My Grandfather’s Love Songs
A visit with Georges Moustaki, whose ballads are an epitaph for the French-speaking Jews of the Middle East
“Did you buy your bike at Yerouchalmi’s shop in Alexandria?” I finally asked, at a loss for anything else to say. As it turned out he enthusiastically remembered the shop and had read my father’s book. Moustaki spent a good deal of my visit telling me about being from Alexandria and how it had changed—a super-highway bridge was planted over the city’s famous crescent-shaped coastal beach, and nobody spoke French there anymore. He wanted to make sure I knew what to expect in case I ever decided to go and see Alexandria for myself. He asked me questions about what I liked to do, my writing, how I learned to write, and what I planned to do with my time in Paris. Finally he told me about going to Brooklyn as a young musician to meet Henry Miller, whom he loved, and how seeing me, a writer in Paris coming to visit him, reminded him that finally his role with Miller had been reversed.
It was now his turn, he said, to be the tired mentor. Indeed he seemed fatigued, and his housekeeper came to check to see if his air supply was attached correctly. “Do me a favor,” he said. “Anything,” I told him. He stopped to think, and finally spoke again: “Never, never, smoke. Promise me.”
Perhaps the Alexandrian in him saw in me a small portrait of this recent ancestry, a sliver of the old world mixed with the new. He wouldn’t go on until I promised him that I would never smoke, and he finally gave me a warm, avuncular smile of approval. Then he told me what it was like coming to Paris and starting out as a piano-bar musician, and how one night after seeing Brassens play, his hobby became a passion. He told me about his friendship with Édith Piaf, and how he was responsible for writing “Milord,” and that she helped promote him and push his name around Paris. He confessed that Gainsbourg was an ugly man and a terrible bore. He told me about Barbara, another French singer who was also a Jew and with whom Moustaki collaborated many times over the years. He explained to me that her personality on occasion seemed particularly dark, but that she was always tender.
But he became very wistful when I asked him about a late friend of his, another great songwriter, Serge Reggiani. He played me a recording he and Reggiani made together of one of Moustaki’s own songs, “Ma Solitude.” He pointed out how well they harmonized. Beside Reggiani’s French voice, Moustaki sounded Parisian, but vaguely foreign. This may have been my own projection. Moustaki was the last of two dying breeds—the classic French chansonnier, and those who had seen and loved Alexandria in its former glory.
Although most of my fellow students in Paris enjoyed going to nightclubs and listening to popular music, I was becoming a student of the French chansonnier. This extinct breed of musician used only pianos and nylon-stringed guitars, wrote lyrics that clouded any line between popular music and poetry, and made sure that their voices strayed as far from actual singing as possible. Instead, they spoke lyrically and with only a vague inflection of melody. Moustaki had taken this trope and embraced it but cast it ever so delicately in a new light. Instead of writing about a particular woman—usually a prostitute—as the French singers did, Moustaki wrote about love in a way that was far more ambiguous and, as a result, far more poignant.
The Alexandrine influence on Moustaki’s chansons is particularly clear in his song “Le Temps de Vivre,” or “Time to live,” which is about taking time from one’s life for love. He didn’t write about the banks of the Seine in Paris, he wrote about the Mediterranean wind in the summer, and how ancient each wave is, and how poetic the Alexandrian waters are. He didn’t write about good booze, or a bustling cabaret in the 6th, but about more exotic ideas. He wrote about how his grandfather who spoke only Greek didn’t understand him.
In one TV interview he plays “Le Temps de Vivre,” wearing all white and with a small array of flute players behind him. The suited and pristine French announcers simply do not know how to react. Moustaki took his various influences and patched them together so that they had no single, traceable origin; they came from everywhere, and from nowhere. France did not need another Brassens, but it welcomed and adored Moustaki, perhaps because nobody could put their finger on the man who came to cabarets with his nylon-stringed guitar but sang about something entirely different. Moustaki approached the idea of the chansonnier like a native because he was able to effortlessly adopt its technique and form, and yet at the same time his Mediterranean regalia and unusual songs made him so decidedly a foreigner.
As the recording of him with Reggiani ended, he confessed that he couldn’t quite play guitar the way he used to, but was trying to readjust the way he played chords. He told me to go pick up one of the many guitars that were in his apartment and to hand him the one sitting on the piano. He wanted to show me the chords to “Ma Solitude,” a song about how one’s solitude is perhaps one’s most loyal companion through life. Slowly he walked me through the major and minor chords, almost as though he wanted me not only to know them, but as though he wanted me to remember them once I left his apartment. I knew nobody in my family would believe me if I told them what had happened. We had used each other to draw up an affection for something that was, for him, long gone, and that in my case never really existed to begin with. My inelegant guitar playing didn’t seem to bother him, perhaps because right then all that mattered was the pleasure of being two pseudo-Franco ex-Alexandrians, playing guitar together.
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A farming town hid a Jewish-born teacher during the Holocaust. I went to dig up what it had buried.