24 May 2013

Georges Moustaki 1934-2013

Imagine yourself as a 20-year-old college student from North Carolina in 1969. You find a way, with the help of a scholarship and your parents' generosity, to travel to France and spend a semester studying the language in beautiful, exotic Aix-en-Provence. It's your first life experience as a foreigner.

You've been studying and learning French in school for five or six years, but it's all still very unreal. You understand maybe a third of what anybody says to you. At first, you don't know anybody who speaks the language except the few professors who teach your classes. The family you "live with" doesn't offer meals besides breakfast, and often you sit alone in the kitchen in the morning with your coffee and bread. But soon you get yourself a little transistor radio.

You spend a lot of time alone, in fact, even though you also spend a lot of time with other Americans in your study-abroad group. You can't understand much of what you hear on your little radio, but there are a few songs that start to make sense. It becomes important to figure out what they are about. Other students in your situation "discover" them too.

The two singers who seem to be the most interesting are both named Georges — Moustaki is one, and Brassens is the other. Brassens writes complex songs with an unusual rhythm, accompanying himself on the guitar. His subjects seem almost racy and hard to wrap your mind around. He gives a concert in Aix and you actually get to go and listen to him sing and play the guitar, but you're still a little mystified. He seems so quintessentially French — southern French, not Parisian.

The Georges named Moustaki, though, writes simple, straightforward songs, not especially musical (sorry, Georges) and certainly not music hall or show business tunes, not even folk music, and definitely not rock'n'roll. And he's a foreigner too, born in Egypt but of Greek and Jewish parents. His songs are poetry, about abstract subjects like being a foreigner and an outsider — being different — and concepts like liberty, love, and solitude. Soon you can pretty much understand the words he's saying, or singing, and as a 20-year-old foreigner you can certainly relate to the themes.

Here are the words:

Pour avoir si souvent dormi avec ma solitude
Je m'en suis fait presque une amie, une douce habitude
Elle ne me quitte pas d'un pas, fidèle comme une ombre
Elle m'a suivi çà et là, aux quatre coins du monde
Non, je ne suis jamais seul avec ma solitude

Quand elle est au creux de mon lit, elle prend toute la place
Et nous passons de longues nuits tous les deux face à face
Je ne sais vraiment pas jusqu'où ira cette complice
Faudra-t-il que j'y prenne goût, ou que je réagisse ?
Non, je ne suis jamais seul avec ma solitude

Par elle j'ai autant appris que j'aie versé de larmes
Si parfois je la répudie jamais elle ne désarme
Et si je préfère l'amour d'une autre courtisane
Elle sera à mon dernier jour ma dernière compagne
Non, je ne suis jamais seul avec ma solitude
Non, je ne suis jamais seul avec ma solitude

Because these are chansons à texte, or poetry set to music, you start to hear the music of the language itself. The actual music — often just a guitar — doesn't get in the way. You become familiar with the sounds of the French language, the phrasing, the rhymes, the vowels and consonants and syllables. Not to mention the meaning and ideas. And these are very popular songs in France, so you know that all around you a lot of young or not so young French people are listening to and learning from them as well. You feel like you're part of it all.

Georges Moustaki died yesterday in a hospital in Nice, of respiratory disease. I bet he was a smoker all his life. So many of us were smokers back then, and many of us never quit. Moustaki was not quite 80 years old. Besides the songs and albums that he recorded himself, he wrote songs for other performers, including one of Edith Piaf's most famous ones, Milord.

« Allez, venez, milord, vous asseoir à ma table », he wrote and she sang, « il fait si froid dehors, ici c'est confortable ». Thanks to Georges Moustaki, I think a lot of us felt more comfortable in France.


  1. With your two Georges you brought back a lot of fond memories. Thank you.

    R.I.P. Georges Moustaki.

  2. What a great, personal obit. from your early lifethread... I wonder how many others from "abroad" felt the same sentiments as you on hearing those lyrics.

    I've never heard him... to my knowledge... but "Milord" is one of The Little Sparrow's songs I like a lot.

    Useless, trying to listen on the "wiffy" laptop... I'll try later on the big-un.

  3. What a lovely tribute to an artist who made a difference for you.

  4. Moustaki's best-known song is Le Métèque, released in 1968. Here's a link.

  5. I remember him and the simplicity of his poetic songs. I was not a fan of Brassens, just because I was younger and didn't appreciate the sarcasm and meaning of his songs.
    With Jean Ferrat and others, it is all a generation that are now gone and I do feel sad.

  6. It makes me uneasy seeing the famous adults from my childhood starting to pass away, one by one. This is a lovely tribute, and a nice summary of how you felt during that first experience in France :)

    I forget... are you one who still does smoke, or have you quit?

  7. I had a couple of Moustaki albums myself & we listened to him in my jr yr abroad in 1969.....and I still listen today ....really brings back memories (oh yes, I even smoked Gitanes back then....yuck)

  8. You've done a good job putting your feelings into words, Ken. Being young and in a foreign country gives one a different perspective on life that lasts our whole life long. Getting that little radio got you tuned in to French life, non?

    Loved learning about Moustaki today. He was also mentioned on NPR.

  9. Ken

    I knew that you will write about him when I heard of his death yesterday.

    "Le Métèque" is the first time I did hear of him as a child on the island and then I fell in love , so to speak, with his song "Le Facteur" because of his poésie.

    I agree, you brought back some good memories.

    R.I.P mon cher métèque

  10. What a lovely post with its link back to your first stay in France. He's not a singer I 'd heard of so thank you.

  11. Very nice memorial post.

  12. Judy, I quit smoking back in 1982. For another two decades, I was known to enjoy a cigarette (I am from North Carolina, after all) once in a while — especially in France — but never got hooked again. Since we moved to France ten years ago I haven't smoked at all.

    Beaver, "avec ma gueule de 'ricain..."

    Nadège, I enjoyed learning Moustaki's songs but I really admired and was more interested in Brassens' more complex lyrics and music. You are right, a whole generation is gone now, but then that's the way of the world.

    Thanks all for the nice comments. I don't live in the past but those were formative years for me.


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