The call of the Wolf
par M-J Milloy
dans Hour, 1999

It was all there in that one instant. It was perfect

And like the best Montreal moments, it was totally random, the product of the company of friends and a lucky twist of fate.

Mid-summer last year, a friend and I were in a bar on the Main, doing nothing more important than nursing the house's best fruit-and-booze drinks, watching the progression of a summer afternoon. We got the urge to move; he suggested up the street, to Duluth, where a local community group had set up a small stage in a parking lot looking across Duluth's worn cobblestones onto a terrace. We took our places in the crowd of about 50 people, sitting in the curb, watching young mothers spread blankets, CEGEP kids drink beer, dogs sleepin the sun.

An organiser took the empty stage. "We've had a cancellation… The group at four o'clock couldn't make it. But a friend has offered to help."

And then he took the stage wearing a goofy grin, old jeans and an electric guitar slung low on his back, holding an institutional-issue, orange plastic chair in his hands. He ha either just woken up or had yet to go to bed, and if he hadn't been on the stage, he wouldn't have looked out of place in the crowd with a plastic beer cup in his hand.


And he was off.

He didn't as much play songs as just a play. Chords built on chords until a certain phrase came out and a small cheer came up from the crowd. He'd sing a verse, then a bit of a chorus before a hook led him somewhere else. And then out of some jangly chords came the perfect hook, each note alive, and then the words:

"À quoi je joue?"

The phrase was his to play with. He threw it out and repeated it, shaking its rhythm, turning it on its head. So he built another hook around it, building it up:

"Je joue de la guitare."

It was the simplest of music, but it was all we needed. Somehow he had managed to capture, perfectly, that summer day, making us more than just the people who had come to see a free concert under the July sun. His bad jokes and it mistakes were his shared secret with us. After each, he'd peer out with his big broad grin and a look in his eyes that said: Can you believe I did that?

But at time he looked like he was alone, playing for himself in his living room with the blinds down. His works would trail off and the guitar would take over, singing one melody and then another. And the in the blink of a chord he was everywhere, looking everyone in the eye and smiling.

"J'ai des grands instants de luci-di-di-té"

"Who is this guy?" I finally ask my friend.

"It's Jean Leloup."

Fuck the system

Jean Leloup is making tea. Not in the conventional way; with a tiny, green iron teapot, he's on the sidewalk in front of his apartment on the Plateau. The teapot's sitting, improbably, on top of something most would call a portable camping stove, and pyrophobes like me call a bomb.

Lazy orange flames lick the bottom of the pot, barely in the hard light of noon. Leloup is watching the project with the attention of, well, a hungry wolf: crouching low, back arched, removing the lid as the steam starts to rise, and stirring with a garden-fresh, pencil-sized stick. A couple of steps away, Hour's photographer is trying to corral Leloup's dogs in into a photo shoot. I'm watching the whole unlikely affair from a nearby stoop. The world, or at east this Clark Street end of it, spins around him. And, as is usual, he's oblivious.

He looks up that smile again. "Thé?"

To say Leloup is difficult to categorise would be not as much stating the obvious as to repeat the usual chorus. Ever since he broke the ranks of Quebec's vedettes in 1989, all the usual tags hve been applied: Young phenom. Enfant terrible. The comeback kid.

He came out of just outside of nowhere. Born in Quebec, his family moved to Togo, on Africa's west coast, when he was three. After a stint in Algeria, the adolescent wolf returned to Quebec, where, by all accounts, his next ten years, through high school and past university, were not exactly marked by sweetness and light.

He lived the rock 'n' roll poverty existence until breakthrough disc, Menteur, in '89. Like Dylan's first records, all the elements of Leloup were in raw, imperfect form on Menteur: the driving partnership of voice and guitar; the magpie-like flight between styles, from Printemps été, to the Latin-flavoured Les Mendiants de bars and back to the rock 'n' roll Africana of Alger. And, unstoppable, were his lyrics, profane poetics that are undeniably immediate.

Leloup was rebellion, an image only enhanced by his live shows, which, though criticized as disorganized and haphazard, were recognized as nascent genius, powerful, passionate.

1990's L'amour est sans pitié built on the success, both commercial and artistic, of Menteur. But then… nothing. The long stretch until his third album, '96's Le Dôme, were filled by some with rumours of drugs, or worse. Occasional shows reconfirmed his existence, and again, his talent.

But now there's '98's Les fourmis, a comeback for someone who never really went away.

Les Fourmis finds Leloup, undeniably, at the top of his game. Part live, part studio, with some new material and older songs, the disc is, in all senses, a hybrid. In a feat not often managed in rock 'n' roll, Leloup manages to catch the joy and unpredictability of his live show - and then adds some studio trickery to make it very much something else instead.

Leloup explains some of the work behind Les Fourmis after handing me teeth-achingly sweet Chinese tea in tiny glasses that were probably shot glasses in a previous life, and we sit down on the stoop, "Just like they do in India."

"There are usually many more big moments in the live show than in a record. Sometimes I try and record the shows, and they're not as good. The band tries to be better. But, yeah, Les Fourmis is a good album. I try to be simple, to be cool. Just to groove."

Despite the studio touches, the charm of Les Fourmis is its simplicity. For the first time a record has revealed that Leloup's genius is the story he tells with his guitar and his voice, weaving into and out of each other. His word: grooving.

"I was there [in Togo], and there was a panne d'électricité for three months. I had a guitar and I played a lot. And since they don't speak a lot of French, I wanted to play simple songs, groovy songs. And that's how I composed Voyager," his and my favourite track on the album.

"It's kind of a quest. You have to have something to do: simple songs that are very catchy. Voyager is a really simple song, totally live. No drum machines. It grooves. When I play that song, I feel like I'm in a hotel in Kenya. I would like to dance to this song with some really decadent people. The ambassador's wife. You know."

Grands instants de luci-di-di-té

While in Africa, Leloup hooked up with, in his words, "the thief Rasta-man revolutionary" in Togo. Who, of course, had a band.

"I got involved, but I only played a couple of shows. I wanted to travel and have more fun, and they were into playing big, and loud. And they had this generator, like they want to be modern. They were all looking for Nike shoes."

Bu the real trouble came, according to the wolf, when the band got politics. "I was afraid that the people would take it politically. You have to be more rock 'n' roll."

Politics, as in other things, is an area where Leloup is hard to pin down. "My opinion political is 1990 [from Menteur]." It's a tale techno-apocalypse spit-out over, in fine Leloup fashion, a driving drum-machine beat. "People are tired of talking about things like Quebec and Canada. They want to hear about pollution, about deforestation."

He turns the conversation back toward the music, emphasizing it with a pat on my leg which sends the tape recorder flying. "People have to stop buying so many things. That's why music is good. It's not expensive. You can groove. And that's why I'm doing the music - I don't know what else I could do and be fidèle à mes convictions."

Leloup's songs may contain no bold slogans or passionate declarations - and they're undeniably better for it - but it's impossible to deny that his work is political by being grounded in the here and now of pre-millennial Montreal. If Gilles Vigneault sang of a mythic rural past to reinforce the nationalist movement of the 60s and 70s, the wolf sings of an unquestionably urban present - its loves and hates, its sadness and joy, its tarmac seasons - that push us toward a more honest future. Past the formulaic dreck of Lynda Lemay and Dan Bigras, Leloup and others - cue up Dubmatique, or Les Colocs, even Bran Van - make music that reflects the unpredictable, unprecedented world of Montreal in the late 90s. Just by its very nature it is changing how we think of ourselves. And that may be the most political act of all.

So when Leloup talks about grooving, it's not just laying down the party vibe, bur engaging his audience - be they a crowd of one, of 50 on Duluth, of 500 in Africa or 5,000 at Metropolis. Engaging us honestly, with humour and passion, on our terms and bending them beyond.

"You see, I have a conversation with people here, for ten years. In France, I can't do the same things; it's different, it's not possible without being there. You have to be in a place to be able to talk to the people. It's like when you're travelling - you have to be aware of the atmosphere. You have to live on the ground."

And then, he was off.

Copié de Ainsi va la vie

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Dernière mise à jour le 1 novembre 2001.
Conception: SD