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Janet Hamill Raises a Toast to La Vie Boheme

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Of course they both moved to New York, working at bookstores all over Manhattan. "I worked at the Strand; didn't everyone?" Hamill says. "And at Scribner's, right on Fifth Avenue—I got Patti a job there. Barnes & Noble when it was just a textbook store on Broadway, and Cinemabilia on 13th Street—that place I still dream of. The characters there!"

By now, Smith was living with young Robert Mapplethorpe; Hamill appears many times in her award-winning memoir Just Kids. "Those are the best times. You can never go back to that," Hamill says of their downtown apprenticeship.

Despite the nostalgic glow, she adds, "I always felt I was slightly too wholesome. I couldn't handle the suburbs, but I wasn't quite wild enough for the Chelsea [Hotel] scene. I lived my own kind of bohemian life—I used recreational drugs, it was okay to have sex without being married, but that was about as radical as it got. I did acid, but only on weekends. I had to go to work. I think that kept the lid on it."

Nevertheless, Hamill moved to San Francisco in 1970. "I caught the tail end of the Summer of Love madness that was still in the air," she reports. But she dreamed of traveling to Africa. She and her boyfriend managed to save up $3,000, which seemed like a fortune at the time, and crossed the Atlantic on a Yugoslavian freighter.

"That was the greatest thing in the world," Hamill says of the ship, which sailed from the Brooklyn Navy Yard to Casablanca. From there they went to Marrakesh by train—"the famous Marrakesh Express," Hamill says. "I was finally someplace truly exotic, as exotic as New York City had seemed to me as a child growing up and looking at it across the river from Weehawken."

They spent nearly a year exploring North Africa and the Mediterranean. "My boyfriend wanted to stay in the Greek Islands, lie on the beach and get a tan, but I insisted, no, we have to go through with this." Despite Hamill's fear of air travel, they flew from Athens to Cairo, abetted by a tranquilizer from a one-armed Norwegian with a medicine pouch. They made it to the Serengeti, where they saw lions in their natural environment. Hamill pauses. "I've never been able to write about that," she says quietly. "There are some things so spectacular you can't put it in words."

Besides, she asserts, "I can't write when I'm traveling. I have to be in my study, surrounded by my books. Much as I love to wander, I have to have a home base to come back to, where I can write it out."

By the mid-1970s, she was performing at the St. Mark's Poetry Project and other downtown venues. Her first book of poems, Troublante, was published in 1975, the same year her old friend released Horses.

Long a champion of spoken-word performance, Hamill started adding music to the mix in the 1990s, after opening for Patti Smith at Summerstage. "I was thrilled," she recalls. "There must have been 3000 people. I was in my glory that night."

Bass player and Feelies manager Bob Torsello saw that performance and sought her out, coaxing Hamill to perform with a band. In a short documentary about their collaboration, Hamill recalls, "I really had no interest. All I wanted to do was be a good poet."

Torsello wooed her with spoken-word/music recordings he liked, and eventually she agreed to a rehearsal session. It clicked.

"I bring a poem I think is suitable to be adapted to music," she explains. "Maybe have some kind of music in my head that I can reference. I love rock'n'roll... the Velvet Underground, the Doors. Sometimes we just improvise. We work it and work it till we get it right." The band, now called Lost Ceilings, has joined her at such venues as Seattle's Bumbershoot Festival, Pittsbugh's Andy Warhol Museum, and New Year's Day at St. Mark's Church; they've also played at Woodstock's Wok'n'Roll.

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