Beyond the Sea, awash in La Mer

How a French popular song from the 1940s engulfed an American boy of the 1960s and has stayed with him through thick and thin

By STEPHEN RUTLEDGE

Once when I was challenged to name my Top Ten Favorite Songs, I expressed to my friend a desire to be able to erase from my memory all of my favorite songs so that I might have the experience of hearing them again for the first time. It seemed to me that if I listened to a favorite song too often, I might run the risk of wearing it out. I was afraid that eventually it wouldn’t move me in quite the same way. I would still want, maybe even need, to hear it, but the emotional intensity simply wouldn’t be as high. With every listen, I might be searching for that magic and it would be gone.

Now I know that this is not true with the great songs. They are the ones that sound new every time.

As an only child of two working parents, after school, except when I was off to rehearsals or music lessons, I had the house to myself until 6 p.m. I felt free to help myself to the parents’ hi-fi and LP collection, and as I got older, to their liquor cabinet too. They actually paired well, booze and music.

Broadway musicals, Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, these were the artists that informed my musical tastes. I simply loved filling the silence of our house with these recordings. I sang along. In fact, I learned to sing while attempting to reproduce their sounds.

Bobby Darin’s album That’s All was released in 1959 when I was five years old. After the Original Broadway Cast album of My Fair Lady, it was my favorite LP during my pre-Beatles grade school years. That’s All opens with Darin’s famous version of “Mack The Knife.”

But the second track always stopped me dead and filled me with a wistfulness that I could barely grasp as a kid. That song was titled “Beyond The Sea,” and although it was a swingin’ tune, it somehow broke my young heart, which was a brand new sensation. It frightened me as well. I loved it.

Nostalgia, like chest pain, is often a sign of deeper problems. I know this, and tried to remind myself of that recently as I flew to the place of my childhood. I was studying the landform patterns of Eastern Washington from 28,000 feet and they seemed so familiar to me. I know this land. I recognized and even acknowledged a place where water was scarce. So, why did I flee Spokane the afternoon of my graduation from high school, bound for a port city? I chose Boston because it was so far away, and for Boston Bay with salty air and ships.

In the early 1970s, I lived in an apartment with sliding glass doors that opened to white sand and the Pacific Ocean beyond. I could see Catalina Island on a clear day, and there were not that many clear days in 1970s Los Angeles.

I left LA for Manhattan, where I lived eight blocks from the Hudson River. I would sit at the Chelsea piers to look at the shimmery, silvery surface and smell the water and cruise the guys. I would ride the Staten Island ferry, standing at the bow and singing “Don’t Rain On My Parade.”

In Seattle, circa 1981 to 2001, I lived in a bungalow that was just four blocks from Lake Union and the Shipping Canal. Again, I could smell the salt water and I loved the mournful sound of the foghorns and the toots from the tugs.

In 2001, my husband and I had a collective nervous breakdown and up and moved to Portland. At first I was wary. Where was my water? But, standing naked on a beach at Sauvie Island and watching these huge cargo ships make their way up the mighty Columbia, I realized that it feels very much like having an ocean.

In the early 1990s, the parents sweetly gave me a cassette they had made, a mix-tape of songs that I had embraced in my earliest childhood. One of those songs was “Beyond The Sea.” My mother reminded me that as a six-year-old, I would sing it for company, accompanied by a little dance during the bridge.

The song’s first incarnation was as “La Mer,” and it was written by French composer/ lyricist/ singer/ showman Charles Trenet in 1945 for another French singer. In 1946, Trenet recorded his own version. It became an unexpected international hit, and has since become a chanson classic and a jazz standard.

Trenet claimed that he wrote the lyrics as a poem when he was 16 years old, but it was many years before he came up with a melody for it. In 1943, the tune came to him while traveling by train as he was gazing out of the window at the Mediterranean Sea. He jotted it down on piece of paper and in the afternoon he worked out the details with his pianist. That evening they performed it in front of an audience and nobody seemed to care.

But, over the years the song became very popular throughout the world with plenty of prominent artists recording their own versions. Besides the original in French, the song was also recorded in several other languages with the English version titled “Beyond The Sea” being particularly popular and becoming a signature song for Darin. In 1966 there were already over 100 different recordings of “La Mer.” When Trenet left this world in 2001, there were more than 4,000 different recordings of it with over 100 million copies sold.

The English lyrics are not a translation, by the way. They describe a wistful look at lovers who are separated. The French version is literally about the sea.

In 2001, The Oregonian’s music critic, David Stabler, did a wonderful piece on funeral music. In closing, he requested readers to send him their five choices for songs to be played at their own memorial. My submission was published the next Friday, as I suspected that it might, and of the five, three were songs about the sea, and all five were songs about water: Lyle Lovett’s “If I Had A Boat,” “Once In A Lifetime” by Talking Heads, “Shiver Me Timbers” From Tom Waits, Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “The Waters Of March” (“Águas de Março” in Portuguese) and, of course, “La Mer.”

My invitation was to write about a song that terrifies and inspires. But, I am not really afraid of things. Being afraid is not my shtick. I am not scared of spiders or snakes, or heights or tight spaces, or death or speaking in public (obviously).

Charles Trenet, chanteur.

In October 2013, I was diagnosed with stage four Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I was immediately hospitalized. I wasn’t afraid, not even when 36 hours later it was explained to me that I would be undergoing brain surgery the next day.

That next day, I was prepped for surgery. A surgical nurse shaved my head and the attending physician drew a map on my skull using marking pens. I was wheeled into the O/R and introduced to the team including the anesthesiologist. Then we all waited. And waited. And waited. The scheduled time came and went and the anesthesiologist made the call that if the neurosurgeon was not in place in five minutes they were going to scrub my launch. I told jokes to keep everyone’s mood light. At the last moment, the hopelessly handsome surgeon breezily made his entrance. He leaned down and in my ear he whispered: “I usually choose the music that is played while I work, but because you held down the fort before I got here, today you get to choose. What song would you like us to play as I open up your skull?”

I requested “Beyond The Sea.” Without missing a beat he asked: “The original French or an American cover version?” … it seemed that he had all of them on his iPad. So … there was the very real chance that the very last thing I was ever going to hear was Charles Trenet singing “La Mer.” As I counted backwards from 100 as the Propofol was administered, I reached 97 and then I felt all at sea.

*

Portland writer and actor Stephen Rutledge writes the daily Born This Day column on World of Wonder’s WOW Report. He wrote this piece in November 2016 for SONGBOOK PDX, a gathering of writers speaking on “the music that terrified and inspired them.” As an actor, Rutledge has appeared in 150 full stage productions, seven feature films, over 50 commercials, and dozens of voice-overs.

Want to read more about Oregon music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

Join the discussion

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *