Sunday 15 June 2014

L’Épave - Help given to him in desperate need makes one of life's casualties re-assess who is his good neighbour

The narrator is a man who is left lying incapable in the street, in mortal need of help.  Those who come by are familiar characters from Brassens' world, for most of whom, Brassens had previously expressed admiration and sympathy in different songs: his local barman, a barefoot vagrant, a penniless, long-term student, the good wife of a working class man’ a hard-working street girl, a policeman.

Only one of these proves to be the good Samaritan and it comes as a surprise.

The story reflects a dramatic event in Brassens’  later years.  I have written an account of this, which I have included after the translation notes so that you view the song first.

L'épave(1)  - The human wreck

J'en appelle à Bacchus ! À Bacchus j'en appelle! (2)
Le tavernier du coin vient d' me la bailler belle(3).
De son établissement j'étais l' meilleur pilier.(4)
Quand j'eus bu tous mes sous, il me mit à la porte
En disant : " Les poivrots, le diable les emporte!
Ça n' fait rien, il y a des bistrots bien singuliers...

 Un certain va-nu-pieds(5) qui passe et me trouve ivre-
Mort, croyant tout de bon que j'ai cessé de vivre
 (Vous auriez fait pareil), s'en prit à mes souliers(6).
 Pauvre homme ! Vu l'état piteux de mes godasses,
Je dout' qu'il trouve avec son chemin de Damas.(7)
Ça n' fait rien, il y a des passants bien singuliers...

Un étudiant miteux s'en prit à ma liquette(8)
Qui, à la faveur d'la nuit lui avait paru coquette,
Mais en plein jour ses yeux ont dû se dessiller.
Je l' plains de tout mon cœur, pauvre enfant, s'il l'a mise,
Vu que, d'un homme heureux, (9) c'était loin d'êtr' la ch'mise.
Ça n' fait rien, y a des étudiants bien singuliers...

La femm' d'un ouvrier s'en prit à ma culotte.
"Pas ça, madam', pas ça ! Mille et un coups de bottes
Ont tant usé le fond que, si vous essayiez
 D' la mettre à votr' mari, bientôt, je vous en fiche
Mon billet,il aurait du verglas sur les miches(11)."
Ça n' fait rien, il y a des ménages bien singuliers...

Et j'étais là, tout nu, sur le bord du trottoir
Exhibant, malgré moi, mes humbles génitoires.
Une petit' vertu(12) rentrant de travailler,
Elle qui, chaque soir, en voyait un' douzaine,
Courut dire aux agents : "J'ai vu quelqu' chos' d'obscène !"
Ça n' fait rien, il y a des tapins bien singuliers...

Le r'présentant d' la loi vint, d'un pas débonnaire.
Sitôt qu'il m'aperçut il s'écria : "Tonnerre !
On est en plein hiver, et si vous vous geliez !"
Et, de peur que j' n'attrape une fluxion d' poitrine,
Le bougre, il me couvrit avec sa pèlerine.
Ça n' fait rien, il y a des flics bien singuliers...

Et depuis ce jour-là, moi, le fier, le bravache,
Moi, dont le cri de guerr' fut toujours : "Mort aux vaches(13) !"
Plus une seule fois je n'ai pu le brailler.
J'essaye bien encor, mais ma langue honteuse
Retombe lourdement dans ma bouche pâteuse.
Ça n' fait rien, nous vivons un temps bien singulier...

I appeal to Bacchus! To Bacchus I appeal!
The landlord of our pub has just played the dirty on me
Of his establishment I was the strongest pillar
When I’d drunk my last cent, he had had me slung out
Saying: "Drunkards, let them all go to the devil "
No big deal; there are some pubs most peculiar.

A certain down and out, passes and finds me dead drunk -.
Honestly believing that I have stopped living
(You would have done the same), made off with my shoes.
The poor man! In view of their pitiable state
I doubt he’ll find with them his road to Damascus.
No big deal; there’re some passers-by most peculiar.

A shabby looking student made off with my shirt
Which, flattered by the dark, had seemed to  him real smart,
But the light of day must  have opened his eyes.
I much pity him, poor kid, if he put it on
"Shirt of a happy man" it was far from being
No big deal; there’re some students most peculiar .

The wife of a workman made off with my trousers.
“Not those, Madame, not those!"  A’thousand and one boot-caps
Have so worn the seat of the pants that if you tried
To fit them on your husband, I bet my last cent
He would get sheets of ice upon his buttocks."
No big deal; there are some families most peculiar.

And there I was stark naked, on the pavement edge
Showing, despite myself, my humble genitals.
A street girl, going back home from one of her jobs ,
She who, saw a dozen of the same every night,
Ran to tell the police: "I’ve seen something obscene!"
No big deal; there are some floozies most peculiar.

The custodian of the law came sauntering up
As soon as he noticed me he exclaimed:  “Good grief!
We’re in depth of winter, what if you get frozen!”
And for fear I might catch double pneumonia
The fellow, he covered me in his heavy  cloak,
No big deal; there are some cops  most peculiar...

And since that very day, I, the proud, the loud mouth,
I, whose war cry had been always: "Death to the pigs!"
Not one single time more could I yell it.
I try very hard still, but my tongue to its shame
Falls heavily back down in my mouth, where it sticks.
No big deal; we live in times  most peculiar.


1)     Épave – means wreck or shipwreck but also a person who has fallen into an abject state. At first, I had seen this as a light- hearted song.  However, having since learnt of a close friend , who had known glittering success but took progressively to drink and saw all the elements of his life disintegrate around him, I see the same situation in this song - the tragedy of addiction.
2)     J'en appelle à – « en appeler à » means to appeal to- in this case to the Greek God of wine and winemaking
3)     Vous me la baillez belle means “you are trying to deceive me”, “you are pulling the wool over my eyes”.
4)     Pilier –means a pillar – the idiom: C’est un pilier de bistro means some-one who spends their life in pubs
5)     Un certain va-nu-pieds – Un va-nu-pieds means a tramp or a beggar.  In history “les Nu-Pieds” were the common people of Normandy who rose in revolt in July 1639, reduced to misery by a succession of bad harvests and an outbreak of plague. As the characters in the song are representatives of Brassens’ earlier assocates perhaps the barefoot man is a fellow impecunious revolutionary in pursuit of a lofty ideal, whose realisation might or might not come like the flash of light to Saint Paul on the road to Damascus

6)     S’en prendre à = to set about/ to lay into
7)     Son chemin de Damas – symbolises an overwhelming moment of enlightenment as it was on the road to Damascus that St Paul was converted with his vision of Christ
8)     Ma liquette – apparently “liquette” is slang for shirt.
9)     ….. d'un homme heureux,  c'était loin d'êtr' la ch'mise – The fable of the « Shirt of a happy man » seems to be quite well-known in France, although I have never met it in England.  Jules Verne has a story about it and at the start of his “La chemise d’un homme heureux”, he gives us an explanation, that helps us understand this line:
Once upon a time a son of the great Haroun-al-Raschid, who was not happy, went to consult an old derviche.  The wise old man answered him that happiness was a difficult thing to find in this world.  “However”, he added “I know an infallible means of procuring happiness for you.
“What is it?” asked the prince.
“It is,” replied the Derviche, “to put on the shirt of a happy man!”
10)  Ficher mon billet means to bet my bottom dollar
11)  Une miche – is a round bun, hence in less polite usage it means buttock.  For reason of its shape it is also a rude word for a breast.
12)  “Une femme de petite vertu” is a term for a prostitute.  Brassens has condensed the expression.
13)  10) Mort aux vaches ! – This is the standard abusive slogan used in France when violent extremists are restrained by the police.  The choice of cows as a symbol of oppression is most puzzling as we think of them usually as animals peacefully chewing grass in fields.  A theory is that the expression dates back to 1914- 1918 War, when the French people of the occupied Northern area shouted the slogan:”Mort au Wacht”.  The Wacht were the German police.
Brassens would have shouted this slogan often in his mid-twenties when he was a in an activist Anarchist group, of which he was one of the leaders.  His song Hecatombe (1953) shows his earlier, bitter anti-police feelings, where uses the slogan in the following lines (“Elles” refers to evil belligerent women in their mob):
Frénétiqu' l'une d'elles attache
Le vieux maréchal des logis
Et lui fait crier: "Mort aux vaches,
Mort aux lois, vive l'anarchie!"
L’Epave is a song of his mature years, when Brassens is pointing out that there is good and bad in us all, no matter how we are labelled.  Brassens had had a dramatic personal reminder of this, when he collapsed outside a theatre where he was performing (See below).

The true story behind this song

The videos of Brassens performing his songs onstage often show him sweating and looking strained.  He frequently suffered from excruciating stage fright and and the strain of his stage performances was aggravated as time went on as his health collapsed.   Sometimes he went on stage when he was a very sick man, sometimes with an ambulance waiting at the stage door.  
The incident, upon which “L’Epave” is based, occurred on one such evening.  In his dressing room, Georges Brassens found himself gasping so desperately for breath that he was forced to go outdoors without time to slip on his coat.  As he struggled with his problem, a policeman happened to pass by.  He was alarmed to see a man in such a state on a freezing cold night.  Immediately, he took off his heavy police cape and kept Brassens wrapped in it, until he was sufficiently recovered to go back inside.

The song “L’Épave” is therefore an expression of thanks from Brassens to an unknown Paris police officer.

D.Y 15/06/ 2014

Please click here to go to the Alphabetical List of my collection of Brassens songs

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