Here, Uta recites the title poet's 'Recueillement' from Les Fleurs du mal over a potent psych rock jam, brimming with fuzzy, heavy guitars, phaser effects and rhythmic electric organ. The song's credits read 'musique de Groscolas', referring to Pierre Groscolas, at the time a songwriter, session musician and backing vocalist, most notably for Eddy Mitchell. Groscolas, who was also a founding member of the sixties band Le Cœur, would go on to find success as a solo singer-songwriter in the early seventies, releasing more standard fare than the striking 'Baudelaire' shows he was capable of conjuring up.
'Baudelaire' is an interesting pairing with the A-side, a cover of The Shangri-Las' haunting 1966 single 'Past, Present and Future'. An unusual girl group release, the original is sombre and stripped back, its arrangement mostly a simple piano accompaniment borrowed from Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. Over this, lead vocalist Mary Weiss forlornly speak-sings a soliloquoy that captures the devastation and shock of first heartbreak. Uta's version has a slightly sped up tempo and there's a lighter touch to her vocal delivery, but the cover otherwise sticks close to its source in tone and theme, the lyrics a mostly faithful translation.
Flip the record over and the change in style is stark. It would seem 'Baudelaire' has nothing in common with the A-side, save for the spoken word vocals. Here you have a psyched-up reading of a weighty, once-banned poem backing an angsty teen ballad about failed first romance. 'Baudelaire' is just the sort of wild experiment that sometimes gets smuggled onto a B-side, where an artist can let loose and express something that the main cut, intended for radio play and chart success, doesn't allow. But looking more closely at the two songs, they may be more of a deliberate pairing than it would seem. It turns out there's actually an intriguing thematic continuity between them. And though the A-side is the more radio-friendly, it's a curious choice for a debut single. A teen pop song from three years prior – an eternity in pop years back then – that didn't quite crack the American top fifty, covered by a nearly thirty-year-old actress, wasn't a likely formula for a hit record. These two things taken together make me wonder if this wasn't more of an artistic endeavour than an attempt to launch a new female pop star. Perhaps it was even, in a sense, a concept single.
'Hier, aujourd'hui, demain' is, like the Shangri-Las' original, an earnest expression of the deep pain of romantic loss. Weiss, dismissing darker readings of 'Past, Present and Future', has said the track's solemn tone came from taking the pain of young heartache unusually seriously: "When somebody breaks your heart, you don't want anyone near you...When somebody blows you off or hurts you, it's very traumatic." The song ends bleakly with the line, "I don't think it will ever happen again", the protagonist resigned to a lifetime of sadness. If not for the more thoughtful and genuine approach Weiss described, this line could come across as melodramatic teen myopia, but, in its sincerity, it leaves a certain stinging hopelessness that transcends adolescent concerns. Having someone well out of her teen years interpret the song, the makers of Uta's single likely felt there was something more universal here to explore. Uta's version similarly ends on a note of despondence: she'll never meet the man she knows she could love. It's an existential pain, a belief nothing will ever work out and that this is what one must accept from life.
So, that we are taken from this painful, sad resignation to a reading of a poem about embracing sorrow does not seem an accident. Baudelaire's 'Recueillement' (literally 'Recollection', sometimes translated as 'Meditation' or 'Contemplation') finds the poet at peace with his sorrow, welcoming the descending darkness of the evening.
Behave, my Sorrow! let's have no more scenes.
Evening's what you wanted – Evening's here:
a gradual darkness overtakes the town,
bringing peace to some, to others pain.
There have been many attempts to come up with a worthy English translation of 'Recueillement' (and the other poems of Les Fleurs du mal), most of which favour restoring meter and rhyme, and keeping an overall sense of poetic language. I went with a literal, prose translation for the subtitles I added to the song video (mostly drawn from translations found on this blog and in this book by Timothy Levan, with a few minor adjustments), as I find, even where it doesn't entirely make sense in English, you get a more accurate sense of what Baudelaire intended to convey. Some translations heavily interpret Baudelaire's words, losing a sense of their real meaning. In a New Republic article, Lorin Stein discusses how interpreters have often imposed their own ideas of Baudelaire's "fear of madness" or a "desire to be numb". Making a case for Richard Howard's 1982 translation, excerpted above, as the best translation, he writes of the poem:
From the beginning he leaves himself open to sorrow, regret, tenderness. As later lines make clear, the point is not to deaden his sorrow but to sharpen its attention.
This description of 'Recueillement' illustrates why I like Uta's musical interpretation so much. The makers of this song took full advantage of the new musical language of psychedelic rock to give the poem new life; it almost feels like the poem was waiting for this genre to come along in order to be fully realised in musical form. Compare this to the straighforwardly doleful versions from Léo Ferré and Claude Debussy. While they are indeed moving and do succeed in conveying one dimension of the words, the sense of peaceful acceptance, Uta's 'Baudelaire' truly captures the spirit of the poem. The freeform, heavy-psych sounds, building and releasing tension, and Uta's bold spoken delivery tap into the sensuousness, decadence and corporeality of Baudelaire's work. The song embodies 'Recueillement''s freeing sense of abandon in fervently welcoming sorrow, and its joyous contempt for the "vile multitude of mortals" who are foolishly under the command of Pleasure. It captures the sense of "smiling Regret" that Gaston Bachelard argues in Poetic Instant and Metaphysical Instant is essential to understanding Baudelaire.
Uta's single was well-received by no less than the prestigious Rock & Folk magazine. A review in the November 1969 issue touches on what I've argued here, that the two songs complement each other, noting that 'Hier, aujourd'hui, demain' primes the listener for what's to come on the flipside. The reviewer, Jacques Vassal, particularly praises 'Baudelaire', commending Uta for reciting the poem "impeccably" and appreciating how "a certain way of playing and amplifying guitars intelligently emphasizes the text". The review concludes: "This is poetry".
Uta, Groscolas and the others (I wonder if engineer Claude Martenot is a key figure here, as he seems to be on a lot of great psych records from this era) involved in this one-off single pulled off a couple of interesting feats here. They perfectly welded Baudelaire's poem to a new pop form, creating a truer musical rendering of 'Recueillement' than had been created before. They also found common ground between this censored French literary work written over a hundred years prior and a contemporary American song intended for a teenage audience. There is something poetic about that.