Paris – In the beginning was the question whether 24 muesli bars, four cans of an energy drink that is supposed to give you wings and biscuits by the kilo are enough when you are listening to more than 200 pieces of music over a period of 27 hours and, after 44 hours of being awake and five hours of sleep, you need to capture what has happened in words. It was enough. A report on my experiences during the world’s longest concert by a solo artist.
Gonzales, a French-Canadian pianist and producer of artists such as Feist and Jane Birkin, has taken on a lot starting from the early hours of Sunday, May 16: he wants to enter the „Guinness Book of Records“. To do so he has to play the piano without a break for at least 26 hours and 12 minutes – with the exception of five minutes per hour that he can accumulate as he wants and 30 seconds between the individual pieces. An Indian set the record. On the zither. A duel with weapons that could hardly be more different: yogic meditational music of the spheres against furious full-body piano playing. The record chaser, whose real name is Jason Beck, claims that he has not been in training: „And I haven’t stopped smoking. That’s just who I am: eating pizza with parmesan and ham.” The question is how – and whether – he will survive the attempt – with Gonzales, anything is possible. Known for appearances that sway between genius, madness, obsession and entertainment, dressed alternately in the shimmering robes of a stage diva and a modest habit (figuratively speaking…), the audience can expect anything except the expected.
For me, tiredness is already hanging from my limbs like a prisoner’s ball and chain before the undertaking has even begun. It is Saturday night, three-quarters of an hour before midnight. Numerous helpers are still scurrying through Cine 13, a small theatre on the hill of Montmartre that could be the inspiration for some of the most familiar romantic cliches of Paris. The staff of France 3, which is immediately devoting a whole documentary to Gonzales, and the Internet film team responsible for the live stream on the net are laying cables, dragging podiums around and checking the lighting one last time. „It all began with one of Gonzo’s jokes and now it has turned into this big deal“, sighs the artist’s manager as she leads the Guinness official down the stairs. I am sitting on the steps into the auditorium and the big question „why“ is still hammering away inside my head. Under normal circumstances I would wander straight to bed after the warm goat’s cheese crêpe that I enjoyed earlier in a cosy bistro with the prophetic name „Le Troubadour“, to while away the time between my arrival and the start. So 27 hours more. Today we will find out whether the rather careless declaration of enthusiasm that I have made several times that I could listen to Gonzales for an eternity will survive being transformed into reality. Will my favourite artist finally turn into my torturer whose instrument is permanent exposure to sound? In any case, he looks harmless and exhilarated when he dances down the steps in a jogging suit and a headband, through the waiting audience, with the film team in tow.
Magical morning ablutions bring energy back
Then the first chord, in an uplifting major key for a major effort. I am now lolling on one of the red sofas that is to be my home for over a day. „Can I really do this?“, sings Gonzales, appearing to doubt himself in his black dressing gown, his favourite stage accessory. The greenish, sea-coloured eyes that sparkle out of the sharp-featured face and contrast with the dark waves of gel are flashing, alive, as he takes in the 120-strong audience and they radiate just one message: „I’m taking this seriously!“ Just like four other members of the audience who, like me, are equipped with the „Crazy Person Tickets“ (Gonzales „o-tone“) and want to stick out the entire experiment. The others present belong to the first group of passing extras who for the most part are there for one of a total of nine sections lasting three hours each. Everyone is provided with a book of rules and a list of 200 songs, a cross-section of classical music, jazz, pop and rock. By acclamation, Gonzales changes into a jukebox and improvises on Chopin, Prince or The Clash („London Calling“ in B flat minor). Then „Ode to Joy“ waltzes by in three-four time, Wagner’s „Valkyrie“ becomes a jazzy snappy number thanks to his grandfather, an „antisemitic Jew“ who called jazz „the music of the devil“, and club hits of electric groups such as Justice are turned into sonatas – at least during the first nine hours. If the piano diablo interacted and quipped his way through the first three parts happily enough, he now falls more deeply into a trance. With every figure on the over-seized digital clock that changes into the next, he seems to become part of the piano, a „perpetuum mobile“, whose engine is ambition, whose lubricant is stoicism. Perhaps he is annoyed by the fact that the French audience would prefer just to hear Blondie and Daft Punk.
Yet, until this point all of the sections have been scattered with comic and ironic set pieces in the usual Gonzales style. Friends of the artist visit him on stage; Teki Latex, for example, serves his musician colleague, who is now wearing pyjamas and a night cap, breakfast cereal in his dressing gown at about half past six, which the latter places on the keyboard and enjoys with one hand, chatting away and continuing to play. It’s breakfast time for me too. I use the interval between sections two and three to get a croissant and a coffee at the bar. With my comrades-in-arms Guillaume and Eline I have in any case already been running a lively food exchange over the arm of the sofa, trading muesli bars for bottles of drink or glucose for biscuits. Both have come out of admiration for Gonzales and seem cheerful at first. Just like Brigitte, who is repeatedly catapulted out of her seat to applaud, hoping to give Gonzo an imaginary energy boost. Around three, the heads of my comrades-in-arms had drooped towards their chests, as with many others. When the person sitting next to me snores off key, a kick to the shin puts an end to the clatter and commotion. Personally, I have decided only to close my eyes when there’s a hotel mattress under me.
The fact that the phase between 6 and 9 o’clock on Sunday morning is the highlight might well be because at that hour it’s mainly die-hard fans who have found their way through the rain. Gonzo has got his own theory, which he delivers singing: „Did you come from a party? Or an exhibition that was kind of arty?“ Perhaps it’s also because of the maestro’s personal hairdresser, Sebastien, who tames his regular customer’s head of curls and bushy sideburns, and after a classical shave then sees his role as taking care of the inside of his head. With a gold top-hat he spins across the stage throwing streamers, gets the audience trembling and Gonzales back to the form he was in at the start.
Radiant like a top C
Shortly after, there are the first doubts about whether the project might actually end in success: his right arm hurts, the audience after 9.45 is in eager classic Sunday breakfast mood. In the fifth innings, Gonzales gives his all again. In a mint-coloured tie and pullover, Sunday-best church combination, he gets the piano shaking with his version of „Don’t let Me Be Misunderstood“. Shortly before 2 p.m. a young journalist sets up her camera on the stage. Live interview with the aspiring record-breaker. The poor woman should have thought more carefully about her opening question. The over-sized stopwatch behind her provoked ridicule when she asked how long the artist’s event had been going so far. Singing his answer with the words „The clock is my friend, the clock is my enemy, the clock is my one and all“ he scares away the visibly angry lady, only to hammer out on the keys his version of the main theme of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony with extra feeling. Then exhaustion. His arm seems to be plaguing him, the perspiration is a continuous flow searching out a path across his forehead and down his prominent nose. Only Arielle Dombasle, a star in France, drives away the lethargy by gesticulating to „Somewhere over the Rainbow“. She is not allowed to sing, the Guinness rules forbid it.
From 3 p.m., the periods between the intervals become shorter. At 4.15 p.m. I open the first energy drink and share it with Guillaume and Eline. The fresh clothes with which I have rewarded myself also do the trick, as does the oxygen-rich air in the interval and above all: light. My eyes are watering and burning. Around us, the hectic life of the Montmartre quarter and the confusion of tourists. It feels too much for me and I escape back into the time bubble. Here there is only the present. And it still sounds wonderful. Even if Gonzales looks increasingly weary, his playing loses nothing of its quality. In the mean time, the clock has become an enemy. But only because of the tiredness. When the clock shows 6 p.m., the battle against my leaden eyelids is unbearable. But I stick with it. Still eight or nine hours, expressed in tickets: only two more tickets – out of nine! Instead of relief, I am filled with regret. Now I can hardly write, entry at 11 p.m.: „Heavy head, keeps drooping. But: keep your eyes open!“ Finally and consistently the cycle after midnight gathers momentum: 24 hours are behind us! When the clock shows 27 minutes past midnight, the Guiness official comes back on stage and Gonzo triumphs with „Hit the Road Jack“ on the keyboard, you can sense that the past is creeping nearer.
But back to the present. Euphoric celebrations break out, confetti flies through the air, the room is dancing as Gonzales actually plays past the record mark. He will continue to work the piano for nearly an hour, carried by the frenetic atmosphere and the tingling frisson of success. After 27 hours, three minutes and 44 seconds, the last note fades away. At half past three, Gonzales stops, radiant like a top C itself, the certificate in his hands, it’s official: Gonzales holds the Guinness World Record for the longest concert by an individual performer. For me, the curtain falls at about 5 a.m. After 44 hours without sleep, only little food, hardly any light or air, but in a state of absolute bliss. Music really does seem to be the food of life and if it had been up to me, he could have played on for all eternity.