In Paris, we usually stay at Hotel RASPAIL, on Bd Raspail. It is next door to Restaurant Haute Mer, an excellent seafood place at the corner of Bd Raspail and Bd Montparnasse. It is a thriving area that boasts Le Dome, another seafood place, La Coupole, La Rotonde, etc. We have been staying at Hotel RASPAIL for the past 10 years or so, every December, in the first weekend, when I come for the European Psychiatric Association section of psychopathology conference held at Salpetriere.
The walk form our hotel along Rue Delambre down to Edgar Quinet metro station takes you through an elegant street of Boulangerie, a Boucherie that had quails and Pidgeon on offer this morning, and a restaurant, Auberge Venise, where I once ate on my own, on a cold December evening, a Saturday. Delambre square has a beautiful building by Aziere built in 1907 facing the Delitaly, a delicatessen with the most special Parma sandwich I have yet tasted.
At Edgar Quinet, in December, on Sundays, there’s an artist market selling paintings, sculpture, and bric-à-brac. On Saturdays, it is a vegetable market. It is the kind of place you only come across in Paris, Brussels, or Prague. Artists not artisans selling directly to a market. Paintings ranging from distinctively bright and unsettling paintings to parodies of Gauguin or Picasso! All this is not accidental, but speaks to the character of the area. On Rue Delambre, the Hotel Delambre had Gauguin and Andre Breton stay in the past. Next-door there is another hotel that houses a large Benin piece of Portuguese soldiers, a famous artefact, probably looted by British soldiers in 1898. Then there are the theatres.
This morning we met up with friends at the Restaurant Chez Clement for lunch before catching our train back to London. A quick preliminary coffee at Cafe Select, talking about children and jobs. We have all aged. And all around, ageing couples like us. Some looking young until you looked closely and saw the skin where it was loosing its moorings from the undercoat of connective tissue, just starting to crack and peel off. The bags under the eyes, like Duke Ellington’s, puffy as well as saggy, and bleached paper pallid against the pink of the face. And others, female, blonde or brunette, with short cut hair or long, not trim but fuller figured. The down on the faces slicked in a faint direction like wet porpoises drying in the sun. We are all mirror images of one another. The inevitable slow slide into decay is upon us all, already.
Family life and friendship are made of these spare revelations that leave a snail trail track in the sand: one son who has yet to introduce his family to any partner but is popular. Are these the exchanges that measure out the life? We have come so far, there is so much left to do, but how meagre, how incredibly small have the returns been?
Last night we went to the Lido. Bonheur, a spectacle of dance, song and music interspersed with mime, acrobatics, ice skating and juggling. A great evening out. The women dancers were not exactly identical but close. Lithe, slim, graceful, with pert bottoms and perfect breasts. It was a full house. Only in Paris could the most risqué performance be both stylish and alluring. Eroticism was invented here. It was already after midnight when we swarmed out unto the streets and hurried into the Metro at George V. At our interchange, Chatelet, I counted 7 homeless men pitched for the night on the seats on the platform. It is a sorry state of affairs that there are so many homeless, so many destitute begging for money, so many women with children sitting in sleeping bags ready for a cold night and begging. The odour of urine and animal hide, the stained trousers begrimed with dirt and faeces, these hallmarks of the grossest desolation of spirit if not of material desperation, everywhere, everywhere.
Before the low art of bared skin and naughty movements we had been to the Pompidou Centre to see the exhibition of surrealism. Most unexpected, the objects included Picasso sculptures, Giacometti and Max Ernst. Yes, there were objects by Dali, Man Ray, and also masks from the Pacific. The deliberate breaches of the structures of the familiar, these incursions into the fabric of what we take for granted revealed the prejudices of our ready-made categories. Picasso’ Bull Head made from a bicycle seat and crossbar forced an awareness of the shape and contours of these objects and recalled to mind, forcibly, how a bull’s head is a triumph of design. The concretizations of poetic images made real the metaphorical in language: Braques’ Caress showed a face with a hand indented into its skin! A caress can and does leave burn marks, this is an exhibit by someone who has loved and been loved, and burnt by it.
This year our symposium at Salpetriere was on “the Nature and Narratives of Delusion”. It was full of interesting presentations. Luis Madeira spoke about delusions from a phenomenological point of view in the style of Stanghellini, Parnas and Fuchs. Earlier on Friday, Edward Shorter a historian of medicine from Toronto had spoken in a loud North American voice, weak larynx that wobbled, about the nosology of paranoia. He showed us pictures of psychiatrists working at Heidelberg in early 20th century: Nissl, Jaspers, and others. The meetings at Salpetriere have this historical dimension to them, the extraordinary wealth of thought and intellect in the 19 & early 20th centuries. How pallid our attempts are in comparison to theirs.
Every time I come to the Salpetriere, I am struck by the august names, Charcot, Babinski, De la Tourette, Baillarger, these are names to be conjured with. In 2012, we met at the Salle de Cours Delay, that is Delay of the discovery of chlorpromazine. No less! It makes me feel ordinary, inferior, even. What can one possibly achieve given what has gone before? We are mere footnotes in the pages of history. Have we have become more cowardly, less courageous in the face of what’s unknown? We are so full of trepidation, that we skirt round, avoiding if possible, the big questions. We limit ourselves to parentheses, to uncomplicated and uncultivated patches of earth, for as long as these are hidden in the undergrowth, away from prying eyes, away from the possibility of grand failure.
Where are the giants then? Where the Titans? With the death of God, the mythical driving image of grandeur and possibility also died, tragically. Our iconoclasm is muted, veiled, hidden for fear of rejection. It is always reasonable, always just beyond the evidence, never so novel as to be obvious. Is that a sign of a paltry spirit, an impoverished spirit? Or am I too harsh on my generation?
Photos by Jan Oyebode
Congo Square. Just north of the French Quarter in New Orleans, on the other side of Rampart Street, within the Louis Armstrong Park, in the Trème district, is this sacred space that the American Indians had used for centuries for their religious gatherings but taken over by Africans on Sundays during slavery. It remains hallowed ground. A space where Africans had reimagined Africa, dancing the Bamboulas and singing on Sundays, consecrated for the old gods. You could say that all the music and dances invented in America were born here: Jazz, the Blues and its later derivatives Rock ‘N Rock, Country, Soul, etc. A relief statue by Wale Adenle imagines it as a Yoruba plaza but it is more likely to have been Bakongo, from central Africa, fed and nourished by the great Congo River, the richness of the tropical forest, the abundant energies of Africa. What Conrad construed as the “Heart of Darkness”.
We are spending a week travelling through Louisiana & Tennessee to sample the variety of American music. Last night, at Snug Harbour, Frenchmen Street, New Orleans, we heard Dr Michael White and his band which included Jason Marsalis on drums, Ms Watanabe on piano and Williams on cornet/trumpet. White’s rendition of George Lewis’ Burgundy Street Blues was extraordinary, slow, moving and beautiful. Then his interpretation of Gershwin’s Summertime matched the earlier Lewis. This was New Orleans’ style at its best, taking a song and re-working it, making it something new and fresh, something original yet familiar. Dr White plays jazz clarinet to convert the faithless to prayer.
Ed Wills plays electric blues next door. Between the best jazz and this bittersweet music, you heard everything that could not be uttered in words: the deep seated and strangled potency. When you went outside into the cold evening and saw the hobos sitting by doorways, and you looked into the eyes of black men who studiously avoided yours, you knew what ailed them, what impossible dreams had been battened down and turned into song.
We walked back slowly through the French Quarter and ended up in the last half hour of the Jazz Preservation Hall. Will Smith was the leader and he sang in the Armstrong style, each word clearly enunciated, storytelling in song. New Orleans clings to the early 20th century. Sidney Bechet, George Lewis, Jelly Roll Morton, Chris Bolden, Louis Armstrong. These towering figures whose musical imagination dominated jazz, set down the standards, looking far into the future knowing that their reputations would outlive whatever calumny or contempt they’d borne.
We are staying at the Country Inn & Suites by Carlson on Magazine Street just off Canal Street in the French Quarter. Bourbon Street is just 5 minutes away. I took an ambling walk through Bourbon Street at midday. It was still recovering from the last evening like a perpetual drunk with a hangover, struggling to walk upright. Many bars were cleansing the pavements outside their establishments with spurts of water from hosepipes. There were neon lights up and down the street. At night these lights, alluring and seductive, rendered the street a place of fantasy and illusions.
Down one side the Hustler establishments read “it’s just sex, relax” and then the various bars and Big Daddy’s Sex Acts pushed the limits of what is permissible, what is “Barely Legal”. It was mostly tourists with cameras, groups of young men, couples, some friends and families, stopping by street signs and posing for memorable images of their brush with iniquity. At night, the atmosphere is different, throbbing with energy and desire, lustful desire, and the barely concealed seeking for thrills. But, the music, the jazz or blues floating or bursting out of the bars, is genuine. It is the language that Africa has chosen to speak in the New World. Even when it is full of anguish, when you hear a cry in the throat of the trumpet or saxophone, there is always present the irrepressible and haunting exhilaration of Africa.
Frenchmen Street is at the end of town. What it lacks in the frisson of Bourbon Street it makes up for the in sheer luxury and variety of its music bars. Riches that are incalculable. A tangle of vine and more vine, lianas that smoke-like ascend into the sky, delicate tendrils of pleasure. A delirious and provocative fever without germ, but that proceeds from a clamor in the heart. Delicious. It ends I suppose like an orgasm, ecstatic triumph followed by restful sleep.
Nashville is very different from New Orleans. Think of the old world, narrow streets, wrought iron balustrades, verandas, and the easy life and you have the French quarter. Here in Nashville the Broadway is broad and cuts a swathe heading downtown. And downtown was a collection of run down buildings facing the street. This was “The District”. Nothing picturesque here. The music too lacked the grit in the eye of blues or jazz. Anodyne. And, insular.
We are staying at the Union Station, a glorious building celebrating the railway, now a boutique hotel. The hallway is an outrageous vault of the most exquisite gold. A cathedral of arches, of gold leaf, of copper balustrades, stained glass and mahogany stairway. What’s missing is the organ and the pews. From outside, the station is a German castle in grey stone, turrets and all. You can ignore whatever else I have to say about Nashville, the Union Station makes up for the deficiencies, the absence of old world charm, the importunate and intemperate weather.
We traveled from Nashville to Memphis by greyhound. It was a bitterly cold day. The threat of snow hung in the sky all the way. We stopped for 15 minutes at Jackson Tennessee to drop off some people and pick up others. The terminus had the appearance of a long forgotten place built in the 50s and painted Navy blue, never given another licking of paint, ever. It reminded me of the old Lagos airport, except that was painted a job lot of off white, somewhere between cream and dirty.
At Nashville, the terminus was modern but the clientele were a rare specie composed of young white university types going home for Thanksgiving and black families, obviously travelling as cheaply as possible. One woman dramatizing her predicament: I’ve worked all night and missed the bus and had to pay a penalty of $20. Everyone commiserated with her.
The highlight of the Nashville terminus was the Amish families. Dressed in black, the women with headscarves and bonnet from the Victorian era, black functional boots, no make-up. There were elderly and young women, also children and babies. The men wore black trousers with wide plain fronts, blue waistcoats and blue jackets, rounded at the shoulders. Their beards were long and biblical, elders or judges. One seemed inclined to talk and the others to congregate together. The children did not seem to be drawn to watch the tv monitors. They seemed strangely unfazed by the glaring modernity all about them. But once the bus was on the move, one girl stood up to watch the countryside pass by, entranced by the autumnal colors, the infinite variation of red, yellow, brown, and ochre.
When we arrived in Memphis, we took a taxi to our hotel, Peabody hotel, famous for the display of ducks that came down and back up the lifts twice daily. Checked in and then went straight to BB King’s Blues Club for a lunch of catfish, chicken wings, pickles and French fries. Delicious. We were on Beale Street. Our first night at Beale Street was a revelation. In the evening we started out at Rum Boogie Cafe. Brandon Santini was playing. A maestro of the harmonica. He crouched and whipped out the most astonishing sounds of death and anguish. He blew his guts out, literally. We had never seen a spectacle quite like it. These instruments cried, wailed, moaned, tortured and orgasmic, ecstatic and mournful. We had intended to go from bar to bar but with a performance like this we were glued to our seats. A glass of Shiraz in hand, ears all attentive, the spirit alive to every nuance of the music, we sat upright and astonished in our seats.
A jazz band from Nashville visiting Memphis for the first time played two numbers. The lead man also played the harmonica. A different style altogether. He growled, gruff sounds of the utmost intimacy. He sang and sang, an angel of death and then of hope, redemption and poison laced in his tone. His body contorted and relaxed. I hadn’t realized that the Blues are the epicenter of darkness.
Then an Israeli group played two numbers joined by Santini. The vocalist, a thin, wiry girl with long dark hair, long etiolated arms that she waved and thrashed about in the air, sang in a rough voice. These were the Blues, born in Memphis, distilled by the harshest injustices of slavery and poverty, dipped in blood and then vented slowly, rashly, violently, volcanic and furious in the voice. Always African in elegance and stature.
There’s only so much of this saddest of sounds that you can take in one sitting. We stood up and went back to BB King’s place. The King Beez was playing Soul. A young, dark chocolate, girl and a light skinned woman sang and danced. What is it about sex that speaks through dance? Is it the movement of limbs, graceful and synchronous? Or, is it that the head thrown backwards with abandon suggests an inner uncontrollable thrill that in spasms pulls and electrifies what ought to be sedate? Eyes shut or open, mouth slightly agape. A smile that spreads like light at dawn from the edges of the mouth, the chest pushed forward, breathless, breathless. The music was pulsing and the harmonies flowing, coursing through the blood. This was not the Blues, not jazz, not despair, not anger, but joy and the surprise of an orgasm when it lights up a weary and deadened body.
Soon, we went to bed.
Graceland. An early morning start. A mansion with several acres. Not much to my taste. The story of rags to riches an enduring motif of American life. The remarkable achievement of one individual spirit, irrepressible, singing and moving others. The Sun records studio showed the connections between black music and Elvis. Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, BB King, the long list of exponents of the art of transmuting suffering into song. Then the Rock and Soul Museum. The back catalogue of Stax Records: Isaac Hayes, Ann Peebles, Al Green, Staple Singers, Rufus Thomas, Bar-Keys, Mar-Keys, and the Memphis Horns. Once you knew the source of the music, a greater appreciation of the achievements came to mind. Ali Farka Toure once said we have given them [Black Americans] the stem, the branches and leaves but kept the roots for ourselves. But, what incredible flourishing they have made of these. What glorious colors, what flowering, what sheer delight?
The next night we went back to BB King’s place. Bryan Lake was playing the most outrageous, most exquisite guitar. What could he not do? What devil incarnated his instrument with a fever, a rising delirious miasma from the roundabout swamps? An ague of the soul that sang and quaked through him? Yet, he was intact at the end, not fractured or moribund, a young, lithe White American playing as if he’d been abducted from the Nigerian Plateau, taken from Africa, stowed sardine-like in slave galleys, beaten and sold ten times over in Tennessee, soaked in mud and sweat, degraded and despised yet alive and celebrating life.
Mr Shannon at the Blues Cafe, played a Blues that was soothing. Blues that you danced to. The night before at C Handy’s cafe we heard a trio, the young saxophonist barely 17 years of age. He played a Groover Washington number from the 70s, when I was a young man. I’d heard Washington play it live in Philadelphia in 1981. The following day we saw this young man, on the street, with his music case and stopped to talk to him. I complimented him on his Groover Washington. He was astonished and said he hadn’t thought anyone would know the number. Now, that is music for you, composed and played by a black American, heard in Ibadan by an African youth, played again by a black American kid 30’years on and heard by an ageing African, naturalized Briton in Memphis. What goes round comes round!
Last night in New Orleans was a dish of Maison Bourbon Jazz Club spiced in Jamal Sharif, cooked slowly at Spotted Cat with an ensemble of Shotgun Jazz as of the “shotgun cabins”, marinaded in Bamboulas Jazz Vipers and finally preserved at Jazz Preservation Hall by Will Smith and colleagues. This was a fine end to our musical trip of the South.
Photos by Jan Oyebode