Monday, August 16, 2010

Graveyard Rock Stars: Popularity, Père Lachaise and the Living Dead

. . . it's all about popular.
It's not about aptitude,
It's the way you're viewed
-from the song “Popular” in the musical Wicked

There have always been two kinds of popularity in my mind.

There’s the first kind, that I’ve dubbed “meritocracy popular.” People who are meritocracy popular have risen in the ranks because they’re genuinely good and deserving. They’re friendly and caring and you’ve never heard them say anything particularly unkind or seen them trample over others to get where they are. If they have lots of friends, it’s because they’ve been a good friend to many people.

Then there’s the other kind of popular, which I call “rock star popular.” People who are rock star popular exude cool. They’ve won affection from being beautiful or having gifts that others admire. Maybe they try, but they don’t seem to. And they don’t have to be a good friend to anyone to have people lining up to adore them.
Someone I used to know, who had traces of both kinds of popularity, once said:

-Children like me
-Because I’m tall.

I laughed. It seemed simple, silly. No real reason to like someone. He was, at 6’3, a head higher than most people, so to kindergarteners, he towered even taller, a man on stilts. I hadn’t entirely believed his assertion until one day when we were ice skating together in front of the Hôtel de Ville in Paris.

He’d grown up in a place where winter sports existed and whizzed around the rink, looping and circling and crossing over, triple lutzing. I came back inside and pulled my skates off, tired by the unaccustomed cold, knowing my calves would ache. He ambled in afterwards, stood beside barefoot me in his skates, which added another six inches, and within seconds a crowd of French schoolchildren gathered.
Regardez l’homme très, très grand avec sa toute petite femme !

-Did you hear what they said?

I relayed it, but didn’t mention that they had married us in their minds because we were grown-ups.

C’est un homme GÉANT ! Avec une dame MINUSCULE !
It’s a GIANT man! With a MINISCULE lady!

Soon a clump of children gathered around us, laughing and pointing. Fingers accusatory. Mouths ajar. At first we laughed, too. Then, as the little blond garçon, the ringmaster of the freakshow we’d found ourselves featured in, kept calling out to his friends to see the big man and his little lady, their howling laughter began to feel cruel. Maybe we didn’t belong together. Maybe we didn’t fit.
But he was right. They did love his height.

At the Cimetière du Père Lachaise, the biggest graveyard in Paris, there are two kinds of gravesites: those of the popular people (the living dead) and those of the forgotten. Oscar Wilde, Édith Piaf, Jim Morrison, and Balzac lie alongside the tombs of cemetery citizens unknown to the vast majority of visitors. At the entry, you can grab a map that indicates the resting places of the most sought-after deceased.

Putain. J’y comprend rien, quoi, RIEN ! exclaimed one twentyish woman with a male companion as they scrutinzed the map.

He shook his head. There’s a system of double numbering. Sections have a digit. Gravesites, another. Sometimes, people just head in the general direction and look for the crowds. Every once in a while, you can start off excitedly towards a grand group, convinced that you’ve struck graveyard gold given the number of groupies, then approach to realize the throng is not comprised of tourists but funeral-goers. They’re mourning the recent dead. Someone they actually knew.

As I walk, I come across one grave with fresh flowers and an 8 x 10 framed picture propped on it. 1993-2010. Just a kid. A few people start towards me thinking I’ve spotted another graveyard rock star then back away, embarrassed. They think I know him. Imagine they’ve interrupted.

I also give up on the map, which I’ve tried to reproduce in my notebook since they’ve run out at the front, just about the time I find two other Jim Morrison-seekers.

-He was a rock and roll guy who died young, says a fortyish man in khaki shorts.
-How young, Dad? How young?
-Oh I don’t know
-Twenty-seven, I supplied.

I could tell by the girl’s expression that she didn’t think that was especially young. It’s not, when you’re thirteen.

When I was thirteen, I’d had a rock star crush on Jim Morrison and read all of the books on him, even the trashy, conspiracy theory ones that insisted he was still alive. I had a big poster of him, his arms outstretched like Jesus, pasted to my closet door, above a black-and-white photo of Marilyn Monroe.

My friend Alison and I had stayed up late one night writing out the lyrics to all of the songs on the Doors’s first album. It felt like a deep and meaningful activity. And compared to most of our other eight grade occupations, it probably was. Funny . . . the boyfriend I’d had at thirteen grew up to be a rock star. But a nicer one than Jim Morrison.

Five to one, baby.
One in five.
No one here gets out alive.

What was that song about anyway? A starstruck scribe, I’d dutifully recorded the lyrics on notebook paper in my loopy lettering. One of the titles of the more sensational Morrison biographies borrowed the last phrase.

At the gravesite, people leave flowers and notes. Sometimes, they’re just phrases from the songs. Nearby trees and tombstones have suffered the effects of graffiti. There used to be a guard here because there were so many problems. I’d heard that they actually wanted to kick him out of the cemetery for his posthumous hellraising. People wanted to show up and smoke a joint or spray paint “JIM LIVES” on the surrounding tombstones.

Today, two teenagers sip a can of Stella, the local equivalent of Budweiser, and converse in German. A series of metal barriers prevent visitors from getting too close, like bodyguards at a concert. The graveside activity isn’t as much of an issue now. As one tourist notes, the fans are starting to die.
I move on, seek others.

-Vous avez vu Yves Montand ? inquires an older lady whose map I’ve borrowed.
-Yves Montand est là ? Je passerai lui dire bonjour alors !
-Have you seen Yves Montand?
-Yves Montand is here? I’ll drop in and say hello!

I realized my response made it sound like we were at a dinner party and I was surprised to bump into an acquaintance. But then again, we were only acquainted. Mainly because he’d slept with someone I knew better. Someone more popular than he was. Someone of my own nationality, who also died young.

Having greeted Yves, I returned to looking for Oscar Wilde, who also has enough rock star allure to attract graveyard groupies. Hundreds of lipstick kisses adorn his enormous white tomb despite an engraved plea to halt such “defacement.”

According to my guidebook, the tomb isn’t the only enormous thing. There’s a sphinx-like angel sculpted onto the marble front with missing genitals, the statue’s, supposedly huge. Now, according to legend, the missing member rests on a British ambassador’s desk. A penis paperweight.

The lipstick kisses seem like such a heteronormative expression of love for a writer whose most celebrated liason, whose muse, was a man, Lord Alfred Douglas, or as Wilde knew him, “Bosie.” In a way, you could say Oscar Wilde was lovelocked, adoring a man much younger than he, who never entirely returned his mentor’s affections.

In the end, Wilde went to prison for that love, accused of sodomy and locked away for gross indecency. But if he died alone, in a hovel of a hotel with tasteless wallpaper, he’s found hordes of posthumous admirers. Metro tickets and scraps of papers destined for the deadman collect on all sides of his tomb.
One person’s note reads: Dorian Gray made me love literature. Thx for that.

I wipe my eyes. It gets to the ex-English teacher in me, on two levels. The emotion behind it makes me misty-eyed because I also believe that a book can change a life. But the “Thx” makes me want to wield my lipstick like a red corrective pen and fill in the letters lacked. Out of my own respect for Oscar. The note reminds me that on the same closet door, I had also pasted quotations from The Portrait of Dorian Gray, having graduated from Doors lyrics by the tenth grade.

My dearest Oscar, a woman named Amy had written on the tomb, we are winning!

I first read “we” to mean gay people. Then again, maybe it also means unpopular people. Wilde was a rock star now, but he hadn’t always been loved for who he was.

His epitaph, pulled from his own poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol, speaks of outcasts in a manner strangely prophetic:

And alien tears will fill for him

Pity's long-broken urn,

For his mourners will be outcast men,

And outcasts always mourn.

On the way out, casting about for conversation, I stop off to chat with the gardiens. There’s a funeral here today. Women in black dresses. Men in suits. A carful of flowers.

-People are still buried here often?
-Every day.

But death doesn’t get them down. They are playful, flirt a little, ask about Louisiana, if I speak French because I’m “cadjin,” make me promise to drop by again.

-À l’été prochain, alors ?
-Non! C’est trop long ! Revenez à Noël !

-See you next summer then?
-No! That’s too far off! Come back at Christmas!

Though I’ve never been sociable enough to maintain a large group of friends all at once, I leave feeling a little popular.

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