Described by Le Figaro as “le dernier troubadour de la chanson francaise” (the last troubadour of French song), and even “le plus sous-estime des grands chanteurs francais” (the most underestimated great French singer), Guy Beart (1930-2015) was born Guy Behart-Hasson on 16th July in Cairo to a Jewish accountant whose speciality in establishing new French businesses took him throughout the Mediterranean and the Middle East. This diverse cultural experience was not lost on Guy; and his father’s love of poetry and music, particularly the songs of Charles Trenet, was also instilled into his son. Aged 17, Guy left Lebanon for Paris where, torn between two metiers, he enrolled concurrently at the Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussees (National College of Roads and Bridges) and the Ecole Nationale de la Musique (National College of Music), emerging with a diploma in the study of crystals and the fissurisation of concrete. Like all aspiring young artistes of the period, he hit the trail of the then fashionably unknown – but now iconic – cabarets and cafes of the post-war years – La Colombe, Le Port Salut, Les Trois Baudets.
Success came surprisingly quickly for this shy young man who had taken an office job to support his mother and sister following his father’s death. In 1955 Georges Brassens received him in his dressing-room in Nice, shouting “Une autre!” (Another one!) after each song. And established stars like Patachou and Juliette Greco began to include his songs in their repertoire. Patachou was the first to record Bal Chez Temporel, a poem by Andre Hardellet set to music by Guy Beart, who later recorded it, of which Brassens wrote, “I was a bit envious of Guy Beart for having put Bal Chez Temporel to music”.
If ever you return to dance at Temporel / Some day or other / Spare a thought for those who have carved their names next to ours.
Only four initials survive / From a riverside encounter / Two hearts carved on rickety wooden tables. If ever. . .etc
On the old counter you can, if you like / Raise a glass / To our twenty years together. If ever. . .etc
This little dance-hall of ill-repute / Is enough to re-awaken and make you recognise/Our love. If ever. . . etc.
In 1957, with the backing of Brassens, Jacques Canetti (who first brought Edith Piaf to prominence) and the then artistic director of Phillips (himself an engineer), Boris Vian, Beart cut his first disc. This was followed in 1958 by L’Eau Vive (Living Water), written for the film of the same name, an instant smash hit whose text is still taught in French schools today. His career took off.
Sometimes referred to as ‘the third great “B” in the Pantheon of French singer/writer/composers – the other two being Georges Brassens and Jacques Brel – Guy Beart wrote more than 200 ‘chansons’. Alain Souchon, another major artist, said of him, “Il faisait des musiques qui avaient l’air d’avoir existe depuis toujours” (He wrote tunes which gave the impression of having always existed). Like Brassens, his gift is for apparently simple melodies – in reality the product of hours of work – allied to finely-crafted writing. An engineer-poet whose talent ranges widely – from nostalgia (Il n’y a plus d’apres), (here sung by Juliette Greco), to science-fiction (Le Grand Chambardement), through philosophy (La Verite) to wry humour (Le Quidam) – he favours an apolitical humanism marked by tolerance over political engagement. A singer both light-hearted and serious, he uses ‘chanson’ as a soap-box to speak about the human condition.
Now that you live / The other side of Paris / When you want to revive old memories / You take a trip / You come and say “Hello” / On the corner of the Rue Dufour / You visit me in St Germain-des-Pres.
There are no tomorrows / In St Germain-des-Pres / No day-after-tomorrows / No afternoons / There is only today / When I see you again / In St-Germain-des-Pres / It won’t be the same you / It won’t be the same me / There aren’t any yesterdays
You say, “How it’s all changed!” / The streets look different / Even the ‘cafe-creme’ doesn’t taste the same / It’s as if you are someone else / And I am someone else / We are strangers / In St-Germain-des-Pres!
There are no tomorrows . . etc.
Living from day-to-day / The most trivial love affair / Took on an eternal dimension in these streets / But by nightfall it was over / That’s what eternity is / In St-Germain-des-Pres!
There are no tomorrows . . . etc
Ferocious, in contrast to Serge Gainsbourg with whom he had a well-known spat about the subject on television in 1986, in his defence of ‘la chanson’ as an art form rather than a purely commercial product, and not always admired for his friendship with Georges Pompidou, according to Le Figaro Beart ‘did not confound friendship with politics; and devoted his political engagement to culture, and culture alone’. On two well-known chestnuts his views were refreshing: “Je ne vote plus depuis longtemps. Je n’aime ni la gauche, ni la droite, ni le centre, ni les extremes, ni les trois-quarts” (I have not voted for a long time. I support neither the Left, nor Right, nor the centre, nor the extremes, nor the three-quarters). “On veut l’egalite entre l’homme et la femme, mais on oublie que la femme est plus belle que l’homme!” (People say they want equality between men and women, but they forget that women are more beautiful than men!).
At the beginning of the sixties the tidal wave of rock’and roll and its French incarnation, ye-ye, crashed on to the music scene, pushing the chanson a texte (traditional French ‘chanson’ with an emphasis on lyrics) firmly to the sidelines. As Beart put it ruefully in an interview in 2003, “In 1957 I was a star; but in 1963 with the arrival of the twist I was a has-been”. Cold-shouldered by the record companies, he decided to start one of his own – thus becoming the first independent self-produced recording artist ever. In this he was assisted by Jacques Canetti, who helped him found APAM (Auto-Production des Artistes au Micro) in 1963.
Unsurprisingly this did not go down well with the record companies – especially Phillips, who refused to give him the proceeds of his own recordings in their catalogue – but also forbade him to reproduce them in his. After a legal battle of fifteen years, he retrieved the rights to his own work.
This deprivation forced him to start a new stream of work (1966-67). After an album of traditional French songs (Vive la Rose), he drew on his engineering background to create a new genre: science fiction, such as Le Grand Chambardement.
The earth goes off its head / And makes the people jump / Here it is, finally:/The Great Clear-Out!
A grain of sand explodes / A grain’s not much / But two, ten, a hundred – that’s interesting!
Look, Ladies and Gentlemen / At the universe in flames / Between legless men / At the dance of the neutrons!
The atoms are on a spree / It’s the ping-pong of the planets / The moon becomes a gun / And takes aim at the earth
It’s the great climb/ Of mountains mashed to a pulp/In the glare of The Great Clear-out!
It’s time for the quadrille/ Of rockets and torpedoes/Tonight is the Great Ball/The global ‘war to end all wars’.
Hark, the beautiful phrases!/China is flattened/Tearing her hair out/With mushrooms!
On the Big Dipper of prussian blue/The good guys of the Far-West/Have taken off their jackets.
See who decides/This joyful genocide,/Who really controls/The Great Clear-Out!
Heavens!It is machines/Divine machines/Who cry “Forward!”/In scholarly language.
How the calculations /On fireworks/Line up their zeros like generals!
They’ve done marvels/ Bravo to the bees!/Let us now award a medal/To The Great Computer!
We will end war/ With catapults/If we live tomorrow/We’ll come to blows.
Denied the media success he craved in chanson, Beart founded and presented Bienvenue, “le premier talk-show avec le public au monde” (the first ever chat show). It became an appointment-to-view: the first ever television programme to reproduce in the studio the intimate atmosphere of a dinner-party, and ran to 60 editions (1966-70). As Charles Trenet’s biographer Richard Cannavo put it, “Beart fait souffler un esprit de liberte sur le petit ecran, une vraie bourrasque, en fait” (Beart breathes the spirit of freedom across the small screen – a real gust, in fact). The cream of French cultural life – Louise de Vilmorin; Louis Aragon; Yves Montand; Jean-Pierre Melville; Michel Simon; Georges Brassens – queued up to appear on a show where ‘each contributor was the star’. Eventually, he decided to end it – as he realised he was becoming better known as a television personality than as his first love: that of auteur/compositeur/interprete (singer/writer/composer).
Nothing is simple with Beart, and in 1979 he was struck down with cancer, from which he did not fully recover until 1999, although he never quite gave up either. His book L’Esperance Folle (The Madness of Hope) was awarded the Prix Balzac in 1986. During these years, his recordings were completely unobtainable, and he appeared to have disappeared from view. With the proceeds from Vive La Rose he acquired a large house, Garches, on the outskirts of Paris, once the home of the Austrian Ambassador, to which he retreated as a kind of hermit – reputedly of difficult character – and which became a place of pilgrimage. Many of the greats of French showbusiness swam in its pool and admired its Bauhaus-like architecture.
But Beart was not a man to be kept down, and, in 2010, aged 80, he stepped back in to the limelight (“retrouve les feux de la rampe”) with a new album, Le Meilleur des Choses (The Best of Things). An excoriating attack on contemporary society, it contains such gems as Tele Attila and Les Amours Tranquilles (An Elderly Love Affair), and was a huge critical success.
On January 17, 2015, Guy Beart gave his final concert at the Olympia. It lasted four hours and contained 60 songs, many of which have entered the French national psyche. It was a fitting farewell for a man who, in the words of Le Monde, wrote a whole chapter of la chanson francaise.
Copyright October 2015 Pat Harvey