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Robb Johnson, A Break in the Clouds

Man Walks Into a Pub

A TRUE HISTORY OF COUSCOUS

This is the story
It starts out like this
He’s 20 years old and
He’s lost in Paris with

the guitar and the girlfriend
It’s New Year’s Day and
everything is frozen
On the grande boulevards

Except down this back street
The Rose of Morocco
There’s red wine and couscous
and raï on the radio

This woman starts dancing
like fire on thin ice
She got a face like an accident
and a body like paradise

We’ll call the film Couscous
A true history of couscous.

Then we cut to years later
He’s this married man
He takes her to Paris
With a map in his hand

But he can’t find the back street
He gets the name wrong
Leaves his hat in a taxi
Like he’s stopped writing songs

They come out of the Metro
The sky’s full of snow
There’s this place selling couscous
We’ll call it Salammbo

And the overweight waiter
Way too big for his belt
Brings them bowls full of hot sun
and the rivers of ice start to melt

and it’s not the same woman
and it’s not the same man
and it’s not the same New Year’s Day
On the Boulevard St Germaine

An old overweight waiter
Sings their baby to sleep
They hold hands for the camera
and outside in the street

The guitar and the girlfriend
The sky full of snow
The hat in the taxi
Raï on the radio

Sing through the city
As they happen again
The street fills with stories
Like a bowl fills with grain.

I was making couscous with the kids at school, and I suddenly realised how much of my life had been “food tracked” by couscous, starting with the first time I went to Paris. So this song is a lot of autobiographical elements, without actually being autobiography. Rather, it’s like a film developed from a true story, but changed about to make it more interesting, to make the latent general truth more manifest - which is why it’s phrased like it’s a film. The idea, the erm… “truth”, I hope it conveys is that every life is full of little moments of adventure that are personally significant and important to the individual, but that overall our lives are like individual grains of couscous, and our stories fill the streets of a city like the small perfect grains of couscous fill a bowl. Restaurant Salammbo can be found at 2-4 Rue Boutebrie, 75005 Paris. I later discovered there is a French film called “Couscous” but that’s a different bowl of grain altogether.

Initially I recorded it in G, which is how I wrote it and had played it live. Listening to that recording, it showed up the subtle but important differences between live and recorded performances; live, I’d tended to belt it out, but when recording it, the song seemed to need a little more of a tuneful approach, and trying to be tuneful in G, my voice just sounded weedy, whilst the open strings you get playing in G meant the guitar sounded too noisy. So I decided to be grown-up about this, and find a key that suited best the song in terms of both the singing and the playing. This meant using a capo.

I dislike capos; live, I think you get endless boring tuning problems, whatever the capo manufacturers claim. I have to use one when playing with Leon Rosselson, but my firm belief is that any manufacturer who claims to have invented the capo that doesn’t put guitars out of tune clearly either never bothers to test their product in a gigging situation, or is simply fibbing. I have owned and lost three very expensive and complicated G7 capos, hoodwinked by their manufacturers’ elaborate and mendacious claims, and now rely on a couple of trusty, rusty old Shubbs that I don’t seem somehow to be able to lose, and which don’t produce all that many problems in terms of tuning when you use them.

Looking for the lyrics, I found the first draft of the song. If you’re interested, you can contrast how the versions change as - hopefully - the artistic intention evolves and the unhelpful anecdotal detail gets pruned (blimey, this is getting far too litcrit - that’s the problem with the internet - it encourages self-indulgence).

This is the true history
Of me and couscous
I was 20 years old and
I was lost in Paris

With my guitar and my girlfriend
On a New Year’s Day when
everything was closed up
On the grandes boulevards

Except for down this back street
This Moroccan restaurant
Was selling all this couscous
That we could just about afford

This woman started dancing
She had a face like an accident
But the way she moved her body
It was like Paradise

and now it’s many years later
I’m a married man
and it’s another New Years Day
on the Boulevard St Germaine

and I’m still lost in Paris
Refusing to surrender
Using your eyeliner
writing songs on toilet paper

As we come out of the Metro
Holding hands against the snow
We find this place selling couscous
and it’s Paradise

and it’s just six years later
But I’m a different man
I take my six months old son
To see the boulevard St Germaine

The old man in the restaurant
Holds him while we eat
Sings to him in Arabic
and it’s Paradise…

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