Magic and Loss by Chris Green
Let me introduce myself. My name is Miles London. If I was looking for adjectives to describe myself, I could come up with deliberate, capricious and suburban. Perhaps there are more suitable ones. Unconventional, eccentric and lazy might spring to mind. Flaky? Barmy? Anyway, judge for yourselves. I collect celebrity memorabilia. I do not go for the obvious trophies that some might go for like guitars or jackets, and autographed photos do not interest me. I like items that tell a story. I have a particular penchant for unusual articles that have belonged to dead A-List rock stars. Amongst the items in my collection are John Lennon’s ouija board, Jimi Hendrix’s kite, and Bob Marley’s surfboard. My collection changes according to opportunities and trends. You have to understand the marketplace and take advantage when you can. Syd Barrett’s bike made a good profit for me recently and the sales of Buddy Holly’s yoga mat and Marc Bolan’s cricket bat for surprisingly high prices meant I was in the black.
When I heard about Lou Reed’s death, I felt profoundly sad. Although I did not know Lou, it felt like I had lost a friend. I had long been a fan. The Velvet Underground and Nico was the only record I can remember us playing at our squat in Queen’s Parade, back in 1971. How old was I then? 18? 19? We played the album over and over. It is one of those indefinable masterpieces. Brian Eno has been quoted as saying ‘while album may have sold only 10,000 copies in its early years, everyone who bought one of those 10,000 copies started a band.’ I bought many of Lou’s subsequent albums, including the much maligned, Metal Machine Music the day they came out. I counted them up recently. Including those with The Velvet Underground, I have twenty six. Lou seemed to be one of the immortals, someone who could walk on the wild side, flirt with danger, defy the odds and go on for ever. My partner, Josie, who was perhaps not such a devotee, was away at a photoshoot, so to console myself, I played Magic and Loss and Berlin through in tribute to this legend. I then got on the phone to my contact in New York, Macy Hoff.
‘What’s the word, Macy?’ I said. I knew that Macy would have been waiting for my call.
‘A-yo Milo, I know why you’re calling. Listen, his dog lead and his coffee grinder have gone, but I have something hot,’ said Macy. ‘Lou’s set of worry beads.’
I never asked how Macy came by his acquisitions. It was probably better not to know.
‘Can you email me some photos,’ I said. I was pretty sure I would want to buy the beads, I had to have something that had belonged to Lou, but from experience, I found it helped keep the price down if you showed some hesitation.
‘Fo shizzle dude,’ he said. ‘How did the Warhol Gotham restaurant tab go down?’
Gotham was a trendy Bar and Grill off 5th Avenue and Macy had sold me Andy’s bill for a list of French dishes with fancy names with a bottle of Chambertin-Clos de Bèze Grand Cru, Louis Jadot Burgundy. The bill had been a four figure sum even back in the 1980s and I had only paid a three figure sum, albeit quite a high one for this rarity. I should say here that legendary painters are also a fascination of mine and I have one or two bits and pieces of twentieth century artists memorabilia, including Picasso’s wind chimes and Dali’s dreamcatcher.
I told Macy that I had framed the Warhol bill and had it hanging on the wall of the red room, next to Jackson Pollock’s driving licence and Mark Rothko’s prescription for tricyclic antidepressants.
Truth be told, I hadn’t had Lou down as a great worrier, perhaps not happy go lucky, more of a pragmatist, someone who attacked life’s problems head-on. Macy Hoff’s photos arrived in my inbox and I took a good look. Lou favoured a traditional Greek evil eye Komboloi set of beads and I could tell straight off from Macy’s high resolution shot of them that Lou had done a lot of worrying. The beads were hand painted and the pattern was worn down in places which had the effect of making each of the eyes look sunken. Three other attached photos taken over a period of twenty years showed Lou in various poses, with furrowed brow, working the beads. While you can never be one hundred percent sure of authenticating a purchase, by zooming in on Lou’s hands, the beads did seem to match those in the first photo.
I found that you could buy a twenty one bead set of Komboloi for as little as £3.99. While I felt that their small retail value should have a bearing on what I would offer Macy, these were Lou Reed’s Komboloi we were talking about, the very ones that had helped him to write Dirty Boulevard and The Great American Whale, the same ones that had helped him through his battle with hepatitis C, protected him in the September 11th attacks and inspired him to write one of the twenty first century’s first great poems, Laurie Sadly Listening. Modest though these beads might be, they had untold psychic value. I did not see myself as a superstitious person but from a quick search, I discovered that the Evil Eye is a malevolent look that many cultures believe is able to cause injury or misfortune for the unsuspecting person at whom it is directed. Dating back to classical antiquity, belief in it is strongest in the Mediterranean region; here both Greeks and Turks carry their Worry Beads all the time and the Eye is seen a guardian. Lou had led a fairly contentious life and may have upset some unsavoury people and so looked to the Komboloi for a source of occult protection.
‘Handling’ beads did not seem an obvious New York custom. I had only been to New York once – when I was touring with Trousersnake in the eighties (guitar and keyboards, Max Frontman was the singer you may recall) but I could not recall any instances then of men using Komboloi. I wondered how Lou had come by the beads. Might they have perhaps been a gift from his friend and fellow melancholic, Leonard Cohen, who had spent many years on Hydra in the Aegean? I dismissed the thought that Leonard, now in his eightieth year, might be the next to go, although I couldn’t help speculating what might come up for sale when this happened.
The following morning I read through Lou’s obituaries. ‘He was a master,’ said David Bowie, simply expressing what we all felt. Fittingly Lou died on a Sunday morning like the one described in the first song on the first Velvet Underground LP, looking at the trees and doing the famous 21 form of Tai Chi with just his musician hands moving through the air. This gentler side of Lou was at odds with urban myth. One of the most telling tributes came from the author Salman Rushdie who, after mutual friend Laurie Anderson had put him on the phone to Lou in the eighties, said, ‘It was like having God’s unlisted cell phone number.’ On a religious theme, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi tweeted on behalf of The Vatican, ‘Its such a perfect day, I’m glad I spent it with you,’ as a tribute. Not quite sure what the Cardinal meant, but his short message did suggest that Lou’s appeal was far reaching.
One thing that is often overlooked is the fact that Lou was for years unacknowledged as a creative talent. The Velvet Underground did not achieve commercial success at the time. For years I was the only person I knew that owned a Velvet Underground album, although it seems everyone jumped on the bandwagon, later on, claiming that they had always followed them. Lou’s great legacy as an artist was nearly lost to us after he left The Velvet Underground suddenly following an acrimonious dispute with the band in 1970. He spent the first forty eight hours asleep, plagued by nightmares, as if in post-traumatic stress. That autumn, he became a typist in his father’s accountancy firm, something singularly unimaginable. He planned to make it as a poet but his music career was resurrected by devotees of his ground-breaking songs, potential collaborators like David Bowie.
I called Macy.
‘I’ll give you £745,’ I said. When bartering, the psychological importance of the opening bid cannot be underestimated. It acts as a mental anchor for the sale price. The key is to start with a precise figure rather than a rounded one.
There was a pause. Macy was clicking away at his calculator.
‘That’s twelve twenty nine,’ he said. Don’t jerk my chain, dude. Couldn’t take less than twenty oh oh.’
I slowly raised my offer and each time Macy had to calculate it into dollars. The anchor seemed to hold and we settled at $1400, £833. I felt pleased with the deal. This was cheap for a major item of celebrity memorabilia. If he had put them on ebay, he might have expected to get twice that.
I began collecting celebrity memorabilia by accident when in 1991 I moved into a house where Steve Marriott had lived. Steve had recently passed away and had left a lot of his nicknacks lying around. I was staggered at the amounts that a few signed photographs of a dead rock star could sell for or a pair of trousers that he had perhaps worn on a TV show. He wasn’t even very famous by then, his star had faded. He was yesterday’s hero. When Freddie Mercury died later the same year I was on to the game. Freddie was clearly a big star. I made a tidy sum buying and selling his tennis rackets and feather boas. Gradually I built up my collection of memorabilia to invest in the icons that really interested me. By the time George Harrison died in 2001, I was able to splash out on his 1966 A to Z of London.
Let me say a little about our house. Functionalist in style and slightly at odds with its suburban surroundings, it was designed in the 1920s by Edwardian architect, Sanford Mayo, a disciple of the great Adolf Loos. The house has an unusual random arrangement of windows, which is striking to the observer walking past, and apparently disturbing to some. Inside and out, it is short on ornamentation as fits the modernist style, but it more than compensates with artifice and clever geometry. Each of the rooms has as its base a particular colour. The downstairs rooms are blue, red, yellow, green, white and black. These colours provide the perfect background for exhibits and displays. The upstairs rooms are fifty percent saturations of the downstairs colours. The house was designed to work organically and its spatial grammar suits our needs. The fifty percent blue room upstairs, for instance, is the bathroom and the fifty percent black room is used as a music room and studio. Although I do not play so much these days, I should say that twenty or so years ago I was with a number of bands that nearly made it. Royalty cheques still come in from one or two of the minor hits that I wrote back then. Some of you might remember Forgotten Who You Were or Nightmares in the Day.
Slowly, as I sat in my chair in the green room, I developed the strange sensation that someone was watching me. I felt a shiver creeping slowly up my spine. Josie was still away at a photoshoot somewhere in France, so as far as I knew I was alone in the house. I turned around. I could see no-one, either inside or out. But there was definitely a presence. As I went from the green room to the yellow room and from the yellow room to the white room, the eerie sensation of being observed clung to me, like a lost child. The skin on the back of my neck tingled. This prickly somesthesia was most pronounced in the blue room. A winter chill filled the space. It felt as if invisible daggers were punching into the back of my head, in fact not just the back of the head. It felt as though some demon was possessing me. The gaze now was almost physical. The door behind me slammed shut. I thought I could hear dry, cracked laughter from the black room next door. I was terrified. An invisible force pinned me into position against the display cabinet, housing Jim Morrison’s embalmed dragon lizard. I hoped it would turn out to be a dream, but this had all the sharp edges of reality.
When I was about seven, sometimes in winter I would walk home from Martin Appleby’s in the dark. It was about half a mile. Usually my elder brother, Raif would be with me, but on occasions, he wasn’t I would have to walk home on my own. Rudd Naseby, who was in my brother’s class had told me about the bogey man. The bogey man came out at night, Rudd said. All the time when it was dark, the bogey man would be watching you. He would follow you home in the dark and, when he found a suitable place where no-one was looking, would grab you round the neck and slowly strangle you. One night the street lights were out and there was no moon or stars. I could hear the regular click-clack of footsteps behind me. They appeared to be getting closer and closer. I broke into a run but the footsteps speeded up too, still getting closer. I was too scared to turn around. I could sense the bogey man’s piercing gaze. His evil eyes would glow in the dark. I could almost feel his breath on my neck. I would never reach home. I would be there lying dead on the pavement, strangled by the bogey man. Finally, I plucked up all my courage and stopped in my tracks. I turned around ……. but there was no-one there. Was this the same feeling I had now? I thought not. That could be put down to natural childish inexperience, my present predicament could not be explained away so easily.
Without warning, the pressure lifted, the room stopped spinning and everything snapped back into place. The light poured reassuringly through the Venetian blinds into the white room and I could hear the sound of birdsong from the arbour, that backed onto the green room. It felt as though I had woken from a leisurely siesta. Had I imagined all of the shenanigans? I walked around the house. I was looking for something to be misplaced, not quite right. But, everything seemed as it should be, all the exhibits seemed to be intact and Josie’s gallery of her photos still looked stunning. In fact, the house seemed particularly tidy. Perhaps this was because Josie was away, there were no random piles of catalogues, unopened mail, and assorted paraphernalia. I tried Josie’s number. I felt that speaking to her might help to settle me. She would tell me that I was being ridiculous and that everything was all right. She would almost certainly have a rational explanation for what had or had not happened.
‘The mobile phone you have dialled is currently unavailable,’ said the message. I wondered about phoning her agency but realised that as she was mostly freelance, I did not know which agency this would be. She was doing promotion shots for a new band called Mars A and they were shooting somewhere in France, Provence maybe, or was it Dauphine? I did a Dogpile search on Mars A, but like a lot of artists these days, the band’s website was short on detail. There were no contact numbers to be found. I sent them an email and kept trying Josie’s number. After the third or fourth attempt, I did not even get the ‘try again later’ message, the phone was completely dead. I phoned around some of her friends. Ophelia did not know where she was, and I was unable to contact Modeste or Asia. Lesleigh asked me if I’d like to come round. She had just put some lunch on, she said. I declined.
The rest of the day went by with no news about Josie’s whereabouts. She did not phone me and I found myself still unable to contact her. When I took a walk to Waitrose (not exactly the wild side) in the early afternoon to buy a bottle or two of wine, I had the feeling that someone was stalking me, and found myself constantly looking over my shoulder. This feeling was so strong that I instinctively got into character by pulling up my collar and putting on my dark glasses (twenty six dollars in my hand). The checkout girl kept her head down and did not engage me in conversation. Perhaps, as I had not bought any food, she thought I was a street drinker, or perhaps, as they were quite expensive bottles, a rich old wino. But, at least, she did not call the manager.
To stimulate my paranoia, the lights in the house went off unexpectedly in the early evening. This was a heart-stopping moment, but luckily I managed to work out quite quickly that it was a power cut to the whole area. Nevertheless, it left me a little shaky. I managed to calm myself down with the second bottle of wine, took several of Josie’s benzodiazepines and went off to bed. I told myself that Josie would be back in the morning and that there would be a logical explanation about why her phone was off.
If things went bump in the night, I was blissfully unaware of them. I woke at about five with a thumping head. I got up, found the Paracetamol and checked the phones. There were no messages and Josie’s phone was still dead. I would have looked at Josie’s email and private data but I did not know how to get into her profile. She kept changing her password. Once I had had a shower, I checked the emails but there was no word. There was also no word from Macy. I had heard nothing since the money had left my paypal account. Reason told me it not to worry, it was only a day. I managed to get Modeste and Asia on their mobiles, but neither of them even knew that Josie was away. They asked me if I was all right and wished me well. Ophelia was unavailable and Lesleigh said she had just opened a bottle of Chablis, did I want to come round. I told her it was a little early for me. I listened to some of Mars A music on youtube. It was terrible. Why didn’t guitarists learn to play the guitar these days, before they made recordings?
There were more tributes to Lou Reed on Twitter. ‘When Lou said goodbye, his dark eyes seemed to contain an infinite and benevolent sadness,’ said Patti Smith about their recent meeting. ‘Sad to hear about Lou Reed passing. Such a star. RIP Lou, and thanks for giving us Perfect Day for Trainspotting,’ said Irvine Welsh. There were many others, each adding to the sense of loss. I listened to Coney Island Baby and found myself in tears. I brushed the dust off my Epiphone acoustic and gave a heartfelt rendition of Pale Blue Eyes. It felt like I had an audience. I was being watched again. From where I was sitting at my desk in the red room, someone I was sure was just outside the window peering in. I crept over to the curtain stealthily and took a look from behind it, but I could see no-one, just the empty street in the distance behind the fence. I got the binoculars out; perhaps they were further away behind the clump of rhododendrons. I could see no-one still, but the sensation of being watched grew stronger. I went from room to room and round the garden and down the street. Wherever I found myself I felt this silent, piercing gaze. By lunch time, I was panicking. Where on earth was Josie? She would be able to make some sense of it all.
‘Are you sure you want to report her as a missing person,’ said Sergeant Lugosi. ‘Seventy two hours is not very long.’
I wasn’t sure at all, but I had just wanted to talk to someone about it.
‘And you did say that she had told you she was going. She might have been delayed. Flights, transfers, all these things are unpredictable.’
‘But she never turns off her phone. I mean, never!’ I thought of all the times her phone had rung when we’d just started making love.
‘Mr London. Has your mobile phone never gone offline for some reason. Have you never found yourself in the Middle of Wales without a signal?’
‘Mr London, it may have escaped your notice, but we are very busy in the police without having to chase up every individual whose phone isn’t turned on.’
‘And I think I’m being stalked,’ I blurted out.
‘Oh, really, Mr London? And what makes you think that then?’ Sergeant Lugosi was becoming a bit of a caricature police officer now. I half expected him to click his heels and say ‘hello, hello, hello, what’s going on here then.’ But I had to admit it did sound a little pathetic, a grown man telling a Police Sergeant that someone was following him.
It was only early afternoon but I thought it might help to call in at The Goat and Bicycle for a pint before going home.
‘Hiya Milo, long time!, said Ivo from a table by the door.
I said hello to Ivo. I had never had much time for him to be fair.
‘How’s Josie,’ he said. ‘I saw her on the High Street yesterday. I waved but I don’t think she saw me.’
‘That’s impossible,’ I was about to say, but instead, somehow ‘Where was that?’ seemed to come out.
‘She was going into that new phone shop. EE, isn’t it. She was with a tall guy. Looked a bit like you. Thought that maybe it was your brother.’
‘I haven’t got a brother,’ I said.
‘Ah, then it probably wasn’t. I’m sure it was Josie though.’
I didn’t like the way that he leered when he said this.
‘She had on a red jacket,’ he added as if this might help in some way. ‘And a short skirt.’
It had crossed my mind more than once over the past few months that Josie might be having an affair. With all the time she spent away, this was certainly a possibility and after all, she was twenty years younger than me and attractive by anyone’s standards.
I phoned my techie friend, Ram, to ask for advice about computer security and he told me that John the Ripper and Cain and Abel were the password cracker programs that he used and he let me know where I could download them. After several hours of trying, I was still unable to get into Josie’s profile. Her phone was still dead and none of her friends who had said they would get back to me if they heard anything had done so. Keeping busy seemed to have helped discourage whoever was watching me or I had just become accustomed to the feeling. As soon as it became dark though and I drew the blinds the pins and needles started up again. It was a different checkout girl at Waitrose, but I was looking over my shoulder all the way there and back. I bought six bottles this time, just in case.
I was so tired, I only needed one of them. I awoke refreshed and ready to get on with business, except there was no business to get on with. Josie’s phone was dead, and all her friends were on voicemail. There were no email updates, just the fifty or so advertising goods or services, and one from a fellow collector wondering if I might be interested in buying Kurt Cobain’s cigarette lighter. Kurt Cobain memorabilia didn’t interest me. I saw him as a B-Lister. Granted I had recently purchased Keith Moon’s chainsaw, Brian Jones’s hair-dryer and a jar of Roy Orbison’s tears, but you had to draw the line somewhere.
New York time is five hours behind us, but I thought if I left a message on his voicemail, Macy would pick it up when he got up. To my alarm, his phone was dead too. ‘The number you have dialled does not exist,’ was the reply, yet this was in my phone and had been the number I got him on two days ago. My own phone rang a few times and each time my heart leapt, but each time it was an unwanted marketing call. Reg, a friend of mine found a way to make money out of these calls. He set up a premium rate number and gave this out every time he had to supply details online, knowing that these numbers would be sold on. Every time he gets an unsolicited call he makes 10p a minute. Sometimes he keeps cold callers talking for ages about their services. Macy finally called late in the evening and told me how I could track the parcel he sent.
‘I’ve been trying to get hold of you, Macy,’ I said. ‘You’re phone’s dead.’
‘I use disposable cellphones, Milo,’ he said. ‘Don’t you have them over there yet?’
‘But the number you gave me worked for weeks,’ I protested.
‘Sometimes I keep the number, sometimes I don’t. Security issue,’ he said.
‘Uh huh,’ I said, adopting a neutral tone.
‘I’m getting the vibe you didn’t trust me,’ he said. ‘Anyway, the beads are on their way. I’ll let you know if I get anything else. Wonder who’s next to bite the big one, eh.’
We speculated for a while, but my heart was not in it. There was Josie’s absence to worry about. Josie would never go for disposable phones and would probably relinquish her 4G iphone 5 only at gunpoint. She had left on Saturday morning and I had heard nothing since and it was now Wednesday evening. I called Modeste, Ophelia, and Asia again to check if they had heard anything, but I got the impression from each of them that they were short on sympathy and getting fed up with me phoning. Lesleigh wondered if I might like to come round and watch Friday the 13th with her. She was just about to put the DVD on, she said. I thought I might pass on the invitation.
I felt a chilling presence in the room, watching me. I tried to move my head so that I could look around, but I found I could not. I began to realise that my body was completely numb and that no matter how hard I tried I was incapable of moving any part of it. The eerie impression that I was being watched intensified, causing me to feel a strong sense of panic. I discovered that I could move my eyeballs around, so I started looking around the area of the room that I could see. It was very dark and initially I could not see at all. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness I thought I could make out the shape of an eye. An eye suspended in space. It did not seem to be attached to any flesh and blood being, but a force was present, an entity. I tried to scream, but I could not open my mouth. I tried to wake up, but I was not sure I was asleep. Finally, I was able to move so I got up and ran from the room. I did not look over my shoulder. I felt the gaze from the eye on the back of my neck but I did not dare to turn around. I must have ran and ran. Everything became hazy. I was no longer sure of the chain of events, where I had been or who I was. I found myself cowering on a patch of waste ground by the Jewish cemetery, with The Black Angel’s Death Song from The Velvet Underground’s first album running through my head. A crowd of people had gathered. They seemed to be concerned. All my defences were down. I could not explain to them that I was the victim of the Evil Eye. One of them said an ambulance was on its way. I said I did not need an ambulance and staggered off. I felt I needed something, though.
Back home, after trundling through the music press sites on the internet, I managed to find out that Mars A were managed by Seamus Dark. Because Dark was something of a self–publicist it was relatively easy to find a number for his management company, AfterDark Promotions. I was shunted around or cut off by feckless subordinates before I found myself speaking to Seamus, who it turned out was not Irish.
‘Sorry about Lisa cutting you off there. She’s a mare, work experience. What can I do for you?’
I mentioned the band.
‘Oh that’s right, Lisa said you wanted to talk about Mars A. Great band, aren’t they. I did good signing them. Single’s at number 39 in the charts, already.’
‘I wanted to talk to you about the photoshoot for their new album cover.’
‘Already taken care of, my son.’
‘Yes! Josie London is doing them in France, I understand.’
‘No mate. Didn’t go for Josie London. Her work is, how can I put it, a little restrained. We was looking for something more radical. We went for Bud Olsen, diamond geezer – and France! No France is too twee. So we went for Hamburg. More edgy. Know what I mean.’
‘So you wouldn’t know where Josie is?’
‘What are you, some kind of weirdo?’
Perhaps I was a weirdo.
I put the phone down.
The checkout girl at Waitrose asked me why I kept looking over my shoulder. Was I alright? Had I lost someone? As I had bought provisions with my wine I did not feel as conspicuous as I had on the previous visits. I thanked her for her concern.
Dreams they say can be the territory for unwelcome upheaval when you are having a difficult time and can add to your disturbed mindset. The odd thing is, I didn’t have any dreams, just the vague impression through my sleeping hours that someone was with me in the room.
‘Morning sleepy head,’ said Josie, snuggling up to me. ‘It was late when I got in, so I didn’t wake you.’
Relief and disbelief jockeyed for prime position.
‘Where have you been? I’ve been trying to phone you day and night.’ I said.
‘My phone got swallowed by the airport scanner.’ she laughed. ‘I’ll be looking for you to help me with the insurance forms.’
‘But you weren’t in France on a photoshoot with Mars A. I checked. Seamus Dark told me he didn’t take you on. ……. And none of your friends knew where you were.’
‘Who? What? I don’t know why I tell you anything. You never listen to me properly do you? It was Marseille, not Mars A. I was shooting for Bande A Part. It’s a French film magazine. I phoned you but you didn’t pick up so I spoke to Lesleigh. Asked her to let you know about the phone and not being able to contact me. Didn’t she say?’
‘She invited me over to hers quite a lot, but no, she didn’t mention it.’
‘Anyway. ….. What have you been up to? Have you missed me? …….. Oh my, I can see that you have. I should go away more often. …… By the way, I found this package in the mailbox ……. In the dark, I thought was it for me so I opened it, but it’s for you. …….. It’s some beads with beady eyes on. Are they worry beads? Is it the Evil Eye? You don’t really believe in that, do you?’
I wondered if I might hang them in the hall alongside Muddy Waters’ mojo. Just in case.
© Chris Green 2014: All rights reserved