AUBERVILLIERS – I continue to be surprised by all of the cool cultural institutions, workshops and artistic spaces that I am discovering in Aubervilliers, a suburb of Paris, where TAC Teatro has been performing its latest show this season. A couple of days ago, TAC – well, Ornella and I – visited the Villa Mais d’Ici arts community to meet Les Grandes Personnes. “The Big People,” who were in rehearsal, are a troupe of really big puppets and puppet makers that was founded in 1998 and is one of the many artistic residents of the Villa Mais d’Ici.
Where to start?!?! I think the photos and short videos I took will tell the story best on this one. But I do want to say that I felt for a moment as if I was in Budapest at the Szimpla Kert, and yet here, at the Villa Mais d’Ici, founded in 2003, there was a much, much bigger range of artistic endeavors. From the puppets to an office of architects to theater performers to a guitar luthier, it seemed that anything goes at the Villa Mais d’Ici. (Which, by the way, is clearly a play on words for the Villa Medicis.)
As I looked into the eyes of several of these fabulous puppet figures – which have now not only toured the world but also spawned imitators around the world – I felt like I was looking in the eyes of my own ventriloquial figure, Peter McCabe! But where I feel safe arguing with Peter, no way I would get in a fight with one of these behemoths!
Ornella and I were wonderfully received by the director Pauline de Coulhac, who is also an actress who works with masks, and who over lunch told us about how the concept has grown over the years, “When we started out,” she said, “we were considered nothing but carnival performers. I am proud of that, but it is interesting that it all grew into us now being seen as street artists. And we are!”
I learned that my feeling of looking in the face and eyes of my own Peter McCabe was not based on nothing: These heads are also made from papier maché. The mechanisms that provide their underlying structure, however, are made by Maurizio Moretti, a mechanical engineer (static equipment and package engineer), who suddenly got bit by the bug of building puppets!
Ornella Bonventre of TAC Teatro with one of the Grandes Personnes.
Ornella Bonventre, Peter McCabe and Brad Spurgeon
I took a brief side trip into the atelier of the luthier, Adrien Collet, who it turns out shares dozens of friends with me on Facebook, and since I lost my last luthier who moved to the south of France, I will now know where to go to fix my almost chronically ill Seagull S6.
Les Grandes Personnes
But it will also be an excuse to return to see the Grandes Personnes and explore the rest of this artistic community!
AUBERVILLIERS, France – When Ornella Bonventre and the actors of her TAC Teatro company began the creation of their new show in the fall of 2019, they had no idea what disasters – both human-made and natural – were about to befall the world. And yet, as if predicting the future, themes of the coming cataclysms began immediately to define the show: A look at the lives of refugees, a question about what happens when your life changes forever in one sudden fell-swoop, and even, the arrival in February of the costumes of the “dream constructors” of the show in the form of doctors’ white blouses. And with the white blouses, surgical masks. Everyone joked about what they might be able to do with surgical masks. Within months, of course, and then within years, we have been hit hard in our world by many of the themes of the show.
After putting on several performances of the show last fall, TAC Teatro took a break from performance after one of the actors left, and the show has now returned with a new actor – Oscar Paille – and several new and changed and developed moments of pure delight. Every time I see this show – and I have now seen it at least 10 times live – I feel like I am watching a play of Shakespearian dimensions. Not the tragedies, more something like “The Tempest” or “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” And fabulously, while Shakespeare is all about the text, “Ajamola” is all about the actions…and yet the text that there is excels in many spots with a beauty that touches me every time, especially that soliloquy that begins: “Goutte qui tombe sur le rebord de la fenêtre, pourrait-tu faire moins de bruit; il y a ici des gens qui ont besoin de dormir. Pas nous…” (Translation: “Drop that falls on the windowsill, could you make less noise; there are people here who need to sleep. Not us….”)
I must confess, of course, that I was involved in the beginning as both an actor and a writer of some small part of the text – not that above quoted line that comes from Ornella – but the play was ultimately a work containing contributions by all of the actors. And that is what it remains. A physical theatre show written through what the French call “écriture de plateau,” along with a very hefty and healthy job of direction by Ornella. (I dropped out of any involvement long ago, but I have attended all the performances.)
I am writing this blog item now simply to announce that the piece is back on stage, and set to run every Thursday night between now and the end of June – French school holidays excepted – at 9PM. And you should reserve in advance before going.
I am also writing this because I wanted to post some of the photos I took at the performance last week, as well as the teaser that I made for the show. Hope to see lots of readers of this blog present! It’s an experience not to be forgotten!
PS: Only now in finishing this post do I see that my last post was also about “Ajamola!” SHAME on me. I hope soon to be bringing more news, diversity in posts, and updating my open mic guides! For a full description of “Ajamola” read the bottom of the previous post!!!
PARIS – I’ve spoken a little about how musicians have survived and challenged the coronavirus pandemic over the last couple of years, but I have barely touched on theater. And theater has arguably been worse affected, as it tends to rely on fewer ways of reaching its public than music. (You can’t call a video of a theater show a theater show – even if you are one of the Cohen brothers directing Shakespeare!) But one of the reasons I have been so quiet on this blog in recent months is because I have been devoting a vast amount of time – and loving it – to three separate theater projects all produced by TAC Teatro over the final months of 2021. And I want here to share the information and the short versions of the videos I did of each of these shows, as I think they show the resistance that theater can develop – should I call it the “antibodies?” – to a pandemic that has otherwise eviscerated much of its usually fertile grounds.
I have written about TAC Teatro several times in the past, since I have been involved with Ornella Bonventre in one way or another in her theater company since 2017 when it was based in Milan, and then through its move to France the following year. But for me the biggest achievement of the company that I have seen so far has come in recent months with the three projects for which I have made these films. (And I should actually include here the period the members of the company spent doing research in Sicily last summer, but I won’t get into that here, since there is little recorded in video of that period. And also because the work they did subsequently benefitted by the research they did there, as I will mention later.)
Three written shows on three different themes for three different purposes: “Just a Sunday Brunch,” “Respire” and “Ajamola.” But all of them were put together and performed in Aubervilliers, at a theater space that TAC Teatro managed to recuperate in the middle of the pandemic and to save the creation, especially, of the biggest, most ambitious of the pieces above: “Ajamola.” I wrote about “Ajamola” two years ago when we first began creating it, just before the pandemic began, and before it had its current name. And it is the piece that has the most merit as being a monumental creation that made it through the endless battles that the pandemic threw in the company’s way over the last two years.
But I’m fluttering on. Let me get to the point!! I’ll do it in order of appearance though.
Translated as European Heritage Days and created by the French ministry of culture in 1984, the Journée du Patrimoine, in the third weekend of September was a huge success for TAC’s show, which the actors put together in only a few days and as a true announcement of the company’s arrival in Aubervilliers. Meant to highlight and show off the history of places and their artistic heritage, the day was a collaboration amongst many of the different artists of the space where TAC has been working in Aubervilliers, at 164 rue Henri Barbusse, and old warehouse-like space with musicians, sculptors and other artists, and TAC’s theater.
The TAC show was done with a set that was conceived by one of the sculptors of the space, Taïne Gras. She had created the installation of a feast table for a previous event, but remade it in the theater space, where Ornella and the actors of TAC created their show around it. The resulting show is a brilliantly funny and light piece that combines some elements of visual gags that remind me of the old silent cinema, and with a mixture of TAC’s usual physical theater forms of expression.
In addition to the theater show, there was a fashion show by a local designer in the courtyard of the place, and another event done by one of the other sculptors. We were blessed, somehow, with great weather, and the weekend was a resounding success, as you can see in the short version of the video that I made of the show.
November 25 is a date well-known by many as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. And TAC has done shows pretty much every year in support of this day, in one form or another – see the one at the Pompidou Center a few years ago – so this year, with the space in Aubervilliers, it was a great opportunity to continue the tradition. What was even better this year is that for the first time in France, the company put together its contribution with the backing of a subvention by the local municipality of Aubervilliers.
Over a three week period, the company worked with the local community to develop workshops, shows and a documentary film – which I made, and the short version, or trailer, of which I will paste in here – with the purpose of approaching the problem of violence against women in an indirect, let’s say, “non preachy” way.
Ornella went to the local schools, youth organizations and other public and private groups to get the word out and find actors to take part in the workshops and the final shows. It was no easy matter, given the limited time between having the project approved and the official deadline for completing it, which was the end of the year. Her goal was to complete all workshops, performances and the video by the end of the first week in December, and she succeeded.
The approach was to create a show that gets across the message of the horror of, and prevention of, violence against women. The main prop that they used, as you will see, is the umbrella, which is a statement of an item that protects, but at the same time isolates, and can be used as a weapon. In the video you will not only see actors from TAC Teatro, but members of the general public with no acting experience, including children, who took part in the workshops and created the show with the actors of TAC, under Ornella’s direction.
The show was performed both inside the theater space and in the streets of Aubervilliers, as a flash mob event, notably in front of the City Hall and in front of three local schools, where we got some great participation – and feedback – from the students.
But the crowning achievement of the TAC company really came in the half dozen performances of the show the company had been working on since the fall of 2019. “Ajamola” not only managed to survive, but to thrive through the pandemic, and to take on themes that were inherent to the pandemic, although strangely, some of those themes were part of the show from the beginning before the pandemic even hit! (I refer, for instance, to the so-called “dream constructors” who wear doctors’ white smocks! And how I remember everyone’s surprise and confusion when they first received their smock in Jan/Feb 2020 as to what should be done with the surgical mask that came with each costume! We threw them all away!)
I will not go through the whole show here, but for a nutshell description, check out the description of the show at the end of this blog post and as translated from the French. The play is inspired also by many of Ornella’s connections with her birthplace of Sicily, including the fisherman’s song that gives the play its title, and some other songs and musical bits in the production – which themes the actors imbued themselves with on that aforementioned visit to Sicily last summer.
In any case, the show had capacity, or near capacity, attendance each time, and as I recorded it through several cameras and a sound device simultaneously during each performance, I not only never grew bored or used to it, but I felt more and more understanding, enthusiasm and respect each time for the work of Ornella Bonventre as director, and the actors Sara Baudry, Julie Lossec, Tato Moya, Constance Dolleans and Marine Lefèvre.
And I cannot wait until the show returns, with a slight change in lineup, in the months to come. Keep posted!
By the way, I almost forgot to mention that I was actually an actor and part creator of the show two years ago, but as I became more occupied with other projects – mainly the Formula One book for Assouline – I pulled out. But I have contributed where and when possible, including at the moment I not only made the short trailer you find here, but I am working on a full-length film version of the show, which I filmed at every one of the presentations they have so far done of it.
Ornella Bonventre, Peter McCabe and Brad Spurgeon
In fact, on that same theme, I must not forget the activity of the company in Asnières-sur-Seine, where Ornella continues to teach lessons to a growing number of actors of every age in her acting school part of the company. Since the pandemic had killed any possibility of the three age groups – children, teenagers and adults – from putting on their season finale shows last June, Ornella decided to work with the students to put on the season final afternoon of three performances at the Petit Theatre in Asnières in November. And she invited me to present the festivities with my ventriloquial figure, Peter McCabe! It was our debut effort as presenters, and I found myself having to write and memorize our script very quickly…with the result, I am told, of my efforts to bring emotions of laughter to the spectators to actually succeeding in bringing strong emotions of sympathy for Peter McCabe, and equally strong emotions of disdain for me, his nasty master! What counted were the strong emotions! I regret also that the audience was apparently so involved in Peter’s performance that not a single spectator thought to take a photograph or video of our performance! So there is nothing to show for it here…. Maybe next time!
The station of a small village somewhere in the south. The court of a king. Two parallel events that intertwine: that of Alma, Nina, Vera, and Jules waiting for the train and that of the Marquis of the Moon condemned to tell stories to a mad king.
And above all: The dream builders are watching.
At the station.
People from different parts of the world, forced to leave their homeland, meet at the station of a small abandoned village while waiting for the train. An important train that will take them to where they have wanted to go for a long time, where they hope to finally find freedom. Will it arrive?
During this long wait, friendships are born, the plots of their relationships are woven and the individual stories of each come to life: the fears, joys and emotions of those who have challenged themselves, and so many dangers to freedom.
In the King’s Court.
In the power room of the palace of a mad king, the Marquis of the Moon, condemned to tell him new stories, decides to tell him that of the dream builders. This is how the dream builders come to life. They set to work in their laboratory, interacting with the lives of the protagonists who, unaware of everything, are waiting for the train at the station.
What happens when life changes suddenly and forever?
What is the force that makes us dream?
Stories of tenderness and bravery are told through songs, dances, objects that come to life and bring back distant people and memories.
PARIS – The point of this blog for me is usually to write about things happening right now in my life. For more than a year now, I have kept quiet here about one of the biggest things that happened in my life during most of the Covid period we are still living through. I was so busy first doing it – and keeping my mouth closed and fingers crossed about it – and then once finished, talking about it everywhere except for here, with one published interview or review after another – I will run a list of links of those at the end of this post – that I simply did not find the moment to talk about it here! In short, I am referring to the book that I had the opportunity to write about the 100 great, extraordinary, “impossible” moments in Formula One history, since the series began in 1950 and up to the end of last season. The first 70 years of the world’s most popular auto racing series summed up in words and extraordinary images and published by Assouline, one of the world’s top luxury book publishers. So, I am coming late to it here, but since I also see this blog as a personal record of important moments in my life, I have decided that it is better late than never to talk about it!
This book project was offered to me in August 2020, when I was in Sicily and like everyone, found myself in that momentary lull between waves of the biggest pandemic to hit humankind in a century. And, as many readers of this blog will know and be able to relate to themselves, I had one part of my life absolutely wiped out by the pandemic: Performing music and doing my other theatre-related activities in public. The performing arts, as everyone knows, were amongst the worst hit – well, of course, not to mention the restaurant industry, the travel industry, airlines and airports, etc. – since to perform in public was one of the easiest and most natural things to ban. And rightly so.
But that left me, like so many musicians and actors and performers, feeling as if we might not be able to breathe if we came down with Covid, but we were not able to breathe without our moments on stage, either! Fortunately for me, I had spent decades of my life devoted exclusively to my other passion of being closed up in my room – or a media center or newspaper office – and writing. Living through words. Living in the mind and not in the outside world or on a stage.
So when in August 2020 I was offered this opportunity of writing a book about Formula One for Assouline’s most prestigious collection – the Ultimate – in the series known as “The Impossible Collection,” I didn’t just jump at it, I instantly stopped feeling any regret, pain or other horror for losing that other aspect of my life, consisting in performing on stage. Here was a fabulous project offered to me by Assouline that thrived off the lockdown isolation as it required intense concentration, research and writing at just the very moment that the second wave of the pandemic came to hit us.
First Hungarian Grand Prix 1986. Photo Credit: Bernard Asset
Suddenly, I came entirely back to life thanks to this project. I also felt a huge sense of responsibility: The task was much bigger than I expected when I said yes. I had to come up with the 100 greatest, iconic, most important, “impossible” moments of Formula One over 70 years. I had been hired for my experience of more than 20 years covering the series for the International Herald Tribune, and The New York Times, and I realized that I had a responsibility for a big book that would sell for 920 euros, and/or $995, not just for an article on a piece of paper that would be used to wrap up fish the next day! My choices of moments have to be as close to perfect as possible.
Responsibility of Choosing the Impossible Moments for Formula 1: The Impossible Collection
It’s not that I doubted my ability to choose those moments. But I knew that Formula One is a series that has millions of fans who are not only passionate, but are often just as knowledgable as many of the journalists who cover it their whole lives. I also knew that any choice for a great moment that I made would also leave out several other possibilities that some other journalist or fan might feel very passionate about and cry foul!
“HOW could you not put in THIS moment!” they might say.
But that is also when I decided that, in any case, any list of 100 moments over 71 seasons that anyone made would have to have an element of personal preference or style to it, and I would have to assume that. Still, it took months to make the final choice of 100 great moments. I narrowed an initial selection down to 150, and then began eliminating, or at the suggestion of my editors at Assouline, in some cases, joining moments together – such as when I did only one moment for the two times that Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost crashed into each other at the Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka in 1989 and 1990, thus drawing their championship duel to a close.
McLaren Technology Centre team factory. Photo Credit: McLaren F1 Team
I also said to myself that it would be absolutely necessary in a series like Formula One to include in the great moments not just sporting moments, but technical ones – the introduction of the Ford DFV engine in the 60s that would dominate for so many years, or the first rear-engine victory, etc. – as well as business advances or reversals, new venues, etc. Formula One has so many different aspects to it, that it would be impossible to do it justice while focusing on just one part of it.
While it was easy to make my first list – I started by working off the top of my head, then I went through several histories, timelines, collections of statistics, etc., to make sure I missed nothing that I might have overlooked – the most difficult thing was really what to cut out of the list. So many things had to go at some point. It was with great regret, for instance, that I did not include Jean Alesi’s sole victory in the series when he drove his Ferrari to win the Canadian Grand Prix in 1995 after Michael Schumacher, who led all but the last 11 laps of the 68-lap race, had to make a pit stop to change his steering wheel, and could not engage the gear, and so handed the lead to Alesi, who kept it until the checkered flag. It was a hugely dramatic moment during a season dominated by Schumacher, and involving the two teams that would exchange those same two drivers for the following year. (Schumacher went to Ferrari the following year, while Alesi and his Ferrari teammate, Gerhard Berger, both went to Benetton.)
Michael Schumacher’s first win for Ferrari in the wet in Spain in 1996. Photo credit: Agence de Presse ARC/Mario Luini
There were countless moments like this that I loved, that were big, important, but it was impossible to use them all. One of the ways that I chose moments, in fact, was to try to choose them for their larger effect on the series. That applied especially, for instance, with the moments that involved fatalities. The early years were so full of fatalities, and each was as tragic as the other. As time went on and safety improved, there were fewer and fewer. But still, while I did not mention the death of Elio De Angelis in 1986 after a testing accident, I could not, clearly, avoid talking about the moment involving the death of Ayrton Senna (with Roland Ratzenberger having died the previous day) at Imola in 1994. Nor could I avoid talking about the death of Wolfgang von Trips and the 15 spectators at Monza in September 1961.
I could not, either, avoid moments that included the great records, Schumacher’s equalling Juan Manuel Fangio’s 5 world titles in 2002, and then beating that record. And how satisfying and beautiful it was for the book to end on the note of Lewis Hamilton equalling Schumacher’s record of seven titles – and beating his number of victories – in the final season that the book covered, 2020, which was unfolding as I wrote it.
Catharsis in Writing the Introduction to Formula 1: The Impossible Collection
It was the work on the moments, both selecting them and writing them – in all their minute detail – that would make up the biggest part of the job. When I took on the project, I had thought it would be the writing of what became a 65-page introduction – with lots of photos – that would be the hardest part. In fact, the introduction was probably the most fun part to do, as I saw it as an opportunity to sum up and focus all of my knowledge about Formula One accumulated over a lifetime of being a fan – the first race I attended was the first Canadian Grand Prix, at Mosport in 1967 – and nearly a quarter century of writing about it professionally. So in a way, the introduction – that even went into the previous era of Grand Prix racing, starting with the precursor auto races sponsored by the founder of my former IHT newspaper, James Gordon Bennett Jr. – was even cathartic, in a way.
It was an incredible bit of unexpected icing on the cake when after I submitted the completed book to the editors, I learned that both Jean Todt, the president of the International Automobile Federation, and Stefano Domenicali, the CEO of Formula One, had written forewords to the book. What an honor. (But just as great an honor was my having been the writer that Jean Todt recommended to do the book when Assouline asked for his advice on who to call.)
When Formula 1: The Impossible Collection Finally Arrives
Me at home with my advance copy of the Formula 1: The Impossible Collection book. Photo Credit: Ornella Bonventre
But the day my advance copy of the book arrived – all nearly 10 kilograms of it – that was when I saw the reality that I could never truly have imagined for a book that is an absolute “bijou” as the French say for a jewel, and I could see immediately not only why it was being sold for 920 euros, but that it seemed worth much more than that in the paper and hand craftsmanship alone. Printed at a luxury quality printer in Milan (called Grafiche Milani, a favourite of Jimmy Page) and many of the photographs – the photographic research job, as well as many of the photos themselves, was done by Bernard Asset, a top F1 photographer, while the final choices of photos and images was done by Martine Assouline, of the husband and wife team that own the company – were separately glued to the pages. The cover had a soft feel to it, and a wafting sent of the printer’s workshop came emanating from the box when I opened the book package. Astounding!
By the time the book was completed, and published in May, I had begun to think about playing music again, and I was, in fact, able to do so at a few places, as the pandemic died out a little where I live, and the vaccination process began – I got my second one at the end of May – and then I returned to Sicily, where I was able to perform a couple of times, as I have done back home in France since then.
On the other hand, I have also been working all out on another book project in recent months, which I will also only announce when the time is appropriate! (I’m entering a virtuous cycle here!) And again, I can thank this new project for taking me through the third wave!!!
Great Press Coverage of Formula 1: The Impossible Collection
Actually, I said the cherry on the cake were the two forewords, but there was another aspect to doing the book that I had not expected to this degree, and that was great coverage by some of the world’s top magazines, some of which involved several interviews with me…that once again showed me how difficult it can be to be on the other side of the journalistic table, as the subject of the interview rather than the interviewer!
Here is a list of links to a few of the major interviews and reviews of the book, so you can click on any one of them to read the review or interview:
The book was reviewed or promoted in many, many other parts of the internet, on many different kinds of sites, making me realize there is a landscape out there for talking about books and products of a size and kind that I had never even suspected existed (the landscape I mean, not the size of the books!). And so it was a fun, learning experience all over to have been blessed with this not impossible dream of writing a book about Formula One’s impossible moments for Assouline.
Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren, 1st position, celebrates on the podium with his trophy. Photo Credit: McLaren/LAT Images
PARIS – Several of my lives and passions came together over the last three days resulting in a personally imposed lock-down thanks to the victory by Daniel Ricciardo at the Italian Grand Prix in Monza, Italy on Sunday. Now if that sentence full of facts gets your head spinning to sort it all out, how about checking out the result of all that passion, which is the video I put together for a song in tribute to Ricciardo, written and performed by a couple of Aussie expats in France who I met during my open mic wanderings: “I Can Take Anybody Down,” by Chris Kenna and Melissa Cox:
The situation, it turned out, was actually linked to the previous post in this blog, about Elliott Murphy. Melissa Cox and I, who had met at performances of Kenna and Cox a few years ago, got in touch because it turned out that she not only plays violin with Kenna, but she is also part of the regular band playing with Elliott Murphy! So those two worlds suddenly joined.
Kenna and Cox
But whenever I had met Chris Kenna in the past in bars around Paris, where he is a mainstay of the Paris music scene, we had always spoken about his love of Formula One – which, of course, has been central to my own life and livelihood. And another passion of mine that then joined up in these last few days.
Well, when I heard this fabulous song for Ricciardo, and Melissa asked for photos, of course, another passion took hold: Making videos, mostly those involving music…but this time, with Formula One as a theme. And so, another passion suddenly joined up here, and little by little I got hooked on making this video.
Of course, time pressed as it seemed this thing should come out as close to Daniel Ricciardo’s victory as possible, while his many millions of fans are hot on the story. So that is where all these merging passions came together to force me into a personal lock-down and finish this thing. It would never have been possible, of course, had I not many friends, colleagues and acquaintances in Formula One who kindly helped me out, including especially Bernard Asset, who is one of the series’ best and most respected photographers – and who I worked with on my book about Formula One published at Assouline (which will be spoken of more in a future blog post), who incredibly selflessly allowed me to use a lot of his photos and even chose a selection, treated them and sent them very quickly. And there was the McLaren team’s media staff as well, who gave me access to their collection and videos; and Steven Tee, who is another of the great F1 photographers, and whose LAT Images is probably the biggest, best database of F1 photos there is.
The Extraordinary Musical Pedigree of Kenna and Cox
It was especially great fun to be able to make a music video for someone else from the Paris music scene, as I have made many for my own songs, but few for other people. And Kenna and Cox are no ordinary other musicians based in Paris. Kenna was a farm boy from south-western Victoria state in Australia, who grew up milking cows and trapping rabbits with his brother before dreaming of being a rock star. He may not be a household name, but got a lot of big tastes of that life and world as in Australia he opened for bands like Midnight Oil, Men at Work, The Church and Ian Moss (Cold Chisel), and then when he later moved to France – for the love of a woman – he not only has lived off his own gigs in small venues and bars ever since, but he occasionally supported big names here too, including for Jeff Beck, Peter Green and Tommy Emmanuel.
Kenna and Cox
He has now been playing with Cox for more than a decade, when the two Australians ran into each other at a gig, and he asked her to play a tune with him. She is from Sydney, where she studied classical violin since the age of 10, but then later got discovered jazz, blues, folk, rock and world music. Although her dream had always been to live in Paris, she first tasted a bit of the rest of the world. To quote from her bio: “Under the name Black Sesame, she released an album of electro-pop songs in between residencies as a jazz singer in Tokyo and Guangzhou. But it was Paris she dreamed of; and an invitation to study film composition at L’Ecole Normale de Musique saw the dream become reality.”
So she got to Paris, and has never left – or rather, the two now live in a remote village and commute for gigs, recording, etc.!
As I write these words in closing, I think about how amazing life is when one thing leads to another in an organic manner that you could never have predicted between the moment of one action – for instance, Ricciardo’s victory, or Kenna and Cox meeting at that gig, me writing the Elliott Murphy item leading to Cox contacting me about the song – and the string of events that it sets in motion! And speaking of motion, and e-motion, check out the video and song now because there is LOTS of motion, locomotion and emotion in this “I Can Take Anybody Down” cry of victory for Daniel Ricciardo and his fans!
This blog item feels more and more like liner notes, and no liner notes are complete without the lyrics to the album (well, that’s arguable!), so here I am also going to post the lyrics to this song (which you can also find at Chris Kenna’s bandcamp page, with the song:
They call me the honey badger
And I hail from the west,
I’m an animal behind the wheel –
It’s the thing that I do best.
Nothin’ gets me higher,
Higher than the moon,
(Than) when I’m trippin’ major nutsack
On a Sunday afternoon.
When I’m thirsty for a shoey
Then I hardly use the brakes;
If someone holds me back,
Well I just pounce on their mistakes.
When they see that number 3,
With Lando by my side,
Well they know their race is over
So they take the corner wide.
I can take anybody,
I can take anybody down.
I can take anybody (passion and commitment)
I can take anybody down.
The boys in orange hold their breath
Until their faces all turn blue,
Well I’ll get them on the podium
If it’s the last thing that I do.
All the stallions and the toros
They’re all chafing at the bit,
(And) Mr Hamilton is arguing
With the boss down in the pit.
I can take anybody, (passion and commitment)
I can take anybody down.
I can take anybody, (passion and commitment)
I can take anybody down.
[Uh, watch your back, we’ve got the McLaren on turn 20]
Here comes Danny Ric
[We need to go faster otherwise we let the McLaren pass]
Here comes Danny Ric
Coming up behind you
[Keep pushing – mate, you need to go now]
It’s Danny Ric, oh yeah
Coming up beside you
[Oh shit, he’s got you]
It’s Danny Ric!
I can take anybody (passion and commitment)
I can take anybody down
PARIS – I have a confession to make. I thought I knew just about everything there is to know about all the rock, folk, or just any musicians who count that I needed to know about. What arrogance! The last thing I expected to discover now, at my age – don’t ask what that is – was a musician who got his start in 1973 and had albums published by Polydor, RCA and Columbia Records, who was produced by people as astounding and legendary as Paul Rothchild, and who has lived in my backyard – in Paris – for the last 30 years. Of course, I HAD heard of Elliott Murphy for many years. But because I had heard of him as the American musician the French were in love with and who they thought of as an “American” star but I didn’t because I had not heard of him while growing up in Canada, I had brushed him off entirely…having never listened to his music. More arrogance. But that all changed over the last week after I stumbled upon his memoir: “Just A Story From America.”
Not only have I come to his music 48 years late – and keep in mind that even in March 1973, a month before this was released, I was keenly aware and waiting for the latest sounds, coming home one day that month with that month’s release of Led Zeppelin’s “Houses of the Holy” and Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” – but I have also come to the memoir late. Fortunately, not 48 years late! This brilliant memoir was published in English in May 2019, and in French last November. So I am only a little behind on that! And the way I have started this blog post will make me look quite ignorant to the millions who have known and loved Elliott Murphy’s music for nearly 50 years!
As far as I can see, Elliott Murphy’s memoir, “Just A Story From America” is a self-published – or I should say, independently published – book in English, but with a bona fide French publisher in the translated version. And it also came out in a Spanish translation at a publisher in Spain under the title, “The Last Rock Star.” So maybe the promotion and marketing of the English edition was a little lacking. (Unless I am being arrogant again!) In any case, I have now read this memoir as quickly as I read that memoir of Steve Forbert a few years ago, or Terence Rigby’s memoir (by Juliet Ace) a couple of months ago. Forbert, like Murphy, was another of the many “new Bob Dylans” and Rigby was another “supporting role” kind of artist, which you could almost say in some small way Murphy was too. Someone who was never a household name, but played as well as the big guys, and often WITH the big guys. On the other hand, in fact, no. You can only say that the comparison between the great actor of usually secondary roles, and the great musician who was eclipsed in the fame sweepstakes by friends such as Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed, Billy Joel, and many more, is a great and real act of his own. End of story. So I am writing this blog post today to say to any of the few readers of this blog who do NOT know Elliott Murphy’s music AND Elliott Murphy’s writing, to please, waste no more of your life’s time and get to know him.
While reading the memoir, I went to YouTube and started my searches for his albums, in order of appearance. There are now some 40 of them, so to listen to all of the Elliott Murphy albums will take me some days. But I was immediately astounded upon hearing his first: Aquashow, released in 1973, by Polydor. Here I was listening to a cross between David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, and wait for this, Graham Parker and Elvis Costello, all wrapped up into one.
But there’s more, much more: At the same time that I discovered the musician I also suddenly discovered Elliott Murphy the writer and journalist, and there will be many more discoveries yet to come: Elliot Murphy has published in Rolling Stone, Spin, Vanity Fair, among other magazines, and written books in addition to the memoir – novels, short story collections and poetry. As a writer, he has as great a voice as he does as a singer. That voice and the story it tells so beautifully makes this memoir a touching work from beginning to end. Extremely touching. It is the highly personal story of a man who confronted the death of his father when he was 16, when his father was 48, and actually witnessed his father’s fatal heart attack, running off to find a doctor to help – too late – and then having his fairly wealthy, Long Island idyllic life disintegrate around him.
His father was a show business impresario, having created an amusement attraction called Aquashow, with dancing girls and water shows, that was hugely successful; followed by a successful restaurant that hosted stars and the political elite. His mother dined with Eisenhower, met with Elizabeth Taylor, the world of Elliott Murphy Sr., revolved around high style and success. Until the heart attack showed how flimsy the world really is.
For the boy, Elliott, known at the time by his middle name, James – or rather, “Jimmy” – it was, naturally, his whole world that fell apart. As it did for his mother, who at first tried to keep the restaurant going, but it failed eventually. Eventually, she ended up as a salesperson at Tiffany & Co. and stayed there for 20 years.
No wonder Elliott Murphy was angry at life. But it was an anger that he channeled into his touching first album with his new name, his real name: Elliott Murphy. The album being called…Aquashow. Yes, Elliott Murphy’s Aquashow lived on.
Without the backstory, I think that no one could have known where this album came from. Except in the authenticity of the cry of pain.
Watching his life unfold as an artist in this memoir is a lesson in life and career: So much of his life was made by his audacity – and a little arrogance? – as he always went directly to the source of what he hoped would be a launching platform for his career. During a trip through Europe when he was 21, he stopped off at Cinecitta in Rome hoping to finagle his way into acting as an extra in films, arriving decked out in such a way that he thought they would believe his story that he was an actor in cowboy films in the U.S. Fellini took one look at him and offered him a role as an extra – actually something a lot more than that – in his film Roma!
Elliott Murphy today
Returning to the U.S., he made a demo with his brother of some of the songs he wrote in Europe, and he headed off to Polydor, knocked on the door, said he wanted his demo listened to, and they were invited up immediately into the office of one of the A&R people who listened to it, liked it, and arranged an audition later in the week with the head of A&R. He liked it and they got a deal! Off the street in a company they knew nothing about, except that James Brown was with Polydor, as was guitarist Roy Buchanan.
This kind of thing is repeated again and again throughout his life and career as he found himself scoring deal after deal, moving from Polydor to RCA – where Paul Rothchild produced the album, “Lost Generation,” in 1975, and where he then recorded his “Night Lights” album – then to Columbia, where he recorded his last album for a major label, “Just a Story From America,” the same title as the memoir.
During this period, he lived a life that he turns into a dream read with fabulous anecdotes about meetings with a seemingly endless string of household names in show business, that includes such a diverse cast as Frank Zappa and Liza Minnelli. Zappa invited him into a studio while he was recording an album, Zappa’s guitar amp was in the studio, but Zappa was seated in the engineering booth with the engineer, and playing his guitar from there that was attached to the amp in the studio! Minnelli he met at a party, and the two were encouraged to sing together…but he knew none of her broadway music show tunes, and she knew no pop, rock, folk, Dylan or otherwise! He met Jean-Michel Basquiat, who was just as arrogant about him as I was (until now), who looked away from him while they shared a stretch limousine, and said: “I hear you’re a has-been.” (He regrets now that he was so pissed off at that that he did not buy any of the drawings Basquiat was selling for only a hundred bucks each. Imagine the value today – that would be a very much “living well” kind of revenge.)
Here we see the life of a rock star up close and personal throughout the 1970s, and then the fairly sudden change for the singer songwriters when punk suddenly took over and made them all irrelevant. (How did Forbert come out and thrive at that moment?!!?)
That period coincides in his life with the moment he goes entirely and almost fatally off the rails. Like so many others – not Zappa – he was taking drugs – mostly cocaine – and alcohol as a daily diet. He was in so deep that he did not even know it. In short, he managed to discover his own problem with the help of a freak moment meeting an attractive woman who had herself been an alcoholic, and who took him to a meeting where he discovered he DID have a problem, and he had an epiphany. He never touched a drop of alcohol or drugs again, some 30 years ago now.
Elliott Murphy’s father’s Aquashow on a billboard in NYC
In fact, he had fallen so low that after all these successes in the 1970s, he had ended up moving back to his mother’s place, sleeping on a cot, and then working as a secretary in a law firm just to survive! But he had learned a lesson about life that he would never forget, and soon begin to apply: “Looking back, it’s hard to deny that my daily drinking and regular cocaine use had something to do with my bad decisions; what happens when your lifestyle instead of your work becomes your priority.”
That was it. From then on, his work took precedence over his lifestyle. But his lifestyle also improved. He ended up moving to France in around 1989 – a country where he had had quite a big success that he was not even aware of for years thanks to the record company’s keeping it secret from him – and then he met his future wife – Françoise – and then had a son, Gaspard, in 1990. He has lived here ever since, worked on something similar to Bob Dylan’s “never ending tour,” – not to mention getting invited to play with Bruce Springsteen during his Paris visits on several occasions – and he has expanded that writing career too. With this memoir as the latest result. Go out and get it! I have told only a fraction of the fabulous tales this book contains. It’s a real discovery…of course, as I indicated earlier, I’m probably preaching to the converted and I’m the only idiot out here who didn’t know much about Elliott Murphy until now!
CASTELLAMMARE DEL GOLFO, Sicily – How is that for amazing timing? A friend whom I met during my open mic musical travels just posted an exceptional new song and video, so exceptional that I told him I wanted to spread the news…but after five days sitting on it, I was still not sure how I could do that. What would be the context to talk about his amazing song and the fabulous video he did using footage of Josephine Baker dancing in Paris in 1927? And then, wow, today I suddenly saw the news in France that Emmanuel Macron, the French president, has agreed to enshrine Josephine Baker in the Panthéon in Paris! The first time a black woman has been given such an exceptional honor in France. And how incredibly appropriate that my friend’s song about Baker – whose bones will now rest in the Panthéon – is called: “Bad Bones.”
I have spoken about my friend Pete Cogavin in the past, and about his band, The Hobosapiens. But this time I am completely blown away by the video, and I cannot believe the timing. Baker was an American star in the roaring twenties Paris, and not only amongst the artistic expats of the time like Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, et al. She was hugely popular in France, and that right through her life, until her death in Paris in 1975. She was a human rights activist, a women’s rights activist, a civil rights activist – she was from St Louis, Missouri – and had also worked in the French resistance during World War II. She was also known for having adopted 12 children, and one of them – Brian Bouillon-Baker – was involved in making this request to Macron.
In fact, the request to place her in the Panthéon – among the bones of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Émile Zola, Jean Jaurès, Jean Moulin, Jean Monnet, Pierre et Marie Curie, André Malraux and Alexandre Dumas and others – was also made by the novelist Pascal Bruckner, the singer Laurent Voulzy, the entrepreneur Jennifer Guesdon, the essay writer Laurent Kupferman. Macron apparently gave his go-ahead on 21 July, but the story has just come out in in the French media overnight.
Above all, or rather, to start with, Josephine Baker was an exceptional performer, famous for her dancing costume of a belt of bananas. As you will see in the video above. (Even if the bananas are not featured in this particular video.)
And while I am at it talking about Pete Cogavin and the Hobosapiens, and while we are also on this French theme in Pete’s music – he is an Irishman who I met while he was living in Nice – I want to draw your attention also to this beautiful rendition he also just did – solo, chez lui – of the famous song by Piaf: La Vie en Rose. He starts off in English, then moves into excellent French! Chapeau Pete!
A previous request to place Josephine Baker in the Panthéon had been made in 2013 to François Hollande, then president, and he rejected it. Simone Veil, another great woman activist, was accepted amongst the mostly men in the Panthéon three years ago.
Kupferman said this decision regarding Baker was just what was needed in today’s political environment in a statement I translate from French: “It’s a very strong message for universality. Joséphine Baker incarnates that which we all need right now, which is to say, to get together as one. She is the proof that in the French republic, anything is possible. That an equality of opportunities exists. And that next to our rights, we also have obligations.”
CASTELLAMMARE DEL GOLFO, Sicily – He was one of the greatest British character actors of the end of the 20th century, early 21st century, one of Harold Pinter’s fetish actors and friend, just as adept starring in television, on stage or in cinema – a late career period with along with Julia Roberts and in Color Me Kubrick…the list of achievements go on and on for Terence Rigby. And I am proud to be able to say that for a few months in 1977 to 1978 we were briefly friends, while I was a bartender at The National Theatre in London, and he was acting in various roles as part of the company. In fact, he helped me audition for RADA, where he had started out 20 years earlier. But if my life completely changed after that, I always carried questions about who exactly was this man Terence Rigby. Many others who knew him asked the same questions. How delighted was I last week to discover a Memoir of Rigby’s life was published in 2014 and written by his good friend, the scriptwriter, Juliet Ace. Called, “Rigby Shlept Here,” it is a magnificent tale of an unusual man and a great actor. I have now written a long review-cum-memoir of my own of this book, and about this man. Follow the link here to my page in my Writers on Writers and Writing section about Terence Rigby and Juliet Ace’s memoir “Rigby Shlept Here.“
PARIS – One year into the pandemic that has killed live music and the life I spent most of this blog writing about – open mics, bar gigs, jam sessions etc. – and you might think that the musicians of the world would have collapsed and taken their music to heaven by now. That would be to underestimate the spirit that drives musicians onwards: To make music no matter what! In the last few weeks I have seen a sudden harvest of initiatives, sounds, CDs, gigs and things that to me show how so many of the musicians I have met over the life of this blog – 11 years old last month – have taken advantage of the lockdowns in their respective countries to forge onwards in making music and promoting their careers in ways that the gigs can no longer do.
And what a great feeling of pleasure it is to see how they have progressed through the mess that was thrust upon us all, setting the stage for even greater things when the curtain rises again post-Covid trauma. I want to just mention a few of these bits of news from musicians I have met, played with or just heard at open mics over the last decade. I’ve got five examples with five representative videos that I invite you to check out…and why not support them with a buy!
1) I met Greg Sherrod at the Some Girls open mic on rue de Lappe near the Bastille in Paris around a half a decade ago. I came in like any other night, signed up to play, and there was this guy from Connecticut who had just arrived for a short stay in Paris, and as a singer songwriter, and longtime performer with bar bands, had come to Paris with the goal among other things of playing in some jam sessions. It turned out he had been reading this blog for a long time in advance to prepare the trip, and so how fabulous that the first open mic he attended I was there, and he recognised me! So began a mostly long-distance friendship that is still going strong. (Can you believe it that it was Greg in Connecticut who introduced me to the fabulous Netflix series “The Eddy,” that takes place in France?)
The news from Greg is that he is launching a national campaign on June 1 to sell his latest CD, “Do You Feel It?” I loved his CD that he released a few years ago and that I spoke about on this blog, but this new one has even MORE of his energy and bubbling, bursting, addictive feeling! Greg’s really got a unique voice and style, and I implore you to go and check this out on Greg Sherrod’s bandcamp page. It’s really different, and I wish him the best of luck on the national launch.
2) Regular readers of this blog will know the name of Paddy Sherlock. But maybe not the way I am about to talk about him. As his name suggests, Paddy is Irish. But he is also a decades-long Paris expat, and host of the also decades-long music night at the Coolin’ Pub in the Latin Quarter, which sadly, closed a few years ago to make way for an Apple Store (more or less). After that, Paddy hosted an open mic that was exclusively devoted to original songwriters, and started at the Tennessee Bar before moving to O’Sullivan’s Rebel bar. It only ended when Covid started, and I imagine Paddy will be back to hosting it after the pandemic ends.
If, that is, he is not too famous and in demand thanks to his latest CD, “Dusk,” which not only has been playing regularly on one of France’s top radio stations – FIP – but has also been getting fabulous media coverage, including as I write, being called the album of the week by the French edition of Rolling Stone magazine! A video of one of the songs, “Like a Diamond,” which I link to above, has more than 20,000 views in a short period of time. In short, it has taken the lockdown for Paddy to apparently break out in a big way. Paddy, a multi-instrumentalist, but trombone specialist, is also a very cool songwriter and singer, and actor, and that all comes together on the video, as you will see.
Just as the virus began threatening everything, Misja managed to get in a concert in Paris playing along with a symphony orchestra a piece written by the Polish composer, Elzbieta Sikora, based on a piece by Wanda Landowska, and instead of using the piano, chose to use the electric guitar as the lead instrument. It was directed by Marzena Diakun. Playing just before the coronavirus broke out, the intervening time allowed the project to develop both a CD and a video of the performance. I sat mesmerised listening to and watching his performance, in this extraordinary moment that out-Fripps Fripp and that requires all of Misja’s technical knowledge and feeling, in a virtuoso performance of a kind on an electric guitar that I’ve never heard, and an extremely cool idea. Check out the video of the making of the performance to see if you agree!! And you can find out more about the performance on the site of those who put it together. Here is a great description of the CD.
4) Researching this next performer on this blog itself, I discover that the first time I ever heard Gaelle Buswel sing was as far back as 2009! It was at the Cavern bar in Paris, at the weekly vocal jam, and I was immediately subjugated by her performance. In fact, I can’t think of a better way to describe her than the way I did on this blog the following year: “Gaelle Buswel has an amazing voice, extraordinary charm and stage presence, and she…gee, she has a little of that Bruce Springsteen quality of looking like she’s loving every minute of the performance and the communication with the audience.”
I saw her perform a few times after that, but it was mostly in watching from afar that I have seen Gaelle’s career take off and actually explode. And with good reason. You can add to the above description her untiring work, application and will power! She works ceaselessly from what I have been able to see in receiving her newsletters for years now and following her career. She has opened for Ringo Starr, ZZ Top and Deep Purple; she has played many of the greatest blues festivals in France and elsewhere in the world, including winning prizes at the Cognac Blues festival, and elsewhere, and she has now just put out a new CD in the middle of Covid, and got herself splashed all over the covers of the French music magazines as a result. It just keeps going upward, this career, and damn the virus! Check out the video of the title song from the latest CD above – oh yes, and I forgot to mention that Gaelle, although French, specializes in not only singing all the rock and blues classics of the English-speaking world, but she also writes her own songs in English….
5) I finally got up the courage to apply myself to today’s post when I saw a familiar face looking out at me through a video on my Facebook, and I decided to give a listen. Joe Danger is a fixture of the Nice bar music scene, and I heard and met him too for the first time almost a decade ago. I last saw him a couple of years ago when I was visiting Nice and eating in a pizzeria with Ornella and found myself sitting at a table beside Joe! We never got to know each other very well, because I was never very long in town, and Joe was never very long off stage. Despite his name, and his perfect English accent, Joe hails from Germany! But he has lived in Nice since the 1980s, and he has been eternally attracting masses of young listeners to his various nights playing music in places like Jonathan’s music bar. I’ll never forget the first time I saw him play there, in the cave in the basement: The place was empty. Completely. And then Joe took to the stage, and suddenly, within minutes, the room was bursting at the seams with twenty-somethings, all coming to listen and go crazy to Joe! He was in his mid-to-late 50s! But he had something they loved! And as soon as his set ended, they all deserted the bar….
I am putting up the video I saw of Joe’s today because I think this song he wrote, “Let’s Get Rich,” speaks totally, completely and perfectly of the feeling of the moment for musicians who make their livings out of playing live music, especially in bars. While it is telling the story of low-down times and lack of money, it is the act of writing and playing – and Joe says he is currently about to record it with a band – that shows the kind of backbone, faith and spirit of fighting on that is really behind all of these musicians at this difficult moment. Way to go Joe Danger! Way to go all of them!
PS, don’t forget to check out my own lockdown effort that I posted about recently, which is my song about our crazy, sick world of the moment on another level: “What’s All This Talk!?!”:
PARIS – I highly recommend to anyone interested in either Jim Haynes, or a look at the counterculture world from 1959 to 2021 to take a look the documentary “Meeting Jim.” It is still being offered free for another three hours from the time this post goes up today. I saw it last night, and loved it for many reasons, not least of all because of all the reasons I wrote about in my post about the life of Jim Haynes after his death in early January. If you miss the free offer that goes until 7PM Paris-time today, then you can actually pay for it as you would any video on demand – and it’s still worth it. I won’t even go into any details about the film now because I want to get this post up as quickly as possible – suffice it to say that it is a feature-length documentary filmed in 2016 – but with a nice amount of historical footage too – that covers Jim’s whole life, and the above mentioned cultural period that it spanned and that he so fabulously contributed to….
PS, to see the film, when you click on that first link I put above in the second sentence of this post, you will come to a “Meeting Jim” dedicated page. Scroll down the page to see the links to watch the film free from wherever you may be in the world.