ANOTHER KIND OF EXPLOSION IN QUEBEC TALENT
drink you in the country today. Vive la différence! JON RUDDY MICHEL MONTICELLI LE CAFÉ DES ARTISTES on Dorchester Street is a pretty ordinary Montreal bar and restaurant: that
LE CAFÉ DES ARTISTES on Dorchester Street is a preity ordinary Montreal bar and restaurant: that is to say, there is nothing at all like it in English Canada. They have a fireplace in there with a log fire going. The food, if you want to eat, is cheap and good. The woman behind the bar has a warm face, like your mother's, and when you have finished your drink you can be sure that a waiter is not going to shamble over and grab your glass as if it were incriminating evidence. There is a lot of wandering from table to table.
I am sitting with Tex Lecor, who currently is one of the two or three most popular entertainers in Quebec; Chantal Renaud, the lovely chansonnier who is on our cover; André Dufresne of the Centaur Foun dation for the Performing Arts; Pascal Lennad, who writes for Echos Vedettes, an incredible showbiz tab loid that I will get to later; a couple of secretaries from Radio-Canada, which is next door; a few other people. Mlle Renaud looks hauntingly susceptible to chest colds in a red-leather mini unzipped at the throat. Tex is a big, tousled folk singer who resembles, in a green, red, yellow and orange paisley jacket, Mont Tremblant covered with wild flowers. He is telling us about his old acquaintance, Pierre Trudeau. Their re lationship succinctly expresses the special status of le monde du spectacle in Quebec.
"He is a smart fox, that Trudeau," says Tex, in English for my benefit. "I used to drink with him at The Swiss Hut. The last time I saw him was on St. Jean-Baptiste Day. I was one of the celebrities in open cars. When we went past the reviewing stand I thumbed my nose at him. Later we were invited to a big cocktail party, and I no sooner got in the door than a couple of Mounties came up and told me I would have to be searched. They knew damned well I am very revolutionary as far as Quebec is con cerned. They kept talking to me in English, which made me boil. Things were getting bad, when I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Trudeau. `What's going on?' he said. I told him what those bâtards were doing and he turned to them and said, `If you can't speak French, stay in the background. It's their day.'
It still is. The insular flowering of Quebec enter tainment is nothing new, nor is the ambivalence felt and expressed toward federal symbols and trappings. What is new is a surging pride and confidence, a power both artistic and political. And you know that, if the bad day comes, Tex Lecor will be there at the head of the crowd with a strange flag in his hand. The chansonniers of the new Quebec, most though not all of them separatists, are folk heroes in a way that is hard for an English-speaking Canadian to grasp. Eventually, I should say, you have to conclude that their status is justified artistically, and that their lack of national recognition is sad in a country that has
never found brighter stars than Wayne and Shuster. I went to Quebec with some fond memories of Expo and a soupçon of WASPish resentment - you need us, I might have said, more than we need you, and who the hell is Pauline Julien, anyway? - and came home cursing a school system that could not teach me French. Mostly, I regretted not being able to appreciate the nuances of some lyrics by Georges Dor, an artist I had never heard of before. He is one of the great ones, this man Dor. Craggy-faced, with a Caesar haircut and a voice as expressive as Sinatra's, he sings his own songs about love. "I write them in the manner of any natural man," he says, but I doubt that they could be written in English. Dor was a news producer at Radio-Canada for 10 years. His life changed at a precise moment in time: January 1, 1967, that being the release date of his first album. One of the songs on it, La Manic, was described by critics as the most beautiful ever composed in Quebec. I am here to tell you that it is the most beautiful song ever composed in Canada.
Dor describes himself as a poet - there are a lot of unself-conscious poets, these days, in Quebec - and does not appear to take his career as a singer very seriously. "I hope the singing will bring me back to pure literature," he says. La Manic is short for Mani couagan, site of a remote hydro-dam complex. "When I was working at Bersinis, where they built another big dam, I wrote a few love letters for workers who couldn't do it themselves. It gave me the idea for the song." He has tried to translate it for an English recording, but senses the impossibility of that. The single has sold more than 80,000 copies in Quebec and was at the top of the hit parade for a long time. It is the sort of thing that teenagers listen to in Trois
Rivières while our kids get wiped out by the j3ig Pink. Here is the last verse:
Si tu savais comme on s'ennuie If you knew how lonely it is A la Manic Up at Manic Tu m'écrirais bien plus souvent You would write to me much more often A la Manicouagan Up at Manicouagan Si t'as pas grand'chose a me dire If you have nothing much to say Ecris cent lois les mots je t'aime Write a hundred times the words I love you Ca ferra le plus beau des poèmes It will be the most beautiful of poems Je le lirai cent fois I will read it a hundred times Cent fois cent fois c'est pas beaucoup One hundred times is not too much Pour ceux qui s'aiment For those who love one another
When I was a kid the only French-Canadian singer known in English Canada was Felix Leclerc. He used to sing on CBC radio. Oh, it was a long time ago. He got to be very big in Quebec and presently he moved to France, a pattern later followed by Monique Leyrac and a few others. Meanwhile, in 1959, a com mercial artist named Gilles Mathieu opened La Butte a Mathieu in a village called Val-David in the Lau rentians 50 miles north of Montreal. What he did, basically, was put a lot of rickety chairs and tables and farm artifacts in a beautifully weathered old barn. Some young people hardly anybody had heard of -Claude Gauthier, Christine Charbonneau, Raymond
Lévesque, Gilles Vigneault, Claude Léveillée, Pauline Julien — started turning up on Saturday nights to sing their own compositions, usually accompanying themselves on guitar. They called themselves chansonniers, a noun that means political satirists in France, and they called Mathieu’s place a boite à chanson, a new terme Québécois meaning, more or less, song box.
La Butte was soon drawing swarms of teenagers who had been listening mostly to U.S. pop tunes, sometimes crudely translated. They would come roaring up Route 1 1 from Montreal in these incredible old crocks, chopped and channeled 1947 Hudsons and God knows what all. The villagers didn’t know what was going on. Years later, when La Butte was an institution and a tourist attraction, they credited Mathieu with starting what is now known locally as le boom. But in 1959 and 1960 not even Mathieu realized that he had launched a movement. The automobile, preferably one’s own but papa’s if necessary, was youth’s glamour symbol of the Fifties, in Quebec as everywhere else. Thousands of gars and their girl friends were tooling around the countryside looking for some kind of action. La Butte represented not only a good place to go but a kind of liberation from what was still a U.S.-dominated pop-music scene. Records from France had been coming in. too, but on the whole young Québécois were plugged into U.S. rock and folk sounds. The chansonniers made them look inward, and their world shrank. One portentous and unpublicized result was that a lot of them stopped learning English.
The kids would jam the place, slouching on the farm-kitchen chairs or on a lot of old sofa cushions on raised platforms along the sides. What was immediately noticeable about them was how attentive
they were when the chansonniers were working. T here was some poetry reading, too, and folklore, most of it relating directly to Quebec customs and aspirations. Some of the lyrics were fervently nationalistic in the Québécois sense. Les Anglais ignored the whole phenomenon, generally. “The English papers in Montreal have never had a story about La Butte,” says Gilles Mathieu, with an expressive Gallic shrug.
The boîte ci chanson movement built up a terrific following in Quebec in the middle Sixties. At one time there were about 40 different places in and around the bigger towns, most of them not licensed to serve alcohol, all of them dedicated to narrowly provincial self-expression. The rest of the country was put down in such lyrics as these, by Raymond Lévesque:
Quand j’étais en Ontario When I was in Ontario Ou je coupais du bouleau Where I was cutting birch Je travaillais aussi fort I worked as hard Que les A nglais, les taboires As the English, the so-and-so’s Puis un jour j’ai découvert Then one day I found out Que pour le même travail That for the same amount of work On me payait moins cher They paid me less than the others Pis on m’traitait comme du bétail And I was treated like an animal C’est alors que j’ai compris That is when I understood Qu’c’est Québec qu’est mon pays That Quebec is my country ►
The smaller boites ci chanson flashed and faded like so many fireflies. The most popular chansonniers either priced themselves out of the market — they now appear, for example, at La Comédie-Canadienne in Montreal and on the CBC’s French network — or, following the latest trends in Quebec pop music, they demanded sophisticated sound equipment and backup groups. (This distinctive, whiny rock is sometimes called the Mountain Street Sound.) La Butte and a more recent Montreal boite called Le Patriote are still thriving, however.
Le Patriote is a dimly lighted room over a tavern on St. Catherine Street East. There are fishnets all over the place. The washroom doors are marked “Québécois” and “Québécoise.” 1 am having a drink with the manager, Yves Blais. “You don’t speak French,” he starts off by saying. “but that is all right because you are from Ontario, which is another country. I will speak English with you. But I have no British accent. I have a pea-soup accent.” Blais volunteers the obvious — that he is a separatist. “Em glad to be. I don’t care. I refused to accept a Canada Council grant of $8,000. But it has nothing to do with my shows.” English-speaking people, he says, make up about 10 percent of his audiences. He does not cater to them, though. “We couldn’t have Lightfoot here. Nobody would come. You have your own places. The boite à chanson was invented for the Québécois culture. We wanted to have a place in which to do the things we have in our hearts.” When Le Patriote opened in 1965. he says, “32 officers of police attended the first show. The name, you see, was dynamite. For three years we kept inviting the English papers. They never come.”
And Yves Blais hurries off to introduce to a packed house the night’s feature attraction: Monique Leyrac, back from Paris to co-star in a Paul Almond film with Geneviève Bujold. During his preamble he refers to the guest from Ontario as a “stranger in paradise.” So much for les Anglais.
I was curious why a singer as famous as Mile Leyrac would appear in a place as small as Le Patriote or, for that matter, La Butte à Mathieu. The biggest Quebec stars invariably make a pilgrimage to these two places when they come home, usually from Paris. Blais told me that it was because of the spirit of the boite. “It is a clean and nice place,” he said. “And not noisy like a nightclub. We could make a lot of money if we went around serving drinks during the show, but you will notice that we stop. If anybody speaks we give them their mon-
ey back and tell them to get out.” An exaggeration, maybe, but you can’t prove it by me. Le Patriote is the first place, since I left home at 19, where I feel that lighting a cigarette is disruptive. The audience of about 300, most of them in their 20s and 30s, would punch anybody in the nose who did not appreciate this artistic triumph. But 1 don’t have to review Monique Leyrac’s performance, because she has appeared all over the place: Ottawa. Toronto, Winnipeg, Stratford, Carnegie Hall in New York and The Perry Como Show. And the Olympia in Paris.
I go and talk to her in her dressing room. She is a star, is Mile Leyrac, and to hell with the French-English business and the niceties. She is wearing a dressing gown, her hair is up in curlers, she is chewing bubble gum like mad and she has a flunky there to butt in when you ask a tricky question. I remark on the attentiveness of the audience and the flunky says that is the way all audiences react to Monique Leyrac. Mile Leyrac herself says that she is not used to “these little places.” She is used to Place des Arts. But she wanted to sing some new songs. Why did she go to France? “I don’t want to appear ungrateful,” she says, “but if I stayed here they would forget about me after two or three years. If you disappear and then come back it’s okay. But each time I return I wonder if they will come.”
Before her second show I get to talking with Claude Landré, a French-language radio and television star. Landré is the great Quebec impressionist. His nose grows, Pinnochio-like, when he takes off De Gaulle and he sounds more like Pierre Trudeau in French than Max Ferguson does in English. I tell him that somebody has told me he is comparable to Rich Little. “Yes, I think so." he says. “But I have never heard Richard Little.” (This reminds me that nobody I have talked to in Montreal has heard of Leonard Cohen, who lives there.) Landré also does a vicious impression of English Canadians trying to speak French, notably Robert Stanfield. His ambition — curious in Quebec — is to learn English and work in the rest of Canada and the U.S. He’ll make it. On a recent radio show he impersonated Trudeau so effectively that three newspapermen and two radio journalists phoned the station to find out what was going on.
Some of the predatory Montreal tabloids devoted to Ie showbizz got on to that story and blew it up like a pig bladder. Landré’s fame took
a quantum jump. This press I am talking about is a fantastic medium nobody in English Canada seems to be aware of. Vedettes means stars and Echos Vedettes is a fat weekly that sells 118,000 copies at 20 cents each on newsstands all over the province. A firm called Publications Peladeau puts out Journal des Vedettes, TeleRadiomonde and Photo Vedettes; La Presse has started publishing an insert called Spec, and there are some other papers around that are showbiz-oriented to the extent that Drapeau’s threatened resignation, say, gets pushed off page one by some such scare headline as, TEX quittera définitivement le Canada. This accompanied by a three-column cut of Tex Lecor sitting in a tavern somewhere with a big boxed EXCLUSIF! in purple ink exploding on top of it.
André Robert, the editor of Echos Vedettes, is telling me how he was the publisher until February 28. “I sold it to a businessman for $675,000 cash,” he says. He started the paper six years ago “with exactly zero cents.” Six full-time reporters chase the vedettes for stories, gossipy stuff but never scandalous. Robert can’t figure out why there is no similar press in English Canada. “Isn’t anyone interested in the Wayne and Shuster?”
The Quebec monde du spectacle is an interlocking empire whose captains and kings turn up all over the place. For example, André Robert is as much a TV celebrity as an editor. He appears on three Tely Métropole series every week. When I met him for lunch at a place called Chez Georges he was getting ready to tape an interview with Johnny Hallyday, a rock singer over from France. Two of the paper’s reporters, Pascal Lennad, who appears to do all of his research at Le Café des Artistes, and Pierre Trudel, a record critic, are featured regularly on other shows. Quebec personalities and performers dominate French-language television with the hearty approval of viewers. The CBC's French network alone telecasts 60 hours a week of locally produced programming, a total that includes six of the 10 most popular shows. Montreal produces considerably more French-language programming per week than Paris. Variety entertainment. which in English Canada sometimes seems to consist pretty much of Charlie Chamberlain singing The Old Rugged Cross, continues to flourish in Quebec. One result has been that the chansonniers who picked up a big following in the boites found steady television exposure, then took to touring the province as television stars, pulling in adoring crowds comprising all age
groups from yeh-yeh to matronly.
Le showbizz is very big biz. Pierre Trudel tells me that Echos Vedettes has just uncovered the fact that Denyse Filiatrault and Dominique Michel, stars of a Radio-Canada comedy series called Moi et l’Autre, have signed renewal contracts that will bring them $100,000 a year each. (The story was later printed, though the figure was denied.) The Frenchlanguage record industry has taken off in the last few years to the point where, in a market of 5.5 million, seven records have sold more than 100,000 copies each. The most popular Quebec entertainers — Ginette Reno, a sturdy, pixie-faced girl with a great big beautiful voice is the one I saw there, but there are plenty of other examples, notably a group called Les Cyniques — can sell out the 1,257-seat Comédie-Canadienne without first making it big in France, the Gallic equivalent of the Toronto-Hollywood pilgrimage. In Montreal only the nightclubs have been doing badly since Expo. Two of them, Café de l’Est and Casa Loma, are still packing them in, however.
Napoleonic self-discipline is required in Quebec not to overemphasize one aspect of the scene and to hell with Yves Blais and the rest; that is, the number of girls who are beautiful in the most outrageous way, and who are endowed not only with slithery knees and faces like morning glories but with talent and brains. I wasn’t in Montreal five minutes before a lot of people — in the Sir Winston Churchill Pub, I think it was — were heaving great sighs and conjuring up Byronic visions for my benefit about three of them, though it could have been a dozen.
Ah, Chantal Renaud, Louise Forestier, Christine Charbonneau. Mlle Renaud is a writer-composer-singer-actress-TV hostess, for godsake, whose first novel was lost by Air Canada between New York and Madrid and who went to Paris “because we must go, like salmon, you know?” She writes songs about love, has her stories published in the French Châtelaine and has a voice like a breeze blowing through sugarcane. Louise Forestier, singing at Place des Arts as a counterpoint to monologues by Yvon Deschamps, is throaty, pensive, with big dark eyes. After the show she puts on her granny glasses and says, “Glory is a funny feeling. You must laugh at it very much or it will kill you. Here in Quebec it comes so easily because we are all maniacs touched by art. My ambition is to be cool in this business.” Christine Charbonneau has long swingy hair and a voice a little like Streisand’s. Her fanciful songs have never made the hit parade. “It is
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not important for me. I would like to be famous one day, but I am a little bit afraid of people putting words in my mouth. Also, 1 am not a pusher woman. Is that what you say? I would like to sing in English Canada, but ’ow can 1 do that? I done two songs or tree in Toronto once, and people don't even look at you.”
Why is that. I wonder? So does Jack Lazare, president of Gamma, one of the hottest Quebec record producers, currently. He inserts English lyric translations in most of his LPs in high hopes. “But they won't listen to us,” he says. “In Toronto the record stores order two copies and put them behind the Polish and Chinese songs. English Canada won’t do anything but follow the U.S.” Lazare thinks that one of his artists, Robert Charlebois, may break through the Pea Soup Curtain, if only because Charlebois’ Dylanesque trip song, Lindberg!!!, is being released in the States. The song is too nutty not to be clear even in French, and is selling like mad in Italy and Mexico, among other places. A lot of facile minds in Quebec have already been twigged by the success of Lindberg!!! Tony Roman’s, for example. Roman is a 26-year-old singer-turned-tycoon, the manager of a label called Camisa. He has vague plans to crack the English-speaking and international markets by breaking the shackles of language. “Maybe there won’t be any lyrics at all,” he says, “or maybe a universal language. Maybe just beautiful sounds.” And Tony Roman reflectively fingers the hair on his chest in the cleavage of his black-fur shirt.
Up at La Butte à Mathieu, Robert Charlebois does a show before leaving for Paris and the Olympia with Louise Forestier. Charlebois — his hair puffs out in these tight ringlets. His lyrics are wildly imaginative, personal and perceptive. He yodels, switches to hard rock, whines, sounds like Dylan, breaks into a falsetto and shuffles around in his lumberman’s boots like something dredged out of the Lachine Canal. The odd thing is that it is totally involving. I remember what Jack Paar said to the Smothers Brothers: “I don't know what it is you've got, but whatever it is nobody is going to take it away from you.”
On my last night in Quebec, Charlebois, Gilles Mathieu and I and some other people drink beer until sunrise in a small hotel somewhere in the Laurentians. Charlebois, he is drinking beer and tomato juice. I ask him if it bothers him that the English-language disc jockeys in Montreal aren’t playing Lindberg!!! or any of his other songs. “Yeah, a little bit,” he says. "But sometimes they play them in the middle of the night.” □