Juliette Gréco is 90 today. When ill-health forced her to cancel last summer’s concert at the Barbican, I consoled myself with the memory of having seen her at the Royal Festival Hall in the early ’70s, when she was still in her compelling prime. I listened again to some of her countless recordings — the album (above) I bought when I was a teenager and the early classics such as “Déshabillez-moi”, “Je hais les dimanches” and “Les Feuilles mortes”, from the era when she sang for Jean Cocteau and Albert Camus at the Tabou and her friends and admirers included Jean-Paul Sartre and Boris Vian, Jacques Prévert and Léo Ferré, Georges Brassens and Miles Davis.
And I listened to my all-time favourite, a wonderful song called “Mickey travaille”, which appeared on a 1993 album called just Juliette Gréco, written and produced for her by the great Étienne Roda-Gil, whom she had encountered in Paris at a meeting at the Ministry of Culture, where artists had been invited to discuss the imminent threat to the historic Olympia music hall (where she had sung for the first time in 1954). In her memoir, Je suis fait comme ça, published in 2012, she described the impression he made: “An outpouring of generosity and affection, a man of refinement and culture, attentive to others. But also fragile.” When she visited his apartment on the rue Cassini, he showed her the studio of his late wife, an artist. He had left it untouched since her death: “Even the roses, wilted, remained in their vases.”
She called him “a painter with words”, and for “Mickey travaille” he gave her an unforgettable entrance. Accompanied by the acoustic guitar of Caetano Veloso, strumming a light samba rhythm, she whispers: “Je peins mes lèvres et mes ongles en noir…” If the thought of Juliette Gréco painting her lips and nails black while awaiting her lover’s return doesn’t stir you, well…
* The version of “Mickey travaille” I’ve embedded here is not the one from the album, but a recording from a concert at the Olympia in Paris.