I'll Never Write My Memoirs, page 1
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To my ancestors and descendants; my blood relatives and relatives-in-love
When I told my son Paulo I was writing a book he said, “Oh, Mom, wow—I hope the world is ready for that!” When I told my family and friends I was writing a book, some of them got very anxious and freaked out. They wondered what on earth I was going to reveal. In spirit, I think most of my family knows what is coming: They are used to it. It’s not as if the story of my life is going to be a surprise to them. Some of the details might be, but I think they are ready for whatever happens. They know to be prepared. They’ve had experience hearing about my experiences.
There will be blood, and thunder. I will take liberties, with my life and theirs. Now and then I will take on my own reputation. Those who know me, and are related to me, or close to me, have been warned many times by my actions that I am very unlikely to go quietly into the night, or into the light.
I once wrote and sang, “I’ll never write my memoirs.” I meant it at the time. I could have meant it forever, but it seems I’ve broken my own promise—turns out, for some things, there is no such thing as forever. I should never make promises to myself. Sometimes, there’s nothing wrong with breaking promises, though. You can’t go through life without breaking promises. You need to break a few rules as well. Well, a lot of rules.
When I wrote those lyrics, I’d had a fight with my boyfriend at the time, my son Paulo’s father, Jean-Paul, and I would always put those kinds of incidents into song. Fights and arguments make great songs. There is a lot of my life in my songs, and after this argument with Jean-Paul I announced, “No memoirs, no comment.” I decided that the only way I would be known from then on was through my music, through pictures, and through art as an art groupie. They would be the only footprints, the only clues to where I’ve been and what I was thinking. So touch me in a picture, whisper in my mask. All you would need to know could be found in how I look in a photograph, or captured in a song. The rest is mystery.
That was whenever it was, some time ago. I’ve changed my mind. I do that a lot, and why not? If you are a fan of doing the unexpected, and I am, then it is an advantage to be highly skilled at changing your mind. If you do not want to limit yourself, then be prepared to change your mind—often. If your attitude is, I will try everything once, then even if you have vowed never to do something, eventually there will come a moment where the thing you have banned yourself from doing seems especially tempting.
I will never write my memoirs seemed like a good commandment at the time I made it. Now is the time to break that commandment. Much of my life has been played out in public, full frontal, no-holds-barred, but there are plenty of secrets to reveal. I’m in the mood. This doesn’t mean I will spoil the mystery.
I love secrets. They’re very important to me. I had a lot of secrets growing up because my mother would tell me her secrets, and my father would tell me his, and I would keep them to myself. I never repeated them to anyone, and I learned the power of keeping a secret, the control it seems to give you. I enjoy those things that belong only to me. My secrets. I worked hard at keeping them, and they are all mine.
I won’t tell all my secrets, but enough. Enough for you to think, I don’t believe you. That never happened. I don’t care if you don’t believe me. The best secrets are beyond belief.
My life is out there. Both in the sense that it is available on the Internet—the photographs, the stories, the truth and lies lit up all over the place—and also in the sense that it has been full of extremes. I have never held back. Why would I? I decided from an early age that the best form of defense was attack, and that taking on the world and living life to the fullest was how I would deal with setbacks and problems. This means you leave behind quite a trail. What you do gets noticed.
Sometimes I read stories about my life, and it seems so much more exaggerated than it actually was . . . and I think, It wasn’t like that! My life is already crazy and unpredictable, but when it goes into the world, somehow it gets bigger. Sometimes, it’s written less extreme, smaller than it actually was . . . and I think, I was bigger than that! There is no better way to take control of the stories of my life than to tell them myself in a book.
I’m not intending to correct any versions of me that exist out there. I’m not going to excuse or defend myself in this book. I don’t want to spoil any image people might have of me being out of control, demanding, crazy, offensive, indulgent, chaotic, depraved. I can be a pain, but most of all, I can be a pleasure. I might think the legend isn’t outrageous enough, but my answer to any suggestions that I have been less than discreet or abusive or just plain perverse is: no comment.
I am simply putting another version forward, one that happens to be the one I have in my mind. What follows is the me that I have made up, rather than the one made up by other people. Whatever people think of me, I want them to keep thinking that of me. I don’t even mind if people make up things about me as long as they don’t make me look boring or ordinary—as long as they don’t smooth me out or reduce me. I don’t want to contradict other people’s idea of me; I don’t want to spoil the illusion. I’m not worried about what people think, because I think people think what they want to think anyway.
I’m not going to try and set the record straight—I’m going to tell things as I saw them, and explain how things happened as far as I am concerned. It’s the “which road to take” situation that is interesting to me. The options and opportunities that appear, and why what seems to be the wrong road turns out to have been the right road. Sometimes in the nick of time I would make the right decision and not even know it at the time.
These are my memories. My moods. My moments. My mistakes. It’s a book, and it has a cover. So I can do what I want. A book is intimate, which is why it has covers. And if I am going to do a book, I will be very intimate. It’s like sex—I’m doing it under the covers. Whatever I say inside, it will have a cover. A front cover and a back cover. It’s up to you whether you go inside. If you do go under the covers, don’t be outraged at what you find. It’s your fault for lifting the covers.
It’s my life, it’s what I remember, or choose not to remember. I didn’t appear here out of the blue on some magic cloud. I went through all this to get here.
Ultimately, achieving something positive in life—leaving darkness behind and discovering the light—is about wisdom, the wisdom that comes from surviving experience. I nearly died so many times, but I am still here. There were lives I lived, and lives I nearly lived.
If you want me, this is me. Not the caricature of me. This is the deeper me, the other me, and then there’s another me, and there are other me’s I’ve not even thought of. But I’ll get to them. I’ll keep following the trail I left behind and find out where I’m going next. I’ve got one life to work with and I’ll squeeze it dry before I’m through.
While I was writing this book I visited my close friend, mentor, and determined free spirit Chris Blackwell at his home tucked so deeply away into the thickly fertile heart of Jamaica, a country of green, green grasses, hanging gardens, chattering streams and unsolved mysteries, you feel like an explorer if you manage to find your way there. The roads around his house are deeply rutted, almost not even pathways, and the roads before those roads that are meant to be better maintained are nearly
When it rains, the dirt roads turn into rivers of molten mud and pull your car deep inside and won’t let go. If you make it, you seem to have found somewhere high above the rest of the world, an unhurried oasis of peace and tranquility surrounded by uniquely shaped trees, creepers, vines, bamboo, and palms full of life and vibrancy. It’s a clearing in the jungle, high in the sky. It’s another dimension, and has probably looked the same for centuries apart from the addition of Chris’s house and the grounds.
My close friend Mary Vinson, who married Chris after I introduced them, died in 2004 and is buried a hundred yards or so from the house. She once said that she hesitated when I mentioned she should meet Chris, because she always thought my other friends had something wrong in the head. I will visit her grave and have a quiet chat with her, tell her the gossip. There are plenty of places in Jamaica that are secluded, cut off, fantastically elsewhere, but Chris’s home is seclusion to a magical extreme. You can hear the earth breathe.
He likes to keep the roads rough so that he can hear when anything is approaching, about to alter the delicate conditions. Along the way as you jerk and shake along the rutted roads struggling closer and closer to the place he has found, you pass locals living in sheds, huts and lean-tos surrounded by stoic goats and scattering chickens that make you realize how much you don’t really live inside in Jamaica. Inside, you only need a bed, a table, and a chair. Mostly, you live outside and grow things to eat, to sell.
I eat some food with Chris, a traditional Jamaican meal, curried goat, ackee, plantain, rice and peas, fresh coconut water to drink, on the wooden veranda of his hexagonal-shaped house set in the middle of the clearing, at the top of a gently sloping hill. Fireflies flicker, crickets sing, the sun goes down revealing a warm, radiant dusk, allowing a thousand giant shadows to surround us.
We talk, remembering when we met, how we worked together, the music we made, the arguments we’ve had. The scandals I’ve caused. We’ve known each other for nearly forty years, and we are as close as you can get without being related. Ask me how close, and I will say we’re family. Ask him how close, and he will say we’re family.
I’ve arrived late. He likes to have lunch at twelve, but he knows that’s too early for me, and he says two, but he really knows that means I won’t get there until four. Especially considering how difficult it is to find your way to his house, off the beaten track enough to elude Google. I make it at four thirty, so in a way I’m only half an hour late. He’s quite impressed at my “punctuality.” A late lunch drifts toward becoming an early dinner.
There’s a smoky, rumpled Rasta man called Lion who lives somewhere inside the vibrant green jungle circling the house. He’s allowed to drift around the place in exchange for running a few errands, a gentle mystic man with a hint of something weirdly fierce, beneath twisted branches of yellowing dreads, somewhere between having no age at all and being about three hundred. He gives me what he has in his hand, and I take a puff or two, floating through the smoke, and everything becomes so peaceful but clamped inside the intense grasp of consciousness. I feel our ancestors all around us, forefathers and foremothers, unseen but not dead, their unmeasured energy living through us. We puff a little more and breathe life into our ancestors. The past exists side by side with the present, not behind it; what was—is. Another puff and I sink further into a now time, into the dream we call the past.
Sometimes when writing this book it has been like trying to roll my memory up a hill, and when I get near the top, I lose my grip, and it tumbles down to the bottom, and I have to begin again. After taking in the smoke of what Lion has given me, it feels like I know how to roll my memory downhill. I feel the past awaken. I can remember everything, as if my memories have become as set apart from everything else in the world as Chris’s home and land. I can make them out so clearly. They’re as big as life. I know where to begin. I can see to the edge of all that there is.
It’s time for me to leave. I am always the last to arrive and the last to leave, but Chris wants an early night. Having got me here, he now needs to get me out of here. That’s not as easy as it seems. That takes as much planning as getting me somewhere on time.
I don’t want to go. I love the sounds here, the smells. I love the company. I love the memories. I love what has happened to my mind since Lion gave it a lift. I could stay here forever, like Lion, who lives on his own, at ease with himself, inside a tree or a cave, down by the lagoon, under the slow-turning stars studding the sky like the biggest disco ball ever.
I am always on the move, but I like to find a spot where I feel secure, and stay there, dig my heels into the dust. I am rooted and restless. I am at peace, but I want to interrupt. I love the quiet, but I want to shatter the silence. It’s time to go, but I don’t want to go.
I can’t help myself. I want more music, more stories, more commotion, more seclusion. I don’t want the day to end, although I know it must. Chris begins a game of backgammon with his much younger cousin, also called Chris. This is a clear signal that it’s time to go, but I don’t want to go. I talk to the girls in the kitchen who cooked us the meal. I tell them about my family, the food we ate, the brothers and sisters I have, being a grandmother. I have so many stories to tell that I have remembered now that I have been touched by the Lion. The Lion has gone, like he was never there in the first place. He’s taken some of my memories with him. I’ll pick them up another time.
It’s time to go. Reluctantly, I give in. I leave the seclusion behind and head off through the writhing, dense vegetation that threatens to come to life in the night, back into the island, back into my memories, before they fade, before they become something else altogether. I go back to where I started.
It’s time for something else to happen.
I was born.
It happened one day, when I least expected it, on an island measuring only 4,411 square miles, a teeming mountainous land of wood and water among a chain of islands in the center of the Caribbean Sea at the western edge of the Atlantic Ocean. That wondrous isle in the western seas.
I came out of my mother feetfirst. I arrived kicking and pissed off, sticky with fury, soaked to the skin. I was what’s known as a stargazing fetus as well, my neck fully extended. From the very beginning I was going against the grain and making trouble. Perhaps I was holding on to my mother for dear life, somehow knowing what was about to happen next. I didn’t want to leave the one place I had felt at home, where I had been floating for so long, and enter the darkness. Inside, there was light. Outside, instantly, the unknown. The cord was cut. Startled by a strange newness, I didn’t immediately make much of a noise, so I was slapped and slapped, to prove that I was normal. I cried out. I’ll show you noise. I’ll show you normal. I shrieked. In my own uprooted newborn way, I probably cursed.
Here I am.
Grace Beverly Jones. As was the custom, I would be known by my second name. Beverly. Bev. Later, when I was four or five, my skin was so charcoal black I would be engulfed when the warm, sultry night fell, throbbing with nature and a slithering hint of the supernatural. My nickname then was Firefly. You could only make out my eyes and teeth, sparkling in the dark.
My new home outside my mother was Spanish Town, the oldest continually habituated town in Jamaica. Five hundred and fifty years of history, starting a few years after the island of Jamaica was first found—“discovered”—by a Christopher Columbus of Italy in charge of exploring and marauding Spaniards. As St. Jago de la Vega, the town on the plains, at the edge of wetlands in the south of the island, it became the capital when the Spanish settled. They gave it a distinct Spanish Colonial layout, with lots of internal courtyards and walled gardens and a Renaissance-influenced checkerboard of streets placed around a dramatic central plaza. Spanish interest in Jamaica waned when it became clear there was no gold, and it became a backwater of the Spanish Empire. It became Spanish Town
Spanish Town was the Jamaican capital until the port of Kingston—better placed on the coast thirteen miles away, with more natural vitality—replaced it in 1872. The town’s cathedral, built in the early sixteenth century, rebuilt in 1725 as an Anglican church, was the first such building in this part of the world and remains the oldest ecclesiastical structure from the British Empire still standing outside the UK. When I was born, Spanish Town had traces of grandeur but was showing signs of neglect after centuries of colonial rule and the Great Depression in the 1930s; imposed signs of methodical Spanish life, elegant town planning, and aristocratic British influences peeling back to reveal the undimmed Jamaica underneath. It had a faded glory, a shabby gentility, many parts of it cast aside as useless, and was beginning to meet up with the rough, tumbling edges of the capital city as Kingston’s population grew.
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They say I’m a lot older than I actually am. In the press, on the Internet, they add about four years to my actual age. I’m often asked how old I am—the world likes to know a person’s age for some reason, as if that number explains everything. I don’t care at all. I like to keep the mystery. I get onstage and tell everyone I am ten years older than they think, and then I hula-hoop for twenty minutes. That’s my age—that’s how I measure it. I wasn’t born wearing a watch, and I never got used to wearing one, and when I was born I didn’t know if it was Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday, and I never really know the days of the week now. Days are days, hours come and go, in whatever order, and I keep up with it, in my own way. It’s hard to remember things in the right order, but I will try.