‘Moderne, c’est déjà vieux.’ La Féline
I pretended to remember and I smiled: it was time to tell the story once again.
A few hours before the concert, backstage at La Maroquinerie in the northern part of the twentieth arrondissement in Paris, I was smoking, legs crossed, sitting on a stool, in front of two freelancers for guitar magazines and three writers for French indie-rock sites. Our singer refused to talk to the press anymore, as if the press still existed. The tour promoter was selling us as part of a set of Californian rockers who had been famous in the eighties: a junkie who had survived the Paisley Underground scene was playing ahead of us, and after us would be a band we hadn’t thought much of back then, a weird take on Camper Van Beethoven that had landed a Levi’s jeans ad just before grunge took over. They’d written a hit, just like us, and we’d had plenty of fans. Right outside the concert hall, I’d seen a few fans already hanging around when I’d stepped out for a bit of air late in the afternoon. Guys my age, of course, but here, just like for the other tour dates around Europe, there would be some younger people. We’d been minor players in musical history, and there would always be teenagers who were into the also-rans rather than those who had made it. They’re wrong, but I still have a soft spot for them.
Anyway, the story. In 1984, before going into the studio to record Wave Packet’s second album, I came back to sleep at my parents’ in Redwood City with my girlfriend at the time. The first album was terrible, hadn’t sold at all, and I was scared as hell of flopping. The first time around, I’d been completely clueless, but now I knew. The compositions were weak. My dad, who was part Native American, told us about local tribes all around the bay and I got way too drunk. I fell asleep on the bed I’d had since I was a kid, with my fiancée in my arms. I was so young. On the floor by my nightstand I’d set up a little Philips recorder, since my room was in a shed far away from my parents’ house, and that way when I felt like it I could play my guitar – back then it was a Rickenbacker I’d bought with the money from my first concert. When I woke up the next morning, hungover, I wanted to listen to what I’d composed over the last few days. I listened carefully and I was surprised to realise I’d gotten up in the middle of the night: my girlfriend hadn’t heard a thing, but I’d been in some sort of trance and I’d recorded several minutes of a haunting melody that I’d tested later that day on the other guys in my band.
I crushed the butt under my heel while cracking jokes with the journalists. Much later, I would learn that Keith had composed the structure for ‘Satisfaction’ that same way, in his Carlton Hill apartment in St John’s Wood.
My song was called ‘Walking Backwards’, and the title was my idea. For a long time, it hadn’t felt particularly original, and I didn’t feel like it was really mine, but it worked. And then, over the course of all the concerts and interviews and album deluxe editions, my attention kept turning back to some part of this nicely put-together song which had somehow stayed strong all these years. I loved it for that, and then I hated it because I kept having to play it in front of crowds that didn’t know anything else I’d done, then I liked it again, because it was a nice reminder of that fame we’d once had, of the best experiences we’d had in our lives, and then I got tired of it, and I ended up totally indifferent. I wouldn’t say that to the reporters interviewing me just then, but that’s the truth: I hear it, without any real feeling, and I know that’s all that will ever remain of me, long after everyone’s forgotten what songs even were.
I tell the journalists the little story they already know. We were a post-punk band, and like every other ‘post-’ movement that ever happened, we were jealous of what we’d missed out on. I’d never been at the right place at the right time. I didn’t catch the Pistols at Winterland in 1978, or the Dead Kennedys at the Bay Area Music Awards, or X, because they were in LA. I was 18 in 1980, and I wasn’t aware of what was going down just then in musical history, not the way I am now; I was just a kid who had grown up by the airport in Millbrae, and even though I was just a few miles away from San Francisco, I was a small-town kid. I’ve more or less stayed that way. My mother, a nurse, raised me to be a nice, polite boy who folded his clothes and did his homework on time. Then I became a teenager and we moved further south to Redwood, and I met our singer, who had already lost his virginity. If you read an article about us, you’ll hear that we listened to the Velvets, Patti Smith, or Television, just like everyone else. Actually, the music I knew best was what my mother loved: variety, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, a bit of jazz, Timi Yuro, and the scores for Henry Mancini’s movies. The bassist had been classically trained, and on Sundays he played Ravel on the piano, but we kept up with the times thanks to ‘Walking Backwards’.
After 1984 and the song’s release as a single, we had two successful albums. We toured abroad, and kept on regularly putting out a sort of jingling indie pop, the Byrds played by boys in the eighties in baggy shirts with tousled hair. NME considered us the American answer to the Smiths or Echo & the Bunnymen. The bands with the Sarah or Postcard labels in Bristol and Glasgow, and Flying Nun in New Zealand, called us their ‘big brothers’. In retrospect, our best album, which Steve Lillywhite produced, sounds terrible, especially the drums. It’s too bad, but we never really shaped the spirit of the times; it hovered like a ghost over all our compositions. The album our fans like best came later, in 1988: it was pared-down, with a three-voice harmony now that we had our new bassist, and harrowing melodies – our singer had just divorced, I was listening to country music, and Merle Haggard and Charlie Rich were playing on a loop on the tour bus. But there weren’t any singles worth keeping, and nothing good enough to make people forget ‘Walking Backwards’.
The nineties were a mess for Wave Packet, and we split up at the end of the decade, more or less on our last legs. Hip hop, electro… It was too late for us. And we’d come too early for the backlash: alt-country, The Jayhawks or Wilco. I met Green on Red, I produced The Fleshtones – but I didn’t have the conviction they did. Nobody fought for our cause. We didn’t have one; we wanted to follow movements. A bad album reminiscent of the Stones came out, with some boogie, and some gospel choirs, along the lines of Primal Scream’s Give Out But Don’t Give Up, then an abstruse, psychedelic CD much like what Kula Shaker was putting out just then, and then finally a stab at fusion with ridiculous electro bits jumbled in, to make people think we were still with the times. We had spent too much time in England, away from home, and we missed our rendez-vous with destiny. That was partly why some people liked us. I think we’re held to be, by those who know us, the best of the average bands of our time. And ‘Walking Backwards’ is still on the radio. You’d definitely recognise it.
Tonight’s concert was OK. It was pretty clear what the audience thought of us. Not much attitude, no energy at all. Our singer has put on weight, and he looks like shit. We gave it our all, we were happy to play, but none of them really cared. Why would they, anyway? I take care of myself: grey-and-white hair, a whole afro of thick curls, a white jacket like the one Gram Parsons used to have, but without cannabis leaf or naked lady motifs. Simple, restrained. On stage, on a good day, I probably look like Lindsey Buckingham. I drop names and compare myself to them. But I can’t help having all these names and songs in my head. I’m too self-aware. There’s what I like, and then there’s what I know. I know just about everything in rock these days. But I don’t like anything much now.
Yawning, I headed back to the dressing rooms by myself, and decided to pop into the toilet.
Playing ‘Walking Backwards’ made me think about 1984 again, and that night, and my father who died ten years ago, and that girl who had also died since then, I think, and although I thought I’d been freed of that demon, now I was struggling with that question again: how the hell did I come up with that fucking song?
In the hallway, a man yells out my name, explaining in some sort of primitive English that he has a blog, a name I don’t get, and that he was a member of our fan club, ages ago. He’s swallowing his words, spitting them out and stuttering, with convoluted phrases that he must have picked up while reading Chaucer alone in bed. He says he’s a collector too, and claims we’ve corresponded by email.
Which isn’t totally impossible. After I became a sound engineer, then a mixer, then a producer, I opened a tiny studio in the basement of my place on Potrero Hill. Newish bands from the Bay Area, and even San Diego and LA, came to see me. I know the entire scene, and I’m essentially a walking encyclopedia. Give me a short clip, and I swear I can identify it in one listen. For a long time, on Friday nights, I hosted a radio show, where I broadcast everything, or just about (I hate string quartets): garage bands, blue-eyed soul, deep soul, West Coast jazz, krautrock, Italo disco. I can tell right off if a new band’s copying an old one, I can even figure out the way they’re doing it, how much they’ve stolen, and through my website I’m in touch with collectors from around the world, so that I can pick up rarities.
It turns out this man had sold me some French psychedelic rock, something erotic by Philippe Nicaud, a single by Gérard Manset in Latin, or Esther Galil’s ‘Le jour se lève’.
Everyone apart from him has left the dressing room, and I decide to be patient. I suggest that he take a breather, sit down, give me a minute so I can piss, and then he can ask me all the questions he wants. His name is Jean-Luc Massenet. Like the composer of the ‘Méditation’ from Thaïs, I say. But he doesn’t really hear me. It’s only when I sit down in front of him and look at the mirrors bouncing his weird reflection around dozens of times that I realise he looks like one of those guys in front of a mall handing out flyers about the existence of aliens, and how the Lizard People are involved in the Iraq war, and Hitler’s role in establishing Israel. His bright-orange ski jacket and Lester Bangs moustache made him look like a complete weirdo.
He explains that he teaches at a French middle school – which subject exactly I never quite hear, maybe English for French kids. He’s out of breath, and wearing a zip-up sweater under his jacket. He’s staring through his tortoiseshell glasses like a cow standing in a slaughterhouse doorway, or more like a kid who’s always known that his very existence annoys everyone else. But I was polite; I got into rock music so I could hang out with freaks, and I’d feel dishonest now if I only spent time with good-looking freaks who smell nice and have minds as orderly as my mother’s sock drawer.
There are people who don’t know how to handle celebrity, but that’s not my case – I know what I owe to the weirdest people who like me. So I offer him some whisky, he says he doesn’t drink, so I pour us some tap water, which he seems to appreciate, and we make small talk.
He claims he’s been trying to contact me for two months – and I cross my fingers that this madman, who seems to be in love with me or something, won’t leave me bleeding from a hundred oyster-knife wounds. God knows we all get the Mark Chapman we deserve. But even though he looks at me goggle-eyed like I was a hero from the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll come down to earth to drink a glass of barely drinkable Paris tap water with him, soon he’s only talking about himself, not Wave Packet. He wants me to listen to a tape he got from his uncle – and right this minute, I have to admit I’m not paying attention to the specifics about his family. Something about his uncle being a small-time crook and a lover of good music, and Jean-Luc living a long way away with his parents on the island of Réunion. So apparently when he was growing up his uncle had sent him homemade cassette tapes on which he’d recorded himself making jokes, telling stories, sometimes playing a bit of music.
I don’t really give a shit about his uncle, but I know how to listen with one ear without looking like I’m paying too much attention, or being rude. There’s a specific sound within the vast array of throaty noises a human being can produce which indicates exactly the impression I want to give: what you’re telling me is about as interesting as the weather forecast for the Galapagos, and you know it, but I’ll listen anyway. A ‘hmm-hmm’ I can deploy expertly, mainly on the phone, with men and women alike.
From his huge fanny pack – for a second there I was sure he had a weapon stashed in it – he pulls out an old Korean-made cassette player. He’s sweating even more heavily, his hands are clammy, and his English is getting less and less comprehensible. Then he pushes play and the empty room echoes with the far-off voice of a guy jabbering in French. Suddenly, in the background, a ghastly noise arises, and I can make out a rudimentary melody. Oh, I get it, ha-ha, it’s ‘Walking Backwards’. I wink at Jean-Luc. It’s a kind of rustic version of my song, performed by his uncle. I say: ‘He’s got good taste.’ But Jean-Luc is wringing his hands. Sure enough, the cover only goes on for a few more seconds before the tape stops. It seems like the poor guy was drunk, what with his singing out of tune and playing the guitar about as well as a caveman, but it’s still pleasant enough. Refreshing, almost. So this uncle had sent a little cover version of my hit to his nephew, who still seems overcome by this gift.
‘So is that how you became a fan?’ I ask, to put him at ease.
‘You don’t understand,’ he gulps. ‘I found the tape three months ago, after my mother died. It was in her belongings up in the attic.’
‘My uncle died in 1981. The tape’s from 1980. Four years before you sang the song.’ A pause. ‘And he’s singing it exactly like you. He was the one who composed it! Do you know what I’m saying? It was him, not you.’
Fuck. I’ve been nice enough. He begins yelling in a high-pitched voice that I have to listen to this, come to his place… That I absolutely have to… Fuck! So that was his plan all along. He was going to ask me for the rights on behalf of his zombie uncle, who had been unjustly forgotten, who might have also composed ‘Hey Jude’, ‘Billie Jean’, and ‘Seven Nation Army’.
So I start shouting right back at him: ‘Go to hell, asshole.’
I can’t believe this loser’s managed to trick me. I walk out of the place boiling mad, grab my duffel coat, and go to meet everyone else at the restaurant nearby.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
was born in 1981 in Toulouse. His début novel, Hate: A Romance (Faber and Faber, 2010), was a critical success and won the Prix de Flore in 2008. A philosopher by training, he completed his PhD and published Form and Object. A Treatise on Things (Edinburgh University Press, 2014) even as he continued to write fiction prolifically. 'Walking Backwards' is a story from his most recent book, 7.
Jeffrey Zuckerman is Digital Editor at Music & Literature magazine and a translator from French, most recently of Antoine Volodine’s Radiant Terminus (Open Letter, 2017). Along with serving on the 2016 jury for the PEN Translation Prize, his writing and translations have appeared in Best European Fiction, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Paris Review Daily, the New Republic, and Vice. With Antoine Volodine’s cooperation, he translated these excerpts from Slogans using the French edition.