Lawrence Russell

shotgun for a lady heading south

When I first see El Obo it's like a mirage trapped between the earth and sky, vaporous and medieval, despite the fact that it's a hybrid Moorish fortress port of the French colonial period. I'm in a Nissan SUV with an English photographer who's given me a ride from Marrakesh, south through the Atlas and the desert following the old caravan trails... magic oases and arid plateaus, sickle dunes and sand devils... horses and camels back then, bringing in spices, sugars, fabrics, ivory and gold powder for the Sultan, Ali al Magrebi, a.k.a. The Fat One. That was in the 15 hundreds, when he was doing business with the Portuguese on their Africa run. Different trade today, they say. Rockets and automatics for the warlords in the rogue states of Black Africa... and Hashish for the greedy hipsters of the Euro club scene.

Kate's her name. About 40, like me.

Hey rock star, she says, you want to be in a movie?
What sort, I say.
Art movie, she says. Roy Cocteau, the French director.

"Cocteau" isn't his real name but it'll do for now.

Never heard of him, I say.
He won at Venice, Kate says. Blood of the Beast.

I laugh.

You're thinking it's a slasher, Kate says. It isn't, I assure you. Stars that gorgeous creature who was his wife at the time... you don't know it, honestly? It's brilliant.
I dunno, I say. Acting... how big is the part?
Not big, she says. No lines.

No lines? I say. Zero? You mean, like a dummy in a costume?

This Kate lady has been around... Middle East, Indonesia, Colombia... some risky places for anyone, never mind a woman. That's why she asked me to ride with her. Never know what's in the desert south of Marrakesh. So I don't take this movie thing too seriously... just riding shotgun for a lady heading south, is all.

As we draw on the coast, there are more palms, stretches of paving. It's humid, stacks of gray cloud sitting over the sea. We pass an encampment of gypsy fishermen, here for the sardine season. Carnival buses and motor cycles, laundry strung on lines between the trucks. Kids playing soccer, men working on their skiffs. Looks normal.

Then, in the dunes, the half buried skeleton of an old bi-plane, the frame burned by the salt and sun.

Crop duster, I say.
Been there a long, long time, Kate says. Probably an old mail plane.
They fly mail in a crate like that? I say.
The French did, back in the twenties, thirties, Kate says. Ever read Antoine de St. Exupery? Wind, Sand & Stars...
She's on my list, I say.
It's he you silly git, Kate says.

I laugh as she pulls over, jumps out, runs over the sand, starts popping shots of the plane. I get out, stretch my legs. Is it my imagination or is it getting darker? A stunted man wearing a sand mask goes past in one of those carts with old car wheels, pulled by a donkey or is it a goat... heading away from Obo like a refugee. Can see the gate now. Grand Roman semi arch, the big heavy doors pulled back. Obviously the French improvised on the old Moorish structure, buzzed the ziggurats, softened the horseshoes. Massed sandstone blocks, angle cut so they lock. Square towers... and a long sea wall. Can see the surf breaking on the rocky shelf. Good location, I think... and wonder what sort of movie this is going to be.

Kate wants me to pose by the plane wreck, says she wants to do the cover art for my next CD. The way I feel these days, there won't be a next CD. Band can go screw itself, folks in L.A. too.

I let her take a couple. Even though I got my shades on, sand is getting in my eyes from the wind whipping around the dunes... and I want to get into town, take a shower. Been a lotta driving recently.

As we pass through the gate, the usual cast of the listless and the damned are hanging around the walls, squatting in the shade or sitting on the kerb, the hoods of their jalabas concealing their mutilated faces. As we pass some raise their hands in the ambiguous gesture of begging or worship. Couple of sullen militia with FN automatics stand near the sentry box smoking, like shabby Legionaries left behind in the colonial exodus.

Edge of the Medina, see a crowd swarming, some fighting. Think there's a riot going down until I see the crew with the movie camera up on the roof.

Kate, I say. You ever been in this place before?
No, she says. But I've got a feeling I'm going to like it.
I dunno, I say. Place has a strange vibe.
That's the smell of history, mate, she says.

She drives like we're riding a stagecoach into Dodge... dogs and donkeys, camels and chickens all run for cover. Where are we staying? Hotel Babar. Old joint, clean, yellow stucco and green shutters, big Nile fans rotating slowly. No, the desk clerk doesn't have a monkey on his shoulder. Great painting in the lobby though... the old walls of Obo a hundred years ago, all in sepia. Looks like a photo but it's a painting.

I'm tired, think I can sleep for a thousand years, and when I close the door in my room, maybe I do.

Obo: OL

take 1: commercial for an unknown target

My co-star is this tall Ethiopian model with a sort of British accent, although her English is pretty broken. Speaks Italian, some French too. She's big time in Milan and Paris, they say. First time I meet her she's in full costume, rigged like a Moorish princess, flowing diaphanous gown, wearing a veil and a headscarf, so all I can see are her electric eyes and long dagger nails.

She looks at my hands, my fingers. Short nails on the left, long on the right... and two silver turq rings.

'ou play guitar, she says.
Yeah, I say. Fer years.
I do a music vid, she says.
Bet you do it good, I say.

She giggles, swivels left, then right. Can hear her costume sigh as it shakes and shivers the length of her elegant body. Her dresser does some last second adjustments.

They give me a tunic, a helmet and a sword, tell me to "stand over there" and "don't move past those marks", meaning the chalk lines on the paving stones.

The scene is on the sea wall... atmospheric, very impressive. Rich smell of salt carried by the warm wind, which ruffles the long hair of the actors positioned along the wall and clustered on the rocky shelf below. Rough sea, the waves breaking in white explosions, the corrupt carnations of late spring... which I bet is just the way it's described in the script. Corrupt carnations. Cocteau is an auteur... writes, directs, even paints they tell me. Does it all. Guess that's why the crew calls him "The Poet".

He's standing on top of the atalaya ...which is what the Moors call a watchtower... not watching the action, but looking out to sea... like the rest of us, as if he's literally expecting an attack by a pirate armada. The horizon is empty, although maybe there's something out there... a fishing boat, a yacht, something. He can see it... large radar eyes in a proto de Gaulle head... a caricature, like a flattened Picasso profile, body on a stick.

The camera is tracking along the sea wall, past the rusting canons and the fake soldiers. Take 1, Take Two, Take Three... hell, bro, how long I gotta stand here, I'm thinking. No lines, no movement... meanwhile they're killing people down in the alley and they're having a lot more fun. 2nd unit, parallel universe. Obo is filled with stunt men and whores, seems like. Black guy wearing mean shades sitting in a jeep watching... is he part of the crew? Assistant director? Producer? Now he turns, looks my way, like he can read my mind.

We're acting in a commercial for an unknown target audience. Something disconnected about this operation, like there's no script. Well, they never gave me one. Turns out my part is pretty small, and I'm just a stand-in for some guy who didn't show up.

Obo: OL

hash porno

Do a hit of the local hash in my room, and I'm feeling so good I go up on the roof where they hang out the washing and have the water cisterns. Check out the Medina as dusk falls. Can hear the priest guy wailing in the mosque, hidden away in the broken skyline of crazy roofs and slow movin' palms. Also the deceptively monotonous music of the tamboura, a fav of the emigres from the eastern desert, some from as far away as Somalia. It's wafting, like a distant radio signal... sand in the moist wind.

Swore I would smoke no weed, no hash again, screw my lungs, my head... but this sort of place, you can't refuse the food of the natives. Was in the Cafe Damascus, sipping on a mint tea, watching the rowdy crowds move through the Zoco after the soccer match when this little guy in a sports jacket sits down beside me, smiles, starts grunting. This isn't a case of no ESL or French or Spanish -- he's had his tongue chopped, so alls he can do is grunt and hiss. It's kinda funny, but I don't laugh as I'm a polite guy. Orders a mint for himself, insists on paying the waiter for mine too. Has to be an agenda here and there is. When he finishes his rank Maroc ciggie, he pulls out this paperback, nudges me, opens it below the table like it's porno or something. Is actually a war novel done like a comic book. Got a thin wedge of Riff hash in there. Holds up four fingers, notice his thumb is stumped at the knuckle. Holy rustin' rebar... for a hustler, this man has got his share of probs.

I decline with a wave but this guy is pretty insistent. Got the crazy glint in those brown eyes. So I give him five bucks or five dirham, whatever's in my jeans. He's all smiles, splits right away. Watch him talk with some merchant wearing shades and a striped jalaba, far side of the Zoco, then disappear.

Now I'm looking at the deep twilight sea. Some fishermen in an open boat out there on the reefs, couple of big lamps slung low above the water. Guess this is how they get the fish. Um, dirty politics. Tide is low enough that you can see the shapes and the channel that leads to the port. Built on a madreporic shelf which extends way out there. Can't see the islands from here but they're just reefs with sand. Where's my box? My guitar? Feel like there's a tune coming outta the air. But of course I left it behind in L.A. too.

Hear something, look over my shoulder. A woman wearing a veil, pulling the laundry from the line. I'm thinking it's Naomi my co-star, still in costume... but no, it's an employee of the Hotel. Apparently. She sees me looking, is smiling behind that veil. Makes me wonder if she put it on because she knew I was up here... an unbeliever. She's talking to me and of course I don't know what's she's saying... this pretty girl in a veil. Maybe she wants me to help her.

I smile, turn back to the sea, watch the night come down... the stars and the crescent moon with its black umbra. Feelin good, but no way am I gonna get my throat slit over some local laundry.

Obo: OL

so many different stories

I get the low down on The Poet from this guy Kate has picked up. His name is Pablo, although he likes us to call him Paul... maybe because he "works" for this famous old English photographer who lives locally in a villa just south of town. The old guy is a friend of the Poet, and is probably a big reason why he chose El Obo for his movie.

Paul is from Puerto Rico, says Kate.
I played Rico, I say.
I know, man, says Paul. Missed the gig as I have no money then. Cheaters big in South America, man.
That really the name of your band? says Kate. Sounds like a motor cycle gang to me.
Yeah, the low riders like us, I say. Actually, it's The Cheetahs... but people like to call us Cheaters. We're cool with that.
Suppose it has a certain cachet, says Kate.
Understand you've actually met Cocteau, I say.
Yes, says Paul. You know him, yes?
Well no, I say. He never speaks to me.
I've never met him either, says Kate. Always work through his publicist.
My boss tell me all about him, says Paul. Tell me he's a genius.
Sure, I say. He paints, he sculpts, he kills his wife....

Paul looks surprised... grins, laughs. Looks like a young boy, a skinny sambista. Five years ago musta been diving off the wharf, going after coins and plugs thrown in the water by the tourists.

I love her movie, he says. She hot, man.
Paul knows what happened, says Kate.
I know what my boss tell me, says Paul.
Cecil, says Kate. His boss is Cecil you-know-who.
The guy you were telling me about, I say. Photographed Mick in Tangier.
Photographed The Stones, Grace Kelly, de Gaulle... everyone, says Kate. Great with a Rolli.
No more, says Paul. He mostly blind now.
Married? I say.

Paul smiles cryptically, looks someplace only he can see.

What really happened with Monsieur Cocteau's wife? says Kate. I've heard so many different stories.
The snuff movie, says Paul.
I don't believe that one, says Kate. Urban legend.
Kill her, put her body in a statue in his garden, says Paul.
Ridiculous, says Kate. That's from his movie, Blood of the Beast.
She run away with El Pele, says Paul.
I might believe that one, says Kate. Who wouldn't like a nice, warm flamenco singer?
What's the big deal, I say. They split, end of story.
No, amigo, she drown, end of story, says Paul.
Cocteau went crazy with grief, says Kate. She was his muse.
Right over there someplace, says Paul.
In the Atlantic? I say. Off Obo?
Yeah, man, says Paul. Out there.
Too weird, I say.

I'm thinking about the Poet standing in the watchtower looking out to sea, like the real movie is happening out there. Guess it is.

She with Kyprios in his yacht, says Paul. You know him? The Greek guy with the big bucks.
No, I say. Not my scene.
Why was she with him? says Kate.
I dunno, says Paul. Maybe she like sailing.
Come on, Paulito, says Kate. Don't be so cute.
Kate think Kyprios is her lover, says Paul.
She got a name, I say.
Domino, says Paul.
That's who she is in Beast, silly, says Kate.
She Domino to me, says Paul. She hot, hot.
Not anymore, I say.
It'll come to me, says Kate. Her real name.
So how did she drown? I say. Was it an accident?
There was a big, big storm, says Paul. Mister Cecil say she get taken by a wave.
That's convenient, says Kate. No witnesses, of course.

We're in the open part of the lobby with the vine and the canaries, which are cheeping away. Drinking Frankensteins, a very nice ale from Dusseldorf which the hotel seems to have in abundance. My tab, of course.

Kate leaves, as she's got to go shoot some stills for the Assistant Director or something.

You like being in the movies? says Paul.
Something to do, I say. Actually, it's real boring, man.
Are you loco? Boring?
Lotta standing around lookin' pretty is all.
Hey, I know. I do some modelling.
Mister Cecil?
Yeah. And Kate.
Yeah. Yesterday we do some nudes. Not boring, man.

I chuckle. That Kate is one sly dog.

Teach me some licks, man.
You play guitar, Paul?
I want to. I got a flamenco.
Not my thing.
Don't kid me, man. You're bossa... you can play anything. Better than Clapton.
Sure... yeah... better than.
Do me favor.
Introduce me to Naomi.
Hey, you want all my women?

It's that sort of kidding talk men get into.

What you think? She belong to the Poet? says Paul.
I dunno, I say. You know more about him than I do.
She is very like Domino. You kiss her yet?
Not in the script.
Tell me about your groupies.
I don't see them. They're invisible.
Invisible heh heh. Money for nothing, chicks for free... hey, you married?
You're worse than a journalist.
Sure... but better than a pimp, yes?
You kill me, manny. How come you're in Obo?
The old man likes it... six months here, six months Port of Spain.
Port of...
Trinidad, man. I work in a hotel.
So what do you do for the old man... besides model.
Drive him around... things. Cositas buenas.
Yeah? Must be nice. Money fer nuthin, chicks fer free.
's o.k. Not forever.
How come Mister Cecil didn't pull a part for you in his friend the Poet's movie?
I was in it. Got fired... they say I can't act.

Now I'm really laughing.

When Kate phone, say she can get you, they fire me.
What? I replaced you?
I'm nobody, man. Just a gigolo.

Obo: OL

the eye of the unseen watcher

Far as I can see, this movie is going nowhere... or at least for me. Every day we shoot the same damn scene, stand on the sea wall in the same positions looking for god knows what on the horizon. Only thing that's different is Naomi. First day she looks like a chick from a harem... now she looks like a hooker. Each day she's wearing less and less, becoming more risque, showing lots more flesh. Take 1, Take 2... Take 22. We've all heard about directors who shoot multiple takes but this is ridiculous. Meanwhile the Poet stands in the tower facing the sea, never once looking at the scene he's shooting.

Tell you, if it wasn't for the fact that Naomi is getting more sexy with every subtle change in her costume, I'd be outta my freakin' mind. Well maybe I am. Few months ago, ask me if I'd do a gig as a "statue" in some madman's movie I would've said no way.

She knows she's getting to me. She knows it. It's very irritating, a confusion of revulsion and desire. The instructions are from the Poet himself, sent from the tower via his assistant to the crew on the seawall. More locals watching from the roofs every day... who knows, maybe they're looking at the horizon too, despite Naomi, the siren from the runways of high western fashion.

She's an instrument for something... but what? Ask Kate and she says, women like to exhibit themselves. When I ask her about Paul, she says, well men too. I say, most people are shy. She says, not in front of a mirror.

Black guy with the jeep is still hanging around too. Crew calls him "Bolero" cause he's always driving around with Ravel blasting from his boomers. Someone says he's Polisari, in with the rebels. Maybe so, but dude looks like a Miami rapper to me.

I've had a lot of experience in front of large crowds. Now I'm getting experience in front of nothing... if nothing is what the eye cannot see. Yet I suspect we're playing to something, as I have the same feeling I get in a stadium. I'm so imprinted with the eye of the unseen watcher I know when he or she or something is out there in the darkness beyond the lights.

Obo: OL

a face perceived

Who is Roy Cocteau? Published his first book of poetry at 19. Well received but poorly read, which is usual for that scene. Contains the line "love is born of a face perceived but never really seen" ...which seems to be the basis for his whole theory of art. Oh yes? What would a rocker like me know about art? Tell you, people see only what they wanna see. Cocteau exploits this in his paintings -- leastways, the ones I've seen. He reduces everything to shapes, so the form is symbolism, creates a common visual language. Detail is not the issue, just shape. Theory is that people navigate by shape, move in near abstraction. A blindness of convenience, a tension between the inner and outer worlds, being and nothingness. Same with music, and I know a bit about music, even if some folks think I write doggerel, think in country cliches.

He wrote an opera too. Don't know it. Guess French intellectuals do that, as their heads are always in the past. Americans have short-term memory, a convenient amnesia which is good for their free-market economy. Pop culture is the repetition of an idea without the need to know where the idea comes from. The way things go down today, sometimes I'm thinking we're just part of a long-distance relay, pickin' up the baton, running with it. Rip-off is a convention, not a crime.

More I learn about Roy Cocteau, the more I'm thinking he's an artist of apocalypse. Some of these guys who write on him say he's a classicist disguised as a surrealist. What's that? Sounds like The Sex Pistols dressed up by a Prof in Media Studies 300. Admit I haven't seen his movie Blood of the Beast although I've heard so much about it recently, feel like I have.

Parisian poet finds his young wife's body, thinks he murdered her in a trance. Entombs her body in a statue in his garden. Makes one for himself, calls the pair Orpheus & Eurydice in a romantic tilt towards mythology. Meanwhile revolution is coming down in the streets and Paris is burning. The Poet, always trying to contact his dead wife by trance immersion, is unknowingly setting fires & torching buildings himself, i.e. the Louvre. Suspicious citizens enter his garden, break open the statues... find the body of the real killer entombed as Orpheus. The Poet recognizes the killer as Artaud, an unsuccessful suitor and fellow member of the Society of Gethsemene, a cult concerned with the afterlife. Blamed for both deaths, the Poet flees into the burning city....

Well hell. That's apocalypse. Existence as a grand catastrophe in preparation.

Won at Venice... unreleased in North America.

Poetry: a religion without hope.

Makes me wonder. Makes me wonder about this movie and what my role really is. Said I'd give them a week... una semana, amigos.

7. the digital oasis »»