RPM Challenge

The RPM Challenge asks us to write and record 10 songs during the month of February. I’m using this page to document my attempt to meet that challenge, as well as to facilitate collaboration, should anyone decide they want to help me out on this.

February 1

I feel like I’m off to a good start. I figured one way that I might be able to write 10 songs in a month is if I use a drum machine and record a guitar part for each song, and then fill in the rest over time (and maybe replace those later, especially the drum machine, especially if a drummer happens to want to work on this with me). I have a KR-mini that I bought for jamming and that hasn’t gotten much use, but I think it’s going to be pretty perfect for this. Tonight’s song features the Metal-1 and Pop-1 and Pop-2 beats. I happened to get a pickup installed in my acoustic recently, and it’s sounding excellent through the speaker emulation / DI of my Marshall. Biggest revelation tonight – the nasty ground loop that I’ve never been able to pin down goes away when I unplug the laptop that I’m recording onto!

February 2

Luckily there’s a sound booth across from my office, so I got to get some scratch vocals done. Note to self – remember to close the sound booth door in the future!

February 3

Found another beat on the KR-Mini that I liked, but technical glitches plagued by attempts to do anything with it, and all I wound up with was this not particularly original Roxy Music-like progression.


That’s as far as I got – it was too exhausting trying to do this alongside my real job. Oh well, there’s always June…


Thank you David

I had been intending to write up some thoughts on Blackstar, Bowie’s new album that was just released on his 69th birthday Friday, and on what has been a Bowie year for me over the last twelve months or so, when I got the news of his death. I don’t really want to write about Blackstar, though I am listening to it again right now (I think it’s great, though not as great or revolutionary as some writers have said). But I do want to write a letter of thanks to David Bowie for everything he gave us. He’s been a particularly huge influence on me this year, and at the risk of seeming self-focused, I’ll structure this tribute around that (insomuch as this is going to have much structure – there’s quite a bit of rambling and digression ahead).

My Bowie year started Christmas 2014. I happened across Chris O’Leary’s phenomenal blog, Pushing Ahead of the Dame: David Bowie, song by song. Getting the context for the music in such detail, especially about Bowie’s songwriting process, the musicians involved, its recording made me re-listen to it all with new ears. By “all”, I mean the albums up to and including Scary Monsters – nothing later than that has ever made much of an impression on me, until the last two. Maybe that’s because these were the albums I listened to as a teenager – Scary Monsters was one of the first CDs I ever heard (thanks Dad!). I got into Bowie thanks to my buddy Marc Lafrenière. He’s second from right with a Bowie-esque haircut, wearing a Scary Monsters t-shirt.

high-school (1)

Along with our partner in crime Johnny Kauf on the right, it also has me and Dave McQuaide (far left) doing our best to be Marc’s Iggy and Lou, like in this famous and fantastic photo:

A couple points on the Lou and Iggy collaborations while we’re here. Bowie was hugely influenced by both of them – Ziggy was in some ways Iggy, and David was covering VU songs as he made the transition from spacy folk hippy to avant guard rocker. He then paid them back by helping them make some great music, and make some money. David played sideman to Iggy on a tour, and there is a phenomenal clip of them on the Dinah Shore show available on YouTube: both the performances and interview are must-sees. On Lou and David, I have to mention this making-of Transformer film I watched on Netflix, in which Lou rhapsodizes about the genius of Bowie’s backing vocals on Satellite of Love, saying no one else in the world could have done them. I don’t hear that song the same anymore – all I can hear are those truly incredible multi-tracked backing vocals. Another Lou-Iggy-David tidbit – in a French documentary we got the chance to see this summer, a very-1973 Lou says something like “Yeah David, he’s fun. Pretty quiet, but when he drinks, he thinks he’s Iggy”.

The next event in my year of Bowie was that “David Bowie Is” was in Paris last year, and we went as a family. Hopefully that exposition will now tour in perpetuity, and you’ll all get a chance to see it. Thanks to that, and subsequent events, our five-year-old thinks David Bowie is cool, which is pretty great. I snapped the photo below, which is Bowie’s Berlin-era painting of Iggy, with the synth that Eno gave him accidentally reflected beneath his eye. In the interview in the movie I just mentioned, Bowie said that he felt that he never had any talent for anything, except for perhaps painting, that he had to work very hard at music. I found that incredibly inspiring.


One thing that I’ve gotten out of the all the Bowie information from “David Bowie Is” and O’Leary’s blog is an appreciation for how his music in the Berlin era (Low-Heroes-Lodger) was such a conscious and interesting blend of American soul-funk and European electronic music. This is reflected in the make-up of the band: Americans Carlos Alomar, Dennis Davis, and George Murray, and Europeans Brian Eno and Robert Fripp . Check out this concert  video that my friend Lisa Samuda shared with me of Heroes-era Bowie. I tend not to like busy drumming, but I can listen to Look Back in Anger from Lodger over and over again just for the drumming. I also hadn’t realized how big of a role his collaborators played – he would apparently often just give them a very rough sketch of songs, and they would flesh them out on their own. The fact that Tony Visconti, Mick Ronson, Carlos Alomar, and the others did such a fantastic job on arrangements is a large part of the reason that his pre-1975 rock and post-1975 post-rock is so great (speaking of post-rock, a quick and too-reductive way of saying what his new album sounds like is Bowie singing with Tortoise, with some fancy contemporary vocal effects thrown in). But the singing on those records is to my mind what really makes them timeless. He has this inimitable way of changing styles and timbres in a seamless way within a song that he uses to great effect in Low through Scary Monsters especially. (Postscript: I just noticed the Apple Music Bowie Berlin collection says he was “exploring” new wave in this era. Inventing would be a better word).

Seeing the Bowie documentary at the  Art Rock festival at the beginning of last summer was a revelation to me on a number of levels. They had great interview with him, from about 1980 or a little later, in which he seemed confident and happy, and was reflective and funny. This contrasted with the image of him that was painted from the 1970s. He was a natural introvert, and the sudden Ziggy fame took its toll. There was footage of him post-concert in the Ziggy era, looking nervous and wanting to leave. It’s easy to imagine that the cocaine problem he developed was due to his using that drug to ease the interactions he needed to engage in. By the time of Young Americans he was a mess (that tour footage is frightening, and not very good – the David Live album from that time is also pretty painful). Besides his comment about having to work hard at his music, another thing that really stuck with me from that film was something he said about believing that our future is ours to invent.

Right after seeing that documentary, I decided that I would play at the Fête de la Musique, the French national holiday on June 21st. All year I had tried from time to time to find collaborators so that I could play in it, and since I hadn’t gotten anything together, I had given up. But that documentary got me fired up, and I decided I would do a solo show. All the Bowie stuff made me also decide to invent a persona and genre, so Vernon Valiquette and Glam-a-Billy were born.   Through a great stroke of luck I got to play in one of Nantes’ coolest bars, and Marie got into the act too, with poster design, roadie-ing, and dancing. I played a bunch of covers, mostly ones I knew from learning to sing and play guitar in my teens, including Ziggy Stardust. Listening to it now, I don’t think it’s that great – it’s really hard to do a Bowie song justice – but I was glad to have made it through it. That day was a dream come true, and it’s thanks to David that I had the courage and inspiration to pursue that dream.


I went on to (re-)learn another Bowie song that I’ve played in a couple subsequent Vernon Valiquette shows, Watch that Man. We had played this song in our high school band, the Slinks. I knew the chord changes were complicated, but I hadn’t quite appreciated how hard the vocals were. This is what I said in Facebook at the time: “Turns out that Watch that Man is really, really hard, especially to sing, even an octave lower than Bowie. It’s got two key changes, and the vocals come in with the instruments on the changes. Man, did we ever torture our singer!” I told “our singer”, Gord Downie, that I had been playing it again, and he told me that he had covered it in his current band The Tragically Hip in a tour when they were learning a new cover every day  and playing it in the encore (unlike me, those guys are real musicians).  Humbling. Anyway, here’s my version.

I wasn’t surprised to get the news today of his death. There had been rumors of his ill health, and his recent productivity, including his participation in the “David Is” exposition, had the feeling of someone wanting to leave the right final mark on his heritage. And he certainly managed to do that, though his impact had already been enormous. As for me, I’m sure that my songwriting tricks mostly come from David Bowie (playing an F chord in a song in A, for instance). He’s also a huge inspiration in the importance of collaboration and how to do it successfully. But the biggest mark he’s made in my life is by making music that I will never get tired of listening to. Thank you David.



The Dalai Lama is coming to town soon, and this made me tell my partner the story of when I shook his hand, and of some other great things that happened when I spent a few weeks in Dharamsala in the mid 1980s. I thought I’d write it down…

I stayed in a guest house in Dharamsala for a few weeks, right beside the Dalai Lama’s monastery. One day, someone in the street was telling people that he would be receiving visitors. I showed up at the announced time, and there was a ceremony, and then he shook everyone’s hand. So that’s how I got to shake the Dalai Lama’s hand.

That was a highlight of my visit for sure, but I’ve got a couple equally great memories. One day I was walking down the street, admiring the rhododendrons, when I heard chanting coming out of a building. I stood by the doorway and listened, and then someone invited me in. I went upstairs, into this relatively small room, in which monks were chanting in very low pitches, with overtones simultaneously on top. Pretty mind-blowing. The other was playing music with Tibetan teenagers who were playing some kind of Tibetan lute – I had an electric guitar (a Japanese Tokai Strat that was one of the best guitars I ever played, and which I stupidly traded for tablas that I never played and finally just sold for $40 in a garage sale). I was just doing some kind of blues jamming, but it seemed to work.


Finger drums for everyone!

I’ve been finger drumming for about a year and a half now, and it’s so much fun and so useful that I can’t believe I’ve never seen anyone else doing it in public. By finger drumming, I don’t mean tapping your fingers on a desk. I mean hitting something with your fingers that produces the sound of drums. While it may not yet be a visible craze in the streets, you can see lots of kids on YouTube finger drumming on phone apps along with songs, and many performers finger drumming on samplers. I play mostly on apps on my iPad or iPhone, and have passed many hours playing and practicing drums while sitting on a park bench, in cars, trains and planes, in offices waiting for appointments…. There’s never a wasted or dull moment when you have drums in your pocket!


In the cause of spreading this joy, I’m writing this post and making the videos below to tell and show you what you need to know to start finger drumming. I’m including some basics about rhythm in music, so that even if you’ve never played any other instrument, you should be able to start finger drumming. Musicians should be able to get something out of this too. Even though I’ve been playing music since I was a teenager, I’ve learned a lot through finger drumming. In particular, my time has improved immensely, which has affected my guitar playing, my keyboard playing, and especially my drumming. I was away for the last year, and didn’t touch physical drums, but I noticed a huge improvement when I got behind a drum kit again, and so did my friends playing with me (I’ve still got a long way to go, as you can tell in my finger drum videos). Finding a place to practice can be a major impediment to learning real drums, and even electronic drums can make a fair bit of noise. While there are many things you can’t do on finger drums that you can do with all four limbs, I can say from personal experience that the sense of time, as well as understanding of rhythmic patterns that you can develop in finger drumming, does transfer. Developing these abilities requires a bit of attention, so the material below may well be useful even to other finger drummers.


Finger drum appAs I mentioned, I do most of my finger drumming using iOS apps. A lot of the available apps have you hitting images of a drum kit, which forces you to play Twister with your fingers. Way better is an app that uses images of pads, as on a drum machine or sampler. My favorite is Rhythm Pad, pictured at right. There is a free version, and getting rid of the ads only costs $2.99. It uses most of the screen space for the pads, and has the pad assignments in what are the right places for me (you can perhaps read them in the screenshot – if not check out the second video below to see what I mean). I worry that Android users may be out of luck – I’ve tried a few apps on a couple different phones, and I found them unusable because of the lag between tapping and sound. There are lots of physical pads available for i-devices and computers, which can be used to trigger lots of drum synths and samplers – finger drumming can open a pretty vast universe of musical possibilities. And conversely, musicians using samplers can stand to gain a lot by learning some finger drumming.

Rhythmic basics – 1,2,3,4

Before you get started (finger) drumming, you need to know some basics about how songs are rhythmically structured. Everyone’s heard a song being counted in as 1-2-3-4. I’ll explain what those numbers mean, and how the spaces between can be further divided by 2, 3, and 4. I’m limiting myself to patterns that can be counted in 4, but that includes probably 98% of the songs in the rock-pop-r&b etc. tradition – it’s probably more like 85% in country, which uses more waltz time, which is counted in 3.  I won’t use any standard musical notation, but I do think the step notation of a drum machine, as well as the audio illustration it provides, is very helpful in understanding and internalizing these concepts, so I’d encourage you to check out the video, which illustrates these ideas on a software drum machine (the drum machine itself, DM-1, is also worth checking out, especially on the i-Pad, even though it’s got its pads in the wrong places for finger drumming, as well as some other limitations).[youtube][/youtube]

In the 4 count, which indicates one repeating bar or measure, you’ll usually find a bass drum on 1 and 3, and a snare on 2 and 4. The 1 often gets special emphasis, with a stronger bass drum hit, a crash cymbal, and a roll leading into it. A good place to start learning is to listen to music and identify these four beats and play along with them. You’ll sometimes hear music without the bass and snare on these beats – reggae music famously often drops the 1, and funk syncopation can move everything except the 1 – but most of the time they’ll be there, along with other cues for the 1.

The bass and snare drums, as well as the rest of the drum kit, other instruments and voices can also fall on the positions between the beats that are created by dividing that space in 2, 3, or 4. In the accompanying video, I illustrate the divisions between the beats with a hi-hat, and also show some of the patterns that result from permutations of bass and snare on the various positions. The simplest hi-hat pattern is just to play on all four of the beats. A more common pattern is to play the hi-hat in 8, hitting everything counted in 1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and, so that there is a hi-hat between the bass and snare as well as played with them. A “straight” 8 pattern will divide the space between the beats evenly in 2. An inter-beat division into 4, such as playing 16 on a hi-hat, is often used in slower music, in disco music, and as I’ll explain momentarily, in syncopation.

The division into 3 (or triplets) is mostly used in jazz, blues or early rock and roll styles, in what are called swing or shuffle beats, though it’s not at all uncommon in even contemporary electronic music. Divisions into 3 are usually written in standard music notation as 6/8 or 12/8, though they can also be represented in 4/4 with triplets.

As the examples of swing and shuffle bring up, not all of the positions in a 4, 8, 12 or 16 step division necessarily get played. A blues shuffle would have the high hat playing only 8 of the 12 steps, with the hit between the beats later than in a straight 8 – on the “uh” of 1-and-uh-2-and-uh-3-and-uh-4-and-uh. In other words, a straight 8 and a shuffle 8 have the same number of hits, but the one between the beats comes later in the shuffle. As Alexander Stewart discusses in a very useful piece in Popular Music, the transition from early r&b and rock&roll to later funk and rap involved a transition from predominantly swing/shuffle beats to predominantly straight ones.

As Stewart also discusses, the shift to straight 8 allowed funk to use the 16th divisions between the 8ths. This is called syncopation – hitting unexpected points in a measure. Finally, Stewart’s discussion of funk brings up a point that is important to emphasize here: there is a lot in human rhythm that is not well captured either by drum machine step notation or by standard music notation. Funk drummers can play with a slight lag on a hit to introduce a degree of swing to the rhythm. Drum machines simulate this with a “swing” control, and music notation uses diacritics, but to really understand it and feel it, you need to listen to drummers and play. But if you’re just starting, don’t worry about syncopation, or playing behind the beat – just focus on staying in time on the beats, which is hard enough.

Playing and practicing

Drum teachers often emphasize the importance of starting simple and slow so that you can develop your sense of time. Even playing the simplest pattern in time at a moderate tempo is difficult at first, and apparently the key to playing complex and fast things well is to build up to them gradually. Playing with a metronome is an excellent way to work on time. Justin Aswell gives some good general advice about finger drumming (rule number 1: relax!), and shows what professional finger drumming looks like.

How fast you progress will depend on your previous experience, and perhaps also on innate ability, but I would guess that just learning to play a simple alternating bass snare pattern with a hi-hat in 4 perfectly in time should generally take at least a couple of weeks. Playing that pattern fast is an infinitely difficult challenge, insofar as there’s no limit to how fast we can play (which there probably is). I think it will help if you can take pleasure in getting each small new thing right, rather than hoping to jump quickly to some level of virtuosity. Note that you can play even the simplest patterns along with recordings, which might make it more fun. Personally, I prefer just playing with the metronome, and find that it’s plenty of fun just trying to do that well, and gradually adding in new challenges, and inventing and learning new patterns.

The clip below breaks down a rhythmic pattern into its parts, and will hopefully be useful in seeing the kinds of things you should be trying to get your fingers to do.



Once you’ve digested what’s on this page and in the videos, and have got the basics down, I think you’ll find that you can keep learning more by just listening to music, and by looking at various (finger) drum tutorials. There are lots of better drummers than me, finger and stick, out there willing to give you advice! Please let me know if this has been useful for you, and if you have any related thoughts or particularly useful materials you’ve come across.


I found this little book by Bill Powelson to be a nice accessible introduction to rhythm. There’s also some good accessible material on rhythm theory in this book (available on-line through the UMass library):

Hewitt, Michael. 2008. Music Theory for Computer Musicians. Boston, MA, USA: Course Technology.

Less accessible, but invaluable, was the Alexander Stewart article on the history of American rhythm I linked above. Here it is again.

Finally, if you happen to be a linguist, you’ll likely enjoy these Language Log posts by Mark Liberman on the basics of text-to-tune mapping, and on its interaction with rock syncopation.


Best oysters in the world?

I haven’t tasted enough oysters to make a confident claim of supremacy for these ones, but they’re certainly as good as any others I’ve ever had, and better than many. The brine is quite salty compared to some others, and the flesh is sweeter. 2015-07-07 12.27.27They come from Noirmoutier, and are sold by their producteurs, the Pineau family, in the Boulevard des Américains market Tuesday mornings in Nantes. 2015-07-07 10.46.34That’s Françoise Pineau in the picture, who nicely answered the questions I often had about her products. My weekly ritual for a while now has been to get a dozen and open them up for lunch right away (thanks to Pierre for teaching me how to open them!). The salicornes that you can see in the front of the photo are also delicious, as are the mussels, the coques, and the famous Noirmoutier potatoes. I’m looking forward to tasting other oysters elsewhere, which will certainly have their own merits – the notion of “best” here is ultimately silly, of course – but I know I’ll now always have these as a référence.


Glam-a-Billy Heritage Music Project

Over the course of two weeks in June and July of 2015, I recorded 24 songs, most of which were ones that I played when I was learning to sing and play the guitar in my teens and early twenties. They draw mostly from the “Glam” (David Bowie-Iggy Pop-Lou Reed/Velvets) and country (Hank Williams-Johnny Cash) traditions, hence the name “Glam-a-Billy”. They were recorded to two tracks live (single takes, but rarely first takes), and I mixed them with the vocals in left channel, and the guitar in the right. I recorded them this way with collaboration in mind. I hope that live music collaborators might create parts to go along with the way I play the songs by playing along (including even replacing the vocals or guitar if you want), and that recorded music collaborators might use them in multitrack recording / editing projects. All of the songs start with a count in on drums, and the beats per minute are included in the file names. In the rest of this post, I’ll give some more history on the project, further details about the recordings, and further ideas on how they can be used. They can be heard and downloaded on this SoundCloud page:

As well as being the music of my youth, this is my “roots music”, my “folk music”. These are the songs I would play if we were passing a guitar around at a party. I had left this music to follow other directions (more originals, more disco-punk), but I’ve recently had the chance to start sharing this music with people again, and I want to keep doing it. Three of them are songs I wrote while learning many of the others when I was traveling in Asia when I was 20. I’d never recorded them before, though I did play them with “Hungry Tim”. A few of the covers I learned just recently, but as I was developing them, it became clear that they were becoming part of the “Glam-a-Billy” repertoire. I came up with that name for the “genre”, and adopted my stage name and a new habit of wearing makeup, for the Fete de la Musique that was held in Nantes just before I did the recordings – you can see video of that perfomance here.

Recording details.
As I mentioned above, I recorded these all in single takes. I did this for the training that it gave me for playing these songs live, but also because it minimized the amount I had to interact with the computer. It’s also a fun and challenging game when you don’t save previous takes: “Do I think I can do it better????” But given that disk space is cheap, there’s no real reason that to subject yourself to that (although it does save listening trying to pick a take…)

They were recorded using a Sennheiser MK IV mic (sounds good to me), and a Squier Bigsby Cabronita (great guitar, except that the bridge height screws come loose all the time, especially if you use the Bigsby, and also except for the fact that Cort, who has a bad labor record, builds them on a subcontract). Both went into a Focusrite Saffire Pro 24 (great piece of gear, except that it sometimes needs to be turned on and off to connect properly). They were recorded 24 bit 44.1 khz, and mixed to AIFF-C, which preserves that bit depth. I used Logic Pro X presets on each one: Classic Vocals and Chicken Pickin’ (note if you use Logic or similar software and want to mix with hard pans like I did: make sure to turn off the Bus sends). Let me know if you’d like them with no effects, or some other effect. I picked that guitar sound because I wanted something fairly neutral, that gave a bit of a country feel, and was relatively close to an acoustic. I might have preferred doing a lot of this on an acoustic, but I couldn’t get a good recorded sound given my current abilities and guitar. I played with a simple bass-snare pattern from a drum machine to try to stay in time – you can hear it at the beginning of each track (you could copy and paste it if you want a guide track yourself and don’t have a drum machine). Most of the songs are 4/4, with the exception of the intro guitar bit of Ziggy, which I played with some parts in 3 (sounds right to me, but I didn’t go back to check the recording).

I uploaded all the songs I recorded, except “Lovesick Blues”, which didn’t sound good enough to me. It’s to my mind Hank Williams’ best song – listen to it here. I think the mistake I made was to play it too straight up – I’ve in general tried to avoid competing too directly with the originals (usually this actually came naturally, but sometimes I had to push them away consciously).

SoundCloud converts the songs to mpegs for streaming, but if you download them, you’ll get the uncompressed AIFF-C files.

Suggested uses.
I have collaborators in mind who I hope will use these tracks, but I would be extremely happy to find out that other people used them, especially if they shared their work for further public collaboration via SoundCloud or some other way, or if I get the chance to play them live with new people. In any case, I’d appreciate if you let me know if you use them, and also link back to this page or the SoundCloud page if you post anything based on them.

To record a new tracks, load the files into any multitrack recording program (or recorder – tape still sounds great!), and set the beats per minute accordingly, if applicable. If you want to contribute to this project via SoundCloud, mix the previously existing work into one channel, and put your contribution on the other. That way, people have a clean version of your track to use if they wish.

Depending on how this project progresses, I might set up a site for further collaborative work. But for now, you are more than welcome to share your stuff with other people who come here in comments, or on Vernon Valiquette’s Facebook timeline.

As well as for collaborating, I hope these recordings might be fun to just play along with – I’m looking forward to (finger) drumming along myself.

I’m planning to put together a “Fake Book” for these songs, but in the meantime please let me know if you want to know the chords or anything else.


Help save music: get off your couch, go see a show, and buy some merch

It’s never been a better time to be a musician: thanks to technology, making and sharing music has become much easier and much more fun. It’s never been a worse time to be a musician if you are trying to make a living at it: technology makes sharing music so easy that it’s hard to sell it.

Musicians make a lot of their money from the merch they sell at concerts. According to a rumor that I heard, Arcade Fire makes $20,000 a night from it. Now Arcade Fire is not likely one of those bands that really needs your support, but this shows that the income derived from those merch table sales can be significant. So it seems to me that one concrete step that we can make in the direction of supporting the music we love so much, and the musicians we admire, is to go out and see them and buy their merch.

As I understand it, even the revenue from touring itself is important, so just buying that concert ticket could help to keep musicians in business. We also need to support club owners who book live music, since that’s obviously another business that’s getting harder to make a living in. And it’s not just the relative popularity of recorded music (I realize that the line between dj and musician is a fine one), but there’s also a problem of clubs being under attack by their neighbors, who file noise complaints. Here in France it’s become such a problem that it gets talked about in the news, but unfortunately, it seems like it’s the neighbors that always win the battle. I’m getting old enough now to really feel the pain of a bad night’s sleep, so I appreciate the neighbors’ issues, but we as a society have to figure out how to balance them with the need to preserve live music.

And of course, you are doing yourself a favor by going out and appreciating the thrill that only live music can deliver to both you and the people on stage.

I’d welcome comments from people with thoughts about things that both musicians and their audiences could be doing to make it easier for people to be working musicians. For instance, is there a need for a non-profit website devoted to on-line merch sales that support musicians?


My guide to Paris

These are the things I like to do when visiting Paris – maybe you’ll find them fun too! Besides sharing that information, I also wanted to share the experience of going to pools in France, which is the biggest cultural hurdle I had to face (besides seeing eels skinned alive in the market on Boulevard des Américains in Nantes – otherwise another one of my favorite places, especially for the oysters from Noirmoutier and the cheese from Auvergne). I’d love to hear about other people’s favorite things in Paris…

1. Hanging out in the 11th and 20th Arronidisements

Before my 2014-15 sabbatical, I had only been to this area of Paris a couple of times (once to visit Jim Morrison’s grave, of course). The first time I stayed there, near the Pyrénées metro station I happened to get in touch with my colleague Vincent Homer, who it turned out has an apartment in the same neighborhood. He showed me around a bit, and turned me on to my favorite park in Paris – Buttes de Chaumont. I went back a lot thereafter. Almost all of the concerts I saw this year were in this area. It’s young, multicultural, and a center for creative work in ways unlike any other area of Paris.

2. Walking and biking

You can get around a lot of Paris on foot, but make sure to wear comfortable shoes – I’ve gotten shin splints a couple times walking in leather soled shoes rather than running shoes. If you’re in the Latin Quarter, a particularly nice thing to do is walk across the river and head to the Marais, and then you can go over to the Bastille (see 1 above). Biking is also great and usually faster than the metro, and Vélib is a good option if you have a credit card with a chip (Americans can apparently get one with some work), and if you don’t mind the occasional frustration of trying to return it when the racks are full (get the app).

3. Swimming

Paris has some gorgeous pools. My favorite is the Joséphine Baker (great name too!), which floats on the Seine. Pools in Paris usually open from 7 – 8:30 am, and then reopen later. Because I tend to wake up early when I’m there, I did a lot of swimming at that time, and it was particularly nice with the sun rising over the Seine in that pool. Another really nice one is the Buttes des Cailles, but I have to say that I’ve never had a bad experience in a Paris pool despite some of the negative reviews they sometimes get on the internet – my only problem was when they were too crowded, which only happened when I went later in the day. (In Nantes Léo Lagrange is the best pool, unless you go with kids, in which case the Petit Port is the place to go, or if you are there in summer, in which case there is an outdoor pool).

But yes, the culture shock. First thing you do is take off your shoes and socks, before heading into your “cabine” to change. I usually got that right, but occasionally would start to strip down in the shoe taking off area, which is co-ed. After you get changed, you lock up your clothes (don’t forget your one euro coin) and then head into the often coed showers with your swimming suit on. But not just any swimming suit. The first time I went swimming in France, I was wearing my usual speedo swimming shorts. The lifeguard stopped me, and told me I needed to have a speedo on. This doesn’t refer to the brand – you need to wear what the French call a “moule bite”. So I had to go out to the vending machine out front to buy one. I felt so awkward in that thing, but now it doesn’t bother me anymore. It’s interesting that you can’t say that one swimming pool culture is more prudish. North America might be more prudish in the modesty of men’s swimming suits, but it has shower nakedness.

4. Eating

There are lots of guides to restaurants in Paris, and I haven’t made exploring them a priority. But here are a couple of “bonnes adresses”. Right near the École Normale Supérieure and the Parthenon is Mad in Terroir. The food is reasonably priced, locally sourced and freshly prepared, and very good. And the staff is actually very friendly, something that can be rare, especially in that area of town, which has a lot of tourists. And if you take that walk to the Marais, you could try Les Philosophes, where the food is again locally sourced and fresh, but it’s a little fancier and more expensive. Great place to sit on the terrace and people watch. I also eat lots of falafel in Paris, in the kosher places on Rosiers in the Marais around the corner from les Philosophes, and in various lebanese places, including this great one near the ENS, where I my regular lunch is the batata hara sandwhich for 4E (there’s also a very good Ethiopian restaurant on the same street). And for a traditional French meal, go to Chez Paul in the Bastille (recommended by all my French friends).


Understanding Charlie Hebdo

January 9th 2015, Paris.

Imagine getting this news:

“The members of [INSERT YOUR FAVORITE MUSICAL GROUP HERE] have just been killed along with the police officers guarding them by a group of heavily armed assailants. Initial reports suggest that the assailants were born in [INSERT YOUR COUNTRY HERE].”

This imaginary analogy is the best one that I can come up with to give myself, and other North Americans, some of the sense of what many French people are feeling right now. Another analogy is of course to the September 11th attack (the headline in today’s Le Monde is “LE 11-SEPTEMBRE FRANÇAIS”), which does capture some of the enormity of tragedy, as well the connections in both cases to “Islamic” extremist groups. What that analogy doesn’t capture is the cultural loss that the French have suffered with the deaths at Charlie Hebdo, and it also doesn’t capture the fact this tragedy is also connected to conflicts within French society. I’ll explain in a bit why I think the murder of a group of famous musicians is a good analogy in our cultural context.

On January 7th at home in Nantes, my partner came home in the early afternoon with tears in her eyes. “Did you hear about the attack in Paris? Cabu and Wolinsky are dead.” She had to explain to me who these people were. I then found out a little more from the short descriptions of Charlie Hebdo in the English language press, and from the drawings that were circulating that were related to the attack. At this point, I didn’t understand the motivation behind some of the cartoons at all. I could more easily see why Muslims would be offended by them. That anyone would think publishing these cartoons should be punished by death is of course beyond all imagination, but I didn’t understand why the cartoonists felt compelled to engage in this mockery – it seemed needlessly disrespectful to even ordinary Muslims to caricature Mohammed.

On January 8th, I traveled to Paris to meet with colleagues. By that time, I had learned a little more about Charlie Hebdo and its creators, and how important their work was to so many French people. The enormity of the loss really started to impress itself on me  when I was talking to a colleague who like me has a French partner. I said that it seemed like we really couldn’t understand what was happening since the Charlie Hebdo creators weren’t a part of our lives like they were for the French. She told me that they were heroes to her partner when he was a teenager. Shortly thereafter sitting in another office trying to work, but still thinking about our conversation, my own eyes first started to well with tears. The night before, I had found out that the attacks had taken place in the 11ième, where I’ve mostly been staying while in Paris, just off the route I take to walk to the universities in the Latin quarter. That physical proximity, even seeing the media trucks around the site at the end of the day on the 8th, had practically no effect on me compared to that phrase “teenage hero”.

I then had another meeting with a French colleague who is nominally retired. We had some mutual linguistic interests we had planned to discuss, but we mostly talked about Charlie Hebdo, and about French history and social and religious conflicts, from the Revolution to the present, through the Vichy regime during World War II and the war in Algeria (googling “Paris massacre” will get you not only Wednesday’s event, but also the 1961 massacre of Algerian protesters at the hands of French police, mandated by the chief of police who had been a Vichy collaborator). He told me he had been reading Charlie Hebdo since it was launched in the 1960s, and that while he didn’t keep up with it regularly, he always made a point of buying it when an issue provoked calls for its closure amongst some segment of the French population, even if that issue seemed somewhat distasteful to him personally. Charlie Hebdo was in fact started after another publication involving its founders had been shut down by the government. All of this helped me appreciate that this magazine took as a part of its mission, along with the important and often realized goal of making people laugh hysterically, the confrontation of all sacred cows. Islam and its extremist mutations weren’t a special target – Catholics, Jews and Protestants have taken their share of the mockery too, as have French politicians of all stripes. Charlie Hebdo fought the notion that any topic or group could be declared off limit from satire. This I can understand, even if I still have misgivings about the Mohammed caricatures.

I don’t think there is a North American equivalent to Charlie Hebdo. Yes, political satire and caricature exist, but to the extent that it’s popular, it’s also extremely “soft” compared with Charlie Hebdo. Aggressive satire, directed fearlessly at all sacred cows in society, is simply not a central part of our culture in the way it is in France. Many of us have musicians as teenage heroes that we keep listening to throughout our lives. Part of the appeal of Charlie Hebdo for a teenager would be its irreverence and confrontation of authority, and musicians often have that appeal too. So if you aren’t French and want to feel a little of what many French are feeling now, imagine losing your favorite band, or some other group of teenage heroes, to a commando operation. It’s even possible to imagine musicians becoming martyrs to free speech, as the Charlie Hebdo team has become, since lyrics are also sometimes political, and can be offensive to some segment of the population.

I’ve learned a lot about Charlie Hebdo, and about French history, society and culture over the last few days. The murderers apparently claimed to have “killed Charlie Hebdo”. They may have killed its creators, but their creation now lives in the minds of even more people than it did before their death. This gives me some hope, in a time when it’s easy to give into despair. Can this sort of tragedy provide the impetus for people to try to better understand other cultures? Can we overcome the tribal instincts to set our group apart from another, to vilify the other, and even seek its destruction? Given what’s happening, I’m extremely glad to be here, to have just watched my 4-year-old turn into a little française seemingly overnight, to be planning to jam next week with a friend who plays the oud.  This morning I had breakfast in the Belleville market: msemmen at a stand staffed by Algerians. I had it with cheese, and it was sort of like a Middle Eastern crêpe. It was delicious – and it made me cry again.

Postscript Nantes January 10 This morning I found on our kitchen table an old issue of Charlie Hebdo that my partner’s father had left out for us. I think does a great job of illustrating its extreme and generalized irreverance: Charlie Hebdo enterre Mitterand “Charlie Hebdo buries Mitterand”.

an old issue of Charlie Hebdo

Postscript Nantes January 12 I feel the need to add a note about the slogan Je suis Charlie “I am Charlie” after reading a little more of the response in the American media, and after seeing it used so broadly in France. Some commentators in the United States have expressed the need to distance themselves from this slogan. David Brooks titles his New York Times piece “I am not Charlie Hebdo” because he thinks it inappropriate for most people to use  Je suis Charlie: “Most of us don’t actually engage in the sort of deliberately offensive humor that that newspaper specializes in.” Similarly, Cristen A. Smith approvingly cites the use of the hashtag #JeNeSuisPasCharlie as acknowledging “the history of the magazine ‘s racism”. Both of these imply what I think is a misreading of the intent of the slogan, which I believe for the vast majority of people is to express “disgust for the attack and empathy for the victims” (Dominique Moisi), or to express general support for freedom of expression, which is what I have heard most here in France. I avoided using this slogan in my piece precisely because I felt that its interpretation was unclear. In an early draft I expressed my discomfort with it in relation to the Mohammed caricatures, and in a later draft after realizing the general use of the slogan was not in support of any particular work of Charlie Hebdo, I ended with Nous sommes tous Charlie “We are all Charlie”, which I prefer for its inclusiveness. But I finally left it out, which now seeing the confusion around it, seems like the right choice.


Edit January 12. Added this sentence "It's even possible to imagine musicians becoming martyrs to free speech, as the Charlie Hebdo team has become, since lyrics are also sometimes political, and can be offensive to some segment of the population.", and obviously, the January 12 postscript.