Eric Satie's self-conscious modernity, the jokey, cutting edge to his music, is all but lost on us these days. The Gymnopedies, once reckoned the work of a bit of a harmonic rebel, are now found wistfully accompanying advertisements for loo paper on television; the ballet Parade, whose gunshot-and-typewriter music scandalised Paris during the Great War, is gaily scheduled in children's matinees (next month at the Proms, to be precise). That such works were the product of a radical, profoundly ironic aesthetic is forgotten. Why had he called those pieces of his Morceaux en forme de poire? Debussy one day asked Satie. "Simply, mon cher ami," Satie replied, stung by an old criticism that his music lacked shape, "because if they are en forme de poire they cannot be shapeless". Jokes were the one thing Satie ever took seriously, recalled one of his friends; they were the key to his art.
Debussy, prescient as ever, played an essential role in Satie's professional life. Taking his place among the anarchists and alchemists surrounding Satie's piano in the Montmartre cafes of his "troubadour" years, he was an early adopter. The dynamic of their relationship - Satie, the drop- out from the Paris Conservatoire, Debussy, the grand innovateur - is glimpsed in a story told by the conductor Gustave Doret. "Come on," said Debussy to the younger composer when he heard Satie stumble through his own Gymnopedies on the piano: "I'll show you what your music really sounds like". Only by the magical touch of The Master, we understand, could the heart of Satie's compositions be laid bare.
Condescending and apocryphal though it sounds, the anecdote tells a solid truth. Without Debussy and his kind, Satie might have remained for ever in cafe obscurity, playing the piano for such men as "Dynamite" Victor Fumet and Contamine de Latour alias "Lord Cheminot", but making no great splash thereby. As it is, those early companions, small arms in the battle of the arts, give way fairly rapidly in these memoirs to modernity's big guns: Debussy, Ravel, Cocteau, Picasso. The sculptor Brancusi, whose radical simplicity of style matched Satie's own, cooked chicken for the composer in his kiln. The poet Blaise Cendrars strolled the boulevards with his eccentric new friend, and marveled at his appetite for shirt collars (Satie came out of one shop with a gross). Suddenly, it seemed, the shy musician's idiosyncracies chimed with the tenets of the modern men: Satie was "discovered".
His trademark oddness, however, masked a now evident private distress. "Closes door on world outside", comments this book's chronology for 1898, the year Satie moved to the suburb of Arcueil, leaving behind him a single failed love affair in Montmartre and the room he called his "cupboard". For the rest of his life, another 30 years, no person - not a neighbour, caretaker, relative or friend - penetrated Satie's home.
After his death from cirrhosis of the liver in 1925, he was found to have lived in an "unbelievable slum"; one of his friends was obliged to sweep "numerous lumps of excrement" from the floor to protect the sensitivities of the composer's family. He had lived with a few paintings, some books, a mattress and two grand pianos - one placed on top of the other, the higher of the two serving as repository for unwanted mail.
How, under such circumstances, Satie emerged to fashion for himself a coherent musical persona is a question this book, however entertaining, can't answer. The one man in whom Satie confided, we are told, was Debussy, but he, tragically, left no testimony of their relationship, and Satie's most eloquent spokesman, it's generally recognised, came from a later generation. In the attention Satie paid to sheer sound in his music - the very concept of "furniture music", the gunshot in Parade - the great experimentalist John Cage discovered the germ of revolution. Satie, Cage believed and proselytized, was music's great "new beginning" after Beethoven. "He despised art", the American wrote in stunned admiration: "He was going nowhere".