A Shadow of the Street

Two portraits of the 24-year-old Édith Piaf, who was born Édith Giovanna Gassion, on December 19, 1915. Photos by Jean Gabriel Séruzier, 1940.

One of these days I’ll get around to writing a real essay about La Môme Piaf, who is one of my all-time favorite singers. But for now I will mention only that when I first met my darling dog Edith (Piaf’s namesake), the song “Milord” came to my lips, especially the line “une ombre de la rue.” (My husband found this “shadow of the street” running in traffic on a very busy intersection in North St. Louis City—specifically Natural Bridge, near Grand Avenue—and brought her home to me.)  My Edith has the same Parisian cernes, the same tiny, plucky street-waif mien, the same huge-eyed, hungry-hearted courage and nobility. I took this photo within 10 minutes of meeting her, and we haven’t been apart a single day since.

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Here is a very late and impossibly moving performance of “Milord” from the early 1960s.

The original French lyrics are provided below, along with my own translation:

Allez venez, Milord

Vous asseoir à ma table

Il fait si froid dehors

Ici, c’est confortable

Laissez-vous faire, Milord

Et prenez bien vos aises

Vos peines sur mon cœur

Et vos pieds sur une chaise

Je vous connais, Milord

Vous ne m’avez jamais vue

Je ne suis qu’une fille du port

Une ombre de la rue

Pourtant, je vous ai frôlé

Quand vous passiez hier

Vous n’étiez pas peu fier

Dame, le ciel vous comblait

Votre foulard de soie

Flottant sur vos épaules

Vous aviez le beau rôle

On aurait dit le roi

Vous marchiez en vainqueur

Au bras d’une demoiselle

Mon Dieu, qu’elle était belle

J’en ai froid dans le cœur

Allez venez, Milord

Vous asseoir à ma table

Il fait si froid dehors

Ici, c’est confortable

Laissez-vous faire, Milord

Et prenez bien vos aises

Vos peines sur mon cœur

Et vos pieds sur une chaise

Je vous connais, Milord

Vous ne m’avez jamais vue

Je ne suis qu’une fille du port

Une ombre de la rue

Dire qu’il suffit parfois

Qu’il y ait un navire

Pour que tout se déchire

Quand le navire s’en va

Il emmenait avec lui

La douce aux yeux si tendres

Qui n’a pas su comprendre

Qu’elle brisait votre vie

L’amour, ça fait pleurer

Comme quoi l’existence

Ça vous donne toutes les chances

Pour les reprendre après

Allez venez, Milord

Vous avez l’air d’un môme

Laissez-vous faire, Milord

Venez dans mon royaume

Je soigne les remords

Je chante la romance

Je chante les milords

Qui n’ont pas eu de chance

Regardez-moi, Milord

Vous ne m’avez jamais vue

Mais vous pleurez, Milord

Ça, je l’aurais jamais cru

Eh, bien voyons, Milord

Souriez-moi, Milord

Mieux que ça, un petit effort

Voilà, c’est ça!

Allez riez, Milord

Allez chantez, Milord

Ta da da da da da

Ta da da da da da

Ta da da da da da

Ta da da da da da

Ta da da da da da

Mais oui, dansez, Milord

Ta da da da da da

Ta da da da da da

Ta da da da da da

Bravo, Milord

Ta da da da da da

Ta da da da da da

Ta da da da da da

Encore, Milord

Ta da da da da da

Ta da da da da da

Ta da da da da da

Ta da da da da da

Ta da da da da da

Ta da da da da da

Ta da da da da da

(Written by Marguerite Monnot, Joseph Mustacchi)

Come along, Milord!

Sit at my table;

It is so cold, outside,

Here it’s comfortable.

Relax, Milord,

and put yourself at ease,

your troubles on my heart,

and your feet on a chair.

I recognize you, Milord.

You’ve never seen me:

I’m just a girl from the docks,

A shadow of the street…

But I brushed right by you

while you were passing yesterday.

You were more than a little proud.

God! The heavens filled you.

Your silk scarf

floating on your shoulders,

you were so beautiful

one might have said the king…

You were walking victoriously

A woman on your arm,

My God! How beautiful she was!

I felt coldness in my heart.

(chorus)

Say that it’s enough sometimes

For there to be a boat

So that everything falls apart

When the boat leaves.

It took away with it

The sweet girl with the eyes so tender

who had no way of comprehending that

she was breaking your life.

Love, it makes for weeping

like this very existence,

which gives you every chance

only to snatch it back afterwards…

Come along, Milord!

You look like a waif!

Relax, Milord,

Come into my kingdom:

I heal remorse,

I sing romance,

I sing about milords,

who haven’t had much luck!

Look at me, Milord,

You’ve never seen me before…

But—you’re crying, Milord?

I never would have believed it!

Ah well, there there, Milord!

Smile at me, Milord!

Better than that! A bit of effort!

There we are!

Come along, laugh, Milord!

Come along, sing, Milord!

La-la-la…

Yes, dance, Milord!

La-la-la… Bravo Milord!

La-la-la… Again Milord! … La-la-la…

(Translation by René Spencer Saller, copyright 2016)

And just for good measure, here is a 1954 performance of “L’Accordéoniste,” another favorite. The song was composed expressly for Piaf by Michel Emer, shortly before he was deployed to the front (in World War II).

La fille de joie est belle

Au coin de la rue là-bas

Elle a une clientèle

Qui lui remplit son bas

Quand son boulot s’achève

Elle s’en va à son tour

Chercher un peu de rêve

Dans un bal du faubourg

Son homme est un artiste

C’est un drôle de petit gars

Un accordéoniste

Qui sait jouer la java

Elle écoute la java

Mais elle ne la danse pas

Elle ne regarde même pas la piste

Et ses yeux amoureux

Suivent le jeu nerveux

Et les doigts secs et longues de l’artiste

Ça lui rentre dans la peau

Par le bas, par le haut

Elle a envie de chanter c’est physique

Tout son être est tendu

Son souffle est suspendu

C’est une vraie tordue de la musique

La fille de joie est triste

Au coin de la rue là-bas

Son accordéoniste

Il est parti soldat

Quand y reviendra de la guerre

Ils prendront une maison

Elle sera la caissière

Et lui, sera le patron

Que la vie sera belle

Ils seront de vrais pachas

Et tous les soirs pour elle

Il jouera la java

Elle écoute la java

Qu’elle fredonne tout bas

Elle revoit son accordéoniste

Et ses yeux amoureux

Suivent le jeu nerveux

Et les doigts secs et longs de l’artiste

Ça lui rentre dans la peau

Par le bas, par le haut

Elle a envie pleurer c’est physique

Tout son être est tendu

Son souffle est suspendu

C’est une vraie tordue de la musique

La fille de joie est seule

Au coin de la rue là-bas

Les filles qui font la gueule

Les hommes n’en veulent pas

Et tant pis si elle crève

Son homme ne reviendra plus

Adieux tous les beaux rêves

Sa vie elle est foutue

Pourtant ses jambes tristes

L’emmènent au boui-boui

Où y a un autre artiste

Qui joue toute la nuit…

Elle écoute la java

Elle entend la java…

Elle a fermé les yeux…

Et doigts secs et nerveux

Ça lui rentre dans la peau

Par le bas, par le haut

Elle a envie gueuler c’est physique

Alors pour oublier

Elle s’est mise à danser, à tourner

Au son de la musique…

ARRÊTEZ!

Arrêtez la musique…

(lyrics and music by Michel Emer)

The call girl is beautiful

on the corner over there.

She has a client

who keeps her stockings full.

When her job is done,

she goes on her way

to look for something slightly dreamy

At a dancehall in the outskirts.

Her man is an artist.

He’s a weird little guy,

an accordionist

who knows how to play the Java.

She hears the Java

but she doesn’t dance.

She doesn’t glance at the dancefloor.

And her loving eyes

follow his jittery playing

and the long, dry fingers of the artist.

It gets under her skin

from the bottom, from the top.

She has the urge to sing, it’s physical

All of her being is tensed.

Her breath is held.

It’s a work of art molded by the music.

The “girl of joy” is sad

On the corner over there.

Her accordionist

left to become a soldier.

When he returns from the war,

they will have a house.

She will be the cashier,

and he will be the boss.

How beautiful life will be!

They’ll be real big shots.

And every night for her

he’ll play the Java.

She hears the Java,

which she hums low.

She looks again at her accordionist,

and her loving eyes

follow the jittery playing

and the long, dry fingers of the artist.

It gets under her skin

from the bottom, from the top.

She has the urge to cry, it’s physical!

Her entire being is tensed.

Her breath is held.

It’s a work of art molded by the music.

The prostitute is alone

Over there on the corner.

The girls who make nasty faces,

The men don’t want them.

And too bad if she croaks,

her man is never coming back.

Farewell to all those beautiful dreams.

Her life is fucked.

Yet her tired legs

take her to the dancehall

where there’s another artist

who plays all night long…

She hears the Java.

She listens to the Java…

She closes her eyes…

And fingers, dry and nervy–

It gets under her skin

from the bottom, from the top.

She has the urge to scream, it’s physical!

And so to forget,

she begins to dance, to turn

to the sound of the music…

STOP!

Stop the music!

(Translation by René Spencer Saller 2016)

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A Gift Repaid with Interest

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Five years and a couple of weeks ago, I assembled a box of gift records for my best friend’s son, on the occasion of his Bar Mitzvah ceremony. And then yesterday, completely out of the blue, I receive a link to a performance by said Bar Mitzvah, who is now 18 years old, of a song that appears on one of the albums I gave him. My best friend, his mother, made the video animation. She has him singing on Delmar, as he is wont to do. He turned out even more wonderful than we imagined, and here is the proof.

Along with the box of LPs that I gave him, a copy of this letter. I had never been to a Bar Mitzvah ceremony before, and I haven’t been to one since.

Letter to a Bar Mitzvah

12/03/2011

Dear Adam,

I don’t know much about Judaism, and yours is the first Bar Mitzvah that I have attended, but a bit of Internet research yields the following fun facts:

  • You are now responsible for your own actions. (Uh oh!)
  • You may be legally married by Jewish law (Uh oh again! Please wait a few more years at least, because 13 is awfully young to settle down.)
  • You may possess personal property. (Finally: something that doesn’t warrant an “Uh oh!”)

Obviously, I don’t know anything about the many religious rituals and ceremonies in which you are now eligible to participate, so I won’t presume to hold forth about those. I’m going to talk about your rite of passage in more general terms. I wasn’t brought up in any faith, and I have never been a religious person, but I did survive adolescence. What got me through, what jump-started me into puberty and ushered me into adulthood, what made the whole dreary enterprise seem worthwhile and sometimes even magnificent was rock & roll. When I was confused, or frustrated, or pissed off, or in love with some boy who barely knew I was alive, I could always rely on my music. No matter what I was feeling, I could always find an album that would make me feel understood, less alone in the world. My human friends disappointed me sometimes, but my record friends never let me down. Do you know the Beach Boys song “In My Room”? It goes, “There’s a world where I can go and tell my secrets to/In my room, in my room/In this world I lock out all my worries and my fears/In my room, in my room.” My room mattered to me because that’s where I kept my records and my record player. Nothing could touch me there. My room is where I was my best and truest self.

Most kids these days have iPods, and they can carry their “room” around with them wherever they go, but I think they’re missing out on the magic that comes with having a personal sanctuary filled with sonic totems: a turntable, LPs, dust jackets, real speakers. Vinyl records, unlike mp3s, have an odor, a life force, a physical presence, a past. They crackle a little when they get worn, skip when they’re abused. If you treat your LPs right, they will outlive you. When all the CDs and mp3s have died their little unmourned digital deaths, the vinyl will abide. I own many records that belonged to people who are dead now, and it comforts me to think that my record collection will be dispersed among future generations when I’m gone.

I took good care of my records when I was a teenager (invest in a Discwasher cleaning system, if you don’t have one already—when records are free of dust and debris, they’re much less likely to get scratched—and make sure to replace your needle fairly regularly, about every 6 months if you use your turntable every day), and I hope you’ll do the same so you can bequeath yours to a worthy recipient someday. I still have records that were given to me by my grandparents, parents, ex-boyfriends, and old friends. Some of my albums, I know, are worth a lot more on eBay than I originally paid for them, but their monetary value means nothing to me. How could I put a price on a friend, on a memory? Whatever I paid for the albums in my collection, my investment was returned to me a millionfold. I paid stupid meaningless money for them, money that I might otherwise have blown on Diet Coke and nail polish, and they gave me knowledge, experience, passion. They helped me make sense of it all: the hormonal maelstrom, the endless hurdles, the darkness and doubt.

The albums I’m giving you today aren’t supposed to be comprehensive, some kind of starter kit for a young collector. I picked out 18 from my personal stash because Wikipedia told me that the number 18 has special significance for the Bar Mitzvah; supposedly, it represents the Hebrew word for life or something. (Also, given the fact that several of the albums I gave you are doubles, that was the maximum number I could fit in the box.) These 18 albums are not at all representative of a well-rounded person’s taste. The only thing these records have in common is that they meant something to me when I was a teenager, and I know they have something to do with the adult I am today. Here’s a truth that adults never seem to mention when they’re lecturing you about growing up: The Teenage You never goes away. All those lyrics you pore over now will be imprinted on your consciousness forever. You’ll forget your wife’s cousin’s name, your license-plate number, your grocery list, countless appointments and passwords, but the songs you love now will be seared into your soul until you die. They’ll matter to you in a way that songs you’ll love later never will. I can’t guarantee that these albums are going to have the same significance for you that they did for me, but I do know that the Future You will be shaped by everything you love now. So love widely, love deeply, and love well.

Won’t you let me walk you home from school?

Won’t you let me meet you at the pool?

Maybe Friday I can

Get tickets for the dance

And I’ll take you.

 Won’t you tell your dad, “Get off my back”?

Tell him what we said about “Paint It Black.”

Rock & Roll is here to stay

Come inside where it’s okay

And I’ll shake you.

 Won’t you tell me what you’re thinking of?

Would you be an outlaw for my love?

If it’s so, well, let me know

If it’s no, well, I can go

I won’t make you.

(from “Thirteen,” by Big Star, on one of the albums I gave you)

Love,

René

 

 

 

I’m not an early riser. I just haven’t fallen asleep yet.

For at least 10 years, well-meaning people have been telling me that I need a blog. For professional reasons. Seeing as how I call myself a freelance writer. Sometimes these well-meaning people even put me on the spot and ask me where they can read my so-called writing. I  just wave airily and say, “Oh, you could always google René Spencer Saller, and see what comes up.”

In truth, I mostly hate blogs, and it seemed very likely that I would hate my own, if I had one. But early this morning, plagued by insomnia, I thought, well, why not? It’s free, after all, and it’s easier if everything is organized in one place.

So far all I’ve done is upload a bunch of links. They’re all on the Links to Published Writing page above, haphazardly organized. Click at your peril.

I am also a freelance editor, but that’s far too boring to write about. I’m fairly good at it, and I’ve been doing it professionally for more than 20 years now.