The Metro spat me out into the muted streetlights of the Place du Chatelet and I headed across the river. I’d been in Paris a week and had so far avoided the centre of town– the crowds are too young and the beer’s too expensive– but tonight was the grand reopening of one of the city’s most beloved jazz clubs, and I had an invitation. Ignoring the flashing red lights and blaring klaxons of my intuition, I put my head down and slipped into the sordid greasy rue de la Huchette.
A narrow alleyway running parallel to the Seine, it’s a honeytrap for drunk shouty tourists– hideous neon-lit bars selling absurdly overpriced drinks, Irish pubs, piano bars, a shawarma joint at every turn. And holding court at the end, observing its brash undignified neighbours with a mix of tolerance and disdain, is the grand old Caveau de la Huchette. A 500-year-old stone cavern, deep, dark, and dank, it’s been a jazz club since the 40s. As far as I can tell, there are two levels– ground floor and basement– but winding narrow stone staircases and murky tunnels plunge into darkness implying untold depths. It feels like the kind of place where traitors were chained up in the dark before being put to the rack, but these days the torture is mostly musical. I met my mate Dave at a nearby bar– he was already a couple of pints in, and considering what we were about to attempt, this seemed like a wise course of action. Dave was apprehensive. “This might not go well,” he said, taking another slug. “I know this crowd. They could turn on us at any moment.”
Invitations in hand we brushed past the throng outside and dove into the melee. The room was thick with people, and although I didn’t understand a word, the inflections of desperate whinnying networking are universal: musicians, club owners, hangers-on taking full advantage of the free drinks and fighting desperately for attention. We positioned ourselves with our backs to the bar, against the possibility of surprise attack, and motioned the bartender for drinks. “We just need to get through this last half hour of the reception,” Dave shouted over the mayhem. “Then the jam session will start and we’ll be ok.” Having never heard of a situation being improved by a jam session, I looked at him doubtfully, but he just handed me another beer and waded into the crowd.
A shifty looking fellow with a ponytail sidled up to me. He introduced himself as a fellow saxophonist and began peppering me with questions about a certain club with which I’m sometimes associated: who’s in charge of booking, and how can he get a gig there. I grabbed his arm and stared hard into his eyes for several moments. “Who do you work for? Can I trust you? What I’m about to tell you stays between us, is that clear?” The guy gulped and nodded fast. “Sure, sure,” he stammered. “I’m cool man.” I leaned in and started talking in a low threatening voice about the many depraved methods by which a booking at this club is procured. The blood drained from his face as I described some of the acts he’d be expected to perform, from ritual degradation to covert industrial espionage. At this point he was emitting a low moan. “Are you serious?” He managed. “Don’t mess with me kid,” I said. “You wanted the inside scoop, I’m giving it to you. Now is the time for courage. This information is too important to be entrusted to the timid.” I looked around as though scanning for eavesdroppers. “If you’re still interested, just shoot them an email through the website,” I said. “But don’t mention my name. They will deny all knowledge of me and you’ll be blacklisted.” Shaking, the young man backed away, bumping into a woman fanning herself with business cards.
At this point a muffled cheer rose from somewhere far below me. I grabbed my drink and made for the steep stone stairs in the corner. I didn’t look back for Dave– he was in too deep and beyond my help. An echoey, low-ceilinged stone cellar opened up before me; a sea of people, drunken swaying stalagmites rising from every surface, whistled and yelled in the direction of a small stage to my right. A collection of musicians– older gentlemen, their outfits identifying them as the traditional variety– burst into a tune, sending the crowd into fits. A trumpet and vibraphone frontline led the way with rhythm section gamely holding on. The stone dance floor became a writhing rats-nest as bodies squirmed amongst each other in apparent response to the caterwauling. Around the edges, onlookers scrambled onto stone parapets and ledges and strained to get a better view. I managed to find some space on a sort of mezzanine and watched, bemused. A sweating man in an open shirt bumped into me, spilling beer on both of us; he looked hard into my face for a moment. “You’re American,” he stated. I nodded, it’s just simpler that way. “Ha!” he replied, possibly in response, and stumbled off.
Things were starting to get weird. The band, which had been chugging through some well known instrumental standards, started inviting singers onto the stage- wives and girlfriends of the musicians, a woman next to me explained. A young couple appeared from behind me, having apparently emerged from a crack in the wall, red faced and glistening; they looked at me, giggled, and dove into the crowd. The band launched into a funk version of Sweet Georgia Brown; a singer took the mic and proceeded to rap the lyrics while busting gangsta moves. This was my cue– I’ll put up with a lot, but that shit was not ok. I muscled through the crowd and up the stairs; I found Dave standing on a table, using his guitar case to beat back a savage slavering pack of young musicians. I grabbed his arm and dragged him towards the door. “What did you get me into? This is a madhouse. We must leave immediately.” He patted my back. “Relax mate,” he said. “Everything’s cool. We need some food.”
We weaved along the Rue de la Huchette, dodging drunken swearing Englishmen and terrified French tourists, until we came to the Aux Trois Mailletz, another ancient cave overflowing with depraved lunatics. Before I could protest, Dave pushed me inside where a harried waitress ushered us to the bar. Drinks magically appeared in front of us and we turned to watch a large bald man savagely beating an upright piano into submission, while on a stool beside him, a woman sang something unrecognisable at the top of her lungs. The music bounced around the stone walls and mingled chaotically with cheers and whoops from the crowd. Every table in the small low room was packed, every space filled with bodies, every surface laden with plates and bottles. A menu was handed to us, but at this point there was only one reasonable choice: the gargantuan Cote de Boeuf. It’s roughly half a cow and to finish it is suicide. But in these cataclysmic times, the opportunity for spirit-raising gluttony mustn’t be passed up. We were directed to an open table jammed into the very back corner of the restaurant and loosened our belts. A waitress heaved the massive serving plate onto our table and proceeded to hack the hulking slab of bleeding meat into portable portions. Dave and I nodded to each other and got silently to work. It was a beefy, salty masticatory marathon and we limped over the finish line exhausted wrecks of men. I slumped back in my chair, no longer aware of the waves of shrieking cacophony still breaking around our heads. My ears rang, my breathing was shallow and ragged, and darkness was creeping in, obscuring my peripheral vision. We paid the bill without looking at it– not wishing to add insult to internal injury– and rolled out the door.
I poured myself into a waiting taxi without saying goodbye– we were too far gone for pleasantries– and stared out the window, my brain unable to hold onto a thought; just visions of the evening’s debauchery mingling with the blurred street lights. I closed my eyes. One day I really must visit the Louvre.