Our first real foray into the professional music world was not exactly a smashing success story. The Lionceaux, a band from Jaunay Clan near Poitiers, played well. We were hired by default, I think, barely passing the audition.
It was a special band, with a rock-oriented repertoire. I had a Rock guitar, a Rock sound, and Rock licks, but I did not have a Rock attitude. Vonvon, bass player and childhood friend of the bandleader’s, had the attitude. Very tight jeans, big belt, small scarf, he had copped all of Jaco Pastorius’ poses and had the same amp: a two-body Acoustic, the heaviest amp on the market.
For lack of accomodation, Daniel and I stayed at a hotel for the first rehearsals, while the band got the show on track and scouted its first gigs. Marie Christine went back to Cherbourg to resume her job as a hairdresser.
A month later, the bandleader suggests we go and get our stuff from “La Vache Brune" because he has found us a cheap accommodation deal in a castle!
Upon our arrival at “La Vache Brune", with the band’s truck, we were surprised to find that the farm was inhabited. Magribe, generously, had wanted to help some hooligan friends.
They had ransacked everything, drawn a speech bubble on my big gouache painting of Shakespeare, plundered our discotheque; in short there was not much left to take away besides our two cats and Snoopy, a poor old poodle that we had boarded whose owners (a couple, friends of Magribe, again) had "forgotten" to come back for and that Daniel had grown fond of.
At the castle, in the three rooms we rented from the owner, we started from scratch. Less than scratch, when we found out we also had to pay the bill for the month of boarding at the hotel.
My brother François and his friend Jean Pierre came to see us at the 'Château des Martins' during the Christmas holidays 73, shortly after Marie Christine had returned. I remember my Christmas present very well: Seven by Soft Machine.
There was a strange atmosphere in this 19th century castle built on the outskirts of Poitiers, a heavy atmosphere due in part to the constant presence of the castle owner during the day. A retired military, and alcoholic, he came with the purpose of drinking his two daily bottles of bad wine, leaving his family in their apartment located in a residential area, not far from the castle.
The day we told him that Snoopy was starting to show signs of aggressiveness, he eagerly took aim from a distance and killed it with his rifle, visibly quite pleased with himself.
We couldn’t stay at this improbable, oppressive and almost harmful place for long... In an emergency move, the Lionceaux leader found us a small farm on the opposite side of town, in a locality answering to the charming name of Vendeuvre du Poitou. It must have been blessed with winds of inspiration because in six months I composed twelve pieces including the four-piece suite Agréments parfaitement bleus (I, II, III, Épilogue) and the six piece suite Périodes Ultérieures, Périodes Antérieures. We also listened to Magma’s Mekanïk Destruktïw Kommandöh and King Crimson’s Red, on a loop as usual.
A dance band, in 73/74, needs at least two singers.
The "French singer", whose repertoire covers the full spectrum of French “variété”, although he may have a specialty, Claude François, Mike Brant etc. and an "English singer".
Our "English singer," Jean Marc, was pretty good.
I had to learn a good part of Deep Purple’s repertoire, they were always a hit with the audience. Daniel and I quickly sympathized with Jean Marc. We scoured the local dances from Vendée to Berry.
Another singer, who knew the leader, made his appearance, later. Dan (his nickname) sang Johnny Halliday exclusively, and even imitated his physical and facial expressions to an extent. We weren’t too keen on Johnny at first, but we ended up getting along all right. We were treated to his performances of La musique que j’aime, Le feu, Que je t’aime etc. We learned to be professional dance band musicians.
As we began to settle into the job, the leader distilled disturbing signals. I have since learned to recognize these never varying signals (secret conversations, smug smiles...) They foreshadow a total or partial change of staff.
In the present case: a partial turnover. Vonvon and Dan would stay on.
Marie Christine told me she was pregnant, she would give birth in June. Panic. Jean Marc saved us by welcoming us to his home for three months. Daniel had found a regular gig at La Roche Posay.
Jean Marc. Respect.
Jean Marc lived in Bordeaux, or rather Lormont, in a big low-rent housing tower. Through his connections he soon found a dance gig for me: in Poitiers! My next two bands were to be based in Chatellerault and Chateauroux, which would soon dull my passion for trains.
A dance band’s musician’s rulebook:
- Sleep on a foldable bed in the cellar or in a bunk in the truck if we live far away and accommodation is needed.
- Never eat with Madame Leader.
- Never talk about the music we love, or lie outright about it.
- Don’t expect to stay a member of the band for very long, sneers and smug smiles will let you know when your place is coveted by a friend of Le Chef.
- Never badmouth competing bands, you will be needing them.
These do not apply on weekdays. We are then free to do what we want, and that is priceless.
In Jean Marc’s immediate entourage was his brother Michel, a renowned band singer, and his great friend Serge K, who played organ in his band. Their record collections contained everything I wanted to discover. Serge had all the Canterbury scene and its avatars, and all of Magma’s records, while Michel owned the masterpieces of the early ECM catalog.
I tried playing with Serge. He is an adorable and funny guy, a composer himself, but something did not click; I had a hard time hearing piano in my music. I still do today.
After my difficulties in the “Centre” region, where I never managed to stay more than six months with the same band, Jean Marc, who played in Brive, heard about a guitar / drums opportunity in a band from Périgueux. This time Daniel and I would fit in quite well.
Daniel quickly left La Roche Posay where he had been unemployed for more than six months and was living precariously to move to a small village in the countryside near Périgueux. Marie Christine, Nicolas and I would stay a little longer in the housing tower "Les Alpilles" in Lormont, where we rented an two-bedroom appartment that we had found after Jean Marc’s rescue.
April 76. We now lived in a house in Creyssensac et Pissot, a small town 15 kilometers south of Périgueux. Daniel's house was nearby. We were glad to have left the big towerbehind, in which we had lived for a little over a year. Since we had a child now, Mom and Dad helped us move. We rented a small van to carry our few posessions. Dad had a fender bender on his way home in Libourne. His first accident. Every holiday he’d tell us about it – a real traumatism.
Finally we had returned to the countryside and its serenity.
But our recent past was going to catch up with all three of us, Jean Marc, Daniel and I.
Dan, the "Johnny" singer from the Lionceaux, came to Jean Marc’s one day with a project: he was looking for musicians to accompany him for a great gig he had booked, a "gala" in Valence, in the southeast, where he would star. The repertoire would basically include all of Johnny's songs that we played in Poitiers. Daniel and I had never tried to understand how a guy like him, quite the mythomaniac, had come to play in a dance band like ours. Mind you, there’s a crazy Johnny Hallyday or two to be found in any given region.
There was a rumor that Dan had been in jail.
A big fan of westerns, he one day invited Marie Christine, Daniel and I to his overheated detached house for a TV party. He always wore a white turtleneck and chain-smoked, “American actor" style. His wife was very different from him, a little older, unassuming, having obviously had a complicated life before meeting him. She had two little girls.
When questioned, Dan never answered, he’d just put on a face that meant: "keep talking, little pricks, you do not know life" ... In fact he impressed us a bit. He liked being something of a mystery.
The Valence project became clearer, all the musicians were on board. Jean Marc on backing vocals, the bassist and keyboardist / saxophonist from the Périgueux dance band, Daniel and myself. Dan had promised good pay… The fateful day arrived. We did not rehearse. We were supposed to chose and rehearse the repertoire in the bus. The gall!
Pickup time. The musicians from Périgueux had gathered early in the morning at the keyboardist’s place. Up came a "Chausson" bus from Poitiers with its two drivers and Dan in front, beaming with pride and all smiles. We had arranged to bring along our women and children, lending a sense of “California hippiness” to the trip.
The crossing of the Massif Central was strenuous but joyful, without our going over the show nor the repertoire. We'll see ... Tensions began to show.
Suburbs of Valence, late afternoon. The bus came to a stop in front of a shabby and deserted gymnasium, with no one there to welcome the troops. Inside the gymnasium, a stage and a hundred chairs which, in the evening, were to remain empty. Dan’s only words: we won’t play, I don’t want to pay the Sacem!* Besides, what could we have played?
*French Authors' Rights Society
*French Authors' Rights Society
After these words he sank into complete muteness, curled up on the first passenger seat, and buried his head in his white turtleneck. The two drivers then decided to immediately get out of this quagmire, without eating, thus taking charge, with Dan’s wife, of our distraught troupe. A deathly silence in the bus, an exhausting and icy crossing of the Massif Central. End of journey. We never heard of Dan again. We never knew his real name, either.
With the Périgueux dance band we gigged every week end, which gave us relative financial stability. We were paid 180 F per event, each event giving the right to a “vignette”. We managed to make a total of 1400 F per month, minimum wage at that time was about 1550 F. We absolutely needed 12 vignettes per quarter to claim social security and family benefits. This time around Daniel and I always had the requisite count.
In its ranks, this band had a singer, sister to the lead singer, and a trumpet player, friends with the lead singer. They all came from Bordeaux. The lead singer lived in the heart of the Bacalan district, home to the docks and warehouses of the port of Bordeaux. It often happened that he would offer us implausible things from the black market. One day, with his sister’s help, he brought a turkey to a bingo party we were playing in a remote corner of Corrèze! The winners did not claim their prize. Imagine the drive home...
Musically, the female vocalist helped us expand the band’s repertoire - Nicoletta and Annie Cordy, for example. Of course she and her brother sang J’ai encore rêvé d’elle as a duet, a very popular song in '75, the trumpet player performed the trumpet solo from L'Été indien and Jean Claude Borelly’s instrumental hit Dolannes melody as best he could - he was not really a professional. The song from that period I preferred playing was Christophe's Les mots bleus, I don’t know why. Daniel and I stayed close to three years in this band, we felt relatively safe.
Musical ambitions could resurface.