Out of the Past, by Jacques Tourneur - 1947. I think Tourneur must have been, or this movie at least, must have been a big influence on Jean-Pierre Melville. The characters in Bob le Flambeur and Le Samourai deal in the same doom though their troubles are set in Paris. “My feelings? About ten years ago, I hid them somewhere and haven’t been able to find them.” Always liked this scene, with a voiceover that felt like it could have been lifted from a letter you’d written yourself. You can sense that a trapdoor’s about to open for this guy. “Near the plaza was a little cafe, called La Mar Azul next to a movie house. I sat there in the afternoons and drank beer. I used to sit there half-asleep with the beer and the darkness. Only that music from the movie next door kept jarring me awake.” She walks through a door, he looks up and suddenly he’s thinking this could be his luck or it could be his doom—but whatever’s heading his way he’ll have. This is one catastrophe he does not want to miss.
An interview with Peter Milton Walsh about 9 masterpieces
The most slanderous would say about The Apartments that they gather as many fans as albums they had released during the last thirty years. In contrast, the knowledgeable audience following the band in the meantime already know by heart most of its beautiful albums, from the delicate and upsetting The Evening Visits…and Stays For Years, recorded in 1985 and re-released today by Captured Tracks, to the bewitching No Song, No Spell, No Madrigal, out this 13th of april. On this occasion, we wanted to engage a dialogue with the backbone of the band, the singer Peter Milton Walsh, without necessarily trying to comment his long years of absence, that only belong to him. Instead, we wanted to know more about what feeds his imagination, allowing him to react to masterpieces that have influenced the course of his existence.
Here we discover a highly cultured man, sustaining his own creativity in the light of the others’ ones. We see a kind-hearted smuggler, who will influence our future readings, and a subscriber of diversity, immersed at a time in cinema, photography and painting, literature, music, but also American and French culture. And it is not because he would meet as much or more success in France than in Anglo-Saxon countries he knows well our directors, our photographers or our musical heritage. It’s also because he had been interested in this culture before, and was inspired by it enough to feed his own sensibility.
Because Peter Milton Walsh is a deeply sensitive. Sensitive, first of all, to nostalgia usually squatting the minds of expatriates, him who in the 1980s wanted to try his luck across the Atlantic (or Pacific, if we come from Australia, as him), while his fellow Australians and sometimes friends Go-Betweens or Birthday Party struggled with early success in England. Also sensitive to the harsh conditions of the artists a bit tight you usually boldly seek to become when you’re twenty. Then sensitive to loss and disappearances that lie along his existence and about which we won’t know any more. Finally, sensitive to the beauty and heartbreaking tragedy of life. The one that flies like fresh water between the fingers without being noticed, as he reminds us here in evoking the writer James Salter. And also himself, a bit between the lines.
The Last Picture Show, by Peter Bogdanovitch - 1971.
“Being crazy about a woman like her is always the right thing to do.”
The Last Picture Show opens with Hank William's Cold, Cold Heart playing. A dusty desolate wind seems to blow through every scene. Sam the Lion owns the pool hall, the café and the picture show too and all of them, one by one, are going to disappear. Like the town itself, Sam is dying. One of those nothing doing, nothing going on small-town hells like the Brisbane I grew up in. Sam goes down by the water, looking back to a better time. When he had something to live for.
Shadows, by John Cassavetes – 1959. No matter where you live, New York is already flickering in your head thanks to scenes from On the Town, Prince of the City, West Side Story, Taxi Driver, On the Waterfront, Manhattan—take your pick. Anyone of them makes the siren call of New York a little louder. Shadows by Cassavetes, whose people didn’t seem any more certain about themselves or different to the people you moved among, wherever you were, showed how a life like that might be lived inside the blaring neon and jazz and the huge, majestic promise of those New York nights. “I've always been able to work with anybody that doesn’t want success. Jazz musicians don’t want success…They have these little tin weapons—they don’t shoot. They don’t go anywhere. The jazz musician doesn’t deal with the structured life—he just wants that night, like a kid.” Cassavetes poured that kind of night into Shadows.
Under the volcano, by Malcolm Lowry – 1947. Towards sunset on the Day of The Dead in November 1939, two men in white flannels sat on the main terrace of the Casino drinking anis...
“Consider the agony of the roses. See, on the lawn Concepta’s coffee beans, you used to say they were Maria’s, drying in the sun. Do you know their sweet aroma any more? Regard: the plantains with their queer familiar blooms, once emblematic of life, now of an evil phallic death. You do not know how to love these things any longer. All your love is the cantinas now: the feeble survival of a love of life now turned to poison, which only is not wholly poison, and poison has become your daily food...”
You do not know how to love these things any longer... from Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry—a story like a spell, of hallucinogenic longing, of one man's breakdown that had been on its way all his life. Finally it turns up and takes place over the course of one day—the Day of the Dead.
Light Years by de James Salter - 1975. On the cover of the Rough Trade release of All You Wanted is a painting, generously done for me by my Hackney flatmate, Charlie Higson (Renaissance man—painter, writer, musician, comic, The Fast Show, etc.). A few books lean between the kitten and the cowboy boots—The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson, Nobody's Angel by Thomas McGuane and Light Years by James Salter, with a Bonnard painting on its cover among the blur.
Salter is a devoted Francophile. Loss looms large in so many of his stories as does the recognition that the sensual life led by so many of his characters will not lessen that loss, but it is still the only way to live. The timing in coming across this book round ’85 seemed perfect—it was so much against the prevailing spirit within indie rock in England back then which seemed positively puritanical by contrast.
Light Years is also strong on disappearances, about what will come and go in our lives. How even the most powerful emotion can just fade—then vanish. Nothing's for keeps. It spelled out for me that any sense of transitoriness I felt there had nothing to do with the restlessness or impermanence of the way I lived and everything to do with living itself. How brief that forever in ‘forever after’ can be. You can’t even remember feelings. As with many stories and novels I read, parts of this one stayed with me and would turn up with fresh meaning in different towns, in different years and situations. I ended up getting a whole bunch of North Point Press Salters while visiting the States at the end of the 80s.
This is a part of Light Years I kept: “Where does it go, she thought, where has it gone? She was struck by the distances of life, by all that was lost in them. She could not even remember—she kept no journal—what she had said to Jivan the day of their first lunch together. She remembered only the sunlight that made her amorous, the certainty she felt, the emptiness of the restaurant as they talked. All the rest had eroded, it existed no more. Things she had known imperishably—images, smells, the way in which he put on his clothes, the profane acts which had staggered her—all of them were fading now, becoming false. She seldom wrote letters, she kept almost none. ‘You think it’s there, but it isn’t. You can’t even remember feelings...I always just assumed the important things would stay somehow,’ Nedra said. ‘But they don’t’."
Fat City, by Leonard Gardner - 1969. It has occurred to me many times that the kind of creative diversity I like—John Huston made Fat City, Wise Blood, The Maltese Falcon (his first movie!), The African Queen and Moby Dick—is completely beyond me. I bought Fat City because it had a blurb on the back of it by Joan Didion. Sentence upon sentence, the people in this town, Stockton, walk the same exhausted streets, breathe the same defeated air, visit the same bars and beds night upon night. You know it can’t end well—one guy has everything ahead of him, the other with it all behind—yet Gardner makes this sorrowful world, with all of its defeat, seem beautiful.
“He had done it in order to go on believing in his body, but he had lost his reflexes—that was all there was to it—and he felt his life was coming to a close. At one time he had believed the nineteen-fifties would bring him to greatness. Now they were almost at an end and he was through.”
"Ne me quitte pas", by Jacques Brel - 1959. I think it was first hearing this original version of "Ne Me Quitte Pas" (Brel was very fond of recording songs from his repertoire over and over again) ... that got me in the right space to write All the Birthdays. I think it might be the first one, or at least the only one I ever found that has the haunting sound of the ondes Martenot in the intro that ends in hesitation before Brel's voice makes… an entrance. For years I thought—someone must have told me this—the ghostly sound in the intro was a glass harmonica, which gives you the same spooky noise as you slowly run the wet tip of your finger round the edge of a set of glasses. Wine glasses, not shot glasses. It reminds me too that on first listening to many of the songs that have mattered to me I was often sitting on the floor, slumped against a couch or just lying somewhere soaking up the sound, sinking deeply into the spell of the song straight from the speakers.
"That way", by the Go-Betweens – 1983. 1982: the Go-Betweens had moved to London. I’d moved to New York. At times I felt I had escaped from a burning house—but everything I loved had been left inside. I was living in an illegal basement beneath the Joe Junior diner on the corner of East 16th & Third Avenue. The basement had no fresh air except via the elevator shaft. It was like a dungeon or a ship. Heatpipes running across ceiling ticked and clanged like clocks. Steel girders, prefab walls and a concrete floor.
Winter was round the corner and Robert had posted me a pre-release cassette of Before Hollywood from London. I waited till I got home around 2am to listen to it, putting the cassette on in the dark, so it would ring off the cold walls of the room. I immediately fell for it. Disappearances and longing dominated the songs. It was a long goodbye to the country of exile, a kiss blown from a train window. It was not simply despair but, like something by Antonioni, the most beautiful kind of despair.
Once they had been like children who spoke precociously well, but with Before Hollywood they suddenly became fluent with the syllables of loss. They would never be the same again.
Eugène Atget, who photographed Paris as it was racing along in the early 20th century and traces of its past were being swiftly erased as modern Paris took its place, used to write on the back of his prints “will disappear.” The Hollywood Grant and Robert had chosen to write about—the one before the movie industry had even begun, that was still orange groves, barley fields and streetcars—was, like Grant’s childhood and Robert’s innocence, a vanished world... “There’s no routine, I’ve never lived like this.”
In That Way, Grant sang “There’ll come a time one day, someone will turn and say: It doesn’t have to be that way…”. The next day, on a New York postcard, I wrote out Berryman’s "The Ball Poem", trying to keep my handwriting neat enough so he could read it and mailed it to him. For a few years, it stayed on a pinboard in his Hackney room.
"La Chanson D'Hèlène", by Romy Schneider et Michel Piccoli – 1970. This song, lyrics and music, was written by Phillipe Sarde when he was 25, for the 1970 Claude Sautet movie, Les Choses de la Vie. I only played it about thirty times the first day I heard it—in the bathroom as I shaved, drinking coffee when friends came over in the morning, late afternoon while sorting through some old papers, photos & magazines. Cooking. I think the only listening condition I missed out on was falling rain. Utterly melancholy and very, very beautiful. In the movie, Romy as Hèlène had been Pierre’s mistress for a while and he’s saying it’s finished now, he doesn’t feel anything anymore... the planes will be leaving without us. While she still loves him, it looks as if the separation is as drenched with regret for him as it is for her. Though less devastating than Piccoli's lyric—he’s saying outright I don’t love you anymore, we have to change our memories—Romy's lines, because they are full of resignation, seem infinitely sadder. Tu ne m'aimes plus, je regarde le soir tomber dans les miroirs. C'est ma vie. Le soleil n'y entrera plus... (You don't love me anymore. I watch the night fall in the mirrors...it's my life. The sun will never come back...). I don't really know much about Romy but it seems to me—it's in her every breath and word and look—that she could find her way around the world of loss blindfold. Perhaps, once, she had lived the song.
Interview by François Girodineau
15th of April 2015