Friday, August 15, 2014
A good friend of mine died recently, and though we had neither spoken nor seen each other for decades, his death is impacting me deeply. I suppose this has a lot to do with reaching the age where one loses the people who matter, and each loss chips away at one’s past. The news of his passing came via an email from his wife, an attractive British woman he’d married in 2004 after eight years together.
Bruno Colonge was a classmate at the French Lycée in Washington, DC. He was a big, handsome guy, the first person I’d ever met who frequently worked out at the Vic Tany gym and it showed. He had broad shoulders, massive biceps and legs like oaks. At the time, this type of physique was almost unknown among adolescents. We were all skinny, pale, and barely able to lift a lunch bag. Bruno did sit-ups and push-ups whenever he had a spare minute and was known for sneaking out of his house at night, jumping directly from the roof to the ground, a good 12-feet drop onto the home’s bricked patio, a leap performed soundlessly and with great élan.
Bruno and I got together because we both played guitar and wanted to be rock stars. We formed a trio with Patrick, a 16-year-old drummer whose only gift was that he had a snare and a single cymbal. Patrick was incapable of holding any beat outside of those found in military matching bands, and this gave our renditions of Peter Gunn, Wipe Out, Telstar and anything by Link Wray a weird syncopation people found challenging to dance to. No matter. We played parties for free, had a repertoire of about twelve songs which we repeated three or four times a night, avoiding the more intricate parts. We were the champions of the three-chord compositions. Our best tune was a heavily accented and incomprehensible version of Ray Charles’ What’d I Say. We made up the words since we couldn’t figure them out, occasionally throwing in a “Yahoo!”, an expression I’d heard on a country station and immediately made my own.
Bruno sang. He loved the French rocker Johnny Halliday, could do a plaintive interpretation of slow songs by Francoise Hardy, and, when we played a Beatle tune, went “Ya ya ya” instead of “yeh yeh yeh,” giving any song by the Fab Four a distinctly Teutonic je ne sais quoi. He was famous for a French version of Sealed with a Kiss that brought tears to his mother’s eyes.
Ah yes, Bruno’s mother… A dragon from the northern climes, Sweden or Norway, I forget which; a Gorgon, a frightening piece of work who dominated the small family with her stentorian voice. She often made Bruno’s life miserable, even as she watched him smoke and develop at too young an age an unhealthy taste for Johnny Walker. His father was a small and subjugated man, a military attaché with the French Embassy, and he and Bruno colluded to escape Madame Colonge whenever it was possible. Whenever she traveled back to her home country, Bruno and his father piled into the family’s Mercedes and did what fathers and sons were meant to do.
Bruno and I would often sneak into the downtown music clubs. We saw and tried to imitate the harmonies of the Mugwumps, who would one day become the Mamas and Papas. We marveled at Doc Watson’s incredible finger-picking guitar work. We saw the Shadows perform and listened to the Ventures. We hung out at Georgetown’s Whiskey a Go Go. We often pretended to be French musicians who spoke no English and that got us a free drink or two. We once went on a beach weekend with a total of $12 between us and a single bottle of banana liqueur.
When his family returned to France after their stint in the US, Bruno and I exchanged letters full of blatant lies about our musical paths. He told me he was slated to play at an important venue in Paris, but his mother wouldn’t let him. I responded by saying I was with a new band booked at the Cellar Door. I visited him once in France and stayed at his house under the narrowed and watchful eye of his mother who, I would learn later, considered me a bad influence. In time, we lost touch, and it would be almost a half-century before we reconnected. He was married, divorced and remarried, living in Spain. He had two daughters and managed a couple of apartment buildings. His hair was thinner, and it seemed as if he’d lost a lot of weight. We traded a few emails.
He told me he didn’t play guitar anymore…