Amy Winehouse and me

Amy WinehouseMany years ago I saved a strange newspaper article by someone named Dean Durber, who wrote commemorating the death of River Phoenix and why he never got over it. He discussed that had he lived, Phoenix could have been used to say so much. He could have been anti-corporate culture, anti-commercialism, anti-materialism, anti-pop and entertainment culture, which I’m sure are the things that are all the opposite of the truth. Or indeed, he could have been used by these powers as their shill. “But he didn’t,” Durber wrote. “He just shut up and he died. What a star!”

This is all out of order, and maybe that’s all for the best, because at least I won’t write this in a formulaic way. But there was a completely random person in the arts who stated years later, not knowing her, that he had never gotten over losing Amy Winehouse.

In a small way, neither did I. I already wrote about this same thing once before, about Lauryn Hill, about a person who released some truth in to the world early in her life, then broke from the experience. But I can write about it again. Amy Winehouse had the gift of being able to channel some truth that touched a lot of people, but then couldn’t handle it and she died.

At least Lauryn Hill continued a life for herself afterwards. Pras Michel, an original bandmate of hers, told the world that she had a gift of being able to move people, which is rare, and she was wasting it.

Did she? Did Amy waste her gift? Like the transcendental soccer player Ronaldinho, are we grateful that they showed the extraordinary to the world once, or pine that it didn’t last longer?

I watched the documentary Amy, only really interested in her musical bits and the start of her life, not the downfall, which was at least half the real reason she was doco-worthy. I have the album, I hear the voice, I see the cute beehive hairdo. I hear the words.

There is not a dominant theme in what she says, just that these songs are all about her life and they are honest. And they are all about uncertainty.

I could go off on super tangents thinking about that. About how when you’re young, a teen or in your twenties, your emotions are stronger than can be controlled. In your thirties, they are controllable. Even heartbreak. But I think that is not a good thing. I think it’s because we put the brakes on our emotions because we already know what supreme hurt feels like, and will avoid it again by not going all the way emotionally. Or else the emotions are just not as strong; which is just as terrible. “Children, I would say,” Brian Phillips wrote as a semi-joke. “Except I’m not at all convinced that they are any worse than adults. We do everything they do, after all. Only less whole-heartedly.”

At the end of the Amy doco, Tony Bennett says, “Slow down, you’re too important. Life teaches you how to live it, if you live long enough.” He couldn’t reach Winehouse on time. We are smarter, I think, at this age now (I’m 35), and not just less emotional. We can maybe see through things, through the haze of confusion and negativity and media frivolity that consumes us and hides everything real.

Why didn’t Amy keep producing her art the last five years of her life? Why don’t I? Why don’t we just channel what comes naturally, just sit down, do the work? I worry. I worry that I will not write the right thing for the occasion, for what needs to be said, that it will be out of order, that I will miss something. It’s illogical, but a blank sheet offers infinite promise. Until you commit yourself, and fill it.

Amy. I love your eye makeup, your beehive hair, your long thin legs and big feet. I hear your songs, I know that someone sent me flying, the way “You sent me flying when you kicked me to the curb.” I know that despite the obscuring propaganda about sex, sex is actually clumsy and often not completely fulfilling (it’s the condoms, they ruin everything): “Upstairs in bed with my ex boy. He’s in the place but I can’t get joy.” I know that sometimes you try to love the person who loves you, but you want to be with someone else: “How can he have her heart? So he tries to pacify her, but what’s inside her never dies.” And then: “You go back to her, and I go back to black.”

Above all, life is messy, and some lucky people just don’t understand that about others. Mistakes happen because so many problems swirl around, including our own self-created ones, and we are simply incapable of controlling them all.

Actions and behaviours come out wrong, but we are more than just the sum of our actions. There is always a person underneath, even if they achieve nothing. Even if they achieve everything. That person is always sad, is always dying little by little, is always longing.

Oh, Amy.


On Phil Walsh and being a man

A year ago Phil Walsh died and I wrote this. It still disconcerts me how, once we get over the shock of someone dying unexpectedly, it just becomes another story and we get used to it.


These days men are trying to reconcile the gaps between being traditional men who are tough, who work, drink and fight, and existing as thinking, feeling beings.

Back in the 1980s anyone who reached for their water bottles in the middle of an arduous training session was considered a wimp. Now sports science is the word and knowledge has often become the new muscle at the elite level of footy – of course the body needs hydration to keep on trucking.

Perhaps it’s simply a case of muscle and toughness being non-negotiables. Therefore I suppose footy teams – and perhaps men in general – have decided these days that you may as well be tough and smart rather than simply tough.

Or maybe we can now put some (necessary or unnecessary?) emotion into it all, and go the Nathan Buckley route, in which every moment in life should be part of a constant evolving towards a goal, towards excellence, including mental and emotional excellence. But ‘evolution’ is too abstract a word, so it’s about the “journey”.

Phil Walsh had a nine-minute interview on The Sunday Footy Show on April 12 this year, after the Adelaide Crows had won their first two games of the year. I was impressed by the way he spoke. He was a man’s man, very to the point, no bullshit, someone who could keep control of a situation.
Much of what he discussed about being coach was leadership 101. He said he was big on ‘man conversations’, which meant that the players have to speak up when they need to get something off their chests.

He’d entered a club that had split with previous coach Brenton Sanderson in difficult circumstances (really, does anything ever end well?). Walsh said the first thing he did was tell the players to be men about it, were there any problems that needed addressing? There weren’t, and they moved on.

The leader leads, and isn’t an equal. Walsh described: It’s ok to disagree with some issues but then the team must commit or else it goes nowhere. You’ve got to have a relationship with all your players, you’re never going to be their friend. It’s an employer/employee relationship.

“You’ve got to find out what makes them tick, how far you can put pressure on some players, how much you need to be more of that fatherly figure. I always say pressure can break people but can push them to break records.”

It’s all stuff that is common sense yet difficult to achieve in any sphere in which more than fifty personalities are meshing, including Crows administrators. That was the rationale with which he’d selected Taylor Walker as Adelaide captain for 2015. With Tex, he said, there’s a sense of ‘Follow me or else, there are consequences if you don’t.’ That’s how collectives hold together, with discipline.

But man is not made on strength alone. “I surf. That’s my outlet, that’s my pilates or yoga.” Could men have even mentioned the word ‘yoga’ a decade ago? Even the Phil Walshes of the world need to be rounded, and need a connection. Maybe they always have had that need, but now they can admit it.

Three years ago Walsh was hit by a bus in Peru. He had never been desperate in his career before, but it was a moment to make him realise: I want to be a senior coach. He sent his wife back there to take a photo of the intersection he was hit and used it as his laptop background as a reminder to stay positive. He started learning Japanese. He tried to establish a better relationship with his son, who in the end allegedly murdered him.

I wonder if using transcendental experiences in mundane settings like laptop photos lessen their emotional effect through the repetition of routine. Mentally switching on to an emotional need, trying to replicate that sense of desperation that every moment must be used to its full, is not an easy thing to remember even if a photo of a road is staring you in the face.

Even the interview seemed more ordinary when I watched it just now for a second time. Impact is hard to maintain indefinitely, or even twice. How did Alastair Clarkson maintain it so effectively for over ten years?

I don’t take a shine to many people I don’t know, so when I did with Phil Walsh it was slightly sadder than it could have been to me, with slightly more of a personal touch. His murder became more unbelievable – when I first read the headline, I actually thought for a few seconds maybe it really didn’t happen.

Seemingly nothing can go back to normal after a man is cruelly, randomly handed death – until it simply does again. I thought I’d never get over the nagging shock of young cricketer Phil Hughes, who one minute was going about his cricket, maybe that night he needed to pick up some groceries or something, and a second later had been struck and killed, just like that.

But by the end of the summer Brad Haddin was telling admirable Kiwi batsman Grant Elliott to fuck off back to the pavilion and nothing had changed. Now to me, Hughes’ death has become simply something that happened.

Last night’s Hawthorn-Collingwood match in prospect seemed impossible. How could players go full tilt at a football when a guy like Phil Walsh has just been murdered? In the event, it was the great match, and greater occurrence, of the season.

There was no hoopla. There were no childlike club songs based on corny American dandies. It was just 44 men pushing themselves to their limits, and when the siren went they could simply rest, and be happy, in Hawthorn’s case.

Nathan Buckley has always been about recognising that people must go below what is apparent on the surface, to recognise what is truly important. When racism was an issue, he stated: As well as racism, we also need to think about and help people who are rejected anywhere, for any reason. For a guy who carries himself so strongly he is dangerously close to recognising that emotions go hand- in-hand with being human, for an industry that in the past couldn’t even reach for its water bottles.

His message yesterday read: “So sad to hear of Phil Walsh’s death. No sense to it. We are all flesh and blood. Love each other. Thoughts with all family and friends.”

I was not surprised that Buckley could come up with that but was that the l-word could come into a footy forum even in these exceptional circumstances.

I was also not surprised that he could be involved in the best gesture I’ve ever seen on a footy field. Two sets of players all got into the same huddle with two coaches arm-in- arm. It was Clarkson’s idea, told to Buckley and two experienced players who could handle the information beforehand without their game going to pieces.

They were Scott Pendlebury and Luke Hodge, a straight shooter similar to Phil Walsh. I thought the two were unusually chatty at the end, when losing players are supposed to sink into the mire rather than soak in the occasion of a match well played or reveal through body language that a loss didn’t affect them like Brendan Fevola did a few years ago. AFL players still have to be tough. They still have to act it at times, even in this PC era. I guess, losing should hurt, otherwise you don’t strive to get better. It was Buckley as a commentator who had decried Fevola’s relaxed chatting in 2008.

I loved the silence of post-game last night. I watched with long breath when each Collingwood player linked with a Hawk and they bowed head in the centre circle. As Rohan Connolly once wrote when describing Hawthorn chairing off Leigh Matthews after the 1985 Grand Final: the best moments cannot be choreographed.

Vale Phil Walsh.



Zinedine Zidane and France (and me)

Zidane’s dead, he retired the second he planted that headbutt into Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup Final. He was France’s excuse as a nation: they were always able to point to him and pretend that their country wasn’t falling apart on racial faultlines; to the way he had won France its World Cup in 1998 and were able to blindly say, “But look, even Algerians can make it to the top in France if they apply themselves.” Meanwhile the real Algerians remained marginalised and unemployed in shithole suburbs at the end of the Parisian and Marseille trainlines while CVs with Algerian (or Senegalese or any sort of Arab or African) names were proven in a French study to be immediately thrown into the bin by French employers.

I was fascinated by the French soccer team. Even though each game was a struggle, somehow they were winners. They were a motley collection of Algerians, Caribbeans, Africans, Frenchmen all who were mostly first or second generation. There was Patrick Vieira, the man who as an ex-Senegalese lined up for France in World Cup 2002 against, yes, Senegal, who themselves were a team full of first-generation Frenchmen. That’s postcolonialism for you. And Senegal won!

I couldn’t really get a read on Zidane as a soccer player. He thought better than other players, faster: he played soccer with a one-touch style (that is, thinking ahead so that he already knew where he would pass the ball even before he received it, thus moving the ball on with a single touch without maintaining possession). It’s a trait I admire and a way I always felt was the best way to play in my own shitty little soccer games. Zidane had an innate sense of the field, but he would sometimes fade in and out of games. My hero on the French team was not in fact Zidane but his ‘rival’ for the French team’s number one, Thierry Henry. Henry had an all-action style, always involved with the play, whereas Zidane didn’t know how to get his own ball, so that if he wasn’t supplied by other teammates he got lost.

People are seldom able to think as fast as Zidane, on field (and nor are there many who can think fast off it). Most players are ball-hogs, both at local level and internationally. Zidane and Henry did not gel that well, and in fact until Henry’s famous goal that killed Brazil at World Cup 2006 (see below) they had never combined for a French goal. They both existed as the French focus, separate but equal, tying France over for four tournaments without having much to do with each other.

I loved the French team back in the day. They were almost Latin in their elegance, almost Germanic in their pragmatic efficiency to win all of the close matches, almost African in their physical strength and, well, blackness, almost Italian in their defensive strength. I was not a Zidane fan as such but he was indisputably the man. Now that he’s gone I just can’t bring myself to care about France’s results anymore, their terrible Euro 2008.

When they won Euro 2000 against the hated Italian team (although I now admire Italy since they won WC 2006) after Italy were seconds away from winning I was utterly overjoyed by the way it had happened; the good guys had won. And then in 2006 after I was sure that France were now irrelevant and finished as a force they, and Zidane, turned the clock back out of nowhere and beat all the same teams that they had in 2000. It was as if God made deal just with me: you liked France’s 2000 so much, here it is all over again. They beat Spain again by scoring goals, by having it, a force which Spain, for all their pretty ball possession, did not have. They beat Portugal again with a Zidane penalty. They beat Brazil again (those arrogant pricks totally needed to be put in their place; France is their daddy). All that was left was to beat Italy in the Final again.

Zidane chipped a beautiful penalty in at the start of the 2006 World Cup Final. But after that Henry’s buzzing was the only x-factor of the standoffish match. Ten minutes from the end Zidane’s header was saved by the Italian goalkeeper. If it had gone in Zidane would have been the two-goal hero just like 1998, France would be World Champions again completely against the formguide and my life would have been just wonderful. But it got saved and three minutes later he headbutted Materazzi and was sent off. In spirit that moment was the end of the 2006 World Cup; the penalty shootout afterwards felt oddly empty even as it was happening. There wasn’t a chance in hell that France would win the penalty shootout after all that.

He was the French team. When he trudged past the World Cup trophy on display as he was sent off, there trudged off the French team with him, leaving a bunch of ghosts to take the penalties. And then Italy won – think about how many trillions of times anyone has ever kicked a ball anywhere; Fabio Grosso’s winning penalty was the single most important kick of all of them, ever – and I quietly turned off the TV. I couldn’t bear to see the rest, the Italian happiness.

Zidane was from Marseille. Did he come from a place where you just don’t let insults against one’s sister slide, damn the consequences (even when the World Cup is on the line in the next ten minutes)? He must have had some sort of anger within him, a need to achieve, driving his career. I think most top athletes – apart from the insanely gifted ones like Roger Federer – have something fierce inside them, something that needs to set them apart from others, at the expense of others particularly. It actually wasn’t the first time that Zidane headbutted someone in his career.

Oh well. At least they all have 1998 and 2000. It’s funny talking about Zidane and Henry both underachieving in their insanely successful careers but those twin French victories came so early in their careers that I have to wonder if there will still be regrets for each of them.


Langu was a black woman my age from South Africa who I worked and lived with for three months on a campsite in the U.S., then we separately went back home and I didn’t see her again.

I’ve had people in my life who I’ve liked, and people I’ve felt comfortable around, but very few people with whom I’ve felt welcomed on every level and understood on every level, that there was no judgement floating below the surface and never would be. I ended up feeling love for these people, and afterwards never felt the strange bitterness when they got ‘lost’ from my life that I residually felt with everyone else whose bad memories overtook the good ones once they went missing.

There was Langu from Johannesburg in 2003, and there was Clint from Cape Town in 2004 who both (but separately) worked with me at St Mary’s children’s summer camp in Wisconsin. The two greatest people I ever met, but they would probably not figure on a list of influential people in my life because I just didn’t know them long enough – three intense months each one. Throw in Lizeth the Bolivian goddess for the perfect understanding we had although my association with her did not give me any peace – there, I said her name, strike me down – and a Swede named Elin who I knew in Bolivia and those are the four people I’ve felt a perfect connection with. Langu and Clint were the ones I felt the most joy around, the people I would most give a shit about losing, yet the only ones who I felt no animosity towards when I did lose them, as I said.

After a few years apart, they stopped answering letters and emails, disappeared into the heart of South Africa and became untraceable. It’s a strange thought in the google/facebook age that people can still vanish into the ether, but neither of them has a facebook or answer the few hopeless emails sent so that’s the end. (My facebook is now deactivated too, as an aside.)

Langu was one of the very few women with whom there was never any sexual tension in my mind. I just cruised with her, laughed all the time, discussed things, intellectually thought she looked kind of decent but instinctively knew that it was about something else with her, and simply lived it. I lived it once more in Bolivia in 2005-6, with a very cute Swedish/Iranian girl named Talajeh. We lived in the same house in Bolivia and she became my sister. I watched both of them hook up with other guys with amusement and warmth. But they were the only women my age with whom I felt this way; all the others could g.f.themselves cause they didn’t want to sleep with me, etc, you know, the macho shit lives inside me too. I wonder if a massive difference was needed to allow me to feel that way with the two of them, a huge racial difference that just instinctively put the sexual side out of the question.

I have all of these great memories of Langu, a catalogue. She referred to a song we sang together onstage as “A Langu and Marty moment” and I suppressed my laughter to cooly reply, “One of many.” She used to wander around, aware of everything but at the same time in her world, never lost but never succumbing to the day-to-day bullshit that everyone else did, or at least never showing it with me. She told me about her life, her extended family, her schooling. She never begrudged me my slightly upper-middle class background, my naïveté.

I was with her for a week in New York and was just overjoyed by my company, that I had those two people all to myself (it was her and another fantastic dude from Jo’burg named Jono. I’ve met so many great South African people that if I could turn back the clock I would give them the 1999 World Cup semi-final as gratitude, to ease their pain). She was running low on money so we did simple things. We stayed in Spanish Harlem and decided that New York was not exactly overrated but neither was it the glamorous Sex and the City world that everyone writes about and is shown on TV. New York City was Third World in its gritty struggle to survive, its utter lack of forgiveness. Its ragged squalor and sometimes filthy surroundings, its hustle- and urgency-based economy pointed not to the richness of Wall Street and the rest of North America but back to the poverty of Africa, from where huge numbers of African immigrants had rolled the dice and come to try their luck in NYC. Langu and I ended up with mixed feelings about the place. We said goodbye to each other on a NY street corner and when I was there for a few days the next year I thought of her constantly.

The last time I heard from her was September 2006, when I had just returned from the Bolivian year and was an emotional wreck, although an emotionally drowning man cannot see himself drowning until he has safely emerged afterwards. Then I lost her, she stopped writing to my letters and emails (I sent actual, physical letters to her: she was special), but that’s how it goes, I don’t feel any “You’re too good to write to me anymore?” nonsense. She might have lost interest, she might be married, she might be ashes for all I know. Oh well, you can’t hold a rainbow, but I wish I was still in touch with her.

Langutelani Rikhotso, Langu Rikhotso, if you ever google your name, maybe you’ll come across this site and know that I still think of you, and maybe you can get in touch if you’re still a living, breathing person at this point. I say this, even if it’s a terrible emotional cliché: Langu, I love you, or at least did when I knew you, and the memory of you warms my heart still. I felt perfect contentment whenever I spent any time with you, and that is an exceedingly rare feeling. While I’m at it: Clint Hendricks from Cape Town who worked in Wisconsin in 2004: google yourself and find my site if you still exist, as I’m sure you do. You are the most insightful, kindest, funkiest person I ever met. I love you as well, you are the only guy I could probably say that to, and I never forgot about you.

…Salman Rushdie and me

How does he do it?

How does he do it?

There isn’t really a Salman Rushdie and me in the same way that there is a Lauryn Hill and me, or a Barack Obama and me. I’ve only read three of his books, and one, The Satanic Verses, I wasn’t all that impressed with (but you can’t buy that kind of publicity, hyuk hyuk). I would read more of Salman Rushdie’s books but you know, can’t be fucked, life’s too short etc. They’re all indirectly about the Indian subcontinent, it just doesn’t interest me enough.

Still, I’ve loved the other two I’ve read: Midnight’s Children, a whimsical fictional look at the beginnings and developments of the Indian and Pakistani nations through the eyes of a magical child/teen/adult, and Fury, a look through fiction at the concept of America and New York City as the all-powerful cultural and money capital of the world (c. 2000, pre-towers, pre-Bush budget deficits. Pre-fear).

Salman Rushdie, to refresh our memories, was the one who wrote The Satanic Verses, for which the Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini stated to the world in 1989 that every good Muslim had a duty to kill Salman Rushdie if the opportunity presented itself, and he had to go underground for a decade. Both the Italian and Japanese translators of the book consequently met their end. The fatwa is still in place.

The Satanic Verses is not quite a good enough book to spend time analysing, so I won’t. And Islam (or any religion) is not coherent or rational enough to analyse either, so I won’t. Suffice to say the fatwa is utterly despicable, a stain on the face of the tolerance and forgiveness that humanity and particularly organised religion is supposed to represent.

Salman Rushdie was called an apostate, someone who saw the Muslim truth and turned his face away. Yet Islam and Rushdie’s personal struggle with it is always in his work. His main characters in Midnight’s Children question Islam but it is always there, especially when they move from India to Pakistan, the country named after purity itself. Rushdie is quietly critical of austere Pakistan, “the land of a thousand untruths,” against India, that whirling land of humanity in its most basic form where paradoxically (or maybe because of that) anything is still possible, the “land of a thousand different realities”.

But I was sidetracked. The first character of the story uneasily tries to recapture his faith upon returning home to Kashmir from Germany, but hits his nose when he bows to perform his prayers and vows to never kiss earth for any god or man again. “This decision, however, left a hole in him, a vacancy in a vital inner chamber.” The same thing happened to me. I had ditched going to church and the Bible was a crock but nonetheless I was still content to say thank you to God whenever I passed through a yellow light at an intersection or scored a penalty kick in an indoor soccer match. God was there. But then a year and a half ago I was foolish enough to read The God Delusion by an author who couldn’t just let people be happy. I don’t remember any of his arguments but suddenly God was no longer there in my mind, I was no longer saying thank you at the vital unimportant moments, suddenly girls who believed in God were no longer a turn-on for me. He was no longer watching the world, I was suddenly adrift and merely one person against the world, and suddenly things would no longer turn out all right, I will live a meaningless life and then simply die. I hate you Richard Dawkins, hate you hate you hate you. You ruined my fucking life.

All that over a mere non-fiction book. To me, very little non-fiction is worth my reading, since none of it is written stylishly enough for my tastes. Hell, maybe that’s why I like Salman Rushdie’s stuff.

Salman Rushdie, to me, has always been a triumph of style and observations over any sort of storyline. Fury is a thin story that is a mask for Rushdie’s wonder at the concept of America: Even Anti-Americanism is a concession that America is the only game in town. Have all empires been this undeserving, or is this one particularly crass? Anyone in any part of the world would love to be wearing even the cheap knock-offs that are sold daily on the streets of New York. Because of the immense goddamn power of America, the immense fucking seduction of America, those bastards in charge get away with… He includes New York Yankee baseball players, Patrick Kluivert and the ultimately doomed Dutch Euro 2000 effort (“stir the races together and you get the most beautiful people. I want to go to Surinam, and soon”), Mexicans speculating on machines that eat food (“Jou better wise up, hermano. They got machine now eat food for fuel, jou hear that?”) foul-mouthed but apologetic immigrant cabbies, ad jingles, overheard stories in the street.

He also covers the emotional moments very well, and in a very understated way. ‘ “Let me,” her begged her. “Believe me. I’m the one.” One night, out of the blue, she let him, she said she believed.’ A line that completely made it worth the price of stealing The Satanic Verses from some shop in the city seven years ago ($0). Then there is Mila’s rejection in Fury, an insertion of deep loss into regular knockabout life, one that I should Xerox and send to Bolivia:

“You’re a lucky man, because evidently you’re an optimist. Only a wild optimist throws away what’s most precious, what’s so rare and satisfies his deepest need, which you know and l know you can’t even name or look at without the shutters closed and the lights out, you have to hide it until somebody comes along who’s smart enough to know what to do, somebody whose own unspeakable need just happens to make a perfect fit with your own. And now, now that we’ve got there, when the defences are down and the pretence is over and we’re really in that room that we never allowed ourselves to believe could exist for either of us, the invisible room of our greatest fear – right at very moment when we discover there’s no need to be afraid in that room, we can have whatever we want for as long as we want it, and maybe when we’ve had our fill we’ll wake up and notice that we’re real living people, we’re not the puppets of our desires but just this woman, this man, and then we can stop the games, open up the shutters, turn out the lights, and step out into the city street hand in hand… this is when you decide to… An optimist is a man who gives up an impossible pleasure because he’s sure he’ll find it again just around the bend. Me, by the way, I’m a pessimist. My view is that not only does lightning not strike twice, it usually doesn’t strike once. So that was it for me, what happened between us, that was really it, and you, you just, damn, damn. I could have stayed with you, did you ever work that out? Oh, not for long, just thirty or forty years, more than you’ve got, probably. Instead I’ll just marry Eddie. You know what they say: charity begins at home.”

He was thinking, You can’t marry him, you mustn’t, but such advice was no longer his to give. “You’re telling yourself that what we did was wrong,” she said. “I know you. But what we did wasn’t wrong,” and here her eyes filled with tears. “We were just comforting each other for our terrible feelings of loss. It wasn’t wrong at all. It was play. Serious play, dangerous play, maybe, but play. I thought you understood that. I thought you might just be that impossible creature, a sexually wise man who could give me a safe place, a place to be free and to set you free, too, a place where we could release all the built-up poison and anger and hurt, just let it go and be free of it, but it turns out you’re just another fool.”

That is it. That is the perfect description of one love once it is over, then and there. That was it for me. That’s why I care about Salman Rushdie. I don’t give a shit about Islamic fundamentalists, and I don’t care that he’s old and cantankerous in real life, because it’s not legitimate to criticise the artist’s work by his life and personality, only on the work itself. Which incidentally is also why Amy Winehouse is my girl whatever the shenanegans, and will continue to be as long as she keeps releasing such fantastic music. But that’s unlikely, because I think that pain of living is already too much for her, similar to what happened to Lauryn Hill.

Lauryn Hill and me

I’m torn. I don’t believe anyone in the last ten years in any spheres has ever had the same depth of wisdom that Lauryn Hill put into her songwriting but then I contrast the truth, beauty and clarity of her words with the undoubted inner hurt and hatred of her behaviour over the last ten years.

Ask me for my favourite musician and I still say Lauryn Hill even seven years after finding her and ten since she’s been out there, however rooted in the past that seems to make me. That’s even though she released only one album and then that was the end, she burnt out and immediately became irrelevant. And, that’s despite that while twenty-five percent of her songs will move me incredibly both musically and lyrically, I think the other seventy-five percent stinks to high heaven.

I believe that she is a genius. I believe that she is a genius in a poetical way, and a theoretical emotional genius, but one who is terribly flawed because of the genius’ frustration that comes from dealing with uninspired people who don’t have the same genius as herself. I think some of her music has come from that place where the greatest of creative work has come from, from the nothingness, not written by her per se but through her: a religious person would say it comes directly from above and she was a conduit.

I think Lauryn Hill is more than anything the story of a person who got broken. “Some things hurt us so deeply that we never heal from them,” was what someone had to say about her after she closed up shop and withdrew from the world. Evidently she got hurt too badly by Wyclef Jean, but I also wonder if she had that much sensitivity, if she looked around at a world in decay that she tried fixing with her words, and suffered from the malevolence that greeted her at every turn and from her inability to alter the world despite seeing and knowing what was wrong with it. I suspect that she couldn’t take the evilness of the world anymore, she broke, and she was never able to face it again. It turned her spirit bitter and then she started treating people terribly. Then in the time she spent away from the world she lost her sense of reality.

She gave an interview for a mag in 2005. The publication, Trace, told of how she pulled a bunch of diva-ish shit on them, arriving hours late without smiles or contrition and making everyone call her Ms. Hill (including the old band members she was temporarily working with, Pras Michel and Wyclef Jean). But she told the author: “You’ve never met anyone like me,” and he admitted in his article that no, he never had, the depth of her thinking and her discussions was otherworldly.

She played at a special concert at the Vatican in 2003 but instead of waiting for her applause she began her set with these words:

I am sorry if I am about to offend some of you. I did not accept my invitation to celebrate with you the birth of Christ. Instead I ask you why you are not in mourning for him in this place? I want to ask you, what have you got to say about the lives you have broken? What about the families who were expecting God and instead were cheated by the Devil? Who feels sorry for them, the men, women and children damaged psychologically, emotionally and mentally by the sexual perversions and abuse carried out by the people they believed in? Holy God is a witness to the corruption of your leadership, of the exploitation and abuses which are the minimum that can be said for the clergy. There is no acceptable excuse to defend the church.

I was moved not by the undoubted truth of the statement but by its phrasing. I had faith in what she had to say, because she had always said it better than anyone else.

She was called the real talent of The Fugees, probably correctly, and then released her one and only solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. I bought it in 2002 and for a few days looked at her pictures in the CD booklet with the certainty that I had never seen a more physically beautiful female, with beautiful music and words to match. The songs Ex-factor, To Zion, Tell Him and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill left me stupefied that such beauty could be so consistently produced by one person, and utterly thankful. Her voice is feminine but deeper, a representation of the depth of her inner wisdom. She was the complete package of beauty in all its forms.

But she lost some of that beauty; she allegedly said that she didn’t care about white people, whether they bought her music or not, they had nothing to do with her, she didn’t need them. There she was playing the tired black card when I had been sure she was above the reverse racism shit that exists in spades among black Americans. I had thought the depth of her feeling placed her above the hatred she preached against but that she evidently practiced. I’m white, I’m just a person who wants to find some truth just like you, Lauryn.

On the net there are now unflattering photos of her having aged with a twisted face to match the probable twisted spirit and twisted mind. She may in theory be an emotional genius but in practice she is an emotional wreck now, who may or may not be bipolar, and the ersatz MTV Unplugged No. 2.0 CD was labelled as “a public breakdown”. But of course I bought it because how could I not hope for more greatness from the woman whose potential for beauty is so vast that that it supersedes the word ‘greatness’? She selfishly justified not having to care about a raspy voice to the people who paid money to hear the quality of her sound, but still had the time in her discourse to drop this gem: “Every time you submit your will to the approval of another person, a part of you dies.” Some called it ramblings, but I give the speaking part of the CD the thumbs up (although not the songs).

Her belated father-in-law Bob Marley was credited with being one of the best lyricists ever. His words are commendable simplicity but the “best ever” acclaim probably came from a bunch of fawning, pot-smoking rasta wannabes. Lauryn Hill is utterly the best musical lyricist to me. Below is her song Selah, a description of the life and the pain she thought she had left behind but that I don’t think she ever did.


Nothing can be done against the truth
No matter how we remain in denial
Wasting time, replacing time with each empty excuse
But that’ll only work a little while
Coping with despair
Knowing you’re not there
Ashamed to just admit I’ve been a fool
So I blame it on the sun
Run away from everyone
Hoping to escape this ridicule
Trapped in misery
Wrapped so miserably
In this deception that I’m wearing like a skin

Dying to maintain
Oh I keep trying to explain
A heart that never loved me to begin
Oh I’m such a mess
I have no choice but to confess
That I’ve been desperately trying to belong
Lying to myself and everybody else
Refusing to admit my right was wrong

And then he came

How beautiful is fruit still in denial of its roots?
My guilty heart behaved so foolishly
This treason from within
That reasons with my sin
Won’t be happy til it sees the death of me
Selfishly addicted
To a life that I depicted
Conflicted cause it’s not reality
Oh what’s left of me
I beg you desperately
Cause me to agree with what I know is best for me
Please save me from myself
I need you to save me from myself
Please save me from myself so I can heal

The choices that I’ve made
Oh have been nothing but mistakes
What a wasted use of space
Should I die before I wake?
In all of my religion
I’ve fortified this prison
Obligated to obey
The demands of bad decisions

Please save me from myself
I need you to save me from myself
Please save me from myself so I can heal

And then he came

Barack Obama and me

We’ve been through this a year ago in Australia, when we found out that however ‘young’ and new politics a politician presents himself (in this case it’s just ‘himself’ and not ‘her/himself’, the political scene being one of the surest indications that women are still second-class citizens)… in the end he turned out to be just another politician. But, damn, I believe in Barack Obama, I truly believe in him, and I don’t believe in a whole lot any more so that statement is not as trite as it could be. I think a lot of people do, a lot of people who otherwise don’t give a shit, because how did he get so much money if not?

This is jumping the gun a tad, as opposed to jumping the shark, but I’ll talk about him as if he’s already in. I was in Illinois in 2004, where a woman named Anne and I had gone through a will-they, won’t-they thing the year before. She was telling me about Barack Obama, this no-name everywhere except in Illinois, who had given a speech at the Democratic Convention in mid-2004 and reduced people to a few tears. Anne told me, before we ended up hating each other – a somewhat common trait among girls who at some point had previously had a thing for me – that he “gave a speech about life, about growing up, about living in this country”. Beyond that she could not express in words her sense of wistful longing for something better from politics, this quietly emotional amazement that this new man had promised to deliver it to her, but I sensed it in her.

I was in a town slightly south of but still connected to Chicago when he won the vote to get into the Senate that year and his black Republican opponent Alan Keyes said that “Jesus Christ would not vote for Barack Obama,” whatever that means. I wanted to see his face, this mysterious person who had convinced Anne of his intentions, and I finally did see what he looked like, but he didn’t impugn Keyes for his foolishness – he didn’t need to, he had already won – and in the end he has probably proven that he didn’t even need to be negative towards McCain and that clueless attack-dog he has lined up for V.P. whose name I can’t even mention. And he wasn’t, even though negativity is the only thing until now that has ever worked in American politics, and even though John McCain and Hilary Clinton revealed that despite their fabled histories they would say anything and do anything to win, the end ultimately justified the means for them as it did for everyone else.

I then went up to North Dakota to visit my Mum’s family, where my aunt and uncle, a doctor, were utterly convinced of George W.’s suitability for the upcoming 2004 election. And yet she said: hypothetically, if that new black politician, Obama, were ever available to be president she would vote for him, because she believed in his sincerity, in what he had to say, to offer. He was nothing in those days and such a thing was never going to happen in white-bread America, but pipedreams can be dreamt.

The next year I was in Bolivia, where the mysterious name Evo Morales popped up in the leadup to Bolivia’s election in December 2005. Yes yes, I can’t not talk about Bolivia in anything I write, I’m not obsessed but that country is always there in my mind, probably the love of my life. Evo Morales was an indigenous Bolivian who was seeking to become Bolivia’s first indigenous president ever (foundation 1825), despite the fact that Bolivia’s population is more than 60% indigenous. Like with Barack Obama I was curious to see his face, this name that was on all the locals’ lips. When I did I stared at him in fascination, another enigma to me.

And three years later he is the first indigenous Bolivian president while Barack Obama will probably be the first black American prez, these one-time niche figures who rose up, created history and became the first of their races to do what they did. Some of Morales’ missteps proved that you need a brain to govern a country, you can’t just bring the entire country in on your own personal grudges, otherwise you end up invading Iraq or dividing your country into two disparate cultural halves (Bolivia; although you could say the same about the U.S. too). Barack Obama, however, has not been allowed to be emotional. If he had done any emotional ‘McCains’ he would have been called an uppity nigger and it would have been all over for him. But he used his brain and for once that was enough to get ahead.