Philly’s a tough town. If there’s a quintessential story about the City of Brotherly Love, it’s this one: in 2015, when Canadian researchers developed a child-sized hitchhiking robot with a big smile and yellow wellies, the hitchbot made it across Europe and halfway down the east coast of the United States, offering friendly small talk to anyone it encountered. Then it got to Philadelphia, where it was promptly torn limb from limb and left in an alley.
Residents have pelted Santa with snowballs and hurled batteries and beer at their own quarterback. They flip cars and set things on fire even when they win the Super Bowl and World Series. The unloved cousin of Boston and New York is often overlooked by Hollywood. The accent is so tricky to replicate, most actors won’t go near it. (Even Rocky didn’t even have a proper Philly twang.) So it’s funny, then, that it took a Brit with an elegant voice, creamy complexion and sunny outlook to parachute into the Philly burbs and totally nail the look, feel, sound and salty attitude of the denizens of Delaware County, or Delco, as it’s known.
Kate Winslet gets emotional talking about the end of her Sky Atlantic series, Mare of Easttown, which scored its own Saturday Night Live skit and found a fan in the self-described Philly girl in the White House, Jill Biden. (“You don’t screw around with a Philly girl,” Joe Biden said of his wife last year, after she blocked an anti-dairy activist who bum-rushed him at a campaign stop.)
Winslet has said, in the past, that it’s hard for an actor to tell what will wow audiences while you’re shooting, that sometimes you think you’re doing great work and then it turns out to be “a limp biscuit”. Mare Sheehan is anything but a limp biscuit. The police detective exists in a cloud of vape smoke, trysts, flannel, Rolling Rock and Jameson shots – “a very hot grandma”, as Guy Pearce’s character calls her, sparring with a mother (Jean Smart) who loves drinking Manhattans.
Winslet said that she has been bowled over by the way audiences have fallen “in love with this wildly flawed, messy, broken, fragmented, difficult woman. I loved her marks and her scars and her faults and her flaws and the fact that she has no off switch, no stop button. She just knows ‘Go’.
“Not only did I have to hide myself in the character completely, but I had to hide this story, carry the secret,” she says. “I kept it hidden since 2018, when I first read the scripts. My job was to take them on this horrendous journey and hope to God that they’d be prepared to come into the attic with me at the end. It has been agony, agony, agony. You can see I’m still, like…” She sounds as if she might cry, something she would never let Mare do, then pulls herself together and lets fly one of her frequent, merry F-bombs. “I can’t deal with it. It’s ridiculous.”
THE SHOW IS a murder mystery with many motifs: grief, the American opioid crisis, small-town life. Winslet, a mother of three, sees it from this perspective: “It’s about mothers protecting their children at all costs, and the lengths that a parent will go to in order to protect their children,” she says. About the finale’s twist ending, she adds, “Oh God, it’s just unbelievable, it’s heartbreaking.”
Underneath Mare’s facade, she says, “is a woman who is so entrenched in grief for her son that she has not processed, and as she shares it, as she talks about it with a therapist, she will crack. She doesn’t want affection. She doesn’t want to be loved. And she doesn’t want to be cared for, because if she has to experience those things it makes her feel vulnerable, and if she feels vulnerable then she can’t be strong any more, and she can’t carry on.”
Winslet is known for what one producer calls an “insane work ethic”. She prepares elaborate back stories for her characters, and she says she prepped more for Mare than for any other role in her life. (But she is not Daniel Day-Winslet: she is said to be fun once the shooting wraps for the day.)
She is Zooming in from her house on the south coast of England, curled up with bare feet, her blond mane looking much glossier than Mare’s. She’s wearing an old white Calypso T-shirt, a couple of gold necklaces and some black Sweaty Betty pants.
The actor often saves something from her sets, and she shifts her camera to show off the sign from the Easttown police station she has hung on a wall. She kept Mare’s jacket and badge, too. She has been harking back to her breakout role as another strong, but more upper crust, Philly girl: Rose DeWitt Bukater. “It’s like Titanic again,” she says, chuckling. “I’m on the side of buses again! It’s like going back in time 24 years where I’m walking down the street and people are nudging and pointing and whispering again.” When the actor was on a bike ride in England recently, a woman ran up to stroke her arm and offer all her theories about whodunit.
Winslet says she knows people are saying, “Oh my God, how can she let herself look so unglamorous?” When Craig Zobel, the director, assured her he would cut “a bulgy bit of belly” in her sex scene with Guy Pearce, she told him, “Don’t you dare!” She also sent the show’s promo poster back twice because it was too retouched. “They were, like, ‘Kate, really, you can’t,’ and I’m, like, ‘Guys, I know how many lines I have by the side of my eye. Please put them all back.’”
She says she baulked when she saw an early cut in which her ordinarily luminous skin looked too good. “We tried to light it to make it look not nice,” she says. “Listen, I hope that in playing Mare as a middle-aged woman – I will be 46 in October – I guess that’s why people have connected with this character in the way that they have done, because there are clearly no filters. She’s a fully functioning, flawed woman with a body and a face that moves in a way that is synonymous with her age and her life and where she comes from. I think we’re starved of that a bit.
“In episode one, she’s having sex on a couch. I said to my husband, ‘Am I okay with that? Is it all right that I’m playing a middle-aged woman who is a grandmother who does really make a habit of having one-night stands?’ He’s, like, ‘Kate, it’s great. Let her do it.’”
In moments of doubt she tortured herself and her assistant director, wondering about other actors – “three real people were haunting my mind. I will not name them” – who might have done a better job. The show’s costume designer did recon in Wawa convenience stores, finding inspiration for Mare’s flannel, inexpensive T-shirts, Ocean City sweatshirts and “bad jeans”, as Winslet says.
“Whenever we’d find something unflattering,” Winslet recalls, “we’d be jumping up and down like, ‘Yes! We’re wearing this.’”
She would leave her clothes in a crumpled pile on the floor of her trailer after filming, “and they would stay in a rumpled-up ball overnight. We were not washing and drying and hanging those clothes. Never.” They filled in her shapely eyebrows to give her face a heavier look, and left the sunspots and imperfections. “We’re so used to seeing this stuff airbrushed away,” she says. She wanted Mare to reflect the burdens she carried, a physical and emotional heftiness. She borrowed a Peloton exercise bike to work out at night, to make her thighs more muscular. “There’s a sloppiness to her, and there’s a looseness to how she sits and how she walks and just how she holds herself,” Winslet says. “Her body posture is totally different to mine. I actually stand quite upright.”
In one peak-Mare scene, she comes home and scarfs down a cheesesteak that her mother has got her, without taking off her jacket, still clutching her police files. “This is so clearly a woman who does not cook, doesn’t care about what she puts into her mouth, also probably forgets to eat, so that when she does eat, she’s so starving she doesn’t even care what it is that she’s shovelling in,” she says.
Winslet’s father, Roger, also an actor, helped inform this bit. “My dad actually reminds me quite a lot of Mare, to be honest. He was slightly the inspiration,” she says. “He basically moves like Mare and eats like Mare. Well, he does eat with his mouth full. We do tell him all the time, ‘Dad!’ He’s going to be so mad I just said that.”
AND YET WINSLET, a vegetarian, could get into character only so much. She sheepishly confesses to a Philly sacrilege: the show’s hoagie rolls contained no meat and, most shockingly, no onions. “I felt really, really bad, because I know onions are a very important part of a hoagie,” she says, “but because we had so many hours of filming scenes with all of this food, it basically wasn’t fair on the crew to have all this stinky onion food on our tiny set all day long.” (She says she was aware of the existence of scrapple but did not try it.)
Even with the counterfeit hoagies, locals are thrilled with Winslet’s metamorphosis. They have even named a hoagie after Mare. Shawn McCreesh, who works with me at the New York Times and grew up, like the first lady, in a nearby town very similar to Easttown, spotted someone he recognised from back home on the show. Patsy Meck, who plays the woman working the desk at the police station, says that Winslet was “genuinely who you would want her to be – she was so real”. Meck, whose three grandchildren were extras on the show, says it was amazing to see Winslet “walk off set, sit down and talk to me in a deep British accent, then pop right back on set and start talking like the rest of us”.
Winslet says she had to change the way the muscles in her face moved – often in freezing weather – in order to emulate Philly’s midatlantic dialect, with its selectively elongated vowels and smushed consonants. “Look, when you’ve done Polish-Armenian and German,” she says, referring to her accents in Steve Jobs and her Oscar-winning turn as a Nazi in The Reader, “frankly, I thought, Delaware County, oh, it’ll be fine: the vowel sounds a little bit different, but it’ll be fine. Honestly, it was just so hard.”
Still, mastering the sound wasn’t the hardest part. Stepping into the shoes of a mother raising a child with severe mental-health issues, as Mare did, was. (Mare’s son, Kevin, had struggled with depression and addiction before taking his own life.) Winslet met parents who had been through it all, and worked with a grief counsellor.
“There’s that moment,” she recalls, “when the therapist says to Mare, ‘Did he frighten you?’ and she just says, ‘Sometimes.’ A huge admission for Mare to even say out loud, ‘My son scared me.’ Of course, you see it in that flashback when Carrie and Kevin take Mare’s money for drugs in the bathroom.” She says the detective strives to fix everything else because she could not fix Kevin.
In order to truly understand the opioid epidemic, how its many tendrils can wrap around a place like Easttown, she went to what Philadelphians call “the badlands” – the north Philly neighbourhood of Kensington and its open-air drug markets. “We would go in an undercovery type of car and just drive around a lot,” she says.
“I remember seeing – and actually it broke my heart – a man with the most beautiful face and a beard. You could see there was a soul right there. He had been amputated from the knee down on his right leg, and he was injecting into the toes of the other foot.
“People are fighting for their sliver of life there. I would see people in these teeny-tiny houses, and they would be not just sweeping their front stoop but sweeping the pavement and the guttering in front of their home. Sometimes, for some people, that’s as much as they can do to keep their pride, to keep a feeling of something that is theirs and that is intact.”
What did the dark heart of the United States’ opioid crisis look like to a Brit? “I have to be honest,” she says, “I was really staggered that there aren’t more of those support networks in place to help with people. In this country we do definitely have better support networks for people in crises like that, we absolutely do.”
WINSLET HAS BEEN KNOWN to warn young actors on a set not to confuse social-media fame with the hard work of acting. “I have certainly heard, twice, of certain actors being cast in roles because they have more followers,” she says. “I’ve actually heard people say, ‘She’s not who we wanted to cast, but she has more followers.’ I almost don’t know what to say. It’s so sad and so extraordinarily wrong. I think the danger is not just for young actors but younger people in general now. I think it makes you less present in your real life. Everyone is constantly taking photographs of their food and photographing themselves with filters.”
She leans her face close to the camera, and notes her lack of filters, with an expletive. “What worries me is that faces are beautiful. Faces that change, that move, are beautiful faces, but we’ve stopped learning how to love those faces because we keep covering them up with filters now, because of social media, and anyone can Photoshop themselves, and airbrush themselves, and so they do. In general, I would say I feel for this generation, because I don’t see it stopping, I don’t see or feel it changing, and that just makes me sad, because I hope that they aren’t missing out on being present in real life and not reaching for unattainable ideals.”
The actor is so famous for disrobing in movies that her IMDb profile says her trademark is her “voluptuous figure”. But she says nude scenes may be in her past. “I think my days are getting a little bit numbered of doing nudity,” she says. “I’m just not that comfortable doing it any more. It’s not even really an age thing, actually. There comes a point where people are going to go, ‘Oh, here she goes again.’” She jokes that it’s not fair to camera operators to have to work to get the best angles as her body changes.
Winslet has a daughter, Mia, who is 20, with her first husband, Jim Threapleton, a director whom she met on the set of Hideous Kinky. She has a son, Joe, who is 17, with Sam Mendes, her second husband. And she also has a son, Bear, who is seven, with her current husband, who has gone back to his original name, Edward Abel Smith, from his playful pseudonym, Ned Rocknroll.
“He added ‘Winslet’ as one of his middle names, just simply because the children have Winslet,” the actor says. “When we’re all travelling together, to all have that name on the passport makes life easier.” (Bear’s middle name is Blaze, after the fire that Kate and Ned escaped that burned down the British Virgin Islands home of Richard Branson, her husband’s uncle.)
“He’s the superhot, superhuman, stay-at-home dad,” she says of her husband, as she smiles happily. “He looks after us, especially me. I said to him earlier, like, ‘Neddy, could you do something for me?’ He just went, ‘Anything.’” She swoons, noting that his long hair now gives him the look of “an ocean warrior”.
She breaks into song, crooning that they go together like “shama lama ding dong”. “He is an absolutely extraordinary life partner,” she says. “I’m so, so, so lucky. For a man who is severely dyslexic, as he is, he’s great at testing me on lines. It’s so hard for him to read out loud, but he still does it.”
She adds that “he didn’t particularly plan on meeting and marrying a woman who is in the public eye and therefore having been so judged”. She finds it amusing that, instead of being rock’n’roll, he’s very Zen. “He’s vegan, does yoga, breath work and cold-water swims.”
Winslet grew up in Reading, west of London, in a modest house and worked slicing ham in a deli when she was young. “I came from a small community not dissimilar to Easttown in the sense that there were paper-thin walls,” she says. “You could hear the neighbours rowing through the wall. You could hear the verbal grenades that were being hurled at one another.”
She says her father had called to tell her he loved an episode of Mare, then added his usual caution: “But you know, babes, don’t rest on your laurels. You’re only as good as your last gig.”
Confirm or deny
Maureen Dowd: Bob Iger approached you about making Titanic II for Disney+.
Kate Winslet: No, never did, and I never would.
You pocketed a few things before you jumped ship from the set of Titanic.
People stole the White Star Line cups and saucers. I was good. I did take a pair of Rose’s earrings, but somewhere I lost one.
Like Mare, you have a gloriously filthy mouth in real life.
(Laughs.) True, yes.
You can’t stop reading about Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez.
What? No! I’ve never read about Jennifer in my life. What are these questions?
Hideous Kinky was neither hideous nor kinky.
I don’t even know how to answer these questions.
You keep your Oscar on the back of your toilet.
I don’t actually know where the Oscar is at the moment. I think it’s possibly in my son’s bedroom. But it was on the back of the toilet for a long time, yes.
You lived in New York for 10 years and never once went to Philly.
You’ve incorporated the Philly slang word “jawn” into your vocabulary.
John, as in a man’s name?
This role is the first time you held a gun, and you didn’t like it.
In John Turturro’s Romance & Cigarettes, you simulated sex with James Gandolfini bouncing on an exercise ball.
I had ripped all the ligaments on the left side of my foot. I’m nursing my son. As I’m bouncing on that ball, I’m actually bouncing using one foot with my leg in the cast, improvising at three o’clock in the morning. We were in hysterics. Oh, God, I loved Jimmy Gandolfini so much. He was just so wonderful, so insecure and just so honest.
Guy Pearce washes cans in the dishwasher before he puts them in the recycling can.
That is true. – New York Times
Music festivals: The unpredictable hell of Woodstock 1999: Burning stages, sexual abuse and a stream of feces | Culture
Woodstock 1999 began promising three days of “peace, love and music.” It ended with stages in flames, sound towers reduced to smithereens, tents razed to the ground, the press and performers running like hell, promoters barricaded in their offices, and thousands of hungover and exhausted young hooligans wallowing in a stream of feces. The San Francisco Examiner aptly called the event “the day live music died,” alluding to the day the music died, which Don McLean sang about in ‘American Pie.’ On August 3, Netflix released Trainwreck: Woodstock ‘99, a documentary directed by Jamie Crawford. In three chapters of about 45 minutes each, Trainwreck offers a grisly post-mortem of what many consider one of the most chaotic music festivals in history.
Between Friday, July 23 and Sunday, July 25, 1999, in Rome, New York, a crime was committed against music, sanity, and decorum. If Crawford’s documentary makes anything clear, it’s that there were multiple perpetrators and even now none of them seem willing to take responsibility for the sorry episode.
Michael Lang, who created the Woodstock brand (and passed away last January), and John Scher, the event’s main promoter, were the first to pass the buck. Both had already been interviewed for Woodstock ‘99: Peace, Love and Rage, the HBO documentary that premiered last summer. In the earlier film, Lang and Scher blamed each other. In Trainwreck, both blamed the audience. They alleged that the generation of young people in the late 1990s was “irresponsible, aggressive and anarchic,” far removed from the original (1969) Woodstock’s spirit of peace and love. However, almost none of the other people who participated in the film support the pair’s self-serving version of events. The documentary’s other interviewees include journalists who covered the event, such as ABC News’s David Blaustein and MTV’s Ananda Lewis; performers Jewel, Fatboy Slim, Gavin Rossdale (the Bush frontman) and Jonathan Davis (Körn’s lead singer); production staff; public health officials, civil servants and Rome’s mayor; and a dozen attendees who were between 14 and 25 years old at the time.
The rain and the mud
The background of Woodstock ‘99 is clear. The 1969 iteration was an organizational disaster but an indisputable cultural success. The original Woodstock featured peace and love, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Grateful Dead, Santana, and hippies mobilizing against the Vietnam War. Michael Lang promoted all that in a display of quixotic countercultural entrepreneurship, but he took heavy losses and only recovered his investment over ten years later through sales of the film’s soundtrack and merchandise.
To coincide with the original Woodstock’s 25th anniversary, Lang and his new partner, Scher, launched the peaceful and artistically satisfying sequel to Woodstock in 1994, but they lost money hand over fist. In 1999, they conspired to capitalize on the Woodstock brand once and for all with a professionally conceived and executed event, minus the naïve idealism that had turned previous iterations into ruinous business.
The 1999 festival was held at Griffiss Air Force Base, a decommissioned military base just outside Rome, New York, over 100 miles from Woodstock’s original location. Griffiss was an unsuitable venue for a three-day music campout. It had a huge lot full of asphalt and unkempt grass, and the two main stages were nearly four kilometers apart.
That weekend, the state was experiencing an extreme heat wave; temperatures reached 102.2 F (39 C) degrees that felt like 104 F (40 C), slightly hotter than the heat wave the East Coast is facing this year. An estimated 400,000 people paraded through the ugly, inhospitable outdoor venue that weekend; on Saturday night alone, there were over 250,000 attendees.
From an alternative tribe to an angry mob
According to Heather, who attended the event when she was 14, many began to feel that they were being treated “like animals.” The exorbitant prices at which the commercial tents sold food and drink particularly upset attendees. They charged four dollars for a bottle of water (the equivalent of seven today) and between eight and 10 dollars for a slice of pizza, a sandwich, or a burrito (today, about 18 dollars), at an event that had prohibited bringing provisions from outside and for which concertgoers had paid 150 dollars (266 dollars today).
They were also indignant because of the woefully inadequate waste management service (“we woke up on Saturday morning in a sea of garbage that nobody picked up,” explains Heather), and the portable latrines, many of which burst after a few hours because of overuse, flooded the place with human waste and an indescribable stench.
Moreover, as one of the health service workers acknowledges in the documentary, the free fountain water that people used to quench their thirst, shower, and brush their teeth became unsafe to drink. Feces from the latrines contaminated that water. Not only was it undrinkable but in many cases mere contact with it caused skin rashes or lip and gum infections.
The festival lineup did not help improve the mood. Hard rock and nu-metal (a style that mixed hard rock and hip hop and briefly took young white Americans by storm) bands dominated the delirious program. Among those acts were Korn, Creed, Kid Rock, and Limp Bizkit, the big stars of the moment. Additionally, there were bands, such as Offspring, Metallica and Rage Against the Machine, whose abrasive sound and visceral discourse were totally alien to the first Woodstock’s spirit of peace and love. Thirty years ago, fans of Joe Cocker and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young had happily and stoically faced the inconveniences and inclemency of a precariously organized mass event. Janis Joplin had even worried from the stage about their welfare and urged them to complain if they felt they were being treated disrespectfully (“you don’t have to go take anybody’s shit, man…So…if you’re getting more shit than you deserve, you know what to do about it, man.”).
However, as early as Friday, July 23, 1999, it was clear that fans of Korn’s charismatic lead singer, Jonathan Davis, shared with the hippies of three decades earlier only a propensity for public nudity. That concert, described by Ananda Lewis as “an insane explosion of energy,” already demonstrated that the Woodstock ‘99 crowd was not going to be a docile one. Indeed, they were vehement, aggressive young people who were quite willing to push the limits of an atmosphere of freedom and impunity and had little tolerance for the discomfort they experienced. The turning point came during the Limp Bizkit concert on Saturday night. As David Blaustein put it, “three different versions of Fred Durst [the band’s singer] competed on stage.” Durst’s instincts told him that something big was brewing among the crowd of ecstatic and hysterical kids, many of whom were naked. His common sense told him to try to lighten the mood. His ego urged him to become the revolt’s high priest. His ego won. Durst gave a frenetic performance, inciting his audience to give in to their rage and “break everything,” to not resign themselves “to the conformist shit that people like Alanis Morissette [also in the festival’s lineup] want to sell you.” They listened to him. Some audience members stormed and smashed a sound control tower.
Just off the stage, Durst gave an interview that was as brief as it was revealing:
-Have you ever seen anything like this before, Fred?
-No, I’ve never done anything like that.
-I suppose you’ve seen from the stage that there have been serious incidents.
-Well, yes, but that’s not our fault.
Hours later, the climate of violence moved to the electronic music tent where Norman Cook, better known as Fatboy Slim, was performing. At 2 a.m., a van suddenly drove onto the dance floor, forcing Cook to stop his performance. When security personnel gained control of the vehicle, they discovered a half-naked and drugged teenage girl inside who exhibited obvious signs of having been gang raped.
Illuminated by fire
But the real disaster occurred on Sunday night during the Red Hot Chili Peppers concert, which ended the festival. It was triggered by an absurd decision that most interviewees attribute to Michael Lang: handing tens of thousands of lit candles to attendees and asking them to perform a spontaneous homage to the victims of the mass shooting at Columbine, which had taken place months before.
Instead, the audience used the candles to set fires. The band ignored the promoters, who’d suggested the band ask for calm on stage. Anthony Kiedis, the lead singer, told an increasingly overwhelmed John Scher that “they wouldn’t listen to me, I’m a musician, not a prophet.” The Red Hot Chili Peppers simply said that the fire at the foot of the stage reminded them of Apocalypse Now. Then, they decided to perform Jimi Hendrix’s Fire as the band’s encore, an inopportune choice.
In the barely three minutes that the song lasted, the three or four existing fires became a dozen. A pitched battle involving thousands of young people followed the concert. The pyromaniac impulse gave way to euphoric violence befitting the novel Lord of the Flies. They razed everything to the ground, leaving the venue in a state that one organizer likened to war-torn Bosnia. They destroyed the commercial tents, broke into cash registers, toppled sound towers, razed the hippie-inspired murals covering the security perimeter, and tried to force their way into the VIP area and the organizers’ offices.
Judy Berman of Time magazine notes that “they vented all the anger [they had] accumulated during three days of aggressive music, inflammatory messages and systematic mistreatment by incompetent and unscrupulous organizers.” Berman contends that “the festival was a complete trainwreck from the beginning; it assumed that 250,000 people could function for three days as a community capable of self-regulating, under conditions of total abandonment by the organizers, [and that] no serious incidents [would take place].”
The Guardian’s Rebecca Nicholson similarly interprets the events, adding that “Woodstock 99′s most sinister legacy is the sheer number of rapes and acts of sexual abuse and harassment that took place over those three days,” a consequence of both “poor security” and the “climate of impunity and toxic masculinity that pervaded the rock scene of the late 1990s.” The glorification of nudism, recreational shamelessness, and free love hid “an atrocious machismo and a nauseating lack of respect for women’s sexual freedom.” Ananda Lewis goes further to say that, to some extent, the Me Too movement is “a reaction to the culture of misogynistic abuse that was brought out, very forcefully, at Woodstock ‘99.” But perhaps Heather’s reflection is the farthest reaching. A teenager at the time, a couple of decades later she acknowledges that Woodstock was one of the best weekends of her life. But she also notes that “we don’t accept what happened any more … I’m glad that my daughters will never have to see that and think that is just the way it is.” The disastrous night that live music died 23 years ago still casts a long shadow.
Music history: Little Axel: The sad story of the boy who grew up with Leonard Cohen | Culture
For the past few years, Axel Joachim Jensen has lived in a small, wooden house with a porch, where he likes to go out for a smoke, and a window with a view of meadows and pine forests. The house is part of a psychiatric facility near Oslo (Norway), in a tranquil location where bird songs and chirps are the only sounds to be heard. Jensen lives there voluntarily.
The 63-year-old Jensen has been in and out of various mental health facilities since he turned 19. His mother was Marianne Ihlen, who was one of singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen’s great loves and muses. Jensen tells the story of growing up with Cohen in the documentary film, Little Axel, directed by Fabien Greenberg and Bård Kjøge Rønning. “It can be a bit difficult to remember the things you just want to forget… but now I live in a nice place,” he says in the film.
The documentary was filmed shortly before the outbreak of the pandemic and could only be released in Norway and the US, but plans are now underway for a broader, international distribution. One autumn morning, around the time of the film’s pre-pandemic premiere, Jensen agreed to take a car trip with me and his legal guardian to Larkollen, the coastal village in southeastern Norway where his mother was born.
Jensen was serious for most of the trip and said little, perhaps because of his medication. Little escapes his stony, piercing gaze, but his face occasionally lights up with a tender and childlike delight. A heavy-set man, he shaves his head and wears a scraggly, gray beard. He walks briskly around the town once we arrive, but once we are sitting at a bar, he seems indifferent to our conversation, his mind in some other place. “Cohen had a dark side,” he blurts out suddenly. “But I miss being with him.” He says little else. Behind his rough demeanor, I catch glimpses of a stunted sensibility, scattered thoughts, and a lifetime of inner pain.
His father was Axel Jensen, sometimes called the Jack Kerouac of Scandinavian literature. His other father – Leonard Cohen. Two prominent figures of the counterculture who set out to light the world on fire through literature and poetry. Nonconformists, tormented, narcissistic, mystical, thirsty for adventure and lust – the creative process was the only thing that gave meaning to their lives.
Little Axel, as he was nicknamed, arrived on the Greek island of Hydra with his parents when he was only four months old. A few days later, his father left Marianne for another woman. Marianne soon met Cohen, another artist living in the island’s bohemian, expatriate community, and so began one of the most romanticized relationships of recent times. Leonard and Marianne, doomed to failure from the beginning but immortalized in song – So Long, Marianne. It was a turbulent relationship, full of ups and downs, that lasted eight years. Cohen assumed the role of Axel’s stepfather, providing financial and emotional support to the child. Long after his breakup with Marianne, Cohen continued to help Jensen, sometimes taking him into his home.
Little Axel is the story of a life told through harsh, personal testimonies backed by melancholic guitar chords and punctuated with old photos, mostly taken in Hydra. Jensen grew up in a small colony of expatriates that disdained conventional mores and pursued an Arcadian dream of idyllic innocence tarnished by human flaws. Axel tells how he grew up in complete freedom, smoking and getting drunk at the age of seven. When he was nine, he traveled over 160 miles (260 km) across the seas to the southern Greek island of Crete accompanied only by his 12-year-old friend, Jeffery Brown. “They [our mothers] loved us, but they also loved their own freedom. We had to be adults at an early age,” said Brown. At 15, Jensen was smoking hashish and had tried LSD. The next year, he traveled alone to India, returning from the trip depressed and aggressive. Jensen moved to California to be with Cohen two years later when he was 18. It was the last time they would see each other – his 19th birthday was spent in a mental institution.
When he was seven, Jensen was dispatched to Summerhill, a British boarding school and bastion of anti-authoritarian education, and later to a strict, Swiss boarding school. His tender and desperate letters home to his mother and Cohen are heart-wrenching. Little Axel seems to lay most of the blame at Marianne Ihlen’s feet in this sad tale of neglect, lost souls, and festering wounds. Curiously, the film does not allude to a genetic predisposition as a potential cause of Jensen’s mental illness, even though his paternal grandmother had been committed to a mental institution, according to Torgrim Eggen, who authored a biography of Jensen’s father. In Axel, Eggen writes about frequent, aggressive outbursts by Jensen’s father who was once treated by David Cooper, the father of anti-psychiatry, and administered LSD in their first session. “You could say he was borderline [mentally ill],” writes Eggen.
“Hydra certainly took its toll on many of the foreign children who lived there, because of their unstructured, unfettered lives,” notes Helle V. Goldman, editor of When We Were Almost Young
(Tipota Press), an anthology of short memoirs about the island, where she also grew up. The children were witnesses to the lives led by the adults – to their infidelities, their parties, and their alcohol and drug use. Some say that Ihlen was too focused on her own life adventure, but Goldman believes that it’s all too easy to blame the young and lonely mother.
Leonard, Marianne, and Me (Backbeat Books), Judy Scott’s insightful and honest memoir about her days in Hydra during the sexual revolution of the drug-fueled 1970s, tells an anecdote about taking mescaline with young Axel who starts hallucinating that he can see Cohen’s ghost. Scott remembers Ihlen as a careless but devoted mother who ultimately blamed herself for her son’s suffering.
In August 1970, shortly before Cohen famously succeeded in calming a rowdy audience at a music festival on the Isle of Wight (UK), he received a letter from a patient at Henderson Hospital, a psychiatric facility near London, inviting him to give a concert there. “I hope you like So Long, Marianne,” said Cohen as soon as he walked in. For the next two hours, Cohen played for about 50 young patients at the facility, and told them about his fading relationship with his muse, about how he took 300 acid trips to write the song You Know Who I Am, how he wrote One of Us Cannot Be Wrong in a shabby hotel room while he tried to kick an amphetamine habit, and about the crushing loneliness he sometime felt.
That was the first of a series of concerts play by Cohen in various mental health facilities to wildly appreciative audiences. “When you are committed to a mental institution, voluntarily or not, you are admitting to a tremendous defeat. You’ve made a choice,” he would later say. “And I felt that my songs had elements of that choice, of that defeat, that these audiences would empathize with.”
Axel Jensen has started playing chess again, as he used to do with Leonard Cohen during those carefree days on Hydra – and still listens to his songs.
History: El Argar, the great society that mysteriously vanished | Culture
El Argar, an early Bronze Age culture that was based within modern Spain, is one of the great enigmas of Spanish and world archaeology. After emerging in 2200 BC, it disappeared 650 years later. Experts debate that it collapsed in 1550 BC either because of the depletion of the natural resource that sustained it – which resulted in the population fleeing or dying of starvation — or because of a massive popular revolt against the ruling class.
The Argaric culture was “the first society divided into classes in the Iberian Peninsula” – as defined by the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB) – and the creator of the world’s first Parliament. Following its demise, the civilization vanished from memory… until an archaeologist named Rogelio de Inchaurrandieta came across Argaric artefacts in 1869 and began to ask questions.
Inchaurrandieta exhibited his discovery at the International Archeology Congress in Copenhagen (1866-1912). He spoke of an unknown civilization from the Bronze Age that he had found on a steep hill in the municipality of Totana, in Spain’s Region of Murcia. He displayed gold and silver objects and spoke of a large, fortified city that lacked any type of connection with known historical societies. Nobody believed him.
But in 1877, the Belgian brothers Luis and Enrique Siret arrived in Murcia in search of mining prospects. They ended up confirming the existence of the unknown society, including what had been its large urban center, which extended 35,000 square kilometres through the southeast of the Iberian Peninsula. This site was methodically excavated: agricultural tools, precious metals and even the remains of princesses were preserved.
The study El Argar: The Formation of a Class Society, by archaeologists Vicente Lull, Rafael Micó, Roberto Risch and Cristina Rihuete Herrada from UAB, points out that El Argar “is one of the emblematic cultures of the early Bronze Age in Europe. The large settlements on its hills, the abundance of well-preserved [tombs] in the subsoil of the towns, as well as the quantity, variety and uniqueness of the artefacts, have since attracted the attention of numerous researchers.”
Vicente Lull, professor of Prehistory at the Autonomous University of Barcelona and one of the world’s most recognized experts on this society, admits that the Argaric “is in fashion.” “Specialists come from all over the world to take an interest in this unique civilization… it is unparalleled, with first-rate technological development, which left nothing in its wake, but advanced everything. It’s like searching for the lost civilization.”
Experts agree that the discovery of El Argar marked a break with respect to the preceding Copper Age, regarding technological development, economic relations, urban and territorial organization patterns and funerary rites.
The Sirets, at the end of the 19th century, excavated ten Argaric sites and opened more than a thousand tombs, resulting in the destruction of the human remains. However, they carefully drew everything they found.
“The culture of El Argar is the first [class-based] society in the Iberian Peninsula. The central settlements accumulated an important part of the production surpluses and the work force. The effects of said control are manifested in the normalization of ceramic and metallurgical products and in the restricted circulation and use, above all, of metallic products,” assert the experts from UAB.
But not all the inhabitants of these cities accumulated wealth to the same extent, as evidenced by the exhumed goods of the ruling class. In 1984, Vicente Lull and Jordi Estévez distinguished three social groups. The most powerful class – made up of 10 percent of the population – enjoyed “all the privileges and the richest trappings, including weapons such as halberds and swords.” 50 percent of individuals, meanwhile, were of modest means and had recognized social-political rights, while 40 percent of residents were condemned to servitude or slavery.
“One of the characteristics of this society is that it was closed in on itself. Its defenses not only served as protection, but also created a cloistered society dominated by an oppressive ruling class,” Lull notes. Such aristocratic oppression likely could have triggered the end of the civilization.
The end of El Argar gave way to the late-Bronze Age. The causes of the collapse of Argaric society seem to have been various socio-economic and ecological factors. Possibly, the overexploitation of the environment led to ecological degradation that made economic and social reproduction unfeasible. The end of El Argar is characterized by the depletion of natural resources, work tools and the workforce, the latter in the form of high infant mortality and more diseases. Perhaps this situation led to an unprecedented social explosion and complete disappearance of this civilization, as evidenced by the fact that many of the unearthed buildings show signs of having been burned on all four sides.
Following the destruction, there was complete silence, only broken by the permanence in Alicante and Granada of some small Argaric groups – populated by the fleeing ruling classes – that survived another century.
Of the hundreds of Argaric tombs studied, one stands out that archaeologists call the Princess of La Almoloya, a young woman who died in the year 1635 BC. She was buried at the head of a unique building with her linens, ceramics and thirty valuable objects made of gold, silver, amber and copper. Beneath her grave, the body of a man who had died years before was found.
About 100 kilometres from Pliego, in Antas – the economic and political center of El Argar – a building was found that included a large room, with benches and a podium. It could accommodate 50 people. The researchers assume that it was a kind of parliament, perhaps the first in the world.
“We will never know what was discussed there,” says Lull, “because the Argarics, despite their development, did not master writing. It’s a mystery about a mystery.”
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