I’ve been attending gigs for almost as long as I can remember. I never took for granted the idea that it was an expression of freedom, because until recently I’d never even considered it as such. That all changed on November 13, when gunmen opened fire on a crowd of people who’d gone out to enjoy an Eagles of Death Metal gig in Paris, killing 89 people.
A predominantly young and ‘bobo’ crowd out on a Friday night having fun, or “apostates gathered at a profligate prostitution party,” as Daesh called them in a statement following the attacks? It’s hard to process the kind of mindset that would agree with the latter statement. As someone who lives in the French capital, I’ve been to the Bataclan plenty of times to see bands – most recently FFS, My Bloody Valentine and Fauve – and though I wasn’t there on the night, I was locked in the Stade de France as suicide bombers blew themselves up around the stadium’s perimeter.
It goes without saying that the journey back to my flat through the 11th arrondissement was one of the most frightening I’ve ever had to undertake. I realise I should be thankful (and thankful somehow doesn’t feel like the appropriate word) that I wasn’t at the Bataclan that night. While I lost nobody I knew personally, and was witness to no carnage other than devastated shop facades, floral tributes and detritus from the aftermath, I’ve still been suffering from some kind of post-traumatic shock. The whole of Paris has.
Looking at the photographs and the tributes to the people killed, they looked like people you’d have dinner or a night out with. Some were friends of friends, and their loss has been felt deeply. In a way, the murders couldn’t have been any more impersonal because the assailants didn’t care who died, but it also felt – more than any other terrorist attack before it – like a direct attack on our way of life, our collective culture, and the things we love doing and take for granted. Guillaume Decherf, a music journalist for France’s Les Inrocks, had recently written about the Eagles of Death Metal’s album ‘Zipper Down’, and he was there enjoying a night off. He was cut down for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Je suis Guillaume, and je suis all the others who needlessly died that night in the Bataclan and the bars and restaurants in a five minute radius of my flat.
Despite what dark forces might have wanted, music didn’t go away for long. Savages played an emotional and power-packed show last week at the Maroquinerie. Their Pop Noire label is upstairs from the venue, and the 30-year-old communications manager downstairs – Thomas Duperron – also lost his life at the Bataclan, making the Maroquinerie show all the more poignant.
Before that, Chilly Gonzales billed his show “Music Is Back”, while Hot Chip offered an emotional statement of solidarity in French just days after the terror. Meanwhile, Eagles Of Death Metal expressed a desire to be the first band to play Le Bataclan upon reopening, and the owners are defiant about the fact the venue will host shows again eventually. While an understandable reaction would be to stay inside and hide, Parisians have shown the sort of defiant sang froid and resolve that got them through the occupation, out in cafés and on the streets and eating in bistros. The cliché of Parisian insouciance is a stereotype because there’s more than a kernel of truth to it. They can be proud of holding their ends up in the face of extreme duress.
I thought it was about time I ventured out to a gig myself, and so on Saturday night went to watch Courtney Barnett at the Gaîté Lyrique in the third arrondissement. The Gaîté is an unusually modern theatre as venues go in Paris. Billed as a “digital arts and modern music centre”, it opened in 2010 at the site of the old Théâtre de la Gaîté. It is clean, commodious, with a vibrant bar area, and most importantly, it has exits. Many of the old theatres built during the Belle Époque (or before, in the Bataclan’s case) have a dearth of ways to get out, a fact that has not been lost on authorities and gig goers alike since Friday 13th. Security is tighter now, with metal detectors at each venue and security guards who will make you open your coat and search your bag, though there’s still the sense that were a cell of terrorists with kalashnikovs to turn up, no such measures would hold them back. As normal as you try to be each time you step out, there’s still that nagging in the back of your mind, asking, ‘What if?’. Sitting on a terrace drinking coffee with friends, walking around a supermarket, going to a gig… your brain tells you the likelihood of another assault in that moment is extremely low, but your gut isn’t so sure, and imagining dark ghouls materialising in the middle-distance or through double doors isn’t hard to do. This imagined phantom isn’t just exclusive to Paris now; the constancy of shocking headlines and the drip drip of social media feeds only adds to our paranoia wherever we are.
The Gaîté, despite expectations, is bustling with people – a sellout. Punters might be quaking on the inside, but nobody’s showing it. Thankfully, Courtney Barnett is not an overly sentimental type either, adding to the sense of business as usual. Coming on to Jonathan Richman’s ‘Roadrunner’, the CB trio march straight in and waste no time delivering their own contemporary antipodean take on the Modern Lovers. ‘Avant Gardener’ sounds reassuringly sardonic, and the first words she utters to the crowd between songs are gloriously trivial. “Are you from Australia?” she asks someone at the front. “Us too. Right, here’s the next one”.
The band then launch into ‘Dead Fox’, and it really is business as usual. Courtney’s not even wearing her Choose Love t-shirt, electing to don one of Australian band INXS instead. Pragmatic, straightforward and unpretentious, it’s a shot in the arm after all the concerns we had about being in an enclosed space, but we still position ourselves close to the exit anyway. We don’t stay for the encore either. For some of us, it may take longer than others.
“It felt like everything was back to normal except for heightened security,” said Nel Coache, who lives in Paris and was in attendance at the Courtney Barnett show. “I didn’t really think about it but I’m more aware of where the exits are.” Though she added that it would be “strange going back to La Cigale where we were on the 13th [for Fat White Family], since I associate it with the feeling of finding out what was going on.”
Elliot Simmons, from London, said: “I’ve been to some shows elsewhere since the attacks in Paris so I didn’t feel apprehensive. And no one, including the artist, mentioned what had happened a few weeks before, so it seemed like a normal gig. It’s important to start going to shows again so you don’t build up any anxiety about seeing bands in Paris.”
Watching gigs was just something we did. Now, it transpires, it is an act of defiance and an expression of freedom, and expression is our greatest weapon. Culture is what separates us from the animals. It separates us from Daesh too. It is what civilises us and through music, whether making it or being receptive to it, we communicate. The show has to go on, if only for that reason, although there are many other reasons too, not least of all for those who lost their lives. Despite what some killjoys with broken moral compasses might have you think, being entertained is not a shameful act.