January 18, 2012
Eric Lemaître: 1958-2012
We met in 1975, in boarding school.
For some reason, the director had decided that there was to be a band of students playing at the end-of-year celebrations and had gotten in touch with Eric to make it happen.
Since he was in the same class as my older brother (a budding keyboard player, back then), it was only a matter of time before the both of them informed me that I was to be the drummer in the new (unnamed) band. Not that I was known anywhere for my drumming, mind you. I had a vague idea that I could do it and my brother, in his infinite wisdom, had decided that my “career” needed a push. I never remembered to tell him that playing with him was fine, but that I was scared witless of having to play with Eric, whom I regarded as a “real” guitar player. At age 14, unsurprisingly, I had never played with any other musicians before.
And thus, in the rush of having to start rehearsals, I quickly bought the drum kit I could afford at the time, a contraption which can best be classified as a mixture of a sophisticated toy and a very, very cheap kit. It was loud, and that was good enough for me.
We rehearsed in the school’s chapel which until then (and probably since) had probably never endured such an aural aggression. It was certainly a good thing that the only time the director (a priest) decided to check up on us and found Eric doing windmills on his guitar, jumping on the benches, was just the day before “the concert”.
I can’t remember the set list at all, except for a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Woman”. It was the very first song I ever played with anyone, and also became the very first song I’d give as an exercise to the few students that I’ve taught. It is burned into my brain forever. Be it as it may, it is also fortunate that the headmaster wasn’t too agile with the English language, as the song’s lyrics are hardly appropriate for a Jesuit boarding school party.
We became a band of bandits, holding a secret that no else knew, or dare know about. I, being the youngest, was immediately cast as “the mascot”. I didn’t mind that at all. Eric seemed to have a faith in my skills far beyond my own, as if he knew something I didn’t, and proceeded to patiently and radically change my musical education; Mott The Hopple, T-Rex, David Bowie (the Hunky Dory years), Deep Purple (mark II, the good version), Led Zeppelin (I, II, III and IV), and basically all the crème de la crème of late 70s rock. It is telling that, to this day, I cannot say if my inclination for 3 minute, 4/4 songs in E flat are a result or the cause of those days. I do clearly remember, however, Eric’s laughter when one day, he put on a record and told me: “listen to this”. My jaw must have dropped to the floor, and again when he announced: “now you play it”. How the hell am I, I thought, going to reproduce John Bonham’s intro to Rock’n Roll? But he knew I could, and after lots of practicing, I did.
Of course the band evolved, people left, other people came, but the three of us stuck together. We even had a classic-rock-history moment of “artistic differences” which made the band split in two, change name and veer into the budding punk scene of the very late 70s and very early 80s. This was to be an ominous episode.
The band was renamed Contigent, and became, possibly, one of the most significant cult bands in Belgium, with a legion of obsessed followers (my brother wasn’t playing in the band at that point but stayed on as our manager/sound-technician/driver/body guard). We played in tiny halls and big festivals. Bars and concert-halls. We played to hostile audiences, and friendly audiences who went crazy. We played while the police charged. We played impromptu gigs from the back of a truck. We set the amps at 11 and played like there was no tomorrow. We weren’t a band anymore, we were a movement. I’ll let John, our then political comandante and bassist describe it:
Everything about the band was striking. Bob Seytor, the singer, was a Black guy from Guadeloupe in the French-speaking West Indies, with an incredible accent, unmistakable vocal style and real stage presence. Eric, originally from Mons in southern Belgium, was one of those rare guitarists who manage to combine extreme power and real musicality. The drummer, Jo(sé) Fontainhas from Portugal, was equally technically proficient and explosive. And for the first time, the melodic bass runs, which had always been my stock in trade actually suited the stuff we were playing! Four musicians, four nationalities: musically, think Magazine meets Motorhead with French-Antilles lyrics.
Attila The Stockbroker – Contingent
For a few years, we lived as a family, discussions and all. We traveled to London, to buy a PA, where we saw Brian James’ (of The Damned fame) new band, an unexpected Police concert and Ultravox at the Marqueee (and I mean John Foxx’s Ultravox, not the whiny, teenage sighing, Midge Ure version of it). On the ferry coming back, over the Channel, amidst a storm, we jammed an acoustic version of “By The Rivers Of Babylon” with a reggae band whose name I can’t remember. We went into a studio and self produced a record (vinyl, kids) which we self distributed. I have a few copies, that have now become trophies.
All the while Eric stayed constant. He never got into a fight, never lied, always stayed true to his principles, and never allowed us to sell-out. He always kept the direction painfully clear; stay true, take no bullshit and play fast and loud. Whenever I had a doubt, I knew I could count on him to show the way, even if he himself was lost, at times. Life took us to different places, and to play with different musicians, but I always knew he was around even if he physically wasn’t. A few years later, when living in a different country, not a single day would pass when I wouldn’t hear him in my mind, scolding me for playing session work for money. I knew what I was doing wrong and I knew he knew.
He became, after many ups and downs, an icon in the belgian music scene. Contigent gave way to Walpurgis Volta, then a longer period of introspection and travels and finally to the creation of Magasin 4, the place of reference for alternative live music in Brussels. Said Magasin 4, which, with the help of some friends, he literally built with his own hands, all the while creating and playing with the hugely successful PPZ30 project.
It was at the Magasin 4 that Contingent reunited for a concert in 2007, of which I was not physically part, as I was the only one living further away. Eric was still my second older brother, though. I knew I needn’t ask if I could play, he would have told me to shut up and fly over. So much so, that when the 30+ year reunion came along, in 2011, I did in fact fly to Brussels and played a few songs with, yes, my band. As was to be expected, even after not playing together for 30 years, we rehearsed the songs two times each, and were ready to make noise.
I’m fairly certain that words alone cannot express what it meant; you end up re-living, re-imagining and re-assessing your whole life, so I’m not even going to try. It’s a milestone which requires distance and wisdom to be merged with your current life. As I’m still doing that, Eric is suddenly gone and I don’t quite know what to do next, except to write this text. Which he would hate, come to think of it. Je t’emmerde, je l´écris quand même, voilà.
Objectively, I have yet to meet anyone who has anything bad to say about Eric. Subjectively, I have yet to meet someone who played as he did, who was strong as he was, and who refused to flinch as he did.
He was the guy who I could look to, in the middle of a concert with a rotten stage sound. If I could see his hand and his foot tapping the beat, I knew exactly where we were. And if I didn’t, he’d silently mouth one or two words. I think he knew he could likewise rely on me. I hope he did.
He was a brother of mine, and now I can’t see on which chord his hand is, or his foot tapping the beat. And the sound on the stage hasn’t become any better.
I can’t tell if we’ve reached the chorus yet and it’s a terrible sensation to feel lost mid-song.