Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Been there. Donne That. Got the Jerkin.

Who was Bigger than Big Daddy Kane - Notoriouser than The Notorious B.I.G. ?
Why - pardi! - 'twas early Renaissance balladeur/rappeur Francois 'Villainous' Villon (born 1431 in Paris, disappeared in 1463, aged 32.)

He's got the right-rubbin' moves - if not the clothes.

Frankie Villon came from a poor single-parent family. He was gifted and ambitious - would he end up President, or Prisoner?

An uncle saw the talent and the temptation, and steered him towards the Church. But France was a mess - the 100 Years War had bankrupted the nation, and plague was rife. Paris was a mess : poverty and squalor under the English occupation was the poor man's lot. And the University of Paris was a mess: overcrowded slum-buildings and worthless degrees made the the 1968 Sorbonne uprising look like . . . 'the Summer of '68' . . .

'Young, Gifted and Broke' - what's a poor boy to do? Sing for his supper, and hang with his homies. But some of these Young Bohemians ( a new trend from mittel-europ that worried the elders) were bad-on-the bend dancers, jugglers and petty-crims. Curiously, it was those juggling friends that caused his priestly hopes to be dashed (the forbidden miscegenation of carney and church . . . ?). Income, job, future - all gone. Disease and starvation he'd survived - it was the injustice that turned the good boy bad.

There follows some missing years - lost to sex an' drugs an' rockin' troubadours presumably.
Then the police files on him open with a murder charge - involving drink and a fellow student priest/vagabond, and a girl, and another priest. While awaiting the gibbet, he worked on his raps:-

Death Row (Ballade des Pendus)

The rain out of heaven has washed us clean,
The sun has scorched us black and bare,
Ravens and rooks have pecked at our eyne,
And feathered their nests with our beards and hair.

He understood perfectly the medieval courtly ideal, but he often chose to write against the grain, reversing the values and celebrating the lowlifes destined for the gallows, falling happily into parody or lewd jokes, and constantly innovating in his diction and vocabulary. His raps are mostly about his own life - a record of poverty, trouble, and trial which was certainly shared by his poems' intended audience.

The Goat (scratching so much it can't sleep)
. . . .

'You talk so much you refute yourself
Fame's worth so much as its perks
You promise so much you renege
You beg so much you get your wish
A thing costs so much you want it
You want it so much you get it
It's around so much you want it no more
We cry good news so much it comes.

You love a dog so much you feed it
A song's loved so much as people hum it
A fruit is kept so much it rots
You strive for a place so much it's taken
You dawdle so much you miss your chance
You hurry so much you run into bad luck
You grasp so hard you lose your grip
We cry good news so much it comes.'
. . .

But Francey ( mediaeval French would shorten the 'a' and harden the 'c') wasn't called 'Lucky Villain' for nothing. The priest's deathbed forgiveness got him off Death Row. Nonetheless, his 'career choice' had been made for him.

Free again, he split his time between composing and crime. He chilled with the Coquillard Crew - named for their early scams with fake Compostella Pilgrim shells. He wrote most of his early raps in Coquillard slang, a Thieves' Cant or Polari that only social outcasts would ken.

He'd taken against Rome and holy corruption big-time by then - so with the 500 gold crowns from his 'Holy College of Navarre' Heist, he and his crew set off on the '57-'58 ' Rap 'N' Robbery Tour of northern France. However, the rest of the R 'n' R Crew proved too slow but plenty stupid enough : he split for the West - while they swung from the scaffold.

After some unchronicled years spent gigging the tavern circuit along the West Coast - a local favorite was ' I've got Nothin' (Toulouse)' - he got his break with the influential socialite/music producer, 'Duke' d'Orleans (a big fan of his, and a notable rappeur/balladeur himself). It meant a better class of 'Lays' for him. Ba-boume . . .

. . . of course Lays mean 'Leavings' - what the singer bequeaths to his friends and family. How he'd like to be remembered. Francey turns the convention on its head - that's now become his signature, his tag.
In 'Les Lais' his favorite targets are the authorities, the police, the well-fed ecclesiastics, the bourgeois and the loan-sharks. The attacks are scurrilous, while the shout-outs to his crew are . . . scurrilous too.

And the wild streak never left him. He was banged-up again, for GBH after a brawl. Back on Death Row he divided his time between body-building, breakdancing, and composing his 2000 verse masterpiece Le Testament [in English, loosely translated: The Testament].
Third time 'Lucky Frank' Villon was pardoned by the new King Louis XI ('The Spider') in 1461 - and promptly disappeared, for good.

So what's his rep, now? Well, pretty much as usual over the last five centuries - high, and low.

The question "Mais où sont les neiges d'antan?", taken from 'Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis' and translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti as "Where are the snows of yesteryear?", is one of the most famous lines of translated secular poetry in the English-speaking world.

As usual too, it's misunderstood. It's a sly take on Troubadourial love-conventions. He wonders where all these fair flowers of womanhood are now. The answer is - in the grave. What earthly good is wasting your breath on past beauties frozen in time - when life is short, and you're hot.

We have our Andrew Marvell, to tease it all out so wittily and elegantly :

An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest.

Getting the chat-up line right takes talent, and that they have, in their different ways -

The grave's a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.

All very Martin Amis. But Andy, like Francey, is short on time, and has the hots :

But at my back I always hear
Time's wing'ed chariot hurrying near
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.

We have Andy, and they have Francey. Their come-ons and pleadings, their rants and their raps still cut clear across those deserts.

Ou sont les raps de nos jours?

Coquillard is Thieves' Cant, a cryptolect
Cony-Catchers and Bawdy Baskets; an Anthology of Elizabethan Low Life [Salgado, S.]
1990 Morrissey titled an album Bona Drag – Polari for "nice outfit" – and the title of his "Piccadilly Palare"
In 2002, hip hop artist Juha released an album called Polari, with the chorus of the title song written entirely in the slang.
African American Vernacular English or Ebonics
The infix ‹iz› or ‹izn› is characteristic of hip-hop slang, for example hizouse for house and shiznit for shit.
Caló or Pachuco slang (Rato, Vato = Later, Dude)


treefrogdemon said...

Good stuff, BP - I love me some FV.

ToffeeBoy said...

Wasn't his backing band called Les Quatre Saisons?

ejaydee said...


BloodyParadise said...

Yep - Francois Vallee was an important influence with Villon's backing singers. The highest note he ever hit was 'on stage' at a venue called 'The Gallows'.

Big Mac And Large Flahs said...

Bloody awesome post, BP!

ejaydee said...

Top post indeed, Although I didn't quite get the Random part. I guess that's why you called it Random.