It's with some sadness that I note the death of Charles Aznavour, a songwriter whose lyrics and melodies touched a melancholic strain of romanticism that has always moved me. (Like Inspector Morse before me, I've always "been more attuned to life's adagios than its legatos.") It's a sort of karmic pun that his death was reported on the seventh anniversary of my wedding to the woman whose impact on my life his lyrics so well described:
She may be the reason I surviveThe lyrics are quite apt, though I'll spare you the personalia. So I will miss him.
The why and wherefore I'm alive
The one I'll care for through the rough and ready years.
Still, these two stories from his obit made me smile with the old rascal:
Mr. Aznavour’s career spanned the history of the chanson realiste, the unvarnished tales of unrequited love, loneliness and anomie that found their apotheosis in the anguished voice of Piaf. He wrote songs for her and for Gilbert Bécaud, Léo Ferré, Yves Montand and others. When Piaf rejected one of his songs, “I Hate Sundays,” he gave it to Juliette Gréco, then the darling of the Left Bank philosophers and their acolytes. When Piaf changed her mind, she was enraged to find that she’d lost the song and, according to François Lévy, one of her biographers, confronted Mr. Aznavour, shouting, “What, you gave it to that existentialist?”"She"(1974), my favorite of his songs, heads this post, a cheerful-resigned celebration of the heights and depths of love, of the many faces the beloved presents at various moments. (If you're thinking Billy Joel's 1977 "She's Always a Woman" might bear some influence, well, perhaps, but Aznavour's Gallic philosophical resignation and muted yearning create a different vibe than Joel's song.) Rather than (as I've seen it described) a sexist musing on the mutability of women, I read Aznavour's lyrics as consistent with Robertson Davies's observation in Fifth Business that "I cannot remember a time when I did not take it as understood that everybody has at least two, if not twenty-two sides to him"--or her.
In “Yesterday When I Was Young,” an autobiography published in 1979 — it shares its title with the English-language version of one of his best-known compositions — Mr. Aznavour recalled a Brussels promoter who had ignored him for years and was now offering him a contract. He offered 4,000 francs. Mr. Aznavour asked for 8,000. The promoter refused. The next year, he offered 16,000.
“Not enough,” replied Mr. Aznavour, now a major star. “I want more than you pay Piaf.” Piaf was then making 30,000 francs. Again the promoter refused. The next year, he gave in. “How much more than Piaf do you want?” he asked. “One franc,” Mr. Aznavour said. “After that I was able to tell my friends I was better paid than Piaf.”