Portland, Oregon has a well-deserved reputation as a bookish city. Its literary climate springs, in part, from its actual climate. During the months of interminable rain it is natural to retreat to bookstores and libraries, or curl up at home with a favorite volume. The city’s creative energy, fueled by coffee, craft beer and local wine, helps foment works of imagination by local writers. Harvest the fruit of their labors at these book stores.
This small but venerable indie bookstore in the heart of Multnomah Village, on the west side, has been dishing out literary goodness since 1978. It sells new books, with a focus on fiction, children’s and young adult, travel, current events, and cooking. Plus it is a great space to browse for magazines, art supplies, puzzles, and cards.
This Northeast Portland stalwart is particularly strong on stocking local writers. Subject matter is wide open, with offerings of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, graphic novels and more. You will find personalized material from local authors like Cheryl Strayed, who has the honor of a section dedicated to signed copies of her work.
No mention of the PDX literary scene would be complete without a nod to Powells’s, City of Books. As the biggest thing in local literary retail it is a huge draw for both writers and readers alike, who can spend happy hours browsing its immense color-coded collections. I’ve been hanging out at Powell’s since I was a kid (when I gravitated to Nancy Drew mysteries and Marguerite Henry horse stories). Whatever you go looking for, you generally come out with something different, which is most of the fun of it.
The most adorably clapboard, overstuffed used bookshop imaginable, Wallace Books is a throwback to the eclectic, eccentric wonderful bookstores of my childhood. Its charming exterior beckons you in and its sprawling collection rewards languid browsing. Take your time.
What’s your favorite indie bookshop? Big it up in the comments!
Ibiza, October 2016: What was left of my library was stacked on a slat-wood shelf awaiting collection; the clothes worth taking were crammed into a scuffed purple nylon suitcase; my car was one signature short of belonging to my ex-boyfriend, who was also adopting my cat.
In a few days I would embark for Memphis, Tennessee, a city I best knew as home of Sun Records. To pass time, I was reading ‘Respect Yourself’ (a loan from my Memphis-based boyfriend).
Robert Gordon’s meticulous account of the rise/fall/slip/slide of Stax Records was the history of an alien land and culture. ‘(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay’ rang a bell, maybe ‘Shaft’, but my knowledge of Memphis soul ended there. Embarrassment at this ignorance was a welcome distraction from more immediate anxieties.
Those anxieties faded but the embarrassment clings; as a born-and-raised Yankee, a music journalist no less, it is shaming to have been oblivious to one of the richest seams of my country’s musical culture. Shaming because – as ‘Respect Yourself’ and history report – it is no accident that Black musicians have been, and remain, ghettoised, denigrated, alienated.
That’s not why anyone should listen to Memphis soul though; not to pay tribute or broaden horizons. Listen to be immersed in music that grabs your gut and nether-parts. Listen to the sound of something at stake. Listen because, as the following 10 songs prove, it’ll turn you on and take you higher.
1. Sam & Dave – ‘Hold On, I’m Coming’
One of Stax’s most emblematic artists, Sam Moore and Dave Prater likely gave ‘soul’ its name with their hit ‘Soul Man’ whose irresistible rhythm, honking horns and gospel-inflected vocals characterised the genre. But it’s the brash, brassy ‘Hold On’ that sticks most in my mind. The playful entendre of the lyrics and opulent arrangements make it as endlessly rewarding as a good single malt.
2. William Bell – ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water’
In 2013 the Obamas hosted a celebration of Memphis soul at the White House. One of the luminaries who performed was William Bell, singing a crème caramel rendition of his 1961 debut single, ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water’. A plaintive meditation on lost love, thematically, it embraces the blues but the shuffling percussion, Hammond organ and brass adornment mark it as a soul staple.
3. Staple Singers – ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’
Bob Dylan has spoken of his fascination with an early Staple Singers song, ‘Uncloudy Day,’ saying: “it was the most mysterious thing I’d ever heard. It was like the fog rolling in…. It just went through me like my body was invisible.”
The father-daughter quintet of Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples and Mavis, Cleotha, Pervis and Yvonne returned the respect with this stark cover. Released in 1968, following the many violent oppressions of the Civil Rights movement, the Staple Singers’ voices invest Dylan’s words of warning with an implacable knowledge won of hard experience.
4. Ann Peebles – ‘Can’t Stand the Rain’
Royal Studios, the erstwhile home of Hi Records, which birthed this sublime heartbreak soul, still stands proud in south Memphis. About the size and shape of a brick cereal box, it’s a wonder Royal could contain much less capture the power and clarity of Peebles’ unadorned voice as it weaves through the echoing percussion and slow-finger bass crawl of this melancholy gem.
5. Otis Redding – ‘(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay’
Familiarity can make this song easy to not hear, make it easy to overlook its lyrical heft and musical daring. Recorded not long before Redding died in a plane crash, ‘Rolling Stone’ reported that some of his label mates, his manager and even Stax boss Jim Stewart thought it was too great a stylistic leap. Instead, the wistful evocation of blighted hopes and faded promise became a posthumous Billboard number one and million-selling single, fulfilling Redding’s prediction.
6. Al Green – ‘Tired of Being Alone’
The first of a string of gold records Al Green cut at Hi Records, ‘Tired of Being Alone’ is 2:43 of pure sensuality. With deep roots in gospel (there are half-a-dozen churches within a couple blocks of Royal Studios), the best soul music brazenly blurred the line between sacred and sexual. Few did it better than this satin-tongued singer, and rarely better than on this unapologetic pitch for carnal comfort. Though Green went on to become an ordained minister, his catalogue makes a strong case for the devil having the best music.
7. Johnnie Taylor – ‘Who’s Making Love’
It is worth watching the video to fully appreciate the wit and influences of Taylor’s 1968 chart-topper which became the Stax stalwart’s iconic hit. Wearing a sharp green suit and Cuban heels, Taylor looks straight to camera and, like a preacher addressing his flock, begins: “. The rhythm and delivery is pure gospel. The question, rather more earthy, is posed to men who are out catting around: “Who’s making love to your old lady, while you’re out making love?”
8. Albert King – ‘Born Under a Bad Sign’
A transcendent fusion of blues and soul, ‘Born…’ is a perfect example of the musical fertility of Stax Records. Co-written by William Bell and Booker T. Jones, leader of Stax’ house band, Booker T. & the M.G.s, it was a minor Billboard hit on its 1967 release and gained wider notoriety when Cream released a version in 1968. Dozens of artists have covered it since, including Jimi Hendrix, Nina Simone, MC5 and Rita Coolidge. One of the most affecting is Bell’s 2016 interpretation on his album, ‘This is Where I Live’.
9. Booker T & the MG’s – ‘Green Onions’
In fewer than three minutes this instrumental, penned by a 17-year-old Booker T., announced the arrival of an epoch-defining musical talent and proved, by the by, that a Hammond organ can rock a party. Anchored by a blues bassline, the Hammond burbles while horns blurt above the simmering musical stew, embodying the genius amalgamation of blues, funk and gospel that is soul.
10. Isaac Hayes & Rev. Jesse Jackson — ‘If I Had a Hammer’ (Live)
In 1972 Stax Records hosted Wattstax, a day-long festival in Los Angeles honouring the rise of Watts from the ashes of the 1965 riots. Isaac Hayes closed his set with the Pete Seeger-pinned ‘If I Had A Hammer’ (also a hit for Peter, Paul & Mary). With the help of Jimmy Jones, Hayes transformed it into a Black power anthem. The track opens with five and a half minutes of Rev. Jesse Jackson, hypnotic as falling rain and electrifying as adrenaline, exhorting his people to pride and strength. As a sinuous, eerie organ melody burbles Jackson cries, “If I had a hammer, I’d ring out justice. If I had a hammer tonight our people would be respected and protected…”.
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 version of this piece was published in Transition, a Canadian magazine on mental health.
In 1980, the year I was born, the board of directors of the American Psychiatric Association voted to allow pharmaceutical companies to offer paid symposiums at its annual conference. Thirty years later I was sitting on coarse beige upholstery in a doctor’s surgery in Glasgow. “Are you sure the results are normal?”
He sighed and repeated that my blood, hormones, iron level and thyroid were all fine.
Disappointment lodged in my oesophagus. Please tell me something’s wrong: hypothyroidism, Vitamin D, anaemia, hormone imbalance, anything.
I had moved to the rain-wracked west coast of Scotland to do a Master’s degree in writing but, after a few weeks, I could barely read. Obsessive thoughts snarled and snapped: you’re stupid, you’re hopeless, you’re a failure. Glasses leapt from my hands at my part-time waitress job. Burns crept up my arms as my reflexes slowed. My boss reprimanded me for being “snappish”. I craved sugar, wolfing my flatmate’s ice cream and cereal then slinking out the next morning to replace them. I slept 12, 15 hours a day, exhausted by the weight of my body.
One more test. The doctor gave me a single sheet of paper. I tend to score well on tests; this was no exception. The Beck Depression Inventory1 is a common screening for depression, intended to “identify [its] presence and severity”2. He skimmed my responses about sadness, guilt, irritability, hopelessness, sleep disturbances, and suicidal thoughts.
“I’ll write you a prescription.”
“Is there someone I can talk to?”
Referral in hand, I walked to another basement office.
That doctor cut me off after ten seconds: “Do you want a prescription?”
He huffed audibly. “If you want to talk to someone go to the counselling service. All the other American students are on meds.”
In Anatomy of an Epidemic award-winning journalist Robert Whitaker describes how the “notion that [pharmaceutical] ‘magic bullets’… would bring miracle cures”3 became psychiatric dogma — despite the fact no one fully understands the organic processes of mental illness. Do psychotropic “bullets” hit their target? If so, what happens? No responsible physician would prescribe thyroid and hormone treatment without a lab test. But nobody checked my serotonin or dopamine levels. My doctor had never seen me before. He knew nothing of my family, temperament, or situation, but on the basis of 21 questions offered a drug that would dramatically, maybe irreversibly, alter my brain chemistry.
The most common antidepressants are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI)4 like Prozac. As it happens, I spent several years toying with a fast-acting antidepressant. Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, like SSRIs, boosts serotonin levels in the brain. It obliterates unhappiness in a rush of euphoria, confidence, clarity and empathy. Everything is better: music, lights, colour, conversation, friendship, sex, and cigarettes.
Until the comedown.
“Suicide Tuesday” was a semi-serious joke among club kids. We compared notes on nightmares, hallucinations, and memory loss. We counted the days till jaws stopped aching and appetites returned.
Prozac is legal but brain chemistry is no respecter of legislation. Trials on SSRIs show that “rats fed high doses… ended up with neurons that were swollen and twisted like corkscrews”5. The human evidence is compelling: the Food and Drug Administration received 39,000 complaints about Prozac in the nine years following its approval, including reports of suicidal and homicidal outbursts, “psychotic depression, mania, abnormal thinking, hallucinations, hostility, confusion, amnesia, convulsions, tremors and sexual dysfunction.”6
Instead of antidepressants I took the second doctor’s advice and went to the student counselling service. Every Friday afternoon between three and four (after dark, for most of those moths) I went to a basement room where a white-faced, gold-rimmed Seth Thomas clock sat in a disused fireplace. A tiny glass pitcher and two small glasses stood on the hearth beside a box of Tork tissues. I had fold them in half to blow my nose.
“I feel like I’ve lost control.” I threw another fistful of sodden tissues in the bin. “You know the Rolling Stones’ ‘Paint It Black’? It feels like that.”
Words that come to mind now are no less true for being clichéd. Nouns: storm, cloud, void, chasm, maelstrom, black hole. Verbs: choke, crush, frighten, smother, horrify. Adjectives: miserable, catatonic, helpless, damaged, trapped, angry, sad, frustrated, lost.
In 1988 the United States Food and Drug Association green-lighted Prozac and America’s National Institutes of Mental Health set up the Depression Awareness Recognition and Treatment (DART) program. Its mission was to promote “greater acceptance of depression as a disorder” and, perhaps not incidentally, spread the word that “antidepressants produced recovery rates of ‘70% to 80% in comparison with 20% to 40% for placebo.”7 Eli Lilly, which held the patent on Prozac, helped pay for eight million DART brochures that highlighted the merits of serotonin-boosting pharmaceuticals.
If you’re trying to dodge the magic bullet you need other weapons. I’ve been running since age 13, hooked on the peace and clarity that follows the effort. In Glasgow I got up at 5:30AM, pulled on ski socks, leggings, sweatshirt, jacket, hat, gloves and battered Sauconys then ran for an hour. I swapped my restaurant job for a coffee shop and found comfort in the routine of making espresso, toasting sandwiches, and gossiping with the regulars. At home I baked caraway rye bread, bagels, and lemon cookies to combat the chill seeping through the single-glazed windows. I bought kilos of oranges and taught myself to make marmalade; experimented with vegan mac-and-cheese and coconut milk smoothies. On black afternoons I tiptoed up the ice-slick hill to the gym and did squats, bench presses and seated rows. I used holiday photos for bookmarks and saved quotes on index cards: “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside you,” wrote Kafka.
“In a  World Health Organization study of the merits of screening for depression,” writes Whitaker: “Those diagnosed and treated with psychiatric medications fared worse – in terms of their depressive symptoms and their general health – over a one-year period than those who weren’t exposed to the drugs.”
One year is 365 days of wondering why am I still breathing? It’s a long time to resist the temptation to drag the tip of a knife down your arm just to see how it feels. I scurried and feinted but depression was a patient cat to my mouse. There were still tears in writing workshops, still mornings huddled beneath the espresso machine gnawing my fingers, still cake binges followed by penitent cups of vegetable broth.
Depression is a black-hearted octopus tenderly, insistently probing for weakness. Resistance is the only secret to survival; fight the beast with every cheap, inadequate weapon at your disposal. Work and running were my best allies. I got better at snatching pleasure and being selfish about delight. When insomnia chipped at my fragile defences, I went to the doctor for sleeping pills. At the end of the year I left Glasgow, bruised but stronger. A magic bullet might have been swift relief. But the grit, patience, and humility I learned on my way are side-effects worth having.
This was published by Pennyblackmusic.co.uk after Prince died in 2016. One of the hardest pieces I’ve written.
Only an idiot would volunteer to write about Prince. This thought dogged me after my Tempranillo-fuelled email late on 21 April 2016, begging for precisely that privilege. It was an impulse a part of me regrets because no words that rise from a primordial emotional stew of disenfranchised grief, disbelief, nostalgia, and adoration will come close to doing him justice. Paying tribute to Prince is like holding a candle to the sun.
There is much we don’t know about Prince, including how he died [at the time, we didn’t. Now we do and it’s sadder still]. The one thing everyone knows, from fellow musicians or far-removed fans, is that he was the best. Genius is a word rendered thin and flavourless by overuse; as are icon, legend, unique, and inimitable. That doesn’t make them any less true when applied to Prince.
My private theory, long-held, is that the only reason he didn’t supplant Jimi Hendrix in music mythology as the ultimate guitar god is that he was too sexy, too queer in the old fashioned sense for the (mostly) straight, white male rock journalists who oversee the beatification of six-string saints. The marvel is: Prince was so good he forced them to pronounce his brilliance despite the yellow laser-cut trouser suit he wore to perform ‘Gett Off’ at the 1991 MTV Music Awards, and his lavish lyrical praise of women who really, really like sex.
Pre-Prince, men had a monopoly on the pocket full of Trojans (some of them used). Then an androgynous imp who played every instrument, arranged every note, and took no shit from anyone came straight outta Minneapolis and turned the world upside down. He made people nervous. Most famously, Tipper Gore whose horror at Nikki masturbating with a magazine birthed the ‘Parental Warning: Explicit Content’ label.
From ‘Darling Nikki’ to ‘Raspberry Beret’ to ‘Cream’ to ‘Peach’ to ‘Head’ to ‘When You Were Mine’ Prince sang about women who dug sex and had fun doing it. He unapologetically refused to adopt the rock’n’roll paradigm where men are Subjects and women are Objects (in the De Beauvoirian sense).
Refusing assent was one of the many things Prince did better than anyone else. From Warner Brothers to the internet, there was no Goliath he wouldn’t sling a pebble at. He didn’t always win these battles, but he never lost. In the end, the record labels, the critics, and the world wide web kowtowed to his sublime talent and awesome willfulness.
This we must celebrate. There aren’t many artists like that. Even, or especially, the most successful musicians play the game. They get slick, learn to give the right answers, straighten their teeth, take up knitting, buy trout farms, get into right-wing politics, advertise butter. Prince, though, never played the game by anyone’s rules but his own.
Magnificently onery to the end, he holed up at Paisley Park, recording, performing, throwing dance parties, hosting movie nights for the assortment of musicians, protegees, sound engineers and technicians who he routinely sacrificed on the altar of musical perfectionism. “The thing about Prince,” one of them told me, “Is that he was better than everyone, at everything.”
I can’t think of one lick of evidence to the contrary. Can you?
Which is why only an idiot would volunteer to write about Prince, or sing a Prince song, or play a Prince riff. Maybe that’s the point though. To get through this thing called life we have to do our best when we’re not the best. We have to trudge while other soar. We have to accept that flowers wither; stars burn out; that perfection isn’t proof against death.
My gut feeling is Prince knew this better than anyone. And that it kept him from giving too much of a fuck. Nobody is ever going to sound as good or be as good as Prince. No one can recreate his magic. What we can do is let that show us how to live, take courage, let his music and spirit infuse us. Let’s be idiots for the things we love. Prince would approve.
This article appears on Pennyblackmusic.co.uk. Check it out in its original form.
“It’s not chocolate boxes and roses/ It’s something darker/ Like a small animal that only comes out at night”. Jarvis Cocker’s memorable assessment of the titular emotion in ‘F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E’ (surely one of the Top 10 most awkwardly titled songs pop history) is a perfect epithet for the bands’ oeuvre.
The magic of Pulp is the mingling of sharp, danceable guitar pop with lyrics that veer from cynical to downright sinister. Their most radio-friendly hits are rife with violence (‘Joyriders’ “Mister, we just want your car/ ‘Cos we’re taking a girl to the reservoir”) and voyeurism (“I wanted to see as well as hear and so I hid inside her wardrobe,” in ‘Babies’). Love songs in Pulp world include lyrics like: “You are the last drink I should have ever drunk/ You are the body hidden in the trunk” (‘Like a Friend’).
Studying the arc of their career, it’s clear ‘Different Class’s’ arrival in Cool Britannia was coincidence; the subsequent lumping of Pulp with Britpop a music journalists’ convenience. Pulp never shared Blur’s mockney smuggery nor Oasis’ apolitical performance of working classness. Pulp was on a different trajectory: one that began in Sheffield in 1978, contained more than a decade of obscurity, and survived Britpop notoriety to deliver an acerbic welcome to the new millennium.
Its curve is marked by a rare, unflinching insight into the human psyche. Pulp takes love as a subject but, unlike most pop confectioners, doesn’t sugar-coat it. Cocker sees love as a slippery amalgam of baser needs: status, self-worth, revenge, amusement, actualisation, to see the darkest parts of ourselves reflected in another. Attraction doesn’t lead through flower-dappled fields at sunset but down gnarled alleys stale with fag smoke, booze and latent violence.
Rarer still, Cocker understands that society is an echo chamber of our dark hearts: it isn’t just individuals who behave in warped, self-defeating ways, but our whole culture.
1. ‘I Want You’ (‘Freaks’, 1987)
Released almost a decade into their existence, this marked Pulp’s unsteady progress from post-punk acolytes to popstars. Early on, they could have been The Fall’s slightly more socially adept younger sibling. While this is still true of ‘Freaks’ portentous opener ‘Fairground’, ‘I Want You’ has all the raw material of a lo-fi pop hit, laced with Cocker’s cyanide romanticism. Melodic guitars provide a distractingly pretty backdrop to the declaration: “I’ll break you because I lose myself inside you… Yes, you’re all that I ever desired/ Still I’ll kill you in the end.”
2. ‘Do You Remember the First Time’ (‘His ‘n’ Hers’, 1994)
What saved Pulp from permanent obscurity was a realisation (conscious or not) that matching the music to the dissonance of the lyrics made them inaccessible, to say the least. Polished pop chords were the Trojan Horse that could carry Cocker’s devastating aperçus into halls of residence and suburban discos. The diatribe of a man watching his ex-lover (?) go home to someone else (“You bought a toy that can reach/ The places he never goes… At least you never have to face up to the night on your own”) comes wrapped in layers of chiming guitar and a danceable groove.
3. ‘Mis-Shapes’ (‘Different Class’, 1995)
The opening track of ‘Different Class’ is Cocker spitting the accumulated bile of a decade and half of Tory rule. The opening phrase: “Raised on a diet of broken biscuits” attests to his talent for evoking the circumstances of a life in a single stark image. The embittered, bright working class protagonists of the song “learned to much at school now… We can’t help but see that the future that you’ve got mapped out is nothing much to shout about.” Tellingly, the words still speak for Britain’s (young) people struggling with debt, gutted public services, and the crass Conservative war against social cohesion.
4. ‘Common People’ (‘Different Class’, 1995)
Pulp’s biggest hit, the evergreen indie disco floorfiller ‘Common People’, drips with Maoist levels of vitriolic class consciousness. The (presumably autobiographic) account of a working-class kid who becomes the object of an art school student’s urge to slum it reeks with pent frustration, envy, longing and a paradoxical sense of superiority. “Everybody hates a tourist,” Cocker sneers. “Especially one who thinks it all such a laugh/ And the chip stains and grease will come out in the bath.” But he still drinks the rum ‘n’ coca cola.
5. ‘Pencil Skirt’ (‘Different Class’, 1995)
It is a testimony to Pulp’s genius that a song that disturbed my mother when I was a teenager is as tantalizingly twisted two decades later. (It is also supports the strong argument that the first five tracks of ‘Different Class’ is one of the greatest sustained opening album sequences in 20th Century pop.) Cocker renders scenes with novelistic precision, using simple statements and objects to evoke dark knots of emotion. From the moment “You raise your pencil skirt, like a veil before my eyes” through the point where the adulterous lover declares “I’ve kissed your mother twice, and I’m working on your dad” the whole greedy, sordid, ignoble (in other words, ordinary) affair unfolds like exquisite tapestry.
6. ‘Sorted for Es and Wizz’ (‘Different Class’, 1995)
The original single artwork was a premeditated equivalent of Cocker’s subsequent bum-wagging stage invasion of the Brits in 1996. That the cheeky ‘Here’s how to make a wrap kids’ got the predictable response from the red tops, merely affirmed the incisiveness of Jarvis’ social sensibility. ‘Sorted for Es and Wizz’ is so relentlessly specific that it attains to the universal. You don’t have to have ever “Lost an important part of your brain somewhere in a field in Hampshire” to appreciate the youthful recklessness and yearning it evokes.
7. ‘The Fear’ (‘This is Hardcore’, 1998)
Other bands might have clung to their moment in the sun, retreading the formula, but not Pulp. As the ‘90s waned they released the ultimate comedown album (the only one I know, anyway, that reeks with the jaded wisdom and lack of regret of those who are able to give up chemical indulgences without disavowing them). Cocker isn’t naive enough to think repentance will buy off The Fear. He studies it, inviting the listener along with the minor-key reassurance: “When you’re no longer searching for beauty or love/ Just some kind of life with the edges taken off/ When you can’t even define what it/ is that you are frightened of/ This song will be here.”
8. ‘Glory Days’ (‘This is Hardcore’, 1998)
The apotheosis of Pulp’s genius for making the borderline tragic sound bright, ‘Glory Days’ is a sing-along anthem that captures ‘Mis-Shapes’ broken-biscuit eaters a decade later – undefeated but far from triumphant. “We were brought up on the space race/Now they expect you to clean toilets/ When you’ve seen how big the world is/ How can you make do with this?” Cocker rails. Then adds: “If you want me, I’ll be sleeping in.” It is righteous outrage against The System tempered by the mature realisation that The System is also us. No one is innocent. (We never, were. Were we, Jarvis?)
9. ‘Weeds, (‘We Love Life’, 2001)
Arguably, every song he’s ever written was a protest song, but ‘Weeds’ is a rare example of Jarvis tackling capital-P politics with his usual lacerating observations. Narrated from the perspective of refugees, it snarls with frustration and a loathing of smug privilege. “Make believe you’re turned on by planting trees and shrubs/ But you come round to visit us when you fancy booze ‘n’ drugs.”
10. ‘C**ts are Still Running the World’ (‘Jarvis’, 2006)
Technically not a Pulp song but possibly the greatest Pulp song ever written. Jarvis’ censor-baiting analysis of modern ‘meritocratic’ Britain is par with Leonard Cohen’s ‘You Want it Darker’ as a coda for our times. The only thing tarnishing the splendour of his cutting couplets (“The working classes are obsolete/ Surplus to society’s needs/ So let them all kill each other/ And get it made overseas”) is the fact that the song is more documentary than fiction.
It would be unfair to end on a down-note because Pulp is a fundamentally joy-making band – but I don’t believe Jarvis would see ‘C**ts…’ as a downer. The world may be, to put it politely, screwed but Pulp proved it can’t steal our spirit unless we let it. Be dumb, be furious, be disappointed, be fatalistic; even if you never set your sights higher than avoiding the dog turd outside the corner shop, be proud. As Henry David Thoreau advised: “However mean your life is, meet and live it.”
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 brief tribute to poet and activist Audre Lord was originally published on Medium.
Audre Lorde blazed into my consciousness, a star whose light reached my world after she was dead. Only, she’s not dead. Lorde lives in her resounding words; lives in her multiple consciousnesses as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”; lives as an embodiment of unflinching personal and political courage.
My first approach to her was slant — the final line Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Acting French” in which he declared “Sometimes you do need the master’s tools to dismantle his house.” I scribbled it down, the pearl amidst the sludge of half-developed ideas.
Months later, when I realise he’d cribbed Lorde’s “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” I was ashamed of my ignorance, ashamed I had accidentally attributed to a man the words of a wiser and more powerful woman. I was angry, too. He should have acknowledged her, not assumed (or pretended to assume) that a white audience would recognise the words of a black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.
It’s the kind of slight (mine, his) that Lorde knew all too well. The kind of diminishing by accident or design that she wrote about with immaculate precision and righteous anger.
Lorde knew all about injustice but never let herself accept or become accustomed to it. This shines in her writing and the boldness of her life. She refused categories, as an artist or a human being. She married a (white) man, had two children, left her marriage and had a long-term partnership with a (white) woman. Her poetry can be excoriating, her prose comforting, her voice demanding.
What remains, along with her words, is the sense that she was a whole woman — undivided from herself, despite the complexities that other, less aware (less courageous?) people compartmentalize. Humming like a live wire through her work is this message: live your life, as yourself.
In her own words:
“Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference — those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older — know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.” — “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”
“A policeman who shot down a ten year old in Queens stood over the boy with his cop shoes in childish blood and a voice said “Die you little motherfucker” and there are tapes to prove it. At his trial this policeman said in his own defense “I didn’t notice the size nor nothing else only the color”. And there are tapes to prove that, too.
Today that 37 year old white man with 13 years of police forcing was set free by eleven white men who said they were satisfied justice had been done” – from “Power”
“The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes we hope to bring about in those lives… As we learn to bear the intimacy of scrutiny and to flourish within it, as we learn to use the products of that scrutiny for power within our living, those fears which rule our lives and form our silences begin to lose their control over us.” — from Sister Outsider
“I have been woman for a long time beware my smile I am treacherous with old magic and the noon’s new fury with all your wide futures promised I am woman and not white.” – from “A Woman Speaks”
The night before our wedding my fiance and I sat bed with glasses of wine and I read aloud Joan Didion’s essay ‘Marrying Absurd’. I am always rapt by her diamond-cutter prose. Chris was not. He stared at me in the silence after the final sentences, wide eyes asking: What are you trying to say?
“Another round of pink champagne, this time not on the house, and the bride began to cry. ‘It was just as nice,’ she sobbed, ‘as I hoped and dreamed it would be.'”
His wide, wary eyes signaled perfect comprehension. He knew I was using Didion to ask the question I couldn’t. Are we doing the right thing?
On our first date we went to a Mexican restaurant with orange walls, purple tables, and a crowd of drunk Santas in running shoes. We both ordered vegan mole, looked at each other and said, “You too?” Two margaritas on the rocks, salt for me. My body was strange. No crackle-and-static of attraction but expansive euphoria, as if every electron in my blood had leapt an orbital, opening me from the inside out. I’d never seen such eyes: a coruscating handful of sapphire chips.
I lived in Spain at the time; he lived in Memphis. For the next few months we found ways to meet in London, Manchester, Brussels, and Rome. We hoarded time together, constructed intimacy from daubs of conversation and torrents of text. At the end of the year, inevitable as a rock rolling down a cliff, I moved to Memphis. One night we sat in bed, where we conduct most of our powwows. He was adding me to his car insurance. When it came to the Relationship blank he looked up: “Fiancee?”
Sure, I said, why not.
A couple of weeks later, for my birthday, we rented a cabin in Arkansas. It was too cold to sit on the porch swing and watch the stars blaze so we sat on padded vinyl dining room chairs to eat rice and beans washed down with red wine.
“Are we really going to get married?” I asked.
“Do you want to?”
Why marry? We don’t want children and I won’t take his name. Our bank accounts and tax returns will stay separate. We don’t believe in God, monogamy, or the sanctity of marriage.
Yet by our second date I wanted to marry him. Not just be with him. Not just be his girlfriend/partner/significant other. I wanted to be his wife, with all the weight that word carries; wanted him to be my husband. Not because those words are a talisman against conflict or even heartbreak – everyone knows they aren’t – but because marriage (however devalued, degraded, or deflated) is our culture’s apotheosis of commitment. Like the Supreme Court, it is fluid and fallible, but still the last word.
Wanting to be married, though, and marrying are as different as climbing the ladder to the high dive and jumping off.
Chris and I were in down town Las Vegas just after Christmas. We drove past wedding chapels that caught Didion’s gimlet eye fifty years ago, parked in a cavernous underground lot, surfaced at Best Buy and wove through steel drummers, midget Elvis impersonators, and bikini-clad girls dancing away the cold on Fremont East. “We could get married in Vegas,” we teased, testing each other. Instead, we found a Mexican bar and drank jalapeno margaritas. Not wanting to marry in Vegas had something to do with the vision of Joan dancing in my head. But she wasn’t writing about Las Vegas eo ipso. It was journalistic shorthand for dangerous impulsiveness, failure of decorum, fractured social mores.
Didion’s specific grievance with Las Vegas was that its wedding chapels were “merchandising ‘niceness,’ the facsimile of proper ritual, to children who do not know how else to find it… how to do it ‘right’.” Inverted commas notwithstanding, she suggests that parents, at least some parents, know how to do it right.
Believing that must help. Children of happy homes can borrow courage. Skin puckering in the chill, toes hooked on the beef-tongue surface of the diving board, they can at least look down on faces that made the leap and emerged smiling.
Those of us with no family account of goodness or goodwill stand alone. Poised on the proverbial edge, we can only count the mistakes, comic and awful. My mother hooked up with my (still married) father while pregnant with another man’s child. Chris’s mom married and divorced three times, one on either side of his dad. In fact, his parents’ marriage was annulled by Papal pronouncement which makes Chris, technically, a bastard. The second time around, his dad went for a straightforward decree from the State of Arkansas. My dad’s second divorce was in Alaska; the first who knows where.
Then there’s our previous marriages. Mine ended with a gentle parting from a friend who happened to be my husband. His came with the sting of surprise: an email with legal papers and a note to say his stuff was in storage.
Nine divorces altogether. Worn notes of anger, betrayal, and disappointment bundled and stashed like junk bonds. We’d be fools to not wonder if we’re being foolish.
Every card Didion played as a damning signifier of what it meant “to be married in Las Vegas, Clark County, Nevada” in 1967 – well – Memphis, Shelby County, Tennessee will see and raise in 2017. Like Vegas, Memphis “demands no premarital blood test nor waiting period before or after the issuance of a marriage license.” Unless the celebrant is 17 or under, in which case Shelby County imposes a three day wait. In other regards this Delta city is as careless in love as any neon-spangled desert oasis.
Want to cut down on the ten minutes it takes to apply in person? Fill in the online form then collect the license at the county clerk’s office.
Previous marriage, or a few? No problem. Choose a number between one and thirty-one on the drop-down menu. It will ask for the date of your divorce(s) but don’t worry if you don’t remember. Neither clerk nor judge will request any proof of dissolution.
Once you receive a license you have 30 days to marry.
Chris and I took forty-eight hours.
“Dressing rooms, Flowers, Rings, Announcements, Witnessess Available, and Ample Parking,” Didion writes. “All of these services, like most others in Las Vegas… are offered twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, presumably on the premise that marriage, like craps, is a game to be played when the table seems hot.”
We married at 12:30 on Thursday the 9th in Room 226 of Shelby County Courthouse. Before us went a group that fit Didion’s description of “actual wedding parties… The bride in a veil and white satin pumps.” What would she make of my well-worn silk dress, fishnet stockings and vintage heels? Chris’s charcoal Merino sweater and Doc Martin Chelsea boots?
The judge twinkled and swished in his black satin robe. Potted plants with thick stems and dark, glossy leaves lined the window, tinting the bright, thin February light semitropical green. Beyond, a wind-scrubbed blue sky. I held Chris’s hand, bracing myself for a spasm of doubt that never came. My spine stretched like a tether drawn tight between my buoyant heart and the anchor of his touch. Tears softened the blaze of his cobalt eyes.
My name echoed like foreignly in my ear as I repeated the vows, but my tongue didn’t fumble.
“Will you love, honor and cherish… till death do you part?”
Walking to the car I found a way to hold my handbag so the wind didn’t froth my skirt. There were still forty-five minutes on the meter. “We should do something,” my husband said. So we went to our favorite taco spot for Prosecco and black-eyed pea hummus with corn chips.
‘Marrying Absurd’ appears in Didion’s classic essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Its eponymous centerpiece opens with this report: “The center was not holding…. Adolescents drifted from city to torn city, sloughing off both the past and the future as snakes shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that had held society together.”
Chris was born in Arkadelphia and lived in Salt Lake City as a baby. He was raised in Little Rock, branched out to Baltimore, bought and sold houses in Moline, Charlotte and Memphis, all while travelling 200-plus days a year. I lived at dozens of addresses in four countries by the time I was thirty. We live out of suitcases and send mail “care/of”. Movement is a choice, a manifestation of our mistrust in the games that are supposed to hold society together. Marriage is not, appearances notwithstanding, a contradictory choice. We’ve studied and sifted the claims of religion, society, and status quo. We spent long, separate years learning who we are, what we want, and what we are prepared to do. So we can take from ritual as much as has meaning to us, and leave the rest without regret.
Marrying is absurd. So are all acts of courage. For those of us whose accumulated experience of marriage veers from farce to disaster, to marry is to stake a claim to our own lives. Marriage is precious to us because we know how easy it is to fail, to fall apart. For us, to marry is a refusal to be defined by the past. It is a pledge to believe the best of one another. To say we’ll try again, no matter. To love again, love better.