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In Which We Cannot Touch On This For Long

Someone Was Awake


The last few nights I’ve been sleeping with the window open. A few trains pass by our home in the night, and as you can imagine, the sound is even more robust without the window as a buffer. This nightly occurrence drives my housemate up the wall, stirs up the curses in her when the train’s route is brought up by guests. She rants it's the only reason why she was able to afford a down-payment on the house. But I like it.

All my associations with trains have been very positive. Growing up, my parents had a tiny condo off of Clear Lake, Iowa. We’d drive up on the weekends to ski, fish, visit the dollar theater in town, and spend time in the park. Sometimes, a carnival would come through, and I would be allowed to ride on one or two “safe-looking” rides. Clear Lake is quaint. Thursday evenings are celebrated by locals, during which time they have their own festivals and parades. But aside from a few weeks of the summer, we were one of the invaders — the tourists that come to vacation Friday-Sunday. I’m afraid it won’t always stay so sweet, but a part of me still wants to get married on a white Missouri Ferryboat, lovingly named “The Lady of the Lake,” that has resided there since before I first visited the lake for the first time as a little girl.

One Halloween my parents let me attend a ghost-story night that was hosted on the top deck of the boat, under the stars. Regardless of the time of year, though, in the middle of the night you could hear the train pass through town. And every time I heard it, I remember feeling a warmth, the passing “oh yeah — there it is.” Someone was awake, in the middle of the night, steering the train. Someone was driving a beautiful, metal beast through the flat plains of the Midwest, keeping watch. I always slept so well those weekends, even if it was more to do with the physical exhaustion and heat then anything else.

In my early twenties, I moved to small town in Missouri that was a common stop for trains along the way to Kansas City and St. Louis. The summers there were considerably warmer, stickier than in Iowa. My friends and I would stay up on the back porch, usually lounging in a hammock and a few folding chairs, talking into the early morning hours, the bugs being electrified to death to the soundtrack of some new music L had just found. I miss that girl.

Once I escaped by train from an unbearably awkward situation which occurred during a cousin’s wedding. For everyone’s pride, I won’t go into details, but I was annoyed to the point that I called my grandmother a few hours away in Minot, North Dakota to see if I could stay with her immediately after the celebration was all over. From Minot, I took the train to St. Paul, where I was greeted by a few university friends and flowers. Escaping by train sounds silly and archaic to the point where I expect associations to fork at either a John Wayne western or a Russian novel. The situation is, of course, laughable now. As cliche as it sounds, if it were to happen again, I would’ve done the exact same thing. I spent most of the actual trip to St. Paul watching the sun rise through the train windows and reveling in the sensation of how much I wanted to stay on it — just a little while longer, much like kids on swings. 

When I moved to Oxford, my mother and I had planned a mini-trip beforehand. The ride from London to Oxford was considerably less romantic, lots of stuffy commuters and stink and noise. And of course, we were dragging along with us a considerable amount of luggage as I would be staying for some time. Still, I can’t imagine Great Britain without trains, and I hope the day never comes when my associations between the two lessen. There’s something nice, too, in knowing that a massive city was right there, on the cusp of our very old town, just an hour or so out.

It seems nothing short of fitting that my window is just eclipsed by the fence that helps to pull the trains past our home in the middle of the night in Austin. I hope that I always live in a place with trains that sing loud enough for me to hear them, but far enough away for me to still interpret it as just that: singing.

For legal reasons, I can’t touch on this point for long, but at the assisted living home in which I work, one of the residents shares my love of trains. In the car, he always points out what train it is, where it must be going, and how far it could keep rolling if it so desired. He even owns an old hat that he wears religiously with a prominent train logo on the front. It’s the kind of hat a mom would’ve ruined in the wash, or thrown out in secret. He might love trains more than anyone I’ve ever met, and probably ever will. This thought simultaneously fills me and then, all of a sudden, threatens to drench me in a kind of sadness — as is a pattern with so many things I experience. For whatever reason, I’m deeply disposed to melancholy, which I manage — even at moments like this, thinking of mortality. I’ve kept at the managing for years, and have finally grown comfortable enough with it as a companion. We’ve made a truce, but I’m the one that upholds the peace.

My birthday was a few days ago, and I’m struck by how the life I have lived — outside of me — has been beautiful so far. And I say that in a detached kind of way — looking at the facts, people, and places— lining them up on a timeline, finding myself shocked, and weirdly denying that I’m involved. These memories just involve figures that looked like me and thought and acted like me — but distinctly aren’t me. Said figures are passing through that place, loving and being loved by these people, and raising some sort of hell, and listening for trains in the night.

Writing all this about trains makes me wonder if I’d much rather get married on a train than a ferryboat. Yes, and if not on a train, maybe a train station somewhere. Do conductors have the same power to marry people as sea captains? Just so we’re clear, this train-wedding tangent is only half of the absurd girlhood fantasies I haven’t managed to shake in adulthood, if I’m honest. And to put it even more bluntly, I can’t write over 500 words about why I wanted to get married in a water-processing plant for quite some time. It’s a long story that I have no intention of telling, so here I am making myself ridiculous on another topic: trains. Come fall, I’ll be returning to my masters program in the Hill Country of Texas. During my commutes, I will be delayed by the seemingly endless train that cuts through the middle of the town, which will bring on a new-found annoyance for the steaming, huffing beauty. But that’s no matter; all Beauty can act like that.  

Micah Ruelle is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Austin. You can find her twitter here and her tumblr here.

Photographs by the author.

"Who Are You, Really?" - Mikky Ekko (mp3)


In Which We Recline In A Zebra-Striped Bathtub

Science Is Over


At the dawn of the 1980s, no one’s wardrobe was complete without a pair of Fiorucci jeans. Preferably you would have seven of the skin-tight pairs — one in every color of the rainbow, to be worn with your gold Fiorucci cowboy boots. When he turned 15, Marc Jacobs "saved and saved" for his first pair. Miuccia Prada has claimed to have only ever owned one pair of jeans; they were from Fiorucci. Diana Ross, Jackie Onassis, and Lauren Bacall were fans, as was every 13-year-old girl with a Seventeen magazine subscription.

Elio Fiorucci opened his first shop in Milan in 1967 not with couture in mind, but with the idea of bringing the London street trends of the Youthquake movement to Italy. The Fiorucci line debuted shortly after in 1970. However, Elio was a marketing whiz with a taste for the outré, not a designer. The clothing reflected this; much of the line consisted of basics like polo shirts, denim jackets, and tote bags emblazoned with Fiorucci’s winged putti logo.

To Elio’s credit, before Fiorucci, designer denim was unheard of. The company was also one of the first to embrace a global aesthetic, importing not just English looks, but also drawing inspiration from traditional prints and fashions of India and Brazil, with Fiorucci sending young trendspotters around the world (or downtown) to scout for unique local styles to be reproduced by the label. "What he had done was to capture a kind of international ideal of teenage promise and bottle it," said Eve Babitz, author of Fiorucci: The Book.

While the garish fashions of Fiorucci may have rarely made the pages of Women’s Wear Daily, the stores’ parties did. The opening of the Beverly Hills store was famously shut down by the Los Angeles fire department. A year later, Blondie held a post-concert party in the same store to celebrate their album Parallel Lines going platinum. Attendees Wilt Chamberlain, James Woods, and Karen Black watched as Debbie Harry arrived in a World War II tank. Today one can revisit the scene by watching Xanadu, which features Olivia Newton-John and Michael Beck dancing to ELO’s "All Over the World" while Gene Kelly shops for a new suit.

The fluorescence of the Beverly Hills shop may have been permanently archived on celluloid, but the real epicenter of Fiorucci’s cool was its New York store at 125 East 59th Street. Opening in the spring of 1976, it soon became a destination for all those young and weird. The press compared its atmosphere of debauchery to that of Studio 54. In 1977, New York magazine would declare: "All it took this year to achieve instant chic, day or night, at the slickest New York party or the trashiest was a pair of $110 gold cowboy boots from Fiorucci."

Much of the store’s cachet was due to its eccentric staff. Klaus Nomi, drag performer Joey Arias, designer and filmmaker Maripol, and Madonna’s brother Christopher Ciccone all worked for Fiorucci during its heyday. The store was one of the first places to sell Betsey Johnson’s clothing and exhibit Keith Haring’s artwork. Fiorucci’s knack for youth-driven pop-art consumerism also attracted the likes of Andy Warhol. Surrounded by a coterie that included Truman Capote, Warhol launched Interview magazine with an in-store party. Douglas Coupland was inspired to quit studying physics after visiting the store.

"There was this absolute density of color and imagery," Coupland recalled. "I just thought it was the most perfect place I had ever been to." He brought back a postcard (the only thing he could afford). “It was on my desk. I looked at it and thought, 'Science is over.' I stopped caring about school. I had been a straight-A student and I started getting D’s. It felt like the best drug ever, and I thought, 'If this is what a bad grade feels like, this is great!'"

The store was a playground of glitter and spandex. Wide-eyed squares in their drab trench coats regularly gathered in front of the legendary window displays to see fashion at its most fun and subversive. It was Shangri-la for freaks and the conservative world couldn’t get enough. A People article from 1981 describes one memorable display: “Wearing a Merry Widow corset, bikini bottoms, fishnet stockings, and spiked heels, the Barbie Doll model reclined in a zebra-striped bathtub that had been placed in the window of Fiorucci's Manhattan store. For the next six hours she read smutty paperbacks, ate bananas, and blew bubbles — to the delight of a street crowd pressing 20 deep against the window.”

By way of explaining Fiorucci’s aesthetic, the article quotes Elio as calling haute couture “pathetic.” He embraced a certain trashiness in dress — lamé, peek-a-boo plastic, animal prints — literally incarnated when the store gave away miniature garbage-pail backpacks covered in brand-name stickers to customers who spent over $150.

Despite its popularity, the New York store wasn’t necessarily profitable. In the beginning, Fiorucci bet on the store’s ability to establish the brand’s image within the United States and, in turn, entice retailers around the country to sell Fiorucci merchandise, increasing the company’s wholesale business. At first the gamble paid off, and profits quadrupled the year following the store’s opening.

However, the label was built around the fickle tastes of the youth market and success was short-lived. Soon after Fiorucci jeans hit the market, Calvin Klein signed a jeanswear deal and his brand would emerge as the new must-have designer denim, bringing along with it his beige-on-beige minimalism as the look du jour. The Manhattan Fiorucci shuttered in 1988. The brand was further hindered by a series of ineffective business deals and relaunches that flopped.

Today a Williams-Sonoma occupies the 59th Street address and the Fiorucci name doesn't hold the same prestige it once did, but its impact remains. The boy who once spent his summers hanging out in the store, Marc Jacobs, has said his Marc line is influenced by the label. And the cheap plastic key chains and makeup compacts of his accessories boutique are certainly a nod to the tourist-friendly knickknacks Fiorucci used to carry. Any store that has hired a DJ and tried to turn retail into a party experience (ahem, Fashion’s Night Out) is indebted to the Italian label, as is anyone who has tried bring a little sex and trash into fashion.  

Helen Schumacher is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She tumbls here and here. She last wrote in these pages about Device 6.

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In Which Jean Cocteau Gives Elan To This Milieu

The Marvel


The first thing Jean Marais noticed about Jean Cocteau was that he kept a scarf knotted so tightly around his neck he could barely imagine how blood got to the man's brain. Marais was a mimbo of 24, an aspiring actor. (He was born when Cocteau himself was 24.) A procurer had selected Marais for Cocteau, who hoped to find an unknown star to feature in his adaptation of Oedipus the King.

Marais approached Cocteau for the audition at the man's opium den in the Hotel Castille. Cocteau was unimpressively, disgustingly clad in a bathrobe dotted with cigarette holes and various other fluids. His hands were ghastly pale because he kept his shirtsleeves buttoned so tightly. Marais was not one for detail; furthermore he would take any suitable work. He later wrote, "I felt intimidated, lost, declassed in this milieu given to strange forms of glory."

The only true word was strange.

Cocteau absconded with Marais to his country villa in Martigas: he had many various routines that sated his artistic, sexual and chemical needs, and Marais would be crucial in each sphere. Starring as Galahad in Cocteau's production of The Knights of the Round Table, Marais was just as useful in preparing his lover's opium pipes and allowing the older man to swallow his semen. When Cocteau was too far gone to be wakened by a firm shake, it was Marais' job to blow opium into his lungs to bring him back to life.

The second World War interrupted this idyll. The pair were vacationing in Saint-Tropez at the time. Marais was forced to enlist, and Cocteau abandoned his apartment at Place de la Madeleine.

the author in 1920

It was the unexpected end to a great love story, for Cocteau had written, "It isn't uncommon for a man to become the captive of some zone in his city and to remain imprisoned there for life. Some spells binds him to the forms and fluids that emanate from it. In my case, the temple of the Madeleine forces me to radiate about its columns. From hotel to hotel, flat to flat, I have been stumbling about for years within that geometrical shape which prolongs, like some baleful halo, the bulky, green-gabled church." He was now 50.

Cocteau used his influence to get Marais a relatively safe post as a chaffeur. Having flunked out of that position, he was assigned to a bell tower where his job was to identify incoming German aircraft, which due to his myopia he could not see. He spent most of the time tanning and talking to Cocteau on the phone. Coco Chanel sent Marais various shirts and accessories.

When a squadron of German planes did finally arrive, not even a blind man could mistake it. Now everyone left Paris, and the darkening pall of soot and ash over the city made it impossible to see more than a car's length in front of you. The French wanted out, the Nazis marched down the Champs-Élysées. The city archives had been bundled on a barge for preservation; the structure sank.

Marais and Cocteau returned to Paris during the occupation, taking an apartment in the Palais Royal. At first Cocteau made a great show of dining out on black market steak, but as homosexuals, the two were better off hidden. For others these were lean years, but for Cocteau and Marais, the next buffet was continously at hand. If the war ruined one meal, the next was always in the offing.

It was occupied Paris, but more importantly, it was still Paris. Simone de Beauvoir recounts her first meeting with the playwright:

Cocteau looked just like the pictures of him, and his torrential flow of conversation made me dizzy. Like Picasso he dominated the conversation, but in his case words were his chosen medium, and he used them with acrobatic dexterity. Fascinated, I followed the movement of his lips and hands. Once or twice I thought he was going to trip up; then - hurrah! - he recovered, the knot was neatly tied, and he would be off again, tracing a new series of complex and exotic arabesques in mid-air.

He expressed his admiration of No Exit in several most gracefully turned compliments, and then began to recall his own early days in the theatre, and especially the production of Orpheus. It was at once apparent that he was absolutely absorbed in himself, but this narcissistic streak neither contricted his vision nor in any way cut him off from contant with other people: the interest he had shown in Sartre and the way he talked about Genet both offered ample proof of this.

When the bar closed we walked down the Rue Bonaparte till we reached the quais. We were standing on a bridge, watching the Seine rippling beneath us like black watered silk, when the alert sounded. Pencil-thin searchlight beams swept the sky, and flares exploded. By now we had become used to these noisy, apocalyptic displays, but tonight's seemed an especially fine one, and what good luck to find ourselves stranded near this deserted river, alone with Cocteau!

When the aircraft fire died away, all was silent except for our footsteps - and the sound of his voice. He was saying that the Poet should hold aloof from his age, and remain indifferent to the follies of war and politics. "They just get in our way," he went on, "the Germans, the Americans, the whole lot of them - just get in our way."

Although Marais was as gorgeous as ever, Cocteau had found the playwright Jean Genet. He romanced the younger writer using completely opposite tactics, showing only a slow appreciation of his artistry and tip-toeing into his life. Genet's sincerity matched Cocteau's extravagance, and though the affair was brief, the important thing is that two genuises were able to take the full measure of one another. Genet later wrote,

A thick layer of human humus, always fetid, exhales puffs of heat which sometimes make us blush with shame. A sentence, a verse, the pure and almost innocent stroke of a drawing pen emits smoke between the interstices of words, at their intersection point: ill-smelling and heavy air which reveals some intense, underground life. Thus, the work of Jean Cocteau had the apparance of a light, aerial civilization suspended in the heart of ours. The poet's very person adds to it, thin, gnarled and silvery like olive trees.

Despite their respective affairs, Marais and Cocteau retained their relationship. Along with a friend, the three purchased a house in Milly together where Cocteau planned to retire. Eventually their sexual arrangement dissipated into mere friendship, and the corporation which purchased the property was dissolved. Cocteau still needed every ally he could muster.

Pablo Picasso never requested or enjoyed Cocteau's visits, gaining a healthy approbation of the man over time. Cocteau would therefore attach himself to various groups visiting the artist so that his arrival would not seem so unwelcome. Jean employed the biographer James Lord for this very purpose once, and when Lord returned to Picasso's estate for a second visit by himself, Picasso asked him, "Why did you bring that whore to my house?"

piasso, francine weisweller, jacqueline roque and cocteau

It was in this unsettled state, lacking some friends who had perished in the war or simply died of old age, that Cocteau wrote Diary of an Unknown. Cocteau biographer Frederick Brown looked down on the fanciful work: "Vacuums are not empty, time and space are but points of view, and Cocteau's duplicity is a metaphysical phenomenon for which he cannot be held responsible." In Brown's defense, it is almost impossible to write a serious treatment of Jean Cocteau's life without laughing.

"I wonder," Cocteau says in that volume, "if I could be otherwise than the way I am, and if my difficulty in being, if the faults which impede my career are not my very career, the regret of not having some other?"

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

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