La Vie En Rose – Grace Jones
Quand il me prend dans ses bras
Il me parle tout bas
je vois la vie en rose
Il me dit des mon amour
des mots de tous le jours
Et ca me fait quelques choses…
When he takes me in his arms
and speaks softly to me
life is a bed of roses…
Lyrics were written by Edith Piaf in French, covered by many many singers. An early English translation didn’t attempt to find an apt phrase for “La Vie En Rose” – literally Life In Pink. My own attempt is above – life as a bed of roses. I see life as rosy ? Rose-tinted spectacles? We don’t have an idiom which translates. Here’s the English-language version – by Louis Armstrong for example, not translating the untranslatable :
When you kiss me heaven sighs
And though I close my eyes
I see la vie en rose.
Grace Jones sang it in French on her first LP Portfolio in 1977. The 12″ 7-minute single version was released in October and became her first international hit. It has a short english verse in the middle : la vie en rose becomes “everything is lovely“. I’ll always associate this song with the 80s though, with my brother Paul and the London gay scene. In fact it was re-released about four times until it finally became a big hit in the UK as a double-A side in 1985 with “Pull Up To The Bumper”.
Paul and I got separated in Mexico in 1980 when I contracted Hepatitus B and after week of terrible kidney pain, sweats, vomiting and fever I went jaundice-yellow and weak as a kitten. All the kids in that Mexico city flat had to be isolated and inoculated and Paul was hunting for a flight home for me – BA said Heathrow doctors wouldn’t take me back, so I flew KLM to Amsterdam and flew a short flight back. Straight to the doctors, who put me straight into Coppett’s Wood Hospital for Infectious Diseases near Muswell Hill. I had my own room, and nurses would come in with masks and gloves and trays of food. I was there for weeks. One day a letter appeared from Mexico from Paul. I was very happy to receive it as our glamourous trip down the gringo trail to Argentina was now well and truly off, but he was still going on, alone. The letter was astounding, wonderful, life-changing. It said that having reached San Cristobal Las Casas Paul had met an American man called Jim and after a long night and day climbing the hills alone Paul had walked into town, met Jim, got together and they were now lovers. Paul was in love, for the first time, with a man.
Wow. I often wondered after that whether that would have happened if I’d stayed in Mexico and not caught Hep B. Whether Paul would have met Jim, have fallen in love. Before that point, Paul was not acknowledging himself as gay. So neither was anyone else. Since that moment, he has. And the family acknowledged it in their own time. Another story. It was a true turning point. Jim and Paul travelled further south to Guatemala and Belize, then went back to Jim’s apartment in Alphabet City on the Lower East Side of Manhattan until the spring of 1981 when they had a big fight and Paul flew back to London. I hadn’t seen him for almost a year. We ended up squatting together in a council flat just off the Holloway Road with boarded up windows and no heating. We got burgled too while there. Then I moved back in with Mumtaz in Finsbury Park and he found a place further down Blackstock Road. At that point Paul was going out with Michael. Sweet curly-haired working class guy from Essex. Then there was Pedro – still my friend – from Kilburn with Dominican mum, and then Colin from Durham, again still mine and Jenny’s (and Paul’s!) good friend. Big relationships which sustained and still do. The gay scene is very supportive and constructive in that way.
Of course the early 80s was when AIDS struck and devastated everyone, Section 28 – (eventually passed in 1988 and repealed in 2003) stated that “a local authority shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality”. My friend Nick Partridge (from Tower Mansions, West End Lane) came back from living on a houseboat in Amsterdam and joined the Terrence Higgins Trust, later to become the Director, be knighted and generally join the anti-establishment establishment. Paul’s gang of gay friends became solid and established, and become the legendary Get You Crew which survives to this day – Lady G, or Richard Davies, Max, Hugh & Ben, Ray & Tim, Colin, Michael, and many others – and sometimes I would join them on a night out, or round The Fallen Angel in Islington. (Later Jenny would be found in The Fallen Angel when she worked at Theatre Centre with all the lesbians).
I went to Heaven a few times with the gang underneath the arches of Charing Cross Station. I’ve been to Heaven with Jenny too, in the 90s and it’s always a good night. Other definitely gay places I’d been in with Paul and others in those 1980s would be The Vauxhall Tavern, and of course The London Apprentice in Hoxton filming on The Crying Game with every transvestite in the South East of England. Can’t remember if Paul came down for any of that. I’m thinking Marc Almond and Jimmy Somerville, George O’ Dowd, Stephen Wakelam, Ian McKellen, the Scala All-Nighter and the ridiculous slightly baggy yet tapered clothes I started to adopt in the mid-eighties not to mention the haircuts, the shoes. Chinese kung-fu slippers I recall. I was never gay though. I kissed Richard one night at some houseparty in Belsize Park, but that was fun, a tease and that was it. Gay people like getting off with straight people though. They like a challenge.
But the thing is with Paul, you’d never know he was gay unless you knew. So we’d just as often go to The Flask or The French House or Camden Lock, Dingwalls, the Princess Louise, The Lamb. Paul never wore the badge of gay, or particularly enjoyed the scene – it has its own pressures. But things were different then. It was fifteen or so years since Stonewall, but there was always a sense of resilience, of defiance even, going out as a gang in the 80s, part of being young probably. But also part of being a community under threat, both legally and actually, the possibility of aggression at street level always present, living in Thatcher’s Britain we were in opposition and everything was a battle, sometimes literally. The Miner’s Strike, Anti-Apartheid, the poll-tax, section 28, Greenham Common, the Women’s Movement, Chile, Ireland, Gay Liberation, CND – these were all part of the same battle to change the world. Some of those battles we won – South Africa, Gay Lib, Ireland? – some we lost – the miners, CND, Greenham. I think it was Jesse Jackson who I heard talking about a rainbow coalition, co-opting the gay emblem – every colour of the rainbow except pink! I guess drugs were taken, but I was generally on the weed, speed or booze. Never really liked cocaine, or the effect it has on some of the people I’m with. Or poppers. Not really a pillhead after Mexico. E was great. But a glass of bubbly and a cigarette and I’m delirious, usually.
This song was a floor-filler. An anthem. It always has been, since Edith Piaf sang it in Paris in 1946, the lyrics a defiant triumphant claiming of the power of love, a beating heart, being in the pink, the rosy life, none of the translations work do they ? There was a Pink Paper. A pink pound. Pink triangle from the nazi camps wasn’t it? Another sign co-opted. At house-parties or nightclubbing the hands would rise, the room would spin, the euphoria would go up several notches, we were alive. This song is marvellous, so French, so black, so disco, so bossa nova, so gay, so theatrical, so triumphant, so universal. Mon couer qui bat……
(Look it up !)
At the end of the decade July 1989 I was in Paris, filming a Chopin film called “Impromptu” with Hugh Grant, Judy Davis, Bernadette Peters, Mandy Patinkin and others, and a splendid time was guaranteed for all. (see the Chopin post My Pop Life #9) Hugh and I waltzed around the brasseries, the train appeared to carry some gravy. One night Julian Sands and I went to a club – or was it a party ? – and met Grace Jones and some other glamourous Parisiens. We drank champagne, I smoked cigarettes. Possibly even French ones.
La Vie En Rose indeed.