By Leon Rosselson
Originally posted on Medium
September 13th, 2017
My first solo recording was in 1962, an ep for Topic Records called Songs for City Squares. It wasn’t my choice of title. I followed that up with an LP called Songs for Sceptical Circles. What next? Songs for Truculent Triangles? Songs for Quirky Quadrangles?
A reviewer of my ep, in Audio & Record Review, suggested I might ‘ripen into a British Brassens’. I wasn’t altogether happy about the ‘ripen’, as if I was some sort of green fruit, but I presumed it was intended as a compliment. I knew nothing about Georges Brassens at the time; the name, however, did ring a distant bell.
Wind back four years and I am in Israel with my nylon-strung Kessler guitar and my 5 string banjo earning my bread by singing with two young American women in a group called Ha Nodedim. We often used to sing in The Last Chance, a kind of home-made night club in Beersheva. The man who booked us, Leon Hellman, was the son of a New York rabbi. His passions were collecting spiritual stones and Mahalia Jackson. I don’t think he was particularly enamoured of our singing but he calculated, with some justification, that Beersheva’s male population would flock to the Last Chance to ogle these two very attractive American women. (Don’t go away. We will find our way back to Brassens in good time.)
By the way, in 1983 I wrote a songspiel about The Last Chance called, unsurprisingly, The Last Chance.
There had been a sandstorm the first time we performed there. It had hit Beersheva at the dawn of a grey gritty morning, swirled through the streets, blinded the window panes, choked the inhabitants and swept on into the Negev. The Last Chance was in a chaotic state. The walls loomed with strange excrescences. The windows peered at you through surrealist designs. On one strip of wall was written ‘L’homme n’est pas fait pour le travail. La preuve c’est que ça le fatigue.’ A wheel, hung with wire and tin cans, deformed wood and lacquered stones, balanced oddly on a twisted tree trunk. A branch of wood bowed, saintlike, over the pillared entrance. A signpost which stated that Ramle was 45 kilometres away directed the customer towards the bar.
Ramle. I remember something about Ramle. Ramle and Lydda. It was from there that, in July 1948, 70,000 Palestinians were driven out on the orders of Ben Gurion. It was known as the Death March. Hundreds died. One who survived by drinking his own urine was a young medical student called George Habash. Afterwards he founded the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the organisation that committed a number of terrorist acts and in 2002 assassinated Rehavam Ze’evi, Israel’s racist Minister of Tourism. So it goes.
(This is, of course, by the way but life, after all, is not lived in straight lines.)
Jackson was on the turntable singing her heart out. I thought of
Mahalia recently as I watched Houston and half of Asia sinking under the
Didn’t it rain, children
Talk ‘bout rain, oh my Lord
Didn’t it, didn’t it, didn’t it, oh my Lord
Didn’t it rain?
Listening to Mahalia’s Jesus songs and searching the wadi for artistically shaped stones occupied most of Leon’s time. It was Betty, wiry, lissom, energy-charged, who did all the work and kept the night club from crashing onto the rocks. “Leon has declared himself an artist,’ she said of her husband. “So now he refuses to be judged by ordinary standards and evades normal responsibilities.”
(Patience, patience. We are getting there.)
Betty Knut. Granddaughter of the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, she had been, in her teenage years, active in the French Resistance and was awarded the Croix de Guerre. There were rumours that she’d been involved with the Zionist terrorist gang Lehi, better known as the Stern Gang. The rumours turned out to be true. In April 1947, Betty had beguiled her way into the Foreign and Colonial Office in London and planted a bomb in the toilet. Fortunately a cleaner had discovered it before it could explode. A few months later she was arrested on the French-Belgian frontier carrying a suitcase packed with letter bombs addressed to members of the British cabinet. She was sentenced to a year in juvenile prison. Did she regret her terrorist activities? She never spoke of them.
By the way, two of Israel’s prime ministers were leaders of terrorist gangs: Yitzhak Shamir ( Lehi) and Menachem Begin (Irgun). And by the way (again), it was Lehi that offered to support the Nazis in 1940 in return for German support for a Jewish state in Palestine.
When Leon was absent, Betty would discard Mahalia and play records of her favourite: Georges Brassens. And that’s where I first heard his name and his voice and his unremarkable guitar playing though it made very little impression on me at the time.
So, wondering what ‘a British Brassens’ might sound like, I bought some of his recordings, a book of his lyrics in the series Poètes d’Aujourd’hui and a French dictionary, essential for unravelling the meanings of his songs. The book’s introduction informed me that some critics considered his songs shameless, an affront to good sense and good taste. I was won over immediately.
What particularly attracted me was that these songs were not folk songs, not pop-songs, but belonged to a genre that didn’t exist in England: Chanson. They embraced the satirical with the sombre, the bawdy with the tender, the serious with the light-hearted. Their language mixed highly colloquial with poetic-literary, and they seemed to have been born into the world perfectly formed with never a botched rhyme. I was particularly drawn to the satirical anti-war La Guerre de 14–18, which got him into trouble with veterans of the war, the anarchist-tinged La Mauvaise Reputation and the moving tribute to to the couple who sheltered him during the war, L’Auvergnat.
Some songs, though, I found so insubstantial as to be hardly worth the effort. I made an English version of one such song — Marinette — rendering ‘j’avais l’air d’un con’ into the more decorous ‘oh what a fool’. It was not a success.
In 1967 I was again compared to Brassens by another reviewer, Stephen Sedley: ‘Melodically he doesn’t have the punch of Brassens but as a poet and technician he outstrips him.’ I accepted the compliment but doubted its accuracy.
I remember seeing Brassens in concert in December 1969 towards the end of his three month sell-out run at Bobino in Paris. Just think of that. A bloke with a guitar, a bass player, a chair and an awful lot of words selling out a concert hall for three months. It boggles the mind. Because flamboyant he wasn’t — he claimed that he’d never wanted to be on stage. Occasionally he would wander round the stage looking worried but mostly he just stood there, one foot on a chair, guitar resting on his knee, an occasional flicker of a smile, and delivered song after song without, as far as I can remember, ever addressing a word to the audience who were listening with rapt attention. A non-performer after my own heart. ‘Je chante pour les oreilles, pas pour les yeux,’ he said.
The contrast with Jacques Brel was stark and not just because Brel had a big band accompaniment. His concert at the Albert Hall in 1966, the only one he ever gave in Britain, lingers still in my memory. The intensity with which he delivered his songs was riveting. Every song was a mini-drama, projected through the inflexions of his voice, the movements of his hands and body, the expressions on his face. It was theatre. There was total involvement in the characters his songs created — the bigots, the timid and the old, the drunkard, the broken-hearted friend Jef, the dully respectable Flemish women, the feverish lover waiting for his Madeleine who will never come — . It’s said that he threw up before every concert.
Extraordinary to think that in 1954 Brel competed in the Grand Prix de la Chanson at Knokke-le-Zoute and finished 27th out of 28 participants. How do you recover from a setback like that? ‘Well, at least I didn’t come last.’
In the feminist 1970s, Brassens came in for criticism because of the portrayal of women in his songs. He protested his innocence: ‘Pour moi, la femme est une déesse’, thus compounding the offence. Brassens belonged to a French male culture where women are necessary, if incomprehensible, but pals, ‘les copains’, always take first place. And yet for 30 years he was constant to his companion, Joha Heiman, and wrote for her the magnificent ‘La Non-Demande en Mariage’ (I have the honour not to ask your hand in marriage…).
When the feminist songwriter, Anne Sylvestre, skipped onto the scene in the late 1950s, she was labelled ‘Brassens en jupon’. She was not pleased. I remember reading that she even preferred Brel’s misogyny to the way Brassens portrayed women in his songs. That seems harsh on Brassens. Compared to Brel he is an innocent. Women are portrayed in Brel’s songs as ‘infidèles’, lacking in tenderness, treating love as a game, always demanding (‘Serai seul a nouveau/Et tu m’auras perdu/Rien qu’en me voulant trop/ Tu m’auras gaspillé’). The men in love with these women are humiliated, turned into fools, obsessives, led by the nose, almost deranged, like the protagonists of Ne Me Quitte Pas, Mathilde, Madeleine, Titine, Clara. More shocking are the generalised attacks upon women in songs like Les Filles et Les Chiens, with its wicked word play and clear preference for the dogs, and Les Biches (‘Elles sont notre premier ennemi’).
‘Biches’, by the way, means ‘does’, ‘female deer’. In Hebrew, if I remember rightly, (a fifty fifty chance, I’d say) it translates as ‘ofarim’.
And that, by a strange coincidence takes me back to 1959, just before I left Israel, when I moved to Haifa and worked for a short while with a young couple , Etty and Avraham Reichstadt. They took as their stage name Ha Ofarim. After I’d left, I heard that a song I’d helped them arrange, Sus Etz (wooden horse), had become a hit in Israel. In 1968 Esther and Abi Ofarim topped the UK charts with their version of Cinderella Rockefella. They’d come a long way. Esther Ofarim sang in the 1963 Eurovision Song Contest representing (not Israel) Switzerland. She came second. The last I heard they were both, though divorced, living in Germany.
Isn’t it ironical that when Israelis become sick and tired of living in Israel, their most favoured city, after New York, is Berlin? According to The Times of Israel, since 2000, 33,000 Israelis have taken citizenship in the country that gave the world the death camps.
Yes, I know. This is all by the way but look — by the way is how most of my life seems to have been lived so that now, in my eighties, I’m still trying to puzzle out what exactly I’m supposed to be doing here. According to Kurt Vonnegut, who attributes this insight to his son, Marc: “We are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.” Is that why I’ve been writing songs for the last 60 years? To help us get through this thing, whatever it is?
Nowadays Anne Sylvestre is lauded as ‘La grande dame de la chanson française’. Her songs, like Mariette et François, Que Vous Êtes Beau, La Faute à Eve, are a refreshing counterbalance to the relentlessly male view of the world of most French songwriters. Brel, Brassens, Ferré, the grand triumvirate of French chanson. Or, if you prefer, Brassens, Brel, Ferré. Whichever way round, Leo Ferré always comes last. All I know for certain about Ferré is that he had a pet monkey called Pepée and his wife killed it. Or had it killed. I was told this story by an Italian student who was interviewing me for something or other. His sympathies were with Ferré and the monkey. I wondered. I once saw in a French newspaper a photo of Ferré, his wife and the monkey sitting round the dinner table. A happy little family. Or not. I wrote a song about it called (what else?)The Poet, the Wife and the Monkey. Ferré wrote and recorded a lament for his dead monkey. He called it (what else?) Pepée.
In 2007, I went to Sète where Brassens was born and is buried, though not, sadly, on the beach so he could spend eternity on holiday as he’d requested in his song Supplique Pour Être Enterré à la Plage de Sète. There is a whole building there, L’Espace Georges Brassens, dedicated to his life and works. Not bad for a bloke with a pipe and a moustache who put words to tunes.
When Brassens died in 1981 Jake Thackray (who was the British Brassens if anyone was) remarked that you couldn’t see the joins in his songs, a tribute to the meticulous skill with which he crafted them — a skill largely lacking in the songs of most English-speaking songwriters. I admire him for that and honour him for his integrity, his dislike of authority, his indifference to money and possessions and, above all, his passion for song, his determination to take the song form seriously, not for fame, not for money, but for love of the art itself.
Brassens was 60 when he died. Brel died in 1978, aged 49. Ferré was 76. Boris Vian, whose song Le Déserteur I recorded on my first LP was only 39. He had a heart attack while watching a film made from his pulp fiction novel J’Irai Cracher Sur Vos Tombes. As film criticisms go, that’s pretty damning. Vian was also a jazz trumpeter and wrote surrealist novels. In one of them, L’Arrache-coeur (Heartsnatcher), a mother is so terrified of harm coming to her children she locks them up in a cage. I wrote a song based on that scenario called My Daughter, My Son. Betty Knut also died of a heart attack in 1965, 37 years young. So it goes. Anne Sylvestre, who is almost exactly the same age as me, is still singing.
All those who spend their lives trying to conjure up songs out of love and thin air have my respect. Even Leonard Cohen.
(This is a much expanded version of a piece on Brassens first published in Rock’n’Reel, edited by Sean McGhee.)
THE GHOST OF GEORGES BRASSENS
My head was full of cotton wool, my pen was full of bile
It was one of those days when everything’s grey & nothing seems worthwhile
The radio played the sort of crap that music hacks acclaim
I don’t know why they call them songs they don’t deserve the name
And so I vowed I’d never write another song when something weird
Occurred and out of the dusty air a ghostly shape appeared
And I heard myself exclaiming Mon Dieu! Zut alors! et Mince!
I know that pipe and that moustache it’s the ghost of Georges Brassens…
I said, Georges, what are you doing here? I’ve seen your grave in Sète.
He said, I’ve come to tell you that you shouldn’t give up yet.
It’s all very well for you, Georges, your songs brought you fame
You sold a multitude of records and all France knew your name.
He said, Until the age of 31 I never earned a cent
I remember the very first cheque I got I didn’t know what it meant
I never wrote for money and I never wanted fame
And if my songs had never earned a sou I’d have written them just the same…
You know for me to be in the public eye was always an ordeal
The trappings of celebrity for me had no appeal
My needs were few, for years I lived on little more than bread & cheese
In the world of fame and fashion I could not feel at ease.
This lust for money and possessions hasn’t done the world much good
For myself I always tried to earn as little as I could.
Friendship, les copains, that’s what mattered in the end
And the thing that I’m most proud of is I never lost a friend…
thing is, Georges, I said, my songs have sometimes caused offence to
Christ- ians, royalists, Zionists, coppers & others too numerous to
Et alors! he shrugged, some critics called my songs debased
Unpatriotic, sacrilegious and in execrable taste.
They didn’t like the way my songs debunked authority
The law, the church, the military and la gendarmerie.
I lived my life, I wrote my songs, the way I wanted to
And if les braves gens disapproved, I told them, Je m’en fous…
For me song has a value that money cannot buy F-
or songs have been my passion, the salvation of my life
The songs that I created were a gift that I could share
And I would not cheat the public so I crafted them with care
I chose the best and brightest words & taught them how to dance
I tried out many tunes to find the one that would enhance
the words. I laboured long and hard to polish, shape, refine
Every rhyme & every stanza, every bar & every line
And by the way that tune you’re singing sounds like one of mine.
I died too soon with many songs unborn & that’s my one regret
Remember that, he said, and now I must return to Sète.
Merci, I said, it’s always good communing with the dead
And the lyrics of this song began revolving in my head…