The music of Edith Piaf is all love and heartache. It is the music of our images of Paris – the Left Bank with its artist/writer culture, the outdoor cafés, the colourful nightclubs – and we feel it all without needing to understand the language.
No Regrets. The Life of Edith Piaf by Carolyn Burke is the definite biography of the singer that the world called The Little Sparrow (her rich, dark voice belied her tiny body). Piaf overcame a tragic life – abandoned by her mother as an infant, then later having to support her mother who had slid into poverty and drug addiction – growing up with her father who was an itinerant entertainer (picture all the worst possible associations with the territory) – the loss of her own daughter – and a life full of hangers-on among her many genuine friends.
The most striking thing about this book is the focus on the career rather than the tragedy. There is no hint of sensationalism even when chronicling the men in her life – and there was an astonishing number of men. Piaf mentored many young male singers, most of whom ended up lovers. More than once she juggled several at a time – all in her own (large) country house. She had an intense need to love and take care of someone, but then quickly tired of them. Each time she fell in love with someone new, she was convinced that this one was the real thing – someone to settle down with and to strive for stability. It never lasted.
She had a horror of being alone and needed love to fuel her creativity. “Combining her familiar roles as mentor, lover, and collaborator, Edith hoped to find the inspiration that she longed for in a relationship – love being the prerequisite and open-sesame to her creative renewal.”
Now, some of us in the classical music might consider her little more than a lounge lizard (this is where we can become a tad snooty!), but Piaf’s was a remarkable career. She concertized world-wide in front of thousands at a time, recorded many songs, wrote music, mentored other musicians, and had a film career. Like too many others, she succumbed to addiction, ill health, and an early death.
The beauty of the internet is that I could instantly find the songs being written about and listen as I read. I enjoyed the book – it’s a good read. And it really makes me want to go back to Paris.
Image credit: LaDona Ahenda, 2007
- Summer Mode (ladonasmusicstudio.com)