Monday, March 7, 2016
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
HEARING WHAT IS NOT THERE
You know how the mass media often assume that everybody of the same generation shared the same tastes? If you believed movies and television you would believe that every middle-class American in the 1920s was dancing the Charleston and every middle-class English youth aspired to be a Bright Young Thing. Likewise, by the mid-1950s every teenager was worshipping Elvis and rejoicing in rock’n’roll. As for teenagers in the 1960s – well, to a boy and a girl, they were rapt in the Beatles and the Stones and would listen to nothing else.
But these are merely media stereotypes perpetuated in nostalgia movies. For in every one of these generations, there were masses of young people who were not in the least interested in dance music or commercial pop or rock. Apart from those who took no interest in music whatsoever, there were those who preferred real jazz or so-called classical music or brass bands or church choirs or folk music (which of course became quite commercial itself in the 1960s).
Call me a rebel, but I was one of these dissenters.
I was a teenager in the late 1960s, and despite what my schoolmates said, I regarded the Stones and the Beatles (and Herman’s Hermits and Manfred Mann and the Kinks and God wot) with lordly contempt. Okay, I’ve mellowed a little since then. I can see some merit in Ray Davies’ often witty lyrics for the Kinks and I admit that some of the Beatles is firmly lodged in my brain (as are, and in the same way, long-ago advertising jingles). And, yes, I did always have a soft spot for that working class lad from oop north, Alan Price. But while the other kids were lamenting that she had a ticket to ride, or offering advice to Jude or declaring themselves to be walruses, I was raiding my big brother’s collection of jazz LPs and acquainting myself with Duke Ellington and Django Reinhardt and Sidney Bechet and John Coltrane, or hearing how Mozart sounded on a turntable or (perhaps most frequently) getting into what my parents were listening to in the records they had acquired in the 1940s and 1950s. (Yep – we still played some 78s then.) Eartha Kitt at her youngest and most seductive singing “Monotonous” or “C’est si bon”. (My mother liked her the same way she liked Mae West – because she made fun of sex, or “guyed” it, as my mother would say.) The 1950s Broadway cast recording of The Threepenny Opera with Lotte Lenya singing “Pirate Jenny” in English. And of course, and most bewitchingly, Edith Piaf.
Whereby hangs this week’s sermon.
I know that somewhere in his diaries Joe Orton makes his snarky remark about how you could identify a gay man in the 1960s – he’d be the one who had a big pile of Judy Garland records. The lady’s sobbing and emotive self-display were the epitome of camp. I think the same might possibly be true of Edith Piaf (1915-1963), who also sobbed and emoted and sang about men who had got away and was of course praised at length by the ultimate camp dilettante Jean Cocteau (who coincidentally died within weeks of her). So confessing that my teenage self often listened to Edith Piaf might suggest to you that I am revealing something about myself.
No I ain’t.
I do not belong to Orton’s and Cocteau’s tribe. But I was bewitched by this particular camp performer as she rolled her Rs (“Non, je ne RRRRRegrette RRRien…. RRRRien de RRRRien” etc.) and as she acted the little sparrow, Parisian equivalent of the cheerful Cockney sparrow, and as she sang in her rough prole voice “La Goualante de Pauvre Jean” (“sans amour on n’est rien du tout” ) and bucked up Milord (“Il fait si froid dehors. Ici c’est confortable”) and warbled about the accordionist cheering up the hooker on the corner (“La fille de joie est belle au coin de la rue la-bas…”). And then when she did the obligatory patriotic piece “Le Fanion de la Legion” (though, to express their rebelliousness, the boys of the legion actually preferred “Non, je ne regrette rien”). And above all when she went into sentimental mood with “Hyme a l’amour” and pleaded to get into heaven with “Monsieur Saint Pierre” and cuddled up in “La Vie en Rose” and – oh emotional strain for the 15-year-old listener! – confessed in song to her love for “Mon Legionnaire” (complete with sobs on the recording we had, as she remembered that the soldier left her after a one-night stand). What a voice – rough, compelling, with as much raw lung-power as Ethel Merman but put to much better use. I suppose there was a severely damaged edge to her voice, too, fitting for one whose photos showed her to be a pained and slightly grotesque dwarf. Yes, one did later hear about her ruination by booze and morphine and far too many men. That same path of ruination as Billie Holiday and Judy Garland all fitted the image of the self-destructive chanteuse.
And, mes amis, she was French and sang in French.
For now we come to the crux of the matter.
As she sang of the accordionist and the legionnaire and pauvre Jean, I was certainly bewitched by the voice, but I was also bewitched by the language. I was listening to these songs in a language I was just beginning to learn, and all these love songs and regret songs and passionate songs were, as far as my ears were concerned, poetry. And they were far removed from the banal pop songs the other kids were listening to.
But recently, a terrible thing happened to me.
Someone gave me a CD of Piaf singing her greatest hits in English. Admitting that there is, alas, something mildly comical in pop songs being sung in thickly-foreign-accented English, the worst thing was to discover that, stripped of their French vocabulary, the lyrics of “La Vie en Rose” and “Je ne regrette rien” and “Hymne a l’amour” are pretty damned banal. As banal as any other pop song, I guess.
“No. No regrets. No. I weel have no regrets.”
“If the sky should fall into the sea, and the stars fade all around me, for the time that we have known dear, I will sing a hymn to love.”
“When you kiss me heaven sighs, and though I close my eyes, I see la vie en rose.”
Oh Gawd! Is this what moved me in the French language?
The songs fade. Adolescence fades. I still have four or five CDs of Piaf singing in her own tongue and can still listen to them for the past that they evoke. But even if belted (or sobbed) out, they are after all just pop songs. Marguerite Monnot (Piaf’s most frequent song-writer) was not Baudelaire. She was a good commercial writer of pop songs. Finis.
But Piaf could sing.