Washing up in Impasse Florimond in the early Fifties.
The music races by in just over 3 minutes but feels much faster. Imagining it was the first time you heard the song, it seems impossible to conceptualize the piece as any kind of protest. You’re trying to keep up with the lyrics, the gentle boum ba boum of the guitar bouncing in an insistant rhythm like a man in a hurry to get somewhere. He’s talking quickly and quietly in plainsong, a stranger passing on the street. The whole thing is lighter than air, and barely underway, it’s over. Maybe, you tell yourself, it’s a French trifle, hard to take too seriously, another song about love gone wrong. One of those things that doesn’t translate. The rhythm is deceptive, it exists at a certain level of tension with the mysterious lyrics, which you haven’t decoded yet. So what is it, a statement of some kind ? A poem ? Are you a spy headed to a clandestine meeting and the singer’s whispering in code ? All of the above.
In this town i don’t have to work hard / For my bad reputation. / Whether I’m slaving away or keeping to myself / Everyone thinks I’m a know-it-all. / I don’t do anyone any harm / I go my way, a good natured guy. // But Good People don't like it / When someone takes a different road
All of which, if this were America, seems a set-up for a High Noon shoot out on Main Street between a Cool Guy and the Straights, an orgy of cosplaying hipsterism. Except that everything in the rhythm, the intonation of the voice, the whole ambiance of the song says no. The singer even manages to get in a few jokes. Everyone points the finger at me, he says, except the ones who don’t have arms. Everyone gives me a kick, except the guys who lost their legs. (And where might they have lost their arms or legs ?) A little corny – that’s how it is in small towns – but the singer saves the most revealing bit for last :
No need to be a Jeremiah / To know what’s in store for me / If they found a rope that fits / They’d put it around my neck / Even if I don’t harm a single soul / By taking roads that don’t lead to Rome // But the good people don’t care for those / Who take another route / Everyone round here would come to see me hang / Except the blind, I’m sure you understand !
Nowhere do we get the sense the singer is clearing out, that he’s headed to the bus station with his bags packed. It’s part of the seductive anarchy of the song that he appears to be staying where he is, under people’s noses. Everybody lives in a small town of some kind. Could be twenty thousand or five, a neighborhood in a city or a village nestled in the hills with all of 235 inhabitants. You can’t really move away.
(Ten years or so later another chansonnier was in a similar mood : ‘If my thought dreams could be seen / They’d probably put my head in a guillotine.’ That last word in the line from It’s All Right, Ma, is it just a smart rhyme or a tip of the hat between pros ?)
The song was written in the years immediately after the Second World War, when social conformity was at its height, when people were busy covering up how they’d survived the war. People had a lot of reasons to be on the right side of things back then, just like they do now.
The stranger who wrote the song was born in the southern town of Sète, a small pile of rock topped with pine and cypress trees, laced with Mediterranean beaches on three sides. The singer didn’t take the well-travelled road to Rome but came by way of the Basdorf camp near Berlin, where he was doing forced labor – a one way ticket to physical exhaustion and death. A year into it, given a day off, he promptly disappeared, turning up in occupied Paris, where he stayed with his aunt Antoinette. That couldn’t last. He was a deserter and a big bear of a man, as maybe you can see in the photo above, liable to stand out in a crowd. In the waning days of ’44, that meant being shot if the police stopped him on the street, and quite likely the same for his aunt. Looking for a place to hide he found an narrow little alley in the 14th, quartier Plaisance, where an older couple, Jeanne and Marcel Planche, took him in, giving him the cot in the corner of a house with no electricity, gas or interior plumbing, where dogs, cats, a turtle, a buzzard and a lonely mother duck outnumbered the humans.
Impasse Florimond or Florimont (the signs disagree), sounds a little like florilège, a medley or florifère, abounding in flowers. None of that. It was named after a certain Monsieur Flowery World or Flowery Hill. Back in the days of summary justice, Florimond was the local church executioner who strung his victims up along the road running to Vanves and Montrouge. That practice lasted until Louis XIV took the privilege of hanging people for himself. None of which, we can guess, the stranger knew or much cared about while he lived there, forming a lasting attachment to the place, the people and the brutes, making it his hide-out for the next twenty odd years. Toss another unintentional irony onto the pile for the guy who picked up a banjo and started to write Bad Reputation. He sat on his lyrics for a long time before he was convinced they were ready.
In 1952, during a party at the home of the Parisian singer Patachou, Georges Brassens, 31 years old, made his debut with the song Mauvaise Reputation. The frequent opener at concerts throughout his career, it became the title of his first album and, according to him, his credo as an artist. The song was given top honors on the airwaves - it was immediately banned, much like Vian’s Deserteur a few years later. As is usually the case, censorship had the reverse effect.
(Stretching credulity just a little, Pierre Nicholas, who met Brassens that night chez Patachou and became his long-time bass player, was born on Impasse Florimond before the war.)
Georges Brassens, undated press photo.
Further down the road, the Academie Française gave Georges Brassens the Grand Prize for Poetry in 1967. (Fast acceptance for a folk singer, say what, beating the Nobel Committee by forty years.) That’s some journey from the Impasse. While recording two hundred songs of his own, he also set poets like Victor Hugo, Paul Fort, Louis Aragon, Verlaine, Jean Richepin, Alfred Musset, Jacques Villon and half a dozen others to music. The Impasse is cleaned up now but it’s still hard to find, hidden to the side of a gas station off rue d’Alesia. There’s a plaque for Brassens, and one for Nicholas, too. Brassens’ reads, Et que j’emporte entre les dents un flocon des neiges d’antan. May I carry one of yesterday’s snowflakes between my teeth. A line from one of his songs, and a nod to Villon, who also feared being hanged.
Those are a few of the things that went into that one song, a tune that only sounds off the cuff. Of the three or four figures most responsible for reimagining French chanson in the years after World War Two, Brassens travels least. Everyone in the English speaking world knows Jacques Brel while hipsters can claim Gainsbourg for their own. That leaves Brassens and Leo Ferré, the poet-composer of Ni Dieu Ni Maître. Where Ferré is outspoken, Brassens is an almost homey everyman who rarely calls attention to political beliefs but lives as he pleases. In any case, passing over a life’s work that many French, those tempramental anarchists, know by heart, let’s race to the end, when Brassens was thinking about his old home town. His poem, Supplique pour être enterré dans la plage de Sète (Request To Be Buried On The Beach At Sète) gives the Grim Reaper a run for his money, gently mocking the petits catastrophes of humankind, telling little stories about shipwrecks and sea maidens, crowded family vaults, dolphins, his first romance on the beach. Where the language of Bad Reputation is spare, Sète is extravagant.
Brassens was seriously ill when he made his last tour of France, singing and playing Sète to rapturous applause. I offer it here in an unrhymed version that only tries to catch some of the images and feeling. I’m sure you can find better but I did this one quickly, just to get it down. Paul Valery, a poet on the other end of the spectrum in sensibility and reknown, is also buried in Sète. (The rhyme scheme is a a b c c b, six line stanzas.)
The Grim Reaper’s had it in for me
Ever since I stuck flowers up his nose.
He tails me like an obsessive dope.
With funerals everywhere I turn
It’s time to think about revising my last words
and paying for a few riders to my will.
Dip your pen in the blue ink of the sea
in the Gulf of Leon, my dear old notary
And with an elegant flourish
Take note of what I’ve planned for my remains
when soul and body no longer agree
on anything except it’s time to go their separate ways.
When my soul has taken flight to the horizon
To join Gavroche and Mimi Pinson,
the street urchins and working girls,
May my body travel to native ground
in the sleeping car «Paris-Mediterranée»,
Last stop Sète, end of the line.
The family vault, alas, is nothing new.
To put it crudely, it’s as stuffed as a deviled egg
In that place no one ever leaves.
It’s getting late so I can’t ask
those brave folks, Shove over if you please!
Make room for the young, so to speak.
At the edge of the sea, two steps from the blue waves
Dig, if it’s allowed, a soft hole,
a cozy little niche
Close to the dolphins, my childhood mates,
The whole length of the strand where the sand is smooth.
You know the place, la Corniche.
A beach where, even when he throws a fit
Neptune’s only kidding
And when a boat runs aground
The captain cries, ‘I’m the boss on board !
Save yourself if you can but the wine and pastis go first !
Grab your flask and good luck !’
It’s there, once upon a time, that fifteen years flew by.
At the age when playing alone lost its allure,
I fell in love for the first time.
Sitting next to a sirene, a woman-fish
My initiation in love
ended when I swallowed my first bone.
With guarded deference to Paul Valery
A master this humble troubadour can’t hope to match -
May he pardon me.
And yet, if his verses are worth more than mine
The hometown crowd will have a better time
At my grave close to the waves
A tomb sandwiched ’twixt sea and sky
won’t throw a gloomy shade across the scene
but a charm that has no name.
Let bathers use it as a screen
to change their suits, and happy kids yell,
« Cool! We’ve found a castle made of sand.»
Is this too much to ask ? On my tiny patch of ground
Plant, if you don’t mind, a species of pine,
The umbrella pine would be my choice
that offers shade against the sun
For good friends who visit
to pay loving, last respects.
Some from Spain, some from Italy
reeking of perfume and festive airs
The mistral and the tramontane
Pouring echoes over my last snooze
one day a villanelle and a fandango, the next
A tarantelle and a sardane.
And when she uses my heap to rest her head
An ondine from the sea drifts off to sleep
wearing a little less than nothing at all
I beg Jesus’s pardon in advance
If the shadow of my cross falls across her face
for a little happiness after my fall.
Poor kings and pharoahs too! Poor Napoleon!
Poor great ones in the Pantheon!
Poor ashes of the great
You’ll feel a bit of envy for the eternal guest
Who pedals the waves in his dreams,
For whom death is but a summer break.
(Georges Brassens, October 1921 - October 1981)
“Anti-conformista por adentro, no por afuera.” So says Paco Ibañez before his lovely, singalong version of Mala Reputación in Spanish. He calls Brassens the Johann Sebastian Bach of the chanson. You can find Mauvaise Reputation here and Enterré à Sète here. Take a look around for Brassens’ settings of the French poets. I’m indebted to Titi for some of the old photos. You can visit her Brassens pages here. And now that I think of it, isn’t there more than a bit of shared feeling between Brassen’s Sète and Dylan’s Tambourine Man ? The beach brings out ssomething in us humans… I wonder why.