Évariste (aka Joël Sternheimer), December 2012, photograph by David Tinkham of Datapanik Design
It’s not very long since I discovered the music of Évariste so this has all moved very quickly indeed but I have been most fortunate in tracking down Évariste and getting an interview with him in Paris. It happened on a very wet and very cold day in early December 2012, in the office of Évariste’s alter ego Joël Sternheimer. For the first time in my life – and I have been there many, many times before – I got lost in Paris and arrived late, wet and feeling slightly sick with worry that I might have missed my chance for an interview after travelling all the way from England to France especially to meet my new French music hero. In the event it turned out fine – the interview took place in English (for which I was most grateful!) and I found Mr Sternheimer very shy but also very talkative, which was just how I imagined he would be. Here, finally, is part one of the interview, which I think should be called The Pete Seeger Story, you’ll see why:
Hero Culte (HC): I understand you were 23 when you first auditioned with AZ…
Évariste (E): Yes
HC: But when did you first start writing songs and singing?
E: Writing songs, in fact already as a teenager and as soon as I could have a tape recorder, which was something I asked my parents repeatedly for and they were saying, “Well, it will come and it will go like that…” But I insisted so much that in the end I got one – Geloso, Italian one tape – and then I started to, since I could record, to make some songs. Later I bought a guitar – there were also the cassette recorders which came out. And then I really started, but I was already past twenty something.
Évariste’s tape recorder, as seen in Tilt-Magazine, February 1967
HC: I’ve read that you were a bit of a child prodigy, that you were really intelligent and had your PhD when you were 23…
E: I had a doctorate in theoretical physics, oui.
HC: Also I read that you learnt to speak Hebrew in 15 days!
E: Well, I took courses during 15 days, but it’s okay. Technical conversation would be difficult but daily conversation is okay. I’m from a Jewish family with no father because of shoah, holocaust you call it, and so that took the thing in a certain direction…
HC: I have another story to ask you about, and that’s that I read somewhere that you sang with Pete Seeger in America in front of Martin Luther King and an audience of a million or so, is this true?
E: This is true. It was in April 15 1967…
HC: How did it happen?
E: Ah! It was a… well, the story takes a few steps… After the doctorate I was invited to Princeton to work with a great specialist in my field – Eugene Wigner, a well-known physicist, a specialist in group theory, which I had to get more acquainted with than I already was. And I was offered to be his assistant, so I took the ship in August 1966 – Pacquebot France – which took 4½ days. When the boat left France I had my invitation and assistantship in my pocket and when the boat reached the United States I learned that there was a whole turmoil in the University because there were what was called “monetary restrictions” because of the war; the assistantship with Wigner didn’t exist anymore.
I was offered another [assistantship], but I was perhaps maybe a little spoilt child and I soon realised that the direction in which the research would proceed was not the one I was intending in the beginning or was invited for. And after a few days I declined the assistantship, so I had the problem of how could I live – how could I make a living?
There was a French speaking professor, Maurice Bazin, who said to me, “Well, look you’ve long hair, I’ve heard that you are musically inclined – why don’t you cut a record and this way you will be able to do the research in the direction which you like?”
HC: Did you already have your hair in the Évariste style, long on one side and short on the other?
E: It was long, it wasn’t really intended to be the style – it was, you know, the time of Beatlemania and Lennon and McCartney’s way of having long hair. And it wasn’t really intended, but not long after when I cut a record they made the sleeve of the record and there was some hair that went down the eye [in the photograph] and so, you know how they are, they said, “Well! That’s it!”
HC: But then did you cut it so it was short on one side and long on the other?
E: Ah! You remember how Lennon and McCartney combed their hair? They had it this way round, so I just put the connection with the political situation and I translated it: left ahead and right back. And so made it mod and rocker. That was a joke, but there was some political intention with this!
I had left the story where it was, when that professor told me, “Well, you have long hair why don’t you sing.” And he knew that I was musically inclined and making some songs for myself. And I started thinking about it. I did a trial in Gerde’s Folk City in Washington Square in New York where they auditioned wanna-be talents and I sang a few of my songs there and the boss came and said, “Well, you should go on.” Of course, the reception was rather polite because I sang in French but… except a song called Herzl Rent A Car! But he said, “You should go on, there’s something; you’ve got something”, and that made me think.
It happened that it was on the Tuesday afternoon and that I had dropped a course which I was supposed to attend; more precisely, Tuesday afternoon conferences in the Institute for Advanced Study. And so I had gone there and missed it for a couple of weeks and then gone back and [J. Robert] Oppenheimer who was the Head had seen this, and at the end of the conference came to see me to ask me what was happening. And so I told him about the situation, of which he was very well aware.
Oppenheimer was obviously very aware of the situation and apparently he had guessed that it was connected with [the assistantship]. And so I told him about my situation and what Bazin had said and that I was really thinking of being independent in my research; I was taking it seriously. And then I saw Oppenheimer whose face was… well, he was already very ill but from the image I had of him from the outside I somehow connected it with guilt about Hiroshima. That’s what I felt. And as a matter of fact, other people who saw him at the same time had the same impression. And when I told him that I was thinking of becoming independent he told me, “Ah!” I saw his face lightened; like hope coming back, like life coming back to his face. And he said, “If you think you may find a way to become independent, do it! If I was your age now, that’s what I would do.” That’s what he told me, the Father of “Big Science”.
And so I really thought about it and for the winter holidays we had vacation and I came back to France. I had some friends in the recording business; I had already, as a matter of fact, had an audition before, but then this time I called my friends and said, “Well, I would like to see if it might work.” In fact Lucien Morisse, who was the head of AZ Records, was very enthusiastic. Gérard Woog had seen me and he was [Morisse’s] Artistic Director – he said, “Well, I am completely amazed! I can’t take a decision by myself, so let’s go see Lucien.” Lucien Morisse was enthusiastic and so we cut a record in a couple of days. Just like that!
It was in between December 20-somethingth and January 1st. And I even went out of the recording studio to take the plane back to the States and I forgot my guitar! So that’s why I bought a new one in the Princeton University store, which Pete Seeger signed later.
But then what happened was that near the end of the month I saw a whole crowd coming, Paris Match and Télé 7 Jours and television and so on, because the record was a hit in France. And I was very surprised about it. I came back [to France] for two weeks in February for this reason…
HC: Which TV show did you appear on?
E: That one was Tilt Magazine by Michèle Arnaud, who was the producer.
HC: I saw a clip of Connais–tu l’animal qui inventa le calcul intégral but I wasn’t sure which show it was on. I have Dim Dam Dom…
E: Ah! Dim Dam Dom is another one. One of the first colour TV shows – this was a few months later.
HC: Were you on any other shows as well?
E: O yes! I have a whole list at home…
HC: Wow! Send me the list so I can try and find the shows [HC Note: He did and I did find some of them, see here]. When I first saw you, it was on Dim Dam Dom, and I was just amazed – “Who is this Evariste?!” Especially in the context of the show because you were so different to everything else…
E: That is so nice!
HC: Then after that I saw the clip of you doing Connais-tu l’animal…, which was just wonderful. How did you develop your performance, with the (making bad attempt at doing the leg under the arm thing Évariste used to do)?
E: Ah! At that time, I could do it. Not anymore!
HC: But it’s very physical and exciting to watch, because it’s so… strange. Did you perform any other songs apart from Wo i nee and Connais-tu l’animal on TV?
E: O yes, there were several.
HC: I have to find them! Did you know that somebody had released an album of your songs?
E: I have seen this; it is a pirate album of course. I have seen this but…
The bootleg album…
HC: It’s created a bit of interest in you on the internet, with people writing about you and your music – people referring to you as a genius and so on. Some have been likening you to Kim Fowley, do you know Kim Fowley?
HC: He was an American musician, he did quite a lot of unusual records; he was kind of… slightly outrageous for his time in the ‘60s. Well, they compare you to him, but I think you’re better than that anyway. I just wondered what you thought of the comparison…
About your lyrical inspiration, from what I could work out – I’m not fluent in French, I’m fairly good but I don’t understand everything – it seems to be a lot about mathematics, the moon and Antoine and Jacques Dutronc. Was that a comment on the pop scene at the time or did you not like them…?
E: Not at all. I mean that thing, which has perhaps been misunderstood was a reference to a mathematical theorem which is called Gödel’s theorem – you may have heard of it…
HC: [looking blank]
E: …it states that from the inside of a system, you can’t prove that it is not contradictory. And on these grounds there is an ideology that you should describe something from outside, which for me is quite contradictory to what I learned as a Jewish boy in the Pesach – Passover – holiday. In the seder Passover one says: What is the difference between the wise and the bad? The wise look at things from inside and the bad look from outside. So I was a bit upset with the way the theorem was applied. The demonstration relies on sentences which are so-called proto-descriptive; which talk about themselves. And, so, I made this sentence: Ce que je pense d’Antoine et de Jacques Dutronc… It’s a sentence, which starts with C and ends with on. And Ça commence par C, ça finit par on, also starts with c and ends with on… So that’s what it was intended to mean, nothing more than that – the sentence is auto-descriptive. But that was not at all understood!
HC: That’s very clever! But there’s some other references as well, like, how did you manage to relate La chasse au boson intermédiaire back to Antoine and Dutronc as well? “Mais où sont donc passés Antoine et Jacques Dutronc…”?
E: This was in the second record, and so it was a reference to the first one!
HC: I thought maybe you really hated them!
E: No, not at all. As a matter of fact although I never met Antoine, I had him once on the ‘phone and I thanked him for having paved the way for the recording companies…
HC: Because he was an engineering student, wasn’t he?
E: He was an engineer, yeah, at an engineering school.
HC: Because I was thinking when listening to the records that it would seem odd if you didn’t like them…
E: No, I loved them! On the contrary, I was very excited by the song Élucubrations. On the contrary, I loved that.
HC: Yes, because I thought that with Jacques Dutronc, he might have actually appealed to you because although he was very handsome and kind of conventional in his appearance, the lyrics he sang were sort of at odds with his appearance because they were very caustic and kind of critical of certain parts of society. For example, with Et moi, et moi, et moi…
E: Ah! Dutronc, that is the game that he played.
HC: And Antoine too, I know some people were dismissive of him and said he was a bit of a novelty act or that he was not too talented, but I really admire him – he has some clever lyrics, things like Pourquoi ces canons particularly, which is a lovely song that goes round back on itself…
E: I heard him once say that he has a magical power and he took his harmonica and [hums harmonica line from Elucubrations] everybody around says, “Oh, yeah!”
But I had started to answer your first question and…
HC: [Somehow rather rudely talking over Évariste and asking a question despite the fact he wanted to return to the Pete Seeger story…] I wondered as well that you had created this personality for yourself as a performer, calling yourself Évariste, and I know why you called yourself Évariste, but was it…
E: This was because when the occasion came to make a record I had to find a name – at that time, they used stupid names, you know. I was talking about it to a young fellow student who was an École normale supérieure student, and he said why not Évariste referring to Évariste Galois. And that’s how it came.
HC: Another mathematics reference. And I wondered if it was a reference to… you mention Nicolas Bourbaki in Wo i nee, and that was also a creative personage…
E: They were several personages! But one of them was Claude Chevalley who was the Director of the Maths Department in the Université de Vincennes after May ’68 and I taught there for a while. But, anyway, with Bourbaki we learned the little bit of mathematics that we know.
HC: I wanted to ask you as well, you wrote all the music but when you recorded it was orchestrated by Michel Colombier…
E: That’s right.
HC: How did that happen?
E: Because he was orchestrator at AZ Records for Lucien Morisse and so we met – this was arranged by the recording company – and he liked it. I remember the question I asked which was a special question at that time for a recording, I asked him, “What can we do so that the batterie [drums] are heard as poum poum and not as tak tak?” And he said, “Well, that’s our problem!”
And when the song Calcul intégral was recorded, when I was singing the song myself I was just doing one chord – that’s all I knew, Em – and I was hitting the guitar. Hitting the guitar with my [knuckles], like that [demonstrates it on the table]. And so he got inspired by that and superposed to the batterie [drums], somebody who was alone in the cabin and who did that [makes gesture of rapping knuckles] on the guitar, and that made the sounds special for the time.
HC: And do you remember who was in the band?
E: Yes, Michel Colombier was director; there was Francis Darizcuren; Raymond Gimenez; at the organ was Eddy Louiss, who become famous also as an organist; in the choir there were several chorists, one of them became very well-known, Danielle Licari, who sang ba-da-ba-ba-da-ba-da-ba-da-ba-da-ba…, that Concerto pour une voix by Saint-Preux. Saint-Preux is today a friend, that’s funny.
HC: And did you ever do any concerts or live performances?
E: Yes, at that time, yes. But maybe we should start the story where we left it – you asked me about Pete Seeger and I didn’t finish the story… so, it was bad things that were happening in the United States in the end of fall of 1966, which were somehow connected with the Vietnam war. And Maurice Bazin was actually a Leftist activist and he had given me this advice, because he hoped that it would open my political consciousness; that’s what he said to me after. And what I didn’t know at that time was what really happened, because this has been known partly – but very partly – when the Pentagon Papers appeared and fully, or at least more fully, recently after [Robert] McNamara, who was involved, passed away.
And what happened in reality is that the American government had asked some bright physicists to collaborate with them for the war. The thing was that McNamara had been appointed by [John F] Kennedy and he was not in a very good agreement with [Lyndon B] Johnson, who took over, and so to keep in with Kennedy’s idea to take the best and the brightest and so on, he had the idea to ask the physics community if they could imagine more modern weapons that could take over the bombings in North Vietnam, which in his eye was inefficient and of course very costly. And several agreed to cooperate, others did not – and that was the so-called Jason division.
The story is told well in the Pentagon Papers, partly, because there was a bunch of physicists who suggested to use many things which were futuristic at the time – a barrier called the McNamara Fence, which would be protected by lasers and so on. [Charles] Townes – one of the inventors of laser – was one of the people who made suggestions, and also one of them, we don’t know who, suggested to use cluster bombs: BLU-26, bombs made of bombs. These were immediately used by the military who had not really thought about it before.
And these bombs were dropped on North Vietnam. Many are still there because very often the bomblets do not explode and so they are like mines and still kill. It was recognised by the Oslo Convention a few years ago as a war crime, but it’s a very difficult situation… And that was what I declined to go to, by dropping the assistantship.
It happened that some people who had accepted were indeed among the brightest, and there were others who didn’t accept. And Wigner was amongst them – Oppenheimer also – and the story was that this way I met them and Wigner was very happy at what I had done by refusing another assistantship. I didn’t know why, but later I could understand.
But maybe perhaps the worst thing of all is that the administration had a filter, I don’t know, that dropped some names of people who were supposed to have been in contact with the Jasons themselves. And they were very much assaulted by the Leftists who said, “Well, you have been collaborating….” And these people said, “Why? What? What are you talking about?” The thing is that in fact the administration had dropped out the names of those who had said no. And they kept secret until very recently, when it was declassified, the people who really did collaborate. I would have been involved in that if I had said yes, and that’s what I said no to. This was on two grounds; on the ground of scientific disagreement, and on the grounds of, I would say, personal sympathy for people who were in this category of saying no. And this, what I told you, I just discovered recently on the internet because the people [who] really were [involved] had spoken a little bit of the report of the end of August 1966, which long classified had been declassified with the new presidency.
HC: The Pete Seeger concert?
E: And, so, I was contacted by the Leftists and, you know, in August 1966 the opposition against the Vietnam war was a minority – but a few months later it became nearly a majority of people. On April 15th 1967 there was a huge demonstration which was organised in front of United Nations with all the people converging there. Martin Luther King was indeed there and Pete Seeger had asked me to be with him, in a car which was going down the avenue, and to sing together with him. And he also asked me to sing the song Le Déserteur by Boris Vian.
And, as a matter of fact, my song Calcul intégral, which starts with French and English was inspired by the English version of Le Déserteur by Peter, Paul and Mary. So, you know: Messieurs qu’on nomme grand / Men whose names are great, as they were singing, and which was after Monsieur le Président, as Boris Vian had sung. And to have French and English at the beginning was borrowed from that. So, indeed, we sang together with Pete Seeger the Boris Vian song; happy to know that we sang together because I didn’t know the chords!
HC: Why did you make so few records? Did you decide to stop or was it because you were concentrating on your research?
E: Two reasons combined: first one, when May ’68 burst out, on the contrary to what happened in the United States where I was like “Fabrice at Waterloo” – that’s an expression in French coming from Le Rouge et le Noir by Stendhal – that the soldier in the war couldn’t understand what was happening. It was resented, it was felt, so in the United States I didn’t really understand what was happening besides the fact there were demonstrations against the war. And in May ’68 there was no war, and there were even critics who said that this happened because there was no war! But it was evident there was something deep, in that it was something with a quite different meaning. So I was involved in May ’68, and cut a few songs, and Lucien Morisse could not release it within AZ because it was too political. But he gave the authorisation; he gave the permission to do it, by myself, in self-production together with the musicians and other people. And, as a matter of fact, it was as far as I know what started self-produced records in France and elsewhere too. As far as I know.
So that was already half a step away from the majors. And the other thing, then, that played a definitive part was when Lucien Morisse committed suicide in 1970. And you know I had no father? When I found Lucien Morisse, he was like a father – we had a very intense relationship. And so when he died, well… I didn’t cut records after that.
I still went on singing in the 70’s because there was the anti-nuclear movement in France – I sang there, with some success because there were some which were abandoned. But then what happened in 1977 was there was a demonstration against the Creys-Malville [Superphénix] breeder reactor in France, where there was a demonstrator – a physics professor – who was killed. And one of the policemen who protected the reactor had his right hand taken away. From this I made the connection with the psalm 137 in the Bible, which you may know: “If I forget thee Jerusalem, may my right hand forget me.” And I said, well, there is something forgotten in the understanding of matter which was imposed over populations and the real work is in physics to correct what is missing. Then I really started to go back completely on physics. It was at the end of ’77.
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That’s where we leave the Évariste interview for now – don’t worry, he may have been talking about the end of his recording career here but there is much more to come in Part Two very soon! Sincerest thanks to Évariste for giving me so much time for the interview and thanks also to David Tinkham for the moral support and the photograph!