My Edith: a tribute from Jean Cocteau… and TheNightShift

A letter to Edith Piaf from Jean Cocteau

A letter to Edith Piaf from Jean Cocteau, 1960. A TNS picture.

Today, France celebrates the 50th anniversary of Jean Cocteau’s and Edith Piaf’s passing. The famous author gave the singer extraordinaire a role in the play “Le Bel Indifférent”, along with her then lover Paul Meurisse. To saluate their legacy, you will find a translated letter from Jean to Edith, which is a part of several commemorative events, taking place at the Palais Royal where he lived ; a text about Edith Piaf and a selection of 5 songs.   

My Edith,

In these uncultivated times of turmoil (up to the point of denying me the title of Prince of the poets which I have received), this filthy period in which beauty comes second to things like Vadim and Sasha Distel*, there is one thing that brings me comfort: its hearing your singing, spilling the treasure of your heart. When my travels around the globe, along with Charles Chaplin, came to an end, I was at sea and in my cabin, then a green locust, a gift from the Japanese, started singing, as if she was emptying her soul. Its deeply moving song filled the night vessel and Chaplin came to see what mystery was happening.

I thought about you, as this locust was your very reflection.

You Edith, embody what makes France valuable, a country whose grace and kindness have, unfortunately, vanished.

My best memories are the wonder of your songs and the ones of Charles*.

I love you and leave a kiss on your cheek.

Jean Cocteau.

In the margin
Take good care – you are the strongest and in Paris’ jungle, may your heart protect you from the hissing serpents and fierce animals.

*Roger Vadim is the director of the film And Dieu créa la femme / And God created woman, who boasted Brigitte Bardot‘s career. Sasha Distel took part of the then upcoming “yeah yeah” wave, a watered down version of the anglo-american pop scene.  Charles refers to Charles Trenet, another earlier important musical figure.

Aurélie Filipetti under Cocteau’s presence in the Palais Royal Garden. A TNS picture.

Fair muse.

Fair muse.

As France’s miraculous voice,  looking so frail, Edith Piaf is able to reach just about anyone. Straight from the streets gutter, she sang by them, lived by them and died for them.

We tend to romanticize her early life, as a fair amount of screening time is dedicated to this dire period in the film La Môme (“La vie en rose” for the foreign market). Though this part is crafted like a faery tale, it felt right to show that she was not born on the brightest side of society. A recount from her faux sibling and alter echo Simone Berteaut, tells the story of a concrete, bitter experience of their teen life in the streets. Living off small time scams, sharing their sole bed with many passing by men, and dealing with the city sleaze on a daily basis.

But her street cred as one of France’s most important figure lies in her voice. Listen to it, as she’s wrapping the Paris mood around a 3 min song, embodying France’s whole contemporary soul. Popular and extravagant, streetwise yet classy, tiny yet immense. If France still rhymes with romance, even if her legacy in today’s charts artists is invisible, it’s because of her lasting passion for singing, and her inner quest for love. I have just heard the reason for this love singing would be the lack of proper education and care from her parents, a very interesting view.

When I read about her antics with men, from the Simone Bertaut book, I was in shock. And then I came to understand that she was not “music only”. Her songs were the life she knew, and the happier one she was hungrily after. The great achievement of Olivier Dahan’s film was Marion Cotillard acting a soon too old Piaf, dying almost alone. It was hurting because we were shown a piece of our collective soul and culture wanning, right in front of our eyes. “Piaf can’t die, she’s a piece of our heart, France’s dearest child and spokesperson”. It was painful to watch. If you think Marion is not dying properly in Batman, check La Vie en Rose.

Raymond Asso and Marguerite Monnot, two brilliant minds who carved Edith into Piaf.

Raymond Asso & Marguerite Monnot, who carved Edith into Piaf. Fair use.

And it strikes me now, that Edith was never alone. She had the prostitutes of a bordello, who helped her regaining sight, she had Simone during her street period. She had Louis Leplée, who saw something in her and gave her a shot. She had Raymond Asso, who told her “call me when you’re ready to work”, at a time she wasn’t famous yet. She had Marguerite Monnot, an incredibly talented composer, who did some of the best songs in their repertoire. And Piaf herself scouted relentlessly, and often had affairs with, young talents such as Paul Meurisse, Yves Montand, Charles Aznavour and Georges Moustaki, who sadly passed away a couple of months ago, among others.

She had Marlene Dietrich as a close friend, with mutual respect and admiration. And she had Jean Cocteau, who died a few hours after her, reportedly brought down by the news. All these people, at every stage of her life, responded to her and allowed the country, and the whole world, to hear her voice. She was adamant about talent. She couldn’t afford to let a good song pass her by and would always take the time for someone who had the guts to show up and say “I’ve got a song for you Madame Piaf”. That’s one of the key reasons why she recorded so many songs, and nurtured others careers. Piaf was a magnet for men, talent, tragedy, laughs and glory. When Cerdan died, she took up the stage and sang 6 songs before collapsing. 6 songs. I have unadorned admiration for her.

Edith & Jean, under the piano. I think this shot is from the 1940-44 era. Fair use.

Edith & Jean, under the piano. I think this shot is from the 1940-44 era. Fair use.

Just like Johnny Cash’s voice says something about the American soil, listening to Edith Piaf gives the key to France’s psyche. Coming from a very poor background, and being so astute and so powerful artistically, she managed to give a sense of “love” to those having a hard time expressing their feelings. For instance the song “La Vie en rose” may not the best she has ever written, but this simple french love anthem could make up for a less warlike Marseillaise. And she did wrote “L’Hymne à l’amour” as well…

“Piaf is so romantically French it hurts” said Jeff Buckley, whose music was a mix of Edith, Leonard, and the Zep. That’s the best definition I ever heard. It really hurts. Her voice recalls our dedication and generosity. Our hunger for love sent back our way. The day she was buried at Le Père Lachaise cemetery, a sea of people attended, a die hard proof  a lasting and trustful relationship took hold. She rose, in spite of the odds she faced, because she was strong, and had a talent that captivated everyone in her path.

Part fiction and all truth, she lost her sole daughter in her infancy. But she did have children. We.

Fair use.

Fair use.

This is a quick selection of some favorite songs of hers:

C’est à Hambourg (Live):
She portrays a sometime prostitute, whose story could take place in Hamburg or any other major city. Or she’s a traveling prostitute, I never could figure it out. One day a sailor has a serious crush over her. But she lets him go. She says with a bravado “My heart is an open ocean, too big for only one man. That’s why I took it all. All the love there is on earth”.
Mixtape wise, this song delivers magic right along Jeff Buckley’s rendition of Lilac Wine.

Le Chemin des forains
I discovered this while watching a one hour documentary about her life, and fell instantly for it. Its craft is wonderful. The story follows the travelling act of a carny, from a place to another. The pathos of a traveling life, and the glory about their craft, making people’s life less monochrome. This is one of those night songs feeling.

Les Amants d’un jour:
A young couple enters the life of an hotel maid. The passion surrounding them makes the woman lively again, regaining some hope through their eyes. But the lovers commit suicide in the rented room. Mystery abounds regarding the motives and hopelessness of these starcrossed lovers. Listen especially to the parts “Au coeur de la ville, et je me rappelle”. The wonderful tango between the maid’s everyday life and the melodious lovers tale is the signature of Marguerite Monnot, patron of TheNightShift.

Je ne regrette rien
She looks back and says “whatever happened, I don’t regret anything” and she looks ahead, starting from scratch all over again, on every field.
An important woman’s plea, especially If you consider the life she had. What looks like simple words have a profound meaning, That somehow embraces France’s collective history.
The regular record version has a fresh symhonic sound. The mix between the orchestra and her unfaltering voice is a million volt powerhouse.

My Lost melody/Je n’en connais pas la fin
I think it’s from the early Asso era. Raymond Asso had a reputation of being a solid songwriter, who instantly recognized Edith’s immense, lives changing potential. But she was still frivolous in her ways and craft. He told her “Call me when you want to stop your bullshit and work”. And she did. Jeff Buckley sings this beautifully on the Sin-é record.

Edith Piaf: 1915-forever
Sylvain Thuret / The Night Shift


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