Paris is insufferably old fashioned, reactionary, and provincial. Everybody I know loves Paris; I undertook this trip because I couldn't stand the place but felt I should give it one last chance. My previous visits had to do with work relevant to my band, Islamic Diggers. We went in town to do media concerning an album, 10% - File Under Burroughs, dedicated to the wild cultural experiments of William Burroughs and his Canadian sidekick Brion Gysin. Later we supported Meat Beat Manifesto live. We visited Paris with uber-hip credentials - a close association with the then-alive Burroughs. The French are suckers for anything iconic in a suit, collar and tie. When I have a tie around my neck - the last time was during my mother's funeral - I feel like I'm being choked to death.
This time, travelling under my own steam, I stayed at the Centre Culturel Irlandais, an exceptional facility at the disposal of Irish creative types like myself who feel that a trip to Paris might assist them in their work. I planned to meet up with three artist pals. The Irish painter Richard Morgan was one of my best friends at university. One day years ago he disappeared out of my life. Tavis Henry is an Alaskan electronica musician working in a vaguely techno sphere. We got to know each other in London when he was living there. He used a sample of my voice on a fine 12" track, Wrong Uses of The Life Forces, released under his nom de guerre, Psimurgh. I first met Tav Falco from Panther Burns back in '96 when he did a Madrid poetics festival along with Islamic Diggers, Richard Hell, Lydia Lunch and others of a like mind.
I arrived in town late in the evening and went directly to Rue des Irlandais where the Centre Culturel is based. It used to be the Irish College where Irish boys trained for the priesthood and it still has a comfortably polished institutional air about it. The names of all the Irish dioceses remain festooned on the awning which leads onto pebbled grounds where one can still do The Stations of The Cross should the urge to do so overwhelm one.
I had a warm en suite studio complete with fridge, large desk, my own phone, and Internet access. Downstairs was an impressive gallery space, a performance area, and a first rate reading room full of Irish publications? This is a well thought out arts resource with origins, like so many contemporary civilized Irish initiatives, in controversial Irish politician Charlie Haughey's innovative time as Prime Minister. (I met Haughey several times during his prime - he is the Napoleon of Irish history). I was impressed by the tasteful makeover which preserved the best aspects of the noviciate while bearing witness to a new metropolitan Ireland. Everything is open to the passing public barring accommodation, which you have to apply for well in advance. They offer a vigorous schedule of performances, lectures, and exhibitions. www.centreculturelirlandais.com
Next day I lounged around town on my own, checking out impoverished but life-enhancing areas like Barbes where the North Africans and other Africans live. Late at night I met up with three entertaining Sudanese whores who joined me for a hilarious coffee in a Moroccan cafe when they realised that they wouldn't get any hop out of me. Africans exist in Paris as an invisible underclass - some Parisians treat their dogs with more respect than they treat people of colour.
One of the things they boast about in Paris is the fact that culture and art are a major component of the national fabric, that a substantial percentage of the state budget goes directly into the arts. There is some truth in this but the culture sanctioned in this way is official state culture - classical music recitals, exhibitions of early 20th century art, anything vaguely arty but specifically ancient which allows right wing jackals like Chirac to jump into their dress suits and ornamental sashes to attend well publicised, preferably televised, openings or soirees. The result in France is a complete dearth of underground 21st Century culture, rock'n'roll, or radical left-wing dissent in art.
I met Richard Morgan in the shadow of Napoleon's tomb, about two minutes walk from the art squat he was involved with. One of the few good things about the State's obsession with culture is that, on occasion, groups of impoverished artists are allowed to squat uninhabited properties so long as they create real art and the neighbours don't object. Apparently there has been a great hubbub in the papers about the fact that there is a shortage of painter's studios in a city where, I think, there are 100,000 active painters. This is too many painters for one minor league city.
I'd not set eyes on Richard in two decades but he was still the same lanky troublemaker whose company I enjoyed so much back in lost time. We went to the squat, a beautiful society mansion right out of Balzac, replete with marble stairwells, wood panelled rooms, and the decayed remains of gracious living. The squat was in the diplomatic quarter, up behind the Quai D'Orsay where France's twisted foreign policy is polished and burnished.
Going to meet Richard I worried that I might not like his paintings. What would I say to him if I didn't value his work? Luckily the work was very good, full of a raw passion reminiscent of El Greco. We yapped all afternoon about what'd happened to mutual pals, to Ireland, and to ourselves. The squat's girl artists, pert little hothouse flower French rich kids, were alluring. We went to eat at the Grand Mosque - they have a commercial restaurant in their grounds which is patronised by upmarket North Africans and boho types in combat trousers etc. such as me and Richard. The food was much better than anything I've ever eaten in Morocco, where I go a lot and, inevitably, eat a lot.
Tav Falco's Panther Burns are credited with inspiring the current wave of punk-blues bands of whom The White Stripes are the best known but Tav's remit transcends the boundaries of genre. Whereas most of those practitioners seem half baked or empty on the inside, Tav has always been the real thing. He was a major documentary filmmaker before he got into music, working with the august photographer William Eggleston, documenting a lost blues world. His best movie is a very simple one. He went down to Gracelands in the hours after Elvis' death to film the chaos outside the Presley mansion. What a commotion about the fifth best act on Sun Records!
What I like about Tav is that he's a hands-on creative who wants to get down and dirty with the art. He came to visit me at the Centre Culturel Irlandais because he wanted to examine the facilities there. We were both blown away by the old Catholic Church embedded in the premises, full of fine religious paintings and redolent of a long-gone Ireland. Tav introduced me to the hip and talkative Marie-Sophie Eiche who runs Galerie Kamel Mennour (www.galeriemennour.com), the most provocative photographic gallery in Paris. We do curatorial business in mere minutes - it looks like we'll collaborate in an art action happening. That night, after we'd eaten well on Saint Germain de Pres, Tav and me saw Karl Lagerfeld surrounded by superbabe supermodels and paparazzi in a scene reminiscent of Blow Up. Being a true provincial, this kind of impressed me.
Going to see Tavis Henry took me to Belleville, now an almost entirely Chinese district full of a life that just won't let the rest of us in. Since I last saw Tavis he's been on tour all over the American West Coast and involved in a couple of very sticky situations. Now, with his long hair cut short, he churns out his new music like there's no tomorrow. I played him some new Islamic Diggers tracks featuring Debbie Harry and Patti Smith. I don't think he was all that impressed. What I admire about Tavis is his bloody minded, very American, flintiness applied to radical attitudes. I recorded some vocal pieces for him to mess around with. We talked about his half-brother a while but that is family stuff.
I didn't change my attitude to Paris or the French during this trip. It's a museum, a provincial backwater, a temple of the political Right (anti-Semitism thrives there), a living celebration of a very silly people. I did conclude that some of its denizens are human beings just like the rest of us. I was nauseated by the inherent racism, impressed by the art, bored by the architecture, zapped around by the Metro, happy to see my pals, proud that my country has such an impressive cultural outpost there, relieved to slump into my seat on the Eurostar train which took me back to London . I go back in June.
Joe Ambrose has written 12 books, the most recent being Chelsea Hotel Manhattan and The Fenian Reader. He is currently writing a book about the Spanish Civil War.