“He Went to Paris” is a song from Jimmy Buffett’s 1973 album, A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean. It tells the story of a young man – perhaps American, perhaps British – who went to Paris after The First World War “looking for answers to questions that bothered him so.” He quickly lost his focus in the easy flow of French life and after a few years he went to London “to play the piano.” He married, became a father, enjoyed his life and forgot about those philosophical questions that had once been so important to him. When World War II broke out, his son went into the military and lost his life. During the German bombing of England, his wife was killed and he lost an eye. In fact, with his family gone, he had lost everything; so he left England for the Caribbean islands to live a solitary but satisfied life – some of which was magic and some tragic, but all of which he could ultimately see as good.
According to Jimmy Buffett, the song was inspired by the story of one Eddie Balchowsky. When Jimmy was beginning his career in Chicago, a club at which he played had a one-armed “janitor” who would counsel the performers and after the concerts would sit down and play beautiful piano music with only his left hand. That “janitor” was Eddie Balchowsky, who as a 20-year old Jewish boy from the Chicago area in the 1930s had gone to Spain to fight against the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War. He came back with only one arm to a society that was completely unsupportive. He had fought on the losing side – the “communist” side – of a war that his country had officially ignored. He turned to alcohol and heroin to ease his pain, but remained a poet, an artist and a musician. A more detailed account of his life may be seen in a short eight-minute video called “Peat Bog Soldier” that is available here.
Both Balchowsky’s true story and Buffett’s fictional one are compelling. Let us take just a moment to consider a few thoughts that the song – the fiction – have raised for me.
First, Paris in the years between the World Wars was a gathering place for writers, artists and intellectuals, many of whom gathered in the circle that formed around American expatriate Gertrude Stein. In the centuries before, such men and women had gathered in Athens, in Alexandria, in Rome, in Vienna, in the courts of the Borgias and of the Sun King, in Krakow and in New York’s Algonquin Round
Later, the Beat Generation flocked to San Francisco and the Beatles Generation gathered around Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh.
They were all going somewhere looking for answers to the eternal human questions, the ones that bothered them so. Some may have found answers among their fellow seekers, or at least have been inspired to look further. Others, though, were like the protagonist in Buffett’s song. The inertia of everyday living created a flow that all but extinguished the burning questions that had once seemed so important.
Finally, if the answers are found, they are not actually in the courts or salons or universities. Instead, they are within the questions, and the within the questioners. Returning to the Tao Te Ching, we learned from Lao Tzu in Chapter 47 that “one may know the world without going out of doors” and “may see the Way of Heaven without looking through the windows.”
Some may reach that inner knowing by staying in their home, some must travel the short distance to a Walden Pond, and some must travel the world with its tragedy and its magic before they can recognize the answers they have always had within their souls.
He Went To Paris
By Jimmy Buffett
He went to Paris looking for answers
To questions that bothered him so
He was impressive, young and aggressive
Saving the world on his own.
But the warm Summer breezes
The French wines and cheeses
Put his ambition at bay
And Summers and Winters
Scattered like splinters
And four or five years slipped away.
Then he went to England, played the piano
And married an actress named Kim
They had a good life, she was a good wife
Bore him a young son named Jim.
And all of the answers and all of the questions
He locked in his attic one day
‘Cause he liked the quiet clean country living
And twenty more years slipped away.
Well the war took his baby, the bombs killed his lady
And left him with only one eye
His body was battered, his world was shattered
And all he could do was just cry.
While the tears were falling, he was recalling
The answers he never found
So he hopped on a freighter, skidded the ocean
And left England without a sound.
Now he lives in the islands, fishes the pilin’s
And drinks his Green Label each day
He’s writing his memoirs and losing his hearing
But he don’t care what most people say.
Through eighty-six years of perpetual motion
If he likes you he’ll smile then he’ll say
Jimmy, some of it’s magic, some of it’s tragic
But I had a good life all the way.
And he went to Paris looking for answers
To questions that bother him so.
Copyright: American Broadcasting Music Inc.