You’re in Paris for the evening, you want to go out for a night on the town—where do you go?
Like in any big city, the answer to that question says a lot about you. Do you opt for a romantic dinner for two at a little bistro you know on the Rue des Dames? That’s not at all the same as a little bistro in the Ile de la Cité, you know. Or perhaps you head to the Lido, or the Moulin Rouge for a long-feathered, bare-breasted extravaganza, along with all the tourists. Pshaw! Then again, there’s the Crazy Horse for some more serious yet still classy breasts, or the Paradis Latin, or Michou’s on the Rue des Martyrs where if (s)he’s on form, one of the performers may proposition you just for the shock value.
But none of that is for you, n’est-ce pas? You want to hear live music, right? Paris is a great city for jazz, so you go to the Caveau de la Huchette, full of tourists but an historic spot that welcomed the likes of Louis Armstrong when he couldn’t play in white clubs in the States, or you head to the New Morning to hear some hot, modern jazz, or my favorite, Baiser Salé (Salty Kiss! I wish I had come up with that name). Is it rock you want? How about Le Trabendo, La Maroquinerie, L’Internationale, La Fleche d’Or… the list goes on and as it does it goes farther underground.
I confess—I used to be a musician, and I played a number of those places way back when we were trying to sell an album. Since then, I’ve remained involved in the music scene, helping a few indie record labels and their performers as they try to make it, doing some light production in the studio under my house. I thought I pretty much knew the underground Parisian music scene, but then I discovered La Suite.
La Suite isn’t a club, it’s a squat, run by an association that calls itself Les Grooms. A squat is an abandoned building that has been invaded by people who refuse to leave. French law is kind to the dispossessed and it is difficult to remove those who have established residence in a building, even if they have no particular right to be there. Furthermore, the press and the population don’t take kindly to images of police officers forcing poor people out of abandoned buildings into the street. It is therefore something of a French tradition that artists and the generally marginalized sometimes take over uninhabited buildings such as these and turn them into communes of a sort. La Suite is just such a building, housing approximately forty people (I say approximately not only because I was unable to count them, but also because they themselves are unsure of how many people live there on any given day).
Every Thursday night, the commune hosts a… thing. A talent show, I suppose. An open mic night, at least, during which anyone who wants to can sign up and get ten minutes in front of a microphone in the theatre.
The theatre in question is actually the underground parking garage beneath the building. The residents have transformed it into a theatre by laying down some carpet, covering the walls with a mixture of graffiti and posters, stringing some multi-colored lights around, and throwing some cushions and furniture on the floor in front of a makeshift stage (discernible by one big piece of uniformly red carpet). At the door, you are asked to pay whatever you can/want, and once inside you can get beers for one euro as well as a plate of rice with stuff on it. I can’t be more specific, the stuff is unidentifiable. The rice with stuff likewise costs whatever you can pay, which could be nothing if you can’t pay anything. While the rice with stuff is not very good, it is cheap and filling and hot, and hot is very good when you’re there in winter, since there is no heating at all.
I had never heard of this place. It must be said that the musicians I usually deal with, while not really well known, generally have a couple of albums under their belts and they don’t do ten-minute long, unpaid open mic events. I was there to see a new guy, a Young Canadian who showed up recently in Paris and through another musical acquaintance of mine ended up in my studio to cut a demo. “He’s really good,” my musical acquaintance told me. I trusted him, because he’s a musician himself and a very old friend, but I wasn’t overly optimistic. It’s amazing how many people are “really good”… “really good” just doesn’t cut it, or at least, it doesn’t necessarily help. You need luck to do anything in music, and now that nobody wants to pay for music any more; even with luck, a young musician stands virtually no chance of making it before he starves.
But then this Young Canadian showed up at my studio, fished through his pockets to find the lyrics he had written in the train, tuned his guitar, opened his mouth and sang one of the most extraordinary songs I’ve heard in years. Then he sang another. And another. A few days later, I was in an unheated squat eating rice with stuff, waiting for him to go on for ten minutes.
I was far from alone. No one was there to hear the Young Canadian, since he’s completely unknown, but La Suite draws hundreds of people on a Thursday night. It’s a fascinating crowd: a few punks, with mohawks and attitudes, numerous representatives of the “Bobos”, which stands for bohémien-bourgeois—upper middle-class white people who like to consider themselves artistic and who love to be seen in places like this; a lot of poor artists; students; homeless people sitting in the corner eating free rice with stuff, their dogs at their feet; and many people who simply defy description. All kinds of languages went flitting back and forth, quieting down only when it was time for the spectacle to begin.
The stage is simply a bit of red carpet illuminated by a few lights with a couple of speakers on the sides. The evening was hosted by a couple, both warmly dressed, who introduced each of the artists in turn. First up was a young French singer who sang three of his own compositions, very much in the earthy style of the great George Brassens. That was just right for this crowd, and they stomped their feet and whistled. Next was an African juggler who balanced a large crystal ball on his shaved head while juggling three pins. He was followed by an Italian with a guitar whose gyrations and mournful gestures far exceeded his actual musical talent. Next up was a woman with lightning bolts drawn on her face who recited poetry and then sang an a capella ode to the suffering women of the world… and then came the Young Canadian.
I won’t tell you his name. Despite his talent, times are hard in the music world and odds are that he’ll simply flicker and go out with a tiny puff, but on that night, in that cold converted parking garage, with a mixed bag of humanity huffing and stomping and whistling their way through jugglers and crooners and poets, the Young Canadian got up, quietly said hello, fished through his pockets for a pick, and within ten seconds brought that unruly crowd to an awed hush.
You can live in a city for twenty years and still be amazed at what you discover hiding beneath all that light and stone and asphalt. You can become a little cynical, or at least blasé about cities and about music. Luckily, sometimes you can also be surprised.