Jean-François Bizot passed away recently. He was a friend though I didn’t see him often. In the late 70s or early 80s, when Talking Heads first played in France, I picked up a copy of his magazine Actuel. While its format was similar to Paris Match (an earlier incarnation was funkier and more psychedelic), it seemed to convey an alternative view of the whole world. Even with my limited French I could suss that this mag was something special. It was a glossy that reported on global culture — Fela Kuti, China, science, local oddballs, politics, art — and exhibited a curiosity and enthusiasm that I both shared and envied. Then and now, nothing like it exists in the US — its lack of specialization renders it unique.
I wrote to the magazine out of the blue saying I loved what they were doing. I was not a well-known musician at the time, but Bizot got back in touch. Eventually he put Brian Eno, Jon Hassell and myself on the cover when the Bush of Ghosts record came out, with the affectionate but ironic headline, “The Whites Think Too Much.”
We became friends. In the 80s, as my interest in music outside the rock mainstream deepened, he encouraged my curiosity. When I was in Paris we went to see Orchestra Aragon, the classic Cuban charanga band, at New Morning (I think) and I was transported. They would never play in the US due to the embargo, so this was a rare, funky, yet lyrical experience. He passed me tapes of African and old Cuban music — stuff I still listen to that has yet to be released in the US — and we would have late night talks that ranged widely. It was exactly what one hoped life could be for those curious about all manner of things going on out there.
Later, in the 80s, he and some others started Radio Nova. At various periods, it might have been the best radio station in the world. No joke. They played alt-rock before there was such a thing, Raï, African pop music, Chanson, Latin American music, hip hop, and experimental music. We all wanted to hear it, and this was where we could. Finally.
The radio station was followed by Nova Magazine, which focused more on culture and listings. In the late 80s, partly due to his enthusiasms, Talking Heads recorded their last studio LP in Paris, a record that included at lot of African musicians as collaborators. The Naked record doesn’t sound very African, but the influence is there, subtly, in the grooves and in some of the filigree. While we were recording, Bizot invited Chris and Tina of Talking Heads to stay at what I believe was his ex-wife’s place, which helped defray our expenses. I remember a framed family picture of him chasing his ex with an axe. That gives you a clue. For us foreigners he might be seen as the Serge Gainsbourg of magazine and radio — a bit of a louche, but with impeccable radar.
I’m sure I don’t know half of what he did, but I know that France will sorely miss him, as will many of the rest of us.
Read his obituary in The Independent.