In praise of a dog-eared Alwych notebook
"You ask me if I keep a notebook to record my great ideas. I've only ever had one." Albert Einstein. there's nothing between us
While moving from one room to another to create a reading and writing study I unburied a notebook; an Alwych All weather (sic) Cover Notebook to be precise, at least that's what it says inside the front cover. For reasons unknown I had scribbled alongside that page, Dave Allen '88/'89. If you were holding it you would see that I had adorned the cover with a sticker that was itself a copy of the cover of the New Order album Technique. Inside the back sleeve of the notebook is a small sticker that tells the price - £3.45, and the date - 04 2 86. So I had bought the book in London sometime around April 2nd 1986. It's sturdy. And hefty. And I consider the contents within to be trustworthy after all these years, as I am the 'journalist' who transcribed those butterfly-netted, neuron-snaps of thoughts, lyrics, ideas and outtakes on to the journal's pages.
Twenty five years later I'm thumbing through it again. The last entry in it dates to April 27 2001, at which time I was working at Intel - the reason I had moved up to Portland from Los Angeles. (There's a larger story about my work on the early Web, Intel, eMusic.com, technology, Internet-connected products, but not one to be told here just yet.) It's pages still remain ready for more notes. It's not that I couldn't have filled it, I had three notebooks on the go simultaneously.
Looking back through the notes today is both strange and unsettling. I mean, who was I? Who scratched those ideas for lyrics back in 1993 in that godforsaken suburb of Phoenix, AZ, trying to make sense of its sun-dazed menace? It helps to find a note that reminds me that I was channeling JG Ballard after reading a paragraph of his own thoughts about the suburbs, a paragraph that I had scrawled down on the page:
..in the suburbs, one's almost got to get up in the morning and make a resolution to perform some sort of deviant or antisocial act, some perverse act, even if it's just sort of kicking the dog, in order to establish one's own freedom..suburbs are very sinister places, contrary to what most people imagine.
During the recording of my first solo album, I had bought a house in a Phoenix suburb (really that's pointless information as there is nowhere else to buy a house unless you were to retreat deep into the desert.) As I wore my hair bleached white and openly bared my tattooed arms and shoulders, it was brought to my attention via some renegade neighborhood teens who had befriended me, that I was considered a "threat." Me, a musician, a threat to the guys with their huge pickups and their guns and their Rottweilers. Laughable I know, but menace was in the air - I had felt much safer living in East Hollywood in Los Angeles; weirdly I'd been accepted by the local gang members who "owned" the parking lot of Plaboy Liquor, (yes it was spelt wrong,) as the "guy with the funny accent who likes wine and Margaritas." I could always feel their leader, the sullen one with the tattooed teardrops, watching my back as I walked the two blocks to my apartment. We never locked eyes.
In 1993 the Phoenix suburbs were fiercely embedded; they were nowhere and there was nothing between us. Sun-baked flats, Bud Light and the hissing of summer lawns. I had been struggling to capture the Arizona suburbs in song and the notebook reveals the route to where I finally get to the lyric that just felt right, even the title, Suburban Yoke.
I heard the news my fears are leery I'm getting tired and more than weary of being your neighborhood threat and I'm not done yet..
hose and candy, coke and beery suburban yoke achiever cheery oblivious of what comes next and I'm not done yet..
Because of my bleached hair there was a rumor that I, or at least my visiting band mates, were gay. I had written in my notebook, that next time I flew in from a trip I should make a point of buying one of those fashion magazines that are littered with perfume samples and rub those evil smelling strips all over myself so the hardnuts could smell me coming.. Which had led me to write 'My Portugese Boyfriend.'
it's a killer, oh! the thrill of things what's a boy to do? when I piss it stings - a chaotic reeling my purple tome spilling out my guts i'm heading home, sailing, coming in gusts..
The songs were written, they were recorded, they were released. Then I sold the house in the suburbs and moved back to Los Angeles. Farewell, Aridzona 1993. (According to my notes I had considered two titles for the resulting album - Edgy: America and There Is Nothing Between Us.)
And now scrutinizing the notebook leads me back along another trail of scratchings and crossings out, of extracts in print pasted to the page about Damien Hirst's work "Nothing Is A Problem For Me." I noted that the title was ambiguous, had a double meaning: that the state of nothingness is a problem, and that Hirst had told the NY Times "I'm so arrogant that I don't have any problems." I like that as much as I like the title to Julian Barnes' book Nothing to Be Frightened Of. We ought to fear nothing..
The notes detoured into a Brian Eno quote from back in the mid nineties that "the idea of a record release as an event has become boring. The record as a thing, as a cultural space, is no longer as exciting as it used be.." I had forgotten that quote which is startlingly prescient. I had also forgotten Hirst's attempt at allaying his girlfriend's fears about her post-partum weight by saying "You're just going to turn to ash anyway, and so am I." The notebook has brought these wonderful forgotten sentences crashing back.
And then I turn a page and discover (recall, remember?) that I interviewed John Lydon aka Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols for Raygun Magazine..yes David Carson's too-cool-for-school design and culture magazine. It turns out that Carson seems to be wildly disliked in the design community. I never met him. I was pissed off with the layout of my articles though. In one stroke of genius either he or his editors thought it would be a good idea to merge my Jane's Addiction interview with another writer's Trent Reznor interview, rendering them both unfathomable in print. It was the new thing. The magazine didn't last long. I still have the copies with my work in them, languishing as art objects amongst a pile of other magazines.
My interview with John Lydon went like this: Arrive at a Los Angeles studio, wait for an hour or more. Be introduced to Lydon who derisively dismisses my band, Gang of Four as a bunch of six form wankers who'd read too much Karl Marx. (True, true..) I ask a few easy questions that he answers in his trademark snarl. (I feel like I'm interviewing an angry clown at this point.) His publicist had warned me not to ask him about his long-awaited new album, so I asked him how the album was coming along.. he told me to go fuck myself and stormed out.
Within the hour I got a call from a Raygun editor telling me they didn't need the Lydon interview as the magazine was folding.
I'm now revisiting the other two notebooks.