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Miles Marshall Lewis | Longreads | November 2018 | 14 minutes (3,622 words)
When I first heard the song “Alexa de Paris” by Prince and the Revolution in the spring of 1986, I was only a year younger than Alexa, and I had no idea who she was. No one ever said. Alexa Fioroni was a painter who taught and traveled the world, but most notably, she danced. Born in Oklahoma City, she moved to the South of France with her mother after her parents’ divorce in the 1970s. She took ballet lessons there from a South American expatriate at 9 years old. By 14, she had enrolled in an intensive study program at the Opéra National de Paris, the only American pirouetting around, later advancing to the Conservatoire de Paris dance school. She remained elusive to me until I began researching this essay. As I listened to the orchestral strings and guitar solos of the song’s gorgeous symphonic rock back then, Paris was just as much a mystery to me as Alexa Fioroni.
Because what was Paris to a 15-year-old black boy from the Bronx? Beyond a vague familiarity with the Eiffel Tower, I had zero points of reference. None of the personalities well known to me much later meant anything to me then: Frantz Fanon, Serge Gainsbourg, Jean-Luc Godard, Aimé Césaire, François Truffaut, Brigitte Bardot. The advanced placement English classes at my public high school didn’t teach négritude. They eventually got around to existentialism — Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus — but not until senior year. James Baldwin lived in France, but I hadn’t read James Baldwin. Black Boy had blown me away back in sixth grade. For years, Richard Wright might’ve been the only black writer I was aware of (aside from Alex Haley), but nobody told me he’d lived in Paris. My parents didn’t have passports; my grandparents didn’t have passports.
That wasn’t always the case. Faded vacation photographs from Paris lay buried somewhere in a photo box at the bottom of a closet in our three-bedroom apartment, pictures of the trip my mom took with a girlfriend as a high school graduation gift in 1969. By 1970 she’d be a married mother, a yawning chasm stretched between the 18-year-old Evander High School student she’d been and the 19-year-old South Bronx homemaker she’d so quickly become.
* * *
My first impressions of Paris, my first time bothering to consider the city as a real place with real people walking around it came from Under the Cherry Moon, the romantic comedy Prince filmed on the French Riviera in late 1985. The movie wasn’t set in Paris. I didn’t understand that at the time. A soundtrack album, Parade, preceded the film by four months, and I pored over the packaging in my bedroom for all the clues I could find about this follow-up to Purple Rain. The packaging of the album — yes, a vinyl disc meant for turntables, enclosed in a cardboard sleeve finely designed with cover art — contained black-and-white photos of Prince and the Revolution collaged with strips of pages from a French novel. But I didn’t know French then — I skirted through Italian classes with a string of D’s. The page ribbons could have come from a porn magazine, a cookbook, or some instruction manual.
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The Parade album-liner photomontage fixes the Venus de Milo amid guitarist Wendy Melvoin, bassist Brown Mark, and keyboardist Matt Fink as if Aphrodite had joined the Revolution. Prince placed the melancholy piano piece “Venus de Milo” at the end of Parade’s side one. A statue of the Greek goddess is actually on permanent display at the Louvre museum in Paris. French by association I suppose. Parade also featured “Do U Lie?,” a whimsical bit of café jazz complete with accordion and introduced by a French girl explaining, “Les enfants qui mentent ne vont pas au paradis.” Children who lie don’t go to heaven. Prince flattered the object of his affection on the chorus to one of my favorites, “Girls & Boys,” with “vous êtes très belle” and talk of kissing on the steps of Versailles. (Where was that? I wondered.) Plus, the majestically beautiful instrumental “Alexa de Paris” was the flip-side bonus to Parade’s “Mountains” single. Orchestral arrangements conducted by the late Clare Fischer gave Parade more of a European feel than any of Prince’s seven previous albums — the French horns, the trumpets and trombones, the violins and violas.
* * *
Piano practice swallowed a lot of my hours in the 1980s. An older Jewish woman a few buildings away offered lessons. My mother and father forced me out of my comforting cocoon of comic books and TV addiction to learn the piano for 12 months. I was 9. They promised I could drop the private class after a year if I wasn’t interested anymore. I wasn’t. But by the time Parade arrived I’d discovered sheet music to songs I felt like learning and came back to the piano. I’d spend just enough practice time after school to learn Janet Jackson and Doug E. Fresh and Prince songs by heart. Mostly Prince songs. My grandmother’s upright piano could never be pitch-perfectly tuned, but furniture movers hauled it from her South Bronx apartment straight to my bedroom anyway for those childhood lessons. I learned “The Beautiful Ones” on that out-of-tune Kemble. “Paisley Park,” “Pop Life” and “God (Love Theme from Purple Rain)” too. By the time I mastered the chords of “Under the Cherry Moon,” its namesake finally showed up in movie theaters.
Prince’s tragicomedy bombed, but that didn’t matter. In my mind I was following in his footsteps: learning his songs; writing terrible lyrics; taking the Truman High recording studio class taught by the choir director (a white rap producer who managed Doug E. Fresh); having sex; acting pretentious. I fantasized about moving on to guitar, or songwriting, or whatever else necessary to grow up to be just like Prince. I was 15, I had time. But with Under the Cherry Moon, Prince now knew something I definitely didn’t. He knew France. I had to get there.
* * *
I made it into college by the skin of my teeth. I returned home from Atlanta after freshman year for my first summer break and met a beautiful girl on the uptown 6 train. This was when I still marked my life and times by whichever Prince album occupied the record stores, and so it was the Year of Batman, 1989. (It was also the year of the first De La Soul album, 3 Feet High and Rising, and the year of Do the Right Thing, but with my 18-year-old obsessions, that hot summer could only have been the Year of Batman.) We peeked at one another when the other wasn’t looking, over and over, as the train stopped and started on its way to the terminus at Pelham Bay Park. We never spoke. We waved a week later at Times Square station, surprised to see each other again in another borough. I still couldn’t speak. I wasn’t much good at courageous flirtation. I’d heard Prince suffered from shyness and I could relate. When I finally saw her again — apricot skin, smiling eyes, round face draped by thin extension braids — I found my courage. Simone was a rising senior at the performing arts high school downtown, the one from Fame. Her youth didn’t make me any braver.
Simone danced in the video to Young MC’s “Bust a Move” that summer. I’d play the cassette single on a loop in my boombox back down at school and think of her. She sang, she danced, she acted. Simone idolized triple threats like Debbie Allen and Vanessa Williams, full of artistic plans and schemes. We spent the summer of Batman at the Sound Factory nightclub downtown dancing to “French Kiss.” She modeled clothes for me at Emilio Cavallini on Madison Avenue, where she worked. Right away I had romanticized my idea of her — some ingénue artiste — out of all proportion, killing any possibility of an authentic relationship. Friend zone, meet unrequited love. A pretty girl from the Bronx with dreams, so different from the handful of girlfriends in my brief history with love, Simone suffered my awkward advances through graduation and her first few years at Sarah Lawrence College.
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There was no one more appropriate to introduce me to Paris than Simone, studying abroad in 1994 at the École Normale de Musique conservatory. “Do the Boodiewop” somehow failed to catapult her girl group Ariél onto the radio in ’92, but the trio’s full album remained a work in progress. The pipe-dream illusions of my own imaginary music career ended in college. I hadn’t rehearsed any Prince songs into memory since “Scandalous” back in the Year of Batman; I’d left my atrocious song-lyric poetry aside. When Simone invited me to stay at her studio in the 13th arrondissement, I was a first-year law student in New York City and an aspiring music journalist trying to build on a Vibe magazine internship from the previous summer. I was also still aspiring to sleep with Simone four years after first peeping at her on the 6 train.
I prepped myself for Paris with some rental videotapes from Tower Video: oldies like April in Paris, Funny Face, and An American in Paris. I don’t remember anything about them now; none made an impact. Terence Trent D’Arby mentioned 18th-century French novelist Honoré de Balzac in his album notes as a personal hero, so I left for France reading The Chouans — another work of art that entered in one ear and out the other. I touched down at Charles de Gaulle airport in platform shoes and Gap bell-bottoms because (thanks Lenny Kravitz) how else could one arrive in Paris for the first time?
Rubbernecking from the backseat of Simone’s Martiniquan girlfriend’s red Fiat, I soaked in all the beige buildings with their decorative architecture, the crowded cafés, twentysomethings like me dressed in black and dragging cigarettes. But saying overmuch about the sights and smells of the city rings false to me. The truth is, I’d flown more than 2,000 miles across the Atlantic to get laid. France wasn’t my first time abroad. Two years prior I visited my college girlfriend studying in Madrid and already experienced my first fish-out-of-water feelings with Spanish culture. Nine months back, I’d flown to London alone for a week as a graduation gift. Still, in many ways, I was 23 going on 19, with an immature, naïve sense of entitlement telling me international travel was some kind of given. France eventually turned out to be a liberating place for me years later, for reasons that would’ve been unfamiliar that first time around. But as an eight-day vacation, visiting a crush I hoped to seduce in the most romantic city in the world, my Parisian experience went only as deep as I could receive it at the time.
Imagine Hippopotamus as the Olive Garden of Paris, an appropriate enough place for hungry young adults on a budget. My palate at the time wasn’t too far advanced beyond Chef Boyardee anyway. Out on the town with Simone, night number one, I ordered a saumon fumé expecting something like the Southern salmon croquettes I grew up on. I can’t remember what fish I expected canard to be. I’d never eaten smoked salmon or duck before. Hundreds of francs wasted. I thought we’d hail the French equivalent of a Manhattan yellow taxi, but Parisian cabs only lay in wait on certain street corners, so we walked back to her apartment sightseeing and people-watching. At her studio she introduced me to the music of an Icelander named Björk. I’d waited all night for the dessert of Simone’s lips, and before falling asleep together, she served them up. They tasted like a French kiss on the steps of Versailles.
Simone made me laugh constantly; our time together always a sitcom. She was the most talented woman I’d ever dated at that point, and cute enough to get cast in a Kwamé video. What magnetized me the most was her artist’s life, her hustle, her self-actualization. She was my first artistic love, a reflection of what I started daring to see in myself. The next morning she had an appointment at a recording studio, singing on the demo of some French musicians. I stayed behind, folding open the wrought-iron shutters in her window frame to stare out onto the Asian Quarter. James Baldwin (I’d gone from never reading him at all to reading everything he’d ever written) once said, “Our crown has already been bought and paid for. All we have to do is wear it.” Many black American men my age never expected to live past 25. Both my hubris and my upbringing told me otherwise. Hands folded behind me, I stood in the sunlight of Simone’s window wearing my crown.
In the future, I’d become a lot more intimately familiar with the city, but in retrospect, Simone took me around to almost everything worth seeing in a week. A Louvre exhibit explored how ancient Egypt influenced Western art. We paid respects at the graves of artists who really didn’t mean all that much to me (Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust) and those who did (Richard Wright, Jim Morrison), walking the winding paths of Père Lachaise cemetery. We shot each other on camera climbing the iron stairway of the Eiffel Tower. The Notre Dame was closed for restoration, but the gothic Sacré-Cœur church gave us a solemn candlelit moment at the highest point in Paris one rainy night. And I braved the Métro by myself for the first time in search of Nutella crêpes, the Moulin Rouge, and New Morning, the site of my favorite Prince bootleg tape. I peered through the nightclub window with the strains of his June 15, 1987 aftershow ringing through my ears.
* * *
Like those Magic Eye posters so popular at precisely that moment in the ’90s, I could always pick out the 3D Prince significance from any 2D locale if I stared long enough. Night number seven, we saw a wack noir movie, Romeo Is Bleeding, on the Champs-Élysées and passed the Nova-Park Élysées luxury hotel on our way to the theater. I knew from Prince biographies that he stayed there in June 1985, holed up in a penthouse suite playing with new synthesizers while his management tried cajoling him into enjoying his first real trip to Paris. I once wrote something about all Prince’s lyrical references to Paris or France and topped out at almost 20. (By contrast, I can’t remember Michael Jackson, that stranger in Moscow, ever mentioning Paris.) Made-up utopias like Paisley Park and Uptown were central to Prince’s work, places where freedom reigns and anything goes — most of all dance, music, sex, and romance. Western history has forever promoted the French capital as a land of liberation, tolerance, equality, sex, and romance. This might account for his Paris obsession in songs like “Sign o’ the Times,” “Condition of the Heart,” “Cindy C,” “Sexy M.F.,” and others. What’s so funny, so typically workaholic Prince is that once he actually got to vacation in Paris, young and rich and famous enough to enjoy anything the city had to offer, he chose to stay in his hotel room playing keyboards.
By mid-August he was back — explaining to his girlfriend Susannah Melvoin why she wouldn’t be costarring in Under the Cherry Moon and proposing marriage in a suite at the Hôtel de Crillon. The beautiful ones celebrated for days at places I couldn’t afford with law school loan reimbursement checks: dinners at Maxim’s and La Tour d’Argent, partying at Le Palace. Soon he was off to Côte d’Azur to film a movie. He was 27.
There was no Prince on the night I gambled on going beyond kisses. We’d eaten earlier in the Marais district, at an LGBTQ-popular restaurant called Foufounes (French for Pussies). I’d almost given up on the would-be love affair. At home we split a bottle of wine and aired everything out. Off and on for over four years — through Broadway plays, Alvin Ailey dance shows, movies, dinners — I’d been chasing Simone whenever I was back from college. Even after I committed to someone else: the college sweetheart I’d already been with since the year we first met. Simone always put her dreams above settling down with anybody and I always refused to accept what she was saying.
“I just felt too much pressure to live up to your idea of who I am,” she confessed. Years passed before I saw the truth she kept trying to tell me in different ways. She also just wasn’t that into me, there was that too. Ego and my emotional learning curve made all of that hard to accept. But. On the night there was no Prince, there was Miles Davis and his 18-minute blues, “Star People.” I warmed a bottle of body oil on her electric stove and lay slick, massaging fingers all over her shoulders, back, arms, backside. Then she let me go further. Not completely further, but further. Saturday morning, we woke up spooning and laughed easily.
Years later in an erotica anthology entitled Wanderlust, I published a short story, “Irrésistible,” buffing up the ballad of Simone and Miles with a spritz of sentimental Krylon spray paint. I’d renamed her Solange way before Beyoncé became a thing, a name Simone loved, the name of her Martiniquan girlfriend’s mom. “Irrésistible,” like our affair, ended like this:
In my final moments in Paris at Charles de Gaulle, Solange and I stood at the gate holding hands silently. When my final call was announced, we both smiled. She kissed me twice on the cheeks before I boarded the plane. I turned back to look at her a final time—recalling Charlene’s tears when I left Spain months ago—but Solange had turned to walk away. I turned again and stepped onto the plane.
* * *
Color her peach and black: A pretty mademoiselle in a skintight dress shimmies in a crowd of nearly 20,000 screaming Parisians. The sister dances, excited as all hell, next to her flamboyant teenage cousin Luc. And Prince is onstage — spinning, doing splits, leaping off pianos through “Housequake,” “When Doves Cry,” and “The Cross.” “Hot Thing,” “Purple Rain,” and “1999.” Her very first concert is the Bercy stadium Sign o’ the Times Tour stop, and she’s having the time of her life. Some months down the line she’ll ask a friend to design a dress for her 18th birthday inspired by protégé Jill Jones in the “Mia Bocca” video. Her brown eyes, heavy-lidded like some French-Caribbean femme fatale, hardly blink during the hour and a half drummer Sheila E. bangs her skins and dancer Cat Glover jacks her body across stage and our hero takes guitar solo after guitar solo.
I wish I’d known Christine then; we’d never see Prince together live in concert. Two thousand miles away in the Bronx that day, I might’ve been registering for summer school to make up a math class. In the Year of Sign o’ the Times, I had no idea the woman I’d marry one day was shaking her fanny and screaming for my idol over in Europe while I was fighting my way out of high school with both fists.
“Yesterday I tried to write a novel,” Prince once sang (in 1982, on “Moonbeam Levels”), “but I didn’t know where to begin / So I laid down in the grass tryin’ to feel the world turn.” My stab in the same direction came in 1995, trying to write a novel of my own, at 24, while living in south London studying abroad. Don Draper’s French mom-in-law on Mad Men once dropped a quip about her daughter I’ve never forgotten: “This is what happens when you have the artistic temperament, but you’re not an artist.” I spent most of those months in my Tooting Bec flat proving to myself that my talent outweighed my artistic temperament; my novel was the result. Naturally I can’t bear to read it now, but I finished it, and the completion pulled me out the other side of something.
Law school, in retrospect, and even at the time, was a plan B. I skipped the bar exam by the end, graduating instead into the wave of cultural critics documenting the continuing movement of hip-hop into popular mainstream culture. Eventually there were books I was prouder of: a memoir told in essays about my upbringing in the Bronx; an examination of funk pioneer Sly Stone’s 1960s-hangover album, There’s a Riot Goin’ On. After Simone, I dated a few writers and editors, a wine sommelier, a yoga teacher. When “Irrésistible” got published, I left Simone a copy with the doorman of her Chelsea apartment building; I hadn’t seen her in two years. And by then I’d moved to France.
How else did I grow up after those first days in Paris? Like many of my favorite stories, this isn’t really about me, it’s about Prince. I’ll say this though. The year Prince divorced his second and final wife, Manuela Testolini, the Year of 3121 had I still been keeping track of such things, I married Christine — the mother of our Paris-born 1-year-old son — at the city hall of suburban Arcueil, France, in the spring of 2006. Christine: the Martiniquan girlfriend of Simone who’d picked me up in her red Fiat the fateful day of my first visit to her country. Our origin story as a couple belongs to another essay, from a less impressionable, far less wide-eyed time in my life. And our wedding song was Bebel Gilberto’s dreamy bossa nova, “Samba da Bênção” — not “Alexa de Paris.”
* * *
Miles Marshall Lewis is the Harlem-based author of Promise That You Will Sing About Me: The Power and Poetry of Kendrick Lamar (St. Martin’s Press), due next year. His essays, criticism and celebrity profiles have appeared in GQ, The New York Times, NPR and elsewhere.
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