My Dinner with George
As part of the governmental effort to boost productivity within the cultural sector, the Ministry of Leisure had given me the covert charge of “having dinner.” It was the idea of the minister himself (who cleverly noticed that my nighttime activities were slowly taking precedence over those in the day) that I should write a weekly report recording my dinner conversations, as it were, with pop stars, poets, artists and post-theory philosophers. The idea had come about after one of our daily departmental unwinding sessions in which we had screened Louis Malle’s “My Dinner with Andre” (1981), a film in which two frustrated New Yorker playwrights meet over dinner to discuss the meaning of life.
Serendipitously, my first mission, my first “meaning of life” over dinner, happened to coincide with a dinner for George Michael given by a film producer friend of ours from London in town for the Berlinale. He had said he wanted to invite me particularly so that I could meet George’s beau Kenny, who was opening up a gallery in Texas soon and wanted to know everything about “the art part” in Berlin. George had chosen life. Surely he would have some insight into the meaning of it.
I was no rookie to the job, as some six years ago, the Ministry had hired me as an agent whose sole purpose was to record the blurring boundaries between art and life. They had been having difficulties of late distinguishing between the two, and in order to avoid a rash decision of new hires to take on the recent flood of work, they decided to double-up the shifts of those already in service. You see, the Ministry of Criminality had been consulting the Ministry of Leisure more and more often because of what they called an “incremental discrepancy” of arrests whereupon the defendant proclaimed that the crime committed was in service of art. I knew of just such a case where an artist was arrested on the spot for possessing a strangely manipulated camera along side a map with key spots in Berlin mysteriously circled. He was driving a 70s model Fiat which screeched around the corners no matter how slow he was driving, making him appear the bandit, even if he were on a simple shopping trip. On one Sunday, this artist happened to purchase a toboggan—the kind with the eyes cut out—and for kicks, he was wearing it whilst driving home from the flea market on a dusty corner of Kreuzberg, when suddenly, he careened in the middle of an NPD street protest on Torstrasse and found himself trying to explain this finagled camera and the map on the passenger seat to a squad of machine gun bearing riot control police. Such were the cases causing my minister unnecessary grief.
I was by no means new to the business and blurriness of art. Having given up the intellectual cache of being an art critic, cupidity had led me into trading in the coveted editorial position at one of the world’s most fashionable art magazines for a stable position with a pension at the Ministry, without a whisker of doubt.
I had come from a long line of “diners” and dialogists, after all, so taking up the Minister’s offer seemed quite natural. My mother had trained me well to follow in her feted southern belle footsteps whose hoop skirts had traveled from the Kremlin to the refineries of kumquats in China as part of the Committee to Charm the Worker’s Party, an odd and failed effort of a few blue bloods with a fading interest in Chairman Mao to bridge the boundaries between capitalism in communism through a series of balls. Or at least that is what she told me. There were no pictures documenting these events, and though occasionally I believed it to have been merely part of the Simpson family folklore, there would inevitably appear some gentleman from the past who would pop in for tea and I would overhear them reminiscing about the good old days in Peking. With this history, it seemed only natural that she should become involved with voodoo and black magic while secretly working for the cause of the Black Nationalist Party. Though she was a white girl, she had somehow managed to get away with calling her black friends her “brothahs”and “sistahs” (quite literally actually, since the Simpson family was well-known for having more than a few butterscotch-colored children along the line). I had indeed seen a few newspaper photographs of protests from the Black Nationalist movement where my blue-stockinged mother would appear front stage and off-center next to Panthers and priests on a political mission.
It was no surprise then that while I was penning a quick note to my mother, wanting to brag about my dinner with George the night before (and ask if she hadn’t thrown away my Choose Life t-shirt), multitasking, checking my mail inbetween sentences on Word, while playing “stupid cupid” (as George would say) with Dexter and Jorn on the phone, I discovered my mother’s mail. Subject: Dinner with Amiri Baraka.
Per post electronique from the beaches of Hilton Head, she wrote:
“Dinner last night was more fabulous than I had expected. It turns out that Baraka isn't Muslim at all. What too much bourbon does to the brain, I tell you. Who knew? I guess I knew, but I had forgotten. He's still very passionate and fiery at 70, and he announced that he isn't religious at all; he believes in Good, not God. After a rather intense reading of his poem ‘Somebody Blew Up America’ we went for drinks at Big Bamboo then dinner at Mag’s. I came home very tired but elated. What a treat.”
Baraka? My head was aching from too much of the bubbly pushed on us from the overly eager sommelier of Bocca di Bacco. I had dined with George Michael, pop star and author of the lyric, “guilty feet ain’t got no rhythm” on the same evening that my mother had dined with the author who once wrote “don’t tell me shit about the tradition of slavemasters / & henry james.” Suddenly anything I might say seemed, well, fluffy. Hanging on like a yo-yo between Word and Yahoo, I was stumped. After all, she had just dined with LeRoi Jones, not only the last poet laureate of New Jersey, but also the last poet laureate of New Jersey. The white woman who’d grown up in the Bible Belt south and whose mother Blanche referred to the local Leroys (note: y instead of the royal French i) as those “other” people, my mother had dined with the poet, the Beat poet who made poetry a racy thing, the stuff of riots. LeRoi Jones was the one whose open sesame call out to all the brothers who were prohibited from entering certain honkie’s stores went like, “the magic words are: Up against the wall mother fucker this is a stick up.”
My mind was racing to make connections where perhaps none existed. Faint memories of the things George had said, in a rant (obviously suffering from a vile hangover himself) came back to me in flashes, seemingly meaningful because of my quivering state of mind. George was not just a pop star. He was a man living in fear of being murdered. He mentioned something about his phone being tapped by the CIA simply because of a music video he once made in protest of the war in Iraq. We all just sat at the table, indeed, just like the dumbfounded Wallace Shawn listening to the wild stories of Andre Gregory, stories of being naked in the forest with Polish women, of being buried alive, and like Wally, all we could do was say, “Wow. So what happened next?” Though I cannot record it directly, I remembered vaguely something about him saying how the system of Apartheid was a system of labor control, just as the death camps of the Nazis, just like Intel, Nike, Levis... something about how you can go to China and exploit the workers at about a dollar a day who can make jeans just as good as here. Blah, blah, the G7 building alliances with the elite and providing the local police with tear gas and guns. It was all a blur and it seemed that the only words I kept repeating in the taxi home were, “He’s so politically engaged.” I knew then that the Ministry had reason to worry that one of their stars was indeed overstepping the confines of our department. Were they also worried that because George had offered up his songs on his website for free that he was a potentially dangerous, albeit retrograde, commie? George drank Diet Coke. The rest of us drank Louis Jadot.
I remember his mentioning something about a cheap paperback of Nostradamus being in his toilet, sure, but was this really reason to worry? Toilets and prophets and pop stars with power. This was all well and good, but my duty to the Ministry required that I come up with an explication of the blurring of pop and life, distinguishing between the dangers and the doo-dads.
Out for a coffee, I caught sight of the Berliner Zeitung in the hands of a handsome man eating spaghetti on Ackerstrasse. There he was again, front page of the Feuilleton, George entering a limousine. The headline: “Ich war die männliche Kylie” (I was the manly Kylie). Transfixed and wobbly, I kept walking, but my eyes and mind were somewhere between last night’s dinner and “did he say that last night too?” when suddenly, I collision crashed into my friend Florian, whose basket of strawberries went flying under an ice cream truck. Bending to help him in a fit of laughter, “Oh heavens, Flo, what have I done? I’m so hungover, please forgive me.” Behind my sunglasses and baseball cap, under what a friend of mine cleverly calls “celebrity disguise,” I told him that I had just had dinner with George Michael last night and made fluorescent gestures with my hands. “What did you say? Dinner with George Michael... uh-huh. Did you win that? Oh God, I’ve got to run. Listen darling, I once had champagne with Elton John. Ring me and we’ll get together and I will carelessly whisper to you the whole dirty story.”
These gay men and their quick wit. I could barely put two sentences together and here was Flo on the street talking to me and his handy* at the same time, totally nonplussed about the strawberries in the street. My thoughts were somewhere else, still trying to concentrate on what George had said last night ... about having Nostradamus on his toilet seat, I mean next to his toilet seat, and what could that mean? And what was all the fuss about George in a public toilet and didn’t that make the rest of his restaurant-going life really difficult? Never again could he innocently ask the hostess, “Excuse me, but could you show me where the toilets are?” without getting some sort of crass smile as an answer. Wasn’t there some discussion about the extinction of sea turtles too and a twenty year window before the big Flood came to wash us all away? I remembered the day a friend of mine once told me as we were walking through Europe’s largest conglomeration of new parents –Prenzlauer Berg-- that more than one billion trees are used to make disposable diapers every year. Passing by a woman in a batik dress pushing a stroller with shock-absorbing rubber wheels, the song line of George’s kept running through my head: “If my best isn’t good enough, then how can it be good enough for two?”
It dawned upon me that the pop star might indeed be in dire need of a rendezvous with the poet. After all, George was afraid and Baraka fearless. Both had been oppressed, one as a black man, born in 1920, and the other gay, born in 1963, both of whom had cut their slice of the pie with a cookie cutter gone awry. (Such were the ways of hangover speech. Little made sense, and every detail of the remembered dinner seemed an epiphany.) While Corey Hart might have been the “Boy in the Box” who could never surrender, George was the boy in the closet who was oh-so-something else other than Boy George. The dinner-chore duty began to annoy me, if only because I was responsible for writing it all down and was the Minister really going bother reading this anyway? Perhaps if LeRoi had been sitting across the table from George he might have schooled him in the ways of creating a violent revolution and there would be more than enough fodder for my report tangling the cords of cosmopolitan lore. Could the father figure, preacher teacher teach anything to the man who had once written “It is better to have loved and lost / Than to put linoleum in your living room?” George was a swinger. Words like “jitterbug” for him were par for the norm.
I knew that I had to find out more details from my mother’s dinner, and if parallels were to be made, then an insight into being a missionary pop star might be revealed. I rang my mother in the late afternoon, knowing that I would reach her at the very beginning of cocktail hour, the time when sense was still making sense. Feeling inadequately armed with knowledge of LeRoi’s poems, and knowing her to grow impatient with my constant reply, “No, I don’t remember that poem,” I googled “Baraka,” whereupon I found evidence of an unwilling prophet: “Remember, I do not have the healing powers of Oral Roberts.” Denying the prophetic vision of LeRoi’s poem written when George was still a toddler, “Monday in B-Flat,” was a tune still worthy of the pop charts:
I can pray
But if I call
in a minute!
There I sat. I could not do otherwise. My head was bursting now, and my ice pack melting dangerously over the scriptbed of my new legtop. Googling further, I found out that Baraka, too, had words to the wise-weary in our love-torn world. George, the man who now lived in an “open” relationship with his lover Kenny, had certainly given a thought or two to the vicissitudes of love. It had been reported in the Daily Mail that George had slept with over 500 men in the seven years that he had been together with Kenny. I wondered how open open could be without causing the heart to close.
& Love is an evil word.
Turn it backwards
see, what I mean?
An evol word. & besides
Who understands it?
I certainly wouldn’t like to go out on that kind of limb.
Matters of the heart could be lengthy and backwards and given the pressures of being and existence, I thought it best to put the issue on the backburner. The deadline was approaching for the sobering report about how in 1213, the King of England seriously considered converting to Islam, and that we’d all soon have less to worry about round here as soon as I could place the radical poet next to the pop star (Ich war der männlich Kylie? Was?) at a dinner party, yes, soon someone would hear a song on the music box and they’d “shoot the dog” in office.
April Elizabeth Lamm
* “Handy” is the German word for mobile phone.