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The Last Interview: A Single-Sentence Performance on the Subject of Polly Jean Harvey

The Last Interview: A Single-Sentence Performance on the Subject of Polly Jean Harvey

The Last Interview: A Single-Sentence Performance on the Subject of Polly Jean Harvey

Hilton Als
14 Snaps

In the March 7, 1970, issue of the New Yorker, the short-story writer, playwright, and novelist Donald Barthelme (1931–89) published “Sentence,” a story about matrimony and other matters told in one sentence, a continuous exhalation of words that had meaning for the author and, in the process, becomes a kind of brilliant verbal object, recognizable as such to all writers who know what inspiration looks like on the page, a bit of singing, a string of words passionately spoken with hardly any periods and barely a semi-colon making insects between words, a technical feat that shows prosody for what it is—the meaning is in the rhythm—and Barthelme’s text, a gorgeous object, really, may or may not have grown out of his interest in Gertrude Stein, who constructed beautiful verbal objects as well, they are so solid and glistening and murky, like the best company, sentences so solid one can practically put them on one’s knee and have them stay awhile, in any case some of her sentences sound like a single breath, charming but exhausting, filled with certain philosophical investigations that are so startling and new, still, that, relatively speaking, hardly anyone reads her, still, for fear they won’t understand her narrative interest in, but abstracted commitment to, detailing the lives of personalities, the individuality and sameness to be had in any number of what she called “types,” and I wonder what she would have thought about the performer as a type, one who generally speaking responds to one’s writing in a guarded way when they express an opinion about it at all, it’s very curious, it’s as though to them one’s language were another kind of show altogether, a performance on paper that, because it requires reflection, diminishes their continuous desire for the visceral, the now, it’s strange, they never think of a paper performance as being in support of let alone a complement to their own show, in any case their métier is not the page but the stage, which can barely contain their naked and beautiful and exhausting need for attention and desire to change your mind because of their presence, so what they want generally speaking is for an audience to validate their body’s breath, they kiss us, each and every one of us, then they close the show, those performers, taking our hearts with them when they use phrases like “Good night,” or “This is our last song!,” creating longing in the process, their long and short good-bye being part of who they are and what they can give until they breathe on us again, and so I barely slept—some might even call it sleep—the white bedsheets wrapped around my ankles, my mind yet again wrapped around memories, several weeks after I saw Polly Jean Harvey in New York, her breath in my ear as she said Hallo in the concert hall before the show, sometime in the early spring, her breath in my ear in the midst of an embrace, and then she introduced me to John Parish, an hour or so before their concert at Irving Plaza, her black hair a mass of black luxuriant breath as John, as long and wishful as a wand, wearing a kind of hat I had not seen since I was a little boy and my father wore a hat, in any case, John Parish wore his hat not just to protect him from the rain, which muddied the streets and muddied my eyes as we got into a white van and I knew even then I couldn’t write about Polly in a journalistic frame anymore, let alone analyze her music, because I couldn’t be—specious word—“objective” about what she did, in any case performers like and don’t like being observed, as through a camera, because their need for immediacy is what they prize even if they distance you in their private lives, thus creating a kind of physical dialectic—here but not here— and Polly was part of me, which meant other difficulties, but life nevertheless, and in the white van our eyes met once or twice on the way to dinner, rain fell in fat drops on the van window, thump on the hood of the white van, as Polly, her black hair covered in a black shawl, tried to work out, with me, just how long we’ve known each other, and we couldn’t, and I asked the driver to count the years I thought we had known one another, me and Polly that is, and he couldn’t do the math, either, and John said, Oh, I’ve been hearing about you for so long, but just how long, none of us could say, and Polly’s curls were in her face and on the collar of her black coat, her lips reddened by nature, while John Parish, utterly sweet, the very soul of unobtrusive soul, walked behind Polly, his musical partner in this, their latest venture, A Woman A Man Walked By, a record of some ten songs appearing a little over ten years after their first collaboration, Dance Hall at Louse Point, first explored the musical possibilities of the dramatic monologue, we sat down in the Japanese restaurant, where we were meant to have an interview to discuss the record, but first we laughed at Polly’s tendency to be extremely well organized, and I took a bit of the fabric of her black top in my hand, it was stretchy, she said she got it somewhere, largely because it fit, she’s physically small, with a movie-star head, and I knew I couldn’t do it anymore, be a journalist trying to uncover the “secret” behind merchandise, and then sell the merchandise to readers, but it was lovely there, in the Japanese restaurant with our overly solicitous waiter, ginger in our mouths, a little red wine for John, to hear about their long friendship and this being their second album together, John writes the music and Polly the words, and attention is support, No, I said, I’ve never met Polly’s parents, and Polly said, My father? He’s a man of few words, at our show in England, he beamed, and my brother said—he came with a friend we used to play with when we were little; my brother is also a man of few words—“Aren’t you clever, Poll,” referring to Polly and John’s music, and the performance, and then we laughed, but I didn’t know what I was laughing at, having never met her family, it was laughter, perhaps, about having a family when your job is to make a tribe of the people you meet from the stage night after night, and I knew I couldn’t do it anymore, be a journalistic audience in this way, typing up notes about the interview, transcribing the tapes, not being present to myself in relation to the subject not to mention the situation, the overly solicitous waiter, Polly reaching for some of my ginger because they didn’t give her any and it’s good for the throat and she had to sing, and all I wanted to do was listen to their music, which is in sync when it comes to a kind of propulsive insistence on being heard, there’s a banjo that John says he likes playing in an amateurish kind of way, the melancholy plunk plunk plunk of the banjo and the ukulele sounding on this record like fragments from misremembered tunes remembered beautifully, and also on the record there are many many minutes of Polly’s voice, sometimes slow or angry-sounding, blunt, or lullaby-sounding, but always it’s her voice, and I knew I couldn’t talk about it in quite that way anymore as Polly asked if I needed anything else, for the story, just call or text, and she and John got back in the van, and I walked in the rain, waiting for the show to begin, and that’s always a new beginning, a new birth for the performer, a new show, no matter how many times they’ve done it before, it’s their time to become someone other than their self, or the self we call Polly who then becomes P J Harvey, say, and I swear I’d rather kiss you than write what I think about anything ever again, I said to my wife who doesn’t exist, maybe she used to be a singer, she was holding my baby, who is yet to exist, his name is Pedro or Gomez and he has black hair as I walked in the rain up and down Broadway, and eventually over to Union Square Park, wondering why I couldn’t do it anymore, say those words anymore, This is what I think in a magazine or newspaper, my wife understood if she existed, and then it was time to go in, and see Polly in a black dress holding her mic pack or whatever it’s called in a little black bag, dancing barefoot, as John Parish played behind her, my breath of love meeting their singing, playing breath as I said good-bye all over them, knowing I could never ask them questions I was supposed to ask them ever again as I felt my own breath filling the stage, too.

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