Following Charles Aznavour’s passing yesterday at the age of 94, I heard his wonderful song “Yesterday, When I Was Young” on the radio earlier.
Charles Aznavour wrote “Yesterday, When I Was Young” with Georges Garvarentz back in 1964. Its original French title was “Hier Encore”, which means “Yesterday Again” in English.
The English version, with lyrics by Aznavour’s frequent collaborator Herbert Kretzmer, takes the same broad theme as “Hier Encore” but approaches the subject in a much more elegant and sophisticated way.
Both versions tell the story of someone at the end of their life looking back on their youth and reflecting on the opportunities that slipped between their fingers along the way. The French lyrics are good…the English ones exceptional…
The first verse of “Hier Encore”, translated into English, is…
Only yesterday, I was twenty years old
I caressed time, I enjoyed life
Like one savours love
And I lived for the night
Without counting my days
That were wasting away with time
I will admit those words sound much more exotic in the original French, but it’s still a pretty decent set of lyrics. As the song develops, the lyrics explore the singer’s feelings as he comes to realise the opportunities he’s missed for making deep meaningful connections with people and the life he’s frittered away…
I’ve made so many plans that never came to life
I’ve built on so many hopes that withered away
I will stay lost, not knowing where to go
The eyes are searching the sky
But the heart is tied to the ground
In the hands of Herbert Kretzmer the lyrics get supercharged. The English version of “Hier Encore”, by now retitled “Yesterday, When I Was Young”, kicks off like this…
Yesterday, when I was young
The taste of life was sweet as rain upon my tongue
I teased at life as if it were a foolish game
The way the evening breeze may tease a candle flame
That’s unquestioningly one of the most beautiful opening verses in popular music. And it doesn’t stop there…
The thousand dreams I dreamed, the splendid things I planned
I always built, alas, on weak and shifting sand
I lived by night and shunned the naked light of day
And only now I see the years ran away
A quick glance back up the page will show that the French lyrics and the English ones cover pretty much the same material. And, admittedly, the power of the original French loses some of its impact in the translation, but even in its original French guise “Yesterday, When I Was Young” is lyrically a much simpler song…still a good song, but simpler in its construction.
Herbert Kretzmer’s sweeping imagery takes the same story and, with the English lyrics, makes “Yesterday, When I Was Young” into an exceptional song.
In case you’re wondering, this top drawer performance on the lyric-writing front wasn’t a complete fluke. In addition to an extensive series of collaborations with Charles Aznavour, Herbert Kretzmer also wrote the lyrics for Les Miserables, so he’s certainly a guy who knows how to craft a great song.
Charles Aznavour and Herbert Kretzmer aren’t done with our emotions, though. “Yesterday, When I Was Young” ends like this…
The game of love I played with arrogance and pride
And every flame I lit too quickly, quickly died
The friends I made all seemed somehow to drift away
And only I am left on stage to end the play
There are so many songs in me that won’t be sung
I feel the bitter taste of tears upon my tongue
The time has come for me to pay for yesterday
When I was young
Herbert Kretzmer is still with us at the age of 92. But as of yesterday, Charles Aznavour is with us no longer.
Although Charles Aznavour’s almost stereotypically French delivery of “Yesterday, When I Was Young” attracted more than its fair share of parodies back in the 1970s, it’s a phenomenal song.
For all it’s a fairly well-known song, “Yesterday, When I Was Young” was never a big chart hit. Its best chart performance was for Roy Clark’s version, which made Top 10 in the US country charts and just inside the Top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100.
Over the years, there have been plenty of bigger chart hits than “Yesterday, When I Was Young”. But there haven’t been many more beautiful songs.
In tribute to a great songwriter, and iconic French performer, here’s Charles Aznavour’s performance, in French, of “Hier Encore”… https://youtu.be/bHokx2L1wi4
Roy Clark’s version is here… https://youtu.be/GQIAcztYjbc
And, in tribute to the great Charles Aznavour himself, here he is singing “Yesterday, When I Was Young” with Herbert Kretzmer’s wonderful English lyrics…I guarantee this song will pull on your heartstrings, especially if you listen to the Spotify track which gets the atmospherics of this beautiful song just right.
RIP Charles Aznavour.
The video is below or, if you prefer, you can enjoy the song on Spotify here… https://open.spotify.com/track/5YLYgvlpbz64nmqF5E0kXo
PS — just before we get to the video, if you enjoyed this article, please give it a “clap”…or even more than one if you’re feeling kind. You can also follow me on Medium (here) or Twitter (here) to get new articles as soon as they’re published.