SONG OF THE WEEK – HE WENT TO PARIS

“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
Table.

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.

 

5 thoughts on “SONG OF THE WEEK – HE WENT TO PARIS

  1. Perfect. One of my favorite commentaries by you, Louis. Jimmy Buffet is one of the great poets of the 20th century. The answer to every question that bothers us so is in that smile, remembering both the magic and tragic places passed through on the long road. It takes a great poet to distill the essence of a realized life like Jimmy does in this song.

    There are, as you note, many paths, and every one can deliver the honest seeker to the answer of their every question, whether the path involves the single-minded focus of the ashram and monastery, or wild and free-wheeling engagements of passion with the world and the experiences our existence subjects us to there. Whether we seek in the world, or at Walden Pond, or “without windows” in the spiritual center within – the smile can be found.

    • That is kind of you to say. However, I’m afraid that it cannot be seen as anywhere near”perfect” when there are faulty mathematics. I got to thinking about this and realized that if the subject of the song was 86 in 1973, he would have been born in 1887. That would have put him in his early 30s in the years following World War I; and probably too old to be considered “young and aggressive.” Further, from the time he came to Paris until his losses in the Battle of Britain (which occurred in 1940) a quarter century or more must have elapsed, and at least 20 of those years were spent in England. Consequently, I think he must have come to Paris before WWI and left about the time the War began. There was definitely an artistic and literary scene in Paris in those pre-war years, but nothing like the 1920s when Hemingway, Beckett, Pound, Yeats, Eliot, Picasso, Stravinsky, Proust and so many others were hanging out and more or less intermingling.

      As you may know, Jimmy Buffett has a degree in History from Southern Mississippi. I assume, then, that his song – though fiction and though significantly different from Eddie Balchowsky’s story – was constructed in a fairly accurate historical context. Another thing about the context of the song is the way that the story of an old expatriate is, in the end, a Jimmy Buffett song. The old man could have gone anywhere to try to escape his grief, but Buffett has him going to the Caribbean, land of Parrotheads, and placing himself in a conversation with the gentleman.

      The earlier dates don’t change the meaning of the song or the essential parts of my comments, but the change alters the picture I had in my mind. It also brings up another question that is more personal to me. The French and those who make France their home do not frequently emigrate. They like it where they are. So why did the man sung about here decide to leave Paris just before the First World War. That was the same time that my grandfather, Ernest Weltzer, left Paris with his family to settle in the United States. Why did Ernest leave? I never knew my grandfather. He died several years before I was born, so I never had the opportunity to ask him why he left and why I am an American.

      • I’d say a mathematical timeline applied to a timeless story line is optional, and also put it down to poetic license, which excuses many literary sins – or at least I hope it does. Otherwise I’m condemned beyond redemption to literary Sheol.

        It would be interesting to know why your grandfather Ernest left France. Sometimes decisions made by our ancestors give us an insight into our own nature.

        I’d put Eddie in the Caribbean at the last if he were a character in a story I wrote, perhaps just to make amends to him for all the existential carnage I put him through as his author. Or the Cascade mountains. Just somewhere where he could fish, and time was optional, and his smile was his own, and he would share it if he liked you.

        Your mention of the great cauldron of creativity which existed in Paris recalled a certain wistful feeling I once had about missing out on that place and time. I immersed myself in the authors and poets and artists of that period and sort of caught up with the ambiance there, the post-WW I world-weary melancholy, the intellectual expeditions into history seeking eternal truths in the works there, the struggle to define new expressions of the human experience in the wake of the advent of mechanized warfare, mustard gas, and the death of a generation of great poets in that war.

        I’m content to have had the path I’ve had now. If, however, in the afterlife I am presented with a menu of alternate-dimension reincarnations, I will order a season in the Paris of the 1920’s which I have formed up in my own mind. With Lenore, of course.

        And I will end this with that smile. Good stuff, Louis.

  2. Pingback: SONG OF THE WEEK - JUMP IN THE LINE - ralstoncreekreview.comralstoncreekreview.com

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