Sunday, January 8, 2023

What Does Charles Trenet's "La Mer" Have to Do with Dylan's Philosophy of Song?

"In this song your happiness lies beyond the wide sea, and to get there you have to cross the great unknown."--Bob Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song

Dylan fans spent years wondering if and when a Chronicles: Volume 2 would be published. Those who were patient enough have been rewarded. I doubt, however, that a single one of us anticipated the form it would take. I myself, like many, expected more of a memoir. Instead, we were treated to The Philosophy of Modern Song, a book about songs more than about philosophy. In either case, it is pure Dylan. 

There's been plenty written about this book already. This website alone has links to more than 130 reviews of the book. Most Dylan fans know that it's essentially Dylan weighing in on 66 songs from Stephen Foster to Elvis Costello, Nina Simone to Little Walter; "Your Cheatin' Heart" to "Viva Las Vegas."

The first track, I mean chapter, in the book is Bobby Bare's "Detroit City." Now if you are one of the countless fans who listened to Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour, you can't help but hear Bob's ominous gravelly voice and delivery as you read some of the passages. The opening line for chapter one is "IN THIS SONG YOU'RE THE PRODIGAL SON."

Chapter 19 is "Beyond the Sea," the 1958 version sung by Bobby Darin. Dylan opens this chapter with "IN THIS SONG YOUR HAPPINESS LIES beyond the wide sea, and to get there you have to cross the great unknown." Listen as you read:

You're going out of bounds and you're into the briny deep-navigating by the stars, measuring longitudes and latitudes. You're the captain and you're sailing towards your nerve center, who is waiting in the coastlands upon the rich and rosy beach. She's waiting for you there, biding her time, sitting tight--she's on the lookout for you, checking out every ship. The clipper ships, the schooners and sloops. Onwards and onwards you go sailing over the bounding main, and off into the wild blue yonder. Sailing towards your life--your final destination. You're checking your compass, your almanac and your horoscope. The entire hemisphere is right there at your command, right there in your field of vision.

In writing about the songs he covers, Dylan's approach is imaginative, gliding across cresting waves of the unexpected. The essays and stories alternate between second person and third person. The segment in blue above, introducing Bobby Darin's "Beyond the Sea" for example, is second person.

I really knew very little about Bobby Darin while growing up. For some reason I failed to appreciate his music, perhaps seeing the showmanship as old fashioned. Years later, via karaoke, I came to associate Bobby Darin with "Mack the Knife." But it's Darin's "Beyond the Sea" that Dylan lifts up to shine a light on here. 

Of the six pages Dylan devotes to Bobby Darin's song (half of which of which are illustrations or photos), only one sentence is dedicated to the origin of the song. It's an amusing sentence. "THIS IS A FRENCH SONG originally written Charles Trenet, pretty much untranslatabe." Does Dylan mean the French words can't make sense in English? Or that the idea behind the song gets lost in translation?

You can read two translations of "La Mer" here -- one converted into verse and one more literal -- and decide for yourself what Dylan meant: 

What's certain is that the Charles Trenet version has been a favorite of mine since I first heard it sung during the credits for the film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. The film had already moved my heart. The song welded this story to an emotional connection. Music does that.  

The Diving Bell & the Butterfly is an autobiographical memoir by Jean-Dominique Bauby, a French journalist and editor of the fashion magazine Elle. His life consisted of fame and style, wealth and women… a lifestyle others only dream of. Then one day, at age 43, Bauby suffered a massive stroke that left him in a condition called “Locked In Syndrome.” His mental faculties were totally intact but his body paralyzed. Though speechless and immobile, he learned to communicate by blinking a single eyelid. By means of blinking, communicating one letter at a time, Bauby produced a book remarkable for its candor and beauty. It's a powerful book, and Julian Schnabel proved he was up to the task of translating this story to the screen. 

You can read my review of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly here(EdNote: This review was written about the film before I'd read the book, which I later purchased and have since read twice.)

Until I read this chapter in Dylan's book I never felt all that inclined to learn more about Bobby Darin. I knew he died young, but for some reason I thought he died in a plane crash. The reality is that he had always been sickly since his youth and lived longer than his doctors expected. He was 37 when he died of sepsis.

The song itself brings to mind a quote I'd read two or three decades ago regarding seas and life. If while in England you are unwilling to leave sight of the land for a while, you will never see New York. (This was before air travel, of course.) In other words, to reach other lands you must risk the open sea, a recurring theme in literature related to risk and reward. The failure to accept risks can frequently lead to regrets.

Here's Bobby Darin showing his chops on the 1960 Beech-Nut Show... back when TV performers lip-synced their way through their numbers. You'll notice that the Beatles weren't the first performers to ignite screams from teenaged girls.

Here is Charles Trenet's version of the song for comparison purposes:

The sea that we see dance along the clear bay has reflections of silver.

The sea, changing reflections under the rain.

The sea to the summer sky confounds those white sheep with the angels so pure. 

The sea, shepherd of infinite azure.

Look! Near the ponds, those tall reeds! 
See those white birds and those rusty homes!

The sea, rocks (like in a cradle) them along the clear bay
And in a love song, the sea cradled my heart for life.

* * *  

The French edition of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly  was published on March 7, 1997. It sold the first 25,000 copies on the day of publication, reaching 150,000 in a week. It went on to become a number one bestseller across Europe. Its total sales are now in the millions.

 On 9 March 1997, three days after the book was published, Bauby died of pneumonia. 

No comments:

Popular Posts