(backstage -Le VIP, St-Nazaire)
On tour with The Bellrays -and a lot has been happening.
Air France flight 0023 (in-flight service, see: www.zaremblog@.....) After over-nighting it pinned into economy class, I arrived at Paris's Charles de Gaulle International Airport, unheralded and unwelcomed. Not that I wasn't welcome, just that the band had arrived the day before and no one was at the airport to meet me. Well, we've been coming to France long enough for me to be able to find my way into town. I had a pocketful of Euro-change from previous trips, so I opted to take the RER train running directly from the airport to Paris. At 8.50E including transfer to the Paris Metro, it can't be beat -unless by a fistful of cash and a taxi. I made the 35 minute trip on the RER suburban train with the rush hour commuters heading for the Gare du Nord, where I switched to the Paris Metro, two stops on the 4 Line, then 1 stop on the 2 Line. No running for trains, no dramas. Miss a train and there's another right behind it, then another. How unlike New York, where experience has taught straphangers to hurl themselves at every departing train as if it might be the last. Anyway, within minutes I was climbing out of the Anvers Metro station. I walked one block up towards the stairs to the Sacre Coeur, then left half a block to our favorite hotel in Paris, the Bearnais, where I could finally crawl into bed -for all of 95 minutes.
The Hotel Bearnais (13 rue d'Orsel, Paris 75018) is one of the best bargains in the French capital -not that this homey (and homely) hotel would suit everyone's tastes. Rooms are sparely, almost monastically, furnished, with the hotel exuding a faint vibe of an old-style Paris tenement. That's its greatest charm. Throw open your windows on a warm day If you've got a room in the back, or in the building in the courtyard, Lie on the bed and listen in on the neighborhood -radios, parents admonishing their children, or students at their music lesions -sort of a 18th arrondissement 'Rear Window'. If you're sticking around, I'd also recommend visits to the Sewers Of Paris Museum, the Catacombs and trying to find the apartment that houses the super-eccentric shine to Edith Piaf in Ménilmontant, if its owner hasn't been hauled off somewhere by now. Of course, none of this makes any difference, we've got to hit the road to make the first of a series of early 'load-ins' and sound-checks. Our French agent Jean-Luc Jousse will drive us to St-Nazaire where we'll meet up with road manager Antoine Bucieck and The Bellrays, who had gotten a jump on the tour by playing the night before in Brest.
Antoine Bucieck, road manager
Breathe easy (especially British readers -those comments didn't get past me) I'm not going to lay too many descriptions of lavish meals or hotels on you. I can say a lot of the hotels are brand new, comfortable but generic and inexpensive. That's fine. They're usually located in commercial zones outside whatever city attractions there may be, often a considerable distance from the night's venue. The treatment of a touring band in France, however, is humane. More than often it's exceptional. Still, a schedule such as ours can't help but guarantee a rapid succession of early departures, monotonous hours in the van followed by lengthly sound-checks and fitful sleep -punctuated by glimpses of magnificent scenery and exhilarating performances. This is in no way a complaint, as you will soon see. Just saying that although we are on tour, we're not tourists. I'd try to give more shape to what could be a disjointed narrative, but what's the use if that's how it actually feels anyway?
The Bellrays, no worse for wear...
I believe it was Jean-Luc's idea that we join forces with Riverside, California's Bellrays (www.thebellrays.com), a proposal we readily endorsed. With Lisa Kekaula's rabble-rousing, soulful vocalizing -"Come on, People!!!", and Bob Vennum's heavy Detroit-style guitar, powered by an unstoppable rhythm section of head-hitting Stefan Litrownik (drums) and Justin Andres (bass), The Bellrays deliver an explosive performance -everynight.
You probably already know what I'm talking about. If not, you really should check out their most recent release 'Hard, Sweet & Sticky' (2008). When they get back to California they'll be mixing at Barefoot Studio in LA, so they should have a new release soon (which reminds me, the only thing I've been mixing lately are cocktails, we're overdue to go into the studio ourselves). I'd like to think that our energy and élan (since we are in France) feed off of each other very well. Anyway, this has made not just for a good double bill, but good travel companions, important when sharing dressing rooms and a 9-seat VW 'Crafter TDI' (that's not an airplane). Quiet Bob would usually 'coop' in the shelf-like bed at the rear of the passenger cabin, while Lisa's laugh would provide a welcome lift when everyone else's voice said 'fatigue'. Stef' and Justin just always seemed interested -upbeat and ready for action.
Le VIP, St-Nazaire
Strategically positioned on the Bay of Biscay, St-Nazaire is best known as the port where the Germans based their U-boat 'wolf packs' that prowled the Atlantic for Allied shipping. The bomb-proof U-Boat pens, with meter-thick walls of reinforced concrete, would have been next to impossible to demolish, so creative uses had to be found for them after Jerry left town. One creative use is as a music venue and we found ourselves 'loading in' to 'Le VIP' through an immense steel door. I couldn't help thinking that this impervious portal would be the last that many submarine crews would pass through -a gateway to an eternity at the bottom of the sea.
03/06/10: At 9AM we were already on our way to nearby La Rochelle. Its beautiful harbor had been fortified in earlier times against corsairs, pirates and the English (very often the same thing). There's be no time for any of that now either, but we had made a point of seeing the old port on a previous trip. Although there certainly would be a lot of traveling as we ping-ponged around the six corners of France, this trip wasn't shaping up to be offering much in the way of tourism. We were here to play -at Salle Georges Brassens (rue du 8 Mai 1945, 17440 Aytré). It's a great night, boosted by the manic energy of The Detroit 7 -a trio -from Japan.
03.07/10: Bergerac is the largest wine region in the southwest, if not in all of France. It's proud of its sturdy output and substantial food that goes so well with it. It's Sunday afternoon and the city is shut like a clam -in solid, old French fashion. We wonder if anyone will be venturing out for the show. We're pleased to find our hotel is a few minutes walk from the venue: Hotel Le Family (3 rue du Dragon, Place du Marche Couvert; doubles 36E 'basse' season, 40E 'haute'; petit dejeuner -6.50E; 33 (0)5 53578090) in a tiny lane of ancient half-timbered homes. Eccentric as most medieval my room (#6) tucked under the garret, had no windows, but it did have an extra loft-bed with a sky-light above it. Run by a hospitable older couple, I'm sure you can get a nice local meal in the attached 'Restaurant Le Jardin Epicure -but not this time around. Keep it in mind if ever in the city of Cyrano of the super-Gallic nose. That night at 'Rocksane' (14 rue Pozzi, 24100 Bergerac) we draw a good crowd from all across southwest France and singer Amy Rigby, who now lives a few hours away, drops by to say 'hi'. After the show we luck out and enjoy a regional dinner that included a hearty (well, grizzardy, really) -'salade de gesiers' washed down with a variety of Bererac wines. Medium-long drive tomorrow through the steep hills of 'deep France'.
03/08/10: Across the 'massif central'
In the distance to the south we could see a bizarre collection of ancient volcanos, their long-extinct craters highlighted by coats of snow. I could easily imagine them percolating molten rock up through the earth's skin in some long past eon. Then past Clermont-Ferrand, where Pope Urban II called the First Crusade in 1095, and then Thiers, famous for its scissors. Soon we were crossing the extensive suburbs of France's second city -Lyons. Tonight's show, also the suburbs -CCO Villeurbane (39 rue Georges Courteline, 69100 Villeurbanne).
03/09/10: Drive to Marseille: snow...
Two days previously, an unexpected blizzard had blanketed our route as far south as Avignon, causing major disruptions then, but -now were flying past a dream-like landscape - the snow-covered hillside vineyards of Cotes Du Rhone and white blossom-covered fruit trees stark against the white fields. Then through some tunnels cut through equally white marble mountains and into the middle of scruffy Marseille. Spilling over steep hills and peaks hard against the Mediterranean Sea, Marseille is one of France's most colorful cities, in many ways because it is the least 'French' by way of mass immigration from North Africa. Anyway, it's has always been a portal to the east, or more accurately an outpost of it, since it was established by the Phoenicians at the dawn of recorded history. Our hotel is right in town -good, another 'outpost' -this time the local Hotel Gens De La Mer (www.gensdelamer.fr), catering as the name implies, to a sea-going clientele. Unlike most of Marseille, it's orderly and tidy, making it a good retreat from the sometimes overwhelming local 'color'. The Gens De La Mer has a 'Seaman's Club' as well as a few other pleasant maritime flourishes (the breakfast buffet is set up in a large model 'dory'). From here, the friendly girl at the desk says it's only a 15 minute walk to Marseilles 'Vieux Port' -the very definition of 'picturesque'. Sailboats, yachts and fishing craft bob at anchor, while a quayside table is the perfect place to at least pretend to enjoy the local obsession -pastis. You can forget the over-priced bouillabaisse (or not), but on the walk back to the hotel stop at one of the stands where they'll cut you some pizza with huge scissors and douse it with red pepper-infused oil if you wish -excellent. I have time for none of any of this, but it's nice to know it's out there. Most of our time would be spent at the venue 'Le Cabaret Aléatoire (Friche la Belle de Mai 4 rue Jobin, 13003 Marseille; http://www.cabaret-aleatoire.com/cabaret/) lost inside a cavernous former industrial complex of some sort. I have no idea what was once made there, but it must have been big. On the grounds there was one of those skate-board ramps under a big electric sign that read 'Skateboarding Is Not A Crime!' -in English. Well, if someone IS going to arrest them, at least they'll know where to find them. After a lengthly and perhaps pointless sound-check, we trudge up to the second level where there was a very student-y restaurant/cafe in a huge hall. A mass meeting was going on, with several speakers fielding questions about the city's role as Cultural Capital of Europe, I believe for 2013. It was all civil and intellectual enough, but I was waiting for the inevitable disruptive attendee to let loose. I didn't have to wait long. One guy launched a fusillade of heated questions that quickly intensified into accusatory shouts. The speaker politely fended off his taunts until the guy had to be hauled off screaming "jamais! jamais! jamais!" Now I was starting to enjoy the place. The disruptive inquisitor spent the rest of the evening cheerfully drinking wine on the huge concrete terrace. It was all so satisfyingly French. Even more than our meal, except for the tapenade that came with the bread -a nice provençal touch.
Catching up on a national obsession: Johnny Hallyday's life has completely changed since the coma.
03/10/10: Dijon, marvelous seat of the dukes of Burgundy. Oddly enough, one city where in all our years in France, that we have never played. Consult 'Lonely Planet France' for all the fabulous medieval stuff we have no time to see. Forget it, the Burgundians instigated the burning of Joan of Arc so I'm leaving.
Tomorrow: Reims, city of Kings and Champagne!
Morning 03/11/10: Wake up to find Dijon covered in snow. I didn't mean to give such short-shift to Dijon -the show at 'La Vapeur' (42 avenue de Stalingrad, 21000 Dijon) was really a blast. And I got over the Joan of Arc thing long ago, although I was mightily pissed off about it when I was a kid. We just didn't see anything in Dijon, and there's lots. Mostly we're doing a lot of coming and going. My lapses of sleep are shattered by flashes of dreams, some of them quite funny, like me having a very cagey conversation with Kevin Connolly of HBO's 'Entourage' , about what he could do to help The Fleshtones, both of us knowing all the while that he's an actor who just plays a manager. Some certainly not all that funny at all -like biding my time below deck in one of the stricken ships at Pearl Harbor while it floods with water (hmm, could it have been playing with The Detroit 7 in La Rochelle? -no, that's too obvious). Some dreams are mournful little dramas-laden with painfully clumsy and obvious symbolism-
My family and I are on the banks of the Hudson at Tappan Zee, only it's so wide we can't see the other side. I doubt if he wants it any more, so I carelessly ride my son's tricycle to where it gets stuck in the mud flats. Someone calls attention to the pet crab (with an oddly familiar name) that seems to live on a large, rough stone pedestal between the water and the open french doors of the grand house, but it scuttles down the back of the stone. What kind of a pet can a crab make anyhow? I suddenly realize the tricycle is being tossed into the back of a tow-truck. I go running after the truck, screaming for them too stop, but they're too far ahead of me and they drive off into the endless streets of Chicago. I'll have to track them down somehow, but the students are hardly interested. They're guiding me through their exhibit of model 'assisted' living' solutions -sort of like those mazes of mock bedroom and living-room set-ups they used to have in big department stores -only stark and painted with these bold black and white patterns. They're even got a few real 'social work' case-subjects sitting around 'in situ' to demo how the living would be done. They want me to stay for this evening's reception, but I've got to get out and find my wife and child somehow...
Armchair analysts have fun, but stuff like that makes waking up a pleasure, even if soaked in one's own sweat.
Reims catches a lot of flak in France, especially from 'rockers'. It's considered snooty and bourgeois, perhaps epitomized by its delicate specialties like 'bisquits rose' from the matronly Fossier cookie shop and of course -its champagne. In other words, it's a pretty neat place. Apparently it was pretty swank in ancient times as well, the Romans left a triumphal arch, now much eroded, here as a mark of their regard. Our accommodations, the 'Grand' Hotel du Nord (•• doubles. from 65E, low season; 71E high, 33 (0) 3 26493903) is right on a main pedestrian-only thoroughfare leading to a column topped with a graceful golden angel (look for the carvings of grapevines that circle the column) and only about a 10 minute walk to the cathedral. Although now strictly two star, it does recall a hard to define past age of mock-elegance with touches like rooms with padded doors. When were padded doors elegant anyway? ('elegant' is a word seldom used in connection with Maspeth, but we had a swinging door between our kitchen and living room that was padded in cordovan naugahyde when I was very little. That would have been in the mid-50's). There's a (mass market) bottler of champagne -Castelnau, right outside our dressing room window at La Cartonnerie (84 rue du Docteur Lemoine, 51100 Reims), with the gray bulk of the cathedral in the distance. The room itself is decked out with silver-leafed chairs and sofas, a flourish of faux-elegance that would have met the approval of Napoleon III himself. I didn't want to rattle on too much about back-stage catering in France, but it is such an outstanding feature of touring in this country. In fact, when a 'Fleshtones' line of high-quality French sunglasses were launched a few years back, one of the four styles available was called 'catering', the word coming to include the back-stage scene as well as food. So here goes: Grand vin de Bordeaux 'Clos l'Hermitage LaLande de Pomerol' 2004 (substantial); a buffet froid of roasted chicken 'drumettes', 'russian' and noodle salads swimming in mayonnaise, carrottes rappée, julienne celeriac, cole slaw, mesclun with vinaigrette, cornichons, olives; a cheese plate of brie, emmenthal, chevre and (ask cheese fanatic Keith the name of that other cheese.....); charcuterie including chorizo, jambon sec, jambon bayonne, sauissison sec, sopressato, saussison d'ail; various 'individual servings' of puddings and yogurts; a fruit bowl with kiwis, bananas, apples and four kinds of pears; baguettes, rolls and crackers, candies and chocolate bars -and a bowl of popcorn. That was just for the 'load-in''. later that night their were additions of hot dishes like salmon lasagna al forno, shrimp, ratatouille, rotini, potato and courgette au gratin, tomato farci, steak au poive and a freshly baked gateau au noix.
Actually, I dislike eating before a show. Reims native and friend Jean-Marc Rimette's band The Volfonis opened the show. Keith and I joined them for an encore -a rendition of The Easy Beat's 'Women' by way of The Plimsouls. Reims lives up to expectations, and the night is toasted with champagne (Honoré LeBlanc 'Premiér Cru Brut', Tauxieres) after the show.
03/12/10: I took a morning walk with Antoine to find the house where he spent the first year of his life, then a very quick look at the cathredral where every king of France was crowned until the Revolution. Then a gray, drizzling drive to Calais where I'm sure The English Channel will offer even more leaden gray, only in opaque, liquid form. Hours in a van whizzing by a wealth of sights leaves a lot of time for catching up on reading about something else. I finished Jonathan Letham's 'Motherless Brooklyn' (Vintage Books, 1999). I especially enjoyed the book's Brooklyn settings, although for some reason I didn't realize the writing would be so, well, 'fictional'. More grounded in hard reality, and played out in settings we were now entering was the next book I tackled: Holgar H. Herwig's new tome 'The Marne 1914 (Random House, 2009) on the first battle of that name (the unimaginative concept of the 'sequel' seemed to have been born in World War I, there would be several other equally futile bloodbaths by the same title, with increasing budgets of hundreds of thousands of lives each). Style-wise, it's pretty pedestrian, but the reader can't help but be blasted along by the shear drama of the events it relates -It certainly gave a bit of insight into the true value of the real estate we were traversing so easily. In fact, there goes the real Marne right now, crossed in a matter of seconds. I never did managed to glean much from my Grandfather Peter Zaremba about his, or his brother's, experiences during the Great War, except for him to dismissively say that he '"turned big potatoes into small ones" -a reference to 'KP' duty that was over the head of this eager young listener. I remember asking him if he saw any Austrians there. Now why would he be running into Austrians on the western front unless he managed to get himself mighty lost while concentrating on those potatoes? The questions that enthusiastic kids ask. What ever my grandfather said (or didn't say) -he and his brothers did bring back medals. My other grandfather, who they called Harry, was born right after The Civil War, so he was too old for WWI.
Pulling into Calais, we pass bunch of re-enforced concrete bunkers, German contributions to the town's architectural diversity, then a wall painted with a fading 'Dubonnet' sign -the only one we've seen on the whole trip. Soon this one will probably be gone as well. This aperitif (as well as the entire concept of one) used to be pretty ubiquitous stuff, even in 'The States'. I remember the radio ads with the very French voice intoning : "du, du bonne, Dubonnet..." but then again I remember radio jingles for stuff like 'Rose-X' and that it 'germ-proofed'.
After centuries of being on the way to someplace else, Calais immediately gives you the feeling that it's the sort of place where no one stays, useless your car has broken down, or you missed the ferry -or you happen to be playing that night at the 'Centre Cultural Gérard Philipe'. In keeping with Calais raison d'etre as object of, or staging point, of invasions, a contingent of English friends were popping over for the show, like Steve Coleman, who handles our 'Fleshtones Hall Of Fame' website -a lonely calling for an Englishman -you'd think he' d be a lighthouse keeper if they were still such a position. Like every night so far on the tour, everyone seemed to have a great time, even if the atmosphere was a bit strange - the security being rather heavy-handed for your typical Bellrays-Fleshtones crowd. But I guess they know what they're usually dealing with or they wouldn't go through the expense of hiring guys with attack-dogs -unless they thought they'd be needed to deal with guys like Jean-Marc Rimette (who decided to drive up from Reims for the show) or unassuming Englishmen like Steve Coleman.
Lisa was delighted that we were staying at a 'Campanile' -an affordable chain of motels with just enough French touches to remind you where you are (doubles from 69E; www.campanile.com). Actually, after a week of constant on the go, sometimes you can do without the 'charm'. You just need a warm, hypo-allergenic place to fall asleep for a few hours. Those hours just having been slept, I'm having my 'petit déjeuner' -crepes with jam and 'frommage blanc' with honey -a few of those French touches I mentioned. There's an aggressively up-beat DJ on the radio, then traffic reports, not quite the French 'morning zoo'. Soon we'll pile back into the van for the drive to posh St. Germain en Laye -almost Paris -for the last French show of the tour. Keith and I will join The Bellrays on a version of 'I Don't Need On Doctor' a la Humble Pie that they've worked up for tonight. And we've got a surprise for Antoine. On stage we will present (and embarrass him) with an official 'Johnny Hallyday' cigarette case. The audience will probably hate it. Our French friends just can't get enough distance from Johnny to enjoy him. Outside the window the sun is struggling to break though.
la boite a cigarettes de 'Johnny' -official
next: The tour continues -Ghent, Hamburg and Eindhoven.