I am in the process of excavating the social, historical and architectural terrain where I live. I go to a different area of the city once a week, or more often if my other tasks release me. I use Metro stops as my landmarks, much the way a geologist might use an distinctive outcrop of quartz or a distant volcanic cone. I select my landmarks at random. I think of myself, however, less as a geologist than as a zoologist trying to understand the nature of the living creatures that range about on the surface of the city, but who, unlike the trilobite and its cousins, will leave, for the most part, little or no trace of themselves in the rocks.
Yesterday, it was Metro Menilmenant. I found myself in a quartier between the Bellville section of Paris and the Pere Lachais Cemetery. It is a world mostly Arab, with a sizable black African population, and, in the minority, bohemian and politically left Caucasians. It is a lively area. One hears more Arabic in the cafes than French.
From the metro stop I walked up a step hill until I came to a little square on rue Sorbier. The satellite image of the square shows it as grassy, but this has changed, for now fully half of it has been paved over with granite slabs. The 20th arrondissment, because of its distance from the center, its politics, and its demographics, does not get quite the measure of equalite as, say, the 7th, which hosts the Eiffel Tower. But it is not a parking lot and is not ugly. It seems to fit.
There were three benches, all in full sun. On one, an elderly Tunisian couple, identifiable as North African only by their skin tone. On the next, a very old Arab man in traditional costume, including a head wrap of some sort. The older couple talked. The old man, as with all old men, waited with the passivity that comes from having reached the end of the road.
On the third bench, a Caucasian male in this his middle forties, wearing a white straw cowboy hat. No cowboy boots though, ordinary black shoes. He was clean-shaven, very presentable. He was removing a guitar from its case and attaching it to an amplifier, which, judging by the cords, had a battery. I thought this was all very odd, for street musicians need an audience, and there was no one else around but the three mentioned and myself, who was leaving. I walked on through the square, toward the famous cemetery, final resting place of many artists, including Jim Morrison of the Doors. A disused rail line runs beneath this little square. One sees it on maps, and it emerges, like a vein of an older time, in various places around east Paris.
I would have continued into Pere Lachaise, but what I heard changed my mind. The guitarist had hooked up his guitar to the amplifier and had started, without any tuning or preliminaries, to play and immediately I could tell that this was no ordinary street musician. Indeed, what I heard was the full-bore, authentic, genuine, heartfelt sound of American blues/rock. He was utterly confident about what he was doing, had cranked the amp up and was rolling. As I approached, seeing him bent over the guitar, left hand flying up and down the full length of the neck, fingers exploring the full width, his right hand, with the little plastic pick, leaping across strings, his head bent over so, hidden by the white cowboy hat, so I could not see his face, I thought of Wallace Stevens’ line in The Man with the Blue Guitar
a shearsman of sorts. The day was green.
I stood in front of his man and listened. From years of listening to recordings of the great guitarists, from Hendrix to Clapton, I knew one thing for certain: this man was a brilliant guitarist. One of the best. I wondered who he was and what he was doing in this out-of-the-way corner of Paris. He wailed, he dug, he flew, he got down. He was lyrical, fierce, tender, and raucous all in the same piece, almost in the same bar. He was improvising, and each piece would continue for five to seven minutes, before he’d pause for a rest. I began to hear his roots in the 1970s, Mike Bloomfield and his keyboard partner, Al Kooper. He was as good as Bloomfield, who was great, perhaps even better than Bloomfield.
He finally stopped and acknowledged me with an open, almost shy, smile. I told him, all in French, how much I appreciated it. I told him I heard the Bloomfield/Kooper genetics in his style; he was very pleased and acknowledged that he admired those American musicians. I asked if he had a CD I could buy, knowing that this way I would know his name. “Non, pas CD.” Did he have business card, so I could hire him – for what, my funeral party perhaps? “Non, pas carte.” I asked if he played there in the little square often. “No” to that as well. Where, then, would he play next? Translated from the French, he said, “Who knows. Where the wind proposes.”
I loved his word, “proposes.” I left a euro on his guitar case. He said it wasn’t necessary, but thanked me anyway, neither expecting nor insulted. He played for God, for himself. I thought of the Unknown Soldier. He returned to his work. A shearsman of sorts.
The man replied, “ things as they are
Are changed on the blue guitar.