4 Cherbourg

 My secret file which I'm sure my mother perused...

I learned to bend the truth, especially with mom.  Dad had much more important things to do than listen to me.  I distilled truth as opportunity allowed.

Our main cultural references at home were the Unesco Courier and "Croissance des jeunes Nations", monthly magazines, past issues of which were available in the upstairs toilet.  Dad would read “Le Monde” at the dining table, listening to the news on the radio, commenting on the absurdities of the world with Mom.

They were third world activists.
We, the children, were not allowed to comment.  Indeed, whatever could we have to say concerning the Algerian war, the Ben Barka affair, or the Petit Clamart attack?

On Sundays, I’d take the 12 o’clock Micheline to Cherbourg.  But first we went to mass.

At 10 o'clock, all practicing Catholics living in and around Chef du Pont would flow into the little church at the end of the village.  There was no particular apprehension in attending, it being always the same thing, with the same people.  There was the director of the Dairy Cooperative, his wife and two children, a couple of farmers from Carquebut, with their four children, just to name a few.

Missing were the manager of The Factory (that’s what we called the second, industrial, dairy), his wife, and his daughter whom I was secretly in love with.  A family of unbelievers, certainly.

In the midst of proceedings, I’d get up and go to the altar to read the gospel.  On a beautiful wooden pulpit, a large bible-papered book was held open with a red netting on the day’s reading.  I would discover the text as I read it, understanding absolutely nothing.

Then back to the pew.

A frankincense blessing,  and a final song, in which mother put all her heart. The Dalmont (mom's maiden name) are good singers.  My uncles were unsurpassable in hymn singing.

There was little time left for me to make it to my micheline at the train station.

Once in Cherbourg I did not always go to Jean Émile's home. I only went whenever we had agreed to meet.  I had the afternoon to myself, until the return train.  I also had the city to me, but what to do on a Sunday afternoon in Cherbourg?

Seek, and you shall find.

Off to the red-light district, “Rue de la Paix”.  Prolonging Rue de la Paix  is Rue de l’Union.  One out of every two adresses is a sailor's bar filled with young, foreign-speaking boys, often Russian, on layover at the port of war. On the left, at the beginning of Rue de l'Union, I notice a posh door with the inscription: LE CLUB de CHERBOURG and in smaller print: Private Club.

At 3 pm the door opens. Imagine Benny Hill in a tracksuit, waddling at the door with a broad smile, looking up and down the street scrutinizing potential customers.  He’s the boss. He is huge, and fills the door.

Dare I, dare I not, I have to get past the boss.  He takes a small step to the side and lets me in.

They say: Nightlife.  Nightlife indeed.  In the dim light of the first, elongated room (especially coming in from the outside) you can barely see the bar with its gleaming copper taps, and just beyond it a small vestibule opening on a square dance floor.  On the right, at an angle, a rock band’s gear.  A Ludwig drum set, surrounded by two big Marshall amps and a singer’s microphone.  The Mediums will be playing later on.

An eccentric crowd fills the club, girls and boys dressed up as if they’d just come off Carnaby Street, Soho, London.  And here come the musicians: a trio -The Trio.  Guitar, bass, drums. The guitarist is wearing a Louis XIV frilled shirt under a dark blue frock coat with a sheen to its collar due to his long hair, tight jeans, red boots. To my mind and to this day,   the ultimate outfit for a rock guitarist.

I'm so glad, I'm so glad, I'm glad, I'm glad:  lyrics and music by an obscure American, covered by Cream; the Mediums have launched their set.

I discovered British Blues thanks to guitarist Yves Botomisi, AKA Boto.  When I saw Boto bend the strings to get that characteristic bluesy sound, it opened up a whole new world, a revelation, a revolution should I say!  Boto could bend the strings like nobody.  When I gathered my courage and approached him to ask how he did it, he showed me his left hand and his fingers, yellowed not only by cigarette smoke but also by calluses.  He made me touch the tips of his fingers, they felt like steel.  

Back to the show; what I was witnessing on this tiny stage will forever be engraved in my memory.  It was as if I had seen Hendrix and Clapton at the same time, a rythmic elegance shared only by natural-born types such as Boto; he swayed in a special, slow and almost feminine way ... His interpretations of Hendrix’ Fire and Hey Joe were really amazing. Cream’s Disreali Gears, Jimi Hendrix’ Are you experienced, John Mayall’s  A Hard Road  etc. will become my new bedside records. 

The Mediums 1968, Yves Botomisi on the left

The Mediums were not the only band playing at the Club de Cherbourg, there were also the Hawks. I liked them less.  They had a good singer with a powerful Eric Burdon-type voice. Their House of the Rising Sun was actually very good.  They had their favorite song, Them’s Gloria, but they were more or less specialized in Rhythm and Blues covers (In The Midnight Hour etc.)  A pity the guitarist, who had a wonderful sunburst Telecaster, only knew the first position F barre chord that he shifted all over the neck.

Boto had a Fender Mustang, but for him the brand and the quality of the guitar had absolutely no importance.

I became a regular at the Club de Cherbourg on Sunday afternoons. I tried to go at night once.  But it was complicated to provide mom with a good reason to leave on Saturday and I immediately saw that the club could become creepy, or even dangerous!

The good-natured club that I knew in the afternoon turned into a shady bar, adapted to the neighborhood's clientele. The atmosphere was electric, certainly due to the sometimes aggressive behavior of the sailors between themselves.  Fights started from time to time, quickly calmed by the boss and his henchman.  Heavily made-up girls, perched on the stools, chatted and drank with the sailors.  I found nothing better to do in this now hostile place than to order a croque monsieur.  I was served at the bar, which made it all the more incongruous.

The music on the stereo was always rhythm and blues, the same as played by the Hawks ...  Suddenly I saw Boto come to pick up the boss's daughter, who resembled a tall sexy horse wearing a large hat trimmed with ribbon as if on the Longchamp racetrack. I knew where they were going.  They went to the Café du Théâtre de Cherbourg, a classier place than the club, where Boto had his ways and loved to show off.  I had already seen them together at the Theater Café when I’d walk aimlessly around Cherbourg.  Boto fascinated me, going from one girl to the next, I looked at him from the street and took great care not to be noticed.

As for myself, every so often I would go to a small bar that was equipped with a scopitone. The customer-initiated song I remember best is Love me, please love me by Michel Polnareff.

So there I was at the Club on a Sunday afternoon, at the bar with my free drink, a cold Cacolac, when I heard the boss say: I'm bummed, I have no one for Sunday!

I heard myself answer:
- Maybe I can help you out?
- Do you play music?
- Yes, I have a band.

Indeed, I had a band.  Jean Émile, Daniel and I had started one in high school.

Jean Émile was on bass, a Fender precision his mother had bought him, the same as in Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited.  He had also copied the photographer's outfit on the cover, often wearing, (and on stage, invariably), a white / red striped T-shirt.  Daniel was now playing drums, a Pearl set that his many older brothers had managed to buy him, and I was playing a guitar bought for 80 francs from the daughter of Madame Ledouit, the grocer at Chef du Pont.

It was one ugly guitar! A Wandrè, completely atypical, built around an aluminum neck that went through the length of the guitar.  The body,  made of flamed blue plastic with an upper horn, seemed to wrap itself around the neck!  A horrid piece of gear.

Mom, authoritarian:
- Jean, for starters, it should do!

Mrs. Ledouit had told her it was a very good guitar. Mom had no reason not to believe her.
Indeed, one day I saw Boto bend the strings on this guitar. It was a very good guitar.

Jean Emile offered to repaint it so as to mask its 60’s freak show look.  His idea (and a good one it was) was to give it a psychedelic look, like that projected onto The Grateful Dead or Jefferson Airplane at the Filmore West.  He chose pink as the dominant colour.  I’m not quite sure I was better off for it.

Our repertoire: British blues. Perfect for the Club de Cherbourg.

A Wandrè model identical to my guitar... except for the color

D-day.  On the slate outside, in front of the club, the date and the band’s name: The Openin's.  Note the apostrophe, English at its best.

I'm still ashamed today.

I feel the boss is a little nervous,  we are a gamble for him.  The customers seem to be coming in, the first notes begin, the girls head to the dance floor, the boss relaxes a little.  Towards the end of the last set, I also relax a little and go for a long solo at the end of a tune, inspiration comes, we end with applause.  The boss has saved his Sunday.

When we left he asked me:
- The solo, was it planned?
- Yes.
- Good.
Clever guy, the boss.

The school year 67/68 saw the emergence of a new protagonist in our small world at Valognes High School.  Another singing supervisor.  He clinched a season’s gig at “Les Enfants de Cherbourg" for us.  Les Enfants de Cherbourg was a kind of charity that organized Sunday afternoon dances in an abandoned gymnasium, for the modest Cherbourg youth.

But first we had to:

1 - hire him as a singer
2 - expand our repertoire
3 - buy a PA and an organ to be able to lay claim to the contract.

One thing that is obvious even to a neophyte is the disparity of earnings between musicians.  Dad and Mom, whom I asked to finance the project, saw it right away.

- Jean! Daniel and you will not earn anything with this arrangement! (the fees would be used to pay back the sum advanced by my parents for the sound system and the organ)
- Mom, it doesn’t matter, we’re not in it for the money.
- All right, but François (the singer) and Jean Emile (the pianist) must sign us an I.O.U.…

I can still see us, the band, my mother, my father, all in his makeshift notary’s office. It was a tough moment because I knew how it was going to end.

And it ended badly indeed.

Our gig at les Enfants de Cherbourg had the merit of forging our endurance. We played from 3 pm to 7 pm with a 15-minute break.  I absolutely had to catch the last micheline at 19:30.

Francois M. was pretty handsome and the girls flocked to him. This interest ricocheted somewhat on the rest of the band.  One day during our break, an Asian girl came up, took me by the hand and practically dragged me into a cloakroom at the top of a staircase.  She closed the door, nailed me to the wall and stuck her tongue in my mouth.  What a shrew!  I was paralyzed, without reaction. Very quickly, like a cat with dead prey, she abandoned me and returned to the dance floor.

The band’s program was gradually moving away from the blues, songs were creeping in, such as: Nights in white satin by The Moody blues, America by The  Nice, A Whiter Shade of Pale by Procol Harum, Light My Fire by the Doors, Season of the Witch by Julie Driscoll and Brian Auger etc. Their performance was greatly facilitated by the acquisition of the organ.

At home I had decided to figure out all the songs on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. None resisted me. In Cherbourg I was known as the guitarist who knew all of Sgt. Pepper's chords. But Boto remained unbeatable...

Unfortunately, an event tarnished his image.

After  "Les Enfants de Cherbourg", we managed to get a gig at the "Moulin Normand" the Dance hall in Quinéville, located on the east coast of Cotentin. We were to play every Tuesday, Thursday and Friday of the summer season. Jean Emile had started to go out with the manager’s daughter, who also attended Valognes high school.  Sylvie was crazy about Jean Emile!

We had downsized the band’s personnel:
     - Daniel and his double Pearl drum set,
   - Jean Emile: Fender Precision bass on a double input Farfisa amp that we had been using at the Club de Cherbourg (I used the second input for my guitar),
     - Jean: Wandrè guitar through a Vox AC 30 amp.

Repertoire: instrumental blues + some additional songs (with myself on vocals)
- Crossroads (Cream)
- All your love (Otis Rush)
- Hey Joe (Hendrix)
- Sunshine of your love (Brown / Bruce / Clapton), without vocals (superfluous)
- Dust my blues (Elmore James) etc.
Band Name: Nashville Skyline (I’ve always been good at band names).

We made an appearance around eleven o'clock at night, a sort of community activity. I do not remember seeing many people in this dance hall, Sylvie undoubtedly had had something to do with our getting the gig.

Around 2 o'clock in the morning, Daniel and I would ride our Solex’ across 15 km of marshes to get back to his house in Hémevez for some sleep.

Remember my gear? Wandrè guitar and Vox AC 30 amp.

Boto, my hero, had managed to sell me his old beat-up AC 30 for a decent price.  He even demo’ed it by plugging in my Wandrè and let me tell you, it smoked!  This amp had played the Marquee in London (well, supposedly ...) and the Golf Drouot in Paris (that's for sure, I had seen the photos!) This amp had the characteristic smell of touring equipment:  a mixture of cigarette smoke and beer that musicians invariably knock over at one time or another after putting their glasses on it.  The smell of old-time dance halls.

A year later I got a phone call from Boto at my parents' house in Granville.

- Jean I'm bummed, I’ve got an important gig,  my Marshall just broke down, can you lend me my AC 30?
- Sure, it’s at Jean Emile’s place, drop by and pick it up ...

I never saw his AC 30 again. Nor Boto himself, who died prematurely several years later, in near misery.  He never got the time or the opportunity to become Johnny Halliday's guitarist, his hidden ambition ...

As for François M., he had disappeared with the sound system and the organ, address undisclosed.

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