“Aux Armes Et Caetera.”
A long, long time ago in a not-faraway land there lived an earnest young woman who taught English as a Second Language to young people from all over the world. She had a great time doing this and had a great relationship with most of her students. One of them, a young French boy, whose name, naturalment was René, had an unusual predilection for dissipation. His heroes might have been such as Rimbaud, Baudelaire and this man, this Serge Gainsbourg.
Now the teacher knew nothing of Serge Gainsbourg. Her former boyfriend, Peter, who’d lived in France and went to high school in Paris, had apparently no knowledge of this singer. (A pity because the two would have suited each other.) So the teacher had to learn about this artist from a dissolute French boy.
“Teacher? I sink you will like ziss.” He handed her a home-mixed tape, the yellow and pink style that Memorex had brought out to attract the young back in the early 90s.
“What is it?”
Indeed, all that was written on the tape was “Serge.” None of the songs were listed. Mon dieu!
“Oui. Serge. You will like.”
On her way home from school, she slid the tape into the deck of her 1988 Ford Ranger and was soon wondering, again, how her students were able to see through her. She wore the tape out and never really knew the name of the artist other than Serge. And that was the end of her relationship with Serge, Serge who?
And the student? His decadence went from bad to worse and the last time she saw him, he’d been hornswoggled by a depraved fraternity into digging a volleyball pit single-handedly, with a shovel.
“Meartha!” he called out as she walked by, only his shoulders, neck and head visible above the sand and dirt.
“René! What are you doing?”
“I’m pissed,” he said, in the British style, “Complètement! I love America! Zey are letting me join ze fraternita!”
“That one? That’s the worst fraternity at State. Why, René?”
“For ze experience!”
Because he never went to class, and was at risk for deportation because of violating the terms of his student visa, the school contacted the boy’s parents who flew over from Paris and took him home. It was for the best. She learned of this from a letter she received a few months later. “I did not see you again or tell you thank you. My parents, they came for me. I don’t know why.” Well, René was only 18…. She was glad his parents loved him and hoped someday he’d realize his good fortune. (20 years later members of this fraternity would be convicted not only of dealing drugs, but of TRAFFICKING and of cruel and unusual punishment in their hazing of new members. The frat would be shut down and it would be several years before it was allowed to return — and when it did, it was a vastly different frat — GO DELTA UPSILON!!!)
And so, Serge faded into the background of the teacher’s memory. She forgot the tape, forgot the music, and then, many years later she thought of it again. Who was that? Not Jacques Brel, or was it? She listened to everything Jacques Brel recorded and watched the movies in which he’d acted. No. Far too generally happy and healthy to be the singer on the long lost tape. None of the famous French crooners of the time — and what WAS the time, anyway? 50s? 60s? Later? She scratched the surface of the Internet looking for him but she knew neither his name nor any of his songs. And zen, le miracle…
A preview for a movie. Yes, this teacher loved French films and zere before one of them, was a preview for Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life. Was THAT him???
She put the film at the top of her Netflix queue. It arrived. She slid it into the DVD player and waited. En fin and Voila! C’était lui! She was very, very happy to have discovered who this singer was and even happier to discover more of his music, though she may never know what was on that tape or how René’s life turned out (now he would be more than 40 years old).
In the film, the most amazing song was Gainsbourg’s cover of La Marseillaise.
When the film ended, she immediately downloaded The Ballad of Melody Nelson. Listening to it on her iPod the next day, the teacher/artist did one of her most original and inspired (and so far her favorite) paintings.
“Just one of my quirky hobbies, visiting cemetaries and taking photos. It was amazing to see the gravestone covered with gaulloise cigarettes and metro tickets. He was really liked by the Parisiens.” Anglo-Swiss