Of all the childhood memories I have, some of the happiest ones are from afternoons when my mom would put a cassette in our old black Sony music player while she cooked dinner. I would play around, sometimes do my homework, sometimes hang out and talk to her, and she would explain the songs to me, since I wanted to understand what the lyrics were saying. In exchange, I would change the tape over for her.
We listened to a lot of French songs, and Jacques Brel. At some point, my mom went over the song Ne Me Quitte Pas line by line with me. I don’t remember exactly if that was an inevitable part of my French education (my mom’s a French teacher), or if I was so annoying asking for translation (“But mom, what does it meeean”), that she thought, “You want some conditionnel passé before dinner? Here you go.”
I have this vivid memory of wanting to know exactly what des mots insensé means. I wanted examples of words that are considered insensé. But why is that a crazy word? And how do you invent them? And what’s the meaning of rain coming from countries where it doesn’t rain? Grown-ups say the weirdest things.
Years and years passed. I’ve moved on to find my own afternoon music mix, without needing to change the cassette tape over to the other side.
Recently, I discovered Aaron Freman and his new album, Marvelous Clouds, covering the music and poetry of Rod McKuen. “Who is this Rod McKuen chap?” Turns out, it’s none other than the translator of Jacques Brel’s Ne Me Quitte Pas into the English version, If You Go Away, along with being an Oscar- and Pulitzer-nominated composer/singer/songwriter/poet (total Beat poet slacker, basically).
This connection to Jacques Brel brought back floods and floods of memories, not just from my childhood, but also from my time studying in France, when we had to learn La Valse à Mille Temps, a song with a ridiculously impossible tempo with all sorts of puns and tongue twisters. I’m pretty sure it was both punishment and praise from the French teachers to us unsuspecting foreign exchange kids who would endure the sick torture that is French conjugation.
I’ve been a rover
I have walked alone
Hiked a hundred highways
Never found a home
Still in all I’m happy
The reason is, you see
Once in a while along the way
Love’s been good to me