Paris Calling

Push Yourself Just a Little Bit More by Johnny Green.

Journalist Joyce Stillman writes, “Clash fans will remember Johnny Green as the tall guy in studious horn rims who was always bounding onto the stage to adjust The Clash’s guitars or to pull excited fans off the lead singer, Joe Strummer. A bookish punk fan with degrees in Arabic and Islamic studies, Green had been pulled into The Clash’s orbit at the comparatively mature age of 27 when they asked him to help work a spotlight at a gig; he ended up as a combination workhorse and nursemaid, hauling their equipment, brewing their tea, scoring their dope, and washing out their socks in his hotel-room sink.” Green, head roadie for The Clash from 1977-1980, may seem an unlikely character to write a first hand account of the 2004 Tour de France. But who better to chronicle a culture populated by unhealthily skinny prima-donnas, characterized by the tedium of living out of a suitcase for months on end, rife with the specter of drugs, suffused with premature death too infrequent for mere happenstance. It is the tale of The Clash; it is the tale of professional cycling.

Accompanied by his son Earl, a mysterious Euro cycling savant known simply as The Brief, and a rental VW sedan dubbed Black Magic, Green parlayed forged journalist credentials into an all-access TdF press pass and the means to pursue the essence of the grandest of the grand tours: charisma, live performance, and logistics. Fuelled daily by gallons of espresso and a frenetic fervor to bear witness to the Tour’s multiple dramas, Green largely ignores the cult of Armstrong (and the invasion of his jingoistic American posse) to chronicle the story left untouched by what he considers a lazy and dispassionate press corps. Cipollini unfortunately abandoned early denying Green a chance to witness a victory and conduct an interview, but Green quickly warmed up to Vladimir Karpets, Salvatore Commesso, and Gerolsteiner domestique Ronny Scholtz as characters largely under the radar, yet worthy of his attention. Green is certainly no staid Samuel Abt. I’m sure Green was probably the only journalist nervous about being picked up by Belgian police for an outstanding warrant (he skipped out on a drunken driving conviction stemming from clipping some Belgian road furniture with The Clash equipment van) and while in Belgium he likely was the only member of the press curious about the ASO’s battle with the legacy of Belgian serial killer Marc Dutroux. The first several stages of the 2004 Tour took place in Belgium and one of the stages passed in front of Dutroux’s home (with its basement dungeon). The ASO wanted the home leveled prior to the Tour passing by, but the organization’s bid to tidy up the route proved unsuccessful.

Possession of a press pass does not a journalist make, and Green’s attempts to interview a handful of English speaking pros went dismally. They called immediate bullshit on his inept questions and likely gave their press staff grief for setting them up with such a hack. The only interviews which went well were instances where Green was in his element, talking to rock stars and talking to roadies. Green penetrated the Armstrong security scrum on the summit of La Mongie to chat with Sheryl Crow. Crow, thinking she was talking to a reporter from the music publication Mojo, called off Armstrong’s hired goons and treated Green to a lively dialogue. Late in the Tour, Green finally corralled the “living, pumping heart of Le Tour de France”: Directeur des Sites, head roadie Jean-Louis Pages. Just as Green turned a chance 1977 encounter with The Clash on a Belfast stage into a life-defining change, Pages’ chance encounter with the Tour 20 years prior unexpectedly turned into a career opportunity worthy of Green’s envy. Le Tour doesn’t follow the route of some large rock bands which have two road crews leap-frogging from venue to venue to make setting up and breaking down a bit less time sensitive. Not so in le Tour. Whether it’s due to professional prowess or (likely) cheapness, le Tour only has one start line crew and one finish line crew who must get the infrastructure around France without a safety net.

Frank Zappa once said, “Rock journalism is people who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk, in order to provide articles for people who can’t read.” Substituting “cycling” for “rock” isn’t too far off the mark. While I voraciously consume most everything under the Sun written about professional cycling, I’d be the first to admit there’s quite a copious amount of noise, dissonance, and chatter obscuring the path to worthy reads. This book is not dry prose devoted to the daily race narrative. What Green captures particularly well is the magic of live performances. No matter how good the television coverage, no matter how well written the journalistic narratives, nothing compares to the electricity of witnessing an event in person. Green told of how Joe Strummer knocked a television camera man off the stage because he was interfering with the audience’s view of the band: “I’m not playing for the camera, I’m playing for the fans right in front of me”. The ultimate homage for Johnny Green would be to emulate his wondrous infatuation with the living, breathing le Tour outside of the dingy confines of the press room. Most of us probably don’t have access to world-class forgers to supply faux press credentials, but the simple immersive act of spectating at a race is what Green would wish for each of his readers, even if it’s to experience the ephemeral moments such as this, chance intimate encounters unlikely to occur in other pro sports:

“I passed on a trip across town to the official celebrations. It was all over. The motor cruised slowly down a quiet small road. In the warm, clear evening, all our passion was spent, at peace finally. Ahead of me were two riders in the red of Team Saeco, dawdling on their bikes. One of ‘em was Salvatore Commesso with his dark goatee beard and devilish grin. As I pulled level, alongside, Earl climbed half outta the open passenger window, clapping his hands hard and shoutin’ ‘Chapeaux’. The cyclists bowed their heads in humble proud acknowledgement.”

Just as NBC Americanized the BBC program The Office for an American palate, I couldn’t help but commit a similar act of cultural appropriation in my reading of Green’s book. Johnny Green bears more than a passing resemblance to Lenny Clarke: comedian and irascible “Uncle Teddy” on FX’s remarkable drama Rescue Me. Green’s voice and dialogue seemed even more outlandish channeled through Clarke’s exuberant, Boston-accented ravings. And The Brief? For some reason every reference to his character conjured up a mental image of The Cheat, simply for the similar ridiculousness of their respective monikers.

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