Sunday, 22 April 2012

Greenback: one of my back pages

(Includes favourite skins, and Polaroid film pack tucked into trendy denim bib)
A friend of mine, Mandy Wheeler, who's a gifted copywriter and radio producer, amongst other things sent me a message she got from a writer in America. Mandy has written an inspirational little book called Tell An Outrageous Lie, which contains nearly 200 vignettes, some real, some imagined, that are designed to kick-start the story-teller in you; to give your creative block an enema or two. (Actually, there are 188 of the critters, one of my faves: 'A picture of an offal shop, a giant snowball and graffiti saying Can you see me?')

Her friend's donation was this: 'I have a dollar bill which has a strong scent of perfume, and not an expensive one.  There's a story to be told here.' 

And in no more than 650 words.

This was my contribution. It's not brilliant because, apart from one word, it's absolutely true. Took me straight back to Nixon, Roxy Music and shop window porn. 


I was working in Amsterdam in 1973. I was 23 years old, and working in a design office that overlooked a wide canal, offering as pretty an urban view as you could ever hope to see. The company that employed me was a bit of a Camden Town sweatshop and made its money out of designing record sleeves and various bits of merchandise for some pretty cool acts. And a whole load of not-so-cool acts: dismal, combed-over cabaret fodder that appealed to, well, actually, I never really found out what benighted pie-slice of the populace went for these forty something relics.

This Amsterdam studio was near the great hippy square that smelt of dope and patchouli. And the Paradiso Club where I saw Nico and her harmonium, amongst others… Prostitutes gazed down from lorry mirrors bolted to upstairs windows, or looked at you, quite cheerfully, from their showrooms. Price for sex was 25 guilders according to our rather uptight manager called Joop (pronounced Yo) who, because of his stern bearing, never managed to get us much work.

I found the sexual atmosphere electrifying. Even in the American Bookshop near the Amstel Bridge, which showed the Watergate hearings every day, I remember thinking that something sounded like a really shouty orgasm. I looked round, puzzled. Oh. I see. A sign which said something about films and an arrow pointing downstairs. Everywhere fucking. Every fucking where.

And weirdness. As I walked home one night: A scary dude, bearded and patchoulied, holds up a matchbox, shakes it, and says, “For three guilders you can see what’s in this matchbox.” Not have. See. 


Joop and I had by this time struck up a good, but slightly awkward relationship, where every young woman we passed on the street would be accompanied by his sotto voce and smirky, “What about her? Nice one Cyril. Shall I ask for you?” No, Yo… keep walking. But he was very kind, and he invited me to stay in Haarlem with him. I really wanted to see the Franz Hals paintings and those lesser known contemporaries, painters with no grasp of a sitter’s character, but fuck me, could they paint a ruff, stitch by stitch.

So, there we were, Joop, me, confronted by this wall of paintings and suddenly I hear bats in my head. Every time I get close to a painting, the alarm system is inaudibly, but painfully warding me off. Joop is laughing at my plight. Don’t get so close. Yes, but, ow, there it goes again. After a time I’m turning this into a sort of cabaret. Every picture see I react to by clutching at my head and moaning. I’m only doing this, because by now two women that Joop, thankfully, hasn’t noticed, have joined in. They laugh; they both copy me. This is, ouch, more like it. Then Joop decides it’s time for dinner, so we leave, abruptly.

I don’t think I’d ever been into such a clean, expensive restaurant. I felt a bit awkward, scruffy, on edge. Joop was in his element. It was expensive. Probably 25 guilders each. Or three prostitutes. He ordered wine and there was bouillabaisse in a silver salver.

Then the girls from the gallery come in. Lordy.  I offer a silent prayer. But a waiter (to Joop’s obvious approval), hurries them out. I ask why. “Patchouli. They are nice, but their perfume stinks.”
I feel utterly confounded and a bit ashamed; I’m like them, scruffy and young. They shouldn’t be here and neither should I. And I’m too confused to direct anything in the way of  a heroic, muscular counter attack.

Then one of the girls, laughing, rushes back in and throws something that bounces off Joop’s head and  lands in my stew. It’s a dollar bill, and unfurled, it has a phone number and a kiss.

And the message: WE ARE MORE FUN


  1. Lovely, Johnny. I've heard bits and pieces about your time in Amsterdam, but never all joined up like that. Try as I have though, I can't figure out the one untrue word...

    XX P

    1. For fun read fuckable!

      Thanks Pauly. xx

    2. And did you? No need to answer this if you don't want to ...

  2. Dear Reader,I can only say that they were on the money.

  3. Have you still got the number?
    Just a brilliant story man "Everywhere fucking. Every fucking where." brilliant x