Tony Le Calvez is a junior literature major and the arts & entertainment editor at The Point. His “Out of the Glovebox” column focuses on highlighting both popular and obscure albums that shaped the “carseat” experience of him and his friends.
Is nostalgia hereditary? Can a work of art that elicits memories of family and childhood be passed from a parent to child, without seeming forced or unrequited? My mother used to tell me about camping trips with her family, when she and her sister would lie in the backseat of the family’s 1970 Peugeot, before seat belt laws existed, and stare at the linen ceiling listening along to the radio humming out the voices of singers like Michel Sardou and Jacques Brel.
A favorite of hers and her father, my Papy Hubert, was the singer-songwriter and magnificent tenor, Pierre Bachelet. He homogenized two of the strongest aspects of 20th century French pop music: emotive, story-telling lyricism and ethereal, experimental synthesizer instruments. His songs resonated with a perpetuating nostalgia for family, culture, love, aging and death.
A popular French singer in the mid 1970’s and 1980’s, Pierre Bachelet combined the traditional with the modern; experimenting with modern synthetic tones and sounds that were rooted in pre-existing conventions like guitar and accordion but applying them to age-old song structures that made room for extensive lyricism.
Every summer my mom would play “Le Meilleur De Bachelet,” his greatest hits album, while driving me home from summer camp. I fell in love with the swelling strings, the layered synthesizer chords, and the passionate ballads, all while I stared out the window and watched the sun set on the bronzed landscape of Santa Ysabel.
The hair on my arms would stand on end when our car pierced the border of Cleveland National Forest at the golden hours of the afternoon and my eyes feasted on the shimmering meadows, the grazing cows and the bush-stained hills of the San Diego countryside. We could see the magic of summer coming to a close, like the sun sinking on the horizon; the last rays of amber light reaching eastward, clinging to the edges of the sky in vain, leaving only the violet-hued hope that summer would soon return.
At that moment of youthful reflection, when innocence and joy supersede the inevitability of finality, my mom first played me Bachelet’s song “Pleure pas boulou,” a song about two childhood friends separated by external forces and holding back their tears as they said their final goodbyes. Though my circumstances were not the same as Boulou’s, at that moment I began to realize what it meant to say goodbye and imagined that Bachelet had captured my feelings in his song. I asked to listen to the rest of the album, and my mother was delighted to start it from the beginning.
The first song in this collection is his first commercial hit, “L’Atlantique.” It demonstrates his use of synthetic devices to mimic traditional instruments found in French pop music, most notably the accordion and a brass line. His vocal performance, shared with Véronique Jannot, also presents his talent as a storyteller. The vocals have an airy quality that lacks melody but makes up for it in narrative content.
That vocal style contrasts nicely with the following song “Les Corons,” which is a love song to the culture of working class coal miners in northern France. This song has a filial relationship to my own family, who on Papy Hubert’s side, were generational coal miners, or as they call themselves, “mineurs de fond.” The song opens up with a huge chorus; Bachelet comes in singing a slurring melody, begging to be sung while swaying with arms around a friend; paired with the backing of an all men’s choir, the chorus excretes feelings of fraternity and brotherhood, inherent in the coal mining community of northern France.
Bachelet displays his song-writing diversity with the following track, “Tu es là au rendez-vous.” It begins with a quiet staccato melody, both instrumentally and vocally, that transitions into a warm, slower melody before growing into an immense ballad and then quieting into a final chorus that closes at a mere whisper. “Les Corons” and “Tu es là au rendez-vous” capture different kinds of nostalgia; for epochs long gone, communities and professions left behind and lovers never to be found again. The same nostalgia that Papy Hubert feels for his childhood is transmitted to me through the expansive relatability and timelessness of Bachelet’s lyrical work.
“En l’an 2001” is the song that my mother and I have felt the most attached to. Written in 1985, Bachelet wrote this song to imagine what life would be like in 2001. It is structured like a letter to his son, who by then would be twenty years old. The song has a lighthearted ambiance; the track features a children’s choir singing about what they’ll do when they are twenty in 2001, but in between their parts, Bachelet sings about himself in 2001, “While you grow so will I, my hair will grow gray, while you, little man, learn to traverse the world on your own.”
Bachelet died of lung cancer in 2005 at the age of 60, only four years after the setting of his song. His hair grew gray, and he watched his son grow up, right up until disease ripped the very breath out of his lungs. For a man so aware of his own mortal fragility and so conscious of the inherent terrestrial affection that comes from reflecting on the past, could he have envisioned his own life ending in a mere twenty years after writing that song?
Is the love that Bachelet sings about true and tangible, or only present in the sweetness of my reveries? How much of life consists of what exists of the past and present in my imagination instead of what I am confronting in my own reality? Persons and events are moving past me so fast, I can barely look around before the scenery changes and I find myself alone among strangers. How quickly does the landscape change from the sun-soaked fields and boulder ridden hills, to the gray, paved sidewalks and the neon-lit gas station signs?
In another twenty years will I be driving my own kid home from camp, watching them absorb the beauty of the passing frontier, listening to Bachelet? If I wait for the year to end and summer to begin again, how many years will pass that way until MY hair grows gray, and I bury my mother, asking myself if I’ve lived the life she wanted for me?
Twenty years have passed since I first heard “Le Meilleur De Bachelet” and I am still driving to that camp, tucked away in the mountains of Julian and Cleveland National Forest. I make it a habit to listen to that album every year and let the power of nostalgia wash over me, not to indulge in ungraspable times long gone or to imagine better things yet to come, but to stop my brain and be aware of where I am and what I’m living.
I listen to Pierre Bachelet and I think of Papy Hubert, I think of my mom, and I wonder if any of us have another 20 years left.
Written By: Tony Le Calvez