Capricorn vs. Cancer: The Story of French Singer-songwriter Françoise Hardy

All her life, and in much of her music, she had parsed her relationships, her failings and her tribulations for meaning. Now, here in the room with her -- in her very body -- was Death, that annihilator of meaning.

The Despair of Monkeys and Other Trifles: A Memoir by Françoise Hardy
Feral House
May 2018
Personne d'Autre
Françoise Hardy
Arts Music
11 May 2018

The Mountain-Goat is forever perching himself on perilous rocks and cliffs… In his search for material sustenance, the Mountain-Goat ascends to his chosen peak with ever-increasing sureness… Each foothold is a calculated one, for even though the Goat is anxious, he takes his time.” — ‘Capricorn – I Seek Myself Through What I Use’, from Alan Oken’s Complete Astrology (Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1980)

Her aura invites mythology. “Nobody knows how Françoise Hardy came to this planet,” says English producer Andy Votel. But it’s more complicated than that.

I was born at nine thirty in the evening during an air raid alert. It was on January 17, 1944, at the Marie-Louise Clinic at the top of Rue des Martyrs, in the Ninth Arrondissement of Paris. — Françoise Hardy, The Despair of Monkeys and Other Trifles

She is a Capricorn. She wants you to know this. Her memoir, The Despair of Monkeys and Other Trifles opens with the precise time and place of her birth. This is shorthand; if you’re versed in the workings of astrology, as she is, this detail will have already given you insight. She can say that she was the daughter of a married man’s mistress, and that will tell you some things. She can describe her shy nature, her deep insecurities, her fascination with music, and that will give you more ideas. But her Star Sign will give you another perspective: She is the Mountain-Goat, destined to a life of constant striving, plodding forward in a never-ending quest to reach her personal peak.

“She” is Françoise. For a generation of music lovers around the world, the first name will suffice. She’s earned that intimacy; over 50-some years and dozens of albums, she’s entered our lives in a way that few others have. Through our stereo speakers and ear buds, she’s confided in us, let us in on secrets about the state of her mind and heart.

Others have adopted her personae to sing (Mick Jagger, with his faux-Southern drawl, David Bowie, with his constant theatricality). But for her performance, Françoise seems to step up to the microphone and just… be. And so when she murmurs, “Mais il y a des soirs, que je deteste tout / Et ce sont les soirs que je repense a nous” [“But there are nights when I hate everything / And those are the nights when I think back on us“], it is less an expression of feeling than a heartbreaking statement of fact.

Capricorns seem to worry a great deal and are often beset by a certain oppressive ‘heaviness’ which they find difficult to shed. — Alan Oken (ibid)

Françoise has garnered gold records and reaped copious critical acclaim, all for singing songs that explore her personal pain and sadness. Even at the height of her success, she sang most often as though burdened with a heavy heart. At its softest, her voice was a heartsick sigh, at its height, a lovelorn cry for help. These feelings bleed into even some of her most upbeat records. Just listen as the playful staccato tones of her 1968 hit ‘Comment te dire adieu?’ give way to la melancholie in the spoken middle section. That underlying melancholy is an integral part of her signature sound. Tapping, without calculation, into that heartsickness that we all feel from time to time, it is a key component of her success. But it’s more complicated than that.

She has questions. Practical questions (if her early music had been better produced, “would it have worked as well?”), spiritual and philosophical conundrums (“Why do some people give the impression of being protected, while others seem to be prey to a curse?”): they pile up in The Despair of Monkeys, right up to the last sentence. The memoir draws attention to just how many of her lyric lines end in question marks. She is always seeking answers.

In her best work, she rarely strays far from pursuing that ultimate goal. Though her musical style, production, and instrumental arrangements have evolved over the decades, she has never stopped using the medium of music to find meaning in her life. At their best, throughout her career, her lyrics have directly confronted the obstacles that littered the path to her happiness and enlightenment. It’s fascinating to see how often, in lyrics she’s written herself as well as material she’s gleaned from other songwriters, she lays out a problem, and then either asks the heavens for an answer or muses her own way out of it.

In ‘Voila’ we get:

Tu es la devant moi, toujours le même,
Oh, pourquoi est-c’encore toi que j’aime?
[You’re there before me, always the same,
Oh, why is it still you who I love?]

‘Soleil’ asks this:

Soleil, je t’aime, et pour toujours, tu es fidèle, mais l’amour,
N’est pas souvent comme toi. Pourquoi?
[Sunshine, I love you, and forever, you are loyal, but love
Isn’t often like you. Why not?]

Among her most influential albums is one called simply La Question, whose title track is a paean to a lover whom she calls “Ma question sans reponse” [“My question without an answer“]:

Et chercher à te comprendre,
C’est courir après le vent.

[And to try to understand you,
Is to run after the wind.]

Among the many in The Despair of Monkeys, one question stands out: “I have often wondered,” she muses in a passage about her love life, “if I would have been better off if I had been balanced enough to put satisfying my own needs ahead of satisfying those of my partners, rather than spending my life compensating for my ridiculous frustrations by creating songs.” Within her words sits a question that has reared its head since the very first lover wrote the very first torch song, for as long as human beings have taken their suffering and fashioned it into great art. Distilled, her question to herself is: Vaut-il la peine? Is it worth the pain?

It should not be considered unbelievable that one can retrieve useful knowledge and sacred relics from astrological folly and godlessness… In this enormous heap of worm-castings there are silk-worms to be found; and, finally, out of this foul-smelling dung-heap a diligent hen can scratch up an occasional grain-seed — indeed, even a pearl or a gold nugget. — Johannes Kepler

Astrology is one method she’s found for finding answers. But maybe it’s all bunk. With so many planets moving through the sky, so many texts for interpreting what their ‘transits’ mean, aren’t believers merely cherry-picking from their horoscopes only those vaguely-worded passages that happen to apply to them, and disregarding the rest?

She doesn’t go overboard. “I distrust astrologers in general,” her memoir tells us, “and predictive astrology in particular.” Her interest is more of a philosophical exercise. She sees these charts, these transits, these aspects, as framing tools. Like the rest of her philosophical pursuits, they are ways of arranging the disparate elements of her reality, of establishing order and meaning to events in her life where otherwise she might see none.

28 October 1962: Transiting Mercury Conjunct Natal Moon

This is the best possible time to express your feelings and emotions… With this transit you have to communicate on all levels, not just with your mind… Logical distinctions do not interest you very much at this time… You want to know what people have in common rather than what makes them different, and you will seek an understanding that you can share with everyone. — Robert Hand, Planets in Transit (Para Research, 1976)

On a Sunday evening in autumn, a sweet, lanky young yé-yé girl from Paris, with a couple of modest-selling singles to her name, appeared on French television to sing her lovelorn teen ballad ‘Tous les garçons et les filles’ [‘All the Boys and Girls’]. A TV appearance is a big enough event for an artist on its own, but it just so happened that the French public had voted that day in a landmark referendum, and all of France was tuned into the country’s only station that night, while they waited for the vote tally to come in. A nation divided in politics was apparently unanimous in recognizing the loneliness of an unattached teenager; ‘Tous les garçons et les filles’ became a smash hit overnight.

The parade of hits that followed (‘La maison ou j’ai grandi’, ‘Ma jeunesse fout le camp’, and more) saw her become a household name around the world. Her sense of style and ’60s-era model figure made her as much an icon of fashion as a music-business star. But as glamorous as her professional life became, as high profile as her romances were (first with pop photographer Jean-Marie Périer, and later, for decades, with singer Jacques Dutronc), the celebrity lifestyle held no appeal to her. Even singing in front of a live audience gave her none of the joy a performer ought to feel. “My first and only ambition had been to record,” she writes, “and this was the only thing that truly interested me. The stage, the photo sessions, the programs, the interviews were all so much drudgery that I really could do without.” Around the close of the sixties, she stopped performing live.

16 June 1973 : Transiting Venus Sextile Natal Ascendant

A love relationship may start under such a transit. — Robert Hand, Ibid.

Françoise’s romance with photographer Jean-Marie Périer, the paradox of her fraught marriage and enduring friendship with Jacques Dutronc — it’s all there in The Despair of Monkeys, along with observations on her attraction to Mick Jagger, her brief audience with Bob Dylan, and one or two illicit encounters with lovers who, maddeningly, remain anonymous. But this is the story of one life, not one love, and no one character can claim the title of Soulmate.

Besides, the book makes clear, if there is one love of Françoise’s life, it’s her son, Thomas, born to her and Jacques Dutronc in 1973. While she spends more than one nuit blanche in the depths of despair over one or another of her suitors, the stories she tells of Thomas are filled with warmth and tenderness.

She writes of “the gift of his first smile, an unforgettable moment.” Through her career and marital ups and downs over the next 20 years, a retreat from music in the ’80s and a resurgence in the ’90s, the mundane domestic passages involving her growing boy are a sweet counterpoint. The trepidation she describes when Thomas decides to pursue a music career, her delight when he succeeds at it, all of it comes from that cautious, selfless hope that accompanies parental love. She dedicates The Despair of Monkeys to Thomas. The final glossy photo in the book’s middle is a photo of Thomas, captioned: “… his expression makes me melt.” Thomas never lets her down.

January, 2004: Transiting Pluto Trine Natal Jupiter

You are concerned with improving conditions so that they are more in accord with your ideals. Your actions are guided by your highest vision of how the world ought to be. You may work within the context of your friends, neighbors, relatives or professional associates, or you may work on a broader scale in the community or society as a whole. No one who comes to you for help will be turned away. — Robert Hand, Ibid.

And then she got sick. A doctor’s visit in 2004 led to a diagnosis of lymphoma. “I felt like I was hearing my death sentence,” she tells us in The Despair of Monkeys. All her life, and in much of her music, she had parsed her relationships, her failings and her tribulations for meaning. Now, here in the room with her — in her very body — was Death, that annihilator of meaning. But as badly as she herself might have taken the turn of events, it was her son’s reaction to the news that spurred her to action.

“My wonderful Tom’s grief and anxiety about my illness tortured me so deeply I could think of nothing else,” she writes. “I wanted to leave a message of hope about life and death that Thomas could listen to, and give him comfort when I was no longer there.”

Her solution was natural. Martialing all of the wisdom she had gathered in her lifetime, she channeled it into song lyrics. The result was the tour-de-force ‘Tant de belles choses’. For decades, Françoise had sought answers of all kinds: practical, philosophical, spiritual. ‘Tant de belles choses’ is a trove of all the important answers she’d picked up along the way. This song, which begins with a hint of loss and heartache to come (“Même s’il me faut lacher ta main” [“Even if I must let go your hand“]), goes on to remind the listener of all the ways in which love and life are worth that pain. Most important are the shifting lyrics of the refrain: “Tu as tant de belles choses devant toi” [“You have so many beautiful things before you“]; “L’amour est plus fort que la mort” [“Love is stronger than death“].

“My mother died in November 2005. I would go to see her every afternoon and they would let me stay until 9 o’clock. Every evening she would watch me leave with an imploring look after having held my hand. On November 15th, I didn’t know that I was seeing her alive for the last time. She let go my hand without being able to say “until tomorrow.” I don’t know if that song helped me, but it’s inextricable from that ordeal. I think and I hope that my mother could have identified with all of the lyrics.” — Pierre, graphic artist, Paris

“At the beginning of 2006, I lost my sister in a manner as brutal as it was unexpected. I was filled with an immense distress. My grief filled my thoughts without letup. Françoise Hardy’s songs, particularly ‘Tant de belles choses’, helped me to find some peace. In the context of this loss of a loved one, the song took on a new dimension. It was no longer just a song that someone close to death was singing to a loved one… It was now someone very close to me who, through the voice of Françoise Hardy, was sending me a message from the hereafter: ‘Love is stronger than death.'” — Jérôme, insurance broker, Versailles

Françoise wrote ‘Tant de belles choses’ fearing that she might not live out the year. She surely couldn’t have predicted the anguish of watching her health decline over the ensuing decade. The Despair of Monkeys ends in 2008, the year she completed the French edition. It could have used an addendum: coming to terms with the winding-down of her life, the Françoise of ten years ago might have cringed at the thought that the worst of that anguish was yet to come.

9 March 2015: Transiting Uranus Opposite Natal Moon

“This transit can signify sudden events in your personal and emotional life and sudden changes in your home. The pressure of circumstances will reveal your unconscious emotional patterns, and you will learn to handle your life with fewer habits and inappropriate unconscious behaviour patterns.” — Robert Hand, Planets in Transit

Sometimes the price of great art is great suffering. In a way, Françoise wrote ‘Tant de belles choses’ on credit. She would pay dearly over the ensuing years.

‘Tant de belles choses’ deals with death. It says nothing about living with cancer, or intestinal problems, and the increasing frailty that restricted her mobility. Françoise struggled for years to continue writing and recording. In time, simple excursions from her Paris apartment became struggles in themselves. Around her 70th birthday in 2014, she hinted strongly at her retirement from music. In the hospital for treatment in 2015, she fell in the shower, knocking herself into a three-week coma. Doctors told her son Thomas to prepare for her death.

“Very often,” she told French TV’s L’Invité “we hear about people at the point of dying having a sort of illumination, what we call an N.D.E., a ‘near-death experience’, where they see an extraordinary light that pulls them like a magnet, and afterward they’re no longer afraid of death, because they know that death is this extraordinary light.” But she can’t claim to be so lucky. The most lucid recollection she can offer is a morphine-induced hallucination of being trapped in a box, of being suffocated, buried alive, as doctors removed a ventilator tube.


Valait-il la peine?

March, 2015: Transiting Saturn Opposite Natal Mars

“Once this transit passes, you’ll probably hold your head just that little bit higher knowing that you’re finally strong enough to deal with whatever life throws at you.” — Leah Whitehorse, ‘Transits — Saturn Opposite Mars’

Of course, she was never alone. Thomas never let her down. The touching story of his continued devotion in the face of this news — he kept a regular vigil at her bedside, holding her hand, even reading the work of poet Georges Brassens to his mother as she lay there unconscious — is one more testament to the strength of their bond. And somehow, she pulled through. When doctors told her just how much Thomas had been at her side as she’d hovered between life and death, she says, “I burst into tears.”

Her recovery, as depicted in a 2016 work of memoir Un cadeau du ciel [A Gift from Heaven], was unlikely, even miraculous. She gives credit to her doctors (who, while she lay at death’s door, decided they had nothing to lose by continuing her chemotherapy treatments), and to Thomas, but also to the prayers of certain spiritually elevated friends. And she asserted, on the page and on a number of media outlets upon the book’s release, that her good health must have been restored for a reason. But, asked over and over what that reason was, she answered emphatically: “I don’t know.”

She seems grateful for the good times, at least. Her heavenly gift is her health, not merely her life — she doesn’t value a life in pain, and she writes that she is a “staunch advocate” of euthanasia, rejecting “[t]he cult of martyrdom, and the idea of enduring atrocious and inexorable suffering to the bitter end.” Drawing from the lessons of a spiritual friend, she delights in the term ‘rendre l’âme‘ [‘to return the soul’], used to describe how the spent body — the vehicle for the soul — releases the soul from its physical shackles at the moment of death.

She is in many ways a realist. As tempting as it is to see this late chapter of her life as her happy ending, it’s more complicated than that. It won’t always be worth the pain.

“The Sea-Goat is… a mythological figure invented to express the more esoteric nature of Capricorn. [It] is a divine creature who already possesses the vast riches of the sea and who climbs up onto the land in order to see how these resources can best be used and formed into matter for the inhabitants of the Earth… [It] knows that the seat of real power and wealth lies beyond the realm of the personal ego… The Sea-Goat has all the raw materials, minerals, and valuable ores of the Earth at his disposal… He will give form to what is formless and create a structure from which many will grow and prosper.” — Alan Oken, Ibid.

Perhaps it all depends on how she frames it. The spring of 2018 saw the surprise release of Personne d’autre, an album of new material. The album’s lead single could be the flipside of the ‘Tant de belles choses’ coin. Between verses steeped in ocean imagery (“Aucun bateau pirate ne prendra le pouvoir / Aucune étoile filante me laissera dans le noir” [“No pirate ship will overpower me / No shooting star will leave me in the dark“) she sings: “Prends ma main” [“Take my hand“], and declares, “Je prendrai le large” [“I will set sail“]. And in this late chapter in Françoise’s life, between one near-death experience and the ever-nearing end, what better way is there to frame events, what better meaning can she make for herself out of them?

Maybe it’s all bunk. There’s so much that this view ignores — messy, undivulged elements of her daily life that would contradict this tidy narrative. Of course it’s more complicated than that. But it’s nice to imagine that, as her earthly vehicle lets her spirit go, as the Capricorn weighs anchor and charts her course, to chase the wind to some far-off horizon, perhaps she’ll allow herself one last look back, and take comfort in the gleam of all the pearls she’s left us on the shore.

* * *

Sources: Except for the TV appearance quote, all of the Francoise quotes are from the book. The quotes from French fans are translations of email conversations Brett Marie had with them.