/ +1 206 446 2425
Published Work

Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel live again in Paris

October 11, 2003 - The Vancouver Sun

PARIS—The City of Light’s television and radio airwaves have been crowded with retrospectives over the last few days. This week marks major anniversaries of the deaths of two of its greatest musicians, singers Edith Piaf and Belgian-born Jacques Brel.

Piaf died 40 years ago today and Brel 25 years ago on Oct. 9 and though never far from the Parisian limelight, the anniversaries have pulled both back to centre stage where they are as relevant as ever and continue to draw new fans.

Brel’s songs have been covered by David Bowie, Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra, Judy Collins and, er, Blink 182. Piaf’s notably harder-to-mimic tunes have been tackled by the likes of Jeff Buckley, Shirley Bassey and Gavin Friday.

While many of their contemporaries and followers have long been forgotten, the duo remains current in Paris and around the world.

The 1967 off-Broadway smash Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris returns to Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre from Feb. 12 through March 13 next year, as part of the company’s 40th anniversary season. It will star Lovina Fox, Matt Palmer, Warren Kimmel and Karin Konoval.

An epic production of the musical revue changed the Arts Club’s fortunes dramatically in 1973, when Leon Bibb, Ann Mortifee, Ruth Nichol and Pat Rose (with Rose later replaced by Brent Carver) so popular in presenting Brel’s songs that the show ran for seven months and attracted more than 40,000 people.

This year’s Denver International Film Festival hosts the North American premiere of the film, Piaf: Her Story, Her Songs on Oct. 18.

For the anniversaries, there are the obligatory box sets, digital re-masterings and controversial posthumous song releases but most Parisian fans already have the albums they need and would rather forgo the television and radio specials to raise a toast to them with a late-night drink and a smoke in a bar.

Le Rendez Vous des Amis is a Montmartre cafe with a classic, smoky, last-of-the-dinosaurs feel to it and Piaf breezes through the speakers while its owners wax nostalgic about the two singers.

“Jacques Brel? One of the first places he sang in Paris was up the stairs at Chez ma Cousine on the Place du Tertre. He first lived down the stairs from here at 3 Rue de Trois Freres,” says one of the cafe owners, Arnaud Mirabel, 25.

“Piaf,” he says with a far-away look in his eye, “goes perfect in a Parisian cafe.”

Both singers have strongholds in two key compartments in the hearts of Parisians—though they occasionally bleed into the other’s category, Brel tends to occupy the emotional and Piaf the nostalgic.

“Shivers” is the word almost inevitably associated with Brel, whether it’s a reviewer, fan or deejay describing his songs or performances. “Old Paris” is how people associate with Piaf.

“Piaf is what you’ve grown up with, where with Brel you become a fan even if your parents didn’t listen to him,” says one of the cafe’s workers, 23 year-old Audrey Celestine.

“Brel was the first ‘old’ music I got into myself,” says Mirabel. “His were among the few albums my parents owned. In high school, I got into it by listening to one cassette, now I own all of his albums.”

Brel’s first taste of North America came from invitations to sing at Carnegie Hall in 1965 and 1967 where the press dubbed him the Magnetic Hurricane. The musical bearing his name, however, is much of the reason why he became known to the English-speaking world.

Though the piece gives a sort of Peter-Paul-and-Mary-meet-the-Von-Trapp-family hue to his music, Brel himself, along with screenwriter Eric Blau and composer/actor Mort Shuman, helped turn his songs into theatre. The result was more than 1,800 performances in Greenwich Village along with later runs on Broadway and other stages across North America.

Brel’s life beyond the spotlight was a bit trickier. Telerama, the French version of TV Guide magazine, known for its often-biting critiques, lashed out at a recent Brel documentary for candy-coating his history.

Born in the Belgian town of Schaerbeek, Brel’s father headed up a cardboard factory where Jacques was supposed to follow suit. He toiled there miserably for four years and also served out his military service.

At the same time, he worked with local theatre troupes, sang in local cabarets and even recorded a 78 rpm record.

At 23, he left his wife Therese (Miche) Michielsen and daughter Chantal in Belgium to stake out his fortune in the City of Light.

Paris was slow to accept the foreigner, brought to the city by a talent scout who miraculously found one of the 200 copies that his record sold. As his second daughter, France, was born in Belgium, Paris began to embrace Brel thanks to his energetic live performances and emotionally wrenching lyrics.

Telerama’s main beef with the Brel documentary indicates the shadow music cast on his personal life, “His journey on this show is illustrated by numerous photos showing the artist as a good husband and good father. A curious rewrite of the life of someone who left being boxed into fatherhood and family life to become a singer in Paris.”

Piaf’s history was just as beautiful and troubled. Vanity Fair magazine once termed actress Catherine Deneuve the “face of a nation.” Radio France International pays a similar compliment in Piaf’s biography, stating simply: “Piaf was France.”

Rumoured to have been born under a streetlamp in Paris’ 20th arrondissement to a singer and an acrobat, Piaf made her way in the world by singing on the streets. At 17, she became pregnant and had a daughter, Marcelle, who died of meningitis at the age of two. Piaf kept singing and was literally hired off of the street to be the main act at Le Gerny’s cabaret on the Champs Elysees.

Her reputation grew rapidly, and like Brel, if she wasn’t the top act on the marquee, she often stole the show. As her career exploded, she was questioned in the death of her manager. Le Gerny’s owner, Louis Leplee, launched her a side career as an actress, and paved the way for Brel by bringing down the house at Carnegie Hall in 1956.

Romantically, she fell for a long series of artists, actors and even a boxing champion. The boxer was Algerian-born Frenchman, Marcel Cerdan, who was killed in a plane crash.

She fell in love again and again, fought alcohol and morphine addiction brought on by three near-fatal car crashes, yet used her songs and performances as her constant.

As she sings in one of her most famous songs, Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien:

I’ve swept away my love stories

With their tears

Swept them away forever

I restart from zero

Both Brel and Piaf died early deaths that were products of their lifestyles. Brel died at 49, in 1978, on an island in French Polynesia, succumbing to lung cancer undoubtedly brought on by his chain smoking.

Piaf spent the two months following her second marriage slipping in and out of consciousness before dying at 47 in 1963. Legend has it a million people filled the streets of Paris for her funeral; she is buried in the city’s famous Cimetiere du Pere Lachaise.

“They were true singers, they sang with their guts,” painter Romain Pinchon, 27, elaborates from the Place du Tertre. “They wrote beautiful lyrics, but it was also the way they sang, living the song when they sang it.”

Pinchon cites singer Serge Gainsbourg as a counterpoint. Arguably the next major artist to take over the spotlight when Brel left it, Gainsbourg traded emotion for cool, “He wrote beautiful texts, but you couldn’t say he was a great singer.”

“Brel and Piaf were known for their texts and interpretations that people in France are now returning to,” agrees Bernard Chereze, programming director for the state-owned radio channel, France Inter. “We all have a relationship with each singer,” he says, “and this explains their universal quality.”

“Piaf is the ultimate singer of heartbreak, and French chanson relies heavily on heartbreak,” says Lisa Pasold, a Canadian music critic based in Paris.

“Brel is the eternal outsider because he brings you right over to his [the narrator’s] side, even if it’s a creepy guy on a corner trying to woo women with bonbons,” says Pasold referring one of his better-known songs.

Linking the singers with Paris, Pasold says, “Piaf was the lowest-class, down-and-out Paris—she was a tiny, heartbreaking creature. If you’re looking for a 20th-century Dickens character, it’s her.”

“One of the things that makes Paris great is the people who come from elsewhere and find their voices here,” says Pasold. “Jacques Brel was the archetype.”

Back at the Rendez Vous des Amis, Angelique Day, 27, works at the bar, listening to the disc of the moment, a singer named Camille.

“I love this right now,” she says, “but I don’t think I’ll be listening to it when I’m old. I know I’ll be listening to Brel and Piaf, though—they’re timeless.”

Joe Ray is a Paris freelance writer.

He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Photo: Singer and songwriter Jacques Brel, who died 25 years ago, is the subject of a revival.; Photo: Singer and actress Edith Piaf, born and discovered on the street, stole the heart of Paris.

Twitter Facebook Delicious Digg | More