Copyright ©1996 Felix Grant

The Melanie Pieces

From an autobiographic exhibition

By Felix Grant


The Melanie Pieces [00]

I was a johnny-come-lately to the tail end of the hippy generation. By the time I became an apostle of Janis Joplin, electrified by her raucous, swooping rendition of Summertime, she had long left Big Brother and was singing with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. I first heard Melanie Safka sing at Woodstock: Beautiful People and Birthday of the Sun. Though the two couldn't have been more different, both set up camp in my subconscious and stayed for life.

Melanie was to prove the deeper influence Ė but when I heard her at Woodstock I was too drunk on Joplin's gut-thumping sexual immediacy (and the fumes of Southern Comfort) to really notice her. Subjectively, I date my first meeting with her much later: not at a live gig but on a record, playing at a desolate party in the wrong town. By that time, my affair with Joplin was deep and affectionate though Joplin herself was recently dead; Melanie, there all along like the girl next door, appeared with the sudden clarity of fresh air in a stale room.

From then on, many of my key life events are tagged in memory with snatches of Melanie's gawky lyrics. The Melanie Pieces are an effort to pin those tagged memories down ...

The Melanie Pieces [01]

Loviní Baby Girl; Candles in the Rain

A New Year's Eve party in a cold, strange suburb in a strange, wet country. The sort of party where you know nobody, you're alone in a crowd, you wish you hadn't come, something sour is dead and decomposing in the pit of your stomach, and sex is the only available illusion of human closeness. But I'm staying in this house for a week and there's nowhere else to go. Leonard Cohen's Songs of Love and Hate on the turntable is all I need, just at this moment; but the background noise drowns him out, mostly, so what the hell.

Auld Lang Syne at midnight, then back to the dance with strangers.

Somewhere in there, around 3am, the noise hit one of those sudden deathly silences that last a moment or two in a crowded room before disappearing again under the swell. Into the silence, a few quiet, desperate words from the hi-fi; Melanie Safka, though I didn't know it at the time ...

once upon a winter time

i lost christmas in my mind ...

.. a brief death-rattle of laughter from the kitchen ...

... and all at once

before I knew

winter froze my soul into

a cryful night ...

... then the hubbub swept back in, the words drowned leaving only their taste of hopelessness, and Rosalie flopped onto the floor cushion next to me.

Not that I knew who she was; just one more unknown shadow, long dark hair, very drunk. She pushed a glass into my hand: "I'm Rosalie. Get me a drink, will you?" I fetched a cynically calculated double vodka, plus a bit. She waved the glass vaguely at two intertwined shapes on the sofa: "I'm Rosalie. That's my boyfriend Mark. The one on underneath him is Victoria. Who are you?" Some of the vodka went over my knees; the rest went down in one gulp.

... oh be my mommy, daddy,

and i will be your lovin' one ...

It was all perfectly simple and straightforward; she was taking revenge and I was taking an opportunity. We found a bedroom that wasn't in use, and closed the door. We forgot to close the curtains, though ... by the time her blouse was off, tear-tracks reflected the cold blue light of a street lamp outside the window, and either cowardice or conscience (who knows?) had complicated matters.

We found two coats at random and walked around in the suburban rain until first light. Neither of us said a word, but she visibly sobered after a while. Just after seven in the morning she slipped a Yale key into a door in one of the identical post-war streets, half-waved, and disappeared inside. I picked my way back through the cold grey wet maze, wondering which was more depressing on a loveless New Year's Day: to be a failure as callous bastard or a cold, wet, reluctant success as white knight.

At half past ten, Dick poked at my sleeping bag with one foot as he carried dead glasses to the kitchen. "Phone, for you. Rosalie's mother wants to know if you can come for dinner at one thirty."

The next day, I flew home. Hitching from the airport into the friendly, sunbaked, ramshackle welcome of the old city, I stopped off at Leon's music shop. From my tuneless attempts to sing Leon identified the song and, from that, produced the LP. A beat-up old farm truck stopped for me as I came out, record in hand. At home, from the corner by the stereo, Melanie offered a sweeter, more hopeful song to suit the day:

little sisters of the sun

lit candles in the rain

fed the world on oats and raisins ...

"I've come to stay" she said.

 The Melanie Pieces [27]

Godís Only Daughter

 

An open square, stone and adobe, rich-mix scent of sea-salt, cedar, diesel, frangipani. Dinner at the scattered outdoor tables of a corner restaurant; the cool breath of an east breeze pushes down from the mountains and gentles the heat out to sea. Scattered around the square, transistor radios tuned to a dozen stations in as many languages and dialects voices but, from the one closest to hand:

I'm God's only daughter

I'm the one that he grows his garden for ...

... and, in that wilful blindness so monstrous in hindsight, it is still possible to believe that Beirut is God's only daughter, nestling in the Garden of Delight that is Lebanon.

I'm his favourite song he likes to sing

And he sings it best in the morning ...

... but, for this fragile haven, it's no longer morning and the song is almost over. Despite professional knowledge that history is never far behind, despite smothered memories only fifteen years old, the illusion is built on a collective act of deliberate amnesia. Beirut is a golden island of prosperity in a torn and factional sea, commercial capital of the region, but all of this is maintained by the power of the Phalange on hidden foundations of poverty. However much we turn our eyes away to look at green mountains, blue sea, concrete and glass tower blocks, this is late evening in what will soon be "the days before the war".

To the West, my adopted home was partitioned last year by coup d'état, civil war and invasion. To the North and East, and in my lost no-longer home to the South, neighbours and brothers have rattled sabres since their last mutual bloodletting eighteen months ago. Some of us were in Amman when whole city blocks, buildings and occupants, disappeared under the tank treads of "The Cleansing"; we all have similar tales to tell, we all want our idyll so badly. We want it so badly that we invent it: ignoring every lesson we've learned, we come down from our ivory towers to visit it, to exclaim over it, to ignore the cracks, to assure each other shrilly of its permanence.

Somewhere, out of sight but close at hand, a single shot. We all tense. One man (Fedayeen? Mossad? Police?) somersaults backwards out of his chair into the cover of a water butt, right hand in left armpit under his jacket. Nothing more happens; we relax, mutter sagely that "these things happen"; the man behind the water butt looks embarrassed, rights his chair and sits down again. But "these things happen" for a reason, as part of a pattern. In a few short months, the single shot will have become a constant background of machine gun fire as the oppressed lose patience with our spurious fantasy Eden. A year hence, the idyll will be in ruins ) the towers, ivory or concrete and glass, will be deserted as we fly elsewhere in search of other idylls. When I come here next the towers themselves will be pocked and worm-eaten by shell fire, the squares reduced to knee-high mounds of stone and adobe; God's only daughter dead, disfigured, unrecognisable amongst the rubble.

When I go to bed at night

He gives a smile and

Turns out the light.

 

The Melanie Pieces [54]

Jigsaw Puzzle; Medley

 

With a carillon of lyrics and melody through my head, clear as a bell like tickertape, I'm back; aware, again.

there's a tramp

sitting on the door step

trying to waste his time ...

I'm actually sitting on a tangled grass roadside verge; but otherwise, the words fit. My pack, beside me in the brambles, tells me that it's seen happier, more self-respectful times. I guess I've been away a long time, pack.

... he's a

walking clothes line ...

Looking down at myself, that too seems fair enough. A boiler suit, once bottle green, now sun-faded to khaki; threadbare, torn at both knees, wrinkled and stretched at every wear-point. Boots scuffed white; deep scars in the fabric, heels worn right down, hardly any tread, sole-plate screws loose. And filthy; grime in the lines of my hands, finger nails black. I don't smell too pleasant, either; nothing clear-cut or obvious, but a definite scent of neglect.

I look as though I've come fresh from prolonged, non-stop heavy combat; so I have, perhaps, but the battlefield was within, this time. Not the familiar rock and dust terrains, nor this placid corner of Dorset, but a deep, seething, viscid virgin mental jungle of my own.

The memories are all there, but mostly out of sequence. The beginning and end are clear enough, but the space between is a jigsaw puzzle. The other, whoever's been living in here while I was off fighting house-to-house in another part of my head, obviously didn't get to keep the memories when he left ... but they're filed in alphabetic order, not chronological, and don't connect. I pull them out, one at a time, like odd socks from the wash.

... oh, I was born between the signs,

got some times ...

Back, back, reach back to the beginning; back to the point where sensible serial memories left off ...

... lose your dreams,

and you might lose your mind

ainít life unkind ...

... sitting in the house. I still knew where I was, then, but elsewhere was rushing in fast; I knew that, too, and was packing to meet it Ė wasn't I, pack? You and me, pack; we've been places. I guess I've been away a long time; I'm glad you waited for me. I knew elsewhere was coming, but I didn't know what it was like and it scared the shit out of me. I must have been a long way into the breakdown by then, though I didn't know it ... but leave that, for now.

oh, hold me ...

I sat there, packing and repacking my Bergen, feeling incredibly serene and answering anyone who asked: "I'm fine, just fine; why?"

... i need ev'rybody ...

(And so many people did ask; friend and foe alike, they swam into view and asked, listened doubtfully to the answer, then swam away again.)

... hold me while i look around ...

To one side, watching, careful and anxious as Autumn deepened, my wife. Quietly, methodically, without fuss or emphasis, in matter-of-fact loyalty beyond the call of duty, packing a Bergen of her own. Looking back, a few years down the road from now, I'll realise that our marriage was over by then; but the care and the loyalty remained.

... railroad,

where we gonna go today?

Never wanna go where you take me but

You always get your way ...

And the end, apparently, is here on a grass-banked Dorset roadside verge, beneath a hedge, somewhere between Piddle Trenthide and Toller Porcorum. Or is this just another memory that will never connect, filed away in a shoebox as soon as I've finished living it? There was no clear-cut beginning, probably there's no clear-cut end ... many a slip 'twixt cup and lip.

... and yet, I feel obscurely certain that I will look back to the crystal clarity of this moment and say "yes, that's when I knew the end of the tunnel would happen."

In the end is the beginning ... my wife still sits to one side, watching a flock of birds wheel and dive. She is neat and clean, compared to me, but shows the strain of months (how many months?) on the road with a stranger. How much has she given up? What has loyalty cost her? Probably a great deal; her career is (was) dependent on constantly maintained contacts. I clear my throat, and she turns to me. "Well," I say "should we go home?" Her eyes widen, briefly (how long has it been, since she heard me say anything coherent?), but her voice is calm and level as her head takes a quizzical tilt to one side: "If you like. Or we can stay here a while. Or we can think about it. See how you feel; there's a whole summer ahead."

A whole summer; so we've come through a winter since my last reliable memory. Flipping through the pile of odd socks, I find snow scenes and frosted breath.

... I'm sitting here on the floor,

jus' tryin' to solve

a little jigsaw puzzle,

before it rains any more ...

I nod, uncertainly. "A short while, maybe. My memory's a mess; I'll need to sort it out a bit." She nods, in return, and hefts her pack.

 

The Melanie Pieces [103]

Pebble On the Sand

 

I stood on the beach, one morning, and suddenly realised (for the first time?) that one of the nicest things about being away so much was that I came home so often. Iíd never thought to hear myself say that, after spending the first 35 years of my life as a nomad, never able to understand the love of others for home and hearth. I still couldn't live and work in the same place, day and year in and out, but I had discovered the joy of knowing a place, a point where all axes cross, called "home" (or casa, dom, ev, familiare, foyer, ham, hame, heem, heim, heimr ... whatever). Home built around one person, warm love still asleep at the end of my walk, but now tied also to geography

Isnít it grand?

Walking with the dog, I caught myself staring at Steep Holm island as it pulled itself out of the dawn murk over the Bristol Channel. Dawn arrives most naturally in the opposite direction, eastward, over the 'sixties fortress style architecture of the police station, but most satisfyingly to the west, over the sea.

Pick up a pebble on the sand:

It knows my hand.

As I stared at Steep Holm I suddenly wondered why I did so; and the answer is that I see it as an embodied symbol of mystery made solid. That's rather strange, really, since the island is not unknown to me. I've been out there three times. I once camped on it for a month; tramped all of its paths and tracks, came to know its rhythms and wildlife, woke daily to the sound of surf and crying gulls, the smell of salt and heather and guano. Yet, despite that, as I watch it change with the seasons and the light I feel an undeniable sense that I have never been there, that it holds all that is strange and wonderful.

I taught the sea my song ...

Steep Holm itself obviously isn't unique; it's just my own particular tag on which to hang this feeling of "home". I wonder what tags other inhabitants of Weston feel? Or people who live elsewhere? And are there people in Cardiff or Barry, the other side of the Channel, staring at Steep Holm from the opposite side, hanging their own feelings on it?


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