Discover more from untidy thoughts
playing in the band.
how France's fête de la musique became my jam (pun intended.)
I don’t fancy myself as a musician. I can play songs on the guitar. I can sing like the best of them in the shower. But when France’s fête de la musique rolls around, I rock like no one’s watching. And usually no one really is. No one wants to see some middle-aged women making up for lost dreams. But I do it anyway—side eyes from the moms and all— because I love it.
But first…what is fête de la musique?
Founded in Paris in 1982 by the French Ministry of Culture, Fête de la musique (Music Day) is a celebration of music that welcomes all musicians, from amateurs to pros to take to the streets with their song. All genres. No gatekeepers. Wherever. Just music every June 21st as an unofficial kick off to summer.
For years, I had wanted to participate but the truth was that I didn’t believe in myself enough to think that I could stand on the street and play music to random people passing by. I think this would be the time to also mention that there’s no rule that you have to actually be good. But still. I held back because I didn’t want people to think I thought I was so great. My alcoholic mind has always been such an awesome friend to me, let me tell ya.
In 2016, shortly after the birth of our son, Aurélien and I moved to a small town outside of Paris. At the time, snoozy little towns for young families had the appeal of McDonalds and we were often asked why with this crooked expression followed by wouldn’t we get bored? Not really. We had a 9-month-old, so boredom was (and still is) a luxury, and not to mention Paris was getting too expensive for us. So we moved to a village that at the time had two restaurants—a crêperie or a crêperie— and the resident’s average age was 65. Allez-up.
When fête de la musique rolled around was the first time we felt our choice for a quieter, less expensive life.
Quiet because there was no music. Less expensive because there was nowhere to go.
“Let’s walk around,” I said to Aurélien as I looked out the living room window for signs of life. “Maybe there’s something going on.”
“Do you hear something going on?” he asked.
“Then there’s probably nothing going on.” This came with the “We’re not in Paris anymore” look.
And because a stubborn fuck because it couldn’t be—it just couldn’t be!—, I clipped on the baby carrier, sliding in my very happy baby son who was thrilled to be going on a walk to see for myself…because again, it just couldn’t be.
We walked and after a few lefts and rights, it was exactly as my husband predicted. Not just quiet. But non-existent.
It didn’t feel very festive. (Check me out telling and not showing.)
But that following weekend, our village hosted some live music with local bands and the local student choir. I’ll take it! Since there was nowhere to sit, we stood on the crumbling cobblestone with our son back in the baby carrier as I swayed him back and forth to Johnny Hallyday and Otis Redding covers.
“Let’s walk around,” I turned to my husband, thinking we should get out of direct sun. “Maybe there’s music happening in other spots of town.”
Cue in the “we’re not in Paris anymore” look but for the sake of not hearing the French version of “Rock Around the Clock” through the village’s rickety sound system, he agreed.
We passed closed shutters of homes not wanting the blazing heat to get in. We threaded down alleys so small you could touch both sides. We balanced on uneven cobblestone sidewalks, all to complete and total silence, give or take the coo of a nearby turtledove that our cat likes to unattractively click its jaw at.
I heard it.
I grabbed my husband’s hand because I heard it.
“Ah ha!” I pointed to him like he was holding out on me. “Music. Rock music.”
“Papa,” my son corrected me as he also pointed.
We followed the music making a left, then a right and then another right as I walked into my very first Pretty Woman moment by doing this:
And there was.
A real live band. There was a drummer. Two guitarists. Microphones. And they played rock music not on a stage. Or at a café. But in front of their house staying true to the spirit of fête de la musique.
Creedence covers. And Zeppelin. And Stones (lots of Stones), oh my! Bouncing along with my little guy, I sang along to their 1960s AM radio setlist with joy. Pure joy.
On our way home that afternoon, I turned to Aurélien and said, “I want to do that too.”
“Then do it,” he said, totally meaning it.
The next year, I did nothing about it and the year after that and the year after that. But still, every fête de la musique we went to see the little garage band with my son graduating from the baby carrier to his stroller to wobbly dancing to ‘Gloria’. And every year, I would say the same thing to my husband: “I want to do that.”
But I knew. I knew that I was never going to do anything about it, until one day, my father-in-law stopped by with stuff for us. It wasn’t my husband’s report cards or comic books, but a painted blue folk guitar.
“The last tenant in the apartment [he sublet in Paris] left this behind, does anyone play?” he asked, looking at us with excitement at that week’s found treasure.
“I did in high school,” I said with a meek shrug. “But I haven’t touched a guitar in twenty years though.”
“Here then.” He handed it to me and that was that. Off to talk about the plumbing situation in the apartment.
When I sat down on my couch with it though, I couldn’t remember a single chord. I felt discouraged that I was too old to play and that my hand-eye coordination died with my Tamagotchi in 1999, so the blue beauty sat there for months.
Until one wine-fueled night (sans enfant) changed everything. After a long dinner at home, I decided to write a letter (as in a paper letter) to the garage band expressing my desire to join. My wine-soaked brain saw no problem with drawing lightning bolts and skulls with wings on it to detail my appreciation of rock. It seemed like the best idea in the world until I woke up the next morning. With my head swishing with wine and even more shame when I found the letter on my kitchen table. In the blaze of daylight, I saw that my illustrations also included a bubbly-shaped three-chord guitar. I squeezed my eyes shut as I snatched it off the table, like how dare it, and dropped it in our recycling.
End of story.
Until a week later when I received a text from a unfamiliar number.
“Hi Lisa. I’m your neighbor in the band. We got your note and would be happy for you to play with us. But what do you play?”
They didn’t just want a singer with a tambourine, so I responded, “Guitar. Je joue la guitare.”
“Trés bien. Do you want to come over next week to play?”
My next text then went to my husband: “Why did our neighbor in the band just text me?”
He responded with a smiley face.
By this time, I had written the first draft of my novel (shameless plug) about a rock band so I thought it would make for great research if anything. To prepare for our practice, I downloaded the Fender Guitar app to refamiliarize myself with the basic chords. I ended up postponing our date for two weeks, which turned into a few months with scheduling conflicts and then the holidays as I built my repertoire with three-chord pop and rock songs.
By the start of 2020, I was ready for a rehearsal. Holding my guitar like a chicken by its neck because I didn’t even have a bag for it, I trekked through our rainy village ready to rawk. Again, with my folk guitar. I knocked on the door with a halo of frizzy hair framing my face while trying not to ask myself what the hell was I doing?
The guy I had recognized as the drummer opened the door the led to his kitchen. In it was a small table with homemade jarred foods, the walls covered in moldy tiles and caked-over dishes piled in the sink. In the middle of the room was a drum kit and next to it, a stationary exercise bike.
“Set up anywhere,” he said.
“Oh. Okay.” I looked around unsure where exactly to do that. “So, where’s the rest of the band?”
“Oh, they just come in for fête de la musique,” he said, sitting down on his throne behind the electric drum kit. “They live hours away. Today, it’s just you and me.”
“How very White Stripes,” I remember saying.
“Ah,” he said with an approving nod. “Jack White.”
“Except I’m no Jake White,” I mumbled while looking for a place to sit because I also didn’t have a strap for my guitar so it would need to rest it on my leg in order for me to “play” it.
I moved some dish rags and jars of cassoulet out of the way, pulled out a chair and got as comfortable as a then 38-year-old mother could be in a young guy’s bachelor pad as I plucked away the only song I could play somewhat decently, which at the time happened to be “Lover” by Taylor Swift.
Please, dear reader, believe me when I say that it was one of the more uncomfortable moments of my life. Singing a song with lyrics that go: And I'm highly suspicious that everyone who sees you wants you/I've loved you three summers now, honey, but I want 'em all to some guy whom I didn’t make a child with while I had one eye on the clock because I had to pick up said child from pre-school was just one of those things life can’t prepare you for. I had no choice but to ignore exactly what was going on otherwise I wouldn’t have made it to the higher-pitched bridge… I take this magnetic force of a man to be my…lover.
When I glanced at the drummer during my final You're my, my, my, my…lover, I could see he was in to it as he joined in with a steady and supportive hit on the kick and some light snares to give my playing some weight.
We did a few more songs until I couldn’t take my own embarrassment any longer. I left but that didn’t stop me from coming back. And every Friday until the world stopped in March 2020, we kept up our Friday afternoon practices. During the lockdown, I practiced and practiced and practiced, learning new songs and chords, until we were allowed to see each other safely. This time with the rest of the band and authorization that we could put on a little show. And it went really well. We also had coming out of the first lockdown working in our favor so literally just being outside was an event. Add a band and a box of rosé and our friends and neighbors had never seen a better time. Everyone kept thanking us like we had invented something.
Last week was our fourth fête de la musique and the reception wasn’t as beholden as it was in 2020 with our friends asking how hot it will be and what time will we be playing until because not everyone is into it. And that’s okay, because it’s for us. We don’t have a name. We don’t have original songs. We don’t have recordings. But every year, we treat it like our jobs.
Looking back, it tickles me to even imagine feeling uncomfortable or thinking I don’t deserve to play for nobody on the street. But that’s just a small piece of my emotional history that I am learning through age and newfound sobriety that inhibitions and shyness exist to protect us. We’re supposed to be wary of new experiences and to proceed with caution but to also try new things. My way was pouring wine, like lighter fluid over my anxiety. But it turned out that I didn’t need the wine. Or the permission. And as cheesy as it sounds, I just needed to believe I could. (The Fender App helped too.) (And the band who are the younger generation weird about the internet, so I didn’t include pictures of them.) (And my amazing family.)
Until the next fête de la musique!
Thanks for reading!
Thanks for reading reader-supported untidy thoughts. Always clumsy. Always me. Feel free to subscribe if you haven’t already.