The Times, They Are Not Changing

Georges Brassens - As Popular as Ever

Paris:- Thursday, 31. October 1996:- A sort of Brassens-mania has been sloshing around Paris for the last several weeks. Posters for a series of concerts, held in all of Paris' arrondissements, were are over the métro - were in fact sponsored by the RATP.

This week it has built up to a crescendo - especially in the pages of the popular newspaper, Le Parisien. Who is Georges Brassens and why is he famous in Paris?

The poet-songwriter-singer died 15 years ago on the 29th of October at the age of 60 - but his popularity remains intact. In 150 compositions he celebrated the Frenchness of being... pals, buddies, 'des Copains d'Abord,' of sharing... of being the son of a stone-cutter from the ancient town of Sète.

Brassens wrote like people speak, or wish they dared to - and his first recordings, done in 1952, were not broadcast until Europe 1 broke the censorship ban in 1955. He had a reckless taste for words, especially those not used in polite society.

Brassens Poster at Bobino

In addition to this familiarity, his lyrics have passed the test of time. The sentiments he expressed a generation ago are just as actual to today's generation; his songs are 'toujours dans l'air du temps.'

In France today, the times are morose if you are an ordinary citizen. Unemployment is up - again - taxes are going up - still - and there is nobody around saying that things are going to get better soon, or ever. As always there is a feeling of 'them' - the administration, and 'us' - everybody who is not in the administration. The 'us' only knows that the administration is not going to improve the lot of the 'us,' so there is a certain fatality, hopelessness, and the only refuge from it can only be found among friends. Brassens' 'copains' are more necessary than ever.

Younger citizens learned about Brassens from their grandparents or their parents. Most like their Brassens 'pure,' without modern interpretations - although some think Renaud's versions are good. Brassens accompanied himself on guitar; Renaud uses the pop tools of today, but also sings about what people are thinking, so 'doing' Brassens for him is not exploitation, but homage. Maxime Le Forestier, another serious performer, has brought out a CD-audio containing previously unrecorded Brassens' songs, which has been accepted by the public.

Georges Brassens lived in the 15th arrondissement, in a little dead-end alley, the Villa Santos-Dumont. There he had a garden that might have reminded him of Sète; in any case all the other houses in this green and narrow street are individual and small and low, and not at all like Paris - except for other similar quiet back streets scattered about, usually in the 'newer' arrondissements.

Street & Home

He was not known as a man about town, preferring this neighborhood, preferring to eat with friends such as Lino Ventura or Maurice Claval, at the nearby restaurant of Pierre Vedel, whose father was also a stone-mason in Sète, in the rue des Morillons. According to Vedel, they often stayed long after closing - as pals. As pals in a restaurant with a wine-celler, with an owner-cook as a pal too.

The former Vaugirard slaughterhouse, situated on a 10 hectare empty lot, and called Les Morillons as early as 1667, is now the site of the Parc Georges Brassens and even in the rain today its only disturbing feature is the surrounding skyline of public housing units. Real working - and unemployed - people live in these buildings and call them home, and they are better than nothing - but nobody has to like how they look or how they function. At least, when you are in these ones, you get to see the park I am standing in.

This park has some interesting features, such as the garden of odors - for the blind, with the names of the plants in braille. On Saturdays and Sundays, under the pavilions on the rue de Brancion side, there is an old book market, and the 'pros' come early. For children - because the park is mostly for children - there are artificial hills, fake cliffs for climbing, little wooden houses and a small basin for model sailboats in front of the clock tower. The city of Paris has a kindergarten on the rue des Morillons side, and there is also a theatre that looks like a tin tepee. On the west side, along the rue Dantzig, is the Paris 'lost and found' storehouse, where it has been for ages.

Brassens Park

It is an appropriate place for it. Although this corner of Paris is only a few steps away from the cosmopolitan Expo Park at the Porte de Versailles, it is sort of 'lost' - sandwiched north of the 'boulevard interior' and west of the Montparnasse SNCF rails and south of the rue de la Convention.

I confess I do not know much about Brassens except what a few people have told me, and what I have read during the last few days in the papers. It seems pretty sure that this big circus surrounding this anniversary would have caused him no little embarrassment.

Luckily, some of his last wishes have been carried out and he managed to get buried in his hometown of Sète, on the Golfe de Lion, between Montpellier and Cap d'Agde. There he lies under the ground in the Cemetery de Py - also known as the poor's cemetery - between the inland Lac de Thau and the Mediterranean, in the vertical shade of Cypress trees.

He asked for no tomb and no flowers, but since 200 a day pass on average, the cemetery keeper does have to remove the flowers that are left there. A modest plaque adorns his house in Sète, and ordinary people live in it today.

But back to Brassens' heritage. Philips/Mercury has brought out a double CD 15th anniversary set called 'Les Copains d'Abord' and a triple CD set, with a 28-page booklet, entitled, 'La Mauvaise Réputation.'

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