Albeeno, Albyeno

Saturday. To the 1950s-steeped New Piccadilly Cafe in Denman street, to treat Reg Vermue to a meal while he’s over here from Toronto. I’ve been coming to the NPC for over ten years now, loving its vintage formica tables and booths. Even the multicoloured strips hanging over the doorway to the toilet are gloriously out of time in 2007. Still the same family waiters in white uniforms with epaulets, who remember me from the time I did my first interview with Melody Maker in the cafe (1995), then used one of the NPC’s calling cards in the CD artwork for the Orlando album (1997). The 01 dialling code was intact then, as it is on the menus in 2007. In recent years, the cafe has been on the verge of closing down due to rent rises, so every visit always feels urgent and essential. It might be the last one. Today, I find myself discussing the difference between a cravat and a foulard with the owner Lorenzo.

Reg unwittingly asks for a latte, a perfectly reasonable request in every cafe in ever major city these days. He receives an ordinary coffee with milk. The NPC does espressos and cappuccinos (with its big enameled pink machine), but lattes are far too de nos jours.

We chat about the movies Babel and Shortbus. Shortbus features one of Reg’s songs (as Gentleman Reg), but he also makes an brief acting appearance. The director, John Cameron Mitchell of Hedwig And The Angry Inch fame, needed an albino character. Reg doesn’t have any pink in his eyes, but his extreme blondness is albino enough for most, so he got the job.

In the cafe, we have an argument about the pronunciation of “albino” and “Babel”. I pronounce the latter ‘Bay-ball’, Reg calls it ‘Babble’. In the UK, it’s “al-BEE-no”. In North America it’s “al-BYE-no”. You say al-bye-no, I say al-bee-no, let’s call the whole thing blond.

How does Kurt Cobain pronounce it in the coda of Smells Like Teen Spirit?

a mulatto! / an albino! / a mosquito! / my libido!

We concur the Nirvana singer plumps for the US version, ‘al-bye-no’. Though now we’re rather more distracted with considering the sheer silliness of those lyrics. What IS Mr Cobain trying to say there? Something about teenagers feeling that they stand out in a crowd, awkwardly; that they’re insect-like, swattable, parasitical; that they’re at the mercy of their hormones? Or is it that the words vaguely rhyme and sound good when shouting through hair?

I’m reminded of HG Wells’s Invisible Man, whose albinism helps his skin become transparent. There was a rather good BBC TV adaptation in the 1980s which gave this aspect its proper due, with flashback sequences of Griffin with bubbly hair and pink eyes. It was on straight after The Lenny Henry Show. After the black comedian, the albino mad scientist.

According to movie-makers, albinos are good fodder for assassins. There’s one in the Chevy Chase & Goldie Hawn caper Foul Play. And one in The Da Vinci Code.

Foul Play being the better film.

I suppose Reg Vermue is the invisible man of the Toronto indie music scene, as far as the UK is concerned. I do hope that will change. He’s been on the covers of Canadian magazines, and on soundtracks (Shortbus, the US Queer As Folk). His musical friends and collaborators include members of The Arcade Fire, The Hidden Cameras, Final Fantasy and The Organ. The Arcade Fire are absolutely massive, Final Fantasy (ie Owen Pallett) is playing bigger venues every time he comes over, and The Hidden Cameras are big enough to play the Union Chapel. I do wish the UK movers and shakers would hurry up and notice that Gentleman Reg is just as good as those others. And just as good as, say, Rufus Wainwright, if we’re talking about girlish singer-songwriters.

On the subject of The Organ, I was very sad to hear the band split up at Christmas, just as I was starting to get into them. Reg tells me he’s hoping to work with the Organ’s singer Katie Sketch shortly. A beautiful gay albino who sings girlishly, and a beautiful boyish lesbian who sings like Morrissey. Whatever they did together, I’d buy it.

[And if you’re reading this in London on the Sunday, for heaven’s sake come to the Brixton Windmill tonight and see Gentleman Reg, headlining the bill. Guaranteed better than The Da Vinci Code.]


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