I’m not sure why, but I heard a lot more Edith Piaf in San Francisco than I ever hear in France.
This was particularly true in the 90s after the release of Voice of the Sparrow, the compilation album featuring the bulk of Piaf’s postwar hits. Whether you went to Café Flore on Market in the Castro, La Mediterranée in Pac Heights or the Diamond Corner Café in my old stomping grounds in Noe Valley, the odds were pretty good that “La Vie en Rose,” “L’accordéoniste” or “Milord” would appear somewhere in the progression of the playlist. This resurrection of Piaf played on the romanticized American image of France as the place where the “Lost Generation” gathered in the decadent 1920s or the epicenter of existentialism where the coolness of Juliette Gréco was embraced by Sartre. To Americans with pretensions of sophistication, France is the model of artistic chic, of savoir-faire, of the ultimate in cool—so much so that they elevated Piaf’s more Streisand-like years to a level far above their artistic merit.
To me, the era captured in Voice of the Sparrow was Piaf’s least interesting period. There’s no question she still had one of the greatest voices in the history of music, but this phase was more about building a worldwide audience and working hard to turn herself into a legend through careful image management. Despite my skepticism about this phase of Piaf’s career, I had originally intended to review Voice of the Sparrow in recognition of its influence, but I found myself getting bored—those songs are so familiar to me that I can’t hear them anymore.
I briefly considered doing her chanson réaliste period at the start of her career when she sang of life on the mean streets of Pigalle, but I found myself more attracted to the brief interlude during the second half of WWII when she expanded her reach beyond the type of songs that had brought her some measure of fame:
Asked why she no longer sang her prewar songs, she protested, “I’m not a chanteuse réaliste!” Although a creator of “popular songs,” she disdained the vulgarity of her old repertoire, its streets full of “tough guys in caps and prostitutes.” The public no longer wanted to hear about the milieu, she said. “Now you must write refrains that touch the hearts of those who hear them, errand boys, workers, salesgirls, men and women who are pure enough to be moved by love stories.” The public always embraced such songs: “The heart … is still the healthiest part of us.”
This artistic manifesto was picked up by a journalist who put her remarks in the context of the Occupation. The French had been deprived of everything, he wrote—most recently, green vegetables—“but they could still dream and shape their dreams as they liked.” At such a time, music was a kind of covert resistance, as shown by the recent success of a nostalgic waltz entitled “Ah! le petit vin blanc” that looked back to the joys of working-class life and forward to a German-free future. Asked to elaborate on her dislike for the réaliste genre, Piaf replied that it belonged to another time. She wanted to put the past behind her, to let her imagination and those of her listeners rise beyond the constraints of everyday life . . .
-Carolyn Burke, No Regrets
In general, the songs on this one disc in the 2o-disc L’integrale collection are more along the lines of art songs with strong noir sentiments and a touch of the subversive. The critics of the time complained about the shift to highbrow, but critics always bitch when artists try to move in new directions. “You have skillfully renewed your old repertoire with Henri Contet’s reveries,” one of them wrote. “From ‘Mon Légionnaire’ to ‘Monsieur Saint-Pierre’ it’s a straight line but one that leads to the clouds. You’ve let yourself be captivated by the magic of the words.”
Piaf was right to tell them to piss off. During this era she combined her miraculous voice and undeniable presence with a more thoughtful and intentional approach to interpretation. Many of the songs reveal a subtlety that you don’t often find in Edith Piaf’s work, and her tone frequently complements the emotional state of a population living under the strain of a brutal occupation. Piaf’s songs during this period are moodily nostalgic, and the cinema reflected in her voice is not garish technicolor but grainy black-and-white. There are also refreshing hints of blues and jazz stylings, revealing the influence of her favorite American singer, another tough gal from the streets by the name of Billie Holiday. As is always true with experimentation, not all the songs work, but the attempt to stretch her boundaries is admirable, as was the remarkable courage she displayed during this period in dealing with or deceiving the Nazi occupiers.
The disc opens with “Tu es partout” (You Are Everywhere), a song written by Piaf and Marguerite Monnot for the film Montmartre sur Seine. In the film, Piaf croons this tune to an indifferent lover on one of the Seine bridges in the hope that he will return to her someday. The feeling of sad desperation expressed in both the lyrics and her voice reflected the helpless frustration of those who suffered through the occupation and its many deprivations. The music is fairly standard film fare, with the lush introduction leading to a rather bland and inoffensive orchestral score. What makes the song special is the power in Piaf’s command of rubato—the technique of slightly slowing down or speeding up delivery. While there are more obvious examples of Piaf’s mastery of this art, the subtlety she displays in combination with that skill imbues the off-the-rack love song lyrics with special significance.
Piaf’s utter command of her voice is demonstrated in “Le disque usé,” best translated into English as “The Broken Record.” The song is a series of vignettes of lovers waiting in vain, all ending with an insipid, cliché chorus that opens and ends with the line, “Tant qu’y a d’la vie, y a d’l’espoir” (Where there is life, there is hope). The use of cliché is quite deliberate, however, because everyone knows that the lover who waits is a lover often stiffed. In the last rendition of the chorus, Piaf and the orchestra mimic the sounds of a scratched, warped record, a very demanding task indeed. The way Piaf abbreviates the “stuck” phrase by repeating the broken line three times is marvelous, as her ability to modulate her voice to mimic the pitch fluctuations of a badly warped disc. As is usually the case with Piaf, she pulls it all off with apparent effortlessness, but don’t be fooled. Piaf was extraordinarily demanding of herself and those who accompanied her, expecting nothing less than perfection in every performance.
The jazzy, bluesy “Le brun et le blond,” (The Brunette and the Blonde) comes next. Americans generally only use those adjectives in relation to women, but this is a song about two men in competition for a woman. Guess who? This is a case of art depicting real life, as the lyrics were written by one of Piaf’s lovers (the songwriter Henri Contet) after discovering the existence of a competitor:
Piaf spent her whole life yearning for a great love, Contet mused years later. Once she concluded that he was stringing her along, Edith took another lover—the young man named Yvon Jeanclaude who had sung backup on “C’était une histoire d’amour.” Contet learned that he had a rival when he arrived at Madame Billy’s one afternoon to find that Edith could not receive him. He turned the situation into a wry song entitled “Le Brun et le blond”: depicting himself as the blond with a dark-haired rival for the same woman’s affections, he gave the blond man the last word, the note he leaves when he decides that he has had enough.
-Carolyn Burke, No Regrets
The song is actually full of self-satirizing humor on the part of Henri Contet, but he does depict Piaf’s attitude towards men with stinging accuracy, an attitude best described as a never-ending shopping spree. Piaf’s vocal reveals she could have been one hell of a jazz singer had she chosen that path. Her rubato is exceptional here, as she uses acceleration, deceleration and hesitation to reflect the difficulty of choosing between the two studs at her disposal. Had this been any other singer, I would have screamed “Fuck them both!” to clear up the indecision, but Piaf came to that conclusion many times during her amorous career.
“Histoire de coeur” or “Les histoires de coeur” (Stories of the Heart) is similar in theme to “Le disque usé,” the story of a “pauvre gosse” (poor kid) who waits for a lover who prefers broads with long legs. Much more interesting is “Un monsieur me suit dans la rue” (A Man Follows Me in the Street), which alternates between melodic, childlike verses and film noir choruses. Piaf dazzles the listener with a rich and varied performance executed with discipline. Her accelerated rubato in the verse where the pursuers are hot on her heels expresses genuine terror, and her precision on the flattened note at the end of the second line of the choruses—a challenge for many singers—is exceptional.
The collection, unfortunately, is far from perfect, as the next two tracks are pretty much throwaways. Carolyn Burke, author of the recent bio No Regrets, refers to “C’est toujours la même histoire” (It’s Always the Same Story) as a “classic love song.” I don’t know how you can call a song where the girl is abandoned and fantasizes about hanging herself “classic” unless you’re suffering from clinical depression or you’re a Nirvana fan. The French do tend toward the extreme in their expression of passion (Story of O, after all, was in part a love letter as well Anne Desclos’ response to her mate’s assertion that women could not write great pornography), but this song is a melodramatic stinker, primarily designed for Piaf to do her “poor me” act for an adoring audience. “Le chauffeur de l’hôtel” is equally irritating, as Piaf’s cascade of hard trills in the opening verse prove to be a major distraction.
“Les deux rengaines” (Two Tunes) is as advertised: a song consisting of alternating tunes in minor and major keys. This is the Piaf who sounds like the sparrow, as her voice floats beautifully over the orchestral background. Of more symbolic significance is the song, “Y’a pas de printemps” (There Is No Spring), a song superficially about the dreary daily routine, but in the context of the occupation expresses the yearning for a return to the old normal. Piaf sings this song with more spirit than the lyrics suggest, indicating she was fully aware of its subversive nature. It was during this period that Piaf accepted an invitation to perform for French POWs imprisoned in Germany, carrying in her suitcases the means for a few of those prisoners to escape in the form of falsifiable documents.
The next two songs aren’t much, but I will say that “Coup de grisou” is a very unusual piece on multiple levels. The title is a French phrase for “mine explosion,” and we learn in the first verse that it is also the nickname of a miner with a penchant for wrecking bistros. This miner also points his pecker at a redhead who rejects him, an act that fills him with enough anger that he decides to live up to his moniker and blow up the mine that provides him with a barely livable wage. The music to the song is modernist and quite frantic, making for a rather unpleasant listening experience, and Piaf is guilty of the same overacting we saw from Marion Cotillard when attempting to depict Piaf in La Vie en Rose. “Monsieur Saint-Pierre” is a little-too-cute piece where Piaf begs St. Peter for entrance into eternity despite her poor origins and insatiable desire for the male member.
My favorite song in the collection is the remarkable “Il Riait” (He Just Laughed), a gritty tale from Henri Contet loaded with noir imagery, biting wit and dark irony. Piaf has rarely sounded so blatantly sexy as she does in this piece; you can visualize her lowering her shoulder straps, hinting at both a striptease and a good time after the show. The story is of a two-bit hood who did time in Fresnes prison and comes through it all with a defiant attitude expressed in cynical laughter. Contet’s picture of the man is economical and vivid, a precursor of the Brando and James Dean characters of the 50s: “Le calot en arrière/Sur des cheveux de jais/Pour bluffer sa misère/Il riait” (Hat back/on raven hair/to bluff through his misery/he just laughed). Of course, Piaf’s character (true to life) falls deeply in love with him despite the fact (or because of the fact) that he couldn’t hold on to a babe if his life depended on it:
Il couchait avec la détresse (He slept with distress)
C´est pas une fille à fréquenter (Not the kind of broad you want hanging around)
Et c’est pour ça que ses maîtresses (And that’s why his mistresses)
L´une après l´autre, l´avaient quitté (One after the other, left him)
Il avait du malheur à revendre (He had the misfortune to be a seller)
Mais personne pour lui en acheter (But no one was buying).
The dysfunctional couple is about to marry when war breaks out. Of course, her gangster beau is killed, but dies with an attitude of utter defiance, smiling with “Le front dans la poussière” (his forehead in the dust). Contet may have been poking fun at wartime France’s nostalgia for the “good old days,” for 1930’s France was filled with corruption, crime, political dysfunction and general malaise; he may also have enjoyed toying with the idea of hoodlum-as-hero. Piaf’s emotional range in the song is astonishing, as she opens in smoky-cabaret mode and ends the song weeping in a combination of bitterness and grief. The jazz club arrangement, with growling horn and haunting clarinet, makes you wish Piaf would have made a stronger commitment to jazz.
We are now in 1945, and during the last year of the war Piaf’s song selection would gradually become more bourgeois and conventional. “Les gars qui marchaient” (The guys who marched/walked) leans too much on the patriotic side for my tastes, both lyrically and musically. The sweet love song “Regarde-moi toujours comme ça” follows, with Piaf in her prettiest swooning girl voice. “Celui qui ne savant pas pleurer” is a very choppy song with splashes of the sexy Piaf that we heard in “Il riait,” but the song strays into classic movie pap too often. “L’escale” has a titillating storyline where our heroine experiences lust at first sight with a sailor in a seedy joint near the docks, but Piaf goes over the top with her tears and falls far short of her performance in “Il riait.” The disc ends with “De l’autre côté de la rue,” a nice song but rather tepid in comparison to the songs recorded during the occupation and the year of liberation.
It is very difficult to listen to Edith Piaf’s music and separate it from either her public or private persona. My feelings about Piaf are similar to Juliette Gréco’s: I like some of her songs, but I really don’t like her very much. Often the cry of her ego is louder than her voice. While there was much more to Edith Piaf than revealed in La Vie en Rose, the truth is that she was a damaged human being who never dealt with the trauma of her childhood, preferring to use her natural talents to avoid the hard work involved in becoming oneself. Still, there is no denying the beauty of her voice, and from a technical perspective, I would never argue with the consensus that she was one of the greatest singers who ever lived. My only regret is that except during this very brief and very dark moment in French history, she used that talent more to entertain than enlighten.
In that light, I think “Non, je ne regrette rien” was her final and everlasting embrace of lifelong denial.