Before it was the site of the worst massacre in rock history, the Bataclan was more than just a 1,500-seat theater in Paris; it was one of the city’s most legendary clubs. In 2011, singer Rafael Saadiq told Rolling Stone it was his favorite small venue in the world. Le Bataclan has seen Prince jam for hours on Led Zeppelin and Santana covers; the late Jeff Buckley bravely cover Edith Piaf in front of a discerning French crowd; Lou Reed and John Cale mend fences after Cale’s departure from the Velvet Underground.
“It was in the great European tradition of funky music halls,” says Rosanne Cash, who played the Bataclan in 1990. Tucked away in the city’s 11th arrondissement, north and east of the major tourist thoroughfares, the venue opened in 1864. It was originally called the Grand Café Chinois in honor of architect Charles Duval’s design – a multi-colored imitation pagoda that topped off the building. Eventually renamed after the French operetta Ba-ta-clan, the space presented the famous singer Piaf in some of her earliest performances.
The venue started booking rock acts in the early 1970s. In 1972, what was intended to be a Cale solo gig turned into a Velvet Underground reunion when Cale invited Reed and Nico to join him for unplugged but thrilling versions of “Heroin,” “The Black Angel’s Death Song” and “Femme Fatale,” along with solo Cale and Reed songs. A 1973 Genesis show, during their Peter Gabriel era, was filmed and broadcast.
Cash’s performance there, part of her intimate Interiors tour, was the only time she played the Bataclan, but her memories are vivid. “It was one of those nights when every moment was beautiful,” she recalls. “The Bataclan was beautiful – a little rundown but gorgeous.” Afterward, she and then-husband Rodney Crowell, who’d joined her onstage, adjourned to a nearby restaurant, where the crowd stood up and applauded – most of them had been to that show.
In early 1995, Jeff Buckley, on a European tour promoting his debut album Grace, was being considered for a slot at a French festival. With the promoters in attendance, he played the Bataclan, thrilling the audience with note-perfect versions of Piaf’s “Je N’en Connais Pas La Fin” and “Hymne a L’Amour.” (He got the festival gig). Four songs from that show were released as a live EP, Live From the Bataclan.
After the end of a set there in 2002, Prince returned to the stage for a Herculean two-and-a-half-hour encore, where he jammed on instrumentals as well as versions of “Whole Lotta Love,” Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” and his own “All the Critics Love U in Paris.” The show has become a much-bootlegged favorite of Prince devotees.
When it wasn’t presenting dance nights with DJs, the Bataclan was still hosting major acts. In the last decade, the Roots, Kendrick Lamar, the Killers, Bastille, David Byrne, Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, and Cold War Kids, among many, performed at the venue. Death Cab for Cutie and 30 Seconds to Mars played the venue this year, and the Deftones and Gary Clark Jr. had been set to perform in the days after the attack.
Cash is hoping to return there when she tours Europe next summer. “When I heard what happened, my heart was in my gut,” she says. “It’s so completely dispiriting and inconceivable. People were going to hear music.” But, she adds, “An act of defiance through music is the best kind of defiance.”