Thursday, March 27, 2014

Charles Aznavour Starter Kit (French Chansons)

Good afternoon!

How's tricks, kids? I'm sitting at the nonfiction desk here at NPL and let me tell you-- we are in a whirlwind of activity down here at the library! The major renovation of the third floor, which has been in the works for about a year or so, has finally gotten down to the physical tasks of moving shelving from here to there, making way for construction, and materials, patrons, and library employees alike are all in uproar. I'm going to batten down the hatches this afternoon, repairing books and doing paperwork in the back office while spending a little time in 1950's France, grâce à Hulu's magnificent collection of nouvelle vague French movies. What's up on the marquee for this afternoon? Tirez sur la pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player), which casts singer Charles Azanvour in the role of Charlie, the titular piano player. Charlie, a former concert pianist on the run from his own past, works in a Parisian nightclub and gets mixed up in an American noir transposed to a Gallic setting by auteur François Truffaut. Two French things I am obsessed with-- singer Aznavour, and director FT. 

Let me tell you about the former today!

60s CHARLES AZNAVOUR Rare Music Memorabilia Button Pin / Black White Vintage 1960s Concert Collectible 
In early high school, I was a disinterested if decent French II student at Hume-Fogg Academic High School, when a chance VHS checkout of the movie Jules et Jim at the old Ben West library changed my linguistic life. I fell, but hard, for France in the form Truffaut presented it to me...the language, the style, the WORKS. This obsession took me through AP French and almost a college major in the subject (I minored and lacked two classes and a thesis to call it my major...c'est la vie). For the first three years after I graduated, I taught high school French, a horse of a different color from my word-nerd days of taping paper to the bottom of the mandatory-subtitles on old movie cassette tapes to test and improve my fluency, but interesting... and while I left French as a day-to-day profession, you'd better believe I still think about the things I love about it on an almost daily basis. The fourth most listened to artist on my account (after Fleetwood Mac, George Jones, Ted Hawkins, and Stevie Nicks...I am a creature of habit, after all)? The French Frank Sinatra, Mssr. Charles Aznavour.

I know, I know, he shouldn't be smoking...but he's French! Come on. Isn't he cute?

Charles Aznavour was born Shahnour Varinag Aznavourian in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris, a first generation French-Armenian. His parents were immigrants who opened a restaurant in France and supported their son's early interest in a musical career-- check this out for Frenchness, he dropped out of school at nine to follow his entertainment ambitions. At twenty two, he was discovered by Edith Piaf, with whom he toured the U.S., and embarked on a career that would span into the twenty-first century. He will be NINETY YEARS OLD when he plays the Greek Orpheum theater in Los Angeles this September, having clocked eighty-one years in the business. And I'll tell you, his consummate professionalism shows at every angle-- whether it's in his movie appearances or his crushingly romantic love songs, he's always the ne plus ultra of suavity.

Here's a super short playlist, for the new-to-the-artist set, of my very favorites of his songs. With a wide variety of song stylings to get you in mood for Aznavour, this can't miss!

1) "Jezebel"

Frankie Laine originated the English version of this song, but Azanour's version is about a hundred times better, with apologies to Mr. "Rawhide". The French version transports the melody from its lonesome cowboy original orchestration into something you could twist with Anna Karina to in some smoky boîte de nuit...and yet Aznavour's voice on the French version is both more substantial, sure-of-itself, and emotive than its American counterpart. I bought a Charles Aznavour best of in a fantastic Goodwill score of records two or three years ago, and this song stuck out from the others on the compilation as an immediate favorite. The soaring vocals on the lead up to the chorus, and the condemning, "Jehhhhhzabel, c'était toi...." gets me every time.

2) "Viens Pleurer (Au Creux de Mon Épaule)"

Oh, GOOD GOD, BEST RECONCILIATION SONG OF ALL TIME. I can't stand how romantic this song is. Aznavour's voice, the stripped down piano-and-bass combination in the sentimental little eyes well up with tears any time this song comes up on my iPod's shuffle setting. I love how freaking sad it makes me. From MOMENT ONE:

Si je t'ai blessée
Si j'ai noirci ton passé
Viens pleurer au creux de mon épaule
Viens tout contre moi
Et si je fus maladroit
Je t'en prie, chérie, pardonne-moi

Essentially: "If I hurt you/ if I [darkened your past...kind of like messed up things]/Come cry [in the hollow of, but on] my shoulder/Come close to me/And if I did something [clumsy] foolish/I'm asking you, forgive me"

And then a couple lyrics later:

Ne dis pas adieu
Nous serions trop malheureux
Viens pleurer au creux de mon épaule
Car si tu partais
Si mon bonheur se brisait
Mon amour, c'est moi qui pleurerais

Which is (again, my poor, bad-at-explaining-French grasp of the meaning) "Don't say goodbye/We would be too unhappy/Come cry on my shoulder/Because if you left me/My happiness would be broken/My love, I would be the one to cry".

[sound of me boohooing loudly] DON'T GO, CHARLES! WE CAN WORK IT OUT!! [bawling]

3) "Et Pourtant"

Another emotion-fraying track from his sixties' catalog...the title "Et Pourtant" translates into "and maybe" in the sense of "it's possible that", and links up beautifully with the chorus "Et pourtant, pourtant, je n'aime que toi"...In the song, le chanteur leaves his lover but returns to the chorus with a magnificently emotional delivery of "Possibly, possibly, I don't love anyone but you" in the sense of "you're the only one I loved", which, as I type it, is so wistful even in theory that it's choking my dumb little emotions up again. Ugh! Again, SO. ROMANTIC.

4) "Formidable"

This is a nice break from the heartache of the first four tracks, and even features English lyrics! While my tastes obviously tend to the maudlin, there are plenty of jaunty, cabaret type songs like this in Charles Aznavour's repertoire ("Je Me Voyais Déja" comes to mind). The words are so playfully written between the two lyrics, pitting against one another franglais and Frenglish like "You are the one, for me, for me, for me, forrrrmidable..." (formidable meaning "super", "great" and having a soundalike first two syllable to "for me")...the song is pretty much a mash up of the two languages as the singer ponders his wish to tell his beloved how much he loves her in both languages. "pour t'écrire dans la langue de Shakespeare" being "to write you in the language of Shakespeare". It's all delightfully play-on-wordsy but impressive for doing that IN BOTH LANGUAGES. Aznavour, by the by, is a polyglot who can speak French, English, Italian, Spanish, German, Russian, Armenian, Portuguese, Neapolitan, according to Wikipedia, and I've heard him sing in at least four of those languages! It reminds me of the Eddie Izzard sketch with the comedian's sardonic take on English/American attitudes towards bilingualism: "Two languages in one head?! No one can LIVE at that speed!"...look at Aznavour and his nine!

5) "Plus Bleu Que Tes Yeux"

This is one of those weird, posthumous tracks of a predeceased singer singing with a living singer, which I thought was a bizarre innovation in duets when Nat King Cole and Natalie Cole's "Unforgettable" came out and STILL consider a little spooky, but seeing as these two shared a stage in life many times, I guess it's ok if (and I think that's what went on with this recording) the two tracks were brought together for this unholy union, because HOW GORGEOUS are their harmonies? There is a completely terrifying video of Aznavour singing with a GHOSTLY AS ANYTHING hologram of "La Môme" that I've spared you, but you can still get a look at it via this link if you're feeling sinister. The song uses color metaphor after color metaphor to explain how sad and colorless the singer's life was before love came into it...can you sense a pattern here? The sentimental, heart-string pulling chanson is really where it's at for me.

Anyway! I have GOT to get back to work, but let's hear from you! Are you a fan of France or French music? Did any of these songs catch your interest the way they've caught mine? Have any allegiances to countries other than your own owing to a die-hard interest in the culture, the people, the place? Let's talk!

That's all for today, I'm going to go think about Aznavour's songs and fight back tears as I catch Shoot the Piano Player for the umpteenth time. Have a great Thursday! I'll see you tomorrow for Photo Friday! Til then.



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