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The Arts Voyager, 6-1: Liberté et Fraternité
Brassens, stripped by Sfar

"Brassens Danse." ©Joann Sfar.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2011 Paul Ben-Itzak

If there are four things the French adore, they are: anniversaries, anarchists, comics, and Georges Brassens. The new exhibition at the Cite de la Musique at the parc La Villette in the north of Paris, co-curated by comics giant Joann Sfar (author of "The Rabbi's Cat" comics series and director of the film "Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life") testifies to all these amours in a giant way, commemorating the 90th anniversary of the birth and 30th of the death of Brassens, France's signature poet-troubador, in an creatively curated exhibition that uses comics to help revive the anarchist the veneer of nostalgia has obscured.

The French take their singer-poets seriously -- and ours too. Brassens has long been studied attentively by French schoolchildren, as have the lyrics of Bob Dylan. In the fall of 2001, recently installed in the 15th arrondissement of Paris in an apartment next to the Pasteur Institute with a stunning view of the Eiffel Tower, I stumbled into a singing concourse commemorating the 20th anniversary of his death at the parc Georges Brassens -- the French also love their urban gardens, and this is one of the more sprawling, with visitors entering under two giant cows, a tribute to the location's previous history as an abattoir. I was enthralled by the contestants of all ages, particularly a nervous, timid-looking 16-year-old girl in glasses who sang a capella, and a 30-something man who perspired heavily as he delivered a revved-up version of the seven-minute epic "Bury me on a beach in Sete," referring to Brassens's native town outside of Montpellier in the south of France on the Mediterranean. (The ambitious Arts Voyager might want to make a pilgrimage to Sete, a four-hour train trip from Paris, as I did several years later; there was nothing more sublime than sitting on a beach in Sete while listening to the Brassens anthem on my discman. Well, maybe taking in the view of the vast turquoise expanse of the Mediterranean from the boardwalk on the long walk back to the train station, stopping just long enough to pick up a tielle, the octopus and tomato paste stuffed turnover that is the signature Setoise cuisine, and wash it down with a 1.50 Euro pastis at a dive in the old port while looking out the window at a giant trawler tethered to the dock.)


Georges Brassens at th Chaillot National Palace, September 15, 1966. Photo ©Jean-Pierre Leloir and courtesy Cite de la Musique.

Brassens may look like your teddy bear of an uncle, complete with frizzy hair, mustache, and pipe, but his lyrics can be somber -- and deadly. In "Gare au Gorille" (Watch out for the Gorilla), he chronicles -- in the most dulcet of tones -- the saga of a judge raped by an ape (appropriately, it's implied). In "Brave Margot," he immortalizes a maid who decides to breast-feed her kitten at her window, which drives the men of the village to distraction and the women to eventually dispose of the cat. And in "Bad Reputation," the narrator insists he doesn't do anything wrong -- stays home during the Bastille Day parade, trips a policeman pursuing an apple thief -- but all the same "the brave people" of his little village "without pretention" "don't like it when someone pursues a path other then theirs," concluding, "Everyone will come to see me hanged -- except, of course, the blind."


"Gare au Gorille" (Watch out for the Gorilla). ©Joann Sfar.

Conversely, though -- and perhaps explaining why Brassens is a hero to French men, women, and children of all political colors -- he also rhapsodizes about the simple dreams of ordinary people, singing about lovers on public benches, a man lending the cover of his umbrella to a pretty girl for a spell and then regretting winsomely when she departs, butterflies, and even, in "Les copains d'abord," "Friends before everything."

In other words, the stories Brassens has spun have have memorialized the fabric of daily French life as they have advanced his particular social concerns


"Brassens, Impasse Florimont." Brassens lived for many years in the Impasse Florimont, 100 meters from where now stands the parc Georges Brassens in the 15th arrondissement of Paris. ©Joann Sfar.

In recent decades, the role of the troubadour in France has often been filled by comic book artists. The leading national newspaper Liberation annually turns its pages completely over to comics designers, with all photos being replaced by comics-style illustrations. Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis" saga, eventually made into a movie, started as a summer comics serial in the pages of "Libe," as locals fondly refer to the newspaper. Joann Sfar, author of the popular series "The Rabbi's Cat" -- a new film based on the books opens today -- was tapped to direct, as his first film, the recent bio-pic of another idol of the French chanson, Serge Gainsbourg.

So when the Cite de la Musique decided to organize an anniversary exposition on Brassens, "Brassens ou la liberte," it was no surprise that it hired, as curators, the journalist Clementine Deroudille and... Joann Sfar.

In choosing its commissars -- as the curators of expositions are called in France -- the Cite de la Musique hoped to retrieve the real Brassens from the reigning, current image of the tranquil uncle singing by the fire and harkening back to the traditional France "of antan." While the music has persisted and never really gone away, the image of the real man has been blurred and softened. The exhibition aims, its organizers say, to bring back to the forefront the erudite connoisseur of French poetry, hugely shy and ill at ease on the stage, the formidable musician, passionate for Charles Trenet, the libertarian who followed his own path rather than joining collective battles, the opponent of war, arbitrary police injustice and the self-righteous, the quiet force who always followed his interior music. How to evoke a figure simultaneously popular and unshowy, so rich and open in his texts and guarded in his personal life? How to go beyond the stereotypes and look for new, even surprising angles?


"Les gros mots" (Dirty words). ©Joann Sfar. The bubbles translate as: "Dear Parents, It's
important to verify that your offspring knows its dirty words well. They're part of the local heritage."

What Sfar and Deroudille came up with is a sort of ramble through a forest, the perambulatory form the exposition has taken, in which the public can discover documents previously unreleased, manuscripts and notebooks family and friends have provided for the first time, audiovisual and radio archives, rare photographs, and even guitars.

And of course, there are the images by Joann Sfar, some of which are reproduced in these pages, as are two of the photos. The exposition, continuing through August 21, also features a free lecture series that attempts to fill out the persistent memory of Brassens as the champion of the classic French chanson by revisiting the polemics around his oeuvre and the revolution it constituted in its time (perhaps not evident if you don't speak French, as most of the songs sound prosaically simple... and often sound alike); free mini-concerts, always including a chance to sing along; and opportunities for families to take their turn at playing Brassens, with free guitars as well as other instruments and instructors to help them'decrypt' the melodies and chords. If you can't get there in person, a mini-site has been set up which not only features images from the show but a way to participate directly: "Internautes" -- as the French refer to web-surfers -- can record a video of themselves having a go at a Brassens song and enter it in a contest on Daily Motion, where the public will vote on those to be presented at the exposition. There's even a sub-site, "Le nouveau Paris Ile-de-France," that pretends to tell you where you can 'retrouve' the 'impertinent humor' and 'savoir vivre a la francaise of this grand poet." This is fine for those who like to play pretend and imagine they are in the Paris and France of 50 years ago, so by all means check out the picks of supposed 'typique' bistros and places to see 'typique' music performed live... but, in the impertinent spirit of Brassens, maybe it's time for a reality check.


(Two separate images.) Left: "Brassens manifeste (dans son coin et a sa facon)," which translates as "Brassens demonstrates (in his own little corner and in his manner)." Right: "Brassens a emprunté une télecaster a Dick Dale et tente un solo sur 'Misirlou,'" which translates -- very loosely -- as "Brassens has borrowed an electric guitar from Dick Dale and attempts a solo on 'Misirlou.'" ©Joann Sfar.

The French -- or the French political and cultural elite, anyway -- are also famous for celebrating rebels only after it's too late for them to do any harm. Could an impertinent artistic spirit like Brassens thrive today, in the France of Nicolas Sarkozy, which often seems to have little tolerance for satire, let alone impertinence?

25 years before the French Revolution, a young man of 19, watching a passing parade of religioius notables, allegedly refused to take his hat off and sung impudent ditties, for which officials cut off his arms and his tongue and had him burned at the stake. Later, the French erected a statue of the young man known as the Chevalier de la Barre and placed it high atop Montmartre in the shadow of Sacre Coeur (itself built by the enforced labor of the Parisians of the Commune for having dared to rebel against their national government).

In June 2010, the director of the popular middle-brow government funded Radio France station France Inter, Philippe Val -- who, as editor of the weekly satirical journal Charlie Hebdo in 2001, just after 9/11 and in the midst of the Brassens celebrations, had featured a cover cartoon of Osama bin Laden smoking a pipe, strumming a guitar, and singing 'Bad Reputation' -- fired the popular humorist Stephane Guillon from France Inter's highly rated morning show, as well as another humorist, Didier Porte. Guillon had refused to relent in pillorying, among others, the over-zealous minister of immigration and national identity Eric Besson in his five-minute daily commentaries. The humorist's supporters suggested that Val -- who at the end of the day serves at the pleasure of the government -- had fired Guillon and Porte at the behest of Sarkozy's entourage. Val -- who had made his name as a publisher of news-driven satire -- claimed that he had merely concluded that humor had no place on a news show.

In January, the Paris tribunal des Prud'hommes ordered Guillon's former employer, France Inter, to pay him 212,000 Euros in damages. Guillon, in typical form, told the Agence France Press that he was "delighted" but also "scandalized" by the ruling. "As an employee put out on the street, I'm delighted by this court decision," he said. "As a taxpayer, I'm scandalized that a state-owned company preferred to lose this much money -- and listeners -- just to silence a humorist."

Gare au Gorille.


"Georges Brassens au métro Glaciére avec un sans abri, 1953." (Georges Brassens at the Metro Glaciere with a homeless man, 1953.) ©Robert Doisneau and courtesy Cite de la Musique.


(The Arts Voyager traveling to Paris this summer any time between July 19 and August 21 may also want to check out, at the same parc la Villette, the Cinema en Plein Air, the free outdoor film festival whose theme this year, "From one street to the other," provides an excuse to offer films ranging from Cedric Klapisch's "To each his cat" to Woody Allen's "Manhattan," from Arthur Penn's "Bonnie & Clyde" to Henri-Georges Clouzot's "Quai des Orfevres," and from Wong Kar-wai's "Happy Together" to Jerome Robbins/Robert Wise's "West Side Story.")


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