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People Who Died

Bon Vivant

Jean-François Bizot

Okan Arabacioglu

By Bret McCabe | Posted 12/26/2007

In 1968, a little-known magazine seller named Felix Dennis became the publisher of the London-by-way-of-Australian underground counterculture magazine Oz. And over the next five years Oz became one of the hippest things about post-Swinging London, tapping into and celebrating music, art, and some of the most blown-to-bits graphic design of any era. (These days, Dennis is the mogul behind Maxim.) In 1967, a British DJ who had spent some time in the United States started broadcasting for the BBC. His name was John Peel, and for the next 37 years he exercised one of the broadest, most acute, and most enthusiastically discerning ears for good music on the planet.

In the English-speaking world, both Peel and Dennis are fairly renown. In Paris, both those roles were filled by one staggeringly hip man. Jean-François Bizot, who passed away in Paris Sept. 8 after a protracted bout with cancer, at the age of 63, founded both Paris' leading countereverything periodical of the 1970s, Actuel, and the city's most outward-looking radio station in the 1980s, Radio Nova. His idea of "alternative" wasn't some narrowly defined windbag of a marketing strategy; Bizot thought more in terms of throwing irreverent hand grenades into any situation. According to David Byrne, when Actuel put him, Brian Eno, and Jon Hassell on the cover, when their 1981 My Life in the Bush of Ghosts exploration of African rhythms came out, the headline read the whites think too much.

Bizot came from a stolidly bourgeois home, the son of a Catholic family in Lyon, and studied literature and economics at Ecole Nationale Superieure des Industries Chimiques de Nancy. After a brief career as an economist, he became a journalist with L'Express, France's sort of lefty Time, from 1967-'70. He founded Actuel in May 1970, and over its run--1970-'75, 1979-'94--the magazine explored and celebrated environmentalism, feminism, gay activism, squatters rights, anti-racism, rock 'n' roll, psychedelia, fashion, comics, visual art, and other such underground, countercultural views, movements, and ideas. He distilled his own experiences and the general gestalt of the times into his books, 2001's Underground: The History and 2006's Free Press: Underground and Alternative Publications, 1965-1975.

He created the multicultural, free-form Radio Nova in 1981 following then-President François Mitterand's deregulation of French airwaves. Think of it as Paris' WFMU, a station that celebrated music from Africa, India, and other international locales long before "world music" became a record-store section, alongside such other foreign sounds as hip-hop, jungle, techno, and other new music.

What's especially remarkable about Bizot is not only what he achieved with his life's pursuits, but that he became so influential. He was a man known and admired in the so-called aboveground culture, and following his death, weekly French newsmagazine Le Nouvel Observateur published reactions to the news from esteemed journalists such as Phillippe Gavi (a co-founder of French daily paper Libération) and Ariel Wizman, French Minister of Culture Christine Albanel, the Syndicat Interprofessionnel des Radios et Télévisions Indépendantes (a union of independent radio and TV operators ), and his friend Bernard Kouchner, the doctor, diplomat, and Doctors Without Borders co-founder, who said Bizot was the "man who traveled these countercultures from which gushes life." (Clumsy, nonidiomatic translation this writer's.)

And he did it with such a impish humanity. In 2003, he published A Moment of Weakness, a book about his own battle with cancer. In it, he named his tumor "Jack the Squatter." May we all stare our mortality in the face with such absurd defiance.

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