My love affair with Azzaro is all wrapped up in one very intense and heartbreaking summer. Involving a fragile me, a skinny Elvis-hipped Syrian loverman, his possessive girlfriend, a laidback deli and ridiculous but very real emotions lived out and crushed in thickly scented rooms.
Azzaro pour Homme is such a strange scent: skunky, cheapish, sexy and rather unforgettable. Created in 1978, played with from time to time I think and like all leather/fougère/chypré perfumes, things have fallen away from it, transformed and died. The full blown glorious original made in the image of Lois Azzaro, a Tunisian-born Sicilian, was defiantly masculine, robust, ballsy and reeked of late seventies dancefloor hedonism. Time and tweaking has faded the original but it can still stir the senses and bust some moves.
There are some lovely touches in it; the required fougère touchstones of tonka, oakmoss and lavender, rounded out and butched up with leather, cedar, sandalwood, bergamot, sage and basil. The brightness I remember like a cheeky smile at the top comes from a splash of lemon mixed with cocktail lightness with caraway, orris and anise. The potential lounge lizard leer of Azzaro has always been kept in check by the balance of the notes and the drydown, a sensual and erotic landing of musks and amber. Nothing shouts, whistles or grabs at you. It has a dated feel sometimes, but then you can watch movies with Redford, McQueen, Delon, Mastrioanni, Montand, Stamp and Bogarde; and think: dated maybe but damn they were STARS.
I have avoided smelling Azzaro for so long. I know it still wields tremendous power over me. People like him come along so rarely. I will call him Nic. I can see his smoky bottles; he always had at least four or five scattered about, tangled in sheets, in clothes on the floor, next to the kettle in the kitchen or by a pile of books and unopened mail by the door. Everything reeked of Azzaro, from his thick curling hair to the cups in the kitchen. If I borrowed a pair of paper-thin jeans or a shirt, the perfume’s leather and brown musky woods were woven through the very fibres. I could lick it off my own skin, smell it in the hair tumbling over my eyes. He’d flash that devastating grin that said ‘I’ve got you…’ and I’d go weak and realise I was hopelessly obsessed.
He wore so much of it. It was a Middle Eastern thing, the way he’d been brought up, to anoint himself, treating perfume as an essential ritual of everyday life. I used to watch him comb it through his hair or splash it across his chest before pulling on a crisp white shirt. He taught me a trick of putting scent into the palm of one hand, letting the alcohol evaporate a little and then running scented fingers through hair. I still do this now, the ritual echoing the memory of Nic’s sensual toilette. But the excess suited him, I bathed in the glow of his Azzaro overdose, it formed a sort of scented soundtrack for the memories of that astonishing summer.
He came up behind me on my first day in the deli coffee shop as I struggled with the coffee machine and whispered ‘You smell very very nice….’ I turned. He grinned and I got my first massive wave of Nic/Azzaro. The intense woodiness and spice that almost seemed to sweat out of him, mixed with the fragrance’s cardamom and weird salted lemon accord. He was jittery, always on the edge of caffeine and nicotine withdrawal. We all smoked. I loved the smoky tar and nuttiness of Camels, something I carried back from Paris with me. I liked the pictures of Paris that rose and fell in the air as I exhaled. Nic was a Marlboro Red man. Full strength, no prisoners. Sometimes at the end of an evening his voice rasped down to burning embers as he smoked on, always a spare tucked away behind his ear.
I was wearing Antaeus when I met him, Chanel’s beeswax transvestite fougère. I wore it to piss people off, it was strong. I wasn’t even sure it suited me. I’d been wearing my beloved Sagamore for years, but it was disappearing fast. Lancôme had stopped making it and I was struggling to find it. I was shocked he put his hands on my waist when he spoke to me, as if it were the easiest thing in the world, heat and pressure from his fingers on my skin. He was the deli’s bad boy. Everyone rushed to tell me so, eyes rolling. Lateness. Language. ‘Unsuitable behaviour’. I never really found out what any of this was but it just made me look at him even more closely.
We were an eclectic bunch. The Deli was run by Russian émigrés, stone-faced and vaguely unhinged. There were a couple of trannys, a self-harming harpist, a beautiful long-haired boy whom I gently adored and later loved for a year until he told me he’d decided to love girls and broke my heart, a chef who stank of Brut and a woodcarver who made strange little animals with metal eyes. Quite the team.
Our floor manager, a crinkly old lady called Liliana who stalked about in sky high heels, had a soft spot for Nic and indulged his excesses. He lived five minutes away and if it looked like he was going to be late she would send me covertly to his flat to drag him out of his smoky scented fug.
He seemed so exotic in the dull ambience of middle class Edinburgh. Even amongst the deli misfits and student weirdoes we served, he stood out. He glowed, like a royal prince trying to hide amongst his people. The day after I met him he told me about Ramini his girlfriend, who lived close by with friends. ‘I took cash out the machine, stood on a car bonnet….threw the money in the air. I shouted he’s my man, you’re my woman, that’s how it’s gonna be.’
He kissed me during a morning break outside the back door as we smoked, oblivious to the couple that walked past, staring, shaking their heads. He just threw his head back, pushed the hair out of his eyes and laughed uproariously. ‘I love this beeswax thing you’ve got goin’ on, sexy as hell man.’ He licked my neck. I was too embarrassed to react. He frowned and took my chin in his hand, ‘Never be embarrassed by compliments and desire, by what you want’. I kind of smiled and looked at the ground, thrilled and on fire.
‘My mother taught me that’. He grinned and burst out laughing.
His mother’s influence was far reaching, he claimed to be a free spirit, but the reality was a controlled existence at her behest. She called him constantly, they shouted and screamed at each other on the phone. She sent him money or threatened to withhold it. Her letters to him lay scattered around his room, written on delicate blue airmail paper, always scented in her signature L’Air du Temps fragrance. She had always poured scent over Nic, anointing him, sending him out into the world radiating resinous balms, tolu balsam, ylang, black pepper, rose otto or frankincense. His love of incense, smoke, cigarettes and candles came from her. His passion for scented skins, his love of sex and the perfumed act was all him.
Ramini was a strange presence. I knew she knew of me, tolerated me. She was beautiful, half American, half Sri Lankan, a spoilt rich girl studying fine art and wiling away time in Edinburgh amusing herself with dancing, drugs and Nic. She was dangerous. There was something of the coiled cobra about her, always poised to strike. I never really believed for an moment Nic and I were for real, it was all too surreal and magnificent for any sense of actual reality to step in. But Ramini liked to play games and spin dice. Her godfather was a perfumer somewhere in India and she always exuded a mysterious blend of oils, vaguely floral with a grassy, druggy undertone that subtly varied. It was quite hypnotic, sleek and heavy like wet silk in your hands. I liked her, she was more like me than Nic, but I hated her too, as I knew despite all his flourishing talk and dalliances he would choose the safety of Ramini and look back at me as something fun and deviant but barely real.
The three of us went dancing one night. It was autumn, cracks were starting to appear, and Nic was drinking so much. But that night in the flickering glow of dozens of candles in Ramini’s kitchen we laughed and toasted one another. It was Nic’s birthday. She bought him a watch. I had bought a vintage blue glass bottle and decanted two bottles of Azzaro into it. I made my own label with his name on it and the date. He smiled and a tear fell but then he quickly grinned and splashed some in his hands, rubbed it gently on his throat and then leaned in and touched it to my face, kissing me. The silence was warmed by the anisic air and patchouli and oakmoss rolling off him in waves. That Azzaro amber and petitgrain struggle seemed to intensify in the room. My heart crashed in its cage. But Ramini just laughed and said she was going to change. I looked at Nic who took my hand and kissed my fingers. ‘Let’s go dancing.’ He said. ‘I want to dance with you both.’
Ramini wore dazzling gold sequined trousers, Nic a white shirt. He always wore white shirts; it set off the coffee colour of his skin. He affected a nonchalance, pretended it was just easier, but there was a studied and desperate vanity in his appearance. I was just shocked to be desired so violently by such a heavenly scented creature. It’s true I loved scented skin, always dripping and spraying, and trailing stoppers on naked skin. I could never have imagined desire without scent.
We danced continually for hours, lost in each other. His earthy spices and smudged amber washing across us, mingling with my beeswax and resins and Ramini’s deeply weird rainforest aromas pulsating off her skin. I realized suddenly amid the clattering beats and drifting smoke, watching him lost in himself, hair whirling, shirt sticking to his skin that he loved only himself. Ramini had known this for ages and was happy to wait it out. It was an appallingly lonely revelation. I pushed my way outside for air and then just left. I walked home, sweat drying on my skin, ears ringing, a strange mixture of sweat, smeared fragrance, cigarette smoke and dry ice pouring off me. But the base note was Azzaro and it smelt indescribably sad.
When I got around to trying it again halfway through this piece, the shock was visceral. It still smelt the same. A little muted and generic in the top, quicker to drydown but the echoing sameness poleaxed me. In my mind I had re-imagined it, twisted it, re-shaped it, moulded it around the memory of Nic. But no, the dark brown muddiness, the anisic sting all still there. As I stood in glaring sunshine, music pounding in earphones, I inhaled my wrist and caught the subtle shift of gears as the notes breathe into the mossy undergrowth of drydown. For a moment on a busy weekend street I felt lost.
The last night I saw him, he turned up at my flat pissed and irritable, pushing past me and staggering down the hall. A Marlboro as usual behind his left ear. He lit another one and slumped onto my floor. I sat and watched him. He was carrying a small bottle of gin. He told me Ramini was going home and his mother was demanding he do the same. The smell of cigarette smoke and perfume in the room was suffocating. He stood up and hurled the bottle against the wall, ‘Cheers,’ he grinned, ‘Let’s go out….up Arthur’s Seat…it’ll clear my head’.
I argued it was nearly midnight and cold, but we bundled out of the door. The city was alive with shouting and the sound of beer cans dropping, breaking glass and muffled sirens. A damp mist had swooped down and buildings and streets vanished and reappeared. I wore Chanel pour Monsieur that night, I have never worn it since. It reminds me too much of fog and vanishing. I could smell it, drifting greenly off my skin and hair as we walked through the empty streets, Nic randomly kicking at objects on the street and catching at my arm for support. As we walked past Holyrood Place he put his hands to my face and touched my lips. I could taste Azzaro and fags on his fingers.
Arthurs Seat was swathed in mist, the rocks looming in and out of shadows. Everything was still and the air felt like the sea. He lit a cigarette and walked slightly ahead. The mist was moving and breathing around us. Nic laughed as he banged on a steamed up car, and some bloke screamed abuse at us into the night. I followed Nic’s scent. He disappeared into the darkness. I stopped and waited. Below me the city buzzed and rolled over, everything dimmed by the blanket of mist. Suddenly he wrapped his arms around me, that achingly familiar odour of leather, leaves and smoky lemon.
‘I’m going’ he said. And kissed me. I reached for his hand and held it. He was trembling. Then he was gone into the fog. I’m not sure how long I stood there in the flickering darkness, the fog seeping into my bones before turning and walking slowly home as dawn crawled over the city.