La Cigale, l’Elysee…Montmartre and music go hand in hand like the tourists and hookers who walk its winter streets.
Journo Dave and I had a rendez-vous near the metro stop Anvers at beer o’clock.
We were on the lookout for a charming Montmartre bar. After 15 minutes’ uphill walk we changed the criteria simply to ‘a bar’.
Montmartre is notable for its musical haunts; we however were not noticing any of them. We settled for a quiet – nay, silent – bar populated by three geriatrics slightly older than their hair styles.
Taking two quiet beers and a table for four, we pondered the meaning of silence.
The answer was staring us in the face: a vintage juke box Dave was resting his back against that was flashing its lights as an invitation to be played.
I took a closer look. With its coin intake that still accepted French francs (last seen in 2001) the machine dated more than the fur-clad hooker who had just arrived and kissed me on the cheek before saying hello.
I had two euros in my pocket and was now faced with the choice of whose slot to spend it on.
Looking from the dishevelled hooker to the dishevelled public, I decided it was better to spread the love.
But what songs should I select?
Around 2001 I was at a bogan party in Warrandyte community centre that had a juke box. It was at this event, surrounded by party-goers dressed in sheepskin-lined denim jackets that I developed the concept of the ‘juke box spike’.
Just like date-rape the idea revolved around slipping something unsavoury into the mix. On that occasion I managed three back-to-back plays of Kylie Minogue’s Locomotion before the bogan crowd twigged that Axl Rose wasn’t hitting enough high notes and unplugged the machine.
Nine years later in France I decided to test the limits of the locals.
My 2 euros had bought me 5 songs to choose. With input from Dave, we started innocently enough with some Jimmy Cliff, followed by Barry White growling ‘Never Give you Up’.
If it was the first time these hardened French men had drunken with black men their expressions didn’t register it.
So as not to give the game up too early, the third song we selected was by France’s Sinatra, Jacques Brel. This segued into ‘Paint it, Black’, which until then I had thought was sung by any band that wasn’t the Rolling Stones.
I looked for signs of reaction from the crowd but found their expressions to be unreadable.
Alors, it was time for the piece de resistance: a song I was sure would raise the heckles of these classic Frenchies – or at the very least make them acknowledge I was in the bar.
If there was one song that could do it, this would be the mustard.
As the telltale sound of five talentless British pop queens “If you wannabe my love you gotta get with my friends,” filled the bar with shrill tones, I eagerly awaited the reaction.
All I got was flicker of recognition from one man who held my eye a fraction of a second.
Were they excited? It was hard to tell.
Was I excited? Hard to tell also – I’d just had an accident in the bathroom and the state of my undies erroneously suggested that I was.
The game was up. Yet again, France had refused to rise to the challenge.
Or was I mistaken?
For now, the man who had turned my way during the Spice Girls indeed did rise from his bar stool and made his way to the juke box. Inserting 2 coins, he pushed a few numbers and returned to his perch.
The music started. Dave suppressed a shudder. “It’s Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney singing ‘The Girl is Mine’,” he said. This was backed up with Amazing Grace played on the organ and bagpipes, twice.
The war was on.
SO the old man liked Michael Jackson did he? Did he like little boys as well? I returned volley with Kriss Kross ‘Jump’.
The man gave a moment’s thought – more than he’d put into wearing sandals on a -1 degree night – then returned to the juke box.
More coins this time, and we hit with 5 ‘chansons francaises’ in quick succession. Low blow.
A note to readers: While ‘chansons francaises’ literally translates as ‘French songs’, a more exact translation would be ‘French song’. Indeed, the difference between each and every one of these old musty ballads is discernible only to the most seasoned of the French.
I conceded defeat. The French had played a dirty game, but they’d played it well – unlike the bagpipes on Amazing Grace.
It was getting late and we decided to go. Collecting our coats, I emptied my final coin into the juke box for a last hurrah. Together, Dave and I exited the bar in the very heart of Paris’ musical heartland, to the dulcet tones of SNAP, Rhythm is a Dancer.