HERBERT KRETZMER: Yes, Aznavour has two or three fixed themes in his life. They haunt him and they keep being regurgitated in various forms and ways. One of them has to do with the pity of the years. Even when he was a young man, he was looking ahead and he was obsessed with the idea that he would not live beyond the age of the girls he was singing about. He was always going to be gone before them and how would he be remembered. There is a wonderful song called Who and he is asking ‘Who are you going to fall in love with, Who are you going to go to bed with once I am dead and in my coffin, Whose name will you call out in the night?’ The final line in French was ‘Who will dry your tears and bury me again?’ It is a wonderful song, but it sounds as morbid as hell. The French don’t piss about: they go for the throat, they sing about things that no Anglo-Saxon songwriter would ever write about: death, life and the pity of sexual jealousy. They used to listen in the late night clubs to Buttershoe and Brel and Aznavour and Piaf. They didn’t start singing until one in the morning and they always sang about things that mattered. Aznavour is a couple of years older than me. He has performed his farewell concerts at the biggest indoor venue in Paris. He regularly fills it up for six weeks, by himself, no one else with him and an orchestra.
SL: You can’t imagine someone like him saying goodbye.
HERBERT KRETZMER: No, it may be his last concert in that venue. I wrote a song with him called You Will Never Hear Me Say Goodbye, which is vowing never to stage a farewell tour or to announce this is the end. He will keep on going til he drops but I doubt if he will do a six week season there. Even 80 year old men have to rest.
SL: What are his other themes?
HERBERT KRETZMER: They all have to do with mortality. They have to do with the life of soldiers, they have to do with soldiers dying, they have to do with the heartbreak of those who are left behind. He deals with the things that go wrong in ordinary romances, and everybody loves him because they all know what he is singing about: these are common experiences in their lives. The American writers have only got two themes – one is ‘Life is good, hooray’, and the other is ‘Life is awful, let’s sing the blues.’ They think that covers the spectrum, but Aznavour covers the infinite complexities of life. Brel does it too.
SL: We take our culture from America and yet France is only 30 miles away.
HERBERT KRETZMER: France is the most foreign country to the average Englishman, far more foreign than Germany or Sweden or Spain. In terms of uncomprehending otherness, to the average Englishman the average Frenchman is an alien, like someone from Mars. There is a natural hostility to that to what you cannot relate to or understand. The Englishman is much closer to the Dutchman or the Swede. If they met each other in a pub they would be pals by the second pint.
SL: Did you write the lyric for What Makes A Man A Man?
HERBERT KRETZMER: No, that is one of the Aznavour lyrics that I did not write. I like it a lot. What Makes A Man A Man is a very touching description. There is a lovely song called And I In My Chair in which a man describes how he takes a girl to dinner and they meet another man there. He can see his love changing hands in front of his face. The man who brought the girl can only observe. And I In My Chair is a wonderful song about knowing when things are over, knowing when to resign with grace, knowing when not to let the blood boil within you and so on. I don’t say that I could have done better than the man who did it but I wouldn’t have minded being given that song. Aznavour kept me a songwriter – he came to me constantly with the next album and so on. If it hadn’t been for Aznavour during those years, I would have given up. There was no market I could write for. There never was a market. Whenever I got into the hit parade, it was always as a fluke, a mistake, a novelty. She was a totally unexpected No.l hit. I was always someone who wrote special material. There were not a lot of covers of Aznavour songs, I guess other performers feel that he is such a distinctive voice and such a distinctive personality that once he has done it, he’s done it. There have been exceptions, notably Yesterday When I Was Young. She was not widely covered at all even though it was a No.l song for a while.
SL: But it was revived by Elvis Costello.
HERBERT KRETZMER: Yes, I have just seen a film The Tadpole with Sigourney Weaver and she opens the door and she goes into a cocktail party and when she does, the sound of She is heard. The song was written in 1974 and so it is very flattering.
SL: It must be very flattering that someone like Costello is doing your song.
HERBERT KRETZMER: No, they are troubadours and they do it if the gig’s right and the money’s there. I don’t take it as a signed personal approval of the song. I don’t think that he would do something that he actively disliked but these guys are minstrels, they sing for their supper.
SL: How did you approach the Aznavour songs? Did he give you a translation of the lyrics?
HERBERT KRETZMER: Yes, a song is a collection of phrases which have a certain resonance in a certain language with a certain culture. A word might mean a little more than it actually means. People who hear English songs are steeped in their own English culture. When you translate a song from one language to another, you have to absorb what the song is about. You have to try to get a very clear view of what the song says and get to know the mood of it, the voice of it. The best thing you can then do is to forget the French lines. You have to recreate and reinvent the song so that it comes out saying what the original song said but in its own way. To follow a master, you don’t have to be a little dog on a lease. You can follow him behind him quite voluntarily and make your own pathway. Even the title Yesterday When I Was Young does not occur in the French original. Hier Encore means Yesterday Again, but it is more like, It seems like only yesterday. For a start, you have a phrase that is untranslatable. ‘I was in my 20s and I ran after shadows, not realising that the shadows were running after me’: I ignored those images and went my own way with that song. You will not find the lines in the original that are direct translations and yet it remains Aznavour’s song. I was the recreator but I was really inside his head when I was writing it. Of course if a phrase in French will work in English, you grab it. You want all the help you can get but one must not follow the original too slavishly. That way lies disaster.
SL: There is a real love of words in the phrase, ‘The way the evening breeze may tease a candle flame’.
HERBERT KRETZMER: Yes, the internal rhyme. My favourite part of writing a song is when it has been accepted and people like it and you have time to play with it. I like the seamless internal rhyme, something that doesn’t draw too much attention to itself. Great songs are not written, they are rewritten.
SL: How did you approach Jacques Brel’s songs?
HERBERT KRETZMER: Both Tom Conti and Albert Finney were great Brel fans and they both possessed fairly decent singing voices and wanted to do some of his songs. I was asked to do a bunch of Brel songs and I chose The Girl From Ostend which I called Girl In An Armchair and that was about a girl whose husband had died at sea: the people gathered around her in the kitchen and it was a song about mourning and about loss. The song that Albert Finney did was You Can Smell Beer and it was about the beer drinkers of Europe, ‘From Munich to Manchester where the north wind blows, That’s where you can find the beer drinkers, Crowding into bars.’ You can see the fat swelling up on people’s necks from drinking too much beer and there was not enough air in these pubs. It was a wonderfully atmospheric song. They did the demos but I don’t think that anybody at the time thought it would be a good gamble.
SL: Some of the Brel songs would already have been translated so I presume you had to take what was available.