Monday, August 08, 2005

Reims, France 1966-1968: Cum'on, Let's Go Back...

In the early 80’s, while everyone was listening to the likes of the Police, Flock of Seagulls, Public Image, Talking Heads, etc. I, under the tutelage of one Chuck Cuminale, was discovering and absorbing records by the Band, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Graham Parker, Patti Smith and a host of other 60’s, 70’s and early new wave/punk bands. During the 70’s, while I was growing up in Oswego, my listening comprised primarily of the Beatles, their solo LPs, Chuck Berry, B.B. King and John Mayall. I bought John Mayall albums because a) it was blues and b) they were mostly .99c cut-outs. But whether I indulged myself in Wishbone Ash, discovered Randy Newman while watching a tribute to Jim Croce on the Midnight Special or tried to learn “I’m Going Home” by Ten Years After note-for-note, the Beatles remained unshakeable at the top of my tower of song.
Like a lot of people my age I remember watching the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show on February 9th, 1964. I was 6. I watched with my brother Ted, my sister Jan, my parents as well as my maternal grandparents, Grampy and Nana. I don’t recall everyone else’s reactions but as for me, I’ve spent the rest of my life coming to terms with that moment. Suddenly the world was a more exciting place to be; a place where you could choose to do that sort of thing. To be more precise, the world of grown-ups was more interesting. Up to that point, grown-ups fed me, clothed me, taught me, got after me, told me stories and sang lullabies. No grown-up had ever instructed me to “twist and shout” or yelled “yeah! Yeah! YEAH!” or made such a loud racket. I don’t think I’d ever seen so many electric guitars at once.
But the path musicians take isn’t solely dependent on the music listened to. There have always been people along the way who have helped bring the path into focus. Seeing the Beatles on TV was a planting of the seed perhaps, but the water for the fertile soil came from an unexpected source: a student of my father’s by the name of Norman Pearlman.
My father is a retired French professor who, from 1952 to 1969, taught at the University of Oregon in Eugene, my birth city. By the time I was 6 I had been to France twice as well as the U.K. and other parts of Europe. Through contacts made at a conference in New York City, my father was offered a chance to head the Queen’s College program in France. When I was 7, in the summer of 1966, my family sailed out of New York on a tiny ship, the Aurelia, bound for Le Havre on what would be a two-year stay in the city of Reims, the capitol of the Champagne region.
The Aurelia was a retired U-boat supply ship from World War II whose final trip to the scrapyard was delayed when it was transformed into a “less expensive” ocean liner. It was no Queen Elizabeth. I remember vividly looking out our porthole and seeing the hull of a lifeboat the ropes of which secured it to the boat were painted securely onto the their respective pulleys.
It was packed with college students from the program and the ship offered music and dancing in the evenings. I had made friends with a kid named Bernard and our parents would let us stay up until 10pm (!) at the little nightclub where we would watch and listen, drink coke and imagine upending boxes of marbles onto the dance floor. The one song I clearly remember hearing the band play was “Love is Blue” which I thought had a pretty cool melody. The little keyboard hook in-between verses was very catchy too.
Once we got established in Reims, my parents often had parties with students and faculty over at our place. Quite a few students felt very comfortable coming over just to hang out. This was especially true the second year when we had an apartment on La Cour L’Anglais. This was where one student, Norman Pearlman, who took notice of my interest in music, began to bring over stacks of English and American rock’n’roll singles for me listen to. Each week he would bring over a new stack and take back the last one.
In all fairness to my father, the reason Norman new of my interest in music was due to my father’s long standing friendship with Bernard Durant and his family. Monsieur Durand had a little “tabac” in Paris where, along with the daily papers, cigarettes and what-not, he sold the latest singles and EP’s by the French pop stars of the day. On his trips to Paris, my father would stop at the tabac and always leave with a stack of records for us.
When I was 8-years-old my music idols were Claude Francois, Adamo, Hugues Aufrais, Sheila, Jacques Dutronc, Antoine, a very bad-ass Johnny Hallyday and the underrated Michelle Polnareff. For a year this was the music I knew and listened to. It would be years before I realized that “J’Attendrais” by Claude Francois was a re-written “I’ll Be There” by the Four Tops…and not the other way around! I imagine when Norman heard what I was listening to, he took pity and decided to take it upon himself to school Ted, Jan and me in rock’n’roll. And with all due respect to Ted and Jan, I was the one for whom this stuff mattered the most.


Michael said...

Awesome...I'm enjoying this blog more and more as it goes on. Even when the parts don't seem to add up in any simple/obvious way, I'm finding myself increasingly interested in biographies as I get older. I can't help but look for connections between the early experiences of artists and their later work, and this has been one of the most interesting entries yet in that regard. I wasn't sure at first about the casual non-chronological approach you're taking, but it's growing on me and making more and more sense as you go along. I like the offhand (organic?) sequence...often a series of interesting anecdotes tells the story more faithfully than a painstakingly reconstructed history. Right on, and thanks...

urknee said...

wow, very early roots indeed, tres magnifique! you might get a chuckle out of a new french-canadien cd called "a londre" where the quebecois singers of the 60s tackled the swingin' london tunes of the times, like "downtown".