Our guitarist, Le Marquis!, performed regularly in oversized ladies’ bloomers. His brother, keyboard player Beau Pantalons, liked to wear a motorcycle outfit complete with toy police helmet and gloves….”
by bill carney
For years I maintained two lives, my daytime job as an appellate public defender and my life at night as a Faux-French musician, the lead singer in “Les Sans Culottes,” a Brooklyn-based rock band which pretended to be French. I believed the two lives were complementary, but I kept them separate, walled off like church and state, or perhaps Jekyll and Hyde.
Since I was a teenager I had been in jug bands, playing stomping country blues, ragtime and early jazz standards on homemade instruments like the washboard and washtub bass. It was fun largely because none of us expected to play at Carnegie Hall. The band and the music’s outsider, go-figure quality was part of the charm.
While visiting an old jug band friend in Paris in the mid-90’s, I fell in love with the music of Serge Gainsbourg, Jacques Dutronc and other French 60’s pop music icons. It hit me with the same sort of sonic boom that jug band music had years earlier. I became obsessed and vowed to start a French rock band in New York City. Others scoffed. Tres ridiculeux. It took two years, but I finally convinced a group of musicians to help with my project, and in April, 1998, we made our debut at Freddy’s, a small bar in Brooklyn.
Inspired by a tape of Edith Piaf at Carnegie Hall, I decided that we should present ourselves as actual (or in our case faux) French people. We assumed French personas with stage names like Jean Lc Retard, Celine Dijon, and Julius Orange, and apocryphal biographies. I dubbed the group, “Les Sans Culottes” (after the citizen-soldiers of the French revolution). It also meant “without underpants.” The band’s name reflected our dual comical-historical identity, like the band and a little like my own life.
We embraced the French “attitude thing,” simultaneously spoofing and paying homage to French music and culture. The live shows were high-energy, feather-boaed go-go affairs, equal parts Dali and Tati. Our guitarist, Le Marquis!, performed regularly in oversized ladies’ bloomers. His brother, keyboard player Beau Pantalons, liked to wear a motorcycle outfit complete with toy police helmet and gloves.
If the gloves and helmet’s darkened visor meant that he hit non-musical clam after clam during the shows, that was simply a cost of doing business.
The band soon attracted a sizeable following and played at some of New York’s best venues, like the lounge atop the World Trade Center, the self-proclaimed “Greatest Bar on Earth,” and rock clubs like New York’s Bowery Ballroom. Like our French revolutionary forebears, however, the project began to consume itself. Normal band conflicts were exacerbated by our band members swallowing the Kool Aid and too deeply inhabiting their haughty fake-French personas. Le Marquis!, for instance, was voted out of the band after he spent one performance repeatedly wacking our chanteuse Kit Kat Le Noir with a vacuum hose. When she complained, he told her, “You’re just the singer, I’m a genius.” Beau Pantalons insisted that he have his own personal roadie to schlep his keyboard to and from shows and set it up for him. Celine Dijon regularly turned to me, apropos of nothing and said, “pew, you stink.” The self-proclaimed diva’s conduct was so imperious that one studio professional working with us asked, “Is she royalty? Seriously, is she royalty?”
By April 2005, we had made five compact disc recordings and toured extensively along the east coast and California. After seven years, however, only myself and Kit Kat Le Noir remained from the original members. We had the seemingly good fortune to be profiled on National Public Radio that April and were set to return to California to play some gigs around Bastille Day. We had just played an enthusiastically- received packed show in a Manhattan loft and everything seemed great. The guitarist, Cal D’Homage, however, had another plan.
He sent the group an e-mail informing us that he did not think the band was working out. He tried to single-handedly fire two of our band members, even though we proceeded on a majority basis for those sorts of decisions. When Cal saw he was outvoted, he decided to start another band. Unfortunately, his new band was also called “Les Sans Culottes,” and he was joined by our band’s drummer, and three former members (whose interests were presumably renewed following the NPR profile), as well as a few who had never been in the band. While Cal had acted as our band treasurer, I was stunned to find out that he gave our band’s money to his new band and changed the access codes locking us out of our band’s website and fan e-mail list provider. His group then claimed they had “voted me out” of the band.
We still had our original Les Sans Culottes band, but now it was like watching a scene from Rene Clair’s “Entr’acte,” and truly surreal. A group of former band members impersonating a band of French impersonators was the sort of thing that a real contemporary French intellectual would have found fascinating. It was our faux-French band, and our bizarro doppelganger, the faux-faux French band.
My entire legal career involved representing indigent criminal defendants in state court, but I knew how to do legal research. I learned that the law gave a common law trademark to all of the original members of the group who had never left. That meant that Kit Kat and I had exclusive rights to the band name over all those who joined after we started the band or who had quit at any point along the way. Even if Pete Best and Ringo had once been Beatles, they could not start a second Beatles group over original and continuous members like John and Paul.
So I brought a pro se (self-representing) suit for trademark infringement in Federal court.
I had been an appellate public defender for 15 years but had never been involved in civil litigation in Federal court. My job was difficult and often frustrating, but I soon discovered a completely novel type of stress arising from being one of the parties, and so personally involved in litigation. The defendants had hired an experienced intellectual property lawyer, one who sensed, correctly, that I was in over my head. He spent most of his time trying to intimidate me. In addition, the defendants hid from my process servers or claimed they were not properly served. The clerks at the pro se office repeatedly gave me a hard time about filing my papers. I had been to law school and practiced for many years. I wondered what it was like to receive this kind of treatment as a total layperson, or someone who had not been to college. My head spun.
The rival group asserted – under oath – that they had always been in the band. Fortunately, I had the ex-members’ e-mails with references to them asking permission to sit in after they had left the band or regretfully moving to another part of the country. I also had e-mails addressed to their replacements as “the band.” I had saved them in my band scrapbook, which I never imagined would someday be the source of critical evidence in court. Also, Kit Kat. testified about what had really happened.
The judge was an older, blind man who used a seeing-eye dog. He was used to multi-million dollar lawsuits and terrorism cases and wondered what a faux-French rock band was doing in his court. His judicial temperament was brusque and no nonsense. More than a few friends reminded me of the adage about a fool acting as his own lawyer, and as a lifelong appellate specialist I had never elicited direct testimony from witnesses or conducted cross examination. I thought of some of my clients who had represented themselves during their criminal trials always with disastrous results. The facts and the law, however, were overwhelmingly on my side. At my hearing for a preliminary injunction after I introduced the band e-mails into evidence the judge saw exactly what was going on. He told the rival group and their lawyer that they were wasting everyone’s time. Immediately afterwards, their lawyer called and offered to give everything back and stop using our band’s name. We signed the court order forcing them to stop using our band’s name on July 14th, Bastille Day.
Bill Carney is a founding member and contributing editor to the late, lamented Lurch Magazine. He is also the leader of not one but two renowned New York City bands: Les Sans Culottes and Bill Carney’s Jug Addicts. In addition to his many literary and musical endeavors, he maintains membership in several secret societies and is a master when it comes to cooking with curry. More from Bill Carney can be found in the Vault of Smoke.