Originally for midnightpoutine.ca – link
After an election-and-other-stuff-induced hiatus, Poutine Pop is back! In this series, I explore music from Montreal artists of yore, attempting to bring to light those that have been long forgotten, or chronically unappreciated. Hopefully it piques your interest in the featured artists as well as your urge to walk down to your local record shop to buy their albums.
A man walks on to the stage of a dingy club. He stops in front of a microphone positioned at centre and turns towards the audience; his head and shoulders slump forward, his eyes close. He stands unsteady under a single spotlight. Behind him, in the dark, another man walks on to the stage. He sits down at an old piano, raises the lid and waits. The man at the microphone does not look well. He hunches over at the waist and grabs for the top of the microphone stand with his left hand to keep himself upright. His right arm hangs limp at his side. His head slowly droops further, eventually resting at the crux between the forearm and bicep of his bent left arm. With his face now pressed against cotton jersey, he begins to rock up and down on the balls of his feet. From the audience, the singer’s hair, greasy and thinning and pressed flat against his head, looks like seaweed pasted against a rock recently exposed by low tide. He starts to sweat. Small beads form on the tops of his hands; a dark stain slowly spreads across the chest of his mustard-coloured turtleneck. He cocks his head to the side, opens his eyes and, with a blank stare, looks out to the couple of tables at the right corner of the stage. Three people gawk back with awkward expressions that give him a perverse pleasure – the mixture of surprise and fear plastered across their faces signal that it’s time to begin. The man’s body snaps to life, his posture suddenly erect and tense, his previously dead right arm now held aloft and rigid. He looks into the darkness at the back of the club, sees the pulsing orange glow from a cigarette being inhaled and, as if it too were a signal, takes a deep breath inward. His hand drops down to his waist and he begins to sing:
Tout homme qui se tient debout…
On the second syllable of “debout,” a stage light turns on above the piano player, illuminating a frizz of red hair sitting atop a droopy face. His very large hands begin to attack the keys in a hard accented tango-like rhythm. The audience, still taken aback by the sudden change in mood, slowly begins to clap and cheer in recognition of the song. The singer continues:
Est le plus beau des monuments
Point n’est besoin pour sa mémoire
De statue ni de requiem,…
His baritone voice starts deep in his diaphragm, the muscle forcing a blast of air from his lungs, past his thrumming larynx and out of his mouth in a reedy warble that has just a hint of sand paper roughness. It is strong and assured. As he sings, he scans the audience, establishing eye contact with those he can see past the stage lights. He stares at them with a near-glower that’s softened only by a vague sense of vulnerability and sadness perceptible at the corners of his eyes and mouth. It’s an intense and uncompromising look that mimics the gravity and passion evident in his body language. His right hand, still at his side with fingers extended, punctuates particular words with angry jabs toward the audience. Occasionally he lifts it up beside his face in a flourish, pressing it against his cheek, and relaxing it into a soft, delicate curl.
Ni de pavane, ni de noir
Car on ne porte pas le deuil
De celui qui était si fier
Et qui était encore hier
Un homme libre…
For the final line of the verse, the piano cuts out, leaving the singer alone to draw out the final three words with relish. On the last syllable of “libre,” it jumps back in with an embellished roll that, if not for the tenor of the performance, would seem kitschy – a tango cliché. The audience erupts in cheers and whistles. The singer quickly snakes his body side-to-side and continues:
Tout homme qui a fait sa vie
Et qui l’a vécue jusqu’au bout
Sans jamais se mettre à genoux
Sinon pour faire une prière…
There is a Brelian quality to his performance – an honesty to his over-the-top stage theatrics that affirm his belief in the song’s message. It’s a quality that wills the audience to adopt his demeanour. With each new verse he raises the dynamic pitch of the song, eventually reaching a fevered plateau that drives the audience to a giddy exuberance that is restrained only by their reverence for the song and his voice.
As the singer reaches the end, the sweat stains on the front of his turtleneck have morphed into a silhouette of Mickey Mouse – one large circle over his belly attached to two smaller circles covering both nipples. His navy slacks have turned a shade darker around his thighs, but he shows no signs of discomfort or concern that the awkward positioning of the stains might diminish his message for something more comical. As soon as he finishes singing, the lights go dark and he walks off the stage. In the wings he hears shouts of “encore!” which quickly morph into a kind of rhythmic mantra shouted en masse by the audience: “en – core! Georges D’or!” “en – core! Georges D’or!” He pauses – one, two, three, four – turns around and heads back out to the stage.
This weird little fantasy of Georges Dor is not only about imagining what it must have been like to see him perform, but also about a person’s desire to be swept up in some kind of movement or cause that is so dear to them, so inherently bound to their life, that it invokes a passion and sense of duty that they are unable to ignore. Something that can tear them away from Ghost Whisperer reruns and scrounging for crumbs at the bottom of a bag of Sweet Chili Heat! Doritos (move over Jalapeno & Cheddar, there’s a new King in town). Something that is able to withstand a powerful shrug of indifference.
I once thought I had plumbed those depths when writing a protest letter to CBS over their cancellation of High Mountain Rangers, but have since learned that things of that nature are really just a mild inconvenience (and, as an adult, I can now say in the case a that particular show, a blessing).
The Quiet Revolution inflamed this depth of passion in many Quebeckers, although I assume the flavour of the discarded Doritos would’ve been something quaint, like Toasted Corn. The desire for French-language rights and self-determination was reflected not only in changes in Quebec politics, but also, as it often is in large cultural movements, in the arts.
Music had a particularly important role, its ability to galvanize groups of people into action and to steel them for a fight invaluable. You need only look to the chaotic mean streets of New York in the 50s to see the unifying and bracing effects of seemingly innocuous jazz-infused show tunes.
In the 60s and 70s, Georges Dor, a singer-songwriter, was a part of this fight. His success in Montreal during this time was indicative of an era that celebrated the chansonnier. Among the figureheads of the Speak White generation, his music has much in common with contemporaries such as Gilles Vigneault, Robert Charlebois and, of course, the godfather of Canadian chansonniers, Felix Leclerc. It possesses unadorned and potent folk melodies that frame compelling and personal lyrics celebrating themes common to the genre, such as love, nostalgia, freedom and Quebec culture – rousing subjects for those in the midst of a transformative cultural surge.
Similar to Stan Rogers and Stompin’ Tom in Anglo Canada, Dor’s music manages to distil the everyday details of life into compact and resonant stories that also describe larger cultural changes. This is no more apparent than in “La Manic,” Dor’s most famous song. A love letter from a construction worker who has been toiling away on the Manicouagan hydroelectric project to his lover, it is a poignant portrait of loneliness and heartache, the song’s weary and resigned mood reflecting the toll of his sacrifice.
However, it is also symbolic of a French Quebec’s newfound power and sovereign aspirations, as the Daniel Johnson Dam was the first major project completed by Hydro Quebec, which had been recently nationalized in ’63. While it has never gained the universal embrace of something like Vigneault’s “Gens du Pays,” “La Manic” does possess a romantic populism that has endeared it to many (150 000 copies of the 45 were sold upon its release). I like to think of it as the “No One Like You” of its time.
The arrangements on Dor’s albums vary from sparse piano/guitar accompaniments straight from the chansonnier playbook to those that have more in common with the early 70s music of loveable French letch Serge Gainsbourg (check out Dor’s album, Au Ralenti, available on the 2-CD compilation Un Homme Libre).
Despite the differences in aesthetic, Dor’s albums, 11 in total, maintain clarity of vision and an emotional honesty that is easy to empathize with – his warm, fatherly voice welcoming listeners to join him in song. It is this characteristic that gives his recordings an intimate atmosphere – one that carried over to his live shows. By accounts, these were stirring affairs with genuine flair – a quality attributed, in part, to his work in theatre, an art he pursued with greater frequency as his career progressed.
Like Vigneault and Charlebois, Dor focused a great deal of energy on writing material unrelated to music. He wrote plays and poetry and was involved in various projects for radio and TV. By the 80s, these projects had supplanted his musical activities, leaving him with, when compared to the aforementioned artists, a relatively short career. Because of this, his musical legacy will always be connected to the rise of Quebec nationalism; however, it should never be limited to being a historical marker, devoid of greater meaning. Dor’s music possesses a universality of message and strength of belief that is timeless and inspiring.
Listening to Dor over the past few weeks brought to mind last month’s election and the resulting change in Quebec’s representation in Parliament. The NDP’s orange wave swept across the province signalling a sea change previously unseen at the federal level in Quebec. In a way, it was similar to the dramatic changes during Dor’s prime. However, unlike the rise of the sovereignty movement, the NDP’s growth in the province was sudden and unexpected and mostly devoid of the take-to-the-streets passion that contains the levels of anger, frustration and determination indicating a deep-seeded desire for full-scale, long-lasting institutional change. There wasn’t even a catchy theme song!
It was a blink-of-the-eye transition reflecting the flavour-of-the-day disposability of the Internet era – one in which some people now consider effective protesting to be clicking on Facebook’s “like” button to petition the proliferation of overly short jean shorts (seriously, if I can see how much change you have in your pockets, you’ve gone too far). Thus, their newfound support, while vast in Quebec, feels somewhat hollow and fragile, as though the result of a simple desire for a non-threatening change – an orange rogue wave that may soon disappear back into the vast sea of blue.
Currently, as we shuffle amongst the still-cooling ashes of the BQ and step lightly through the minefield that is the PQ, it is a prospect that is difficult to envision, but if the NDP’s sudden growth is any indication, the electorate in this province is fickle. One need only look at the success of Scotland’s SNP over the past 15 years to see how a strong base and the right political conditions can quickly lead to the realization of sovereign aspirations. Heck, if Scotland does achieve independence, their success may even help to rouse and unify the cause in Quebec. Just like Georges Dor did.
The music of Georges Dor is available on iTunes and at Archambault.
Photo of Georges Dor from Université de Sherbrooke