At a reading in Vancouver on August 8, Neil Gaiman said he used to be the kind of writer whose name inspired a response of “oh my god, he’s my favourite!” to “who?” He admitted he’s lucky that that the universe now tips these responses more towards the former.
However. If your realm sadly leans to the latter, I’ll summarize: he’s a New York Times best-selling author – knocked Dan Brown down a notch, thank all the gods – award-winning writer of American Gods, Anansi Boys, Coraline, The Graveyard Book, Neverwhere, a story that makes me shake with delight, the legendary graphic novel series Sandman and so many more. His latest novel is The Ocean at the End of the Lane, a ghostly and bewitching tale with wonderful eerie characters called Hempstock, that he says is about “emotions” (which scared him, being both “English and male.”) Here is an incredible blog written about the book, and marriage, by his wife.
When I read the first collections of Sandman, I recall sitting gobsmacked in a hammock, mouth catching flies, pondering “how does this man write all this stuff and have it be so complex and beautiful? What does the inside of his head look like? (Handily, Neil answered this very question from a fan in Vancouver; apparently it looks like Dodgeville, Wisconsin The House on the Rock, during a Hallowe’en party, but I digress.)
And while Neil Gaiman was on my radar before this became a thing that you included in a biography, it should be said again: he is also Amanda Palmer’s husband and his wife is Amanda Palmer, and he loves her very much, thank you.
So why is a writer in Backstage Rider?
It’s not the first time. On their last tour together, Neil and Amanda were gracious enough to give buckets of their time to a girl (me) who asked. The result was this beautiful and playful photoshoot of the two of them and photos from the extraordinary show.
The books I brought him to sign then included Absolute Sandman – he drew Robert Smith inside, I mean Morpheus – and a copy of the ultra-rare classic, The First Four Years of the Fab Five about Duran Duran. Generally, I don’t ask for signatures because it seems to unnecessarily place people who simply have talents different to my own on pedestals higher than my eye-line. But at the risk of sounding over-excitable, having Neil write in a book that he has written somehow infuses it with more magic.
To me, Neil is pretty rock n’roll. If Grandaddy’s Sophtware Slump or The The’s Infected or The Antlers’ Hospice or Midlake’s Courage of Others or Sebadoh’s Bubble and Scrape tell me stories, a good novel can be an album. Words, to those of us who cannot play a note, are our songs. So that is why he’s here.
But why he’s really here is that I asked Neil if he had time to do a quick shoot on his return to Vancouver. Nothing fancy, no elegant set, just portraits. He said yes. We liked the idea of doing something like a cool Sears photoshoot, and so my wonderful photographer Wayne brought the studio to him – and we set up in the basement of Vancouver’s venerable musty Vogue Theatre.
Because Neil now sells out theatres and stays on stage until 2:30am signing every last copy of audiences’ books, I was, out of necessity, granted not so much a bucket, but thimbleful of time. For which I was grateful.
So we did our shoot. Yet before I could ask him about music, the thimbleful of time tipped onto the Green Room floor. Vancouver Writer’s Fest types huffled and puffled around us and off he had to go to another interview. But Neil knew I wanted to talk to him about music, and he wanted to talk about music, so, said simply, “walk with me.” And so I did.
If you want to know, briefly, about the music that changed Neil Gaiman’s life, let him tell you:
“I remember Lou Reed, discovering Transformer, which I only listened to because Bowie had produced it, and I was a little Bowie fan, and Bowie had already changed my life in so many ways. But discovering Lou, and that opening up the Velvet Underground…and somebody had an acetate of Live at Max’s, Kansas City and I would go and haunt record shops and I remember finding a copy of “The Evil Mothers”, which the thing with Foggy Notion and stuff, and I was never quite clear if it was a bootleg or not* but I was incredibly happy to find it.
“And then the Magnetic Fields! Which I discovered through the They Might Be Giants Hello! CD of the Month Club, and they sent me a copy of the Gothic Archies’ album and I just fell in love. I had no idea who Stephin Merritt was. And then they went out of business, and I got a call from Hello saying “we’re not doing this anymore and you have credit for another six CDs what would you like?” and I said “send me six copies of the Gothic Archies. And from there, it was a slippery slope into the Magnetic Fields.”
Sadly, before we could slide further aFields, it became apparent I was standing in the midst of someone else’s shoot and the last drip of time had been squeezed out. Neil later said later that he wished we’d had a chance to talk about music more, but I reminded him that in my world, there is never an end to talking about music. There are always words, there is always music. He said I was wise. And really, one shouldn’t argue with Neil Gaiman. \m/
*Postscript/outro: The material on Evil Mothers came from tapes given to the Skydog Records circa 1971-74 by Brigid “Polk” Berlin, a Warhol insider and actress who taped all sorts of Velvet Underground live shows, including material that eventually ended up on Live at Max’s, Kansas City. It was released in 1974 and is not considered official. Only 2000 copies of the first versions were printed, though it was reissued in the mid-1980s.
With thanks to photographer Wayne Höecherl, who owns the copyright to all photos. Please visit Ordeal.ca and WAHpix.com for more info. Many thanks to Neil and his assistant Cat Mihos for their time and patience. Photos must not be reproduced without permission; it’s really bad karma.
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