My grades and evaluations in Valognes were dropping dangerously. I kept up thanks to the kindness of girls from whom I “borrowed" homework during study period. After all, I had to somehow compensate for the huge holes in my schedule - spent playing with Daniel.
Luckily, May 68 came around.
Total disorganization, no more notes, no more evaluations. Nothing. I had not told Daddy how bad it was, so he still drove me to Valognes every Monday morning. And we still did not talk in the DS.
At school, the first deserters were the day pupils, followed by the teachers. We had the school to ourselves. I could play guitar whenever I wanted. I say: I, because Daniel stayed at home, he felt better there.
I spent a lot of time with a girl who was very much in love with me. I, however, to her great regret, was not so much in love with her.
Mid-June, end of classes, my parents announce that we will probably move to Granville next fall. Upsetting news for me and my little world.
No more trips to Cherbourg, no more Daniel (enrolled at Octeville’s technical college, in the suburbs of Cherbourg)! My parents feared for my health. It didn’t turn out that bad, but still, I suffered a nasty bout of depression ...
The whole family found itself in an affordable housing unit on the heights of Granville, pending a nicer place. My parents, little Vincent, François, Catherine and me in 90 m2.
Fortunately, my room was at the end of the corridor, the farthest from my father's perimeter. I shared it with François. We were to become intimate partners. Little by little, we revealed our worlds to each other.
Francois drew, I played my Gibson Les Paul. Dad and I had gone to Paris to buy it, in the Pigalle district. ‘Rock & Folk’, a magazine I had recently discovered, always featured a full-page Paul Beuscher ad featuring two gorgeous Les Pauls: one gold top and one black. I chose the gold top.
My parents took advantage of the 68/69 Christmas holidays to bring the whole family down to visit my paternal grandmother who was recently widowed and now resided with her daughter Henriette in Carbon Blanc, in the suburbs of Bordeaux.
During a walk down St. Catherine Street, Bordeaux, Mom bought me, at my insistence, a blue frock coat (which I would no longer be seen without), red boots and two LPs: '' Electric Lady Land '' by Jimi Hendrix and Soft Machine 1.
My uncle Robert was a playful Guy Marchand-type character, married to Aunt Henriette who, in turn, looked more or less like Sophia Loren in "The Countess of Hong Kong". Uncle Robert was a radio ham. To show off the quality of his hi-fi equipment he put on my Hendrix record (I had chosen it for this purpose). He turned the volume up loud. Imagine my dismay when I saw the faces of my parents, Henriette and my grandmother discovering what I was going to listen to in my room. Fortunately, they never saw what Hendrix was doing at the same time with his tongue: I would have been ashamed.
Back in Granville I had my first listen of Soft Machine 1, which I had bought based on a Rock &Folk critic’s review.
The twenty second interlude of Why Am I so Short (10: 13/10: 28) was a life-changing experience!
Suddenly and violently emerged the hypnotic world of repetitive music inspired by American minimalism, which would become (and remains to this day) one of my most important musical references. I would listen to those twenty seconds up to ten times in a row! Soft machine’s Third and Fourth would later usher me into the world of complex harmonies, inexhaustible sources of beauty and inspiration ...
I shared my discovery of Soft Machine with Jean Emile (we had kept up an episodic relationship). We saw each other at his home. He liked the record well enough. Nevertheless Bob Dylan remained his reference – he worshiped him in a touching way.
He managed, by some mystery, to get us booked for the first Cherbourg Pop Festival in May 1970.
- Nashville (note the shortened name)
- Martin Circus
I have nothing noticeable to say about our performance, I do not remember having to cope with stage fright, a problem I will unfortunately have to struggle with later at important concerts. Maybe It was because we were in Cherbourg. It just felt like the usual routine.
And yet I do remember seeing Ange’s roadies unload two organs from their truck (not without difficulty), and the two Descamps brothers, the bandleaders, warming up during sound check. Not very interesting, I thought.
My opinion changed when I saw how they managed to capture their audience and turn a technically mundane performance into an unforgettable moment for their fans. They already had a true sense of dramaturgy.
Introversion played around with some Pink Floyd covers, in a rather convincing way. I remember hearing a very nice rendition of Be careful with that axe, Eugene.
While lounging behind the scenes I came across members of Martin Circus, the festival headliners. I was subjugated by their saxophonist, as he warmed up. Sensing my interest, he began blowing through Frank Zappa themes (an artist I had just discovered) at the speed of light. For the first time I felt that subtle touch of Parisian superiority.
Their performance that evening was mundanely mainstream...
Much later (in 79) I saw the band’s keyboardist gigging as a sideman for Plastic Bertrand at a shoddy pop event in Dordogne. There I was again, opening for them with my dance band. Such are the grandeurs and vicissitudes of the working musician, be he Parisian...
The major interest of the festival was for me to have witnessed firsthand the extent of the "groupie" phenomenon. A spontaneous generation, they swarmed pop concerts everywhere, flocking around the most prominent musicians. Even on the scale of Cherbourg the movement was impressive. Their dress code: an open suede longcoat over a white lace panty, sexy as hell.
The TV intellectuals were right, it was indeed a social phenomenon ...
The last time I saw Jean Emile was at a concert we had booked at the Agricultural vocational school in Coutances, shortly after the festival. The plan was for Jean Emile to kick things off with a solo set on electric upright piano, his new acquisition; then the trio (Daniel, Jean Emile on bass and myself) would play a long untitled Suite I had composed around all that I had learned from Soft Machine; again, something of a Première... This first composition remains unwritten to this day, but I still remember the main theme.
The first part almost went sour, Jean Emile having set out to play "free" in a radically Cecil Taylor way, completely confusing the students who began to stir and grumble dangerously. After the concert he told me that he had tried to calm them down with a series of completely consonant and "strong" major chords. I’m not quite sure he really succeeded. My Suite went off without a hitch, but Jean Emile’s music was a major shock for me - atonal piano music was to fascinate me to this day.
I remember our last Jean Emile-related misadventure, an event that took place shortly after this particular "free" concert in Coutances.
He had booked a gig for the trio with the Périers festival committee, a town of 1500 souls, located halfway between Granville and Cherbourg. We were to play for the village festival’s dinner dance. Apart from our last "experiments", we only knew blues tunes. Papa's Citoën GS Model dropped us (Daniel, the Les Paul and myself) at 5 pm on the village square. Jean Émile and all his equipment was to come from Cherbourg with a friend of his who owned a car. At 7 P.M, still no Jean Émile. The Committee staff’s inquiries regarding the situation were becoming less and less friendly as the clock ticked away. At eight o'clock, shit was really starting to hit the fan. Daniel and I decided to run away, like thieves, to the other end of the village and the road to Granville, where we mercifully hitched a ride in short time. Having never seen Jean Emile again, we never found out how things had gone in late-night Périers.
Lycée Ferdinand Buisson, Granville. 1969.
A new high school at age 16 is tough going, but I got used to it very quickly. New faces, new schoolmates.
I was in tenth grade, majoring in humanities. How Sylvain and I became friends, I cannot say.
A well above average sense of humour. A history wizkid (I saw him turn in his copy at the baccalaureate, a freaking book, grade: 20) I also saw him challenge teachers more than once. Sylvain is a nice guy, just don’t mess around with accuracy. His two specialties: World War II and airplanes. You get the picture, I liked Sylvain very much.
I may have met “Lapin” through him, I'm not certain, but Lapin’s girlfriend was in my class, that’s for sure! Imagine a 17-year-old Joan Baez, Indian-style hair with a skirt and a suede fringed jacket, she was Woodstock all by herself, the prettiest girl around: but she was Lapin’s.
Lapin is a guitarist. Not just any old guitarist, he’s the best one around, and everyone knows it. He has a sort of lisp, endearing him all the more. Lapin knows Boto, but Cherbourg is 120 km away, each man to his territory.
Lapin is a professional. He makes a living playing guitar. He plays dancehalls, and has a Gibson SG Standard with a big vox amp (you know, man: ssoundss ssuperb!)
Lapin will be my mentor for the next few years.
At home, my cohabitation with François is a fruitful one. His drawing is progressing by leaps and bounds, and he’s moving on to oil painting. The first painting I remember is of wasps on a green background. Our room smells strongly of turpentine, I want to try painting too.
I am not moving away from music, far from it.
The Les Paul is not plugged in, I no longer have an amp. I don’t need one, silent guitar is just what’s needed in affordable housing units.
This guitar is a lucky charm. I’m starting to find unusual chords that I can link together to form small melodies. A sweet short chord progression even gets a title: Calèche. I have just found a compositional workflow which, more or less, will be that of many years to come.
One day I tell Sylvain:
- I play guitar.
- No kidding?!
- Yes! I compose songs, do you want to come and listen to them at home?
François, who is four years younger than me, had his own life at Ferdinand Buisson Junior High School. He was part of a group of four classmates who hung out after class. They were more politicized than me, a post 68 wind of leftist protest was making its mark on the younger kids’ minds... One of them, Jean Pierre, would later introduce me to Ralph Towner’s Trios / Solos with Glenn Moore.
My own expression of revolt was to steal records. Quite convenient. Double albums, no less. How else could I justify the possession of several double albums in my nascent discotheque?
- Uncle Meat (Frank Zappa)
- Bitches Brew (Miles Davis)
- Blonde on Blonde (Bob Dylan)
Soft Machine’s ‘Third’, I bought. Not worth taking risks with that one.
We’ve been talking music, it's time we talked painting.
The top floor of our building was occupied by an elderly retired couple, Mr and Mrs Cauchy. My parents had met them at mass at St Paul's Church. Mr Cauchy had ended his career as a foreman at the Gobelins Tapestry Factory in Paris. He and his wife had come to peacefully retire in Granville.
They quickly learned that François painted. It turns out that Mr Cauchy was a painter himself. Our whole family was invited for tea and biscuits at Madame Cauchy's.
Before serving tea and fruit juice Mr Cauchy wanted us to visit their apartment. In the living room - or was it their bedroom? - hung a tapestry-portrait of his wife and himself!
The rest of the visit proved more interesting. Small-format paintings by Georges Braque, Hans Hartung, Georges Mathieu... decorated the rooms and the hallway, gifts from the artists to the foreman.
Mr Cauchy could be of help to François. François went to Mr Cauchy’s for quite a long time.
I took some lessons too, with François, on the top floor, but I was not as motivated as he and did not attend regularly. Also, we’d get the giggles and I did not want to Mr Cauchy to take umbrage. Under his authority, I started to work on a construction site-themed piece. Halfway through, my drawing strongly mimicked Fernand Léger's workers. The drawing remained unfinished ...
Back to the housing unit. The ground floor was occupied by a family who owned a TV set that received both existing channels. My parents never really hooked up with TV. In front of the set, I’d always see mom knitting while reading the newspaper.
Airing on channel 2 was a show called... Pop 2. Off to the ground floor we went.
We were greeted on the doorstep by a strong smell of piss, the baby kid peed in bed and apparently the washing machine could not keep up! In this smell François and I discovered our favorite musicians playing live: Frank Zappa, Yes, Soft Machine, Magma etc.
In time, Lapin and I became close enough for me to play in front of him and share my aspirations with him. During summer weeks, I knew where to find him: with his girlfriend at the Plat Gousset, the posh beach near the casino where he sometimes played.
One day, He gave me John McLaughlin’s Extrapolation, with John Surman, as a gift.
- Here Jean, you’re more into modern stuff, this isn’t for me.
Lapin was more into Santana.
In addition to his unconventional diction Lapin often distorted the ends of words, on purpose. He was very creative at this little game. Carpenter became Carpentoo etc.
I’ve always enjoyed this alternative language slant that is often found in musicians ...
He also gave me a very good piece of advice.
- If you want to make ssure you don’t ever misss out on gigging opportunitiess, learn to read mussic; I ssubbed in Emilio Corfa’ss orchesstra the other day and had to read the sscore. Now I'm taking classess at Mrs. Hammel’ss: sshe’s jusst explained tripletss to me, cool!
I immediately set up an appointment with Mrs. Hammel. Her apartment was in a street leading up to the historical town center. Madame Hammel was a spinster of the old-fashioned romantic type. She was very old and gave cheap music lessons to survive.
So the lesson begins: do-si-fa-la-re etc. Suddenly she lifts a saucer placed on a bowl and spits into the green slime slushing around the bottom.
Lapin had not kept me up to speed.
The house that my parents had decided to build was ready, it was five hundred meters from our appartment building. Francois and I now had separate rooms in the second floor attic. The little Telefunken hi-fi system that we had shared found its way to my bedroom, where I listened, almost pathologically, to Soft Machine’s ‘Fourth’, especially Virtually, the track that ran the whole B-side.
On Saturday nights now, I played in a dance orchestra in Villedieu les Poêles, following in my mentor’s footsteps. I did OK, I had learnt all of Sgt. Pepper’s by ear, and French ‘variété’ was a breeze. Of that orchestra’s repertoire I only remember Santana’s Samba pa ti and Michel Fugain’s 1972 national anthem Une belle Histoire.
After my last year of high school and my graduation failure, I went to work in July as a supervisor at the Mobil-Oil holiday camp near Dole, in the Jura. I fell in love with a fellow supervisor who worked with the same group of children as me. The only way I had found to let her know my feelings was to repay her disproportionately (bottles and bottles!) for the blob of shampoo I had borrowed from her.
On the last evening, the director invited me to play on a guitar that was hanging around. I played Calèche. Again, the song made a beautiful impression.
I started documenting the ideas I found on my guitar, which I could now write thanks to Mrs. Hammel’s previously touted lessons. They basically consisted of looped arpeggios. I’d imagine melodies, singing them, to break the monotony of the loops.
This was to become a part of my style. I asked the saxophonist / clarinetist from my dance band to come and try the melodies at home. He came on a Sunday with his girlfriend Marie Christine. We played my scores in the attic.
That day I realized that I would spend the rest of my life on a quest for melodies.
All of this left very little time and motivation for schoolwork. Came what must: a resounding second graduation failure, with a grade of 0.5 in math, which undermined all the more, if need be, my parents’ certainty that I would attend university. Another year without Sylvain at Ferdinand Buisson, to no avail. I will never receive higher education!
My relationship with Dad became icy. Had Mum told him about our long conversations concerning my future, in which I envisioned myself following in the footsteps of Lapin?
I'm not sure, in fact I would not have liked it if she had.
In any case, those two successive graduation failures were to feed recurring nocturnal fears, even to this day.