It is fair to say that Leo Ferre is one of the ‘great unknowns’ of French chanson this side of the Channel, even to those who profess a love of the genre. Yet he forms part of the musical pantheon of that country with his best songs ranking alongside Jacques Brel’s Ne me quitte pas and Edith Piaf’s Je ne regrette rien. This may be because he is not the easiest of artists to appreciate, given his trade-mark partnering of bleakness and anarchy with the most sublime poetry. Of him Le Monde wrote in 1960, “On y respire par moments des odeurs de souffre.Leo Ferre represente le poete-anarcho”. (There is a whiff of sulphur about his work. Leo Ferre is the model poet-anarchist).
His childhood was a far cry from anarchic. Leo was raised in Monte Carlo by an authoritarian father who, despite being staff manager of the famous Casino, sent his son aged 9 to a Jesuit boarding-school, the College St-Charles de Bordighera, whose iron discipline he later described as “ 7-8 annees d’enfer” (7 to 8 years of hell). But Monte Carlo being a place of high culture, gradually the musical dream unfolded which was to become his life. It is said that, hearing Beethoven’s Fifth over a cup of chocolate in a salon de the, the young Leo burst into tears, and knew that he was destined to be a musician. Later, recalling meeting the composer of L’Enfant et les Sortileges after a concert at the Casino, Ferre exclaimed, “Le sourire de Ravel c’est le plus beau jour de ma vie” (The day Ravel smiled at me was the most beautiful day of my life).
From 1936-8, to please his father Ferre studied at the ‘Sciences Po’ in Paris, and later tried his hand at dentistry. The Popular Front was then raging, with its demands for a better deal for the working classes, but paradoxically Ferre was not interested. His main concern was with ‘la revolution Trenet’ (the Charles Trenet revolution). Charles Trenet became his idol and his role-model. He became a music freelance for a paper in Nice and one day, after an Edith Piaf concert, was told by her, “Come to Paris and I’ll help you”.
Accordingly, in 1946, Ferre ‘went up’ (as the saying goes) to Paris, determined to sweat it out on the then-unfashionable cabaret circuit of St Germain-des-Pres. Places like Café des Assassins, L’Ecluse and Le Quod Libet, where the audiences were minuscule but appreciative, and Le Boeuf sur le Toit, (The Ox on the Roof) where he appeared alongside the still-unknown Freres Jacques and Charles Aznavour. Working as an accompanist for himself and others, it was a life of almost total destitution. However, his writing gradually got noticed. “Leo Ferre retrouve le souffle et la verve satyrique de la grande poesie francaise” (Leo Ferre recovers the breath and satirical verve of great French poetry) (Regards, 17.9.48); “Chacun de ses chansons est un petit bijou d’eclat cruel et chatoyant” (Each song is a tiny gem of cruelty and punishment) (Le Monde, 19.3.49).
Soon, he began to attract the attention of the stars of the stature of Catherine Sauvage (Paris Canaille, 1953) and Juliette Greco (Jolie Mome; Paname;1960); eventually, it is said, inspiring Greco to model her own sombre garb on his black anarchist’s shirt and trousers. One day, blown away by Sauvage’s performance, a novelist called Maurice Frot was inspired to knock on Ferre’s door. It was the start of a lifelong friendship; with Frot becoming Ferre’s closest ally; his secretary, producer, and, on occasions, bodyguard.
One day, in 1951, in a tiny night-club on the circuit, ‘Le Bar-Bac’, so-called for its location in the Rue du Bac, Leo met Madeleine Rabereau. This is how she described the encounter. “Il est rentre, incolore dans son impermeable beige; les yeux aigus et tendres, cercles de lunettes de fer; l’ecart des dents de la chance eblouissant un sourire d’enfant; un air d’ailleurs.” (He came in wearing a colourless beige mac; his piercing and tender eyes encircled by steel-rimmed spectacles; the lucky gap in his teeth lit up by a childlike smile; he seemed to be in another world). It was the beginning of a passionate affair which would include marriage, and last until 1968. Madeleine set about transforming Leo’s stage presentation (he has been described as having ‘un look abominable’), while they lived the life of boheme in shabby hotel rooms around the Rue du Luxembourg
Eventually, they ran into the poet Louis Aragon and his wife Elsa Triolet and, fired with a desire to “mettre la poesie dans le jukebox”(put poetry into the jukebox), Ferre recorded the album, Les Chansons d’Aragon (1961). Later, for Barclay records,he recorded one of the first ever double albums, Verlaine et Rimbaud (1964). It has been said that Ferre’s instinctive feeling of brotherhood with the poetes maudits (poetic outcasts) Verlaine, Rimbaud, Aragon and Apollinaire and their universal language of love, death and despair, is equalled only by the extraordinary power of his settings and the splendour of his interpretations.
The 60’s saw Ferre’s career take off as he began to appear in major Parisian music-halls and built up a huge following with his trademark panegyrics to love (C’est extra, 1969), melancholy (Avec le temps, 1970), and anarchy (Ni Dieu ni maître, 1965).
All this success naturally led somewhere and, despite their anarchistic credentials, the Ferres soon found themselves the proud owners of a small island off St Malo, and, in 1963, of a sixteenth-century chateau, Pechrigal, in the department of Lot.
Here they began to adopt animals, including a precocious chimpanzee, which Ferre named Pepee, and which became a kind of substitute daughter. Eventually, the couple broke up in bitterness over the monkey, whom Ferre accused his wife of killing, along with all the other animals. This episode is captured in his song about Pepee.
In 1968, just as the couple were divorcing, Paris was engulfed by the student riots of May, ‘68. Although he has often been accused of exploiting these, Ferre’s texts attacking militarism, authority and the ‘consumer society’ had anticipated their concerns, having mainly been written years before. Suddenly however, they assumed a new relevance, as young people flocked to his concerts like the one at Bobino in 1969, where the auditorium heaved with black flags.
Despite not being classically trained, Leo Ferre had a natural rapport with orchestras, and, as time went by, spent much time composing, arranging and conducting for them. He eventually abandoned rhyme and even music altogether in such bleak hymns to despair as Le Chien (1970), La Solitude (1971) and Il n’ya plus rien (1973). Sometimes even his closest associates thought he went too far: “T’a pas le droit de dire aux jeunes ‘Il n’y a plus rien’ “ (You have no right to tell young people there’s nothing) – the words of his long-standing friend and adviser, Maurice Frot.
As his son, Mathieu, points out, “If you love the chanson you’re bound to come up against him.”. But Ferre is not an easy listen. Opinion will always be divided as to his merits. Some people refuse to listen to him at all.
In 1970 Barclay Records released a double album Amour Anarchie but deliberately omitted one track. This was Avec le temps; later released on 45rpm, to become an instant classic. Now regarded as Ferre’s signature tune, it is a tragic and beautifully sad love song inspired by disappointment, failure and the brevity of human life. Despite this, it is the best-known of Ferre’s works, and in 2012 was ranked by a poll of contemporary singers, musicians and critics as the best French song ever. After performing it, he requested to leave the stage without applause.
Leo Ferre is buried in Mont Carlo near Josephine Baker, with whom he shared the bill at the Olympia in 1954.
C Pat Harvey 2016