Jack-Alain Léger: Writer and singer who worked under multiple guises
Tuesday 01 October 2013
As "Melmoth", Jack-Alain Léger was an award-winning singer-songwriter; as Paul Smaïl he wrote the scandalous "memoirs" of a young working-class Moroccan immigrant; as Dashiell Hedayat he was a furtive psychedelic rock star; and under his official name of Léger he penned the million-selling thriller Monsignore. He had many pseudonyms and disguises in his varied careers as a militant manic-depressive homosexual, public intellectual, prolific author, hippy music legend and bestseller hack, an unholy Gallic combination of Syd Barrett and Jeffrey Archer.
Adding a further frisson, Léger was also infamously suicidal, finally throwing himself out of his Parisian window at the age of 66, perhaps in hommage to that philosopher and fellow defenestrator Gilles Deleuze, whom he had known, as he had known everyone, forever. One of his best loved songs was entitled "Vous direz que je suis tombé" ("You say that I fell"), another begins with the first line "Je suis a la fenêtre" ("I am at the window") and Léger had often spoken of this possible suicide, to rejoin his mother in the same method of self-extinction.
To further complicate things, even Léger was not his real name, as he had been born Daniel Théron in 1947 in Paris, but was determined not to carry the name of his much-loathed father (who, in another twist, wrote literary criticism under the name Jean Bruèges). As a young man born into a family heritage of both manic depression and pseudonymous creativity, Léger began writing at 13 but first came to notice at a tender 21, under the guise of Melmoth, "one of the living dead who can never find tranquility", with his first album La devanture des ivresses ("The shop window of drunkenness") which won the prestigious Grand Prix de l'Académie Charles Cros award. That same year, 1969, the first novel by Melmoth appeared, published by the most modish house of that era, Christian Bourgois, and entitled Being.
Two years later he reappeared as the mystical hippy rocker Dashiell Hedayat, thickly moustached, leather-jacketed, eyes concealed behind dark shades, his name concocted from two of his heroes, Dashiell Hammett and the Persian writer Sadeq Hedayat. Few made the connection with the vanished cult-figure Melmoth, and Hedayat became a regular on TV as an exemplar of the French counter-culture rocker. He was backed by the ultra-acid mind-blowing ensemble Gong, and thanks to his close collaboration with them his album Obsolète is a highly collectable slice of vinyl, selling for up to €500, and was recently reissued as a repackaged CD.
It is a classic of that epoch, its lyrics a heady mélange of drugs, occultism and free-jazz poetics, all played out at interminable guitar-drone length. "Long Song For Zelda", for example, brings together Scott Fitzgerald's doomed wife with tarot cards, incense, fluttering candles in a mirrored bathroom and "des nuages d'héroïne", those clouds of heroin, "horse power, horse power". The album's biggest hit, "Chrysler", consists of Hedayat repeatedly calling out the name of the American car, along with its colour, "rose" (pink), over eight minutes of churning Gongism. Hedayat also published four books, not to mention translations of the verse of Leonard Cohen and Dylan, most notably the latter's slim volume Tarantula, in French for the first time.
But by now Léger himself had also appeared with a series of novels, beginning with Mon premier amour ("My First Love") and going on to glory with the unexpected bestseller Monsignore, a sort of parody detective tale published by the mainstream giant Laffont, which became a film starring Christopher Reeve. Léger continued to put out endless books, and was a master at provoking scandal then appearing on the major TV programmes to defend his latest outrage.
This began with Autoportrait au loup ("Self portrait as a wolf"), which revealed in detail his very extensive homosexuality, a subject that was to become one of his recurring leitmotifs, along with his severe bipolar melancholia, twin chat show staples over the decades. To spice things up with a little ethnic flavour Léger then reappeared as Paul Smaïl, supposedly a North African immigrant aged 30, whose memoirs Vivre me tue ("Living kills me") proved a great success, so much so that he followed it up with three more accounts of hard living in the ghetto.
Léger clearly knew well these young immigrant males, as had another of his heroes, Jean Genet, who had also lived and loved in this exotic milieu, and one of Léger's most controversial and courageous books came directly out of his experience in this demi-monde.
Tartuffe fait ramadan ("Tartuffe does Ramadan", 2003) was far from a simplistic denunciation of Islamism; rather, by comparing the religious hypocrisy and political cunning of Molière's villain with contemporary cowardice regarding the real truth of so much Islamic teaching, he bravely demanded that France reclaim its enlightenment values in the face of intolerance. Léger was not afraid to publicly state that he was an Islamophobe while also being a stout – in every sense – defender of gay rights, disenfranchised youth and feminist politics, having penned some of his best recent work under the female alias of Eva Saint Roch.
The tradition of multiple pseudonyms has been both highly avant-garde, as in Fernando Pessoa, and also notoriously lowbrow – as in those professional science-fiction and adventure pulp hacks. As a pamphleteer, provocateur, and preposterously productive writer, Jack-Alain Léger managed to bridge these literary worlds with his unique style and mordant honesty. "For me", as he would never fail to admit, "literature is a question of life or death."
Daniel Théron (Jack-Alain Léger), singer, composer, writer and performer: born Paris 5 June 1947; died Paris 17 July 2013.
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