France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

April 10, 2010

Jazz is Paris, Paris is Malcolm McLaren

“I often go to Paris to live yesterday tomorrow
Because Paris is a place of dreams
Françoise Hardy. Tous les garçons et les filles.
Juliette Greco, Jeanne Moreau and Catherine Deneuve
And I’m walking with Eric Satie
Along the boulevards of Paris in the springtime.
Un orchestre d’oiseaux every so often breaks
This map of feelings
Drifting through these landscapes of love
Watching strays from Pere Lachaise.”

— “Walking with Satie,” from Malcolm McLaren’s 1997 “Paris.”

“The Velvet Underground meets
The Velvet Gentleman.
Running down the Boulevard Saint-Germain
Happy in the spring sunshine
Into the rue Vermeuil
And the house of Serge Gainsbourg.
On his piano sits a portrait of Sid.
Sid Viscious. I sing to you
For all the things that you do
Because I love you like a girl.”

— Rue Dauphine, from “Paris.”

“Meeting Juliette Greco in bed in the afternoon with Miles Davis
In a cheap hotel in Saint-Germain
Seeing them later in love at the Club Taboo
A ghost of New Orleans.
Juliette dances with Miles’s trumpet
Miles and miles and miles of Miles Davis
echoes around the room
With Juliette sobbing and moaning the verses
A funeral of sublime passion
‘I didn’t know he was black,’ she said.
‘I don’t know why, I just didn’t.
And when I discovered he was black
i just cried and cried.’
Jazz is Paris and Paris is Jazz.”

— “Miles and Miles and Miles of Miles Davis,” from “Paris.”

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that none of the obseques to Malcolm McLaren yesterday on French radio mentioned his landmark ode to Paris — and everything it has represented for romantics around the world for nigh on 200 years — in the concept album of the same name. Thanks to Malcolm, I was already dreaming of Paris for years before I’d ever seen it, having made a nightly ritual of taking my apero in my W. 8th Street Greenwich (Hint to Frenchies: Don’t pronounce the ‘w’) Village flat accompanied by his landscapes of love. But when I first played it for a bunch of French people, at a Thanksgiving dinner shortly after I moved there in 2001, the only reaction I got was from a young intello who called Malcolm’s version of Gainsbourg/Bardot’s “Je t’aime… moi non plus” (with Blanca Li taking the Bardot part) blasphemous. It’s almost as if Parisians resent that a non-Frenchy could have a more profound attachment and appreciation — or at least a more eloquent expression of it — than them, as if by doing so he was usurping their right to interpret it. Consequently, all (all too brief) obits of him yesterday preferred instead to segregate McLaren into foreign territory, that of the punk rock – fashion impresario, for instance.

To me, though, Malcolm McLaren simply followed his passion, and it’s in that fashion that he linked himself to the passionate, those who have found the perfect expression of passion — albeit often melancholy and nostalgic passion — in Paris, or at least the dream of Paris.

Paris’s rich past, and its lingering expression, can pull one like a sort of luxuriant quicksand. When I did my own running down the rue Caulaincourt on the butte (Montmartre) last Spring, I was almost overwhelmed and overcome by that passion, as earlier in the month I’d been subsumed in nostalgic passion for Boris Vian, then the subject of numerous exhibitions and concerts on the 50th anniversary of his death at 39. (Dommage that McLaren didn’t have room for Vian on his tribute, which featured Catherine Deneuve talk-singing, Françoise Hardy singing, Amina in a dance track mixing up audio from a James Bond film, and tributes to Greco and Sonia Rykiel; if Paris is Jazz, Vian was Jazz in Paris.) The ghosts there in Montmartre are particularly strong; in that late afternoon alone I’d run past the demeures of Satie (high up on the butte), Pissarro, Steinlin, Lautrec, finishing by dashing across the bridge over the Montmartre Cemetery which shows up in three of the five films in Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel cycle, and where Truffaut himself was finally interred in 1984, like McLaren a victim of cancer.

But the question for me, still, is whether the romantic power and pull of that past — evoked in the Truffaut films, Pissarro and Lautrec canvasses, Steinlin sculptures, Satie and Greco music, and Deneuve films — can manifest itself in a romantic present. Or is the pull of these emotional landscapes so strong that it’s hard to find their match in present, living reality?

June 7, 2009

La vie du passé en rose

It’s amazing how a past that’s not even my own, but rather a memory of how profoundly I felt another culture’s past when I lived in Paris from 2001 to 2007, pulled at me again early Friday evening as I dashed down the winding, chestnut-tree shaded rue Caulaincourt in Montmartre, stopping only to pay tribute to that well-known cat designer and lover Theodore Steinlin as I passed his house and jet my eye at the atelier where Toulouse-Lautrec once drew Suzanne Valadon. This was after, further up the Butte, I’d paid my respects to Erik Satie outside the one-story apartment building where he’d lived from 1890 to 1898, to Valadon at the now-shuttered restaurant where a plaque reminds us that she and Utrillo dined there for some 20 years, and before I madly scurried across the bridge over the Montmartre cemetery like Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel and his pal had done in “The 400 Blows” with a typewriter they’d stolen from Antoine’s father’s office, setting Antoine off on a path of flight that would last 20 years, countless women, and four more Truffaut films.

I wasn’t the only one in Montmartre Friday night channeling ghosts. On the rue Rustique, down the street from the ancient chez Valadon-Utrillo outside the back entrance of a resto, a hyper-spirited pony-tailed young woman with an infectious smile that bared all her teeth was bouncing along in jeans and sky-blue blouse, accompanied Django-style by a guitar and bass player as she sang and snapped a jump version of Gainsbourg’s “Javanaise” and then a jazzy version of “La Vie en Rose” that totally changed its mood from melancholic to celebratory.

Saturday it was more Piaf — have I mentioned that I’m living up the street from where La Mome was born? — as my pal Luc suggested we RDV at noon at the Cafe Edith Piaf, so named because it faces the plaza at the exit of the Metro station Porte Bagnolet dominated by her statue. (On the front of which some connard has poured red paint.) The Resto is decorated with photos of Piaf and her performance posters of the epoch. She’s even playing on the juke. If this sounds like a set-up designed for tourists, it’s not; it’s a local cafe that’s somehow both a tribute to and an authentic living embodiment of an earlier era.

My adventure, though, started earlier, as I rushed (I rush a lot — I may be the fastest man in Paris; I moved here to stop rushing but it hasn’t worked) through the Saturday market stalls. Apparently it’s fete your market week-end in Paris, as I was reminded when I came upon a stand where a man with a mike and a smiley woman seemed to be giving away goody-stuffed sleek blue and white canvas bags inscribed in multi-color with “Les marchés de Paris.” I hovered, but they just kinda looked at me as if to say, “Et alors?” Then they stopped another guy and asked him a question about General de Gaulle; apparently you had to pass a quiz to get a goody sack. I cursed my luck, as Le General is one of my specialties. (I like to regal my Les Eyzies potes Bernard and Stephan with my recording of his greatest speeches when they stop by at night to regard the pre-historic cliffs, drink Panaché ((no, all French ‘paysans’ don’t sit around drinking marc)) and try to get me to adopt a mutton or convince me that the moon has disappeared.) But I persisted in hovering, and I guess they realized they’d have to give me the chance to win a bag to get rid of me. The guy stuck his mike in my face and pointed at my beret. At first I didn’t understand (my French is not that bad, really, but my level drops dramatically in high-pressure situations), but then I caught “Hergé,” and when he again indicated my hat, I realized he was referring to my Captain Haddock (tr.: Craddock) pin. He asked me if I was a Tintin fan, I nodded, and then, with an “Oh yeah?” look in his eye, he popped the question:

“How many volumes of Tintin did Hergé write?”

Merde. “Uh… 12?”

(I realized later that our little interview was being broadcast throughout the ten-block market.)

“That’s right!” he said, giving me a break and handing me a sack. Then he asked where I was from — is it *still* that evident that I’m not from around here? — and instead of f*cking with him as I’ve been doing with a lot of Parisians by answering, “Sud-ouest. Dordogne!” I answered “America.” “Yay Obama!” he said. This gave me confidence, so before I walked off with my loot I said, “Thank you for myself, and also on behalf of Captain Craddock,” which must have been understandable, because the smiley woman laughed.

In the bag was a wide-brimmed straw hat, baseball hat, and tee-shirt, all plugging the marchés, plus a big ‘ol bag of potatoes, tomatoes, onions and garlic. I contributed two of the onions to the veggie feast Luc had prepared for his daughter and me, after we’d picked up two heaping boxes of old books a local bookstore owner, Jose, had given to Luc for his ‘boite’ on the Seine. — he’s a bouquiniste or bookseller along the Seine. Luc stacked them under a big empty box inside his doorway, but as soon as he’d disappeared into the kitchen I delved in, finding treasures like a complete set of the Dos Passos “U.S.A.” saga and a clothbound 1950s circa collection of Tennessee Williams, both in translation of course.

While we were eating, Jose, who’d turned down Luc’s invitation to join us, was digging out his Boris Vian books for me, “Elles ne rendent pas compte” (rough tr.: “These women don’t realize what they’re doing”) and “Les Fourmis,” (“The Ants”), a collection of novellas. Vian books besides “‘J’irai cracher sur vos tombes” (“I’ll spit on your graves”) are hard to find, so I’m sure Jose’s 5 Euro apiece price was just, but a)I’m on a budget which I’ve already exceeded and b)the plain white covers and that these were recent additions didn’t do much for me. “I like the old pocket-book covers!” I explained to Luc. “It’s the title that matters, not the design!” At today’s vide grenier (neighborhood-wide garage sale; vide = empty, grenier = attic) on the rue Marie and Louise near the canal, I scored both these books and a third, “Trouble dans les Andains” (completed in 1942-1943 but issued posthumously in 1966, thus both the first novel Vian wrote and the last published). The cover for “Les Fourmis” features Boris in kaleidescope, wearing a black shirt and four different expressions; ‘Andains’ has him pressing a fist to his chest and regarding the reader with wry menace; and the last has a full-color Vargas Girl kicking up her heels from a reclining position as she starts to remove her stockings. Total price: 3 Euros. Earlier, at a vide grenier nearer to my apartment, I’d picked up sealed DVDs of Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan” for 2.60 total. Bi-continental schizophrenic stuck in other people’s pasts: C’est moi.

May 30, 2009

39 with a bullet

Could any day have been more perfectly Paris than this one, or rather the one that started at 4 p.m. yesterday in the heights of Belleville, spent two hours in the Andre Malraux library in the heart of Saint-Germain-des-pres with its patron saint, Boris Vian, had a 7 p.m. thermos coffee staring up at the fountain Delacroix’s admirers had erected for him in the Luxembourg Gardens, paused to watch two mimes performing in this week-end’s Mime in May festival rehearse “Le Mort du Signe” in the Luxembourg’s bandstand, took its time at pal Luc’s bookstand on the Right Bank of the Seine under the watchful eyes of 100 year war hero Etienne Marcel, and finished with a late night picnic with Luc on a marble bench on the Ile St. Louis looking at the light reflected in the Seine and across at Notre Dame? No really, could any day be more perfectly Paris?

I used to be sad that Boris Vian died at just 39 years old, ten minutes into a film version of his infamous “J’irai cracher sur vos tombs” novel which he wasn’t happy about. But after perusing the “Real Boris” exhibition at the Malraux library, I realized that Vian had not just one heckuva full life but several before he left us 50 years ago next month. Wrote about a dozen books, plus contributed regular jazz and other columns, plus played a mean trumpet or, as he preferred, trompinet, acted as a general jazz impresario, famously welcoming Duke Ellington into this country in 1948, made several movies, including one which, never mind that it featured him tossing knives at cardboard cut-outs of keystone cops, was funded by the Higher Education Ministry. And on top of that, he wrote 500 songs! (His singing career, by contrast, was short; his one tour was cut short by veterans who objected to his song “The Desserteur.”) In his free time, he translated Chandler and others into French and co-founded the society of Pataphysiques, which held regular parties on the connected terraces of Vian and Jacques Prevert. It was almost as if, learning at 15 that he had a serious artery problem, Vian knew he had little time and packed as many lives as possible into his stay on Earth. He’d already had a rich childhood, living next door to the son of Edmund Rostand and with Yehudi Menuhin as a playmate. Also coté personal, his second and last wife, Ursula Kubler, danced for Bejart and Petit.

After a couple of hours with Vian, I strolled over to the Luxembourg. Instead of my usual refuge the Fountain de Medicis, I stopped at the Delacroix Fountain, and it was there I realized: Life is too short not to spend more of it in the Luxembourg Gardens.

Then at 8 p.m., the Sun still shining brilliantly, it was down a teeming St. Michel, across the Ile de Cité to Luc’s stand opposite the rear of the Hotel de Ville. I haven’t written about Luc before because I feel that by doing so, I’m turning our relationship into fodder for another tale of a typique Parisian, which prompts the question: How much is his metier a factor, on my side, of our friendship? That I think it’s cool to have a buddy who’s a bouquiniste, which thus immerses me in the fabric of an eternal Paris? But maybe that’s okay; on his side, maybe my being an American in Paris is part of the pull. Enough angst; it is cool to be so immersed in this vanishing part of life of traditional Paris. Vanishing, yes, because notwithstanding the myth of ‘the romance of the bouquiniste,’ it’s a tough metier. During the winter months, Luc has another boulot. When it rains, he can’t open his stand. When it’s sunny, he stays open late. As we slowly made our way to the Ile (it wasn’t until two hours after I met Luc that we finally arrived at a miraculously unclaimed bench), Luc explained to the friend of another bouquiniste at whose stand we’d stopped to catch up, and who asked what his specialty was, that he used to sell just art books but got tired of seeing them sit there unsold and unappreciated. (And Luc’s prices, by the way, are great; I got a complete collection of Vian’s jazz writings for just three Euros.)

So many workers in different sectors have been complaining the last two years, and not always with reasons; the punky young doctors who don’t want to be forced to install themselves in the country and petit villages, never mind that these villages need them; the train workers who seem to go on strike once per month, with absolutely no conscience about how train stoppages can strand people in the country or commuting workers in the city; and worse of all, the university and high school students, who seem to think it’s a game,their singing manifs seeming more like parties or football 0rallies. Yet the bouquinistes just quietly go about upholding a fundamental tenet of French tradition, a way of life — and a literary one — but that’s hardly sustaining, with no complaints. I think they should get a subvention, in recognition of how essential they are to the firmament.

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