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Last week, for the first time ever, I went to Rock en Seine, the music festival that’s been held each of the past 6 years just outside of Paris. It’s so convenient, you can even go by metro, so that was good enough for me. I love the metro.
The reason I hadn’t gone other years is that the program hasn’t always been all that great – even this year, it was just barely good enough (to me, personally) for me to get my tickets. Of course one of the deciding factors was the main headliner – Amy Winehouse, (to me, personally) the greatest woman singer since Janis Joplin, and like Janis, from all evidence, (though, I hope not) equally on the road towards – at least in the general direction of – self destruction. So I decided I should go while I had the chance.
This was the first time I had been to a French rock festival, and I’ll admit I’m not much of an expert on even the American or British versions. I was too young for Woodstock, and since then I’ve been too far away for anything else, though I did manage to get over to England for the Reading Festival four years ago. Anyway, Rock en Seine was not like Reading.
First of all, this year, exceptionally, it was not on three consecutive days. It started out on a Wednesday August 20th — then they gave you a whole week to recover, rest up, dry out, take a shower – even several showers! — change your socks…whatever – and it resumed Thursday the 28th. Now the overall line-up for the Wednesday concerts wasn’t really breathtaking, so I won’t even mention who was there, except the headliners, Rage Against the Machine. Apparently this was the only day they were available to come to Paris, so the organizers, made to solomonaically wise decision to stick on this festival day a week early – and not even on a weekend. Then they found a few acts to fill up the program to make it seem more like a festival, though it really wasn’t. Just an excuse to have a Rage concert under the auspices of Rock en Seine. As I said, a wise decision.
You don’t know who Rage Against the Machine is? Very hard, very politically active. And very good. They had 30,000 people jumping, swaying, singing (even if they didn’t understand the words) together. But as I said, this was not so much a part of the festival as a Rage concert. Why wasn’t it the festival? Only one stage, and not enough crappy food. And it only started at 5:00 pm. No, it was just an outdoor concert with three opening acts. But it was definitely worth being there.
So the real festival started a week later. We returned prepared, with cereal bars, bottled water and extra bottle caps in my back pack. The reason you have to take extra bottle caps to concerts in France (and maybe all over the world) is that they take the caps off before they let you in, and it’s very inconvenient to carry around a bottle of uncapped water. Why do they do this? They say it’s a question of security – so you won’t swallow the cap by accident when you take a drink. Or maybe it’s to sell wore drinks at the concession stands. I don’t know. So when you arrive, they take the tops off, throwing them in a dumpster (EVERYONE brings water) then you pass on and dig you extra caps out of the bottom of the back pack, and you’re set.
And where are you set? In the Parc de Saint Cloud! Where French kings used to hunt deer, where there are lavish fountains and elaborate gardens. But we’re not visiting the park today, and our tickets don’t give us access to everything. You’ll have to visit the whole park and the forest of Saint Cloud another time. (And just so you know, it’s not pronounced “cloud” like those white, fluffy things up in the sky, it’s “clue,” — sort of – like in a Sherlock Holmes story.)
Anyway, this was the real festival now. There were three stages. Two main ones and a side stage. The way it worked is there was a performance every 45 minutes on one of the main stages. The band had 40 minutes to play – with no encores – and the crowd had 5 minutes to walk or run or rumba to the other end of the festival grounds to hear the next band. And in between the two stages is where you can buy all the deep fried foods, the Greek sandwiches, the Ethiopian pizza. Or if you’re thirsty, you can have a Heineken. I didn’t count, but there must have been at least ten Heineken stands.
Normally at rock festivals, there’s a nearby campground and a fairly large percentage of people who sleep there. Concerts may last till three a.m. at which time people stumble back to their tents and they wake up at one p.m. the next day when the acts start to go on again. But as I said, this is a metro festival. No camping. The last concert finishes around 11:30 so no one’s too rushed to get that last metro, so that everyone gets to go homes and sleep in a real bed. Which suits me just fine. I’m too old to be sleeping in a tent – or heaven forbid! under the stars – surrounded by a lot of pot-smoking kids. No, thank you.
So here at Rock en Seine, things start at 3 p.m. People show up gradually as the day wears on. I even got there late, since I had worked that morning and part of the afternoon – and since there weren’t any opening acts that I wanted to see all that much; the bigger the act, the later they go on.
The first really interesting act Thursday was the Pretty Dirty Things. First from the point of view of their music, which is original, they do a lot of surprising things rhythmically, then from the people in the audience. There were all these high school kids that could have stepped out of an old American Bandstand show from the early sixties. These kids were all wearing super-tight jeans – I remember the hardest part was getting my feet through the legs of those when I was a kid! – and they were all very skinny and they tended to wear white dress shirts. And their hair was all perfect! Boys or girls, they all have hair that looks quite casual, slightly mussed, but when you get up close, you see that it’s so heavily lacquered, that they are not required by law to wear a helmet when riding a motorcycle, if they have a note from their coiffeur. Anyway, this is the new generation of French rock fans.
The other most interesting group Thursday was R.E.M. Since they’re a group that started out a long time ago – 1980 – there were a lot of old people in the audience. Besides me, I mean. For Rage Againt the Machine, I was certainly among the 1% of oldest people there; tonight, oldies everywhere! People even older than I am! Old people who brought their families! Yes! Couples with little — or not so little – kids! Like a family picnic, at a rock festival! And R.E.M. were good. They were headliners Thursday, so they got to play a long time, and even got to do an encore, which made everyone happy and shiny.
Then Friday. Headliner : Amy Winehouse. Everyone making nervous jokes. Will she be there? Sure, if she’s not in rehab or prison or the hospital or is she doesn’t oversleep. But there’s a whole day of music to get through first. I even arrived for the opening Friday. After all, I had paid fro the whole festival, so I might as well be there, even if I wasn’t that interested in the groups. So I wandered desultorily from stage to stage, hearing a few good things here and there. Also hearing some bad things. But that’s okay, there was a good feeling to the crowd, it was a warm sunny day. So I wandered. And I lot of other people were also wandering.
And that’s how I got my huge revelation! How to achieve World Peace! Really! You see, what I had realized was that out of this relatively huge gathering of people – 30,000 – there were some people who stood out from the mass, that had some individuality, at least for me, who I would recognize on our rambles from one stage to the other. Obviously, the attractive women, but also people wearing distinctive, original tee shirts. I had noticed one guy wearing a tee shirt that said “Everybody Love Mushrooms” with a little cartoon drawing of a mushroom on it. Okay, it’s was dumb, and not even correct – I’ve got two kids who hate mushrooms. But I noticed that guy at least four different times. Out of a crowd of 30,000! Someone else had on a shirt that said “Be Strong Be Wrong.” I don’t know what that was supposed to mean, but again, it gave him an individuality that was lacking on all the concert-goers who were either wearing plain tee shirts or R.E.M. shirts. So, my idea was that everyone should have individualized tee shirts so they would lose their anonymity; it would give everyone a feeling that they know everyone else. End hate and fear. Voila! World Peace! And I hadn’t even been smoking anything, or partaking of the tee shirt guy’s mushrooms. It really had seemed like a feasible idea. Gee! But I don’t suppose the Chinese would all want to wear English slogans across their chests. Nor the great mass of Arab speakers, not the Indians, Africans, South Americans, etc. So it wasn’t such a great idea after all. But it had seemed like a good idea at the time.
Anyway, just before Amy Winehouse were the Raconteurs. I had always been curious how this group of Americans from the American Midwest got their name. Until they introduced themselves. “Hi! We’re the Rock on Tours from Nashville!” Halfway through their set, their leader, Jack White, said, “This next song is dedicated to Amy Winehouse, who can’t make it tonight. I guess she missed the last train out of London, or something.” Everyone laughed, even if a bit uncomfortably. But these guys were great. A very tight band. They could have been headliners. As a matter of fact, they became headliners. When they were finished, they came back to do a 20 minute encore. That’s when we all realized that it wasn’t a joke. Amy had missed her train. Or Something0
There was an announcement, making it official. Amy didn’t give an excuse, no note from her Mommy saying “Amy can’t play today; she has the sniffles”, nothing. And the organizers are going to sue her. All ticket holders will receive a coupon good for a reduction of 18 euros for next year’s Rock en Seine. So I’ll see you there next year.