Etienne Roda-Gil

Free-spirited chanson writer whose hits included 'Joe Le Taxi'

In those three post-war decades before the plagues of mass tourism and high fashion began to strike at the very heart of continental cultural life, much political debate and inventive literary creation discovered fresh freedoms of expression in basement night-clubs, cheap bars, intimate theatres and the open-air lecture theatres of student pavement cafés. These were some of the breeding-grounds of the
nouvelle chanson.



Etienne Roda-Gil, songwriter: born Montauban, France 1 August 1941; married; died Paris 30 May 2004.



In those three post-war decades before the plagues of mass tourism and high fashion began to strike at the very heart of continental cultural life, much political debate and inventive literary creation discovered fresh freedoms of expression in basement night-clubs, cheap bars, intimate theatres and the open-air lecture theatres of student pavement cafés. These were some of the breeding-grounds of the nouvelle chanson.

It was on the greasy tables of student bistros and beer gardens that literary, musical and theatrical revolutions were born, as counter-blasts to the "noise" music, rock and pop.

Chanson was the very breath of bohemian nocturnal existence; but it began to experience a profound and liberating change from the sweetly sentimental love ballads and comic patter songs of the pre-war era. The great Charles Trenet had begun to lead the way to the new musical expressions of satirical and experimental literary genius. Great mid-century writers and poets like Jean-Paul Sartre, Louis Aragon, Guillevic, Raymond Queneau and Boris Vian did not disdain to lend their superb literary talents to the art of the "new chanson". Such rare combinations of talents appealed to intellectuals and the politically aware rebels of the 1968 street wars, as well as to the general public, the upper classes and the proletarians. Etienne Roda-Gil stands out as one of that period's immortals.

His family was working-class Catalan Republican. They escaped Franco's murderous Fascist tyranny by crossing the Pyrenees and starting new lives in the refugee camps of south-west France. Etienne Roda-Gil was a war baby, born in 1941 in Montauban. His father worked as a day labourer. His ardent Communist ideals were inherited by his son, as well as his sense of humour and his rebellious, provocative spirit. His mother, infatuated by Spanish tango rhythms, inspired Etienne with romantic ideals and a Latin passion for music of the people.

When the family was able to move to a low-rent block of flats in the working-class Paris suburb of Antony, Etienne Roda-Gil attended schools where his obviously foreign origins were mocked by narrow-minded fellow pupils. But on moving to the Lycée Henri-IV where he had real philosophers and writers like Jean-Louis Bory as inspired teachers, his dormant passion for poetry was awakened and encouraged. His favourites were Lorca, Alberti, Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Mallarmé, the novelist Louis- Ferdinand Céline and the Surrealists André Breton and Raymond Queneau.

On the outbreak of the disastrous Algerian conflict, Roda-Gil received his call-up papers in 1959 - but his free spirit was having none of that nonsense, and he sought refuge in London, where he became a familiar figure at the French House, the Mandrake Club and other bohemian Soho rendezvous.

When things quietened down, he returned to Paris and the agitated student world of 1968, with its literary slogans and moral revolts. He became an habitué of a student café, L'Ecritoire ("The Writing Table"), on the Place de la Sorbonne. It was there that one day he met the mop-headed 20-year-old Julien Clerc, who persuaded him to write the lyric for a new song. Etienne took up the challenge and discovered that he was a born parolier. The result was "La Cavallerie", full of revolutionary dash and fire, a sarcastic anthem for youth in revolt, with its bold promise: " Et j'abolirai L'ennui . . ." ("And I'll abolish boredom"), one of the catchwords of the 1968 student rebellions. It became Julien Clerc's first best-seller.

Roda-Gil and Clerc became firm friends and chanson collaborators, with " La Californie" (1969), " Ce n'est rien" ("It's Nothing", 1970), " Niagara" (1971), " Si on chantait?" ("What if we sang?", 1972), " Ca fait pleurer le Bon Dieu" ("That makes God cry" 1973) and "This Melody" (1975). His name was becoming famous internationally, and in 1972 he wrote for the American singer Mort Shuman " Lac Majeur" (Lake Maggiore), the singer's first hit in French, and in France. Soon many other singers were demanding his texts - Barbara, France Gall, Nicoletta, Juliette Gréco . . .

But Julien Clerc was also seeking fresh talent, and these "betrayals" caused a long rift between him and Roda-Gil. Clerc began complaining that his audiences always wanted him to "explain" Roda-Gil's unusual and complex lyrics, and that it was becoming a bore. The decisive breaking-point came with the song " Poissons morts" with its unappetising refrain: "Dead fish! Go tell the harvesters - Dead fish! that machine-gun grease/is not the brilliantine of the gods. . ."

However, after years apart, they became reconciled when in 1997 Clerc attended the funeral of Roda-Gil's wife Nadine.

Roda-Gil went from success to success, in particular with his great new album for Juliette Gréco, entitled simply Gréco (1993), for her triumphant return after a seven-year absence from the stage. He also wrote a best-selling album for Johnny Hallyday entitled Mirador (1989).

The 14-year-old Vanessa Paradis was rewarded by his work in 1987 with a world-wide success, " Joe Le Taxi", followed by " Marilyn et John" and " Maxou". For the tragic Claude François, electrocuted in his bath by a hair-drier, he wrote "Magnolias for Ever" (1977) and " Alexandrie Alexandra" (1978), which were the singer's last two successes.

His last years were melancholy and in Paris I sometimes saw him in La Closerie des Lilas in Montparnasse downing double whiskies, or in Le Rostand outside the Luxembourg Gardens, where he liked to walk and found many themes for his songs.

James Kirkup

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