It was a dark, wintery night. I was living in a two bedroom flat in a quiet street at the foot of Balgay Hill. During this period my emotional state was crooked and my mental health resembled that of an old, battered, threadbare armchair- still able to support but slowly rattling down at the edges. My physical well being wasn’t much to be desired, I was thin, ate little and my alcohol consumption could win a fight with a group of adolescents on their first 18-30 holiday. I was foolish but continually presumed I was in a good place. Appreciative of my independence, I still managed to hold things together and I looked after my child with strict protection. I always made it into work and realisation from outsiders would have found it incoherent to think my life was a tattered mess. In hindsight I was struggling to get to grips with where I was at, my thoughts were dark, my judgement was clouded and my choice of relations became wholly undesirable. I needed a break, a shift, and for things to become different.
This girl had it all worked out. She arrived at my abode carrying a bottle of gin and wearing a melodramatic personality. I couldn’t quite place her unique accent, she was either Canadian, English or extremely posh, as it so happens she was the latter.
Who was this girl? Why had our paths never crossed before? And where did she pick up this incredibly biting bravado? She had me drawn in before I had a chance to figure her out. Pretty, intelligent and incredibly loud. Fuelled with alcohol she told tales of a recent ski trip to the States and I felt as though I was in a sickly American Movie. I didn’t realise girls like this existed. I’d only ever read about them in the books I got lost in as a teen. She was the exact opposite of me and I instantly fell in love.
It was the winter Mandela died. The winter the Kardashian’s continued to plague our televisions and pollute our young minds. A new prince had been born and a Pope resigned. Obama was inaugurated for a second term in the White House and the Syrian civil war continued.
North Korea and its young leader, Kim Jong-Un, set off alarms worldwide with a series of aggressive rhetoric and actions. It was the winter Pharrell and ‘Happy’ stormed the charts.
It was the winter I met Titi Finlay.
‘I walked into the room. On a simple iron bed, a boy was sleeping. He was pale and slim with masses of dark curls, lying bare-chested with strands of beads around his neck. I stood there. He opened his eyes and smiled.
When I told him of my plight, he rose in one motion, put on his huaraches and a white T-shirt, and beckoned me to follow him.
I watched him as he walked ahead, leading the way with a light footed gait, slightly bow legged, I noticed his hands as he tapped his fingers against his thigh. I had never seen anyone like him. He delivered me to another brownstone on Clinton Avenue, gave a little farewell salute, smiled, and was on his way.’
‘It was the summer Coltrane died. The summer of ‘Crystal Ship.’ Flower children raised their empty arms and China exploded the H-bomb. Jimi Hendrix set his guitar in flames in Monterey. AM radio played ‘Ode to Billie Joe.’ There were riots in Newark, Milwaukee and Detroit. It was the summer of Elvira Madigan.
It was the summer I met Robert Mapplethorpe.’
Unavoidable and inevitable, predetermined power, solidifying my believe in the cosmos and the natural order of the universe. Worlds apart with ideals exactly the same. Scorned by man and plagued by the ideals of conformism. Old souls lost in a world of greed, determined somehow to put things right, or at least to eliminate any association with the utter bore of conventional life. I had a positive feeling of the friendship to come.
I have always been one to rise early, I feel alive in the hours when few are awake, I walked leisurely into Dundee’s city centre. It was Monday, remains of late night carousers littered the streets. I boarded the Megabus at the Seagate Bus Station and anticipated my journey towards Manchester, a blessing in disguise, others would revolt at the thought of spending the best part of six hours on a stuffy economy bus, but I found radiance in the thought of solitude with nothing but words in front of my eyes and in my ears.
Titi had taken a managers position in an authentic Mexican bar and restaurant in the leafy suburb of Putney. Relocating to London to find inspiration for her art, Titi can be found cavorting on and around the bar, usually creating quite a scene for customers and fellow bar tenders. Always keen to explore hidden talents she recently joined the in-house band and can be heard most weekends joyously belting out a unique array of Mexican melodies.
Titi made her way to Victoria bus station, a tender head from her shift the night before, still switched on and prepared for her journey before her, Manchester bound.
‘At twenty years old, I boarded the bus. I wore my dungarees, black turtleneck, and the old grey raincoat I had bought in Camden. I was superstitious. Today was Monday; I was born on Monday. It was a good day to arrive in New York City. No one expected me. Everything awaited me’.
‘On that same day, in Brooklyn, Robert dropped acid. He knew he might not be able to draw once the acid peaked. He had tried working on acid before, but it drew him towards the negative spaces, areas he would normally have the self control to avoid’.
Arriving on schedule I meandered through the Northern Quarter, exploring small lanes and quiet whynds, graffitied with colourful
art, dictating the cool, urban area, consumed with coffee shops and cocktail bars. I entered one and found a quiet spot in the corner. I had ideas and I needed to write them down. My communication with Titi was only available through the variable signal of the megabus wifi and it wasn’t late into her time aboard when the vehicle came to a sudden halt. Broken down and stranded somewhere on the M1 it would be at least four hours before Titi made it to her destination.
Making the most of my time alone in Manchester, I felt free and delved further. Being a fan of the city’s music history, I wandered the streets in a dreamy haze, surrounded by The Smiths, The Stone Roses, Joy Division and New Order. Approaching Salford Quays by tram and finding my way to our budget hotel. I freshened up and changed into a 1980’s floral two piece, black mesh socks and bulky wedges, completing my outfit choice with trade mark winged sunglasses. It was sunny at the quay as I left the hotel.
‘I walked for hours from park to park. In Washington Square, one could still feel the characters of Henry James and the presence of the author himself. Entering the perimeters of the white arch, one was greeted by the sounds of bongos and acoustic guitars, protest singers, political arguments, activists leafleting, older chess players challenged by the young. This open atmosphere was something I had not experienced, simple freedom that did not seem to be oppressive to anyone’.
The hours passed without much notice as I sipped Malbec in a bar which lacked atmosphere and taste. It was no time at all when I heard that familiar voice – ‘I’m looking for the girl with black hair from Dundee’. My petite friend had arrived. Having spent the last eight hours on a bus, Titi as always was composed, unstressed and found the funny side to her ordeal. We sat for a few hours, catching up, ravenous from our travels we indulged in Steak Frites and more wine before making our way across Manchester for a very important date.
‘Lenny showed me how to play an E, and as I struck the note, I spoke the line: ‘Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.’ I had written the line some years before as a declaration of existence, as a vow to take responsibility for my own actions. Christ was a man worthy to rebel against, for he was rebellion itself’.
Half an hour into her set we stumbled into the Apollo. The blurred atmosphere and passionate fans made the initial experience feel quite surreal, the Queen of Punk screamed Horses! Horses! Horses! As we weaved our way through the crowd. Patti as always, androgynously dressed in a black two piece suit and simple white tee, her striking features hidden by a curtain of silver hair. An elegy for elegies as she reminded us of the greats we’ve lost, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Lou Reed, Robert Mapplethorpe. Spoken word drawing you closer to the stage and to a women, who’s life experiences we can only covet or desire. Passion exploding from every word, ‘Because the night’ set the theatre alight as the crowd cheered and praised their worthy idol. Making her way towards us, Patti took time to meet and greet fans before running back on stage for a perfectly punk rendition of ‘My Generation’ by The Who. The Stratocaster’s strings savagely ripped from its carcass as she paid a final thank you and farewell to her devotees. Frantically screeching like two escaped lunatics, Titi and I were handed her set list and we made our way onto the warm Manchester streets. Life complete.
‘There are many stories I could write about Robert and I. But this is the story I’ve told. It is the one he wished to tell and I have kept my promise. We were as Hansel and Gretel and we ventured out into the Black Forest of the world. There were temptations and witches and demons we never dreamed of and there was splendour we only partially imagined. No one could speak for these two young people nor tell with any truth of their days and nights together. Only Robert and I could tell it. Our story as, he called it. And having gone, he left the task to me to tell it to you’.
This is the story of how Gigi met Titi, only Titi and I know the finer details, one day either of us or perhaps both will share the true tale.
Long live the VEF and Patti Smith the QUEEN of all QUEENS