Thought For The Day
Thought For The Day
Nick In NYC
I got here. I put all my stuff in boxes, gave up my London flat, said goodbye to my girlfriend (for six weeks, anyway). I got on a plane and just flew in. I'm here.
The water is brown, the radiators hiss, there's steam coming up from the manholes and a cold wind blowing from the west. Nobody is even remotely normal or reasonable. I love it.
I've been meaning to come here for years. I started feeling like a New York person when I was living in Paris. It was going to be a corrective to the insularity, cultural protectionism and technological caution of France. But somehow I ended up back in London, which I will always associate with the 80s simply because that's when I first moved there.
In A Republic, People Matter
London is in an up phase just now, and I was moderately sorry to leave. I didn't hang around long enough to see much of the 21st century London that's emerging with a lot of government hype and fanfare. I didn't get a chance to visit the Dome, or ride on the London Eye, or walk across the Millenium Bridge to the new Tate Bankside. I didn't get to vote for Ken Livingstone or Malcolm McLaren in the mayoral race.
But those things don't matter. London will always be a punky, beery, comfortable sprawl of a city with different priorities than mine. I based half my career on double guessing its cyncism and trying to go one step further, only to find myself beyond the pale and untouchable. I never really understood England. The games with class, the tension between money and roots, south and north, the fear of sex, the hatred of Europe. Royalty, crap Anglicised Planet Hollywood Americana, football.
It's all behind me now.
Revolution never happened in England, but that doesn't mean there aren't societies on either side of Britain founded on revolutionary values. You just have to get on a train or plane and they're there. And things are subtly different. There's a kind of humanism which doesn't exist in England. People are seen to matter, and for that reason art is seen to matter. And the kind of art that I do -- honest, personal, a little eccentric -- is considered important, humane and honest rather than disgusting and embarrassing.
Last night New York University mounted a celebration of novelist Dennis Cooper, whose novels detail his graphic fantasies of homosexual longing and murder. Somewhere mid-Atlantic there's a packing case with a copy of Cooper's Frisk dedicated in the author's own hand 'To Nick, with adoration'. Would England honour an author as unsettlingly honest as Cooper? Would British rock stars turn out to read his work as Thurston Moore and Steven Malkmus did last night?
The Last City
What is it about this place that really gets inside me?
You spend seven and a half hours suspended above a tight ceiling of clouds that shields the Atlantic from view. You catch a glimpse, from your empty Virgin jumbo, of the wastes of Quebec. Then, before you know it, you're descending and suddenly the island of Manhattan is to your left, a reptile spine of spiked buildings, a living logo which simply says 'city'. New York is the brand image of all cities. Perhaps we should say 'of the 20th Century city', because 21st century cities are much more secretive, electronic, inward-looking, brachial networks of phone signals and packet routes. They're spread out and ungraspable, like LA and Tokyo, or like the unnamed and constantly changing city of the web.
Perhaps New York is the last city to look like a recognisable bunch of buildings and people. The last and ultimate city, and, like all great cities, a summation and index of all other cities.
I'm staying in Harlem, in a building facing the very north edge of Central Park. Anywhere north or east of here white faces stick out like a sore thumb. The Vietnamese girl I'm sharing a flat with tells me not even to go there. So I take the short walk to the subway each day and head downtown. And I just walk and walk, and look and look, and bump into people I know (it's amazing, the first day I met half a dozen people I knew, by chance, on the street), and talk and talk.
As I walk around, as well as flat-hunting and organising next week's KnitActive show, I'm also thinking about what it is that makes this place so compelling to me.
I think some things are becoming clearer.
I've been consuming New York vicariously for years. Lou Reed was my soundtrack at boarding school, and I sang along in a 12 year-old's trill to 'New York Conversation' off Transformer. When I lived in Montreal I read the New Yorker and even visited the city for the first time with my mother. As an arty teenager back in Edinburgh I'd haunt the stately, empty galleries of the university where I could sit under chandeliers quite undisturbed, flipping through copies of ArtForum for hours. When I formed The Happy Family with ex-members of Josef K, my bandmates lent me their Velvet Underground tapes. (I still think the VU is the best rock group of all time.) Later it was Phillip Glass and Laurie Anderson, Dylan and Sonic Youth, Talking Heads and Arto Lindsay. Cinema, of course, sold the place too, from Woody Allen to Harmony Korine. Poetry, from O'Hara to Ginsberg to Berryman to Lowell. Oddly enough, never prose fiction. Never 'Bonfire Of The Vanities' or Norman Mailer.
Now the New Yorker mentions me. This week's Time Out New York calls me 'the clever, pottymouth Scottish songwriter' and advises people to book early. Lou Reed is playing at the Knitting Factory the same week I am. David Byrne came to the last show I played here, and I got to jam with Harmony Korine and visit Arto Lindsay in his studio. It's so exciting that, after these people educated and expanded me, they're actually listening to my work.
But I wonder what drew me to these creative freaks in the first place, and why they could thrive in a place like this? It seems to be something to do with creativity, openness, a certain eccentricity, a willingness to experiment, to make new combinations, to transgress. You just have to walk down the street to see that almost everyone here is interesting, open, a little freaky, expressive, keen to push their identities further into areas other people would call mad or bad. People wear more ridiculous clothes (hugely baggy pants, pointy peaked hats, dinky little Klaus Nomi waistcoats, cascading ethnic hairstyles), people talk to themselves cheerfully, there seems to be no neutral position. The place is not dominated by cars and suits. There really seems to be an appreciation of difference and a hunt for fresh ideas.
I have big eyes (well, eye) when I walk around. On every block, something interesting might happen. I love the buildings, the iron fire escapes and water towers. St Mark's Place and Tomkins Square are unashamedly boho, full of bums and coffeehouses. Other places are full of the sweet nostalgia of the emigree; the way the Lower East Side remembers Poland in a way that Poland doesn't, and Chinatown remembers Shanghai better than Shanghai itself.
Europe Dead And Gone To Heaven
A girl wrote to me that Lorca, too, lived in Harlem when he first arrived in New York, and wrote some fantastic poems about his impressions. I'll seek them out. It's a fine city of refuge for Europeans, the only city most of us could live in this side of the Atlantic without feeling homesick. I walk on the cobbled streets of Soho -- Wooster, Greene, Mercer -- and it's like the best bits of Edinburgh or Antwerp or Berlin. Only, somehow, better. It's Europe dead and gone to heaven, it's Kafka's dream of Amerika.
It's a place with winching hooks where they literally hoist new ideas up into their iron-pillared industrial spaces, those big-windowed industrial places given over to the manufacture of speculations and ideas. It's a place where art matters, and beauty matters, and people aren't afraid to be pretentious. (Nobody who's afraid of being pretentious will ever do interesting work.)
Yesterday I was in Chelsea. In a building containing eleven floors of galleries I shared the lift with perhaps the most beautiful woman I've ever seen, someone so self-consciously radiant that she was afraid to do anything other than look fixedly in front of her. The other people in the lift were reduced to whispers, as though the shared but unmentionable fact of her beauty bound us all in some pact of silence.
Then I walked on the roof of the DIA in the sun and a bitingly cold west wind, and saw Eno's 'mistaken memories of medieval Manhattan' in the water towers and medieval belfries of Chelsea.
Life Will Never Be Normal Again
Just two days here, and already so many impressions, such a rush of liberty and inspiration from the quirky freakpower that surrounds me. Even domestic disputes in the semi-desolate Harlem tenements behind my bedroom sound like a song by Bessie Smith or Billie Holliday.
Life will never be normal and dull and mean-spirited again. It will all have this edgy push, this happy rush, this friendly insane babble, this creative drive, this openness to the new and the foreign, the strange and the beautiful. For me, anyway. That's it. I'm here.