One Hand on the Night
The night doesn’t have to end, even if it’s 4 a.m. and all roads lead to breakfast. New York nightlife has kept spots like Veselka in the East Village, or the late Empire Diner in Chelsea, hopping at all hours. A good night might begin and end in the same spot, with barely a nod to sunrise. Imagine a Parisian cafe of the ’50s, where the smoke never settles, red wine seems to flow from a Roman aqueduct, and Left Bankers gossip about Jean-Paul and Simone like Le TMZ. If you close your eyes you can hear bongos and watch Audrey Hepburn do splits over a couple of tables.
It’s easy to romanticize the expat literary life (even a Stanley Donen–directed version)—so easy that you forget how dreamy it must be for a Frenchman immersed in New York; even if the cafes are overrun by laptops and the cobblestones are usually restricted to landmarked blocks. Here, a classic bohemian night out involves a back table at the Bowery Poetry Club, with a curbside cigarette between readings by Taylor Mead and John Giorno, and a drink at El Quijote after a double feature at Film Forum. Outside the bar, 23rd Street is lit by the neon of Hotel Chelsea, where Leonard Cohen famously caroused, Dylan Thomas retired after his last drink, and a fateful curl of smoke nearly burned down Edie Sedgwick’s room. With a clearing of his throat Cohen conveys about Chelsea bohemia what Serge can gesture with a simple turn of the palm: Je ne sais quoi.
Marc Farre has that certain something. The singer-songwriter knows downtown New York like the backstreets of Paris—filled with surprises at every turn. And being of French extraction, he comes by his Gainsbourgian bona-fides naturellement. Possessing a gravelly voice with traces of art-house cinema, Farre handily conjures up images of Rive Gauche intellectuals, not to mention actual beatnik kicks like those Hepburn tossed off in Paris: As a young artist he managed the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and toured with John Cage (not to mention translating his liner notes). Over four records Farre has mixed downtown creative spark with classic folk songwriting, adding accomplished jazz guitar to his dark storytelling.
Farre’s recent One Hand on the Night (All Weather) packs plenty of Francophone aura into a four-song cycle, which breezes by before you can finish a smoke. Opener “A Waterfall” unfolds like a long establishing shot: Over escalating Spanish-inflected guitar hovers Farre’s wine-soaked voice, which implores, “Turn off the light, come greet the night.” He surges to “love, love, love, love,” before ending with a whispered, “Turn off the light.” Farre’s take on Gainsbourg’s circa-’67 “La Chanson du Forçat”—which itself sounds like pass-the-hat-era Dylan—is a smooth, jazz-inflected affair that exhibits his strong ear for melody and rhythm. Farre keeps his band at a simmer, as upright bass and his acoustic guitar balance his well-trained croon and a presence that Cohen would be proud of. “La Plaie et le Couteau” (“The Wound and the Knife”) adapts the Baudelaire poem “L’Héautontimorouménos” (“The Self-Torturer”), with low-register reading and enlivened acoustic shredding with minimal sweat. As a whole, the record encourages late-night drinking, bedroom activity, the launch of a literary magazine—all plans best executed under dim lights.
A reading of Farre’s repertoire shows he’s a night owl, and so “One Hand on the Night” is as much a credo as a title. During the long, dark-road meander of guitar and spare hand-drumming, Farre whispers of “driving lonely, across the state” with one hand on the wheel. It’s romantic, yes, and eerily reminiscent of another famed existentialist, night-driving Duane (Christopher Walken) in Annie Hall. One Hand on the Night follows the folk-gothic route of songs like “Harry…” (Secret Symphony, 2008), which escalate from a plucked mandolin to the discomfiting, “Harry screams at the sky and wipes the dirt from his eyes”; and “The Infinite Night,” where so much is displaced in darkness, from daylight to one’s mind. You never quite know what you’re in for, and it’s so easy to lose track of time.