Provence and the Cote d’Azur. Those words don’t really conjure up images of rock ‘n roll, do they? Not for me they don’t. But great art, oh hells yeah, there’s plenty on that front. Here’s my quick update from the South of France, which is more about art than rock. Just thank god that it’s not about art-rock, like Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Yes or Genesis, because you want to be able to keep your food in your stomach where it belongs, right?
Quickly on the rock scene in Provence: it’s thin. There are some clubs around, I guess, as we saw posters, but nothing jumps out at you saying “now this is where you come to rock out.” Nope. Maybe eat good food, drink rosé, see nice country views, and bask in cloudless skies. We did see this guy at an outdoor market in Aix-en-Provence selling CDs and records. The best part was that he was jamming to … Deep Purple’s “Highway Star.” I haven’t heard that song in a long time, and you know what? It sounded great. Rock on, brother!
We also came across this shop in Aix. It was selling instruments, and seemed like a thriving business. And that, my friends, is about the extent of my rock ‘n roll reporting from Provence.
Oh, I almost forgot! There are certain things that the French do really, really well, like wine, cheese, and art. But we Americans do some things great, too, like create the musical styles that the world loves: jazz, blues, country, rock, soul, funk, rockabilly, rap, hip hop, the list goes on and on. We try to emulate the French at things in which they excel, with some success, but it just isn’t the same, and there are some things for which we should simply stop trying and acknowledge that they are the masters. But this isn’t a one way street. They should simply give up on certain things where we as a nation are the kings. Yup, you know what I’m talking about: French rap. It’s AWFUL. We heard some and the only thing that you can do is laugh. Hang up the cleats, Pierre, and go back to the first growths.
Here’s a cool thing the French do (and the Czechs, too, as we first saw this in Prague): they put pianos in public spaces, and anyone with the gumption is free to play. It’s sort of like open mike night but in the train station, on a public square, or wherever. We saw a guy in Paris at Gare de Lyon belting out some tune and singing along, too. He wasn’t too good. But at another rail hub in Paris, we were riding an escalator while Beethoven’s “Für Elise” was being played. A very credible job on that lovely piece, and enhancing for us an otherwise harried and typical transportation scene.
One other cultural phenomena: the French pump odd music into the most interesting places. We were in an H&M store and they were playing some Disney song like “Bippipity Boppity Boo.” Huh? And we were the only ones laughing about it. For god’s sake, man, we aren’t in Tokyo! The French also string together music that shouldn’t be linked. For instance, we heard Sinatra, which is fine, but then it would be followed up by something crazy, like Ex Hex, who I also love, but it’s a weird combination, right? But nothing the French do could top the music choices of the Acme in Newtown Square, spoiling an otherwise decent shopping experience with songs like “Midnight at the Oasis” or “Wildfire.” Ugh, I guess we Americans have nothing on the French after all.
Enough of that, and back to something the French are famous for: art. If you like Cezanne, which I do, and you find yourself in Aix (a very pleasant place to find yourself, by the way), then you would be a fool not to go to the Cezanne studio. Don’t expect much: it’s all of one room. That’s it. But it has a great narration that takes you around the studio area by area, and it’s full of the master’s personal artifacts: objects he painted, the tools he used while painting (ladder, easel), his clothes, some of his furniture, and other interesting things. And about 15 minutes away is a park which was used by Cezanne to paint outdoors, particularly of Mont Sainte-Victore. It has spectacular views, and it’s uncrowded, a rarity in Europe. Very nice.
Another great place in Provence to view scenes made famous by painters you may have heard of include Arles, with its Van Gogh sites (and a pretty cool Roman arena and theater to boot). Arles was neat because some of the scenes remain in similar condition to what Van Gogh painted, and you can view a copy of his painting right at the site of the location.
The Cote d’Azur is another artistic haven. Well, at least the small area that I saw, which was Nice. A very pretty setting, lovely buildings, and great artistic heritage make for a rare combination of agreeable delights. There is a national museum of Marc Chagall’s works in Nice. Thankfully, the Chagall museum contains primarily paintings of religious scenes because it’s really hard to find religious art anywhere else in the rest of Europe. Seriously, he was extremely talented, and made compelling art tying Old Testament biblical stories with bridges to his own Russian upbringing and reflecting the horrors of the holocaust and Russian pogroms. Hard to visualize what that looks like, but trust me, he succeeds.
Matisse is another Nice guy, and there is a museum of his there, too. If you like Matisse, you’ll like this museum. His true masterpieces aren’t part of the collection, but there are good paintings (including his very first, which is pretty cool), sketches, sculpture (I don’t care for his sculpture), and personal effects. You can see how his style evolved and emerged, which is fascinating, and it’s all housed in a pretty old mansion high above the old city of Nice.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, so what about rock ‘n roll? Well, there were a number of clubs that had live music, and there was a big hip hop outdoor concert planned for this weekend. Given that I don’t care much for hip hop, it doesn’t bother me that I’m missing that. There were also signs around for the Nice Jazz fest in July. It’s not all jazz: James Hunter (blues, good live act) and George Clinton (funk, unbelievably good live act – one not to be missed before you die) will partake. If I were in Nice in July, I would definitely make an effort to get up on the downstroke, but I’ll be somewhere else that month. Nonetheless, it appears that Nice has a music scene of some respectability.
OK, enough of this, right? I’m back stateside, and ready to rock out. Here’s a couple of bands that kept me going while riding the trains in France; check ‘em out. Some are new, some are old, some lean toward rock, some toward country, but all are good:
Protomartyr: Band of Horses; Plimsouls; Queen; Chumped; Interpol; The Lovers Key; Low Cut Connie; The Jam; Prince; Stereophonics; Stevie Wonder (Is Stevie a living National Treasure or what?); Japandroids; J.D. McPherson; Rosie Flores; Benjamin Booker; and Tenement.
Thank you for reading, and I hope that you, too, have been enjoying great music. Catch you on the flipside. And here are two Roman artifact pictures that I think can be playfully adapted to rock 'n roll. The first must be entitled "(I'm Your) Venus". And the second is simply a 2000 year old mosh pit lover.
Back to modern culture next time, I promise.
My name is Bill, and I live in the greater Philadelphia area. I love music, and I have a lot of opinions. This site is primarily focused on music, but sometimes I get off track. I hope you enjoy.