Grand Corps Malade – 3ieme Temps

Grand Corps Malade (Tall Sick Body) is a star in France. He performs his poems in packed concert halls. He is interviewed on the TV talk shows. He’s on the cover of the teen magazines. It is as though Martin Amis’ story of the parallel universe in which poets pull down multi-million dollar contracts for each new sonnet while screenwriters eke out livings as busboys and house-cleaners, has been realized in the City of Light instead of Tinseltown.  

GCM’s third album 3ieme Temps came out late last year on Universal records. Like the previous two, Midi vingt which came out in 2006 and  Enfant de la ville from 2008,  3ieme Temps sold like petits pains chauds  and went briefly to number three on the French top ten.

There is no real equivalent of GCM’s popularity in North America. Certainly Slam Nation and poets like Sekou Sundiata have gained a small crossover following, but no poet has become a mega-star, making hit after hit, selling hundreds of thousands of discs. Perhaps the last poet to achieve that status in North America was Vachel Lindsay, who throughout the 1920’s is reputed to have filled stadiums with people clamoring to hear his verses.  

GCM came out of the French slam scene. Performing his first poems in 2003 in the clubs of St. Denis on the periphery of Paris, his work still remains close to a slam esthetic. The poems on 3ieme temps are no longer than four and half minutes; many come in around the standard three minutes mark. They mostly have strong narrative, and some speak to contemporary social issues like racism, poverty, or the failings of the French educational system; but mostly the poems on 3ieme temps talk of GCM himself.

GCM starts off the disk with a poem written on the first day of the year,  “1er janvier 2010”, in which he looks back over the last couple of years with the hundreds of performances, the TV interviews, and the slams in schools and prisons. The years of adulation seem to have had an effect.  In the three minutes and twenty-five seconds he takes to tell us that his true place in the world is on stage, he refers to himself 61 times. This is once every three and a half seconds. This self-reference could perhaps be forgiven, in a single poem, but throughout the disc there are seven poems that are hymns to GCM’s narcissism. 

We learn of his feelings for his unborn children, his experience at grade school, his trip to Montreal, his relationship with his taxi-driver, his difficulty in waking up in the morning and his creative doubts. This self-reflection occasionally works well enough. In the poem “Définitivement” (Definitely), GCM speaks to his unborn child, still in its mother’s womb with three months to go. The sentiment is thick as we learn that GCM dreams of changing the kid’s diapers, have buying the kid’s first jeans and of sharing secrets together. The power of the schmaltz is amplified by the lyric acoustic piano of Dorothée Daniel.

In all these pieces, GCM speaks quickly and precisely with a mellifluous baritone. His Parisian is accented with hints of the south. He has a beautiful voice. The texts are delivered flawlessly, with some hapless sound technician removing all his inhalations to make the whole disc into a seamless uninterrupted flow. This is a problem.  The performances have a limited dynamic range. GCM never raises his voice, never whispers and almost never pauses. There is the only a rare use of electronic effect on the voice. Overall this gives the impression of a ceaseless unstoppable flow of verbiage. After the fourth of fifth poem the verses and the images blur together and lose their force.

GCM does best when he’s not talking about himself, and his re-telling of Romeo and Juliet, “Roméo Kiffe Juliet” works. On his site, www.grandcorpsmalade.com, you can watch the video. In it, his recitation is inter-cut between two young and beautiful dancers, doing their moves and breaks as the star-crossed lovers. In this reprise of the story they are Jew and Muslim living in the projects outside Paris. They avoid the tragic finale, pledging themselves to life and love rather than suicide. 

In this piece he mixes his experience of virulent French racism, the crushing poverty and social exclusions of the Parisian housing projects with his general optimism in the power of love and human will to conquer adversity. In the video of the piece, GCM walks slowly out onto the stage. He carefully places each foot using his cane to assure his stability. In 1997, he broke his spine diving into a pool. His doctors said that he’d never walk again. After two years he proved them wrong. 

In the penultimate couplet in the last poem on the disc “L’heure d’été” he says:

Vivant pour sentir le soleil,  la nuit tomb de plus en plus tard
Et y’a de la lumiére de plus en plus longtemps dans nos espoirs
C’est vrai qu’on passe l’hiver à donner des grands coups d’épée
Dorénavant la route est claire, on est passé à l’heure d’été.

(Alive to feel the sun, the night falls later and later
There’s more and more light in our hopes
It’s true we pass the winter grandly waving our swords
From now on the road is clear, we have passed into summer time)

Perhaps this optimism is the key to his success in France.

We all need a bit of summertime, and the weather reports these days are mostly unusual and scary. Why not believe that things could get better, if we only had the will and the strength?  Certainly,  GCM’s project shows us what can be done in a single life to transform its circumstance. It remains to be seen how we can do the same for the culture as a whole.  

“L’heure d’été” concludes with a musical quote from Gershwin:

Then you’ll spread your wings and you’ll take to the sky
But till that morning there’s nothing can harm you
with daddy and mommy standing by.

If only…