What's In a Name?

Review of Aznavour 65 (Audio CD) on September 2, 2020

I used to be humble. A commun des mortels. That is, before I was immortalized in this very album by the world’s last and greatest French troubadour: Charles Aznavour. It's fair to say that the vast majority of French pop songs written by men are about a woman. Love songs, lust songs, breakup songs, makeup songs — it's par for the course. But, in certain cases the songs aren't about some abstract girlfriend, they're about a real girl, someone the songwriter knew, or a young girl coming into her prime in the small island of Haiti. And there it was, released in 1965 – twenty years prior to my birth – for all the world to hear about, getting heavy airplay and climbing the charts: Charles’s love, or lust for me was in full display in Track #5. If I wasn't famous beforehand — presto, in 3 minutes and 11 seconds, everyone knew my name.

First, I must explain, despite French crooners’ reputations as romance connoisseurs, it was not love at first overture for me and Mr. Aznavour. At only five feet three inches, “Le petit Charles” was the lyrical plague of my childhood existence. As evidenced:

Les heures près de toi Fuient comme des secondes Les journées loin de toi Ressemblent à des années Qui donnent à mon amour Un goût de fin du monde Elles troublent mon corps Autant que ma pensée Isabelle Isabelle Isabelle Isabelle Isabelle Isabelle Isabelle mon amour Tu vis dans la lumière Et moi dans les coins sombres Car tu te meurs de vivre Et je me meurs d'amour Je me contenterais De caresser ton ombre Si tu voulais m'offrir Ton destin pour toujours Isabelle Isabelle Isabelle Isabelle Isabelle Isabelle Isabelle mon amour The hours beside you Flee like seconds The days away from you Resemble years That give to my love An end of days taste They trouble my body As well as my mind Isabelle Isabelle Isabelle Isabelle Isabelle Isabelle Isabelle my love You live in the light And me in dark corners Because you’re dying to live And me I’m dying of love I’d be content Just by caressing your shadow If you’d like to offer me Your destiny forever Isabelle Isabelle Isabelle Isabelle Isabelle Isabelle Isabelle my love

I can’t describe to you what a song like this does to a young lady’s psyche in her formative years. The title song “Isabelle” in Aznavour 65 was a favorite of my parents and they would often remind me they proudly named me in its honor. "It reminds us of our teenage years," they would say. They owned all the singer's records and knew most of his repertoire by heart. They would joyously sing along, repeatedly screaming out my name. I wondered if they did it to tease me or because they genuinely enjoyed the song, but whatever it was, I was utterly humiliated every time they sang it. The diminutive tenor who could make hearts break, was breaking mine every time, he wailed, and borderline panted for me as though I did something terrible to him. The prideful melancholy and popularity of "Isabelle" would give me chills down my spine. I was able to discern its all too familiar tone instantly within a twenty-five-mile radius and tried to avoid listening to it in public at all cost. Growing up, it didn't help that the local radio stations would have the Aznavour song on instant replay, making it a perfect excuse for my peers to tease and taunt me. In the school hallways I would hear people scream out "Isabelle, Isabelle, Isabelle. Oh, Isabelle!" I’m no Shakespeare, but feeling like I was in one of his off-off-off Broadway adaptation of Romeo and Juliet in real time, sucked.

In Haiti, most parents named their children after religious figures in the New Testament such as John, Simon and Marie. It was rare to find parents who try to be creative with their children names or find other sources of inspiration than the Bible. However, my parents – in that sense – were special and so was my name. Were my parents creative? Yes indeed! But so were the people who made fun of me. "Wow, where did your parents get that name?" some kids would ask me. I could never find a satisfactory answer to satiate their inquisitive requests. I wanted to create some elaborate stories about its pious origins. So, I took the tedious trouble of researching information about my name, spending countless hours in the school library actually reading books and articles I found on the internet. I discovered that my first name can be found in different countries, from China to Spain, with spelling variations: Isobel, Isabel, Isabelle, Isabele, 伊莎贝尔 or Isabella. From Isabelle Adjani, the distinctive dark-haired, porcelain-skin French actress beauty famous for frequently playing the tragic heroines, to Isabelle, a popular generic proof assistant theorem developed at the University of Cambridge and Technische Universität München, the name is multi-functional. Isabelle, written as such, originated from France and is a variant of the English name Elizabeth. In English, the name means “devoted to God.” The religious symbolism of my name was a surprise; just imagine how it would have changed my childhood fears! I had found the proof that made me like everybody else. I was ready to compose a song and dance routine number to shout it to the world. But in a split-second moment of deep reflection, I realized Charles Aznavour was giving me a real opportunity to make history and shine. Isabelle, was the lyric given to me by my parents at birth, and became the tune I learned how to carry all the way to rockstar status.

I quickly ascended to the ranks of Yoko Ono, Peggy Sue Gerron, Donna Ludwig, Sharona Alperin, Sherrie Swafford and Delilah DiCrescenzo, telling tales to anyone who would listen on how Charles had originally written this song about me. I went on to recite that my parents were intimate friends of Aznavour and that one snowy afternoon in Montréal my parents shared with him how they struggled to find a name for their baby that was due in two weeks’ time. Empathizing with his friends’ frustrations, the virtuoso in a coup de foudre felt inspired to write “Isabelle” which he generously shared with them and dedicated to their unborn child. Call it childhood naiveté, but the undiscerning ears of my counterparts believed every beat of my story. I had found my hook. Soon, it became nearly impossible to move around the school yard incognito.

On October 1st, 2018, to my detriment, Charles Aznavour was found dead in the bath at his home in the small village of Mouriès, in southern France. He was ninety-four. Logically, his death should not have been a shock, but to many of my old childhood acquaintances – who are still captivated by my storytelling and earned fame – felt compelled to share their condolescences. “Age must do its ravishing, even to enduring French singers whose impact and influence extends well past its mid-century golden age and beyond the borders of his beloved home country,” I shared. He was a part of our family, the sound of our home. We listened to at least a thousand songs, from his three hundred albums, watched dozens of his tours, and many, many films. His music, animated by an earthy interest in what addles and excites the common, had a revolutionizing impact on French pop, but most importantly on my uncommonly common life. His chansons réalistes – a bevy of unconventionally beautiful, melodramatic ballads – became the musical bridge to my newfound confidence.

Depuis longtemps mon coeur Etait à la retraite Et ne pensait jamais Devoir se réveiller Mais au son de ta voix J'ai relevé la tête Et l'amour m'a repris Avant que d'y penser

For a long time my heart Had retired And I never thought I had to awaken But at the sound of your voice I lifted my head And love picked me up again Before I had the chance to think

Isabelle Isabelle Isabelle Isabelle

Isabelle Isabelle Isabelle mon amour (my love)

Understandably, I get a different twinge of narcissistic nostalgia than other reviewers when I recommend this album. Track #5, duration 3 minutes and 11 seconds is the soundtrack to my life. It made a shy, rosy-cheeked, chubby, bright-eyed, broad-nosed, brown-skinned girl with cascading flurries of pigtails that sprung on her head like crowning pineapple leaves, step out of the shadows to acquire the sheen of the immortal with a three- syllable name “Is-a-belle.”

With Love,