Many should know Serge Gainsbourg as one of the most influential figures in French pop music history, but few may have listened to his work La noyée. As what the narrator said in the beginning of the recording, “You haven’t heard of this song before, and perhaps you never will hear it again. So please treasure the opportunity and listen to this unpublished work.” Gainsbourg wrote the song for Yves Montand, who is known for his interpretation of Les Feuilles Mortes (Autumn Leaves). However, Montand refused the work and no reasons were provided by Gainsbourg. Some suspect the refusal to be related to Montand’s relationship with Edith Piaf and the comparison of Piaf with bitch in the lyrics. Piaf, older than Montand for six years, discovered his talent and nurtured him. As Montand shared similar childhood experience with Piaf, her love for him was both romantic and motherly. In 1946, the year where Montand had achieve great success in his career by selling more than a million copies of his record, Piaf left him for reasons unrevealed. The lyrics use river to represent reminiscence of the beloved, who is drowned in the river of memory, wobbling along the waters, to never be seen again.
The following is my translation of the lyrics. This is my favourite French song, and it has strongly reinforced my interest in French music and culture. Some people tend to hide from the world what is precious to them. I hope more people can listen to it and enjoy its beauty.
The Drowned (La noyée)
As you drift along the river of memory
I chase on the bank and howl for you to return
But gently, you recede
And in my frantic run
Bit by bit, I gain back
Bit of my lost terrain of yours.
From time to time, you sink Into the restless liquid
Or as you brush against brambles,
You hesitate and await me
In your rolled up dress,
Fear of distorting
With shame and regrets.
You are merely a pathetic wreck,
Bitch dying in water
But I stay as your slave
And plunge into the stream
When the memory rests
And the ocean of oblivion
Shatters our hearts and our minds,
We shall reunite, forever.