On 4 January 1960 Albert Camus, the writer, absurdist philosopher and beloved intellectual pin-up of post-war France, was returning to Paris from his home in Provence after the Christmas holiday. Just short of his destination, the Facel Vega in which he was a passenger skidded off the road and concertinaed into a tree, killing him instantly. In his pocket police found an unused return train ticket for the journey, discarded by Camus when his publisher Michel Gallimard had offered to drive him instead.
Make of vehicle and likely absence of feather boa notwithstanding, the facts of Camus' death are almost identical to Marc Bolan's car-meets-tree demise in London 17 years later. In both, tragedy and romance collide like bumper on bark as two lives - glamorous in their own distinct ways - are prematurely extinguished like half-smoked cigarettes. If anything, Camus trumps Bolan in the automotive expiry stakes; if a single-vehicle collision must be your untimely fate, going out in a blaze of crumpled Facel Vega beats a mangled Mini GT hands down. Even in death Albert Camus proved he was the most rock 'n' roll philosopher who ever lived.
Though the first stirrings of my own infatuation with Camus were entirely platonic, inspired by the warmth and humanism of Dr. Rieux in The Plague, the movie-star good looks and rock 'n' roll exit did nothing to harm his appeal. And while twenty years' reading and re-reading blur the precise details of our first furtive encounter, I can remember almost to the day the incident that fanned the flames of enduring passion.
On a Wednesday evening in February 1992, BBC2's Rapido aired an interview with a new band named Manic Street Preachers. Guitarist and chief lyricist Richey Edwards gazed dolefully into the camera through thickly mascaraed eyelashes and reeled off a list of influences. In amongst the Sex Pistols and Hanoi Rocks were two things I secretly loved more than anything else on the planet: Guns 'N' Roses and Albert Camus.
It's impossible to overstate the epiphany, to this then-nineteen year-old at least, of hearing those names in such close proximity, rattled off like items on a shopping list: "Axl, Slash ... Camus." This motley roll call was leave to love expansively, permission for a kind of cultural promiscuity I imagined somehow inadmissible, in which high and low art were undifferentiated. Promising riffs from Appetite for Destruction and lyrics out of absurdist French philosophy, I bought into the Manics' first album Generation Terrorists sight unseen.
Of course Richey Edwards knew then what The Fall had worked out years before when they named themselves after Camus' 1956 novel La Chute: that Camus was cool as fuck. And plenty of others have been influenced by (or cynically co-opted) the sometimes-bleak existentialism of his fiction and essay writing. The Cure's first single 'Killing An Arab' is a sinister if heavy handed retelling of Mersault's alienation in L'Etranger. Titus Andronicus, a band whose very name suggests a willingness to wear literary references without embarrassment, obligingly entitle their own Camus-inspired song 'Albert Camus' lest you miss the point. Even Gaz Coombes, once a purveyor of breezy indie pop as the singer in Supergrass, seems to have discovered his inner absurdist on his recent solo project Here Come The Bombs.
So what is it precisely that makes Camus the perfect indie poster boy? Why not Jean-Paul Sartre, the existentialist granddaddy whose more outwardly nihilist pronouncements were tailor-made for a post-punk band like The Fall? (If there's a more passionate advocate for 'Hell is other people' than Mark E. Smith, try asking any of the sixty-six members who have passed through his band over the years.) As for the 'sex' part of the rock 'n' roll triumvirate, Camus and Sartre are even-Stevens; both men were inveterate womanizers - even if bespectacled, pipe-smoking Sartre was more George Formby to Camus' rugged, Gauloises-puffing Humphrey Bogart.
So might Camus' rock 'n' roll appeal have something to do with - whisper it - his philosophy? Unquestionably his early rejection of existentialism in favour of own-brand absurdism makes him a more accessible and rewarding read than Sartre. Yes, existence is absurd, and the universe is devoid of absolutes, but there remains always the possibility of creating meaning for ourselves. In the face of life's absurdity, Camus' protagonists are faced with three choices: suicide (more absurd than existence itself and therefore impossible), a leap of faith (God, or 'philosophical suicide', likewise impossible), or recognition.
This 'acceptance without resignation', as set out by Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus and more popularly referred to as 'revolt', is the only means by which the individual can truly be free. "To live without appeal," as he puts it, is to recognise no higher authority than oneself and therefore to define universals subjectively. To reject the afterlife and ironically acknowledge the absurd is to attain freedom by living utterly in the moment. Put another way, imagine there's no heaven - it's easy if you try. No hell below us - above us only sky. Imagine all the people living for today.
2013 is Camus' centenary year, a fact likely to inspire a welcome resurgence of interest in his tragically truncated body of work. As with fellow visionary John Lennon, Camus' fans can only guess at where that vision would have taken him. This fan of both continues to take inspiration from one of Camus' more famous passages from Sisyphus: "Thus I draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom and my passion." If that's not the definition of rock 'n' roll then I don't know what is.
Chris' book Live Fast, Die Young: Misadventures in Rock & Roll America can be purchased from his Amazon page.
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