Cruel: A Tribute to Anita Pallenberg

“I’m ceded—I’ve stopped being Theirs—
The name They dropped upon my face
With water, in the country church
Is finished using, now,
And They can put it with my Dolls,
My childhood, and the string of spools,
I’ve finished threading—too—“

-Emily Dickinson

 

I can’t think of Anita Pallenberg without thinking of two other spectacular women: her best friend, the rock star Marianne Faithfull, and my best friend, Strummer. When I heard of Pallenberg’s death last week, my second thought was of Marianne; my first was of Strummer, who I called and checked in with, in much the same way people called and checked up on me when Bowie died in January, 2016. But this is further proof of what I’ve always known: like Pallenberg, Strummer is authentic, the real deal, “the thing itself and not the myth,” as Adrienne Rich, Pallenberg’s contemporary, writes in “Diving Into the Wreck,” a poem that debuted around the same time Anita was serving as a cultural ambassador and translator for the Stones, while they recorded Exile On Main Street in a rented villa in Nellcote, France. If Strummer was here, she would give me all the dirty details of this recording. Once, in our early 20’s, waiting out the August heat in her Lower East Side walk-up, we watched footage of Anita and Keith and Mick and Charlie and a host of people I didn’t recognize and don’t remember, but who Strummer probably knew by heart, tramp around the villa. This wasn’t a documentary—“It’s from my footage guy,” Strum said, stretching out her perfectly shaped legs, clad in their skintight, cutoff short-shorts and stilettos, across my chubby thighs in their H&M sundress. She was serious—she had befriended an older guy, in his late 50s, who dealt in rare rock footage. We were watching the Stones’ home movies. “One time he had footage of Sean and Yoko eating dinner, but it felt weird to watch,” she said in her plaintive, singsong tone, the same one I heard her use when, in 1999, still in our teens, she clutched my hand, said, “I’m still not over John Lennon’s death,” with real tears in her eyes.

Then and now, I knew exactly what she meant. Actually, I felt it. Like Marianne and Anita, Strummer and I are simpatico, two oddball poets who found and fell in love with one another in the Jersey suburbs. I was 19, she was 16, when we started hanging out: she was the tiniest, loveliest thing, a punk rock fairy princess named by her radical parents for Joe Strummer—”I just wanna pick her up and put her in the palm of my hand and say ‘Dance, little Strummer, dance!'” her mother would say, throwing her magma colored hair back in laughter. Strummer weighed about 85 pounds soaking wet, all pouty lips and china doll eyes, with a smattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose, and endless auburn ringlets. Everything she wore looked like it had been hand-tailored for her perfect figure; she would go out in a tie-dyed tube top and mini-jogging shorts and turn every head on the street. Standing next to her, I felt like a hapless, shapeless mess. So I let her cut my hair, or plaster heavy white-blond streaks into its dark brown.

Back then, Strummer went by her middle name, Rae, which she wisely began using to shield herself from mockery when she moved to our little town in southern New Jersey from Philadelphia, her mother having fled a bad marriage with her father. I didn’t know her father, but I adored her mother, who had remarried and had three more children, twin boys and a girl. Their house was pure love. That summer—2000—we had tickets to see Bowie at the Roseland Ballroom. Her mother, Eileen, watched as we donned and discarded dozens of outfits in the preceding nights, littering Strummer’s top floor attic bedroom with black leather mini-skirts and lace bustiers, gold stilettos and shredded denim vests dotted with band pins. Her little sister, Olivia, about 4 at the time, bopped around in her undies singing “Beat on the brat with a baseball bat, oh yeah!” Strummer encouraged me to cut my punk rock bangs even shorter, and Eileen concurred: “Oh my GOD, yeah, when I was your age they were like a wisp.”  When I made a reference to Bowie and Jagger’s alleged affair, she leaned over and whispered sotto voce “What wouldn’t you give to be a fly on that wall, right?” We collapsed in laughter.

I was 20; Strum (Rae) was 17. She and her mother gave me love, and permission, to be myself, to be queer and dripping in lace and in love with another time, to believe myself beautiful. When the Bowie show was canceled (we collapsed in a crying heap on West 52nd  as a man with a bullhorn and a Queens’ accent yelled “DA SHOW IS CANCELLED DUE TO LARYNGITIS; I REPEAT; DA SHOW IS CANCELLED DUE TO LARYNGITIS”), I went and pierced my nose with a diamond stud; my father, seeing it, told me “Anything else, any other bullshit, tattoos, piercings, and I won’t pay a dime for your fancy fucking college.” I fled to Strummer and Eileen, who held me while I wept and told me “Your nose ring is stunning, it’s perfect” as Exile on Main Street sang softly from the turntable in the living room.

***

Like Strummer and I, Anita and Marianne fell in love as outcasts, outsiders, strangers in a strange land. Unlike Marianne, Anita was a continental European, born during the war, straddling Italy and Germany; she spoke multiple languages, and ran away from her boarding school to model and act in avant-garde cinema. Faithfull, while native to England, was terribly shy and anti-social, and found herself at the center of a (counter) culture and the subject of tabloid scandals—one absurd story claimed that during a drug raid, police found Jagger in the act of eating a Mars Bar out of her vagina, with Marianne wearing nothing but a bearskin rug. During the trial she was lasciviously referred to as “Miss X,” a fitting moniker for rock and roll girlfriends, indeed—except that Marianne, like Anita, was rarely content to be an anonymous player in someone else’s story

They loved the same men and the same drugs. Faithfull’s autobiography chronicles her stormy relationship with Mick, all the while claiming she actually loved Keith, who she says she had one perfect night of passion with, sometime in the 60s. You might think that this caused her unbearable jealousy of her best friend, who Keith was madly in love, and had three children with— but her love for Anita superseded it. Adrienne Rich, in her essay “Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson,” tells us that Dickinson’s “relationships with women were more than intellectual. They were deeply charged, and the sources both of passionate joy and pain… a marriage did not dilute the strength of a female friendship, in which two women often shared the same bed during long visits, and wrote letters articulate with both physical and emotional longing.” The book brims with that love—real love, generative love, platonic idealism: pages are devoted to worshipful descriptions of Anita as The Black Queen in Barbarella, to Anita’s caustic and marvelous sense of humor, her ability to be at home in four different languages, how she turned heads on the street while Marianne walked quietly next to her, trying not to bring attention to herself. Some nights, they tried on every outfit in Faithfull’s London closet, and never actually went out, preferring instead to stay in and laugh together.

***

In fall 2001, after another glorious summer together, Strum, still going by Rae, left for her freshman year at NYU, and I returned to Emerson College for my senior year. That time is crystalline in my memory—we are still so young, 21 and 18, talking endlessly on the phone, settling into our new digs, trying on hairstyles and lovers the way we tried on and discarded clothes. I purchased Exile on Main Street and spent a searing afternoon in my Boston kitchen, shimmying along to the Stones while I made chili for my friends. Everything seemed possible.

The next day, September 11, both of our cities were shut down. Rae, sitting in an NYU classroom, watched the planes hit the Towers—I spent the next several hours after I got word of the attack frantically trying to reach her. I showered, shaking, and walked out into my neighborhood. Everything was eerily silent. Fellow students sat on their stoops and porches waving cellphones—No service, they said, over and again, nodding to me with furrowed brows. When I boarded the Green Line to go downtown, the train driver covered the space to drop the fare with his hand—It’s free today, honey, he said in his thick Boston accent. I nodded, thanked him, sat down, and watched a young woman sob uncontrollably, holding a suitcase. Clearly, someone she loved was dead.

That day changed everything for so many people, for the world, so I would be remiss to imagine it didn’t do the same thing for the people in my little world. By Christmas break, Rae had begun to go by Strummer. I thought I was exempt from this change, being an old friend from her hometown, but, no. “Strummer,” she said firmly, each time I called her by the name I had grown up calling her. “I’m Strummer, now.” On December 30, we went to see The Strokes at the Apollo Theater, clutching our clutch purses, rushing the stage. David Fricke from Rolling Stone sat right next to us—when I recognized him, I said “Oh WOW!” and he flashed me the devil horns, grinned, screamed “This fucking ROCKS!” After the show, Strummer made out with some random prep in a cab flying downtown toward her local bars, and we hunted The Strokes down at “the No-Name Bar,” or “2-A”—for a while it was trendy in Manhattan not to name your watering holes, to have them designated by their streets—we wandered into a dark bar on Second Street and Avenue A, and Strummer spotted Julian Casablanca sitting in a booth with the bassist from White Zombie. She marched us right over, and sat across from them.

“Julian,” she said. “Hello.” Julian was annihilated, slurring his words, deep in conversation with the bassist, who could not stop laughing at him, and who was very amused by Strummer.

“Man, who IS this chick?” Julian Casablanca asked, rolling his eyes. In the dim light of the bar, his skin was greasy; he had bad acne, and worse acne scars, and his hair bore no resemblance to the artfully tussled look it had on the covers of various magazines.

“I’m Strummer, from Philly,” she said. It was as though she expected him to recognize her. He did not. And for the very first time, neither did I. Who the hell was Strummer from Philly? Where was my friend, Rae, from Ventnor City, New Jersey? She hadn’t lived in Philly since she was 9-years old; her father was most of the reason she left, to the best of my knowledge. And yet, her father, clinging to his youth, owned the hippest record shop in Philly, in Old City; each time she took a day trip there, she returned laden with vintage vinyl and Belle and Sebastian posters. He scored us first-row tickets to every show in town, including the one we’d just seen. He was the embodiment of everything she, and I, loved at that moment.

I was a senior in college, majoring in creative writing, minoring in women and gender studies. I was knee deep in the works of Helene Cixous and Gayatri Spivak, who warns women against being “Athenas,” women who privilege the name of the father, the law, over the body of the mother who birthed you, whose body you came through. I stared at a beautiful stranger who was supposed to be my best friend, from the corner of a booth filled with superstars. I pictured her mother’s crinkled, laughing eyes, her joy in her tiny daughter: Dance, Little Strummer, Dance! Meg White sat down next to me, newly famous, her beautiful face framed by a giant white fur hood. Everywhere were the young, the magical, the beautiful, and I suddenly realized whatever I had ingested at the last bar was about to come roaring out of my stomach through my mouth. I stood up. “I have to go,” I said. Strummer walked me back to the dorm, but went back out making sure I returned safe. On the walk, I wept. “What’s wrong?!” Strummer asked, with genuine concern, but I couldn’t answer. She had walked through a veil, entered a world, via the privilege of her beauty, her location, her brand new name, where I could never follow. I was an exile.

***

By summer 2005, Strummer had progressed beyond the simple knowing and loving of rock gods, into genuine self-inquiry, and real sobriety. That was the summer she gave me Faithfull, Marianne’s autobiography, introducing me to Pallenberg and Faithfull. Or, to hear Strummer talk about them, “Anita and Marianne.” She was living, as ever, in lower Manhattan; I was nannying for a wealthy, winemaking family from Sonoma, but spending the summer in their East coast Jersey mansion. On my sprung weekends, I boarded the Greyhound in Atlantic City and partied in New York City with Strummer, who danced more, and with more zest sober than she ever had, drunk and high. We were quite a pair, puffing on Camels and giving everyone the side-eye. As ever, I let her dress me up in her clothes to go out, and left her apartment one evening wearing a vintage green Ice Capades dress with a bedazzled bodice. “I wore this to my graduation from NYU,” she said, with absolutely no irony. It would never have occurred to her that this was a strange thing to do, or say, and when you look like Strummer, you look like ten million bucks in just about everything. “Those LEGS,” her mother chortled to me, describing her graduation weekend, “emerging from cabs in an Ice Capades dress like she owns the joint! And she does!” Me, in an Ice Capades dress: Strummer’s dark, slightly ridiculous shadow, sipping a Heineken while she flirted with the Beastie Boys’ DJ, charmed and enchanted and wondering when we might finally call it a night.

***

Strummer has a poem called “On Human Frailty” that begins “My hair’s been blond all summer/And I’ll only answer to Marianne.” It speaks of a summer that glows, from external appearances, with glamour and health—she was dating a professional surfer, had fled New York City for Hawaii. Photographs of the time show her tanned to perfection, her dark hair bleached to a beautiful blond, laid out on the black sand beach in a string bikini, reading Paul Celan. Who knows where the surfer is—like Anita, Strummer’s men were the least interesting thing about her. In reality, she was newly, desperately sober, and terrified; I was living in Sonoma, California, the only person in remotely appropriate calling time and distance, and we spent hours on the phone, discussing everything under the literal and proverbial sun.

Similarly, Anita and Marianne got sober after lots of insanity and inanity. Marianne’s book describes two heroin-induced incidents so absurd, one can’t help but be charmed by the fact that she kept them in the published book: the cheek of it. She claims that, while in a coma from an overdose, she met Brian Jones in the Afterlife—the books details pages of their actual conversation, which she claims to remember word for word. Later, when she wakes up, Mick is by her side: Darling! He cries out, I thought I’d lost you!

Wild horses, Marianne replies weakly, like a mod-Cathy Earnshaw to her Heathcliff, couldn’t drag me away.

But if not for Strummer, I’d never have read this, never, having read it, have seen it for the high comedy and beauty that it is. She pointed out the passages for me; she made me sit through Barbarella and Performance. She loved those women like she loved me. And she did the hard work of self-knowledge and sobriety just like they did.

***

When I was 20, and Strum was 17, we went to a writing retreat together. I was enamored with her and her family; I wrote a poem about her, called “Rae Says,” about the hilarious, oddball things that frequently left her mouth. I read it aloud in my afternoon workshop, and the leader, Laure-Anne Bosselaar, said in her rich, smoky Belgian voice “What is the governing emotion of this poem?”

“Admiration?” said a man twice my age.

There was silence.

Love,” said a woman next to me, her voice quivering. “I adore you,” I said to Strum at the bar that night, where we were both drinking illegally, trying to play with the big boys. “I adore you, too,” she said, her eyes welling up. She recited Mark Strand’s “Keeping Things Whole” to me, and I could barely speak for its spare, haunting beauty. Like Anita and Marianne, we have seen each other through every hard thing in our adult lives—grad school, bad marriages, divorce, heartbreak, getting clean, staying that way. Premature deaths. Babies. Difficult, loving mothers with erased names. Marianne has always been cruel, especially to herself, Anita wrote on the back cover of Faithfull. Anita was never Anita Richards, despite every critic’s, every tastemaker’s, every Stones superfan’s attempts to make her so. She was, like Emily Dickinson wrote, a woman who refused “The name They dropped upon my face.” She was not a muse. She was real. A Black Queen with a red, beating heart. And when I learned it had stopped, a tiny part of me, the girl who watched her best friend enter into other worlds with rock stars and cocaine and the coolest fucking name on earth, and come out on the other side, died too.


Emily Van Duyne lives with her partner and two children in Ventnor City, NJ. A poet, essayist, and critic, her work has appeared, or is forthcoming in Literary Hub, The Chronicle of Higher Education, So To Speak, and many others. She is currently at work on a memoir, None Of That: Loving A Psychopath, ​and a book of essays about the poet Sylvia Plath. She is assistant professor of writing at Stockton University, where she is also affiliated faculty in women and gender studies.

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