The World Without Me

This piece appeared in Necessary Fiction on 15 January 2014:
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The World Without Me

He dives out of the water on to a lilo: finds himself mounting Mrs Robinson. Her eyes are closed. Her lips ajar. In this shot, Mrs Robinson reminds me of a pietà. Benjamin reminds me of an airborne penguin, exiting the ocean, and landing on its breast. Her breasts, in this instance, as well as his. His on hers — missionary position. Just before, Benjamin is seen doing the breaststroke underwater; swimming for dear life towards the safety of the lilo, as though pursued by some phantom shark (the lilo, of course, is the shark). Although the soundtrack is Simon & Garfunkel’s wistful “April Come She Will,” a post-1975 spectator cannot but hear the ominous two-note theme from Jaws underneath. It grows louder in the mind’s ear, rising to the surface with all the inevitability of tragedy. Benjamin falls as much as he leaps; flops down on his lilo-lady like one who has just been shot, or struck by lightning. Baudelaire likens the swain panting over his sweetheart to a dying man lovingly caressing his own gravestone — a couplet from “Hymn to Beauty” that is slightly misquoted in Truffaut’s Jules and Jim. Mrs Robinson is indeed the airbag that causes the crash; the womtomb on which Benjamin (like that other Robinson) is marooned. The couple’s loveless affair is an accident that has been waiting to happen ever since Elaine — Mrs Robinson’s daughter, with whom Benjamin is destined to elope — was conceived in the back of a Ford. A Ford featured in J. G. Ballard’s Crashed Cars exhibition, held in a London gallery three years before the publication of his famous novel (Crash, 1973). The future sprouts fin tales. In the beginning, of course, was Marinetti’s car crash: “We thought it was dead, my good shark, but I woke it with a single caress of its powerful back, and it was revived running as fast as it could on its fins” (“The Futurist Manifesto,” 1909). Here, one thinks of Warhol’s series of silkscreened car crashes, Mrs Robinson having abandoned her arts degree due to her pregnancy.

Soon Benjamin will need to escape, choose some course of action. He is on a collision course with Elaine, the accident that has already happened. In the meantime, he is a castaway adrift upon shimmering amniotic fluid. A young man without qualities, in trunks and sunglasses, cradling a can of beer on his belly — Bartleby Californian-stylee. I like him best when he just goes with the flow; that is, when he goes nowhere. The camera lingers longingly on the texture of the ripples. Sunny constellations twinkle on the celestial water’s surface. Benjamin, recumbent on his lilo, fades out as the ever-morphing abstract of light reflections fades in.

The foregrounding of the background — putting the setting centre stage — is perhaps what cinema does best. In a movie, the world simply is whatever meaning the director attempts to project upon it. Neither meaningful nor meaningless, it is there and there it is. End of story. Reality reimposes itself, in all its awesome weirdness, through its sheer presence, or at least the ghost of its presence. Alain Robbe-Grillet (a filmmaker as well as a nouveau romancier) highlights the way in which cinema unwittingly subverts the narcotic of narrative; the auteur’s reassuring reordering of chaos:

In the initial [traditional] novel, the objects and gestures forming the very fabric of the plot disappeared completely, leaving behind only their signification: the empty chair became only absence or expectation, the hand placed on the shoulder became a sign of friendliness, the bars on the window became only the impossibility of leaving. …But in the cinema, one sees the chair, the movement of the hand, the shape of the bars. What they signify remains obvious, but instead of monopolizing our attention, it becomes something added, even something in excess, because what affects us, what persists in our memory, what appears as essential and irreducible to vague intellectual concepts are the gestures themselves, the objects, the movements, and the outlines, to which the image has suddenly (and unintentionally) restored their reality.

I want to write like Benjamin Braddock, from air mattress to pneumatic bliss in one impossible match on action.

Here is a passage from “Celesteville’s Burning” where I fail to do so:

When the ink ran out of her biro, Zanzibar produced a pencil from his inside pocket with a little flourish. ‘Men,’ he said, ‘alwez ave two penceuls.’ He almost winked, but thought better of it. ‘Women,’ she said a little later, sitting on his face, wearing nothing but her high-heeled boots, ‘always have two pairs of lips.’ She almost added Try these on for size, big boy, but thought better of it too.

I want to write like Benjamin Braddock, my words shipwrecked on the body they have been lured to. Eyes closed; lips ajar.

In an older short story — “Sweet Fanny Adams” — the protagonist happens upon a young woman in a railway station, and senses, instantly, that he has found his sense of loss:

Although he had never actually seen her before, he recognised her at once, and once he had recognised her, he realised he would never see her again. After all, not being there was what she was all about; it was the essence of her being, her being Fanny Adams and all that.
As he walked towards the bench where she was sitting pretty, Adam missed her already. Missed her bad.
‘How do you do?’
‘How do I do what? The imperfect stranger looked up from her slim, calf-bound volume and flashed him a baking-soda smile, all cocky like.

When my father took me to see The Graduate in the mid-70s, I was seized by a strange nostalgia for a homeland I had never known. In this sun-dappled “status symbol land” where charcoal is “burning everywhere” — as The Monkees sang on “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” released in 1967, the same year as the movie — I recognised my own sense of loss. The prelapsarian beach scenes in Jaws put me in similarly melancholy mood: all those healthy, happy families, and their dogs, enjoying spring break without (Roy Scheider excepted) a care in the world. Of course, a great white was about to blacken the mood somewhat, but I would experience this attack as the reenactment of an earlier trauma. The shark had already got me. Perhaps the shark has got us all, always-already.

A bespectacled woman wearing a hideous floral swimsuit and a floppy yellow hat detaches herself from the crowd massed at the edge of the sea. Like a Benjamin Britten character, she ventures into the water, calls out her son’s name, catches sight of his shredded lilo floating in a pale pool of blood. Her hat is a brighter shade of yellow than the lilo.

I reference this scene, albeit obliquely, in “Fifty Shades of Grey Matter”:

Valentin was lurking at the far end of the grand ballroom. He tried to picture himself à rebours, as though he were another, but failed to make the imaginative leap. A blinding flash of bald patch — the kind he occasionally glimpsed on surveillance monitors — was all he could conjure up: Friedrich’s Wanderer with rampant alopecia. He squinted at the polished floorboards, and slowly looked up as the world unfolded, leaving him behind. He was James Stewart in Vertigo; Roy Scheider in Jaws. He was the threshold he could never cross. At the far end of the grand ballroom Valentin was lurking.

Watching the world go by from a pavement cafe is a highly civilised activity, one we should all indulge in more often, I think. Its main drawback, however, is that we cannot abstract ourselves from the world we are observing. Like Valentin, we are the threshold we can never cross. There is a strand within modern literature that yearns for an experience of reality that would be untainted by human thought, language, and subjectivity. My hunch is that movies get closest to achieving this. As Stanley Cavell argues in The World Viewed, cinema provides access to a “world complete without me”:

A world complete without me which is present to me is the world of my immortality. This is an importance of film — and a danger. It takes my life as my haunting of the world.

Marcello Mastroianni always struck me as a character in search of a movie he had stumbled out of by accident. We used to live on the same street, Marcello and I, and we both frequented the same cafe. It was called Le Mandarin in those days; now Le Mondrian. We were both creatures of habit, always sitting in the exact same spot. We never spoke, not in so many words, but he often silently acknowledged my presence, gratifying me with a glance or a half-smile as he walked past my table. After all, we were often the only customers there. No sooner had the venerable actor been served than a strange performance, straight out of commedia dell’arte, would begin. One of the waiters stood at the entrance, on the lookout for Mastroianni’s partner, film director Anna Maria Tatò. When she finally loomed into view — often accompanied by a retinue of well-heeled Italian friends — the waiter gave a discreet signal to his colleagues, who would whisk away the actor’s glass and ashtray. Another waiter would spray a few squirts of air freshener to ensure that Marcello’s missus did not suspect that he was still a heavy smoker, while yet another produced a fresh cup of coffee to ensure that she did not suspect he was still a heavy drinker. One of Mastroianni’s friends once applauded the garçons’ performance, shouting “Bravo! Bravo!” (in Italian) just as Mrs Tatò walked in, right on cue.

Simon de La Brosse was working as a waiter in Montmartre, when he was discovered by Eric Rohmer, who cast him in Pauline at the Beach (1983). I knew him a little. We attended the same school for a couple of years; lived in the same neighbourhood. It was shortly after he had told me about Rohmer that I noticed how all the girls watched him longingly that time he played volleyball at school. It could have been basketball, come to think of it now, but I am fairly sure that he was sporting similar shorts to those he would wear in Pauline — blue with white stripes down the side. Only they may have been red or orange, and unstriped. Definitely unstriped. He went on to become one of French cinema’s rising hearthrobs in the 80s and early 90s, playing, for instance, alongside Charlotte Gainsbourg in The Little Thief, or Sandrine Bonnaire in The Innocents. Although he was cast in major films by the likes of André Téchiné and Olivier Assayas, it is difficult not to reinterpret Simon’s career in light of how it ended. Here are three examples:

1. In Garçon!, starring Yves Montand, Simon plays the part of a waiter in a brasserie, as though he were doomed to return to his day job. He is frequently on screen, but those appearances are so brief that he is gone by the time you recognise him. To add insult to injury, he does not utter a single word throughout.

2. Simon was given a few lines in Betty Blue. They were not very good ones, however, and the entire scene was cut from the film when it was released in 1986 (although it was reinstated in the 1991 version).

3. One of my favourite clips of Simon is a silent screen test shot at the Cannes Film Festival. The fact that we even know at what time of day filming took place (11.45 am on 16 May 1986) is particularly poignant. Here he makes the most of his theatrical training and miming talents, as well as his immense charm. He reminds me of a matinee idol, or a dashing early-20th century aviator; perhaps one who soared too high, ending up in another dimension. Simon seems to be talking to us from behind a thick glass partition, which renders his words inaudible. His career nose-dived in the 1990s. In 1998 he took his life somewhere else. Sometimes, I fancy I can almost hear him on the other side of the pane.

What seems natural in a movie is precisely what does not come naturally in real life. The on-screen character is usually pure being: she seems to coincide perfectly with herself. The experience of being an off-screen human being, however, is essentially one of non-coincidence. As Giorgio Agamben puts it, “The human being is the being that is lacking to itself and that consists solely in this lack and in the errancy it opens”. You walk out of a western feeling like a cowboy, but the swagger soon wears off, and self-consciousness returns. This self-consciousness is the consciousness of the “gap between me and myself” Fernando Pessoa speaks about. I suspect Simon de La Brosse struggled with the paradox, shared by many actors, of only feeling truly alive when he was not playing his own part. Tom McCarthy reflects upon all this in his first novel, Remainder:

The other thing that struck me as we watched the film was how perfect De Niro was. Every move he made, each gesture was perfect, seamless. Whether it was lighting up a cigarette or opening a fridge door or just walking down the street: he seemed to execute the action perfectly, to live it, to merge with it until he was it and it was him and there was nothing in between.

In real life you can only find yourself by losing yourself, and there is no happy end. This may be what Simon is mouthing through the pane.

At one point in Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, the narrator confesses, “I felt like a character in The Passenger, a movie I had never seen”. Well, I frequently feel like a character in Mauvais Sang, a movie I have never seen (although that did not prevent me from mentioning it in one of my stories). In 1986, when Leos Carax’s film came out, there was a massive student strike in France. We occupied the Sorbonne for the first (and last) time since May 1968, and almost brought the right-wing government to its knees. I remember a couple of girls playing “White Riot” on a little cassette recorder during the occupation, and thinking that this moment was The Clash’s raison d’être. Joe Strummer would have been so proud of us. The voltigeurs — a police motorcycle unit created in the wake of the 1968 student uprising — was deployed in order to transform a peaceful movement (that was largely supported by the general public) into a violent one, thus triggering a cycle of disorder and repression. Behind the driver sat a truncheon-toting thug whose mission was to hit anything that moved. On one occasion, I looked on in disbelief as they beat up a couple of harmless old-age pensioners who were probably walking home after a night out at the pictures.

On another, I narrowly escaped the voltigeurs by hiding under a roadworks hut. When I got home, in the wee hours, I switched on the radio and learned that a fellow student had been killed only a cobblestone’s throw from my hideout. Some of the screams I had heard may have been his. After the strike, a group of us launched a student magazine called Le Temps révolu. We chose the title by opening Zarathustra at random until we found something we liked the sound of. Editorial meetings were held at a Greek student’s flat. He was called Costas, and had fled his homeland in order to escape military service. According to rumours, he had been a kind of Cohn-Bendit figure back in Greece. All in all, we produced two issues, which we sold half-heartedly outside our university. In the first one — by far the best — a girl called Myriam had written an intriguing review of Mauvais Sang — a film which, for me, came to embody the spirit of 86, despite having never seen it. Or perhaps it was for that very reason. Myriam (if that is indeed her name) was one of at least two girlfriends Costas was sleeping with, although not (as far as I know) simultaneously. I have absolutely no idea what the other one was called, but I can vaguely conjure up her tomboyish features. The last time I bumped into Myriam and Costas, they were scrutinising pictures from Down By Law and Stranger Than Paradise outside an arthouse cinema — possibly the same one those pensioners had left before being assaulted by the police. Costas: if you are reading this, I still have your copy of Bourdieu’s Distinction that you lent me almost three decades ago.

I cannot say when I first visited New York. I can only say, for sure, when I visited it again. Again for the first time. That was in August 1981. My immediate impression was akin to the one I had had while watching The Graduate or Jaws: a sense of a homecoming to a place that was alien to me. On every street corner, a feeling of déjà vu. Travelling to this Unreal City from Europe felt like travelling forward into the future (TV on tap! Bars and restaurants open all night!) but also backward into one’s past. We were the first generation to have been brought up in front of the television, suckled on American movies and series. I grimaced at Peter Falk when I spotted him in a Greenwich Village restaurant — to keep up the punk front — but deep down I was very impressed indeed. Initially, we followed the tourist trail, always on the lookout for signs of local punk activity. We caught The Stimulators playing at CBGB’s after seeing an ad in a copy of The Village Voice we read on the ferry back from Liberty Island. Their drummer — a very intense little skinhead called Harley Flanagan, who could not have been older than 14 — filled us in on the New York scene, and gave us a few tips as to where to go, over a game of pinball. If Benjamin and Elaine in The Graduate had produced a son straight away, I reckon he would have looked a lot like this diminutive skinhead. He would have attended boisterous gigs by the Circle Jerks (a Californian band I discovered on that New York trip) where I picture him moshing to “Beverley Hills”:

Beverly Hills, Century city
Everything’s so nice and pretty
All the people look the same
Don’t they know they’re so damn lame.

There is a striking blankness, a radical affectlessness to Benjamin and Mrs Robinson’s demeanour and character; a vacancy to their mating rituals, that hark back to existentialism but point to punk. Even when Benjamin claims to be “taking it easy,” there is an angst-ridden edginess — a white suburban nihilism — to his professed aloofness. The early street and drive-in scenes may be teeming with strategically-placed beatnik hipsters; the attitude, however (in the first part of the movie at least), is pure punk.

Back in New York, we were soon immersed in the burgeoning hardcore scene — slam dancing, the A7 club in the East Village, hanging out with H.R. from the Bad Brains — which embraced us on account of our quaint London accents, as well as our look which pretty much outpunked anyone else in town at the time.

We had decided to leave our cameras at home in order to experience the city fully — to merge with it rather than remain on the outside looking in (or up at the skyscrapers). As a result, we have no record of all the adventures we lived through, all the wonderful characters we met, and our increasingly hazy memories are constantly being rewritten. Paradoxically, there must be dozens of pictures of us knocking about as people kept taking our picture on the street. At first we kept count, but within a few days we were already in the hundreds, so gave up.

It is difficult to express how thrilled I was whenever I discovered an outdoor basketball court that seemed to have come straight out of West Side Story. The more it resembled a film set, the more realistic it felt. A year earlier, I had gone to see that movie almost ten times in the space of a few weeks. Leaving the cinema was an exile. West Side Story inhabited me, and New York felt like I had moved in at last.

We cried on the day we had to go back, and resolved to return soon; for good this time. The plan was to sell hot dogs and be free. Life, however, got in the way.

The second time I visited New York was in 1999. It no longer felt like travelling into the future, and I was unable to find my way back to the past.

I once was an extra in an episode of a French TV series starring a bunch of ropey old luvvies. This must have been around 1982. They were shooting a scene that was supposed to take place in a punk club, so they rounded up a few local punks at the Bains Douches to make it look authentic. All we were meant to do was sit, hang, or dance around. And act punk. I mainly sat, when I was not skulking in some dark (dank?) corner. For some reason, the producers had also hired a handful of young actors dressed in what they believed to be punk attire. In reality, they resembled tabloid caricatures of what some part-time punks may have vaguely looked like down at The Roxy a good five years earlier. By 1982, it was all studded leather jackets and outsize multicoloured mohicans. Nina Childress and Helno, who were both members of Lucrate Milk, really stood out. Nina is now a painter. Helno, who went on to find fame with Les Négresses Vertes, is now a corpse.

The atmosphere soon became so tense that the production team almost called it a day. Each time the punked-up extras were called in for a retake, they were ambushed in an increasingly enthusiastic mosh pit. It felt like smashing The Spectacle. In the end, we were paid (200 francs each if memory serves) and asked to leave. We could not, though, because a gang of skinheads was waiting for us outside. They wanted to smash The Spectacle too, and we were it. I caught the episode, by chance, when it was broadcast a few months later. I believe you can spot my bleached spiky hair on occasion, but overall I had done a pretty good job of remaining invisible.

Someone should compile all the exterior scenes in movies where a “real” passerby turns round to look at the camera, thus shattering the illusion of authenticity. In “The Sign of Three,” which was on television last week, there is a brief sequence during which Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson (Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman) cross the bridge over the lake in St James’s Park. On the left-hand side, a redhead in a skirt suit can be seen walking away from them; from us. She holds a Burberry-style raincoat in one arm, a briefcase in the other, and embodies everything that can never be put into words. I defy anyone — irrespective of gender or sexual preference — to watch this extract without zeroing on her. Naturally, I assumed that she was an extra with a walk-on, or rather walk-away, part, but on second viewing I noticed that she turns round when the camera is sufficiently remote. As she does so, she is subtly pixelated, so that she remains anonymous, and therefore part of the background, the tapestry of London commuter life. What is the status of this lady who is the secret subject of this segment? What is the status of all those passersby who do not pass by as they should? And what is the status of all those who do act as they are expected to — as though a film were not in the process of being shot? “I’m living in this movie, but it doesn’t move me,” as Howard Devoto sang in a Mickey Mouse voice on Buzzcocks’ “Boredom”. Are such unwitting extras — the anonymous people you cannot look up on Wikipedia — truly part of the work (cinema’s effet de réel), or are they merely interlopers? My contention is that they are the element of chance Marcel Duchamp invited into his work, but which only ever turned up unbidden (when the two panels of The Large Glass were accidentally, but artfully, shattered, for instance).

One of the iconic scenes in Lewis Gilbert’s Alfie (1966) sees Gilda (Julia Foster) running through a market and a side-street strewn with urchins. Its sleek lightness of touch vaguely recalls the Nouvelle Vague, but this sentimental working-class tableau is too reminiscent of cinéma vérité to be truly spontaneous. The children, who may well have lived in the Victorian houses that line the street, have clearly been strategically placed; their games choreographed. Just before, as Gilda catches a double decker en route to Alfie’s, three schoolkids can be spotted through the window walking towards a bus stop. They have nothing to do with the film, but are still part of it. Its living part perhaps. Whenever I watch that brief clip, there they are, back in 1966, walking to the bus stop after school. For ever going home.

[This essay was commissioned by Nicholas Rombes, who was Writer in Residence at Necessary Fiction in December 2013-January 2014. It was part of a series of fiction and non-fiction pieces on the theme of “movie writing”.]

The Young Parisians

This appeared in the summer 2010 issue of Nude Magazine (issue 16, pp. 40-43):

The Young Parisians

Why don’t you come to Paris with me?
And see the young Parisians’
– “Young Parisians” by Adam and the Ants

‘There’s something very un-British about electronic music,’ says Daniel Miller — founder of Mute Records — in BBC Four’s excellent Synth Britannia documentary. By ‘very un-British’ he means très European — German, of course, but also French. Lest we forget, musique concrète composers like Pierre Schaeffer began their sonic experiments before Stockhausen. Most Continentals in the late 70s were first introduced to synthesizers via Jean-Michel Jarre not Kraftwerk. Métal Urbain — France’s answer to the Sex Pistols — produced their scuzzy rabble-rousing pogobeat on custom-made imitation Moogs at a time when electronic instruments were still usually associated with prog rock dinosaurs. The strong French presence on Angular Records’ recent Cold Waves and Minimal Electronics compilation was generally met with dismay by British music journalists who were blissfully unaware of the existence of a thriving post-punk scene across the Channel (Indochine, a synthpop outfit in the Depeche mode, even became France’s biggest band at one point). Whereas Gallic guitar combos have always been viewed — rightly or wrongly — as derivative vis-à-vis their Anglo-American counterparts, the synth-driven ‘French Touch’ sound was successfully exported ‘around the world’ at the turn of the century. The missing link between the early 80s and late 90s was Denis Quillard, better known as Jacno, who died in November last year at the age of 52 having cemented his country’s love affair with electronic minimalism.

There are times when the past, present and future seem to collide, and one such occasion occured on 9 February 1977 when Jacno’s band, the Stinky Toys, were invited to a music press junket aboard the eponymous Trans Europe Express coinciding with the release of Kraftwerk’s album. Having a reputation to maintain as the enfants terribles of the local punk scene, the Toys went off the rails, much to the amusement of their more sedate German hosts. Legend has it that singer Elli Medeiros was sick all over the boss of EMI France, who subsequently refused to sign the band to his label and even tried to get them blacklisted. Jacno, however, had caught a glimpse of his musical future. As fate would have it, the train was bound for the Champagne region where he was buried some thirty years later in the vicinity of his family’s impressive country pile.

With his angelic features and slicked-back hair, the young Jacno bore a striking resemblance to David Bowie circa 1976. Throughout his short life he felt like a man who had fallen to earth, often describing himself as a ‘Martian’. Significantly, one of his more recent solo efforts was entitled ‘Je viens d’ailleurs’: ‘I Come From Elsewhere’. There was something of the Byronic noble bandit about him, which — along with a deep-rooted anglophobia — was in fact very much part of his vieille France DNA. The Stinky Toys’ tipple of choice was famously one of the cheapest brands of lager on the French market (Valstar), but Jacno soon reverted to type after the band broke up, making a point of only ever getting rat-arsed on the finest of vintages. In the early days, he always sported a fleur-de-lis on the lapel of his leather jacket — a symbol of the French monarchy frequently associated with the far right. This gesture was interpreted at the time as a typically punk shock tactic, but it was really Jacno’s private homage to his eccentric royalist grandfather from whom he inherited an aristocratic disdain for work and a militant nonconformism which set him aside from the herd mentality of a movement he never really belonged to. His ancestry also included several artists whose works are exhibited in the Louvre as well as one of the four generals who organised the failed Algiers putsch of 1961 designed to overthrow President de Gaulle. When his record company refused to bring out his first solo record or release him from his contract, Jacno sent the CEO a picture of old Uncle Zeller with a caption warning him that his factory was going to be blown up. Job done.

This quintessentially Gallic mixture of rebellion and tradition explains why Jacno is so often lost in translation. He belongs to a long line of elegantly wasted rock dandies that includes the likes of Serge Gainsbourg, Jacques Dutronc, Yves Adrien, Alain Pacadis, Patrick Eudeline and Daniel Darc (a book of interviews, published in 2006, was aptly entitled Itinerary of a Pop Dandy). Just as Jacno himself embodied early-80s ultra-modernity while whizzing around town on a vintage scooter looking like he had just stepped out of a Nouvelle Vague movie, his post-Stinky Toys compositions managed to capture the zeitgeist while harking back, in a knowing, postmodern way, to the saccharine yéyé pop of the early 60s. The repetitive, almost dirge-like minimalism of ‘Anne cherchait l’amour’ (1979) — with its haunting, bittersweet Françoise Hardy-on-Prozac quality — perfectly illustrates this attempt to have your croissant and eat it. Whether in the past or the future, Jacno, it seems, was always elsewhere.

Along with New York and London, Paris was one of the three great centres of pre-punk activity, and France played an important part in shaping the punk template. Richard Hell’s spiky-haired wasted look was modelled on the fin-de-siècle poètes maudits. The ideological and aesthetic underpinnings of the Sex Pistols project came largely from the (chiefly French) Situationists. When the movement was still anonymous, the late Malcolm McLaren favoured calling it ‘New Wave’ in reference to the cinematic Nouvelle Vague — a monicker which ended up describing punk’s more commercial fellow-travellers. As early as 1972, dandy rock critic Yves ‘Sweet Punk’ Adrien (as he already called himself) penned a proto-punk manifesto which was the journalistic equivalent of Lenny Kaye’s seminal Nuggets compilation, released the same year and available at L’Open Market, Marc Zermati’s legendary record shop where Jacno and all the future Parisian punks used to hang out. Zermati would go on to launch the very first punk label (Skydog Records) and festival (Mont-de-Marsan, 1976). Future Ze Records supremo Michel Esteban and his then partner Lizzy Mercier Descloux (who would also play a pivotal role in New York’s No Wave scene) launched a rival emporium (Harry Cover) within gobbing distance of L’Open Market, thus sealing Les Halles’ reputation as the epicentre of Parisian punk activity. It was there that Malcolm McLaren bumped into the Stinky Toys, was impressed by Elli’s creative use of safety pins, and invited the band to take part in the 100 Club punk festival where their presence gave an international dimension to the nascent movement.

Chain-smoking Jacno — whose soubriquet was a tribute to the designer of the Gauloises cigarettes logo — had met Uruguayan beauty Elli Medeiros during a student demonstration in 1973. With three schoolmates, they formed the Stinky Toys in early 76. The name was a reference to the Dinky Toys Jacno collected (he holds a model car on his first solo record) as well as to the New York Dolls. The 100 Club punk festival, where they played on the Clash’s equipment and were attacked by Sid Vicious, was their first real breakthrough. Elli subsequently made the cover of Melody Maker and record companies started showing interest. After signing to Polydor, they released a single in spring 1977 which received very mixed reviews. Their debut album, recorded in a mere five days in October, sold as many (or rather as few) copies as the Velvet Underground’s, as Jacno liked to point out. The band were dropped by their record company, releasing their second album — a colder, resolutely post-punk affair — on Vogue the following year. Torn between increasingly irreconcilable influences, the Toys disbanded shortly after an Altamont-style gig during which a fan was killed by rampaging Hell’s Angels.

So what had gone wrong with the local punk scene? Pretty much everything. The early bands suffered from the fact that rock’n’roll still wasn’t rooted in French culture. Rehearsal spaces were hard to come by and, apart from Le Gibus (where the Stinky Toys always refused to play), there were precious few gigging opportunities. As a result, the level of musicianship was often appalling, even by punk standards. Meanwhile, the provocative flirtation with Nazi imagery in some quarters didn’t go down well in a country which was still coming to terms with the Occupation. Punk’s anti-hippie stance also appeared a trifle superfluous given the enduring stigma attached to long hair. More crucially, the movement lacked any genuine social resonance. Singing about anarchy in front of a handful of junkies, socialites and fashionistas on loan from the local gay bars was unlikely to threaten the status quo. Essentially, this was a scene in search of an audience.

France’s pre-punk promise was only really fulfilled during the post-punk years. This is when Jacno finally came into his own. He had, of course, already achieved minor cult status as a member of the Stinky Toys. He had been courted by Andy Warhol, who famously painted his portrait on a restaurant tablecloth using a make-up kit, and there were persistent rumours that the French lyrics added to Blondie’s version of ‘Denis’ (Jacno’s real name) were in fact addressed to him. In 1980, he became the figurehead of the Jeunes Gens Modernes (‘Modern Young Things’), a label invented by Actuel magazine to refer to the rather elitist, very fashion-conscious post-punk scene revolving around clubs like Le Rose Bonbon (where Joy Division played). That year, Jacno recorded several electronic instrumentals with titles like ‘Rectangle,’ ‘Triangle’ and ‘Circle’ that seemed to conjure up unfamiliar Structuralist soundscapes. All the major record companies declared that releasing the 12-inch would be commercial suicide, so it eventually came out on a tiny indie label. Contrary to all expectations, the title track (‘Rectangle’) became an overnight success all over Europe, topping the French charts and ending up on a TV commercial for Nesquick. The music provided the soundtrack to Olivier Assayas’s first short film (Copyright) in which Elli Medeiros made her debut performance as an actress. Assayas also shot a video for ‘Rectangle’ which shows Jacno playing against the suitably angular, brutalist background of the La Défense area of Paris. The only track on the record that wasn’t an instrumental — the aforementioned ‘Anne cherchait l’amour’ — was sung by Elli. It marked the beginning of Elli & Jacno who provided a blueprint for countless other synth-based duos like Soft Cell and Yazoo, and sold millions of records until they split up in 1984 having written the soundtrack to Eric Rohmer’s Les Nuits de la pleine lune.

Elli would go on to have a couple of massive solo hits in 86-87 before concentrating on her acting career and family life. She made a musical comeback in 2006. Jacno, meanwhile, released six solo albums and produced work by some of France’s greatest stars like Jacques Higelin or Etienne Daho, an early fan of the Stinky Toys. He will always be remembered, however, as the New Wave Erik Satie whose elegant electronic minuets (as Rohmer once described them) seemed to capture the essence of our adolescence. ‘True life,’ as Rimbaud once put it, ‘is elsewhere.’ That is, as ever, where Jacno is to be found.

****

Ten of the best first wave punk bands from over the Channel

Métal Urbain
Think Sex Pistols crossed with Suicide or Throbbing Gristle — or both. Hardcore political lyrics. Their second single was Rough Trade’s first release. Best track: ‘Panik’.

Asphalt Jungle
Fronted by dandy rock critic-cum-novelist Patrick Eudeline. Talked the talk but seldom walked the walk except on their third single, ‘Polly Magoo,’ which sounds like a gang of inebriated football hooligans rutting with Phil Spector. In a good way.

Starshooter
They hailed from Lyon, played a mean live set, had a sense of humour and were solidly working class unlike most of their bourgeois contemporaries. Good mates with the Damned. Listen to: ‘Macho’.

Marie et les Garçons
Also from Lyon. Heavily influenced by the NYC scene at first, then experimented with a disco crossover thang. Second single produced by John Cale. They had a female drummer (the eponymous Marie) who died in the 90s. Top track: ‘Re-Bop’.

Guilty Razors
Famous for singing in pigeon English (‘Provocate,’ ‘I Don’t Wanna Be a Rich’!). Two of their members were of Spanish origin. They were very close to the Slits. Check out: ‘I Don’t Wanna Be a Rich’.

Gazoline
Having been a failed teenybop heartthrob in the 60s, a failed glam rock star in the early 70s and a successful gay cabaret artist, Alain Kan reinvented himself as a punk rocker. His band was named after a group of militant drag queens from the early gay liberation days. Kan disappeared in 1990; no one has seen or heard from him since. Gazoline’s second single is arguably one of the most convincing punk records to ever come out of France. Best track: ‘Radio flic’.

Les Olivensteins
Started later than most of the others and paved the way for the hardcore of the early 80s (Oberkampf, Bérurier Noir et al.). One of their most provocative lyrics described the Vichy regime as the good old days. Their name came from a psychiatrist famous for his anti-drugs crusade. Like Sham 69, they ended up attracting the wrong element and split up. Top track: ‘Fier de ne rien faire’.

1984
On paper, a kind of dystopian Clash but never fulfilled their promise. Listen to: ‘Salted City’.

Les Lou’s
All-girl band managed at one stage by Bernie Rhodes. Highlight: ‘Back on the Street’.

Electric Callas
A flamboyant Bowie/Iggy fanatic from Lyon backed by a dizzying array of line-up changes. Check out: ‘Kill Me Two Times’.

Remembering Jacno: France’s First Punk

This appeared on the Guardian Music Blog on 9 December 2009:

Remembering Jacno: France’s First Punk

The new wave icon, who died last month, founded the Parisian punk scene and pioneered French electropop

“Denis Denis, oh with your eyes so blue/Denis Denis, I’ve got a crush on you.” So sang Debbie Harry on Blondie’s first European hit in 1978. At the time, there were persistent rumours that the Denis in question was none other than Denis Quilliard — better known as Jacno — who died from cancer at the age of 52 last month. After embodying the post-punk years in France, Jacno (his soubriquet, which he acquired as a chain-smoking teenager, was a tribute to the graphic designer who created the iconic Gauloises cigarettes logo) had himself achieved cult status.

Despite being at the heart of the original Parisian punk scene, Jacno hated the herd mentality associated with such movements. One of his more recent songs is called “Je viens d’ailleurs” — “I Come from Elsewhere” — and in his book of interviews, he repeatedly refers to himself as a “martian” (which is quite fitting given his resemblance to Bowie circa The Man Who Fell to Earth).

Jacno met the beautiful Uruguayan Elli Medeiros (now Mme Brian de Palma) during a student demonstration in 1973. They became an item and formed the Stinky Toys (a reference to both Dinky Toys and New York Dolls). Following their first chaotic gig in 1976, the band acquired a reputation for debauched drunkenness that eventually alienated EMI who were about to sign them.

At Malcolm McLaren‘s behest, they played the 100 Club punk festival following which Elli appeared on the cover of Melody Maker. Their eponymous first album sold — as Jacno used to point out — as many copies as the Velvet Underground’s debut. And like the Velvets, their small fanbase included such luminaries as Andy Warhol. When he arrived at Orly airport in the summer of 1977 — having been invited to attend the inauguration of the Pompidou Centre — the Pope of Pop was sporting a conspicuous Jacno badge. Over the following days, Warhol would court the young musician assiduously (albeit unsuccessfully), famously painting his portrait on a restaurant tablecloth using a borrowed make-up kit.

On their second album, the Toys abandoned their original riff-heavy sound and explored colder, quirkier climes. The band disbanded after an Altamont-style gig during which a fan was killed by rampaging Hells Angels. It was time to move on.

In 1980 Jacno became the poster boy for the Jeunes Gens Modernes (“Modern Young Things”), a label coined by a local magazine to describe the resolutely elitist post-punk scene based around Le Rose Bonbon nightclub. He provided the soundtrack to Olivier Assayas‘s first short movie, including an instrumental entitled “Rectangle“, which no record company would release at first, although it ended up being a massive hit throughout Europe. The film also included a bittersweet track sung by Elli that marked the birth of the Elli & Jacno duo which would go on to sell millions of records until the couple split up in 1984.

Jacno also produced albums by some of France’s greatest stars like Jacques Higelin or Etienne Daho, but he will go down in history as a pioneer of electropop who anticipated the late 1990s French Touch. By playing schmaltzy 1960s “yéyé” tunes on Kraftwerk-style synthesisers, Jacno provided a perfect retro-futurist soundtrack to the melancholy innocence of adolescence. Paris will never be quite the same without him.