In 1988, a little German film by Percy Adlon, Out of Rosenheim, opened in the U.S. as Bagdad Café. A somewhat surreal comedy set in a down-at-heels truckstop café and motel in the Mojave Desert with an assortment of eccentric characters, Bagdad Café was the sleeper hit of the year. To quote Roger Ebert,
The heavyset German lady, her body and soul tightly corseted, her hair sprayed into rocklike permanence, is having a fight with her husband, right there in the Mojave Desert. They are in the middle of some kind of miserable vacation, touring America as a version of hell.
She can take no more. She grabs her suitcase and stalks away from their Mercedes, he drives away into the red, dusty sky, and she walks to a miserable truck stop and asks for a room.
An opening like that makes you stop and think, doesn’t it, about how cut-and-dried most Hollywood movies are. There would seem to be no place in today’s entertainment industry for movies about fat German ladies and homesick truck stops, and yet Bagdad Café sets us free from the production line of Hollywood’s brain-damaged “high concepts” and walks its own strange and lovely path. There is poetic justice in the fact that this movie, shot in English in America by a German, is one of the biggest box office successes in recent European history.
Ebert’s entire review is well worth reading, by the way.
The song that played during that opening scene, which so beautifully encapsulated the desert loneliness and longing, was “Calling You.” Written by Bob Telson and sung by the then-unknown Jevetta Steele, “Calling You” immediately grabbed me by the heart.
It has been the opening cut on the mix tape of every road trip I have ever taken.
The film was shot at what was then the Sidewinder Café in Newberry Springs, California. Since then, the café has become something of a tourist destination (they have nineteen volumes of visitors’ signatures), and has changed its name to the Bagdad Café. A small notice board on the café wall features snapshots of the film’s cast and crew.
A desert road from Vegas to nowhere
Someplace better than where you’ve been
A coffee machine that needs some fixing
In a little café just around the bend
I am calling you
Can’t you hear me?
I am calling you
A hot dry wind blows right through me
The baby’s crying and I can’t sleep
But we both know a change is coming
Coming closer, sweet release
I’m gonna walk through the desert to find you
Gone leave behind the only life I know
There’s a place for hearts that need fixing
A little café with a magic show
I am calling you
I know you hear me!
I am calling you oh
Here is Steele singing “Calling You” on the film sountrack, together with a montage of photos of someone’s trip through the Mojave and to the actual Café:
The song was a huge hit, particularly in Europe, and it was covered by George Benson, George Michael, Queen, Patti Austin, Natalie Cole, Jeff Buckley, Barbra Streisand, and Etta James, among others. Here is George Michael’s version:
This version is a duet by Lara Fabian (who out-Dions Celine) and Jevetta Steele, with a particularly reverent-sounding choir backing them up. It may be interesting to note that Steele’s principle genre is gospel music:
Back in the early 1500s the French colonized a huge chunk of North America (the eastern half, essentially) and called it New France. The territory was then divided into five territories. “Acadia” included a little bit of eastern Quebec, the Maritime provinces, and modern-day New England, as far south as Philadelphia, and included many Basque settlers. “Canada” (from the Iroquois word for “village”) referred to most of Quebec, the area along the Saint Lawrence River, and the northern shores of the Great Lakes. These two geographical regions developed very different cultural identities, and weren’t terribly friendly with one another. Still aren’t.
So since we heard from the Acadians yesterday, let’s hear from the Québécois today. Our final version of “Calling You” is a duet by two prominent French Canadian singers, Dan Bigras and Garou. Bigras is a rock singer, Garou is a pop singer. (By the way, Garou’s real name is Pierre Garand, who borrowed the nickname from 1970s-era Québécois singer-songwriter Garou, a.k.a. Robert Charlebois, who in turn took his stage name from the French loup-garou, which means “werewolf.”) Vive la Nouvelle France!