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FEATURE - JENNIFER COMPTON

 

Stalking Lou Reed In Genoa

 

It seemed amusing to me to make it my mission at the Genoa International Poetry Festival to get a photo of Lou Reed. I got quite above myself when I found out he was the headliner at my first European Festival. I never, in my wildest imaginings, ever imagined I would be a support act for Lou Reed. I danced about the house, braying “You’re gonna reap just what you sow”.

 

    I had a picture in my mind of all the poets holed up in some delightful albergo. I saw us stumbling into breakfast, late, uncombed and unshaven and dehydrated, because we had been  sitting up past dawn, tossing back grappas, perfecting the world. I could forsee many occasions when – “Shout you a grappa, Lou?” – seemed the most appropriate thing to say.

 

    My son was not optimistic. He made that mouth shape he makes when he thinks I am spinning out. He has a precise, acerbic judgement about what is likely to happen and what would never happen.

 

    I turned up the volume on ‘Berlin’. Wrong city of course, but it is all Over There after all, isn’t it? All above the equator, which I had never crossed, in the top half of the world.

 

    The Festival in Genoa? Well, the Festival was, of course, very different from one that would be likely to occur in the Antipodes. Very few people spoke English. I was not expecting this. Somehow. It disoriented me to move from being in the centre of the linguistic universe into a ‘stupida’ who understood very little. What use to me is Spanish translated into Italian? No use at all, frankly. 

 

    At a late night reading in Centro Lebowski, the Milanese poet turned to me and asked – “What do you understand?’

 

    When I made the – I-understand-almost-nothing face – the whole room laughed at me. But I understood enough to know that they were laughing at me because I didn’t understand.

 

    I also understood that Lou would not be staying with the lesser breed of poets at the Novotel. Nobody who didn’t have to stay at the Novotel would stay there. Italians seem to take a pride in their jobs, but the staff was, to a degree approaching 100%, sulky, difficult and on the cusp of rude. The place was badly sited and poorly maintained. NOVO said the big old neon sign shining out above the autostrada. TEL was out of action.

 

    “Lou is apparently not staying at the Novo.” I said to the English poet, Simon Armitage, as he was writing a poem in a café in the Palazzo Ducale.

 

    “I wonder why I am not surprised,” he riposted.

 

    I searched the city. I made no Lou Reed sightings. He was not at lunch in the Napoleon. He was at none of the readings. I didn’t catch him at aperativo. This is getting serious, I thought to myself. I may come away from this bunfight without a photo of Lou.

 

    A dear friend had emailed me before I embarked. She said if Lou Reed didn’t want to run round Genoa with me and have some fun, then rock was dead!

 

    I was strolling around the hills of Genoa the afternoon before his reading in the Teatro della Corte – okay, I wasn’t taking this stalking thing totally seriously, or I would have been hanging out very near the Teatro della Corte, hoping to catch a glimpse as he arrived to rehearse - and I came upon a graffiti.

 

            ROCK IS NOT DEAD!

 

    Nice of them to write in English, because otherwise I would not have known, that in spite of Lou Reed avoiding me, Rock had not died.

 

    The Festival had been delightfully informal up to date. Out in the courtyard of the Palazzo Ducale or in the little conference room at the Museo Sant’Agostino. In a cool club in the old quarter. Or out on the foreshore at Nervi at midnight. That sort of thing.

 

    The Teatro della Corte was a formal sort of place. A modern 800 seat theatre. Ushers everywhere. Once you had taken a ticket then you had to go into the theatre. I didn’t want to. Because I was a poet I didn’t have to. (It is so seductive this I-don’t-have-to-do-what-everyone-else-does thing.) My friends, the festival volunteers and the set designer and the technical production guy and the chick who worked in the office, were wearing ACCESS ALL AREAS cards. And looking harried, pissed off and just generally had it right up to pussy’s bow.

 

    I didn’t get to hear the half of it, but I gathered it was something to do with massages, sub-standard microphones, make-up artists, and the garbage collectors blocking off the back entrance to the theatre just as Mr Wonderful tried to slip in unnoticed. (He had heard about Jennifer Papparazza from Australia!)

 

    After a couple of smokes outside, with my ticket safely in my trouser pocket, I went into the theatre. There was a huge empty area roped off as Reserved (for the Dignitaries who would arrive en masse and be escorted in) and outside this roped off area was a seething crowd and not a seat without a bum, or a coat for a friend, on it anywhere.

 

    So I sat on the stairs. I was told by an usher I wasn’t allowed to. So I left. I tried to give my ticket back but the foyer had turned into a chaos. No one wanted my ticket back.

 

    I spotted the American Bar just off the foyer so I popped in there for a strengthening whisky. The bar had a resident dog barricaded in behind the cash register. You find that in Italy. No one minds a dog or two.

 

    The whisky started doing its work. Excellent. Five to nine. The show kicks off at nine. Or, as the barmaid called it – lo spettaccolo. Sounds way more spectacular than show, doesn’t it?

 

    A surge of ACCESS ALL AREAS people poured into the bar. They collected a pot of tea on a tray, dozens of bottles of mineral water, all manner of goodies. They consulted lists and panicked. The dog became anxious with the hectic vibes and started barking. They gathered up the necessaries and surged out of the American Bar. I estimate the tab would have been 50 euro! Walter, who was carrying the tray with the teapot, held it high and tried not to spill a drop as he scurried out at the end of the line.

 

    Although I had never seen this sort of carry on before, I surmised it might have been a Star throwing a tantrum about what he required before he would set foot on stage. I could almost empathise. A cup of tea is so soothing to the throat. I wonder if I could get away with it, I wondered, as I fronted up to the bar and tried to persuade the barman I wanted another whisky. I did get awfully sick of this, in Italy. Trying to indicate to the barman that although I had already had a drink, I did indeed want another.

 

    “No, no, signora,” they would say. “You have already paid for your drink.”

    “Yes, I know. But I want another.”

No no, signora. You have paid.”

 

    Italians are so abstemious. This was my big Italian surprise. They have one hefty drink, and a negroni or a grappa is hefty, and that does them.

 

    Luckily, Valentina, the nice chick who works in the office, arrived in her ACCESS ALL AREAS ensemble, and told the barman I wanted another drink.

 

    He was impressed.

    “She is Australian,” explained Valentina.

              

    It was five past nine. The other ACCESS ALL AREAS people drifted wanly into the bar, and ordered double negronis with a negroni chaser. The Ways of the Star had ground them into dust. Lou Reed is a jerk? Who would have thunk it?

 

    “Have another negroni. Do you want a negroni with that?”

    It got a bit silly. The barman didn’t gag with horror when I asked for a third whisky. The dog was let out from behind the cash register. People mimed setting their ACCESS ALL AREAS badges alight. I lent them my lighter and took photos. Then someone said – “I’m going to go home and destroy all my Lou Reed cds!”

 

    We tried to imagine life without ‘Transformer’ and ‘Rock n Roll Animal’. We tried to imagine life without Velvet Underground. I couldn’t imagine life without ‘Berlin’. I’ve been listening to it for too long. For nearly half of my life. ( No one tried to imagine life without Metal Machine Music, because no one had it.)

 

    The drunken French literary historian arrived at our silent and contemplative table. He announced a screen had been set up in the foyer for the over flow, and that the Emperor was nude. The translator was doing a much better job.

 

    “Poetry is generous,” he said. “This is not generous.”

 

    I had glanced at Lou’s book, ‘The Raven’, on a table in the foyer as I arrived. I had sold three copies of my book at my reading, but they seemed to think that they would do better tonight. Heaped piles of books. I had an idea that someone had told me that it was a re-working of ‘The Raven’ by Edgar Allen Poe. I could see no connection. I didn’t read it all, but. Just the open-it-at-random-and-see-if-grabs-you test. Some of it, like the hot frog stuff and the rock minuet ditty, seemed downright silly. But I made plenty of allowance for performative transformation. One has to. At a Festival.

  

    I made the difficult choice to leave the bar and check out the gig on the screen in the foyer. The bar was about to close and once you had left, there was no way back. The dog was still nervous and lifted her top lip at me as I made the one way trip.

 

    What a gorgeous cossie the Star was wearing. Just a t-shirt but such a t-shirt! The kind of t-shirt Aubrey Beardsley and William Morris would have designed if they could only have got it together. But hang on! What’s the story here? Why is the Star flummoxing around, adjusting his mike, (top of the range, state of the art mike – the technical guy had assured me)? Why is he clearing his throat, glancing around? Could it be that he does not feel totally at ease? Now I can’t even hear what he is saying! Or see his face! The t-shirt still looks hot, though.

 

    Then it was the translator’s turn. He went for it. Golly, it sounded good in Italian. Delivered with a bit of brio and pizzazz. 

 

    Oh well. If I had really come all the way to Genoa to see Lou Reed, the Poet, I would have been a bit down in the mouth. As it was, I have not destroyed my cds so I still have the best of him.

 

    The drunken Frenchman, the local poet, the Icelandic blow-ins, the outrageously feminine Syrian poetess, and the Belgian and I, headed up town looking for a bar. Any bar. I was worried about the Syrian poetess’ shoes, but she was gamely still up with the gang, and flirting with her chiffon scarf, by the time we got our first round in.

 

    But we got a call via the Frenchman’s mobile, summoning us to the Napoleon. Where Lou had requested a quiet dinner with only a few people.

 

    I can only think that someone really wanted to hack him off. Summoning us to the quiet dinner with only a few people. We were well away and the walk up town had refreshed us. We were hot to trot.

 

    We poured into the Napoleon. I gave Lou a sharpish look from under my straw hat from a distance of only five feet. I couldn’t have reached out and touched him but I could have taken a photo. If I had still wanted to.  The Syrian poetess did a bit of chiffon scarf work. Just out of habit or from nervous tension. Something like that.

 

    I saw Lou push his plate away, jump up like a man with a much better place to be, I saw his minders jump up in consternation. And I thoughtfully popped outside into the street to have a smoke. It just seemed like a good idea. I did light a smoke rather than take my camera out of the bag. He looked so hunted, and he had done such a very bad gig, it would have been cruel to have taken a photo. I can be saucy, but I’m not cruel.

 

    He was only tiny. A tiny little man, hastening away. Maxi, the dark eyed, spunky Genovese who had taught me how to say I am drunk (ubriaca) was walking in front of him. Suzanne, the very tall American, who had translated my poems, was walking behind him.

 

    “Ciao,” I said to Maxi. He replied.

    “Ciao,” I said to Lou. He replied.

    “Ciao,” I said to Suzanne.

           

    “Hi, Jennifer. See you soon,” she stammered, as she was swept away in the wake of the flight from the contamination of all the people who are not Buddhist Superstars.

 

    Lou Reed said ciao to me!

 

    Honest to God, I am a disgusting person. I deserve to be a Buddhist Superstar. There is no health in me. I am the reason he has to hasten away from his nice dinner in the Napoleon. I hope he called up room service when he got back to his six star hotel and ordered a double serve of tiramisu. And I hope it was really yummy.

 

    I stubbed out my cigarette, and went back into the Napoleon. The joint was jumping. One person was making sticking-your-fingers-down-your-throat-and-being-sick gestures. One person was making cutting-your-throat gestures. Someone who had the authority to do it, called for more wine. And lots of it! The fun started. The party was on.

 

    How sad to be the person who has to leave for the fun to start. That’s dreadful. I really hope Lou lives on a galaxy where when he arrives! the fun starts. Rather than when he leaves.

   

    The Belgian writer got tired and emotional and spilled a tasty bottle of Ligurian vino bianco into my handbag. But that’s cool. If it had been rosso I might have got snarky.

 

    Suzanne and Maxi arrived back. Maxi is a dare-devil sort of guy, and he doesn’t speak English anyway, so most of it had passed over his head. But Suzanne felt violated.

 

    She had been translating for Lou at the press conference and had asked him to pause now and again so she could translate.

 

    Lou turned to her and said – and I quote to the best of my memory – “Would you go fuck yourself? Would you do it fast, would you do it slow, would you do it now?” 

 

    I am re-thinking this stalking thing. It’s no fun for anyone. I’m just going to hang with the poets. And the person who has the authority to call for more wine. And lots of it.

 

    Fame is a flame that devours everything you offer it. It burns up success, it burns up failure, the famous, glossy face curls up in the cold embers of yesterday’s bonfire. 

 

    ‘You’re going to reap just what you sow.’

             

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