The first time I meet her, in the lobby of the Hyatt on Sunset, Björk Guðmundsdóttir, is sitting at a desk, writing out a list, surrounded by plastic bags. “I am doing my laundry,” she explains. “I have been lazy.”
You can can see where the cartoon interpretation of Björk— as pop music’s sweet, madcap Icelandic pixie—has come from. She talks in that funny voice (a strange mixture of Icelandic intonations and London English), she smiles that beguiling smile, she oozes all that cuteness. Björk knows this. When she met Conan O’Brien, Björk recalls, he treated her like she came from Mars. “Like this,” she says, and pokes her forefinger purposefully into my cheek, as though testing whether something is dead or alive, underdone, or succulently cooked. Sometimes it’s useful to play at being the bright-eyed, dippy, elfin (although not cute ; she hates “cute”) girl. Just so long as people don’t glance at a couple of pages and imagine they’ve read the whole book. “I’ve got the right to be an idiot and I’ve got the right to be clever, both at the same time, and I refuse to be only one or the other. I insist to be happy. I make an effort not to forget all those different colors : to get hilariously drunk sometimes and to pay all my electricity bills and to forget what time it is and run a band without a fault.”
We meet again in the back of a car, later that night, to drive into the Valley to KROQ. Björk chews gum and blows bubbles. She is appearing on ‘Loveline’ where listeners phone in with their personal problems. She was on last year. She thought it might be a laugh. “But I ended by crying. It was so sad, these girls who’d been with the same guy for twelve years, saying, ‘Am I supposed to have an orgasm ?’” When we arrive at the radio station, Björk has a request. “Would it be dramatically demanding to ask for a glass of wine ? It would make me less frothy.” The hosts are Riki Rachtman, (of MTV’s Headbangers Ball) and a practicing doctor, mild mannered and bespectacled, who calls himself Dr. Drew. Rachtman asks Björk the name of that weird book she kept talking about the last time she was on. It was Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye. “I might just make it my mission to make everyone in the world read this book,” Björk declares. “It says you do whatever you want, even if it’s morally incorrect.” Like what ? wonder the ‘Loveline’ team. “For instance,” she explains, “if you feel like a train is running through your head, it is. And if you feel like putting eggs inside your bottom, you should.” The ‘Loveline’ hosts find this a little much, but she persists.
“There’s no such freedom in the world,” she says, “that you can pick anything you want and put it in your butt.” A caller is put through. Perhaps she will join in this debate. “Björk, I think your accent is really cute.” Perhaps not.
BJÖRK READ THE STORY OF THE EYE WHEN SHE WAS SEVENTEEN. She was working at a fish factory, standing there from seven in the morning until seven at night, cutting fish and pulling out worms with tweezers, sadly, quietly watching fellow workers who were spending their whole lives doing this. It really got to her. “I was still very shy,” she explains. “I was all hairy and wet on the inside, not saying anything, double double shy.” Her boyfriend gave her the book. “It was one of these books that proved to me that I was not insane.”
Written in 1928, it is a short novel, but it packs into its few pages almost endless violations. There are rapes. There is a murder. Eggs and the testicle of a freshly killed bull disappear up various orifices. At the book’s climax, the eyeball of a murdered priest is used instead. “It’s not to be taken literally,” Björk tells me. “It’s a mind thing. You know when you wake up in the morning, and you’ve dreamed you are Elvis Presley ? Do you know what I mean ?” Well, I never have actually dreamed I was Elvis Presley, but... “No, not me either. I’m just saying. It’s about all the things that you think about, even though they don’t happen in real life. With that sort of freedom, you can play games with your mind and feel quite healthy about it. It was very good for a seventeen-year- old to read that book.” So it didn’t make you think, “Oh wow, maybe it would be fun to stick an egg up my bum....?” “No. Honestly, I didn’t.” She reads the book once in a while and gives it to new people she really likes. I ask her about the video Venus as a Boy, in which she suggestively fondles an egg while singing explicitly about copulation. In the video the egg is eventually fried. This touches off a slightly sore spot for Björk. She gave Sophie Muller, the video director, a copy of Story of the Eye a couple of days before they filmed the but didn’t insist that she read it. Muller didn’t have the time.
“She kept going on about it being fried,” sighs Björk with exasperation. “I was saying, ‘No way is that book about a fried egg ! I’m sorry. Poached ? Okay. Boiled ? Okay. Raw ? Okay. But not fried.” (contributing editor Chris Heath lives in London and prefers his eggs scrambled with smoked salmon) And a fried egg is unsuitable because......? “Because it’s too hard. It’s rough and it’s greasy, It should be about being sort of liquidy and wet and soft and open.....” After the video was finished, Sophie called Björk. She had read the book. Now she agreed with Björk : Fried was the wrong egg. This week Björk is reading a simpler manuscript, a biography of Gerard Depardieu. “He’s irresistible, isn’t he ?” she says. “It’s his energy : kind of unpredictable and impulsive. Fuck logic—that’s what he’s about.” BJÖRK IS IN L.A. TO PLAY A ONE-OFF CONCERT. THE LAST TIME she was here the earthquake struck. She was staying at the Sunset Marquis Hotel. When the quake started she rode her bed like a bumper car around the room, screaming, “Yes ! Yes !” It was such a great feeling. The quake made such a wonderful noise. “It was the deepest bass sound. It was like you’ve waited for this all your life.” The only sour note came when she went outside afterward. The Black Crowes were there with an acoustic guitar, singing “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.” “I was, ‘Oh, no......’”
One of Björk’s new, unreleased songs is called “The Modern Things.” She explained it to me. “It’s about how the modern things like cars and such, or computers and all that, have always existed. They’ve just been waiting in a mountain for the right moment, and have been listening to the irritating noises—dinosaurs and people outside—and now it’s their turn to come out and multiply.” She smiles. “I thought it was really funny. I don’t know—I might be the only one laughing.”
BJÖRK GUÐMUNDSDÓTTIR WAS BORN TWENTY-EIGHT YEARS ago in Reykjavik, Iceland. Her parents had been together since they were fourteen. With a baby, Björk’s mother became a housewife. She didn’t like it, so she divorced, took her daughter, and started hanging out with the in-crowd of Reykjavik. So began a set of family permutations, which means that Björk now has three brothers and three sisters, with three fathers and three mothers among them. From the age of five Björk would travel alone, by bus, between households and to and from school. Björk and her mother ended up in a building which has often been called a hippie commune, though Björk is adamant it wasn’t quite that. She was the only child and she made her own fun. There was a cat. It used to eat yarn. “Once it came out of his bottom, and we had to pull it through.” Another time Björk wanted to know whether the cat could fly, so she threw it out the window. It couldn’t. “It wasn’t meant in a mean way. I really felt sorry for him because he couldn’t follow the birds.”
Björk liked being alone. She would walk around, sing, and play games. She would rehearse running down the middle of the street, a busy street with several intersections, with her eyes shut, and eventually she learned to run down it as fast as she could without looking, just relying on her other senses. It was such a kick. So much adrenaline. Then one day she ran into a lamppost. She still has a scar on her right palm.
She was something of a prodigy in Iceland’s classical music system : the first pupil ever to stay in music school from five to fifteen. She studied flute and piano. When she was eleven she made her first album. She wrote one of the songs, ‘Jóhannes Kjarval,’ but the big hit, ‘Arab Boy,’ was written by her stepfather and told of her being in love with a boy from Egypt and riding a camel with him. In Iceland it made her famous. Not all the repercussions were pleasant : “On the bus, kids were shouting at me, ‘Oh, she really thinks she’s much better than the rest of us, she sits in the front of the bus.’” Then, when she sat in the back, they would shout at her about that.
She refused to make another album. With the earnings from her pop career—about $4,000—she bought a piano. When she was fourteen (the same year her mother and stepfather split up) her grandmother died unexpectedly. Björk wrote a song about her death. Björk’s mother heard it and asked her to play it on the church organ at the funeral. Everyone cried. Her death was a horrible loss. She was fifty-three, on holiday in Bulgaria. A piece of meat got stuck in her throat, and she choked to death.
BJÖRK AND THE MAN FROM HER RECORD COMPANY DISCUSS the evenings dinner arrangements. “Are you a vegetarian ?” he asks. “Sort of,” she replies. “I mean, I eat meat.” They settle on Thai food. After the meal I go to the bathroom. The men’s bathroom. There is only one person in there, looking in the mirror. It is Björk. Isn’t this the gents ? I mutter. “I was feeling lazy,” she says. Oh, I say. There are no cubicles, no doors to close, and it’s too late to pretend that I’ve just come in here to wash my hands, so I get on with my business. I pee, and she fiddles with her face. It’s not like I’ve never been in the ladies, I say over my shoulder. “Well,” she says, “there’s no need for explaining then.”
Afterward we go to a drinking club called the Olive, and we drink. Siggi—who used to be the drummer for the Sugarcubes, and has flown over at the last moment to replace Björk’s indisposed percussionist—starts doing a parody of ‘Human Behaviour’ in which the song is now called ‘Giraffe Behaviour.’ Björk laughs so hard and so uncontrollably that eventually she lifts up the tablecloth, places her head beneath it, and chortles away, a vibrating mound of white fabric leaking northern European shrieks.
AS A TEENAGE, BJÖRK THOUGHT MOST BOYS WERE IDIOTS. “I thought they were only good for being in bands with. When you’re fourteen, boys are horrible.” She first slept with a boy when she was fifteen. “I had a huge red shirt and big boots—quite punky, I have to say it—and I went on a mission with this boy. We actually went to his friend’s house. It was dark and I remember thinking I wasn’t sure if that was it or not,” she recalls. “But I thought it was ever so exciting.”
Having sex would not always be so convenient. “In Iceland teenagers don’t have anywhere to go,” she explains. “So you just put on ski overalls and if it’s a blizzard you just drink one vodka bottle each and then you just fuck between the houses.”
At nineteen, Björk discovered she was pregnant. She’d been with her poet boyfriend, Thor, for the best part of four years. It was a surprise. She was overjoyed. But then she talked to people, took their advice— “kind of being all brainy,” she now says, emphasizing the last word as though there were no worse quality on earth than dry, unimpulsive reason—and scheduled an abortion. And then, on the morning of her appointment, she simply decided not to go.
Her son Sindri, is now eight. For the most part, he lives with Björk in London, but he is in Iceland with ex- husband Thor right now. For the past couple of years Björk lived with a British DJ. That situation has recently changed. She said on ‘Loveline’ that her new love is a secret.
She tells me a dream she had recently. She was a giant, standing on one leg on an island, watching planes go by, shiny and silvery, full of Italians. She caught a plane, and the Italians got so upset and breathed so much and had so much panic that the plane got red hot and started glowing. So she had to let it go, and off it flew to America. Her explanation of this dream is the closest she comes to discussing her current relationship. She says bashfully that the dream was “because I’m a little bit in love with a guy who lives in New York.”
Nevertheless, our conversation turns so frequently to abstract ideas of love and commitment and freedom that it is clearly all churning around in her head. “My mind is very demanding,” she tells me one day, “and I get very easily bored. For me, falling in love is such a head thing. It has to be someone who can turn you on with your imagination, and the body usually follows.” And as far as love, and the falling out if it, “it all just tumbles, doesn’t it ?” she says. “In one week. Even less. You end up saying, ‘What was it we did the last three years ? I forgot.’” I hope those weren’t your exact words. “No,” she says, “I’m being cruel.” She thinks a moment, realizing that words which were supposed to be free-floating and emblematic suddenly seem horrible and specific. “I’m sorry I said that.”
THE SUGARCUBES CAME ABOUT BECAUSE of the domesticity imposed by motherhood. After they were married, Björk and Thor moved into a house, and an avant-garde crowd of poets, painters, and musicians would come around. Six of them created Bad Taste Ltd., dedicated to publishing each other’s work. For a joke they also formed the Sugarcubes. When one of their songs, ‘Birthday,’ caused a stir in England, they rerecorded it in English. Suddenly they had a career.
The Sugarcubes lasted three albums (four, if you count the enjoyable irreverent dance mix LP It’s-It). There were tensions resulting from the way the world treated the band (as an eccentric curiosity), and because this was not what any of them had intended to do with their lives. There was also the Einar problem. The Sugarcubes second vocalist specialized in rough guttural shouts, and as time passed, it was hard to find a review that didn’t suggest the band would be better off without him.
The Einar problem perhaps made Björk’s decision to dissolve the Sugarcubes harder rather than easier. She still feels guilty : “One of the reasons it took me all these years to make Debut was because I thought it was so selfish and egoistic.” She claims that she expected anything she did on her own, without the moderating influences of others, would be unlikely to find a significant audience. For the most part, she says, the songs she writes are about one thing. “It’s about now. The word ‘now’ in Icelandic is nuna. Not tomorrow, not yesterday. Now. Nuna. Just being there. Open. “It’s as if reiterating the same point—relishing moments that are sufficiently nuna—might bring her the freedom she wants. Her dizzying, exhausting quest for spontaneity is the counterpoint to all her fears of being pinned down and trapped and talked into submission. When she’s drunk, she’s the one who suggests people turn up the music, or jump off the roof, or leap into the ocean, or just be outrageously, violently happy.
ME : Do you hate it when people think you’re a bit mad ? Björk : Yeah, very much so. I just think it’s a misunderstanding. ME : What’s the misunderstanding ? Björk : Well, it’s obvious. Just look. You just have to be an airplane and watch the city from above. Just watch. And this place is alive, and if you’re not going to be alive, and refuse all those things in, you’re fucked.
BJÖRK TAKES THE STAGE FOR THE CONCERT at Glam Slam. At first she runs from one side of the stage to the other and back again, her body hunched, covering her face with her hands, like a timid but inquisitive rodent. The crowd goes mad. Sometimes the music sinks beneath a certain muddiness, but her singing is remarkable. Usually pop’s more unconventional, extraordinary voices are also voices over which their owners have little control, but Björk’s composure is magnificent.
Afterward, backstage, a few people wander in. Layne from Alice in Chains sits on the sofa telling Björk’s keyboardist, Leila, his life story. There is a song Björk wants me to hear, one of her favorites. It is a kitsch ‘40s affair called ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’ by Betty Hutton. The big speakers for her walkman aren’t working properly, so she takes them and holds them on either side of my head. Whenever the song goes loud and upbeat she jiggles the speakers up and down in a low-tech, slightly painful version of Sensurround. “Isn’t that the best song you’ve heard for five years ?” she raves.
Björk has arranged to meet some friends at the Viper Room. We are invited into a tiny inner sanctum. Björk orders champagne (perhaps not expecting the $165 bill, which she nonetheless quietly settles by credit card) and asks an employee to fetch their coats and bags from the main room. When the employee leaves, she roars with laughter and says to Leila, as if winning a private bet, “I did it ! I can’t believe it ! I’m wicked ! I gave an order for no reason ! Tell me I’m professional !”
The music—pop rap of the K7 ilk—does not fit our mood. Björk decides to take over. She visits the DJ and pores over his CDs. Soon she is frolicking on the dance floor to a spirited Latin toe-tappper by Tito Puente. Then, as the the DJ segues nonsensically into the Pretenders’ “Precious,” we all begin to cough and sputter. Someone has let off a pepper-gas canister. It is unbearable. The doors are flung open, and everyone falls out onto the street.
Everyone, that is, except the DJ, Björk, Leila, and myself, who huddle in the corner by the DJ’s equipment. Björk is not going yet. Not until the evening has been rounded off by the right sort of record. She gestures at a Julie London CD, passionately, and it is only when the clear, calm first lines of ‘Cry Me a River’ sail through the choking air and out onto the pavement that she consents to leave.
BACKSTAGE AT THE GLAM SLAM, EARLIER THAT NIGHT I was loitering away from the crowds when Siggi and Björk appeared, arm in arm, laughing. “Dwight Yoakam !” she shouted, and together they bellowed, “You’ve got your little ways of hurting me ! You know how to tear me up !” This was so funny they repeated it three times. Then Björk turned to me. “Come on ! You must know a line from a tune !”
Afterward I wished I had just done it—belted out a crisp chorus of ‘Seasons in the Sun’ or something—but I didn’t. I froze, a little embarrassed, and muttered something about how I’d sing later. Björk looked at me, and it is the disappointment in her face I remember the clearest, the sense that she had made both a decision and a realization. That I’m not really like them. That if I were faced with a blizzard to fuck in, an egg to engulf, an instant to savor, I might stop to think, and the moment would be gone.
At around 2:30 in the morning, we will return from the Viper Room together. I will go to bed. Björk will take the back stairs up to the hotel’s rooftop pool. She will swim up and down, her face in the water, staring at the pattern at the bottom of the pool, and it will seem so magical that she will nearly forget to breathe. Tomorrow she must fix her face and pose for photos and fly to New York and meet her lover and promote her record and call her son..... but not now. It’s just her, the water, the pattern, sinking deeper into the nuna, nuna, nuna of it all.