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I met him for the first time in the early summer of 1963. I was walking, guitar case in hand, to my appointed busking position. I was in no great hurry. Respectable street-musicians don't rush anywhere, especially not on sunny days, and certainly not in Paris.
He had a collection of sketches of famous people set out along the wall on the river bank. I remember that day and him very clearly. His big brown hypnotic eyes and his unruly mop of black hair reminded me of a playful puppy that had known only good fortune and was well used to getting his own way. His roguish but always charming smile held magic hard to describe, and he had a way of bounding around and drawing the passers by into his net.
I observed that it was almost impossible to say no to him. He was so very engaging and so extraordinarily clever. In a few minutes he could make an instantly recognisable sketch of anyone with a few francs to spend. He always had an audience, and he was always busy.
As I walked past the display a sketch of Edith Piaf caught my eye and I slowed to look at it. Suddenly he was in front of me. "I will make a very fine sketch of you sir, with your instrument, perhaps? You are very handsome," he declared. I liked him instantly, but for some reason I scowled at him and said, rather pompously, "I have neither the time nor the money for such vanities."
At this he burst into loud laughter, and then said, in English, "You are English. Only the English can speak French in such a way." There was no malice in his voice, only humour. Several people nearby nodded their heads in agreement and joined their laughter with his, and after a moment so did I.
Outnumbered or not, I would not go down without firing a shot. I thought of Crecy and Agincourt and I replied, "You are French. Only the French can be so full of shit."
This brought more laughter and a flurry of applause from some of the on-lookers. It also attracted the attention of a passing policeman who tapped his nose with his finger, the way they do, and cautioned us about street theatre without a permit.
A few of the more forthright members of the small crowd of onlookers, natives of the city without doubt, gave him the upraised finger-francaise and their assessment of his lineage. He replied in kind. No offence given. None taken, just another day in Paris, but the spell was broken, and the crowd drifted away.
We were friends from that moment on. We sat and talked for a while. He told me a little of his life, and I told him a little of mine. I had bread and cheese, he had wine, and we shared. I played my guitar and sang while he sketched.
The Paris crowd was exceptionally generous, and we both had a good day. That night, to celebrate, we dined with our friends, old and new, at Dominique's.
I met him again in the late spring of 1965. He had a small exhibition in a discreet but influential gallery. The sidewalk shows and the impromptu sketching of tourists and city dwellers were all in the past. He was gaining recognition as a serious artist. Though not yet a part of the arts establishment he was moving, inexorably, in that direction.
Those of high degree who would not, and could not, be caught viewing anything but 'the acceptable' were at last looking with growing interest at his work.
Despite this encroaching respectability he kept alive his wilder, sometimes darker, side. He was well known and most welcome in those parts of the city best left to the shifting shadows. On the lighter side he took me to Oscar's, his favourite 'North African' place of the moment.
The clientele was, as one might expect, on the fringe and transient. It was a home away from home, a place where strangers met as friends and where friends could sometimes be strangers by choice.
He introduced me to Paul, sculptor and artist; to Giselle and Cecile, the most beautiful models in a city of beauty, to Claude the haunted medium and to Henri the 'accidental American' from Toulouse.
Later I met the Moroccan, Trader Joseph, who lived in the aromatic, tent-like attic apartment above Oscar's restaurant. He was a nighthawk. He never ever ventured out into the daylight, lest those he did not wish to see saw him.
Trader Joseph gave me a place to crash, and I made Oscar's my base. It was within easy reach of several of my preferred busking haunts and only minutes from my all-time favourite, the high-end steps at the entrance of the great church of the Sacred Heart. I was often surprised at the number of my fellow nomadic musicians that attended mass there.
My friend took to visiting me on the steps at my afternoon session. Sometimes he would play along on a tin whistle or a recorder, or just join in and sing a chorus. He was quick to pick up a tune and he had a good folk-singing voice.
The passing punters could see that we were enjoying ourselves. Some of our energy invariably rubbed off on them and they were often most generous in their contributions. Naturally, I do not include the British in this largesse. They were so limited in their foreign exchange allowance that they could scarcely buy a breakfast croissant.
Sometimes, when we tired of busking, we would leave our instruments in the care of the ever-accommodating Oscar and explore the city. He taught me to see it through his eyes, to love the secret streets, the hidden treasures, and the Babel-babbling glass-topped boats of the city-bound never still, never-silent river. It was truly 'the best of times'.
When I met him, for the last time, in May 1968 he had all the outward appearances of a successful, if not famous, artist and businessman. His best work was in great demand, particularly by the American dealers.
He lived in a splendid apartment. A chauffeur-driven limousine, courtesy of some powerful patron, was on call day and night.
To me he hadn't changed at all. He was still the same humorously insane street artist that I always wanted him to be. At a moment's notice, and overjoyed at the opportunity, he abandoned his business suit in favour of the old jeans, sweater and windcheater. Then he called Justine and Catherine, and we all went to a fleapit to see Borsalino.
There, to the surprise of the rest of the small audience, he insisted on translating every word spoken by Delon and Belmondo into English for my benefit. He explained, to all, that my understanding of French was so 'English' that if left to struggle on unaided I would fail to comprehend the vitality, beauty and majesty of this great classic.
The audience agreed that an Englishman's French must always be inadequate and at times volunteered advice and help. I cannot see any reference to this film, or to these players, without thinking of my friend and of this experience that sits so warmly in my memory.
After Borsalino, and after shaking hands with every member of the audience, the manager, the front of house staff and the two projectionists, we went on to the indestructible Dominique's. There, the food and the wine were good and cheap, as always, and the street musicians played their best work for their friends.
During the course of the evening our small company grew into a large and boisterous crowd. The vitality of rebellion charged the atmosphere. As the party raged on the talk was of revolution, of fighting in the streets, of mass arrests and of university occupations and closures.
The city was in turmoil. Ten thousand demonstrators had thrown a cordon around The Arc de Triomphe and were infuriating the 'Old General' with their red and black flags and their singing of the 'Internationale'.
A massive demonstration engulfing the great boulevards was causing chaos. The Latin Quarter was in a state of siege. Cars had been overturned to create barriers to block streets. The local populace, in support of demonstrating students and workers, were taking every opportunity to shower police with any debris that came to hand.
A little after dawn we joined the demonstrators for a long, hectic, painful day of defiance at the barricades. Where, for an eternity, the brutality of the police knew no bounds as they clubbed and kicked and beat anyone, who crossed their path. Unmitigated savagery and chlorine gas grenades were the standard response to almost any perceived offence.
The ravages of a bloody and brutal baton charge in the late afternoon of a terrible day brought my friend, in the front line as usual, close to death. He died an hour later on the balcony of his apartment. Paul and Claude and I, we circle of friends, stood with him and supported him in our arms through those last precious moments, so that his last glimpse of life could be the eventide lights of the city of Paris.
I have, hidden between the pages of a journal I never open, a press cutting that I have translated only once. It announces, with predictable duplicity, the untimely and tragic death of the son of a great house who died in his thirty-fifth year after a long battle with a serious illness.
The carefully worded announcement goes on to formally acknowledge the condolences kindly offered, by the socially acceptable, to the family of the deceased at this sad time. A terse footnote advises the common people that a written invitation to those permitted to attend the funeral, a very private affair, will be forthcoming in due course.
I don't know which newspaper originally carried this cold announcement. The manicured hand of haughty family retainer delivered it to me. Neatly clipped and alone in a sealed, satin-brown, crested envelope, the message was clear and painful beyond belief. I was not the only recipient of this strangely French form of communication.
A little while later I discovered that an agent acting for an unidentified but known buyer had scoured Paris, and all trails leading anywhere, for any of my friend's work. I believe that only three sketches escaped this expensive buy-back. They, at least, are safe from the family furnace.
Of his life there is now scarcely a trace. Someone, it seems, has gone to incredible lengths to expunge every sign of his existence. It is as if they, whoever they are, want him not to have lived at all.
I cannot allow them to succeed with this plan. He was my friend. We went together to the barricades. So I will record and broadcast all that I know of him.
The time and place of his birth, and the time and approximate place of his death are a matter of public record. The cause of his death, as formally recorded, is an official lie of the sort one may create from a position of power and influence.
That he came from the best of families is not at issue. That he received and enjoyed the best education that privilege could provide is self-evident. That he had about him the touch of genius was forcefully apparent to all that knew him or his work. Few could have been aware that he was marked down for tragedy.
From the age of twenty he was addicted to drugs. The best doctors’ money could buy prescribed and supplied them in copious quantities. Not to cure, they advised, just to hold back the night. He would die sooner rather than later, they counselled discreetly, of his infirmity or else of the drugs that gave him ease.
When he chose the impecunious freedom of the street artist, as an alternative to subservient family duty, an angry patriarch withdrew financial support. The supply of the necessary medicines ceased. His own small store was soon exhausted, and he was obliged to fend for himself.
He took to his double-life with a will. His sketches, quickly popular, financed his early struggles. Several well-placed patrons discretely provided, through their networks, a lucrative market. First he served his own needs, and later he helped others.
He was a dealer in drugs. One cannot deny that. In the Latin Quarter, in the fashionable and unfashionable cafes, on the brightly lit Boulevards and on the riverbanks he plied both of his trades. In the green parks near the monuments, in the museums and art galleries, in the great churches, and in the Metro his light and his darkness were ever present.
Wherever people gathered, the seeking or the sought, he was there. To those he rescued from the darkness he was 'Brother Cocaine', a friend and a guardian. For those he could not rescue he was their last link with humanity.
In life a paradox and in death a mystery, now there is no one to speak for him, unless you count the flotsam and jetsam of the city, and a few almost stateless nomads like me.
I did not return to Paris until the late summer of 1975. I had lunch with Paul at the Café Alsace. After lunch, and after drinking more of their potent brew than was good for us, he insisted that we take a walk along the riverbank. He had something to show me.
A little way along, and quite close to the place where I first met my friend some twelve or so years before, there was a niche in the stone wall that contained a small bronze statue of a strikingly recognisable young man. He was seated on a step and playing a recorder. Paul was very proud of his work. The inscription on the base read, 'For those of us who remember'.
I sat down next to the statue and wrote a song on a torn-open envelope begged from a passing tourist. Then I committed it to memory, furled the envelope tightly and slid it into a hollow section of the bronze recorder. I thought, for a split second, that I heard him laugh.
The Paris I see from my window is lonely, I know,
full of people like me who are lost and have nowhere to go.
The trees that I see from my window are heavy with rain,
and the noise of the traffic-scarred street is piercing my brain.
From seven floors up in the clouds I'm the king of the night,
with my magic hands, from the stars, I can bring Paris light.
But if there's a corner I miss don't say I'm to blame,
for to finish my picture of Paris I need more Cocaine.
From a house in the clouds I'm the Guardian of Paris and hell.
I know where I'm needed and which of my wares I can sell.
On the gay boulevards none of my sheep knows my name.
But they love me and hate me for I am their Brother Cocaine.
Hard cobbled streets of Montmartre are worn with my tread.
I have kindled a flame from a spark that thought it was dead.
I can read in the eyes of those whose souls I have grown cold,
their need for my magic, as they know my need for their gold.
I painted an image of Paris, in Cocaine, for me.
I was helped by the earthbound souls my Cocaine set free.
My magic Cocaine put a light in the grey Paris sky.
For a last glimpse of Paris and a last shot of Cocaine I'll die.
My grave isn't marked and it hasn't been dug very deep.
Who'll care for my children, the lonely, the lost and the weak?
I was their guardian, and I always played the fair game,
and I died in the arms of our loving soul Brother Cocaine.
We returned to the Café Alsace to collect our belongings, Paul's valise and my guitar and rucksack, and then we fought our way through the late-afternoon crowds and down into the Metro.
We pushed and jostled and swayed and growled and hung onto the straps, and counted the stations to our destination. There, we escaped into the crisp, fresh, cooling air of the twilight.
We climbed the long hill in silence. We were, I suppose, each lost in our own thoughts. The gentle sound of the Angelus, the tininabulating call to benediction, the flapping wings of flocking birds, and the music of the street musicians, marked our way.
We reached Oscar's as daylight faded and just as Gilbert was folding back the outer café doors. The lights and the music came on together at the throw of a switch. The aromas of last night's dope smoke, this morning's cleaning ritual, and this evening's cooking greeted us and made us welcome.
In our absence nothing had changed in the glistening cave-like interior. Oscar, lounging at the small bar rolling an early evening joint, motioned us to join him and greeted us as if we had never been away. We wined and dined quite splendidly, and the evening gave way to a night of nights, as old friends, visible and invisible, arrived at our tables and joined the ever-growing ever-noisier ménage. We talked of the past, the present and the future. We all agreed, that in the things that really matter, the city had changed but little in the time that we had known and loved her.
Perhaps some of the lights are brighter and some of the shadows deeper, and the traffic heavier, and the Metro more crowded, and the policemen younger. That is the way of things. Life, thank God, goes on. All that agreed, we played and sang every song we knew, and many that we did not know at all well. We basked in the camaraderie of good friends well met. We decided that we were all overjoyed to be here, in this place of places.
We drank a toast to Oscar and to Gilbert, and they responded with theatrical bows and received an ovation for their comedy. We drank many other toasts, to each other and to all our absent friends. Finally, as the golden tentacles of a new day reached out and embraced us with warmth and love, we drank a toast to Paris, forever, to us all, our City of Light.
May 2014 [revision] Liverpool NSW © Dermott Ryder
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