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Sunday, 12 April 2009

Written in granite: The Deserter

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OK, how many great albums can we think of made by people known primarily as actors? Go on, have a go... No? Well, if we expand our horizons to cover France then I've got one: those of you who know your French films will be familiar with Casque D'Or (1952) starring Simone Signoret. The male lead is Serge Reggiani who'd also appeared in Les Portes De La Nuit (1946), one of the films made by Marcel Carné scripted by the great poet Jacques Prévert (who we'll be talking about in a future Written In Granite). Reggiani was born in Italy although his family - who were held anti-fascist political views - moved to France when Serge was just eight years old.

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However this piece isn't about his films, fine as many of them are. In the mid-sixties, when Reggiani was in his mid-forties, he embarked upon a second (but not last) artistic career as a singer. I'd've loved to have been at the A&R meeting that decided on that particular stroke of genius, I must say. "OK, we've got the perfect new recording artiste... He's 43 years old and he's got a face like a pug..." It worked though.

His first album, which came out in 1965, was made up entirely of songs by Boris Vian (see photo, he's the one that doesn't look like a pug), another of those artistic polymaths that France seems to throw up like no other country. You think David Bowie's talented because he's been in a few films, dabbled in mime and has probably painted a couple of pictures? Well, Vian wrote novels, poetry, music, lyrics, plays and essays... He also worked as a journalist and was one of France's finest jazz trumpeters. Oh and when I say he wrote novels, I should perhaps add that as well as "literary" works such as L'Herbe Rouge and L'Arrache-Coeur he also found time to write a series of four American hardboiled-style crime novels under the pseudonym of Vernon Sullivan. However, unlike most of the lightweight types who hang around the fringes of today's creative industries, he also had a proper trade: he was a qualified engineer. If you want to know how Vian lived then look at the manner of his death. I quote from the French Wikipedia entry for him:

"On the morning of 23rd June 1959, Boris Vian attended the première of J'irai cracher sur vos tombes, a film inspired by his [Vernon Sullivan] novel. He had already fought the producers who were sure of their own interpretation of his work, and publicly disowned the film, announcing that he wanted his name removed from the credits. A few minutes after the film started, he collapsed in his seat and died of a heart attack on the way to the hospital." [My translation]

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Vian was 39 years old and had packed more artistic activity into his short life than most people would manage if they lived to be 150. Oh, hang on, I've just remembered another of Vian's jobs: talent scout. He it was who first discovered an acolyte of his by the name of Lucien Ginzburg, whose own pseudonym was Serge Gainsbourg.

Reggiani himself only really ever managed three or four artistic careers (depending on whether you count the theatre and the cinema as one... Then singing and later on painting) but he was pretty successful in all of them. It's his second album that we're looking at today. It's the one known either as "Jacques Cannetti présente Serge Reggiani" or, sometimes, "No. 2".

It opens with Les loups sont entrés dans Paris (The Wolves Entered Paris), a song about the German occupation of Paris which was still very much in the French popular consciousness in the late 1960s. It sets about the task with real class and relish for its thinly-disguised metaphor of wolves. The second track is another of Vian's, La vie c'est comme une dent (Life Is Like A Tooth), a playful piece about how life is like toothache. After this we get our first taste of the thing that makes this into a truly great album, as opposed to just a collection of fine songs from some of France's finest writers: many of the songs are prefaced with apposite lines from classic French poems. So, the third song is a version of Georges Moustaki's Sarah. The title is clearly a Biblical reference, you might remember that Abraham's wife of that name conceived the future patriarch's son Isaac when she was considered past child-bearing age. The opening line to the song is very famous in France: La femme qui est dans mon lit n'a plus vingt ans depuis longtemps (It's a long time since the woman in my bed was twenty). It's beautifully prefaced with Baudelaire's lines about a prostitute. Then comes a Gainsbourg song, Maxim's and then another Moustaki number Ma Solitude followed by Fleurs de Meninges. Side two of the original album opens with Le Petit Garçon, a real favourite of mine, it's got a wonderful feel and atmosphere to its tale of a father and his son abandoned by the mother. More Vian then follows with Quand j'aurais du vent dans mon crâne – prefaced by the opening few lines of Prévert's Pater Noster – "Notre père, qui êtes aux cieux, restez-y..." (Our Father, who art in heaven, stay there), then Moustaki's Ma liberté (My Freedom – not entirely dissimilar from Ma solitude on side one, it has to be said). Paris ma rose is introduced by the wonderful closing lines from Apollinaire's Le Pont Mirabeau and then L'hôtel Des Rendez-Moi Ça, before the truly astonishing finale to the album. Rimbaud's Le dormeur dans le val, describing a young soldier's body lying in a peaceful valley, leading into one of Vian's most controversial songs, Le déserteur which, as the linguists among you will have discerned, translates as "The Deserter". It takes the form of a letter to the President of the French Republic from someone who's just been called up and suggests that the writer would rather run away and be pursued by the police and then shot than go off to war to kill his fellow man. So the list of Vian's accomplishments also includes having a song banned. Was there nothing this man couldn't do?

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