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?


April 30, 2009

A Paris

Sous le ciel de Paris
S’envole une chanson
Elle est née d’aujourd’hui
Dans le coeur d’un garçon.

“Sous le ciel de Paris,” lyrics Jean Dréjac

I just looked up the word ‘accablement’ to be absolutely sure I understood the implications of host Ali Badou assigning that trait to the ‘patrimoine’ or heritage and history of Paris on today’s France Culture morning program, whose focus was the future of “Grande Paris,” a project for which the state has gathered 10 proposals from ten architects. Here’s what my Roberts-Collins says: “despondency, depression (oppression), exhaustion.” Mais je reve! Car pour moi, the patrimoine of Paris has the opposite effect. It lifts me every time.

I stroll the Grands Boulevards and suddenly their present grime, the garbage on the street is obscured by a vision of Pissarro’s “Boulevard Montmatre on a Winter Morning,” as he saw it from a window of the Hotel Russe at the turn of the 19th/20th century, accompanied by Montand singing their eloge in the piss-poor 1950s. I sit down on a marble bench on the Ile St. Louis, facing Notre Dame and watching the Sun glint off the dappled Seine and suddenly I hear Greco or Francois singing “Sous le Ciel de Paris.” I gaze dreamily across the River at the Rive Gauche, and there I see Kelly courting Caron at the exact spot where they had their dance in “An American in Paris.” The airs of some of this music drifts over from the bridge joining the Ile St. Louis to the Ile de Cité and I make sure, when I leave, to drop a Euro in the case of the man playing the accordion — who seems more likely to be there in cold weather than hot. I’m deflated if, on the way to my nightly picnic on the Ile, my bouquiniste friend Luques’s stand is closed, because the bouqunistes, who struggle — man, do they struggle — they, too are the patrimoine. I climb up to Montmartre on the 14th of July and it’s not the pomp recalling the Revolution that stirs me, but the strains of Satie I hear coming from the single-etage on a winding backstreet where he composed that music.

But when I hear the host of the morning program on the national radio chain which in theory should be placing the most value on French culture describe his own patrimoine, his own heritage as imposing an ‘accablement’; when I hear the program give free reign to a snotty Belgian cartoonist to sniff that ‘history takes too much place’ in Paris, when I hear the program give space to one of the very same (self-interested) architects to proclaim that “that which interests me is the patrimoine of today”– ignoring that patrimoine is not something you buy like a fast-food hamburger and fast track, but something acquired with the richness of history and the events and people which animate it — when I hear all this I wonder if the cultural elite of Paris realize the jewel they have in their hands. They often like to describe Paris as “a museum.” Exactement. Mais c’est une musee vivant, avec, as Montant chants, tant de choses. Everyone wants to leave their mark, I know; but in doing so, do the architects, political and professional, of “Grande Paris” risk erasing their own history? (Roland Castro, the architect accabling his own tradition on France Culture this morning, also apparently has three philosophers on his team; do historians have their place in the equipe?)

Mais si! Il y a une patrimoine, et c’est ca qui fait de Paris une grande ville.

PS Another thing Mr. Castro tried to obscure this morning was that Paris’s eternal gift is its light. So the problem people have with the sky-scrapers whose potential virtue he was extolling is not just that they can be ugly to view or stifling to work and live in, but that they block the Sun and, in Paris, would cast serious shadows over the City of Light.

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