That Time Björk's Staircase Blew Oliver Sacks's Mind
“Why, these are basalt stones!"
This weekend, The Guardian published an incredibly beautiful excerpt from writer Bill Hayes's new book, Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me, about meeting, befriending, and developing a deep relationship with the late Oliver Sacks. "He was without a doubt the most unusual person I had ever known, and before long I found myself not just falling in love with O; it was something more, something I had never experienced before. I adored him," Hayes writes of their relationship.
The whole thing is moving and worth your time, but there was one particular part that stood out, as it seemed to have no earthly business in the story of Oliver Sacks, who was so averse to pop culture that, upon learning of the death of Michael Jackson, asked "What is Michael Jackson?" It was in 2012 when Sacks and Hayes were invited to Björk's house in Reykjavík after he appeared in her documentary.
Hayes notes how well Sacks, the eccentric British neurologist and author, got along with the possibly equally eccentric Icelandic singer, despite their vast differences, that they were "fellow geniuses, incredibly, intuitively brilliant – while being at the same time such an unlikely pair of friends." This one paragraph in particular about their encounter is enough to merit an entire buddy comedy based on the friendship between the two:
After eating, Björk led us from the table, through a little door, and to the stairs. These were not stairs in any conventional way. Oliver – ever the naturalist – knew exactly: "Why, these are basalt stones! This looks like a stairway carved out of a wall of basalt!" Björk nodded. Adding to this remarkable sight: the railing in the winding stairway was made of whale rib bones. Björk smiled and helped Oliver up. "And this," – she pointed to the shimmering lamp hanging overhead, dropping into the stairwell – "actually my daughter and I made it out of mussel shells. It wasn't supposed to be permanent, but… we like it."
There is something about the idea of Oliver Sacks, who didn't use a computer, have sex, or watch television, recognizing and having his mind blown by the type of stone (which is formed by cooling volcanic lava, unless any irate geologists want to school us) in Björk's stairway that is equally heartwarming and hilarious. Insomniac City is out now. We can't promise there is more Björk material wherein the two bond over architecture, but it seems like a good read nonetheless.