La Chanson française

As one who straddles the Transatlantic cultural divide, I often have trouble communicating to my American friends the wonder of some French musical acts, particularly the great auteurs of la chanson française.

The thing with chanson is that it is as much poetry as it is music, and poetry that relies heavily on alliteration, cultural references, wordplay, poetry therefore that is very hard to carry over to another language and culture.

The obvious example here is Georges Brassens, who rolls his Auvergnat r’s over a meek plucked guitar, casually unfurling lyrics packed several layers deep with cultural allusions, extended metaphors, clever rhymes and astute wordplay.

His masterpiece Les Copains d’abord (originally written for the soundtrack of an eponymous film which has been utterly forgotten, overshadowed by the song, even though it is one of the gems of French cinema, starring some of the greatest actors of the 20th century, often before they were famous) is built upon an extended metaphor of friendship as a ship and a nautical journey, bringing in The Raft of the Medusa, Fluctuat nec mergitur and the Battle of Trafalgar. In the song, friendship is “franco de port,” a technical expression for shipful of merchandise paid for by the sender, that is to say free, but also a wordplay on “port”—a port in the storm—and “franco”—slang for “honest.”

For Brassens, friendship is unselfconscious and not theorized. The copains would give anything for each other, but the last thing they would do is think “I would give anything for him” :

They weren’t fancy friends
Like Castor and Pollux
Or people from Sodom and Gommorrah
They weren’t friends chosen
By Montaigne and La Boétie

For all its value and perhaps transcendence, it would be wrong to see friendship as religion:

They weren’t angels
The Gospel? They ain’t read it
But they loved each other at full rigging
John, Peter, Paul and the gang,
That was their only litany,
Their Credo, their Confiteor,
Friends first

(Brassens is known for his opposition to organized religion, and isn’t it nice for once to see an adversary of the Church who actually knows what he’s talking about? One finds it hard to imagine Christopher Hitchens knowing how to use confiteor. )

This is just a small glimpse of the lyrical depth of one song by Brassens, and perhaps I’ve shown how hard, perhaps futile, it seems to translate the combination of alliteration, rhyme, cultural reference and wordplay that the chanson throws at the listener.

Another glorious example is Jacques Dutronc, perhaps—I dare submit—the coolest cat of the 20th century (no doubt helped by the fact that his wife is one of the most beautiful women in the 20th century). Known in his youth for his three-piece suits and forever for his big cigars, Dutronc is what you would get when you cross the perfect son-in-law with a fiercely playful devil.

His formidable song L’Opportuniste, a send-up of politics, is impossible to appreciate without understanding the idiomatic expression of the chorus: retourner sa veste (to turn one’s jacket inside out, that is to say, to change one’s affiliation or public belief):

Some object, demand and protest
I only do one thing
I turn my jacket inside out
I turn my jacket inside out
On the good side always

The predictable line “I am of all parties” has three layers: political parties; fun parties, but also parties fines, that is to say, orgies. (Not that French politicians would know anything about that, of course.)

J’aime les filles (I Like Girls) is, as the title suggests, a French song out of central casting.

I like the girls from Castel
I like the girls from Régine
I like the girls you see in Elle
I like the girls from the magazines (…)
I like the girls with dowries
I like the daddies’ girls
I like Lot’s girls (!)
I like the girls who don’t have daddies
I like the girls from Megève
I like the girls from Saint Tropez
I like the girls who go on strike
I like the girls who go camping (…)
I like the girls from Camaret
I like the bookish girls
I like the funny girls
I like the Vieille France girls

The song’s overall theme is, well, pretty straightforward. But then again, you miss much of the song if you know the popular Paris nighttime spots Castel and Régine (as popular when I was in college as in Dutronc’s generation—I like les filles de chez Régine too), if you know Megève and (this one is easier) Saint Tropez, if you know that “les filles de Camaret” is the title of a French bawdy song, if you know what “Vieille France” refers to…

Every Dutronc song is packed to the brim with awesomeness, but it’s just so hard to convey. I’ve been meaning for a while to share with fellow Scenester Matt Frost his amazing anti-French Parenting song Fais pas ci, fais pas ça (Don’t Do This, Don’t Do That). Listen to the song’s restless tune, and know that “A da da prout prout cadet, A cheval sur mon bidet” is one of the sillier French nursery rhymes.

Don’t do this, don’t do that
Come here, sit here
Watch out, don’t get cold, or else
Eat your soup, come on, brush your teeth
Don’t touch this, go to sleep
Say Daddy, say Mommy
Don’t do this, don’t do that
A da da prout prout cadet, A cheval sur mon bidet
Don’t put your fingers in your nose
You still suck your thumb
What did you spill?
Close your eyes, open your mouth
Don’t bite your nails nasty child
Go wash your hands
Don’t cross the street or else I’ll spank you
Don’t do this, don’t do that
A da da prout prout cadet, A cheval sur mon bidet
Let your dad work
Go do the dishes
Stop squabbling
Respond when I call
Be polite say thank you to the lady
Leave your seat
Time to go to bed
Can’t miss the class
Don’t do this, don’t do that
A da da prout prout cadet, A cheval sur mon bidet
You tire me I can’t take it
Say good day say good night
Don’t run in the hallway
Or else I’ll spank you
Don’t do this, don’t do that
A da da prout prout cadet, A cheval sur mon bidet
Come here get out of here
Here’s the door get out
Listen to the grown ups
Don’t do this, don’t do that
A da da prout prout cadet, A cheval sur mon bidet
Stubborn runt
You’ll get a beating
What did you do with my comb?
I’ll only say it once
You’re good for nothing
I’m telling you for your own good
If you don’t do better
You’ll be a ditch-digger
Don’t do this, don’t do that
A da da prout prout cadet, A cheval sur mon bidet
Don’t worry guys
Don’t worry guys
They told me all that too
Don’t do this don’t do that
Don’t do this don’t do that
And this is where I ended up
And this is where I ended up
La la la
La la la
La la la
La la la la
La la la la
La la la la

Fuckin’ A man.

Dutronc is, after all, a guy who wrote—and, more importantly, got past the censorship boards of mid-‘60s France—a song dedicated to how wonderful his penis is.

Am I jealous?
Not at all, not at all
I have a girl trap
A taboo trap
An amazing toy
That goes crac-boom-hoo
It makes girls fall to their knees

Dutronc disses “professional play boys” who “work like beavers, not with their hands or feet” (beavers use their tails to build their dams, and in French queue (tail) is slang for penis). Those playboys are “minets” who “eat their ron ron at the Drugstore”—minet means kitten but is also slang for “prettyboy”, hence the “ron ron” (cat food) they eat at the Drugstore, a nouveau riche hangout near the Arc de Triomphe. Dutronc may not have the play boys “Cardin suits” or “Ferraris” or hang out at “Fauchon”, but is he jealous? No, because he’s got his “amazing toy” that makes all the girls fall to their knees…

Dutronc disses all the types of Parisian playboys: “the Supermen with bodies of steel”, “those who read and who can speak” and even “those who get married at La Madeleine”. As far as diss songs go, this is pretty great. “My rivals may be richer, prettier and smarter, but I have a bigger dick.”

Then there’s his untranslatable L’Aventurier where he rhymes French slang with basically every town on Earth (my favorite: “J’ai été lourdé à Lourdes”), while mocking the fake adventurers we sometimes run across.

Perhaps I’ve gotten my point across: it’s very hard to convey the awesomeness of the chanson française to a non-French audience, based as it is on poetic lyrics and cultural references, rather than musical quality.

Of course, there are exceptions. Jacques Brel’s volcanic intensity punches through all cultural barriers. I dare you to listen to his Quand on n’a que l’amour (When All You Have Is Love) and not feel like you’ve just been punched in the gut.

When all you have is love
As your only reason
As your only song
And only succor

When all you have is love
To provide, in the morning,
The poor and the wanderer
With velvet coats

When all you have is love
To offer up as a prayer
For the evils of the Earth
As a simple troubadour (…)

When all you have is love
To talk to cannons
And just a song
To convince a battle drum

Then, having nothing
But the strength to love
We will have in our hands,
Friends, all of the world.

Without a doubt, the most underrated of the great auteurs of chanson is William Sheller. Sheller has a fatal flaw: he appeals to the people of my class, the old money, and thereby earns the contempt of the music critics. He has the gall to use Christian themes sometimes, and not to mock them either, so he’s clearly a simpleton.

Sheller is, first and foremost, humble. It’s so easy to mistake him for a peddler of poor pop, with his saccharine synth and mild electric guitars, his unimpressive voice, a light tenor which sounds like it could be yours or mine. Sheller sneaks up on you. When you listen to his songs, you don’t picture an arena, you picture him in your living room or perhaps some dive, on the piano, banging out a few tunes. Then you realize that the catchy tunes are the wings of deep poetry, that his voice has a je ne sais quoi of earnest intensity you’ve never quite heard elsewhere, that this man is painting a whole world for you in the span of just a few minutes.

Sheller is a poet for sure (his pseudonym “Sheller” is an homage to Shelley and Schiller) but like his lyrics, the quality of his music likes to hide in plain sight. A classically-trained pianist and composer, Sheller uses the tools of orchestration to make the elements of pop music do more than they’re supposed to. The drums, the base are ever so slightly more subtle and complex than they would be if someone else was writing the song. You’ll never catch the music showing off, or overshadowing the song, but always accompanying and strengthening it.

In Les Filles de l’aurore (The Girls Of Dawn), an almost meditation on hedonic teenage love, the drums and base first give off a very simple beat, but they are quickly completed with piano, then synth, then strings. The strings are on their own melody, undergirding the song. The drums sometimes bounce up into the song. So easy to miss that there’s a lot going on under the catchy choruses.

The boys of dawn
Slide their bodies in worn jeans
They brush nervous fingers through their hair
And walk outside
They have deep in their eyes
The dreams of the strongest
The wars they still wage
When the dawn sees them walk two by two

And I come well after the dawn
When the sun rises above St John
I want to tell them I still love you
You who always leave me

The lovers of dawn
Still give themselves to each other
In wrinkled beds
Hearts against bodies
Is it love or death
That keeps them in their embrace?
They have deep in their eyes
Dreams I used to dream
That you would stay
After the dawn kept us

Vienne (Vienna) is both an ode to the beauty of the imperial city and the telling of the bittersweet story of a marriage hitting bottom.

If I write you tonight from Vienna
It’s for you to understand
That I chose absence
As our last chance
Our sky became so heavy

If I write you tonight from Vienna
— O fall in Vienna is so beautiful —
It’s that without thinking I chose to take off
And I’m in Vienna without you

I walk and dream in Vienna
To the triple time of a distant waltz
It seems as if shadows turn and melt into each other
Our evenings in Vienna were so beautiful

(Don’t worry. They get back together in the end.)

I ask you, who has the means to take off for Vienna for a week off when their marriage goes south? Someone who’s not paying enough taxes, that’s who. Class traitors like Sheller can’t make good music.

One of Sheller’s most affecting songs is Maman est folle (Mom Is Insane), narrated from the perspective of the older child who has to care for both his disabled mother and his younger brother, while hiding her condition for fear of having her taken away. No father is mentioned. This heart-breaking song is 100% pathos-free, carried by a strangely upbeat tune and lyrics appropriately simple and blunt for the child narrator.

Mom is insane
Can’t do nothin’ about it
What makes it better
Is she loves us

When she flies away
We hold her hand
She’s like a kite
That the wind plays with (…)

When Mom laughs
We forget we’re hungry
That it’s time for school
That we’re afraid of the neighbors

She’s our idol
She fills our hearts
They mustn’t steal her
Or take her away

So Sheller does naturalistic stories. There are biographical ones, like Basket Ball about, well, playing basket ball as a young man, and more (“I was then a guy/Who played a bunch of basketball/Who played a bunch of rock’n‘roll/But when you were there, I never knew what to say…”), RockNDollars about his slightly silly teenage dreams of making lots of money as a rock star and aping all things American (“I will be your popstar, your King/It’s all about dollars and feeling”).

He also often evokes history, as in Guernesey a poetic evocation of Victor Hugo’s exile on the eponymous island and a call for free speech (“To be exiled for ideas/To hear the voices drifting/Under the waves”).

But Sheller is not above mysticism. With impressionistic touches, he paints worlds that sometimes have supernatural hues. You never know what’s what, as in Les Miroirs dans la boue (Mirrors In The Mud)

In the storm of an ageless forest(…)
I saw the face of a wild child
Carrying a jewel
Green eyes swept with ginger hair(…)

God makes pictures with clouds
The rain makes mirrors in the mud
I have looked for you everywhere
I keep a mirage in a strange cage
The kind that mad men build
I have looked for you everywhere

My favorite Sheller song (and I’m going to end this interminable post with this) is without a doubt Excalibur An hommage to the chansons de geste, this song evokes the powerful mythos of the Middle Ages about as well as anything else I can think of. The faith and the heroism of knights, but also the violence and the tragedy. I said Sheller’s orchestration is subtle, but here he goes all out, with an orchestra and a Latinate choir. This is a song that makes you want to ride your steed to Jerusalem to retake it for Christendom, and yet leaving you with a piercing feeling that it’s all for nothing, and yet somehow still worth it if it’s noble. A medieval history professor I knew once told me this about the Middle Ages: “They committed as much horror as any era, but they repented more than any era.” The knight narrator addresses a father who is alternatively his lord and God.

It is a great blessing, noble father
To see you again, so full of life
Back on your noble lands
Before your proud squadrons
After these long years of war
Heaven is a witness that today
It is a great joy for the whole city
To open its doors loudly

Misery and long nights came
God gave and God took back
Our brothers are gone, so are our enemies
God gave and God took back
God kept you
May He be blessed

It took so much earth
To dig so many beds
That whole mountains were not enough
And You needed so much stone
To build fair churches
Where we sang Your light
Where we felt so small.

In the forest of your banners
Blows a good wind, flapping with life
The sun burns your iron gloves
Today is a great day,
But allow me noble father
To leave you with this
The road to the border is long
I shall have to travel by night (…)

I leave to bury
At the ends of our old land
The soft Diane with the fair hair
Whom I cannot forget
She shall sleep as in prayer
Out of the fairest marble anyone saw
Under the fair light
Of your fair churches

This bittersweet song appeals to any romantic, particularly one taken with the romanticism of the Medieval knights. It does not flinch from the ugliness of the Medieval drama, but nor does it deny its epicness. This song grabs you and makes you travel to another world, one where you could almost—not quite—confront Mordor on horseback with Aragorn.

Sheller is really cool. He has an uncanny gift for painting whole worlds with just a few words in his songs, and elegant, subtle orchestration. I hope I’ve been able to convey that.

PS: This is a guy who wrote a “psychedelic mass” in 1969. Side 1 and Side 2 on YouTube.