Books

Lauren Elkins Challenges the View That Flâneurie Is a Pleasure Reserved for Men

In Flâneuse Elkins combines her own experiences as a walker with those of many notable women, including Virginia Woolf, Agnés Varda, and Martha Gellhorn.


Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London

Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Length: 336 pages
Author: Lauren Elkin
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2017-04

For a certain type of person, there's no better way to experience a city than by walking through it, without obvious purpose beyond the enjoyment you take in walking and observing. Members of this tribe were given a label in the 19th century -- the flâneur, from the French verb flâner, meaning to wander aimlessly. Originally a slang term, the word flâneur came into use around 1840, and peaked in popularity in the early 20th century. The term is still known today, but is more often used in a historical sense to refer to the notable real or fictional flâneurs of the past, from Edgar Allan Poe's “Man of the Crowd" and Charles Baudelaire's Painter of Modern Life to Franz Hessel, who published a series of reports based on his observations of street life in Weimar Republic Berlin.


Anyone can walk through a city, but the flâneur is a specific type of walker. He walks for the pleasure of the experience and observes more than takes part in the life around him. He has a certain aristocratic status, and thus has the leisure to spend his time walking rather than working. He is also a most certainly a he, the masculine pronoun used not in the universal sense of “all human beings" but to designate that only half of humanity (“males") is included in the description. In the conventional view, a female flâneur (or flâneuse, to inflect the noun in the French manner) simply cannot exist, because women do not stroll about a city for their own enjoyment. In this (positively Victorian) view, proper middle- and upper-class women are at home taking care of their families, while lower class women may walk to work but do not have the leisure to stroll purposely. One slang term for prostitute -- the streetwalker -- demonstrates just how much the streets were considered the property of men, as if a woman seen walking in public could safely be assumed to be there for the purpose of selling her body.

Those were the bad old days, right? Maybe not so much, as women still experience harassment simply for walking down a city street. But as a counterbalance to such repressive forces, some women today are claiming the right to walk, observe, and write about such experiences, offering their perceptions and opinions as equally valid to those of the men who have previously dominated the literature of flâneurie. One strong voice among these women is Laura Elkin, whose book Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London combines exploration of her own experiences as a walker in many cities with reflections on other women who were notable walkers and observers.

Elkin, by her own account, grew up on suburban Long Island, where the usual form of transportation was the automobile, walking for its own sake was considered eccentric, and cities, in general, were considered dirty and dangerous. She discovered the pleasures of flâneurie while studying in Paris, and one day while on a walk realized that “I wanted to live in a city for the rest of my life, and specifically, in the city of Paris. It had something to do with the utter, total freedom unleashed from the act of putting one foot in front of the other." As many walkers can testify, once you've felt that freedom, you won't give it up willingly. You will also search out others of the tribe -- people who love to walk for its own sake and who are willing to share their experiences and observations. Because the voices of female walkers have not always been heard, or honored, one of the most useful aspects of Flâneuse is Elkin's well-researched accounts of the experiences of some notable women walkers, including George Sand, Martha Gellhorn, Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, Agnès Varda, and Sophie Calle.

Elkin constructed Flâneuse to mimic the practice flâneurie, so reading it feels like taking a pleasant but meandering stroll rather than purposefully walking from one fixed location to another. Elkin's chapter on Bloomsbury, for instance, mixes her own experiences as a walker in contemporary London with those of Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf, and other members of the Bloomsbury Circle, as well as bits and pieces from Woolf's novels and other writings. The material Elkin incorporates is often fascinating -- for example Woolf, in a 1927 essay, describes her practice of “street haunting", which is pretty much flâneurie by another name -- but this style of writing can be exasperating if you prefer books that progress in an orderly and straightforward manner.

The varied materials incorporated in Flâneuse are not always as well integrated as they might be. Sometimes it seems like Elkin is delivering a series of core dumps, combining a series of potted biographies with her own, fairly mundane walking experiences. However, if you can overlook her occasional stylistic lapse, Flâneuse is crammed with information and loaded with insight and may go a long way toward correcting the view that flâneurie is an art only practiced by men.

6

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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