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Histoire de Melody Nelson (1971)

Melody

Summary

Driving dangerously through a dangerous neighbourhood in this first song from Melody Nelson, Serge becomes distracted in contemplation of the hood ornament on his Rolls — and then hits a red-headed cyclist named Melody Nelson.

Paroles de Gainsbourg

Les ailes de la Rolls effleuraient des pylônes
Quand m’étant malgré moi égaré
Nous arrivâmes ma Rolls et moi dans une zone
Dangereuse, un endroit isolé

Là-bas, sur le capot de cette Silver Ghost
De 1910 s’avance en éclaireur
La Vénus d’argent du radiateur
Dont les voiles légers volent aux avant-postes

Hautaine, dédaigneuse, tandis que hurle le poste
De radio couvrant le silence du moteur
Elle fixe l’horizon et l’esprit ailleurs
Semble tout ignorer des trottoirs que j’accoste

Ruelles, culs-de-sac aux stationnements
Interdits par la loi, le cœur indifférent
Elle tient le mors de mes vingt-six chevaux-vapeur

Prince des ténèbres, archange maudit
Amazone modern style que le sculpteur
En anglais, surnomma Spirit of Ecstasy

Ainsi je déconnais avant que je ne perde
Le contrôle de la Rolls. J’avançais lentement
Ma voiture dériva et un heurt violent
Me tira soudain de ma rêverie. Merde!

J’aperçus une roue de vélo à l’avant
Qui continuait de tourner en roue libre
Et comme une poupée qui perdait l’équilibre
La jupe retroussée sur ses pantalons blancs

« Tu t’appelles comment ?
– Melody
– Melody comment?
– Melody Nelson. »

Melody Nelson a des cheveux rouges
Et c’est leur couleur naturelle.

Discussion

Melody Nelson is by far the most popular Serge record among English speakers. And with good reason: it’s amazing. But I guarantee the average English speaker has no clue what’s going on in this, the opening song.

What they’ll know is that Melody Nelson is a quasi-retelling of Lolita, about a pervy old man in love with a teenager. So they will probably listen to “Melody” and assume that the old-man narrator is saying all kinds of pervy stuff about Melody — when in fact what he is talking about (endlessly!) is… the hood ornament of his car.

(Okay, he does eventually say some pervy stuff about Melody — right at the end, after he hits her with his Rolls.)

Lyrically, it’s an amazingly dense song given how little happens (until right at the end).

The interest lies in tracking the narrator’s mental state. The descriptions of the hood ornament (aka The Spirit of Ecstasy) are fascinating but beside the point. The thing the focus on is why Serge is getting so distracted in the first place. Where is he going? Why is he on this drive in the first place? What is he looking for? Is he seeking distraction, unable to face some other line of thought? Or is he already distracted, so fucked up that he can’t his focus where it should be — on the road?

The language and imagery is top-shelf Serge. I love the way the imagery shifts all over the place, careening from military (“éclaireur” / “avant-postes” — scout, forward lines) to infernal (“Prince des ténèbres, archange maudit”) as unsteadily as the drunken boat of the Rolls. I love the “Merde!” I love the image of the bicycle wheel that continues to spin after Melody is struck (as a bicycle nerd, I can tell you that it’s the rear wheel, because Serge says it is turning “en roue libre,” the French term for a freewheel.”) And I love the suddenness of the last line, another abrupt shift — first distraction, then impact, then quick rude conversation, then a completely image-free uber-factual description. It’s a wild ride of a song, lyrically.

And it makes you want to know what happens next.

(Note that the opening of this song is a lot like that of “Ford Mustang,” when Serge is bouncing his ride off the trees that line the sides of the road — though in that case, the female object of his affection is in the car with him.)

Traduction de “Fluid Makeup”

The wings of the Rolls brushed up against the posts
When, having lost my way,
We arrived, my Rolls and I, in a zone
Of great danger, an isolated spot.

Over there, on the hood of the Silver Ghost
Of 1910, advancing like a scout,
Is the silver Venus of the radiator,
Whose light sails fly toward the forward lines.

Haughty, disdainful, while the radio
Yells over the silence of the motor,
She fixes the horizon and, her mind elsewhere,
Seems to disregard the sidewalks I accost.

Alleys, dead-ends where parking is
Forbidden by law, with indifferent heart
She holds the bit of the twenty-six vapour-horses.

Prince of Darkness, accursed archangel,
Modern style Amazon whom the sculptor
Named, in English, Spirit of Ecstasy

Thus was I horsing around when I lost
Control of the Rolls. I moved slowly,
My car drifted, and a violent crash
Pulled me suddenly out of my revery. Shit!

I saw a bicycle wheel in front
That continued to freewheel,
And what looked like a doll that had lost her balance,
Skirt pulled up over her white underwear.

“What’s your name?”
“Melody.”
“Melody what?”
“Melody Nelson.”

Melody Nelson has red hair,
And it’s her natural colour.

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