On the bus

Monday, July 14th, 2014

I just got back from a trip to London and, cleaning out my handbag, I found something I’d scribbled down on a journey into town on crowded double-decker bus. The couple in the seat behind me were already deep into a loud and heated conversation when I got on board. Three stops later, it was still going strong. Being the only one on the bus without earbuds in or a smart phone to distract me, I found myself doing what journalists do and taking notes.

Her: “You wore your jeans and T-shirt and your velcro shoes because you’re five. You’re 31 and you’re wearing velcro shoes on MY birthday. I hate those shoes. You have never made an effort for me – ever.”

Him: “I wore a shirt–”
Her: “Yes you wore a shirt but  that was for your grandmother’s funeral and you had your crappy shoes on that are awful that you’ve had since high school and you couldn’t bear to part.”

Him “And that black shirt –”

Her: “That you wore to your brother’s do. You’re only interested in it now because you’ve pissed me off. You just go on  being your own selfish self all the time. I want us to go somewhere nice and you just wear the same pair of crappy trainers and the same pair of jeans. The number of times you get out of bed and put on the first thing that you grab which is all baggy and stained and if it’s not it’s because I spent all that time scrubbing the stains out. And those disgusting track pants. I can’t say I paid a great attention to what you wear. It just would be nice if you cared.”

When the bus reached its terminus at Aldwych, they were still arguing. I don’t know if they ever kissed and made up. A friend of mine told me, “The disintegration of a relationship always begins with clothing critiques,” so maybe not. Another friend told me that Charles Bukowski “got a lot of his material rolling around buses in LA …it’s a goldmine.” Can’t disagree with that!

Life in a motel without a car

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

Life in a motel without a car

Part1: People in motels with cars get up early.

Woke before dawn when two people walked past my window talking. People in motels with cars get up early so they can get in their cars and go. My sleepy brain, thinking we were home where there’s nothing outside the window but a long drop, frenziedly tried to figure out what was happening. I couldn’t find the light switch so I turned the TV on. The news said that while I slept a man in McDonalds was shot to death. The thought of a fluorescent-lit MacMeal being the last thing you eat, or even see, before you die was a mournful one to start the day on. The weatherman said 93 degrees and gusty winds; a good day for an early run.


Part 2: Going for a run beside a freeway.

It was a freeway motel and since I don’t have a car, the only place to run is the freeway. Running beside a freeway isn’t as bad as it sounds. It’s far less boring than a treadmill – for one thing there’s that tinge of anxiety that the driver of one of those enormous trucks going by at 75mph might get distracted by the sight of you trying to race them, veer over and squash you like a bug. Though still safer than McDonalds probably. Also, the knowledge that however fast you run you’re still going to get there last and that there really isn’t any ‘there’ to get to, gives it a Zen element that running  – running by choice, I mean, as opposed to necessity, like if you’ve a bus to catch or an armed maniac to evade – ought to have.

Part 3: Breakfast.

I’ve never much enjoyed going out for breakfast; I’m not much of a morning person and like to ease into a day. The motel offers a free continental breakfast – although America is the only continent I know that breakfasts from a big plastic bin of fruit loops. I’d forgotten all about fruit loops – can you get them outside of motels? But I appreciated the subtlety of their colours, the pastel lime and dusty pink. Breakfasts in America and the places you eat them tend to be far too colourful for the food they serve and for the time of morning. The motel also had a waffle machine, which looked scary, and good coffee with those little pots of half and half that make you feel guilty that your desire to open a third one and only to use a drop of it has put yet another knife into the environment. And, on my run, I noticed there was a Dennys. I think I’ll start going out for breakfast.

Part 4: Buying shit.

Really there are too many shops, period. You can get almost anything you need to get by from a freeway gas station. And the staff is friendly. The gas station was empty; when the guy working there noticed that there was no car accompanying me, he seemed genuinely concerned for my well-being and my ability to return whence I came without the help of wheels. Had I been a several decades younger or a few decades older I’m pretty sure he would have given me an icecream and called the authorities. I came back with fresh milk for the fridge, a bag of trail mix and a hand-drawn map to a dry river bed where I could go for a run tomorrow.

Part 5: Motel pools.

Motels invariably have pools. They tend to be small and square and fenced into their own little gated compound, as if to protect them from someone making off with them in their truck. There’s a slew of  trucks parked around the back of the motel, but strangely only the fronts. All of the trucks are missing their back ends, which makes them look funny, like semi-pantomime horses. The pool in this motel here is sparkly clean, with loungers all around and an umbrella that no-one’s put up, because no-one but me is here. In motels, most people tend to get in their cars and leave by seven in the morning, so the car-less guest gets the pool to herself. And the sound of the traffic going by on the freeway is soothing. Like Tom Petty wrote in American Girl, the cars roll by like waves crashing on a beach. And yes, for one desperate moment there, he crept back in my memory.

Snake-shot Saturday

Sunday, March 16th, 2014

Throwback Thursday is so… throwback. So I came up with Snakeshot Saturday. And to mark its inauguration, here’s a photo of me from, hmm, the mid 90s I think, with a snake named Sebastian.

He was a long snake, was Sebastian. The other two-thirds of him didn’t make it into the shot, so you’ll have to use your imagination.

Sebastian lived in Los Angeles with a good friend of mine. When he first turned up at her house he was baby and, while construction was underway on a grand serpentarium, he lived in a large, lidded aquarium in the guest room. One night when I was staying in that room, Sebastian managed to push the lid off the tank and crawl out and into bed with me. First I knew about it was when she found us in the morning side by side and fast asleep.

I never much liked snakes – still don’t – but Sebastian and me, I guess you could say we had an understanding. And yet  for all the years that I knew him, we never slept together again.

Townes Van Zandt, Tom Waits and a cold night in Majorca

Saturday, March 15th, 2014

I hadn’t heard from Tomeu for years but here he was, out of the blue, emailing me from his home on Majorca, asking if I would write something about an event that took place there ten years ago. ‘Darkness on the Edge of Townes’, it was called: a tribute to Townes Van Zandt. Lord knows how but Tomeu had managed to get funding to stage a concert in honour of a dead Texan singer-songwriter on a Balearic island where you could count the people who’d heard of him on two hands. Townes was brilliant, but he was no star –  that’s just the way he liked it – but singer-songwriters revered him. The Spanish musician Nacho Vegas had agreed to perform, and so did some British singer-songwriters that Tomeu had come to know through their performances at the Borderline club in London. Tomeu used to worked there in the box office. In those days I lived in London and I’d go to the Borderline all the time.  Tomeu was always talking about music, and particularly about the one musician he was obsessed with – no, not Townes but Tom Waits.  Tom had never played on Majorca and Tomeu’s ambition was to persuade him to change his mind. He organised an event on the island that became a small annual festival, called ‘Waiting For Waits.’ Everyone who performed had to add a Tom Waits song to their set. It was a great show – I went one year. But Tom never did show up, and Tomeu seems to have given up waiting.

The cold night in Majorca? Well that’s all part of the piece I sent Tomeu – here, in English and Catalan, at the link below, along with Tomeu’s memories. There’s also a photo of me with Waits. I never did meet Townes, although I loved his music – still do. He had already passed on when I wrote that long MOJO article on him at the turn of the millennium. I’ll try and find it and post on my Interviews page some time soon -it’s been way too long since I updated that page, so write and let me know if there are any other interviews of mine you’d like to see.


The Day of the Dude

Sunday, March 9th, 2014


Another great movie and another birthday: The Big Lebowski, sweet sixteen. Three years ago I was in a hotel room in Phoenix chatting to Jeff Bridges, like you do, and what was going through my mind the whole time was how much he looked and sounded like a surfer bum who had won the lottery, or like a mellow stoner with a penchant for philosophy, or a cool ageing hippie, or…. well there was no way of getting around it, because what he exactly looked and sounded like was the Dude! “I do have a bit of the Dude in me”, Jeff said, reading my mind, before going on to tell me a story about Ronnie Hawkins and the Hells Angels that’s so wild I’d probably end up in a ditch at the side of the road if I tell you. Oh and we talked about ukuleles too and all sorts of stuff – but someone told me my blog posts are too long (grrr!) so I’ll just share one of them. Here is Jeff Bridges’ ‘Beatle Moment’.

“I had my Beatle moment when I played the Lebowski Fest. Have you heard about these fests? They go on for two days! I put a band together to play there and it was like Waaaaaah!  – I was playing to a sea of dudes and bowling pins and people all dressed up in all the costumes, and you could hardly hear the music. ”

The Dude most definitely abides.


Wind power: interview with Spinal Tap

Saturday, March 1st, 2014

Today, in tribute, my amp is on 11. Thirty years ago today a film came out that changed the world as we know it, introducing us to 18-inch Stonehenges and love pumps: ‘This Is Spinal Tap’. And so, in humble tribute to the world’s loudest band, here is the unexpurgated version of my interview with them from 2007. “Such a fine line between stupid and, uh…” “clever.” “Yeah, and clever.”

SPINAL TAP    by Sylvie Simmons

The plane dips through the smog, lands with a thump and taxis past the advertised arrival gate to stop at (I’m not making this up) gate 66, terminal 6. It’s clear the gods are smiling on this reunion of the Mother of all Heavy Metal bands, David St Hubbins, Nigel Tufnel  and Derek Smalls: Spinal Tap.

We’ve arranged to meet in L.A, the very epicentre of metal in the eighties, when the movie “This Is Spinal Tap” appeared. Marti DiBergi’s fly-on-the-wall account of the English band’s American tour showed their triumphs (not many) and their tragedies (lots, including spontaneously combusting drummers, the 18-inch, instead of 18-foot, stage-set replica of Stonehenge, and security issues arising from wearing  a cucumber in  your pants). It also introduced us to songs that have since become classics  -‘Sex Farm’; ‘Big Bottom’; the tender ballad ‘Lick My Love Pump’ – which made the Tap a household name and the movie one of the most popular ever.

But time moves on. These days, as Di Bergi’s new short film shows, Tufnel works on a miniature horse farm, St Hubbins mans a colonic irrigation clinic, from where he runs a hip hop agency, and Smalls is in rehab, trying to kick a serious internet addiction. It took one of the world’s biggest benefit concerts, Live Earth, a charity set up to help combat global warming, to tempt the band out of retirement and onto the Wembley stage.

“We heard the word ‘benefit’ and we thought that meant benefit us”, says Smalls, looking much as he did in the eighties with his oversized sideburns and questionable waistcoat. Adds St Hubbins, who still has long hair and his own teeth’ “We didn’t read the small print.” Tufnel, sitting on his own at the far end of the coffee table, shakes his mop-head mournfully, “Maybe we’ll pass a hat,” he says. Nigel is a firm believer in global warming; to prove it, he’s removed his shirt. But is the band just jumping on the environmental bandwagon or are they really green? That’s what I’m here to find out.

Sylvie: As the loudest band in the world, famed for turning your amps up to 11, are you going to play unplugged to cut electricity use?

Tufnel: Oh, we’ve done that!

Smalls:   We do the world’s loudest acoustic set.

St Hubbins:  To be fair we stand right next to people, as close as possible and just play literally in their faces.

Tufnel: We were hoping to go solar, but there might some difficulty if it’s at night.

St Hubbins:  I was just planning on stealing the power from some other group – just leach onto the Chili Peppers or something and drain them.

Sylvie: I could introduce you to several girls I know who’ve done that.

St Hubbins: Yeah.


Sylvie: Leather and spandex, the official clothes of heavy metal, are going to be hard to wear if the world gets any warmer. Any plans to change your look?

St Hubbins:  That was always Derek’s thing, the leather.

Smalls: I just like the feel.

Tufnel:  It’s a sexual thing for him. He went through a whole thing with his rubber period.

St Hubbins: We actually had to do a – what do they call those? – an intervention with Derek about the leather and the rubber. We said cut it in half.

Tufnel: And then we got that late-night phone call saying, ‘Just bring salad tongs.’ We’re not going to tell you the details, it would be embarrassing for Derek.

St Hubbins:  But he would wear latex if we’d let him.

Smalls: It has been done.


Sylvie: Talking of which, are the Tap aware that, for the truly environmentally-aware, they now make vegan condoms?

St Hubbins: Really?

Tufnel:     Yes they do.

Smalls:   But they’re meat-flavoured

Tufnel:     There’s a low sodium version as well which I would recommend.

St Hubbins: They don’t use the lambskin version any more, do they?

Smalls: They use the lamb. It’s more like haggis now.


Sylvie: There’s also hemp underwear and solar-powered toys. Have you used any of these in your pursuit of environmental soundness?

Smalls:   It was Sheryl Crow who really set the bar for me with that ‘one piece of toilet paper’ thing. Use one slice [per visit], she said

St Hubbins :  One pane?

Smalls:   One pane of toilet paper. ‘What does she eat?

Tufnel: Maybe she’s got a really tiny bum.

Smalls:   And really small bowels. Petite.

St Hubbins:  The petite bowels of Sheryl Crow.

Smalls:   No disrespect. To me ‘you’ve got petite bowels’ is a compliment.

St Hubbins:  To you anything’s a compliment. ‘You’ve got petite bowels’ – that’s a marriage proposal for you.

Smalls: It’s a nice thing,.

St Hubbins: Grande bowels, not so flattering.

Smalls: Not nearly so flattering. And wasn’t that a Sidney Bechet record, ‘Ma Petite Bowel’?

Tufnel: At this point we would like to put in a plug for Weetabix, which I really like.

Sylvie: Weetabix are like little haystacks. You can feed your miniature horses on them.

St Hubbins: That’s true.


Sylvie: The Tap are better known for big bottoms, and as your album “Break Like The Wind” affirms, they emit damaging methane gas.

St Hubbins:  It’s only one bottom; singlar. But you know what, thousands and thousands of years in the future we won’t have that problem, if we get through this current crisis, because we’ll all be brains floating around in jars and doing things by technokinesis. And the brain, for all its other defects, cannot fart. But if you’re hinting that, perhaps there’s a way of harnessing each individual’s methane emissions to power the planet?

Smalls:   Right on, sister, right on!

St Hubbins:  Maybe you should suggest the idea to George Bush.


Sylvie: Have you, like Willie Nelson, converted your tour bus to bio-diesel?

Tufnel:  Bio-diesel has its own problems. Because you need to destroy forests to grow the food that you need for bio-diesel.

St Hubbins:  What’s this? Farmer Nigel now?

Smalls: We don’t actually have a bus.

St Hubbins:  Actually we have one vehicle that runs on wine. It’s called Vin Diesel.


Sylvie: As to farming, will Derek switch to organic cucumbers to stuff down his pants?

St Hubbins : They were courgettes!

Sylvie: That was a bit big for a courgette, if you don’t mind me saying.

Smalls: I don’t mind at all. I take pride in the size of my courgette. If you think about it, a cucumber is wrong for the desired effect. The skin’s a bit warty.

Tufnel:     You want smoothness —

Smalls:   Not too hard. Yes, I’ll use organic if I can find them.

Tufnel:     There are fields of these courgettes in Derbyshire; they have mandrills pissing on them.

St Hubbins:  How does it taste?

Tufnel:  Like you’d expect. Like piss.

Smalls: Bittersweet, some strawberry notes?

Tufnel:   No, more kiwi.

St Hubbins: And just a hint of flannel.


Sylvie: Combustible drummers: you’ve had two of them, I believe.

Tufnel: There’s more than that really. We can’t count them.

Sylvie: How many trees must you  plant to offset the carbon footprint made by your exploding drummers?

Tufnel: Interesting question. There’s a scale, actually. I think it’s three trees per drummer. But it depends on whether you’re doing a Norwegian scale, then it’s six trees,

St Hubbins : Or a pentatonic scale if it’s a Chinese drummer.

Smalls: And it depends on the trees.

St Hubbins: If we could harness the demise of our percussionists, the explosive power could probably light Brixton for months. We’re joking of course, but Stumpy Joe’s family is still in shock.

Sylvie: Understandable. But he left his mark.

Smalls: A small, wet mark.

Tufnel: I’d call it a stain.


Sylvie: Let’s move onto recycling. What does the Tap recycle?

Smalls: Our music is recycled. Our new song is basically one we wrote 30 years ago.

St Hubbins: Different key.

Tufnel: No, it’s the same key; I take my acoustic guitar capos to the landfill.


Sylvie: This new song is the single your recorded for Live Earth?

St Hubbins:  Yes, ‘Warmer Than Hell’. Not ‘Hotter Than Hell’ because then it would be about global hotting, not warming.

Smalls:   Or global hopping, which is what we’ll all be doing pretty soon, if we don’t stop global warming: hopping from one globe to another. Hello Mars! Hello Mars!

Sylvie: How might you go about adapting some of your old songs to have a green message?

Smalls: Sex Farm speaks for itself: organic. And Stinking Up The Great Outdoors, you could say ‘with a compost heap.’


Sylvie: Spinal Tap were criticised in the past for sexist songs. Now you’re green, will you also embrace the New Man ethos?

St Hubbins: Who’s this man ‘Ethos’?

Smalls: He’s the ‘new man’

Tufnel  :  I don’t think so.

Smalls:   We’re too old. We’re set in our ways.

St Hubbin :  We’re the old boy network we can’t get into.


Sylvie: Any future plans for Spinal Tap?

Smalls: Theoretically we’ll be eligible for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And Medicare. The same day. And we’re having a picnic at my place.

Nigel: A Hibachi.


Sylvie: A final question.

St Hubbins, Smalls and Tufnel [in unison]: Oh, good!

Sylvie: Rock bands are always being asked the question, what was their Spinal Tap moment. What was Spinal Tap’s most Spinal Tap moment?

St Hubbins: Hmm, it might have been the time in Boston when it rained on the stage. It was a little club, the Channel. It’s no longer there; it washed away.

Smalls: It happens to everyone, not just us.

Tufnel: It happened to YoYo Ma last year; he showed up at a gig and the flashpots caught his cello on fire.

[copyright Sylvie Simmons 2007]





Johnny Cash’s dream about the Queen of England

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

I was sitting at my computer  this rainy February morning, making a list of the greatest-ever country and Americana albums for an upcoming museum show, when Johnny Cash’s face kept rolling past  on the Facebook news feed. Of course: it’s his birthday. He would have been 82 today.

In the eleven years since his death, I’ve often been asked to write about the final year of his life and the five days of conversations we had at his house in Hendersonville, Tennessee. But I felt like looking back at some of the earlier interviews we’d done, most of them about one or other of the Rick Rubin/American Recordings albums, and this one, from 2002, was where I found the story of Johnny Cash’s dream.

We were talking about a song he’d written called The Man Comes Around. He wasn’t writing many songs at that point and even this one, he said, was originally a poem,  whose 50 or 60 verses kept on changing.”It’s based loosely on the Book of Revelations in the Bible”, he said, : and I would go from one interpretation to another…”

And so, in that deep voice of his, sounding more like a preacher by the minute, the Man in Black went on. I asked if he’d been writing a lot of poetry and he said, “No I haven’t”, he said, “not at all. This was the one thing. And it came out of a dream.” A dream? “A dream”,  he said, “about the Queen of England.”

So here is Johnny Cash’s dream.

“I had a dream that I was in Buckingham Palace and I walked in and there she sat on the floor – which she probably doesn’t do at all. But she had a friend there and they were laughing, they had their knitting needles. And I walked up and she looked up at me from her knitting and kind of gasped and said, ‘Johnny Cash, you’re just like a thorn tree in a whirlwind’. And I woke up and I thought, what does that mean? That’s got to be a meaningful dream. But nothing came to me, no revelation, on what that dream meant.
“So I thought about it for a long, long time – this dream was seven years ago – but the idea of this dream kept coming back aroun and I kept thinking about it. So finally I thought, maybe it’s Biblical, so I got a Concordance down, a chain reference system of the Bible, and started looking for it and I found it in the book of Job, about a thorn tree in a whirlwind…”
He had never been to the palace, he said, nor had he met the Queen. “Can you fix me up?” he asked.

Johnny Cash, Feb 26 1932- Sept 12 2003

[More details on the museum event on my Tour page]



Postcards from the Mexican Riviera

Wednesday, February 12th, 2014

Hi! There’s nothing like going  a rock festival where you have to pack a swimsuit and snorkel as well as the other essentials (ukulele). This one’s called One Big Holiday and is being held in the Hard Rock Hotel, a seaside resort near Cancun. Indoors there’s rock memorabilia, outdoors there’s pools with cocktail bars that you can swim up to, so I can be healthy and unhealthy all at the same time. And tonight I’ll be seeing the first of My Morning Jacket’s three headline shows on an outdoor stage backing onto the ocean. I think I’m going to like it here! sylvie x

Brilliant opening show last night – stars in the sky, sea breeze on my face, Bob Weir from the Grateful Dead onstage with MMJ, jamming. Bob’s band Furthur played a festival here last week called Paradise Waits and he doesn’t seem to want to go home. This morning I breakfasted on fresh papayas and guavas and went for a run on a white sand beach, the air so soft you want to cuddle it. There’s a few special activities going on during daylight hours –  bingo, karaoke, outdoors yoga, the sort of stuff you’d expect at family resorts or on senior citizen cruises, not  indie rockers. But here’s Wayne Coyne of Flaming Lips – MMJ’s special; guests – judging a lip-synch competition. He’s doing a good job of it too, if anyone’s looking for a cooler,  better-looking replacement for Simon Cowell. Here he is in his swimmies, singing along to and critiquing the contestant who tackled Bon Jovi’s Living On A Prayer. I’m sending you a pic of me standing next to Gene Simmons’clothes. And one of Wayne Coyne sitting without clothes.sylvie x


I’m standing in a lagoon, where I’m up to my waist in warm saltwater, with 50lb of whitebait swimming in circles around me. Everywhere I look there are pale thin people with tattoos and beards and ironic sunglasses. Uh-oh, I appear to have been misfiled in the Portland lagoon. Oh look, here’s Bob Weir again! “Some of my best friends are fishes”, he says. Can’t argue with that. sylvie x

Flaming Lips in confetti ban horror! Er not really, but it’s true they were told not to bring the exploding confetti machine – probably a good idea when the stage is that close to the water, unless they make the confetti out of algae or whatever fishes eat. Some of the proceeds of the festival  have gone to various conservation and environmental groups in the area, which is a great idea. I just walked past the stage they (the Lips, not the fish) were sound checking Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds. It sounds gorgeous. And I think it’s the first time I’ve seen Wayne when he wasn’t wearing a swimsuit. He says that Bob Weir took MMJ’s Jim James snorkeling and that he (Bob) is going to go skinny-dipping with him after tonight’s show. Wonder if there’s a flash on my iPad camera…? sylvie x

I took a selfie this morning, lying on a hammock with my uke, singing a song. I’m having such a hard, hard time (!), to quote a wonderful song by Brian Lopez, ‘Pray For Rain’. It rained here for ten minutes today, but the sun came straight back out and the air is sweeter than ever, soft and pillowed. Life is pretty damn good sometimes. sylvie x

Well it’s time to go home. I’m writing this last card on a bus headed for the airport, full of indie rock fans and an older couple who it turns out are the drummer from MMJ’s mum and stepdad.  The driver’s playing a mixtape of golden hits of the Seventies, which wouldn’t be my choice of hangover music but  people here and there are gamely singing along to Bonnie Tyler and England Dan & John Ford Coley.  I’ll be back in San Francisco some time after midnight, which gives me a day to write my review for MOJO then head back to the airport to fly to Tucson and finish my album. See you soon, Love, sylvie xx




Return of the Phlog

Thursday, July 25th, 2013

I met someone in Liverpool and I think it’s love. 
Actually I’ve had a thing for him since I was a little girl – there he was on TV, the bad boy, who all the good boys in the playground would imitate, running around with toilet plungers yelling, “Exterminate!” I ran into him by chance at the BBC Merseyside studios, where I’d gone to do a show with esteemed Liverpool DJ Spencer Leigh, and grabbed it just as it was being wheeled off into a cupboard. Now here I am back in San Francisco on a foggy morning, listening to some krautrock records I picked up at Amoeba, daydreaming about my dalek bumping up the 40 stairs to my flat and singing along.

I was in England for most of June and early July. Since I’d been in Canada, promoting the Canadian ‘I’m Your Man’ when the UK edition came out, when I heard the UK was releasing the paperback edition in June I grabbed my uke and got on a plane.

What a trip. It started in Chiswick, London – wisteria, church bells, evening sun gilding the river as a crew of rowers glide by, an old pub with summer ale, a fox daring behind a tombstone at dusk – then made a swift diversion to Berlin and back again, taking in London’s East End and West End, Bloomsbury, Liverpool, Kentish Town, Pimlico, Chalk Farm, Marylebone, Wembley, plus Hertfordshire, Brighton, Leigh on Sea and Liverpool. Too busy living it to stop and take notes, but I do have some photos, enough for a phlog, so here they are, along with the memories they prompt.

Writer and translator at the Literaturhaus, Berlin

Here I am on the left, trading stories with Kirsten Borchardt, translator of the German edition of my book – the first time we met but it felt like old friends.

The first night of the UK tour was at Rough Trade East on Brick Lane. That’s Mat Snow, my good friend and former MOJO editor, in the dapper black and pink, asking the questions, and what looked like a roomful of rock writer luminaries and friends in the audience, including Neil Spencer, Charles Shaar Murray, Peter Silverton, Mark Ellen, Will Birch, Daryl Easlea Gavin Martin, Lloyd Bradley. I had to take a deep breath before I had the nerve to pick up my uke and sing. Afterwards it was off to the pub – at least for those of us who managed to get past the bouncers and friskers at the door. Blimey, Brick Lane – the shabby East End neighbourhood where I used to go to the market with my dad as a kid – has changed.

The Horse Hospital, London.

Ah, the Horse Hospital. My favourite arts venue back when I lived in London – the entrance a cobblestoned slope designed for rolling down the carcasses of the poor horses who met their end – this was one of my favourite nights of the tour. My super UK publisher, Dan Franklin, introduced the show, which began with rare Leonard Cohen film footage. Followed by some great performances by my special musical guests Pete Molinari and Katy Carr.

Pete Molinari

Katy Carr

Early the next morning, bleary-eyed and on a train to Liverpool. I arrived at the bookshop to see a board outside advertising the day’s event. It wasn’t mine. Er, okay, onto plan B – which turned out to be an intimate, guerilla gig upstairs in the religious section, sitting, chatting and playing to a small but very sweet group of people. And the day kept getting better – Spencer Leigh took me to a different bookshop where I found a copy of ‘Death of a Lady’s Man’. And then I met that Dalek…

Yet another bookshop, this one in London at Waterstones in Covent Garden. It felt good to arrive and see a huge pile of my books awaiting my signature and – even better – an open bottle of wine!

Next up: Chorleywood, Hertfordshire, a place I admit I’d never heard of, but which a pal, John Etherington, told me was where Julie Felix lived. Julie, an American folk singer who moved to London in the early 60s, met Leonard Cohen in Greece and invited him on her UK TV show. A few days before my event, Julie had celebrated her 75th birthday onstage with special guests including John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin. I asked her if she would be my special guest and graciously she agreed. We played some of Leonard’s songs, alone and together, and then she surprised me with a song I’d never heard before, which she’d written about Marianne Ihlen, Leonard’s former lover, and their break-up.

A night off at last, and what a night: Leonard Cohen at the 02 – “the other side of intimacy”, as he once described it; my description of the place wouldn’t be anywhere near so kind but there’s nothing wrong with positive thinking – plus it is the place where he recorded a rather brilliant CD/DVD.  At this show he warned the people in the top rows about leaning too far forward (and warned the rest of us about looking at ourselves in magnifying mirrors, a piece of wisdom I should have followed this morning; not the best way to start a day to learn that just because you have wrinkles doesn’t mean you still can’t get a pimple on your nose.). Anyway, back to Leonard’s show. Despite the ugliness and vastness of the space, there were times during the concert (his recitation of ‘Alexandra Leaving’ was one of them) when the silence and stillness in the room and the focus and attention of all the people in it was unearthly, like time really did stop.

As for me, my next show was in a cool, music-themed boutique hotel on a square of Regency houses in Brighton.

It was a cold afternoon, one of those grey-on-dirty grey English skies just made for depressives and a brutal wind blowing in off the sea. But I love Brighton, the pebble beach, the once-beautiful old pier decaying in the water. So like a good Brit I bought some fish and chips,  doused them in salt and vinegar and took them down to the waterfront to eat. As I opened the polystyrene box, the wind reached in and tried to scoop up the battered fish. I held it down in the middle with the little wooden fork and both ends curled up, like one of those little plastic fortune-telling fish you used to lay on your palm and see which way they folded. As I was trying to remember the meaning of this particular configuration, half the fish flew up in the air and into the mouths of a gang of brawling seagulls. I did what any self-respecting Brit would do: gave them the rest and headed for a nearby pub.
The Hotel Pelirocco was a perfect venue – cool decor, cooler crowd. The author Lee Hill interviewed me (and gave me a copy of his fine book on Terry Southern, which I devoured on my transatlantic flight) and for the music I was accompanied by Andy Small on guitar and Jules Lawrence on flute, harmonica and (love it!) a musical saw.

This picture below was a few days later in London, at the Harrow & Wembley Progressive Synagogue. My good friend Victoria Zackheim had told me about rabbi Frank Dabba Smith, who was as delightful as she’d described him. We met for a quick supper – an M&S takeaway eaten on a bench outside the British Library, where he’d been studying away all afternoon – then  took the train to one of the far reaches of N.W London  where we met up with what seemed to b e the love of the rabbi’s life: an old, red and white Citroen 2CV. Installing me in the backseat and his mechanic (very sensibly) in the front, the little French tin can on wheels hurtled over speed bumps and squealed around corners before coming to an abrupt halt outside the synagogue. Which provided a welcome dose of adrenalin for answer ing all the great questions from the audience, and to play a song or three.

The last of my London gig was at the 12 Bar, a cool little club at the end of Denmark St in Soho – Tin Pan Alley – which was also one of my regular haunts back in the day. My old friend Chris Carr corralled a huge cast of musicians and put the gig together with Andy at the 12 Bar when I protested that my organisational and artist-herding skills had been worn out. Some of the musicians I’d heard of and even written about -Jason McNiff for example – and others I was hearing for the first time.

Here’s as many of them as we could round up at the end for a picture.

Everyone on the bill performed a Leonard Cohen song and a song of their own. Since it was my show I could break the rules and I ended up doing three Cohen songs – two at the start, one at the end (the hefty ‘Master Song’) accompanied by a great singer-guitar player I’d met for the first time that night: Brian Lopez. He’d just come from rehearsing with K.T Tunstall and, back home in Tucson, AZ, it turns out he plays with my good friend Howe Gelb in Giant Giant Sand – as did John Paul Jones! Small world. I’ll post a video of us on my Sounds page soon.
I didn’t do any of my own songs at the 12 Bar, but I did on this radio show with Bonanza & Son just before the gig.


A much-needed couple of days off were  spent visiting some favourite museums and art galleries but mostly just wandering around. I’d forgotten, since leaving London, how many unexpected things you just happen upon: in one afternoon a choir singing in the echoey corridors of the National Portrait Gallery; a stage full of disco dancers in Trafalgar Square; an orchestra rehearsing Mozart in a church; a man on the bus describing in loud detail, to his girlfriend, what he vomited up that morning. Though I was trapped beside him, it being rush hour, joy filled my heart at the realisation that he was not my boyfriend. The evenings were spent with friends. One night I went to Kasabian, who were playing the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park – an enormous, soulless, new open-air venue in Stratford, the ground covered with a crumpled astroturf carpet which itself was covered with pint-sized paper cups, bottles and regurgitated food. You couldn’t find a place to hear music in that was more different than the small, lovely and full of character as the lovely old 12 Bar. Fine band, ugly place.

But, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, it was beauty I’d come so far for. I got it at my last show of the tour, in a small Methodist church in Essex. Thanks to my writer friends Daryl Easlea and Will Birch, a spot was found for me and my uke at the Leigh-on-Sea folk festival.

The weather had been grim for almost my whole stay in England, but all at once the grey gave way to blue skies and baking sun. The little seaside town exploded in colour and smiles. There were long, long lines at the pub, wilting Morris dancers,  little kids mud-wrestling in the swamp- beach left behind when the tide went out. It was full inside the church, a great little gathering, and local guitar player Steven Hastings accompanied me as I sang some Leonard Cohen songs.

And from there it was on the train, back to London, to catch Van der Graaf Generator’s show at the Barbican.  What a day. And what a way to end the UK I’m Your Paperback tour.

P.S Before I shift hemispheres…

Thursday, July 11th, 2013

Just found these hiding under the desktop equivalent of a stone. They made me smile. Here’s Books In The City, NZ, on the  gig with Don McGlashan that I mentioned two blogs down:

New Zealand Listener Gala Night – two superstar events, the lunch with Sir Max Hastings and the concert by Leonard Cohen biographer, journalist and rock chick Sylvie Simmons plus New Zealand’s own Don McGlashan, sold out. At the Opening Night Party a number of tales were being told of the machinations and subterfuges being used by frustrated Cohen-Simmons-McGlashan fans attempting to procure a place at the latter. I’m not sure if Max Hastings fans were doing the same; they might be thinking of just walking on in, as Sir Max famously walked on in to Argentine-occupied Port Stanley ahead of the British troops during the Falklands war.

However you decide to do it, if you’re a reader you owe it to yourself to sample the wares. As Anne O’Brien promised the faithful tonight, “Seduction is waiting for you around every corner”. Or was that what Sylvie Simmons said when she was talking about her days as a rock journalist in the ’70s, adding, “Not going to happen, you knew where it’d been”.

And this is from a review of the show by Christchurch City Blog:

Sylvie Simmons and Don McGlashan and Leonard Cohen: “at the unpopular edge of pop music … where the most interesting stuff is”.

Last night Sylvie Simmons, Leonard Cohen’s biographer, and the awesome Don McGlashan joined forces. They sang their songs – and a few Cohen numbers. Sylvie played ukulele and Don the guitar, and they were introduced by music journalist Nick Bollinger.

Highlights of this rather chilled out and beautiful evening:

*Don enjoying doing an unplugged gig: “I normally wouldn’t tell that story, because there’d be a drummer behind me saying FFS.”

*On Keith Richards writing Satisfaction after a dream, Sylvie said wryly: “I haven’t woken up to satisfaction for a long time”.

*Don playing the euphonium (not, as I suggested “blowing into an upside down tuba”). I think this was done on a verse of Famous blue raincoat, but correct me if you were there [and] giving his guitar some astonishing effect pedal action on Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne.

Set list: This is London (Don)/ Midnight Cowboy (Sylvie) /Sisters of Mercy (Leonard Cohen)/ The Captain (Leonard Cohen)/  Famous blue raincoat (Leonard Cohen)/ Queen of the Night (Don)/ Hard Act to Follow (Sylvie)/ Marvellous year (Don)/  Who Knows Where Time Goes (Sylvie)/  Suzanne (Leonard Cohen)

Okay, that’s it for now, time to pack up and go home. See you soon.