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1969-1974: “Amoureux de Paname”39
The political defeat of the May movement led many of its participants to seek new outlets for their revolutionary impulses. The first half of the 1970s saw the emergence of the feminist and environmentalist movements as well as a disturbing proliferation of terrorist activity. Many former soixante-huitards sought enlightenment through travel and contact with distant cultures.
Renaud left school in March 1969 and started working in July of that year at a Latin Quarter bookshop, the Librairie 73. Freed from the constraints of formal education, he began to read voraciously. He spent his savings on his first motorcycle after seeing Dennis Hopper’s 1969 road movie, Easy Rider. The first French translation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road appeared two years later and, like Hopper’s film, encouraged the trend among disappointed soixante-huitards of redirecting their utopian quest towards remote or exotic destinations. However, Renaud’s involvement in this diaspora of disaffected youth was short-lived. With a group of friends, he founded in the mountains of the Cévennes the Communauté Anarchiste Nestor-Makhno, an experience which he later described with dry humour:
We’d left for several years; we lasted at least four days. One of our mates had convinced us that we were going to replenish ourselves by “making love with nature.” Two days before we left, he told us he was bringing his girlfriend. For the nights when nature had a headache...40
In September 1972, Renaud left Paris again after being dismissed from his position at the Librairie 73 because of frequent lateness, absenteeism and collusion with shoplifters. Planning to hitchhike to Kathmandu, he travelled no further than Avignon, where he stayed for eight months. Despite his initial attraction to the town, he soon became bored, and imagined leaving the following year for South Africa or Chile. Instead, he returned to Paris, the setting of his first revolutionary experience, and made it his definitive home.41
During the early 1970s, Renaud frequented two different Parisian milieux, both of which would strongly influence his future direction as a singer-songwriter. At his favourite Latin Quarter bar, Le Bréa, he befriended a group of delinquent youths, similar to the blousons noirs who had taken part in the May riots. Fascinated by their folklore – “bikes, street-fighting, the heist of the century” – Renaud adopted their language and dress codes so that he could “look like a delinquent and terrify the bourgeoisie.”42 He discovered first hand the world of the grands ensembles, reinforcing in the process his identification with the social milieu contemptuously described by Fouchet in May 1968 as “la pègre.” At around the same time, the actor Patrick Dewaere introduced Renaud to Roman Bouteille’s theatre troupe at Le Café de la Gare, the best-known café-théâtre (theatre workshop) of this period. The cafés-théâtres were an important locus of 1970s counter-culture which sought to emphasise the spontaneous and collective aspects of theatrical production and to establish a direct, intimate link between actors and audience. Most importantly, they cultivated the gritty style of language spoken by the youthful population of the grands ensembles.43
Renaud thus gained entrance both to a social milieu whose visceral antiauthoritarianism and delinquency gave him a sense of continuity with the formative experience of May 1968, and to an artistic milieu interested in the expressive possibilities of delinquent slang. At this point, he was more interested in acting than in singing, and accepted the lead role in Robin des quoi? (a humorous deformation of Robin des bois, the French name for Robin Hood) at Le Café de la Gare. However, his friendship with Michel Pons, whose father ran Le Bréa, steered him back in the direction of popular song.
Pons was an accordionist whose repertoire included the accordéon-musette classics of the 1920s and 1930s. Accordéon-musette was a hybrid musical form which originated in the bals-musettes (working-class dance-halls) of the Bastille district at the turn of the twentieth century. This district had a large population of immigrants, both from the Auvergne region and Italy. Local dance-hall bands played traditional auvergnat folk dances, driven by a kind of bagpipes known as the cabrette. Around 1905, the more melodious accordion imported by the Italians replaced the cabrette as the leading instrument in these bands. Adapted to a variety of dance-steps, including the java, the waltz and the tango, accordéon-musette also provided a musical setting for numerous “realist” songs.44
The genre of realist song, or chanson réaliste, pre-dated accordéon-musette; its origins were in the goualantes and complaintes criminelles peddled by Parisian street singers throughout the nineteenth century. Aristide Bruant formalised and commercialised the genre in the 1880s and 1890s at his Montmartre cabaret, Le Mirliton. His “chansons et monologues réalistes” evoked the marginal existence of the criminals, pimps, prostitutes and vagabonds who haunted the working-class faubourgs (inner suburbs) of Paris and the historic zone (shanty town) on the embankments of the city’s fortifications. Some of Bruant’s songs presented a tragic and brutal image of low-life Paris; some evoked, on the contrary, an idealised world free from the constraints of bourgeois morality; many others flaunted the behavioural and linguistic exuberance of their protagonists in a way that seems to have been intended to humiliate, intimidate or perhaps simply titillate the more fortunate members of society. Bruant drew out the poetic qualities of the exotic slang spoken in the margins of Paris and performed his songs in a declamatory fashion; conversely, the music which accompanied his lyrics was based on rather monotonous-sounding military marches, funeral dirges or hunting tunes. In the early decades of the twentieth century, a new generation of songwriters influenced by Bruant churned out reams of realist lyrics. Oddly, these lyrics were sometimes accompanied by romantic salon music; more often than not, they were set to the newer, heady rhythms and dithyrambic melodies of accordéon-musette.
Renaud was mesmerised by Pons’s music, which, he later speculated, “must have resonated with something in my past.”45 Indeed, Renaud’s mother was a devotee of le musette and had frequently listened to such music in the family home. As an adolescent, Renaud blocked his ears to accordéon-musette, partly because of its associations with his mother’s generation and partly because he was more interested in the contemporary popular music of the 1960s. At twenty-one, the epiphany which he experienced upon rediscovering the music of his childhood inspired him to borrow his mother’s old records and to acquaint himself more fully with the history of accordéon-musette and chanson réaliste.
Renaud and Pons developed a repertoire which included traditional realist songs from the Belle Epoque and interwar years as well as original songs which Renaud had written in a similar vein. They performed in the streets of Paris, in public squares and market places, and in the courtyards of old apartment blocks. Joined by a second guitarist in 1974, they played for audiences queuing outside Le Café de la Gare and were hired as the support act for Coluche’s one-man show at Le Caf’Conc’, a café-théâtre on the Champs-Elysées.46 Renaud was noticed at this venue by two independent producers associated with Polydor,47 who subsequently offered him his first recording contract.
Renaud’s first, eponymously-titled album was released in early 1975 and included a series of his own realist-inspired songs. In La Java sans joie (1974), he announced:
Moi j’aime bien chanter la racaille,
la mauvaise herbe des bas quartiers,
les mauvais garçons, la canaille,
ceux qui sont nés sur le pavé.
J’ai bien du mal à les chanter,
tell’ment qu’elles sont tristes mes histoires,
mais celle que j’vais vous raconter,
elle fait même pleurer ma guitare.
I like to sing about low-life,
the bad seeds from bad neighbourhoods,
larrikins and riffraff,
those who are born in the street.
I find it quite hard to sing these songs,
the stories they tell are so sad,
but the one I’m about to relate
makes even my guitar weep.
Born into poverty, Renaud’s hero takes to crime like a fish to water. After making a name for himself as a gangster, reveller and dandy, he falls foul of the law and is guillotined. Renaud designates the locations which frame his hero’s milieu – “la rue du Four,” “Saint-Mandé,” “Ménilmontant” and “Sacré-Coeur” – and imitates the parigot or faubourien accent associated with such areas. He uses with relish and assurance the picturesque slang spoken by the underworld of the past, although he combines archaic terms such as “surineur” (someone adept at handling a surin, or knife) with more contemporary expressions such as s’envoyer en l’air (to have it off). He even seems to have invented the colourful verb voyouter – probably on the basis of the feminine adjective voyoute, in itself quite rare – as a synonym for faire voyou (to lead the life of a delinquent). The fatalistic perspective, geographical precision and exuberant slang of La Java sans joie are strongly reminiscent of Bruant’s style.
As the title of the song suggests, the lyrics are accompanied by a java-musette arrangement.48 The movement of the dance could be said to embody both the hedonism and circularity of the protagonist’s life, even though the combination of festive music with an ostensibly “joyless” melodrama may seem surprising. The sensuous imagery is complemented by rhapsodic accordion runs, while the accordion features in the story itself as an intrinsic backdrop to the hero’s exploits:
Il commençait à s’faire un nom,
et dans les petits bals musettes,
lorsque jouait l’accordéon,
on voyait tournait sa casquette.
Il buta son premier larron
alors qu’il n’avait pas vingt ans,
le crime c’était sa vocation,
l’arnaque c’était son tempérament.
He began to make a name for himself,
and at local dances,
when the accordion played,
you could see his cap turning.
He bumped off his first villain
by the time he was twenty,
crime was his vocation,
swindling was his nature.
These lines echo Ambrose Bierce’s description of the accordion as an “instrument in harmony with the feelings of a murderer,” which Renaud would later quote in one of his concert programs.49 They also remind us that the accordion used to be considered an instrument of moral degeneracy. Associated not only with the low-life celebrated in realist lyrics and with foreigners (the Italians who introduced the instrument to the Bastille dance-halls) but also, more generally, with unbridled pleasure, it was condemned by the Catholic Church and even, initially, by the Auvergnats themselves.50
By the time Renaud wrote La Java sans joie, the accordion had long since lost its subversive novelty, if not its class connotations. As he later recalled, it was seen in the music industry as both old-fashioned and unfashionable: “There were hardly any singers or songs on music television using an accordion. It was still considered taboo, working-class, common, an instrument of the people . . . with everything contemptible which that implies.”51 Nevertheless, Renaud’s revival of his city’s musical heritage attracted a sizeable and diverse audience. Passers-by both young and old responded enthusiastically to the realist songs which he performed with Michel Pons in the streets of Paris.52 The producers of his first album clearly believed in the marketability of such songs, even though it sold only several thousand copies in its first year of release.53
What was it about these “golden oldies” of the Belle Epoque and interwar years that appealed to both Renaud and listeners of the mid-1970s? Pascal Ory writes that “rétrophilie” (“retromania”) was a significant feature of popular culture during this period and suggests that people turned to the past to escape a pervasive sense of uncertainty provoked by the collapse of revolutionary ideologies, the emerging economic recession and an aesthetic crisis which challenged the value of avant-garde culture.54 For academic and music critic Louis-Jean Calvet, the retrospective dimension of Renaud’s repertoire was, on the contrary, dynamic rather than escapist:
Java, accordion-waltz, tango, Renaud sings like in that fantastic film Casque d’Or and, what’s more, revives Bruant’s slang even in his rhymes. His singing and guitar-playing are awful, but, behind the approximate music and lightweight texts of this anarchist street kid, one can sense something about to be born, on the fringe of today’s main popular song trends. He has a deliberately retro style, but in the good sense of the term, a retro which takes us back to popular song of the turn of the century.55
Renaud himself clearly believed that the past could inform and enliven the present. In Ecoutez-moi, les gavroches (1974), he urged the street kids from the grands ensembles to reclaim their city by exploring what remained of its historic sites:
Traînez vos vies dans les ruelles,
dans les vieux bistrots, dans les cours,
et sur les pavés éternels
qui n’ont pas quitté les faubourgs.
Allez respirez sur la Butte
tous les parfums de la Commune,
souvenirs de Paris qui lutte
et qui pleure parfois sous la lune.
Ecoutez-moi, les gavroches,
vous les enfants de la ville:
non, Paris n’est pas si moche,
ne pensez plus à l’an 2000.
Spend your life hanging around the side-streets,
in the old pubs and courtyards,
and on the everlasting cobblestones
which haven’t left the old neighbourhoods.
Go and breath the air of Montmartre,
all the smells of the Commune,
memories of Paris in arms
and which sometimes cries under the moon.
Listen to me, street kids,
Children of the city:
Paris isn’t that ugly,
Forget about the year 2000.
Chanson réaliste and accordéon-musette were the musical equivalent of these three-dimensional vestiges of Parisian history, and helped to restore a sense of colour and historical grounding which had been destroyed by the grands ensembles. One can imagine Renaud’s delinquent friends identifying strongly with the mauvais garçons (bad hats), marlous (hoodlums or pimps) and apaches (exuberant gangsters who terrorised Paris in the early years of the twentieth century) of realist song. One can also imagine their fascination upon discovering that the colloquial term zone, frequently associated with the most dilapidated of the grands ensembles, used to evoke another slum belt, where appalling living conditions could be offset by picturesque surroundings and a sense of conviviality:
Y a des tas d’citoyens amoureux d’la nature
Et qu’ont pas les moyens d’voyager
Ils la connaissent seulement par la littérature
La rive où fleurit l’oranger
Ils n’rêvent que d’s’en aller dans les landes en Bretagne
Dans les auberges à coups d’fusil
Sans s’douter qu’il existe un vrai pays d’cocagne
A dix centimètres de Paris
Sur la zone, mieux que sur le trône
On est plus heureux que des rois
On applique la vraie République
Ils vont sans contraintes et sans lois
Y a pas d’riches et tout l’monde a sa niche
Et son petit jardin tout pareil
Ses trois pots d’géraniums et sa part de soleil
Sur la zone
There are heaps of citizens in love with nature
And who can’t afford to travel
They only know through books
The shore where the orange tree blooms
Their one dream is to go to the moors in Brittany
And stay in an inn where you pay through the nose
They don’t even suspect that there’s a real land of milk and honey
Just ten centimetres from Paris
On the zone, its better than on the throne
People are happier than kings
They live in the real Republic
Without constraints or laws
There are no rich people and everyone’s got their own possie
And their little garden as well
Their pots of geraniums and their place in the sun
On the zone
Sur la zone (M. Hely and J. Jekyll), recorded by the great realist chanteuse Fréhel in 1933 and later revived by Renaud, made the historic zone seem far more idyllic than it actually was. However, as Adrian Rifkin points out, in old photos of the zone, “it is possible to imagine . . . at least a dream of poverty and freedom, of cheap shops and dance halls, lilacs and French fries . . . the alcoholism, the tuberculosis, the murders, and the trash are only a part of life there.”56 When demolition of the historic zone began in 1919, many zoniers (inhabitants of the zone) were loathe to move into the new, government-subsidised apartment blocks built on top of or close to their old neighbourhoods.57 With the massive and chaotic suburban sprawl of the interwar years, the term zone acquired a more generic sense and came to designate “any poor suburb of a large city, especially Paris, inhabited by the unemployed, the derelict and the marginal.”58 Some realist songs of this period were filled with nostalgic longing for the historic zone, which was gradually disappearing. Rifkin argues that the demolition of the zone, while it may have been experienced as a genuine loss by the zoniers themselves, was cynically exploited by realist songwriters – many of whom came from a bourgeois background – and a show business industry primarily interested in the perennial marketability of nostalgia as a commodity. However, as Ray Pratt suggests:
The longing for a past located somewhere and connections to a place that is real seem important desires to which popular music has continually spoken and which give popular music part of its appeal as a utopian critique of a present-day existence that has grown increasingly rootless.59
This was even more true for audiences who had experienced the urban upheavals of the late 1950s and 1960s and the dehumanising environment of the grands ensembles. The last remnants of the historic zone were demolished on either side of the Porte de Champerret in 1970, as the problems associated with the contemporary zone of the grands ensembles were beginning to emerge in public consciousness as a major social issue.60
As a child, while his mother was listening to the realist classics of the interwar years, Renaud spent hours playing with friends in the wastelands of the historic zone at Montrouge, near his family home. As a young adult, realist song not only had nostalgic associations with his childhood, but also offered an indirect way of expressing his identification with his new delinquent friends. In addition, the historical evolution of realist song brought together “the labouring classes and the dangerous classes” in a way which might have resonated with a former soixante-huitard. This may seem like an odd assertion, to the extent that realist lyrics focused on the daily life of the Parisian underworld rather than on the industrial proletariat and its political struggles. The famous Communard songwriter Jean-Baptiste Clément hated the realist cabaret culture spawned by Bruant, in which, he claimed, “everything connected with progress, justice and humanity is made a laughing stock, and where on the pretext of realism the poor are made to speak like whores at the barriers and the working-class talk like pimps.”61 Moreover, realist songs attracted a large bourgeois and even aristocratic audience whose interest appeared to stem from voyeuristic rather than socialistic impulses.62 However, this did not preclude the powerful appeal of such songs to the working-class masses whose interests Clément had in mind. On the contrary, Richard Sonn affirms:
The thief, the pimp, the whore, served as cultural symbols for many in the working class while remaining at the boundaries of that class, respected for their hostility toward the dominant classes, sentimentalized for their suffering, and reviled when they betrayed their fellows for personal gain.63
While realist lyrics may have retained the symbolic value ascribed to them by Sonn, their fusion with accordéon-musette dance-music gave them an additional association with working-class sociability and leisure time. Chantal Brunschwig writes:
The realist genre took on the role of tragedy while the comic genre took on the role of farce. But this initially dramatic expression of society’s outcasts became, with le musette, the music of celebration for the new proletarian family. The realist genre therefore helped both to integrate those living on the margins of society (to make them less frightening by transforming their lives into folklore) and to structure a new social group. Above all, realist song and accordéon-musette have remained the symbols of working-class Paris.64
In an attempt to reach a larger working-class audience, anarchist songwriters from the 1890s onwards increasingly abandoned the portentous, classical style of Clément and Pottier for the type of street slang popularised by Bruant. The chansonnier who combined most successfully the political militancy of the Communards with the truculent style of cabaret performers like Bruant was Montéhus, who became the idol of the working classes in the years leading up to the First World War. Renaud included in his realist repertoire one of Montéhus’s most famous songs, La Butte rouge (1922), which denounced the use of honest workers as cannon fodder. The “red hilltop” in question was situated in the town of Bapaume, in Champagne, which had been destroyed during the First World War. Montéhus’s antimilitaristic lyrics were set to an accordéon-musette arrangement by Georges Krier:
Sur c’te butte-là, y’avait pas d’gigolettes,
Pas de marlous, ni de beaux muscadins.
Ah, c’était loin du moulin d’la galette,
Et de Paname, qu’est le roi des pat’lins.
C’qu’elle en a bu, du beau sang, cette terre!
Sang d’ouvriers et sang de paysans
Car les bandits, qui sont cause de guerres,
N’en meur’nt jamais, on n’tue qu’les innocents!
La Butt’ Roug’, c’est son nom, l’baptème s’fit un matin
Où tous ceux qui grimpèrent, roulèrent dans le ravin...
Aujourd’hui y’a des vignes, il y pousse du raisin
Qui boira d’ce vin-là, boira l’sang des copains!
On that hilltop, there were no working girls,
Pimps or popinjays.
Ah, it was far from the Moulin de la Galette,
and from Paris, that most noble of villages.
So much beautiful blood has quenched that earth!
The blood of workers and peasants
Because the bandits who cause wars
Never die in them, only the innocent get killed!
The Red Hilltop is its name, the baptism took place one morning
When all those who climbed its slopes rolled down into the ravine...
Today there are vines bearing grapes
Whoever drinks that wine, drinks the blood of our mates!
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