Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

David Bowie R.I.P.


I learned about it in the past hour. I had no idea he had terminal cancer, and apparently few outside his family did either. Everyone was taken by surprise, as France Inter has been saying since the news broke. He was one of my favorite singers—in the top five—from the moment I was turned on to ‘Ziggy Stardust’—one of the greatest rock albums of all time—at age 16, in precisely the fall of 1972. I never got to see him in concert, though did watch an entire one of his on ARTE in the past decade—I think it was Dublin and may or may not have been live—during which I kept telling myself ‘he is so cool’ and so excellent. Last May I went to the touring exhibition David Bowie Is at the Philharmonie de Paris. A great expo. Voilà, c’est tout c’que j’ai à dire. R.I.P.

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[update below]

The New York Met’s performance of the opera has gotten numerous Jews and others in the pro-Israel camp all worked up and bent out of shape, even though almost all of those who are protesting the opera’s staging—on account of its putative justifying of terrorism and backhanded antisemtism—haven’t actually seen it. Adam Shatz did see a dress rehearsal of the opera at the Met last weekend, however, and, in a review posted on the LRB blog, has pronounced it to be very good, hardly antisemitic, and that in no way apologizes for terrorism. As far as I’m concerned, if Adam says it is so, that means it is so.

UPDATE: Paul Berman has an essay in Tablet magazine, “Klinghoffer at the Met,” that is worth reading.

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Bobby Womack R.I.P.

bobby womack

I listened to him as a kid and teen, in the late ’60s-early ’70s. His best song—and there is likely a consensus on this—was “Across 110th Street”—which got a second life in Quentin Tarantino’s great ‘Jackie Brown’, in one of the greatest ever opening movie scenes (watch here).

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Lou Reed R.I.P.

Lou Reed

He was one of my favorites in my mid-late teens—in the 1972-75 years. I loved ‘Transformer’, his chef d’œuvre. ‘Berlin’ wasn’t bad, so far as I remember, and I liked his earlier albums with the Velvet Underground. And I saw him twice in concert: at Chicago’s Auditorium Theater in fall 1973 and in Dayton Ohio in fall 1974 (my freshman year of college). Voilà his best songs: Walk on the Wild Side, Vicious, Perfect Day, Satellite of Love, Sweet Jane, Heroin

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This is the film that won the Oscar for best documentary last month, beating out ‘The Gatekeepers‘. Having just seen it, I’m hardly surprised. ‘The Gatekeepers’ is a first-rate documentary, as I wrote last week, but there was no way this one was not going to get the Oscar. It is a wonderful, exhilarating film and that tells an absolutely amazing story, about Sixto Rodriguez, a great American singer who is practically unknown in America (including by me until now). Rodriguez, who is 70 years old, has lived his entire life in Detroit and been a manual laborer for most of it, became a musician on the side, and cut two albums in the early ’70s. His music is Bob Dylan-esqe and is every bit as good as Dylan’s. Even better. But his records did not sell, he got practically no publicity, and hardly played outside bars in Detroit. His career as a musician went nowhere and was soon abandoned. But his albums made it to Cape Town, South Africa, at the time, where his music became huge among progressive whites chafing under the chape de plomb of apartheid—and what was a repressive regime even for whites—, and inspired anti-apartheid Afrikaner singers. From the early ’70s to the mid ’90s Rodriguez’s albums sold maybe half a million copies in South Africa, where he was “bigger than Elvis,” except that no one in South Africa knew a thing about who he was. The country was subject to sanctions and boycotts, isolated from the rest of the world, and in the pre-Internet era there was no way for anyone there to get information on him. And Rodriguez knew nothing of his popularity in South Africa (and saw no royalties from his record sales). His fans in South Africa thought he was dead, having killed himself on stage in the US, so rumor had it. The documentary recounts how Rodriguez and his South African fans serendipitously found each other in 1997 and of his trip there the following year, where he was received as a big time rock star. It’s a great story and very moving. Here are the reviews by Roger Ebert and Manohla Dargis. French reviews are stellar, as is the word-of-mouth in Paris, where the film is still playing three months after it opened.

The film’s director is Malik Bendjelloul, who is Algerian-Swedish, and it’s a Swedish production (filmed in Detroit and Cape Town).

As for Rodriguez’s music, it’s great. My wife bought his CDs after seeing the movie and we’ve been listening to them.

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Serge Gainsbourg

La Poste timbre de 2001

This post has nothing to do with anything that’s happening these days, or even with anything that’s on my mind, but I was recently telling my American students about Serge Gainsbourg, none of whom had heard of him. Before their time and he was never well-known in the US anyway. But he was huge in France, one of its major musical artists from the late ’50s to his premature death in ’91, and who wrote and composed all his music. And he was an outrageous personality. I told the class that I’d do a blog post with my favorite Gainsbourg songs—just about everyone’s favorites, in fact—, so voilà, here they are via YouTube (in chronological order).

Le poinçonneur des Lilas (1958). On a day in the life of the ticket-puncher (poinçonneur) at the Porte des Lilas metro station.

La Javanaise (1963). In honor of chanteuse Juliette Gréco.

New York U.S.A. (1964). Gainsbourg, the little Frenchy, goes to New York City and marvels at how tall the buildings are. Amusing. And tongue-in-cheek.

Bonnie and Clyde (1968). With Brigitte Bardot. They had a brief romantic involvement. Gainsbourg had numerous (brief) romantic involvements.

Initials B.B. (1968). Gainsbourg’s ode to Brigitte Bardot. Great song.

Je t’aime…moi non plus (1969). With Jane Birkin (his longest romantic involvement, and from which came his one child, Charlotte Gainsbourg, a well-known actress since her teen years). Probably his most famous and beloved song. It caused a scandal at the time.

Élisa (1969). Gainsbourg singing his love for a woman (typically) younger than he.

Je suis venu te dire que je m’en vais (1973). Inspired by his near death experience following his first heart attack (he had five), after which he increased his (already heavy) consumption of alcohol and tobacco.

Sea, Sex and Sun (1977). With Jane Birkin. There’s also an English version.

Dieu fumeur de havanes (1980). With Catherine Deneuve. God smokes Havana cigars. Or Gitanes (Gainsbourg’s brand, brun and unfiltered). The disappearance from public places (cafés, restaurants, offices, everywhere) of the unique, pungent aroma of dark tobacco Gitanes and Gauloises smoke is one of the many changes in France of the past three decades (no smoking laws, changing tastes in tobacco).

Here is the (in)famous meeting of Gainsbourg—who had descended into near permanent drunkenness and goujaterie—and Whitney Houston on Michel Drucker‘s show (one of the most watched in France) in 1986.

A biopic, Gainsbourg (vie héroïque), came out three years ago. I was somewhat disappointed with it. It’s not as good as the recent biopic of Claude François, though may be seen.

On the occasion of the biopic’s release in the US last year, Salon.com asked several US musicians to share their favorite Gainsbourg songs. The choices are somewhat different from mine.

gainsbourg vie heroique

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I went to the Fête de l’Humanité on Saturday, my first time in 15 years. The Fête de l’Huma is the annual bash of the French Communist party (PCF)—formally to raise money for the party’s daily newspaper L’Humanité (which has been on life support for years now)—, organized over three days the second weekend of September at the Parc Départmental in La Courneuve, a nearby Paris banlieue that has been run by the PCF continuously since the 1920s (the war years excepted). The Fête de l’Huma, which was founded in 1930, was mainly an event for PCF members and sympathizers in the early decades but beginning in the 1960s it opened up to the rest of society, as part of the party’s effort to break out of its ghetto—into which it was consigned, and consigned itself, in the early years of the Cold War—and show that communists were regular people like everyone else and knew how to have a good time. Everyone was and is welcome, so attending in no way suggests that one is a party sympathizer (and I am decidedly not). Young people have been a particular target, through concerts of high-profile musicians and bands, which, over the years, have included The Who, Pink Floyd, Genesis, The Kinks, and Deep Purple, among others (for a mostly complete list, see here). The tête d’affiche this year was New Order and Patti Smith. The Fête de l’Huma has long been an important political event in France as well, well-covered in the news and where the PCF secretary-general’s speech at the park’s Grande scène lays out the party’s positions for the upcoming year. As the PCF received 19 to 29% of the vote in national elections from 1945 through the 1970s, had a sizable parliamentary delegation, ran over 200 municipalities with a population of over 9,000 (at its peak after the 1977 municipal elections; today it’s on the order of 90), and had several hundred thousand dues-paying members, its views and positions were necessarily newsworthy. During the 1970s and ’80s the Fête de l’Huma attracted around a million people over the three days. The numbers declined after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Union—not to mention the decline of the PCF itself, which is now electorally in the low single digits nationally—, and the Fête shrunk in size, but it has rebounded over the past several years. I made it a point to go to the Fête de l’Huma whenever I was in Paris that weekend in September. From 1974 to 1997 I thus attended nine times, but then decided I had had enough of the cocos, couldn’t stand them politically, and no longer found them interesting enough to justify schlepping out to La Courneuve for the day, so I stopped going. But I decided I wanted to attend this weekend, so went out with couple of friends. It was a lot of fun. Here are the photos I took and with commentary (below the photo). As there are some 160 of them, they continue beneath the fold.

It’s almost 4 PM. We came in through a secondary entrance. Finding parking took forever, as the lots were full. Entrance price is €26 at the gate for the three days, €20 if one buys a ticket from a party member beforehand (they hawk them outside).

Young people come from all over France for the event, sleeping in tents at the edge of the grounds.

I know nothing about this Parti Communiste des Ouvriers de France. It’s got nothing to do with the PCF, that’s for sure.

The Front de Gauche is the coalition of several parties and groupings of the hard left, the PCF and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Parti de Gauche—much smaller than than the PCF—being the main constituents. Mélenchon was, of course, the Front de Gauche’s presidential candidate last spring. I spelled out my dim views of him here during the presidential campaign. He was naturally present at the Fête, though we didn’t cross paths.

There’s lots of food and drink at the Fête de l’Huma.

Lots of Che too. How could it be otherwise?

Also lots of music at the Fête and at the stands, not just the main concerts at the Grande scène.

Ethnic cuisine and not just in the Village du monde (see below).

Stand of a tiny offshoot of Jean-Pierre Chevènement’s Mouvement Républicain et Citoyen.

Discussion-debates at the stands are a big Fête happening.

Didn’t take note of which group this was.

Stand of the neo-Trotskyist Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA, ex-LCR). The participation of Trots in the Fête de l’Huma was inconceivable in the old days. But the bad blood between the Trots and PCF “Stalinists” is now all in the past. The NPA declined to make a deal with the Front de Gauche in last spring’s elections, BTW. Trots are as sectarian as ever. Some things don’t change.

Wacky Trot sect Union Communiste (Trotskyiste) (a.k.a. Lutte Ouvrière). These people are really crazy, e.g. members need party authorization to get married and have children, which is usually not granted, as this may detract from one’s political activism. Normally this would characterize an organization not as a political party but as a cult, which is in fact what LO is.

The party’s departmental federations—there are 96 in metropolitan France—all have stands, most with local cuisine on offer. This from the Savoie (in the Alps).

Department above the Savoie: Annecy, Chamonix, Evian… There have never been too many Reds in those parts.

Jean-Marc & Gisèle, this one’s for you. Beautiful area the Ardèche.

No to the EU Fiscal Stability Treaty, yes to a referendum on it. I’m not for a referendum but the Front de Gauche does have a valid argument in opposing the treaty.


It’s a beautiful Saturday afternoon, sunny and in the low-mid 70s F/low-mid 20s C. What better way to spend it than coming to the Fête de l’Huma?

The Paris Commune: mega event in the historical iconography of the French left.

Be realistic, demand the impossible!

American hero.

PCF cell at Charles de Gaulle airport. Yes, there are Commies working at that airport you all fly into when you come to town.

Lefty heroes from the past (and these two are heroes for me too).

Notable front pages of the PCF’s rag daily newspaper.

Contemporary PCF hero (but definitely not mine).

A debate on something having to do with capitalists and working people. I find these debates devoid of interest. It’s all rhetoric. Haven’t people heard this stuff hundreds of thousands of times already? An interesting comment from one of my friends, who has a doctorate in political science but, having failed to even qualify for the right to apply for a position in a French public university—a scandalous feature of the French system that afflicts many otherwise qualified foreigners (my friend is from Algeria)—, went to work in the private sector. He is presently a (more…)

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