FRANCE/ARMENIA: La Bohème - Charles Aznavour
Updated: Apr 10
A unique record with the capacity to provoke a sense of rather deep and beautiful self-reflection about dreams, desires and direction
I have been dealt a hand of good fortune in life that I am wholly aware of. I do not spend a great deal of time worrying about my need for safety nor my physiological needs, and as such any pop psychologist who has studied Maslow’s hierarchy of needs could tell me that I am well on my way to pure contentment or transcendence as I fortuitously have my most basic of needs already met. With those potential worries that many across the globe unfortunately face on a daily basis currently put to rest for me, it leaves me instead with a lot of time trying to find my place in this world, seeking a greater sense of purpose, belonging and fulfilment. Having spent much of my adult life agonising and catastrophising over the notion that I may never find true peace and contentment, or that this precious life I have been gifted may turn out to be an opportunity I have wasted, I have been desperately seeking the answer to the question 'what will give me the self-actualization that I crave?'. One such hypothesis I have spent numerous years toying with is the idea that a bohemian philosophy could be my method of attaining the fulfilment that I seek. There is something about the bohemian lifestyle that intensely appeals to me, so much so that when I have been in touch with something that looks vaguely like it I feel at my most nourished.
“Fundamentally, in a world in which there are souls like Aznavour who are unafraid to break the mould, bohemianism will always live on in some capacity.”
Having spent a year of my life living in the capital of what was historically known as Bohemia, in the Czech city Prague, I had my first true taste of a quasi-bohemian (using its more modern meaning) existence whilst there. I carved out a chapter alongside fellow wanderers from across the globe posing themselves similar questions rooted in existentialism. Regularly peering in and sometimes indulging in the artistic, musical and literary scenes the city had to offer became the norm. By day, I was exploring the magnificent architecture of the city on endless walks or writing fascinating essays in the city’s alternative coffee shops, whilst in the evenings I was brushing shoulders with those with a mostly anti-establishment political point of view, drinking cheap Czech beer and smoking joints late into the night as we would often put the world to rights. That year I had the chance to travel across Central Europe without much tying me down; even romantically I was living the supposed bohemian dream, falling in lust with one girl and in love with another, developing a small catalogue of exciting anecdotes with other likeminded free spirits along the way.
From a young age I have always questioned the status quo. Having attended a school that could be seen as a factory for dentists and accountants, filled with students totally content following a perfectly noble path of which they have been almost preordained. In spite of this education, I always have had a sense that mindless acceptance of my destiny was something I was (and still am) duty bound to fight. Upon arrival back in the UK from the Czech Republic, I was reminded of the conventionalism and normality of my previous life. Desperately chasing what I had lost, and feeling somewhat suffocated by what I had returned to, I begun a relationship with a creative, a free-thinker, a girl unquestionably not bounded dowm by the constructs of society. Although I most certainly had a bohemian love, I absolutely did not have a bohemian life. It was at this point in my journey that I began to visualise and try to plot a bohemian future for myself. In doing so, I needed to learn and understand what is bohemia in its purest form. I could therefore look no further than Montmartre.
Arguably the spiritual capital for the bohemian movement for numerous years, the quirky Parisian district was home to many like-minded visionaries in the pursuit for freedom from the frivolity of life and whatever social norms they felt oppressed by. A search for artistic self-expression, debauchery and a disconnection from the establishment was executed successfully by many, often done so nobly without endless financial resources. A quest for pleasure, knowledge and a general joie-de-vivre to me sounded like an almost utopian vision of what life could be, even with the inevitable plight and challenges such a lifestyle would inevitably bring about. I believe being surrounded by eccentric people can only be inspiring, as flamboyance and peculiarities are typically ways in which people demonstrate their authentic self without fear of judgement or criticism – something I believe we can all learn from in a bid to become more secure in one’s self.
With my sense of reverence for bohemianism well and truly in place, as well as perhaps viewing it as the answer to my existential woes, I was ready to listen to Charles Aznavour’s album, without even the slightest suspicion that the record would in any way put my premise into doubt. Therefore, it came as quite a surprise that listening to the opening song and title-track immediately brought me to tears the first time I heard it, as it deeply challenged this sense of hope I was positing via bohemianism. Aznavour is one of a very small handful of artists, alongside Cesaria Évora, Nick Cave and Almendra, who have managed to overwhelm me with such splendour and evoke such a strong physical reaction from me. Now, if I am being completely honest, these tears were not just due to the metaphysical questions that were rushing around my mind but also due to the sheer beauty of the song.
Although by no means am I remotely close to being fluent in French, I knew straight away what the song was about. This is testament to Aznavour’s rather unique capacity to sing with such anguish and heartbreak, that it would be impossible for him to not be lamenting something that had passed. The song sounds like the closest musical representation of grief I have ever heard, and the title of track gave away what he was mourning - La bohème. Was he right? Is bohemianism dead? Is it merely a concept that had its heyday but has been eaten by the monster of corporate capitalism and consumerism, no longer available to folk like me? Well, keep reading to find out what I have come to conclude so far.
Despite my ability to rant and rave about the power and beauty of the song, the album is not just La bohème with a few other tracks added onto it to fill a record. Rather, the opener simply sets the tone for the rest of the album. Though no song quite manages to reach the dizzying heights of the title-track, that is by the by as it is basically an impossible feat to surpass the magic combination of the beauty of the opening keys, the almost unfathomable intensity of his voice and the perfect crescendo made all the more painfully wistful by the chaotic instrumentation. Following La bohème comes the next song Parce que tu crois, another nostalgic number that feels all too familiar. ‘Perhaps a James Bond tune?’ I first thought to myself. After several listens it dawned on me. It was the song sampled by Dr. Dre and co. on the epic hip-hop banger What’s The Difference. One of the pleasures of this whole process is discovering original tracks that have been sampled, such as Amadou & Mariam’s Sabali, Mulatu Astatke’s Yègellé Tezeta or Rubén Blades and Willie Colón’s Maria Lionza, on songs that I already know and love; the revelation about Aznavour’s track was no different in this sense.
I love Parce que tu crois as it is just so damn smooth and silky, though when it begins to come to a close anyone who is familiar with chanson as a genre would be forgiven for thinking that the album was on track to continue with this sad and sentimental tone - not that it would be a bad thing! However, Aznavour pulls the wool over the eyes (or ears, I suppose) of his listener in what feels like the total antidote to the opening tracks. Ça vient sans qu'on y pense is an upbeat waltz that is just so immensely enjoyable, the chirpy inclusion of the flute makes the track breezy and light, it is impossible to not feel a bit of a catharsis from the intense beauty of the openers. In similar party style La route continues where Aznavour leaves off. I can’t help but feel a desire to be confidently parading around a ballroom dancefloor, and for someone who is not the most graceful of beasts it is not often I feel the urge to get my tuxedo on like I do when listening to this track.
However, don’t be fooled; this is not just a celebratory album from here on in. Both Il fallait bien and Paris au mois d'Août come close to the title-track in terms of how they affect me and Aznavour uses all his classic tools, balancing instrumentation and the purity of emotion in his voice to really strike a chord with his audience. At this point, only 19 minutes into the album, I found myself feeling exhausted and I think Aznavour recognises this as he decanted every last ounce of his soul into the more emotive tracks. He rather intelligently closes the album with four short and sweet songs, all with a different feel, from the marching track Sur le chemin du retour to the rather sexy Sarah, coming to a total run time of just 28 minutes which in the case of any other artist would be deemed as too short. Not Aznavour though. In that brief time, he was able to transmit more emotion, class and talent than many artists can in their entire discography.
Having listened to the record on countless occasions since it was first recommended to me, I have had enough time to come to some conclusions on how I feel about bohemianism and whether Aznavour is right to proffer the notion that it is dead. Ever the provocateur, I feel Aznavour’s greatest achievement with the album is the absolutely hypocrisy that only a beady-eared listener might detect – I say smugly, of course, while patting myself on the back. The irony of the album is that Aznavour pours his heart out mourning the passing of this great philosophy, whilst he himself embodies it. Maybe he is right that Montmartre is not what it used to be and perhaps can never return to its former glories, but Montmartre wasn’t bohemian because it was Montmartre, it was bohemian because of the people there. Fundamentally, in a world in which there are souls like Aznavour who are unafraid to break the mould, bohemianism will always live on in some capacity. Whilst sadly the great man passed away three years ago his spirit and legacy lives on through this album serving as a source of inspiration for the next generation of bohemians. Unashamed, creative and emotional expression is what he promotes and so too does the care-free bohemian philosophy which he and his work are perfectly aligned with. Whilst Montmartre may no longer be the hub of this way of thinking, and the world is obviously culturally poorer for not having a place quite like that anymore, bohemians can be found all over the planet. Bohemianism isn’t Montmartre, it is a perspective, an attitude, a way of life. Aznavour challenged me and despite feeling momentarily defeated, I instead feel inspired to seek out those special souls brave and vulnerable just like him. Praise doesn’t get much higher than that.