Young at Heart

Charles Aznavour has died.

Curiously, when I type his name here Spellcheck underlines it:  Spellcheck has never heard of him.  Yet when I type ‘Sinatra’ it raises no objection.  And this is strange because through European eyes Aznavour’s diminutive 5ft 2inches frame was the embodiment of Sinatra, Bennet, Martin and even a little bit of Perry Como.  His career was as long, his fan base as widely spread, and his talent every bit as undeniable.  He just wasn’t American:  no, more than that, he was definitively French.

Aznavour was 94 years old.  He was born in 1924.  His career was ‘launched’, if that is the word, by his appearances with Edith Piaf, but international recognition had to wait until he was fifty years old.  ‘She’ became an international hit, launching a brief spate of added ‘interesteds’ to his already devoted followers.  He was feted by, and dueted with  Nana Mouskouri, Lisa Minelli, even Pavarotti for a while before fading back, not into obscurity, but to a level of established stardom that assured him of a packed house wherever he went.  He spoke fluently, and therefore sang, in five languages; his own native French, Italian, German, Spanish and English.  At the age of 90 he filled London’s Royal Albert Hall with a rapt audience for a concert.  He never retired.

To me, Aznavour was the ultimate singer/songwriter.  His songs were never covers, they were all of his own authorship, and they are many.  Hundreds, perhaps.  There were collaborators, of course, there always are, but those evocative lyrics, those haunting semi-tones were his.  Lyrics that wrenched at the heart – the regretful:

Yesterday, when I was young
The taste of life was sweet as rain upon my tongue
I teased at life as if it were a foolish game
The way the evening breeze may tease a candle flame…

Or the defiant, the ebullient:

I have lived each single moment, as a man of flesh and blood
With my soul and all my senses open wide
I have lived and tasted everything that called out to be tried
I’m afraid of neither heaven nor of hell
Never caring if I had a soul to sell.

I have one particular memory of an Aznavour song.  From such a consummate showman the lyric is the more surprising because he was a convinced heterosexual, and its timing (this came out in 1974) perfectly reflected a society struggling with the questions of a new morality.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DlgQloEy2HE

Lyrics that made the thinking among us think a little more.  Bonne nuit, Charles, but no regrets.  I am sure you tried all that was out there to be tried.

Man of Steel

A long time ago, when men were men and dinosaurs ruled the earth, while Victoria Vetri was slaying those big lizards dressed (inexplicably) in a bikini I too was a servant of Thespis.

 

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No, not me! Although there might be something in the ears….

Yes, I bestrode the stage.  I was (darlings) a nactor!    

 

No, never in a bikini.

 

I would have done if somebody asked me to.  As an actor, assuming your looks fell short of the Vetri standard, you should be prepared to do anything.

 

Can you sing?

“Yes.”

Dance?

“Yes.”

Ride a horse?

“Errrm  y-y-y-yes.”

Speak Swahili?

“Of course – fluently.”

Wash Dishes?  

“Yes.”

 

Only one of these answers held any truth.  I could wash dishes.   I washed a lot of dishes, I served food on a lot of dishes – in fact, had there been a movie made about waiters, I would have been right there, carrying the dishes.

 

All the other skills I would lie about, study frantically if needed, or pray I wouldn’t actually be asked to do.  To be honest, though, nobody asked me – much.

 

I could mention the time when, directed to perform in a polka scene on a small stage with a troupe of girls in impossibly unwieldy dresses, I was literally crinolined into the orchestra pit.  Or I could mention the musical director for a regional pantomime who, discovering my voice’s true potential moved me first to the back of the chorus and then into the wings.

 

He placed me right next to the maroon which was meant to represent  a cannon shot…

 

“Here we come boys, here we stand,

With every man aboard.

We’ll cut and parry and then riposte,

And parry the old St. George!”  (BOOM!)

 

Plaster shaken from the ceiling, ominous rattling from the fly floor, drums blown from my ears.   Other than the sudden falsetto I hit (possibly the result of shock) the rest of my contribution to the song was a sort of improvised descant.  I was removed from the choir altogether for the next performance.

I could mention these, and other humiliations, but I won’t.  They still hurt.

 

So, like most actors, I had lots of jobs.   (How do you address a RADA Graduate? –  Big Mac and medium fries, please.) 

 

I drove taxis, I washed dishes, I made beds, I served dishes, I delivered milk, I cleared dishes.  Hotels and their darker subterranean regions were the stuff of life for me.  All for the occasional privilege of standing on stage with a big fan or similar prop while a nubile cast of dancers pranced through ‘Sleeping Beauty’, or making the odd appearance in a very minor part – which I could be relied upon to make even less important.

 

It took two years for the rose tint in my spectacles to turn a sort of rancid brown – an indecently long time in a young life.  Eventually I realized the stage was not for me because, in common with most very average actors, I was scarcely ever on it.  

 

I remember my Damascene moment.

 

A steel stockholders had been charitable enough to employ me and foolish enough to let me drive a crane.   A steel stockholder is a sort of wholesaler for girders – a vast shed where thousands of tons of heavy steel in various forms is stored before delivery to big construction sites. 

 

My job in a beam crane was to move stock up and down the long bays, either to lorries for delivery or between the welding benches upon which huge industrial size roof trusses were assembled.   Heavy industrial tools – drills, saws, reamers lined these bays.

 

This particular morning the piece of work on the benches in my bay was a truly massive truss, only just within the weight capabilities of my crane.  In sheer span it was wider than the bay.  At its apex it probably stood about twelve feet high. 

This monster had to be lifted to be transferred from the welding benches to the drilling bench, a matter of about forty feet further down the bay.   From my position in the crane cab, up in the warehouse roof, I could not see the clearance on my side of the bay.  Lifted, the truss was so long it extended beneath the cab. 

With guidance from a guy on the floor, I lifted and worked the piece gradually down towards the drilling bench.  My crane bogeys were grinding and slewing on their rails and I had visions of becoming derailed (which would have sent me, the crane and a lot of other gumph plunging thirty-odd feet to the warehouse floor).

Reaching the drilling bench, I stopped the crane’s lateral movement (or at least I thought I did) and began to send the carrier out far enough to swing the truss around, end on, so the drills could reach the part of the work where holes were required.  

 

As it lowered to his bench, the drill operative – a really nice guy in his fifties – took hold of the lower strut of the truss, intending to guide it a few final inches.  But the truss had not stopped swinging!   Why?  Because my crane had not stopped travelling.  The sheer weight of the piece was acting like a pendulum, keeping it in motion.

 

What made him hold on, I don’t know.  Some instinct for preservation, like the mechanism which keeps us clinging to the boat even though it is clearly sinking?  Whatever it was it kept him clutching desperately to that strut until some inner warning (or some shouted one) made him release it, less than a second before it hit the control panel of the drill and the whole truss went live.    Sparks flew, every machine in the warehouse stuttered and died.

 

That was the day I finally decided I was not cut out to be an actor.  Because pursuing my dream actually involved very little acting, and instead placed me in several occupations for which I was clearly ill-equipped.

 

Because I wanted to see those who were unfortunate enough to have to work beside me in those positions kept safe, and see a lot of very nice people like that drill operative go safely home to their families each night.

 

To be or not to be?  No – on balance, maybe not.