Music is a wormhole. On Tuesday night, I slid back through time from Bercy Arena, rising monolithic from the banks of an inky Seine, to a lounge room in a tiny wheatbelt town in Western Australia. In both scenes, the Cure was playing Primary. That relentless riff, so 1981 and yet so at home in the 21st century, moved through the minutes, hours, years. Of course, the eleven-year-old watching the video clip on Countdown, dumbfounded and fascinated by the young Robert Smith singing about sleeping children, dreams, red and yellow, had no idea that she would revisit that feeling over and over, in so many clubs, bars, concert halls and lounge rooms for the next thirty-odd years, leading to that moment, in this city. Please don’t change. Turns out we don’t. Or at least it didn’t seem like I had, in the black auditorium, jumping up and down and singing along with 20,000 others freefalling in the time tunnel with me.
The more we go, the older we grow, the more we know.
At times, it feels as if there’s a total disconnect between my life before Paris and my life after the uprooting. But, time and again, music provides the through line, the anchor, the salve.
Another night, another bliss point. This time, M and I were at La Cigale, its 19th century, red-velvet grandeur filled with 20th-century rock, letting the music transport us. Suede were in fine form, New Generation a fitting finale to a set split literally – intermission and all – between their ’90s catalogue and newly minted album. More than the film that accompanied Night Thoughts, the whole shebang seemed cinematic, somehow. I too had a foot in two time zones. The mini movie in my head involved a grotty share house in Surry Hills, Sydney, with Dog Man Star in high rotation, yet here was its soundtrack pouring out of speakers in Pigalle.
Paris is full of such portals. You might call them music venues. It has to be said that live music was not uppermost among the charms I imagined I would find here. Museums, art, architecture, obviously. I anticipated smoky jazz clubs and world-class symphonies, opera and ballet. I did not expect to discover such riches of rock, pop, electro and indie within the city’s historic neighbourhoods. Discovering how off-base I was has been a relief, a joy and a source of bone-rattling excitement. Better, many of its elegant buildings have been converted into havens of screaming guitars and house beats. As well as La Cigale, there are Le Trianon, L’Olympia, Le Casino de Paris and the Elysée-Montmartre (reopened in September after five years’ closure), all with origins stretching back two centuries to the belle époque.
It’s surreal to ascend a curling marble staircase, to enter a concert hall replete with royal box, gilt, chandeliers and bas-relief, to order a pint amid the ghosts of Mistinguett and Jacques Brel, and wait for Rudimental or Dave Gahan to tear up the stage.
Happily (for me), my arrival here coincided with a time when streaming and its attendant drop in music sales have pushed more artists back out on the road. So, as well as discovering new acts, I’ve caught many longtime favourites; I’ve revelled in the genius of Johnny Marr, barely more than an arm’s length away, at the intimate Le Trabendo, swayed with the masses as Muse blasted Supermassive Black Hole across the Champs de Mars under the Eiffel Tower during Euro 2016.
The wealth hits close to home, too. The 20th has its temples to the musical arts. At La Flèche d’Or, a converted railway station suspended over a disused line, the program tends towards emerging artists, with occasional big-name incursions such as Kaiser Chiefs. I love it because it’s small, grungy, shadowy and the perfect place to feign cool to Melanie Paine, throw yourself around to Hospitality or get chatting to folks from the Paris Opera over the blues licks of JD McPherson. It has grills on the windows and excellent pizza over the road at Mama Shelter.
Closer to Gambetta, the retro-inclined La Bellevilloise is next door to La Maroquinerie, a former leather workshop whose program provides a preview of what-you’ll-be-listening-to-next-year. The cavernous basement hosts everything from hip-hop, metal and post hardcore to folk and electro. Further up the hill, over rue de Ménilmontant, the biscuit factory-turned-music hub, Le Studio de l’Ermitage, has a program of contemporary jazz and world. Darker and dirtier, La Féline mixes DJ and open-mic nights with rockabilly, punk and hard rock – an absolute favourite even if the tattooed bar staff laugh at you for ordering red wine.
Whether I’m at a gig for pure pleasure or with notebook in hand and reviewer hat on, it’s always the same. I am connected. The territory, both my internal landscape and the exterior, swirling under a light show around me, is familiar. I am uplifted. I recognize myself.
At Bercy, true to form, I felt less lost and lonely. Just Like Heaven made me as happy as it ever has. Encore after encore.
Of course, the attacks of last November have complicated and weighed on my feelings about live music in Paris. Especially this week, with the anniversary and the reopening of Bataclan, it’s impossible not to be ripped backwards to that night. We remember. And the music goes on, as it must.
Photos: Amanda Gibbons