Le monde entier est un cactus
Il est impossible de s'assoir
(The whole world is a cactus
It is impossible to sit down)
—Jacques Dutronc, "Les Cactus"
Dutronc's "Les Cactus" was one of the first songs I remember learning six or seven years ago in the loft in downtown Brooklyn where our band, Les Sans Culottes, was born. I've always thought the song was about what a pain in the ass life can be.
Being in a band is like sitting on a cactus for a very long time.
We started off as a fairly ridiculous party band. Seven non-French New Yorkers playing covers of '60s French pop songs (by Serge Gainsbourg, Francoise Hardy, Jacques Brel) taking on fake French personas (I dubbed myself Jean Luc Retard) and speaking in phony French accents.
After six years with the band, my fake French accent has actually gotten quite good, though I still speak no French.
Much eau de vie has passed under the bridge during this time. To my surprise—early on, I thought this type of novelty/cover band would go nowhere—the band actually became a real band. We started writing our own songs, headlined at Bowery Ballroom, put out four albums, had a song placed in a Hewlett Packard ad (the one with girl taking photos from the Eiffel Tower), and recently had a huge photo in The New Yorker.
We've had many members come and go—The Brothers Pantalon, Beau & Luc; Gigi Soleil; Julius Orange; Joe Camus, the list goes on—and I, Jean Luc Retard, am now "on sabbatical" in Los Angeles to work on a documentary about Hollywood home movies for A&E; but starting today, the band is out here for a week to do our third (or is it fourth?) "Côte Gauche" tour. We'll be hitting San Diego, Fresno, Oakland, San Francisco, and L.A. to promote and celebrate the long-awaited completion of our new CD, Fixation Orale.
We are not the typical band on tour. We don't live on a bus for weeks on end, eating fast food and having sex with just anyone. We don't do insane (by rock 'n' roll standards) amounts of drugs. Maybe we're just too old (everyone in the band is over 30), or maybe we just spend so much energy on stage that we need a decent night's sleep afterwards.
The upcoming tour, albeit only a week long, raises many questions for me, like: With my whole self-imposed exile to L.A., am I still actually in the band? Do I want to still be in the band? Will the band ever break out of its current status as a small indie band with no real label support? Is it likely that we'll get beaten up again as we did in Montreal? (Isn't that a foregone conclusion in a town like San Diego—conservative, military, not so much fans of les things françaises.) With reports of abysmally low CD sales for bands across the board, is there a future for music at all?
And the most important questions: Will my ears ever stop ringing? Can I get better earplugs than the gross-looking $300 ones I had made and that I occasionally lose and have had to replace several times?
Am I going deaf?
I do have tinnitus (constant ringing in the ears) and rather severe (60 percent to 70 percent) hearing loss in my left ear. I went to doctors. I guess you could say my pleas for help fell on deaf ears. Ha ha ha. No cure for tinnitus anytime soon, they said.
In the past three months or so, I've also noticed a new ringing in the right ear.
I've become accustomed to saying "What??" a lot.
It makes me tense to be in a loud place for too long (hip restaurants in New York City are a disaster), and I frequently have to put in my earplugs to manage. It's annoying, and I think, OK, by the time this gets really bad they'll have figured out a way to cure this. You, doctor out there, stop reading this and please get busy finding a CURE FOR TINNITUS.
But despite the ringing, I continue to play really loud music.
To launch the tour, today we drove down to La Costa (about 30 minutes north of San Diego) to rehearse with our West Coast fill-in drummer, Marquis de Mark (Harry Covert is a political science professor and trying to get tenure at Columbia, so he couldn't come out West). We played in the Marquis' garage. How rock 'n' roll is that? (Except that the garage was in a sunny, palm-tree-lined cul-de-sac in a really beautiful neighborhood.)
It was loud as hell, though, and not only did my ears hurt, but I kept worrying about how the neighbors might be feeling about the French invasion.
After a smoke break, when the Marquis (Charlie is his real name) came to tell us there was a baby rattlesnake sitting on his fence, it occurred to me that maybe California is not really meant for me.
Apparently baby rattlesnakes are more dangerous than adult rattlesnakes since they are more easily frightened and have less experience "dealing with their own venom." I have not verified this information on the Internet (the source of all information), but Charlie claims this to be so. Why he was standing less than five feet away from it, I cannot say.
We left the snake, engrossing as it was, and after Charlie felt adequately rehearsed, we drove down to the offices of the San Diego radio station 91X in order to promote the following night's show at the Casbah. We played two songs. One was a song I wrote and sang with Celine Dijon called "Alo Alo," and the other was "Tout Va Bien," or "It's All Good," as I said it translated in So. Cal lingo.
The songs rocked.
We drove to La Jolla—hometown to both the Marquis and guitarist Cal D'Hommage—for an amazing sushi dinner. We gathered around one of our cars and turned up the radio to hear ourselves. It was eerily satisfying.
On the long drive home to my house in Echo Park in L.A., I thought about the song "Les Cactus." Despite the lugging of the gear, the tinnitus, the internal politics and arguments, the long drives, the sleep deprivation, the general PAIN IN THE ASS it is to be in a band, I suppose it's still worth it.