The Montréal Massacre

December 6, 2018 § Leave a comment

Twenty-nine years ago today, a violent misogynist marched into the École Polytechnique in Montréal, separated the men from the women and gunned down fourteen women.  Another fourteen were wounded.  He then killed himself.  In his suicide note, he blamed feminists for ruining his life.  He claimed that feminists attempted to play the advantages of being women whilst also seeking to claim advantages that belong to men.  He had a list of nineteen prominent women in Québec whom he considered to be feminists and whom he wished dead.

The Montréal Massacre shocked a nation.  I was sixteen and living at the other end of the country, in the suburbs of Vancouver.  This felt a little more real for me because I am from Montréal.  My mother, also a montréalaise, was ashen-faced and shocked watching the news, crying.  At school the next day at school, a Thursday, the shock was real and palpable.  Nearly all of us felt it.  Nearly all of us were sickened.  Some were crying in the hallways.  Some looked like zombies.  We talked about this incessantly.  We didn’t understand.  We didn’t understand such violent misogyny.

I remain shocked by this event even today.  What I didn’t know or understand about violent misogyny as a teenager I now do.  I am a professor myself and teach my students about misogyny.  And violent misogyny.  I often talk about the Montréal Massacre, even to American students.  In 1989 I was shocked by the irrational hatred of men towards women.  In 2018, I am still shocked, but more jaded, I know it’s there and and am not all that surprised when it plays out.

In 2017, my wife and I went to the Women’s March in Nashville, TN.  A lot of the older women protesting, the women of my mother’s generation, were carrying signs saying ‘I Can’t Believe I’m Still Protesting This Shit.’  They were right.  This is the same shit.

Every 6 December in Canada, we wring our hands and ask how and why did this happen?  But we haven’t done much to make it so that this cannot happen again.  In the United Staes, we have done even less to make women safe.  This is just immoral and wrong.

The worst part is that nearly all of us know the killer’s name.  I refuse to utter it, I refuse to use it.  To do so gives him infamy, it gives him something he does not deserve.  Instead, I am always saddened that we cannot recite the names of the dead.  Here is a list of the women he killed that day in 1989:

  • Genviève Bergeron, 21
  • Hélène Colgan, 23
  • Nathalie Croteau, 23
  • Barbara Daigneault, 22
  • Anne-Marie Edward, 21
  • Maud Haviernick, 29
  • Barbara Klucznik-Widajewic, 31
  • Maryse Laganière, 25
  • Maryse Leclair, 23
  • Anne-Marie Lemay, 22
  • Sonia Pelletier, 28
  • Michèle Richard, 21
  • Annie Saint-Arneault, 23
  • Annie Turcotte, 21

It saddens me to think that these fourteen women died because one immature little man decided they’d ruined his life by trying to gain an education.  The futures they didn’t get to have because of one violent misogynist with a gun depresses me.  And every 6 December, I stop and think about this.  I pay tribute to these women.  And I think about how I can make a difference in my own world to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

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National Unity and Conscription in Canada

November 14, 2018 § 2 Comments

The First World War has a complicated legacy in Canada.  When the war broke out in 1914, Canada was by and large still a colony of the United Kingdom, despite Confederation in 1867.  The young Dominion’s foreign policy was still controlled in London (as was the case for all of the Dominions: South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia in addition to Canada).  Thus, the UK went to war, so, too, did Canada.  As our historians tell us, by the time the war ended on 11 November 1918, Canada had arrived on the global stage.

Men_of_the_CEF_10th_Alberta_Battalion_pass_Stonehenge_1914The Canadian Expeditionary Force of the First World War had performed more than admirably.  The tenacity and valour of Canadian troops became legendary.  For example, despite the lack of complete and formal training, the CEF quickly established itself as a forward-leading trench invading force.  The performance of the CEF was made all the more impressive, I argue, given the fact that they were not all that well-equipped (this seems to be a constant for the Canadian military).  For example, they were saddled with the underperforming and quick-to-jam Ross rifle (due to graft and corruption in Ottawa, of course), and malfunctioning machine guns.  And then there was the Canadian knock-off of British webbing that tended to breakdown and disintegrate in trench warfare.

The combination of the performance of the CEF, along with the the diplomacy and leadership of Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden, the international community, and most importantly, the British, realized that the small country across the Atlantic had arrived (South Africa was similarly spoken of).  This, ultimately, led to the passage of the Statute of Westminster in 1931 which finally gave control over their foreign affairs to the Dominions, an important step on the road to independence on Canada’s part.

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But.  The other side of this argument, and one that seems to be in retreat finally, is that the First World War was the glue that brought Canada together.  Canada was comprised initially of four colonies at Confederation in 1867, Canada (modern-day Québec and Ontario), New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.  At the outset, the Nova Scotians wanted out.  Three of those four were Anglo-Protestant colonies/provinces. The fourth was French Catholic.  And then the impact of immigration brought people from all around Europe and Asia as the country spread across the Prairies and British Columbia, an old British colony, joined up in 1871. Prince Edward Island finally joined in 1873.  And the Prairie Provinces  were brought in in 1905.  But, this was not a united nation.  No, it was a regional one, with local concerns mattering more than national ones.

This is part of what made then-Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald’s National Policy so important, as it re-oriented the economies of the new provinces from a north-south axis to an east-west one.  This was also the importance of the Canadian Pacific Railway, completed in 1886, from Montréal to Vancouver.  Another, older line connected Montréal with Halifax, but it’s worth noting that a few decades before Confederation, Montreal merchants built a railway to connect them to Portland, ME, for a year-round port, rather than Halifax.  But even still, old habits were hard to break and Canadians tended to remain local, rather than national.

Hence the narrative that the First World War brought us together.  The problem is, of course, that this story is either only a partial truth or a complete untruth, depending on how you look at it.

The partially true version is that the war did unite Anglo Canada, that the concerted war effort across Anglo Canada did work to foster a sort of unity and common cause from Halifax to Vancouver (Newfoundland did not join Canada until 1949).  This includes, to a large degree, the Anglo population of Montréal because, of course, the Canadian economy was run from there a century ago.

But, if we flip the view, this narrative is a myth (but, to be fair, countries do need myths, and Canada is a fine example is what happens when there aren’t any, or at least not many).  The reason this is a myth is because of Québec.

As noted, Québec is a charter member of Canada and it is the oldest European colony in what became Canada.  Québec was and remains a predominately French-speaking culture, heavily influenced by Catholicism historically.  And this put it at odds with Anglo-Protestant Canada.

The First World War was perhaps the first time that the rest of the country even noticed something looking like French Canadian nationalism.  The editor of the influential Montréal newspaper, Le Devoir, Henri Bourassa, dismissed the First World War as a European and British problem.  He spoke for many, both French- and English- speaking Quebecers at the time.

When the 199th Battalion of the Irish-Canadian Rangers began to recruit in the spring of 1916, the commanders found it a tough slog.  The Irish of Montréal, both Protestant and Catholic, were becoming increasingly reluctant to sign up (you can read all about this in my book, Griffintown, of course).

But it’s when conscription was enacted in Canada that public anger in Québec boiled over.  As Bourassa had continually argued since the onset of war in 1914, French Canadians had no loyalties to either the British or the French (the UK’s ally in WWI, of course).  No, he argued, their sole loyalty was to Canada.  And this war was a war of imperialism that had nothing to do with Québec.

Nonetheless, through a combination of a crooked election and the political will of Borden, conscription came to Canada and was enacted on 1 January 1918.  Of 404,000 men who were considered to be eligible for military service, 385,000 sought exemptions.  And in Québec, tensions boiled over.

In Montréal, anti-conscription sentiment was very real.  And whilst the traditional narrative tells us that it was French Canadians who were opposed to conscription, that’s only part of the story, as a large number of Irish in Montréal were also opposed. This boiled over in a massive anti-conscription parade and rally on 17 May 1918 in Montréal.Anti-conscription_parade_at_Victoria_Square

Anti-Conscription Rally, Montréal, May 1917

From 28 March to 1 April 1918, rioting occurred in Québec City, sparked by the arrest of a French Canadian man for failing to present his draft-exemption papers (he was quickly released).  The rioting ultimately led to the Canadian military being called in from Ontario, along with the invocation of the War Measures Act.  On the final day of rioting, when the protesters allegedly opened fire on the 1200-strong military force, the soldiers returned fire, which caused the crowds to disperse and ending the riots.  In the end, over 150 people were hurt and over $300,000 in 1918 money was caused in damage.

And, in the aftermath, it became increasingly clear to the rest of Canada that perhaps French-speaking, Catholic Québec may have different views on issues than the wider nation.

Having said that, the dead-set opposition to Conscription in Québec was a precursor to the rest of Canada.  Given the number of exemptions and the on-going problems at getting men in uniform, Borden’s government changed the rules of conscription in the spring of 1918 to end exemptions.  Not surprisingly, the rest of the country came to oppose conscription.

Conscription, though, more or less killed the Conservative Party in Québec.  In the fifty years after 1918, conservatives were virtually shut out at the federal level in Québec.  And in the fifty years from then, conservatives have continued to have difficulty in Québec; only Brian Mulroney and, to a lesser extent, Stephen Harper, have been able to win support in Québec as conservative leaders.

To Be Canadian Is To Be Toronto

November 6, 2018 § Leave a comment

There is a disturbing trend in Toronto sports for the franchises of the self-proclaimed ‘Centre of the Universe’ to brand themselves as the ultimate Canadian franchise.  Of course, this should not be surprising, since Toronto hasn’t realized there is a huge country out there, and that, in reality, it only makes up around 16% of the population of the nation.  But don’t tell Toronto that.

The Toronto media has a long history of denigrating the rest of the country.  I stopped reading the Globe and Mail about 10 years ago when I realized that about the only time there was news about Vancouver, Calgary, or Montréal was when it was bad news or something to mock the cities about (this, of course, coming from a city that once called out the military to deal with a bit of snow and had Rob Ford as mayor).

But to suggest the Toronto sporting franchises as the Canadian teams is, well, ridiculous and insulting.  The NBA Raptors a few years ago used the slogan #WeTheNorth as part of its marketing campaign.  This, though, feels the least insulting to me in that the Raptors are the only Canadian NBA team, and the only other Canadian NBA team, the Vancouver Grizzlies died an ignominious death in 2001.

And, to be fair, the CFL Argonauts and MLS TFC haven’t seemed to get the memo, but that’s probably because no one cares about either one anyway.

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But it’s the MLB Blue Jays and the NHL Maple Leafs who take the cake.  The Blue Jays have created a cap that features nothing but the Canadian maple leaf on it.  The message here is that any good Canadian must cheer for the Blue Jays.  But the thing is, it’s not this simple.  Until 2004, Montréal had its Expos.  The Expos were killed off by MLB and moved to Washington, DC., so this remains somewhat of a sore spot.  But Down East, Canadians are just as likely, if not more so, to cheer for the Boston Red Sox than the Jays.  And out West, the Seattle Mariners and the Bay Area teams are also popular.  And in Montréal, the Red Sox are the most popular team.

Then there’s the Maple Leafs.  Sure, their name and their logo.  But those go back nearly 90 years.  So they get a pass on that (as an aside, the Canadiens de Montréal are so-known because the peasants of French-era Québec were called Canadiens, or Habitants, thus, the Habs).  But EA Sports, Adidas (which makes NHL uniforms) and all of the so-called Original Six teams created interesting new jerseys for EA Sports’ NHL ’19.

They almost all suck and are pointless, but you just know that they will eventually be the third jerseys of the teams, though the Chicago Blackhawks jersey looks like their third jersey already.  The Maple Leafs’ however, is a blatant rip off of the legendary Team Canada jersey, made famous by the victorious Canadians in the 1972 Summit Series.

 

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The difference, of course, is that the Maple Leafs’ version is blue instead of red:

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So, yeah, this is for a video game and it’s not realty.  Yet.  And sure you’re thinking I’m getting worked up about something that isn’t important.  The thing is, it is.  Jerseys, caps, hoodies, etc., these are all part of the marketing campaigns of the franchises and the leagues they play in.

And when Toronto clubs monopolize and capitalize on Canadian images and icons for their marketing campaigns, they are doing several things.  First, they are cheapening our national symbols and icons (as an aside, remember when the RCMP licensed its images to Disney for marketing purposes and the outcry it created?).  Second, they are changing the national discourse about what it means to be Canadian, just as Molson attempted to in the 90s with the Joe Canada commercials, which suggested to drink Molson Canadian was to make oneself Canadian.  That’s what the Raptors, Jays, and Leafs are doing here: to cheer for them is to be Canadian.

In the case of baseball, again, we have divided loyalties.  We do for basketball, too.  All my friends in Montréal cheer for the Boston Celtics, and out in Vancouver, it’s the LA Lakers, Chicago Bulls or Golden State Warriors.  But hockey is something else.  There are seven NHL franchises in Canada.  Three of them have variations on Canada and our nationality in their names (Canucks, Maple Leafs, Canadiens).  One shamelessly ripped of the Royal Canadian Air Force in its marketing and logo (Winnipeg Jets).  But none of this reaches the ridiculousness of the EA Sports Maple Leafs’ jersey.

And so we’re back to the idea that to be in Toronto is to be Canadian and to hell with the rest of the nation, you know, the 84% of us who don’t live in Toronto.

On Missing Home

July 26, 2018 § 4 Comments

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Riding the metro in Beijing the other day, listening to Wolf Parade’s track ‘Valley Boy,’ I suddenly had this moment of vertigo as my mind was riding the 55 bus up blvd. St-Laurent back home in Montreal.  ‘Valley Boy’ is a tribute to Leonard Cohen, our city’s patron saint of letters.  Wolf Parade, though from Vancouver Island, are also a Montreal band.  A few minutes later, my friend, Darryl, who is in Montreal from Alberta this week, sent me this photo.

There is nothing more alienating than to feel yourself in a city over 11,000km away from where you are.  But I was in Montreal.  But not the shiny Montreal of 2017, the grittier Montreal of the early 2000s, when the Main was half dug up in construction, and the rest was littered with discarded coffee cups and remnants of the weekend’s detritus.  In those days, it wasn’t uncommon to see Cohen wandering around, visiting his favourite haunts, talking to the occasional person brave enough to actually approach him.

I never did.  He was Leonard Cohen, He wasn’t a man for small talk, or pointless conversation.  I did, though, meet Cohen once, a long time ago.  It was the early 90s, he was touring behind The Future, and in a laundromat in Calgary, there he was folding his laundry as I was putting mine in the dryer.  It was a random meeting and he dropped a sock, I picked it up for him.  We talked for a bit, about nothing and everything and then he went on his way.  I still don’t know why he was doing his own laundry on tour.

Montreal is changing, soon it have the newest infrastructure of any city that matters in North America.  Every time I go home, I hear more and more English, and not just downtown, but on the Plateau, in the Mile End and in my old haunts in Saint-Henri and Pointe-Saint-Charles.  But even worse is the creep of major chain retailers.  It used to be that Montreal was a holdout against this invasion.  It was a city of small shops, mom and pop outfits, all up and down the Plateau, even downtown and in the other boroughs.  I bought a stereo at a small store on Sainte-Catherine near MusiquePlus that has been shuttered for over a decade now, killed off by the Best Buy.

Montreal is losing its soul, I’m afraid.  I take no pleasure in saying this, in fact, it hurts my own soul to say so.  But there is a deep and dangerous cost of the gentrification of the city.  My buddy Steve is a New Yorker at core, even if he long ago escaped.  Each time he goes home to Queens, he is more and more appalled by what he sees in Harlem and Brooklyn and even Queens.  Sure, it was a safer city and all that, but it was losing its soul.  I always felt smug in the belief my city couldn’t do that.  And better yet, my city was never crazy violent and it had, by the early 2010s, appeared to have recovered from the economic uncertainty of the separatist era.  Hell, for a few years at the turn of the century, Montreal was actually the fastest growing city in Canada.

And so Leonard Cohen has been dead for almost two years.  In ‘Valley Boy,’ Spencer Krug, one of the frontmen of the band, sings:

The radio has been playing all your songs
And talking about the way your slipped away up the stairs
Did you know it was all going to go wrong?
Did you know it would be more than you could bear?

In interviews, Wolf Parade have hinted this was about the larger geopolitical shitstorm that was engulfing the world when Cohen went to his great reward.  As I was riding up the Main on the 55 bus in my head the other day, I thought differently.  This was about Montreal, a city they and I have all moved on from, and one that Cohen left many times.  Of course, Cohen also said that you can never leave Montreal, as it travels with you wherever you go and it calls you home.  Later on the album, Krug sings, ‘Take me in time/Back to Montreal.’  And so we never do really fully leave.

Stupid Season in Montreal

March 26, 2018 § Leave a comment

Last Thursday night, the Montreal Canadiens hosted the Pittsburgh Penguins.  They lost 5-3.  The Canadiens are having a miserable year, this loss, their 48th of the year (including regulation and overtime losses), officially eliminated them from playoff contention.  The mood in the city is dour and angry.  Fans are upset at management for mismanaging the Franchise, Carey Price.  He had some mystery ailment he said was Chronic Fatigue Syndrome bothering him earlier in the year.  It wasn’t team doctors who noticed it; it was his wife, Angela.  Big defenceman Shea Weber played through a nasty foot injury before being shut down for the season and having surgery.

Then there’s the mistakes General Manager Marc Bergevin made in the off-season.  He traded away promising defenceman Mikhail Sergachev for moody, sulky, but very talented forward Jonathan Drouin.  And then the team put Drouin at centre, a position he hadn’t played for years.  Why?  Because the Habs haven’t had a #1 centre since the peak of Saku Koivu’s career in the late 90s/early 00s.  Drouin, not surprisingly, has been a bust.  Bergevin also let iconic defenceman Andrei Markov walk after he insulted Markov in contract negotiations.  Bergevin then had the gall to tell us that the defence was better this year than last.  I could go on and on.

Something stinks in the City of Montreal and it is the hockey team.  It is a laughing stock.

And, not surprisingly, the Twitter wars have been epic.  During last Thursday’s game, a prominent Montreal sportswriter made an idiot of himself.  This is also not an uncommon occurrence when it comes to the Habs.  He was in a discussion with a blogger, who noted that we Habs fans forget that the team has had 3-100 point seasons in the past 5.  This sportswriter noted in response that “Germany had three really strong military years in WWII.”

And then all hell broke loose, as it should.  When his interlocutor noted this stupidity, he dug in deeper, noting that “They [meaning Nazi Germany] were winning until they weren’t.  It’s not that deep.”  Another Twitter user called him out, and our intrepid journalist got his shovel out again: “Notice I said military.  Only an idiot would stretch that into anything more.”

Well, maybe I am an idiot.  As the second interlocutor noted, this is Nazi Germany we’re talking about.  Not some random war.  This is a régime that murdered 6 million Jews in cold blood, to say nothing of Roma, LGBT, and disabled victims.  The Holocaust is, to paraphrase Elie Weisel, an event that cannot be understood, but must be remembered.  There have been other genocides, particularly in the last half of the 20th century (after we, the West, declared “Never Again!”).  But, the Holocaust remains beyond the pale in our collective consciousness.

And when this was pointed out to our journalist, that he essentially compared the management of the Montreal Canadiens to the Nazis, he got out his shovel and kept on digging: “No, not every soldier was a Nazi, not every German believed the Nazi ideology. But that’s beside the point, because we all know what I was saying, and it had nothing to do with Nazis.”

To put it bluntly, this is epic stupidity.  According to the United States Holocaust Museum,

The German military participated in many aspects of the Holocaust: in supporting Hitler, in the use of forced labor, and in the mass murder of Jews and other groups targeted by the Nazis.

The military’s complicity extended not only to the generals and upper leadership but also to the rank and file. In addition, the war and genocidal policy were inextricably linked. The German army (or Heer) was the most complicit as a result of being on the ground in Germany’s eastern campaigns, but all branches participated.

And sure, maybe the journalist didn’t mean to bring up the Nazis.  But words have meanings, and someone who works with words on a daily basis should know better.  The Wehrmacht was by-and-large Nazified.  Period.  And his comparison of the Habs 3-100 point seasons with the Wehrmacht includes the Nazis, whether he meant it or not.  And he should know better.  I did hit the unfollow button, by the way.

The Halifax Explosions?

February 1, 2018 § 4 Comments

The Canadian Football League has long sought to add a 10th team in the Maritimes.  To do so would be to make the CFL actually national.  But, the CFL has also had to deal with some serious instability with its franchises in Montreal, Toronto, and Ottawa, especially, over the past 30 years.  Ottawa is currently on its third (as far as I can count) franchise since the 1980s.  The Rough Riders folded in 1996.  They were replaced by Ottawa Renegades; this franchise only lasted from 2002 to 2006.  Currently, the REDBLACKS play in the nation’s capital.  Meanwhile, down the 417 in Montreal, the original Alouettes folded in 1982; they were replaced by the Concordes, who only lasted until 1986.  After that, Montreal was devoid of Canadian football until the Baltimore Stallions were forced out of that city by the relocation of the original Cleveland Browns to Baltimore in 1995.  The Baltimore team moved to Montreal.  Meanwhile, the Argonauts have never ceased operations, but they have been a basket case in terms of stability and presence in the city most of my adult life.  So, in other words, expansion to the Maritimes has not exactly been on the front burner.  But that’s changed recently, and reports state that not only is there an ownership group in Halifax, but there is will at CFL headquarters.

Personally, I’d love to see a Halifax CFL team.  This would both make the league truly national, it would also speak to the deep popularity of Canadian football in the Maritimes.  The universities of the Maritimes have a long and deep tradition of Canadian football.  And just like the Alouettes and the REDBLACKS (in French, the ROUGENOIRS) have offered a professional career to many French-Canadian football players emerging from Quebec’s college teams, a Halifax team could do the same.

It is unclear what the team would be called, and so, social media (as well as Halifax’s media in general) is full of speculation, and a bevy of names have been proposed.  Last week, a fan art Twitter account, dedicated to this proposed team, suggested that perhaps the team could be called the Explosions, in a tweet:

Uh, yeah. No.  The Halifax Explosion occurred on the morning of 6 December 1917, when a Norwegian ship collided with a French cargo ship, the Mont-Blanc, in the Halifax Harbour.  The French ship was carrying explosives and war munitions (this was the middle of the First World War, after all) and caught fire after the collision.  The fire ignited the cargo, which then exploded.  It devastated a large chunk of Halifax.  Nearly every building within a kilometre radius was destroyed.  A pressure wave accompanying the explosion snapped tress, grounded vessels in the harbour, and devastated iron rails.  The remnants of the Mont-Blanc were found several kilometres away.  Nearly every window in the city was broken.  The city of Dartmouth lies across the harbour from Halifax.  It suffered extensive damage.  The Mi’kmaq First Nation, near Dartmouth, was destroyed by a tsunami caused by the explosion.

The blast was the largest human-made explosion prior to the advent of nuclear weapons.  It released the equivalent of 2.9 kilotons of TNT.  Think about that for a second. Of all the blasts of bombs and munitions in war prior to 6 and 9 August 1945, the Halifax Explosion was the greatest one ever caused by humans.  It killed over 2,000 people and injured nearly 10,000 more, out of a population of around 95,000.

In short, the Halifax Explosion destroyed the City of Halifax.  So suggesting a CFL team be called the Explosions is flat out disrespectful and idiotic.  Shame on @CFLinHalifax for even suggesting it.  Since this initial tweet on Monday, the people behind the account have doubled down in their idiocy.

Meanwhile, the CFL and the proposed Halifax ownership group have had to put out press releases distancing themselves from @CFLinHalifax.

Resurrecting Les Négresses Vertes

November 9, 2017 § Leave a comment

One of the wonderful things about growing up in Canada was official bilingualism.  This meant, for example, that growing up in Vancouver, I could see my beloved Habs every Saturday night on La Soirée du Hockey on Radio-Canada.  It also meant that the French-language version of MuchMusic, MusiquePlus, was broadcast across cable in Vancouver, direct from Montréal.

For the adventuresome young music fan, there was this whole other world out there from France, Belgium, Québec, and French Africa.  Musiqueplus is how I first heard a whole raft of great French artists, from Youssou N’Dour to Noir Désire to Jean Leloup to Niagara to Serge Gainsbourg, and beyond.  It is also how I first heard Céline Dion, so there’s that to take into account.  But it is also how I first came across the great Parisienne band, Les Négresses Vertes.

In high school, French music wasn’t exactly something I could share with my friends. Sure, I was part of the alternative music crowd, but that only extended to the Anglophone world.  I hunt out with some of the theatre kids, but this was a bridge too far even for them.  It wasn’t until I moved to Ottawa, with its proximity to Montréal, that I found the freedom to enjoy French music publicly.

Most of the Anglo world first came across Les Négresses Vertes through their presence on the Red Hot + Blue album in 1990.  They covered Cole Porter’s ‘I Love Paris.’  But, by then, I had already dug on their début album, Mlah, which came out in 1988.  They were unlike anything I had ever heard in English.  They mixed French traditional music with world beat and punk.  They were complicated.  Their melodies and beats owed more to the French Empire than France.  And they had a strong sense of musicality, which bubbled up to the surface in surprising ways sometimes.  Front man Noël Rota, better known as Helno, sounded a bit like Joe Strummer of the Clash, at least sometimes (this also made Strummer’s late life foray into acoustic punks and Latin beats somewhat bizarre to me, since it sounded more like Helno fronting Mano Negra).

The Vertes were a collection of misfits and punks from Paris, originating around Les Halles.  They were a united nation of the former French empire; their name came from an insult hurled at them at one of their earliest.  I don’t get romantic about the past and locations often, but, c’mon, this is Paris.  Paris in the 80s must’ve been an amazing place.  And Les Négresses Vertes arose out of this, the cosmopolitan nature of the French metropole, plus the distinct French qualities of the city, and the inner city at that.  And the music!  Aside from Les Négresses Vertes there was Noir Désir, Bérurier Noir, Mano Negra, amongst others.

Their first two albums, Mlah and Famille Nombreuse, teetered on complete chaos, an eight-piece orchestra.  Helno was this tiny, kind of funny looking freak.  He had a pompadour and looked like something that stepped out of the 1950s.  But, in front of his band, he became something else.  He held this chaos together.  He was both the primary song writer and the vocalist.  He sounded a bit like Strummer, yes, but he also sounded world-weary.  All of this when he was in his late 20s.  He’d done copious amounts of drugs, but he still more or less lived in his mother’s flat in a poor part of northern Paris.  People all around him were dying, of suicide, drug overdoses, and AIDs.  He once told a journalist that he through that if there was a Hell, it was on Earth.  He also claimed that he wrote his lyrics whilst riding his bike around Paris, singing out loud as he rode.  Hindsight says he was damned from the getgo.  But I doubt it looked that way at the time.

His lyrics were riddled with slang and dark humour, stories of love and the gritty city (”Zobi La Mouche‘ and ‘Voila l’été‘) mixed with the occasional beautiful love song (‘Homme de marais‘, seriously one of my favourite songs ever) and dirge (‘Face à la mer‘). ‘Face à la mer’ was remixed by Massive Attack and became a huge club hit after Helno’s death (perhaps the most unlikely club raver ever).

It’s been a long time since I listened to the Vertes, probably close to a decade.  But for some reason, I put them on last weekend.  Nothing has changed, even though their first album was released almost 30 years ago.  Helno himself has been dead for almost 25 years; he died of a heroin overdose in January 1993, at the age of 29.  Their music is still immediate, still that beautiful concoction of chaos, danger, and beauty.

Les Négresses Vertes carried on after Helno’s death, eventually evolving more into a dub fusion band.  But something was lost.  Helno seemed to be the one who kept the chaos from falling off the rails, from ensuring the danger remained in the background.  After his death, the band was never as exuberant and full of life again.  They mellowed.  And as much as I like the post-Helno era, for me, Les Négresses Vertes were at their best between 1987 and 1993.

As far as I know, they’ve never broken up, but they haven’t released any new music since 2001.  They don’t have a web page.  They don’t have a Twitter or a Facebook page.  And career-spanning retrospectives were released in the early 2000s.

 

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