28 June 2007

Charles Trenet

“The French, they are a funny race,” we’re told, but chances are, as an American studying French and (horreur!) living among French people, you don’t have much proof.

It’s not that the French are devoid of humor. Far from it. Most French people you ever meet, including your in-laws, are eager to laugh at you — or any other Americans. Your cultural imperialism, so inferior to their cultural imperialism. Your table manners. Your quaint notions about hygiene, politics, and whether to eat offal. Above all, your attempts to speak their language. These are the foundations of comedy in France today.

But when it comes to making others laugh, the French simply can’t be bothered. Their stand-up comics are chainsmoking misanthropes who speak a slang so dense, I’m sure other French people don’t understand it, and only laugh for fear that someone will mistake them for Americans. En bref, whether they are sneering at you or seducing you, the French are deadly serious.

Charles Trenet was the exception. When the chansonneur died a few years ago, everybody talked about the poetic romance of such hits as “Beyond the Sea” (“La Mer’) and “I Wish You Love” (even more poetic — and melancholy — in the original, “Que reste-t-il de nos amours?”). Oui, oui, oui, he was the first poet of the music-hall, writing his own material long before Brel and Gainsbourg. But the essential Trenet has been overlooked.

They called him “Le Fou Chantant,” the singing madman. He combined elements of Allan Jones (looks), Danny Kaye (style) and Irving Berlin (music). Pushing a porkpie hat back on his strawberry-blond head, he hopped around the stage, rolling his eyes, shimmying his shoulders, emitting noises no Frenchman ever made in public before. In “Boum!”, by far his greatest song, he explains that, while clocks go “tick-tock” and turkeys go “gloo-gloo-gloo,” our hearts go “boom” when we’re in love. “Even God says ‘boom’ in His armchair of clouds,” Trenet informs us. But he’s so overwhelmed by his “boom” that, by the end of the song, he’s just babbling: “Boom-boom-boom-b-b-b-b-b-b-bbb!” In “Il pleut dans ma chambre” (It’s raining in my bedroom), he goes completely unhinged as he imitates raindrops, wet cats, and a deluge of post-Louis XV proportions.

Even if your French isn’t good enough to get the full effect of his wordplay, you can have fun with these lyrics. It took a singing madman to understand what generations of first-year French students always knew: simple phrases in French sound hilarious.

“Tout est au duc” (Everything belongs to the duke) and “Débit de l’eau, débit du lait” (Public house for water, milk) become rhythmic and comic launch pads. “Fleur bleue” (Blue flower) becomes a love-madness which makes “words difficult to pronounce.” Young lovers’ clothes fly off faster than pigeons. The moon and the sun have a date, but can’t get together. A young poet, in love with the frosty Englishwoman “Miss Emily,” weeps “des larmes comme du beurre” (tears like butter — melted, presumably). And who can forget the immortal words of Trenet’s hatcheck girl: “Monsieur, monsieur, vous oubliez votre cheval”(Sir, you’re forgetting your horse)?

Surrealism, absurdism: these are just college-level substitutes for Trenet songs, and much less fun.

Even in his mellower moods, he is the rare French singer whose music never drove anyone to suicide. On the contrary, I suspect he’s saved lives. Trenet was fundamentally optimistic, and found in American swing the perfect vehicle for his sunny philosophies. His instinctive understanding of jazz, his impeccable use of Big Band orchestrations, didn’t contaminate his art or condemn his music to the cultural Chernobyl of Disney-McDonald’s globalization. Rather, they elevated novelty numbers and pop songs to enduring classics. He outlasted everybody from Chevalier to 2Be3.

Thanks to Trenet, the French were indeed a funny race. They’d have preferred to keep this secret. But I love the French better, knowing Trenet was one of them.