Piaf in Paris – A True Story

I’m heading off to the wilds of Wicklow for a few days where I shall be bridesmaid for my sister Sarah who is getting married on Friday. As I will be up to my eyes in tulle, champagne, roses and tears, the Multiverse will have to take a back seat, so I thought I’d leave you with an extra long post today to make up for the lack of activity on Thursday and Friday. Normal service will resume on Monday 9th August.

The true story below is part of a project I’ve been working on for a while. The story takes place in Paris on 25th May 2003, while I was still pursuing a career as a singer (something I gave up in 2006 when I discovered that I really wanted to write rather than sing – how I wish I’d made that particular discovery earlier.)

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It was my 27th birthday and I was in Paris with Adam, my boyfriend at the time. We had come to Paris for a week for my birthday and were staying in a shabby but very sweet hotel near Parc Monçeau. My birthday was on Sunday and we awoke in our room quite early, sunlight streaming in through the windows. Adam went out to get breakfast and I lay in bed, the usual birthday depression hanging over me.

I’m not sure if everybody feels the same way on their birthday, but I used to start the day with thoughts of how little I had accomplished, how far I had to go, how disappointed I was in myself and more of the same (this was obviously before I had an epiphany with the help of my psychiatrist!). This particular morning I thought of how many famous people had died by 27; Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain. They had forged entire careers, cemented their status as icons, lived hard and fast, and were already dead by my age. What the fuck had I done? Been in several bands that had gone nowhere, moved a million times, had a series of random jobs; not much to write home about never mind write a biography about. I felt like a failure and I’d only been awake for half an hour.

Adam came back with stale croissants. Neither of us knew that Paris shuts down on Sundays and it’s impossible to get anything anywhere; no lovely birthday breakfast, no cigarettes, no champagne. Perfect. I immediately launched into my “what’s the point, why do we exist, life is meaningless” wail. Poor Adam, plunged into an existential crisis first thing in the morning on an empty stomach – sometimes I can be a colossal pain in the ass.  He managed to talk me down off the ledge, we got ourselves together and headed out on our pilgrimage.

The entire trip was built around the idea that I would visit Père-Lachaise on my birthday and lay some roses on Edith Piaf’s tomb.  I have been a Piaf fan for years, ever since my father gave me a biography of her one Christmas.  Her incredible life story inspired me; her triumph over her impoverished and traumatic childhood, the many setbacks she endured, her passionate belief in love, her joie de vivre, but most of all her voice.  That huge, powerful, expressive voice that came from such a tiny woman.  Even if you don’t understand all the French lyrics, her voice can still make you cry; the emotion she conveys doesn’t need language, it’s universal and you can hear it in every note.  It astounded me that after so much hardship and pain she still wore her heart on her sleeve, she was never embittered, and she lived her life to the fullest.  She drank hard and loved hard and sang hard, and I admire her passion, and the strength that is at the heart of that kind of vulnerability.

Paris is my favourite city in the world and I had been there once before this trip.  Having read the Piaf book, I decided that the next time I went to Paris, I would lay flowers on her grave, pay my respects, and ask for her help with music.  As far as I was concerned, my singing career wasn’t happening fast enough and I needed all the help I could get.  We went to Père-Lachaise on the Metro and when we arrived, I went to a nearby florist and bought six pink roses (La Vie en Rose, peut-être?).

We wound our way through the sprawling cemetery, hushed by the silent atmosphere that seems so strange right in the centre of Paris. We saw Oscar Wilde’s lipstick covered tomb and we saw Chopin’s headstone. We passed through the oldest tombs, the upright ones that look like tiny ancient houses. One of the doors was open and I went inside; strangely, the girl who was buried inside was born on May 25th.  I wished her Bonne Anniversaire and continued on.  Eventually we found Piaf’s grave, a flat shiny headstone marked with her name, the name of her last husband, and her baby Marcelle.  It was thronged with tourists taking pictures and humming “Je Ne Regrette Rien”.  I waited until it was quiet and laid my roses on her grave.  I prayed to her (“aidez-moi, s’il vous plaît Edith”) and thanked her for all the joy her music had given me.

We stayed in the cemetery for a while, watching drunk young American tourists stumbling around, trying in vain to find Jim Morrison’s grave, and chic Parisian locals visiting their loved ones laden down with flowers. I sat on a stone bench overlooking a manicured garden and Adam took a photo of me, a photo which he claims is his favourite.  It’s black and white, and I look suitably melancholic. As the afternoon darkened and turned to twilight, we left and went back to the hotel to get ready for dinner. My mood considerably improved with the addition of several glasses of France’s finest export and the day didn’t end as badly as it had started.

We returned to Dublin a few days later and my father collected me at the airport. On the way home he told me of a meeting he had a few days previously with the head of a music publishing company in Dublin. They had a catalogue of Piaf songs and were looking for a young singer to reinterpret them. My father suggested me and the publisher was interested. Although it seemed like a huge coincidence, I felt that it wasn’t. La Môme had heard my prayer and had helped in the best way she could.

I learned three songs in French and we went into the studio to record the demos. My voice was not like hers, it didn’t have the same power, but we thought it might still work. After all, it wasn’t supposed to be karaoke, I wasn’t supposed to be mimicking her exactly.  However the French branch of the publishing company didn’t agree and it didn’t go any further than the demo stage as they felt that a French singer would be more appropriate than an Irish one. Understandably so – imagine the horror if a foreigner massacred the memory of the greatest singer France has ever produced! I was disappointed but could see where they were coming from. Eh, c’est la guerre, non?!

Although it wasn’t the opportunity to make my dreams come true, it was still an amazing experience and one of the few things that has made me believe in some kind of afterlife. It could be a massive coincidence, and I’m sure that the scientists and logicians I know would say that a coincidence is all it was. I, maybe stupidly, maybe naively, believe differently. Perhaps it is magical thinking but I believe Edith heard me. Even now, years later, I sometimes think of Piaf and ask her to help me along my road. If she could survive so much hell in her life, if she could triumph and find love, joy and success, then it is possible for us all.

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3 thoughts on “Piaf in Paris – A True Story

  1. Pingback: People I would like to have dinner with – Part Two « Alex Donald's Multiverse

  2. Pingback: Female Heroines « Alex Donald's Multiverse

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