Georges Brassens (in French) (22 October 1921 - 29 October 1981) was a French singer-songwriter.
Georges Brassens was born in Sète (then called Cette), a town in southern France near Montpellier. Now an iconic figure in France, he achieved fame through his simple, elegant songs and articulate, diverse lyrics; indeed, he is considered one of France's most accomplished postwar poets. He has also set to music poems by both well-known and relatively obscure poets, including Louis Aragon (Il n'y a pas d'amour heureux), Victor Hugo, Jean Richepin, François Villon, and Guillaume Apollinaire.
During World War II, he was forced by the Germans to work in a labour camp at a BMW aircraft engine plant in Basdorf near Berlin in Germany (March 1943). Here Brassens met some of his future friends, such as Pierre Onténiente, whom he called Gibraltar because he was "steady as a rock." They would later become close friends.
After being given ten days' leave in France, he decided not to return to the labour camp. Brassens took refuge in a slum called "Impasse Florimont" where he lived for several years with its owner, Jeanne Planche, a friend of his aunt. Planche lived with her husband Marcel in relative poverty: without gas, running water, or electricity. Brassens remained hidden there until the end of the war five months later, but ended up staying for 22 years. Planche was the inspiration for Brassens's song Jeanne.
Brassens grew up in the family home in Sète
with his mother, Elvira Dragosa, father, Jean-Louis, half-sister, Simone (daughter of Elvira and her first husband, who was killed in the war), and paternal grandfather, Jules. His mother, who came from a Neapolitan
family, was a devout Catholic, while his father was an easy-going, generous, openminded, anticlerical man. Brassens grew up between these two starkly contrasting personalities, who nonetheless shared a love for music. His mother—whom Brassens labelled a "missionary for songs" (militante de la chanson), Simone and Jules, were always singing. This environment imparted to Brassens a passion for singing that would come to define his life. At the time he listened constantly to his early idols: Charles Trenet
, Tino Rossi
, and Ray Ventura. He was said to love music above all else: it was his first passion and the path that led him to his career. He told his friend André Sève, "[It is] a kind of internal vibration, something intense, a pleasure that has something of the sensual to it." He hoped to enroll at a music conservatory, but his mother insisted that he could only do so if his grades improved. Consequently, he never learned to read music. A poor student, Brassens performed badly in school.
Alphonse Bonnafé, Brassens' ninth-grade teacher, strongly encouraged his apparent gift for poetry and creativity. Brassens had already been experimenting with songwriting and poetry. Bonnafé aided his attempts at poetry and pushed him to spend more time on his schoolwork, suggesting he begin to study classical poetry. Brassens developed an interest in versification and rhyme. By Brassens' admission, Bonnafé's influence on his work is enormous: "We were thugs, at fourteen, fifteen, and we started to like poets. That is quite a transformation. Thanks to this teacher, I opened my mind to something bigger. Later on, every time I wrote a song, I asked myself the question: would Bonnafé like it?" By this point, music had taken a slight backstage to poetry for Brassens, who now dreamed of being a writer.
Nonetheless, personal friendships and adolescence still defined Brassens in his teens. At age seventeen, he was implicated in a crime that would prove to be a turning point in his life. In order to make a little money, Georges and his gang decided to turn to small thefts whose principal victims were their respective families. Georges stole a ring and a bracelet from his sister. The police found and caught him, which caused a minor scandal. The young men were publicly characterized as "high school mobsters" or "scum". Some of the perpetrators, unsupported by their families, spent time in prison. While Brassen's father was more forgiving and immediately picked up his son, Brassens was expelled from school. He decided to move to Paris in February 1940, following a short trial as an apprentice mason in his father's business after World War II had already broken out.
Brassens lived with his aunt Antoinette in the 14th arrondissement of Paris, where he taught himself to play piano. He began working at a Renault
car factory. In May 1940 the factory was bombed, and France invaded by Germany
. Brassens returned to the family home in Sète. He spent the summer in his home town, but soon returned to Paris, feeling that this was where his future lay. He did not work, since employment would serve only to profit the occupying enemy. Saddened by the lack of poetic culture, Brassens spent most of his days in the library. It was then that he set a pattern of arising at five in the morning, and going to bed at sunset - a pattern he maintained the greater part of his life. He meticulously studied the great masters: Villon
. His approach to poetry was almost scientific. Reading, for instance, a poem by Verlaine, he dissected it image by image, attentive to the slightest change in rhythm, analysing the rhymes and the way they alternated. He drew on this enormous literary culture as wrote his first collection of poems, Des coups d’épée dans l’eau
, whose conclusion foreshadowed the anarchism of his future songs:
- Le siècle ou nous vivons est un siècle pourri.
- Tout n'est que lâcheté, bassesse,
- Les plus grands assassins vont aux plus grandes messes
- Et sont des plus grands rois les plus grands favoris.
- Hommage de l'auteur à ceux qui l'ont compris,
- Et merde aux autres.
- (The century we live in is a rotten century.
- Nothing but cowardice and baseness.
- The greatest murderers attend the greatest masses
- And are the greatest favourites of the greatest kings.
- Homage from the author to those who understood him,
- And shit for the others.)
Brassens also published A la venvole, thanks to the money of his family and friends, and with the surprising help of a woman named Jeanne Planche, a neighbour of Antoinette, probably the first Brassens fan. Brassens later commented on his early works: "In those times, I was only regurgitating what I had learned reading the poets. I hadn't transformed it into honey yet."
In march 1943, Brassens was requisitioned for the STO (Service de Travail Obligatoire
: Obligatory Work Service
) and was taken to Basdorf
, Germany. He found time to write, but he stooped to easiness and considered this period a waste of time. It was nevertheless in Germany that he wrote Bonhomme
and Pauvre Martin
, along with more than a hundred songs, that were later either burned or frequently altered before they reached their final form (Le Mauvais sujet repenti
). He also wrote the beginning of his first novel, Lalie Kakamou
. In Germany, he met some of his best friends like Pierre Onténiente, whom he nicknamed "Gibraltar", because he was "firm as a rock." Onténiente later became his right-hand man and his private secretary.
A year after he arrived in Basdorf, Brassens was granted a ten day furlough. It was obvious to him and his new friends that he wouldn't come back. In Paris, he had to find a hideout, but he knew very few people. He had indeed led quite a lonely life in Paris, seeing only a friend from Sète and the girls with whom he had his first romances. Finally, Jeanne Planche came to his aid and offered to put him up as long as necessary. Jeanne lived with her husband Marcel in a hovel at 9 impasse Florimont, with no gas, water or electricity. Brassens accepted... and stayed there for twenty two years. He once said on the radio: "I was nice there, and I have gained since then quite an amazing sense of discomfort." According to Pierre Onténiente: "Jeanne had a crush on Georges and Marcel knew nothing, as he started to get drunk at eight in the morning."
Once put up at Jeanne Planche's, Georges had to stay hidden for five months, waiting for the war to come to an end. He continued writing poems and songs. He composed using as his only instrument a small piece of furniture that he called "my drum" on which he beat out the rhythm. He resumed writing the novel he started in Basdorf, for he only now did he consider a career as a famous novelist. The end of World War II and the freedom suddenly regained didn't change his habits much, except that he got his library card back and resumed studying poetry.
The end of the war meant the homecoming of the friends form Basdorf, with whom Brassens planned to create an anarchist-minded paper, Le Cri des gueux (The villain’s cry), which never came into being for lack of money. In the same time, he set up the "Prehistoric Party" with Emile Miramont (a friend from Sète nicknamed "Corne d'Aurochs" –auroch's horn) and André Larue (who he met in Basdorf), which advocated the return to a more modest way of life, but whose chief purpose was to ridicule the other political parties. After the failure of Le Cri des gueux, Brassens joined the Anarchist Federation and wrote some virulent, black humour tinged articles for Le Libertaire, the Federation's paper. But the extravagance of the future songwriter wasn’t to everybody’s taste, and he soon had to leave the Federation, albeit without any storming or resentment.
Brassens said in an interview: "I'm an anarchist, so much so that I always cross at the zebra crossing to avoid arguing with the police." He also said: "I'm not very fond of the law. As Léautaud would say, I could do without laws [...] I think most people couldn’t."
The beginning of his career
His friends who heard and liked his songs urged him to go and try them out in a cabaret, café or concert hall. He was shy and had difficulty performing in front of people. At first, he wanted to sell his songs to most-known singers such as "les frères Jacques". The owner of a cafe told him that his songs were not the type he was looking for. But at one point he met the singer Patachou
in a very well-known cafe, Les Trois Baudets
, and she brought him into the music scene. Several famous singers came into the music industry this way, including Jacques Brel
and Léo Ferré
He rarely performed outside his own country, and his lyrics are difficult to translate, though attempts have been made.
He performed with an acoustic guitar
; most of the time, his only accompanying musician was his friend Pierre Nicolas
with a double bass
, and sometimes a second guitar (Barthélémy Rosso, Joël Favreau).
Some of his most famous songs:
- Les copains d'abord, about a boat of that name, and friendship, written for a movie Les copains (1964) directed by Yves Robert; (translated and covered by Asleep At The Wheel as "Friendship First")
- Chanson pour l'Auvergnat, lauding those who take care of the downtrodden against the pettiness of the bourgeois and the harshness of law enforcement;
- La cane de Jeanne for Marcel and Jeanne Planche, who befriended and sheltered him; and others
- La mauvaise réputation — "the bad reputation", semi-autobiography;
- Les amoureux des bancs publics — about young lovers who kiss each other publicly and shock self-righteous people;
- Le gorille — tells, in a humorous fashion, of a gorilla with a large penis (and admired for this by ladies) who escapes and, mistaking a robed judge for a woman, forcefully sodomizes him; the song contrasts the wooden attitude that the judge had when sentencing a man to death by the guillotine, with his cries of mercy when being assaulted by the gorilla; this song, considered pornographic, was banned for a while; the song's refrain (Gare au gori – i – i – i – ille, "beware the gorilla") is widely known; (translated by Jake Thackray as Brother Gorilla, Greek songwriter and singer Xristos Thivaios as Ο Γορίλας (The Gorilla), Spanish songwriter Joaquín Carbonell as 'El Gorila' (The Gorilla) and Italian songwriter Fabrizio De André (Il Gorilla)).
- Supplique pour être enterré à la plage de Sète, describing his wish to be buried by the Gulf of Lion in his hometown.
- Mourir pour des idées, describing the recurring violence over ideas and an exhortation to be left in peace (translated by Italian songwriter Fabrizio De André (Morire per delle idee))
Brassens died of cancer in 1981, in Saint-Gély-du-Fesc, having suffered health problems for many years, and rests at the Cimetière le Py in Sète.
Now more than 50 doctoral dissertations have been written about Georges Brassens, and many artists from Japan, Russia, the United States (where there is a Georges Brassens' fan club), Italy and Spain make cover versions of his songs. His songs have been translated into 20 languages, including Esperanto.
Many singers have covered Georges Brassens' lyrics in other languages, for instance Fabrizio De André (in Italian) and Nanni Svampa (in Italian and Milanese), Graeme Allwright and Jake Thackray (in English), Sam Alpha (in creole), Yossi Banai (in Hebrew), Jiří Dědeček (in Czech), Mark Freidkin (in Russian), Paco Ibáñez, Javier Krahe and Eduardo Peralta (in Spanish), Jacques Ivart (in esperanto), Franz Josef Degenhardt and Ralf Tauchmann (in German) and Zespół Reprezentacyjny and Piotr Machalica (in Polish), Cornelis Vreeswijk (Swedish) and Tuula Amberla (in Finnish). Dieter Kaiser, a Belgian-German singer who performs in public concerts with the French-German professional guitarrist Stéphane Bazire under the name Stéphane & Didier has translated into German language and gathered in a brochure 19 chansons of Brassens. He also translated among others the poem "Il n'y a pas d'amour heureux" of the French contemporary poet Louis Aragon. Franco-Cameroonian singer Kristo Numpuby also released a cover-album with the original French lyrics but adapted the songs to various African rhythms.
Nowadays, there is an international association of Georges Brassens fans. There is also a fan club in Berlin-Basdorf which organizes a Brassens festival every year in September.
Brassens composed about 250 songs, but only 200 were recorded. The other 50 were unfinished.
Renée Claude, an important Québécois singer, dedicates a tribute-album to him, J'ai rendez-vous avec vous (1993).
His songs have a major influence on younger French singers (Maxime Le Forestier, Renaud Séchan, Bénabar etc)
In 2008 the English folk-singer Leon Rosselson included a tribute song to Brassens, entitled "The Ghost of Georges Brassens", on his album "A Proper State".
A lot of schools, theatres, parks, public gardens, and public places are dedicated to Georges Brassens and his work, and are named after him, for instance:
- A park built on the site of the former Vaugirard slaughterhouses, was named parc Georges Brassens. Brassens lived a large part of his life about hundred metres from the slaughterhouses, at 9 impasse Florimont and then at 42 rue Santos Dumont.
- The Place du Marché of Brive-la-Gaillarde was renamed Place Georges Brassens, as a tribute to women that had had a clash here with the French gendarmerie, a clash he evoked in one of his songs, Hécatombe.
- In the Paris Métro station Porte des Lilas (Line 11) there is a mural portrait of Brassens along with a quote from his song "La Porte des Lilas", written for the 1957 film "Porte des Lilas" by René Clair. In this film, Brassens had a supporting role, practically playing himself.
- http://www.sete.fr/brassens/english/index.html Espace Brassens museum in Sète
- Le parapluie, Le fossoyeur and other songs by a french composer, listenable on-line.
- Brassens chante encore compilation tribute to Georges Brassens released on the Electrobel netlabel.