Land Of The Living

“Art is dead.” So it was, Spud told me in his near incomprehensible Barnsley accent. We were standing on the street by a telephone waiting for it to turn midnight. “But only in galleries,” he added. “First, you see, God is dead. So said Fred. But this is eighty or ninety years ago. Now take this footpath.

Cut out any piece of it you like and glue anything not stuck down. Hang it on the wall. Tell your agent you want five hundred thousand pesos. Not a penny less. Not only will you have earned a week’s wage but you will have produced a more original rectangle than.. anyone who, you know, makes this fucking shit up. I tell ye, art is dead.” We looked intently at the ground for a second.
“Life is dead,” he said.
We laughed like morons.
On the spot, I decided that “Life is Dead” would be the name of our third LP. Under the terms of the agreement it was my job to name albums. Spud had already got to name the band “Cutting Room Floor.”
What Cutting Room Floor did was folk music with a death wish. The worst possible kind. Pretty much our anthem went like this:

“Round the table, side by side
Late at night and pissed as fartses!
Could be the hats what give us away
Or the way we clink our glasses!
WE ARE THE CLINKOES! WE ARE THE CLINKOES!”
And we would cheer in unison and clink our glasses.
We were dwarves.

Quite unusually, Spud and I also talked politics that evening, while busting into our new home in Camden Town. Theory was, you could rent a room vaguely opposite Westminster, say five storeys up. You’d wake up late in the morning and make yourself a boiled egg on toast with a cup of tea. You’d check your list of appointments for the day. Discovering you had none, you’d open the window, and without looking, pick up the rocket-launcher which had been lying on the floor. Taking stock of the bubbly wall paper, the imaginary cobwebs and the unsurprising greyness of everything, your first shot would be aimed about three-quarters the way up the building, dead middle. The secretary for the Minister of Tourism, possibly. Who the fuck would know?
OK. The cops would catch you alive. But not before you’d put some serious holes in Mafia Central.

And the motive for such willful mayhem as it transpires in the urinals?  Cops always need a motive..
“Hard to say,” I confess, spitting out my front tooth.
The younger cop tries kicking me in the groin and misses completely.
“Fuckhead!” he complains.
“They were squatting in our.. uurrggh!”
I sink to the floor.
But strangely, I find my tooth, crawling about.

Satisfaction in the old sense?
And what’s wrong with that?

But at no time in any of this was I actually alive.
I was in the afterlife.
Every now and again you meet people who don’t believe in an afterlife, in God or in heaven, or in angels or devils, or in any kind of life at all except what’s nominally in front of their noses at the time.
Like millions of people.
Spud was one of these.
Although a funny thing about song-writing atheists is that every second song is populated with gods and angels and devils and ghosts.
I’m surmising it’s never dawned on Spud that we are already in the afterlife.
That we are dead.
We’ve died and been buried and this is where we come to when we’re dead.
It’s too late to ask him now. The moment’s gone.

*

Four months after saying goodbye to Clara, Paul and I hooked up again in London. Within a few days we were back in Paris, camping in some tiny upstairs room in Saint Michel, and busking on the underground. Paul taught me the ropes. After a couple of weeks and some sound advice we jumped a train to Marseille. And then to Cannes, where the money was. Springtime. Hope. Tourists.
Actually, I got kicked off the train halfway from Marseille to Cannes, and hitched the rest of the way.

We slept on the beach, usually a different place each night. In the mornings, we’d busk for half an hour before we could buy a coffee. Then we’d busk some more so we could afford lunch. And again for dinner. We often ended the day at The English Pub as it had cheap food. Our only rule was we never went to sleep with any money in our pockets. Whatever money was left after dinner, we drank.

One night, Paul woke up midway through the robbery of the Nashville. That was the guitar I’d given him when we left Italy in exchange for a tent (already stolen outside of Nîmes). Now, we were sleeping on some kind of pier; Paul, Dave, Jacques and I. We’d become friendly with Dave and Jacques who were also buskers. Dave was from New York, and Jacques originally from Montreal. By the time Paul knew what was going on, the local busking mafia (at that early stage, we didn’t know there was a busking mafia) had turned up somewhere after midnight and had taken the Nashville. While the rest of us remained asleep, the courageous Paul confronted the hoodlums. The lowly mafia, in turn, counter-confronted with a pitchfork, recommending that Paul return to the land of nod, where no one knows nothing and nobody does nothing. Wisely, Paul, for the most part, followed this advice.
Come the morning, the full extent of the damage dawned. A single guitar between the four of us.

At the end of that day there was a conference at The English Pub. We needed our guitar back. But in any case, Patrique had already tracked down another one, a cheap but serviceable steel-string. He also insisted he had friends in Lyons and Paris who would ride down on a phone call. French-style bikers. Our friend Chavez, a hard-nosed, curly-haired Corsican, was in for it. He liked a fight. Especially with the busking mafia. Apart from other distinctive features, Chavez had a hole straight through the middle of his left front tooth.
The busking mafia had guns, Patrique warned us. But never fear, the bikers too would have guns. For sure, someone was going to get hurt. We considered for a minute the possibility of a street war being waged in honour of the Nashville. Somehow, in the end, it came down to me. I said no. No one was going to get cut up because of some guitar.

A few days later, we saw a new guy busking on the waterfront with our Nashville. We approached in a friendly manner. 
“That’s my guitar,” I said.
He was blondish, as foreign as a pool-hall. As we all were. He’d bought it fair and square, he thought. He seemed a little shocked. Half of me said grab it off him right away and try not to bust it in the process. The other half was still figuring out how to get into Sylvie the Belgian’s pants. Whatever the rationale, we let him have it. We heard later he gave it straight back to the mafia for nothing.
Maybe we were lucky to get away without a street war on account of having stolen the Nashville back. More likely, we were just plain cowards.
Does it make a difference?

We worked in pairs. Dave and Jacques, Paul and I. In the morning, we’d all agree as to where we were heading. Sometimes we teamed up for lunch, or because we’d earned too much money. Or not enough.
Paul and I mostly stuck to the underpass at the railway station where there were good acoustics and a steady stream of people. Otherwise there were the outdoor cafés.
One afternoon at the station, just as people were beginning to commute home from work, Dave and Jacques showed up. Paul and I were already thinking we’d had enough. We’d made plenty of money for the night and were about to pack up. Dave and Jacques had had a good day as well. For a laugh, we all stayed on and sang a few more songs.
Our voices wove in and out of an effortless harmony. With no guitar case open for collection, ten franc coins began falling on the floor. The two guitars droned and twinkled. We re-opened the case. Wrong notes became right ones. Subterranean goodwill swelled the length of underpass, turned right-angles, and climbed right up the steps to the station. Within half an hour we’d doubled our day’s pay.

As luck would have it, it was my birthday. The gods of concrete had been generous. We headed for The English Pub. For some reason, everybody ordered mussels.
Somewhere during the evening, Buzz walked in. Buzz hailed from Hanmer Springs in NZ. He’d dropped a joint in Paul’s guitar case when Paul was busking in Montpellier, so I was told. A few days later, at the same busking spot, Buzz had invited Paul to some party, and from there they’d got to know each other a bit. And now he walks in as though it were all part of the plan. Nothing could be more normal. Paul explains that it is my birthday and Buzz immediately orders a round for everyone. He’s just come from the alps, ski instructing. Crap season, not enough snow, no people, and after two weeks he’s decided there must be more going on elsewhere. Buzz lives outside of Toulouse, near Palmiers. The Ariège. The Pyranées. Fields of rape in flower, shining right out of the ground like the sun. Springtime. Rabbit farms. Frisbees. Plenty of room. Friedel has an old Mercedes Benz and can run us into Toulouse if busk we must. But only once a week. Come and stay if we can manage it. Buzz himself is off for awhile to somewhere else. We are to make ourselves at home. He’ll phone and tell Friedel and Pierre of our arrival.
Two days later, Paul and I jump a train to Marseille, and then another to Toulouse. The overnight train to Toulouse has so many people crowded in, sitting on the floor, that the conductors don’t even bother to check for tickets. We jump another train to Palmiers. We walk the last ten miles. It’s dawn.

*

Working once more (the following year) at the symposium outside Bad Vöslau, Kurtl, Paul and I decided we were going to drive from Austria back to New Zealand by tractor. So we went to visit the ATF tractor factory.
What was to be our route? South east! Egypt to Kenya, then ship across to India, always curving towards Bangladesh. After that..
How could anyone think after Bangladesh?
We’d be our own film crew, we decided.

Kurtl himself, in the intervening year, had been to Bangladesh. He told us about it. He had stayed at the home of the beautiful Yasmina. But after a week or two, growing tired of the mega-plush lifestyle, he went off on his own. He met some fishermen. He went fishing. They invited him to stay. Poor people. Kurt loved poor people.

Given our commendable lack of preparation and perseverance, there was an equally commendable lack of interest from the tractor manufacturer for our globe-ploughing idea. So Kurtl arranged a Combi chassis and reconditioned motor to be married. Fuck the tractor factory. We would do it in a combi. Why even film it? Maria decided to come too. We didn’t hold auditions.
Off we went. First port of call? Dimcho Pavlov.

 

*

I’d gone for a piss. I was in a pub in Baden playing pool with Eliezer, Britta, Paul, Kurtl and Krista. I emerged from the toilet just in time to witness Kurt getting decked. One punch. As Kurt hit the floor, I stopped. Something inside me snapped.
I walk over. I watch and listen. Kurt gets back up. It turns out the guy is the barman. Maybe he doesn’t like that we’re speaking English. Or whatever. After a minute, he comes back to the table and tells us all to leave. I make up my mind to argue with him until he hits me. After that, I have no idea.
I start yelling at him in English on the pretext of demanding our money back from the table. It doesn’t take long. He hits me hard in the throat. But before either of us knows what’s happened, I’ve dropped my head and run him so hard into the wall dividing the pub in two we go straight through. People, tables, dinnerware, bits of wall go flying through the air, including the barman himself who ends up on his back on the floor about five yards in front of me, amongst some surprised customers.
I look him right in the eye.
He is shit scared. But it’s too late. I’m in the mood. I decide to tear the whole pub apart, piece by piece.
Britta, strangely beside me, is in tears.
“Terry,” Paul is saying. “Let’s go.”

Of any guy in the whole world, that barman shouldn’t have punched Kurtl. He should’ve picked on someone else. Someone who deserved it. My throat hurt like hell for a couple of days, but I learned one thing: Ninety nine percent of the time, aggression, intimidation, or what people call anger, is nothing more than impotence and frustration. Anger itself is life-affirming and liberating, as I found out.

*

Around this period, I had another dream. A sort of cigarette dream to line up alongside the ‘who am I now that I’m dead?’ vision, the penguin and Moses dreams, and the yet-to-happen balcony scene in Crete. Once again it had the unmistakable quality of being more real than life.

In the dream, some friends and I were walking in the country on a sunny day when we looked up and saw a large golden circle in the sky. Knowing immediately what it was I fell to the ground and hid my face (it’s not possible to know how frightening it is to see a great big golden circle in the sky until you actually come across one, even if in a dream). All the same, eyes firmly shut, I began to see pictures: the sorts of horrendous things people do to one other. I also heard a voice saying something to the effect that this is what’s been happening for so long, and that enough is enough. That the whole show was about to end (I understood the meaning but can’t remember the actual words). Then I saw street after street, in different cities around the world, and half the people keeling over dead.

Still in my dream, I wake to find myself sitting on the grass amongst a small group of people. Sitting with us too is Jesus, his hair red as red. After a while, listening to the others talking and laughing together, the mood being unbelievably awake and happy and light, I decide to ask Jesus why he has come to New Zealand. He answers by way of a riddle, as though he says “how many Lebanese live overseas?" Meaning I don’t understand my own question.
All the while, I am aware of a kind of radiance, the source of which is Jesus himself, seated as he is on the ground.
So I pull out my tobacco and begin rolling a cigarette. But the cigarette seems to have the uncanny knack of unrolling itself. After several attempts I finally get the thing hanging together and am just about to jam it in my mouth when it unrolls itself yet again. In my frustration I make to throw it away when, like a magic trick, it disappears from right out of my fingers. Somehow I look up. Jesus, smiling, is looking directly at me.

"Well! This is important!” I think. “What year is it?” As if I am in a  dream. It is 1982.

Then I woke up properly. We were late to get picked up for work, Kunst-Pflastering in Vienna. While rushing to get ready for work I asked Paul “what year is it now?”
“What?” Paul looked at me a bit strangely.
“What year is it?”
“It’s 1980. 1980! Pass me the bag.”