Monday, January 09, 2017

Peter Sarstedt (1941-2017): Where Do You Go To, My Lovely

Like all good missionary schooled, brown tagged boys in the 70s, Tata and I spent much time and energy teaching ourselves how to hold chords on what everyone called a "Spanish guitar." Two of the very first songs we learned to play and sing were Papa by Paul Anka and Where Do You Go To My Lovely by Peter Sarstedt. This morning, the news came through that Sarstedt had died.


The last year saw some of the greatest minds in the field of contemporary music die. Some people called 2016 the year the music died, an allusion to a great song about a great tragedy. It also saw the second time in the history of the award that a singer-songwriter got the Nobel Prize for Literature. Yet through it all, this blog remained un-updated. This morning, as I read the news, a million associations from childhood came flooding back, and now, at the end of the day, I decided to separate the wheat from the chaff and write why I will always think highly of this song and singer.



Peter Sarstedt has often been referred to as a one hit wonder, and like most people, I have not heard him beyond the one song he is best known for. I learned more about him and his work from the news reports today than I did in all of my life. He released 14 albums in his lifetime, and two other songs made it to the UK charts. I had not heard those songs till now either. I also did not know that he wrote a follow-up to Where Do You Go To My Lovely, visiting Marie-Claire 20 years after the first song. We did know that he was born in India, and spent his early years in the tea estates of Darjeeling, studying at Victoria Boys School at Kurseong.

Most of his other songs are typical of the times, sounding like something halfway between The Beatles and The Beach Boys. A lot of them sound suspiciously like other better known pop songs of the decade. But his one great hit was something else. As a piece of writing, it is corny, manipulative and verging on contrived. Yet, it managed to endear itself in a very visceral way to our generation. More than the dolorous, waltzing, almost whiny, descending scale of Where Do You Go To My Lovely, what set the song apart for us teenagers was the litany of exotic references in the lyrics. Our exposure to the global cultural churn of the times came from reading Castaneda and Ayn Rand, from Blue Note liner notes and classifieds ads in Popular Mechanics, and from Sunday morning screenings of Woodstock at Metro cinema. And yes, Nondon Bagchi, Lew Hilt and friends.


Sarstedt taught us how to pronounce Marlene Dietrich and Juan Le Pins, introduced us to St. Moritz and the Parisian latin quarters, and let us imagine the rush of being at Sorbonne or owning a Rolling Stones record collection. This was before the advent of television and most of these names and places, people and things in the song were unfamiliar yet strangely appealing to us young Bengali boys growing up in suburban Kolkata. All of this packaged in a rags to riches tale tinged with the sadness of lost love.  It was the perfect song that resonated every time you heard it, and resonated even more every time you sang it.

We believed (contrary what Sarstedt himself had to say) that the song was about Sophia Loren, and that she and he had a shared past that was a secret for everyone except us who heard and sang the song. The song soothed our bruised socialist hearts (we specialized in falling in love with "girls" who rapidly grew into unattainable paradigms of desirability, almost as if our loving them were the catalyst) and callused guitarist fingers (ah! the satisfaction of finally getting the great barre with the chord of F). The irony of knowing where you go to, my lovely, was like a vindication of our unexpressed, unrequited longing. Tata and I both survived all of that (many of our friends didn't) and went on to become "model citizens." Yeah, yeah, some people call us corporate whores. And, with a few changes here and there, this is the story of our entire generation.

We went on to no longer having time to hold chords down on our guitars. To not really doing the things we dreamed we would. Instead of being the Sarstedts of our lives, we ended up being Marie-Claire. The good news is that we found people in our lives who really care, who help us remember just who we are, who know we still bear scars, and who can look inside our heads. And this is perhaps what makes the song and the singer so special to so many across time.

For those who are not familiar with this timeless song, let me sign off, leaving you with the lyrics. RIP Peter Sarstedt!!

You talk like Marlene Dietrich
And you dance like Zizi Jeanmaire
Your clothes are all made by Balmain
And there`s diamonds and pearls in your hair
You live in a fancy appartement
Of the Boulevard of St. Michel
Where you keep your Rolling Stones records
And a friend of Sacha Distel
But where do you go to my lovely
When you're alone in your bed
Tell me the thoughts that surround you
I want to look inside your head
I've seen all your qualifications
You got from the Sorbonne
And the painting you stole from Picasso
Your loveliness goes on and on, yes it does
When you go on your summer vacation
You go to Juan-les-Pines
With your carefully designed topless swimsuit
You get an even suntan, on your back and on your legs
When the snow falls you're found in St. Moritz
With the others of the jet-set
And you sip your Napoleon Brandy
But you never get your lips wet
But where do you go to my lovely
When you're alone in your bed
Tell me the thoughts that surround you
I want to look inside your head, yes I do
Your name is heard in high places
You know the Aga Khan
He sent you a racehorse for chistmas
And you keep it just for fun, for a laugh haha
They say that when you get married
It'll be to a millionaire
But they don't realize where you came from
And I wonder if they really care, they give a damn
But where do you go to my lovely
When you're alone in your bed
Tell me the thoughts that surround you
I want to look inside your head
I remember the back streets of Naples
Two children begging in rags
Both touched with a burning ambition
To shake off their lowly brown tags, yes they try
So look into my face Marie-Claire
And remember just who you are
Then go and forget me forever
`Cause I know you still bear
the scar, deep inside, yes you do
I know where you go to my lovely
When you're alone in your bed
I know the thoughts that surround you
`Cause I can look inside your head

1 comment:

  1. Hey Subho! Long time..welcome back:)

    ReplyDelete

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