Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Show Me Pain, Johnny

Girl meets boy. Boy reaches only up to girl's shoulders. Girl fancies boy nonetheless. She invites him into her room and says: "Come on, my wolf!"

"Show me pain, Johnny Johnny Johnny,
Send me to the sky, Zouuum!
Show me pain, Johnny Johnny Johnny,
I like loving that goes 'boom'."

The little ballad that opens thus was written in 1956 by French novelist, jazzcat and general rascal Boris Vian, and sung by prolific actress and chanteuse Magali Noël. It goes from the erotic to the goofy to the just plain disastrous. poor johnny sits on the bed, stripped down to his colorful, striped socks. He doesn't know what to make of the advances. "I've never hurt a fly," he explains.

"I'm not a fly," the temptress laughs, already a bit annoyed, "Bzzzz."

She then tries to get him to join in her game by slapping and verbally abusing him. Johnny gets offended. He kicks her with his colorful-striped-sock-clad foot (not precisely what she meant by "pain"), then runs away. "Good grief, I'm getting sick of this," sighs the bruised belle at the end.

"Fais moi mal, Johnny" was a favourite song of my long lost Turkish friend Emine. I remember her using my hat for cabaret pizazz as she sang it while we walked on the street late one night. We were in Rome, it was her birthday, and the alleyways around Campo Di Fiori were her stage. a memorable moment? perhaps, I still managed to forget the song, until Theo brought it up before leaving town. We searched for it on Youtube and discovered a small loot.

It turns out that two groups of young people made amateur "Johnny" clips. They have a lot in common. Both groups applied a simple narrative approach, both shot in black and white. In both cases the participants seemed to have a great time. S&M misunderstandings make for a fun shoot.

There are differences though. this clip emphasizes the comical and treats details mentioned in the lyrics with great care. This other one emphasizes the erotic. The ambiance ends up being quite different in each.


I took a pause before adding the political perspective to this post. when sex is the issue, politics should be left seperate so as not to spoil the fun.

Vian's work was seen as very "American" in France while it was made. In reality, 1956 McCarthyist America could never tolerate "Johnny" (see under Lenny Bruce). Even in 2007 there's little chance such a song could get radio play there. Another famous song of his, "The Deserter" is so daring an anti-war ballad not even Bob Dylan would dare write anything similar.

Vian's was a peddler of an American fantasy. His successor in this is Serge Gainsbourg. Both loved American Pop Culture yet knew full well that they owe their success to the gutsyness of French culture. There may be a hint of this in "Johnny". There, the consevative male protagonist, with his English name, confuses and frustrates his sexy French partener.

Vian's last words were uttered in a cinema where the filmed version of his book "I Spit on Your Graves" was shown. He didn't like how the filmmakers treated the work, an unyildingly tawdry novel of the American South. "These guys think they're American? My Ass!" he yelled, then suffered a fatal heart attack.

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