PARIS – Performing in front of the Pompidou Center last Sunday afternoon, I had my first taste of dancing in a choreography. I feel often like the world’s worst dancer, and although music is at the center of my life, I hate dancing. I love to watch fine dancers, I just feel that I cannot do it. But the choreography on Sunday was in the form mostly of a kind of boxing movement, and we were in a big enough group that I felt I could fade into the mass and not be seen! So why did I do such a thing in front of the famous Pompidou Center – and in front of several cameras filming it?
Simple: I, like the other 14 or 15 people who took part in the performance – called “La 27ème heure” – was invited by Ornella Bonventre and her TAC Teatro, with which I have performed occasionally over the last couple of years. Most importantly: The event was designed to fight violence against women. Another detail for why I participated was that in addition to the dance, I was told I could sing a song and play my guitar. So that gave me the inspiration to try the rest….
And so commenced several weeks of artistic creation for the Pompidou performance. Very early on the street action transformed from the kind of spectator participation event that TAC usually does into a performance in which the spectators were just that – invited to enter mentally into the performance, if not physically or vocally – and based on a choreography directed by Philippe Ducou, of ARTA. Ornella and the other artists proposed texts related to women’s rights.
In addition to her experience in performing street actions for women’s rights at TAC Teatro, Ornella also has frequently staged the “Vagina Monologues” of the author Eve Ensler, in Italy, in Italian. So several of the spoken texts came from excerpts of the “Vagina Monologues,” and were performed in several languages – French, English, Romanian, Vietnamese.
Ornella gave the event the name “La 27ème heure,” or “The 27th hour,” after an Italian study that showed that women have days that consisted of 26 hours – to take care of their jobs, their homes, their children, their husbands, etc. – where men need only 24 hours. The 27th hour is the hour that the women should have to be free and do as they please, to escape from their burden however they wish.
PARIS – I have written before about Paddy Sherlock and his fabulous Paris Songwriter Club open mic. But the last time I visited it was located on Sunday nights at the Tennessee bar in the Latin Quarter. Last September it moved to the O’Sullivan Rebel bar on the rue des Lombards, near Chatelet. I have now finally had the chance to attend, and I am happy to report that the move has done it some good. It is even more intimate than it was before, so much so that at the end of the evening it suddenly turned completely acoustic, and that much warmer still.
This bar used to have an open mic on the ground floor, run by Etienne Belin, who used to run the Coolin open mic, which was the bar where Paddy had a gig that lasted around two decades until they closed the place after Apple bought it and transformed it into an Apple Store. That sentence was purposefully a mess, as I write this blog item now a few days after attending Paddy’s open mic at the Rebel bar, and I continued to think about how I can sing its praises!
The new open mic takes place in the basement, vaulted ceiling room, and not on the ground floor, and this is a stroke of genius. Or at least a natural environment for it. The ground floor, in my opinion, was never quite right. Here in the basement room, there is just enough room to make it a packed evening of music and audience participation no matter how many people show up.
The only drawback to having it in the basement is that bar patrons from above must pass through the room of the open mic in order to get to the toilets. Having said that, this is a way to rope in some extra spectators who might have decided to drop into this popular bar without considering attending the open mic, and then they can get drawn in by the music.
There was an eclectic mix of music on Sunday, with everything from the usual singer songwriters showing off their new songs to even an actress showing off her new monologue. Frankly, it has been a long time since I have played in front of such an intimate audience, and it was challenging at first, but I eventually felt at home. And I will return as soon as I can….
The sudden death at age 66 in Melbourne of Charlie Whiting, the Formula One race director, official race starter, rules-writer and rock-solid leader in many other roles in the world’s premier racing series, hit me and anyone else who knew him even marginally as a complete shock. It also came in a dramatic manner the day before the new season’s first track action at the Australian Grand Prix, and while the series itself continues to pass through a transition from its old management – that of Bernie Ecclestone – to its new owners, Liberty Media. That Liberty Media asked Whiting three years ago to remain in the series just when he was contemplating retirement after a 40-year career in the series, and at the same time Liberty were preparing to fire Ecclestone, speaks volumes about the importance of this man to the smooth operation of the series.
But probably the thing that most comes to mind in all of the tributes from friends and colleagues around the world since his death last night is Whiting’s simplicity, kindness, sweetness and fairness as a human being. He was much loved by almost everyone in the series, despite having probably the most difficult job of all: to act at least in part as a rules enforcer and referee during both technical and human racing disputes. Whiting was one of the rare people in high positions who had no airs of self-importance, and he was hugely respected by the drivers – with whom he performed pre-race briefings at each event – and with the media and team personnel.
I had a wild first meeting with Whiting at the Belgium Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps in 1998 on the morning of the race. But it was wild for just about every external reason – later that day Formula One had the biggest multi-car pile-up in its history with 13 cars crashing in the first corner – rather than my interaction with Whiting himself being wild. I felt slightly nervous conducting this first interview with the race director – then in his second season in the role – but very quickly as I sat in his small office off the side of the paddock with the rain pounding down outside, I started to ask myself: “Does he appear to be more nervous than I am about our interview?” His manner put me quickly at ease.
I would conclude over the years that, no, he was not likely nervous during our interview. He simply had a very human, very natural way of speaking to a reporter, or a whole media center full of reporters, that felt very unlikely for a man of his power within the series. It was the same as he spoke to anyone in any circumstance, it seemed. There were no external facades put on to persuade anyone of anything. He had a balanced, calm, cool way of dealing with the problems at hand, and seemed so perfectly suited to being the dispute-defuser that he was, that it was clear to see why Ecclestone – and the International Automobile Federation – had trusted him from Whiting’s early days in the series working as a mechanic at Ecclestone’s Brabham team in the 1980s right up until today over his more than 20 years in his race director role.
Whiting, left, at press conference
As one paddock person after another (journalists, drivers, co-workers, and other related F1 people) have said today in their outpourings of grief, Whiting had time for everyone, and could be counted on. It is difficult to imagine how Formula One will cope in the coming season – or even beyond – without him.
In order to give some idea of the kind of life Charlie Whiting lived in his daily working life, I have decided to re-print on my blog the article I wrote outlining that weekend at the Belgian Grand Prix in 1998 when I met him. Before our meeting on the morning of the race, I had also been invited to spend the Friday practice session in the race control tower watching how Whiting and his team worked during the race action. That, too, turned out to be something of an historic, frantic session, as the cocky young reigning world champion, Jacques Villeneuve, decided to test his manliness by taking the series’ most wicked dangerous corner at full speed, and he paid the price with a spectacular accident into the barriers.
The story, which follows here, appeared in the International Herald Tribune on 11 Sept. 1998 as the race preview of the following race, the Italian Grand Prix at Monza:
The atmosphere will be tense at this weekend’s Italian Grand Prix, not only in the battle between Mika Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher for the drivers’ title but also because it is the 20th anniversary at the Monza track of a 10-car pile-up that seriously injured two drivers and took the life of a third, Ronnie Peterson.
That anniversary might have passed unnoticed were it not for a stark reminder Aug. 30 at the Belgian Grand Prix when 13 cars were destroyed in one of the sport’s worst pile-ups. The fact that no driver was injured is partly a tribute to the strict safety rules now applied to the cars’ cockpits, which are much more solidly constructed than they were in 1978. But it is also due to luck.
Nowhere will the off-track tension be higher Friday in Monza than in the race control tower, where the most important safety decisions are made. During the Friday practice session in Belgium, this reporter was invited to watch the scene in what is normally the privileged domain of a handful of officials who have the best seat at the track. The 20 officials sat in deep concentration watching 39 television monitors in their room high above the track, in what looks like a cross between a TV station and NASA’s Mission Control.
When a car suddenly spun off sideways into a tire safety barrier at nearly 300 kilometers an hour (185 mph) , the silent watchers sprang to their feet and spoke into walkie-talkies and cellular telephones. ”Red flag! Red flag!” called out Charlie Whiting, the race director, to stop the practice session. ”Send the break-down truck,” another official barked. ”Go to the site,” ordered another, as Whiting put on his windbreaker to go to inspect the scene of the accident.
Jacques Villeneuve, the car’s driver, climbed out of the wreck and teetered like a boxer after absorbing an effective uppercut. But within 20 seconds, Sid Watkins, the track doctor, was by his side, having been dispatched to ”corner 3” by the control tower. Fortunately, Villeneuve was not hurt, and the session continued after a 15-minute track cleanup, done by the track-side workers following directions from the control tower.
The control tower is manned mostly by local officials, the most senior of whom is the so-called clerk of the course. They communicate with about 300 officials around the track. Whiting, who represents the International Automobile Federation, the sport’s governing body, oversees them all. As race director, he ensures that the locals do things the same way in every country. He is also the official race starter, which can turn the best seat in the house into the hottest seat.
Both the Monza accident 20 years ago and the recent accident in Belgium occurred on the first lap. Two hours before the Belgian race, while the rain fell in sheets across the track, David Coulthard, the British driver, pleaded with Whiting to start the race behind the safety car.
A safety car leads the racing cars, in their grid order, around the track until it drives off, allowing the race to start in earnest. This kind of rolling start – rather than a standing start – can reduce danger of cars fighting for places at the first corner through poor visibility on a slippery track.
”We’d like you to use the safety car because otherwise a lot of us are going to go off the track,” Coulthard said, ”and I’ll probably be one of them.”
But Whiting, at noon, could not give Coulthard a definitive answer for the race that would begin at 2 P.M. He was nervous about the treacherous conditions, but said he would decide only just before the race.
”You have to address every problem individually,” he said. ”The weather can change.”
By 2 o’clock it had cleared a little but the track was still wet under a light drizzle. The safety car was not used and Coulthard’s words proved strangely prophetic: He was the first to slide off the track at the start, setting off the chain-reaction pileup.
After the race Villeneuve said the use of the safety car wouldn’t have made a difference, while Alexander Wurz said the safety car should have been used. Whiting said that the safety decisions are always ”a human thing as opposed to a machine.”
PARIS – Eric Dufaure is something of a maverick: He was the boss of EMI music publishing in France at the turn of the current century; he was a top director of the Sacem music rights organisation in France; he founded a record label (Cachalot Records); he has produced albums by some of France’s top recording artists, including Lio and Bernard Lavilliers, among many others. He was raised in a bicultural family, with an Irish-American mother, and his education was about the same eclectic mix: Science Po and a history degree in France, along with an MBA from Harvard Business School. If that isn’t enough, he is also a musician himself, playing primarily keyboards, guitar and singing, and directing a band called Private Pepper.
Until last November, I had only vaguely heard about Dufaure thanks to his Private Pepper band’s musical bashes at the Paris food, music and dance hall called, Le Reservoir. Then I attended one as a spectator, then last Tuesday, I ended up performing onstage at one – and having the time of my life playing Bob Dylan’s “Lay lady lay,” as each event marks the 50th anniversary of a year’s pop and rock music, and now, of course, we are 50 years on from 1969, when the Dylan song came out on his “Nashville Skyline” album.
Having now had experience on both sides of the proscenium arch at Eric’s musical evenings, I can write this post with a perfect knowledge of the fun and extraordinary organization that constitutes Eric’s series of concerts at Le Reservoir, all called “Back in…” and then whatever the year happens to be (i.e., Tuesday it was “Back in 1969.”). It is clear that his business background sets the tone for a perfect package of organisation for both the audience and the musicians: Each show presents a two-part string of the hits of the chosen year, played mostly with the backing of the Private Pepper band – which included on Tuesday a bassist, Nicolas Chelly, lead guitar player, Laurent Pradeau, drummer, Seb de Laleu and Eric on keyboards – with each special guest singing one of the hits from the period.
Here is a small compilation of some of the acts from Tuesday that I filmed with my new Huawei telephone, and which I think I will never use again unless I can improve the sound and image!:
But it is not ONLY the “house band” that puts on the show, as the band is often joined by special guest musicians, and sometimes the entire stage is full of all of the performers of the evening at once, or occasionally someone will take over keyboards or guitar or go solo. In any case, I felt incredibly honoured to be part of this, and saw that for the musicians, everything is also done behind the scenes to prepare the best possible outcome: A day of rehearsals precedes the event, and then a soundcheck the night of the event is followed by a meal at Le Reservoir before the show starts.
An impeccable organization, and a huge opportunity for so many of us who do not often perform on this kind of stage in what seems to be invariably a packed house of diners and drinkers and dancers for each show. To say nothing of the mix between Eric’s musician friends and major stars of the French pop music world. The whole is a deliciously slick production for the paying spectators – dinner is optional, but great – as well as for the performers.
Last Tuesday they included Lio, who has had several hits in her long career going back to 1979; and Laura Mayne, whose duet “Native,” also had hits, among her other many successes, including doing the singing voice of Pocahontas in the Walt Disney film. On Tuesday, Lio showed why she rose to the top of her show business profession when she fractured her ankle after the rehearsal on Monday, but showed up on crutches Tuesday night to perform in the show anyway. A real trooper, as they say.
For myself, finding there were none of the songs available that I sometimes do from 1969 – “Something” (done by Dom Hutton) and “Space Oddity,” (done by Emmanuel Tellier) – I decided to learn “Lay lady lady,” as I have always fooled around with what I imagined the chords of the song to be, without ever learning it. In the end, I was up as the third act of the night, and did it solo, with my Gibson J-200, the same model that Dylan holds on his album cover.
It was a fabulous feeling to play in front of this packed house of what felt like between 200 and 400 people, and I was thankful to be so early on the bill so that I could enjoy the rest of the night without pressure listening to all the other artists. Incidentally, I was not the only journalist-cum-musician playing there, as there was also the American journalist Mark Lee Hunter, and the aforementioned Emmanuel Tellier.
PARIS – Could there be a better time to be staging plays about the building of walls to separate peoples? Could there be a better play to show to Donald Trump about the significance of building walls than “Frontière Nord,” a play written in 2007 by the Canadian playwright, Suzanne Lebeau? After all, it was written for children (of all ages). My guess, though, is that Trump would never understand the messages of this play, even in the brilliantly produced and performed version that we saw at the Théâtre du Soleil last night – to say nothing of Trump’s certain lack of understanding of the French language. But what was so fabulous about this production by the visiting Montpellier “Théâtre de l’Evidence,” is that it speaks to the spectator on so many different levels of language – music, dance, vocal expression, mime, and above all of intensity of emotion – that it is unlikely any spectator can see it without some sense of the stifling nature of building walls between societies.
I’ve been thinking a lot in recent weeks about exactly what constitutes great theater, as I work on a personal theater project with TAC Teatro and its director Ornella Bonventre; and as I just had my story published in The Stage all about Paris’s 30 minuscule theatres of fewer than 50 seats; and after also seeing yet another piece in one of those theaters last week. The latter was the one-man-show enacting the “Diary of a Madman” by Nikolai Gogol at the Tremplin Théâtre in Montmartre. Some of these thoughts came to me during and after that production, directed by Stéphanie Slimani, with the actor Sylvain Zarli, attempting to adapt the classic Russian story to the stage using many of the elements of physical theater, including the introduction of another character beyond the human presence in the form of a dog puppet.
And it is this question of text vs. physical action that really preoccupies me. Most of the plays we see in Paris have to do with the text, and the talk the actors do around that text. The use of the physical to express another world is far too often an afterthought. This is where “Frontière Nord” director, and founder of the Théâtre de l’Evidence, Cécile Atlan, not just excels but in my view works like a virtuoso.
Puppet in Hand in Frontière Nord
The play took place at the Cartoucherie in Paris’s 12th arrondissement, in an annex space of the famous Théâtre du Soleil, founded and run by Ariane Mnouchkine since 1970. (Actually, her company was founded in 1964, but they have been at the former munitions factory since 1970, in a wonderland of theater that if you have not yet been there, you have to go.) The atmosphere of the place is more than convivial: Food and drink is served before and after the show, the room probably seats a maximum of 100 or so people, and you can usually meet the artists afterwards for a drink. The show was also presented in conjunction with the ARTA (Association de Recherche des Traditions de l’Acteur) research center at the Cartoucherie.
The live music is provided by the “Trio Zéphyr,” also based in Montpellier. Trio Zéphyr consists of three women string players – violin, viola and cello – who have been performing together for 19 years, and whose vocals are as sweet as their stringed instruments. The music comes from a rich assemblage of classical, modern and world music influences, and while it was composed by the trio for the trio – Marion Diaques, Claire Menguy and Delphine Chomel – and not for the play, Atlan worked specifically with pieces she chose or the trio suggested, adapting the performance and the pieces together.
Frontiere Nord at Théâtre du Soleil
The synthesis of the whole is just stunning, as the music adds brilliant drama to the already dramatic situation: The sudden appearance of a wall being built to separate people from the north and the south – and everywhere in between. It is a multiracial cast, too, by the way, with a total of eight actors – three men and five women – plus the trio of musicians, always present and visible off to the side, and sometimes involved practically physically in the action.
I cannot emphasize enough the quality of every element of this show: The actors are 100 percent in character the moment they arrive onstage, and the intensity of their performance is practically physically palpable throughout. The show was about 90 minutes long, and I was not bored for a moment. It was the third show I have now seen in the last year in this room – ranging from a fabulous amateur group’s production to the most recent show of Odin Teatret, called “The Tree” – and it kept me dreaming and asking questions and confronting ideas throughout (as had Odin’s show).
In many ways, I felt like I was watching a piece of ancient Greek theater, with the fabulous use of a chorus technique that continued throughout the play, and consisted of three or four characters speaking in unison much of the text. It was a highly stylized production, disconnected from everyday reality, that lifts the spectator into a world about as far from popular text-based theater as you can get.
The use of the puppet character was also beautifully done and added another dimension, and of course it is not surprising since early in her career, Lebeau had studied puppetry. Having started as an actress the 1960s, the Québecoise began devoting herself to writing plays in the mid-1970s and is now one of Canada’s most successful playwrights, especially as an export. I found it very interesting that at the same time as the main Théâtre du Soleil is putting on the production that became a huge controversy in Canada of the play “Kanata” – its Québecois director, Robert Lepage, was criticized for doing a play about the country’s indigenous people without using an indigenous actor (he is using Mnouchkine’s troupe, which personally makes sense to me, but that’s another story) – this other theater at the Cartoucherie is staging a play by another Quebecois that SHOULD be noticed by as many people as Kanata because of its very important subject matter in our day of Trumpian walls…but also, fittingly, in this day of the “Gilets Jaunes.”
“In this story,” said Atlan (in my translation from the French), “the building of a wall destined to create a border has dramatic consequences: Loss of jobs, uprooting of populations, isolation of families, suffering of children…the work exposes the question of freedom, and what humanity does with it. This wall leads to all of the barriers, both visible or invisible, that deprives humankind of its liberty.”
Theatre du Soleil Nefs
The play, appealing to almost all the senses – it also has fabulous costumes, by the way – and through a physical theater of an exceptional level, manages to communicate this message to the spectator in a powerful way that the written word or current events alone cannot come close to. That, I suppose, is precisely what makes great theater.
at the Théâtre du Soleil, from 08 to 24 February 2019
PARIS – In the music industry, the word bootleg is used to describe an unauthorized album or recording. In the music scene in Paris, the word is synonymous with one of the city’s best open mics – that of the Bootleg bar on the rue de la Roquette, off the Bastille. This week the venue celebrated its one year and more than 50 events of existence, and I decided to attend to check out a place I have not been to for while.
A reminder: The Bootleg grew out of the former Rush Bar open mic, when for a short period of time the Rush bar had changed owners and ceased to run the open mic. So the people who ran that open mic moved to the Bootleg bar and picked up where they left off. In the meantime, the Rush bar got a new set of open mic operators and returned to its former glory attracting musicians from all over.
I attended several of the Bootleg open mics in the first year, but I have not been for a long while. I am happy to report that it is even better than before, judging by my experience on Monday, when I went and found among many others, a couple of musicians I used to play with at the former Baroc bar open mic, and together we did a short set, and set the tone for several more sets by other musicians deciding to go with the band.
All in all, it was a warm, satisfying evening, beautifully organized, as usual, by the wonderful musician Charlie Seymour.
This is no Bootleg open mic. This is the real thing! I’ll be happy to return when I can. And hopefully it will have another great year ahead of it again.
PARIS – In further reference to my post of yesterday where I speak of yet another open mic that has been closed down for reasons linked to a Draconian attack by the authorities against live music in Paris, I have decided far too late to create a section on my Thumbnail Guide to Paris Open Mics, Jam Sessions and other Live Music on which I will place the bars and venues that had open mics until they were attacked by the authorities and told that they had to stop until further notice.
I have put this list there because I realize that over the last couple of years I have had to wipe out one after the other from my list, and the hope is that eventually these open mics will return. So people who are curious can check up the names of those in purgatory to see if they are running or not. I wish, for instance, that I had been able to put the information of the open mic at La Féline bar into that area, but I just wiped it off the page once I learned that La Féline was permanently closed due to these attacks by the authorities.
PARIS – I had some more really bad news for Paris open mics and jam sessions the other day when I learned that the fabulous Cave Café jam is no longer happening due, it seems, to another move by Paris police to enforce certain regulations. I don’t know exactly which regulations these are, but there have been several articles in the French press talking all about the endless closing down of live music joints in Paris due to the police enforcing sound regulations, safety regulations, and other regulations that are designed to destroy the musical culture and nightlife of an increasingly gentrifying city. It was so depressing to hear that one of my latest favourite places for a jam was no longer in action. I hope it starts up again soon. But immediately follow that news came an invitation for me to do an opening set for a young Paris rock band at a place that I know very well, but have not been to in years. And going last night to play, I was not just relieved, but absolutely ecstatic to find that this bar/venue, Le Truskel, is not just alive and kicking, but it is almost exactly the same as it was when I first played there 10 years ago!
Le Truskel is the place where Earle Holmes’s open mic moved to after it started at the Shebeen and then went briefly to the Lizard Lounge. So it was that in exactly this same period of time a decade ago I began playing every Monday night at the fabulous open mic Earle ran at the Truskel, until he basically quit the open mic business (except for a brief period when he got me to host a Sunday afternoon open mic at the Mecano Bar in Oberkampf, where he was working at the time).
There is a magic at the Truskel, with its fabulous stage space, DJ area, dance floor/audience space, horseshoe-shaped bar and now also for many years, the incredible labyrinthine basement room. That room, smokers will delight in, has now been fitted with the necessary apparatus to make it a smoking room. Last night I just loved that while the gig was going on upstairs, downstairs there was a group of 25 or so soccer fans watching a local match and going crazy with chants and whatever else they go crazy with, and nothing upstairs was being affected by this mayhem.
The bar has a big following of regulars, mostly people in their twenties, but it also has plenty of older regular clients, and a long, long tradition of nurturing young bands. The band that invited me to open for them last night was called Britches, and it is an international mix of performers, the lead singer of which – Nadeem Hakemi – is a Canadian from British Columbia, with Afghan heritage.
I felt very much at home onstage doing just an acoustic set with my Gibson an no accompaniment. It really, truly, felt as if time had stopped from the 10 intervening years and that I was there again on stage at another open mic run by Earle. Well, ok, it was not utterly bursting at the seams with all the regulars that had shown up week after week for those insane open mics, but the Truskel had not changed one single bit. And that is hugely great news for the Paris live music scene. Especially for the young up-and-coming groups like Britches.
In fact, Le Truskel is not just great for young up-and-coming bands: It has hosted such established acts as Pete Doherty, Baxter Dury, Metronomy and incarnations of bands of Johnny Borrell of Razorlight fame…. In fact, it was also a funny, fitting thing that Borrell and Razorlight are performing at the Bataclan tonight.
Back in 1969
By the way, it was also a great opportunity for me to have a chance to try out my “Lay, Lady Lay,” cover of the Dylan song for the first time in public in preparation for the fabulous gig I will take part in on 19 February at that other famous music venue in Paris, Le Reservoir. That is a show called “Back in 1969,” which will, as its name indicates, celebrate the music of 1969 – ie, 50 years ago – with a diverse collection of very interesting musicians, including the French/Portuguese star, Lio, and Laura Mayne, who was part of the duo called “Native.” There will also be my faithful sax player friend and sometime accompanist, Stephen Cat Saxo – so I’m hoping to feel as at home at Le Reservoir as I did last night at Le Truskel!
P.S. Oh, yes, of course, I had to do my Mad World cover! Thanks to Ornella for filming – and also starring in one of these videos…I wonder which one….
PARIS – If you want to know what is happening in the world today, read this book first published in 1951. If you are shocked, confused, disgusted or even enamoured by Trump, Brexit, Bolsonaro, Orban, Gilets Jaunes, Salvini, Putin, Xi, and all this talk about making every country great again until there is no more world, then read this book published in 1951. If you haven’t got a clue about what I just wrote above, then read this book published in 1951. I have never been a person to seek to find all the answers in one place, but having just finished reading “The True Believer,” by Eric Hoffer, I have found just about all the answers to what is happening in our world – politically and socially – today. And I feel both a little better, and a little worse for it. But mostly better.
That the book was published in 1951 puts our world into perspective, of course. But at the same time, when putting human nature and its political systems into perspective, there should be no surprise for what is happening today. In a nutshell, “The True Believer,” puts it all into a nutshell: The psychology behind mass movements – looking at just about all of history up until 1951 – and sums up without favour to one side or the other exactly why mass movements find their adherents and their leaders. Here we see the common thread throughout human history between such things as communism, fascism, Nazism, as well as world religions like Catholicism and Protestantism and Judaism, and, yes, terrorism, and yes, populism.
Before the pro-Trumps or the anti-Trumps try to put a label on whose side Eric Hoffer is on, please, again, understand that he is not on any side: Hoffer was a longshoreman throughout his life and spent his free time reading, studying and examining both historical and contemporary movements. A longshoreman is a guy who works on the docks in shipyards, loading goods on ships, etc. A longshoreman is a worker. Hoffer was not part of any educational, social or political elite. He published “The True Believer” at nearly 50 years old – he was born in 1898 in The Bronx – and spent his life living his writing and his studies, and not seeking any particular status in society, beyond that of being a longshoreman – until his writing success gave him the possibility to leave the docks in 1964, and then become an adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley until 1970, when he retired from public life.
The book, it turns out, became a bestseller, and was republished many times. “The True Believer” is still available if you go to Amazon, where you can even buy a Kindle edition. I came to this book last month as I was looking at my bookshelves and saw it once again (my 1966 Harper & Row, Perennial Library edition); I had picked it up decades ago from who knows where – I think in a pile of books that my fellow employees put in a pile at the office for sharing – and I had put it on my shelf and been attracted to read it many, many times, but never sat down to read more than the first page.
The book begins: “It is a truism that many who join a rising revolutionary movement are attracted by the prospect of sudden and spectacular change in their conditions of life. A revolutionary movement is a conspicuous instrument of change.”
That was it. This time, thanks to our crazy contemporary world, I was hooked from those words onward. I immediately began to think about the social movements the world is facing today, and the common thread that ties them all together: Desire for sudden and immediate change.
As I read the book, I found answers to most of the questions I have had about all the world’s biggest, most obvious social movements of today, but also and most importantly, answers to why people have elected liars, bigots, racists, dictator-leaning leaders, and how they can let such often ignorant, lying, leaders run their countries into the ground.
I cannot go through the whole book here, and prefer to give just enough of a taste that anyone who reads this will get the book and read it. It reads, by the way, like a treatise, or even a manifesto. But it is written in very simple English, and laid out in chapters, subheadings, and other bits and pieces that make it easy to pick up and read in short spurts – as I did – on the metro (were it not for the lack of good lighting these days in public transport built for backlit screens) or in down moments anytime during the day.
Among the fabulous, burning questions it answered for me were such things as why the “true believers” do accept a leader who is a patent liar who denies the truth on subjects that are clearly able to have their facts checked: The reason is because the believers are far more interested in having a person to believe “in” than having a person whose facts are true. The truth, in fact, means nothing to the true believer, only the fact of having a leader they believe will lead them to the change they desire. Ergo Trump, of course, and the fact that he creates his own “facts.” His followers do not care about his lying, only the change they believe he can bring.*
But there is much in the book to give me hope, as well. One of the things that Hoffer says a great leader must have to succeed in a social movement is the ability to develop a core group of close advisers and schemers and lieutenants around him (or her). This group not only sees the mission the way the leader does, but remains loyal – and he to them – and together they work to break down the system and create their new movement. Of course, while we know lots of stories about Trump looking for loyalty above all from government leaders around him, the bigger story of the Trump administration is his complete inability to keep for any length of time any loyal group of advisers around him. Mostly he is himself incapable of being loyal to any other individual, from what I have read in the news.
Of course, some things in history have changed. While Hoffer speaks about the leader’s need to control the media, and in the past this meant state control of the media, today, the new fascist dictators of the world no longer have to control newspapers and television stations when they simply discredit them through their own use of the social media – see Trump and Salvini as among the best examples of this. (Of course, Putin’s apparent setting up of a group of people to manipulate foreign social media could be seen as another kind of example.)
The True Believer in its own words
I have done far more talking here than I planned, and I have given far too few examples of the kind of writing this book presents us on every page. So I will here open the book randomly three times in three different places – I took no notes while reading it – and write down below the paragraphs that jump out at me on the random pages in order to give examples:
1) “It is rare for a mass movement to be wholly of one character. Usually it displays some facets of other types of movement, and sometimes it is two or three movements in one. The exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt was a slave revolt, a religious movement and a nationalist movement. The militant nationalism of the Japanese is essentially religious. The French Revolution was a new religion. It had “its dogma, the sacred principles of the Revolution – Liberté at sainte égalité. It had its form of worship, an adaptation of Catholic ceremonial, which was elaborated in connection with civic fêtes.”
2) Imitation is an essential unifying agent. The development of a close-knit group is inconceivable without a diffusion of uniformity. The one-mindedness and Gleichschaltung prized by every mass movement are achieved as much by imitation as by obedience. Obedience itself consists as much in the imitation of an example as in the following of a precept.
Though the imitative capacity is present in all people, it can be stronger in some than in others. The question is whether the frustrated, who, as suggested in Section 43, not only have a propensity for united action but are also equipped with a mechanism for its realization, are particularly imitative. Is there a connection between frustration and the readiness to imitate? Is imitation in some manner a means of escape from the ills that beset the frustrated?
3) The man of action saves the movement from the suicidal dissensions and the recklessness of the fanatics. But his appearance usually marks the end of the dynamic phase of the movement. The war with the present is over. The genuine man of action is intent not on renovating the world but on possessing it. Whereas the life breath of the dynamic phase was protest and a desire for drastic change, the final phase is chiefly preoccupied with administering and perpetuating the power won.
The book is almost cover-to-cover such pithy analysis. Unfortunately, it happens to be so apolitical that it ends by actually saying that mass movements are a good thing for the world, despite the usual death and destruction that accompany them. They are bringing necessary change to a system that has become ineffectual, that has calcified.
But here, again, Hoffer does not make judgments. I know that in today’s climate Hoffer will likely be considered by many to be “on the side” of the establishment. Hillary Clinton has read this book and mentioned it in association with Trump. This will lead some anti-Clinton people to say the book must therefore be a plot by Hillary. But they would overlooked the fact that Ronald Reagan bestowed upon Hoffer the Presidential Medal of Freedom in February 1983, a few months before the longshoreman died at the age of 84.
So, again, I say, read this book first published in 1951, even, in fact, if you have already read it. It will resound with more meaning today in our world gone mad.
* Note: One of the fundamental theses of the book is that the believer is a frustrated person who longs for a movement to actually remove them from the constraints that a free society condemns them with. What constraints? The need to make decisions, to make choices, to face their own responsibility for their frustrated state within a free system. In other words, a mass movement, a dictatorship, a religion, tells the believer what to believe, how to act, no decisions need to be made. Life is “simpler.” So the believers are actually getting the repressive system they want.
Our last two nights in Canada were spent checking out a couple of open mics I have never played in before. In fact, as far as playing in open mics in Ottawa, I had never done that at all. Both nights had their amazingly cool aspects, as ultimately, I finally found myself in a familiar environment after a week and a half of discoveries of the past, present, and maybe the future, in a country that I used to call home.
I guess I can still call it home thanks to my friends and family still living there, but just about everything else felt a little foreign to me after not visiting much of it for a decade. Yes, I had been going to Montreal yearly for the previous nearly 10 years, to cover the Formula One, but that excluded Toronto, and made Ottawa a big step away. Moreover, this visit was only my second in a Canadian winter since 1983, and that was something else again!
The Laff – or Château Lafayette – calls itself Canada’s oldest tavern, as it was founded in 1849. (It also calls itself Canada’s original Dive bar – which generally means a scummy kind of place, but now means it can also be slightly trendy.) Ornella happened to see that there was an open mic on Tuesday night, and that was our last night in Ottawa, and we were staying within walking distance of the place in the Byward Market, so there was no way possible to miss this one.
The open mic has been running for more than 12 years, and has a large cross-section of performers, a good sound system, and I am sure that if it had not been New Year’s Day, there would have been a lot more musicians and a bigger “musician” vibe. (In fact, I was told this was the case by the longtime organizer of the evening,
John Carroll.) I was just thankful that it even took place on New Year’s Day, since so much of the city was closed down. And, yes, it was around 20 below zero outside with lots of snow and ice on the roads. I was astounded there were as many musicians attending as there were, but then again, such weather is just natural for Ottawa.
And then on to Oakville and the Moonshine Café
commandments of the jam at the moonshine
Our final night in Canada we went to visit my old friend, Mark Parr, who had been telling me about this great open mic he has been attending for as long as the Laff open mic has existed in Ottawa. Located in his current hometown of Oakville, which is about 40 minutes’ drive from Toronto, the Moonshine Café is the region’s biggest attraction as a music bar. Toronto itself may be full of bars and music venues, but certainly in the suburban areas, and the region immediately surrounding Oakville – and, as the denizens of the Moonshine say – there is no bar that devotes itself to music the way this one does.
Music every night, basically, it has an open mic, jam sessions, band nights, stars, beginners, everything you can imagine. And the vibe you get from the decor and the piped in music when the stage is empty – mostly they play recordings of people who have played there – shows that the Moonshine really is a musicians’ paradise as far as bars go.
In fact, it is a community as well, and the artifacts and posters on the wall – of musicians (Bob Dylan), house rules, definitions of the jam, photos of past evenings – all attest to and set the vibe of a warm, cosy, home for musicians and spectators alike.
house rules at the moonshine
The jam this night was – as you will see and hear in my videos – pretty distinctively that of a bunch of local musicians who have played together frequently. (But I am told that they also regularly come from all around the region.) And much to my delight, they were able to fit in really easily with even my own songs that they had never heard before. My friend Mark – who plays the recorder and penny whistles – goaded me on to doing my own stuff when I started out playing a cover song everyone knew. So I tried, “It’s Easy,” and then “Borderline,” and later I jumped into doing some covers I don’t usually try – such as “Runaway Train” by Soul Asylum – again due to Mark’s pushing me onwards. I’d like to have that kind of goading at every jam like open mic, as I usually tend to fall into what I see as the three-chord-safety zone of well-known covers.
mark parr and brad spurgeon in action at puck’s circus in 1976
By the way, the highest point for me of this jam was that it was the first time in my life that I had found myself playing music with Mark. Who could have imagined that 42 years after we shared the same circus ring – as you will be able to see in the photo of the two of us during my juggling act at Puck’s Circus in Toronto – I was now playing music with him on another kind of stage…. Thanks Mark!!!!