By Bill Whitten
“I am a miserable fool…”
Blue, blue is the grass along the River Vézère. Above the sound of its rushing water I hear the mechanical cry of a Kestrel. I imagine something small and grey struggling in its claws.
“I have one-hundred-and-sixty pages of notes for a twelve hundred word article…”
I sit with Helen Dentritis – a twenty-five year old Greek with pink lips and black hair cut straight across her forehead – in a mustard Citroën DS in the parking lot of Lascaux II. We are surrounded by black, pine-covered mountains and loud German tourists.
Twenty feet from the Citroen, Johnny, in his butter-colored lounge suit, crunches back and forth across the pea-gravel of the parking lot. Henri-Paul, seemingly ready to be whipped aloft by the flaring tails of his cobalt overcoat, follows closely after him.
How thin and short the men are. Like rats. Like beautiful, talented rats.
“I am an academic, a translator. Not a journalist…”
I rub the bridge of my nose between my index finger and thumb and theorize with absolute confidence that Johnny is the first person from Jamaica, Queens ever to set foot in the Black Perigord.
“Self-pity is not charming, Rook. No one forced you to write about Johnny.”
Of course, she’s right. I accepted the assignment to pen an article about a disreputable rock musician of my own free will. It is entirely due to a weakness of character. My well-meaning ex-girlfriend’s brother-in-law is the editor of the Soho Weekly News. ‘Since you are already in Paris’, he suggested during an all too brief phone-call, ‘I’ll pay you 250USD to meet up with Johnny, pal around with him for a few weeks and then jot down a feuilleton.’
And thus I follow after him like a dog, like a man put under a spell.
Meanwhile, Johnny and Henri-Paul wait for a man named Swann to emerge from the replica caves where he’s been gazing upon aurochs, deer, horses, scenes of murder and other enigmatic, primordial images.
The wind blows fragments of the their conversation through the open windows of the Citroen.
Henri-Paul: My Uncle Auguste saw the original paintings – before Lascaux I was closed in 1963. To him, the reproductions in Lascaux II are no more than shadows of the originals…
Johnny (lighting a cigarette): It’s the destruction of our patrimony…it’s a theft of our…
Henri-Paul: He claimed that when modern men were confronted with the original cave paintings it caused them to lose faith in their way of life. Men would see the images and then abandon their wives, their children…
Johnny: I knew it…It’s as I’ve been saying.
Henri-Paul: The government shut it down because it was too…uncanny….too destabilizing.
The man named Swann wears a backpack filled with stolen Japanese microchips. He will hand over the backpack to Johnny. When Johnny returns to Paris he will deliver the microchips to an editor at Tel Quel named Alain. Alain is a Soviet agent. The microchips are so new, so advanced, that not even the Americans have seen them. Upon delivery, the chips will be spirited off to the Angstrem factory in Zelenograd to be reverse-engineered. Johnny, for his troubles, will be paid 50,000 francs.
Johnny’s fame, as I have learned over the weeks that I have spent with him, touring France, Belgium and Germany, derives not only from his musical skills but also from his protracted self-immolation. When his fans buy their tickets they expect a human sacrifice, failing that, they will settle for a concert given by a cadaver animated by narcotics.
Nevertheless, under the watchful eye of his new manager and paraclete, Christopher, the guitar-player has quit drugs and begun the long process of putting his life and career back on track. The punters, of course, hope for a relapse. Johnny, exhibiting a fatalism typical of his Sicilian heritage, believes that crime and rock and roll are intertwined and accepts that he will always remain in close proximity to danger.
His difficulties are endless; jealous band-mates, a hostile press, a vindictive ex-wife, a complement of children that he is forbidden to see, problems with the IRS.
It all amounts to a shortage of money. One can never have enough money.
I am not supposed to know about the microchips, but Henri-Paul, an Ecole Normale dropout who grew up in Montignac, tells me everything.
Johnny’s neck is wrapped in a long violet scarf. He tugs at it as he turns and watches Swann walk toward him. Swann is dressed in a grey blazer, white shirt and blue jeans – the same clothes he wore while working as Alain Delon’s stuntman in the just-wrapped production of Pour la Peau d’un Flic.
“I’ve seen better artwork on the stall walls of a truck-stop toilet in Texarkana.”
When Johnny heard that Swann, in transit from Sardinia, wanted to meet somewhere between Paris and the Dordogne Department, Johnny insisted that Swann first see the paintings at Lascaux. Everyone on earth should see them. That Johnny is a connoisseur of the works of the cavemen of Lascaux is surprising, yet when I think of his performances and acknowledge that they are events more primitive ritual than concert, it makes sense. Aesthetic violence is always his goal. Be it in his brutal, minimalist guitar playing or in his impromptu scabrous, psycho-sexual monologues. The same theatre of cruelty that can be glimpsed in the galleries of Lascaux is also on offer whenever Johnny takes the stage at the Gibus Club or Max’s Kansas City.
Johnny smiles. His is the face of a thief. “If you weren’t so stupid, Swann, you’d notice that the painters used the cracks in the cave walls, the flaws of the material, as compositional tools. A lump of anthracite becomes a spot on a horse, a crack becomes an antler.”
“You’ve been living in France too long, Johnny.” Even with a discolored, split front tooth Swann’s smile is pleasant.
The men make their farewells and Johnny and Henri-Paul climb into the Citroen.
In the back seat, Helen sighs. Johnny met her on a snowy December morning in the Jardin du Sénat. An intellectual, she’s written for Libé, L’Infini and many others. This enchanted creature, this archetypically Mediterranean beauty displays, despite her enormous mental acuity, a great patience for Johnny’s lapses and idiosyncrasies.
Johnny, like many rock musicians is a consummate sufferer; he cultivates the deepest level of suffering and has learned every possible way to exploit it. That fateful morning, as he wandered the garden, pale, grim, lost, wearing an expression of a man at sea, Helen hid behind a tree and watched him, unaware of his fame, his notoriety, his moral gluttony.
Eventually, she left her hiding place and her swift, tiny steps roused him as he gazed upon the Fontaine es Quatre-Parties-du-Monde. It was something like love at first sight.
Helen, of course, introduced Johnny to Alain.
Château d’Urfé, built in 1224 was once the possession of Cathar nobleman Bernard de Garrel. Albigensian crusader Alphonse de Monsoon took the castle and installed a garrison. When Garrel retook it, Monsoon was strangled in his bed. In later times the castle was periodically abandoned and reoccupied, until those enemies of every religion, the Jacobins, razed it to its foundations. A hotel now occupies the site. It is here we retrieve our belongings, check out and begin the trek back to Paris.
Helen wrote her dissertation on Simone Weil and naturally holds a deep interest in the Cathars. She ignites one of Johnny‘s Marlboro Lights: “Reactionaries like to say that the Paris Commune began here among the Cathars. They accuse Marxists of being crypto-Gnostics, crypto-Manicheans forever trying to beget Heaven on Earth. Of course, Marxists share with the Gnostics a belief that the world is fallen, depraved, obscene and that only a transmission of a kind of secret knowledge can allow for the realm of Satan to be overthrown.”
At the wheel I speak, perhaps only to myself: “We will need petrol very, very soon.”
Johnny pulls a wad of francs from his pocket and passes it to me over my right shoulder. “Here you go, Rook.”
Eventually, Helen continues: “Secretly, I agree with them. Marx, Engels, Lenin belong in the same tradition as Marcion, Valentinus, Mani. I feel a secret thrill whenever a fascist accuses me or one of my comrades of being a Gnostic. Yes, yes, I want to tell them. I am one of the Perfecti and I, unlike you, will receive the Consolamentum upon my death. But of course I can’t say a word.”
Henri-Paul pushes his index finger against the bridge of his sunglasses and sneers. “As Genet said; it is more beautiful to betray a cause than to be faithful to it.”
Johnny stares out the window, Swann’s backpack clasped to his chest in the fashion of a schoolgirl. His eyes are black, depthless.
I edit my article in my head as I drive:
Before the mutation took place that allowed homo sapien to speak, did archaic humans have a signature recognizable cry like that of the blue jay, the horse or the wolf?
Johnny’s music is the color of black hair. It is the sound of machines being manipulated by addicts and criminals under conditions of destitution. All love is wretchedness. This music does not impart anything approaching truth but instead offers a profound sense of the morbid, the uncontrollable, the unwholesome….
Bill Whitten is a musician and writer. He is the founding member of St. Johnny, Grand Mal and currently records under the nom de guerre William Carlos Whitten. His latest album Ecstatic Laments was released in June 2022. His book BRUTES, a collection of short fiction was released in January 2022.