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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution


 
The Essay
Show #357
les trois morts amigos
David Gunn

In 1918, three Parisian pals, or amigos, made a pact to kill themselves. But not really. They planned to fake their deaths, then clandestinely observe how the world treated them. Would they be lauded as geniuses, or dismissed as schlemiels? Well, they were artists--indeed, composers--and this wasn't the first creatively harebrained idea they'd concocted in the name of notoriety. However, notoriety they already had in abundance, for these were composers who were at the top of the French musical food chain: Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel and Erik Satie.

Of the three, Debussy's demise was the most successful. Supposedly, rectal cancer finished him off in 1918. But in those days, doctors were loath to inspect any part of the body "where the sun don't shine" unless the examinee was hale and hardy. So no one ever checked Debussy's keister to corroborate the cause of death, which had been asserted by a furtive coroner named Kireeitas. Likewise, no one ever saw reason to question why two shifty men were seen slipping into the funeral parlor one night with a 130 cm-long Mbuti pygmy mannequin in a sequined caftan, and later exiting with a body that looked very much like the late composer--except that this one waved his arms energetically and cracked jokes. Late that night, a revivified Debussy, giddy at the preposterousness of the body swap, shaved off his beard, braided his hair into cornrows and moved to a large flat in Barcelona. For 19 years he collected a comfortable life insurance pension and enjoyed his status as a "great but dead" composer. But during that time, "le père de La Mer" developed a passion for the sea. So when he heard that Amelia Earhart was proposing to fly around the world via the equator, he adopted the identity of Fred Noonan, navigator-to-the-stars, and inveigled his way on board her Lockheed Electra. The first three-quarters of the trip were wondrous, indeed, and Debussy had ample time to hone his navigational chops. But eventually even he began to get a little sick of all the water. So when, on July 2, the plane disappeared after taking off from New Guinea, and the world mourned the loss of the two adventurers, two low-profile French composers wondered what really happened to the person formerly known as Claude.

Satie and Ravel both chose 1925 to exit from this mortal coil. Satie, the practiced eccentric, was 59 years old and not keen on the prospect of turning 60. He wasn’t ill or in financially dire straits or especially bored with life. He simply liked being a quinquagenarian; sexagenarianism held absolutely no appeal for him. So he put out the word that he was dying of cirrhosis of the liver. Because he was so fashionably bohemian, people from all over the world came to his flat in the Paris suburb of Arcueil to pay their last respects. Satie grandiloquently predicted his day of departure would be July 2nd, and as that day drew near, he, Ravel and Clarence Birdseye plotted his real exit. Birdseye--yes, he of the frozen lima bean industry--had just invented a method for quick-freezing food, and wanted to expand the concept to mankind. And Satie, ever the envelope-pusher, offered to be the first human guinea pig. On the evening of July 1st, the three of them gathered in Satie's flat. Ravel gave his friend an opiate to calm him, but Satie was so excited that it had little effect. So Birdseye coldcocked him with a frozen carton of peas. Then he swaddled the composer in ice-cold flannel strips until his body temperature dropped to 70 degrees. Next he stripped off the flannel, along with Satie's seldom laundered caftan, surgically installed the Birdseyematic Thermostat® in his liver (which was cirrhotic after all!), and dialed him down to -2° Celsius. For the next 12 years, Erik was one cool dude. But in June of 1937, the cold-storage meat locker in which he hung like a side of beefalo accidentally defrosted. Birdseye didn't notice the malfunction until a month later, by which time the erstwhile Frenchman had gone from composer to compost.

Ravel, too, passed away in 1925. But perhaps because Debussy and Satie weren't around to help with the plan's execution, he bungled it. He claimed to have died from chronic halitosis, but few people believed it--especially when reports frequently surfaced of sightings of him. In 1928, when George Gershwin was touring France with his just-composed orchestral hit "An American in Paris," Ravel--or his doppelgänger--toured America, conducting his reciprocal "A Frog in Fresno," to a total dearth of critical acclaim. Later, he returned to France, where he continued to just barely skirt the public eye. Then in July of 1937, a dozen years after his alleged death by stinkmouth, his widow discovered him with a floozie in a Paris café. So outraged was she upon discovering his secret life that she grabbed the capon he was eating and beat him to death with it. She was arrested, but since Ravel was already officially deceased, the courts could convict her of nothing more serious than abusing a corpse, and sentenced her to pay for the capon.

Ruses, artifices, fakery--they were all important components of early 20th century French music; they are equally indispensable ingredients of this 357th episode of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar. One patent deceit on today's show is that only one of us is really here. But is it Damian? Or is it Kalvos?