One more tiny square falls off our battered disco ball and the light refracted becomes less defined and the dark patches from where shimmers once emitted start to dominate, the whole now imperfect. Eventually no light will reflect back at all, our moves a memory held only by the minority. Until then dance on.
The cop who was on duty that night is more than just a cop, of course, he’s human, with a wife and family, as the song goes, but he feels just a tool for use by the force to sign in and secure and sign off anyone charged by patrol members out in the mobile units. But on the weeknights, especially in the bitterly cold weather like we’ve been having, there’s precious little for him to do except monitor the radio lines, hope for a shooting maybe, a motorway pile-up.
At weekends there will be two officers on duty, and usually the evenings pass more quickly then. Usually, that is, as sometimes Steve – our cop – is ‘drawn’ with Fat Chris, whose name is a misnomer as he’s actually exceptionally foul smelling. Certainly he’s fat, but that’s rarely the first thing you’d notice. A night with him is eternity, the nickname a diversion tactic. He’s far from a conversationalist either, happy to sit inert and wordless for great stretches of time in the chair beside you, only speaking if an announcement of an inbound unit on the radio demands, or to relay back details of admissions.
At night on a weekend working with Fat Chris, Steve would almost pine for the cold quiet weekdays like this one, at least they’re fragrance free. But it’s better to work, always better to be doing something.
There are ‘rounds’ to do, you must check each of the eight cells here, if occupied. If the letterbox opening has an inhabitant behind it, officers must check them every fifteen minutes. You just open the flap, peer in, and close it again. Usually, on nights, those inside are sleeping, normal sleep, or drunken sleep, or drugged sleep, or the deepest sleep of those who have found themselves in a ‘proper’ bed for the first time in months. Most are changed, if charged, men by the morning, and it is usually men, shamefaced, hand rubbing and with headaches. The women are always worse and the girls kick out, while older women think nothing of biting which is more dangerous, and fingernails too. But behind the flaps they sleep, after a few moments of shouting and screaming, once they realise there’s no harm that can be done in there, no furnishings or things to fling.
On this night, Steve is sitting behind the front desk with no one in the cells to check on. Occasionally his radio buzzes static but mostly the station is still. Surfaces are tiled white so as to be wipe clean, blood and piss and spittle. There’s a blue glow from the four screens, at night, each monitor split two ways to give a view of twin cells in grainy monochrome. Figures on the screen seem darker than they appear in real life, stripped of colour and inert. Cell number two, in fact, is close enough to the front desk for Steve to not actually have to check on it each quarter of an hour, as its flap is only 10 yards or so from his eye level at the desk.
Which is what made this particular evening so interesting.
Stationed back slightly inside the pub’s doorframe, a man leans and gazes out while assessing the clouds. Hunched like a gnome, so low is the crossbeam, looking up and down the dead street his glance gives the impression there’s something important on his mind. But all he’s really thinking about is his tea – how much to spend, what to get, and how best to get it home before all that rain.
It’s 4pm on a Sunday. A figure heads towards him from further up the street, lurching between the parked cars that line each side. As he reaches the pub door gnome man steps aside for the stranger, who ambles on, then rubs his chin dolefully, doubles back and walks in. The gnome man shakes his head, pulls up his collar and moves off, tutting, for a takeaway of as yet undecided nationality.
Inside all is smoke. This is before the ban and the ceiling’s still accountably yellowed with no hope of a refresh. A very small pub, the Duck is busy for a Sunday considering it doesn’t sell any food except nuts. Rounds are being carried clinking and dotted around are few empty seats. The ever-tessellating brown carpet suggests nausea normally associated with rough sea travel.
The newcomer walks to the island bar, which, given the narrow terraced frontage of the establishment, unsurprisingly dominates the interior. He orders a double whisky and sucks his cheeks in with a breath as if in great pain. It transpires he is indeed. The whisky knocked back in a blink, he proceeds to order another, which the round barman dispatches just as quickly.
It’s this damn tooth.
Give me another.
Three double whiskies down – in here at least – the newcomer glances about before asking the barman for a pair of pliers, which inexplicably he has, and keeps in a blotchy pint glass on the back wall perched between wholesale boxes of cigarette papers, a red transistor radio and copious dust. What’s more baffling is his instant decision to hand them over. The stranger tucks them in his suit’s top pocket before nodding and stepping back out through the low door.
But within seconds he’s back inside and at the bar again, this time asking for a herbal liqueur plus one for the barman, who obliges gratefully and downs his as swiftly as his customer. The pliers are still poking from the top of the jacket pocket and are wet at their tips. He hands over a twenty from a thick tattered tan wallet that flops open to cover the drinks so far, while the room observes how heavily his hands are tattooed. It’s hard to gauge if the customers have ever seen him before. They don’t bat an eyelid at all the swallows, crests, slogans and shields.
Still there, still there…
The fucking tooth! It won’t budge man.
More people are paying attention to the newcomer now, and his volume goes up. Nobody seems annoyed, the football is still showing on the small flatscreen above the door and most eyes are trained on that. At one table, a group of two men and a woman who’ve clearly been in the pub since opening are acting more cartoon-like than anyone else. One man, light blue slacks riding high up his thighs, the stool he straddles too low for him, springs up behind the stranger and says something close to his ear that no one can make out over the throb of the bar, its glimmering machines and the match.
The man in the pressed blue trousers with half a cigarette perched on his index finger shoulders the stranger back out through the entrance as if the waiter in a busy restaurant. Another conversation quickly ensues, seen but not heard through the frosted lounge glass, the two grey silhouettes bob. Then they’re gone, off down the steep street, and the sound of the match takes over the clientele’s thoughts again.
And then all is fast-paced. The pair return joyous and laugh with each another as if they’ve been friends for years, comrades in a battle against an enemy neither can remember. Blue trouser man is continually repeating it’s ok it’s ok I don’t need paying, before a weighted glance from the woman at his table reveals that, yes, in fact, some payment would be nice. Just a little something.
OK then, just a little something, thanks.
And the stranger offers up another twenty to the globular barman and shoves it in his hand saying whatever you want whatever you want. He seems much drunker, and after the combination double whammy of a goal scored at the televised match and his general heightened mood, it’s as if the Duck’s volume knob’s been turned up with a swift yank. The tooth is out, and what’s more, it’s still in his possession and intact, here in the pub. It passes regally from patron to patron to coos and gurgles of ooh and ahh all bestowed on this most fascinating ceramic baby. No one is repulsed, quite the opposite, the surprisingly long roots still present, damp, a miniature white bar stool or a petrified baby octopus perhaps, rotten in the middle from years of being ignored, no longer bothering the gums of the stranger with its niggling. Not white, but not black, more a yellow – like the pub’s roof, hollow and packing a punch.
And so the trouser man is the hero of the day and takes his double whisky from the stranger with a humble mock bow. He sways a little before crouching back to his stool, pulling it carefully forward under him as he edges towards his beaming friends.
The barman is still passing the tooth around. He wipes stray mucus and blood from his hand onto his thigh as if he’s spilt cake icing, not the blood and spittle of a stranger. He passes the tiny gob trophy to the regulars at the stools at the bar’s edge and each one marvels at its size, its completeness, wonders how in Hell’s name it got out of the stranger’s mouth in one piece. The barman shouts yes James mate what are you having at another local who’s come over to order, and by then the incisor has circled its way back safely into the top pocket of the stranger, into the space left there by the pliers which he hands back in one deft magician’s swipe, to the barman who puts the tool back in the dirty glass pint pot.
There is blood on the stranger’s chin running from the corner where his two lips meet. It trickles down to his collar, mixing with his saliva disturbingly and staining the shirt collar’s edge. But his newly gapped smile distracts any viewers from this. There’s a hubbub, a throb remains as he walks back out of the Duck through the entrance’s low wooden purlin, pain free, for now at least.
Seems there are things that bother us for decades at such a low, smoldering level we scarcely notice. Then one day, when the volume or pain rises to such a crescendo, catching us off guard, we’re forced to act and take advice from strangers who may well know how best to right us.
They don’t tell you they don’t tell you as much. They never let you know you have to keep your eyes on everything all the time when you have one, even after it’s out and a baby and becomes a toddler. They imply it, sure, and everyone laughs and all the girls you know who’ve already had kids tell you you’re going to be really busy once he or she comes along in that immediate 18 months or two years or five years after (we preferred not to know the gender). But then when it happens you’re in this state, this utter state of not knowing where anything is or where it should be, and – newsflash – that you’re so tired all the time.
I don’t know, it’s not a defence, it’s in no way a defence but I do think that after a birth your mind is not your own, nor should it be perhaps, but it becomes not your own at precisely the time you need it most. You lose track of so many things, so much falls away from you so quickly that you feel like a space station with all the air supply cords cut loose and the astronauts flying off into the black foreverness and metal maintenance tools orbiting from their own heavenly bodies, with little planet earths and signature moons reflecting back in visors and you can’t see their faces and I don’t know, it’s not an excuse, I will try to tell you what happened.
In the garden we thought we’d planned for all eventualities and maybe we had and this was just one of those unforeseeable things but yes, we planned and put duct tape and foam on the hard corners and put mesh over the pond for when Toby was out there but he was never out there alone. In the lounge too, we had the soft corners again and the rugs were all removed in case they bunched up to become trip hazards. But there are so many things, unforeseeables, that can trip you up, and putting the rugs you bought in your gap year deep in storage might remove one hazard but it could never remove them all.
Understand we are not bad people. We’ve had periods in our lives, in our relationship, where we’ve been careless, when we drank too much or took drugs or went over the speed limit but that too falls away, at a certain age, and you move to a plateau whereon it doesn’t appeal, and a need emerges and encompasses you – that of wanting a child. And if you’re lucky, which we were, the process follows through as is proper and correct and you find yourself in a family. I’m gibbering.
The key thing they said was how we both thought the other was out there when in fact it was Toby the whole time. The flat wasn’t a big one by any means but it was certainly enough for three, plus with the little lawn. The next step would’ve been to move to a larger, whole house further out of town with a bit more outdoor space for a dog and learn to drive and get a second-hand car and take holidays that didn’t involve going on planes or leaving the ground at all. But for now, this was fine, and central – we always wanted to stay central as a couple, but priorities change obviously when you introduce a kid into the mix. I, we, knew this.
Toby was no longer a baby by the time it happened and was mobile and could get about in this kind of clumping way where his feet would seem like they were stuck to the ground with each step and he’d stagger forward and momentum would carry him and more often than not he’d collapse somewhere, hopefully on carpet not floorboards, but we’d usually hear him, at the end of each voyage teetering lamblike. He was on his feet as often as he was crawling by then and this puts extra pressure on as you have to keep your eyes on everything all the time. They don’t tell you that, after it is a baby and becomes a toddler, I mean, they imply it, sure.
But that one time he was out there on his own, maybe he slid along on his knees and pushed the back door open, unlocked for once, and the memory is still quite difficult but they all say I should talk about it and that’s the only way to work through it but Alex and I do not see each other any more since anyway, but the perspective you have to think about the perspective from Toby’s angle, the dead grass all stuck to the underside, how intriguing garden things are for a toddler, toddlers, all toddlers, the spinny thing in the middle, the orange cable.
There is so much to look out for. My mind has filled in the gaps and it feels as if the gaps themselves are expanding and pushing out reason and they are mostly guilt of course, unsurprisingly, but they are expanding like cavity wall insulation, filling and stretching all the little crevices and cracks that were already in my mind and bulging their way out into the world.
The spinny thing and the clumped grass and that perspective and the desire to spin it round and grab it, the curiosity of a toddler, Toby, any toddler, it’s only natural, there are so many things, so many things that you have to keep an eye out for, everything, and the little sausagey fingers grabbing in one painless action of clasping on metal cold at first, him still in the the romper suit, fresh from romping out into the garden to see what’s there, but it’s only the old mower upturned in the corner by the wall. That extra pressure and you have to keep your eyes on everything all the time. They don’t tell you that, after it has finished being a baby and has become a toddler, I mean, they imply it. Sure.
So the sausage fingers first knock off some clumps of grass but then grab for the spinny thing at the centre, the centre of the green machine with the orange wires, the action is swift and the blood flows out and down and draws itself along creases in the soft cotton of the romper suit, it gathers at the elbows, and worse, god much worse across the pink skin of the sausage fingers, the reddening and the screaming and there might be a new noise too perhaps a slicing like a sword being drawn and by that time Alex and I are outside and screaming at one another, wondering why the other “wasn’t watching him,” realising in nanoseconds how the other was not out there and the slicing, the waving of the arms and legs as Toby lies on his back on our grid of patio – did he hit his head? – half of his suit drenched through with blood and up on his face where he tried to wipe his eyes and the mower now upturned flung manly in the corner where the brick wall from the garage and the wooden one from the shed converge.
Three of us screaming.
For only nanoseconds. While astronauts careen in space with debris a garden at the back of a maisonette in a cul-de-sac on a big globe spinning as a small child lies with three of his four fingers on the right hand sliced through, the blood making everything worse, in a drenched all-in-one, we come to our senses after that, but the damage is already done, and we see we need to get the suit off and pad dry the broken flesh and move from the yard’s cold slabs but the damage is done and we don’t seem, can’t seem to act fast enough and one of us I don’t know who is phoning for the ambulance and one is running for towels and there’s activity enough for three or four adults now back in the flat, we’re moving so fast, a mania, we run around and one of us I don’t know who holds Toby and tries not to jog him and we work together for once then against each other as usual and there is no productivity only destruction and the skin, the flesh, is sliced and it’s too late it is final.
You have to keep your eyes on everything all the time, sure.
The dead cat is draped over the barman’s left arm like a spare tether looped across a cowboy’s. The man looks carefully left and right before crossing the road and heading back into the pub from where some of the cleaning girls have emerged looking worried. Life goes on. He cuts round into the back entrance and out of my line of vision.
Here in my car, waiting to turn, I get flashbacks of the little cat, grey and speckled but now no more, as if sleeping, less than sixty seconds absent from the world. The children of the family who run the pub have already been traipsed to nursery and school by their mother, dressed in crayoned hand drawn masks and even more vibrant wellies and Mackintoshes. They’ll be told when they get home that a life has ended but life goes on.
My passenger seat’s flecked with glitter from the dress you wore the night before and it catches the sun in all its November magnificence as I turn out the t-junction. I’ve wasted so much time worrying. I haven’t been my usual self for too long now but I finally feel I can again. I want to thank the cat for signaling to me that life goes on, with the cars slashing by, that it continues regardless in all its splendid indifference. And mine will too.
I interviewed Elliott Smith in October of 2000, shortly before a gig at London’s Forum. A month after the interview he toured Japan, before practically disappearing for a year or two. He was interviewed by Ray Davies of The Kinks in 2003, but excluding this, as far as I am aware, I was the last European journalist to go head to head over a tape recorder with him.
He died, of self inflicted stab wounds to the heart, ten years ago today…
Me: You released Figure 8 followed by ‘Son of Sam’ – but don’t albums usually follow singles?
Elliott: “I didn’t choose to do that. If I had my way I wouldn’t bother to release a single at all. It’s the label’s decision, I didn’t ask, you know. I’m really not very… into singles. What’s the point?”
Do you hate doing press too?
“I don’t hate it. The last few interviews that I’ve done were actually fine. I’ve gotten used to certain things and I don’t get mad about questions that irritate me. If it hits on one of those things I just…”
Like a contentious issue?
“Just things that have been thoroughly covered.”
It reminds me of when you were playing at ULU this summer, because you were asking the audience what they wanted, and naturally they wanted old songs. Do you not enjoy playing them so much?
“I like playing old songs, but I like playing brand new songs. If it’s an old song that I don’t play very much then it can seem kinda cool again. I enjoyed that show, I like playing in London.”
Is ‘Son Of Sam’ about someone who realises their partner doesn’t know them at all?
“It could be. That one’s particularly impressionistic and I don’t have any particular interpretation of it.”
Do you write as yourself?
“Not usually. Or not entirely, you know? There’s a couple of songs on the last few records that are straightforward, but most of them are more like… they’re not unreal, but they’re not exactly a diary. I’ve compared it to writing down a dream that you had over and over. That’s still the closest thing I can get.”
Do you ever try and reflect that in the production?
“Yes, but only to the extent that I have any conscious desire for the production. I play a part in it, but the last two records have been two producers and me and we’re all pretty much equally involved, although they do way more of the technical stuff. Choosing compressors and microphones. But the way it’s mixed involves me.”
What about the artwork?
“That’s pretty much all my decision…”
OK, so, does everyone want to talk about The Beatles to you?
“Oh, people want to talk about The Beatles anywhere. I really like them, but I also like a lot of other things. But if you say one thing in an interview then it seems as if that’s the only thing you ever listened to.”
So tell me about LA then?
“I’ve been living there for almost a year. It’s alright. I don’t live in Hollywood so it’s not that kind of LA that people think of who’ve never lived there. It’s very unlike London. London is very central. With LA you can be there and still not be able to see the downtown area. It’s pretty green, there’s a lot of neighbourhoods and only two or three taller buildings. They kind of stretch out sideways.”
You mention traffic a lot on Figure 8.
“I’ve moved to LA from New York, but I don’t have much stuff so it was easy. Traffic’s just a good metaphor for lots of things. It’s noisy and it moves so it applies to all kinds of situations.”
Are you famous?
“I don’t know, you tell me! It’s all comparative. Compared to some of my friends who play in bands that don’t have a record deal I might seem famous, but in comparison to… I don’t know who, too many people, I’m not famous at all.”
Do you find yourself fascinated by older musical styles, like waltz and ragtime?
“Sometimes. I’m interested in every style. Except whatever’s really popular, because that’s been fully covered. Whatever is selling millions of copies automatically attracts more and more people to do that, so a bunch of people are doing the same thing. I’m not saying that’s bad, I just don’t feel the need to dive into that ocean, you know?”
Do you have contemporaries then?
“Yeah, Sam Coomes from Quasi, but that’s about it.”
So you get lumped with the wrong crowd?
“Uh huh. Sometimes I just get put in with, well… anyone who’s not in a band. Anyone who’s a singer-songwriter. Which is funny because in the past couple of years my records sound more like a band than a singer-songwriter. But because it has my name on the front and not the name of a band I get put in with… well, I get a lot of people saying I’m influenced by Simon and Garfunkel, which is far from true.”
So you’re not a solo artist?
“Yeah, but I’m in a band, and it doesn’t mean I’m trying to fly the flag for a long tradition of singer-songwriters. I’m coming from growing up listening to The Beatles and Stevie Wonder. He did it all on his own – but it doesn’t sound like one person. He was a great drummer for example, that was really inspiring to me when I was a kid. I wanted to be in a band. My band broke up, so now I emulate one.”
Did you play out much?
“I was in a band [Heatmiser] when I was in my early 20s. We made three records, we went on tour. It wasn’t fun though, because we didn’t really want to play the same kind of music as each other. But they’re all doing different things now.”
Are you a multi-instrumentalist?
“Yeah, I play almost everything. Not like Stevie Wonder, but well enough to do my own songs justice. If I didn’t like the sound of something I’d do it myself.”
What sort of music don’t you like the sound of?
“I still haven’t found anything to like about jazz-fusion yet. Other than that I think all styles of music are really good. There’s cool examples of everything.”
Do you read much?
“Yeah, I read a lot. Lately I’ve been reading contemporary fiction. There’s a Portugese author called Jose Saramago, and I just read some things on Hinduism, and now I’m reading a history of medieval Europe. I was reading the Tibetan Book Of The Dead and I had to put it down for a while. It was kind of dissolving my sense of self. It wouldn’t be bad, but since I was on tour I needed to keep some sense of identity.”
What’s the biggest mistake people make about you?
“I just don’t like it when people don’t even listen to the record they’re coming to interview me about and they just ask me “Why are you so sad?” as if a record is a journal. As if there’s no fictional quality to it at all. You wouldn’t do that with a movie.”
Do you also deny the charges of ‘folk singer’?
I think your records are funny.
“I think so too! And I thought there was a lot of humour in Morrissey’s records as well. It’s not that there wasn’t any real feeling in them, the two just co-existed. They can be moving and comical at the same time. I thought that was great. And I remember at high school people were like, “Oh, Morrissey’s so depressing” and it’s just – you don’t fucking get it do you?”
He never really sang in a traditional way…
“Well, good for him…”
Have you got a hardcore album in you?
“Ha, maybe. When we recorded Either/Or, for a time I wanted to make it one side of acoustic songs and one side of full-on metal versions, but I didn’t wind up doing that. My old band was kind of post-punk or something. Or just high volume. I like playing like that.”
Is it different coming off stage with a band to just coming off alone?
“Well ,I have people to talk to. Someone else will say it was fun, or that they couldn’t hear themselves at all.”
Are you the boss?
“I don’t wanna be the boss. We’re already playing all of my songs, that’s enough for me.”
What makes you laugh?
Are you confident about your voice and your playing?
“In some ways. I’m definitely not the shy person that some of the press makes me out to be. I’m not like a megalomaniac who thinks he’s god’s gift to singing or something. There’s lots of people who can sing better than me.”
Do you still sing and play in your spare time?
“I still do it a lot. But it feels like people are watching me more. That’s the only real downside to the whole thing.”
What was it that first made you pick up a guitar?
“My dad bought me one when I was 12, and I was trying to learn how to play Angus Young, AC/DC, but it doesn’t sound the same on a nylon acoustic.”
Is Good Will Hunting shit?
“I think that it depends on where you’re coming from. If you’re going to approach pretty big budget Hollywood movies and compare them to art films then they might not come out so favourably, but I think what he was trying to do was play a bigger game and not get stuck in a little corner making Gus Van Zandt movies for the rest of his life. I think it was a brave move. I think it turned out pretty well. But soundtracking that was a one-time kinda thing.”
Do you read your own press?
“Not any more, no. I did up until about a year ago. Most of it seemed pretty positive, but it’s like looking at yourself in a circus mirror. Passing by is kind of amusing but if you’re standing in front of it day in and day out then eventually you start to believe that’s what you really look like. I’d rather stick with my own definition of my life. Whatever that is…”
Is life getting easier?
“No it’s getting harder. But it’s not a big deal. It’s not like a big crushing weight. It’s just something to watch out for more and more. And it might disappear you know. Maybe next year, or the year after that, or five years from now, there won’t be any attention and it won’t matter. Problem solved.”
You must be learning then…
“Yeah, and it’s not, umm, it’s very positive and lucky. On most counts.”
Do you get praise from strange places”
“Yeah, I think it’s cool when people who are seen in magazines to be belonging to some style can show their appreciation for other styles. I don’t know anyone who only likes one kind of music. I like lots of different kinds of music, I think if people read music magazines they get to thinking that everyone’s in their own corner, as if all these different styles were competitive.”
Is this a job?
“Technically, yes. I used to work in a bakery. I did political theory and philosophy at college, and I went to the bakery when I got out. Eventually it closed. I started doing odd-job construction work. So this is not the same at all. It’s far from what I thought would be going on.”
Do you feel lucky?
At this point, Elliott looked out the window. He seemed to want to be anywhere else. Anywhere. There was a magazine on the table we were sat at advertising the new Tate Modern, which had opened five months prior.
Do you like Mark Rothko?
“Yeah, he’s one of my favourites. I know some people don’t like him – they say it’s just a field of colour, but that’s what’s so cool about it. They just hum. It’s like this kind of static thing. It’s the same thing I like about Nico’s records. Some people find them too static or maybe depressing, but it doesn’t make me feel like that. It’s a vibrant, elemental thing. It’s not a fancy thing.”
Do you feel like that?
“Well, I seem to get a lot of attention considering I haven’t had a hit single and I probably won’t. It doesn’t really bother me though because when I’m recording I don’t think about that. I’m still really into the long form of albums, even though CDs make it so it’s one continuous thing.”
Are you going to keep going?
“Yeah, sure, as long as I can. I hope so.”
Anything to add in your defence?
“No, nothing I can think of.”
I’m dead if anyone asks, which they do a lot in here. But I’m pretending. I’ve been lying on my back for what seems like weeks but’s probably only three or four hours. And I’m dead, as I said. Under the table I lie, looking up at the sunlight poking through the edges of the tablecloth draped over it, carpet rough on the back of my head.
When no one was in the house I looked around, saw the four dents in the carpet where the table legs rest, the one piece of gum stuck on the tabletop’s underside and the dust-free perspective in general. But as I heard the family return I froze up and stayed tight in my position. For my plan to work they must not know I’m alive, they must suspect nothing.
In they bound, and the grandchildren’s raincoats flapping and delight and bluster from being at the shops or the park and their new toys stops suddenly. The sun’s lower now, slicing in through to my still cheek. The true test is not moving when they cry, not going to help. I’m playing dead and the game must play through to its end or all is lost.