37 – Atropos

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…”

33 – Married Folk Blues

This short story appears in the Erotic Review, where you’ll have to go to read the saucy bits.

Photo by Hannah Dean on Unsplash

Abe remembered as he pulled into the rest area. Too late. Sixteen years of habit die slow. He rested his right palm on the frayed Navajo-style passenger seat-cover, feeling the faint prickle of Geordie’s short, coarse hair trapped in the rough weave. It felt like the spiky-soft tips of grass sprouting on the grave beneath the ash tree.

Killing the engine, Abe shut his eyes. Geordie always smelled like swamp water. For the first weeks Abe was convinced the pup snuck into things: drains, garbage cans, trash heaps. But patient stalking revealed no miscreance. The goofy mutt was just an eventual 97 pounds of slobbering, soft-hearted, small-bladdered stinker. Picked a winner, Hazel would tease.

He was though: loyal, tireless, curious, protective, the folds of his part-boxer, part-hound face arranged in a permanent tragicomic mask that could make Abe smile on the worst days. Of course, Hazel was the one who cared for Geordie weeks at a stretch. He wished he’d been there more.

Dusk was bleeding the day of its heat but remnants splashed Abe’s legs as he crossed to the cafe-slash-convenience store. He went to pee, more out of habit than necessity, then bought a bottle of Dr Pepper and a pack of beef jerky, not admitting to himself that would probably be dinner.

Gnawing a stick of dried meat, he paused short of his truck. Someone had pulled in at a 40 degree angle, the vintage blue Corolla’s bumper almost nuzzling his door. Faded Mississippi plates, long deep scratches above the rear wheel, a palm-sized patch of bare metal on the hatchback, no driver, a jumble of boxes and plastic crates stacked to the ceiling. Someone in a hurry all right. Abe could think of a few reasons why that might be, none of which he wanted to get involved with.

Hazel had laughed at his proclivity for rescuing things: Geordie, abandoned cats (usually pregnant), injured birds, hitch-hikers, drifters. But he was tired. He could climb in the passenger side and go.

“Please, Shooter, come on. Please.”

Click to continue reading

19 – Ibiza Noir Chapter 1

The following is an excerpt from the first chapter of my novel Ibiza Noir. Available here.

Photo by Aaron Barnaby on Unsplash

Lou ducked instinctively as a jet lumbered through the syrupy air, landing gear down, scarred white belly near enough to touch. As he did, an upward-flying elbow glanced off his chin. He straightened and put a hand to his jaw as a thicket of tattooed arms rose to hail the passing plane. Whoooo! Vamos! Ibiiiizaaaa! Exhaust caught in Lou’s throat as he tried to join the cheer. Spluttering, he set down his canvas bag and wiped his eyes.

He had been standing on the same patch of gravel for over an hour, listening to a single bass note thunder from a small white building next-door to a vegetable patch. “Best party on the island,” the bartender told him the night before. “The last great day rave. Full of nutters that’d put Bedlam in its heyday to shame. Pure madness, mate, if that’s your thing.”

Lou stared at the cerulean sky and shivered with the heat. He didn’t know if this was his thing, but he was willing to try. The bus from Ibiza Town didn’t stop outside the club, though. It took him almost an hour to walk back to join the restless horde of party-kids waiting to be admitted to this inconspicuous techno temple.

Heat waves shimmered above the dirt parking lot and bolts of fierce light reflected from the cars. Were tattoos a form of heat-proofing? Lou wondered. Sweat was running off him like snow-melt but everyone else looked perversely cool. His initial sense of comfortable anonymity was gone. He was too tall, too dark – even in a crowd of Spanish and Italians – and above all too plain. Everywhere he looked were pierced lips, tongues, eyebrows, and cheekbones. Jewels glittered in girls’ cleavage and accented their wrists. Men in denim cut-offs and skin-tight tees flaunted bulging muscles. Scraps of cloth stretched over silicone globes on the chests of women who would otherwise pass for underfed boys. The ubiquitous sunglasses with enormous, bug-eye lenses made him feel like he was trapped in a swarm of colourful flies.

Some people were dancing in place, kicking up puffs of dust. He had a feeling they would continue, music or not. Others alternated gulps of neat whiskey and warm coke from the bottle. Nobody made any effort to conceal the wraps passing from hand to hand, or the mounds of powder being inhaled off credit cards and hotel keys. The girl beside him was so pale she looked albino but her arm was solid black from shoulder to elbow apart from an artful smattering of stars. It was the first negative tattoo he had seen. He’d also never seen a hoop as big as the one hanging from her septum. Her boyfriend had silver studs through his cheeks; his left calf and right arm were covered in tribal ink.

Photo: Cila Warncke

Lou shaded his face with his hands, wishing he had water, or a hat. The heat was making him light-headed. How much longer can it be? A long horn-blast sounded, as if in answer to his question. The bodies around him kept moving, eyes obscured, heads tilted up to the sun or down to the ground. Only Lou looked around to see green-and-white jeeps marked “Guardia Civil” bearing down like a fighter squadron. Officers in forest green jumpsuits and caps leapt out, shouting in Spanish. They wore white latex gloves and worked methodically, checking IDs, patting pockets, running hands up legs and down arms, pulling people aside as they found stashes of pills and powder.

Six years in the navy had taught Lou how to deal with this type of authority: keep your eyes down, follow orders,don’t give them a reason to notice you. He reached inside his bag. Time stopped. His heart beat on his ribs, looking for a way out. Sidling backwards, he found an empty patch of ground and dropped to his knees. Inshallah, let it be here. Subtly as he could, Lou groped through his seaman’s bag, feeling neatly folded tee-shirts, combat trousers, a frayed khaki jumper. He slid his fingers inside the pockets of a waterproof and fumbled with his shaving kit, feeling a disposable razor, a bar of soap wrapped in a rag, and assorted coins, but no passport or wallet.

Someone shouted as he walked away but Lou didn’t look back. Without a passport he couldn’t get in the club, or on a plane; he couldn’t even book a hotel room.

There was an abandoned newspaper on the bus shelter bench. Leafing through, Lou stopped on a back page. He knew enough Spanish to read the headline: 14 migrants drown when boat sinks off Alicante. A photo showed bodies laid out like a row of parcels. One face was visible: boyish, with dark, curly hair, a Roman nose, and high cheekbones. Lou ran a hand over his regulation military cut. It was growing fast, the natural curl coming back. He looked at the picture again. Apprehension balled his stomach like a fist. Normally if you lost your passport you went to the police. But the rules were different when you were a young Muslim man. He didn’t look like someone they would help. He looked like someone they might let die.

A bus arrived and halted with a huff of pneumatic brakes. Lou found an empty seat amidst a group of bongo-toting hippies and wedged his bag between his feet. Not that it mattered now. Where did it happen? Trundling along the motorway past billboards advertising “Cream @ Amnesia”, “Privilege: The World’s Biggest Club”, and “Pacha Ibiza” he mentally retraced his steps. The marina. A walk through town. Beer in some basement dive bar. Giving coins to a wandering violinist. Returning to the harbour and ascending to the walled old town. Following a narrow road on the seaward side till he reached a cluster of fragrant pines. Lying beneath the trees catching glimpses of starlight between breeze-blown branches.

He had woken with the sun, which rose from the sea beyond the city. Birds twittered over the softer whirr of insects. After brushing off the pine needles he shouldered his bag and walked the few minutes to Plaça del Parc where he breakfasted on black coffee and a buttered baguette. Then he caught a bus to San An and walked the beach all the way to the end of Sunset Strip. His next stop was an internet café: “Merde.” Someone must have been watching as he took out his wallet and the plastic folder with his passport, discharge papers and other documents. He didn’t remember the name of the place, only the smell of sweat and stale smoke; he probably wouldn’t even recognise it.

Photo: Cila Warncke

18 – Reading Like a Writer

This was another Ideas Tap feature that was mostly an excuse to interview a handful of my favorite people — dear friend and mentor Paul Hendrickson, another beloved writing friend Nick Lezard, and the man who saved my life during my writing Master’s, course director and prolific author Michael Schmidt.

Photo by Eliott Reyna on Unsplash

Want to be a writer? The best way to start is by reading. But how can you make sure you reap the benefits in your own work? Cila Warncke asks writers Paul Hendrickson, Nick Lezard and Michael Schmidt for tips…

“It is impossible to become a writer without reading,” says Paul Hendrickson, writing professor at the University of Pennsylvania and award-winning author of numerous books including, most recently, Hemingway’s Boat.

There is a relationship between quality of reading and quality of writing. And a distinction between reading for pleasure and reading like a writer. The difference involves attitude, approach and appreciation. Michael Schmidt, poet, professor and author of the forthcoming The Novel: A Biography recommends reading, “with eyes wide open, full of anticipation.”

With this in mind, here are seven ways to read like a writer:

1. Compulsively

“You can’t be a writer unless you have a hunger for print,” says Nick Lezard, Guardian literary critic and author of Bitter Experience Has Taught Me. “I was the kid who sat at the table and read the side of the cereal packet.” In Nick’s case, the lust for literature paved the way for a career as a book reviewer. But regardless of the genre or field to which you aspire, all writers are readers first.  And “it doesn’t matter whether the medium is the side of the cereal packet or a screen,” Nick says.

2. Slowly

Cereal-packet readers tend to wolf words like they do breakfast. This is a trait writers should train themselves out of – at least sometimes. Paul defines reading like a writer as slowreading: dawdling on the page, delving, soaking in the style and rhythm. Don’t read everything this way, though. “I don’t read the newspaper ‘like a writer’,” he notes. “I don’t have time. Nobody does.”

3. Broadly

Time is of the essence for the reading writer, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore everything apart from the classics. There are, to borrow Orwell’s term, good bad books. Nick mentions Ian Fleming as an example of compelling though less-than-literary fiction. Paul gives a nod to Raymond Chandler, saying writers can learn from his “hardboiled, imagistic lines.”

4. Selectively

That said, don’t make the mistake of reading widely but not too well. “Reading crap is no good for the eye or ear,” says Michael. “Read only the best, and read it attentively. See how it relates to the world it depicts, or grows out of.”

Nick, who has read his share of bad books as a reviewer, concurs: “If you just read books like 50 Shades of Grey, or Dan Brown, you’re going to wind up spewing out a string of miserable clichés.”

5. Attentively

You get the most out of good writing by reading it with real attention. Michael advises writers to pay heed to metaphor, characters’ voices, how the author develops those voices and how they change. He recommends Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children,” as a rewarding subject of attentive reading: “There is a strong sense of development, nothing static there. I can think of no better pattern book for a would-be writer.”    

6. Fearlessly

Reading like a writer means going out of your comfort zone. When Nick was in his teens he tackled James Joyce’s Ulysses. “It was a struggle,” he recalls. “It took me a year or two. But that’s how you [learn] – you find stuff that’s above your level.”

7. Imaginatively

Reading above your level is valuable, in part, because it challenges your imagination. Paul talks about savouring the terse beauty of poetry and imagining “everything that’s between the spaces of the words, the spaces of the lines.” By observing the work of your own imagination you gain insight into how writers evoke images and emotions.

You don’t have to read every book (or cereal box) like a writer. But the more you immerse yourself in words and cultivate these seven skills, the better your writing will be. “If you are writing a potboiler, imagine how wonderful it will be if the work you produce is actually a proper novel,” says Michael. “Read the best, and read the best in your elected genre.”

In Focus: Writers’ Recommended Reading:

  • UlyssesJames Joyce
  • To The LighthouseVirginia Woolf
  • A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemingway 
  • Three Lives – Gertrude Stein
  • New York Review of Books

17 – Cheryl Strayed on Memoir

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.

Photo by Holly Mandarich on Unsplash

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.

How do you deal with writer’s block?

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.

How did you overcome that fear of failure?

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.

16 – Letting Go of Emotional Baggage

Gradually, my writing moved beyond all music, all the time. There is a heart of darkness in Ibiza’s club world; the shadows got long. It was time to look at things differently. This piece was written for Tiny Buddha. You can read the full article here.

Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash

“Sometimes the past should be abandoned, yes. Life is a journey and you can’t carry everything with you. Only the usable baggage.” ~Ha Jin

You’ve probably heard of the fear of missing out but what about the fear of letting go?

My father was volatile and mentally unstable. Criticism was his preferred method of communication. As a child and teenager, I learned to keep my thoughts and feelings locked away and became an expert at deflecting personal questions.

Without realizing it, I carried this habit into adulthood, avoiding any talk about my feelings or turning them into a joke. When a friend finally called me on it, the shock of self-recognition quickly turned to resistance. This is who I am, I thought. Why should I change?

I plodded on, working as hard as ever to keep my fortress intact. It wasn’t making me happy yet I wasn’t ready to change.

As I struggled with my desire to cling to hurtful memories and self-defeating behaviors, it dawned on me that I was afraid to let go because defensiveness was part of my identity.

The problem wasn’t that I had baggage—everyone has baggage—but that it had come to define me. I didn’t know who I would be without it. At that point it hit me: I had to dig deep, discover the person I wanted to be, and then act on it.

After I identified that I was holding on to the past because it seemed too important to jettison, I discovered that letting go is harder than it sounds. Relaxing a long-held belief isn’t a one-day, one-week, or even a one-year process. However, it is possible.

Read the rest at Tiny Buddha.

15 – Saveur Ibiza Restaurant Guide

This feature was for Saveur magazine in 2011. You can read the full article here.

Ibiza Town. Photo: Cila Warncke

Ibiza may be best known as a party hot spot for all-night clubbing, but its rich history belies its boozy reputation. First settled around 4500 BC, Ibiza (‘Eivissa’ in Catalan) was ruled by Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Moors and, since 1235, Catalans. The key to its desirability is ses Salinas – the salt flats which have provided seasoning to surrounding countries for three millennia. (Don’t leave without picking up a sachet of Sal de Ibiza, the source of the nickname “the White Island.”)

But salt isn’t Ibiza’s only gustatory delight. Its hilly, pine-scented interior boasts brick-red soil where citrus, carob, figs, olives, peppers, squash, tomatoes, melons and herbs thrive, and the turquoise sea yields exquisite fish – get up early one day and go to the port to watch the fishermen offload the night’s catch. Dining in Ibiza is relaxed; don’t mistake the leisurely pace of service for indolence, since the concept of ‘turning a table’ has yet to take hold, and wait staff expect you to linger. You can eat wonderfully well in Ibiza Town alone, but to appreciate the diversity of Ibicenco cuisine, hire a car to explore the seaside chiringuitos and country restaurants. A final tip: be sure to say si when offered a chupito de hierbas – a shot of the strangely addictive local liqueur is the perfect way to finish your meal.

La Paloma
Run by two generations of an Italian family, La Paloma is almost unbearably charming. Set in a citrus-fringed corner of the village of Sant Lorenc it is also one of the island’s few vegetarian-friendly spots. The birds and flowers that dance across the walls were hand-painted by local doyenne Orietta, and the food is created with equal love and attention. Lunches are simple affairs: salads bursting with tomatoes, lettuce and herbs from their organic garden; sandwiches on freshly baked focaccia; and crudites served with the sublime hummus. Dinner is simple and robust: steak; risotto; an organic, vegan option that changes daily; fresh fish; and sumptuous desserts.

Es Boldado
One absolute must-see is Es Vedra, a limestone islet just off the southwest coast. Reputedly the third most magnetic place on earth, semi-spooky stories abound featuring underwater lights, hovering aircraft, and converging ley lines. Even skeptics admit there is something otherworldly about Es Vedra’s imposing white flanks and one of the best views is from Es Boldado, above the beach of Cala d’Hort. A no-frills fish restaurant, Es Boldado serves up the fattest mussels I’ve ever eaten, paella, its own-recipe seafood stew, and impeccably fresh fish. The cliff-top perch makes it an ideal place to enjoy a glass of wine and watch the sunset.

El Olivo
Meals at El Olivo have a delightfully playful sense of occasion, thanks to its prime people-watching location in Dalt Vila’s bustling Plaza de Vila—though once you’re seated, you may have a hard time tearing your eyes away from the feast before you. Chef Frederic uses local produce to create unforgettable dishes like fresh-caught skate with capers and butter sauce, rabbit stew with pickled lemons, and a goat’s cheese stuffed fillet of pork. Like many Ibicenco restaurants it is oblivious to vegetarianism: If you don’t eat meat or fish, you’ll have to make do with just bread, salad, and dessert.

Comidas San Juan
It doesn’t take reservations, doesn’t make substitutions, and the staff could care less if you’re surprised to find chunks of sausage in your vegetable stew, but to know Comidas San Juan is to love it. For one thing, it’s ridiculously cheap: a three course meal, with wine, is under €15. For another, everyone is crammed together at communal tables, turning dinner into a polyglot social adventure. Rounding out its rustic charm is the fact the hand-scrawled menu is only in Catalan. Fortunately there is no such thing as a bad dish – even if you don’t know exactly what you’re eating, you’re bound to enjoy it.

Photo: Cila Warncke

14 – The Martinez Brothers

This was a feature written for DJ Mag sometime in ’06 or ’07.

Photo by Dean Machala on Unsplash

The Martinez Brothers are a publicists’ dream come true. A super-talented teenage DJ duo that got their big break after becoming MySpace buddies with Dennis Ferrer, they have it all: youth, skill, good looks and a great story. Yet the most remarkable thing about them is how poorly that set of facts describes them, how much lies beneath the sound-bite surface of their success.

The story of the Martinez Brothers – and what it suggests they may mean to house music in particular and dance culture in general – is as opaque and arresting as their wide, dark eyes.

Steve Jnr appears first, a slip of a kid in baggy shorts and trendy black half-rimmed glasses. His eyes flicker, the “oh geez, Dad, please don’t embarrass” me gesture universal to teenagers. We’re bunkered away from the blazing Ibiza sun in the unlit, unopened lounge at the back of El Hotel Pacha. Steven Martinez Senior, a manager for an elevator company, proudly recounts his sons’ boyhood musical achievements. How Stevie loved drumming and “whatever he was into, Chris wanted to get into.”

His eldest son eyes him warily. “I’ll go get Chris.” A minute later the Martinez Brothers return and their father melts into the background. They are both wearing fitted white tee-shirts, chunky diamond studs in their left ears. Chris wears a fat gold chain that hangs almost to his waist, anchored by a cross. Both sport trendy Fifty9 baseball caps, worn at jaunty angles – Steve’s backwards, Chris’ slewed forward across his ruler-straight, close-cropped fringe. Steve is the spokesman: courteous, articulate, informed (he’s planning to vote for Barack Obama because “for him to win would change history”). Chris is mischievous, funny, cocky (asked what his hobbies are he deadpans, “ballroom dancing.” Then snickers at his joke.)

It is day three of their first-ever visit to Ibiza. They’ve hired scooters and tooled around the island. They are staying in an expensive designer hotel. Last night they were “chilling with Erick Morillo” at Defected, at Pacha. Tonight, they’ll be joining him on the bill at Subliminal Sessions. Neither of them seems to find these facts remarkable. In the larger context of their career they aren’t.

Using the word “career” when talking about a 16 and a 19-year-old feels strange. Like they should be Britney Spears-style stage school brats or geeky child prodigies (they aren’t). There isn’t any other word though, given the brothers have been professional musicians since roughly the ages of nine and 13.

The eldest of four children, Steve and Chris grew up in the Bronx. Ironically, they were the reason their father, a self-confessed house head, give up clubbing. “I was really into the scene. Going to the Paradise Garage, everything. But then I got married, had kids, that was my priority. I didn’t set foot in a club from 1987 till 2003,” Steve Snr says.

Young Steve and Chris were obsessed with music. Their Gran bought a toy drum kit as a present and the pair bloomed into in-demand freelance percussionists. “Bands used to call up our dad and ask, ‘can we hire your kids for the weekend?’” Steve recalls with a chuckle.

“We had this regular gig in Connecticut. We’d get up at 5AM on Saturday morning, pack our instruments and drive up there, listening to Jamiroquai,” Chris adds, as if the only unusual thing about being a 10-year-old professional musician were the hours.

Dance music re-entered the Martinez house partially as an antidote to hip hop, Chris says. “I was into Jay-Z, 50 Cent, stuff like that. Our dad didn’t vibe with their messages so he started bringing us different CDs.” The giants of hip hop didn’t stand a chance as the brothers threw themselves into the sounds of Jellybean Benitez, Kenny ‘Dope’ Gonzalez and Timmy Rutherford.

Photo by Heshan Perera on Unsplash

When Steve said he wanted to be a DJ, though, his dad hesitated, not wishing to expose them to the dance music lifestyle (“they’re good kids. They go to church. They didn’t know there is more than music involved,” Steve Snr confides). Still, assuming decks would be a short-lived hobby, he bought them a pair of CDJs.

He needn’t have worried. Chris and Steve have a connoisseur’s passion for dance music – to the point the scene seems almost incidental. Ask who their musical heroes are and Steve sighs at the mundane question. “We studied – we study – everyone from Stevie Wonder to guys like Villalobos and Luciano, everything….”

It doesn’t seem remarkable to them, as it would to anyone older, that house music can be an object of artistic consideration. If they are aware that most people (both inside and outside the scene) view electronic music as fundamentally, intrinsically connected with drug culture they don’t let on. Not that they’re naive. Steve shrugs when asked what they think of playing to clubs full of people getting high: “that’s their way of having a high…”

“Ours is making music,” Chris chips in.

They approach music with a passion and a savvy that belies their age. A year or so ago, when Chris was 15, he started messaging Dennis Ferrer on MySpace. “That hook-up was my genius idea,” he quips. Chris can’t say what it was that made the revered house producer and Objektivity label boss curious about the youngster (at a guess, his insouciant cool and bone-dry wit) but he was. Mixes were exchanged and Ferrer invited the boy to play his night at Shelter in New York City. “So I asked if I could bring my brother along,” he says with a grin

Still shy of legal drinking age in the US, they had to arrive at Shelter after the bar closed at 4AM. Most DJs would blanch at having to follow Dennis Ferrer on the decks, but they didn’t. A partnership was born that night as effortless innovator Ferrer recognized a kindred spirit in the two skinny kids from the Bronx. Since then “Uncle Dennis” has been friend and mentor (they share management and he released their first record). “If we’re in the studio we’ll send stuff over to him. If he says it’s wack, it goes,” Chris says. The relationship works both ways. “He sends us stuff too. We tell him if it’s any good.”

This unlikely friendship has brought the Martinez Brothers into the Pantheon of the demigods of house music: Kenny ‘Dope’, Erick, Roger Sanchez. “All our friends are, like, 30 or 40,” Steve says with a laugh. It would be easy to think, cynically, that Chris and Steve are a mere novelty, a way for older house jocks to stir up a bit of publicity and attract a younger audience. Anyone who has seen them DJ knows better.

At 2AM the main room of Pacha is buzzing. Erick and a few friends are standing in the VIP area but every eye is on Chris and Steve in the DJ box. They are a two-headed, four-armed music machine, spinning around each other to grab CDs, fingers flying across the effects unit, heads bopping, never missing a beat. They aren’t just students of house music, they’re teachers, preachers, revivalists. Classic disco samples spin into faultless, pumping tech house and shots of vocals raise goose-pimples on arms. It isn’t just the music that’s infectious, it’s their attitude. Anyone else would be trying hard, they aren’t. They don’t have to. “It’s like seeing Masters At Work for the first time,” an awestruck punter exclaims. And he’s right; the Martinez Brothers belong here. Musically, stylistically, creatively, they are something special.

The sheer joy in their performance is infections. Summer is their chance to enjoy DJing without Chris, a high school senior, and Steve, a third-year liberal arts student, having to rush home for classes Monday morning. They are dutiful about their education but they know what the future holds. “Music, music, music,” Chris says emphatically.

Watching them wrap Pacha around their little fingers is enough to make the toughest skeptic a believer. Not just that they’ll get the production success, record label and high-flying DJ career they want, but that they are re-writing the rules of dance. That they are the first of a generation to take house music seriously, as music, and by doing so will take it further than anyone has before.

The Martinez Brothers, all grown up, spinning for Mixmag at Miami Music Week

13- Last Exit to Brooklyn Film Review

Though by no means a film buff, I love writing reviews. When the chance to review a DVD release of Last Exit to Brooklyn arose, I took it. Like the novel it is based on, it is harrowing, and worth it because it is.

Roger Ebert said in his 1990 review: “The movie takes place in one of the gloomiest and most depressing urban settings I’ve seen in a movie. These streets aren’t mean, they’re unforgiving. Vast blank warehouse walls loom over the barren pavements, and vacant lots are filled with abandoned cars where mockeries of love take place…. Most people hate movies like this. I think perhaps it is because no attempt is being made to force the characters and stories into comforting endings.”

Last Exit To Brooklyn DVD (18)

Dir: Uli Edel, 1989, USA/UK/Germany, 102 mins

Cast: Stephen Lang, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Peter Dobson, Burt Young

Last Exit To Brooklyn is set during the Korean War, in the early 1950s. The first characters you see are a trio of soldiers, cock-of-the-walking their way back to barracks after a night out. For a few, deceptive seconds this might be a war film, in the conventional sense. Then the real soldiers, fighting the real war, bowl on screen: a gang of roughneck wops, spoiling for action. A brief, brutal, beautifully choreographed beating later you’re in their world, to stay.

Based on the novel by Hubert Selby (author of Requiem For A Dream), the film is a raw, artful, unsparing look at raggle taggle Brooklyn life. The endless parade of soldiers who straggle through the film getting mugged, propositioned, beaten up, or otherwise damaged in their exchanges on this lawless patch are stand-ins for the audience – sucked into a world that is short on narrative arc and long on impulse, where the only constant is violence. At the centre of this universe of quicksand is Tralala (Leigh), a mouthy hooker with a finely tuned survival instinct, and her occasional partners in crime, Vinnie (Dobson) and Sal (Stephen Baldwin). Their buddy, Harry (Lang), is a shop steward, and head of the strike office, making free with his union expense account as the community struggles through a long strike against the bosses of the local metalworks.

Though a stunningly filmed late-night clash between police and strikers provides the visual epicentre of the film, social issues never eclipse the individual. Rather, the big picture stuff (war, labour disputes, family relationships) is backdrop to the intensely felt experiences of the characters. In sharp contrast to films that look back at the ‘50s through a spyglass of modern mores, Last Exit is perfectly self-absorbed. When shop boss Harry falls hard for a fey, selfish little queen called Regina (Bernard Zette) it would be easy for the film to make a statement about contemporary sexuality, or life in the closet. But it doesn’t, because the point is not what we think of Harry, but how he feels. Instead of glib commentary, there is real pathos. A theme that is repeated in the subplot of transvestite Georgette (Alexis Arquette) and her unrequited love for good-looking thug Vinnie (ringleader of the tormenters in the opening scene). Any kind of vulnerability can be fatal in Last Exit’s testosterone-fuelled landscape, especially for dainty queens, which makes Georgette’s flirtation watch-through-fingers stuff.

Frankly, it’s a miserable film. Yet so lovingly shot and acted you can’t help being drawn in. These are characters so small, sharp, closed and ugly they wouldn’t ever get an airing elsewhere, but the strong cast (including an excellent young Sam Rockwell) render them painfully alive. Leigh, in particular, pulls off an extraordinarily difficult role with power and panache. They elicit compassion when they shouldn’t and they provoke empathy at the unlikeliest moments. And while they’re trapped, you can leave, which gives this film its lingering, bittersweet edge.

Last Exit To Brooklyn

9 -One to Watch: Camden Barfly

In which a live review for Disorder proves I had no future as a musical prognosticator.

Levi’s One To Watch, Camden Barfly, 9 Mar ’06

Smoking, rah-rah skirts, school ties, cider & black. Thursday night at the Camden Barfly and it’s like the 90s never happened. Onstage, The Fratellis are pretending the 80s never happened either. Unspeakably youthful, they’re barrelling through sturdy, loud, happy rock songs that wouldn’t have sounded out of place soundtracking Almost Famous. Nor would Jon Fratelli’s wild curls, barely contained beneath a voluminous hat.

Their equally fresh-faced audience is lapping it up. “I like them. It’s happy music, says one girl.

“Good, but too young. Their sound will get better with time,” remarks George, with the accumulated wisdom of 24 years.

Equally young, but markedly more polished is trio On-Off. The name is boyishly literal. Their tunes flash past in punk-pop flavoured bursts of quiet/loud/quiet/loud. The singer has a pencil thin mustache and greased back hair. Begby in Trainspotting springs to mind, but he honestly believes he’s singing with the Jam. The bass thrashes joyfully; he thinks he’s playing with Green Day. Neo-punk and classic Mod shouldn’t fit, but here, tonight, they do. On-Off’s chemistry is apparent in their airtight instrumentation and their goofy interaction lights up the room, sending little fizz bombs of sound exploding in the air. Despite a lacklustre response they veer confidently through a series of grunge and ska infused vignettes of girls, booze and broken hearts. The lyrics are naff, admittedly, but tracks like the crisply realised ‘That’s Life’ promise better things with time.

Between sets boys and girls mill around, swapping notes and My Space addresses. “I heard The Maccabees on MySpace so I thought I’d come check them out,” Lucy (clearly only ‘18’ for purposes of admittance to nights like these) explains, smiling nervously.

A few feet away Anna is bouncing on an invisible pogo stock. “The Maccabees are fucking brilliant. I like music that’s fucking upbeat. It sounds like a cliché but they remind me of the Libertines.”

Actually, she’s not wrong. Orlando, Felix, Hugo, Rupert and Robert have obviously spent a lot of time thinking about The Libertines, listening to The Libertines, and possibly hoping to be a bit like The Libertines. The result is more endearing than exciting (imagine watching a group of young children performing a routine learned by heart from their favourite television programme). Rupert’s mum is nodding her salon-perfect ash blonde head, while Hugo’s dad stands next to her, beaming, windcheater still securely zipped up. Today is Hugo’s 20th, and little fragments of “happy birthday toooo youuuuu” bubble up between songs. Whatever they gave the birthday boy backstage it was one too many: his eyes are big and anxious in his white face as his band mates cheer.

Lanky teenage limbs are flying everywhere in a good-natured imitation of dancing. Lucy and company are right up the front, doing the pop-concert wave and shriek routine. The Maccabees probably won’t be around when Lucy really is 18, but for now everyone looks like their having fun. And on a cold winter night in Camden that’s more than enough.

NB: For those of you not au fait with early Noughties indie pop, The Maccabees had a successful decade-long career; The Fratellis‘ new album will be out in April; On-Off disappeared without a trace.