Gilles Verlant: A Tribute
Good friends may be rare, but they are not hard to come by. There is no effort involved in the acquisition of a good friend. The relationship just happens, often without introductions and always without introspection. The kinship is spontaneous and subconscious, lacking oversight and observation, absent of rules and regulations. One day we find ourselves with a new acquaintance; shortly we view them as a friend; and soon enough, we realize that they have become a close friend, and that the entire transition has gone almost unnoticed. The friendship is just there, immutable, as if it had always existed.
Good friends do not require daily contact, at least not amongst adults. In this regard they are different from the tight friendships that are also partnerships, as we see in our beloved rock bands. (Those relationships are a lot more like marriages, with all the attendant difficulties of such constant close contact.) No, the best friendships can go months, even years, without contact, only to pick right back up where they last left off. The best friendships do not require management; they do not issue demands; they have no expectations. The best friendships are not based on need. But they are based on desire – a sense of longing, such that the very mention of their name inspires a yearning to meet, to spend time together, or at least to talk. And why? Because the best friendships come easily.
Such was the case with my Parisian friend Gilles Verlant. On September 18 last year, I sent Gilles an e-mail, bringing him up to date with some news (I couldn’t resist sending him the photo of my Noel with Pete Townshend), and letting him know that he was about to receive a copy of my memoir, Boy About Town. I had left him off the initial press list by accident, but only because I had been scouring my UK contacts; still, as a good friend, I knew he wouldn’t take offence.
Sure enough, Gilles responded immediately.
I’m thrilled you have – yet ! – another book published. And as soon as I’ve read it, I’ll post something on FB ! (10.000 “friends” by now)
That was Gilles, so popular that he had maxed out Facebook’s limit of 5,000 friends – twice over, hence two different though otherwise identical Facebook accounts. And that was also Gilles, to be so popular and yet to write back immediately, to someone who considered him a “good” friend, as opposed to merely a Facebook friend. And that was Gilles again, to be genuinely “thrilled” that a fellow writer should have “yet !” another book published.
But then, Gilles taught me a few things about being prolific. In the early 2000s, at a point that (bizarrely, considering the earlier success of my Keith Moon biography), everything I touched seemed to be turning to mud, I found myself in Paris to join a prominent rock star and her band on their tour of Europe. (We were working on her autobiography, which was subsequently abandoned after a lot of hard work at my end, proving my point.) I got there a day early to see Gilles, his lovely wife Annie, and his sons Victor and Oscar; being Gilles, he always found time in his schedule for me.
Gilles had recently moved to the St-Cloud commune of Paris, where he lived in a beautiful rambling house one street over from the Seine. He had designed an office with custom-built shelving, and most of it appeared to be dominated by his own books. Gilles was Serges Gainsbourg’s official biographer, which made him literary and musical royalty in France, and he had additionally written biographies on David Bowie and Françoise Hardy, along with a memoir of his own, entitled Je Me Souviens du Rock. A regular presence on French television and radio, Gilles had edited dozens more books, from L’Odyssey de la Chanson Française to L’Encyclopaedie de L’Humor Française. (Gilles understood humor; it was hard to get a sentence out of him before he collapsed in laughter.) And he had recently turned himself into a franchise, with a publishing imprint entitled “Gilles Verlant présente….” that included books on almost every aspect of French popular culture. It was exhausting just looking at his output on the book shelves; I felt like a dilettante by comparison.
That evening, Gilles, Annie and myself went for dinner at a North African place Gilles loved in a trendy quartier of Paris. He recommended a Moroccan wine. I spotted the Coudoulet de Beaucastel on the list instead; it was the most expensive item on there but still considerably less than I’d have paid for it retail in the States, which put it well under $20. I offered to make it my treat; Gilles would have nothing of the sort.
After we placed the order, the proprietor – who I’d already been introduced to because, hey, Gilles knew everyone in Paris – came over to complement my choice. “The English are the greatest wine connoisseurs in the world,” he said, not a statement you hear every day in Paris. I didn’t tell him that I’d picked up my knowledge of wine in the States, where I had spent my last 15 years.
It was largely thanks to Gilles that I had prospered in America. Gilles had reached out to me at a convenient time in my life, in 1986, just after Jamming! magazine had closed and, other than the commission to write the Echo and The Bunnymen biography (courtesy of Chris Charlesworth at Omnibus Press, whose acquaintance would also blossom into a life-long friendship), I was uncertain of my future. When I took Gilles’ call, I heard someone speaking French in an accent one step short of the easy caricature. That’s because Gilles was from Belgium; he’d migrated to Paris on his own journey as a passionate fan of music, someone who wanted nothing more than to write about it and talk about it and make his living from doing so. Gilles told me that day that he was looking for a freelancer for the TV show he worked on there in France, called Rock Report, and wondered if I might be interested. At the very least, did I want to interview the Page 3 topless model turned temporary pin-up pop star Samantha Fox?
Lack of musical respect for Ms. Fox aside, the request did not sound unduly out of my depth; I had appeared on The Tube and Radio 1 over the years, and certainly needed the work. I headed out to the designated recording studio a couple of days later, where a gregarious Irish cameraman was waiting for me alongside the first in an ever-rotating series of sound recordists. The interview with Samantha Fox was conducted around a billiard table. You don’t have to have seen more than a single Playboy shoot to know all the clichés of busty models and billiard tables. It was an interesting first assignment.
I must have passed the test, because the phone kept ringing from Paris, Gilles on the other end, acting like we were friends already, sending me off on this interview or that, talking a mile to the minute, full of compliments for my work and laughter about life. It always seemed to be utter chaos at the other end; I recall Gilles breaking from the editorial “discussion” one day to laugh at someone dancing on their desk. Working on The Tube had been fun up to a point, and Jools Holland did once tie my shoelaces together when I fell asleep in the Newcastle hotel bar, but I don’t recall anyone dancing on their desks at Tyne Tees in the middle of the day. Gilles seemed to have found a good life for himself.
Still, it was hectic work. I got home to my bed-sit in Streatham one evening, after an all-day shoot, only to find my answering machine bursting with insistence from Gilles that I speed back across London to film Run-D.M.C.’s debut at the Hammersmith Odeon. I didn’t see how we’d bluff our way in, let alone onstage, but somehow we managed it. We were similarly pushy in filming both Jackson Browne and Motorhead onstage at the Odeon, and additionally, I recall interviewing Debbie Harry at the Savoy Hotel and Rod Stewart shouting “Where’s my girlfriend?” like he was calling up a bottle of champagne when we interviewed him backstage after a Wembley Arena show.
Soon enough, Rock Report morphed into a show called Rapido, and Gilles began hitting me up for ideas of my own. We took trips to Liverpool (the Christians), Yorkshire (the Housemartins), Leicester (Gaye Bykers On Acid), Regent’s Canal (Michelle Shocked), Dublin (the Waterboys). We also went to Belfast, where I can’t remember which bands we filmed though I clearly recall being pointedly questioned by both the IRA and the UDA in the same morning for filming on “their” streets.
But hey, I got paid for it. By that, I don’t mean that I put in an invoice and then spent months chasing up payment. I mean, they paid me. Properly. And promptly. The French had a reputation for arrogance and bureaucracy and rudeness but these people were a treat to work for.
And then I decided to move to the States. It was complicated, and it was necessary. All the same, I didn’t want to lose the TV work. And so, I decided to tell Gilles my news in person. I went to Paris on the day they put out the show, live. Rapido was hosted by a suave Frenchman called Antoine de Caunes, who spoke so damn fast he made Gilles sound like he was on valium. I had passed my French O Level with an ‘A’ grade back at the age of 16, but I could barely comprehend a single word that was said on air. I felt similarly out of my depth when we all went out on the town afterwards, even though Gilles, who was a bit of a rock star media celebrity at this point, in that Danny Baker mode of someone who doesn’t look the part but nonetheless is the part, did his best to ensure I was kept in on the conversations.
In the middle of what turned into quite a long evening, I told Gilles about moving to the States. He seemed genuinely upset, like he didn’t want to lose me. When I told him I was really hoping to work for the show in America, as a freelancer, he said that he couldn’t guarantee it. They already had someone there, an established French correspondent for the major French rock magazine. But if I was willing to pitch some ideas, he would see what he could do.
I made the move. I pitched some ideas. And Gilles kept to his word and picked up on a couple of them. He didn’t have to. His French correspondent certainly wasn’t happy about it. But maybe he trusted my instinct. Maybe he just really liked me. And if so, the feeling was mutual, for sure.
Gilles’ faith in me seemed to have no limits. I had barely landed in the States and pulled off a TV interview for him when he asked if I could find a new two-man (video) crew; he wasn’t happy with the people they were using. I didn’t ask why their resident Frenchman, who’d been living in New York five years already, couldn’t find a crew; I knew this was my chance. I found a great cameraman who was hungry, committed to good work and flexible when it came to the hours. And when he moved to Hollywood, I went to the person he had been hiring his equipment from (PAL cameras being an expensive rarity in the States), an Israeli documentary film-maker who knew very little about pop music, but was intensely dedicated to getting the best possible footage. His nephew worked as soundman. We made a formidable team.
No sooner had I lined up the crew than Rapido was licensed to the BBC. Suddenly, a show that nobody knew about in England when I lived there was on everybody’s lips now that I had moved. But the transition was noted in the States as well: the BBC carried a cachet that, frankly, Canal + did not. And when the French correspondent moved home from New York, his magazine tour of duty apparently completed, I had the field to myself. I was flown around the States to conduct my share of A-list interviews (R.E.M., James Brown, ZZ Top), and drove around to conduct a fair few more. (Ah, the days of MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice filling the Hershey Arena in Pennsylvania.) Additionally, the production company in France was constantly putting out new shows and they always seemed to have work for me. Gilles put together a series about bad taste, and I got to interview Joe Coleman, who swallowed live mice on stage in the movie Mondo New York, and Annie Sprinkle, who swallowed all sorts of things on stage and in the movies. I interviewed Roger Ailes in his George W. Bush, Willie Horton era, pre- the founding of Fox News, for the same political one-off that had us then get straight on a plane to Boston to interview a surviving student leader from the Tianamen Square Massacre. I got home about 9pm and went out and DJ’d for six hours. Good times.
The company grew and my daily communications with Paris were now handled by a run-of-the-mill producer. Still, Gilles and I stayed in regular contact. We met relatively few times during these years; I may have gone to Paris twice, in all, to meet the team, and he may have hooked up with me in New York or London, twice, in all, while visiting work or pleasure. But along the way, bonded by the television work but also by our shared experiences as music obsessives, authors and journalists, and a similar joie de vivre that never interfered with getting the work done, we had become seriously good friends.
I could always rely on Gilles getting right back to me, though sometimes the speed at which he did so surprised even me – like the time I e-mailed him from New York before going to bed, and before I could sign off, he had replied. It was 4 or 5am in France, and I e-mailed him right back to ask if he ever slept. He replied confessing that a problem with someone above him in a work chain had been keeping him awake, and that he had decided to get up and address his complaints now rather than let them fester. Gilles, with work problems? I guess it was a relief to know that even for him, it wasn’t always plain sailing.
Gilles always extended an invitation to visit, and as the 90s went by, and he married, and became the father of two boys, his lifestyle changed with it until he let me know that he now rented a vacation home in Provence each summer and that there would always be room for my own family if we’d care to visit. My wife Posie had spent a full year of college in Angers, and I had friends in Paris as well as Gilles in Provence, and we were able to take him up on the offer in 1999, when Posie received an invitation to a wedding in Provence, and we brought our 3-yr old son Campbell along on a three-week dream trip. We drove all the way along the Loire to and from Angers, stayed with friends outside Paris, and then traveled down the Rhone to Hermitage, Vaison-La-Romaine, Aix-en-Provence, Arles and Avignon, on to the wedding in Salon-de-Provence, and finally, a couple of days and nights at an archetypally modest though inherently beautiful hill-top retreat, complete with swimming pool, with Gilles and family near L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. Having being crammed into a French-size car for the best part of three weeks already, our Campbell was pretty much done with the trip by then, but Gilles brushed off his tears and complaints with his usual laughter. Other than the fact that white wine gave him headaches – contrary to conventional wisdom, he was fine with the red – there didn’t seem to be too much that upset him.
In Provence, we felt thoroughly spoiled, and perhaps unworthy, a point that may have been noticed by a trader at the famous L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue Sunday market, who pulled the con man trick of pretending my 100F note was but a 10F note, stiffing me on the change and then pretending he didn’t understand my pigeon French protestations. (It was, in fairness, the only instance in all three weeks that I was purposefully ripped off.) When I told Gilles what had transpired, he stormed over, gave the stall holder a very public dressing down, and within approximately thirty seconds, was handed my due change, and a sheepish apology.
I noticed on that trip that for all Gilles’ acquired Parisian street-smarts, for all his north European upbringing, he had developed a most Mediterranean sensibility. He wore the kind of loose-fitting, lightly-colored clothes that Posie and I saw in similar abundance the following summer, in Ibiza. But he wore them as if he’d been born to them, and with the beautiful young wife and the almost impossibly polite boys, it was hard not to conclude that he was living La Belle Vie. Indeed, Gilles, only a few years my senior, already had the end game worked out; he figured his sons would be attending college around Avignon, and so, the following summer, he and Annie bought a tattered old monastery or something equally mysterious, tantalizingly close to my favorite wine appellation, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, with the view to restoring the ruin as their retirement home.
Though Gilles needed a couple of years to make the place even partially habitable, the invitation to join his family some other summer in the south of France remained very much on the table. We were not able to take him up on it. Our own lives seemed to kick into a different gear and the luxury of long summers driving round Europe faded with it. Fortunately, my friendship with Gilles did not. There was the occasion of that visit in 2003, and our meal out in the heart of Paris. And there was another visit on my part to the French capital two or three years later. Gilles drove to collect me from my crappy little hotel, and on our way back to St.-Cloud, he insisted we take in the Eiffel Tour, where we parked and got out to admire the man-made wonder, taking souvenir pictures for the fun of it. I had been like this when I had first arrived in New York City, constantly in awe and admiration of the skyscrapers, but the love affair had gradually worn off, and Posie and I, with a second son in tow nine years after the first, were now relocating to the Catskills. Gilles, however, told me that he never tired of the Eiffel Tower. For all his long-term plans to relocate in Provence, he was still a little Belgian boy who couldn’t quite believe that he had made it in “La Ville-Lumière”.
Our meal out that evening was subdued by previous standards. We ate locally, overlooking the Seine River. (Gilles, naturally, knew the proprietor.) I had an inkling that all was not perfect with him, but it could as easily have been nothing; I knew from my years in New York City that a visitor might have a completely different schedule than a host, and that I should not expect Gilles to stay up or go out on my behalf on a week night.
As it happened, something was amiss, and when I suggested in writing, not too long after, that Posie and I try and arrange the long-overdue return visit to Provence, he confessed that there were troubles with the marriage and that he was devoting his entire existence to saving it. That’s more than enough detail, but it clarifies Gilles’ sense of responsibility and devotion.
And then, somewhere round the turn of the last decade, his family took a trip to New York City, and Posie and I took a bus down to Manhattan to join them for dinner. Frustratingly, the bus got snarled in bad rush hour traffic outside the Lincoln Tunnel and we were horrendously late; we had to take a bus back the same evening, and the dinner felt somewhat rushed. But the family appeared to be in fine shape. Whatever had been ailing the marriage now appeared to be behind then. The invitation to visit Provence was issued once more and, once more, we promised to take them up on it when we could.
Gilles, the genial TV host, introducing Carla Bruni in 2012.
That was the last time I saw Gilles. He subsequently went above and beyond the call of duty to give me a French perspective for my biography on the Smiths, and did his best to publicize the book upon publication. In doing so, he let me know that he’d taken a trip to the Western end of the United States with his sons, now 19 and 21, in the summer of 2012. He didn’t mention his wife.
But when he replied to my e-mail of September 18, last year, he elaborated. He told me that there had been no Provence for him this past summer, that he and Annie were getting divorced. He went deeper into the reasons that they had seemed subdued on recent occasions, and re-iterated that he had done everything possible to save the marriage. It was far from any standard break-up scenario – and it involved his having taken sole responsibility for his two sons for a while now. Gilles’ life, for all external appearances, was certainly not without its travails.
Fortunately, Gilles appeared to be coming to the end of whatever dark tunnel he had been traveling along, and he shared the light at the end of it – a new love and a new optimism. He closed out the e-mail as follows:
Next time you travel to Europe you simply HAVE to drop by in gay Paree : we’ll have a night out & drinks & fun ! (and if you need a place to stay, my house is your house)
and as always, he ended the correspondence with a French farewell.
avec mes amitiés, cher Tony
There was a genuine excitement to this exchange that had been missing in recent years – he communicated also about seeing The Who and reading Townshend’s memoir, etc. – and I am glad to say that I responded with equal enthusiasm, even though I waited a day or two. On September 20, I wrote back. I offered condolences about the marriage, and asked questions about his children and whether they had attended college in Provence as attended. “I am seriously tempted by the offer of a good night out in gay paris,” I wrote and reminded him of some of our past soirees.
Gilles never got to read the e-mail. The previous night, somewhere at the point that September 19 met September 20, Gilles had fallen down a staircase – and died. I still don’t know all the details. I just know what we all now know – that Gilles fell down a staircase, and died. We’ve all fallen down staircases at some time in our lives, haven’t we? My younger son has a scar on his scar on his scar from doing so. But to fall down a staircase… and that’s it? It doesn’t seem possible. And when it’s a close friend and you’ve just been in contact with them, it doesn’t seem logical either. One minute Gilles was greatly looking forward to the rest of his life, having seemingly overcome some incredible major hurdles; the next, it was over.
Obviously, I didn’t hear about Gilles’ death immediately. At the time I wrote him that Friday, I imagined Gilles happily preparing for the weekend; the notion that people were making funeral and memorial arrangements for him was very the last thing on my mind. It took an e-mail from an English friend who lives in Belgium, offering condolences, to alert me to the tragedy.
I sat at my desk and cried my eyes out as I scoured the net and read the reports of his death. Gilles was the third friend I had lost in 2013 already, and he would not be the last, but his was the only death that was so sudden and unexpected. I kept looking at his joyful last e-mail, his new-found happiness, his invitation to come visit. Once again, it had looked like Gilles had everything worked out. It was, truly, hard to keep such an ebullient man down for long.
Gilles received obituaries and tributes all across the French media, most of which he had worked for at one time or another. A major newspaper honored him with a cartoon, entitled “Stairway to Heaven,” showing him not falling down a staircase, but ascending one into the clouds. It made me smile, and it made me cry. Antoine de Caunes, at the start of whatever live evening entertainment show he now hosts, offered his own personal Hommage, with a final, emotional ‘salut,’ as Gilles’ visage filled the large screen at the back of the studio. Clearly, I was not the only person he touched with his enthusiasm and his kindness, his humor and his expertise. Clearly, I was not the only person who considered him a good friend. We should all be so lucky to be so popular and loved. In Gilles’ case, it was duly earned.
Gilles Verlant was 56. He left behind two lovely sons, and a widow. He also left behind an enormous body of work, and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of grieving friends. I was unable to travel to Paris purely for the memorial, but I corresponded with his assistant, who I had also known for years. He told me that my book was sitting on Gilles’ desk the night he died.
How do you truly qualify a good friend – as opposed to a business partner or romantic lover? There are so many ways. But one of them is this. In the 27 years that I knew Gilles, as a colleague and a friend, in person, in Provence, in Paris, in London, in New York, by phone, by e-mail, and by the occasional snail mail as we sent each other our books, we never exchanged harsh words. Not once. Good friends, however rare, are easy to come by. But they’re an absolute bastard to lose.