Thursday, 20 October 2011

Verlaine et Rimbaud - LEO FERRE

Released 1964

This is the story of a French musical adaptation of the work of two 19th century homosexual poets. It's a double album and four years after it was recorded the anarchist interpreter divorced his wife after she shot his chimpanzee. That's a lot of reasons for it being lost between the cracks.

In 1965 Barclay Records were still allowing Leo Ferre to release 45's. "Ni Dieu Ni Maitre" (No God No Master) would prove to be his most overtly anarchic mission-statement to date. Tucked away on the b-side was a seemingly innocuous joke-song addressed to his record company boss Eddie Barclay. In it he imagines a none too fantastic scenario where Monsieur Barclay demands him to write a hit song that can be promoted on the radio. Ferre hesitates to comply but ad-libs a moronic chorus that mocks the anodyne pop conventions of the mid-sixties; the very same conventions his boss had been influential in bringing about. He then winds proceedings up with:

"Je suis pas salaud et pour la peine                    To show I'm not a bastard    
 J'vendrai Rimbaud                                                 I'll sell Rimbaud 
 Avec Verlaine"                                                       With Verlaine

This was an ironic reference to the previous year's "Verlaine et Rimbaud" LP, a record made with  a reckless disregard for economics. It was also a record that could have stalled Ferre's long career if it had flopped. That he was able to manouvre himself into a position to even make the record was suprising. That it was a critical success is remarkable. That it is one of the greatest double LP's of the 1960's is unquestionable. 

In 1964 Ferre was 48 years old, in his 12th year as a recording artist and in his 4th year with the prestigious Barclay Records. He'd improved his rough-edged 1950's recordings considerably by developing a smoother singing style and he'd adopted a highly sympathetic orchestral arranger in Jean-Michel Defaye. In short he had made it! But Ferre was finding himself having to fight tooth and nail to get his recordings released let alone promoted. His increasingly controversial lyrics were causing discomfort to his sponsors. Rich in bohemian imagery his songs were unashamedly anarchic in their outlook. Ferre interpreted anarchy in it's individualistic-libertarian mode as a personal mission as precious as any pursuit of human love. He'd had one LP rejected by the company for it's anti-establishment sentiments including a song which openly attacked the popular war-hero image of President De Gaulle. And in his 1962 satirical song "Le Temps Difficiles" he made reference to the then torture of Algerians by French troops:

"File moi ta part mon petit Youssef                       Cough up your stuff my little Youssef      
 Sinon je te branche sur le EDF"                           Or I'll plug you into the EDF (Electricity)

Ferre was not afraid to push his material to the very limits of acceptability. This ensured he was largely hidden from French television viewers, a frustrating impasse for the company who continued to blithely encourage him to release songs that could be played on the radio. A form of resistance was underway. In France the pop singer produced 45's whilst the serious composer released albums. Ferre was squarely in the latter camp. His collections of songs were released on an annual basis to a hardcore group of enthusiasts, mixing emotional love songs with fierce polemics railing against many of the hands that fed him. Theatre tours across France popularised the material and the record company found they had a popular if cult hero. His was an un-compromising image, he was a man who said what he liked and liked what he said.  It was against this background that he approached Maison Barclay with the intention of interpreting the poems of Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. After 16 years honing his style he'd fought himself into a position where they had more to lose than he did.

If a yawn falls over the english-speaking world today at the thought of reading French poetry then it should be remembered that that same yawn was probably felt by the majority of French School children back in 1964.  That generations of French children had their first meaningful appreciation for these poets through hearing this LP serves as testament to the connection Leo Ferre was able to make through his interpretations. Lest we forget - to educate people to the relevance of the seemingly unattainable is a wonderful gift. Ferre explained his method the following way: 

"It's possible to write ten different pieces of music for the same poem, but I forbid myself  from doing that. In general this is how I do it: I open the piano, I open the book, I read and immediately I accompany myself whilst I sing. I improvise. If nothing comes I move on to the next poem. That's how it goes..."

On 25th May 1964, he entered the Avenue Hoche Studio in Paris in the company of Jean-Michel Defaye and his orchestra and the additional accompaniment of Barthelemy Rosso on guitar, Lionel Galli on violin and Janine de Waleyne on backing vocals. By 28th May 14 poems of Paul Verlaine and 10 poems of Arthur Rimbaud had been recorded. 

The Verlaine adaptations are fleeting meditations on love and loss with near perfect orchestrations from Defaye. The web-like subtlety of the arrangements conjure up long walks through wintry landscapes. In "O Triste Triste Etait Mon Ame", the sense of desolation is almost overwhelmingly blissful in it's melancholy. Elsewhere there are sweet adaptations of poems filled with spring-like hope and the flowering promise of loves to come. Grappelli-like jazz touches from Galli infuse a bubbling energy into "Chanson D'Automne", whilst "Green" seems to bud and flower into brilliant life with every heavenly crescendo on the chorus. Ferre identified particularly with the auto-destructive fire of Rimbaud's imagery. In  "Chanson de la Plus Haut Tour" the piano dances seemingly out of control like a mad rush down a flight of stairs. In "L'Etoile a Pleure Rose" the background vocals of Janine De Walyne conjure up danger and exoticism in equal measure; the sound of far-off adventure and ruin. The two most aggressive-sounding recordings concern the poet's recollections of his school-days. Ferre sings these songs with a ferocity close to his own heart. His anarchy was partly formed by an oppressive and violent schooling by Christian Brothers.

If Rimbaud offers youthful rebellion and fearless insurrection it's Verlaine's bird-like caution that balances the record with the measured wisdom of experience. This immense melancholy pervades the record. It is both the saddest and most uplifting of musical experiences. An album that makes you immerse yourself in the poetry books to understand the vision of these truly sensitive souls. Such a blessing, such a curse.

Below is "Je Vous Vois Encor" from side three with a rare clip of Ferre:

The record was a critical triumph and a career high. It pushed Ferre onwards towards new adventures and new outrages. "Ni Dieu Ni Maitre" became his anthem until he peaked again at the age of 52 when a May '68 audience would re-discover him. 

But that's another story and one to be saved for another day.   


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. One of four people in the world now it seems!
    As Ferre says in "Le Chien", "je provoque a l'amour et a la revolution. Yes! I am un immense provocateur."
    PS. Brother I do have a request. Can you get me a decent sized external hard drive for Xmas?