August 26, 2010
Singer and songwriter Pierre de Gaillande
's group Bad Reputation played a humorous and musically elevating two-set gig at Brooklyn's famous Barbes
, the tiny venue with the enormous selection of music. Bad Reputation
plays the songs of French poet/singer George Brassens
(1921-1981) in English, with translations by de Gaillande.
Brassens is famous in France, with this generation being as familiar with his music as the last. His lyrics, provocative and poetic, make references to seventeenth century french poetry while calling attention to social truths. The songs were written with the lyrics first, yet the music to which Brassens dovetailed the words is also extremely catchy, and in its "world" melody-played-on-guitar style, must have influenced the Beatles as composers as well as lyricists. The most obvious broad comparison is to Bob Dylan
: Brassens was Dylan even before Dylan was a teenager, fusing words of genius with the folk-chord like tunes. The music is, however, more sweeping and melodically colorful than Dylan's.
For a final twist, to push the message over the top, Brassens added abundant profanity. Hence, the "bad reputation!" De Gaillande's translations, and the band recording an album entitled Bad Reputation
(Barbes Records, 2010), open up this treasure chest of art that is Brassens to English speakers.
Brassens often performed solo with his guitar, or with a bassist and sometimes a second guitar. De Gaillande has added clarinet, charango and other instruments to the music, to present a wholly appropriate Gallic ensemble. Bad Reputation's sound is similar to Paul McCartney's "Drink To Me (Picasso's Last Words)," a French pastiche song from Band On The Run
(Columbia, 1974). Brassens' first decade of writing was at the time Sidney Bechet
was living in France (Bechet died there in 1959), and a clarinet suits very well the "Petite Fleur" style tunes (for example "I Made Myself Small").
De Gaillande's father is French, a literature professor living in Los Angeles. It was he who turned de Gaillande on to the idea of translating a Brassens poem into English, and this led in turn to the project of translating Brassens' songsvery little of the poet has been sung in English before, though there are versions of his songs in other languages. As a Franco-American (his mother is American), and coming from an indie/folk rock background, de Gaillande was well placed to fill the gap. Despite problems of fitting syllables to sounds where there may not be an available syllable in English, and internal rhymes, de Gaillande has succeeded in creating excellent translations. Virtually every Brassens song is a masterpiece, an in-your-face equivalent to a rich and descriptive painting, yet with delicate imagery: Bad Reputation, with their singer's loquacious renderings, do not lose this picture.
The album Bad Reputation
was released in June, 2010, and the brilliance and humor of the songs in English were not long in revealing themselves to the crowd at Barbes. With David Spinley
on clarinet, Quentin Jennings
on flute, charango and xylophone, and Christian Bongers
on bass, de Gaillande launched into the oeuvre of Brassens, and an education was about to begin.
Beneath the Hotel D'Orsay sign that is always above the red curtain behind the stage, De Gaillande played classics such as "Poor Martin," the story of an agricultural worker resigned to his life, and the Lennon-esque and elegant masterpiece "Penelope." There were also the important and seemingly ever-poignant "To Die For Your Ideas" ["If we hurry up we might die for an idea that is outdated tomorrow," as de Gaillande described the meaning of the song], the picturesque "The Princess And The Troubadour," the humorous comments on (some) married women "Ninety-Five Percent," the cynical "Public Benches," and the very melodically McCartney-esque "Absolutely Nothing."
"The Princess And The Troubadour" is notable for a line typical of Brassens: "These ruins would never be a landmark..." yet they hide a history of an exotic underworld that never slept, once... and so the story is told. Brassens is said to have considered himself a medieval troubadour.
Spinley on clarinet often played an introduction for each song, then looked closely after the root note while De Gaillande sang the witty words. Jennings on charango or xylophone played similarly, keeping away from the melody as much as possible for contrast.
De Gaillande introduced the crowd to the chord and key of B minor, as most of Brassens' songs are in that key. "You're going to get used to B minor," said De Gaillande.
One of the many highlights was one of Brassens' later songs "Don Juan," in B minor of course, from 1974. De Gaillande's English words continued, as always, hugging the notes regardless of Brassens' melodic twists, just like the subject of "Don Juan," who, in Brassens' vision, performs the gallant deed of giving love to unattractive and neglected women. "She's a very nasty girl, I've got to have her now," sang de Gaillande.
"Philistines" tells the story of staid professionals who want their children to grow up as "fat and round" accountants, but instead they become "hairy poets." The song employs brilliant imagery to point out these self-interested attempts at control by the unenlightened.
Finally, de Gaillande came to Brassens' famous "Le Pornographe," a self-parodying song from 1958, concluding with the words ..."and it's offensive!" He also said, "We updated it for a more modern audience."
The song, Brassens' perhaps biggest hit, talks about how the singer titillates his audience with four letter words and bawdy stories, and how this is what keeps him fed. The overall idea of the song is well summed up by the request of the cabaret owner in a verse of the song, who pleads with the singer that if he happens to sing about flowers, "for pity's sake just let them grow in a bordello." The singer is happy to oblige, or else, as the song says (in de Gaillande's translation), he'll end on skid row. He is the pornographer of the phonograph. That's what he does.
Yet he sometimes questions it all: "When I'm alone back at my place my psyche stares me in the face, and shouts you twisted little elf go fuck yourself." The original says "Incorrect man, look at the [ancient] Greeks," but de Gaillande's minor change is possibly better, at least for today. "Twisted little elf" is fine for Brassens' "homme incorrec." And it sure rhymes with "yourself"! As he said, it's updated. In any event, it works better in English the way he has it. De Gaillande's humor is exactly right.
Another minor change, necessary for an English rendition to match the original music, is in the chorus. In French, the notes that fit "pornograph-e" are four in number. So De Gaillande adds "sir" after "pornograph," to match the melody's four notes. It works very well, striking the right tone: "I'm the pornographer of the phonograph, sir, the perverted son of a sing-along." "Perverted son of a sing-along" is an excellent variation on Brassens' original "le polisson de la chanson," literally "the rascal of song," and even adds alliteration.
Then there is the creative change in the verse about the singer's wife, where Brassens says she will lay down for the first person who comes along. To fashion it in English, De Gaillande rhymes it, "lay down nude, with any old dude"!
De Gaillande's translational changes totally work in English. Listening to the album is almost like watching a television show, but with excellent poetics and the music added.
Another example of de Gaillande's translation is in the song from which the band takes its name, "Bad Reputation" (1953), where the literal French is ..." but good folks don't like it if you take a different road (or way) than they do. De Gaillande makes it funnier: "Good folks don't appreciate those who like to deviate."
The last song was one not on the album, yet a Brassens classic. It was "The Gorilla," a song about a gorilla in a zoo that escapes and summarily makes "love" to a judge who was passing the animal's cage at the time. The song was banned in France, and was taken by the public as being a statement against the death penalty. Like others of Brassens' songs, it is a staple of traveling French students' iTunes programs. The chorus was sung by de Gaillande in French ["Gare aux gorille": "Look out for the gorilla"], as the English words could not possibly fit the music of the chorus, which has a very distinctive sing-along figure.
The Barbes atmosphere of the Hotel D'Orsay sign and red velvet curtain worked well to provide Pierre de Gaillande and Bad Reputation with the opportunity to create the rich world of Brassens. Bad Reputation have just played in Paris at a complete works of Brassens festival, L'Integrale Brassens. Ladies and gentlemen, "the rascal of song" is now available in English, so step right up.