Charles Aznavour, still going strong
Ever-popular Charles Aznavour has announced his retirement time and again, but he’s never managed it. The veteran star, who was elected Artist of the Century by CNN and The Times in 1998, has released a boxed set of 90 greatest hits and celebrates his 90th birthday on Thursday 22 May with a live performance in Berlin.
Perhaps Charles Aznavour will outlive us all. Time seems to have no hold on him. It’s true that he no longer has a child’s spring in his step, but the passing years and upheavals of life have left surprisingly few marks.
Notching up ninety birthdays is an impressive feat, yet Aznavour seems indifferent to the idea of blowing out his candles. Since he’s well past eighteen, he no longer needs to pretend.
He has chosen to mark the passing of a new decade on his favourite playground: the stage. He will be singing in French at a prestigious venue in Berlin. The adrenalin of performing live and the thirst for recognition are still there, and his habits are hardly likely to change now.
Aznavour’s brazen longevity is the perfect way to cock a snook at his early detractors, and all those who took pleasure in cutting him down to size in the 1950s. The jibes in the press were virulent, targeting his “deformed” nose, short stature, unsubtle lyrics and warped vocals. “Why not have a singer with a wooden leg while we’re at it?” one journalist even wrote.
For a long time, Aznavour licked his wounds and kept a distance from the media. He owes his success to his pure determination and tenaciousness. During his long voyage through the shadows, he started up an eight-year duet with Pierre Roche, acted as secretary/chauffeur/confidant to Edith Piaf, for whom he wrote Plus bleu que le bleu des yeux and Jezebel, and released records that didn’t really make a splash.
Into the limelight
It wasn’t until 1960 that he fully stepped into the limelight. At L’Alhambra he presented Je m'voyais déjà. It was a track that Yves Montand had refused, considering that no one wanted to hear about the disillusions of a fledgling singer. It was an immediate success, throwing a rope towards stardom and giving him the passport he needed to move centre stage. “I know that I’m talented deep down”, rang out the lyrics in the song.
Those words that sounded like a cry of revolt turned out to be prophetic. Then followed a flow of popular songs in the shape of familiar-sounding, intimate tracks. So many, that listing them would be useless. Many appealed to the public, spreading like a disease with no symptoms.
Some have touched on social themes (Mourir d'aimer, Comme ils disent), but most of his repertoire focuses on the nostalgia for youth, disappointed or lost love affairs. Clearly none are autobiographical, since he’s been living with the same woman for the last 50 years.
Doesn’t Aznavour ever go out of fashion? He’s proved himself to be timeless. His songs live on, bound for posterity. Each new generation shows him the same warmth, deference, and recognition. Maybe it’s because he’s taken care not to get stuck in his own legend. He doesn’t consider himself as a star, but rather, “A well-loved artist, at the boundary.”
He enjoys rappers’ lyrics, is enthusiastic about the blooming of a new literary generation and takes great care in choosing his support acts.
The singer can certainly be cantankerous, even cutting and angry. He carries a camera around with him at all times, but can’t stand fans taking photographs during his concerts. One particular low point was during his last concert at the Zénith in Lille. A flash shot out from the audience. He stopped dead, then went back to the start of the song. Same thing on his third track. Charles Aznavour looked angrily at the guilty parties, and then spat out, “You’re stupid! It unnerves me and I hate making mistakes with my lyrics. No one would ever behave that way in the United States”. Perhaps no one would have been tempted if he didn’t tend to keep his eyes riveted on the three prompts at his feet.
Then there’s his reputation for stinginess and outlandish demands while on tour, like vintage wines. Yet apart from his tax “hassles” in the mid-seventies, which led him to take exile in Switzerland, Aznavour is hardly controversial. You won’t find anything on him in the celebrity mags, he keeps his politics to himself. He has also fought an unwavering battle to get the Armenian genocide recognised.
Like Charles Trenet, he is the king of false goodbyes. He claims never to have announced them. Double talk or journalistic shortcuts? Unsurprisingly, he pleads for the latter. “I work from morning to night. I’m lucky enough to have a wife who accepts that her husband is absent. At home, I’m not there. I sit down at my table and start writing. And at night, I read until two in the morning”. Right up to the end, Charles Aznavour will write songs and throw his handkerchief to the ground at the end of La Mamma. He will go out the same way he lived: with honours and applause.