"My parents showed up on a beach, with a camper. They landed there and we stayed for years." Sitting by a lake in Sète, Lena Vassiliu recounts how her parents Pierre and Laura chose an empty spot in the Casamance region to enjoy a few years loving each other under the sun. The legitimate child of this trip, she was conceived in Senegal. At the time, her mother said: "I want to give birth standing on my feet, holding a tree, in the sacred wood where only women can enter!" Today her mother adds: "Pierre was reluctant, so we ended up in a private hospital in Dakar." Laura Vassiliu still lives in the same apartment in Sète. Folon's original drawing for the artwork of the ‘Voyage’ LP is framed in the living room, making Pierre’s ghost more present. Laura remembers well the beautiful moments, and travels were a part of them. "Not only the moments were beautiful. On trips, he was more beautiful as well." Pierre felt good turning his back on France – which was probably already ugly –, turning his back on the fickle, mercantile record industry, as well as on an entourage that recognized his mustache but not his talent. A traveler out of obligation in his youth (Algeria and its war), he became a traveler by taste and acquired an interest in people, an essential for anyone willing to travel the Globe. He also traveled out of necessity. When smiles faded, a boat, a plane, and bye bye idiots. And he brought all those trips back into his songs.
"Anytime we traveled anywhere, music attracted us. Pierre sensed the rhythm of the country we were in and he found a song." Laura Vassiliu
1967, Rio de Janeiro. A white-dressed Eddie Barclay was looking for artists for his label. Coming upon the trio Camara and its singer Tita Lobo, he found her matchless and invited them to cut a record in Paris. They became the trend of the moment in St Germain des Prés; Pierre Barouh offered them to release an instrumental LP on his label Saravah, that would be recorded at Davout studio by Yves Chamberland, who in turn offered the trio to create the first French-language bossa nova album. A team of singers and writers formed around the project 'Les Masques': Anne Vassiliu, Nicole Croisille, members of the Swingle Singers and Pierre Vassiliu. Pierre sang in unison on three songs and solo on another one he wrote: 'Initiation', a questioning about what lies behind clichés about Brazil. While calling into question his career as an entertainer, he displayed, on this album with masked singers, an authentic side that initiated a shift towards some more personal music.
His sister Anne introduced Bernard Lubat, Bloch-Lainé, Berteaux and Claude Engel to him. The latter was dating Anne, which brought them closer. The idea of a Brazilian song for the 1973 single 'J'ai trouvé un journal dans le hall de l'aéroport' was his. Percussionist Emmanuel 'Pinpin' Sciot took part in it: "There were so many ideas, so much inspiration. The song goes through very different phases. The part with the backing vocals, what a hell – we were short of tracks. The harmonies were inspired by Crosby Stills & Nash, the music by Bach. Our heroes were Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy."
1975 ~ 1978
His first effort after the staggering success of 'Qui c'est celui-là', 'Voyage', came out in 1975, punctuated by the jolts of a train zigzagging between mainstream pop, Latin rhythms and Herbie Hancock’s 'Headhunters'-inspired jazz-funk, as evidenced in 'Pierre bats ta femme', a piece with an all-American groove coated with bass slaps and Clavinet parts (courtesy of Georges Rodi), a bit incongruous, on the theme of the abandoned husband. Be it a chronicle of life or a premonition, his marriage with Mary broke soon after: Laura was already in his heart. He took off – his success embarrassed him. But, bulldozed by his label Barclay, he attempted to deliver a new Brazil-inspired hit: 'Tais-toi', followed by the much more accomplished 'Qu’il est bête ce garçon' in 1977. Laura was on it, her voice repeating the chorus line. These singles would not meet success.
By 1978, he had changed. With Laura he felt rejuvenated. They were almost twenty years apart in age. His musical entourage was changing as well: avant-garde Belgian cellist Denis Van Hecke imposed himself, followed by a heterogeneous pack of jazzheads, among which a Martinican pianist and members of Gong’s inner circle. By their side, Pierre let himself go, improvising, his voice barking, his words not rhyming anymore. The album’s title was 'Déménagements' [‘Moving house’]; on the cover, he and Laura, their respective children and their truck. Not a truck to move house – a truck to live in. "We had turned it into a camper van, Laura says. A friend had a fake truck license made for us. We loved this truck. We were on a constant trip. Perpetual wanderlust." The opening track 'L’oiseau' roamed the realms of jazzy poetry, offering a hallucinogenic trip inside his ego. But this album was to be his swansong for Barclay. Insufficient success.
"I spread my wings and, without talking to my shadow, I screamed so loud that my scream outdistanced of me, leaving me in some new kind of loneliness.” Pierre Vassiliu ('L'oiseau')
1979 ~ 1980
Another label was awaiting him: RCA. This rebirth marked the beginning of Vassiliu’s African period. Journeys at first, before settling there soon after. His new record (nicknamed "the pool" in reference to its cover art by Daniel Authouart) was filled with African touches, with reggae, still, to please his young Laura, with prog and improv. Denis Van Hecke laid the bases for a new band, inviting his regular partner, Belgian keyboarder Frank Wuyts: "We were a free jazz improv band, we used to experiment, to work with tapes. In the studio, I wrote small parts to the songs, and I was surprised to discover that Pierre had credited me as an arranger." Englishman Geoff Leigh: "Pierre invited us in the Midi to record at his place. The atmosphere was cool, sociable, with visitors, girls doing the cooking, wine, drugs. Our sound was alien to Peter's culture but he would let us go. Wonderful generosity. He would show the chords, sing a little and we would improvise." Leigh's clarinet and Cameroonian Sam Ateba's percussion haunted 'Mange pas les bras Bokassa', a cruel title about French tourists who came to see Africa avoiding exposure to dirt. Guys who would give their leftovers to the hotel's cats without a glance at the hungry kids behind the gate.
Pierre seemed depressed in 1979. His trips to Guadeloupe with Laura softened him and inspired many songs, including the single 'Maryline' and its unreleased flip side 'Fais-moi savoir', a hybrid overseas-French rock sway that would find its place in his early-80s concerts, during his 'every- title-turns-into-improvisation' phase. Anne Vassiliu often took on backing vocal duties: "Sometimes, we were more numerous than the village where we’d play. On stage, Pierre managed to do things he couldn’t achieve on record – the opposite was true too. We (Laura and I) would occasionally sing topless, with our breasts painted by Denis (Van Hecke), or Pierre and I would sometimes miss our entrance onto the stage because we were smoking a joint backstage. We were stoned and would cling to the microphone in order not to fall. Every night, we had to blow into bottles for the ‘Tarzan’ intro ('Il était tard ce samedi soir'); the song was so long that once a loaded musician fainted!"
1981 ~ 1982
"He would show up cruddy, grumbling like a wild beast, he was negative, sickened by the trade, suspicious of everyone... RCA was losing awareness of his talent," recalls his former press agent Brigitte Berthelot. "’Work’, to him, was an insult. He was capable of missing a promo session or inviting fifteen people at our own expense. But when I came to pick him up with my car, he would be awaiting me with a present for my son." Thanks to her, he had class in his white jacket, with a Melodica in his hand, singing 'Spiderman' on TV in 1982 – a little exotic nursery rhyme dictated by his son Clovis for the album 'Le cadeau', which must have strongly unsettled pop music reviewers of the time.
Just after that, a new single came out: 'C'est chaud l'amour' and its flip side 'Viens ma belle', a contemporary version of 'En Vadrouille à Montpellier' – an invitation to an urban trip through bars and clubs ending in a Parisian taxi that drives too slow to satisfy one’s lust. This marked the beginning of a long collaboration with two kids: David Salkin and François Delfin. The latter, a guitarist, had composed the melody for 'Viens ma belle', which was previously used as an introduction to concerts. Salkin was a friend of Dimitri Vassiliu’s (his son), he was fifteen the first time Pierre invited him to play with him. "Listening to us delighted him, he gave us entire freedom. Despite money problems, he would create moments of celebration around him, and fantastic tours. An eternal bon viveur. He bought me a djembe, which I played on stage on the very evening. He entrusted me to coproduce his records (1983-87). I had the opportunity to meet musicians who gave me goosebumps, including Jim Cuomo" (who played clarinet on 'Viens ma belle', also heard with Pierre Barouh or on Marianne Faithful’s 'Broken English').
"He did not want to be part of the system but he wanted to take advantage of it." Brigitte Berthelot
1983 ~ 2003
Fired by RCA, Pierre multiplied trips to Africa, and you could hear it in his new record 'Roulé Boulé' which burst with percussion, koras and local musicians. David Salkin: "He was flat-out, he had dancers. World music was not trendy yet, he was one of its pioneers, he introduced it to so many people. The people who went to see him live did not expect to see Africans at all." Black music with black words: 'Noix de cola' related the story of a young man leaving his village for the capital city, who got all his belongings stolen on the road and encounters a dilemma at the end.
In real life as well, black clouds were piling up: after a single album for CBS, he was dismissed again, having to retrogress to an independent label. Then a family tragedy followed. This was the beginning of a period of very long breaks in Senegal. Of a longing for tenderness in the sun. Love was born again, Lena was born as well; the Vassilius took over a music bar in Dakar – Le Mamyflor – and Pierre began writing down on a school notebook what would become 'L'amour qui passe' (1987), with its 'hip' cover and 'modern' arrangements. It included Vassiliu's only afro-beat song: 'Ça va ça va', with Fela's sidekick Tony Allen on drums, and the erotic evocation of a black witch. Despite Pierre's famous ‘blackface’ photo, the disc didn’t sell enough and his next CDs were to be released by increasingly little-known labels.
By the beginning of the 2000s, Pierre's recording career seemed to be at a standstill. It took the strength of a handful of fans from his town of Mèze to allow a final album to be funded: 'Pierre Précieuses', a blend of Africa, Guadeloupe and Latin America, with an Yves Montand cover, a "techno" track and a folk song in which he played a madman. His friend Patrick Robine said: "'Pierre Précieuses' was a definitive report, a pot-pourri of his life of travels. Until the end, he wanted to convey pranks, complicity and mischief. He was mischievous." The eponymous song 'Moustache', an illustration of his taste for La Réunion’s Maloya music, provided a definition of work that sums it up well.
Patrick Robine, who shared many trips with Pierre, revealed some secrets: "It was all about sloth, but our days were rich. He attracted adventures. We would get into a car and something would happen. A real flair for finding crazy places that didn’t look like it! We did not have to go far, we met people and we traveled through them. He also liked to sit at the end of pontoons."
Laura Vassiliu also lives with her memories of Senegal. She rekindles them in her terracotta sculptures. "It was the only country with no hassle, as he used to say. At the end of his life he wanted to go back and die there. I did not dare. I’m very sorry about that. I did not know what Parkinson was. I thought you had to stay next to a doctor. In fact it was useless. If I had realized it in time, I would have taken him away so that he could die peacefully. It was hard, at the end. He was not able to play or compose anymore, he was losing weight... When I met Pierre, I was married, I was 21 and I had two children. It was love at first sight and it was a real drag. I thought I would just have an affair before returning to the fold, but no. No such luck! And yet, nobody would have bet on it."