Monday, February 27, 2012

Free Man in Paris

I was listening to Joni Mitchell’s Hits CD the cover of which shows Joni stretched out on the pavement with her body outlined in chalk  as if she had just been hit by  a car and not survived (parenthetically, the best career move a singer can make is to die. It seems crass to say it, but their sales go through the roof. Small comfort to their family and fans, I’m sure). (She also has a CD called Misses which featured songs that were not successful. In this cover she is bending over with her back to the camera in front of the car which putatively hit her on the Hits cover.  I like the humor of both these CD’s. 

Mitchell is, uh, artistic to the extreme in her music. She essentially invented a bunch of open tunings when she taught herself how to play the guitar. Figuring those out and then being able to play the instrument using them is a sign of genius, I think.)

Anyhow, one of the songs on Hits was “Free Man in Paris,” which was first poplar in 1974. Of the song, Wikipedia wrote,

"Free Man in Paris" is a song written by Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell. It appeared on her 1974 album Court and Spark, as well as her live album Shadows and Light. It is one of her most popular songs. It is about music agent/promoter David Geffen, a close friend in the early 1970s, and a trip they made to Paris with Robbie and Dominique Robertson.

You might remember some of the lyrics, including

The way I see it he said
You just can't win it
Everybody's in it for their own gain
You can't please 'em all
There's always somebody calling you down
I do my best
And I do good business
There's a lot of people asking for my time
They're trying to get ahead
They're trying to be a good friend of mine

I was a free man in Paris
I felt unfettered and alive
There was nobody calling me up for favors
And no one's future to decide
You know I'd go back there tomorrow
But for the work I've taken on
Stoking the star maker machinery
Behind the popular song…
I deal in dreamers
And telephone screamers
Lately I wonder what I do it for
If l had my way
I'd just walk through those doors
And wander
Down the Champs Elysées
Going cafe to cabaret
Thinking how I'll feel when I find
That very good friend of mine

I hadn’t listened to the CD for a while, but as I did and the song came up, I remembered something a friend of Becky’s had said to me when the song was first popular. She knew that I had spent some time in Paris as a student during a semester abroad program that ran from August 1966 to January, 1967.  She said, “That song reminds me of you.” And it should have, I thought.

Our semester abroad program put me and thirty other young fellows in Tours (France) for language instruction for six weeks and then on to Paris at the end of September. I had the time of my life. We attended a few classes for foreign students at the Sorbonne and had a weekly seminar with a professor on sabbatical from our college. Norm Rudich conducted the class, which was a discussion (in French) of a play we had seen during the week. Norm was a socialist in his interpretation of literature and, while he was an enormously learned man who spoke at least three languages fluently, we made fun of the way he saw the conflict in every piece of literature he talked about as a symbolic conflict between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Toward the end of the discussion, he invariably said, “So you see, gentlemen, the main conflict in this play is a conflict between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.” We got so we would roll our eyes and mouth the words as he said them. He couldn’t see that we did this because his vision was terrible. I feel incredibly bad about mocking the poor man, especially because we were essentially making fun of him behind his back. We had no respect for his position and learning, and there was no excuse for our behavior. We thought we knew it all. 

It never occurred to me to wonder how Norm did the reading he needed to for his encyclopedic knowledge of literature. I found that out when we returned to the campus for second semester. I became a reader for him. He had an incredible memory and could repeat entire passages back after I had read them to him. He taught me a ton about the interpretation of literature during our times together. I should add that he also spoke German and seemed to favor it, calling me “Herr Verner.”  He was, hands down, the best professor I ever had, and I had some great ones.

Other than the occasional class at the Sorbonne and the seminars with Norm, we were pretty much on our own. I had a ball, travelling all over Paris usually by subway, but I walked a lot as well. I hung out in cafes, went to movies, ate the cheapest thing on the menu in restaurants and cafeterias, inhabited bookstores and just poked around and looked.

I have precious few physical mementoes of my time in Paris then. I have the dinner menu from the Air France flight over there—my first flight, aboard the Boeing 707 Chateau de Chenonceau. And I have a picture I can’t find—I don’t remember who took it, but it shows me standing in front of a café, wearing my long coat, 19 years old, looking confidently at the camera. When I look in the mirror, I know that 19-year-old in Paris is in there behind my eyes, and I want to say back to my image, “You’re not me…That’s me in that picture, in Paris, so long ago.” 

Back then, before I had a job or a wife or a house or children, before time and worry and responsibility changed how I look and who I am, I was, at 19, indeed a “free man in Paris.”

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