Paris is a funny old place. Lovers insist you have to see it in the springtime, and dream mistily of the City of Lights - not, perhaps, aware that the name was originally coined to celebrate the French capital’s status as the first city ever to be provided with electric lighting. It’s a good job it wasn’t the first to have sewers, instead.
No matter. The name has long since slipped the bounds of that somewhat prosaic origin, to epitomize a metropolis that bustles with brightness, glamour and style - the centerpiece of civilized beauty and history.
The reality is, of course, somewhat different. Paris boasts as many dingy alleyways and grubby neighborhoods as any modern city, and at least its fair share of homelessness, crime and squalor. Indeed, for anyone who tires of the Parisian PR department trotting out its endless succession of reasons to fall in love with the city, author Luc Sante’s The Other Paris (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2015) might well be termed the ultimate anti-tourist guide, an unflinching portrait of an historical city alive with ragpickers, prostitutes, anarchists, bohemians, and more besides.
Which is much the same feeling one gets from spending a day with Edith Piaf - the Little Sparrow. Born Edith Gassion, she was renamed not only for her diminutive stature, but for the fact that, like sparrows, she hailed from, and seemed most comfortable, on the street. There she scrapped for change as a teenaged busker, destined, you would have willingly bet, to live as tragic a life as her mother. She, too, was a singer, a success in the bustling fin-de-seicle city, but doomed (as Luc Sante puts it), to “let herself go.” In fact, she abandoned Edith at birth.
Before stardom, Piaf’s life was hard and, according to her manifold biographers, somewhat sordid. She was raised, in the main, by her paternal grandmother, the Madame at a Normandy brothel. At three, she caught keratitis and was blinded for the next four years, and from fourteen, she worked the streets with her father, an acrobat, and her half sister Simone.
That life was recounted, in spirit if not word, in so many of her songs; and even after fame arrived, Piaf’s private life really wasn’t as private as it might have been. Sante, again, describes it as “a succession of infatuations, sprees, breakdowns, jags, detoxes, crises, illnesses [and] tragedies,” and he does not exaggerate. But that was her appeal. Piaf did not simply sing her songs of sadness, regret and lost love; she lived them. French critic Léon-Paul Fargue wrote, “the subject of the song has to roll around in her voice like a body in a bed,” and while not every single chanson she sang actually went that far, the vast majority did.
Piaf’s recording career lasted just a quarter of a century. Discovered by nightclub owner Louis Leplée while she was singing at a club in Paris’s La Pigalle in 1935, she blazed throughout the forties and fifties but, by the early sixties, her health was failing fast. Her liver was shot, her blood was bad, her stomach was ulcerated, all the savage consequence of her long time alcoholism. But she was not repentant - or, at least, she was not apologetic. Her final words, reflecting upon a lifetime lived to the full, were “Every damn thing you do in this life, you have to pay for.” How fitting, then, that her last major international hit should have been the song for which she remains best remembered today, “Non, Je ne Regrette Rien” - no, I regret nothing.
December 15 last year marked the centennial of Piaf’s birth. Of course the anniversary was a major cause for celebration in her native France, but it did not pass unnoticed in the US, either. Piaf toured here on several occasions, and while her early visits were largely overlooked… apparently she was deemed too depressing for the average American music lover… by the late-1950s, she was capable of selling out Carnegie Hall two years in succession, and a regular guest on the Ed Sullivan Show.
Those two Carnegie Hall shows were recorded, with the latter appearing on record in France in 1977, one more shining light in a vast and sprawling discography. Like so many of her continental contemporaries, however, Piaf’s American releases were spottier - Goldmine’s Standard Catalog of American Records notes just five albums released in her name during her lifetime, all of them in the 1950s. Other work has, of course, appeared in the years since her death, but in terms of a one-stop, career-spanning collection… well, that’s what centennials are for.
Integrale 2015 is exactly what it says on the box (if you can read French) - “complete.” Twenty compact discs plus one ten-inch LP replica; 350 tracks remastered using “original vinyl pressings and master tapes”; a weighty box duplicating an old ten-inch vinyl album, containing all the discs, liner notes, photos, full track and recording details and three really fun pop-up scenes; a slipcase and an outer box. A worldwide limited edition of 10,000 copies adds to its heft - in terms of sheer product (such a hateful word), it’s one of the most impressively packaged box sets of recent years.
And then you play the discs themselves and, short of stumbling across your own private stash of “original vinyl pressings and master tapes,” you’ve never heard this material sound better. Certainly it wipes the floor with any past Piaf anthology. She’s not simply in the room with you. Her songs are rolling around in your bed as well. Sonically as well as visually, Integrale is the cat’s pajamas. Not even Bear Family, hitherto the most shining light in musical archaeology, have topped this.
The bulk of the set is organized in strict chronological terms - disc one opens with Piaf’s first 78, “Mon Légionairre” (1937) and and journeys through to 1947’s “Marriage,” via such early stand outs as “Céline, “Un Homme Comme Les Autres,” “Le Petit Homme” and, of course, the immortal “La Vie en Rose.”
Even this early in her career, Piaf was staking out her none-too-salubrious end of the street; even before she began composing her own lyrics, the women who populated the songs she chose were neither the blushing roses or heartbroken virgins that dominated English-language fare. They were what polite society might have termed bad girls, drifting off the straight and narrow not because they were led astray, but because they liked the view.
From there, the next eight CDs cover periods of between two and three years, each tracing both the development of her own songwriting, and the ease with which she transitioned to match (and sometimes lead) the changing tastes of the time. This portion of the box wraps up with the final release of her lifetime, 1962’s “Le Droit D’aimer,” and it is seldom less than breathtaking throughout. Few US collectors, after all, can have heard every moment of music contained across these nine discs, and with every new discovery, a new appreciation of Piaf emerges.
Disc ten presents that rarest, but loveliest thing, the sound of Piaf singing in English - not just the classics, but a number of lesser-known pieces. We then leave the confines of the studio, to experience Piaf in her element, onstage first at the Paris Olympia in 1955 and 1956, then the two Carnegie Hall concerts; three further Olympia performances, from 1958 and 1961/62; and finally Bobino in February 1963, eight months before her death. Needless to say, there is not the slightest presentiment of her destiny in either her voice or her performance. Every show is phenomenal; even across the years since then, her rapport with her audience is tangible, and there is no slackening in her emotive powers either, no matter how many times she may have sung a song.
But we’re into the closing stretch of the box now; two final discs of odds and ends, rounding up whatever stray recordings might still be missing - interview snips, demos, fragments and more. Until finally, we arrive at a short excerpt from a news report from Piaf’s funeral on October 13, an event that is said to have brought the whole of Paris to a standstill. And no wonder. As a few evenings spent with this box set makes clear, the city was not bidding farewell to an international superstar. It was saying goodbye to one of its own.