Léo, gone twenty years ago…still as resounding today!

  • Twenty years ago, July 14, 1993, Léo Ferré passed away.
  • Two books bring back the artist who continues to fascinate the generations.

Since Léo left us at the age of 76, his son Mathieu has continued to republish excellent editions under Léo’s label, La Mémoire et la Mer (Memory and the Sea). They are always rich with text, images and original titles. This year two books are scheduled to appear to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of Léo’s death. They will restore a very intimate Léo.

One of them is signed by Annie Butor, the daughter of Madeleine, who was the poet’s muse and second wife, under the title of Comment voulez-vous que j’oublie (How can I ever forget) (1). The other, penned by the journalist Ludovic Perrin, has a lengthy title: We always sleep with the dead: The long ascent of the young Ferré. Both are biographical and include Pépée, Léo and Madeleine’s beloved monkey.

If the first is guided by a kind of vengeance against time and the period in Léo’s life that his heirs don’t want revealed, the second is a deep inquiry with Ferré’s friends, combined with a real affection for this musical giant’s work and French songs.

Léo continues to touch those who make the effort to listen

Ludovic Perrin opens on the famous break with Madeleine on March 22, 1968, 18 years after they met. They lived a love that would inspire superb love songs from Léo (“Jolie môme”) as well as songs of despair (“Avec le temps”). Pépée and other animals would be the first victims of the violent separation between an exhausted Léo searching for freedom, and an alcoholic Madeleine.

Then Marie-Christine Diaz, his third wife, would quench this need for a cloudless sky. They moved to Tuscany in 1969, and she gave him three children (Mathieu in 1970, Marie-Cécile in 1974 and Manuella in 1978). Today, the eldest takes care of his artistic heritage. Marie-Cécile works for a jazz label and Manuella is a painter and sculptor. Marie-Christine, living in San Donatino, Castellina in Chianti, south of Florence, continues to care for her 12 Tuscan hectares (the vineyard produces 75,000 liters of Poggio ai Mori chianti per year, and 10,000 liters of olive oil).

Perrin also taps into the stream of a sad childhood memories at the Catholic boarding school of Bordighera where his profound atheism developed, helped along by the roaming hands of some of the priests. His novel, Benoît Misère (Poor Benedict), was clear and unambiguous.

Léo as a child was very close to his beloved mother and his sister Lucienne who lived in Varennes-sur-Allier. This was not the case with his father who never forgave him for the violence and crudeness of his first collection of poems, in 1957, Poètes, vos papiers!, “filth,” according to this good Catholic native of Monaco.

We follow Léo from Monaco to Paris, from Lot to the Ardèche, prior to Tuscany.  We are with him on stage, with Popaul Castanier at the piano. From 1978 to 1995 Léo gave 150 concerts a year, often alone with his reel-to-reel tapes. He crisscrossed France in every direction in his old DS chauffeured by Marie-Christine, and he made sure to include Belgium and Switzerland. Along the way he sang the poets (Aragon, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine…), and paid permanent homage to Beethoven and Ravel, proclaiming from caresses to contempt, his rage between love and anarchy, his moody pieces unfriendly to radio. Léo still touches those who make the effort to listen.

Following Gainsbourg’s example (mentioned in “Pépée”), Léo, with his white mane, maintained this image of the eternal rebel, fighting not only the establishment and record labels, but also those who interrupted him on stage when they weren’t pelting him with tomatoes and eggs. All this because, in their eyes, the anarchist was wrong to live by his art. These nobodies are buried in anonymity. We prefer to forget them to remember Léo only in his realistic beauty that of his impressionist music and words that in 2013 have lost nothing of their power, their vigor and their acuity. Because, as Léo sang in “Pépée”: we always sleep with the dead.


(1) See the “Le Soir” article of June 1.

Annie Butor, “Comment voulez-vous que j’oublie” (Preface by Benoîte Groult), Editions Phébus, 200 pages, €17.

An evening of tributes will be held Sunday from 2:00 pm to 9:00 pm at the Toursky Theater in Marseille.

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