Day 21— Ending up in Edinburgh
Today’s is the most difficult blog to write. The “Did I Mention the Free Wine” 2010 Tour is now over, and yesterday overflowed with emotions, events, and far too much free wine (I have only just recovered enough faculties to write, which is why it’s so late). So much happened, in fact, that a blog post can’t do it justice, which is of course one reason why Felix and I are doing a book.
Everyone was expecting Felix to go for broke on the last show, and he did not disappoint. At The Hub (a humble name for such an impressive venue) he delivered inspired recitals of almost every poem, especially the standard crowd pleasers like “Oranges and Lemons,” “I Love the French, The Bastards,” and “The Bearded Dwarf.” During his grand finale, “Summer of Love,” he danced and air-guitared to the background music, clearly reveling. Being the operator he is, he always hints near the end of the second set that there will be an encore (translation: “Please, give me an encore. You won’t regret it”) but on this final night, because he was so excited, he forgot. The crowd demanded an encore anyway.
The night’s only hitch: During setup, a speaker fell on the foot of Class Act crew member Scott Watson. For the entire show, he sat there working the lights with his foot in a bucket of ice; afterwards, Felix’s PR specialist, Jerina Hardy, took him off to the emergency room for x-rays. He got a nasty bruise, but thankfully nothing was broken. He was able to join us later as we partied into the early morning hours. It was a fantastic after party, and as I watched Das Boot trundle away this morning, down the High Street and back towards England, I felt a little pang in my heart.
Of course, the biggest and best pang came yesterday afternoon. As planned, I showed up at Edinburgh airport with my grandmother’s ashes. I was originally planning on flying to the scattering site alone, but three empty seats in a helicopter seemed like a waste. So waiting at the heliport were Kirsty, Nikki, and Lara—three long lost Scottish cousins I had never met. It was a hell of a way to meet family, especially since they had never been for a ride in a whirlybird before. When I explained to them that the chopper wasn’t mine, they were only slightly crushed.
And what a ride it was. I neglected to mention in my earlier posts that Felix’s chopper, an Augusta A109, is the fastest civilian helicopter on Earth. After takeoff, we flew over the city center at 1000 feet, rolling near sideways to get a better view of Edinburgh Castle and Arthur’s Seat. Fifteen minutes later, we touched down on a lawn at an estate overlooking the Firth of Forth.
I’ve never spread anyone’s ashes. My biggest fear was that there would be no wind, and I’d somehow wind up coughing in a cloud composed of my grandmother’s last earthly remains. Part of me also didn’t want to give this piece of her up. But as I stepped out of the bird, the wind was blasting seaward like crazy, and the spot, on the edge of the famous Archerfield Estate, was magnificent. When I held up the can a few minutes later, her cloud shot off towards the firth like a trapped sprite, holding whispy shape for an instant before vanishing over the water.
A special thanks to pilot Shaun Harborne, who found the perfect spot.
Day 20— Bye Bye Bus
Despite extreme hangovers, there was a universal glow about the tour bus this morning. After putting on a great penultimate show last night in Glasgow, we slept aboard Das Boot for the last time. In a matter of hours, our lives, which for the last month have been heavily determined by living inside a dim, 30-foot tin can with no shower, proper facilities, or privacy, are about to regain a semblance of normality.
“I think we should now scuttle the tour bus,” Jonathan Noone, our online producer, said this morning as he lay in his bunk, waiting for four other people to dress before he could move. “No one should have to endure it, and we’d be doing humanity a favor.”
While it is safe to say that nobody will miss this bus, I’m not so sure the same goes for each other. I boarded this bucket exactly one month ago, a foreigner joining ten people who were complete strangers. Somewhere along the road, this bus fused us into friends, and no small part of that bonding revolved around common hatred of the bus itself. The other day, even the unflappable Marie-France, who could keep her cool on the surface of the sun, finally complained about the bus.
“I’m tired of this thing,” she said. “I want to go home.”
“Why don’t you?” I asked her. “All you have to do is ride back on the helicopter with Felix.”
“No way. He told me that I wouldn’t last a week on the bus. I won’t give him the satisfaction.”
I was relieved, because the bus would not be the same without her. The few times on this tour where somebody managed to sneak home for a night, they were missed. We have become, to my surprise, a unit, and I couldn’t imagine continuing this tour without everybody on board. Thank God I won’t have to, but will we remain friends without the bus? Time will tell, but I at least owe this rolling crucible a thank you for that.
Thank you, Das Boot. May you roll on forever, providing discomfort and a source of common hatred to countless generations of crews.
A special thank you to the crew at the Óran Mór, who did an outstanding job last night.
Day 19— The War Bride
The air outside the tour bus has chilled. Last night, after a show in Windermere that went off like clockwork, we huddled inside the galley, waiting for the old tub to heat up. We have moved north, and tomorrow, in Edinburgh, I will go for one last ride in Felix’s helicopter. But tomorrow it will not belong to him.
It will belong to me and my grandmother. If you read my first blog post, you know the mission: I get to use the chopper to scatter my grandmother’s ashes, and it is only fitting that I say a few things about Helen Dunn Macaulay before bringing her home. She was born in Edinburgh, in 1918. She never knew her father. A private in the Royal Scots, he was killed in France only a few months before the end of the First World War. Her mother died when she was six, and she and her sister were raised in a tenement by extended family. She was poor and she was an orphan, but I never once heard her lament her childhood.
“I had a wonderful time growing up with my cousins,” she once told me. “For entertainment, we read to each other every night and sang songs. If you are bored in this world, it is nobody’s fault but your own.”
When WWII broke out, she enlisted in the Royal Air Force and became a nurse. When I was a boy, she haunted me with stories about how she used to enter flak-riddled bombers to help their horribly wounded crews. The worst was a story of a group of Canadians who had landed so hard that their lower extremities had been rammed into their torsos, leaving them otherwise perfectly intact—an airplane full of dead dwarves.
“I had the best time of my life during WWII,” she often told me, and one of the reasons I loved her so much was that, unlike other grandmas, she told me everything. There was the English doctor who used to goose her whenever she walked past; she cured him of this habit by pouring a tray of urine samples over his head, an act that caused him to lock her in the morgue for several hours (“It was worth it”). She lost her virginity to her first love, a Ghurka who “was as dark as a moonless night, laddie.” Like most of them in those days, he was killed shortly afterwards.
She eventually became an instructor to other young nurses. On the first day of class, she would sit on her desk, light a cigarette, exhale for a long time, then give the girls their first lesson: How to have as much fun as possible during wartime without getting pregnant.
Helen eventually failed to follow her own advice, of course, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. My grandfather, John Johnston, was a US Army mapmaker and illustrator from Indiana. He was a dreamy, artist type, and after the war ended they came over on a boat filled with 400 other war brides, and probably almost as many babies to be.
Helen’s life became less exciting after that. They settled in Toledo, Ohio (the epitome of boring, mainstream America, back then) where my grandfather took a job designing for Libby Glass. They had three kids, the youngest of which is my mother. My grandmother raised them as freethinking souls with barbed senses of humor. Her one rule was there was never to be any racist talk in her house, and she once stood up on the diner table and denounced her own husband for violating it.
By the time I was born, my grandmother had been away from Scotland for almost 30 years, but it never left her. She sang me and my cousins Scottish lullabies, and always spoke warmly of her home country. In Toledo, she and my grandfather hung out with other Scots, and although to me she embodied many of the best American ideals, she never thought of herself as an American. She was Scottish and damn proud of it. When my mother handed me her ashes in 2004, there was no question as to what I would do with them. The only uncertainties were how and when.
Shaun Harborne, Felix’s helicopter pilot, settled those questions for me last night over the phone. He informed me that he has found us a picturesque landing zone on Firth of Forth, about ten minutes outside the city. So that’s it then. If all goes well, Helen Dunn Macaulay is going home tomorrow.
Day 18— Birmingham Blow Up
With eighteen gigs behind us and three to go, all of our nerves are raw. Even the tour bus has developed a wheezy tick, as if threatening to break down altogether. The most ambitious musicians usually do three days on, one day off, but we’re doing seven nights in a row. With a schedule like that, you just know that sooner or later, somebody is gonna lose their cool. Last night, that somebody turned out to be Felix.
I wasn’t there, but spies later reported the following incident. Two ladies had been waiting in line to have their books signed. They were at the back of the line, and Felix saw only the first one. After signing her book, he got up to leave, not realizing that there was another lady still waiting. Following a two-hour show and an hour signing books, he was totally burnt out and irritable, still struggling with that pain in his back. But he’d be the first one to tell you that there are no excuses for what happened next.
“You don’t know how tired I am,” he said to the woman in anger. Taken aback, the woman told him that it didn’t matter, she didn’t need him to sign his book, and began walking away.
“You stupid cow,” he shouted at her back, and ordered a PA to take her book and return her money. As I’ve said before, when Felix loses it, there is no middle ground.
Everyone in the room was mortified, him most of all. He regretted it instantly, then gathered himself together and approached the woman, who was sitting with a group of friends.
“Will you please let me apologize? Please, I would like to apologize and sign your book,” he said. He was clearly sincere and aghast at his own behavior. She accepted his apology and allowed him to sign the book, and even told him how much she enjoyed the show. The evening ended without any grudges, and if that’s the worst that happens before this tour is over, I think we’ll get off easy.
Day 17— A Tree Comes to Stratford
At almost every venue we visit, a stream of petitioners flows in, hoping for a chance meeting with Felix. There are entrepreneurs who stand in line to buy a book, then quickly pass him their card and deliver a 30-second pitch. Young people, bolstered by an excess of free wine, shake his hand and ask for jobs. And surprisingly often, “artists” show up with sketchbooks and canvasses, seeking sponsorship as if the dressing room door was the gate to the Medici Castle.
Most of them suck. They come to Felix because they are more operators than artists, firm believers in the “it’s who you know” school of success. (That may be true if you actually have something to sell, mate. My personal experience is that most people who spout that line would rather slicktalk for their money than work for it). Felix tolerates them with surprising patience; after all, the man is here to read poetry, not a manuscript or a resume. Last night, however, the real deal showed up backstage.
His name was Mark Frith, from Gloucester, and he came into the dressing room bearing a gigantic pencil drawing of one of England’s oldest trees, The Great Oak of Nibley Green. After he set it up for display, all of us fell silent. The great tree, estimated to be at least 800 years old, spread out before us on a pure white background, with every branch and bud and intricate gnarl glowing with magnetic detail. Felix leaned in for a closer look while Frith, in the humblest of tones, explained that he was hoping to do a drawn record of all the twenty some-odd registered ancient oak trees in England. This one, his first, had taken him six painstaking weeks to complete.
“I’ve shown this to Prince Charles, and he loved it, but he…”
“No, he won’t do anything,” Felix interrupted, “but I’ll tell you one person that might—and I’m not saying that I won’t…” He then went on to give Frith some more names and ideas, and had Toby take down his information. “I’d definitely like to meet you again,” he told the artist, then offered him a free book and a seat to last night’s reading.
I can’t speak for what Felix will do. So many people ask him for money and favors that choosing who to support must be dizzying. If you knew the amount of people he helps, many of whom probably don’t deserve it, you’d be astonished. But Frith’s piece sparked more conversation of art and trees. He had come to the right place with the right idea, and I personally hope he finds his sponsorship.
Stratford’s show was great, by the way. I’m getting tired of reporting that, so unless Felix literally does break a leg on stage, I’m going to spend the rest of the tour blogging about other things. I have yet to see a bad reading, I won’t see a bad reading, and neither will you.
Day 16— Worries in Warwick
“Sooner or later, the man has to crash,” I thought to myself yesterday outside Warwick’s Bridgehouse Theatre. Following Friday’s marathon performance in London, Felix had gone out partying with friends. No one had heard anything from him all day. If there was going to be a night when he’d deliver a sub-par performance, this would be it.
Sure enough, he arrived later than normal, looking haggard and tired. His back, which has been bothering him for a week, was still hurting him. Despite tests indicating the negative, he is certain it’s some sort of fatal illness. It should be noted that Felix has been convinced he’s been dying pretty much since he was a teenager.
“It ain’t my muscles,” he said grimly as he shuffled up the backstage ramp. “I haven’t pulled any muscles. So that’s what it will be then.” No use rationalizing that, when you’re 63, muscles do weird things for no apparent reason.
His first set was good. Not the best I’ve seen, but still damn entertaining. The crowd loved it, and I figured he’d either cruise along through the second set, or lose steam and fall back on workmanlike deliveries. Given the consistently high level of performances he’s been firing off since the tour began, who could fault him? Warwick is only twenty minutes from his home in Dorsington, and a hometown crowd full of well wishers was exactly the sort of audience that would accept good over great.
His second set was easily the best I’ve seen.
Poems that normally don’t do much for me, like “True Love,” caught my ear as if I’d been hearing them for the first time. He wasn’t merely reciting them, but feeling them, on a night he should have been in bed. Mick Watson, our production manager, saw this too, and after the performance we met Felix in the dressing room to give him the good news.
“Where did that come from?” I asked Felix.
“It didn’t come from me,” he said. “It came from the audience. I had nothing to do with it.”
If I didn’t known him better, I’d say that Felix was being modest by crediting the crowd, but of course the guy has no modesty, so that couldn’t be it. He really believed it was the crowd. And while they had indeed clapped heartily and even whooped and whistled, there was something else at work. A crowd doesn’t feed a performer unless he feeds them first.
Day 15— London, Round Two
In an earlier post, I mentioned that on any given day Felix’s mood is public knowledge among all his employees. Yesterday’s forecast was grim. He was not feeling well, and had cancelled an interview with BBC One. Rumor had it that instead of resting, he had stayed up all night writing poetry. Worst of all, the storm was headed my way. He was angry at me, for not updating his Facebook page, a task he has bequeathed to me for the duration of the tour.
“I had two days off,” I explained to Caroline Rush, the PA who broke the news to me. She just shrugged. My days off were irrelevant. I would still have to bear the wrath.
For those curious as to what Felix can be like when he’s angry, the faint of heart need not apply. Profanities, base insults centered on your stupidity, frightening volume levels—it comes at you like a tsunami. Don’t bother looking for allies. You are marked, and they’ve gone for high ground. The upside is that passive aggression is not part of his emotional arsenal. You know where you stand the second you are in his presence. So last night, as I watched him exit the Maybach behind London’s Shaw Theatre, I was braced and ready. He took one look at me standing at the back door, opened his mouth, and…started singing.
“I’m a yankee doodle dan-dee, I’m a yankee doodle boy…”
So much for the Felix forecast.
“Is it true you stayed up all night writing?” I asked him.
“That is absolutely right,” he said. “I have a new poem, and you’re going to hear it tonight.”
He was positively ebullient. We had a full house of almost 450, which included a group of some of his oldest and dearest friends. “I have a special feeling about tonight,” he told the audience at the outset, and proceeded to do something I’ve never seen him do: He had fun. It wasn’t so much that he recitals were different (although he did the best rendition of “The Bearded Dwarf” I’ve seen yet); it was that in between poems he smiled, and talked to the audience in an unrehearsed tempo. Near the end of the second set, he read his new poem, a sonnet titled, “The World Is As It Is.” Here it is, published right here for the first time:
The World Is As It Is
The world is as it is, not as it seems—
While troubadours of blood profess their tale
Our senses breed conspiracies of dreams
To weave a very necessary veil.
So Nature in her wisdom shields our sight,
The scale of what is Other screened from view,
‘Til, by degrees, we cast a faltering light
On mysteries whose face we never knew.
Thus love itself exposes what was hid:
We met—the earth was flat—love made it round;
Love grew—we lost our feet—and as we slid
Each mountain we had climbed shrunk to a mound.
Who claims that love is blind plays blind man’s buff:
While those who claim to see, love not enough.
October 14, 2010
Day 14— Dublin and Departure
The lights of Dublin whiz past the tour bus’s window; we’re leaving Ireland, on our way to the ferry terminal and back across the sea to England. It’s hard to believe that the tour is now more than half over.
Tonight’s show at the Button Factory in Temple Bar had the best first set I’ve seen, despite Felix’s voice going scratchy two thirds of the way through (he gargled some wine and worked through it—his favorite cure, for everything). The Dubliners whooped and whistled and were a fantastic audience. In what is becoming an all to frequent ritual, Felix dedicated his last poem to yet another friend of his who died last week, Sue Miles.
“I’ve lost ten friends in the last year,” Felix told a friend backstage before the show. He reeled off their names one by one, describing their ailments, a hole in the heart here, a brain tumor there. If you count his beloved border collie, Beck, it makes eleven. That’s a lot of loss for someone to endure at any age, and it made me marvel at how he’s able to put on such an energetic show for his audience. Watching him on stage, you’d never know that the guy is surrounded by ghosts.
I wouldn’t have minded doing a few more shows in this friendly country, but most of us are glad to be going home. Everybody is tired, looking forward to a few days rest in London. The road crew is down in the galley, sipping what’s left of the free wine. Of course, we are sick of wine by now, even fine French wine, but we drink it anyway because it is always there. There’s so much of the stuff floating around that we all but brush our teeth with it. We trip over bottles on the way to the bus’s bathroom, if you can call a closet-sized can that allows you to only make number one a bathroom. We miss our families and our homes, and there are moments when it’s not hard to see why touring musicians trash hotel rooms and throw TVs out the window. My personal fantasy: dousing the tour bus with kerosene, setting it ablaze, and driving it off the cliffs of Dover.
Day 13— Uncorked
All of us on the tour kind of expected a warm reception when we reached Ireland. In a country that produced Yeats, Joyce, Wilde, and Heaney to name a few, verse is in the blood, and if there is one place where poetry never falls out of fashion, it is here. That said, last night’s reception at The Firkin Crane Theatre in Cork was beyond our grandest expectations.
It all started with the sandwiches. For the first time on this tour, there was a full spread of food waiting for the crew at the venue, the work of Ann Rea, the Crane’s Front of House manager. When you’re on the road every day, skipping meals as you fight to keep a schedule, little gestures like that mean a lot; it means even more considering the hard economic times that have befallen Ireland. When Felix saw it, I thought he was going to cry.
“How do you say ‘Thank you very much in Irish?’” he asked Rea before the show.
“Gura míle maith agat.”
Felix diligently repeated the words as Rea tried in vain to help him with the pronunciation. To be fair, I don’t think Irish comes naturally to anyone, not even the Irish. “You sound like a Muslim,” she finally laughed.
The venue itself, a cylindrical building reminiscent of a mini-coloseum, was intimate, with great acoustics, and the canpes were also good. They came from a little café across the street called The Buttercup run by a husband and wife team who, before the meltdown, were successful architects. When development ground to a standstill, they adapted, trading in their compasses for a café.
Felix’s first set was tight; after twelve performances, he is now firmly in the zone, having mastered his deliveries to the point where they are solid enough for him to play with. “He was absolutely brilliant,” said audience member Kevin Monaghan. He and his wife had driven 250 miles, all the way from Donegal, to see Felix at The Firkin Crane.
To our great surprise, the crowd set a record for the drinking of free wine, but not the one you might expect; they drank less than any audience so far. Sometimes they get so into the poetry and performance that they forget to suck up the wine. That was clearly the case, because before Felix’s encore they were not only clapping and shouting, but also stomping the floor for more.
“You’ll sell a lot of books tonight,” I told him during his ritual smoke break before book signing.
“No way, times are too rough,” he said. “Plus, they were loud.” (An odd trend we’ve noticed: the louder audiences usually buy fewer books). But afterwards, Cork set yet another record by buying the most books per capita than any other city. Since every book plants a tree, these fine folks, among the hardest hit in Europe by the recession, gave more than anybody else.
Gura míle maith agat indeed.
Meet the Crew
Along with my daily reportage of Felix’s poetry events, I aim to let you know a little bit more about what, and more importantly who, goes into putting together something as insane as a 21 city poetry tour. For that, there is no better place to begin that with our production crew, Class Act, which consists of Production Manager Mick Watson, Thom Stretton, Scott Watson, and Jamie Broom. If this were rock ‘n roll, I supposed they’d be the equivalent of roadies, but they are artists in their own right.
Not enough can be said about how hard these guys work. The first ones up and the last to sleep, every morning they unload the bus and the trailer, and begin the laborious process of setting up Felix’s stage. This involves building a 24 -foot-wide, 10-foot-tall screen, the installation of projectors and podium, the laying of what seems like a mile of cable and gaffer tape, and countless sound, video, and lighting checks. Usually they’re finished an hour or so before Felix arrives, and the moment he leaves the stage they begin destroying their creation. It takes about two hours to break it down and pack it all back on the bus, where they collapse in their bunks for quick sleep before facing the same battle in the next town.
“I honestly don’t know how I’d do this if I didn’t love it,” Mick said to me the other night. “It’s a 20 hour day, with four hours sleep. And this isn’t even the hardest gig we’ve done.”
To give you an idea how talented and resourceful these guys are, a month ago they were hired to set up a garden party in Denham Village. Direct access to the venue was minefield of cobblestones, gates, and hedges, so they decided to approach from a field in the rear. The problem: between the venue and the field was the Misbourne, a 20-foot-wide river. How did they manage? The photo on the right says it all.
Day 12— Discoveries in Newcastle
One of the first things I learned about Felix Dennis is that he is a man who voices his opinions. The sheer variety and amusement of his proclamations never ceases to amaze me, especially when it comes to politics. And if you come to one of his poetry recitals, there’s a good chance that he will treat you to a bombastic rant, like he did last night for the folks at Newcastle’s Discovery Museum.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I promise you, the day will come, within our lifetime, when the EU unravels under its own absurdity and inanity,” he declared shortly after reciting ‘Orange and Lemons.’” “The day will arrive when we no longer take orders from faceless bureaucrats in their golden thrones on foreign soil. A day when the decisions that affect the people of this country are once again made by the people of this land!”
His voice steadily rose and crescendoed like a southern preacher’s, reminding me that poets, priests, and politicians aren’t that far apart in terms of their ability to play to the masses.
As an American, I find Felix’s anti-EU sentiment illuminating. Ask the average yank what he thinks about the EU and he’ll probably say, “Don’t know too much about it, honestly. If it means there’s less a chance we’ll have to go over there every 20 or 30 years and die en masse, then I’m all for it. And, oh, I also really like not having to change currency every 20 miles. ” But the funny thing is that Americans would never tolerate taxation and regulation without some kind of direct representation. Been there, fought a war over that. The idea of sharing a political system with, say, Mexico, but not being able to elect the Mexicans enacting laws on our turf would be unthinkable. Both Felix and I agree, in fact, that at least spiritually he is really more American than I.
Of course, Felix also believes that Mexico will take over the southern United Sates within my daughter’s lifetime. I learned this after last night’s reading, because he was still in a declarative mood.
“Why would Mexicans, who come across the border to work in the United States, want to turn it back into Mexico?” I asked him.
“Doesn’t matter. They will. Historically, it’s theirs.”
“Well, yeah. But before that it belonged to the Spanish. And before that it belonged the Native Americans.”
“The Mexicans will take it within your child’s lifetime.”
“You sound like Nostradamus.”
“And within her child’s lifetime, a state will once again secede from the Union,” he continued, unfazed. “Do you know which one?”
“That’s right! Economically, they don’t need the rest of the country, and they’re far more progressive.”
As a native Californian, I won’t lie: I’ve thought and even fantasized about it, especially when Texans occupy the White House. But I just can’t see any of these scenarios happening in the next century. The southern US will absorb the Mexicans who stay, and California will remain in the Union because, well, we’re Americans, and the odds are always pretty good that whoever we vote for becomes president.
“You’re willing to bet me on all this?”
“Of course. Unfortunately, I’ll be dead before I can pay you. Ha ha ha ha!”
Day 11— Mugged in Manchester
Yesterday our merry band of travelers faced its first serious crisis. It came in the form of theft, when the high priestess aboard the tour bus, Marie-France, was robbed of her purse while eating breakfast in Manchester’s Arndale Shopping Centre. The thief was sly and invisible. While MF nibbled her yogurt and nuts, he took a seat behind her, slipped a dastardly hand her way, and whisked off with her purse before anyone was the wiser.
The damage was critical. Inside was not only over £1000 in cash, but all of her ID, and most importantly her passport. Since we are traveling to Ireland in two days, that means the thief has not only robbed MF, but he has also robbed us of her.
For those of you who don’t know MF, she is Felix’s longtime companion. Many of his poems are inspired by her. She could ride the helicopter home every night and lie down to sleep in a great manor, but because she is so young at heart, she prefers the bus. She is the one who keeps our spirits going, the one who always wrangles a plate of cakes or cheeses, who always has a smile, who never complains, and indeed sardonically chastises us for being a bunch of pansies who don’t know how to party.
“Where are the drugs, sex, and rock ‘n roll? You are all wusses,” she is fond of joking. Then she picks up her cross stitch and sews while the rest of us bitch. In short, she is the calm eye of this storm, the last one of us who deserved this.
Our first reflex was to blame Manchester. When you wake up in a different city every day, the city becomes a character. But at last night’s poetry recital, the Mancs also came to our rescue. It turned out that the boyfriend of Maria Mellina, The Birdcage’s manager, was a police inspector. His name is Mark Hamilton, and he offered to write a personal letter to the immigration authorities on MF’s behalf. We don’t know if it will work, but it was a reassuring gesture.
“My girlfriend told me about the situation, and she never asks me for anything,” he told me before the recital. “She really likes Felix, and this was something I could do for her. I also know that Felix’s impression of the police hasn’t exactly been pleasant,” he added, no doubt referring to the Oz days.
And for perhaps the first time in his life, Felix later publicly thanked the coppers. And to the dirty thief who made off with MF’s purse: woe be to you. Felix has placed a £100,000 bounty on your rotten head.
Day 10— Higher Education
Americans never hear much about Leeds. Though the city dates back to the Romans, it’s not exactly on the average Yank’s repertoire of geo-historical knowledge. Before visiting last night, all I knew was that there was a university there, because a dear friend of mine graduated from the University of Leeds years ago. She is an exceptional person, so I made it my goal last night to find some of her alma mater in the audience at The Birdcage and see what they thought about Felix’s poetry. How hard could that be? In addition to the wine, the guy offers a student discount at the door—chummin’ in a bay full of sharks.
Minutes after the doors opened, two longhaired, studious looking boys showed up with a cute little brunette. They were Rick, Dave, and Emily, all sophomores. They were studying English, physics, and neuroscience respectively, and they knew absolutely nothing about Felix. To them, The Oz Trial may as well have a West End one-off about the wizard. A friend had told Rick he’d love it, so he had roped the other two, his housemates, into coming.
“The free wine did help me to come down,” Rick admitted. “Even if the poetry turns out to be disappointing, there’s this,” he said, raising his glass of £40 French wine for a toast.
“It’s a nice change,” said Emily. “Normally you go out to the pub and get a few jaegarbombs or something. I should have dressed a bit nicer.” (Note to Felix: Want a younger crowd? Serve free Jaegermeister).
Dave, the aspiring physicist, was a bit quieter. His analytical mind was clearly trying to establish what the catch was. As usual, I told them I’d check in with them at intermission, and made them promise to give me an honest critical appraisal of what they’d seen. When I showed up fifty minutes later, they were nicely lubricated, sure, but mostly they were surprised.
“There was the odd line in that first poem, and I thought, ‘This guy’s got something going,’” said Rick, “and then after that, it was sheer brilliance, all of them. He’s more cynical than I am, the bastard, which I always love.” He was texting more friends to come down to The Birdcage.
Dave had surrendered as well. “I loved the poem about the French, and the one about the nightmares was quiet good. I think it’s amazing that a guy can write something that everybody was thinking.” (Felix’s delivery of both those poems, by the way, was in top form). Dave, it turned out, lived only ten minutes from Felix, and was now planning to visit the Garden of Heroes.
As for Emily, the neuroscience student? Her favorite poem was “An Old Dog” and her praise was the most effusive and potentially hazardous to Felix’s already Hindenburg-sized ego.
“I think I’m in love with him,” she said, giggling. But think about: it could actually make a good match. If Felix gets Alzheimer’s, she might actually be able to cure him.
Day 9— Thank You, Scousers
A first occurred last night in Liverpool. Those of you familiar with Felix’s poetry might recall a little poem called “Snakeskin Boots,” which memorializes a lovely day in 1964 that the author, only 15 at the time, spent frolicking with a lass in Harrow-on-the-Hill. The great thing about “Snakeskin Boots” is that it waxes idyllic, then sucker punches the audience with its last line: “…but I cannot remember her name!” After getting a good laugh out of that, Felix traditionally presents the ladies in the audience with a challenge: “Are any of you brave enough to admit that there’s a lover or two from your past who’s name you can’t remember?”
Barring a few nervous giggles, he is invariably met with a wall of silence. Last night, however, after steeling herself for a few seconds, a woman in the right wing shouted, deliciously, “Yesss!”
“I salute you for your bravery,” Felix said with a bow.
Liverpool sparked the best audience interaction we’ve had yet. And boy, did Felix get into with the Scousers (yes, I had to look that last term up). During his second set, he shared a story from back in the Oz days. Although many remember the trial, most people forget that, back in those days, Felix had very little money, and he was confronted with an enormous legal bill.
“We needed a lot of money, and John Lennon, from this city, gave me that money. And then, to raise some more money, he got me in the studio and we recorded a single with Apple Records. It was the worst single that John Lennon ever recorded, produced by Phil Spector. You can buy it on Ebay for 150 quid, and I urge you not to.”
Lennon’s generosity didn’t end there. Once the trial was over, his two co-defendants left the country, leaving him barricaded in his apartment with a horde of reporters outside. Then one of his friends manning the phone lines handed him receiver and said, “You better take this one.” It was Lennon.
“What outside?” Lennon asked him.
“You know damn well what’s outside,” Felix responded.
“Now you know what it’s like, don’t you?” the Beatle laughed. He then sent over a limousine to whisk Felix and his girlfriend up to Lennon’s estate in Ascot, where he spent the next week watching John record “Imagine.”
“And that’s how John Lennon treated me,” he said.
He then dedicated his next poem, “The Summer of Love,” to Liverpool’s native son.
Day 8— Young Blood
In spite of Felix’s natural and predatory inclination to dominate every platform he takes, it is a little known fact that he is not the only poet who performs on this tour. At every venue, a local poet reads between the F-Bomb’s sets (that is our nickname for Felix in America, by the way, no explanation needed). And tonight’s guest poet in Cardiff was absolutely spectacular.
Her name is Loveday Why, and she won the 2006 Derek Walcott Poetry Prize. She was the first one who walked through the door, with her blonde and dreadlocked husband, Kris, a Kiwi. As a native Californian, names and looks like that are normal to me. I had a good feeling about them the moment I saw them, because they were obviously in love. She had never recited in front of an audience before.
She opened up her set with “Bakery Girl” a red hot poem about working behind a counter and wanting to jump the customer on the other side to the point of “scattering pastries.” She followed up with “Humors,” an evocative merman tale in which you could almost smell the sea. After that, this young woman who had never read before was enjoying herself so much that she stole a page right out of Felix’s book.
“Toby, I appear to have nothing in front of me,” she said. For those of you haven’t seen it, this is what Felix says to his “factotum” Toby Fisher, when he wants his omnipresent wine glass filled during his recital.
“You’re getting the hang of it, I see,” Felix chimed in from the wing. Loveday finished up her set to rounding applause. Felix’s poetry is powerful and provocative, tight like a snare drum or the beat of dragon’s wings; Loveday was a nice counterpoint. Her poetry spoke of the sand and the sea and the wind, indomitable forces of time that felt gentle and sensual in her voice. Loveday and her husband, by the way, are themselves planting a forest in New Zealand in the hopes of providing habitat to endangered penguins. It was a great match. And boy, did it get Felix going for his second set. It was the most inspired I’ve ever seen him do.
Tonight was all about poetry, a crowd that came for the verse and happened to enjoy the wine as well.
Day 7— Basking in Bath
Felix is the only poet I’ve ever heard of who expects his audience to behave more like headbangers at a metal concert than civilized connoisseurs of verse. He can be reciting in front of a packed house full of people enjoying themselves entirely, but unless he hears shouts, whistles, and whoops, he’ll trudge into the dressing room at intermission looking like he’s just swallowed rotten milk.
“What’s wrong with these people?” he’ll gripe. “They’re floating in formaldehyde out there! What do they want?”
My theory is that such inflated expectations come from his days as an rhythm & blues musician, or a delusional belief that he actually is a rock star (which would of course also explain why he has stuffed his staff on a tour bus).
But Felix had no such complaints last night in Bath’s Komedia Theatre, which hosted his most lively crowd yet. After delivering some particularly rousing recitals of “A Room of My Own” and “Anti-Social Behavior Orders” during the first set, the audience cheered and hollered. He came backstage positively pumped.
“That’s more like it. Best night yet,” he declared. He even started singing Bo Diddly’s “You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover.” When Felix starts singing to himself, it’s always a good sign. Tonight he was so overwhelmed, in fact, that he couldn’t stop. The song was still in his head at the opening of the second set, so he had the audience stamp their feet in rhythm and belted out an a cappella version. That got them shouting even louder. They came for poetry and wine and got a little R&B to boot.
As he signed books afterwards, his PA, Wendy Kasabian ran up to me. “See that woman over there?” she said, pointing to comely middle-aged lady decked out in a rhinestone jacket. “Two years ago, she asked Felix to autograph her breasts.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Go ask her.”
So I did. After a brief flash of embarrassment, the woman rolled her eyes, remembering the moment, and replied, in all seriousness: “I couldn’t help it. I was so turned on.”
Clearly, she had drunk too much wine. No wonder the guy has such high expectations. On that note, if you are planning to attend any of the recitals still ahead of us, please do not hold back. Stuffiness has no place at his readings. If you are enjoying yourself, let Felix know it. Like any true stage man, he’ll feed off it. If you are not enjoying yourself, drink some more wine and pretend that you are! It will make all of our lives easier.
Day 6— Letting it All Hang Out in Ludlow
Each night, I make it my habit to spend time with Felix backstage before, during, and after the show. I’m there in the dressing room after he comes off the chopper, there during intermission, and there when he
tromps off stage. I thought he would tell me to leave the first time he undressed to change into his stage outfit (there were, after all, several female employees in there as well) but he shed down to his Joe Boxers without a touch of modesty or a pause in conversation. Modesty is of course an alien behavior for Felix under any conditions, but a lack of it is also a sign of a seasoned performer.
Another sign is being at ease seconds before you take the stage. Tonight, just for a new perspective, I followed him all the way to the very edge of the curtain. He had told me earlier that he doesn’t have a pre- performance ritual, but he took four or five deep breaths, then double checked to make sure his fly was up. He was in a playful mood, so I shook my head and gestured that he should in fact “rock out with it out” a la Jim Morrison. To my shock, he then unzipped his fly, reached into his pants and…oh no…
I did not see that. Please tell me I did not see that.
You didn’t either. Five seconds later, everything was back in place and he was up on stage, entertaining.
Day 5— Chipping Norton
Bruce Bryson said it all best, but for everything great about touring a small country, I’m starting to realize that there’s a flipside. Tonight Felix was in Chipping Norton, an idyllic English village with a wonderful, intimate, bi-level venue simply called The Theatre. It was sold out, and—in what is becoming a strange repetitive theme on this tour—once again there were ghosts from the past, this time literally.
During intermission, a visitor to the green room unintentionally informed Felix that a dear old friend of his, Pat Leaver, had passed away. The news threw Felix back in his chair. He clearly adored her, and when he took the stage for the second set, you could see the shock and sadness sitting on his shoulders. Imagine hearing the news that someone you’ve cherished as a friend for forty years has died, then having to stand in front of 180 people five minutes later and put on a show. Rather than let it sit, he addressed it, dedicating a recital of “I just Stepped Out” to her. He held it together like a pro for the rest of the show and the signing, but every time he had a few moments away he talked about her.
“Pat Leaver spent her whole life helping people,” he told me. “She was a social services worker. People would line up in front of her and curse her rotten, never appreciating how hard she worked for them. There is no reward in death for how you lived. If there were any justice, I’d be dead and she’d be standing here, but it doesn’t work that way, mate.”
Day 4— Milking Milton Keynes
Tales of the Tour
Milton Keynes gets a lot of grief in England. In America, it’s what we called a planned community. Fifty or so years ago, nothing was here, and they planted concrete cows by the railway to sell it as a pastoral paradise. It backfired and became a national joke.
Maybe it’s because I’m American, where 50 years is an eternity, but Milton Keynes had everything that counts. The venue, the Camphill Milton Keynes Community Theatre, offered a roomy space with cabaret seating. In case you haven’t heard of Camphill, they provide housing, job training, and support to people with learning disabilities. The combination of a delightful venue, kind hosts, and Felix’s poetry drew a crowd that included none other than Benjamin Zephaniah, one of the UK’s most celebrated poet’s.
“I don’t drink, so it wasn’t the free wine that brought me here,” Zephaniah said. “I’m fascinated by Felix. He has this amazing success, and then he gets fascinated by trees and nature at the point where most people don’t give a damn. And he writes the most profound poetry about the most simple, natural things. It shows that regardless of all the money, he’s still in touch with his soul and he’s still in touch with the world and that’s quite difficult. I really admire him for that.”
After the intermission, Felix read Zeph’s classic poem, “The British,” then auctioned off a double-signed copy of the anthology My Life in Verse, which includes works from both of them. All proceeds were for Camphill. He was hoping to get £100.
“Let’s start somewhere. Ladies and gentlemen, do I hear £30? What’s yours? Fifty quid from a wonderful man. C’mon, c’mon, £60 pounds for the Camphill Community, all to them. Who would like to better £60? Your grandchildren will be able to sell this for about 3000 quid, and if I push any more people off a cliff, maybe 100,000 quid…”
And on it went. Felix would love to be remembered most for his poetry, but as he put it himself, “I could sell coal to Newcastle.” The final bidding war came down to a man to Felix’s left and a woman to his right, with the gentleman taking the copy for £120.
“I am an absolute rotten shit as far as proceeds,” he continued. “I am a disgrace to the human race, and here’s why. I’ll show you now how to make money. Mam, you were a wonderful bidder, and you wouldn’t stop. Would you give us 90 quid if we both signed another book?”
She did, and walked away feeling like a winner herself.
Of course, Felix will never be remembered for his modesty. “It’s all about the second sell,” he told me afterwards. “Do you really think they stood a chance against me?”
Day 3— Brighton’s Blast from the Past
Tales of the Tour
In every city we visit, there are people who emerge from the woodwork of Felix’s past, showing up at his readings like curious moths. They come because they knew him long ago, because he is in their town, and because they are curious to see the man they once knew, often before he was wealthy and famous. In Exeter, there was Jeff Hartmay, who had gotten into a fistfight with Felix in the schoolyard in 1966 (a draw). And last night in Brighton, there was Ed Carr, who knew Felix back in 1971, a portentous era.
“I first met Felix back in the day, when I was a spotty little art student, and Felix was the art editor of Oz magazine,” he told me off to the side of the Komedia Theatre. “And the distinguishing difference between Felix and everybody else, was that everybody else was wearing Afghan coats with the sleeves cut off. And there’s Richard Neville trolling around, everyone much the worst for wear. But Felix would sit in the corner with his suit on, and this great big kipper tie, working out how to edit and art direct and print a magazine. And I was a little kid who he hired as an illustrator. And as Oz kind of wore on, it was obvious it wasn’t going to last forever. And as the revolution finished, Felix was sitting there with his Rolodex of names—designers, illustrators, printers—and I’m sure that as Oz kind of sank like Titanic straight down, Felix leapt straight out into the world of commerce. And the first thing he did was Karate Magazine. So he went from the Revolution straight to Karate.”
I just love that. From Patchouli and beads to “Hi-yah!” What was the Revolution about, anyway? Was it real, or an opportunity to tap into the pockets of a zeitgeist that he helped create? Maybe both. I didn’t have time to ask him because he was back on his helicopter. I’ll try to get him to talk about it later.
Ironically, after watching Felix up on the stage, Carr still affectionately called him a “true-blue hippie” which tapped into a theory I have about Felix and his poetry: Now that he’s achieved financial success, part of this about finally getting to slip into that proverbial Afghan coat.
The Brighton show, by the way, was the best yet.
Day 2—Tears in London
Tales of the Tour
Two hours before Felix was scheduled to appear at the Northumberland, he was wandering around his apartment above the offices on Kingly Street. I went up there to check in on him and found him in the kitchen. I did this with trepidation. Unlike the day before, I heard that he was in a foul mood. When Felix is in a bad mood, everyone who works for him, no matter what side of the Atlantic they’re on, knows it within 35 seconds. This is known as the Felix Forecast.
“Hi Felix,” I said.
“Yeah.” No eye contact.
“Thought I’d see if you had any thoughts on last night’s show in Exeter.”
“Any thoughts about tonight?”
“Know what I need? I need to find the controls for the air conditioning in this place. We just replaced it. There are three of controls and I still can’t find bloody one of them.”
It is a fact that when Felix hires you for a job—a writer, say— it actually means he expects you to become anything at any given moment. Like an HVAC technician. After searching for two minutes, I found the control behind an open door. This discovery seemed to temporarily put him at ease—until we arrived at the Northumberland. Nobody was waiting to show him to the green room. When we found one of his PAs, Caroline, who was working her tail off at a task that probably didn’t fit the job description she originally signed on for, Felix’s extraordinary gift for hyperbole kicked in.
“You are doing the worst job possible,” he muttered.
“You can find it yourself, then,” she hissed as he walked away.
This woman has worked for Felix for 12 years. She has seen it all. With Felix, that also includes good laughs, many acts of generosity, and a loyalty to competence that has him surrounded by people who have worked for him for decades. But I noticed that when we finally did find the green room, visitors were scarce.
The same was not true about the banqueting hall, which was jam-packed with 340 guests. I sat down at a table with two friendly looking couples and asked them if they had ever seen Felix perform. None had, so I chatted them up about what their expectations were.
“I admire him as a businessman, and have no idea whether he is any good at poetry,” said Angela Barry, who also worked in publishing. They had all come out of sheer curiosity, and their expectations were minimal.
“Why is he doing this?” asked Richard Parkinson. “He can’t be serving wine like this and making money.”
“What can we expect this evening,” said David Werrett. “Is he witty? Is he funny? ”
Skeptics! I told them that I would check in with them during intermission. When I did they were all smiling happily, except Ms. Barry, who was wiping her eyes. One of Felix’s poems had brought tears to her eyes.
“I couldn’t believe it, he made me cry!” she laughed.
And she didn’t even work for him! These were tears of sentiment we’re talking about, positive emotions that he had drawn out of her with his poetry. Being able to do that is the closest one can get to casting a real magic spell. After the show, I rushed back to the green room to tell Felix the news.
“She cried, eh?” he shrugged. “Good.”
Day 1—The Helicopter Poet
Day 1—The Helicopter Poet
“More wine?” Felix Dennis asks me as we sit on recliner chairs on the back patio of his manor in Dorsington, England. It is one o’clock in the afternoon on a lovely autumn day, the first day of the tour, and he should not be drinking. He is recovering from a massive chest infection and taking antibiotics the size of horsepills. In addition to the wine, he’s been chasing the pills with Silk Cut cigarettes, pretty much a recipe for walking pneumonia, not a good idea if you have to recite poetry for two hours straight. But somehow, like so many things with Felix, this devil’s cocktail seems to be working.
“I mean, if the pills weren’t working, we’d know it right?” he says as he pours me another glass of Chablis. Right.
He almost had to call the tour off. Almost phoned up the Royal Shakespeare Company and hired three actors to stand in for him—plan B. But as it is, the day is gorgeous, the wine is fine, and he is breathing normally and in a celebrative mood. Anyone who knows Felix knows that mood is everything.
Full disclosure: Felix is paying me to do this. He also wants me to write a book. I want the money. I want to see England, Ireland, and Scotland, and, most importantly, I want to use his helicopter to spread my grandmother’s ashes over a yet to be determined scenic spot within reasonable range of Edinburgh (part of our deal). I worked for Felix years ago at Maxim USA. I barely knew him, but found him fascinating. I know almost nothing about this dude or his poetry. I’m just an ex-employee out of the wood work to do this because, as Felix told me, “I’m not getting any younger.” As part of the deal, I’m allowed “to take the piss” but I am not allowed to disclose who he did or did not push off the cliff. Pushing the boundaries of that line, so to speak, will be my task.
We spend the rest of the afternoon drinking and discussing Roman and medieval history, politics, his dogs, and his house. I learn that he once almost became an American citizen, and that he is afraid to publish the Rogers Profanisaurus in America, because he’s worried he’ll be shot like Larry Flynt. (Personally, I think he’s a wuss for that, because America needs the Profanisaurus and all it’s laughter desperately). I will endeavor to bring you his stories inmore detail, because the man has a lot of them.
At around five, a helicopter lands across the road from his estate and, pleasantly buzzed on two fronts, we hop in. Seconds later, we’re cruising over the green puzzle board of Central England, on our way to his first gig, Exeter.
I could get used to this, I think. Then I think, I’ve never heard of anything like this. A poet traveling by helicopter. Is he really a poet, or just a rich man posing as one?
An hour later we land outside of town, where his driver, Lloyd, meets us in a Land Rover. Minutes later we’re at the Phoenix Theater, where a sell-out crowd of about 180 people is eagerly consuming free French wine and canapés. For those of you unfamiliar with Felix’s history as a poet, this is how he lures you in. It appears desperate, yes, especially to a college educated, English major like myself, but when I see crowds of people enjoying themselves, I begin to understand that what a snob would consider pandering, the rest of the world—the people who matter,as Felix would say—consider plain old hospitality.
“Wine is quite good,” I overhear a middle-aged woman saying as she reaches for a canapé. “I can’t remember the last time I came to an event done up this nicely.”
To a borderline alcoholic like myself, I figured the reading was sort of the secondary motive for attending. How wrong I was.
“In 2008, I heard Felix read some of his poems on the radio, and he was so fantastic, so witty, that I drove 300 miles to see him,” a man named Nick Tizard told me. Nick had purchased all of Felix’s books, and was picking up more for his daughters. In fact,out of the 8 or 9 people I talked to in the crowd, about two-thirds of them had seen Felix recite before. “Holy shit,” I thought. “He’s got a fan base.” Repeat customers. I’ve authored two books myself, and that kind of return is impressive, free wine or no.
And when the lights went down for Felix’s recital, I learned why they came back. Felix’s 19th century-style, metered poetry is clever and familiar. Some of it will move you. Everybody has their favorites and not-so-favorites. But he is a natural performer, a rebel and a rock ‘n roller, a guy who’s been there and bled. I may be whoring out my pen, but spiritually, I’m that curious skeptic, the guy who is showing up just to see what the hell this is all about.
After the show, Felix signed his books and got back on the chopper. Rich bastard. I was shown to a sailor’s bunk on a tour bus, which will be my home for the next month. You see, part of the deal was that I would join the tour crew. I will have a hard time getting used to this, I thought when I saw that bus. But that’s where all the good dirt on Felix is, anyway, and I will do my best to bring it to you. I will get one other helicopter ride and a full weekend at Dorsington, plus the final air mission with the ashes of my grandma, a former RAF nurse. I will think of her as I write this because I am 3000 miles from my family, and if there was any one who could take the piss out of a guy like Felix, it would be her.
If you’re seeing the tour yourself, or if you’re not, send me your thoughts. Any questions for Felix that don’t involve cliffs or him giving you lots of money, send them to me.
Welcome to the 2010 Tour Blog
Tales of the Tour
Welcome to the 2010 Tour Blog, in which I, an American who was idiotic enough to sign on, attempt to convey what it is like accompanying the eccentric, English billionaire poet Felix Dennis on a 21-city poetry tour.