Sunday, November 18, 2012

In a room with Glen Hansard



Sometimes, something happens, something so fortuitous, that you can't help but think about the existence of fate, or God, or angels - you can't help but think there's something out there looking after you.

I visited Paris recently, mainly to see old friends.  That was the purpose.  Days were spent wandering the city, visiting old haunts, and generally waiting for my friends to finish their work (real life - so inconvenient!).  One particular night over a glass of red, an old friend dropped a bombshell.

"Did you know Glen Hansard is playing a secret gig in Paris tomorrow?", she said.

"Sorry what!", my 'when-in-france' cigarette dropping from my mouth.

"Yeah.  It's on at a bookshop at lunchtime.  You should go."

For those of you who know me, you'll know of my mild obsession with Glen Hansard and his music.  It's raw, there's no veneer, no show biz filter.  There's a desperation in his performance.  A sense of fierce urgency.  As if he's aware he only has a short amount of time to convince you of the importance of his secrets.  As if he's spent a long time struggling to sing in a room without doors or windows, and that in that hour he has with you on stage, someone has punched a hole in one of the walls and allowed him to let his soul spill out.

I last saw him perform at the Sydney Opera House.  The Swell Season were brought to Australia to perform as part of the Sydney Festival.  The three thousand odd seats of the main concert hall sold out months in advance.  About $150 a ticket.  I saw Gough Whitlam there.  Glen and Marketa - supported by The Frames - performed for about two hours, including a soaring desperate performance of "Say it to me now" as well as a rendition of "The Parting Glass" that I'm sure approached something resembling the religious for those that were there ("no regrets - no jealousy - no anger").

"Yeah. You should go", she said.

In the shadows of Notre Dame, the English book shop Shakespeare & Co, an expat institution in Paris, can best be described as... a fire hazard.  A maze of prison-cell-sized rooms,  walls thick with books, wooden beams protruding menacingly from the ceiling.  The doors - which still stand at a dwarfish 18th century height - and the narrow pathways leading from one pile of books to another, double parked with relieved English speaking tourists and wannabe writers on sabbatical from this country or that ("Just staying in a little apartment in the marais... on a scholarship you know... Are you going to Rudolf's party?") give the shop an impression of impenetrability.  It almost seems purposefully dysfunctional - maybe to guard the many secrets within from being uncovered too easily.  Maybe to ensure that only the most worthy make it to their rightful destination.

The secret I sought was at the top of a stooped stair case, sitting in a room in front of a small window that backed onto the Seine.  As he set up, a line of people anxiously jostled for pole position at the door.  The room fit about twenty people.  About fifty were lined up.  As we filed in silently, anxiously, elbows high, finding what space we could on the floor, knees drawn up, pealed against the walls, shoulders awkwardly concertina'd, Glen sat, casually jotting down notes on what looked like an impromptu set list.  I was third last into the room, and squeezed myself down between a couple of Americans who risked knee dislocation to enable a bit of space for me.



"I've got an afternoon voice on me" he apologised.  "Lots of travelling takes a toll on the flesh, but not the soul.  The voice may be broken but it's singing its heart out."

And it did, in a rendition of 'Bird of Sorrow'.  It did, in 'Low Rising' (which I managed to record - apologies for some attempted singing.  He made it sound deceptively easy).

For about forty-five minutes, Glen played and talked, like he was playing in his bedroom to a couple of mates, mucking around with a few odd chords on the guitar, trying out a few new harmonies, even singing one song a cappella.  Just him and his old Takamine guitar - the one with the hole punched through it to let the sound spill out.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Rugby a touche, Paris

During my time working in Paris, I used to look forward to Thursday lunchtimes - the day when a group of french and expatriate rugbyphiles would gather in the shadows of the eiffel tower to play a bit of touch rugby.

At the time it seemed so normal. Just a bunch of guys passing a ball around to work out some of the stress of the working week. It didn't matter that it was in the middle of paris, or that the touch lines were practically marked out by the seine on one side, the australian embassy on the other, the eiffel tower, and an 18th century Haussmannian building.

On my recent trip to Paris I trundled down to the park on a Thursday at lunchtime, half expecting it to be empty, half expecting to have to trundle back home to Max's house, now dealing with the shame of having hoped so ludicrously to be able to relive a past now three years gone.

But no, as I rounded the corner of the oval, it fast became apparent that absolutely nothing had changed - the same faces and short-shorts graced the field, the same people passing the ball forward, the same people arguing about whether the pass was forward, the same people laughing at those arguing, the same people throwing 30 metre hero passes to no one, the same blokes treating it as an international championship match between the wallabies and the all blacks. And there was the french bloke who had once tried to fly kick someone for threatening to disallow his try, and the new zealander was also there, the one who, three years ago, I was sure I was friends with, only to realise that we'd never really said anything to each other, other than 'see you at touch on thursday'.

Three years on, I have to admit, it still felt normal. Unexceptional even. And I couldn't help but love it.
 

La tour eiffel, vue de la place du Trocadero

Standing on the place du trocadero, with the light bouncing off the puddles that formed on the mosaic tiled floor, you could be forgiven for thinking that the place was built as a giant platform for photographers wishing to take the perfect snap of la tour eiffel.

Gard du nord, Paris