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.