– Fred de Vries
I have a little theory about Andy Warhol: the silver wigged über-voyeur with his coterie of drugged-up freaks and fairies should be blamed for the decline of popular art since the late seventies. One day I’ll explain this in a deeply profound essay. Not here though.
But I want to stay with Warhol for a little while. In his Philosophy of Andy Warhol (from A to B and Back Again), he offered a little pearl of wisdom on ‘leftovers’. Not the doggy bag type, but leftovers from books and films – people as well. The bits and pieces that have been edited out, thrown away, wasted, rejected. Warhol wrote: ‘I always like to work on leftovers, doing the leftover things. Things that were discarded, that everybody knew were no good, I always thought had a great potential to be funny. It was like recycling work. I always thought there was a lot of humour in leftovers.’
Leftovers contain the mistakes, the dirt, the adventures gone wrong, the flirts, the failures, the secrets, the embarrassing moments. The concept appealed to me: all the big chunks of interviews and reportage you have to throw away as a writer or journalist, all the weird things that happen when you’re on an assignment, all the stuff that, although much more entertaining, simply will not surface in the final story.
I mused over Warhol’s bit of philosophy when I was strolling along the beach in Cape Town’s Hout Bay with my old friend Liliane. I was in South Africa on a serious mission: I had to interview writers and critics for a feature on post-apartheid literature for a Dutch newspaper. The theme I had chosen was ‘identity’. And to my relief, despite the over-ambitious nature of my sojourn, things were running smoothly. I had already spoken to large a number of people, ranging from the ranting writer/filmer Aryan Kaganof to an aloof Nadine Gordimer. Eighteen interviews in all. Way too many for a 2000 words piece. While admiring the scenery of Hout Bay, I started wondering how Warhol would have used the leftovers.
For instance, the Friday night Kaganof, overtly proud of not being in the possession of a drivers’ licence, took me on a wild drive around Johannesburg. We ended up at some party near Zoo Lake, in a club on the edge of a bowling green. A rasta-DJ was spinning the discs. A mixed crowd danced and drank. I bumped into a journalist I remembered from years ago. I’m not sure she recognized me, but pushing her breasts against my upper arm she slurred the opening line: ‘I’m a single mother and I wanna have great sex tonight. Are you any good? If not, go and get me a whisky.’
I got her a whisky.
Warhol would also have used bits of the Gordimer meeting. Preferably the episode where the Grande Dame left the room to sign one of her novels for me. When she hadn’t returned after a good five minutes I congratulated myself, thinking she had turned my book, a second-hand Penguin paperback, into a pricy collector’s item with a long personal dedication. But when I opened None to accompany me, the only words I could find were ‘Nadine Gordimer’. And those five minutes? God only knows.
Warhol would probably also have slipped in the bit in where young Cape Town writer Stacy Hardy, after our interview, wrote an erotically charged short story based on our meeting, and e-mailed it to me with the immortal line: ‘Remember, it’s all fiction.’
But that wasn’t what we were getting at, that Saturday on the Hout Bay beach, Liliane and I. It was a sunny autumn afternoon. Boats were sailing, kids playing. And after we had covered the essentials of love and life (we hadn’t seen each other for years), we started on Justine Frischmann and the interview I’d done with her a couple of months before.
I told her, in lavish detail, about Justine’s dark eyes and the jet-black hair that fell just over her right eye (talking of love and life as we were). Liliane raised an eyebrow. By the time I got to the way Justine had buttoned her black shirt, Liliane was shaking her head. And of course she has a great voice, I added quickly, feeling like the man who says he buys Playboy for the interviews.
Maybe something of an explanation is needed here. Justine Frischmann, the 32-year old daughter of a Hungarian Auschwitz survivor and a Jewish Russian mother, hails from London and in the mid-90s used to be the lead singer and guitarist in the punky Britpop band Elastica. Besides that (and something which Warhol would have found much more appealing), she was involved in a love triangle with Brett Anderson of Suede and Damon Albarn of Blur, both figureheads of Britpop. A book by John Harris detailing this complex artistic, erotic, emotional, druggy, messy and inevitably nasty relationship has recently been published under the title The Last Party: Britpop, Blair And The Demise Of English Rock (Fourth Estate). Which means I don’t have to go into all the gossip and heartbreak.
For a while, Justine’s Elastica beat Suede and Blur in terms of sales and popularity. Elastica got an American contract, played the prestigious Lollapalooza festival with Sonic Youth and Hole, and their eponymous album sold half a million.
All very cool, or as Justine would say ‘wicked’. Until heroin made an entree. Bassist Annie turned out to have been a dope fiend even before she joined Elastica, while guitarist Donna and drummer Justin followed suit and developed serious habits. And finally that gorgeous daughter of a Jewish millionaire, Justine, also succumbed to smack. One more so-so album, and then it was ‘ciao Elastica!’ That was 2001.
Justine has been clean for quite a while now. She has a house in Notting Hill, not far from 25 Powis Square, the house where, in the late sixties, parts of the movie Performance were shot, and where the leader of the post-Situationist urban guerrilla gang The Angry Brigade once lived. Nice, spicy details.
Not surprisingly, Performance turned out to have been a big hit with the Britpoppers. Justine’s ex-lover Brett Anderson was mad about the movie, which featured a jaded rock star, played by Mick Jagger, who lost himself in a decadent London world of sex, crime and drugs. Anita Pallenberg, Keith Richards’s partner, played his lover. The film had a sex-scene involving Jagger and Pallenberg.
There was an uncut version in which Mick and Anita got all carnal. Keith allegedly wasn’t amused. To rub it in, this uncensored Performance won a prize at an erotic film festival in Amsterdam. It was easy to see Brett, Damon and Justine, three skinny suburban London kids on their way to fame, identifying with this kind of drama some 25 years later.
So Performance was what we talked about, Justine and I. And her heroin addiction, London, Notting Hill, Britpop, Auschwitz, and architecture. She said she loved the brutalist dehumanisation of the nearby Trellick Tower, once considered a disaster, now a monument. She mentioned that all the songs on Elastica’s first album were about sex and drugs. And yeah, she agreed it was a shame that we, pop generation types, could only quote song lyrics and not books anymore. She’d heard a tacky Cliff Richard song a few days before, and could sing along, word by word. Yep, embarrassing. I agreed.
Nothing shocking. All quite entertaining. A feature on Justine and Elastica duly appeared in my newspaper.
And then there was the leftover stuff.
Those had started to take shape months before – when Liliane and I made a bet on that beach at Hout Bay: who would be the first to make contact with the elusive Justine so I could interview her. I would try from Eritrea, where I lived; she from Cape Town.
First there were dozens of e-mails and phone calls to Justine’s management. Yes, they said wearily, they had passed on the message. Thanks, I said.
Months later, when I had long given up, I got an e-mail from Justine, saying she’d be happy to talk to me. I immediately copied the e-mail address three times, so as not to lose it. And of course I replied straightaway, saying how glad I was to finally hear from her, and that I had a few questions she could perhaps answer in the meantime, blah blah blah. This brought an abrupt end to our e-mail correspondence. Had my questions (about Situationism, the Bloomsbury literary group and anarcho-punk band Crass) been too weird?
Then in November, I went to London to work on a series of interviews for my book Club Risiko (Nijgh & Van Ditmar, 2006) on the legacy of the 80s underground. And as a side drama, staged myself: Desperately Seeking Justine
Daily I strolled along Notting Hill’s Portobello Road, hoping to catch her by chance. I managed to get her home phone number from the Rough Trade record shop. I called and called, and every time I put the phone down, I sang that final line from the old Replacements song to myself: ‘I hate your answering machine’. I left friendly messages, urgent ones, cool ones, begging ones. No reply.
Finally, one Friday night I ordered a beer in a Hackney bar where an anarchist punk rock festival was about to start. Something to do with the War on Iraq, I think. ‘Anarchy is fun’ read a huge banner. I heard my cell phone ring. Juggling phone and change, I saw the magic word ‘JUSTINE’ appear. Leaving my beer on the counter, I ran outside.
‘Justine!’ I stammered, instantly hating myself for sounding so excited.
‘No, it’s her housemate,’ a female voice replied. ‘I saw this number appear so many times, I decided to see who it was. But if you’re looking for Justine, she’s not in. She’s with her mother in the hospital. Can I leave a message?’
I sighed, left a message and resigned myself to waiting again. Waited a long time. Eight days in all. No call, no e-mail.
Even though all my other interviews worked out really well, I felt despondent. This was no longer a matter of fun, attraction, possibilities, or even desire. It had become a matter of pride. With only three days left, I called management once more. Five times the person I needed was ‘in a meeting’. She must have thought me a kind of stalker. Especially since Justine hadn’t produced anything for more than two years. I mean, why does this guy want to speak to her? Finally we managed a brief exchange. Yeah, Justine had passed by just the other day. No, they couldn’t give me her cell number. And yes, they would pass the message on.
Two days to go. Late in the evening I got back to my Kensington lodging (Leftover pop fact: a former hospital where Jimi Hendrix had died), to find an e-mail from Justine. She was sorry, but she had to visit her mother who was recovering from a heart operation. But she did leave me her cell number.
I called the following morning, expecting voicemail, but… a real voice, with a slightly affected London accent. We agreed to meet the next day, my final day in London, at three o’clock in a Notting Hill coffee bar.
Quarter to three. I ‘m killing time, browsing through second hand cds in the Records and Tape Exchange. Phone rings. JUSTINEMOB flashes on the display.
‘Oh fuck,’ I shout. Customers look up. Justine’s car has broken down in North London. She’s waiting for the AA to fix the problem. ‘Maybe we should forget about the meeting’, she adds.
A soundless scream. ‘No! I’m leaving tomorrow! I’ll wait. Doesn’t matter how long.’
‘Okay. I’ll try, Call you later.’ Sounds like an empty promise though.
I stroll to the café, the Hazy Daisy or something, where I drink an unhealthy number of coffees. Behind me, in an ante-room, women are changing babies’ nappies. The music from the kitchen (techno) is louder than the music in the café (soft jazz). I flip through a magazine and learn that David Beckham loves sarongs, which has given him a gay following. I also learn that the firm female bum (apparently J-Lo has the perfect one) is back in vogue. I wonder about Justine’s bum. How would heroin addiction affect the buttocks? I drink more coffee. Go to the loo once. Go to the loo once more. Finally . . . finally, hear my cell.
‘On my way’, she says.
Fifteen minutes later she walks in, waves and orders a café latte at the bar. Très cool. Very pop star. Dark eyes, bad post-junky teeth. Another Replacements line pops up: ‘You’re so sadly beautiful.’
Well, the middle part you know. We chat for almost two hours, about heroin, Britpop, Auschwitz, Notting Hill, Performance and architecture. All the stuff that appeared in the article.
I give her a silver ring from the Horn of Africa, which to my dismay leaves about half a centimetre between ring and her skin. ‘Did you think I had fat fingers?’ she says smiling. ‘I can use it as a toe-ring.’ I dare not say I dislike toe-rings.
When the coffee shop finally closes we walk to her vintage Morris Mini. I give her three kisses (first time I’ve ever kissed a pop star). She asks if she can take me somewhere – even opens the door for me.
I provide the world with the ultimate loser leftover. ‘No, thanks’, I mumble. ’Got another appointment.’
I watch the two red lights of her Mini fading into the Notting Hill night before finding a pub and ordering a beer. In my little green notebook, I write down another song: Love in Vain, the version by the Rolling Stones, circa Performance.
Fred de Vries is a Dutch writer/journalist, who moved to South Africa in 2003 to do research for a biography of Johannesburg Beat poet Sinclair Beiles.
He runs travel writing workshops and a travel writing mentoring programme for All About Writing.
His books include Respect! (with Toine Heijmans), about hip-hop in Europe, Club Risiko, a look at 80s underground music in six cities, Afrikaners, volk op drift about the post-1994 fate of the Afrikaners which was translated into Afrikaans as Rigtingbedonnerd and Gehavende Stad with Erik Brus, an overview of 50 years of literature and music in Rotterdam.
He wrote about his travels for The Sunday Times and Sunday Independent, and taught travel writing as a guest lecturer at Wits. He had an interview column for The Weekender, which were collected in The Fred de Vries Interviews; From Abdullah to Zille. Afrikaners, volk op drift was nominated for Best Journalism Book and Best Travel Book in 2013. De Vries was nominated for Correspondent of the Year in 2014 and 2015.
His seventh book, Wiegelied voor de witte man: ras en muziek in het Amerikaanse Diepe Zuiden en Zuid-Afrika was published in October 2017.
For a brief moment she seems to smile.