Saturday, 26 June 2010

Tito's General

The translator looked disgusted. Whatever it was the General had said, she took a lot fewer words to say it in English.

“The General would like you to join him for dinner after the concert,” she said.

Belgrade, 1979. Hot July night, with the mosquitoes biting in the dressing room before the gig. I was ready to go on stage. I wasn't ready for this.

“He is most insistent. He says he would be honoured.” I was pretty sure that wasn't how he'd put it.

She was a good-looking woman, the translator. Forty at the most. Strong, high cheekbones, and dark eyes glittering deep in their sockets. Handsome, my Mum would've called her.

I suppose the General was attractive to a lot of women. He had oily hair in a sort of pompadour, and a squint nose. Probably broken in the service of the Glorious Partisans, fighting alongside Josip Tito thirty-five years before.

But he had a sort of...aura, a presence. You could see it in the way our Yugoslav backstage people edged around him, smiling and nodding when he ignored them.

“Tell him politely I'm not interested,” I said. “And I've got a gig to do in five minutes.”

In the hall, the audience were starting to shuffle their feet. It wasn't quite a big enough crowd to start stamping, or maybe it was just they had heard the General was in the building too.

The translator turned back to the General. She spoke softly, hesitantly, knowing he wasn't going to want to hear what she said. His reply was pretty short. His eyes flicked over me again. Then she turned back to me.

“I told him you would be too tired after the concert. He asked if tomorrow was going to be more convenient.”

I smiled. “I have to be in Bulgaria tomorrow. My next concert is there.” I thought that might give me an out, but the translator just looked a little more sour, shrugged, and relayed on what I'd said.

When he replied, the General was smiling and nodding at me. I thought that was a good sign, until she said, “He says he knows people in the central authorities in Sofia. They can rearrange your concert. He says your permit to stay longer in Yugoslavia can be extended at a phone call from him.”

Or my permit to leave revoked, I thought to myself. Through in the auditorium, the crowd had started a timid sort of slow handclap: “Ve-nus, Ve-nus...”

What could I do? The guy obviously wanted a Western pop star as a notch on his bed post. And I was the closest he was going to get.

I studied the translator. Her face was a mask.

“Look,” I said. “Can you help me out here? Sister to sister?”

She was expressionless as she considered this. Eventually she said, “If you want rid of him, the best way would be if you say that you'd sooner sleep with me than him.”

“To say I'm a lesbian?”

She nodded.

“Okay, then.” Actually, I've often wished that were true. Women are so much easier to get along with than men. I'm just not made that way, worse luck.

I watched the translator tell the General, and his face change as she used the word lezbejka. I heard it used a few more times the next day, at the border, but luckily the good old boys on the barrier let me through.

That night, though, I just thanked the translator, turned on my heel, and walked out on stage. It was a good gig, I seem to remember; despite the guitars going out of tune all the time with the heat. They always liked me in Belgrade.

I only found out by chance, much later, that the translator was actually the General's wife.

Monday, 21 June 2010


One thing I always notice about Arbroath, when I've been away, is the light. The sun, even when it's wearing a mask of cloud, skims in off the waves with the north-easterlies in a particular way. It's what makes it unlike anywhere else I've been. Its USP, like the A & R men would say.

Other seaside places, St Ives, or St Tropez, draw painters like moths to a flame because of their light. Arbroath, not so much. Although that could be the smell from the smokeries.

What the light does, though, is etch in every line, every crow's foot on the people I know. This time, 1991, was no different. It was like the folk had been sandblasted by the wind and weather, and then by that rain-sodden sun.

“You're back, then,” Mum Said. She didn't look surprised, or pleased particularly. “Your room's made up. I'm off to the bingo at seven, mind.”

I walked her to the end of the street. She'd retired the previous year, and seemed to have settled into old wifiedom already. Keeping the house spic and span (who for, I've no idea, since Dad was long gone by then) telly, bingo, tia maria and coke, occasional trips with her cronies to Forfar, or Dundee. I asked her if she ever went to Edinburgh.

“Naw, hen. Too far.”

I spent the evening in the local, being chatted up by a guy who'd been in the year below me at school. He'd got his own building business, he said, although most of the profits seemed to be going into Tennent's lager. I stuck to vodka: less hangover that way.

“Comin hame wi me, then?” he said, at closing time.

“I've got my own home to go to,” I said, and left him propping up the wall. I didn't tell him it was thousands of miles away, and that the bank had probably foreclosed on it by now.

The sea haar had come in with the night. Water droplets settled round my paisley pattern shawl, each with their own salt secret. Back in Mum's, everything was quiet, and dark. My old room smelt of the sea as well.

I lay awake for a long time, thinking of the places I'd seen on tour. Europe, in all its different shades and guises. The States. Even Canada, one biting winter, when I was supporting the boys on their stadium tour.

I hadn't unpacked much of my bag, so it didn't take long in the morning to get ready to go. Mum didn't seem surprised, or pleased.

“I knew you wouldn't stay,” she said. “Where will you go?”

“Edinburgh,” I told her.

It was the last time I saw her alive.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

cabin fever

Cabin Fever

If you shut your eyes and forgot why you were there, it was kind of fun. Being back at Mitchell's house in Laurel Canyon, that is, house-sitting. Even after the party moved on and the pretty, creative people moved out, it was still a place to stay.

Just five minutes on the twisty road and I was down at the Troubador, watching young star-struck kids trying out the same way I had, all these years ago (was it ten already?) Punk might've come, but not everyone was a punk in 1980, despite what they might tell you.

Mornings were always my best time. Waking up alone seemed easier than going to bed alone. The log cabin would be quiet: less traffic, then. Birdsong was something I listened out for whenever I woke up, like a lover's voice. If you can't hear birdsong, I used to tell the audiences, you need to get to a place where you can. No birdsong at Belsen.

My audiences were smaller, by then. A select few theatres in California. Just a low key tour, my agent said, loking me over and trying to be unobtrusive about it.

'I'm fine,' I said. Makeup can hide most things, except dilated pupils. 'Ready to get back in the saddle.'

So I stayed at the cabin as much as I could, that summer of 1980. I t was my turn. And it was free. In the mornings, I'd pad round the little place, coffee filling the air, my only drug in the mornings: that and the sun streaming through the windows. When you come from a cold, northern country like me, you need the sun as much as anything.

Sometimes, in the afternoon, I might sit out the back, letting the scent from the pines wash over me as I sang my old songs, maybe trying out some new ones. That's where I wrote Would You Say.

Who was I singing for, back then, at the cabin? Not for the dead man, surely? I never felt his presence there, not even in the dead of night, when the wind sighed through the trees and the log walls shifted from foot to foot.

But there was another presence coming, a flesh and blood one. He just turned up on the doorstep one of those sun-soaked mornings. Sumner.

He looked thin, and tanned, and very blond.

'Hey, babe, what's up? Room for me?'

We sat facing each other, drinking Californian wine. He'd been doing some guest spots on other people's stuff, he said, some guitar, some backing vocals. Now he'd cut a new album.

'All the best guys in the band, Linda,' he siad, eyes twinkling. He was one of the few people who called me by my true name instead of Venus. 'I tried to reach you to get you to sing on it, but I couldn't find you. You're a woman of mystery.'

'Woman between agents, more like,' I said.

'It's going to be good, this album,' he said, not really hearing me. 'It's going to be big.'

He was off next week on the stadium tour to promote it, he said. We toasted his success with the wine warming in the sun through the windows.

It was a cold, heartless bitch of a winter, that one, even in L.A. Remember John Lennon being shot? Oh, of course, you'll be too young. That was that winter. I remember it more than the day Kennedy died. Chapman came up to him outside Dakota Mansions and shot him. His biggest fan.

Sumner told me, before he left, that Stewart had died a few weeks before. The usual rock star death: drug overdose in a hotel room. I hadn't read any papers once I got to the cabin, apart from the local ones, for my reviews.

A lot of things died for me, that winter.