Last Drongo In Paris

FRANCOIS MITTERAND… GUY CHABAN DELMAS… GISCARD D’ESTAING… YOU WILL BE AS RELIEVED AS US TO LEARN THAT NONE OF THESE TURGID FRENCH DEMAGOGUES APPEAR IN THIS ARTICLE. INSTEAD, NICK KENT VISITS JIM MORRISON’S GRAVE, HEARS MAGMA, AND CASTS AN APPRAISING EYE OVER GALLIC GIGSTERS IN GENERAL

THEY PUT CHOPIN in Section 11, along with some Italian opera composer chappie called Cherubini. Section 97 has Edith Piaf. Section 48 Balzac and Section 89 boasts Oscar Wilde. But the one you’re really looking for — the one you’ve been scurrying around these awe-inspiringly placid shady acres in search of for almost an hour now — has finally been located…

“Douzieme, monsieur… a gauche et puis immediatement a droit…” Actually the old guffer needn’t have gone to all the trouble; right as you enter Section 12 the name “Jim” is marked out in chalk on some poor unfortunate’s casket with an arrow pointing straight on.

The location of Jim Morrison’s grave isn’t mentioned on the piece of paper they charge you a franc for at the door of the Pere-Lachaise cemetery, giving you a list of its more celebrated inhabitants, not to mention a scant map of the graveyard’s layout. But numerous aficionados of the deceased have made sure that his anonymous “resting place” be ostentatiously accounted for with flowers and poems (the lyrics to ‘The End’ and ‘When The Music’s Over’ transcribed in French) and an infinity of graffiti spattered over all the surrounding gravestones.

So you stand in slightly self-conscious reverence for ten minutes or so, recalling that Morrison was, in his way, one of the very few real greats and noting also that the spot does possess a tranquility that severs it off from the rest.

That Morrison should end up here in the first place has its own charming twist to it. Leader and single inspirational force behind The Doors (the bandwho, more than any other, defined the schizophrenic state of Los Angles), busted for obscenity in Miami, Florida, Jim Morrison, narcissus, buffoon and possibly the only true rock visionary ever, kissed it all off in Paris and was buried in the section allocated for “poets”.

The French, in their turn, treat Morrison’s grave being situated within their portals like some gift from the celestial gods — their own precious little chunk of pure rock legend exotica come to rest in their capital city.

The first full-length biography about the Lizard King has just appeared, written by a Frenchman, a rather forgettable little volume entitled Jim Morrison Au Dela Des Doors, while Morrison’s self-directed and seldom-screened film, Feast Of Friends, was recently secured for a Paris film festival and opened to much rioting and hysterical weeping.

“Morrison, Hendrix and Jagger — these are the heroes of France. You must understand that rock is something very… ‘ow you say, exotique… for us in this country.”

The words probably explain the incredible reverence with which the French approach the subject — that is, of course, once one gets away from the grotesqueries of M.O.R. French pop, which emanates like some creeping mindrot sickness from the radio at all hours.

Johnny Halliday still holds his grip on the media, now reduced to something akin to a desperate humourless Gary Glitter parody covered in unhealthy Gallic sweat, while the likes of Mireille Mathieu continue their Edith Piaf obsession numbers utilising all manner of limp-wicked torch song routines for their continued success.

Then, of course, there is that endless gallery of pretty faces and effete crooners — y’know, the kind of guys who make Barry Blue look like Screaming Jay Hawkins — everpresent to tweak the Frenchie pubes for three months or so at a time.

Outside this abyss, the ground lies fallow with a motley consortium of French rock attractions. The tradition of the progressive rock group is staunchly upheld by the likes of Ange, who would make a good support band for the Marquee and little else, while good old decadence gets a look-in from time to time with bands like Blue Vamp — who faded after only two months even though their manager kept insisting that the band was “authentically decadent”.

A more intriguing combo altogether are the Frenchies, who more or less act out the whole French obsession with the American rock ‘n’ roll dream in a way that is as quaint as often as it is musically unpalatable. The band are still fairly atrocious at this stage, as their first record on the French-Harvest label willingly testifies, but there is nonetheless something attractive about their leader and mentor Martin Dune’s vision of a French group singing in broken English about seeing palm trees in Detroit and having wet dreams about Lana Turner.

Again, the hype is there a-plenty. Black and white glossies of the band abound, decked out like yer common-or-garden pseudo 42nd Street glam rockers, while prestigious fashion designer Antonio Lopez has even been roped in to add a bona fide touch of class by doing a one-off pencil sketch of the ensemble in his own inimitably willowy languid style for promotion purposes.

Right now, The Frenchies are thoroughly expendable, though there is a spirit there that might one day blossom into something special; still, Paris has its very own version of the New York Dolls even if French radio adamantly refuses to play their music because they sing in English.

At the moment, the most intriguing project to emanate from the more “gauche” side of the French rock scene appears to be a band called “Au Bon-heur Des Dames” (Ladies’ Pleasure) — a kind of bizarro Sha Na Na-meets-St. Tropez-scuzz-meets brain belled-vaudeville-lampoon conglomerate whose album Twist is actually quite entertaining to listen to, even if the cover is so absolutely repulsive it would offend a blind man.

Their metier is pure rock burlesque done inventively, with a fair sprinkling of ye olde panache — which is far more than can be said for their tired old U.S. counterparts Sha Na Na.

Of further interest, the renowned French actor and all-purpose living legend Pierre Clementi has been jamming with them on the saxophone he picked up and consequently ripped off from the film-set constructed for the screen adaptation of Hesse’s Steppenwolf. From all reports he sounds awful, but Clementi’s reputation from former exploits is grand (he was kicked into jail in Rome for one year because the local inhabitants were beginning to believe he was Christ reincarnate, while women found him so irresistible they would fondle themselves “overtly” whenever he entered a room — beat that, Brian Eno!) that it gives the old charisma quotient a fairly lucrative injection, n’est-ce pas!

Talking of lucrative, a lot of people, not the least amongst whom can be counted “those that care” at A. & M. records, and Georgio Gomelsky, are sweating buckets in order that folk beyond the pale of Froggy-land should become fully acquainted with the bombastic histrionics of Christian Vander and Magma. So zealously are these minions labouring over publicity for the aforementioned that I was sent down to Poiters — one of those picturesque little towns surrounded by numerous disintegrating cathedrals and situated somewhere deep in the Gallic hinterlands — to get a general video of these cataclysmic garlic-gobblers in action.

The affair in fact turned out to be a fair abortion, ending up in a huge air-hanger which resembled London’s Roundhouse bloated out like some Dachau deja-vu, with almost a “Battle Of The Bands” scene taking place. On the one side we had the German nihilistic noodlings of Can — on the other, the hyper-manic bombast-ism of Vander and his horde of blank franks.

Nothing was delivered, though the first few minutes of a Magma set are usually fairly stirring stuff. Vander himself is an imposing figure — heavy Gallic features and biceps like a butcher — and if, as Nik Cohn once stated, Ginger Baker flails his drums like a drowning man, Vander functions like he’s confronting an octopus. You’re almost tempted to label him the Bruce Lee of the traps so effective is his visual stance.

But slowly one becomes sated by the leaden doomy intensity of the music and the manic forays around the kit become less and less impressive, even if his face more and more bears the heated glare of a complete lunatic fanatic.

Finally, after half an hour or so, the rest of the band — including a superb bassist Janick Topp and a singer who sounds like an unholy cross between Ian Gilian and a hyena singing Wagnerian opera — leave the stage for Vander to get on with it on his tod.

The result is more interminable paradiddling, interspersed with war-whoops.

I’m acquainted with much of the high-flown theorising and philosophy behind what Magma are purportedly trying to achieve, but the end results always sound like some totally immature ego-trip of the type that only drummers — remember Tony Williams or Baker himself for that matter — seem capable of perpetrating.

Much heavy thunder disguised as “important music” but signifying little or nothing.

Also as Can’s bass-player Holger Czukay wryly pointed out after the gig, “Magma may be French but their outlook is more German than even us.”

Apart from Vander, whose fanaticism alone is enough to ensure one’s undivided attention at least for a while, the only other intriguing component to the whole Magma schism is manager/self-styled interpreter Georgio Gomelsky.

Gomelsky’s commitment to the band has made him a controversial figure, to say the least, in France where it has been claimed he has unfairly manipulated a number of people in order to further his band’s career.

A central figure in this accusation is in fact Nico, who was managed by Gomelsky for a while and whose cult following was dubiously utilised as a ploy for Magma’s reputation.

She played support to the band on numerous occasions, and only recently, with the event of Lou Reed seducing her back to New York, has the connection been broken.

“Nico is like a little girl. She does what people tell her — she is quite simple in that respect,” stated one source close to the lady. “I think she had no great love for Magma. She just followed Gomelsky’s orders.”

And so when she was not getting involved in weird rumours about kidnapping Kevin Ayers (himself now resident in the South of France), Nico was going out with her harmonium and playing gigs to halls that were always packed out with admirers. A highlight of the act, ironically enough, of late has been her own performance of Jim Morrison’s ‘The End’.

But right now, Nico’s absence from Paris means one less face to be looked for as one sashays around “La Coupole” or the “Cafe De Flores”, the old bohemian hangouts for the likes of Sartre and the whole Existentialist movements which have now turned into nothing more than faintly chic, overpriced bistros.

Basically, it seems almost absurd that it’s down to the likes of Bryan Ferry who, contrary to much whimsical speculation, is not coming on like yer archetypal Italian waiter but more yer quintessential French gigolo type, to really capitalise on the whole Frenchy “je-ne-sais-quoi” finesse, while the real article sits dumbly applauding and earnestly osmosing gold-earring and Gauloises-on-the-breath cool.

And, why for that matter, hasn’t there been a French rock band coming along and vamping on all that left-bank existentialist mysterioro — “Vive le Sartre et la grande vin rouge” and all that guff.

The French, it must be concluded, are supreme stylists but bad thieves. And for a country with pretentions towards stalking out like rockers, that’s a severe handicap.

© Nick KentNew Musical Express, 4 May 1974

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