Paris De Nuit
Written by Prosper Keating
photographs by FOC KAN
Les Bains was one of the Parisian nightspots we frequented back in the ‘90’s, mostly because of my links to the fashion world. I had been there once before in 1981 when it was more of a disco than a nightclub.
It was called Les Bains Douches back then, the name being a nod to its origins as a public bath. It was not one of the city’s municipal baths, but a private establishment founded in 1885 whose original clientele included very influential homosexuals looking for more than the services still advertised on the rose-coloured plaque beside the entrance. But more of that later.
I preferred the more authentic ambience of places like Les Noctambules in Pigalle, where former matinée singer Pierre Carré and his gypsy musicians performed classic music hall songs in the early hours for a clientele consisting largely of retired seventy-something working girls and pimps who still had a hard edge despite their seedy antiquity.
Tourists were not welcome and it was quite a compliment to be admitted to that smoky room in the back, illuminated by a battered disco ball, where I would drink bottled Guinness brewed in Lagos, Nigeria, until dawn, often accompanied by Donald Schneider, then the art director of Paris Vogue and, like me, a perpetual refugee from our glitzy working environment.
Donald didn’t drink the African Guinness, which, unemasculated by European legislation, retained the manly strength of the stuff I remembered from the Dublin part of my youth.
The lugubrious but charming waiter, whom we nicknamed Lurch, made great ceremony of bringing ‘L’Irlandais’ his African Guinness.
Lurch wore a maroon blazer with tarnished gold buttons and a serviette over his arm that was as yellow as his skin. With each visit, I counted more moth holes in his blazer.
Pierre Carré wore a red three-piece suit that never lost the element of surprise, accessorised with winklepicker boots and a western cowboy tie. Already in his seventies, Pierre had a face from hunger straight out of Walker Evans’ photos of dustbowl refugees and an operatic bootblack pompadour that had more to do with gypsy culture than the 1950’s and his fifteen minutes of popular fame. Pierre’s dentures, tumbling like acrobatic tombstones between verses, were a support act in themselves.
One night, after several loud minutes in the Turkish toilet with the cardboard-thin door, Pierre sailed back to the stage wiping about two grams of cocaine off the face that Johnny Cash would have died for. The band struck up Luis Mariano’s Mexico and Pierre attacked the words as if all our lives depended on it. As he scaled the heights of the descant, his dentures escaped, swooping through the air and landing on a table of German housewives of a certain age, perhaps mistaken for ex-working girls by the doorman because of their excessive make-up and hairdos.
Pierre held up his hand, the band stopped dead, and Pierre descended from the low stage. Bowing to the ladies, he retrieved his teeth, wiping the cigarette ash from them, before carefully replacing them in his sunken face. Turning on his heel, he ordered two bottles of Champagne pour les charmantes dames, got back up onstage and away he and his band went again, straight back into Mexico.
That was the disappearing Paris I loved. I had grown up in a Dublin full of political refugees, visiting filmmakers and actors, artists, writers and all kinds of interesting people, many of whom enjoyed the parties at my parents’ house, which often lasted two or three days.
When we moved to London in 1969, living just off the King’s Road in Chelsea, in the middle of Swinging London, my parents’ parties were just as well-attended. The Irish are not by nature starfuckers although later generations have picked up some bad habits from British and American television. So I was never drawn to venues like Les Bains because of the famous faces in the crowd, documented in the images by de facto house photographer Foc Kan.
I went there for fashion related events where I was sure to bump into people I knew and because I never had to pay for a drink. The house was always very generous to artistic but impoverished guests. Perhaps too generous.
By the early ‘90’s, when I arrived in Paris, clubs like Les Bains and Chez Castel were already past the beginning of the end. But they were still better than anything I had known in London. If you came of age in London in the 1970’s and 1980’s and you weren’t into punk or new romantic, you were pretty much fucked when it came to nightlife.
The pubs chucked you out before 11 pm and unless you got off the streets quickly, the night was very likely to end in a police station or hospital depending on whether you won or lost the inevitable street fight.
Most of the London clubs worth going to were expensive and operated oppressive dress codes, requiring their clientele to imitate Boy George, George Michael in his Wham! days or, at the other end of the codified spectrum, Sid Vicious. There wasn’t much in-between.
Fellow expatriate Jerry Stafford gives another perspective: “Les Bains and Le Palace were the first clubs I went to when I first came to Paris in the mid-eighties. I’m from London and music and clubbing has been an important part of my personal education. I grew up on the dance floor.
“Paris has never really had the same fluidity and diversity of clubs as London or New York where new ones spring up literally every week. This is partially due to a lack of popular subculture generally but also some pretty intransigent urban policy.
So those clubs that do open tend to stay open for a long time. Les Bains was one of them and it did maintain a diverse and exciting mixture of people over many years as it was one of the very few places to go.
I remember many nights there with my first posse of friends in Paris, which included models Christine Bergstrom and Leslie Weiner, songwriter and author Pierre Grillet, and Phillipe Krootchey, who used to DJ there, nights spent dancing and drinking and dressing up.
“I remember a memorable night when Prince played an after-gig there and also an interminable night with Sean Penn, Kate Moss and some dancers from Les Folies Bergères. And many others with the formidable Kristen McMenamy who used to be married to Hubert who ran the club. When Krootchey played the music was always fantastic, a mixture of Dr. Buzzard’s and David Bowie. I met David Bowie there for the first time. He was wearing a red jacket. I think it was Mugler. The rest is all really a blur I’m afraid.”
Of course, the grass is always greener somewhere new, as long as you aren’t looking too closely. Asked about Les Bains, Jean-Baptiste Mondino recalls with typical candour: “…a whole generation turned its back on the ‘70’s, and the bad weed, and acid trips and grabbed at a nightlife previously denied them. The Bains Douches club became the party and social venue. No Facebook, no cell phones in those days.
But behind the festive façade associated with those years, so appealing to young people today, there was a different reality. You just have to look at the greenish tint we all had, the dilated pupils from heroin and no sleep, the increasingly sour parties and morbid dances. One bad experience ended and ushered in a new age of cocaine; the money, power and burn-out drug.”
A lot of people have written about Les Bains including former owner Hubert Boukobza, whose memoir, Dix Mille et Une Nuits, is being adapted for television. Foc Kan’s images speak volumes about a pre-smartphone universe in the 1980’s and 1990’s where celebs could party with plebs without being bothered by starfuckers and ‘citizen journalists’ trying to catch them out powdering their noses or puking in the toilets.
To be honest, I can’t remember the nights I spent in Les Bains with much clarity. As I said, I never had to pay for a drink because the staff associated me with my famous friends.
I remember the 1981 visit with the fondness of a misfit kid rejected by the door fascists of London clubs like Blitz because I didn’t dress like a bird of paradise or Madame Castafiori from the Tintin books. I remember my return in the early ‘90’s: a stocky bottle blonde dyke with a nice smile and cold eyes body-blocked me but my famous friends intervened and I was allowed in.
Having worked part-time as a bouncer on the door of some edgy venues in London, I didn’t take it personally. She was doing her job. My face didn’t fit and she’d spotted it. Once I had been there a few times, I never had any trouble getting in.
I remember my last visit in 1999 when I had a bit of trouble getting out of the club after dealing with a bouncer who was quite unnecessarily pushing guests towards the door and made the mistake of laying his paws on my wife, (hairstylist Odile Gilbert) who had just received a Venus de la Mode trophy. By then, of course, the owners had entrusted Les Bains to a management whose “Ibiza Lite” pseudo-rave vibe was not to everyone’s taste and the posturing bullies on the door were a symptom of the club’s terminal decline.
People often drone on about how AIDS killed clubbing but I think it was rave culture and cheap MDMA. Cokeheads were bad enough, cornering you with deranged monologues if you were rash enough to stay still for more than five seconds but ecstasy encouraged them to touch you up as well.
At least the smackheads of the 1970’s didn’t importune you. They just lolled about feeling beautiful. In silence. Or to Ravi Shankar. And then there was that horrible thudding beat, punctuated by barking incitements to take more drugs, beat up girls and gays and commit suicide-by-cop. Far too few of the genre’s practitioners and their fans followed that last bit of advice, if you ask me. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking as you read this: Another grumpy old git slagging off modern music because he doesn’t get it. But I do get it. I know the difference between good hip hop and bad hip hop because my younger brother is one of most respected DJ and composers to come out of London since the late ‘80’s.
He and his mates from the ‘90’s London label, Wall of Sound, used to record tracks in our father’s house in London. Dad reckoned it was better than having them on the streets. I didn’t agree. I had to use tear gas on one occasion to clear the house and obtain some peace and quiet. It’s a PTSD thing.
I consider myself privileged to have seen Les Bains before the “Ibiza Lite” phase as Emmanuel de Brantes remembers it: “For over twenty years, Les Bains was the greatest club in Paris. It reeked of desire. Everyone wanted in but due to its size, not everyone could fit in. That made it even more exclusive than Le Palace.
Hubert Boukobza, Claude Chelle, Josy Foichat.They became gods. I organised many parties there during the ‘nineties. Always a huge success. My high society friends got to mingle with club regulars like Mick Jagger, Jack Nicholson, Grace Jones, Kate Moss and, as a bonus, all the most beautiful models in town.” There are those who sneer at the transformation of Les Bains into an American-style boutique hotel by the building’s landlord, Jean-Pierre Marois, whose father Maurice bought the freehold from the Guerbois family in the late 1960’s. The Guerbois name is still visible on that rose-coloured plaque by the door. Perhaps these critics forget that public venues tend to reflect the society in which they exist.
Les Bains was opened in 1885 as Les Bains Guerbois by Albert Guerbois and his father François, founder of the Café Guerbois near the Place de Clichy. The Café Guerbois was the haunt until the mid-1870’s of various artists and writers including Manet, Cézanne, Renoir, Zola and Proust, to name but a few.
Les Bains Guerbois, across town on the northern edges of the swampy slum known as Le Marais, offered all the advertised services to an establishment clientele that included many homosexuals attracted by the unadvertised services available from muscular young porters from the Les Halles market who went there around dawn to clean up after a night’s work and earn a bit of extra money to feed their families.
Frederick Forsyth’s assassin in Day of the Jackal, set in the early 1960’s, goes straight to a Parisian bathhouse like the Bains Guerbois because he is certain of picking up a lonely closet homosexual in whose apartment he can hide out as he plans his hit on President de Gaulle.
The gay bathhouse remained a mainstay of Parisian life and kept many middle and upper class marriages together until the social revolution of the late 1960’s, which heralded the end of a need for such venues in Western cities. The Guerbois family sold the building to Maurice Marois, whose son Jean-Pierre is behind the current incarnation of Les Bains.
By the late 1970’s, the only Parisians who needed public baths were the city’s clochards, as immortalised by Cartier-Bresson, and even they were a dying breed. Many of the new homeless were committed soap-dodgers.
In any case, the Bains Guerbois had always been a cut above the municipal bathhouses that catered for les clochards and the city’s slum dwellers. Marois père leased the premises to two young men-about-town, Jacques Renault and François Coat, who opened Les Bains Douches in December 1978.
The decor was by Philippe Starck, the invitation to the opening by Pierre et Gilles, and the door policy was “rich or poor, young or old, famous or unknown, but not ordinary.” Some pundits described the new venue as a disco but the music was more Joy Division and B-52’s than ABBA and Gloria Gaynor. In 1984, Coat and Renault sold the disco to Hubert Boukobza who renamed it Les Bains and the rest is, as they say, history.
There are those who opine that Boukobza and his partner, Claude Chelle, mismanaged Les Bains, citing their unwritten free drinks policy as an example. The club certainly lost a lot of money but as Chelle has remarked, it also made a lot of money.
The final years as a sub-rave venue and a rather tragic gay club were unfortunate but nothing can diminish the club’s place in Parisian social history. There was nothing like Les Bains and Marois fils and his partners are to be saluted for refraining from trying to revisit the past. Paris was always about what one is going to do next.
Les Bains is a wonderful if sometimes blurred memory for those who went there. And it should remain a memory. Former Paris Vogue Editor-in-Chief Joan Juliet Buck owns the end of this essay: “Darling, the only thing I really remember is the scene in Bitter Moon when Peter Coyote gets run over by a car after leaving the Bains.”