Letter from London: Three People, Two Cars, One Motorbike

Boadicea and Her Daughters statue and the London Eye. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

They say that no matter what you do, if you ride a motorbike and crash, there is going to be a lot of pain. I didn’t really mean this week’s Letter to be about a motorbike crash, or two car journeys, one long, the other short, but these pieces are fast developing a habit of writing themselves, as if something organic is going on, as if a new door wants located and unlocked. People keep stumbling onto the page, or stage, or road, or whatever, as if pushed by some mischievous dresser or creative pedestrian. Last week, on the biker front, I met up with an old friend outside the National Gallery who was back from the States after the mother of all crashes. Then I was in email contact with an old American friend awaiting a liver transplant, who once drove me across the Midwest filming large bronze sculptures of hares and who I last saw in London. Finally, also last week, I was enjoying being reconnected after well over thirty years with a Canadian friend I once travelled in a New York cab with, whose driver had just seen my friend’s eyes explode in a feature film. In other words, Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard, as musician Robert Wyatt once called an album, playing with that otherwise perfect and arguably journalistic maxim Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction.

Nick Mead is a multifaceted Brit living in Brentwood, Los Angeles. It must have been freezing for him standing next to those mock wooden cabins by Trafalgar Square selling Christmas fare to punters German-style. Seeing Nick was warming enough for me, though. We share many prized times together: in New York, including one hilarious so-called internationalist episode at the Algonquin Hotel; in Paris, where more than one’s fair share of a city was explored; and, finally, here again in London. (Though not this time, we always had two high-profile friends with us in each of those cities, too.) Nick had recently endured a plateau fracture of the tibia and Rolando fracture of the metacarpal of his left thumb in the crash. ‘But if you’re coming off your bike you can do a whole lot worse than come off close to one of the best orthopaedic hospitals in the world, which happens to be the UCLA hospital in Westwood,’ he said. He was riding a motorbike gifted to him by the late Aging Rebel, real name Donald Charles Davis, who famously wrote about the outlaw motorcycle world in books such as ‘Twilight Of The Outlaws’ and ‘Dispatches from the Outlaw Motorcycle Frontier’. London itself even featured at the site of the crash. As Nick came to — in a mangled heap in the middle of the road — the fireman leaning over noticed the accent. ‘Where are you from?’ he asked Nick. ‘North London,’ said Nick, otherwise motionless. Amazingly, the fireman was a North Londoner too. ‘Spurs or Arsenal?’ the fireman asked, of Nick’s football team. ‘Arsenal,’ said Nick. Naturally, the fireman, being a playful Spurs fan, threatened with a smile not to help.

Nick is from Kentish Town in London. When not crashing motorbikes, he is a writer and filmmaker and photographer and artist who has worked with everyone from Motörhead to contemporary dance legend Pina Bausch, producing Peter Lindbergh’s film ‘Der Fentsterputzer.’ I was only able to see him because he was briefly back in the UK to finish writing an 8-part series on tragic British film legend Carol White, plus another 8-parter on a band from the 80s. Nick is on a roll. He is also one of those rare people who can turn out a script like it’s second-nature. The first Nick Mead script I read was ten years ago after I introduced him to Paris-based producer James Velaise. I am reading another now which is incredibly promising. In both, not a single technical knot, only pure advancement of plot. It was Nick’s recent documentary ‘Clarence Clemons: Who Do I Think I Am?’ about Bruce Springsteen’s well loved late sax player that won him a small but potent home-based Golden Trellick — ‘the only award I’ve ever actually wanted’ — and it was when the film was picked up by Netflix that this latest spout of commissioned scripts began. What I think I enjoyed most in the Clemons film was the fact his first question to Bill Clinton had to be: ‘Who are you and what do you do?’

Walking with Nick across the Mall to St James’s Park, I noticed a slight limp and slowed down accordingly. Thankfully this was unnecessary as he was gliding with ease through the black cabs. To our left, slowly, emerged the London Eye — the mother of all wheels — and we chatted about the time I had to produce the freezing of it with digital supremo Tony Lawrence and team in a scene with affable Irish actor Cillian Murphy, as he crossed Horseguards Parade in Danny Boyle’s film ‘28 Days Later’. As Nick and I sat down in the park cafe, I was remembering the rigidity and unfairness of the British class system that ran through a lot of Nick’s work. As someone asked to borrow from us a chair, I commented on Nick’s never-say-die neat leather biker jacket, befitting of a man who once collaborated with Mick Farren on ‘Black Leather Jacket’ featuring Marlon Brando and narrated by Dennis Hopper.

Over two punchy oat-milk lattes — the fast lane — he went on to tell me about having to share a rehabilitation room after the crash with a former LA gang member who had been badly shot but was now on a kind of rattled road to redemption. Nick has always had an eye, or ear, or both, for narrative. We left the cafe refreshed and walked some more and he spoke with great love about his kids. He also played with the idea of everyone in the park being from the more adventurous side of the civil service: ‘There’s an awful lot of watercolourists around,’ he smiled. A pelican whose forebears were given to Charles II by a Russian ambassador in 1664 looked upon us knowingly from the lake. Tall bark-stripped English plane trees stood in silence by Birdcage Walk. There were no signs of the brown rats remembered by Nick as being famously active in the park at night. In fact, I was thinking when he said that how much we need our creative people. Without them we would be bland and faintly ridiculous. Indeed, culture can be the only thing that is left after everything else is broken — like someone on their back after a motorbike crash, eyes darting left and right.

The really interesting moment for me in the conversation came when we shifted subconsciously into the realm of creative freedom. This for me can be as important as uncensored journalism. This eclipsed even itself when Nick mentioned a writer he knew who was once courted and courted by a film executive, but the writer just did not want to play ball, because he didn’t like them, and told them as much, saying he would never — ever — work for them. ‘I always wanted to be that man,’ said Nick.

I left him close to Piccadilly, not far from RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) where I last saw another fellow traveller in Peter Nolan Smith whose news last week was of a man in the wars. ‘Are you winning?’ I emailed, daring hope, despite the realistic update from a mutual friend. ‘Not yet,’ he replied: ‘Still waiting for transplant. But stable.’ The liver he awaited was proving elusive. It was one of those moments when you resented your own powerlessness. Peter has featured in my life beyond a connection with wheels but I am drawn by the fact he once drove me across the American Midwest. Having him at the wheel beside me for example was like having a benevolent nightclub owner or doorman as a friend, both of which Peter has been, in New York, Paris, Hamburg, and London. He came with only one caveat as driver when I asked if he was available. He didn’t want any Bob Dylan. So I put on hold the difficult and throaty new ‘Together Through Life’ album. (My daughter upon hearing Dylan again last week said: ‘Funny how men don’t need to know how to sing.’) In reality, I was making a one-person film picked up to my surprise by the BBC called ‘The Man Who Sculpted Hares’ about dying artist Barry Flanagan. This involved travelling the world to visit his works in a race against time as the artist had what we call motor neurone disease and Americans Lou Gehrig’s disease. My original version — called ‘Flanagan’s Wake’ — began with a Chinook taking off in Helmand, followed by restored hope in the company of my family beneath one of Barry’s sculptures in Paris. At various locations, I filmed people, often strangers, by his works. For this, Peter was also about to prove central. For the American leg of the journey, he and I flew into Chicago from New York before picking up a Hertz rental car. I’d already done Washington DC and New York. I’d also just finished my fourth trip this time around to Afghanistan and second one to Pakistan. Just the sight of two Deadheads at the airport chewing over the lyrics of ‘Morning Dew’ made us both smile.

At one point Peter allowed me to film him by a Barry Flanagan sculpture in St Louis, which I later accompanied on screen with the title ‘Underground Writer,’ which Peter was and is. He has made a matchless record of his life in a kind of dreamed-up film noir voice with partnering photographs. He has been remarkably consistent with this. It was right outside St Louis that we heard the sudden news of his son, who was abroad with his mother, taking ill. I’d never seen a father with so much love in his veins determined to do what he could — albeit long distance — driving at speed to sort something out. That was when we heard the siren-whoop-whoop of a pursuing state trooper. After we pulled over, the trooper amazed us by waiving the fine for speeding and bidding us farewell with a tap of his state trooper hat. This was after hearing from Peter the story of his son who the next day we heard was improving. Our mood improved too. We stopped to pay our respects at the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, which, as some Americans will know, used to be the biggest urban Native American centre north of Mexico. We were speechless, thunderstruck even, as we wandered in all directions the tall and green plateau-like mounds in contemplative awe of the magnitude of a lost but unforgotten culture. Though I am sure Peter was thinking about his son, I was staring at one of two of the other visitors staring out at the horizon as if looking for something that just wasn’t there. The cold wind in our ears was like the ghost of an Algonquian-speaking Cahokian telling us the land was bequeathed by the Great Spirit. I wondered if our white man’s guilt was compounded further by the leaden sky. Peter went on to drive the B roads under this sky and I to understand the United States in a way I had never really done before despite having previously lived there for five years. When we crossed the Mississippi, it was so high and fast you felt it could have swept away the entire world.

Yet more days later, after the sun finally returned, after Kansas City, after Des Moines, after Minneapolis, after weaving through the Harley-Davidsons of Milwaukee, we bought some ridiculously powerful fireworks and let them off in the stripped wilderness of a far corner of the State of Wisconsin as a deliberate salute to Barry Flanagan. Following wherever I went, all of Europe too, I would try to take the footage I shot back to Barry on Ibiza and film him in his wheelchair, viewing it with his partner Jessica. Barry could no longer speak by the time he saw this part of the journey, but gesticulated at the screen appreciatively like a shaman, which late poet John James once insisted Barry was. The artist was dead by the time Peter attended the film’s premier on Piccadilly. Afterwards, Peter stood in the reception area next to time-honoured friend and writer and critic and curator Adrian Dannatt, also a key participant in the film, in both New York and Paris. With Adrian was artist Duncan Hannah, whose heart-rending obituary Adrian would go on to write. Just then, Peter admitted out loud he had missed everything in the film while it was being shot and had clearly not been looking enough. I disagreed. Peter’s alertness was essential, I told him, especially when catching himself nodding off at the wheel right before what would have definitely been lights out for us both. He flashed a smile, winningly. He knew exactly the moment I was talking about, too. In this same regard, I feel very strongly that Barry’s spirit will be gunning for him right now too.

Finally, I have been exchanging a series of keen and incisive messages of late with the Canadian painter Stephen Lack. I have always liked Stephen and it has been a real tonic for me personally to be in touch with him again after all these years. I worked it out: I have not seen him since he appeared in another documentary I was able to make, shot entirely in New York, in 1990, also picked up by the BBC. It was a teasing overview called ‘Bottom Line’ about modern art being a con and painter Mark Kostabi the world’s greatest con artist. Necessary in its making was Miguel Abreu and Sebastian de Ganay. Stephen, with a fantastic cameo shot cinéma vérité-style by Robert Leacock on West Broadway, was perfect in it, treating the camera like a rich pool of truth-serum treacle. He reminded me instantly that we are too literal when it comes to our films on art and artists, as if too reliant on the academic rather than atmospheric appraisal. Talking of which, being in touch with Stephen has also allowed me to see one or two images of some of the watercolours he has been painting over the past week while recovering from Covid. Included among these, though possibly done separately, was a tearful figure sitting on some stairs while facing the wall. It was very powerful as Stephen had already touched upon the worldwide problem of depression before sending this.

Another unexpected by-product of our re-engagement has been Stephen introducing me to the music of his son Asher after reading something written here about my daughter and son’s music. (‘Thanks for showing me what it means to be an artist,’ Asher once publicly tweeted to his father.) Asher must have been two or three years old when I first met him. (Hello, Asher.) Stephen at the time was showing with the irrepressibly selfless Gracie Mansion, real name Joanne Mayhew-Young, and her extraordinarily intuitive colleague Sur Rodney (Sur) at Gracie Mansion Gallery in the heart of the East Village. I am eternally grateful to them both for granting me an albeit minor role during a great moment in their history, including their landmark move from East 10th Street to Avenue A. In fact, I would love to re-connect with them both. I have privately written so much about this period. To me, Gracie and Sur Rodney were like two tireless paladins forever watching their artists’ backs. And it was always such an event for me when Stephen and his family would come roaring through the gallery. Asher’s band is Ravens & Chimes and my present favourite song of theirs is ‘This Is Where We Are’. (Stephen tells me, proudly, that when they toured Europe, the response was terrific.)

Continuing the would-be progressive theme of wheels, companionship, travel, and the occasional crash, my most abiding memory of Stephen was in fact being with him in the back of a bright yellow cab that had just been freshly washed down by rain. It was cold — nothing to an enduring Canadian — and we were on our way to one of those art after-parties. I don’t recall the name of the artist, or artists, but the club may well have been Danceteria, in which case one of the barmen could have been a trainee actor by the name of Bruce Willis. After a short while, I noticed the driver was staring in the mirror relentlessly at Stephen. I found it unsettling. Of course, I had completely forgotten that Stephen was not only a painter but an actor too, and someone who had already appeared in David Cronenberg’s movie ‘Scanners’ and would go on to feature in his ‘Dead Ringers’, with Jeremy Irons playing gynaecologist twins Elliot and Beverly Mantle. (Cronenberg was a close friend of Stephen’s, just as legendary Canadian poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen was a close cousin.) At this point, Stephen seemed to pick up on what was going on. (‘It’s ‘Scanners’,’ he confirmed to me, in a whisper.) ‘What’s up?’ he asked the driver. ‘You’re freaking me out, man!’ said the driver, quickly back. (‘Yep, ‘Scanners’,’ Stephen repeated to me.) ‘I jus’ been watching you on video, man!’ said the cab driver. Stephen nodded to him. ‘And your eyeballs jus’ exploded!’ shouted the driver.

Finally, artist Stephen Lack’s work reminds us that behind every platitude, every news story, every spreadsheet, every slick piece of advertising, every sleek slab of architecture, whether on a motorbike, down a drawn-out road, in the back of a bucking yellow cab, or on a hospital bed, are lives, actual lives, actual vulnerable lives, people with feelings, and, of course, people with no feelings at all.

Peter Bach lives in London.