Obituary: Nino Ferrer

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The Independent Culture
ONE OF the tragic icons of modern times is that is the ageing rock idol. Nino Ferrer was an artist of great integrity and talent, both as a performer and as a composer of songs that have proved enduringly popular. But he kept changing styles, and never found his true musical voice except in works practically unknown to the general public.

Rock by its nature expresses the exuberance of youth. Ferrer came to the rock scene when he had already squandered that youthful fecklessness and energy. He said: "It was like passing from a ternary to a binary musical mode. I like loud, smashing rock - as long as it swings." It denotes the major contradiction in his very personal, variegated styles. He was never to come to terms with himself.

Ferrer's father was Piedmontese, his mother French with Gascon/Norman roots - an explosive mixture inherited by their son. He first wanted to be a doctor, but soon abandoned that dream. He went to school with the Jesuits in Genoa, then in Paris, where the religious training set him forever against the Church. He followed courses in ethnology and archaeology, intending to become an explorer. But the gift of a crystal set changed all that. He fell in love with jazz, in particular with the blues and later became an ardent follower of James Brown, Otis Redding and Ray Charles. He started to play the double bass in Bill Coleman's New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, and with Richard Bennet's Dixie Cats. He accompanied the rhythm 'n' blues singer Nancy Holloway, who first persuaded him to try singing solo.

In 1963 he issued his first single, "Pour oublier qu'on est aime". Then success fell upon him with the wildly popular songs he came to detest, calling them "a cloak of lead around my shoulders". He felt trapped, unable to escape from the constant demands of huge audiences to hear the hits he despised: "Mirza", "Alexandre", "Le Telefon" with its idiotic refrains. He suddenly became very rich, bought a grand house in Paris and filled it with treasures. He led a life of wine, women and song while giving endless provocative performances in theatres, on television and on tour. "If only people would listen to the flip side first," he complained.

The A side always featured a best-seller, like "C'est irreparable (Un an d'amour)", one of his major tubes sensationally interpreted by Dalida and revived in 1991 in Pedro Almodovar's Talons aiguilles as "Un ano de amor".

Ferrer rebelled against the gaudy frivolity of French show business, with its cynical technocrats and greedy exploiters of talent who deplored his tendency to mock life's total absurdity in his lesser-known songs. He agreed with Gainsbourg and Nougaro that "songs are a minor art" and "just background noise". He refused to be set in a mould for the more convenient consumption of his work by the greater number of people, the sort of mass audience he said listened to music as they would watch passing trains.

"These songs pass down the years because they have been hammered home by the radio into the human brain. Showbiz acts as a pile-driver for songs like `Zavez pas vu Mirza' [an untranslatable patter song of sublime silliness], a blues in a minor key with a rapid tempo, that's all. `Le Telefon' is a crazy text that would have made Max Jacob or Aldred Jarry hoot with laughter, but their musical and technical realisation was terrible."

So Ferrer returned to Italy, hoping to find his roots there again. "Je veux etre noir (Pella Negra)" was a success there, and he found himself heading a cheap television variety show on which he became a well-known face advertising sliced Kraft cheese. He had a hard time of it on the excruciating Cantogiro or song-hit tour of Italy. When his new "concept album" was refused he went back to France, where he had become known as "Monsieur Cornichon" after "Le Cornichon" ("The Gherkin"), another of his Sixties hits. But now he was beyond all that. He felt closer to Jacques Higelin, his exact contemporary, and a great clown of the chanson, but also to Noir Desir. (Despite his hatred of his old numbers, they keep coming back: "NF in Trouble", composed in 1968, was reprised in the United States by a group called Three Young and Fresh Fellows, a grunge group from Seattle.)

In 1972, Ferrer encountered the Heavy Metal Kids and their leader, the former T-Rex guitarist Micky Finn, and the deep impression they made on him resulted in another concept album, one that with collaborations took several years to complete, Nino Ferrer and Legs, followed by Blanat (1976- 79). The French critics did not like them, because they were written in English - the only language for rock, as Ferrer believed. Indeed, French rock is on the whole abysmally bad. Ferrer had time in 1981 to appear in an awful film by another marginal, Jean-Pierre Mocky, Litan, for which he also provided the score. He played God the Father in a biblical musical comedy, L'Arche de Noe.

For his next album, Ferrer invented a new portmanteau word, Desabusion (1993), a mixture of disillusion and abuse which he claimed was felt by many men in their sixties. He had never been interested in politics, saying it seemed an activity as far removed from him as Mars. But he was fiercely anti-militarist, and a fervent sociologist, an anti-nuclear protester. Nuclear power, he argued, was just another aspect of our technocratic society. In one of the best songs in Desabusion, "La Danse de la pluie", he excoriates the makers of Zeppelins, the Maginot Line and the Titanic. This did not make him any more popular with recording firms.

On the day Nino Ferrer died, France 2 TV put on a late-night video of one of his last public appearances in Taratata, a vulgar, badly recorded show animated by one of television's most horrible dynamic stars, the comedian Nagui. There was a huge, well-trained audience, like performing dogs, youthful ninnies who gave repeated standing ovations to every artist and every number. This hasty homage to Nino Ferrer was an insult to his memory. But the star was present. He had kept his rangy figure that had made him the Lucky Luke of psychedelic pop and rhythm 'n' blues.

His eyes were still bright blue, his voice attractively gravelly, and among all the cheap razzmatazz he behaved with dignity and modesty, a sly, ironic grin lighting the worn features from time to time. He generously shared numbers with a few young singers, best of whom was the sweet and charming Enzo Enzo, in his lovely ballad "La Maison pres de la fontaine" and "La Danse de la pluie" with its delicate piano raindrops. He sang the great song about his new life in the south of France, "Le Sud", and then, backed by a gospel choir in sky-blue and silver lame vestments, he ended with a very punchy rendering of "Jericho", after which he hastily abandoned the preposterous set and the ultimate standing ovation in which the beaming audience seemed to be dutifully applauding itself. One's heart went out to him.

As it had done right at the start of the programme, when, after a lot of ignorant joshing from Nagui to which he responded with polite but weary smiles, Nino was compelled to sing one of the tubes he had grown to hate, "Mirza".

Ferrer had left the City of Light for a small village in the Lot, Montouq, where he had restored a 15th-century manor-house. There he devoted himself to his family, his dogs and horses, and to painting very creepy post-Surrealist fantasies, the visual equivalent of many of his songs. He had brought his ageing mother from Italy to live with them. But at the beginning of summer, she died, and Ferrer never recovered from the trauma of losing la Mamma.

One day last week, he took his hunting gun and walked to a field of corn, recently cut, near the neighbouring village of Saint-Cyprien. There he lay down in the stubble and shot himself through the heart. His wife Kinou had alerted the gendarmarie after finding a farewell letter from Nino saying he was going to put an end to his days. He had not been a member of ADMD (L'Association pour le Droit de Mourir dans la Dignite: "Association for the Right to Die with Dignity") to which several recent suicides have belonged - Roger Quillot and his wife, Jean Mercure and his wife Jandeline.

Next day, there were front-page headlines in all the French and Italian newspapers: "Adieu Nino!", "Nino Ferrer Hung Up His Telephone", "Our Nino Has Left for the South" were some of the star specimens. He was called the Don Quixote and the Corto Maltese of French show business. But I prefer to remember him as the Lucky Luke of rhythm 'n' blues.

Agostino Ferrari (Nino Ferrer), singer, composer, lyricist and painter: born Genoa, Italy 15 August 1934; married (two sons); died Saint-Cyprien, France 13 August 1998.