Lily Brett’s Soul Music
By Lily Brett, Michael MaherSeptember 22, 2012
The beloved author, who grew up in Melbourne, the child of Holocaust survivors, has a new novel, ‘Lola Bensky’. Now living in New York with her artist husband, David Rankin, Lily talks in our video about her real life as a young rock-music journalist, inspiration for Lola. Here’s the novel’s first chapter (our first ever fiction excerpt!).
Lola Bensky was sitting on an uncomfortably high stool. She could feel the nylon threads of her fishnet tights digging into her thighs.
She had put a wad of tissues underneath the fishnet, on the inside of each of her thighs. The tissues, which were supposed to stop her thighs rubbing against each other and chafing her skin, had shredded, and now her flesh poked through the mesh in small, shiny, tightly packed pink squares.
Before Lola Bensky
She tried to move into a more comfortable position. She didn't like sitting on stools. And she didn't like heights. She noticed a sprinkling of disintegrated tissue on the floor, below her left foot. She decided to sit very still. And to go on a diet.
Jimi Hendrix, who was sitting on a slightly lower stool, looked at her. His face had a quietness about it. There was no sign of the Jimi Hendrix who, just thirty minutes earlier, had been humping the microphone stand on stage and fucking his guitar. There was no sign of the Jimi Hendrix whose guitar had whined and moaned and shuddered in a frenzied, carnal staccato with his body.
Jimi Hendrix removed the brightly-coloured patterned silk scarf that was tied around his neck. 'Are you comfortable?' he said to Lola Bensky, in a soft, improbably polite voice. 'Oh, yes,' she said, looking at him and trying to separate her thighs.
She thought that Jimi Hendrix had probably never had to go on a diet. She thought he was probably naturally lean. She had never been lean. She had a photograph of herself in the displaced person's camp, in Germany, where she was born. She was three months old in the photograph. And she was chubby. How could a baby born in a DP camp be chubby? Lola was sure that not many of the camp's other inmates, mostly Jews who had survived Nazi death camps, were chubby.
Lola was hot. Jimi Hendrix's dressing-room, the room they were in, was small. And overheated. And Lola was overdressed. It was winter, in London. Lola wasn't used to cold winters. She'd grown up in Melbourne, Australia, where winter was barely distinguishable from spring or autumn.
She looked at the questions she had prepared. 'You're not going to ask me what my gimmick is?' Jimi Hendrix said to her.
'No,' said Lola. The question threw her a bit. She didn't know he had a gimmick. Maybe someone had suggested that playing his guitar with his teeth was a gimmick? Or flicking out his tongue? Or fondling the neck of his guitar? She didn't know.
She did know that he was born in 1942 to a mother who had just turned seventeen and a father who was away in the army. She knew that from the time he was a baby he was farmed out to various people until his father came back from the army, when Jimi was three. She knew that his parents, who were separated, got back together and had four more children, Jimi's brothers, Leon and Joseph, and his sisters, Kathy and Pamela. Joseph was born with an array of disabilities, including a clubfoot, a cleft palate and one leg shorter than the other. Kathy was premature and blind and Pamela had some minor physical problems. Soon Joseph was made a ward of the state. And so were Kathy and Pamela. By the time Jimi was nine, his parents were divorced, his mother was alcoholic and his remaining brother was in and out of foster care. Lola knew that the family was so poor that Jimi was often dressed in rags.
There was no evidence of this childhood turbulence on Jimi Hendrix's face. He had a slow gaze and a languid half-smile. His lips made lazy, playful movements when he spoke.
Lola liked accumulating information about people. She liked listing what she knew about their lives. She found it oddly soothing. She had her own lists, too. Lists of her mother and father's dead relatives. Renia Bensky, Lola's mother, had had four brothers, three sisters, a mother and father, aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews and nieces. By the end of the war, everyone Renia Bensky was related to was dead. All murdered. Lola's father's mother and father and three brothers and a sister were also all murdered. Those lists bothered Lola.
Lola preferred to list the various diets she was thinking about. She had just given up on a Mars Bar Diet she had tried for several days. All the Mars bars you could eat and nothing else. On her list of diets she had called it the Get Bored Diet. The basic principle was that the Mars bars would lose their appeal and she'd soon be eating very few of them, in fact she'd be eating very little. It hadn't worked. The Egg and cucumber Diet was on the top of her new list of diets.
Lola didn't have time to feel sad. She was too busy being cheerful or planning her interviews or thinking about food. Decades later, Lola Bensky would not be quite as immune to the lists of the dead. The dead would adhere themselves to her. But she didn't yet know any of this. She was nineteen.
She shifted around on her stool. Jimi Hendrix was watching her intently. The row of sequined beading around the neckline of her blue dress was starting to irritate her skin. All of her dresses had high necklines and were gathered above the bust in order to billow out and cover her hips and her thighs. One of her false eyelashes felt as though it were coming unstuck. She tried to press it back in place. It was probably because of the heat, she thought. This was a new pair of false eyelashes. Cher had borrowed the ones Lola was wearing last week. They were lined with diamantes around the rim and were Lola's favourites. Cher, in the middle of Lola's interview with her, had asked where she had bought the diamante-lined eyelashes. 'José of Melbourne, Australia,' Lola had replied. Cher had looked blank, and then asked if she could borrow them. Lola had felt as though she couldn't say no to Cher.
People sometimes said that Lola looked like Cher. Lola thought that it was their dark, heavy-lidded eyes, high cheekbones and Semitic noses. 'I'm twice her size' was Lola's standard answer to any remark about the similarity. Lola was sure that Cher didn't ever have to diet. Sonny probably didn't, either.
Lola had been in London for two months. She had already interviewed The Small Faces, The Kinks, The Hollies, Cliff Richard, Gene Pitney, Spencer Davis, Olivia Newton-John and The Bee Gees. Olivia Newton-John and The Bee Gees were easy interviews to get as she had interviewed them before for Rock-Out, the newspaper she worked for in Australia.
Lola's tape recorder was on her lap. She looked down to make sure it was working. Jimi Hendrix licked his lips. His mouth didn't look anything like the mobile, worryingly lascivious mouth she'd had to avert her eyes from during his performance.
'Are you religious?' Lola asked Jimi Hendrix. Lola envied people who were religious. She felt that being religious would be like being in a very large club and always having someone to talk to. Not God, just another member of the club.
Lola's mother, who had been brought up in a very religious home, wouldn't tolerate any notion of religion. When Lola now and then asked if she could go to synagogue, mostly on high holy days, Renia used to say, 'If you did see what I did see, you would not even talk about religion.'
'You only want to go to synagogue to meet boys,' Renia would add, in the tone of voice that suggested that meeting boys was akin to meeting your drug dealer or hanging out with a serial killer.
Religion was a subject that couldn't be discussed in the Bensky household. 'There is no God,' Renia Bensky would say, over and over again. 'There is no God.' she would say this in the middle of washing the dishes, or in the backyard hanging out the clothes or just sitting at the kitchen table by herself.
'Am I religious?' Jimi Hendrix said. 'I don't believe in religion. I went to church a few times when I was a kid, but I got driven out because my clothes were too poor.'
'That wasn't very charitable or pious of the church or the congregants, was it?' Lola said.
'Charitable or pious,' Jimi Hendrix said. 'They're interesting words. No, it wasn't charitable or pious. I loved listening to the choir. But I never went back.'
'What do you believe in?' said Lola.
'I don't believe in heaven or hell,' he said. 'I don't know if there is a God.'
Renia Bensky could have told him the answer to that, Lola thought.
'We all have our beliefs,' Jimi Hendrix said slowly, as though he could hear Lola's thoughts. 'I try to believe in myself. If there is a God and God made us, then believing in myself means that I believe in God.'
'I don't believe in God,' Lola said. 'I wish I did.'
'I hear you, man,' Jimi Hendrix said. Lola thought he probably did.
'Music is my religion,' Jimi Hendrix said. 'I play to go inside the soul of people.'
Lola knew what it felt like to want to go inside people's souls. She used to wish she could press herself right into people she liked so that she could be as close to them as it was possible to be. She wished she could get past the barriers of clothes and showers and clean hair and good manners.
'Are you comfortable?' Jimi Hendrix asked her, taking a packet of gum out of his pocket.
'oh, yes, I'm very comfortable.' Lola said.
'You haven't moved at all,' he said.
She was surprised, she hadn't realised that he had been observing her that carefully. Most rock stars were so absorbed in themselves that you could have had a nervous breakdown or been dancing a jig and they wouldn't have noticed.
Lola moved her head and her shoulders in an effort to appear more mobile. She looked at the floor. She didn't think any more shredded tissue had dropped from between her thighs. 'I like sitting still,' she said.
Jimi Hendrix smiled. It was the sweetest smile. The sort of smile you'd expect to see on the face of a choirboy. The smile was so far removed from the expression on his face when he was playing to go inside the souls of people. You wouldn't think that the same face, the peaceful, almost sinless face that she was looking at now, could accommodate such diverse and possibly conflicting expressions.
Jimi Hendrix offered Lola a piece of gum. 'No thanks,' she said. She shifted slightly on the stool and tried to clamp her thighs even closer together.
'Were you a happy child?' she asked him. Lola felt that there were a lot of people who were happy children. She wasn't one of them. It made her sad to think that she mostly remembered being unhappy. There must have been happy days. She could think of happy moments. Moments when someone, particularly a man, told Renia how beautiful she was and Renia glowed from the compliment. Or moments when Renia, flushed with excitement, in a dress she'd bought at a bargain sale, looked at herself in the mirror and looked happy. Lola thought there were probably a lot of people who thought of their childhoods as happy.as a series of one happy day after another. Maybe they were taken on picnics with picnic hampers and woollen rugs to sit on. Maybe their mothers held their hands and allowed them to eat as many ice-creams as they wanted.
'I was a very shy child,' Jimi Hendrix said. Lola believed him. He still looked shy. At least here, in this dressing-room, away from the stage, he looked shy. 'My father was very strict. I didn't speak unless I was spoken to. My mother drank a lot. She didn't take care of herself. Still, she was a groovy mother.'
Lola didn't think a mother who drank and didn't take care of herself sounded at all groovy. Jimi Hendrix looked pensive. 'My mother and father used to fight a lot. Things would be quiet for a couple of months and then there'd be another fallout and I knew I'd have to be getting ready to be sent off somewhere. To my grandmother's place or to a friend of the family's place. My parents weren't around that much. They got divorced when I was nine.'
Lola felt sad. She felt sorry for Jimi Hendrix. She knew what it felt like, as a child, to feel that there was too much that was unpredictable. And too much that was incomprehensible. 'My parents didn't get divorced and never argued,' she said. 'But they weren't around. They seemed to be there. But they weren't. They were on another planet.'
Decades later, Lola would learn that she had been right. That Renia Bensky, who was in the kitchen, banging the saucepans as she lifted them out of the cupboard or grinding meat in the old, loud meat grinder, was not there. Renia Bensky was somewhere else. She was with her dead.
In the death camps, it was impossible to mourn the dead. There were no farewells, no burials, no memorials. Without the goodbyes, Renia Bensky, like many others, remained locked in a frozen dialogue with her dead. For Renia Bensky, her dead were still alive. They took up most of the space in her heart.
'Oh, man,' said Jimi Hendrix, 'having your parents around but not around, that must have been tough.'
'I don't remember it being tough,' said Lola. 'and I don't remember ever crying as a child.'
'I cried when my mother died,' Jimi Hendrix said.
An awkward silence descended on them. As though they had both been taken by surprise and were a little embarrassed at the unexpected turn the conversation had taken. Lola realised she had moved to one side when she was talking. She straightened herself up. She noticed some miniscule pieces of tissue float to the floor. Maybe Jimi Hendrix would think it was dandruff, she thought.
'Were you upset by the fighting in your house?' she said to him.
'Sure I was,' Jimi Hendrix said. 'Man, I hated it. I used to hide in a closet. Children know what's going on without being told. The fights were mostly over money. I knew and I hated it. I spent a lot of time in the closet. I slept there, too. It was my bedroom.'
Lola was impressed by the thought of having a closet as a bedroom. When Lola was small she would invent stories about her and her parents only having one blanket between them. The truth was that Lola and her parents, who lived in one room of an eight-room terrace in Australia that they shared with seven other families, had several blankets. The eight families shared one small bathroom and one small kitchen, but Renia, Edek and Lola had plenty of blankets.
People seemed spellbound when Lola described how they took turns at using the one blanket, which meant that each of them, Lola, her mother and her Father, had a blanket for two-and-a-half days a week. Seriously poor kids, kids who wore no shoes and whose clothes were in tatters, would cry when Lola told that story. And Lola found that curiously satisfying.
Jimi Hendrix was right, Lola thought. Without being told, children always knew what was going on. Lola herself felt steeped in her parent's past. She'd felt this way since she was a small child. She didn't know how she knew so much.
No one ever sat down and talked to her. Renia Bensky's mouth was mostly clamped firmly shut and her head was bent over a sewing machine or a saucepan. Six nights a week Renia did piecework, sewing sleeves into dresses, for a factory in Fitzroy. Edek didn't say much when he was home. He would sit on the bed at night in a singlet, too tired to speak after his double shift at the factory.
'My parents separately survived Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp,' Lola said. 'But although they got out alive, parts of them stayed there. Parts of them got left behind.'
Jimi Hendrix nodded.
Lola thought that Jimi Hendrix would understand exactly what she was talking about. He could think of his mother as being a groovy mother, despite the fact that she drank too much and couldn't take care of herself and couldn't take care of him. He could still see the goodness in her. Jimi Hendrix wouldn't think Lola was referring to a scarf or a belt that had been left behind in Auschwitz.
'Are you Jewish?' Jimi Hendrix said.
'Very,' said Lola.
Jimi Hendrix laughed. 'My first gig was in the basement of a synagogue, the temple De Hirsch Sinai, in Seattle. It didn't go well.'
'Why?' said Lola.
'i was fired between sets,' he said.
Lola started laughing. 'What for?' she asked.
'For showing off,' said Jimi Hendrix. 'I was trying to play from my soul and the other band members thought I was showing off.'
'Maybe the rest of the band thought that in synagogues and churches anything to do with the soul had to be very quiet,' Lola said.
For someone who made such unabashed, unequivocal, unrestricted movements with his body and his voice on stage, Jimi Hendrix's speech was surprisingly hesitant. For a man who plucked and caressed his guitar strings with such a potent urgency, Jimi Hendrix was unexpectedly measured. He spoke slowly and his voice was soft. He thought before he answered questions. He spoke haltingly, his words coming out in groups of three or four at a time.
His lips, which on stage had been disconcertingly lustful, were now carefully formulating and forming vowels and consonants. Jimi Hendrix's lips had an almost chaste purity about them now. His pelvis now looked merely functional. It no longer looked dangerous. It seemed to be just a bony frame at the base of his spine, to which his limbs were attached. A regular, everyday pelvis.
There was a lot about Jimi Hendrix that seemed regular, Lola thought. There was a sense of humility about him. His hit song 'Hey Joe' was number four in the Melody Maker charts in London that week. 'Purple Haze' was coming out next month. Rock stars were streaming in to his performances.
A few nights ago at the Bag O' Nails, the decidedly dank but ultra-cool basement nightclub in Soho, Lola heard Brian Jones telling everyone within earshot that Jimi Hendrix was one of the most brilliant guitarists he'd ever heard. Brian Jones had looked very excited. Brian Jones didn't seem to be an excitable person, to Lola. She had only seen him a few times, but each time he had appeared to be quite subdued. In a few months, Lola would see Brian Jones again, at the Monterey International Pop Festival in California. At Monterey he would appear even more subdued, almost comatose.
Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Mick Jagger and Brian Epstein, The Beatles' manager, were just a few of the other people who'd come to see Jimi at the Bag O' Nails that night. Everyone wanted to meet him. You could tell none of this from Jimi Hendrix's demeanour. He was quiet and he was thoughtful. If he inadvertently interrupted Lola, he immediately stopped and said, 'no, please do go on.'
The large black cowboy hat adorned with brooches and badges that Jimi had been wearing on stage, was on a bench beside him. Lola looked at him. Jimi Hendrix clearly dressed with care. The sleeves of the floral-patterned satin shirt he was wearing were gathered at the shoulders and stitched into a loose cuff at the wrist. It looked as though it were made for him.
Jimi Hendrix also wore velvet trousers. Crushed velvet trousers in bright colours. No man Lola knew wore crushed velvet trousers. Crushed velvet was for girls. There was, however, nothing girlish about Jimi Hendrix.
On stage it was impossible to forget that Jimi Hendrix had a penis. He rubbed his guitar against his penis. He thrust his hips out. He made short, sharp, rhythmical movements with his crotch. His penis almost seemed to be playing the guitar. Making the music. and talking, pointedly, to the audience. Which could be a bit bothering if, like Lola Bensky, you hadn't had a lot of experience communicating with a penis.
While his penis strutted and pointed and shuddered, Jimi Hendrix was lost in his music. He had blended himself into the whining, cajoling, moaning, pleading notes. His body movements were completely intertwined and integrated with the music. It was impossible to tell what part of him was doing what to which note. Jimi had merged himself into the vibrato he was manoeuvring and controlling until each note sounded like a human voice.
Lola envied Jimi's ability to get lost like that. She couldn't. She was always on guard. Prepared. Prepared for what? A pogrom? A war? The Gestapo? She didn't know. Unlike other people her age, she couldn't relax and hang around the house in her pyjamas or underwear. Lola always had to be fully dressed. And ready. Ready for what? Lola had no idea.
The heat in Jimi Hendrix's dressing-room was starting to make Lola's hair frizz. She tried to straighten it by tugging on the ends.
Jimi Hendrix had been talking for about ten minutes. He was talking about the difference between playing live and being in a recording studio. Lola was trying hard to concentrate. She knew she wasn't all that interested in the technical details of his music. How he got the sounds that he did and how he had been experimenting with feedback and which notes would feed back.
Lola had asked him the question because she knew that there were readers of Rock-Out who would want to know. But she was having trouble focusing.
She did hear him say several times that he got bored easily and liked to move on. Both in his music, and in the other parts of his life. 'I don't like to stay in one place for too long,' he said. 'I might not be here tomorrow, so I do what I want to be doing.' Lola was startled. She didn't think when he said he might not be here tomorrow, that he was talking about leaving London. She thought he was talking about the possibility of leaving this earth.
Lola realised that she hadn't heard half of what Jimi Hendrix had been saying for the last ten minutes. She looked at her tape recorder. It was still on and recording. She had been distracted by the feedback details, her concern about her fishnet tights digging into her thighs and her rapidly frizzing hair.
Jimi Hendrix's hair was wild. His curls, which grew in great profusion, streamed and screamed in every direction. Lola loved the abandoned way his curls mingled with each other. Her own curls had been ironed flat. Tamped down. Every strand of hair had been ironed until it was ramrod straight. Flattened and battened down. Until now, when the heat and humidity in the room had started an unruly uprising. Curls were springing into action. At odd angles. And in odd places. With no co-ordination or thought about what the rest of her hair was doing. She knew she must look strange. But there was nothing she could do about it.
She decided to focus on Jimi Hendrix's hair. 'I heard that you've got a set of hair curlers,' Lola said to him. Lola had read this in an article talking about how concerned Jimi Hendrix was about his appearance.
In Australia, hair curlers were called rollers. All of the women her mother's age had hair curlers. And so did quite a few of Lola's friends. It was not unusual to visit a friend on the weekend to find the friend and/or her mother with a head full of hair curlers. Lola had never seen a man with a head full of hair curlers.
'Yes, I've got a set of hair curlers,' Jimi Hendrix said. 'I brought my hair curlers with me, from America, when I came to London. That was practically all I brought with me.'
'Really?' said Lola.
'I wear my hair in the same way I wear my scarves and rings and jackets. It's all part of who I am,' he said. He smiled, and looked at Lola. 'There's nothing weird about that,' he said.
'No,' Lola said. 'It's less weird than the fact that I iron my hair straight. I lay it out on an ironing board and iron it, with my head bent as low as I can, in order to get every curl out.'
'You do a good job,' Jimi Hendrix said. 'You got no curls left.'
'It was fine until the humidity in here started to curl it,' Lola said.
'Miss Bensky, you look mighty fine to me,' he said.
Lola was startled that Jimi Hendrix would remember her name for a start, and secondly that instead of referring to her as Lola would call her Miss Bensky. There was something strangely at odds about that with who he was, and something strangely appealing.
'I started using hair curlers because I thought it was a groovy style,' Jimi Hendrix said. 'Now everyone is running around with these curls. Most of them are perms. I've got nothing against perms. I used to get my hair straightened and they use the same solution they use for perms.'
'I know,' Lola said. 'I used to get my hair straightened, too. I hated the smell of the perm solution.'
'I didn't like it either,' Jimi Hendrix said.
Jimi Hendrix was very satisfying to talk to, Lola thought. 'Do you arrange your hair curlers in rows?' she said.
'No,' he said, 'but I know exactly where I need to put them.'
Where to put hair curlers and whether they were in rows or not was not the sort of conversation Lola had expected to have with Jimi Hendrix. Lola wasn't at all sure that this sort of stuff was exactly what her newspaper was looking for.
'You can come and see me in my hair curlers, tonight if you like,' Jimi Hendrix said. Lola had heard a lot about Jimi Hendrix's sexual appetite. She hadn't even known you could have an appetite for sex. She'd thought an appetite only referred to food. Lola had heard that Jimi often had sex with several women in one evening, sometimes with all of them present, and possibly in one bed. She'd also heard that he had sex anywhere. Everywhere. in hallways, dressing-rooms, bathrooms, and often in the presence of other people who just happened to be there at the time.
Lola didn't think a late-night visit to Jimi Hendrix would be a good idea.
'I might,' she said.
'You don't look as though you mean it,' Jimi Hendrix said, and grinned.
Extract from ‘Lola Bensky‘ by Lily Brett, published by Hamish Hamilton, on sale September 26, RRP $29.99.