Plastic Bertrand: World Scrabble Champion
Plastic Bertrand is not answering his email. I’m trying not to take it personally — maybe he’s on tour in Eastern Europe, playing “Ça plane pour moi” over and over for 40-somethings in Buda, or across the Danube, in Pest. Maybe he’s overwhelmed with interview requests. Maybe he just doesn’t check his MySpace page very often. Shame though – I really wanted to learn more about his “cellophane puppet” girlfriend, and where she got the “large rubber beer glass” mentioned in his 1977 punk/new wave crossover smash. Does he still have that magnificent rubber glass? Does he use it to quaff large quantities of Belgian ale? (Bertrand is one of Belgium’s finest one-hit punk rock exports).
In case you don’t speak French – or in case you do but can’t make heads or tails of those jackhammer lyrics, an English translation is in order:
Allez-oop! One morning
a darling came to my home,
a cellophane puppet with Chinese hair,
a plaster, a hangover,
drank my beer in a large rubber glass
like an Indian in his igloo
There’s more I want to know about Plastic Bertrand. For example, his MySpace profile notes that he’s a proud parent, but also that he’s most inspired by Abba and The Damned (he was even in a musical for children inspired by Abba songs in the early 80’s, called “Abracadabra.”) Are his children confused, or proud? He answers Yes/Yes to smoking and drinking, and says he had a minor hit once upon a time with a song about his nose, cryptically entitled “Mon Nez, Mon Nez,” the lyrics to which translate as:
My nose, my nose, my nose
You astonish me What does it have my nose?
My nose, my nose, my nose You talk cock?
What does it have my nose? [A-ha, aha-ha!]
To be sure, Bertrand is a complex cat. I’m thinking Walt Whitman here: “I am large – I contain multitudes.” But mostly I want to know what it’s like for his kids to wake up in the morning to find their dad in the living room doing this:
Do they beam with pride, happy to be genetic heirs on the new wave continuum? Or do they tire of listening to The Damned in the car on the way to school? And what of “My cat Splash?”
Wham! Bam! my cat Splash
lies on my bed with his tongue puffed out
by drinking all my whisky.
As for me, not enough sleep, drained, persecuted,
I had to sleep in the gutter
where I had a flash
in four colours
No doubt poor Splash has long since passed – it has after all been 30 years (!) since “Ça plane” made punk safe for the kiddies. But what about this persecution business? What exactly was Bertrand persecuted for — overuse of flying geometric shapes in music video? Why does the front door of his official web site look so promising but not lead to anything but a pair of PDF resumes? Why did MTV declare him the “most wanted comeback artist” 20 years after the release of “Ça plane”? So many mysteries! I was hoping for a fireside iChat with Le Grand Plastique. But dude doesn’t answer his email.
The genius of “Ça plane” is that it’s got a hook so hooky it’s guaranteed to inflict permanent Ohrwurm on anyone who hears it.* As a result, “Ça plane” has been covered to death — people who don’t speak French seem to have little trouble singing it. Sonic Youth, Presidents of the USA, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and countless bar bands have offered their take on the unforgettable hook, though I confess they all sound eerily similar. The Headcoatees‘ version brings a much-needed feminine touch, though I use that term with qualification – Holly Golightly ain’t exactly Carole King. The song even inspired a country punk version by T-PED & The Bosshoss. A karaoke version, ready for high-energy parties where all the guests wear pink jackets with a ton of non-functional zippers, can be yours for two thin Euros. I’m having inexplicable difficulty tracking down a ukulele cover of the track, though there must be dozens of them out there, somewhere. Bertrand would know… if only I could reach him. Sigh.
To be fair, “Ça plane” wasn’t the only song Bertrand ever wrote. But it was, sadly, the only good one. The rest of Bertrand’s recorded output seems to be so embarrassingly / painful that one’s conception of just how far from grace a formerly inventive musician can fall is permanently altered.
But more than anything, I wanted to know about Plastic’s obsession with Scrabble – according to his MySpace profile, Bertrand once narrowly defeated the World Scrabble Champion. Is that how Bertrand came to be known as “King of the Divan?” Or does it go deeper than that? Is Scrabble the key to understanding “Ça plane’s” lyrical brilliance? Are the words to the song a straight reading from a well-played Scrabble board? So much I need to know. If only Plastic Bertrand would answer his email.
* If afflicted with the Ca Plane earworm, consult your physician – medications for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder can allegedly alleviate the symptoms of chronic Ohrwurm.