The hero of Armistead Maupin’s cult classic Tales of the City moved to the West Coast in her early twenties, fresh out of a stifling Cleveland. Mary Ann Singleton was a bohemian in the making and was fascinated by the dangerous prospects of sexuality.
Kris Nelson, with his Byronic locks and scarf-ensconced headshot, journeyed to the West Coast in his early twenties too, having grown up in a small hamlet outside Saskatoon. Like Mary Ann, he had a mission of self-discovery, and promptly found himself enrolled at Vancouver’s prestigious Studio 58 acting school.
There are two main differences: Nelson is a real person and he also happens to be a guy. But then again, as his new play Melody, Mon Amour points out, “real people” always figure in fictional creations; and gender just isn’t what it used to be.
Melody, Mon Amour (premiering at the Fringe Festival, Sep 8-18) tells the tale of Melody Nelson, the muse for French pop icon (and drunken pervert) Serge Gainsbourg’s album, Histoire de Melody Nelson. (The album’s cover shows a waif of a girl clutching a rag doll to her naked breast-a perfect object of sexual innocence for a wolf like Gainsbourg.)
Finding herself on the sandy shore where her album ends, the fantastical Melody calls to her side two of Gainsbourg’s famous lovers-Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin. Serge, the ultimate hetero top-man, is subverted in Nelson’s play as his women battle over what it means to be part of his legacy. The fictional object of desire-Melody-becomes the master. Bottoms become tops.
Nelson himself identifies with the women of his play. On Gainsbourg, the 24-year-old confesses, “I love him, in this weird way. And I find him totally revolting.”
“Gainsbourg had this total persona-an ogre-he’d say the most terrible things.” Yet the “terrible” side of the man many have called a musical genius didn’t dissuade a femme fatale like Brigitte Bardot. In fact, his lechery, his bad-ass self, was a main attraction. “I was aiming to explore perverseness,” says Nelson. In Melody, Mon Amour, then, Gainsbourg becomes the muse-Nelson exacts an artistic revenge for his namesake, Melody Nelson.
Weird? Perverse? Yes, but it’s French, so one assumes he’ll get away with it.
Aside from creepily sharing a surname with Gainsbourg’s fantasy virgin, Nelson has a personal connection to the piece by way of his boyfriend and collaborator, Antoine Bédard (better known as the electronic musician Montag), who introduced Nelson to Gainsbourg’s world.
“It seems so easy,” says Nelson of his play’s inception. “Gainsbourg arrived in my life through Antoine.” After the couple met in Montréal, they began exchanging CDs-Cliffs Notes for their personalities, soundtracks for their lives. “I suddenly became obsessed [with Gainsbourg],” says Nelson. “It helped me understand Antoine’s obsessions.”
A penchant for nostalgia sealed the deal. “I grew up on the Shangri-Las,” says Nelson. “Duke of Earl was my favourite song for years.” And he may be out of sync with more than just mainstream radio. “I’ve kind of always felt like a tourist in the West End,” admits Nelson. “I’m an East End fag…it’s cheaper, it’s a bit slower. There’s an East Van credo that I kinda dig.”
Nelson revels in the hinterland. Particularly the border zones of language, sexuality, and one French icon. For the English-speaking world, Gainsbourg amounts to a lost gem. Melody, Mon Amour, then, is a missionary project, spreading the word.
Bédard will perform live for the production, creating his own interpretations of Gainsbourg’s music. “Maybe Antoine’s the muse behind the project,” offers Nelson. “But the writing is my own.”
“Oh, mai oui,” says Bédard.
Melody, Mon Amour is a short play, crammed with influences-tops and bottoms, muses and artists, all competing hotly for rank.
Mary Ann Singleton may have had a hand in it too. Nelson discovered the world of Armistead Maupin at 12-years-old and saw in it a world he wanted to belong to. The queer identity that has sprung from those early inklings now informs his work. Melody, Mon Amour happily confuses gender as Melody-a surrogate for the vanished Gainsbourg-attempts to seduce Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin (but, then again, who wouldn’t?).
Some scenes are “like the dressing room at a drag show,” says Nelson. “Everyone’s primping and preening…It’s a goofy sexuality.”
Bédard agrees that the darker side of Gainsbourg’s genius is countered by a less earnest element in the music itself. “There was a lightness,” he says. “His life was all drama… but in the late 60s, it was all about the parties.”