A Memoir of Hard Living, Hair, and Post-Punk, from the Middle East to the LowerEast Side
“It is my honor to introduce these pages—so gravelly, so straggly, so hopeful, bright, and true.” —Elizabeth Gilbert
When she was seven, Rayya Elias and her family fled the political conflict in their native Syria, settling in Detroit. Bullied in school and caught between the world of her traditional family and her tough American classmates, she rebelled early.
Elias moved to New York City to become a musician and kept herself afloat with an uncommon talent for cutting hair. At the height of the punk movement, life on the Lower East Side was full of adventure, creative inspiration, and temptation. Eventually, Elias’s passionate affairs with lovers of both sexes went awry, her (more than) occasional drug use turned to addiction, and she found herself living on the streets—between her visits to jail.
This debut memoir charts four decades of a life lived in the moment, a path from harrowing loss and darkness to a place of peace and redemption. Elias’s wit and lack of self-pity in the face of her extreme highs and lows make Harley Loco a powerful read that’s sure to appeal to fans of Patti Smith, Augusten Burroughs, and Eleanor Henderson.
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Praise for Harley Loco
“[A] compulsively page-turning memoir…Haunting and mesmerizing, Elias’s story captures powerfully the vulnerability of being an outsider and the deep yearnings to be a part of something.”—Publishers Weekly
“First time author Elias, who has been clean since 1997, has enough distance to speak on her past unashamedly, with clear-eyed intelligence and without judging her younger self too harshly…strong stuff, with some truly amazing stories well told..”—Kirkus Reviews
"Rayya Elias's life reads like Huck Finn on heroin. Her story of fleeing Syria as a child, growing up in Detroit and spending her young adulthood trolling around the East Village is as American as they come, including as it does immigration, addiction and hard won deliverance. Through it all Elias's voice burns fire hot and is completely engaging." —Darcey Steinke
“Rayya Elias's Harley Loco grabs you by the throat on the very first page, and then never stops shaking you -- even after you've closed the book. It's a punk song disguised as a memoir: raw, slashing, gritty, and shot through with all the wild confusion of youth. But it's also wise, unpredictable, and relentlessly affecting.” —Jonathan Miles
“Rayya Elias's twisted, devastating memoir of a life lived on the margins can take its rightful place alongside The Basketball Diaries, Please Kill Me and Just Kids as a classic, blood-stained love letter to bohemian NYC.” —Craig Marks
“Rayya Elias's recovery/coming out/East Village memoir brutally and honestly reminds us that replacing love with drugs keeps a woman a child. The redemption here is in her Syrian immigrant family. Their undying love and persistence remains her anchor and moves the reader to that place of transcendence that only unconditional love can create.” —Sarah Schulman
“Do any of us really know ourselves? This kind of exploration into the human spirit is what true religion is about.” —Deborah Harry
What was the experience of immigrating and assimilating to life in America like, after growing up in Aleppo, Syria? What piece of advice would you give to young girls going through the same process today?
This is a hard question. Everyone is built differently with variations of perspective dependent on their own past. My biggest piece of advice, and I know it sounds cliché, but it’s true, is to be themselves. The more I pushed, the more I was pushed back, from family and so called friends. I tried to get rid of my accent and did a phenomenal job, but now when I hear my sister’s beautiful accent, I wish that I had a slight cadence to my voice to remind me of my heritage. Also, I think in today’s society, there is so much more tolerance of foreigners than there was in the late 1960’s. It’s much more accepted and even admired to dress differently and speak different languages. I say use it, and enjoy it, and most of all, do not forget who you are because this is your foundation.
Knowing what you know now, what would say to the ten year-old version of yourself? What about at twenty years?
I would tell her not to worry about her whole family and to relax and enjoy her childhood. I would also tell her to be honest with one person, whoever that may be— sister, brother, mother, friend—and let them know what was happening in her life, good or bad. Not to hold it all in so it would rot away and shake the core of who she is. Let that shit out! There is nothing I could tell the twenty year-old that would make her listen at that point. She was off to the races, thinking she had the solution and recipe to her life. The only things I’d wish for her is that she be safe and read a lot.
Why do you think you first turned to drugs, and was there one moment when you first realized that you were an addict?
I was looking for a way out of having to feel the reality of life. Navigating through life is hard enough without a language barrier and cultural differences. I think reaching for drugs was a way to find a spiritual answer, to disappear into a place that was ultimately kinder, but it doesn’t work that way. We know that we have to be present for life if we want to “have” it. Even though I was addicted to drugs, I didn’t know I was a drug addict. My first counselor at my very first rehab told me that I was an addict, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. I just thought I was a fucked up person who didn’t know how to control or deal with her life. It was actually a relief to know that I had a condition and, if I wanted, there could be help for it.
The moment when you decided, with finality, that you were going clean, no one was there to tell you – you simply decided all alone. For the benefit of individuals and their family members going through a similar situation, what advice do you have?
The most difficult thing about this is to tell the families or loved ones going through this situation that they are truly powerless. Whether they should or shouldn’t enable their addicted loved ones is not for me to say. In my case, nothing could have and would have gotten me to stop unless the ultimate decision came from me. This decision came only when I ran out of all other options. When there was no one left to help, or rescue me. When I’d lost everyone I had loved. When I’d taken the drugs and the lifestyle as far as I could, which included death (I overdosed three times). When I’d hit every bottom and realized that my life would only ever consist of more pain and suffering. That was the point at which I faced the choice alone, and yet not so alone, as I really felt a light and spirit guiding me to finally try living for a change.
Your memoir never really seems to express regret for the past, and considers life not worth living without living on the edge, but it still seems to beg the question: if you could do it over, what would you change?
There were times in my life that this question would have really troubled me. When I first got clean, the death of my mother haunted me, but there was nothing I could do to change the fact that I wasn’t able to show up for her like she or I would’ve liked because of my horrible lifestyle. Or when I missed my brother’s wedding because I was arrested on my way to the airport for possession of drugs. The things that I personally experienced are not things that I would change because I wouldn’t be where I am now without every one of them. Yes, I behaved treacherously, and it was very painful. I would advise anyone to do the opposite of what I’ve done, but they are weaved into a tapestry that is my fiber now, and I really like the person I am today. I get to experience all the “do-overs” now and, trust me, it’s a blessing.
When revisiting Syria, amongst family members who know nothing of your life in the States, you say that life there was nothing like how you remembered it. Could you please speak to the differences?
As a child, I was raised Christian Orthodox. I remembered our lifestyle in Syria as grand. Very glamorous it seemed to me back then. I recall my parents and siblings dressing for parties and outings. The club where we swam, and the summers spent on my father’s land, in Northern Syria. The times we spent with my cousins in Beirut at the beach were truly magical. When I visited twelve years ago, I spent most of the time in Beirut, and it was stifled. It seemed that my cousins (who are Christian) were no longer shiny or happy, but had that weathered look that people get after losing their homes, and living in stairwells, and dealing with war. On the other hand, I met other people (mostly modern Muslims) who were living like there would be no tomorrow: decadent to a fault, and not wasting a moment with worries about the future.
Your family moved from Syria to escape political conflict, and now Syria is embroiled in a long, devastating civil war. What are your thoughts on this crisis? Do you have any predictions on when the fighting might come to an end?
I don’t pretend to know anything about the political conflict in Syria. I don’t think anyone really knows what is going on over there. I was there two years ago for the Christmas holiday and had probably the best time of my life in Aleppo, Damascus, Beirut, and Jordan. It was so civilized, and Aleppo was the highlight of the whole trip. It is impossible to imagine that this can happen in such a short period of time. That my eighty five year-old Auntie—who I took to Christmas midnight mass just two years ago, and then to a fancy restaurant where she ate and drank with my family until 2AM—is stuck in her home, where she’s lived since the 1960’s. She raised all of her children there, became a grandmother and a widow. But now, with no way to get out of Syria, she has to depend on her neighbors to get food. It’s awful to think that she is afraid of what is happening, but even more afraid of what could happen if Assad is ousted. Everyone has an opinion about the crisis in Syria, and how to stop it. If it was clear-cut, I think we would already have resolution. I try to keep positive, call my aunt and cousins when I can and make sure that they’re surviving.
Gentrification is a much-talked about subject in New York City, and you definitely saw quite a change in the Lower East Side, the East Village and Chelsea over the years. What’s your input on the debate?
My ideas about this have changed over the years. When I was a young musician looking for the cheapest places in New York to live, I didn’t categorize it as gentrification. It seemed more like a melding of culture and counterculture, and living by the rules created by the dominant culture in that community. I didn’t mind living in squat-like conditions in a city that I couldn’t really afford. I thought it was cool that artists, musicians, and drug dealers could all live peacefully within and around the projects and do well together. But when “real” gentrification happened, and the old people were driven out of their own communities because new buildings were taking the place of their tenements, and they couldn’t afford to stay in the neighborhood they grew up and raised their families in, this didn’t sit well with me at all. It made me angry, with Giuliani for his initiative to clean up New York City’s streets, and at the developers for being so greedy. Now I’m in my fifties, and I still love these neighborhoods. I also realize that without this kind of urban development, the city wouldn’t grow and change, and change is the only constant in our lives. So I’ve come to terms with all of it, and just see it as the process of life. We all have to make room for new things, or we wither away holding on to the old.
It’s interesting that you eventually moved back to the very neighborhood that harbored many of your lowest moments. What do you think of all the changes that have occurred in Manhattan over the years?
I needed to slay the beast. Plus, I loved that neighborhood so much that I couldn’t fathom living anywhere else at the time. I’d seen children grow up there and take over their parents’ businesses. It was like going home. As far as the changes: I loved the convenience of having a grocery store on 8th and Avenue C, but hated that they got rid of the community garden in order to build it. Now that I was clean, I loved having the police station right across the street from my apartment. The restaurants that were popping up were great if you could afford to eat there, or worse, get a table. I once said to the owner of Bao 111, “It’s easier to cop a bag of dope in this spot than to get a table.” He didn’t appreciate that. He loved his Upper East Side foodies coming in, paying top dollar, partying in the neighborhood and leaving.
As a musician, filmmaker, hairdresser, and now for the first time, writer, how does your creative process change as you transition between mediums?
Well, hairdressing requires a slightly different skill set. It’s more psychological and technical. The techniques came to me very easily. I was very lucky in that way, I just got it. For some reason, I could look at a head of hair and know exactly what my approach would be, and deliver what I wanted. The psychology of “doing” hair is a whole different dog and pony show. It revolves around people (and, quite often, their emotional baggage) and is very, very intimate. I had to learn quickly how to make a person (mostly women) feel safe and completely confident in my chair, and doing that I had to be strong, trustworthy, and confident myself.
Musician, filmmaker, and writer, almost fall into the same category, the medium is slightly different, but always in the same vein (no pun intended). Music was the most immediate. I would hear a riff in my head and it would haunt me until I could exorcise it. If I was driving, I’d call and hum it into my answering machine, because the specificity of these things came and went, and if you didn’t catch it right away, it would be gone for good. I also wrote poetry constantly, or lyrics about things that were going on with me: a lyrical journal to chronicle my moods. It’s funny how the songs would come together once they were ready, they would fit like Cinderella’s slipper, and it always amazed me.
As a kid, especially while sitting with my broken legs in Syria, I would make up little stories. I would sit for long periods with my Te’te and entertain us both with make- believe anecdotes about all the kids that belonged to the Muslim family downstairs and who their real moms were. Storytelling was always something that I loved and was good at. It was a natural progression to start making film once I got clean. I was in the studio recording music again and telling stories of my lesser days. When my friend Kory Clarke suggested that we shoot a short film of one of the stories, I was like, “No way, I could never do that.” But he insisted that we could do it since we’d already shot some videos back in the day. So I went with it, bought a Syd Field screenwriting video, wrote the script, and made Anonymous, which I still love. I was able to score the music with my producer Barb Morrison, which was a dream come true. It was a total fusion of mediums—film, writing, music—and it was full-blown.
Writing the book was the most difficult as there was very little interaction with others; there were no outside distractions, or muses. It was completely an inside job. I had to dig deep without melodies or harmonies, just my memories of the past and the contemplation of my relationship to them.
Drugs and art are frequently associated, and are an association that’s just as frequently condemned. Do you think for you personally, there is any correlation between your early drug experimentation and your attraction to the arts?
I knew as a young child that I was different from the rest of my family. I wasn’t sure how, but nothing that I experienced seemed to fit in with their groove. They were pragmatic about life and I was always the dreamer. I was never interested in science or math (although I was good at math), and was always looking for something to light me up on the inside. I guess drugs were the first thing that made me feel that fire, and though misguided, gave me a sense of security and courage to dream big and follow through with my creativity.
You were on top of the new wave scene in the 1980’s – what kind of music do you listen to now? What currently inspires you when making music?
Oh my, this is a tough one. What I listen to depends on my mood. I loved all the big productions of the eighties; they’re actually kind of mind blowing to listen to these days. Like the Tears for Fears and Echo and the Bunnymen records, but I like things a little more stripped down now. I put my iPod to shuffle and see. Sometimes it’s “Billion Dollar Babies” by Alice Cooper, or the Kid A record from Radiohead. Other times it’s Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody”. I find myself listening to old Nirvana unplugged, or Alice in Chains also unplugged. Led Zeppelin, Stones, Adele, Iggy. Bowie, always Bowie. I could go on forever with new bands like All The Pretty Horses, or Grizzly Bear as well. When I write music I don’t listen to music. Because I’m so easily distracted and influenced, I like to have the silence within myself. I want to capture my own voice and melodies, and the energy of my surroundings.
At one point you acknowledge that the pull of becoming a junkie had a little to do with many of your music idols being known junkies. What do you think of the mythologies built around rock stars and their drug use?
This would have been answered much differently when I was in my twenties. Now all I can say is that I don’t believe in the mythology. I just think that musicians and artists are passionate, sensitive people. Most of us, but I can only speak for myself, don’t have high expectations of “making it.” We just love what we do. I think when young artists achieve a certain level of success they can’t always handle the questions of self worth and authenticity that come into play. These doubts can ruin the best in all of us.
Now that you’ve made the first leap into writing, do you plan to continue with another book?
Yes, I’ve been working on a short story collection that I think might be a great follow up to Harley Loco.
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