As an old-timer myself, I cannot allow the death of Charles Aznavour, at the age of 94, to pass without paying him obeisance. He wrote more than 1,000 songs, many of which were taken in translation by English-speaking singers, who were made famous by them. (Paul Anka’s My Way is a case in point.) I saw him in performance years ago when he was young, and a vital performer, just one of many such great French chansonniers whom I tried never to miss when I had the chance.
He made his farewell tour in 2010 at the age of 86, apparently, but it t urned out to be not so final, since his last concert was in Osaka on September 19 this year, 11 days before his death.
During his life he attained many awards, in recognition of his remarkable globe-spanning life, among the most notable being the Raoul Wallenberg medal for his actions in saving Jews during the war, and was given honours by numerous countries, including being named an honorary officer of the Order of Canada.
I have always thought --- you’ll pardon me for venturing into areas in which I am far from expert, I hope --- that one of the peaks of all popular culture performances was Lena Horne’s rendition of Aznavour’s Hier Encore, which in translation became one of many songs entitled Yesterday, only with the edition, When I was Young….
I first saw Lena Horne in person in the early 1950s at the London Palladium, when she was a fierce, angry black performer who stormed on stage, beat her fists against her thighs as she sang, and swept off again with scarcely an indication that she had noticed the audience. Later she was sent to Hollywood by the black power movement to establish a sort of beachhead for black performers, and there she bitterly resented the minor roles she was forced to play. When the civil rights movement got underway she was so intensely involved that for two years, she said, she could not talk to her white husband Lennie Hayton.
She was 77, calmer, more profound, when she performed the version of Aznavour’s song that she turned into an examination of her tempestuous youth, as she reflected on how shallow and self-centred she had been.
Yesterday when I was young
The taste of life was sweet as rain upon my tongue
I treated life as if it were a silly game
The way the evening breeze may tease a candle flame
The thousand dreams I dreamed, the splendid things I planned
I always built, alas, on weak and shifting sand
I lived by night and shunned the naked light of day
And only now I see how the years ran away
Yesterday when I was young
So many happy songs were waiting to be sung
So many wayward pleasures lay in store for me
And so much pain my dazzled eyes refused to see
I ran so fast that time and youth at last ran out
I never stopped to think what life was all about
And every conversation I can now recall
Concerned itself with me, just me, and no one else at all
She stops to allow her guitarist to perform a slow, utterly beautiful solo, while the old lady lifts her hands to her mouth, closes her eyes, as if in pained contemplation of all the things she had done wrong in her long life. Me, I am dissolving to see and hear this. She seems to be speaking to and for me. Even more slowly she continues:
Yesterday the moon was blue
And every crazy day brought something new to do
I used my magic youth just like it were a wand
And never saw the waste and emptiness beyond
And my friends, well, they just began to slip away
And I find myself alone on this stage to end the play
There are so many happy songs in me that I have not sung
I feel the bitter taste of tears upon my tongue
The time has come for me to pay
for yesterday when I was young
You can witness this remarkable performance here. They say that every great popular song should sound as if it has always existed. On that criterion, this certainly qualifies. But I warn you, I’ve never been able to watch this without weeping.