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The Political World of Jean-Hugues Oppel: Another In-Depth Interview With a French Crime Writer, this Time Talking at Semana Negra

January 23, 2021
bradspurgeon

Jean-Hugues Oppel

Jean-Hugues Oppel

I am absolutely delighted to have found this interview I did with Jean-Hugues Oppel in 1997 at the Semana Negra mystery festival in Gijon, Spain, and to be able to post it on this site in my collection of interviews and articles I did in the 1990s and early 2000s about the French crime novel. This interview is definitely one of the best and widest ranging of them all. I think the environment of the crazy festival helped for it to be so much fun, and so deep. But ultimately, as you will see, it is the depth of Jean-Hugues Oppel’s own knowledge and approach to life and writing that makes the difference here in this interview.

In Memory of Jim Haynes: End of an Era, but not of a Philosophy of Life

January 12, 2021
bradspurgeon

Jim Haynes

Jim Haynes

PARIS – Not long into reading Jim Haynes’s autobiography, “Thanks For Coming!” in 1984, shortly after it was published, I said to myself, “I am certain I will meet this man.” I lived in Paris, as did he, I was interested in the expat literary and cultural world, and he was at the center of it, and my bookstore of choice was “The Village Voice,” on the rue Princesse, which it seemed impossible that he would not know. A meeting had to happen.

As it turned out, sitting in the back of that same bookstore, drinking a coffee and eating a brownie, and reading Jim Haynes’s book, who should walk in but Jim Haynes. With his big moustache, and slightly drawling accident, he was easy to recognize. I wasted no time in approaching him and telling him of the coincidence that there I was reading his book at that very moment and in he walks! So began a 37-year-long friendship that came to an end two days ago when Jim died at the age of 87. In fact, as anyone who knew Jim knows, it was not just Jim who left us, but a whole chunk of cultural life in Paris (and dare I add a cultural life of the 1960s and 70s in Britain too), and a living, walking, smiling philosophy of life.

Thinking about his life in the last few days since he left us on 6 January, it struck me that Jim was born in the same year that Hitler took power in Germany, and that he should die in a hospital in Paris at the same moment that the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. was being raided by violent haters, was very significant: Nothing could be further from Jim Haynes’s philosophy of life than the hatred that both Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump knew so well how to manipulate in their followers. Jim was all about love and togetherness and sharing; and if that sounds like some kind of 1960s hippie peace sort of dreamy approach to life, well, not only was it just that, but Jim successfully – and contagiously – lived by it right to the end.

I will not spend time on this blog post reiterating the events of his life. That has been well handled all over the place, including in this obituary about Jim Haynes published in The Guardian, or on Jim Haynes’s own web site. The only thing I feel I can bring that would serve any purpose beyond what everyone else – and he himself in that autobiography as well – would say, is my own experience of Jim. And I look forward to reading many more such accounts by the other legions of people from every walk of life who knew him.

Even so, in a nutshell: Born in the U.S., in Louisiana, after coming to Europe in the military, he decided to live in Scotland in the 1950s, where he created the first paperback bookstore, then helped found the now-famous Traverse theatre, before then moving to London where he founded the Arts Lab theatre space, and the International Times newspaper. He then came to Paris on a teaching assignment at the University of Paris, and stayed the rest of his life here, writing, holding Sunday dinner salons for more than 40 years, creating his publishing company, as well as many other manner of homegrown artistic thing.

Jim Haynes Autobiography

Jim Haynes Autobiography

Jim also, by the way, wanted to meet and know everyone in the world, and it was for that reason that I had no qualms about introducing myself to him in that bookshop. After that first meeting, we had many different kinds of meetings or communications over the years, never as close friends, but always as welcome friends. In the early years he would periodically call me up while I was working in the library of the International Herald Tribune – a newspaper that he read daily – in order to find some clip or other fact that he needed for whatever purpose. We would talk for a while, I’d find what he was looking for, and life went on.

I met him on occasion at the various book launches and small press nights at The Village Voice, at Shakespeare and Company or other meeting points during the period of the 1980s when it felt as if the literary expat world of Paris of the 1920s and 1930s or even the 1950s had returned. Several young expats from the English-speaking world decided to create their own literary magazines, and Jim, who had his own Handshake Editions at the time helped to encourage many of those young people with their literary magazines and actions. “Frank,” by David Applefield, was one of those, John Strand, who went on to have an excellent career as a playwright had another called “Paris Exiles,” and a woman named Carole Pratle had one called Sphinx. And, yes, Ted Joans, the famous beat poet was hanging around too. Jim had even helped advise AND occasionally work for Odile Hellier, the owner of that very same Village Voice bookstore where we met. (Applefield, by the way, who spent most of his life in Paris until he returned to the U.S. a couple of years ago, ran for Congress last summer, lost, and died suddenly the next day.)

One of the astounding things about Jim was just how many people he did indeed know. And the range of the kind of person they were. From the famous to the unknown, it didn’t matter who you were or what you did. He just liked people. But more important, even his act of knowing people was not something only for him: He loved to introduce people to each other, to make connections, to start relationships. One of his ventures was a global address book, comprising many of the people he met. And his famous Sunday dinners in Paris were always an occasion for Jim to introduce people to each other, and I mean in a really, outgoing, almost formal way: “Brad this is so and so; so and so, this is Brad.” That sense that we were all there to meet and share was one of the first signals you would receive upon entering the dinner.

On one of our early meetings at his home in the 1980s, I went because I learned he had some kind of recording studio at home and I wanted to record a couple of songs and a piece of prose writing I had done. I secretly hoped he would love it and use it in his then popular “Cassette Gazette,” a cassette tape collection of all kinds of writing and music and everything else you could put on tape. He showed no interest in the written piece, but he did sincerely and with some surprise in his voice, compliment my recording of the Raggle Taggle Gypsies song. At the time I was no longer playing music in public and had no ambitions to do so. So I was a bit pissed off he liked the song but not the writing!

That recording, by the way, was done by his longtime friend, Jack Henry Moore, who I knew nothing of at the time, but who I would eventually learn was also very much at the center of the underground of the 1960s. Jim wrote a Jack Henry Moore obituary for The Guardian when he died in 2014.

That, I believe in fact, was my first visit to Jim’s atelier at 83, rue de la Tombe Issoire, where one of his illustrious neighbours and friends was Samuel Beckett, by the way. Yes, Jim was friends with countless literary people, including Henry Miller, another one-time Paris expat, and he had a long running friendship with the book publisher, John Calder, with whom he founded the first Edinburgh international book festival. And to my delight and surprise, he had also corresponded with Colin Wilson, one of the original Angry Young Men of British literature, whom I would later meet, interview and befriend. I was delighted to be able eventually to give to Jim a copy of the interview book that I did with Colin Wilson. How strange the world is! (I recall now that I had also run into Jim at the Frankfurt Book Fair the one time I went there, which he attended regularly, and he introduced me to Calder.)

From a coffee and brownie meeting while reading his book, and him calling me up as a librarian at the IHT, soon he would be complimenting me on “writing half of the IHT newspaper,” or however he put it, while referring to all my regular Formula One writings and multiple-page special reports in that paper. He had treated me with the same respect as a support staff member of the IHT as when I became a regular journalist for the paper. Over the years we would meet in various circumstances, maybe at an organized play attendance followed by a dinner with a small group of people whom he had encouraged to see his friends’ play – or at a Sunday dinner at his atelier.

In another interesting Jim Haynes phenomenon, through the decades the number and kinds of people who I knew and who I learned also knew Jim Haynes grew and grew. They would, again, be from different countries around the world, and my relationship to them would vary completely, never being entirely to do with journalism or the arts, so vastly large was his relationship “footprint” around the world.

Jim Haynes and Varda Ducovny, with host Grace Teshima behind. Photo © Seamas McSwiney

Jim Haynes and Varda Ducovny, with host Grace Teshima behind.
Photo © Seamas McSwiney

One of our more recent meetings happened four or five years ago at a book launch of a friend of his, Varda Ducovny, in a home art space in Paris, in Montmartre. I had met Varda at one of the above mentioned dinners. At the end of the evening, he left a few minutes before I did, and as I descended the stairs of the building, I found Jim, sitting oddly on the bottom stair, with a couple of his friends either side. He had fallen and hurt himself; in fact, he had fallen before the start of the evening, and despite being in pain throughout, he stayed for the full launch and cocktail ceremony. By then in his early 80s, such a fall felt ominous. And as it turned out, it really was the beginning of a series of incidents that would remove from him his strong good health and easy mobility.

One of our last meetings I now see in a short recorded interview that I did with him for some research that Ornella was doing, was in January 2018. Three years ago. While he was 100 percent there mentally – and morally, ie, in his usual good spirits – I seriously worried about how many months he might last. That he lasted three more years is testament to his incredible inner strength, which I put down to that Jim Haynes optimistic, happy, loving and thankful philosophy of life.

Ornella found a key to that philosophy in the book he had given her that day three years ago, a copy of his book, “Everything Is!” She posted these words from the book on her Facebook page, and I agree with their profundity, so I finish this post with them too: “Some people say that when they are happy they sing and dance. But I say: when I sing and dance, I am happy!”

Writing on Writers and Writing: a New “Salon” Space on this Blog

December 29, 2020
bradspurgeon

Writing on Writers and Writing Photo: ©Brad Spurgeon

Writing on Writers and Writing.
Photo: ©Brad Spurgeon

PARIS – The other day when I put up that article I did about Marc Villard, the French crime writer, I mentioned that I thought it was about time for me to create a separate space on this blog to hold together all my articles about the French crime writing scene. Sleeping on the idea, I came up with an idea I like even more, which is to create a space on the blog that will group together ALL of the writing on this blog about writers and writing. So it seemed natural to create a menubar, that you see above this post at the top of the browser, called “Writing on Writers and Writing.”

Under that menubar you will find a collection of all sorts of bits and pieces of writing from this blog of stuff about writers and writing, books, bookstores, Not Book Reviews, etc. It is not an exhaustive collection of such writing that I have done over the years, by any means. It is just like the rest of this blog, stuff that I chose at any given time to devote a page to. As a result, I took away some of the articles previously held in certain other parts of the blog – like from “Blog Articles as Opposed to Posts,” and I gave them this their own home.

I am hoping that it will inspire me to contribute regularly to them with many of the pieces of writing on writing and writers that I have done in the past, and perhaps, eventually, I will create subheadings for each area that may grow too big, such as the writings specifically about the French crime writing scene.

Also, I decided that it was a good place to carry the definition of what should be linked there just a little further, by adding links in the menu to such things as my interview book with Colin Wilson, linking to its place on Amazon: Colin Wilson: Philosopher of Optimism. Or the video interview that I did with Colin Wilson when a new edition of the book came out.

Finally, I also decided to add to the Fiction menu the some of the translations that I have done of other people’s fiction, notably the three stories by Marc Villard, and a story by Jean-Hugues Oppel, that appeared in an anthology in the United States, and then later made its way to a BBC radio play, which is where the link goes.

And so it is that under semi-lockdown I have finally found the time to do some long-required housekeeping on this blog! (You will have seen the huge lack of blog items in recent months about playing music in public! And you will not, coronavirus oblige, wonder why!)

On the Paths of Michel Onfray’s Childhood, a Soirée and Film About – and with – France’s Popular Philosopher of Chambois

January 18, 2020
bradspurgeon

Michel Onfray sur les chemins de son enfance
Michel Onfray sur les chemins de son enfance

The first time I wrote about Michel Onfray was in December 2006, and the story was published by The Toronto Star – because the newspaper where I worked did not have either the courage, the savvy or the understanding to publish the story about one of France’s most popular, but controversial writers.  Ultimately, I was overjoyed that the story made the lead, front-page, Insight section of the Star in its Sunday edition, which reached more than a million subscribers.  

Even better, I had been worried – and told – that it was too long a story. But when finally after several rejections elsewhere, the Star accepted it, they asked me to expand it even more, and it ended up well over 2,000 words. I was then delighted when another editor at my own newspaper wrote me an email and said he had just read the article on a famous literary web site – I think it was based in Britain – that he subscribed to, which had picked up the story after the Star publication.  He said he was a fan of Onfray, and he asked me why had I not offered it to our newspaper?!

Anyway, my own newspaper did, the following year, accept another, less deep article, from me about Onfray’s Université Populaire, and I ended up feeling a bit better about the original multiple rejections – from multiple editors – at that newspaper.

The other day, I went to a projection of a film about Michel Onfray’s upbringing and home town, in a cinema not far from where I live. It not only brought me back to that period more than a decade ago, but it allowed me to meet Onfray again, as it was a special soirée with the film, a Q&A with Onfray, and then a party afterwards with wine and canapés. There must have been between 600 and 1,000 people present in the 7 Batignolles cinema, on the edge of Paris across from the new prefecture de Police, right next to Clichy.

The documentary, “Sur les chemins de mon enfance,” (“On the Paths of my Childhood”) went way beyond my expectations. It was made by a couple of Onfray’s friends – also accomplished filmmakers – and filmed in his home town of Chambois, in Normandy – where he still lives. I assumed in advance that it was a small-budget, maybe no-budget, production. But the simplicity with which it was done combined with the depth of the material made it a fabulously genuine document that shows a lot to us of the connection between the writer and his environment. How Onfray became Onfray.

Upon returning home from the screening, I discovered in my computer archives that after my own visit to Chambois, and Onfray’s personal home itself (which, interestingly, does not feature in the film), in 2006, I had written a nearly 10,000-word diary item of my impressions, which I wanted to use as a basis for the eventual article I would write. Re-reading that account after seeing the film, made me realize how valuable the film is in showing how his childhood environment made Onfray who he is – which, of course, is true of us all.  I am very thankful to have seen the film as my own written account – and the memory of my visit – painted a picture of his world without seeing how that world was the stimulus of his existence.

The structure of the film is simple: Onfray takes a walk on a circuit around his town and the neighbouring couple of towns, starting at Point A and returning at the end of the film at Point A, but after walking a large circuitous route, the “chemin de la Garenne.”

Onfray draws our attention to how this microcosmic walk is actually representative of our whole existence, and how his garden is the center of the universe in that way. Of course he does not see his little world as the center of the world … except in how it IS the center of his own world and how it is representative of how the center of ALL of our worlds is also the center of the world.  (Ornella, who attended with me, was struck by how similar were so many things in her own childhood upbringing in Sicily.  When I pointed that out to Onfray, he said it had to do with the similarity of a rural upbringing everywhere, which we agreed was true.)

Like one of the other philosopher writers whose works have influenced me in my life, Colin Wilson, one of the original Angry Young Men of British letters, Onfray is both massively loathed and massive loved by the public in his country. As I said in the beginning, he was France’s best-selling philosopher in 2005-2006 or so. Now, I have no idea what his position is in terms of sales, but like Wilson as well, he is mighty prolific.

And his works and words and persona continue in France to elicit massive amounts of public attention – love him or hate him.

What is fabulous about this documentary is how we see the simple, normal, but at the same time exceptional man behind the public persona. And we see the people who were important in his life: His mother and his most influential elementary school teacher are not only both interviewed in the film, but they were both present at the screening last night, and present until after midnight at the party. Both are pushing 90 years old or beyond!

And this in itself is one of the most convincing aspects of Onfray that most people who dislike him probably have no idea about: What famous public persona philosopher would make his mom and school teacher of his childhood as welcome a part of his literary world?

When I first met him in 2006 and attended a dinner with him and some of the teachers of his Université Populaire at a meal at his home in Chamois, I remember at one point in the evening his parents coming in to say hello.

But, as it turns out, this aspect of Onfray’s life – connecting the real with the philosophical – is central to this thinking, and it was not entirely new to me – even if the film strengthens my understanding through the power of the images. One of the first books I read of his, was “La Puissance d’Exister,” or “The Strength to Exist,” in which he recounts how his life led to his philosophy. I find in my notes from 2006 this paragraph:

 

“I told him I had finished reading the Atheist Manifesto, and then had started reading the Strength to Exist.  I told him that I was very surprised by the account of his youth, but said that I thought it worked very, very well to show where his philosophy came from, what inspired it.  He said that he had done this in many of his books, in fact, starting from a personal point and moving to the philosophy.  I then recalled the same had indeed been the case with “The Stomach of the Philosophers,” (his book “Le Ventre des Philosophes”).  But no sooner had we said these few words than his parents entered the house, almost on cue to put an end to the discussion about his unhappy childhood.”

The documentary shows a man who is so deeply in touch with the natural world – the plants, gardens, streams and fields – of Chambois, that there is a sense coming through the film of this attachement to the earth that seems to feed his writing. Colin Wilson was often accused of existing ONLY in the world of books. But Onfray in this film makes it clear how in his life and world, nature came first, and the books came second. And the best writing is one that brings us back to the real world in which we live.

We meet also his childhood friend, Ghislain Gondouin, who we learn introduced him to many minor poets, and also to politics. In fact, this is one of the shocking, interesting parts of the documentary: We learn where so many of Onfray’s seminal influences came from, and they were not coming from institutions or café culture, but from humble, simple, local people like the barber, butcher, school teacher, farmer or every place and person imaginable.

There will be nothing in the film for critics of Onfray to like, or even for many professional journalists, as there is not a bad word said about him. But why should there be? As Onfray said in the Q&A after the film, “This was a film done amongst friends. I knew I could trust them.” And what’s wrong with that, when the result is such an important understanding of one of France’s most important modern writers and philosophers?

The film, by Alexandre Jonette et Stéphane Simon, had appeared on local Normandy television once, and it is also now accessible on Onfray’s web site MichelOnfray.com.

 

 

 

 

Fantastic Find of My Never-Before-Published Interview with A.S. Byatt, the Booker Winning Novelist

October 30, 2018
bradspurgeon

A.S. Byatt

A.S. Byatt

I was quite astounded today as I was going through my huge archive of 35 years’ worth of my writing in my computer (my first computer was a 1982 Osborne), and I discovered an interview article I did with the Booker Prize-winning author, A.S. Byatt.  Strangely – or not, given the ravages of age – I had completely forgotten that I ever did it.  I performed the interview and wrote the article in 1991 and it was immediately rejected by an editor and immediately, for some reason, relegated to my archives as of no interest to anyone.  Because it was 1991, the only way it COULD be published at the time was to submit it to print publications, and I probably had gotten tired of all the submissions I had already made for the article that inspired it:  my article about the world’s most prolific writers of books in English (which was eventually published as the lead essay on the front page of the Los Angeles Times Book Review.  So I “trashed” this Byatt interview, which I also had tied in not only with the theme of prolificacy, but also with the centennial of George Gissing’s novel, New Grub Street.  In fact, finding it now, I see it was a lively, fantastic interview with an important British author who is still alive today, at age 82.  So no sooner did I discover it today than I decided to add it to my collection on this blog of “Brad’s Rejected Writings.”  Check it out, this 1991 interview with A.S. Byatt.  

The Inspiring Steve Forbert Memoir, or Another Great Gift From Romeo: Big City Cat

September 11, 2018
bradspurgeon

Big City Cat Cover

Big City Cat Cover

PARIS – I am so relieved to have just finished reading Steve Forbert’s memoir, “Big City Cat: My Life in Folk-Rock.” I am a very slow reader, and I had been glued to it during every off-moment of the past three or four days since I downloaded it into my Kindle – wreaking havoc on the rest of my life. I had been waiting patiently for the book’s release date and the moment that came, I downloaded it and dug in. Were it not for other commitments I would have finished it in a single reading, if possible. As it was, I was forced to put down the Elvis Costello autobiography to read Forbert’s, but I couldn’t kill all of my commitments – work, family and social. So it took a few days. Why all the excitement?

Let me use the Costello book, “Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink,” as a point of departure. Forbert and Costello were born only four months apart in 1954, with Costello being the older of the two. I was born almost exactly three years after Forbert. They were born on different sides of the Atlantic ocean, and both became famous at almost the same time – Costello’s first album, “My Aim is True” was released in July ’77, while Forbert’s first album, “Alive on Arrival” came out in June ’78. I was living off my busking in London’s Marble Arch subways at the time Costello’s album appeared, and I was renting a bed in a crappy hotel in Notting Hill Gate. I remember seeing the posters all over the place for Costello’s album, with the photos of the nerd with the horn-rimmed glasses, and I remember thinking, “Who is this clown?” In time (years, really), Costello would become one of my favorite singer songwriters, and remains so today.

Forbert, for me, was a completely different story. He was one of my early musical influences. But not from his album, it was from having attended open mic nights at Folk City in New York City in 1976 when he was starting out, and I met him there, and talked to him about himself a little as we stood in line outside in the cold, waiting to sign our names to the list for the night’s open mic. He uses the older term “hootenanny,” and writes extensively about this period in his life. It fills in a background for me not only of his life, but of the life I took part in at the time but only briefly, and only barely, and especially of all that I missed by not staying in NYC long enough before returning to Toronto.

Alive on Arrival

Alive on Arrival


At the time, I was very interested in talking to him because, for me at 18, seeing this 21-year-old take to the stage and spread some kind of magic around the room, filling the place with a presence and a sound that I could not identify, I wondered what the hell was going on here? What was happening that the room changed when “Little Stevie Orbit” took to the stage? What orbit did he come in from? I was confused, particularly since I knew that my own efforts on stage as a musician at the time were so poor, and so many of the other musicians taking part in the “hoot” sounded simply human – not from another galaxy or time warp.

So his influence on me was something in his performance that I continued to search for a long while and eventually started to grasp one evening while busking in London in the fall of ’77, the following year, and feeling something about how to use the whole body and express through the body and voice the fire of the emotion burning inside the gut. (It would take me many, many more years, even so, to get to any point where I could be in any way satisfied with a feeling of how to reproduce that thing at will.) So it is that I know exactly what Forbert’s eventual manager, Danny Fields, was referring to when he describes in the book what got him interested in the young Forbert:

“I … loved the intensity of performance — I would say that most of all,” Fields is quoted saying. “I don’t remember words, just remembered he played, he sang and he played and he stomped with his boots, so he was like a one-man band and I liked that.”

That’s a bit of a crude and simple description of the thing Forbert gave off – in addition to the rich, unique rasp of his young voice – but it does indicate it was this “thing” that was being communicated and reaching everyone that listened and saw him perform. There was a genuineness that came through it all, too. And in reading this autobiography, I realize where the genuineness came from: Forbert, who reached international fame in the pop charts in 1979 with “Romeo’s Tune,” is about as genuine as they come. This book is genuine. Unlike so many efforts at propaganda that show business personalities release as memoirs or autobiography, “Big City Cat,” gives several sides of the story.

There is the beautifully told, laid back, easy voice of Forbert – his Mississippi voice comes through – telling the main narrative (in which he frequently talks about his own failings as well as his strong points and successes). But the book also gives space for several of the other people involved in his career, including the aforementioned Fields, who are given what appears to be freedom to talk about the bad side of Forbert as well as the good. (At one point Forbert just fired his whole entourage, without much explanation, including Fields – and it was for good. Oh, and he goes on doing the same with his managers for decades.)

Forbert as “the new Bob Dylan”?

And so, yes, it turns out, the “bad side” is mostly, possibly, bad for Forbert himself, who does not hide that he probably made some mistakes in his career choices that led to his career peaking in the late-70s, early ’80s before he completely disappeared from the pop firmament and never had another hit like Romeo’s Tune. He was one of a long line of singer songwriters who were cursed with the epithet, “the new Bob Dylan.”

“I say to this day that, deep down, Steve Forbert wanted to be the new Bob Dylan and/or the new Elvis Presley,” writes Fields. “And, the cataclysm, you know, was when he woke up and he was not either the new Bob Dylan or the new Elvis Presley. It became apparent after the third album—he was not the new Bob Dylan—and he lashed out.”

But here’s the beauty of the book, in Forbert’s immediate response in the main narrative:

“Any career disappointments I had didn’t center around the cliché of being the “new Bob Dylan.” I never put any credence in that,” Forbert writes. “I knew enough to know that that tag put me in some pretty good company, John Prine, Bruce Springsteen, and Loudon Wainwright being three. I’m sure they would agree that what it basically conjured was a talent for poetic storytelling. As far as whatever literal expectations it might set up, it was nothing to be taken seriously. No one new was ever going to be able to bring about the radical changes the real Bob Dylan had brought to songwriting.”

“In my case, my illusions were shattered when I didn’t manage to follow the success of “Romeo’s Tune.” I had been under the impression that I could accomplish pretty much anything I wanted to do. For a while I could. And then, lo and behold, I couldn’t.”

This reminds me exactly – paradoxically – of the quote in Bob Dylan’s memoir, “Chronicles,” where after the producer Daniel Lanois beseeches Dylan to write some new songs like the epic greats he wrote in the 1960s, Dylan responds that he would love to, but that he can no longer do that – that that was another time, place and Dylan. (I am paraphrasing without returning to read the original quote.)

But true to his genuineness, Steve Forbert has continued writing songs, playing music, loving music, being obsessed by music, to this day. And making albums. And touring endlessly, including around Europe and elsewhere. (I saw Forbert solo in a small town in England in 2013.) Here is, finally, a man who – after semi-serious alcohol problems in addition to the career problems – appears to be ultimately at peace with himself and his career.

“By the time “Romeo’s Tune” was a hit I had already surpassed my personal level of comfort with, oddly enough, the very goals I’d set out to achieve,” he writes near the end of the book. “If it’s clear that I am not the type of personality that would ever be at ease with a household name–level of fame, then I should be pretty comfortable these days.”

Beyond Romeo’s Tune: Or the Forbert behind it all

For me, Forbert’s voice, his talent, his “thing” from Folk City suddenly made sense to me in the middle of October 1978 when I had just returned from one of the most painful episodes of my life, living in Iran during the Revolution, and I was taking a black London taxi from the airport back to the apartment where I had been living while in London for most of the previous year. All of a sudden, over the cab radio I heard a song, I think it was “Goin’ Down to Laurel,” and I instantly recognized the voice and the feeling. It was that guy from Folk City from two years earlier.

All of my questions and confusion suddenly got answered and straightened out. He had simply been so fabulous and gifted that he was destined to be heard on the radio. It hit me with all the greater power because I was returning from the hell of the revolution in Teheran to the comfort of the West, and felt life opening up with endless possibilities. Forbert’s voice and performance seemed to fit right in with that sense of an optimistic future.

And as life’s strange synchronicities would have it, the apartment where I was heading was that of Paul Gambaccini, the American BBC radio DJ and pop music writer, which was where I had lived before heading for Iran. Paul was unaware that I was returning – but I still had my key – and so he came home that afternoon to find me sleeping on the couch in the living room. It was a slightly awkward situation for a moment, as he had come home with a couple of people he was going to interview; a guy named Bob Geldof and his girlfriend Paula Yates.

I had no idea who Geldof was – other than Paul telling me he was a singer in a band called the Boomtown Rats -, but when Geldof discovered I had just returned from the revolution in Iran, he was more interested in talking about that than doing the interview with Paul. His probing questions about the life of the people of Iran I would look at in future years as highly significant of his character: The man who eventually became famous and knighted for his charity concerts and philanthropy nearly a decade later to help people in need, was already interested in the needy people of Iran in 1978.

All of that might appear like going off topic, but I don’t think it is: Whatever you do in life, it will be influenced by the character guiding the whole enterprise. The true “you,” that you are, the one that makes the decisions every waking moment. And reading Forbert’s book, I feel I have finally understood what made up this massively talented “one-hit wonder,” who has, in fact, had a lot more to contribute to the musical world than just “Romeo’s Tune.”

And this draws us back around to the Costello book, which as reflected in its title, “Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink,” is a completely different read from a completely different character. Where Forbert’s could be read in a single rollercoaster read (or ride) the Costello book, like his music, is a vast tapestry of stories, memories and impressions in a language that is much more involved than in the Forbert book. I saw an interview with Costello recently on YouTube where he says that the book is meant to be read very slowly (which made me feel immediately better about myself and my slow – but relishing – reading of his book). So I felt no problem dropping it for the Forbert rollercoaster, and I will now pick it up again. Suffice it to say, there could not be a bigger difference in philosophy between the two books – as I think there is in the two lives, and the two musicians’ music….

By the way, in another strange twist of fate, in 1980 when I was back in Toronto and preparing to go to see Forbert in concert after the release of his third album, “Little Stevie Orbit,” I glanced into the window of the record store on the way to the concert and saw suddenly jumping out at me the name of the man who had written the liner notes to the album: Paul Gambaccini! How the hell did that happen?!?! Come to think of it, Paul might well have been the DJ who put the Forbert tune on the radio in London as I was in the cab on the way back.

I highly recommend anyone who does not know Forbert’s music to get listening immediately, and go out and get this book. It’s a great read about the whole pop music world of the last 50 years. Forbert was one of the rare musicians who appeared to be equally at home at Folk City – and other Greenwich Village folk clubs – AND at the rock mecca of CBGB’s, where he opened for the budding band known as Talking Heads and others, including John Cale. (And don’t miss him as the boyfriend in Cyndi Lauper’s video of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun!”)

What a life!

Seven Weeks Away, but Not Just a Vacation: From Paris to Milan to England to Sicily

July 31, 2018
bradspurgeon

Ornella Bonventre at the Greek Theater in Segesta, Sicily

Ornella Bonventre at the Greek Theater in Segesta, Sicily

CASTELLAMMARE DEL GOLFO, Sicily – It seems hardly possible that it has been exactly seven full weeks since I last posted on this blog. That has to be a record absence for me. It equals one year’s worth of vacation when I was on staff of the International Herald Tribune, the Paris-based newspaper that worked under the French labor system and so gave us lots of holidays each year. I can say that these last seven weeks have not been a holiday, but the busiest time of the last year – which is the reason I have not been contributing to the blog. So here is a point-by-point recap of the main events of the last seven weeks:

1. Most of early June was spent digging out nearly 20 years’ worth of my piled up papers, paraphernalia and trash from my garage and cave in order to make space for Ornella and her TAC Teatro’s paraphernalia from Italy. Cleaning these places led to many wonderful discoveries, but also some very difficult decisions; among the many relics that I found were three never-before-used Zippo lighters with the aforesaid International Herald Tribune’s marketing department’s effort to publicize the newspaper’s coverage of the 2000 presidential elections. Beautiful objects that I had kept but never once used, I now find use for them, particularly for Ornella and my daughter’s smoking habits….

IHT Zippo lighter

IHT Zippo lighter

I am loving the process of filling these classic lighters with fluid, new flint stones, etc. (I am a little disappointed at how quickly they are losing their paint job, though, as you can see from the photo of this lighter used by Ornella for just one month.) There used to be so much more “process” in the past in our daily lives…. But among the difficult decisions in this vast clean out, was whether I should keep the hundreds of copies of actual newspapers – of the aforementioned IHT – that had the print versions of my articles in them. I had always taken hard copies of the paper home to have a record of the printed work – but I had never had any use for these relics. Now, I found myself with the difficult decision of either throwing them away or else having no further usable space in my storage areas. As I knew that all of the copies existed in microfilm or other electronic form, as well as online in the online archives of The New York Times – many of which copies I also had to decide whether or not to keep – I ultimately decided to throw them all away. It was a heartbreaking moment, but also a feeling of truly moving on into the future. Like the Formula One teams that I had written so much about, I chose to look forward, rather than backwards at personal mementos.

2. Having cleared out these storage spaces, it was time to go on a brief trip to Milan in order to clear out TAC Teatro and prepare the moving van to bring to Paris all of the aforementioned paraphernalia. It was a massively busy and tiring three or four days that also involved very difficult choices. For instance, the most heartbreaking for Ornella was the decision to leave behind the linoleum flooring that she used as the floor of the theater space, and which had come directly from use on the floor of the famous La Scala Opera House, and had, therefore, been danced upon my some very famous performers. But it was just too heavy, massive when rolled up, and required a very good cleaning job, which we had no time for. We nevertheless managed to pack up and transport to Paris two tons of paraphernalia, including seating for at least one hundred spectators, a sound system, a series of spotlights, a piano, keyboard, drum, a workbench table from a famous Italian filmmaker and writer, and countless other items far too long to list here without getting anymore boring than I already risk being. The whole collection of paraphernalia ended up taking two moving vans instead of the original one that had been planned for.

3. We returned to Paris and spent the three or four days waiting for the delivery by finishing the cleanup of the storage space. (Let me note that this was happening in a hot month of June, and with all the dust from the spaces, and the pollen in the air, I wore a face mask nearly full-time to help my breathing.) When the paraphernalia arrived, we then spent two days filling up the storage spaces, but rest easy knowing we can now prepare for the future. It was also very satisfying to have replaced my 20 years’ worth of accumulated crap by this investment in the future of TAC in France.

Philosopher of Optimism

Philosopher of Optimism

4. No sooner did we catch our breath again, barely able to believe what we had accomplished, than we departed for a quick trip to England, where it was time for some more very satisfying work: The first stop was Nottingham, where I was invited to attend the Second International Colin Wilson Conference in order to do the very first public screening of the interview film that is connected to my book, Colin Wilson: Philosopher of Optimism. Produced by a British film production company as well as the publisher of my book, Michael Butterworth, and his other company, Savoy Books, and directed by Jay Jones, it consisted of an hour and a half interview of Colin Wilson by me. Although the film was done in 2006, it was never quite finished. I recently decided to ask if I could work on the edit through my company, the perfectly named, “Unfinished Business SAS.” I was given the go-ahead, and prepared first a trailer for the film (below) and then I prepared the film for this private showing for the 55 people attending the three day conference, including the members of Wilson’s family – three of his children, and his wife, Joy. That last name is certainly the right word for me to use as well to describe the entire event, and especially the reception of the film: It was a pure joy!

5. From Nottingham, Ornella and I headed on to the Cotswolds for a brief visit to have a reunion more than 40 years after I met him with the man who created my ventriloquist’s figure, and to whom I brought the suspect in question for a facelift (and a body-lift). But on the way there we had a fabulous, three-hour long meeting and tour of the Renault Formula One factory at Enstone.

Brad and Ornella at Renault F1 Team

Brad and Ornella at Renault F1 Team

This fell the day after the team’s home race, the British Grand Prix, and at the end of the series’ horrendously tiring triple-header of races in June/July. Although it was the strangest feeling for me to be in England during the race weekend without attending the race itself, the trip was more than compensated for by both our stay overnight in Oxford – where I played in two different open mics (and can now update my Oxford guide), followed by the trip to see Peter Pullon in the Cotswolds. This aforementioned ventriloquist figure builder has become one of the world’s foremost puppet makers, having created some of Britains most famous figures: Rod Hull’s Emu, Honey Monster, the Hoffmeister Bear, Smash Martians and Keith Harris’s
Peter McCabe with Peter Pullon

Peter McCabe with Peter Pullon

Orville. I am waiting with baited breath the renovation of my figure, whose name is Peter McCabe, and for whom I have some future plans that I will talk about on this blog as they happen. (Peter most recently had a cameo role in my video of my cover song of Mad World, by Tears for Fears.

6. No sooner did we return from England than it was off to Sicily for us and a three-week vacation, during which period I have, nevertheless, been using every available moment to make plans for the future year, and my many projects for my new life in Unfinished Business…. We have been staying in Ornella’s hometown of Castellammare del Golfo, and reading on the beach by day, and walking the city streets by night, occasionally finding places to play my guitar and sing. We have done a lot of tourism, as well, which we have posted about copiously on Facebook. The highlights for me have been the visit to Segesta and its ancient Greek temple and above all, its ancient Greek theater.

A Plant Growing from the Encasing Sculpture in Gibellina.  ©Brad Spurgeon

A Plant Growing from the Encasing Sculpture in Gibellina. ©Brad Spurgeon

The acoustics of this place are astounding – although I’m not sure the plywood floor they chose to use to cover the rock surface of the stage was wise. And the most painful and touching visit was to the site of the 1968 earthquake, which killed more than 900 people and wiped out two towns. The ruins of many of the buildings remain locked in time in the countryside, and one of the towns, Gibellina, is now covered, encased, in a white concrete monument, or work of art, to mark the tragedy. Walking amongst these ruins and the monument, is a deep, difficult, but valuable experience.

7. I almost forgot to mention that in between all of these activities and right at the beginning of the month, we found a space in Paris that we are looking at as a possible future location for TAC and Unfinished Business. But it represents quite an investment, and it required us to make trips to the bank, an accountant, work on a business plan, and generally occupy all of the free time we had between the above activities! (And we have still not finished working on that.)

So as you can see, I have been busy as anything in the last seven weeks. But now I’ve had a moment to record it all in the web log, and I’m glad to have had so many rich experiences to get down here….

From the Don Camilo to a Paul Ricard Room Near the Champs Elysées, a Couple of Bits of Playing to Remember

June 6, 2018
bradspurgeon

Circuit Paul Ricard book

Circuit Paul Ricard book

PARIS – Sunday night I suddenly discovered that one of the coolest jam joints in Paris, the Carré jam of Thursday nights, run by Olivier Domengie, had decided recently to try out a singer-songwriter night, at least once a month. So I thought this a perfect moment to get back to the street-level barroom of the legendary Don Camilo cabaret in the Latin Quarter, to play my own songs, in a completely different environment. And two days later, I ended up doing a hugely satisfying private moment at a reception in Paul Ricard’s offices off the Champs Elysées in honor of a book launch before the French Grand Prix, of an oeuvre dedicated to the Circuit Paul Ricard in the south of France. A crazy fabulous couple of moments….

I was hugely surprised and delighted to see that Olivier Domengie was using the Don Camilo room where I attended the jam a few weeks ago to host a singer-songwriter night. That meant not having to do cover songs, going into the same environment and doing something completely different, and depending only on my guitar and voice – as with everyone else – to communicate with this great audience and room. (Which, I remind readers, is located just around the corner from Serge Gainsbourg’s old home….)

As it turned out, everyone was invited to do two songs, and there was still a second round to do another two. By then, I had been preceded by a cool little band on its first public appearance – that’s what I think it was – and I was so bothered by their level and use of guitar, keyboards, vocal and bass, that I jumped at the opportunity to have this other guy play along with me on my second set. He had the coolest, strangest, instrument that sounded variously like a saxophone or a flute, and was, yes, some kind of synthesised “wind” instrument.

Anyway, there were lots of cool musicians, the usual neat vibe of this unique place that has been around for half a century or so, and a thoroughly agreeable evening. I hope they continue this singer-songwriter night (and don’t clash with the neighbourhood’s other such night, at the Tennessee with Paddy Sherlock).

But the real surprise and satisfaction of the week so far came when a former colleague of the Formula One reporting world got in touch with me and invited me to attend the launch of his new book, about the Circuit Paul Ricard, for the return of the French Grand Prix to the circuit in the south of France later this month. This was Daniel Ortelli, the former reporter for the Agency-France Presse of the Formula One series, who is now devoting himself to many different projects, including this new book.

The book, called, “Circuit Paul Ricard: Les Seigneurs de la F1” traces the story of the circuit, as well as Paul Ricard – the man who created the “vrai Pastis de Marseilles,” a wonderfully refreshing alcoholic drink à la anis. The book covers in text an photos, the whole history, in an entertaining and highly readable and visually beautiful manner. (Photos by my former colleagues Bernard Asset and Bernard-Henri Cahier, or the latter’s father, Bernard.)

Anyway, when I accepted the invitation to the event, much to my surprise and satisfaction, Daniel invited me to bring my guitar, as well. He knew about my adventures around the world playing music at all the open mics and jams in the cities of the Formula One race, and he thought it could be fun to have me there to play a mini-set. I was kind of worried, and a little modest, as this was, after all, taking place at the Salon Paul Ricard, at the posh offices and reception area in a building off the Champs-Elysées.

But Daniel’s invitation looked genuine. So I went with my guitar, and ended up doing exactly the mini-set he suggested, and it turned out to be a fabulous moment, and a great evening with many former colleagues and other interesting people from French motorsport, including the former director of the Paul Ricard Circuit, Gerard Neveu, who is now the C.E.O. of the World Endurance Racing series.

So, could I have possibly had two different kinds of musical moments and locales in Paris? Probably not – nor two equally fabulous moments either.

Oh, of course, my nerves had a bit of help last night with the imbibing of a 51 Picard before I played….

A New Edition of Philosopher of Optimism, and a First Look at a Never-Before-Released Video Interview with the Not So “Angry Old Man,” Colin Wilson

November 26, 2017
bradspurgeon

Philosopher of Optimism

Philosopher of Optimism

PARIS – It has soon been four years since Colin Wilson, one of Britain’s angry young men of literature in the 1950s, died as a not-so-angry old man – at age 82 on 5 December 2013. The anniversary has provided an impetus for a couple of unfinished projects to finally come to life: A new edition of my interview book with Wilson, called, Colin Wilson: Philosopher of Optimism, and the release of some excerpts from another interview I did with Wilson in the same year of the book publication, in 2006. For the book, it was time to update the story and write about the rest of Wilson’s life after the interview, as well as to write a new preface in which I talk about the strange way this book about optimism came at the time of my life when I needed that sense more than ever before.

For the film, it made sense for this project that has been hibernating for 11 years, to finally see some daylight. So it is that Excalibur Productions of Yorkshire, in the UK, and Michael Butterworth Books of Manchester, all agreed to release some excerpts from that never-before-seen video interview between Wilson and me. For me personally, it was very strange to see myself 11 years later, in another lifetime, and having survived that dark period. For fans of Wilson’s writing and philosophy of life, it is a great moment to see this extraordinary British writer as if coming back to life.

Wilson, for those of you who do not know him, shot to world fame at the age of 25 in 1956 with the publication of his first book, called “The Outsider.” It was a kind of popular introduction to existentialism in the UK, a study of such outsiders as Nijinsky, T.E. Lawrence, Hermann Hesse, William Blake, and many others. It came out at the same time and was reviewed at the same time as the playwright John Osborne’s “Look Back in Anger,” and the British press decided to label these writers “Angry Young Men.”

Colin Wilson Philosopher of Optimism New Edition and New Interview

The label would be passed on to many other writers of the time, such as Alan Sillitoe, Arnold Wesker, Kingsley Amis and others. Wilson would be no doubt the most prolific of them all, and he was also the one that was ultimately the most difficult to pin down and label as a writer beyond that initial effort. He would write books covering such a diversity of subjects – crime, the occult, philosophy, psychology, biography, fiction and many other things in over a hundred books through his life – that his reception by the critics and the British literary world in general, went through a permanent roller coaster of a ride between respect and reviling him throughout his life.

Few readers of influence ever managed to, if not categorize, then at least understand what he was trying to say through this wide cross-section of works. My interview book with him, based on an interview at his home in 2005 – for a story I wrote about Wilson in the International Herald Tribune and The New York Times – managed somehow to tie together all the disparate parts and make a consistent whole out of Wilson’s oeuvre.

“Wilson’s philosophy of optimism runs like a clear thread through all of his varied works,” is how my book’s publisher, Michael Butterworth Books, puts it. “It is at the very battlefront of the fight against the pessimistic world-view. At its core lie the twin concepts of ‘intentionality’ and the ‘peak experience’, which show us that if we open our eyes and direct perception properly we can use our minds in the most positive sense to bring change to ourselves and to the world about us.”

Not long after the book was published, I was invited by the Excalibur people to interview Wilson on camera. This interview too was a long, wide-ranging one that lasted some two hours in total and touched on just about all aspects of his life and writings. Somehow, for many and varied reasons, the film never got released…until now with these excerpts.

Colin Wilson

Colin Wilson

So I hope you enjoy this “blast from the past” because it is just as pertinent, or even more so, to our chaotic and difficult present….

By the way, although the official publication date of the book is in early December, the book is now available to be ordered either from Amazon (and other such sites) or directly from the web site of Michael Butterworth Books.

And the excerpts from the 2006 interview are in the video linked above. Check it out!

Oh, and before I forget. I think that we are in perhaps the beginning of a new wave of appreciation for Wilson, as I say in my new preface, with most notably the publication last year of the first full-length biography of the writer, called, “Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson,” by Gary Lachman.

A New Not-Book-Review: Mike Nesmith’s Autobiographical Riff, “Infinite Tuesday”

July 24, 2017
bradspurgeon

Infinite Tuesday

Infinite Tuesday

PARIS – You can’t run with the hares and hunt with the hounds, said Ernest Hemingway, referring to what he thought of book reviewers who were also fiction writers. That is why on this blog a few years ago I came up with my concept of the Not Review, which I have done periodically in the form of Not Reviews of music in my “Morning Exercise Music” listenings, in Not Reviews of films, and Not Reviews of books. The idea is I’m not criticizing, or placing myself in a high position of cultural authority, but simply reflecting on books, music or films that I have seen recently, and what they made me think, what they say, how I feel, and what you might want to know about them to see if you want to listen, read or see them. Today, I have put up my latest Not Book Review, this time of the autobiography of Mike Nesmith, the former Monkee, which is called, “Infinite Tuesday.” He also refers to it as an “autobiographical riff.” Check it out on the link above! His is a fascinating story that goes way beyond The Monkees – like, how about to creating one of the first music videos, helping to create MTV, and then there is his mother the inventor of Liquid Paper….

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