We had a marvelous time playing last month at Molly Malone’s and the audience was full of praises too which is always very satisfying! Like the following tweet expresses:
— Sharlette Hambrick (@SharletteH) February 3, 2016
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Following the release of a half-dozen singles and EPs, Frances Livings has published her first long-form CD, The World I am Livings In (clever title!), and her voice is mindful of Martha Velez, Carole King, and Helen Reddy with a bit of Rita Coolidge and Elkie Brooks thrown in, but her milieu is much closer to Lisa Kirchner’s Umbrellas in Mint (here) in that it’s an unusual blend of the cabaretic, folk moderne, surreal (the earthy lyrics in Eating the Darkness alone are on par with Dory Previn), classically oriented jazz, and then that odd twilight world that in recent generations has spelled a whole new landscape of sonic delights I firmly aver presages an onrushing era unlike any antecedents.
What first really caught my brainworks in the disc was I’ll be Leaving Soon, a dark-ish pensée executed in semi-stream-of-consciousness illuminated by beautifully understated chamber strains (arranged by Livings’ husband Greg Poree) exalting a weary soul encanting verses of departure and hopeful renewal. Think of William Lyall or the Penguin Cafe Orchestra sitting in, but it’s really Livings’ writing that’s entrancing, and she penned almost everything on the CD, then chose some really good sessioneers, including Jeff Colella, whose piano work is a central aural motif, along with several superb strings-raspers.
More than anything, The World comes across as a half-lit stage presentation for post-Beat hipsters grown weary of all the blare and squall of an overdriven mainstream, looking for literate but unorthodox fare and a chance to once again think while immersing in moody atmospherics. Not coincidentally, then, the smirking satire of comedienne Sara Bernhard finds its way into the mix here and there, beefing up the outside-the-box metier all the more. Poree jumps into the mix again, this time with a well blended guitar, and scenes miasmically shift and flow as the twisting narrative wends its path, but the inclusion of the 1:19Pebbles in my Hand was a piece of brilliance, and I’m damned if I can quite figure out why—though it’s probably the track’s status as a rarely found act of interscript between movements. Ya just can’t locate that in music any more, y’all. In sum, this is actually more a piece of art than it is music, but of an ilk belonging with Carla Bley, Annette Peacock, and of course the aforementioned Kirchner, among others, including Janis Ian at her best; thus, don’t do anything else once you’ve tossed the disc on, or you’ll miss more than you ever guessed was there.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2013, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
This review may be reprinted with prior permission and attribution.
Pomegranates are an ancient food, a globular-shaped fruit filled with juicy red seeds inside a hard shell, which appears in the mythologies and artifacts of several ancient Near Eastern cultures. Pomegranates are mentioned at least 25 times in the Old Testament. As a motif, it appears in embroidered form on the ephods of Israeli priests as well as in temple architecture, like in bronze on the pillars of Solomon’s temple. It is regarded as a sensuous fruit and appears in – amongst other poems – the flowery prose of the love poem, The Song of Solomon: “Let us get up early to the vineyard; let us see if the vines flourish, whether the tender grape appear, and the pomegranates bud forth. . .” (Song of Solomon 7:12)
In the quiet of a virgin morning, it feels right to sit with feet in warm slippers and a cup of hot steamy coffee in hand, and languidly let memories and fragments of ideas drift through the labyrinths of my brain. These are golden times, namely, when my monkey mind is still asleep – maybe simply exhausted from so much chattering, poking, and teasing. I can experience the same state of mind in the still of the night, when the dogs, like the day, are curled up to little furry donuts, quietly snoring away.
This is why I find that being in the flow of concentrated and productive writing is a lot like meditation.
As a musical poet and as a songwriter, I very much favour writing short pieces, like lyrics, poems, or short stories. They allow me to zoom in on very concise experiences or emotions. Anaïs Nin, the French-born novelist, passionate eroticist, and short story writer, who gained international fame with her journals stated:
“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect”.
Poetry as an Elevating Medium
A lot of the time this is true; no matter in which genre. A painter will experience a landscape by looking at it and re-experiencing it through his or her interpretation of it. I would like to add, however, that writing also enables me to experience things I didn’t know had impacted me – any Freudian-oriented analyst will like this statement because it illustrates how much slumbers in the sub-conscience.
The American Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Levine uses poetry as an elevating medium:
I believed even then that if I could transform my experience into poetry I would give it the value and dignity it did not begin to possess on its own. I thought too that if I could write about it I could come to understand it; I believed that if I could understand my life—or at least the part my work played in it—I could embrace it with some degree of joy, an element conspicuously missing from my life.
Foreign Findings like Fallen Fruit…
Whenever I allow myself the quiet time of reflection, the results are sometimes unexpected: Foreign findings lying there like fallen fruit; ripened, unharvested pomegranates ready to be picked up, weighed in ones hand; their shape, colour, texture inspected, broken open and their inner jewels eventually coaxed into essays, songs or poems. The American poet Robert Frost described his process of writing poetry in a similar way: He said that a poem […] begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a loneliness. It is never a thought to begin with. It is at its best when it is a tantalizing vagueness.” This process is what I would like to call finding poetry.
In terms of its reception, the Literature Nobel Prize winner Czeslaw Milosz claims that a poem not only demands this utmost focus from the writer but also from the reader – “reading a poem is, after all, always an exercise in attention” he writes. Alas, these moments are rare. Especially with the omnipresence of social media, the constant flood of mostly irrelevant emails, and endless to-do lists, it is often very difficult to achieve the amount of necessary focus. Without even leaving our workspace we become the distracted virtual flâneur, scrambling and scrolling through endless pages, filling our minds with digital clutter.
But secretly, we all know that often these emails, messages, pages, and social media sites offer a convenient escape from the tormenting, growing pains of a piece and to some extent, much-needed social contact. Because it is definitely not a myth that writing is a very lonely and sometimes frustrating process. Often, towards the afternoon my head often starts to resemble a scrap yard filled with piles of debris of the day – admittedly to some extent self-inflicted.
Most writers write because they have to write. But it takes courage to follow your own musings, to hope for the pomegranate in meditation. Discipline to sit through the editing process is another necessity. This is why the American writer Ernest Hemingway recommends bluntly: “Write drunk and edit sober”.
I have always written, but in the beginning, when I started dedicating more and more time and energy to my personal writing I would ask myself in dark moments, which purpose did it really serve? My education was in academic writing which always gave me something exterior to focus on and therefore to hold on to – whether it was a painting or a building. These were functional pieces of academic writing, which served exhibition catalogues or guided tours. But starring at a pomegranate doesn’t always feel like the most useful, economically wise, socially valuable, or practical thing to do. This is why dedicating oneself to these seemingly superfluous musings can be scary for multiple reasons.
What happens when we surrender to these doubts of “usefulness” and abandon these creative musings? The Novelist Hubert Selby Jr. writes in his foreword to Requiem for a Dream “Certainly not everyone will experience this torment but enough do and have no idea what is wrong.” Furthermore, he asks:
What happens if I turn my back on my Vision and spend my time and my energy getting the stuff of the American Dream? I become agitated, uncomfortable in my own skin, because the guilt of abandoning my Self/self, of deserting my Vision, forces me to apologize for my existence, to need to prove myself by approaching life as if it’s a competition. I have to keep getting stuff in an attempt to appease and satisfy that vague sense of discontent that worms its way through me.
It takes courage to be an artist. According to the 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, artists, “are committed to a completely ‘unpractical’ activity.” Czeslaw Milosz writes: “Among works of painting, Schopenhauer assigned the highest place to Dutch still-life […] they present to him the peaceful, still frame of mind of the artists, free from will, which was needed to contemplate such insignificant things so objectively, to observe them so attentively, and to repeat this perception so intelligently.”
Art is mostly free of purpose when it comes directly from the heart. This is basically what the French expression ‘l’art pour l’art‘ means. It expresses a philosophy that the intrinsic value of art, and the only “true” art, is divorced from any didactic, moral, or utilitarian function. So to dedicate time and energy to my musical poetry or to a whole solo album with my own song material meant to dedicate time to myself. To see and describe my interior as the “painting” or a building and to deeply examine these constructions of thoughts and emotions – was to take myself seriously, my inner truth.
Frances Livings © 2013
How to Cut a Pomegranate by Imtiaz Dharker
I wanted to share this poem by another writer, Imtiaz Dharker, because it so beautifully illustrates why historically many cultures have been enamoured by this fruit. Pomegranates are texturally quite wondrous when broken open because of their contrasting insides and outside. They have juicy, jewel-like, and very vulnerable seeds inside a hard and protective husk. The piece also has many references to its long and lasting cultural history and symbolism, like fertility. Imtiaz Dharker is a Pakistan-born British poet, artist and documentary filmmaker. She has won the Queen’s Gold Medal for her English poetry. Dharker was born in Lahore, Punjab, Pakistan to Pakistani parents.
‘Never,’ said my father,
‘Never cut a pomegranate
through the heart. It will weep blood.
Treat it delicately, with respect.
Just slit the upper skin across four quarters.
This is a magic fruit,
so when you split it open, be prepared
for the jewels of the world to tumble out,
more precious than garnets,
more lustrous than rubies,
lit as if from inside.
Each jewel contains a living seed.
Separate one crystal.
Hold it up to catch the light.
Inside is a whole universe.
No common jewel can give you this.’
Afterwards, I tried to make necklaces
of pomegranate seeds.
The juice spurted out, bright crimson,
and stained my fingers, then my mouth.
I didn’t mind. The juice tasted of gardens
I had never seen, voluptuous
with myrtle, lemon, jasmine,
and alive with parrots’ wings.
The pomegranate reminded me
that somewhere I had another home.
If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth. ~ John F. Kennedy
Indulge in some of my poetry recordings here:
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Today I did a little bit of research and found the original source. It is a paragraph from the book A Return to Love by the American best-selling author, spiritual leader, and political activist Marianne Williamson:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It’s our Light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented or fabulous?
The material bronze came to my mind because it is on the one hand so strong but so easily tarnishes and becomes dull. Like we do when we are depressed. We feel tainted – shamed – and withdraw. But how easily is bronze polished to a lustrous gleam? Sometimes we just can’t seem to let that happen.
A new year lies ahead of us. May your light shine!
Read the poem Cast In Bronze
I came across this gorgeous picture of a dandelion at daybreak this morning. It reminded me of how, as a child, I deeply connected with the song Morning has Broken. Most of us know the version by the British folk singer-songwriter Cat Stevens, who now calls himself Yusuf Islam and is now also an educator, philanthropist, and prominent convert to Islam.
It is not unusual that songs are accredited to the artist who made them popular.
Most people don’t realize, however, that the beautiful words to Morning has Broken were penned by the English author Eleanor Farjeon who wrote children’s and fantasy stories and was both popular with children and adults. In 1931 she was commissioned by a local vicar who was compiling a new edition of the hymnbook Songs of Praise. He asked Farjeon to write a poem to the melody of a traditional Gaelic tune, known as “Bunessan” composed in the Scottish Highlands. It actually shares the melody with the 19th century Christmas Carol “Child in the Manger”. But ultimately, the vicar wanted a hymn about creation, but not necessarily specifically Christian but spiritual.
The Original Lyrics
Morning has Broken
Morning has broken,
Like the first morning,
Blackbird has spoken
Like the first bird;
Praise for the singing,
Praise for the morning,
Praise for them springing
Fresh from the Word.
Sweet the rain’s new fall,
Sunlit from heaven,
Like the first dewfall
On the first grass;
Praise for the sweetness,
Of the wet garden,
Sprung in completeness
Where His feet pass.
Mine is the sunlight,
Mine is the morning,
Born of the one light
Eden saw play;
Praise with elation,
Praise every morning,
Of the new day.
Overall, with its rich imagery of rain, dewfall, sunlight, blackbirds, grass, and “the wet garden”, the focus of the three verses is not so much the Creation as the Garden of Eden. I think that’s why so many people of different cultures connect with the song. It has a spiritual and uplifting message that is centered around gratitude that lies in praising the little things, the small wonders, and beauty.
Cat Steven’s recording of the song – which he included on his 1971 album Teaser and the Firecat – reached number six on the US pop chart and number one on the US easy listening chart in 1972. He has obviously always been a spiritual (and now religious person) which is perhaps why he was able to convey it emotionally so well and why the song became identified with Stevens.
The Lyrics to Cat Steven’s Rendition
Morning Has Broken
Morning has broken, like the first morning
Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird
Praise for the singing, praise for the morning
Praise for them springing fresh from the Word.
Sweet the rain’s new fall, sunlit from heaven
Like the first dewfall, on the first grass
Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden
Sprung in completeness where His feet pass.
Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning
Born of the one light, Eden saw play
Praise with elation, praise every morning
God’s recreation of the new day
Since I was raised Methodist and attended a Quaker nursery, I can’t remember which version I heard first – the traditional hymn that is often sung in children’s services or the interpretation by Cat Stevens. I just remember lying on my bed in London, early in the morning with the song going around in my head and wishing that one day I would be able to write a song that would touch someone in a similar way that song always touched me.
We’ll see. My album The World I Am Livings In is so close to being finished and all of the songs are very personal. I just hope, one or the other tune will move you…
© Sharon Johnstone, Macro Dew Drops
Here’s a very personal playlist inspired by Morning has Broken
I was browsing through The New York Times when one article really grabbed my attention. It was on the American photographer, Francesca Woodman, whose work I had only recently discovered. Her oeuvre consists mainly of quite unusual self-portraits and one of her pictures, titled Vanishing Act had inspired me a while ago. It had actually helped me complete my song, Eating the Darkness that I recorded for my first solo album. I learned that over 120 of her works were being displayed at the prestigious Guggenheim in New York, which felt really exciting – because, in a way, it was actually quite personal.
I love art photography and can easily lose myself scouring the Internet, searching for interesting pictures and inspiration. That particular day I was compiling a collection of photos, mainly by female artists. A lot of them were in black and white, many with a surrealistic approach, and somewhat dramatic and staged effects. I didn’t have any specific motifs or topics in mind but just followed my instincts and mood. I downloaded quite a few pictures, whose meaning especially struck or touched me on a very visceral level.
Collecting Inspiration From Other Artists
If you make something good and interesting and [are] not ridiculing someone or being offensive, the creators of the original material will like it.
Not only is Marclay a collector of images himself, but for his acclaimed installation, which is 24-hours long, he collected thousands of film and television images of clocks film clips depicting time. He created a montage of, edited together so they show the actual time.
These collections of images often trigger my own creativity by directing me towards a topic – a topic that has most likely already been slumbering in my sub-conscience. Images act for me like teasers or “dream catchers” or even as surfaces for my own emotional projections. Traditionally, this is actually known as Ekphrasis, which means “description” in Greek. An ekphrastic poem, for instance, is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art – whereby the poet may amplify and expand its meaning. It is used to convey the deeper symbolism of the corporeal art form by means of a separate medium.
Conveying Feelings in Song Lyrics
In this particular situation, images, thoughts, and feelings must have all run together: I was both deeply touched and inspired by that photograph of Woodman. It not only helped me to get unstuck emotionally but ended up delivering a line for my song, Eating the Darkness.
I had been playing around on the piano – which is what my usual songwriting process looks like – and working on the song Eating the Darkness (click on the title to read the lyrics). I wanted to capture feelings of loneliness and despair, staged in the isolation of an apartment or a room. These are the first verses of the song:
I turn the key and stare into a
long, dark corridor
I see the furniture – untouched and cold,
the emptiness starts to unfold.
Dust has settled with no delay
upon my absence, during the day
while everything’s / just frozen in its place
from when I left at twenty past eight
Like with a lot of my songs I went through a strange process: There is an initial spark, the idea or inspiration but still a lot of work to be done. Some songs practically write themselves but with others its like being in labour with pains and horrible cramps burgeoning into anxiety. But when you finally summon up that energy and determination to push, you give birth to something that almost immediately takes on a magical life of its own. If you can’t activate that courage to face all of those feelings, the idea dies.
How to Convey Feeling Invisible?
I just felt that in the chorus there was still a strong image missing, which is why I kept getting stuck. Even playing the melody over and over again wasn’t helping. I felt that the song per se was strong and authentic. It had emerged very out of the depth of my guts like from a deep-sea cavern. But I wanted to explore and express a feeling of hopelessness, set in the isolation of a room. How could I convey that gnawing and devastating emotion of not feeling relevant, of feeling invisible? Suddenly this photograph entered my mind. It just presented itself. So I opened up my laptop and fished it out of my pictures folder.
The photograph, Vanishing Act from 1976, partially shows the torso of a nude standing on broken, wooden floorboards, in front of the wall of an obviously derelict building. The anonymous, faceless woman is half-covering her body with large sections of the peeling wallpaper – with which she seems to be almost merging.
“Fading into the wallpaper”, I thought. And suddenly the chorus was complete:
And I sit here eating the darkness
and the darkness eats at me
I am fading into the wallpaper
on the second floor apartment number two-o-three
Who Is Francesca Woodman?
Prior to finding that photograph I hadn’t heard of the artist Francesca Woodman before. Of course, her name, derived from the same source as mine, caught my attention. But it was after having completed the song lyrics that I suddenly wondered, where and in which stage of her life would I find her? I set out to contact her. Not only did I want to thank her for the inspiration but I also wanted to share my work once the song was recorded…
It only took a few seconds on Google and I was staring at the ugly word – suicide.
Unexpectedly, I just hit the wall. No pun intended.
Suicide is usually the result of deep and dark depression, of being in a place of utter hopelessness. Maybe my highly sensitive side, also my dark side had intuitively picked up on the tragedy of her death through that very picture. Was that why ultimately, my writing had become fluent again? At the same time, questions started rolling in…
Had she perhaps felt that she had exhausted her artistic reservoir with nothing left to say? Had she lived “too fast”? Was she able to channel these feelings so well, because she also suffered in such an intense way? Was this why the photograph had had such a deep impact on me?
But did I really want to speculate about her reason to end her life?
No. I decided to distance myself. I suddenly felt eerily close, almost intrusive upon her life, like a voyeur. So I refocused on my song and recorded it.
Images Full of Self-expression, Texture, and Sense of Composition
I didn’t go back to look at more of Woodman’s work until weeks later. A lot of it I still hadn’t seen and I was still very curious about it. What I really appreciate about her photographs is her self-expression, the use of textural elements, and her sense of composition. Her open and almost Victorian sense of Romanticism may be “girlish” as some critics say, but it is also very self-exposing. Some of the pictures are in a square vintage style format, reminding me of Instagram. I find many of Woodman’s pictures playful as well as incredibly mature. To think that, at 22, she left an extensive catalogue of over 800 photographs behind is admirable.
For decades, photography was still thought to fall below painting in the hierarchy of mediums in art. It wasn’t accepted as fine art until the 1940s in the United States and the 1960s worldwide. But especially for women artists, it was an important medium because it granted a mode that was relatively free from the heavy, male-dominated history of the painted canvas.
There’s an anecdote that Woodman was asked by a friend, why she obsessively photographed herself. Her friend may have found it oddly narcissistic and simply still unusual. Because we mustn’t forget that Woodman created all of these self-portraits in the mid and late seventies – so long before the selfie developed as a medium of self-reflection and self-representation. Woodman replied, simply saying:
I am always available.
Woodman exclusively used herself as a model, which made me think of other female photographers, especially of another American photographer and filmmaker: Cindy Sherman. Sherman’s work consists primarily of photographic self-portraits, in many different settings, with wigs, make-up, and props to create various imagined female characters. Another famous self-portraitist is Vivian Maier, considered the queen of street photography, who created many iconic pictures of her reflection in shop windows. There are many more of course, like Diane Arbus (1923 – 1971) who focused on an exceptionally singular demographic – the marginalized. She captured the images of dwarfs, giants, transgender people, nudists, circus performers, and many other surreal personas that captured her attention. She is often considered the Sylvia Plath (1932–1963) of photography because of her work as well as her early suicide.
The British art historian, Frances Borzello, who specializes in the social history of art, wrote a book on female self-portraits and female nudes. It is titled Seeing Ourselves: Women’s Self Portraits. I found it most relevant, that she notes: The singular importance of this particular genre, the self-portrait is for women a “way to present a story about herself for public consumption,” a rare break from the typical objectification of the female form as depicted by the male artist.
Eating the Darkness. Desolate & Abandoned Interiors
What strikes me most is the textural quality of the settings, in which Woodman stages her photographs. Frequently, the interiors are empty, decaying rooms, with peeling wallpaper, cracked plaster, broken floorboards, and flaking paintwork. In their roughness, they are diametrically opposed to the smoothness of her young and flawless body. On the other hand, in many of her photographs, she seems to merge with her environment, which gives them a haunting quality.
The photographer, Victoria O’Rourke had similar thoughts about Woodman’s integration and depiction of wallpaper:
The wallpaper also puts the identity of Woodman in a state of flux in two ways – by physically hiding her and by forcing into your mind the very literal and paradigmatic image of a second skin. It joins neatly with the idea of a shifting identity, rather than Woodman presenting herself as a whole. She transforms before us, not into another human being or character, but simply into the wall. ~ Victoria O’Rourke, photographer
These rooms look desolate and possess a strong notion of abandonment. They are very similar to the atmosphere of space I wanted to create in my song without using lengthy descriptions.
Wandering rooms like in quarantine
I’m starring at the clock, on elasticated time
brain waves flickering, mercury mind
like a black’n white TV in 1969
Losing my mind, losing my mind…
“Losing my mind…” maybe we are all afraid of that sometimes, which is exactly why I had distanced myself from the artist after the initial encounter. I had peeped in but knew I had to protect myself and very quickly slam the book shut again. After learning about her suicide, it was painful to see her pale and vulnerable body in contrast with the diminishing interior. Moreover, it was a fearless easiness and eagerness; revealing a form of self-exploration, that stood out against the derelict environment.
But another sensation that arose much later was gratitude. Suddenly, I felt fortunate that I had connected with this picture – and ultimately, with another creative force through my own art. The connection wasn’t formed through a biographical prism – or even the dramatic notion of an artist’s suicide. Because it can sometimes be difficult to push past layers of fragmented knowledge and prejudice, a sense of sensationalism even… especially in an era of information overload, or fake news, and constant accessibility per Dr. Google.
Only when “absorbing” art in an almost meditative state, is it possible to retrieve what lies beneath these layers and connect with our own authentic thoughts and feelings. – Frances Livings
This is exactly what I feel she did in her work. She tried to expose herself and be literally, as naked as possible. We will never know whether this specific image, the wallpaper was created to express a loss of self-worth. That may have been what I personally projected onto it. I am grateful that a fellow artist gave me something to connect with, almost like a piece of her soul. Because isn’t that what every person who creates seeks to achieve? We want to touch or inspire someone and almost live on through our work. Francesca Woodman definitely hasn’t faded into the wallpaper. And I am fighting not to either…
Thank you for reading!
You are welcome to share any thoughts in the comment box below.
– Frances Livings
Buy your copy of Eating The Darkness here:
If you found joy or inspiration in this post
Watch The Documentary The Woodmans here:
I released my single Candy’s Caravan in December 2010 on my jazz label Moontraxx Records. Stylistically the song is a blend of Nu-Jazz, electronica, and pop – reminiscent perhaps of artists like Portishead and Annie Lennox. It features two characters with different perspectives: myself as the narrator and the prostitute Candy who is the main character – like the title implies. Atmospherically it sounds slightly theatrical, like a short and dark Burlesque piece.
I had completed the lyrics for Candy’s Caravan long before I had even started on the music, which fell into place when I was experimenting on the piano along with a simple pre-recorded trip-hop loop. The structure and arrangement for the piece I then further developed on live gigs.
It marks one of my first pieces that evolve around another woman’s very specific fate. I focussed thereby on a very narrow window of her everyday life and struggle. I have since then explored an array of typical female topics from different socioeconomic statuses and cultural backgrounds. Some are in song form, others are spoken word or musical poetry pieces. The paths of women, their stories, and their dreams have always intrigued me. In a patriarchal society, we face completely different challenges than men. As a writer and a woman myself, I have experienced many traumatic events, unexpected changes, and terrible losses. So even if I haven’t made that exact experience personally, I try to deeply empathise. Often through images, I then research and reimagine what those struggles may be.
Listen to a full-length recording of the song here:
Although I have never worked as a prostitute, the lyrics of Candy’s Caravan actually mirror a combination of different experiences, made during my student years in Hamburg, Germany. Another influence is my theatre background, most obvious in the usage of dialogue. I worked for two small theatres on the famous Reeperbahn in St. Pauli, Hamburg and these experiences definitely coined the piece.
Slightly Unusual Student Jobs
Like most students getting themselves through college, I took on a vast variety of jobs and gigs. These jobs not only varied in certain skills I had to quickly learn and apply but also in their social environment. During the summer holidays, before I started junior college, I worked in a tile factory. I was intrigued and sometimes intimidated by the gritty working-class women. Many even had children to care for and households to run. But they stood there every morning at 6 am on the dot from Mondays to Fridays for a physically strenuous 8-hour shift. The parallel universe was later working in an office, a proper office with buzzing computers, a synthetic carpet, bad coffee, fashion magazines, and lots of gossip, where I helped translate technical terms.
Another interesting experience was being an extra on TV productions. During those years, in the nineties, Hamburg was a huge media metropolis before a lot of production companies moved to Boomtown Berlin after the wall came down. So there were lots of well-paid TV jobs. I did have a hard time sometimes, being the impatient and curious person I am. I found all of the waiting, the “hurry up and wait!” hard to endure, which is why I so loved the theatre and love performing live because it’s all about being in the moment. Anyway, for two episodes of a German evening TV series I played (or rather posed as) a prostitute which turned out to be a very interesting experience.
Livings as a Prostitute?
One of the gigs was quite well paid because it was not only in the middle of the night and absolutely freezing cold but we were also, naturally dressed in the most skimpy clothes you can imagine. In retrospect, it would be fun to have a few photos but that was before the selfie-era. My friend and I were hardly able to stand in the patent leather boots we were strapped into, the fishnet stocking was cutting into the flesh of my toes and the layers of thick make-up seemed to be the only form of insulation we had against the freezing cold. Although we flirted with the role, it did in a way feel uncomfortable that the mostly male technical crew changed the way they looked at us the moment we were clad in over-sexualized, skimpy mini-skirts and revealing lace-up tops.
It seems as if we stood under this dark and eerie railway bridge in a barren industrial area near the train station in Hamburg-Altona for hours, pretending to chat up the drivers cruising by, until finally, I suppose, the lead actors got their lines right. Daylight was already lingering on the horizon as we fled home with numb toes, chattering teeth, and blue lips. I realized what a terrible and humiliating profession this must be: exposed to the cold, to investigative stares, like being livestock on a meat market. Despite working on the Reeperbahn, I had never really seriously thought about these women before. But I needed to pay my rent too.
Fishnet Stockings and Lonely Tissues Boxes
It was a pure coincidence but the next gig I took on was playing a prostitute in a bar. But at least it was indoors and warm. The most interesting part was the location: The scene was actually shot in a real bordello in Sankt Georg, a very seedy area of Hamburg like often districts in close proximity to central train stations tend to be.
After a wardrobe person handed us each a hanger with our skimpy costumes, the production assistant showed us our dressing rooms: They were the actual bordello “bedrooms” (for lack of a better term) and we were supplied with one each. Mine was a fair-sized room with red padded walls, sporting gigantic gold-framed, mirrors. It was dominated by a giant king-sized bed that was stripped bare of bedclothes, revealing a smooth red plastic sheet that covered the mattress. Even the tall standard lamp with a pleated silk shade was protected – against body fluids – by a fitted plastic cover. The humungous bed was flanked by two nightstands, each crowned with a singular, lonely tissue box.
It was extremely weird to get undressed and changed in that room. There was a bed – but nobody ever slept there. Was anyone watching? What was behind the mirrors? I panicked for a second thinking, any moment some John would be arriving. There was even a small extra room we had first entered before proceeding to the “bedroom”. It had a window and was sparsely furnished with two chairs and another tissue box – I think anyone’s imagination would have been triggered by this situation and it definitely delivered some interesting inspiration for my writing.
The Famous Reeperbahn.
It was around this time I got a job at the St. Pauli Theatre, which is located on the famous Reeperbahn. The Reeperbahn (also known as the “sinful mile”) is absolutely unique. To someone who has never visited, it could be described as a hybrid of the old strip in Las Vegas, London’s Soho on Fridays, the red light district in Amsterdam, and the sex tourist’s strip in Bangkok. Its atmosphere alone has certainly influenced some of my writing (and many others before me) and coined reflections on topics like prostitution.
The German crooner and actor Hans Albers is strongly associated with St. Pauli and wrote the neighbourhood’s unofficial anthem, Auf der Reeperbahn Nachts um Halb Eins in the 1940s. In the 1960s The Beatles had stints on the Reeperbahn early in their careers. And in the first lines of his song Down The Reeperbahn the American singer-songwriter Tom Waits captures an a-typical scene:
Around the curve of The Parrot Bar
a broken-down old movie star
Hustling and Easterner
Bringing out the beast in her
I love Tom Waits as a writer and enjoy reading most of his lyrics. A lot of people recognize him by his distinctive voice that the critic Daniel Durchholz described most accurately as sounding as though “it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car”. Exactly like a soundtrack of the Reeperbahn…
Short Memories and Long Tales…
I have always been drawn to the Reeperbahn. It’s simply an extremely interesting and seductive place. Because indeed, like Waits writes, “the memories are short but the tales are long, down there in the Reeperbahn”. As a visitor, it is a fantasy world full of false promises and illusions – like a theatre. I’ve also been to some of the best parties at great clubs there (like the legendary Mojo Club) when the European Electronica movement first started. I sang regularly at a dive bar called very suitably, Die Rote Laterne, where my co-writer and I practically founded and musically developed our band 4UrbanArtists. I often partied and sometimes sang at Angie’s Nightclub, where my singing coach Roger Cicero, performed regularly, playing piano and singing jazz, soul, and pop songs before he had his big breakthrough as a German jazz singer and sadly died prematurely in 2016.
Often, after the curtain had fallen and we had wrapped up the show, I would step out onto the Reeperbahn, the air filled with cigarette smoke and the smell of alcohol and it would take me a while to adjust. Especially when you actually work there the contrasts can sometimes feel very strange. For the longest part of the evening, I had been enveloped in the safe and abstract world of a theatre. Then after the show, I would walk out onto the street and be confronted with crowds of testosterone-driven guys seeking sleazy sex and drugged twenty-somethings on their way to the next hip club, crazed to dance, drink and flirt.
So afterwards, my co-workers and I would often have drinks at the house bar. But on one of these slightly insane evenings, even the bar was so crowded that some of the crew members and I decided to go somewhere else.
My Encounter with “Candy”
We went around the corner into a dark alleyway to a small, unknown (well, unknown to the tourists) bar. I had my bike with me that I pushed alongside while we all chatted and then absent-mindedly decided to chain to a lamp post (yes, literally, Unter der Laterne…). Suddenly this raging fury shot out of the dark. Hobbling towards me on her neck-breaking high heels, violently swinging her handbag she yelled: “Du Schlampe…! Du…” (You bitch, you) I understood immediately. I fiddled with the lock as fast as I could, muttering, “‘Schuldigung! ‘Schuldigung!” (sorry, sorry) under my breath, and then humbly entered the bar with my bike. The image of that woman was forever burned into my brain and lastly coined Candy’s wig and the high heels. The owners of the bar, a lesbian couple were gracious and let me park my bike in their dingy backyard. It was a tight and dingy space, where once a week, boxes of liquor and large barrels of beer were delivered to. I have always been quite a street-wise person and am also respectful of people’s space but this one time I did almost get beaten up by a hooker, whose territory I – in her eyes – hadn’t respected.
The Rhythm of the Reeperbahn
Especially at the weekends, the energy on the Reeperbahn can almost be explosive. Depending on how much the crowds drink, which football team has lost or won, how warm and humid it is (the colder, the calmer) and, I suppose, how business, in general, is going for the street girls. There’s a strong feeling of hierarchy. As a “normal” working woman you stay out of their way, mind your own business. In the ecosystem of the Reeperbahn the street girls are at the bottom of the ladder: Not seldomly are they heartbreakingly young, runaways and drop-outs, barely the age of eighteen. In neon-coloured hot pants, snow boots and fur-trimmed jackets, and thick make-up they line the street, hustling the men and boys in front of Burger King. Street prostitution is only legal during certain times of the day on the Davidstraße. It’s the most curious sight at 8 pm to see them suddenly all pop out of their rabbit holes to then later suddenly vanish again. But it is also very absurd for most tourists to see them lined up exactly opposite the historical Davidwache, the district’s main police station located on the Southside of the Reeperbahn, on the Spielbudenplatz.
It was always downright fascinating to watch the gaudy but also desolate nocturnal activities of the crowds. But working almost daily at the theatre at night and sometimes in the daytime, is very different. Despite the chaos, there is a certain rhythm on the Reeperbahn. I sometimes had to go to the theatre during the day to hang up washing, repair costumes, or attend rehearsals. Often I could almost hear a big and long sigh, a feeling of general relief when the tourists and party animals had left during the daytime. This void is used to nurse hangovers and guilty consciences, stock up on cigarettes and alcohol for the night. The rhythm of the street then elapses into slow motion. What lingers in the air is the stale odor of beer, bad breath, sweat, fried onions, cigarettes, and vodka – like the trail of cheap perfume or cologne women or men, void of any style or taste, leave behind. The buffed and mean-looking doormen suddenly deflate, looking tired and tame. The sleazy, crooked-eyed drug dealers’ posture becomes slouchy and coffee-thirsty and run-down, catty prostitutes look cold and worn.
Yet the closer it gets to dawn the more the pace speeds up again: Having barely recovered, the cobbled streets and the musty bars are hastily swept. Synthetic wigs are brushed and plucked and laddered nylon tights are the subjects of emergency cosmetic surgery. Once the revealing daylight has vanished the illusions are born again – luring and seducing, like Candy…
© Frances Livings. All Rights Reserved.
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