Bird by Bird — Anne Lamott
Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind — Natalie Goldberg
On Writing Well — William Zinsser
Steering the Craft — Ursula K. LeGuin
For honest first person advice, join a writing group or workshop, or take a class. Some of the best, wisest writers I know work in community colleges or extension programs, for little reward and less recognition, because they want other people to experience the life-altering power of writing.
Seek the positive
Writing should be a source of joy, even if it’s a job.
A writer worth listening to embraces both its struggles and its delights.
“Writing is survival,” Bradbury wrote. “Any art, any good work, of course, is that. …We must take arms each and every day, perhaps knowing that the battle cannot be entirely won, but fight we must, if only a gentle bout. The smallest effort to win means, at the end of each day, a sort of victory.”
This feature appeared in Real Travel magazine sometime in the Noughties.
As far as England is concerned there are two Ibizas – both equally unfit for ordinary, human habitation. The first is Ibiza Uncovered territory: a Gomorrah of boorish binge-drinkers, off their heads on E or X or K or Y, stumbling from one swiftly-forgotten grope or vomitous party to the next. The other is an achingly pristine, white-walled, hippie-lux haven replete with infinity pools, yoga retreats and yachts dripping with rich, honey-coloured celeb aristocracy.
A summer visitor to Ibiza for several years now, I’ve always felt there is more to the island than meets the eye – or makes the pages of British broadsheets. With work in crisis mode and my ex-boyfriend swanning around town with his new love I need an excuse to get away. This, I promise myself, will be a reconnaissance mission. No clubbing, crazy nights or other clichés, but a chance to discover an authentic Ibiza.
First, though, I have to find my hotel. Which is somewhere in the centre of the concentric swirl of cobbled streets that make up Dalt Vila, the medieval fortress at the heart of the Ibiza Town. With only faint starlight overhead and a few skulking cats for company I feel eerily removed from the 21st century as I trudge past whitewashed walls picked out with brightly painted wooden doorways and wrought-iron balconies. By the time I hone in on my destination, the El Corsario, I am grateful for sensible shoes and a regular fitness regime. The reception area was clearly once an open courtyard – the floor is alluringly patterned stone and arched stairways beckon upwards. Three flights later I am welcomed by Nadiha, who shows me to my room and kindly insists on leaving her mobile number “in case you need anything.” Perched on a four-poster bed in the simple, homey room, with the lights of the town and marina twinkling beneath me it is hard to imagine I could need anything else.
My friend Dan is staying on the opposite side of town at the swish Art Deco Ocean Drive hotel (which would be easily visible from my aerie, if I had a pair of binoculars) so we meet halfway to get dinner. Contrary to rumour there are plenty of bars and restaurants open, “off season” or not, and we end up in El Zaguan, a reassuringly busy, smoky, neighbourhood hang out in the centre of town. Forget menus: this is an authentic tapas joint – glass cases on the bar are filled with everything from seafood-stuffed pimentos, to anchovies, to thick slices of Iberian sausage, to delicious local cheeses, all neatly skewered with toothpicks. We grab plates and stock up before realising there is also a stream of hot goodies (battered prawns, croquettes, spicy chicken wings, empanadas) being circulated by the wait staff. A bottle of red wine, a delectable salad and 24 tapas later (they tot up the toothpick count on your bill, so you can judge just how greedy you’ve been) we roll out the door in search of a nightcap.
One of our waiters suggests Teatro Pereyra, a five minute walk away. Sliding through the red velvet curtains we can’t help but grin. The place drips high-camp class. “Shall we get a bottle of wine?” Dan suggests, innocently. Time turns as warm and squishy as the velvet furniture as we plow through a good rioja. Another bottle arrives at our table, unbidden, and we crack into it while a band (Pereyra has hosted live music ever night for 20 years), led by a vocalist who looks like a hardboiled Teutonic version of Sting, belts out Prince covers. By the end of the evening not even the bill and the realisation the wine we’ve been cavalierly guzzling is €50 a pop can shake us out of our cosy, boozy fuzz.
The following midday we reconvene at Croissant Show, a Francophile café at the foot of Dalt Vila, wearing our hangovers with pride. I’ve blown my budget and Dan’s wondering aloud if he can finagle his share of the vino on expenses, but we can’t help giggling about it. A recovery brunch of huevos hervidos (boiled eggs with toast soldiers) is a snip at €2.65 and Andrea, the voluble proprietor (and owner of the finest handlebar ‘tache I’ve ever seen) suggests we try Vichy Catalan. Not, as I first guessed, an obscure form of government, but mineral-laden fizzy spring water that’s been drunk as a tonic in the region for 800-odd years. It soothes our headaches and inadvertently puts us on the path to unravelling one of the intricacies of travel in Ibiza: a little matter of language.
I can’t work out how the nearby Calle de Virgen (in summer, the fabulously hectic heart of Ibiza’s gay scene) has become Carrer de Mare de Deu. Catalan, it turns out, is the key to more than hangover cures. Ibiza, like the other Balearic Islands, is historically Catalan (as are the neighbouring mainland provinces of Valencia and Catalonia). Suppressed during Franco’s rule in favour of Castilian (Spanish), Catalan has been restored to official language status (though Castilian and English are universally spoken). Schools now teach in Catalan and in the course of the last couple of years all road signs, street names and the like have been changed, which explains the baffling changeover. Apparently, if you ask to go to Sant Josep and your taxi driver offers to take you to San Jose you shouldn’t panic, it’s the same place.
Curiosity piqued I head into Dalt Vila in search of more culture. Simply walking around the fortress is an education. Plaques dotted around the walls explain key historical features in Spanish, English and Catalan, like the 24-pound cannon (named for the weight of their ammunition) which gaze blankly towards evergreen hills. Opposite, the sea sweeps towards the horizon, broken by the low, dim line of neighbouring Formentera (collectively, the two islands are called the Pitiüses – a reference to their ubiquitous pine trees). Half-hypnotised by the spring sun and the murmur of waves below it is hard to imagine anything bad ever happening here. However, the impressive fortifications at my feet and a round tower lying on a tip of land in the distance tell another tale.
Despite being tiny (barely 40km from top to bottom) Ibiza has been a magnet for empires, pirates and a vast array of exiles for centuries. Phoenicians, Romans, Moors, Catalans and Spaniards have all variously claimed the island made highly desirable by Ses Salinas, the natural salt pans that lie at its southern tip. Now a World Heritage nature reserve and home to over 200 species of birds, as well as rare mammals, Salinas attracts the beautiful people to its beach in summer. This time of year, though, you can hop on a bus in town and half an hour later be wandering through rolling meadows and along the jagged shoreline in peace and perfect isolation.
Rejuvenated, I rejoin Dan in town. A DJ, he can’t bring himself to visit Ibiza without dipping into its infamous nightlife. Though most of the large clubs are shut until May a small party scene is still thriving, if the posters dotted around are any indication. There is a techno night on at DC10, a club near the airport, and as he says, “it’d be wrong not to go.” First we stop by Lo Cura, a local dive in the best sense of the word. Everyone in this tiny boozer seems to know each other and in no time we’ve been sucked into a maelstrom of conversation. We finally arrive at DC10 at the very Spanish hour of 3AM. The heavy, white walls of the club seal in the sound of thumping kick drums and rumbling basslines; it’s like walking into a washing machine on spin cycle. Sweaty dancers gyrate around us, intent on the music. Two handsome men ooze over and strike up a conversation. “Don’t worry, we’re gay,” they assure us, leaving Dan and I wondering who’s being chatted up by whom. The no-frills atmosphere couldn’t be any more different from Teatro Pereyra, but the combination of music, vodka and high-spirited company has a similar, dizzying effect.
“Why does this always happen in Ibiza?” Dan asks wanly the next day. He’s on his way to the airport. I’m trying to get to grips with the idea of a cycle trip I’ve arranged with Ruth and Kev – a British couple based in tranquil Santa Eularia (the island’s third-largest town) who run fitness holidays and have offered to expose me to a healthier side of island life with a bike tour. Happily, they agree to reschedule for tomorrow and I stagger zombie-like through town in search of refuge. My email addiction is rearing its head, along with a double-strength hangover, so I’m insanely grateful when I happen on Chill Café. As befits an island of immigrants Ibiza is riddled with cheap, functional locutorios (internet cafés) but this one eschews plastic furniture and vending machines in favour of homemade baked goods and comfy benches where you can recover and reconnect. A cup of green tea, a huge chocolate chip cookie and a quick browse on Facebook later I feel almost human again.
Convinced a walk will finish the transformation I set off around the marina and stroll past luxurious yachts and chic bars to the Botafoch lighthouse at the end. From here, there are magnificent vistas of Dalt Vila and I perch on the rocks to watch the waves break beneath me. Watching the water turn from deep turquoise to fizzing pale green to pure, creamy spume and back is deeply cleansing. Wandering back to the centre of town I spend an enjoyable hour poking around the Fira D’Artesania, an annual arts and crafts fair. Carmen, a gregarious jeweller shows me how she makes dainty glass necklaces, then sends me to her mother’s stall opposite to pick up a lovely pottery vase. Mother and daughter hail from Buenos Aires originally but, as I’m starting to realise, everyone in Ibiza comes from somewhere else.
Over dinner at the Marino hotel and bar I ask Miguel, the proprietor and one of the few native Ibicencos I’ve met, why this is. “Because you can do whatever you want here. As long as you respect Ibiza, you can do anything,” he says with a smile. He is a paragon of hospitality and keeps my glass topped up with vino payes (the local red wine) as he tells me about the changes he’s seen since his father built the hotel in the 60s. Mostly, he says (British tabloid nonsense notwithstanding) they have been for the better, the tourism boom giving the islanders a completely new way of life. Jose, perched next to me at the bar, tells me his father grew up labouring on a small farm. A generation later and their family own one of the oldest hotels in this quarter, the Gran Sol.
The next morning I pick up a mountain bike and a few words of advice from Miguel at Mr Bike, (“Spanish drivers son locos,” he tells me, encouragingly) and meet Ruth and Kev to go in search of an even more distant past. Our destination is Es Broll, a natural spring between Sant Antoni and Sant Rafael that for centuries provided nearby villagers with water. Its antiquity is attested to by a well-preserved series of stone irrigation trenches that date from Moorish times. After roaming through the emerald oasis of Es Broll (and cursing myself for having forgotten my camera) we double back and head to Sant Rafael. This tiny village has a beautiful church whose courtyard offers magnificent views towards Ibiza Town and the sea. It is also home to two of the island’s swankiest eateries – El Ayoun and L’Elephant – but we eschew glamour in favour of shandies at a roadside café, before heading back to town. Kev and Ruth, gracious to a fault, insist on my accompanying them back to Santa Eularia, where they take me for a stroll around the beautiful church before welcoming me in for a home-cooked meal.
Sipping a glass of rose with my two new friends I can’t bear to think of leaving. In just a few days I’ve been indulged with music, history, art, nature, sunshine, sea views and boundless hospitality. Small wonder travellers from every corner of the world come to Ibiza and never return home. Perhaps I’ll join them.
This was written for Ideas Tap, an organization (sadly now defunct) that supported young people pursuing the creative arts. Cheryl Strayed, whose Tiny Beautiful Things was my bible for several months, was as generous and gracious by phone as she is on the page. A case of meeting one’s heroes not going wrong.
After writing her first novel, Cheryl Strayed turned to memoir and wrote her New York Times bestselling book Wild, about her 1,100-mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail in the wake of her mother’s death. Here, Cheryl tells Cila Warncke about mining memory and sets us to work with a writing exercise…
How does the emotional experience differ between writing fiction and memoir?
It doesn’t. To write fiction well you have to inhabit the consciousness of the characters you’ve created. With non-fiction there’s an extra layer of intensity because the character you’re building is yourself.
When writing memoir, how do you build yourself as a character?
The only way you can build yourself is to dismantle yourself. To take apart who you are, what your assumptions have been, what you hope people think of you. You can’t write: “I’m pretty and cool and awesome and interesting” because everyone would hate you. You have to say: “I’m human. Here are positive things about me. Here are negative things about me. And here are things that don’t make sense, don’t add up, and I’m going to present them to you”. Writing is like the deep work you do in the course of therapy where you take yourself apart.
What memory aids do you use?
I naturally have a very good memory – I think a lot of writers do. I kept a journal through my 20s and 30s. That helped me a lot in writing Wild. I do research where I can, going back and looking at pictures for example. When most people imagine what a memoirist does they think: “I don’t remember anything from high school, from 20 years ago”. But they do remember – they just think they don’t.
How can writers elicit those memories?
The process of writing is re-conjuring memories. It’s doing things so more memories come to you. Even looking at a photo can allow you to remember something accurately. The process is like running into an old friend from back in the day, somebody you knew 20 years ago. When you first start talking you only know a few things about each other. But as you talk and go deeper into your lives you remember things you thought you had forgotten. Just because you haven’t thought of something for years doesn’t mean you don’t remember it, it just means it takes a little work to access it. When I was writing Wild I’d think, “I don’t remember, I just walked” but once I started writing my mind would open up to specific memories.
Do you draw heavily on your own life for your fiction?
You’ll see a lot of details from my life. My next novel is set in Portland [where I live]. None of the characters in the book are me but there are all these little tendrils of the story that you can trace back to me.
I never call it “writer’s block” but I always have trouble beginning. Writing is hard. I resist writing. I run from it. If I am left alone with a laptop I flounder for an hour or two, then I sink in and I’m in the zone. When I get stuck I go for a walk, come back and try again. I don’t force it. If something isn’t coming, I move on; that’s a good strategy for me.
How long did it take to write your first book, Torch?
Your first book is so hard because you don’t know how to write a book and there is no way for anyone to tell you. It turns out the only way to learn how to write a book is to write a book. I avoided finishing [Torch] for fear of failure, until the point where the fear of failing to finish was bigger than the fear of finishing a book that was terrible. I worked on it for about ten years in total, three years really diligently.
Once I let go of the idea that I was going to write a great book, I was able to write a book. I let go of any ego or fear or shame. That was an important moment in my writing life. None of us really knows what kind of book we’re writing. A lot of people think they’re writing brilliant books and they’re terrible. And the reverse is true too. It isn’t up to us to judge our books; it’s up to the people who read them.
In Focus: Writing exercise using objects
I take random objects out of my handbag like lipstick, a ten-euro note, and a pair of sunglasses, and tell my students to pick one and write a story about it.
To begin writing you begin with an image. You begin with a feeling. I encourage people to start writing and not think about it too much. Even if you have a good idea, usually once you start writing it will become something else.
I could do that same exercise with the world’s Nobel Literature Prize winners and something would come of it. Perhaps what came of it would be better than what comes to my students, but that’s how the [Nobel Prize winners] do it too – they begin with something then they make something else.
One of the first clubs I went to in London, sometime in ’99, was Trash at the Annexe in Soho, where I danced with a boy in leather trousers because he looked a little like Brett Anderson. A weekly Monday-night debauch helmed by soft-spoken musical genius Erol Alkan, Trash became one of most influential (and popular)clubs of the early Noughties. It was a huge privilege to cover its final party in Jan ’07 for Mixmag.
Everyone’s huddling against the walls to avoid the spitting rain. It’s not just any Monday night, it is Trash’s 10th birthday – and their farewell party. After a decade of trendsetting, musical innovation and eye-popping fashion Erol Alkan and friends are bowing out. These days Trash’s giddy mix of sex, dance and rock ‘n’ roll is standard practice, but it wasn’t always. “What everyone’s doing now, in terms of live music in clubs, Trash did years ago,” observes Liam O’Hare, The End’s general manager. From its earliest days at Plastic People, to its stint in Soho’s Annexe, to its triumphant years at The End, Trash has become a byword for what’s fresh and adventurous in clubland.
So much so no one is surprised at the volume of bodies crowding the pavement. “It’s the Blitz spirit,” 28-year-old Sam observes, looking over his shoulder at the throng flowing seamlessly around the building till it comes face to face with itself. Everyone’s smiling, talking to strangers. Sam passes around a bottle of Strongbow. A blue-haired girl called Charleigh and her bandmates are discussing the video they’ve just shot. Like Bloc Party, Klaxons and New Young Pony Club before them the budding pop stars are regulars. “I can’t remember most of it,” she confesses.
Charleigh’s not the only regular with amnesia. Graham, a 24-year-old roadie who has been coming for five years says, “You don’t remember the really good nights.” He does remember, though, how Trash changed his life. “Where I grew up in Essex even wearing a white belt was asking for a fucking smack. Trash was the first place I fit in. I used to come on my own and just dance. Then I’d wait till 6am to get a train home. Without it, I wouldn’t be the person I am today,” he says. Inches away a girl is swinging from the ceiling, knickers flashing. No one pays any attention. If you want a fashion eyeful just look around: there’s the bearded bloke in an apron, the pint-sized brunette wearing Superwoman-style pants and suspenders, the trio sporting multi-coloured rave gear.
“Trash is a one off. It’s the people that make it,” Rory Philips says. A resident DJ for nearly seven years, Rory’s seen a lot happen on the dancefloor. “One of my friends married a girl he met at Trash. No surprise really, it’s been ten years of drunken fumbling,” he chuckles. As if to make his point a couple reel past, joined at the lips. There’s an air of barely controlled chaos as The Lovely Jonjo whips up the crowd. “I was getting quite tearful,” he says later, but it doesn’t show. Jonjo is typical of the parade of clubbers who’ve reinvented themselves at Trash. He started out as a door picker but “hated it.” So when Erol invited him to DJ instead he jumped at the chance. “I get all soppy when I talk about him. He’s been a mentor to me.”
As the newest member of the Trash crew Jonjo reacted like many fans did to the news it was ending. “I was upset, devastated really.” For a lot of people it was a question of: why cut off a night in its prime? “There’s a lot I want to do I couldn’t do with Trash every week,” says Erol, who missed one night in a decade.
“A lot of people talk about going out on a high, but carry on. We didn’t want to outstay our welcome,” Rory adds.
Jonjo’s come around to the idea. “My first thought was, ‘this is over’. My second reaction was, ‘if I don’t grab it by the balls someone else will.’” By “it” he means Durrr, the new Erol-endorsed Monday night at The End where Jonjo and Rory will preside over a rotating cast of DJ talent and new bands. “We’re going to get a breath of fresh air. You need to embrace change.”
Change is on everyone’s mind tonight. Trash will be missed. Joost is over from Amsterdam, resplendent in a handlebar ‘tache and a tee-shirt reading Kids Want Techno. “There’s nothing like it in Europe,” he shouts over the music. There’s nothing like it in London either. George, another half-decade veteran, is sweating his glittery green eye shadow off as he waits in the crush by the bar. It took him two and a half hours to get in, and it’ll take him another forty minutes to get a drink, but he’s happy to be here. Where else can you get beaten up by Selfish Cunt? “He just grabbed me by the throat for no reason!” he shrugs, smiling brilliantly.
Celebrities, violent and otherwise, are part of the fabric of Trash life. Everyone has their favourite. Rory plumps for Suicide, Erol for Gonzales, Jonjo remembers Kelly Osbourne and Simon Amstell queuing (separately). “Grace Jones came once. She doesn’t queue!” he laughs. Liam O’Hare fondly remembers the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. He saves his highest praise for Erol though. “I had faith in him and he’s never let me down. He’s always pioneered.”
It’s a compliment Erol would be pleased with. Stepping up to the decks, wearing his trademark specs and an inside out D.A.R.E. tee, he is an unlikely focal point for frenzied adulation, but there’s hysteria in the air. Outside riot police have arrived to calm a crush of disgruntled clubbers. “We can make this a funeral or a celebration,” he says. Then he drops LCD Soundsystem’s ‘Losing My Edge’ and the crowd erupts. They get the joke. Later, when the dust has settled, he says softly, but very emphatically, “The only thing I’m frightened of is resting on my laurels. I relish the future.” For now, Trash’s loyal following is relishing the present, and the string of favourites ricocheting around the room. ‘Take Me Out’, ‘Danger! High Voltage’, ‘Lust For Life’ and, finally, at 4AM, long after reality has melted away, ‘Dancing Queen.’ Manager Liam should be on holiday, but he’s here instead, beaming. “It’s like the last party on earth!” Surrounded by the blurred grins and flailing limbs one thing’s certain: if this were the last party on earth no one here would mind.
This originally appeared in the print issue of Mixmag.
The following album review was written for Pennyblackmusic. Though I still have a soft spot for this histrionic masterpiece, I’d hesitate to call it a ‘favourite album’ now. Yet am pleased not to be embarrassed by my 22-year-old-self’s assessment.It was fair and not dumb, which is more than can be said for a lot of things I did at 22.
Like some kind of drugged-up, post-modern Virgil, Spiritualized front man Jason Pierce takes his audience on a pitch black, tragi-comic journey on their epic 1997 album, ‘Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space’.
Pierce weeps and storms his way through his own personal hell for seventy soul-searing minutes. Unsettling shouldn’t be the word to describe what this sounds like; and it isn’t. Rather, Spiritualized creates music as luscious, as monstrous, as egotistical as grief itself.
Unashamedly epic, ‘Ladies And Gentlemen…’ harks back to a time when rock bands weren’t afraid of endless solos, massive orchestrations and wilful musical indulgence. The closest thing to a conventional radio-friendly tune is the anomalous ‘Electricity’ (which was still cut before its release as a single) which marks an uneasy boundary between the yearning sadness of the first half of the album and the defiant bitterness of the second.
Eponymous opener ‘Ladies And Gentlemen…’, ‘All Of My Thoughts’, and ‘Stay With Me’ all ooze heart-rending ‘I’ll do anything to get you back’ desperation. “Don’t know what to do by myself / Cause all of my time was with you,” (All Of My Thoughts) Pierce sings, voice bubbling over with emotion so raw it’s almost debasing. There’s nothing more painful, or more transfixing, than someone who will do literally anything to win back their lover, and listening to Pierce teeter on the sharp edge of total self-abnegation is horror-flick-style peeking-between-your-fingers voyeuristic ecstasy.
After the momentary respite of pop fantasy ‘Electricity’, the tone becomes less resigned, less measured. The bubble, it seems, has burst, and deep down he knows she’s never coming back. Any semblance of ‘coping’ disappears in paroxysms of rage, defiance, apathy and suicidal despair – and under a barrage of pharmaceuticals.
“I don’t even miss you,” Pierce claims (Home Of The Brave) then admits in the next breath, “but that’s ‘cause I’m fucked up.” He injects quavering glamour into the image of having breakfast “right off of the mirror,” and embodies junkie bravado with, “I’m too busy to be dreaming of you / There a lot of things that I’ve gotta do.”
Like all addicts – whether to love, heroin, or softer drugs – Pierce is, ultimately, selfish as hell. Which is the guilty pleasure of Ladies And Gentlemen… we all tumble into black holes of solipsistic grief sometimes, and its nice to have something to listen to while you wait for the light at the end of the tunnel.
The following excerpt is from an interview I did for Pennyblackmusic in Dec ’01 or Jan ’02. I’d only been in London a couple of months and found the West End as dizzying as did Mr Wratten. Despite being one of my first profiles, this remains one of my favourite pieces. You can read the full feature at Pennyblackmusic.
The first thing you’ll notice about Trembling Blue Stars frontman Bobby Wratten is that, well, nothing stands out. No requisite dangling cigarette, no Mick Jagger sneer, not even any Bono specs, just a very slender, slightly balding man with light hair, blue eyes and a spaniel smile; a thoroughly unprepossessing rock star. Not that Bobby would like the term rock star: too clichéd, too aggressive.
Wratten doesn’t appear to be fond of the hectic or overstated. Even on a weeknight the routine bustle of London’s West End seems to unnerve him slightly. And he only looks marginally more comfortable settled into a low-lit pub. He’s not, it turns out, drinking orange juice in deference to his slight cough; he just doesn’t drink. Most of the nervousness, though none of the soft-spoken courtesy evaporates though as Wratten begins to talk about what really interests him – his music.
Though for someone who has devoted his life to making music, Wratten didn’t have a particularly polished beginning. Wratten confesses that he and [bassist] Michael Hiscock “couldn’t even tune our guitars,” in the early days of his first band, The Field Mice. When asked how their now-cultishly-adored whispery, twee-pop style developed he smiles, “you copy the bands you like and get it wrong, so that’s where you end up.” But press on and ask what bands he liked as a youngster and he rather incongruously names The Jam, The Clash, XTC, and Joy Division.One wonders exactly what strange things have to happen to bass and guitars, etc to get – accidentally – from The Clash to The Field Mice, but then the studied innocence of Wratten’s expression hints that he’s being more than a little disingenuous. And when he adds that, “there was nothing deliberate about any of it” it seems certain that the dim light of the pub is masking a twinkle in his eye.
After all, he insists that his music is neither as sad, nor as obsessive as some might like to believe. The acrimonious break-up of The Field Mice is well documented, as is the subsequent formation of Northern Picture Library by Wratten, and fellow former-Field Mice Annemari Davies and Mark Dobson. Even more legendary is the break-up of Annemari and Bobby’s long-term relationship, which led to the dissolution of Northern Picture Library after just one album and a handful of singles.
A self-professed incurable romantic, Wratten says, “like the idea you have a soul mate,” which goes a considerable way towards explaining the raw sadness captured in many of his lyrics. “I wrote a lot of songs about Annemari,” he says, perhaps understating the case just a little. The Trembling Blue Stars debut ‘Her Handwriting’, released in 1994, is an unabashed hankie-wringer of a CD recording the emotional devastation that came in the wake of the split with Davies. Unsurprisingly, Wratten reports that Davies declined to sing on ‘Her Handwriting’, though by the time he’d written the second Trembling Blue Stars record, ‘Lips That Taste Of Tears’ his ex-girlfriend was ready to rejoin him in the studio.
Which he claims is not at all creepy, in an “Every Breath You Take” kind of way. “I don’t [write songs about Davies] anymore but people still think I am, it’s just kind of funny,” he says. Then by way of supporting evidence points out a lyric from the third TBS record, ‘Broken By Whispers’: “it goes, ‘the way we left it was you would call,’ [from ‘Sometimes I Still Feel The Bruise’] which I thought made it pretty obvious that it was about someone you weren’t in contact with, but Annemari was in the studio with me when I recorded it!” What’s more, he says, they are good friends outside the studio as well; Davies minds his house for him when he’s away. Which, most recently, was on Trembling Blue Stars inaugural tour of the States. Their American label, Sub Pop funded a multi-city junket, which Wratten thoroughly enjoyed. “[We’re] treated more seriously [there]” he says; possibly, one imagines, because Americans prefer to forgo the irony that Britain almost requires of its musicians.
Not that all their tour was spent in front of fawning audiences; in Portland, OR Trembling Blue Stars were booked to play a club called Dante’s – a seedy gay/leather sort of club.“ There were a few people in front who were there to see us, and a lot of people who just looked confused… but there were no disasters” Wratten recalls. Playing bars and clubs also meant that the shows tended to start late, after a long day of driving (the band navigated all the way from New York to San Francisco in the course of their tour), so “you play the first song three times as slow as it should be.” And instead of throwing yourselves a backstage shindig afterwards, apparently, you pack up and climb back into the van for some kip. “We weren’t very rock’n’roll,” Wratten explains, unnecessarily.Though in a world where“quiet is the new loud”, sleeping, chatting, and hanging out at truck stops may be new rock’n’roll.
In any case, returning to Mitchum, South London was a bit of a jolt, “it felt really strange coming home to nothing… we don’t really know what happens next,” he says, betraying for the first time a sense of anxiousness. This has something to do with their bassist leaving the band at the end of the American tour, and perhaps more to do with the fact that Trembling Blue Stars have already far overreached their intended lifespan. Her Handwriting was meant to be a one off record, and now, four albums later Wratten still believes you should “treat each record like it’s the last one you’re ever going to make.” Great for raising the artistic stakes probably, but surely stressful?
January 27th is my 41st birthday. To mark the occasion I am going to post 41 pieces of my published writing — one a day for the next few weeks. Some are minor triumphs; others capture a moment; others are naive and flamboyant. But they matter, to me anyway, because they are the warp and woof of my life.
The following column appeared in The Daily Pennsylvanian on Monday, 6 March 2000. The same day, as it happens, that I got my first tattoo before getting blotto at my best friend’s birthday party.
The wrongs of the U.S. religious right
According to The New York Times, current media-darling John McCain has just put his foot in it — big time. All because he had the gall — the audacity to suggest that maybe Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell are not in fact directly related to God the Father.
“Talk about hate-mongering,” sniffs Marion J. Fisher, an elderly Baptist woman quoted in the Times article.
“To me, that’s what he’s doing, throwing mud and bad mouthing people who have faith and beliefs.”
Oh bless. The image of a lonely, chubby McCain figure standing on a platform flinging handfuls of slop at an overdressed granny is almost unbearably funny But that isn’t the point.
Was Ms. Marion J. Fisher — or any of the tiny-minded conservatives who are currently gathering wood to incinerate the political ambitions of the heretical McCain —actually paying attention to what he said? Has anyone had the courage to point out that, if anything, McCain was far too easy on the so-called Christian leaders he took a swing at?
McCain merely called them “agents of intolerance” when he would have done well to point out that their entire faith is founded on intolerance. He called them an “evil influence” on the Republican Party when he should have said they were an evil influence on society.
When, pray tell, did Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson do anything good for America? As much as the religious right would like to convince itself that America’s current host of social problems is a direct result of our collective straying from the fold, they are pointing the finger in precisely the wrong direction.
Fundamentalism, a throwback to our embarrassing Puritan ancestry, is a ball-and-chain around the ankle of American social and political life. When we should be concentrating on improving public education, fundamentalists start quarrels over posting the Ten Commandments in classrooms. When we should be seeking to improve social services for single-parent families, they rant on about the evils of unwed motherhood And so it goes.
My most vivid memory of Robertson’s aspirations for our country is his suggestion that we build a wall along the southern border of the U.S. to keep all those damn foreigners out.
Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority recall Oliver Cromwell and the Roundheads, whose drive for moral purity in 17th century England resulted in terror, regicide and a ban on dancing.
I’m sure God was impressed.
In short, these are not good guys. They would happily drag America back to Puritanism for their own personal gain, and apparently a lot of people love them for it. This is enough to give any free-thinking citizen serious pause.
Imagine life under the religious right. First, women could forget about reproductive rights. Second, we could look forward to children being indoctrinated at school, the tenets of Christianity being crammed down their throats. On the agenda for their education would no doubt be the evils of sex. a primer in xenophobia and a long list of who God disapproves of and why. And if you’re gay — just move to Canada now.
The ultimate drive of the religious right, after all. is not for spirituality, but for hegemony. If all they really cared about were their God and their faith, they would shut up and take themselves off to a prayer meeting. But that, heaven forbid, would be letting all us non-believers get away with it. Because the Christian right, you see, demands not just individual devotion but zealous proselytization, too. It isn’t enough to “walk humbly with God” — they have to make sure everyone else is goose-stepping along as well.
This is where the ordinary, anonymous zealots get their wires crossed with the big name zealots such as Falwell and Robertson.
The rank and file, I reckon, sincerely believe that the prominent leaders of the religious right are their best chance for the mass reform of America, while Robertson, Falwell and Co. are—I would wager—more interested in power than in redemption.
They found a niche in the market and hope that if they stick with it —convincing the faithful of the impending demise of Christianity at the hands of Catholics, Jews, homosexuals, atheists, immigrants and women — then maybe one day their domination fantasies will come true.
But don’t tell the true believers that, or you’ll be making the same cock-up McCain did.
Which is to say, you’ll be giving the religious right credit for more wit than they are actually able and willing to exercise.
Cila Wamcke is a junior English major from Portland. Ore. She is studying abroad in London this semester. Bigmouth Strikes Again appears on Mondays.