There is nothing more confusing to a late teenager than to be told by someone of the same age that you have no true identity.
At eighteen, already troubled by not knowing very much about my biological father and starting a career I disliked in order to please my surrogate father for reasons explained in previous posts of this Blog, the last thing I needed was the friendship of an intense philosophy student seeped in Jean Paul Sartre who claimed to be an existentialist ...
My new friend lived close to my grandmother’s where I was staying while suffering an apprenticeship as a pork-butcher in Pau, South West France. When we were introduced, he saw me as a lost soul wandering aimlessly in the desert of life and insisted I delve into the realms of Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Nietsche and Camus to put things right. Understanding only half of what I read I, however, drew from the heavy duty ideologies the fact that life was too short for argument and that I should commit to what mattered to me.
What mattered to me ? The need for an identity.
Where would I find one ? Obviously the theatre where, as an actor, I would be cast in the parts of ready made identities..
I looked for an amateur drama group, there were none in Pau, but someone pointed me in the direction of the Casino Municipal complex where there was a theatre.
The theatre management were not a bit interested in me, but I was not dismayed for it suddenly dawned on me that I had an identity. As a self aware individual reflecting on my own existence and needing to find a destiny and purpose in life I was ......an existentialist. Problem solved!
Deciding on a drink to celebrate, I sauntered into ‘Le Brummel’ the casino’s cosy little night club where a five piece band played to smooching couples. I could, I suppose, have been drawn to the roulette tables and become an addicted gambler like my maternal great grandfather, but instead I became addicted to ‘Le Brummel’.
Sometimes the place was full, sometimes there were no clients at all. I went there so often that I became friends with the band and, one evening when there was no one around and boredom had set it, one of the musicians suggested I sing one of their Cole Porter repertoire numbers in English. I had told them that I intended going on the stage.
By coincidence, a party of Americans who had had a good night at the gambling tables came in as I was in the middle of my rendition of Night and Day. When I finished they applauded loudly and asked for more. The champagne flowed, I sang I’ve got you under my skin and I get a kick out of you, I could not remember the words of any other songs so had to stop.
The next night the band leader asked me to sing the same songs again. The club was quite full, there was more applause, and at the end of the evening he invited me to get four or five more numbers together and perform them the following Friday at a Grand Gala in the dance hall. They had the music but they did not have the words so, in the days that followed, while decapitating dead geese and ducks and chopped up their livers, I rewrote Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael and Ira Gershwin lyrics in my head and rehearsed them in the bath when I got home.
On the night of the Gala I dressed for the performance - white shirt, bow tie, white jacket and trousers. I checked my appearance in the casino toilet mirrors to calm the mounting stage fright then, half way through the evening, the band leader stepped up to the microphone and introduced me as the young, dynamic, singing sensation from London - Johnny Launay
Though surprised by my new name, I got through the numbers successfully, walked off the stage to resounding applause and the next morning my grandmother’s cook and housekeeper handed me the local newspaper. A photo of me was on the front page with the caption - Le Gran Bal au Casino de Pau a connu un succés formidable avec le dynamique chanteur anglais, Johnny Launay, dans son repertoire de swing.
I was an overnight celebrity.
I hid the newspaper from my grandmother in case she sent a cutting to her son and went on singing at ‘Le Brummel’ and at Gala nights for the rest of my stay in Pau. I tasted mini fame in the local cafés and shops. I looked too young to attract the attention of the girls I fancied, but a mother or two thought me ‘adorable’, including the wife of the salami factory’s managing director who turned up at the Brummel one night with her husband.
This rather serious gentleman promptly mentioned my appearance as a cabaret turn in a business letter to my non-father, resulting in my mother writing to warn me that he was not too pleased and begging me not to let my amateur performances go to my head.
But they did and, what's more, I had three identities.
During the day I was a butcher mutilating dead animals, in the early evenings I was an existentialist suffering anguish, nausea and revulsion against the state of being and, at night, I was Frank Sinatra at Caesar’s Palace.
Aged 19 singing at the Casino, Pau, France 1949.