Running at Le QUBE, a mobile venue installed by the Montréal Casino, Gregory Charles’ interactive show entitled Plamondon provides a career-spanning review of one of the greatest lyricists of the Francophonie
Just a few months ago, Luc Plamondon and Gregory Charles had never met. They walked past each other a few times here and there in TV studios and such, but that’s about it. Yet, today, an obvious affinity has grown between the two men over the past few weeks, while rehearsals for the show Plamondon were going on. The show features Johanne Blouin, Brigitte Boisjoli, Marie-Ève Janvier, Jean-François Breau and Martin Giroux.
During an onstage interview at QUBE, they finish each other’s sentences. When the younger of the two men can’t stop raving about his elder, the latter chuckles, comments, and doesn’t hesitate to reveal captivating anecdotes that shed new light on his catalog’s iconic songs, songs that have forever been a part of Gregory Charles’s life. “I’m a Plamondon child,” he says unabashedly. “His first hit, ‘Les Chemins d’été,’ sung by Steve Fiset, was written in 1970 and I was born in 1968. Plamondon’s songs have been the soundtrack to my whole life.”
The table was set. How did those songs influence Charles’ life? And also, what was going on in Plamondon’s life at the time? Here, then, is a condensed version of a sprawling dialogue on 45 years’ worth of songwriting.
A wee-one and his tricycle
Gregory Charles: People who remember me in the neighbourhood where I grew up remember this kid that was always roaming about on his tricycle, singing his heart out. I must’ve been three or four years old. My Québécois mother listened to a lot of Francophone music. “Les Chemins d’été (Dans ma Camaro”and Diane Dufresne’s “J’ai rencontré l’homme de ma vie,” are among the first songs my mom taught me. Let’s not forget that, at the time, Plamondon brought a whole new dimension to Québec’s pop music. We were coming out of the bubble-gum pop era of Jeunesse d’aujourd’hui, and he clashed with that, with his serious lyrics written for pop songs. He had this knack for writing strong sentences that summarized exactly who we were at a precise moment in our lives.
Luc Plamondon: I was lucky I started working with the best composers right from the get-go: André Gagnon, François Cousineau, Germain Gauthier, Michel Robidoux. I studied modern languages and art history, I was getting ready to become a teacher. I even got my licence in pedagogy at Université Laval, but I secretly wrote songs. One day, I showed my lyrics to André Gagnon. He told me they were poems, not song lyrics. I immediately took it the wrong way. But then, he told me Québec lacked good lyricists. Somebody who could lay down words over music. He then played me the melody to “Les Chemins d’été (Dans ma Camaro),” and three days later I came back to him with the lyrics to that song. The inspiration didn’t come from very far, either. I’d just gotten back from San Francisco, where André Gagnon had this convertible Camaro. Shortly thereafter, Monique Leyrac and Renée Claude asked me to write for them. When I met Diane Dufresne, that was the ultimate spark.
Paroles & Musique: You wrote more than 70 songs for Diane Dufresne, most of them with François Cousineau. What was your impact on Cousineau’s melodies and those of the other composers you’ve worked with over time?
LP: I think my impact was mostly on the structure of the songs. For example, to create a musical, you need a composer who’s able to adapt his compositions to the lyrics, stretch out the verses or chorus. Michel Berger (Starmania) and Richard Cocciante (Notre-Dame de Paris) didn’t change a single note of their melodies, but we had the capacity to play around with the songs’ structure. In the case of “Le Blues du businessman,” we already had the whole first section. Then, six months later, I got the epiphany for the end of the song: “J’aurais voulu être un artiste!” (Loosely translated: “I wish I was an artist/All I wanted was to be an artist.”) I asked Berger to play the first part of the song for me. When he got to the end, I showed him my lyrics for the second part. He paused to read them. And he sang “J’aurais voulu être un artiste,” and played that chord. We both felt the hair go straight up on our arms.
GC: Anyone who hears that song gets that feeling. My parents took me to Comédie Nationale to see Starmania. They loved musicals. They’d take me to New York to see Oliver or The Wiz with Michael Jackson and Diana Ross. This type of stage show did not exist in Québec before Starmania. And that rock opera is so full of hits that you can identify with all of its characters, whether it’s the one who sings “S.O.S. d’un terrien en détresse,” the one who sings “Blues du businessman,” or the one who sings “La Complainte de la serveuse automate.” It’s like a big soap opera; you identify with a character that speaks to you, and a whole lot of songs come with it.
LP: People often tell me that Starmania changed their life. Starmania also changed mine. Before, I wrote for Diane Dufresne, Renée Claude, Françoise Hardy and Catherine Lara. After Starmania, I wrote for Julien Clerc, France Gall and Robert Charlebois. A whole new pool of talent opened up for me.
The Madness of Genius
GC: There is a lot of talk about Starmania, but “Le Parc Belmont” still is my favourite song penned by Luc. When this song about madness came out in the late 70s, my grandfather was already very sick. Nowadays we call that Alzheimer’s, but back then he was only labelled as senile. My mother was very concerned about the responsibility of children when their parents lose their minds. To her, this song hit very close to home. Now, she has Alzheimer’s too, and it’s me who’s gone back to that song in order to reflect upon the situation.
LP: In my case, it was my aunt Marianne who came to live with me after her husband passed away. I was young. I adored her. She sat me on her lap and hummed songs for me. Later I learned she was committed to a mental institution. I went to visit her and she seemed perfectly normal to me. She kept asking me to get her out of there. So I asked one of the nuns who ran the place why she had been committed. “You’ve never seen her when she goes into fits of violence,” the nun told me. It hurt me so deeply. So I wrote “Le Parc Belmont.” I must say, also, that writing for Diane was always very stimulating.
GC: Diane Dufresne was in incredible vehicle for Plamondon. Not the only one, but certainly the most flamboyant and powerful. During the ‘80s and ‘90s, it’s Luc who became the vehicle for singers. Almost all of the songs he wrote during that time became that singer’s biggest hit. “Pour une histoire d’un soir” was the highlight of Marie-Denise Pelletier’s career. Francine Raymond was very successful, but there is no doubt that “Vivre avec celui qu’on aime” is her biggest hit. Julien Clerc relaunched his career with “Coeur de rockeur.” I started hosting a radio show at the end of the ‘80s. I couldn’t play enough of Plamondon’s hits. The album Dion chante Plamondon is a major album. That alone would’ve been enough to allow Plamondon to say that the ‘90s were successful for him, but he still went on to create La Légende de Jimmy and Notre-Dame de Paris.
LP: I’ve got several new projects under way. I’m writing a musical on melodies by Schubert. There is also a new mega-production of Starmania that will open in Paris in 2018. But right now, what I like the most is coming here to watch this Plamondon show. Brigitte Boisjoli takes my breath away when she sings “La Complainte de la serveuse automate.” Martin Giroux sent chills up my spine throughout the rehearsals. That’s what still turns me on.
GC: Luc’s face lights up every time a good singer breathes life into one of his songs, regardless of whether the song is 30 years old or six months old. Lucky for him, and for us, he’s managed to maintain this sense of wonderment for 45 years and I believe he will never lose it.