Category Archives: Ljubljana

A Nalepka Noir Novelette

Here it is, the longest piece of fiction I’ve ever written;zmajbigNALEPKE a comic noir novelette, complete, unabridged, with special-edition DVD-only extras, hot off the WordPress. Fair warning: there are a lot of in-jokes, puns, and references that only people familiar with Slovenia and Ljubljana will get, but I hope the rest of you will find something there of value. If nothing else, it’s original and it is My Thing. Access is free, but there is a button to donate something via GoFundMe if the spirit moves you. If you like it, share. And enjoy.

That URL again:

https://themesecnikfiles.wordpress.com/

You know you’re an American who’s been in Slovenia a while when…

[This piece first appeared in my original website, http://www.pogoer.org, under the title “You know you’re a foreigner who’s been in Slovenia too long when…” In retrospect, I don’t think there’s any such thing as too long, and the list is somewhat American-specific and, yes, a bit dated. So be it, then.]

1. You pepper your conversations (with other English speakers) with expressions like “ah res?” and “v redu!”

2. You think of Wheel of Fortune as your country’s version of Kolo
Sreče.

3. It seems normal to have to visit two cashiers’ windows to (a) pay and obtain a receipt, and (b) present the receipt to the clerk, who carefully wraps, tapes, stickers shut and bags your single 9-volt battery.

4. On trips home, you speak to shop clerks and waitresses in Slovene. Or at least think about it.

5. You stop thinking about how nice it would be to have a clothes dryer again.

6. When asked to spell out your name, you automatically do it pronouncing the letters the Slovene way.

7. You stop converting prices from tolars into your home currency.

8. You start following Slovene politics.

9. You tell friends you’re going on a short trip to Dunaj or Benetke.

10. The words “Jogurt” and “joga” look normal to you in print.

11. Shutters on windows begin to seem like a decadent Western affectation.

12. Your dreams are in English, but with Slovene subtitles.

Live from Ljubljana, Lou Reed

lou_reed_ticketI never met Uncle Lou. Thus, unlike several of my friends and acquaintances, I have no personal anecdotes to relate about my encounters with the late and widely lamented ex-Velvet and punk godfather of godfathers (sorry, Iggy; sorry, guys in the New York Dolls and MC5). Many others are currently retailing those stories elsewhere to good effect. Suffice it to say, who else do you know that, when he died, people were simultaneously: 1) amazed that he could die at all, 2) that he hadn’t died 30 years earlier, and 3) found no contradiction between those two statements? For a coda, see my card on someecards.com: “When you die, may people be so upset that they argue for three hours on Facebook about whether or not it’s a hoax.”

Depending on who’s doing the anecdoting, Reed appears to have been capable of being everything from a generous, sensitive and kind soul to a snarky, gratuitously cruel misanthrope. In general he appears to have been nicer to his fellow musicians than to those pesky journalists, with a few exceptions in either case. I never interviewed him (probably just as well), although his artistic vision certainly made as large of an impression on me as on most of my writing-art-and-music-making contemporaries in love with alternative views and ways of making noise. He may not have been the nicest guy in the world, but how different would the world be now had he not been?

The only time I saw Lou Reed play live was on August 1, 2000 in Ljubljana, Slovenia, where I was living at the time. Ljubljana was probably as good a place as any to see him go to work, given that I was rather too young to have made the scene when the Velvet Underground played Max’s Kansas City in 1970, let alone prior to that.  As you can see from the ticket stub, in 2000 Lou was on the Ecstasy Tour, named for his then-current album; you can find the setlist here, although for me the concert was equally as memorable for the setting as the performance. It was held at the picturesque Križanke outdoor theatre in the Old City, on the premises of a gorgeously atmospheric former monastery (originally dating from the 13th century) “nationalized” after Tito took power and redesigned by the ubiquitous king of Slovene architecture in the second quarter of the 20th century, Jože Plečnik. All cobblestones, climbing vines and artistically poured concrete, it’s still very much in use for festivals and concerts; I would see Patti Smith for the first time at Križanke in July of 2001, in her first appearance in Slovenia, where she gave one of the best shows I’ve ever seen performed by any artist anywhere.

I saw quite a few other Western musicians and bands during my time in Ljubljana, including Bob Dylan and Blondie, and the fact that they were performing somewhat out of their element — geographically if not spiritually — added something to my enjoyment of them; they related to the European audiences differently than they would have to a home crowd, and may have felt more inspired in relatively unfamiliar territory. (That certainly seemed to be the case with Patti, as well as when I witnessed Bob Dylan tearing through “Masters of War” in the Hala Tivoli basketball arena on April 28, 1999, during the height of the Kosovo War.) The well-known truism about non-mainstream artists being more appreciated abroad than at home certainly applied here. (Back in 2010 I wrote about foreigners performing and in some cases relocating to Slovenia for the Adria Airways inflight magazine, which expounds more on the subject.) If the former Bloc wasn’t punk rock’s only spiritual home it was certainly one of its major adopted ones, and in some cases became the actual home of Western punks, alt-rockers and alt-poets searching for their True Place.

Reed was 58 when he played Ljubljana. Ecstasy had received generally excellent reviews, not that whatever his latest album was mattered much to the Slovenes who packed the house that night.  To them and to most people born after 1940 in ex-Yugoslavia and in Central and Eastern Europe in general, Reed was a leather-jacketed god who had descended from the heavens to walk among them for one enchanted night.  The whole region was balm to the dark, poetic, sooty-concrete-building, grimy-street-loving soul; of course, Reed’s and the VU’s vision would resonate there more than anywhere else this side of the West Village. (Read this piece about how the Velvets may have played a crucial part in eventually sparking the 1989 governmental upheaval in Czechoslovakia; “Why do you think we called it the Velvet Revolution?” Vaclav Havel told Salman Rushdie a decade later.)

Križanke is indeed an outdoor theater, with open sides, but as this photo shows, it’s fit with a metal roof and isn’t open to the stars (or the rain) and is flanked by buildings on one side, walls on the other side and the back and the stage in front, and thus feels pretty much enclosed. Low concrete steps slope gently backwards from the stage. For most performances the audience sits on folding chairs, but on the first night of August, 2000, whoever was promoting the event decided to — the hell with it — do away with the chairs and just pack in as many live bodies as could cough up the 5000-tolar admission fee (roughly $25 USD). It ended up being as crowded in there as a New York City subway car at rush hour; you could literally not turn around when standing up, and everyone stood up for the entire show. It was a potentially dangerous situation — I don’t know what would have happened if we’d all had to rush for the exit at once — but most people in the audience didn’t seem to mind the real-time sardine analogy. After all, they were getting to see Lou.

What do I remember of the show itself? It was a solid, very loud performance. Loud noise, and lots of it, both from feedback from the amps and roars from the Lou-lovin’ audience. There was good interplay between the frontman and his band.  I wasn’t reviewing the show and didn’t take notes, and from the vantage point of 13 years later it all seems a bit of a blur. A loud blur with many flashing lights. Among his people, Lou seemed to be in a good, even gracious, mood, enjoying himself as far as I could tell; early on he said “Hvala lepa” (in Slovene, “thank you very much”) to general gasps from the crowd. Better-known material was in short supply, save for “Sweet Jane” and “Vicious” and the last encore, “Perfect Day.” Nobody much cared. Lou then said, with feeling, “Thank you so much” and vanished into the night.

Relieved we’d survived, we wiped our brows and knew we’d had a visitation we wouldn’t soon forget.

So Much Is Missed, or Duša Počkaj’s Greatest Hits

In the film Plesu v dežju (Dance in the Rain), 1961

In the film Ples v dežju (Dance in the Rain), 1961

During my years in Slovenia (1996-2001) I became quite fond of the local version of cabaret theatre, not necessarily the kind that was current in that era but also from decades earlier. In particular, I grew to love the songs of Duša Počkaj (1924-1982), a theatre and film actress who occasionally recorded in the chanson tradition, or, as they say in Slovenia, šansoni. A CD compilation of Počkaj’s songs was produced by Slovenia’s Ministry of Culture in 1998; since I was living in Ljubljana then, I snapped up a copy on sale at an Old Town kiosk during the holiday season.  I treasure it still. (If you were wondering, her name is pronounced DOO-sha POACH-kye. The word duša also means “soul” in Slovene.) The songs on the compilation, titled simply Šansoni, were collected from various radio and TV broadcasts, films and stage performances of Počkaj’s during the 1960s and ’70s. Although she never performed specifically as a singer and never released an actual record during her lifetime, her expressive, world-weary alto was perfect for the chanson genre. Počkaj had tons of innate style, her natural snap and wit rendering even the darkest lyrics palatable for eager consumption by her fellow Slovene sophisticates in the audience. Thirty years after her death she still has a place in Slovenia’s artistic canon, if an understated one. Last October, during the annual Mesto žensk/City of Women arts festival in Ljubljana, a performance inspired by Počkaj’s life and art, Draga Duša (Dear Duša) was presented in, appropriately enough, Duša Počkaj Hall, an intimate 60-seat performance space in the Cankarjev dom, Ljubljana’s answer to Lincoln Center. (Here’s an English-language link to a short description of the piece.)

Počkaj was born in November 1924 in Lendava, a smallish town near the Hungarian border in Slovenia’s remote northeastern corner.  Lendava is part of the Prekmurje region, which I think of as Slovenia’s answer to northern New England in its isolation, spareness and relative poverty, and one of the country’s primary incubators of folk traditions.  (The balladeer Vlado Kreslin, who has been called Slovenia’s answer to Bruce Springsteen, also hails from Prekmurje.)

Počkaj studied architecture in college for a time but then enrolled as one of the first female students in the new Academy of Dramatic Arts in Ljubljana, which was founded in 1945. She soon found work onstage in the National Theatre and made her first film in 1953. Počkaj was a busy trouper to the end, performing nearly constantly in TV shows and movies for domestic consumption along with stage productions. I don’t know if she ever appeared in any foreign productions, or performed in any other language besides Slovene, which made her a star at home and utterly obscure beyond Slovenia’s borders. According to her Slovene Wikipedia entry, she actually died of a heart attack during a stage performance in Ljubljana, at the young age of 57, on June 24th, 1982, while appearing in ‘The Forest’ by the Russian playwright Alexander Ostrovsky.

Here is a link to Šansoni (I haven’t downloaded it myself since I have the CD, so all I can say is good luck and be careful). Here is another one with which to try your luck, which includes the CD cover and liner notes.

So much is missed for lack of translation; so much great art never gets heard by people who would appreciate it.  Here are the lyrics to one of my favorite songs on that album, Življenje (Life), first in the original Slovene, then in translation — I couldn’t find an English translation so I translated it myself, and it’s probably spotty and inaccurate at points — I don’t get to practice my Slovene much these days — but I at least tried to improve on Google Translate.  (You experts in slovenščina should feel free to suggest alternate wordings. If you suspect I’m trying to sneakily crowd-source a better translation, you’d be correct.)

The thing is, if Duša Počkaj thought it was important enough to expose her fellow Slovenes to translated versions of song poems by the likes of Dylan Thomas, Brecht/Weill (“Pirate Jenny” and “Barbara Song”) and Robert Burns, along with poems by her fellow countrymen (who have a grand poetic tradition dating back to the ubiquitous 19th century national hero, France Prešeren), shouldn’t I at least try to return the favor and translate a lyric by the Slovene poet Kajetan Kovič, as best as I can, for whoever is intrigued enough to read this far?

So, here’s a link to Duša’s recording, on YouTube (titled for the occasion Čudno Življenje, or Strange Life).

ŽIVLJENJE 


(Kajetan Kovič)
Tak čudno je naše življenje,
srečno in hkrati nesrečno.
In kratko je naše življenje
in eno samo za večno.

Dokler smo tu sta nebo
in zemlja v naši oblasti,
vendar mora drevo
o sojenem času pasti.

Tak čudno je naše življenje
s svojo mračno zavestjo,
da se pesem konča
v plitkem jarku za cesto,

da se včasih konča,
preden se je začela,
brez zemlje in brez neba
kot roža nedozorela.

Tak čudno je naše življenje,
srečno in hkrati nesrečno,
o pesem nedokončana
in ena sama za večno.

My translation:

LIFE

Such a strange thing is our life,
Happy and at the same time unhappy.
And brief is our life,

And we only have one, forever.

As long as we are here, the sky
And the earth are under our power,
Yet still, the tree
Is judged during its fall.

Such a strange thing is our life
With its dim consciousness
And the song ends
In a shallow ditch on the road

That sometimes ends
Before it began,
Without earth and without sky
Like a flower yet to bloom.

Such a strange thing is our life,
Happy and sad at the same time,
An unfinished song
And one alone, forever.

#####

Happy belated 88th birthday, Duša.

The CD cover

Worlds colliding…in a good way

Of all the articles I’ve ever written over my career, this newly published piece has to be in the top 5 if not at the all-time peak, concerning as it does so many of my favorite things:  (1) Slovenia, (2) expats and foreign visitors, (3) alternative musicians and writers. Also, it appears in (4) the in-flight magazine of Adria Airways, Slovenia’s national carrier, which happens to be, in my opinion, the finest airline magazine I’ve ever seen.

On top of all this, it’s the first article I’ve ever done that you can read in Slovene (all the articles in the magazine appear in both Slovene and English, expertly translated). Love it to pieces. To read, go to the third dot at the bottom and scroll to what’s identified as page 46 (which is actually page 56 when you get into the page).

What more could I possibly ask for? Oh, yeah, there’s this one thing where a photo of musician Chris Eckman is miscaptioned with my name, to which I say, huh? We look nothing alike…

Goodbye to All That

You won't find her at the market anymore.

I’m afraid I’m not perfect. Ever since I repatriated to the USA at the end of 2001, I admit I’ve had a bit of a chip on my shoulder when it comes to putting up with the tastes and opinions of Americans who’ve never been farther away than an occasional week in the Caribbean or Mexico, as well as all those businesses that make their living catering to those tastes and opinions. (“I decided to go live in Slovenia on a whim, and I did,” I say to myself with chest puffed metaphorically out. “I’m just as good as anyone else out there! Maybe better!”) Whenever I go into a home-furnishings shop and browse through the photos and posters in the Exotic Destinations section, I know exactly what I’ll find: Paris, Venice, New York, maybe Tuscany, precious little else. What a bore.

Which is why I so enjoy talking to those folk I consider to be ‘my people’: those who either are, or have been, expats, well-traveled world citizens, or at least People Who Know Europe. Not that I should talk so loudly — I’ve never been east of Romania, never been to Africa (except for Tunisia), never been to Asia. I’ve always wondered about what’s around the bend, what’s beyond the farthest outpost in my experience.

I recently enjoyed writing an article on expat creatives in Slovenia — musicians, filmmakers, writers. It wasn’t part of my plan, but all those I ended up interviewing were Americans. It seems to me that the American expat is a breed apart from, say, the German, Australian or British expat. Because the USA is so isolated, American expats tend to think they have a lot more to prove when they move overseas — not to be seen as the typical insular, monolingual American, for example, they tend to throw themselves into their host cultures full-throttle. They need to Make A Statement, carve out their territory. They don’t want to be back home, they sense there’s other stuff out there worth exploring, and if they sometimes seem to want to become more Italian than the Italians or more Russian than the Russians, who can blame them?

Some expats are, of course, more, well, naturally out there (in more than one sense) than others. Take the notorious writings and escapades of Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi, who started the eXile newspaper in Moscow (and wrote a book about it, which I haven’t read). Ames and Taibbi, who haven’t spoken to each other in years, have relocated (not exactly with glee) back to the US and — as a recent Esquire piece makes clear — haven’t exactly mellowed with age. Nutcases, once-and-future addicts and world-class haters they may well be, but Ames and Taibbi are probably the expats all other expats should be measured against, the ones who actually lived the lives other, more timid sojourners only daydreamed about. (That most of these daydreams remained daydreams is probably a good thing.)

Nearly equaling those guys for gumption is New York writer/musician/cult figure Mykel Board, who decided to relocate to Mongolia for a year in 1995-96, for the heck of it, and had the adventure of his life — or at least one of them — and wrote about it to hilarious effect in his book Even a Daughter is Better Than Nothing (I’ve read it, you should too; it can be bought for cheap on Amazon.com).

I haven’t read any of those books about Americans relocating to Tuscany or Provence — too mainstream, couldn’t care less about these people’s plumbing and wiring problems in renovating that oh-so-picture-perfect farmhouse, reminds me too much of the silly posters in the picture-framing section of the store anyway.

I experienced a far different sensation recently, reading a memoir of a place I know well, by a woman who came to Slovenia before I did and remains there now. I’m speaking of  Erica Johnson Debeljak, whose memoir of her early years in Slovenia, Forbidden Bread, was published last year by North Atlantic Books. It is a passing strange thing to read a book written by someone I know, with whom I shared a city for a time. We didn’t see each other every week, but I knew Erica and her husband, the noted poet, essayist and educator Aleš Debeljak (for whom I edited a manuscript or two while I was living in Ljubljana and working as an English language editor), on a casual basis. I used to think of Erica as the Official American Female Expat in Slovenia, since she was obviously a smart and capable person who had done very well for herself in terms of switching careers along with countries, combining this with raising a beautiful family and maintaining a rather high profile in the SI (one wintry day on the street near my flat in Bežigrad, I remember seeing a large photo of Aleš, Erica and their young children on a billboard, in a winter scene, possibly riding on a sled, in what I’m almost sure was an ad for the ubiquitous Slovenian cellphone company Mobitel). As her memoir makes clear, though, the first years were anything but a smooth ride as she adjusted to and sometimes clashed with the customs of her new home, represented in all forms from the infamous bureaucracy of the new state to the rural lifestyles of her husband’s family.

Erica moved to Slovenia only a couple of years after it had declared its independence from the fast-fragmenting Yugoslavia, and battles were still going on just to the south between Croats and Serbs (at her otherwise idyllic wedding reception, she could hear machine-gun fire a few miles away over the border in Karlovac, Croatia).  You’d expect capsule descriptions of the history of the region and Slovenia in particular, and Erica provides them clearly and concisely, but the heart of the book is a personal story of her struggles with the new land. There’s the odd language, of course, but language is a fixed and codified thing; you can take classes in it, and it can be mastered with sufficient amounts of concentration and practice (lots of it).

You can’t, however, take a class in social attitudes (at least not, as far as I know, in Slovenia). Certain things can only be learned by direct experience, such as the Slovenes’ aversion to drafts of any kind (riding in a hot car on a hot day with no air conditioning, nobody opens a window — which I can vouch for), and triple-diapering a baby (which I’d never heard of before reading this book — something about worrying about setting the baby’s hips out of joint). Although the Slovenes tend to be competent and honest, they’re also not as direct as Americans, which can be both a blessing and a curse, but is ultimately just another detail for an expat to adjust to.

The book’s final chapter jumps ahead from 1995 — just after the birth of the Debeljaks’ first child — to 2008, when they have a teenage girl and two growing boys and Slovenia is a member of the EU and NATO, the tolar is history, and modernization has, as Erica writes, rendered obsolete much of what she covered in her memoir. It’s meant to be jolting, and it certainly was for me. Expats understandably tend to romanticize their chosen foreign destination, even when, as one hip Slovene woman once told me, “your paradise is someone else’s prison.” Over the five years I spent in Slovenia I could see the old ways fading out as certainly as the cafes with Tito-era decor gave way with a vengeance to postmodern facades and shops that wouldn’t be out of place in Copenhagen, Rome or London. I accept that time can’t be reversed, but at this point I wonder how I’ll feel when I set foot in Slovenia again. You can’t go home away from home again. I know that at the least, I’ll miss the tolars.

How I got to this point, part II: Christy’s letter, the groom’s toast and farewell to Slovenia

As I wrote in my preceding post (which you should read before this one), Kirsty’s death sent me into a downspiraling period of prolonged and somewhat inexplicable grief in the first weeks of 2001, quite out of proportion to my connection to her (never met her, never spoke with or wrote to her; I was a fan who saw her in concert once and had a few of her records). Perhaps the best way I can explain my reaction is that it seemed to me, at the time, to be a personal insult; here was someone whose taste and craft I admired, who had something to say to the world in general and to me in particular, and what does the world do with her? Have her killed by a speedboat owned by someone who never even had the grace to admit guilt or even apologize, instead framing a hapless boathand to take the rap. Agh.
Of course, I didn’t know Kirsty, and it wasn’t my tragedy. Not really. But still I felt as if I was connected to it in some way, and wanted the world to notice as far as I could. Writing about it for the Boston weekly seemed a good excuse to pay my respects; I was far from the only person who felt going to St. Martin in the Fields was something he had to do.
The day after Kirsty’s memorial service was a classic gray, cold and rainy day in London. Looking for something with which to occupy myself, I visited the colorful Indian neighborhood around Brick Lane in the East End. After lunch and a bit of walking around, I boarded a double-decker bus for the ride back to my hotel, and climbed to the upper deck, which held no other passengers except for me.
I stared out of the windows at the gray and the rain, listening on my Walkman to a cassette tape of an ’80s band from Boston, music I knew very well. I began to cry, for Kirsty and myself and the world and for the hopelessness of it all, for all the shattered dreams of lost childhoods, for vanished youth and wasted potential, for the finality of death, for anything and everything. For its own sake.
Something cracked inside of me, huge sobs arose from deep inside and I began heaving and bucking around the bus, and I cried like I hadn’t since the death of my mother over a decade before.
Something had to change; that I knew. Something had opened up inside, and I knew it was important that I investigate what was going on.
But for now, it was time to return to Slovenia.
*****
As noted, I had taken to singing in the days and weeks following Kirsty’s death. I didn’t sing in public, but I would grab lyrics off the Internet for songs I liked, everything from the Johnny Mercer classic “Laura” to “I’m Talking To You” (a single released in 1979 by a Boston band called the Maps), print them up, memorize them, and sing them out loud, by myself, in my kitchen. Was I trying to get closer to the source of music? Assuage my grief with self-therapy in this way? Whatever it was, it helped.
I also dug through the collection of CDs I’d brought with me from the US, looking for sounds I hadn’t heard in awhile. One of them was a record by the alt-country Seattle band the Picketts, featuring Christy McWilson. I’d never paid particular attention to the Picketts before; I’d first encountered them back in the rockcrit days of 1990 when I came across a single of theirs, a cutesy country cover of the Clash’s “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?” The CD, Euphonium, came out in ’96, the same year I’d left Framingham for Ljubljana (anyone stuck in Framingham should move to Ljubljana, by the way; no contest there).
I played Euphonium again, and yet again. The world-weary wisdom in the songs — most of which McWilson had written — and her experienced yet tender voice spoke to me, and gave me comfort, especially these lines in a song called “Night Fell”:
Night fell as if retrieving
all hopes and boundaries from my sight
please tell me that the darkness is deceiving
and somewhere down this tunnel there is light
Sometimes when you need help you receive it from where you least expect it, such as from a CD you’ve had for five years and never paid too much attention to before.
Come to think of it, I hadn’t even given Kirsty a thought for years before her death, before everything changed.
It was painful, slow and difficult, but I gradually succeeded in knitting myself back a little more into the fabric of humanity. I felt it was about time I took some serious steps in that direction.
Donna and I continued e-mailing each other.
*****
On my previous Web site, I’d written about meeting Christy McWilson in person at a folk festival in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, on the first day of September, 2001 (this was a few days after I’d first met Donna in New York). However, I didn’t tell the whole story behind it.
As a side effect of the Kirsty grief, I’d gone on a limited mission to Appreciate Artists While They Still Lived! and Tell Them How Much They Mean To You! which in real life can get kind of awkward — it meant I was a man in his early 40s writing fan letters (or, more usually, e-mails) to musicians I knew slightly if at all, something that should have gotten me drummed out of the Rock Critic club (as if I even cared to belong to that little band any longer). But I did write an actual letter to Christy McWilson, who had recently released a solo album, The Lucky One, which I ordered directly from her label stateside. I told her about how she’d helped me through Kirsty’s death, and thanked her for putting her own songs out there, and some other things which are none of your business.
Some time later — two or three months, perhaps, it was July — I received in the mail a large padded envelope from Seattle, containing a homemade CD and a two-page handwritten letter from Christy McWilson.
The CD — which she had her then-husband Scott McCaughey, of the Young Fresh Fellows, burn for me — contained the Picketts’ cover of Kirsty’s “Chip Shop” and the YFF’s cover of “They Don’t Know,” neither of which I’d heard before. (I was a YFF fan too, and I’d actually met and interviewed McCaughey back in 1991 when I traveled to Seattle in service of a piece on that city’s burgeoning music scene for the Boston Phoenix; this was about five minutes before Nirvana broke, and although Scott made a passing reference to them, I didn’t mention Cobain and Co. in the article at all; who knew? If you’ve never heard of Scott McCaughey, he’s a noted indie rocker with a great sense of humor who also plays with R.E.M., Minus 5, and various other side projects.)
I don’t make a habit of putting letters people have written privately to me on the Web, and I apologize if I’m offending anyone, but this stone is just too pertinent to be left unturned:
Christy told me that she, too, had been affected by what happened to Kirsty. Death and transition are at the bottom of all of this, somehow (she said).
“I’m a huge Kirsty MacColl fan,” Christy wrote. “Her death looms large.
“I’m not sure what I believe — or what is proven — I just know what I know — and I’ve come to know that there are no coincidences (finding-refinding Picketts etc.).
“I think music, and maybe my kind of music in particular, acts like a dog whistle. Some people hear it — or the dog whistle tones of it – and most people don’t.” To her, it suggested an image out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, of all sorts of people gathering to meet at the foot of Devil’s Tower.
*****
Dog whistle or not, I did travel to the Johnstown FolkFest, in an area of rural western Pennsylvania whose green rolling hills reminded me strongly of Slovenia.
I found Christy sitting at a portable table set up outdoors near a stage, and after I ascertained that it was her, I told her I was Wes. (Oh, yeah: I hadn’t told her I was coming.)
“You’re Wes,” she said. “You’re Wes.”
She then stood up and gave me a hug.
We talked a bit between her sets, and I made a point of telling her my life was on an upswing, and she said she was intuitive and could tell that. We made our goodbyes, and I went off to find my car in the vast parking lot. (We haven’t had any contact since and I don’t want to bother her, but I’m glad she’s still out there recording and if she ever plays Austin again, I’ll be there. )
*****
Donna, the future Mrs. Pogoer, who grew up on a tree-shaded suburban street in the Vailsburg section of Newark, had an interesting past — in addition to a successful career as a corporate writer, she was a skilled musician proficient on several instruments. Her principal instrument was double bass, which she had played with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and other classical ensembles, and with which she had also made something of a name for herself on the small, but very happening, lower Manhattan cabaret circuit. Donna’s natural habitat was a piano bar. She had worked closely with, among others, the singing ringmaster of the Barnum & Bailey Circus as well as this guy, and was an excellent and dedicated cook, a Reiki practitioner, and a very entertaining raconteuse (without even trying, she had had encounters with a large number of celebrities, from Kathleen Turner and Liza Minnelli to Jackie Mason, Harvey Fierstein and Jonathan Richman, the latter of whom she had even helped inspire to write the song “You Can’t Talk To The Dude”). Clearly, this was someone worth getting to know.
After I returned from Pennsylvania, on our second rendezvous in early September, the future Mrs. Pogoer and I wound our way through midtown Manhattan from Bryant Park to Central Park, where, sitting on a bench near a lake, I gathered my nerve, said some things I’ve totally forgotten, and kissed her for real-no-mistake, startling her but not in a bad way, and we nearly ended up doing indecent things in public.
I returned to Ljubljana a few days before 9/11 — Donna had had a dream about the towers’ fall a few hours before it occurred, yes, she really did — and we stayed in touch and agreed to meet in October in London, where the Kirsty fans would be meeting to celebrate her birthday by playing her songs in a pub (a tradition that’s continued every year since; Kirsty’s family and friends often stop by, and now there’s a memorial bench in Soho Square where the event commences).
We indeed met up in London, and decided to move in together back in the States, and after a while, after considering various other cities, we decided to set up shop in Austin, Texas because it seemed like a good enough place to make a new start, and Donna wanted to leave the New York/New Jersey area and I didn’t want to go back there myself.
And so I went on a “farewell tour” of Central Europe, stopping in Budapest, Bratislava and Brno, and put my things in storage and flew home to New York on the day after Christmas of 2001. After a few weeks staying with a friend in Brooklyn, we winged our way to the Lone Star State.
The rabbi at our wedding, who knew our story, remarked at the ceremony that it took the death of a poet to bring us together, and that out of tragedy new beginnings and good things can come.
And here we are, nearly five years since that day, and we have three-year-old twin boys walkin’ around here and everything, and there have been challenges and struggles along the way, and still are. (That’s life, that’s what the people say.)
But I still think that if Donna agreed to marry me, I can’t be all bad as a human being.
And you know, that’s good.
And even if Kirsty died so senselessly, yet our lives are utterly changed because of this tragedy, and there are two new people beginning to unfold their own stories in this sad yet sometimes beautiful world.
As Matthew Fox wrote in his book Creation Spirituality:
Compassion is a kind of fire…it disturbs, it surprises, it ignites, it burns, it sears, and it warms. Compassion incinerates denial; it especially warms and melts cold hearts, cold structures, frozen minds, and self-satisfied lifestyles. Those who are touched by compassion have their lives turned upside down. That is not necessarily a bad thing.

And I think of what Christy wrote on the CD I gave her to sign back on the first day of September in 2001:

To Wes–

Here’s to them mysterious mysteries.

Christy Sue