The Third Ear

Music and imagination

Album review: Robert Sotelo – Cusp

The notion of Englishness can be taken in many ways, not all of them good. There are the stereotypes of laddish behaviour: the football-hooligan abroad, the lobotomised flag-waver, the stumbling stag-party stalwart, the, er, Jeremy Clarkson. There is the boorishness, the lack of class, the poor dress sense, the shit cooking. There is Brexit. But in terms of popular music, it would seem that the opposite is true. When people talk about Englishness in pop they are generally referring to the vaguely eccentric but otherwise undefinable strand that runs through the work of Paul McCartney, Syd Barrett, Kevin Ayers and Ray Davies, via artists as diverse as XTC, Robyn Hitchcock, Kirsty MacColl, through to twee pop and outsider folk. There is an implied gentleness to English pop, and I mean gentle in the medieval sense as well as the modern. It can be bucolic or cosmopolitan, cheekily subversive or carefully nostalgic.

In pop music’s handling of nostalgia, things can so often go wrong. An appeal to an often spurious golden age is usually indicative of a lack of ideas, even a negation of the genre’s future. But, perhaps paradoxically, nostalgia can be a hotbed of new ideas. When done well, the examination of the past can both pay tribute and satirise. Think of The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, and in particular that album’s brilliant closing song, ‘People Take Pictures Of Each Other’. Davies uses familiar musical tropes to explore the way the past impinges on the present, in music and in life, while at the same time creating a song that still feels pertinent in the selfie generation.

Robert Sotelo (real name Andrew Doig) is a songwriter in a similar vein to Davies or XTC’s Andy Partridge. Cusp is his debut solo album, and it deals largely in a combination of Davies-style character studies and more personal pieces tackling twenty-first century suburban ennui. Musically, he mixes things up just enough to steer clear of the comfortable traps of the past: wonky psychedelia is offset by a lo-fi bedroom-pop aesthetic (Sotelo plays all the instruments himself, and the guitar and keyboard parts twinkle in the general haze).

‘Bring Back The Love’ is a breathless ballad with woozy, almost tropical instrumental backing, while Bronte Paths is similarly heady, offering up off-kilter guitars and plaintive keyboards over a distinctive melody. Here and elsewhere Sotelo displays an admirable sense of timing and a instinctive feeling for space within the song: the bass lines throughout the album rise periodically to the surface, breathe and then submerge themselves again to carry on with their work.

‘Marinade’ is perhaps the most expansive and oddest piece on show here, irresistibly chasing its own tail to a conclusion that has a slow, almost funky, strut to it, like a one-man Beta Band. Simpler but just as effective is ‘Version’, which channels the Beatles (circa 1965-66) into a tale of creative disappointment, while ‘Dr. Parsley’ has jazzier, folkier frills and the title track goes heavier on the psych.

Throughout the record there are always implied social or political comments just round, and this is where Sotelo makes us aware of the flip side of nostalgia – a kind of timeless drudgery that is engineered or at least encouraged by those in positions of power. These ideas come to the fore in ‘Alan Keay Is Fit For Work’ (inspired by Sotelo’s time spent as a support worker in Stevenage) and ‘Tenancy Is Up’, a timely reminder of how individuals can be negatively affected by large scale property development.

Sotelo may crib from the past, but he does so in a way that is relevant, playful and often touching, with lyrics that point to the possibility of a better future. Cusp is an accomplished and mature debut.





We tried the cryptic crossword

in an attempt to wake the beast


outside, ginger biscuits sludged in a tray

and offal, somewhere, was being thrown off a truck

with a sound that resembled a wet kiss or two

and the grunting of men dressed entirely in white

(what’s that about?) for you. A bald fella’s head


passes the window; the street croaks under the rain:

what passes for ambivalence is often desire. If

you listen hard enough. Is it possible to apply

anything cosmetic to the cracks

in the road?


If you think about it, there is a hidden mycelium, which,

asses, cranes its billion necks to see the future and the rule

of the rude: bills of blackbirds snap off in the putty earth

and a mole sasses through the whole shebang. Larvae


bubble. The bloom on a plumb turns

out to be athlete’s foot spray.

Album review: Royal Trux – Platinum Tips + Ice Cream (live)

Some acts exist within the broad framework of ‘rock’ or ‘pop’ music but stretch the edges of those defining terms so far that their creations are unrecognisable to the unaccustomed listener. They do not so much defy the conventions of genre as annihilate them. I’m thinking the Velvet Underground in full-on ‘Sister Ray’ mode, the whole of Trout Mask Replica, the Fall at their scariest, Diamanda Galas, Throbbing Gristle and their henchpersons, Faust’s debut. There are a few of them about. A rarer beast, though, is the band that can reach those bleak sonic outposts by feeding purely off the culture that they transcend. Sonic Youth maybe got close but always seemed to come back to the form that begat them. But when Royal Trux had finished stripping the carcass of rock and roll, they crushed up the bones, snorted them and then went looking for more.

With their self-titled debut and in particular its 1990 follow-up, Twin Infinitives, Jennifer Herrema and Neil Michael Hagerty created a thrilling shit-soup, a hot mess of deconstructed rock tropes and drug-mangled pop culture references. What followed was a career of brilliance and narcotic lunacy (they were once dropped by a record label for allegedly spending their entire album advance on smack) that came to an end in 2001 when Hagerty and Herrema, who had been a couple since the late 80s, split up.

After some pretty successful reincarnations – Herrema as RTX and more recently the Black Bananas, Hagerty as The Howling Hex – they got it together again in 2016 for long enough to play a handful of gigs. Platinum Tips + Ice Cream is an amalgamation of performances in New York and California, but its artful sequencing and minimal mastering mean it plays out like a single, short, and often thrilling show.

What is instantly striking – and perhaps somewhat surprising to new listeners or those who haven’t listened to the band in a while – is just how good these two were at writing memorable rock and roll tunes. Opener ‘Junkie Nurse’, from their untitled third LP, comes on with the swagger of the New York Dolls and a dirty groove that any of today’s garage rock bands would kill for. It’s a million miles away from the raw, Big Star-channelling original, which itself was a massive departure from their previous work. ‘Sewers of Mars’, from 1995’s Thank You, contains quieter passages that creep with menace and verses full of boogie. But the band’s penchant for deconstruction and musical self-harm means that even when they are mining the glittering seam of 70s rock-era Rolling Stones they sound like they’ve been beamed in from a dirty, deathly future.

Herrema’s voice was never a thing of ripe beauty or sweet clarity, and here she is every bit the addled urban banshee. Her squeaks and grunts at the start of the churning ‘Red Tiger’ seem designed to explicitly mock the overblown vocal delivery of generations of unselfconscious male rock superstars. When she shares space or trades places with Hagerty, as on the brief but strangely exploratory ‘Sometimes’ or the comparatively conventional ‘Mercury’, it is as if the listener has stumbled on an alternative universe where Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham were kidnapped by anarchists and made to live in a sewer and eat gravel instead of going into rehab.

The duo were always able to create a great deal of noise without much in the way of outside input, and here they are augmented by Tim Barnes (drums) and Brian McKinley (bass). The two do a great job on the crunching grunge of ‘Esso Dame’, while on ‘Deafer Than Blind’ you can hear the band progressing from loose rehearsal-style jam to locked-in psychy fuzz in the course of about three minutes.

Part of the Royal Trux appeal was their ability to turn their hand to anything as long as they were allowed to fuck it up and make it strange, and here they have applied that talent to their own back catalogue. ‘Waterpark’ becomes a kind of surf-rock anthem from hell, ‘Platinum Tips’ regurgitates its southern rock riff and revels in the extra coating of scuzz it has acquired over time. Best of all is Twin Infinitives favourite ‘Ice Cream’, rendered as an almost unrecognisable slab of future-funk, covered in puddles of gloopy noise.

Royal Trux were always different. Different from their peers, and different from themselves. Their music was art: pure and filthy. In this respect at least, they haven’t changed. Platinum Tips + Ice Cream won’t stand as a monument to their work, but what’s the point in making a monument to something so vital and so alive?


Platinum Tips + Ice Cream is released by Drag City on June 16th

Song review: I, idol – ‘Post-Human, Platform Shoes’ and ‘Xerox Me, Baby’

I, idol is an audiovisual recording project comprising three full-time members – Nina, MC Flesh and 3 – and a host of guests. They are from Swindon. This much we know. Other than that, the biographical information is scant, and the wish for anonymity palpable. The ‘about’ section on their Facebook page resembles the aphasic ramblings of a robot in therapy – twisted binary and cat-on-a-keyboard strings of symbols – and homemade masks are de rigueur in the few photographs that exist of the trio.

A sense of mystery is an admirable thing to nurture, particularly in a time where so much art is about the self. But a sense of mystery will only get you so far. To maintain that mystery and still create art that connects is the difficult trick, but I, idol have managed it. They have released two tracks (or rather ‘video singles’) in 2017, and they are both highly original and scarily brilliant.

The first, ‘Post-Human, Platform Shoes’, mixes retro-futurist minimal techno with blasts of industrial noise, inside which lurks, half-hidden, the glimmer of a beautiful pop song. There are shades of Holly Herndon, Laurel Halo and even Aphex Twin, but the overall effect is one of collage, with rock, pop and hip-hop motifs grafted with laudable perfectionism onto the thrillingly modern bedrock. Like Herndon’s tracks, much of the content seems to examine the increasingly blurred lines between technology, humanity and personal politics. But there is something decidedly British about I, idol, particularly the on-point rap courtesy of Twitch Throat. Throughout, Nina’s vocals hush and swirl, at times approaching the near-glossolalia of Elizabeth Fraser, at others the treated, medicated detachment and repetition of early Julia Holter. It’s an alluring mix.


Second up, and preserving the comma-love, is ‘Xerox Me, Baby’. Here the trio’s transatlantic influences are more tangible. Nina’s vocals float like a soul-pop diva stranded in the technological ether before a mad snippet of electric guitar gives a Zappa/Funkadelic vibe to the whole thing. Again, there is a verse from a guest rapper, and this one is a slice of pure daisy age brilliance, a lament for the loss of originality nailed to one of the most original bits of music I’ve heard this year.


And there lies I’ idol’s brilliance. Some artists are truly original. Some have a healthy political awareness. Some are blessed with individual talent. Some have an unerring ear for the great sounds of the past or the possibilities of the future. I, idol’s diversity, their fearlessness and perhaps their youth have given them the tools to attempt to be all of these things. Taken together, these two tracks are a short, exhilarating jolt. With any luck, there will be plenty more to come.

A Year in the Ear: The best albums of 2016

30. Richard Moult – Sjóraust

Experimental composition meets weird folk meets social history: read my review here.


29. Hello Shark – Delicate

Like the Silver Jews reimagined for post-emo millennials. No bad thing. Here’s a stream.


28. Laura Cannell – Simultaneous Flight Movement


27. Julien Marchal – Insight


26. Rusalnaia – Time Takes Away

Pastoral psych-folk from Sharron Kraus and Gillian Chadwick. Here’s a review.


25. Bon Iver – 22, A Million

Fan-alienating, Stevie Nicks-sampling electro-folk-R&B. Tres bon.


24. Diagonal People – Odyssey

Punk, prog and pop all in the same place, and that place is Swindon.


23. Space Mountain – Big Sky


22. Yama Warashi – Moon Zero

Arty, Brigitte Fontaine-esque dreaminess via Bristol and Japan.


21. Vaudou Game – Kidayu

French Afro-beat at its funkiest.


20. Julianna Barwick – Will


19. Kero Kero Bonito – Bonito Generation


18. Furrow Collective – Wild Hog

Reveiw here!


17. Anderson.Paak – Malibu


16. Gold Panda – Good Luck And Do Your Best

Oriental-tinged electronica with a hint of minimal techno.


15. Julsy – Ze Rest Of Uz


14. Yann Tiersen – Eusa

Breton composer at his Chopin-esque best.


13. William Tyler – Modern Country

One of the best instrumental guitar albums in a long time.


12. Michael Tanner – Suite For Psaltery And Dulcimer

The theory of drone meets the earthiness of pagan folk.


11. The Pooches – The Pooches


10. Nicolas Jaar – Sirens


9. Lambchop – Flotus 

Bon Iver’s not the only indie institution mining the rich, shimmering seam of electronic music.


8. Waclaw Zimpel – Lines

Jazz! Minimalism! Clarinets!


7. Petite Meller – Lil Empire

Simply the best pure pop album I’ve heard in years.

6. Lomelda – 4E*


5. Mothers – When You Walk A Long Distance You Are Tired


4. Jenny Hval – Blood Bitch

For a concept album about menstruation, this is surprisingly accessible.



2. John Cale – M:FANS

As uncompromising as always.


1. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith – EARS

Stunning, mathematically detailed, conceptually brave, emotive against the odds.


A Year in the Ear: 2016’s best songs

Joanna Newsom – Make Hay

Newsom’s Divers was one of the albums of 2015, and a year to the day later she released Make Hay, a syncopated, wandering song that expanded on the themes of that wonderful record. Where Divers is a lush planet of varied landscapes, Make Hay is its rogue moon. And it is my favourite song of the year.


Fred Thomas – Brickwall

Brutally honest self-deprecating garage-pop.


Kevin Morby – Beautiful Strangers

In this moving response to the various acts of terrorism perpetrated over the last year or so Morby channels the best bits of Cohen, Dylan and Gold-era Ryan Adams. It’s set to become even more poignant in the age of Trump. All proceeds go to gun control charities.


Angel Olsen – Sister

Stevie Nicks meets Neil Young. What more could you want?


Childish Gambino – Redbone

This is basically a millennial update of Bootsy Collins’ I’d Rather Be With You, but with source material that good it’s hard to go wrong.


Y La Bamba – Libre

Like a bilingual, female-fronted Animal Collective with a heart. The album was hit and miss, but this was a top moment.


Mendrugo – Emboniga

Staying on a vaguely Spanish theme, Josephine Foster’s latest project with hubby Victor Herrero produced this beautifully loose DIY acoustic singalong, which you can hear here.


Weyes Blood – Do You Need My Love

In which the former Jackie-O Motherfucker and Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti collaborator Natalie Mering goes all Linda Ronstadt/Mamas & Papas/70s Brit folk, to mesmerising effect.


CC Dust – Never Going To Die

I’m not usually a fan of punky electro, but this is, quite frankly, a banger.


Georgia – Ama Yes Uzume

If glitchy, ambient avant-pop floats your coracle, this one’s for you.


Skating Polly – Morning Dew

Forget Le Tigre’s awful pro-Clinton song, this is the riot grrrl protest anthem we need right now. There have been a few great covers of folkie Bonnie Dobson’s classic (from Fred Neil to Einsturzende Neubauten), but this one is the most raging, apocalyptic and necessary in a while.


Julie Byrne – Natural Blue

This song’s been around for a while, but I don’t think it had an official release until recently. Dunno why. It’s lovely.


Kishi Bashi – Say Yeah

The most audacious pop song I’ve heard this year, mixing J-pop glitchiness, a lovelorn disco-soul chorus, swooping strings and the emotional resonance of Scott Walker or Prince at his best. And that’s before the flute solo.


Ezra Furman – Big Fugitive Life EP

And finally… I couldn’t pick a favourite song off this, so here’s the whole thing.


Vintage Violence

I was travelling to Paris to work on a book about the Montmartre painter Suzanne Valadon and her son, the painter Maurice Utrillo. I had booked a room in a small and reasonably priced hotel just off the Avenue des Gobelins, at the north end where it splits into the Rue Claude Bernard and the Rue Monge, miles away from Montmartre, a place that would come to resemble a distant island reachable only by a dangerous undersea tunnel. The hotel owner, a Turkish immigrant whose English was significantly better than his – or my – French seemed to have little idea about Montmartre, about its history or geography, about how it could be reached on the Metro. In fact, he appeared to be ignorant of Montmartre’s existence beyond the picture postcards in the tourist shops. I would come to know the hotel owner well during my short stay: it was a quiet time of year, and he made it his personal mission to serve my breakfast every morning, to talk about the news of the city and to share with me the cheap brandy that he poured from litre bottles that were housed in more than one location in the building.

He offered to upgrade my room for no extra fee: I had booked the cheapest one available – one of those rooms with only a single tiny window that looked out over a miniscule, triangular, weed-infested courtyard with no access and very little natural light. I liked this room because the darkness at night was complete, and because the small balcony looked out onto other small balconies, some of them residential: there was laundry strung between them, sounds of family life coming from inside, the violent, insistent music of video games, the colloquial language of the soap opera.


I came by train, and the Paris I stepped into was a city of anger and sadness, and a vigilant city. A city whose recent history was obviously one of violence. Walking to the Metro for the first time I developed a kind of false memory of violence, a feeling that I had personally experienced the city’s recent troubles, and this feeling came wholly, I think, from the daytime quiet of the streets. Parts of Paris always feel unlived-in, particularly in July, but it was intensified on this occasion: by the police in thick protective clothing and by the other pedestrians, who glanced around and looked briefly into each other’s eyes – a decidedly un-Parisian trait.

But this false memory extended further back than recent events. To before I was born. To the part of the twentieth century that has made Paris a city of unavoidable, visible memory. I imagined that I knew Paris as a city at war, or beset by malignant occupiers.


Three years before, I had visited with my wife, who was at the time pregnant with our first child. We’d stayed not too far from the Gobelins district, on the Boulevard Arago or one of its side streets. We had booked two and a half weeks in Paris, a long time to be in a city you don’t know, but still not long enough to get to know it.

Parisian evenings are not easy for someone avoiding alcohol, and I would sometimes leave my wife – who was growing increasingly tired as the holiday wore on – to sleep or watch television in our hotel room while I went out to eat and drink alone in the cafes along Boulevard Arago, Rue Monge, or the narrow, enticing Rue Mouffetard. Occasionally I would venture down Rue Gay-Lussac, stopping in bars along the way, until I reached the Jardin du Luxembourg. I always entered the gardens through the smaller gate at the southern end of Rue de Medicis rather than main avenue that branched off from the top of the Boulevard Saint-Michel, but my walks were never planned beforehand.

On one of these walks I emerged on the Avenue de l’Observatoire, wider and quieter than Left Bank streets should be, as if the rest of the city were backing away from it. Its trees were cut into giant cuboids that resembled the heads of wooden mallets. At night, a terrible place, like a bomb site. On other occasions I would walk down Rue Soufflot, always turning off before I reached the Pantheon – its vastness and its sense of wreckage are worse even than l’Observatoire. At that time of night, devoid of tourists, it lot its veneer or benignity, and revealed a side to the city that was cold and calculating.


I barely set foot on a pavement between the Gare du Nord and my hotel – I was eager to set up a space in which to work, to make my hotel room my own. When I finally stepped out of the Metro at Censier-Daubenton the streets were sticky and sombre. I bought something to eat and sat down on one of the benches of the Square Saint-Medard. It was two o’clock and I was the only person in the square. Flying ants filled the air, coaxed out by the heat to copulate and die in their millions in the city of love. Pairs of ants dropped to the ground all around me – tiny, expired males still attached to the gigantic queens. Ants fell like rain.

I had considered walking down Rue Mouffetard, finding the restaurant – Syrian? Lebanese? – where my wife and I had eaten a bad meal four years ago, but the flying ants disgusted me, and I went directly to the hotel.


On those nightly walks four years previously I often stopped into bars: the kind of places I would not have taken my wife into. Or perhaps I would have done, had she not been pregnant with our first child and avoiding alcohol. The sort of bars that were never busy but never empty, that never played those Rough Guide to French Cafe Music CDs, and where the bartender didn’t expect you to attempt your half-arsed French on him, or even to speak, other than to say the name of whichever drink you wanted on that particular night, names that might be evocative, or daft or both: cassis, Pernod, Dubonnet. Chablis. Savennieres. Sancerre.

In one of those bars – I don’t remember where exactly, but it may have been further north than my ‘regular’ haunts, closer to the Sorbonne – a man in a grey suit introduced himself to me. He got up from the bar where he had been talking to the bartender and came over to my table.

Henri Doinel, pleased to meet you, he said in perfect English. He explained that he had decided to speak to me having noticed the book I was reading (I guess it would have been something by Robert Walser or perhaps Witold Gombrowicz – at any rate, something decidedly un-French) and began mentioning authors to me, some of whom I had read, others I hadn’t: Juan Carlos Onetti, Robert Musil, Thomas Berger, Voltaire. I was impressed by the haphazard range of his recommendations, but really I wasn’t listening.

There were a few half-hearted attempts at small talk (I do not possess the trait held by so many of my countrymen – the ability to talk about any subject, however dull), but I soon began to lose interest. I was more intent on listening to the music that the bartender had just turned on: John Cale’s Fear album. A brave choice, even in a city so at ease with the avant-garde. At the time I was writing a lot of music reviews for various magazines and websites – anyone willing to pay me, however minimally – so I tended to think critically about music even when listening for pleasure. So when I heard the first notes of Fear Is A Man’s Best Friend, a song I had listened to maybe hundreds of times, I immediately began to examine it in context. Why had my first reaction been to consider it a brave choice? Because, I thought, because of its violence. Cale manipulates violence for dramatic effect better that any other musician I can think of. His cleverness lies in the way he hides violence in plain sight. On Paris 1919, from the same era as Fear, Enoch Powell turns up at a genteel tea party, bloody murder interrupts the reminiscence of a childhood Christmas, Macbeth finds his shallow grave. And musically as well as lyrically violence creeps in unannounced or else springs up from nowhere – the discord and the screaming at the end of the opening song, the unknown sounds that just might be bombs exploding all through the mundanely amorous declarations in Emily. And of course the song Gun in which violence alters the perception of time.

I thought all of this (feeling absolutely no sense of foreboding despite the album being full of foreboding) while the man Henri Doinel engaged me in near-perfect English. He talked mostly about literature, then a little about politics, and I (not having, as I’ve said, the British talent for small talk) consented to most of what he said, tried to make the occasional comment, and even attempted to steer the conversation towards music (an attempt that was doomed to failure – he seemed to have no idea what we were listening to, and no wish to find out). But it was only after twenty minutes or so that I became interested in what he was saying. Paris, he said, is a violent city. Or rather, it is a city of violence. Even when we are not rioting about something, it seethes. That was the exact turn of phrase he employed – it seethes. His words bore the characteristics of a non-Anglophone attempting some kind of economy of language but instead creating something more complex and subtle than he realises. But perhaps he did realise. After all, the word seethe is not one you’d necessarily think would be part of the vocabulary of someone who was anything other than confident in English. I remembered his wide reading, and came to the conclusion (just as he was coming to the conclusion of his own short disquisition) that his language and the effects it produced were entirely deliberate.

Before I left he intimated that he would be in the cafe most evenings if I wanted to talk some more.


I began by looking for graves, as one does in Paris.

Montmartre’s Saint-Vincent Cemetery is easily missed, even if you walk slowly down the Rue Caulaincourt when everyone else is walking quickly; even if you are looking for it. Behind a Yamaha motorcycle dealership, up a kind of ramp or slope into what looks at first like a private garden, or one of those inner-city vineyards that threaten to return the surrounding area to wilderness after a few years of neglect. Through a small but forbidding green gate. To the right is what looks like a disused stonemason’s workshop, to the left a tall, beige-bricked residential property. In short, the kind of scene often painted by Maurice Utrillo.

The cemetery is light, despite its position on the north-west flank of the Butte Montmartre. The dome of the basilica is just visible over the roofs of the houses. Just over the eastern boundary is the Lapin Agile, where Utrillo’s mother flirted and drank and defended her art while the young Maurice mooned about with his grandmother and wrote letters to the man who may have been his father. The Lapin Agile, the same place that Utrillo would paint so many times, often from memory, though whether his own memory or his mother’s is difficult to say. And here is his grave. The grave of an alcoholic who died a surprisingly old man, a grave in this vineyard-graveyard a few steps from one of Paris’s most notorious shrines to alcohol and excess.

Rue Saint Vincent and the Lapin Agile 1917 By Maurice Utrillo - Oil Paintings & Art Reproductions - Reproduction Gallery

Of all Utrillo’s paintings of the Lapin Agile, the most interesting is perhaps the least well-known. It shows a style markedly different from that of his more famous works. The sky is a blurred wash of turquoise, purple, green, brown and pink – a violent sky, basically; a sky the colour of a bruise (if we are to employ an obvious and maddeningly vague analogy). There is a shiny slick of white down the right-hand side of the Rue Saint-Vincent, suggestive of recent rain. The building itself is clouded almost beyond recognition as though seen through a wet pane of glass; the letters of its sign are indecipherable. The trees are still in leaf, implying one of those rainstorms that break suddenly over a hot late summer or early autumn day. The colours and the fluidity in the piece place it closer to the psychologically fraught suburban scenes of Munch than the typical French style of the time. But for all its apparent compositional looseness it is perhaps the most photographic of Utrillo’s paintings of Paris. There are three human figures in the piece, all at some distance from the foreground: a couple and, further on, a single figure. It is difficult to make out whether they are moving up or down the Rue Saint-Vincent, but the lack of visible faces – which may of course be an effect of the rain or the distance – gives the impression that they are moving uphill, that is, away from the viewer and the artist. The light gives a feeling of evening (Paris is a famously crepuscular city, but Utrillo rarely acknowledged this).

The three figures, then, could be on their way home, wet from the recent rain, or perhaps dry from sheltering under the capacious eaves of the Lapin Agile. Or had they even been inside? If this were the case the couple might well be Valadon and one of her many male friends. Which of course leads to the possibility – almost a certainty – that the figure further along (but no smaller) is Utrillo himself. He is illuminated from above by yellow, artificial light reflecting off the wet leaves. To the right of the picture: an imposing wall, beyond which is Saint-Vincent cemetery, where Maurice Utrillo will later reside permanently. In the picture’s top right-hand corner a black structure, possibly wooden, protrudes from the top of the wall. There is no way of knowing what it might be – in other paintings of the same scene it is absent or has changed its shape. But here it looks like a gallows.


In 1972 John Cale, Nico and Lou Reed played a live show together in Paris, the first time the they had appeared on stage together in four years. Three decades later this Paris show was released as a disc entitled Le Bataclan ’72. I had planned a review of the release, a review that never materialised. But sometime later, between my two trips two Paris, I was found the notes I’d made at the time. I hadn’t for one reason or another, listened to the record at all in the intervening period. Some of the notes retain a meagre interest. Others I barely understand:

Berlin is a gateway to Reed’s personal politics.

The Black Angel’s Death Song straddles hilarity and terror, as if it were recorded on another planet, or rather for extra-terrestrials. Awful?

This version of Heroin sounds like an elegy, or a monument to a million casualties of the city.

Nico’s coughing fit after Janitor of Lunacy takes on an allegorical function.

What can I take away from these notes now? I am amazed that I found terror in The Black Angel’s Death Song at the time. Now of course, the terror is easy to find. You don’t even have to look for it. And when I wrote about Heroin being a monument to a million casualties of the city, the city I had in mind must have been New York (not that I remember ever thinking or writing explicitly about New York) and certainly not Paris, but time has the power to alter these things, which are more than mere perspectives. The very meaning of the recorded material has been irrevocably changed, not because of any retrospective interference by band members, critics or fans, but by the venue, and by history and violence.

What I didn’t know then but know now about Le Bataclan ’72 is that, due to technical problems, the finished disc plays considerably slower than the original concert. When people listen to recordings of live music they construct a kind of memory of the concert. If they weren’t actually present, this will be a false memory, but a legitimate kind of false memory. We all need to create this kind of memory to enjoy music. But the constructed memories of the Bataclan concert will be doubly false. On one hand they will be the legitimate constructions of listeners. On the other hand, the listeners will be duped, albeit accidentally, into thinking that what they are hearing is a faithful reconstruction of the sound they feel they know, whereas in reality the whole experience will be one subtle or not so subtle variation. Although whether this matters – morally or aesthetically – is up for debate. Humans never were much good at actively remembering the passing of time.


On my return to Paris I made the mistake of thinking I knew the city. I walked down to the Seine most days and tried to go a different way every time, but although the distances should always have been similar, the time it took to reach the river varied wildly from one route to the next. Or else I would calculate that the next turn should bring me out onto the riverbank, but instead I’d find myself down another unknown street, or outside the Pantheon, or on a completely different stretch of the river to that which I had expected. It seemed to me that the same narrow street could contain multiple possible endings. In short, the city’s topography appeared to be simultaneously inside and outside the physical laws governing distance and time.

A similar phenomenon applied under the ground. The Metro, which in reality brings the traveller as close as it is possible to get to a straight route across the city, gives the impression of shortening or lengthening distances between locations. How, for example, can it dip under the river and up again so quickly between Notre Dame and Chatelet. And of course, the Metro’s map is another lie about distance (and therefore about time) – its straight lines and bold colours are barely even an approximation of the truth.


At the start of The 400 Blows, Francois Truffaut’s first full-length film, are a series of long tracking shots filmed at street level, presumably from a moving vehicle. The purpose of these shots is to establish the city as a character rather than just a setting, and their subject is the Eiffel Tower, which disappears and reappears continuously, but is always there. In this respect, Paris hasn’t changed. The tower remains as constant as a celestial body, a pole star, sometimes obscured by buildings or trees or clouds, but never obliterated, immune to the wounds a city can inflict upon itself.


Maurice Utrillo stands in a basement. Above him is his studio, his mother’s studio, the studio his mother shares with Andre Utter, the studio Utter works from to promote and distribute paintings – his paintings, Utrillo’s paintings. But the door at the top of the stair is locked. Utrillo swaying on a three-legged stool. At first he had tried to open the door. Then he had used the stool to bang on the ceiling. Now he looks down. He is a forty year old man. Beneath him the grey floor of the basement heaves like an ocean. Is the door really locked? Has my mother locked the door. He sways. His feet remain miraculously still. The walls move away until he can no longer see them. The bitch. The horizon is a grey blur. I am a successful painter; I am a prodigy; I am the most naturally gifted draughtsman in Montmartre, maybe in Paris. He can feel a wind, a wind with a long, deep fetch that comes from across the sea bringing smells that are white and blue and terracotta. Moroccan smells, markets and dusty roads, houses scrubbed by loving women. The horizons are many, and they are all grey. I’ll just close my eyes. He sees white houses and terracotta houses. He spins slightly as he falls, and hits the back of his head on the floor of the cellar where blood makes its way like wine, or wine like blood. When he comes round he is closer to being sober. He remembers a dream or a vision. A giant road rings Paris. Lights moving along it so fast that they begin to merge and take on the appearance of planetary rings. So fast that he can’t see what is making them, and Paris is an island within. He lifts his head. Tastes wine or blood as it trickles soft as mercury into or out of his mouth. Brings his head down sharply on the stone floor. Again. Harder. The rough floor reminds him of a Corsican farmhouse. Until more blood comes and he is blind and asleep.


After the now obligatory brandy with the hotelier I went to my room to write. When I got out of the lift I counted the doors to my room. Whenever I stay in a hotel creates a kind of spontaneous and unbidden fantasy, a situation I which my room will have been somehow altered in my absence: that its dimensions will have changed, or the position of the door, or that certain objects (jugs, mirrors) will have moved or morphed into something else. As a result I always (almost unconsciously) ran through a kind of mental inventory of the room and its contents before leaving and on my return. Of course, the alterations I feared and secretly longed for never happened, but this did not stop me from indulging in a conceit that was probably an effect of reading too many M.R. James stories at an early age.

In order to work I had drawn the wicker chair up from next to the mirror to the dressing table, from which I had removed a tray with some instant coffee and long life milk. It was not a comfortable arrangement there was no space for my legs under the dressing table and the arms of the wicker chair were too high and left bumps and striations in my flesh if I leant on them for any length of time. But on the increasingly rare occasions that I wrote here rather than in a cafe or bar I suffered in silence.

Suzanne Valadon’s paintings, I wrote, were transgressive not because they depicted sexual or violent acts (they didn’t, by and large. They were ostensibly calm objects) but because they were paintings of great technical skill created by a woman (and gender is important here) who lived violently, sexually. A woman who knew nothing about painting until she fell off a trapeze and decided to do something different for a living. Paradoxically, this move from circus performer to painter was a move from passive to active. The trapeze artist’s work is defined by simple and unassailable physical laws. Rather than defying gravity, she is a symptom of it. Control is an illusion. And this is before we even start to think about the sexual and social implications of the profession, of how the performer is trapped by the air in front of hungry eyes. In becoming a painter she wrested back control of her own body, a body that she would depict with unflinching veracity and unnerving modernity. Each painting represented an aggressive, perhaps violent, act against the notion of the female body as object of male utility, as a unit of currency denied to women.

I felt that my idea was flawed, was going nowhere. So I decided to go back out, despite it being close to eleven o’clock.


Instead of going straight to the cemetery in Saint-Ouen where Suzanne Valadon is buried I decided to take a walk north along the Avenue Michelet (named, presumably, after the man who coined Renaissance as a term describing a historical concept) and the Boulevard Ornaro (named after a Corsican count) to the Tour Pleyel, which stands stands on the site where Chopin’s pianos were once made.

The city outside the Boulevard Peripherique is differs substantially from the city within. They seem to exist in different geological ages. The suburbs have conceded ground to industry, to advertising (a giant ad for Kia motor cars sits at the top of the Tour Pleyel, proclaiming a seven year guarantee as if seven years was a significant amount of time). They have gone pat the point of no return in terms of human impact. The Anthropocene has well and truly arrived in the suburbs.

The centre, by contrast, feels distinctly Holocene. Here – ironically the cradle of France’s industrial growth – the possibility of returning to something like a state of nature remains. The fragility of cyclists and pedestrians outweighs the permanence of motorised transport. The city vineyards give the impression that they could expand at any time and reclaim vast portions of the city. You can hear, like Rilke did, the roars of leopards from the menagerie as you walk in the streets around the Jardin du Plantes. Roars that contain no trace of a Parisian accent, that are indistinguishable from those of leopards in the wild.

The city has concentric circles around it. A series of ring roads that ripple outwards from the arrondissements to the hinterlands where suburbs meet countryside, the faltering countryside of golf courses and forest parks. It is tempting to think of these roads as growth rings like those on a cut tree trunk, the creation of each new road signifying another chapter in the growth – in size and age – of the city. But the truth is subtler. The first ring – that is, the Peripherique – makes Paris an island. But it also provides its ports, its points of escape.


The Seine flows straight into Paris. If a river could ever be said to be proud, to enter a city with its head held high, this is it. It comes up from the south, fists up, sinuous and bulging, as if anticipating an altercation with the modern world. But when it leaves the city on the western side it suddenly double back, confused or unsure of itself. Its great meanders seem to be trying to encircle the suburbs, to make islands out of them. Its course is reluctant. It can’t turn its back on the city that has given it some kind of fame. It seeks constantly to avoid things. But isn’t that what rivers always do?

And of course the opposite is true: the narrow, straight Seine that approaches the city does so with a kind of direct shyness. It plucks up courage at Ivry just before it crosses the Peripherique, gains energy clandestinely from the streets and sewers, leaves its doubts with the alluvial deposits on the banks of Ile Saint-Louis and on leaving the city, just beyond Port de Bilancourt, squares up to what it has just escaped from. It continues to flex its muscles until it has no more reason to do so, somewhere near Les Mureaux, a tepid town with a white, quaking centre and stunted, startled plane trees, set back from the river as if in trepidation; a town that won’t even hitch its skirts to dip is toes, where something is always in construction on the riverside, and where there is always a fence or a line of trees between the river and the houses or roads. All along the river are towns like this afraid of their opposite bank.


A couple of days after my first meeting with Doinel I returned to the cafe. This time my wife was with me, and it was early afternoon. Doinel was there, as he had promised. In fact, he was standing behind the counter as if he were the owner, which, I reflected, was quite possibly the case. He recognised me at once and brought coffee over to our table himself, but the cafe was too busy for him to do more than offer us a quick greeting before he moved on. The place was almost full, and the patrons were mostly tourists.

In spite of my frequent walks in the area, we’d had difficulty finding the place. My wife had suggested we find somewhere else, and I was on the verge of giving in when we stumbled on it. I remembered it being on the opposite corner – we must have somehow approached it from a different street, though I was certain at the time that this was not the case.

I was jittery. I had drunk three coffees and my left leg moved up and down involuntarily in a way that always annoyed my wife. It caused the table to move up and down too, almost imperceptibly, but enough for continuous little ripples to form in our drinks.

There was accordion music, barely audible above the chatter.

Doinel was different to how I remembered him. He had an alacrity that I wouldn’t have credited him with after our first meeting. But he was still recognisably the same man. The cafe on the other hand seemed like a different place altogether. The smell was of pastry and coffee (I don’t remember there being any smell the first time). My wife seemed uncomfortable and I asked her how she was feeling. Fine, she said, it’s just a bit noisy for me in here. We finished our drinks and left without having the opportunity to speak to Doinel.

We crossed the river and found a bookshop my wife had read about.


I am on my own. The streets are wet and bright. My shoes are soaked. I have spent hours walking, looking for a place that exists in my memory. Perhaps not a place at all. An idea or an ideal. A feeling. In my mind it is a row of cream-coloured buildings, two rows, a street. A nondescript image – it could be any street in any number of cities. But I would know the place if I were to suddenly stumble on it. I would know it by its feeling. The afternoon sun casts shadows that run parallel to the street. But it is morning. The shadows will be different; the street will be a different street. I realise – what, the futility of my search? No, I realise that I have not been searching for anything. I keep walking, looking up at the tiny balconies as if they were reliquaries containing clues from the past. Looking at faces as if there was a chance that I would know one. The city changes slower than its suburbs, but it changes nonetheless. Slower and subtler. To the north of here, in Montmartre, the Lapin Agile will be receiving its first tourists of the day. Men in short-sleeved shirts will drink a close approximation of absinthe. Outside more tourists will take photographs and move on. The Lapin Agile hasn’t changed. It is the same building, in a sunny cleft of the Butte, that appears in so many of Maurice Utrillo’s paintings. The same place that tempted Suzanne Valadon. And now Utrillo is buried just over the wall, and his mother just the other side of the the Peripherique – although when she died the Periph’ was not even an idea in the mind of a town planner, and Paris had yet to become an island, and was still spreading like an oil slick, a city content in its own century.

In fifty or a hundred years those tourist snaps of the Lapin Agile will join the pile of aides-memoire along with Utrillo’s paintings, along with everything that has been written about the city.

I made a wide circle, as if adding to the concentric rings of the city. I crossed and recrossed the river, spiralling inward, following the ammonite curve of the arrondissements, the streets slick and accommodating. Birdless sky, a feeling of departure. Even though I was walking toward the city centre I felt as if I were moving away.

I find myself walking down Boulevard Voltaire, past the Oberkampf metro. The street is empty of people. Traffic is quiet. Without knowing why, I stop outside the Bataclan, where posters advertising the venue’s reopening have appeared. Here in 1972 John Cale, on the brink of releasing his first record since he had stopped being a member of the Velvet Underground, attempted to channel the quiet violence of that band’s split into a one-off concert, alongside two of his former bandmates. Where less than a year ago the city’s violence became its sadness. There are still flowers on the barrier between the street an the building. The red and yellow facade has not changed. I retrace my steps for the first time, back to the Oberkampf. I descend the steps. A busker is playing a song I recognise but can’t quite place.


I am thinking about coincidence and its relation to writing. The way that different strands of a narrative (the single great narrative) draw close to each other, create a mat of meaning and insinuation, then part. In 1990, the Velvet Underground’s first concert with Lou Reed in thirty years took place in Jouy-en-Josas, a suburb of south-west Paris. Jouy became famous in the late eighteenth century for producing the royal fabric toile de Jouy, which was created by the industrialist Christophe-Philippe Oberkampf, after whom the tube station I have just passed was named. ‘Jouy’ means ‘joy’. But the German name Oberkampf is more troublesome. The second syllable in particular has connotations which go beyond violence, connotations that sit oddly with Paris’s history.

Another former resident of Jouy is the Nobel laureate Patrick Modiano, who writes better than anyone else about the phenomenon of coincidence.


There is a kind of sadness implicit in practically all of Utrillo’s street scenes. Or to be more precise a kind of solitude. The human figures, when they appear, are mostly ciphers, there to give scale to the architecture. Unlike, for example, Lowry’s singular people and animals (who are always going towards or away from something) they never seem to have any object or direction. They are alone and faceless, often just blobs or smudges. There is none of the psychodramatic tension one would find in Munch’s depiction of human faces, where any blurriness appears to come from the inside the individual, and as a result of the narrative of the painting. In Utrillo’s work the blurring of humanity is a deliberate effect of the artist’s hand. Utrillo doesn’t paint human narratives, he obliterates them. People appear as necessary blots on the city’s perfection. All of Utrillo’s perfect brush strokes (or, more often than not, knife strokes), all the techniques of his legendary draughtsmanship, are reserved for the architecture. He paints Paris as a city that has grown to envelope its people. A city more important, more beautiful – older, even – than the sum of its human parts. A living city rather than a city that sustains life. This surely is a result of his own isolation, his difficulty in certain social situations, his inability to exist without the crutch of inebriation. The drunk sees some things with perfect clarity. And of course he sees other things as nothing but a blur. For Utrillo, the city was a link to clarity, to an imagined paradise of sobriety. People were his oblivion.