excerpt > Régnier and Browning > Imre Lodbrog
I said, “I was thinking about the appeal of your music and I think it’s that you sound like an actor playing the role of an aging rock star, which is precisely the appeal of Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, not to mention Serge Gainsbourg and Léo Ferré.” I also could have mentioned Iggy Pop. Imre once told me that he’d played my ukulele cover of one of his own songs for a well-known musical friend of his whose opinion he valued, and this person had expressed enthusiasm. I felt quite certain that he was talking about Iggy Pop. It seemed so likely that they’d be friends.
Should I tell you how I came to know Imre? He actually stalked me first. I have a little habit of posting these ukulele cover tunes online. Habit is perhaps an understatement. I’ve posted something like four hundred of them. I don’t do it to seek recognition as a musician – quite frankly, my skills are minimal – like my arrangements. I generally make these covers as small gifts for people, and I float them there in the ether of the Internet. Sometimes I post one without any particular intended recipient, just as a sort of message in a bottle. There are quite a few bobbing around out there like that. One day I noticed that some character had begun leaving short, enigmatic comments on my tracks. There was one, a banal little pop song that made reference to trying to “keep Paris on my mind,” and Imre had quietly left a note there saying that I was on Paris’s mind, “je vous assure.” I thought that was sweet. I clicked on his tiny icon and it blew up to reveal a somewhat craggy, wizened face, strategically obscured by a pair of rock star shades:
I played one of his tracks, and then another. Oops. I’d fallen down the rabbit hole. Like me, he seemed to be a little terrifyingly productive. But in his case, the proliferating tracks were all originals (ranging in style from ska to psychobilly) , and in fact it was precisely their originality that was so dizzying. Most of the lyrics were in French, some in a quirky Franglais – all teeming with clever wordplay that didn’t diminish their bleak emotional force – or occasional political bite. His voice was low and scratchy, and sometimes he’d double it with a weird, tremulous falsetto that gave you the impression of a blurry photo. It was very appealing. He played rhythm guitar, and evidently slide as well (no other musicians were credited). The drums sounded canned, but he’d programmed in some comical breaks that made you imagine a big hairy gorilla wielding the sticks. In sum – both his sound and his words were an inscrutable mix of humor, incisive intelligence – and something very sad.
I’d obviously struck a goldmine.
And then there was that name. Somebody had to have made that up. The most obvious conclusion to draw was that he was a character invented by my friend, the novelist Harry Mathews. And in fact Harry had told me he was working on a new novel, so that seemed all the more plausible – but when I asked him outright if he was responsible for Lodbrog, he denied it. Of course he could be lying – that’s happened before – but he seemed so genuinely mystified by my question. Also, he hardly could have concocted that enormous treasure trove of songs… The second most likely scenario was that I’d imagined Imre Lodbrog myself, but in fact I knew that not to be the case. Still, the name definitely looked like something I could have made up, or, to be honest, something I could have pilfered from an online anagram generator I use with some regularity. Just to see what it might have been derived from, I ran it back through said generator, and retrieved:
all of which seemed weirdly appropriate.
Then, of course, I did the obvious thing: I Googled him. It just led me back to where I’d come from: his own musical tracks, posted up on the same vaporous cloud where he’d found me – and a few YouTube videos as well, where he certainly looked like an aging rock star. Why wasn’t he more famous? The guy was clearly a genius. Harry agreed that he was “terrific.” One of the YouTube videos purported to be a “studio session” of the “Lodbrog Bros.” filmed in Barcelona. They were playing what appeared to be their hit single, “60 Piges.” Four handsome, craggy guys nonchalantly stumbling through a tune about turning sixty – which seemed to be roughly their own vintage. I sent the link of this video to my best friend, saying, “This is my new stalker.” She said, “Cute. Where do we meet them? I want the one in the chair with the towel on his head.” I said, “Imre seems to live in Paris, but I hate to break it to you, I don’t think those are his brothers. I think they’re all Imre.” It took me a minute to figure this out myself, but the resemblance was just too uncanny. It seems he knew how to use a green screen.
When I reported this conversation to Imre, I said, “If I’m wrong, tell your brother not to get too excited. My best friend is married to a handsome movie star, and besides, she’s not really a risk-taker. I think she was joking.” He gave no indication of disappointment. He also neither denied nor confirmed the fictional status of the “Lodbrog Bros.”
There are lots of things I mention or ask in my emails to which Imre doesn’t respond. At first, when I asked him who the hell he was, he responded that it was a long story, perhaps best told by a fire with a good bottle of Vouvray. He did confess to having made up his own name, and told me that Lodbrog was a famous Viking. I’d already figured that out from my Google search, but Imre added an interesting fact that wasn’t on the Lodbrog Wikipedia page: his namesake had died in a pit of vipers. Perhaps you find it an exaggeration to call Imre my stalker. After all, a lot of people leave comments on the things we all post online. The technical term for someone who asks to be alerted to your posts is a “follower”. Imre was following me, and once I figured out how interesting his music was, I began following him as well. I don’t follow everyone who follows me. But if somebody starts stalking me, I tend to stalk them back with a vengeance.
The turning point was when I logged on one day and saw he’d posted a new track with the brief and curious title, “Browning.” Needless to say, I clicked on it. Most people associate my name with the poet – or one of the poets, either Elizabeth Barrett or Robert. I’m not sure anybody else has ever associated my last name with the gun manufacturer, but Imre had. He called me a “killer.” I liked it. Another French guy left a little comment calling Imre an “old fox,” and asking, “did she listen to your song?” Imre just said, “Who?”
That was cute.
I decided to avenge myself. I whipped off a cover of one of Imre’s songs, one with evidently anti-capitalist content. I tried to reproduce a bit of the dark cynicism of the original. I posted it without commentary. Imre left a note indicating that he was disoriented. I told him when one felt lost it was always a good idea to go left. Of course I meant this in the political sense. I was pretty sure we were on the same side. It wasn’t long before we were working in collusion.
He suggested a duet on the classic theme of Beauty and the Beast. Imre is something of a classicist. I saw his duet and I raised him one. I suggested we consider taking our show on the road. I proposed an Eastern European tour in the spring. I told him I had a connection in Latvia. This was true. He said he had one in Lithuania. I felt things were coming together nicely. But before that, as a first step, I proposed we do a show here in New York. I made the invitation on a lark, of course. He responded by saying something like, “It won’t surprise you to learn that I am penniless, but my son works for Air France, so it’s easy enough for me to hop on a plane.”
Suddenly I was faced with the reality of Imre Lodbrog as a houseguest. I shrugged and asked the rhetorical question, “Imre, how bad can you be?” He didn’t seem to understand that the question was rhetorical, so he began to answer it, circumspectly. He said something about not telling me where he was in 1992. I hazarded a guess that it was prison. He seemed impressed by my detective skills.
How, you may be wondering, did I get us our first gig? Well, this first one fairly fell into our laps. Two artist friends of mine, Courtney Smith and Ivan Navarro, had been given a residency at a gallery in lower Manhattan, the Hôtel Particulier. They’d opted to curate a series of performances on top of a sculptural installation that Smith would design. It would have several functions in the course of their residency – as an occasional platform for other objects being exhibited and sold in the gallery, as a stage for live performances, and as a table for a madcap, surreal meal that would be orchestrated one evening by a food artist. It was also, of course, a work in its own right, in Smith’s vein of raw and yet whimsical, citational carpentry. This sculpture was to be illuminated by Navarro’s own sculptural configurations of neon bulbs. For some reason, they thought it might be interesting for me to do something involving my ukulele cover tunes, or possibly the reading of a text, on that platform. When they approached me about the possibility, a little lightbulb went off over my head. Actually, it was more like a very big lightbulb, one of Ivan’s massive glowing neon tubes. I said, “I don’t suppose you’d be interested in a collaborative performance with my French stalker?” Courtney, being francophone, and also one of my closest friends, was already familiar with “Browning,” a song that she – like me – had deemed an instant classic. She and Ivan green-lighted my crackpot scheme, no hesitation.
Of course, their risk was minimal, there being no expense involved (thank you, Air France). In fact, a Chilean pisco manufacturer had offered to provide free booze. The only person taking a real gamble was me, offering this Lodbrog character my guest bed. Well, of course it was also pretty reckless of him to accept my invitation, which promised no fiscal compensation whatsoever. That part didn’t seem to faze him. He did register a little bewilderment, though it wasn’t clear whose welfare concerned him – his or mine. He said, “Are you sure?” I said, “Imre, throw caution to the wind.” He seemed to like that phrase. Imre likes English colloquialisms. I later sent him a link to a webpage that gives an astonishing number of slang expressions for female masturbation. He promptly arranged them into the lyrics of a song.
But back to our gig. My idea was to begin the evening with a short literary segment, and then move to a musical performance of some songs we’d been working on together, all of Imre’s composition. I like to work right at the border between fiction and nonfiction, and I thought it might be good to factually document the origins of this evidently fictional character who, never the less, was creating real music.
He did, quickly and willingly, offer up his real name, Sébastien Régnier. It took less than a minute to figure out that he was a French scènariste, evidently a greater succès d’éstime than in the box office. I lied and said that although I’d Googled Lodbrog, if he thought I was going to research Régnier he had another thing coming. I was pretty sure he wouldn’t believe me. It was just a minor, friendly retaliation for his own disinclination to figure out who the hell I was.
That’s not to say he appeared disinterested – just old-fashioned. He seemed to have accepted that Google, Wikipedia, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and SoundCloud were perhaps necessary evils in the process of contemporary art making, but if he were giving or getting dirt on his own or somebody else’s life history, it seems he wanted it delivered over that bottle of Vouvray, or between hits of weed. That wasn’t just a question of style. It was becoming clear that despite his hard-ass photo, Imre was the sensitive type. He liked his reality slightly softened, whether by liquid or smoke. He also mentioned a sweet tooth. I made a mental note of all this. There were a few things I’d obviously need to stock up on in preparation for his visit.
And then there was another whole level of preparation: in the three or four short weeks we had before his arrival, he began assigning me homework – books to read, films to watch, YouTube links to both Franco- and Anglophone songs he thought I should be familiar with. Why the books and films? At first it seemed because they were thematically linked to the compositions he was proposing to me for our repertoire, but pretty soon, when he saw that I was game, it appeared he just wanted to share some things with me that he loved.
The first novel he insisted I read was Victor Hugo’s L’Homme qui rit. The book was weird – and long. About seven hundred pages. I read it in a few days. It told the story of the love between a disfigured young man and a blind girl. Their protector was an irascible old mountebank with a pet wolf. For a while the young man got sidetracked by a spoiled, seductive duchess who found him fascinating despite, or perhaps because of, his disfigurement. I wondered if this was supposed to be some kind of allegory for us. I asked if I was supposed to identify with the blind girl, the spoiled duchess, or the wolf. Imre said all three. This would seem to suggest that he was an amalgam of the hideously deformed youth and the irascible old traveling huckster.
There was something unusual about the style and tempo of this book. I told Imre, “j’aime les phrases courtes de hugo.” He answered, “J’aime les phrases courtes de Hugo et les longs mails de toi.” I love Hugo’s short sentences and your long emails. In point of fact, the message he was referring to wasn’t long at all, at least for me. I’m a bit notorious for my electronic correspondence, which I sometimes pilfer for my fiction. I wrote back, “hm, tu trouves ça long?” – you find that long? – “i’m a monster, imre, one critic called me the d.h. lawrence of the email. i’m not sure if you realize what you’ve gotten yourself into.” This didn’t seem to scare him, particularly.
But back to real literature. There was more. Imre wrote me about his love of Cervantes (comparing himself to the hero of his masterpiece – I told him I’d just made this very connection myself in trying to describe him to a friend), and also Calderón’s La vida es sueño. These I knew well. But there was one other book he insisted I had to read. It was the compiled journals and wartime correspondence of Etty Hillesum, a Jewish woman from the Netherlands who chronicled the German occupation. She was just twenty-nine when she died at Auschwitz. Imre said he deeply loved this book and he’d even gone so far as to join some sort of “Society of the Friends of Etty Hillesum” in order to remain abreast of any activities or publications concerning her. It’s true that the book was immensely moving. At first I thought maybe he’d suggested it to me because Hillesum, like me, was something of a sensualist, and prone to passionate defenses of women’s sexual independence. I also tend to pontificate on the subject. Of course, given the historical circumstances under which Hillesum was writing, she addressed other questions of freedom as well. But it was impressive how often she came back to the importance of taking pleasure – and not just sexual pleasure, though that was part of it. She also really loved tastes, colors, smells – and people’s hands. And art. She could get very passionate about art. Now, on reflection, I can see the absurd vanity of thinking that I had reminded him of Hillesum. The context of horror in which her journals had been written was of an almost unimaginable dimension. Later, when I met Imre’s mother, I realized that Etty had probably reminded him of her. She’d passed through that same horror with the same astonishing embrace of life.
In response to Imre’s varied bibliographic assignments, I offered him, perhaps solipsistically, a single text: my own first novel. I could make various excuses for this on the basis of resonances with the books I’ve already mentioned, but the truth is, I wanted Imre to be fully aware of my modus operandi. My book recounted an amorous relationship with an artist, who was somewhat confusingly described at different moments as female, male, Malian, Israeli, 68, and 23. Well, obviously one person can’t be all those things at once, but it amounted to a fairly accurate depiction of my affective and erotic history – and also my approach to narrating the events of my life and those around me. That is, as a writer, I tend to turn “reality” into a self-revealing semi-fiction which I announce as such. I always ask permission if I drag somebody into this process. Since Imre already appeared to be semi-fictional, I thought he might be up for this kind of experiment.
He told me he’d started my book and found it lively, but he had to put it down pretty quickly. It seemed some of the personal revelations were coming at him a little faster and more furiously than he was comfortable with. That was okay. I figured he’d get around to it eventually. I registered his sensitivity in relation to the facts of life.
Actually, when I’d told that friend of mine that Imre reminded me of Don Quixote, I was referring to my impression that he was somebody who was somewhat more comfortable living in a realm of fantastic tales than in what most people would designate the “real world.” I wasn’t talking about his physical type. And yet when I met him in person, I was struck by his resemblance to the actor Jean Rochefort in Terry Gilliam’s famously aborted attempt to make a film version of Cervantes’ novel. At other moments he bore an uncanny resemblance to John Neville as he appeared in Gilliam’s “Adventures of Baron Munchausen.” It perhaps goes without saying that Gilliam would seem to be attracted to a certain type, and Imre fits the bill: dignified, poignant, and a little the worse for wear. Also, like Neville in the role of Munchausen, he’s something of a shape-shifter – particularly in regard to his apparent age.
He’d told me about that before we met. I’d seen that photograph of his online, in which his grizzled and craggy qualities were evident, but he was referring to something else. One of his other videos on YouTube cross-faded eerily and fleetingly between images of him shrouded in the regular Lodbrog armor (fedora, rocker shades, leather jacket) and him denuded – no armor at all. His willingness to shed momentary light on his bare pate and naked shoulders made him appear, well, as I just said, dignified, poignant, and a little the worse for wear. But Imre wanted to make absolutely sure I got the picture before he arrived. He wrote me a couple of days before coming, saying that he’d caught a glimpse of himself in a window on a train and he was so struck by his own image that he took a photograph.
He said it wasn’t vanity at all that made him take the shot. On the contrary. He thought I should know that he looked pretty worn out, and older than his calendar years. He indicated that the last decade or so had been pretty trying. He didn’t say what had happened, but it evidently hadn’t been a walk in the park. He was also pretty clear about his material situation. The Air France freebie situation notwithstanding, Imre was basically skint, ass-out, on stamps. But he said he’d indulged in a little something for his travels. He’d bought a cheap suitcase on wheels at a Chinese import store in Paris – “green, the color of hope.” He didn’t say what he was hoping for.
Barbara Browning is the author of The Gift (or Techniques of the Body), The Correspondence Artist and I’m Trying to Reach You. She earned a PhD in comparative literature at Yale and teaches in the Department of Performance Studies at NYU. Sébastien Régnier is a French song and screenwriter and winner of the French Grand Prize for Best Screenplay for Kabloonak. Learn more about Imre Lodbrog.
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