La Belle Dame Sans Publicité

The singer Barbara is little known outside France. Yet her songs yield endless riches

Norman Lebrecht

It was the incongruity that first struck my adolescent ear. There was a woman on the radio singing in French about a string of German names — Herman, Peter, Helga et Hans — her lovers, perhaps. With bog-standard O-Level French, I could hear from her slick delivery that she was struggling with some inexpressible moral dilemma.

There was no word of explanation from the DJ and no song of Barbara’s other than “Göttingen” was ever played again on the BBC, at least not when I was listening. In France I heard her 1970s hit “L’Aigle Noir” (“The Black Eagle”), and thought little of it. They teach it now in primary schools.

In 2003, I heard the German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder quoting the lyrics of “Göttingen” at a ceremony in Versailles to mark the 40th anniversary of Franco-German amity. “I was a doctoral student in Göttingen when she came to sing,” he recalled. “It went to our hearts, the start of a wonderful friendship between our countries.” 

Politicians rarely credit others with their achievements, least of all a black eagle who hints at intimacies that cannot be openly expressed. As Schröder dispensed his bilateral bromides, I knew there was more to Barbara than met the ear. Eventually, I persuaded Radio 3 to let me make a documentary about her. Say what you like about the BBC, it is still prepared to go boldly into the collective unknown. 

And that was Barbara’s particular realm. Her songs ask questions that cut to the core of our relationships. “She feels personal to each of us,” a psychoanalyst explained. She is also possibly the first woman anywhere to achieve success as a singer-songwriter.

Her birth name, Monique Serf, was discarded for her maternal grandmother’s, Barbara. Born Jewish in Paris in June 1930, she went into two forms of hiding during the Nazi occupation — from fear of betrayal and deportation on the one hand and, on the other, from the unspeakable assault of paternal incest. In her song “Nantes” she croons about travelling to a distant town to see a lover who is dying — and who, in the final stanza, becomes her father, the man who raped her as a child. 

Forbidden love was a recurrent theme for Barbara — in “Amours Incestueuses” and again in “L’Aigle Noir” where the dark shadow that covers her at night could be the predatory father, the forces of evil, or Barbara herself. She always wore black, “her only colour”, her dresser told me. 

The colour of her music, however, was far from morbid. Accompanying herself on piano, she added guitar, accordion, strings and electronics to find the exact mood for the sentiments she laid bare. A classical composer who joined as her sound designer would rehearse for six months until she was satisfied. “Once a week?” I asked. “Every day,” he affirmed. Friends, managers, musicians and mere acquaintances would get a call from Barbara in the middle of the night to hear a new song or discuss, for hours on end, some trivial news story. Alone was a state she could not bear for long.

Soft, silky and confidential, her voice never rages like Piaf’s nor goes Gitane-blue like Jacques Brel’s, her patron. Her songs stroke the brow and disturb the unconscious. Like Mahler and Freud, she quotes a hint of nursery rhyme to evoke innocence and its corruption. Yet she is never harsh or cruel. Her greatest love — “ma plus belle histoire d’amour,” she would assure adoring audiences — “c’est vous,” her voice breaking on the last monosyllable. For Barbara, music was the element that bonds the lonely to the whole.

She never lacked for lovers and, on the whole, treated them well. The penniless Georges Moustaki was encouraged to write a song, “La Dame Brune”, and perform it with her on tour. For Gérard Depardieu she wrote a stage play, Lily Passion, the one flop of her life. In Göttingen, she flirted with the sons of men who, 20 years earlier, would have killed her for duty’s sake. “The children,” she chanted, “are just the same; in Paris, as in Göttingen.”

This was the only song of hers that got airplay abroad. She spoke no language but French and, when Mikhail Baryshnikov brought her to New York for him to dance to her songs, the audience was meagre and uncomprehending.

But in Paris, Barbara was — is — a legend. If she was sick, restaurateurs  would send round her favourite dishes. President Mitterrand used to call of an evening and ask her over to see a movie in his private cinema at the Elysée (she never went alone). One of his ministers wrote her a lyric. Her website maintainer, whom I met in her cabaret den, turned out to be secretary-general of the prime minister’s office — effectively cabinet secretary. When Aids ravaged her musician friends, she was the first to sing out loud about the plague and demand political action. In the dead of night, like Princess Diana, she would visit dying men in hospitals and prisons.

When she died in November 1997, a quarter of a million Parisians came on to the streets and thousands stood for hours at her grave, chanting “Dis, quand reviendras-tu?” (“Tell me, when will you return?”)

Every leaf I turn in pursuit of her, every conversation, produces a breath-stopping secret. A close friend was the child of a Nazi collaborator. Her sister lived in Israel. Generous and tactile, she would not let anyone touch two of her possessions — her dark glasses and her piano. “A phallic symbol,” sighs my analyst.

I don’t expect to get to the bottom of Barbara in a one-off radio documentary, but that doesn’t mean I have to stop. The songs are endlessly appealing, both as music-lyrical constructs and for their psychological ambivalence. I have listened to the complete recordings and am on to the online pirates. There is always another level of meaning, an alternate suggestive inflection.

When Barbara sings “Dis” to an absent lover, she is not just asking when he’ll return. She is showing she can get by without him. Alone is not that bad. There are other consolations. There is always music, that deathless hope.

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