ROCK / The crooner in lavender: RIP Helno, singer with Les Negresses Vertes. Philip Sweeney pays tribute

HELNO Rota's death was like his life: a blend of rock 'n' roll recklessness and suburban banality.

Two weeks ago the singer with Les Negresses Vertes was found dead in bed in the room he'd occupied since childhood in his mother's flat in a poor quarter of northern Paris. He used quite of lot of drugs, not least alcohol, and still went home to his mother's as much as anywhere else to crash out, though with the substantial sums of money his group had been making lately, he was on the point of buying a house. He'd left behind his blue mobylette the previous night and had been dropped off after a Negresses Vertes concert by his fellow member and co- songwriter Matias Canavese.

Les Negresses Vertes are one of France's most successful musical exports of the last decade, and Helno was a central part of their recipe. Off stage a slight, pallid, snaggle-toothed and rumpled figure, his performing persona acquired a quizzical leer and a befuddled but expressive body vocabulary which came close to charisma.

Helno was self-taught musically, as are all the Negresses Vertes. Years of hanging around the streets of Les Halles doing nothing much but drugs led, in 1985, to Helno's entree to showbiz at its most alternative - in the form of employment as a roadie / backing singer in the quasi-punk band Les Beruriers Noirs, which he left the following year when Les Negresses Vertes coalesced.

The Negresses (their name 'Green Negresses' came from an insult by a yob at a provinicial dance) cleverly embodied many of the bubbling sub-strands of Eighties French urban culture - music from Andalucia and North Africa, old rock 'n' roll, flea-market dandy clothes - and, by including another retro ingredient, a bouquet garni of Parisian chanson qualities, they came to represent a sort of new exotic French-ness to the outside world, from Vogue art editors to teenage ravers.

Helno's role was by no means confimed to his lavender drape- suited, apache-crooner image. As chief lyricist, his punning, slang- riddled, black-humorous ditties enabled the Negresses to place themselves in the modern chanson realiste school, echoing Aristide Bruant's similar tales of low-life from a century before. Helno often composed out loud while on his bike, he said. Zobi La Mouche, the Negresses' first hit, was based on an obscene phrase (French obscene, therefore milder than British) from his childhood.

I sat next to Helno on a plane to Beirut for a concert a year before his death. I wish I could say I'd penetrated his shy, indirect exterior. Helno dozed with a cigarette in one hand and a Bloody Mary in the other most of the way. 'I like Bloody Marys for flying,' he remarked at one point, 'it's good because it's, er . . . bloody'. He was at pains to explain his name as printed on Negresses' LP sleeves: 'It's just a name I use for the stage.' Helno Rota de Lourcqua - Helno: his given name Noel in reverse. Rota: his genuine family name. Lourcqua: from the rue de l'Ourcq, the run-down canal-side 19th arrondissement estate he still primarily frequented in Paris. His stated raison d'etre was to party ('Les Negresses Vertes, c'est la fete, quoi') and he excelled as a party centrepiece, celebrating after the concert that particular weekend on a table top at 4am by belly-dancing in competition with a Lebanese socialite. The other members of the group, professionals despite the high spirits, looked after him a little like a lost sheep, and clearly treasured him. He was not larger than life, or even really very full of life, but his life was of singular character.

(Photograph omitted)

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